The summer before I got married Dave went away to teach at a program for brilliant young writers and I stayed in Pittsburgh, trying to finish my master’s thesis, which I hadn’t started.
One night, there was a terrible thunderstorm, and my friend Rachael came over to keep me company. We drank mint juleps and she read my Tarot cards while the storm knocked the trees into the windows like a horror movie, the air charged with electricity and meaning. She flipped the first card over with a snap. If the image is upside down, it means something—something about blocked potentiality, abilities and events that want to manifest but can’t. All my cards were upside down.
I was secretly terrified. The words dabbling in the occult came to mind. But I was ashamed to tell Rachael for fear of sounding like some kind of fundamentalist nutbag. I’ve always been excessively religious, and I watched too many horror movies at too young an age. I know from The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, Witchboard, Fright Night, et. al that it all starts out as fun and games and then suddenly you realize Captain Howdy is the devil and your neighbor is a vampire.
My older sister was braver. She spent years searching for a way to connect with our dead mother. She sat for past-life readings, trained herself to achieve a hypnogogic state that would allow her to fold space, and meditated in something called a psychomanteum—a form of mirror divination—in attempt to contact her soul. It was sitting before that mirror, in the back room of a hair salon in Dallas, staring at her own reflection for endless quiet minutes, that she says she came to her senses.
“What will I do if she shows up?” she thought. After all those months—years—of preparation, she couldn’t think of a thing to say. So she walked out, got married, had three babies and started teaching aerobics.
I’d begun to feel it was my job to keep the search for our mother alive. If our her ghost was out there wandering the moors, somebody had to keep the window open. I might not be a Bronte, but I could at least be a Heathcliff.
At the time I lived in a duplex on the edge of historic Homewood Cemetery in Pittsburgh, which given my squeamishness about the supernatural should have disconcerted me. I remembered Poltergeist, and Craig T. Nelson screaming, “You only moved the headstones!” Nonetheless I found it strangely comforting. I loved the place. It was a great neighborhood, home to families, not grad students like me who smoked on the porch all night. Our backyard rolled into an expanse of soft green lawn, thickets of trees and crosses and angels and the occasional spray of flowers. At night, hundreds of red votive candles flickered in the darkness like a celestial event.
I watched funerals reflected in the bathroom mirror as I brushed my teeth. I marked how quickly the grass grew on the fresh mounds. I began to recognize the mourners who came regularly. I watched them stand beneath umbrellas in the misty rain, their maps unfolded and flapping in the damp breeze.
In Louisiana, where my family is buried, you have to put people in crypts and tombs and mausoleums, or they will wash away. New Orleans is below sea level, and the ground is saturated, unstable; bodies decompose more quickly. I used to imagine floodwaters carrying the bones off in the tide, or my mother’s body floating down Canal Street toward the Mississippi River, her hair fanned out like Ophelia in the Millais painting. But in Pittsburgh, only the very wealthy are buried in vaults: the Fricks and the Heinzes and the Mellons. They rest in Millionaire’s Row, Section 14, near the lake. In the summer, a guided tour called “You Can’t Take It With You” takes groups through Section 14 every morning before it gets too hot.
Many mornings I woke to the sounds of riding mowers and men shouting over the repetitive tones of something large backing up: Beep. Beep. Beep. Breaking new ground back there, space for more bodies.
I had to finish my thesis by the fall or join the ranks of the many in our graduate program who never completed their degrees. For three years I’d been researching a book about the women who worked with Andy Warhol. Pittsburgh is Warhol’s hometown, and I’d moved there to work in the archives of the Andy Warhol Museum, to rifle through his Time Capsules wearing white gloves. I had pages of transcribed interviews with Pat Hackett, his secretary and the redactress of the Andy Warhol Diaries, and I’d just been introduced to Gerard Melanga, the guy who did the whip dance with the Velvet Underground, who agreed to talk to me about Warhol’s relationships with women (for $1,000). I didn’t have $1,000, but the truth was, the more research I did, the less interest I had in Warhol or his women. I was spending more time in church than at the museum, sitting in the dark of Sacred Heart in Shadyside, in the last pew just in case I needed to make a hasty escape. The only thing that really fascinated me about Warhol anymore was that he went to Mass every day.
I spent hours in the psychology and religion section at Barnes and Noble in Squirrel Hill, sitting in a chair by the window overlooking Murray Avenue and wondering if I should have been a therapist. I understand people, I told Dave over the phone during one of our nightly arguments. I’m intuitive. I also wondered if I should have been a high school teacher, or a librarian, or an archivist, or anything besides this. Whatever this was. A grad student not writing her thesis, watching people pass on Murray Avenue two stories below, haunting a graveyard like some teenage goth.
“Give yourself a new project,” Dave said, yawning into the phone. He was in Erie, three hours north of me, teaching fiction writing and drinking wine with a poet who lived next door to him in faculty housing. They played surrealist bocce, whatever that was, on their lunch breaks. Whenever he’d been teaching he had an annoying habit of treating me like one of his students if I complained about writing, and it was really starting to piss me off. I’ll never forgive him for telling me to cover my laptop screen with a towel. But he has always approached writing with more realism and practicality than I have. I have always wanted to be a mystic.
“Well, then. Make something happen,” he said.
I hung up on him and jammed the box fan into the open window and stripped down to my underwear and lay on the bed, on top of the covers, feeling sorry for myself, crushed by the weight of my unwritten thesis and a grief that I couldn’t believe was still so hard to bear, when my mother had been dead for more than ten years.
If I could just find some way to exorcise it, I thought, I might be able to write—if not about Warhol and his women then something, anything. But whenever I tried to write my stomach hurt and I couldn’t breathe. So instead I walked the paths behind my house, memorized the names on the graves, left flowers, and tried not to think about the only grave that really mattered, alone and untended back in Louisiana. I flipped idly through bridal magazines trying to excited about the wedding I was planning, since I hadn’t been able to convince Dave to elope. I took fitful naps and had nightmares.
I dreamed I presented my thesis to my committee. I opened the box where the manuscript should have been, and instead, there was an ornate tomb carved in stone, with a bust of a woman’s head as a sort of finial on the peak. My thesis director carefully placed the thing on the conference table and walked around it several times, shaking her head. “It looks nothing like her.”
When I woke it was dusk, quiet except for the echo of a basketball on the pavement, ticking away the minutes until summer would end and Dave would come home and my thesis would be due and my time would be up.
.Make something happen.