An Essay by Ella Marks
‘We’ve tried something new tonight,’ said my Father.
Half a sodden asparagus sat in the corner of my mouth while I tried not to cry. There had been this moment at the dinner table, between a positive remark about Donald Trump and a slice of homemade vegetable tart, where I realised I couldn't depend on my parents anymore. I’m not sure if it was the sour taste of the word Trump on my lips or the ageing feta at the bottom of my stomach, but something seemed off. Strange even. Things that I’d always done, like had an opinion or gorged on delicious food, things that usually made me feel safe and strong, were icky. Gross. I should have probably made my exit after I shouted at both my Father and my Stepmother that Donald Trump was a serial sex offender, criminally insane psychopath. I believe these things but it certainly didn’t make for an enjoyable dining experience. My passionate cries were watched with a kind of mock sympathy. The way you’d watch the pink, quivering tongue of a cat as it rattles an empty tin of tuna. Arms crossed, head titled, oh, poor thing.
For the first time in a long time, I felt truly helpless. That I had no leverage, nothing solid behind me that made my opinion matter. The way they both looked at me made me feel sick. Here I was, not so recently graduated, no job, no financial independence and a seriously dwindling amount of faith in myself and my abilities. Standing on my tiny life podium, while rotten eggs and cabbage were being catapulted at my finest power pantsuit. My Father still paying for everything: my apartment, my phone bill, my monthly allowance (I know right, boo hoo, poor me). I had every opportunity, more fortune than anyone could hope for and all I could do was weep and stuff my face with Terry’s Chocolate Orange. I was a failure. So who was I to have an opinion?
‘But how can you tolerate a man who encourages other men to grab women by the pussy?’ I said.
‘I don’t darling but you’re just stubborn, you don’t listen to other people. He’s done more in his short time than Obama did in eight years. He’s actually doing what he said he’d do,’ said my Father.
‘For who? Maybe financially but what does that matter if you have a President who is a racist, sexual offender! Who actually harms people? Who tears families apart? Who votes in favour of guns and is anti abortion?!’ I remember my voice rising, my face hot.
‘Why are you being like this? It’s so aggressive, you have your opinion and I have mine,’ said my Father.
How could my Father, whom I love and respect more than anyone, be indifferent to such injustice? How was my argument falling on deaf ears? But I look up to you, I wanted to say. You are my pillar. Why couldn’t I make him see my side? But no one was hearing me. No one wanted to hear me. I felt like a silly little girl. You can’t take money from your Daddy and have an opinion that doesn’t match his. Maybe when you get a job, when you decide to grow up, then you can have one. I wanted to take my fork and gouge out my left eye. However, my Stepmother may have found that to be in poor taste and rather irritating as the blood would be a nightmare to get out of the placemats.
I was so ashamed. So unbelievably angry with myself. I was every bad connotation of the privileged white girl that I’d tried so hard not to be. Where was my drive? My motivation to be independent? The fire in my belly to change the world? All I’d done for the good part of two months was cry into my pillow and exercise to the point of insanity. I’d go on Instagram and post pictures of Carrie Bradshaw that were captioned ‘mood,’ just so that for five minutes I’d feel connected to somebody fabulous and then everyone would believe I was equally fabulous. Who was I trying to kid though? I was anything but. And I certainly wasn’t fooling anyone around the dinner table.
Every Thursday, since my parents divorced, my siblings and I would gather for dinner at my Father’s house. The weekly meetings were uncomfortable to begin with, three sets of puffy eyes painfully aware of the empty space at the table. But as time went on, they became something sacred to us. It was one night a week where we could reconvene, sit together and break bread. Thursday night dinners were a safe space, a place to escape whatever lurked outside. But at this particular dinner, something in the ether had shifted. It was as if I’d looked up and the people sitting at the table had become the very monsters I’d been hiding from. The dinner had turned out to be a parallel universe, everything as it had always been, but not quite as you remember it to be. Like that annoying thing where you’re wearing a top and wondering what could be bothering your throat, only to find out you’ve been wearing it back to front all day and the rough label had been chafing away on the dip between your collarbones.
It became clear that I had made things uncomfortable. Awkward. The usual family banter had been replaced by shifty looks and long pauses. The more I raised my voice and the more I fought them, the more I felt the wooden table splintering and opening up the divide between us. It was me and them. And my Sister, somewhere in the middle of it all, who gave me the sense I was being desperately over dramatic. But in my own projection of the situation, I felt attacked, offended. They weren’t taking me seriously. In my mind, because I was so lucky, that I had expensive things and went on nice holidays. I figured they thought it was a complete farce that I would be so impassioned over other people’s social struggle and the man who was at the helm of it. My Sister and Stepmother tried to move the conversation along, exasperated by my ranting and raving. My stomach fizzed as I sat there in silence, sulking at the unresolved debate.
