My name is Theodora and my last name will not become an issue. If my handle seems cumbersome, please feel free to think of me as Theo. That is, after all, what everyone calls me; my estranged parents, my false friends and unctuous colleagues, my standing army of casual lovers. Everyone is able to garner my attention with an utterance of my charmingly abrupt, sexually ambiguous name, though the declarations which follow the speaking of the word "Theo" have recently become uniformly black.
Examples? The proceeding is a selection of sound bites from recent memory:
"Theo," they say, "you've raided your trust for the last time. You're nearly thirty years old and you still manage money like a teenager. Honestly, flying to Milan to buy boots? We are not the Khashoggis, for God's sake! The financial advisors have recommended that we cut you off until you learn fiscal discipline. Oh, and we're leaving tonight for a month in Sao Paolo. If you get into trouble again, call the lawyers."
"Theo," they say, "your work has taken a rather dark turn of late and we're afraid we can no longer host you at the gallery. Perhaps you should try Wellbutrin in lieu of scotch with gin chasers. Call us when you're feeling more... upbeat. Ciao."
"Theo," they say, "you've been an absolute freak since you returned from that insomnia clinic thingy in the Berkshires. I don't care enough about you to hang around and figure out what's wrong, so I've decided to move in with Roger or Catherine or whoever. It's been fun, daaahling -- you were a spectacular fuck. Seriously. Call me if you ever pull yourself together."
Perhaps I'm not quoting verbatim, but you get the idea that Theo is not in a good place right now. She is alone now, always alone, and constantly indulging in bad habits to avoid addressing that fact.
Truth be known, dear Theo is committing a form of timed-release suicide by drinking and smoking to excess while eating less than the average stray cat. Theo has also become the favorite customer of the darling couple in the loft below. They are dealers in a rather exciting field -- not art and antiques, mind you -- and they are on call twenty-four-seven.
Despite the plethora of vices, distractions, and quack nostrums at her disposal, Theo fears that she may be cracking up, and not just because she has acquired the arch habit of referring to herself in the third person. You have her apologies and mine for the indulgence.
I'm restless all the time, restless and tense. I walk the streets at all hours, a meandering marathon circuit that sometimes takes me so far from home that I need a taxi to bring me back. I spend hours watching traffic from the windows of my loft. When I do work, I drift into a trance-like state and paint scenes that would give Bosch nightmares. I have no peace and I don't know where to look for it. It's certainly not hiding in the Bohemian maze of SoHo or at the bottom of a Glenfiddich bottle.
Truthfully, I can't blame my accelerated decline on booze or substance ingestion or even lack of rest because I've always been a dedicated tippler, a dabbler in recreational powders, and a resolute insomniac, yet lately I'm drawn only to these extreme edges of my nature.
I was once the antithesis of anti-social. I'd party 'til dawn, sleep if I was able, and start all over again once the sun went down. Now, the cozy dark corner in the back of my consciousness suits me better than the bright, populous nightclubs I once crawled.
I drink alone. I have not slept more than an hour a day since returning from my brief trip upstate for that bogus sleep study four months ago. I say "a day" because I no longer try to sleep at night. Too afraid, I suppose.
Before that trip, I feared nothing and no one. Or perhaps I was too insecure to acknowledge my fears... I don't know. Now, in the night, in the dark, I hear footsteps beyond my door and I bite my jaw to keep from screaming. I see a shadow slide along the wall and I cringe in preparation for a death blow from a spectral fist.
Before that trip, I was never lonely. Or perhaps I was too focused on conquest to admit a need for anything deeper. Now, I sit at the vanity to brush my hair and I might hear a woman's distant voice humming a sweet, innocent song... and I cry until my eyes swell shut.
A whispered word always precedes such tears: "Nell?"
I sometimes call out to her when the black night air grows chill, when I see my breath hovering like fog. I wonder if she's near, if her presence cooled the air, if that was her low, artless voice singing to me as I stared into the sallow nothing reflected by my mirror. Then I remember that the radiator is busted; the loft air is cold because it's winter in New York, and the humming is only the creaking complaint of ancient steam pipes.
"No. Nell is dead." I say this to remind myself that I have not heard her voice, that I did not feel her hand holding mine as I wept, yet my words barely discourage me from seeking the outline of her face in a billowing curtain. I find the idea of her presence, the self-involved notion that she watches over me, too sweet to relinquish.
Lovely, sad-eyed Nell, used and neglected all her life by a sick, mean-spirited old woman who treated her more as a servant than a daughter. Beautifully grown Eleanor, her heart swollen and tender from years of holding in a wildly kicking love. When she arrived in the Berkshires, Nell was ready to love something or someone with all her might.
I wish to God it could have been me.
