I’ve done the thing where I’m awake but I haven’t yet opened my eyes. I’m in that twilight haze where I know I’m not asleep but I can’t move a muscle. I’ve only got a second or two left before the panic will set in that I’ve somehow slept myself into becoming a paraplegic, that during the night I wrestled in some kind of nightmare that caused me to twist in horror, snapping my own neck, dooming me to an eternity of immobility.
Naturally, this will then trigger a second wave of fear. If I have separated my head from the rest of my body there’s no real way that I can let anyone know this has happened. I will have to remain useless and numb, stuck in this position until someone figures out I’ve gone missing. I fear that it won’t be a matter of hours, but perhaps days or weeks before anyone truly notices. My office mate, Jonathan, will eventually get bored with this unexpected man-holiday and will finally ask someone if I died.
But first, there’s this special just-up time, when I can’t move and I can barely think, when everything is perfect. I’m half in the real world but still able to clutch on to whatever dream I’m reluctant to depart. That makes this person I am—this Charlotte Goodman, age thirty, a skinny brunette with absolutely no singing voice and a deep aversion to paper cuts—nothing more than a concept. I’m not a real person and I don’t have to be. Yet.
The dream I just fell from was gloriously mundane. I was sitting in seat 16A of a Continental flight somehow headed to a Starbucks, where I was to pick up a DVD for Sandra Bullock. This was supposed to be important. I was sitting next to a college frat boy who was singing the words to . . .
No, wait. I was sitting next to a sorority girl who was talking about her boyfriend who was the lead singer for . . .
Damn. Nothing. It’s gone.
Matthew used to say that every morning. It was a sarcastic dig at how terrible I am for the first hour before I get three good cups of coffee into me. It’s not new—back in high school my parents would sometimes find an excuse to leave the house rather than wake me up early. They became avid churchgoers just to avoid my morning wrath. I know it’s not right to hate everything before nine in the morning, but I don’t understand how everybody acts like it’s okay to be up at that hour. If we all got together and took a stand, we could all sleep in and force mornings to become a time for sleep and sleep only.
An early riser, Matthew would be well into his day, coffee brewed, having sometimes already gone for a run, taken a shower, and eaten breakfast before I waddled into the room, half-asleep, half-dressed, usually with only one eye open.
“Shh,” he’d say, cradling my face with one hand. “Half of Charlotte is still asleep. Right Eye needs more dreaming.”
And he’d whisper, pretending to tiptoe around the right side of me, the one that could wake up with a roar. “Shh. Right Eye is such an angel when she’s sleeping.”
This was before we were married, when there wasn’t a question as to whether we were supposed to be together. Now I hear Matthew say, “Morning, Sunshine,” even though he isn’t here to say the words.
I’ve had to come to accept the fact that every morning my eyes will eventually open. I will wake up, and then I will have to get out of this bed. I’ll brush my teeth, take a shower, put on clothes, and do all of the things almost everybody else seems to be able to do every single day no matter what is happening to them. I used to be one of those people, the normal ones who would make coffee and go to their jobs and joke with their friends and be productive members of society. Not anymore. At least not now.
Now I’ve had to develop a few defense mechanisms, tricks to accomplish a real-life calendar day without too many setbacks. Since I began employing these tactics, I have a 75 percent chance of making it to the next time I’m in this glorious bed without a full-on breakdown. Yes, there are still crying jags and the occasional panic attack. And sure, one time I kind of lost my shit at a Ruby Tuesday. But in my defense, that waitress knew what she had done.
Defense Mechanism Number 1 is crucial and happens every morning without fail, right here in this bed. Before I leave the safety of my crisp, white sheets and the soft, warm comfort of my purple flannel duvet, before I head out into that harsh, cruel society known as Los Angeles, California—home of the beautiful and the clinical—I make a plan.
This plan is important. It is the plan of the day. It doesn’t take long, but I have found without The Plan, horrible things can happen. I’m likely to end up sitting on a curb beside a taco truck on Sunset Boulevard, crying over a carne asada burrito, wondering where my marriage went. It doesn’t matter how much pain I’m in, I still have an awareness that people can see me, and I couldn’t take knowing that to someone I’d just become the Weeping Burrito Girl.
The Plan keeps me from tangents. It keeps me from having to just float out there. Ironically, I learned this from Matthew. He liked planning, order.
Likes. I have to stop talking about him as if he’s dead. He’s still here. Just not here.
I hope he’s not dead. First of all, that’s going to look really suspicious. And second, I’m not really sure how I would be supposed to act at the funeral of my estranged husband. Would everyone think that I was secretly enjoying myself? Of course they’d think that, deep in the evilest parts of their hearts. Who wouldn’t?