‘These avocados are really ripe,’ I said, my voice wobbling.
Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry. I chanted this to myself as the evening continued around me. The bellowing pitch of my Father’s voice as he cracked a joke. The affectionate roll of my Stepmother’s big blue eyes. The brown hair glistening at the top of my Sister’s head as she looked down at her plate. A phone ringing. The dog bumping its enormous limp head at the door. The humourless voice of a newsreader reporting more horror. Shifting reflections of the television against the glass door behind the table. Blues, yellows, then figures, some words, more crying, fighting. The unmistakable red glow of Trump’s face. Passing plates clinking. Food entering into mouths that moved in slow motion, lips twisting and spitting. I couldn’t be there for one more second.
‘I think I’ll head off now.’ I said.
Selfishly, I thought there might be some protest. That they’d ask if I was okay. Or why I wanted to leave so suddenly. But they didn’t. I think they’d had enough of it all. It had been more than half a year since I’d graduated with a Creative Writing degree from Goldmsiths and it seemed there was nothing left for me to offer up. No good mark on an essay or positive feedback from a tutor. Just me, myself and my quarter life crisis, (with some strong political opinions on the side.) I gave my Father a peck on the cheek. My Stepmother an empty hug. Patted my Sister on the back. I left the house and waited for an Uber. I imagine that when the driver pulled up I must have looked pretty wild, like I’d been shot out of the womb. That if I were a disgraced celebrity the papers might refer to me as ‘the wild woman of South Kensington.’ Bloody eyes, slumped over with a sad, lazy bun on my head. Acidy feelings slushing around in my stomach. I looked back at my Father’s beautiful home, which I was stood outside. Lined high with lush hedges, a slick black gate and two looming trees that led up to hearty stone steps. I couldn’t have felt more ugly. A big, horrible ugly thing. I was ruining the pretty picture.
When I got in the Uber, this dreadful, monstrous feeling sat with me but I couldn’t quite catch it. The worst kind of feeling. Like little ghosts, whooshing and swooshing around, look see! Oh, I thought … But I’m sure I saw … Never mind. As the driver spoke to me about the weather in Italy (Tony, if you are reading this I really did think the best time to go to Rome was in early spring), I tried to grip the Rubik's Cube inside of me and figure it out. I twisted and turned it, shook my head and bit down on my lip. But like most things lately, two yellow squares were met with a green one and so I gave up. Instead, I put my headphones in and plugged myself into another world, the dream world. You see, I have a different playlist for every dream mood. One day, instead of applying for jobs, I took to making these playlists, curating them as carefully as one might for a film soundtrack. Before I fell asleep that night I couldn't help but think, if I put as much thought and passion into finding a job as I did making these playlists, I’d really be on my way. I then told myself, tomorrow, I would be driven and passionate tomorrow.
So many playlists, so many moods, so many dreams. The soul playlist has a lot of Kate Bush for when I wanted to feel strong but pity myself at the same time. Then there’s one entitled 'Modern Love', lot’s of Bowie and eighties synth. This is for when I think about myself running through a city, getting from one busy task to the next, watching myself through prideful and excited eyes. Then there’s the 'Before Sunrise' playlist where I think about deep, deep love and what it is to want someone so much that you feel heartbroken before you’ve even said hello to them. So many playlists, so many moods, so many dreams, so many me’s. A different person for every playlist, a person that’s driven, alive, fulfilled, not a failure. Plugging into the dream worlds is like a cocoon for me, somewhere to keep warm. I would fly into panic if I ever forgot my headphones, god forbid I’d have to walk down the street or sit on a bus thinking about the here and now.
But after leaving that night, the night of fresh tarts and Trump, I couldn’t plug into the dream world in my usual way. Something had closed on the precious vortex and no amount of Kate Bush could help me shake the feeling that something was very wrong. I thought about my Father. A wise, lovely, gruff man. A man who had always told me there was no such thing as can’t. I thought about how special we were to each other, but how that night I may have become less special, less sparkly. No longer sassy and outspoken but a difficult, wining thing. An annoyance.
I remembered when he came to watch me in a play when I was seventeen. I was at performing arts school, hoping to grow up and be an actress. I’d been so cripplingly nervous before the performance that I lost my entire voice. I had to do a monologue about masturbation and I think it may have severed my last vocal chord. But I powered through and was praised for my dedication and performance. When I bounded from backstage I could feel he was so deeply proud of me. I was a star in his eyes. I had a talent, something to show for myself. He told everyone about it, that they should have seen me, that I was wonderful, hilarious. I remember holding a bunch of white flowers in my arms and taking that delicious feeling of validation for granted, naively believing I’d always be a recipient of it.
