I’m thinking about suicide. Not my own—not that. I know about the yawning vortex. Talk to me at three a.m. when I’m groping through the house, chased awake. I can see The Great Nothing in the blinking lights on the television; can hear it in the yowls of the coyotes in the neighbors’ fields. I can actually feel certain death, cold as the bathroom mirror while nearby, my family breathes on.
I’ve had the morning terrors since twenty-nine—a condition diagnosed by various doctors. It goes on whether I drink or don’t, whether I give up coffee or poach myself in caffeine, whether I get pricked with acupuncture needles or take medication. They all call it something different. Acute anxiety. Panic attacks. Whatever it is, I can’t fucking sleep.
Yet I’m the sort that comes back in the morning. If I can swing my legs to the floor, then: eggs. I’m talking about routine here. Death of friend, death of hope—death, period. Still when the day comes, this reason. Eggs.
What I’ve been thinking about are other people’s suicides. What it would be like in those final moments. How brave you’d have to be to pull the trigger or jump off the bridge. And what is the thinking? What final, delicate poems were running through Anne Sexton’s mind as she closed the garage door? What spectacular ramblings were spinning through Virginia Woolf as she waded out with that stone?
Sometimes I picture getting there just in time. We know about dreams, don’t we? We’re allowed to do everything right. I picture rowing to Virginia before her head goes under, or going ’round for a drink at Anne’s just as she’s getting into the car. Hey, what are you—? Don’t do that. Let’s go watch a movie or something. Or better, some eggs.
Sylvia Plath. 1932–1962. Poet-genius who died with her head in the oven. She’s the one I think about the most, really. After all, I, along with thousands of other bookish females with a tendency toward blue, have worshiped her every word since finding The Bell Jar in the school library at fifteen. Of course, TBJ’s only the starter drug. Every serious Plathy knows that. We go on to Ariel (the non-Ted version, of course), then muddle through The Colossus. Then, if we’re really serious, study the unabridged diaries.
Sylvia! we cry. Oh, there have been armies of us, knobby-elbowed girls poring over her tangled prose while aching away on our twin beds.
We are so alike!
I, too, have gone mad over a boy.
No, thirty boys!
I, too, worship those who pay me no mind!
“Tonight,” Sylvia Plath wrote in her diary in 1956, after drinking in
the same bar as Auden, “the unforgettable snatching of toothpicks and
olive pits from the tables of ambrosia Gods!”
Me, too, Sylvia! I totally would have done that!
But you betrayed us. You tore up the sequel to The Bell Jar, burned it in a rage. You destroyed another perfectly good book of stories about life at Cambridge, a book I would have loved. And then, you deprived us of a life of prose. You died, Sylvia. On purpose.
Or did you? You friend, aware of your despair, had hired a nurse the day before to help with the children. A professional, nurturing woman who was due to come the next morning. There are theories that perhaps you wanted to be saved, as you asked the neighbor to check on you hours before the deed and left a note saying to call your doctor.2 What if that nurse had come early? Even an hour might have made a difference, some sources say. So during my “blue hours,” as you called them, I picture showing up to Fitzroy Street. Kicking that door open, slamming open the windows. Wake up, Sylvia! Come on. Breathe. An intervention, during a gray morning eleven years before I was born.
Can I talk to you, Sylvia? Really talk to you? Why not, right? What are you going to say? No? There’s something I’m not telling you, Sylvia. Lots of things, but I don’t want to overshare. Do you know the critics, the ones who rejected and sneered at you, praise you now as a pioneer of female sharing? Accidental or not, you became the colossus. First it was your story, then your voice, then your role in literature. You’re an entire genre. The first female confessor.
Though honestly, that title might not be so terrific. These days we’ve got females overconfessing all over the place. If I see Lena Dunham’s butt one more time, I’m cutting off my cable. And the theory is you did it first. Taught us how to share without being disgusting. I hope I’m not disgusting. I’m just talking to you.
All right, so. This really started when I was twenty-six. The same age you were when you married Ted. I had just moved to San Francisco. I often wonder what would have happened if you had come here. If instead of getting all academic and Fulbright about it, you’d just gone Kerouac and hit the road. You’d probably be alive and not famous. Maybe you’d live on my street, still alive, and writing in the remote Northern California town I’ve chased myself into.
But that’s not what happened to you. That’s what happened to me. San Francisco. I had no reason except this thing called the Internet boom. The whole country seemed to tip west. I put a plane ticket on my credit card. I wasn’t certain what I was going to do, as I had no skills and nothing to offer but an expensive college degree. I know Smith got you places, New York and Cambridge and all that. But it’s come to mean less, college. The smartest ones don’t even go now. They start companies at nineteen and become billionaires and buy fancy bowling alleys. I don’t want to generalize, but unless you come in the form of a Sylvia Plath app, these tech kids probably don’t care much about you.
But back then. 1999! We were somewhere in the middle of David Foster Wallace and the new Star Wars. I had a window seat, and as we were landing I pressed my forehead against the glass. The city was iced with pink and blue, but mostly it was the color of the communion wafers the reverend back home placed on our tongues.
No one writes like you about being a lost girl in the city, Sylvia. Those scenes in The Bell Jar, where you were lonely and sick in Manhattan and not sure what to wear or how to act, those are never to be surpassed. So I’ll just give you the broad strokes. Temping at a pet food company. Drinking all night, falling asleep on a camping mattress in a friend’s closet. Awake at seven, rising with the energy of a Dionysian nymph. I didn’t know it then, but those nights of sleep, they were true miracles.
I got a job. Actually, I had three jobs in one year, one more lucrative than the next. 1999. It would make you dizzy, how much money there was. These places we worked, they were palaces of waste. Mountains of bagels in the morning, espresso machines, video arcades, ergonomic foot warmers. The place I finally landed, an advertising agency, welcomed me to their “family.” I had no experience in advertising, but this didn’t matter. They liked my vibe, and paid me $65,000 a year to write about a supply chain. I still don’t know what that is.
You only lived to be thirty. But getting older is actually not so awful. One of the good things, for instance, is the growing ability to make sense of the past. What I see now at forty is just how easy it was, with no purpose other than feeling good and making money, to become unequivocally lost. My job was particularly abstract, as we were not even the company creating nothing, but the company talking about nothing. The agency asked very little of me in actual work, though my soul, it claimed. Every Monday we were to share our “hopes for ourselves” in a “supportive environment.” Hugs were encouraged. There was almost always crying involved. I was twenty-six and I took a bath in the Kool-Aid. At the time I had nothing else better in which to believe.
I met many people in 1999. These were not the heady, fascinating poets you surrounded yourself with in your twenties, Sylvia. These were easy men and women, East Coast transplants. Do I want a beer, they’d muse, or a cocktail? We did not see San Francisco as real life. There was always a party, a new way of mingling with the same people, be it an event with a theme of a decade we had missed, or a dinner party with different courses at different people’s houses, or a trip to a warehouse pulsing with trance. In your time some of the parties might have been called Happenings, but they were not even as cerebral as that. I remember emerging occasionally and getting cynical about the emptiness of it. Still, I was young, and confident this would eventually change.
It did. I made a friend. A real friend. And if time is a sieve, he is one pebble from that era still left to me, other than some photos and a pair of white boots I have always, even now, been too scared to wear.