The beginning of 2014 could not have been metaphorically kinder to me. The morning of January first, I made a continental landing on Antarctica. I climbed an untouched, pure white glacier and perched on a rock at the top. An iceberg calved and bounced into the bay beneath me. A dry, chill breeze cut against my cheeks. I wanted that moment to be more than a metaphorical blank white page, but I dreaded the new year. I’d gone on Lexapro weeks before. 2013 had shredded me and 2014 already felt heavy and small. I knew my depression was justified, but it wasn’t fixing anything. What had been taken from me was already gone.
The Lexapro kicked in, but it took longer for my actions to follow. I’d curate Sundays in bed around a theme: movies based on books about doubles (The Double and Enemy), movies I worshipped in middle school (Two Weeks Notice andThe Truth about Cats and Dogs and Romancing the Stone), the original and the remake (Sabrina with Humphrey Bogart andSabrina with Harrison Ford). I watched The Umbrellas of Cherbourg on a train ride down the pacific coast; Rosemary’s Baby while home sick in bed; North by Northwest while dog-sitting in an apartment with an envy-inducing DVD shelf.
These marathons were about remapping. My internal topography had been decimated and I wanted to find my new edges: what I cared about, what I didn’t. What bothered me, grated me, hurt me, healed me. And especially: what questions I cared about asking.
On April 27th, during one of those early Sunday marathons, I pulled up The Invisible Woman and hit play. I didn’t know much about the movie. I knew it had been written by Abi Morgan (a screenwriting god), and I knew it was about Charles Dickens’ mistress. This was enough. That it was directed by and starred Ralph Fiennes, alongside Felicity Jones, was just garnish.
When we meet Nelly Ternan (Jones), she is already haunted. Alone on a fogged beach, eyes heavy and solemn, having already lived through the story we’re about to watch: the careful courtship of Nelly by Charles Dickens, after he sees her charmingly amateur performance in a play by Wilkie Collins; the consummation, the sweet and sincere ardor between the pair, the stress of keeping it secret.
The Invisible Woman sings in its silence and the way it settles into sadness. It shows you what Nelly was given, what she was offered, and what was softly taken away. In a particularly brutal scene, the train she’s on with Dickens crashes. Even though she’s hurt, the clandestine couple agrees he should leave her and go help others, lest anyone notice them together and guess at the furtive trip they’d taken.
The fate of a mistress is that of solitude. You will never be coupled. You will never be claimed. You are a secret not even you can tell.
There are beautiful speeches from Dickens—“You have been in every prospect I have ever seen since–on the river, on the sails of the ships, on the marshes, in the clouds, in the lights, in the darkness, in the wind, in the woods, in the sea, in the streets.” But the movie’s most true moment belongs to Nelly. After Dickens’ death, when she’s married with children, a guest recognizes her from those early years in London and confronts her, guessing at the secret she’s kept all these years.
She trembles with the memory. “Charles understood that however painful it is, we are alone. Whoever we are with, we are alone,” she says. She talks aboutGreat Expectations and how he wrote it so Pip and Estella don’t end up together. “Pip’s final words are – ‘I saw the shadow of no parting from her’ – He ends the book in shadows, you see, a place of uncertainty, of haunting. And that is where I have been living. Do you see – ?”
He ends the books in shadows. In a place of uncertainty, of haunting.
“And that is where I have been living.”
A few months later. July 4th. I’m in San Francisco, visiting on a ten day trip to the west coast. The next weekend, I’d be up in Oregon at an emotional family memorial. I’d planned the trip to SF to frontload that eventual sadness with friendship and views of the ocean.
My friend, A, and I decided to go see Obvious Child, rather than try and hazard our way through crowds we were old enough (mid-twenties) to know we’d hate. We bought a bag of awful sour gummies with a burst of jelly in the middle and settled into two plush leather armchairs in the front row.
Obvious Child is the sharp, witty, emotional movie about Brooklyn and mistakes and friendship and family that I needed. Written and directed by Gillian Robespierre, the film is about Donna, her comedy, and the abortion she has after a one night stand.
If I’m grossly over-simplifying, it’s because this movie doesn’t belong to its outline. It belongs to its moments: the scene where she’s packing up the bookstore, sitting in a box, when the guy she just slept with comes in and asks her out to a burrito and she panic-declines him; the line from her comedy set: “Does it count as exercise if you are just squeezing your body all the time super- hard super-tight, cause you’re just crying so hard?”; the scene where Donna stands outside her ex-boyfriend’s apartment, sipping coffee, thinking “If that woman crosses after my second sip I’ll leave” (she does) and she still doesn’t leave, until her ex-boyfriend emerges with his new girlfriend, and she tosses the cup of coffee and flees.
But the moments that mattered most to me—sitting next to A, eating our smuggled candies—were the ones where Donna looked for support and her friends and family gave it, without question, without drama. It’s refreshing, to have a movie tell these moments honestly, rather than dramatically. “Does it hurt?” Donna asks Nellie (played by a dry, loving Gaby Hoffmann). When Donna climbs into bed and tells her mother, expecting to be chastised, she’s given love and reassurance: “I’ve been there too.”
No one questions what she’s done, or how she responds when backed into a corner. OfObvious Child’s many triumphs, I would argue this is its greatest one. There is no moralizing. There’s love and support and plenty of self-deprecation.