Her goodness, her purity, it touched me. Nell's nature made me want to be a better person, kind and genuine, someone worthy of her vulnerable, sincere smiles. If she had chosen to leave Hill House with me, I would have lived to make her dreams come true. I would have hocked the remainder of my trust and bought her that little apartment by the sea.
The one she lied about. Her dream home, seen only in her mind's eye.
In this safe harbor, everything would be just perfect, just as Nell wanted. Little stone lions would sit on the mantle over a crackling fire, silver picture frames would glint in the warm light, and each night, Nell would wrap herself in a down comforter and trundle off to her maple shaker bed, where she would fall asleep to the sound of the wind whistling around the buoys. Sometimes I picture myself there with her, holding her as she sleeps.
It's a silly dream, I know, but it helps me remember her face. I see her in repose, a row of moments where she is happy and content, then she looks up and smiles at me with blinding sweetness, as if she'd swallowed sunlight.
It's like a worn strip of film, this fantasy, and the more I run it, the more it degrades. The more I degrade. I'm becoming a maudlin, sentimental fool who prefers to live either in the past or in moments which never happened -- this is perhaps the first step toward incurable misery. Or insanity.
Nell is dead and she is never coming back. My mind's last bastion of rational thought tells me this again and again, and I live in fear of the day I finally accept it as truth. What will I do then, when I am faced with the fact of her enduring absence? Will I abandon thoughts of that little nook by the sea, forget her shy laugh and the auburn sheen of her hair?
I don't want to forget Nell, partly because my feelings for her are the only real feelings I have, and partly because I know that if I forget her, she will truly be forgotten. My Nell deserves to be remembered. She was tragic, yes, but she was also bright and funny and courageous and she could have done... oh, so many wonderful things. With or without me.
I wonder if she is still in that awful place where she died, if her avatar still walks the cavernous halls of Hill House, alone now and for as long as the house stands. If she is there, I can do nothing for her. My abilities extend to drinking and smoking, snorting heroin and walking the streets in a half-lidded daze. I'm worse than useless in any practical sense.
The only skill I ever had was my art, and it's out of my control now. Leaning against my walls are nightscapes of concave black with swirls of tortured faces irresistibly pulled to the bottom and sucked away into nothingness; disembodied eyes filled with longing drift in a library, skirt along rows of book spines, unable to open the works and see inside; weeping children cower at the feet of hungry giants with saw-toothed mouths for eyes.
I can't bear to examine what the canvases mean or represent, but after I complete one it feels as if I've purged a little of the endless sea of bile which sprung up inside me following my stay at Hill House. It's only a temporary respite. A few days later, I'll hear a noise or see a face emerge from the wood grain pattern of the walls, then I binge on the fear again and it starts all over. My art currently serves no higher purpose than enabling my soul's bulimia.
There are seven pictures of Eleanor Lance hidden in this room. They are buried under a canvas tarpaulin by the far wall. They sprang out of me like tears and screams the week I arrived home and I haven't been able to look at any of them since. I painted them when my eyes were still clotted with pain and anger. I think that seeing them now would break me.
Tonight, I don't feel like working. I face the empty canvas and the brush is heavy in my hand, the pencils rough and splintery. I need alcohol and tobacco to squire me to a brief dance with unconsciousness. I fumble through the desk drawers for a fresh box of Nat Shermans and clumsily light one up (my desperate dependence shows through at such moments).
This whole suicide by cigarette thing is slow and cowardly, but effective as anything if pursued with dedication. It's better when augmented by twelve year old single-malt whiskey, and absolutely fool-proof when topped off by my secret weapon. I pour a glass of amber anesthetic and check my pocket for the tiny leather and platinum case which holds my stash. A few sips and an inhalation later, I'm kissing God and I can't remember my own name.
Hours drift by and by and by. It was eleven and dark when I began and I can't read the clock now. The numbers are upside-down... or maybe I am. Hours may drift by and by and by. I won't try to stop them. As the chemical triptych I've come to refer to as Glen H. Sherman does its work, I feel my body melting into sleep as I drop into a chair by the tall window, draw an old afghan around my shoulders.
As I go under, I think of Nell smiling, laughing, walking on the beach wrapped in this afghan. My arm is around her waist as we stumble in the sand and search for clam beds. Later, clams sautéed and eaten, bottle of wine half gone, Vivaldi playing softly, fire warming our feet as we sit on the floor and hold hands... sick.
It's sick, isn't it? Pathetic. In love for the first time in my life. In love with a dead woman.
Asleep or awake, I'm crying again and I don't want to stop. The salty tears make me think of the sea, of the great Atlantic, just a few blocks from her perfect little apartment. If I listen closely, I can hear the wind in the buoys just as Nell described, even as I sit landlocked south of Houston Street.
Maybe not tonight, maybe not tomorrow, but soon... soon that wind will catch my sails and take me out to sea. I can hardly wait.