Look, as far as I know, today, right now, Matthew is alive. And if he’s not, I had nothing to do with it.
Okay, so I’ve definitely decided I need to figure out what I’m going to do about my marriage before my husband dies.
I suck in my cheeks and tilt my head back on my pillow, trying to stretch out my face. For the past two weeks, I’ve been waking up with a feeling that someone has slammed a hammer into my skull. It has gotten worse every night, and this morning it hurts to open my mouth even the slightest bit. I wonder how long I can go without talking to anybody. Could I make it through an entire day, even if I left the apartment? That sounds like such a glorious luxury, being a mute. How wonderful not to have to keep answering the worst question on the planet: How are you holding up?
I lurch myself up and over until I’m in a seated position. I make my feet touch the floor as I decide on the plan for today.
Okay. Leave the bedroom. Make coffee. Write email that you will be late for the office. Do not check your email to see if Matthew wrote. Go to Dr. Benson’s office for this jaw pain. Go to work. Come home and hide.
Once The Plan is firmly in place, Defense Mechanism Number 2 will often be itching to take over.
Defense Mechanism Number 2 is a little more complicated. It took a while for me to be comfortable with it, and I’ve pretty much sworn myself to secrecy about it. If anyone else learned about Defense Mechanism Number 2, I would be put in the rather vulnerable position of having said person possibly think I was unhinged. Certifiable. But when I tried suppressing Defense Mechanism Number 2 I learned that it’s not really up to me. I mean, it’s me, but it’s not me.
Sometimes, for no other reason than to get through This Hour Right Now, I have no choice but to pull myself out and narrate my own life, to myself, in the third person. I know it’s me, but somehow, this way, it can also not be me, and that makes it so much easier to deal. That’s Defense Mechanism Number 2.
So, look. I sleep, I drink, and sometimes a male voice in my head tells me what’s happening to me. Perfectly understandable, considering.
In my head he sounds like a dad. Not my dad, but someone’s dad. Half folksy, half serious, a man who’s already lived a life and knows that this one I’m in is just going through a rough patch, nothing more. He kind of sounds like Craig T. Nelson. Well, really he sounds like John Goodman. This is probably because when I was a kid I told a bunch of my friends at school that I was related to the dad on Roseanne, and if they didn’t believe me they could just check out our last names, which were exactly the same.
So when things get rough, when I don’t know what’s going to happen, when The Plan can’t protect me, I let Uncle John do the talking. I let him go on in his stomach-stuffed voice like I’m tucked into bed waiting for one last story before I close my eyes, and soon everything’s going to be okay.
Sometimes I even start to believe him.
© 2010 Pamela Ribon
Going in Circles
In fact, she reached her life’s quotient when her husband of five months walked out on her, only to abruptly change his mind a few weeks later and move back in. Stung by a whiplash of grief, resentment, and confusion, Charlotte calls a time-out, taking a small apartment where she can figure out what she wants. Instead, the thought of making even the simplest choices triggers an anxiety attack. In order to get out of bed in the morning, she must concoct a to-do list for each day, The Plan, one with absolutely no surprises.
“Without The Plan, horrible things can happen. I’m likely to end up sitting on a curb beside a taco truck on Sunset Boulevard, crying over a carne asada burrito, wondering where my marriage went. I can’t handle being the Weeping Burrito Girl.”
Charlotte knows all this self-absorbed introspection isn’t good for her, but she’s running out of people to turn to, as seemingly everyone in her life is pressuring her to make an immediate decision about her future. Then her new friend Francesca—an impulsive, smartass co-worker—offers Charlotte salvation in the unlikeliest of places: the fast-paced, super-tough, bump-and-bruise-filled world of roller derby.
Sure, it’s dangerous. Yeah, she could get hurt. But what’s a little physical pain when healing your soul is at stake? The question is: whether she’s on or off the track, will Charlotte be strong enough to stand on her own two feet?
Read an Excerpt
Reading Group Guide
Recently separated (while still technically a newlywed), heartbroken Charlotte Goodman must choose between a severely conflicted marriage and the terrifying prospect of single life. While searching for the “right” thing to do, she struggles to drown out the voices of her overbearing mother, self-righteous boss and cynical co-worker. In such an uncertain phase, Charlotte is desperate enough to try anything that will bring her strength, confidence and answers. Under the guidance of an eccentric new friend, she finds that salvation in the unlikeliest of places – Roller Derby.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1.) Discuss Charlotte’s tendency to imagine John Goodman narrating her life as a way of coping. Is this method effective? What does it mean that she is ultimately able to shed his voice and live in the ‘first person’?
2.) In her first meeting with the psychiatrist, Charlotte insists, “Of course there’s one right way. One way is wrong, see more