I didn’t continue with acting. I tried to but it just became too scary and too hard. I believed I wasn’t talented enough, beautiful enough, that if I wanted it enough I wouldn’t even be questioning it. I’m pretty sure I frog marched myself out of my own dream. That possible life slid past me and I tried to scurry on to greener pastures. But as I sat in the Uber, trying to calm myself to soulful sounds, I couldn’t help but think about how proud my Father had been of me when I’d performed that night. And how now, on this night, all I could feel was his belief in me dwindling, his patience waning. I didn’t feel like a star in his eyes anymore. I felt like an idiot. I felt frightened. I was unsafe in the knowledge he no longer believed in me.
In one strange, sharp realisation it dawned on me that I’d spent most of my life shaping my image of myself in my Fathers eyes. Every accomplishment circumvented by, ‘look, aren’t you proud?’ This realisation sickened me because I had always felt that I was this strong, rebellious, independent woman. I’d seen daddy’s girls, thought of them as Lolita's, a sickly combination of naivety and manipulation. I wasn’t one of them, couldn't be. I was the one who stood up to my Father, the only one out of my siblings who wasn’t afraid to shout back, to tell him what I thought. I would revel in the stand off and we would smirk at each other when it was over, a private admiration for each other’s stubbornness. People would tell me I reminded them of my Father and I would be filled with glee because he was the smartest, strongest and most sensible person in the world. It made me believe I was on my way to harnessing those attributes that I so admired in him. But although I admired him so greatly, I was steadfast in the belief that I was truly my own person. That I wasn’t there to please or placate anyone in my life, especially my Father. But the night revealed me as a fraud, I’d simply been a daddy’s girl disguised as the woman I thought I was.
I wanted to punch something. I wanted to punch my Father, my Stepmother, my Sister. All of the people who sat at that table that night and didn’t understand me. Their eyes staring back at me like a bunch of empty plug holes. I wanted to say to my Father, ‘How could you have let this happen?’ Throw my glass of wine at him, stand up and shriek, ‘look at what I am!’ I was like the wicked witch of the west, howling, ’I’m melting! I’m melting!’ But I didn’t do anything. I sat quietly, an aching lump in my throat, forking at the sodden vegetable tart. And that was the problem, I didn’t do anything. I was afraid of my own voice. In all the cover letters for jobs I’d written and been rejected from throughout the year, it was like a series of well crafted, phoney voices. ‘Dear so and so, having studied at …’ or ‘To whom it may concern, I have always been an ardent fan …’ If you were to read them as a collection they would seem like thirteen different people. When people asked me about my writing I met them with shrugs and ‘oh it’s all a bit weird,’ or ‘sure I’ll send it later.’ I never sent it. I was too scared to be truthful, I didn’t believe in my work.
Why am I so unsure of myself? Why does everything feel so hard when I’m so lucky? Why can’t I get out of bed sometimes when I know there’s so much waiting for me outside of it? Why am I still in so much pain? Instead of vomiting up the tart that night, I began to vomit up these questions. I’d left that dinner with a bad bout of inner verbal diarrhoea and there wasn’t enough Imodium in the world to stop it.
For the next week, I didn’t speak to my Father and he didn’t try to speak to me. I felt the nauseating loosening of the cord that held us together, that kept me afloat. In the midst of this, I had fallen out with my best friend of twelve years and was moving out of her apartment. My boyfriend had taken an acting job in Germany and had been away for the month. I had no job. I had moved back home with my Mother which brought on its own scary set of issues. There were so many other horrifying and frightening things happening in the world and I was too selfish to do anything to help. I was quietly envious of what other people had because I was so angry with myself for having failed at absolutely everything. People would ask me if I was okay and I’d either laugh it off or burst into tears. I just couldn’t find the words.
On the day I was to move out, I stood in a post office to order brown paper boxes for the move and had a panic attack. That dinner with my Father had finally knocked down the last pillar that upheld me and I found myself standing outside of a Starbucks, snot dripping out of my nose, waling from my gut, each breath like the heavy bat of a birds wing hitting my chest, as uncomfortable pedestrians passed me by. I cried harder as their looks began to feel familiar to the way my Father and Stepmother had looked at me.