After we left the theater, A and I hugged goodbye. It was 8:30 at night on the Fourth of July and we both felt like going home to bed. I walked up the steep streets to the house where I was staying, bought a bottle of wine on the way and opened it on the dusty patio which looked down on the bay. I got there right as the fireworks began bursting, up into a thick layer of fog so the explosions looked like a-bombs going off. Again and again.
Here is another truth Obvious Child gets right: when you’re on the brink, you don’t wait. You jump.
September 6th. I’m back in New York. Friends want me to come out, but I make an excuse and settle onto my couch to watch Frank. A movie about a musician who never takes off his fiberglass head with a painted-on smile and wide-moon eyes.
Frank, played by Michael Fassbender, is in a band named the Soronprfbs. The kind of band you can’t tell your friends about, because you can’t pronounce their name. Things are okay for them––they have their own rhythm and they don’t particularly care about communicating that rhythm to listeners. But then their keyboardist tries to drown himself and they pull in newbie Jon, played by Domhnall Gleeson. Jon is eager to get the band recognition, pulls them into SXSW, and detonates the careful ecosystem the members had built up over years of strangeness.
Jon rattles the careful scaffolding Frank has constructed around his process and his person. When Jon asks Frank to take off his fiberglass head, Frank refuses: “I have a certificate!” When Jon says it’s difficult to know how Frank is reacting, because of the mask, Frank externalizes his emotions: “Welcoming smile”; “Flattered grin, followed by a bashful half-smile.” Frank is the band’s center. When Jon’s meddling pushes him too far, he crumples, acts out, disintegrates, then disappears.
Here’s a new thing that started happening in 2014 for me: crying. I hadn’t really cried in four years, and then suddenly, I’d spend evenings having feelings about something someone said to me, crying, and then going to bed. I was so unfamiliar with the sensation of it that I had to ask a friend: “Is it normal to feel so washed out the day after crying?” Another topographical change I had to chart and catalog.
I cried at the end of this movie, after the band had shattered and before any of the characters made a move to fix what had been broken. I found myself with tear-stained cheeks and a slight sallow feeling in my chest.
There’s a risk and fear and anger that goes into creating anything actual and honest. Any attempt to create is built on a rickety foundation, and when someone comes and kicks it out from under you without realizing what they’ve done? That’s what got me. That swooping sensation beneath externalizing any of your interior, and the immediate after-thought: what have I done.
This is a movie about language and communication. About what needs to be broad, and what should be kept small and specific and singular. It’s about creating and about hiding. It’s about safety and danger and dread.
The next day, I texted my friend again: “Are you sure this feeling is normal?”
A month later. I have a few hours between work and therapy, so I walk down to the Angelika and catch an early evening screening of Tracks. I’d read a review about the solitude that saturates the film, and I wanted that, after a day of being shuffled against and surrounded by strangers in the city.
Tracks is based on a memoir by Robyn Davidson, about the solo trip she took across the outback in 1977, accompanied by one dog and four camels. Played by Mia Wasikowska, Robyn is intent on solitude. When asked why she wants to make the trip, she shrugs and says, “Why not?”
The movie is full of beautiful shots of the outback, stretching out like a rubber-band around Robyn. The palette is dusky, orange, shot through with blue and green.
As if this movie were itself a desert, oases are necessary. Adam Driver is this movie’s shimmering pond and inviting shadow. He plays Rick Smolan, the photographer the National Geographic provided to shoot a story about Robyn’s trek; in exchange, they financed it. At regular intervals, Rick cuts through Robyn’s solitude in his Jeep, blasting music, tracking her progress when she doesn’t want to be tracked. He’s vital to this movie, if only because every fresh absence accentuates the silence and loneliness of Robyn’s journey.
These are the scenes that spoke to me the most, in that intense, visceral way movies do when they find you in the right moment.
There are moments of pristine crystal in Robyn’s dialogue. She says: “I can deal with pigs really easily, but nice people confound me. You know, how can you tell a nice person that you wish they’d crawl into a hole and die?”
But most importantly: “Some nomads are at home everywhere. Others are at home nowhere, and I was one of those.”
After the movie let out, I walked north to therapy and thought. I pushed my way through crowds, and I thought more. And then I sat on the couch and said, again, as I had been saying for months, that I wanted to move. I needed the west coast and I needed space for my introversion. In New York, I’d return home already exhausted and spent, drained by the strangers I’d bumped up against all day. I wanted moments no one else could own.
The Invisible Woman opens with an epigraph from Charles Dickens: “A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.”
Choosing a path you want to take solely because you want to take it doesn’t make that choice selfish. It makes it yours. Even if no one wants to follow you. Even if you find yourself caked with dust and delirious with thirst.
In the final months of 2014, I decided to fight. It was a gambit that felt insane and fake, but somehow became real. A project I’d been working on for the better part of a year finally found its legs and the little it gave me was enough. I left a steady job. I left New York. I moved to California. Let’s see who I can be there, I decided. Let’s see if that person will be better than the one I’ve already been.
As in Tracks: “I believe when you’re stuck in one spot for too long it’s best to throw a grenade where you stand, and jump…and pray.”
And that’s what I did. I chose my secrets. I didn’t answer any questions. I didn’t heal.
I threw a grenade.