The Agony Thing

©1998 by Stephanie Lee Jackson

"Irises," oil on wood, 1998 by Stephanie Lee Jackson
private collection of Jeanette Randolph

The freesias bloomed this week. They're a sort of fluffy extragavant hot pink and white, rather too schmaltzy to have sprung up in the sixteen-inch bed between the side of the house and the pavement. As soon as they bloomed they fell over, in imminent danger of being scrunched onto the sidewalk. I didn't have any stakes, so I cut them all and brought them in. I like freesias because they smell so sweet; I would rather have cut them one at a time, had one freesia a week for all of spring. But for this one week out of the year, I've a surfeit of freesias.

This week I was explaining the Internet to a library patron and the patron, improbably, recognized me. Evidently this patron, a grizzled guy from the Middle East, used to manage the Zim's on Van Ness, where I used to go at 4 AM as a paint-covered obstreperous art student. I counted back; nearly six years ago. He said, "You were thinner. You dressed funny." "Was I behaving?" I asked. "Oh, yes, " he said.

I'm paranoid about my behavior, more so perhaps than I ought to be. I meditate, I am polite, I listen to the dull and the ignorant with an expression of avid interest; the dull and the ignorant fascinate me. I feel boring. Interesting people frequently make themselves unpopular, as did Kristin, my frequent companion in early-morning visits to Zim's. Kristin did strip-teases and threw boiled tomatoes at her stuffy "new genres" art class; she founded an illegal art gallery; she jumped into dumpsters and ordered random passers-by to help her remove furniture from them; she slept with two hundred people without catching any diseases. She expressed loud unpopular opinions which altered every ten minutes. Recently I watched "Basquiat" and the personality of Andy Warhol, as portrayed by David Bowie, reminded me vividly of Kristin. Years later I read a book on "borderline personality disorder" and many things about Kristin suddenly made sense. At the time she was my favorite person.

Now I am a homeowner. I grow lots and lots of flowers, and go out every morning to look avidly at the burgeoning dirt. As an art student I had little respect for private property, because I didn't have any. I wrote poems on walls: THIS THING TO THROW AT THE RIOT POLICE/ THIS SOLD IN PLASTIC/ THIS, A FLOWER, A STUPID AGONY THING. People thought this was funny.

That was around the time of the Rodney King riots. I rioted. I had to call my mother the day after the riots because it was her birthday; I told her, "There's riots here." During the riots we piled a lot of trash cans and mailboxes and furniture and debris across Market Street. I yelled "Set it on fire!" and they did. Then I walked past the cops as though arrest were not a possibility. On the phone with my mother, she told me, "Those Los Angeles cops were just doing their jobs. You stay away from all that."

Now I'm starting to wonder if perhaps I haven't planted too many flowers. I have nine rose bushes (two of them miniature), sweet peas, freesias, bleeding hearts, gladioli, jasmine, lilies, camellias, lilacs, Chinese lanterns, birds-of-paradise, bouganvillea, potato vine, fuchsias, and a lot of mysterious bell-shaped white things that sprouted by the thousands, threatening to choke off the herb patch. I'm thinking I should have planted a few vegetables. It would be fun to have eggplants and cantaloupes and tomatoes, to watch them swell up and change color and get eaten by predators. They would be solid, my garden would be useful, less stupidly ephemeral. But I was greedy for flowers, I wanted bushels of free roses in different brilliant colors to put in cobalt blue vases all over the house. I can always get eggplants at the farmer's market, three for a dollar when in season.

"THIS A FLOWER, A STUPID AGONY THING." I found it charming that art students liked this, that intuitively they seemed to understand what it meant. Every art student under the age of twenty-five makes art almost exclusively about stupid agony things, the way every nineteen-year-old English major writes terrible poetry about broken hearts. At the age of twenty-four I was starting to look askance; I was starting to doubt the originality of my personal agony, and agony in general.

A lot of people took this personally. A friend of later years, only moderately borderline, once handed me a story to read. It was horrible; vague and dire and full of unspecific violence and inarticulate misery. We had been friends for several years. We collaborated artistically. I spent four months illustrating one of her stories. I helped her move on six hours' notice when her live-in, emotionally abusive boyfriend invited his new lover over for dinner and sniggered at her. I do not believe in buying friendship with favors, I merely believe in friendship. She handed me the story and it was horrible. I don't remember what I said. I certainly didn't say it was horrible. I think I took refuge in academic discourse, which was a mistake. I apologized sincerely.

A week later the friend called to tell me she did not want to further pursue our friendship. I said, "What?" She said, "I don't have to take this abuse," and hung up. Distraught, I called another friend, a mutual friend, a beloved friend, for advice. The mutual friend said, "Oh, she's just nuts. Well, bye," and never, ever called me again. A few weeks later I got assaulted in my neighborhood, pounded into the pavement, kicked, attempted gang rape. I was very lucky. My parents loaned me the down payment for a house in a safer neighborhood.

I shut up. I started telling my remaining friends that I was evil and bad, just so they knew, just so it wouldn't come as a surprise. My remaining friends found this rather annoying.

I read books about survivors of childhood trauma and abuse. Sometimes the abused will attempt to tell someone via a story, or some other cryptic method, and if that person responds inappropriately, this makes the trauma worse. I found the book on borderline personality disorder. Borderlines have an extraordinary capacity to sweep people up into a storm of melodrama, and are apt to change their loyalties frequently.

I researched and pondered the concept of forgiveness. The line that helped went, "Finally I realized that there was nothing to forgive."

Before I finished art school, borderline Kristin changed her loyalties. This was all right, since she was seriously wearing me out. She took out a lot of high-interest Plus loans and said, "I just won't pay them back." Today I pay my loans and my mortgage. If Kristin were still around she would crash in the living room for six months, chain-smoke indoors with the windows closed, invite a lot of scary people in to crash and smoke and play terrible music and drag in crap out of dumpsters. They'd kill the houseplants and traumatize the cats. I miss her.

Next week at work perhaps I'll steal a Sharpie. Kristin used to say, "Sharpies are good pens, I have great respect for them," which I thought was oddly serious. With a Sharpie ready in my pocket I can write "BEWARE THE EGALITARIAN LIMOSINE," or any other spontanous phrase, on any handy surface. I wouldn't write on my friends' walls; they all have nice places and want to keep them. I wouldn't write at work, because people would recognize my handwriting. With my Sharpie in my pocket I will have to go out among strangers.