The next day, I sat with my younger Brother in a café. He hadn’t been at the dinner. I told him he was lucky in his escape. He told me I looked awful. I told him I felt it. I had always been a little dismissive of my Brother. In fact, I had been quite mean to him over the years. He decided not to go to University, I thought this was a mistake. He smoked weed, I turned my nose up at this. He moved into my Father’s house, maybe I resented him for that. I was always calling him clumsy or lazy. I’d joke about none of us knowing what he was doing or where he was going. My Father was hard on him. He used to chastise him for being clumsy or late, and I, being the favoured child, the daddy’s girl, would join in. For years we didn’t understand each other. Couldn’t. I couldn’t get to grips with why he’d tell me he was depressed but did nothing about it. He couldn’t understand why I was so uptight, why I couldn’t just hop on a plane or meet a boy.
As I sat in the café with my Brother, I felt this sudden, terrible guilt. I felt like I’d gotten it all wrong, like I’d come in at the wrong moment. I had been looking at everything upside down, through a two way mirror in a haunted house. My Brother wasn’t lazy, it was his sadness that was debilitating. He wasn’t spacey, he was a dreamer. He moved into my Father’s not because he didn’t love us but to escape a household of women who stifled him. He went travelling not because he was escaping his reality but because he wanted to learn, to experience. He had been making the braver choice all along. He had been defying the people that told him no. That it wouldn’t work, that he couldn’t do it. He had been holding onto to his dreams with both hands. I was just too caught up in my own one woman circus to see it. But that day at the cafe, I saw it clearly. I saw what he had been trying to tell me all along, the thing that I refused to hear. The thing I thought I was superior too.
He told me that his independence had given him freedom. Freedom from the self critic, the judgment of others, the weight of his past. I’d roll my eyes when my Father would offer to pay for things and he’d say no. I’d think he was a self righteous little shit. Just let him help you out, I’d say, it makes him happy. But my Brother wouldn’t budge. I now knew why. He was free. Free to fail in the most beautiful and limitless way possible. He wasn’t afraid too. After I told him I was sorry, I knew that I had to try and stop being afraid too. And that this overwhelming juggernaut of failure wasn’t going to be my undoing. That I could use it as my making. I could use failure as a means for my own rebirthing. I could roll my failings into a ball, ready my bat and swing at them. If I hadn’t felt this tremendous sense of failure, I would never have arrived at any of this. I wouldn’t have begun to understood that being more independent from my Father wouldn’t break me, that it would help me to grow. That sending my work out into the universe wouldn’t be humiliating, that it would be liberating. That being truthful with myself would give birth to someone who isn’t scared of their own voice.
As I finish writing this on International Women’s Day, I feel comforted by all of the other soulful and boundless women before me who have shared the fearful weight of failure. They help to remind me that failure can be remoulded, reworked into rebirth. That even the greatest of artists had to funnel through their own fear to produce their work, how this idea of failure in some instances has become a part of the work itself. In a letter to friend and fellow writer, Audre Lorde, Pat Parker wrote:
I wanted to get this letter off to you while you and my thoughts are still fresh in my mind. Too often in the past, I have put letter writing off, because I thought whatever free time I had had to go to those survival things and if any energy left over would go to writing. However, it does occur to me that letter writing is both a survival thing and writing, plus it is so important to me to continue our conversation.
I can’t ever remember having enjoyed the presence of anyone so much in my home. You really are a bright light and are perhaps the best person in the world for shaking me out of my propensity for laziness and self-pity. Do you think there’s anyway to bottle you so one can simply ingest you when necessary?
Their correspondence struck me. Comforted me. The talented, fearless Pat Parker, struggling to free her own voice. Days of laziness and self-pity. The courage to ask her friend for guidance. Pushing through the fear, embracing her truth. Two strong, brilliant women helping each other to grow. To give new life to each other. I thank the strong band of women at The Klean for helping me to grow. For allowing me to nurture my own work, for encouraging me to share it. Writing this was difficult, I’d read my words back and wished none of it was true. That I’d made it all up, like the way you remember a murky bad dream. But the closer I got to finishing it, the clearer it all became. What I thought were failures, are paths. As prickly and distorted as they are, I have to keep the faith that they are leading me to something new. That they are showing me. That they have planted a seed that slowly but surely grows me.
I can’t say with certainty that anything feels anymore resolved or tied neatly in a bow. I still wake up, hungover and sad, wondering what the hell is going on. Days stretch ahead and I feel a pit of fear in me. I feel frightened that maybe this might be it and angry at myself for letting it be this way. I keep losing my voice and having to find it again. But I’m starting to realise that maybe that’s okay and that I’m so lucky to have the freedom and support to work it out. And that I am just one person in a bustling crowd of human beings that feel the same way as I do. I’m finishing this last sentence and I know I’ll have to send this off fairly quickly before I delete the whole thing. I’m so afraid to. What if everyone laughs at me? What if my Father reads this and never speaks to me again? What if they all think I’m a brat? What if this is a failure? But I feel a little more free to fail now. And I’m trying my hardest to be less afraid.