an excerpt from ANATOMY OF A GIRL ON FIRE

I.

On the top shelf of the closet in my childhood bedroom is my heart in a shoebox. I hoard memories because they are the closest replicas I have to a life that can hold its own shape. When people ask about my past I wish I could take them home to rummage through the cardboard walls, to pour out its contents in search of something palpable, something like me.

You’d know more about me if you knew the types of things I choose to keep.

There’s a sepia photograph of my mother as a child, torn around the edges as if harvested from a larger picture lost to time. A pocket music box I purchased from a kitschy shop in Vienna, Austria that still plays “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” when you crank the metal handle. A realistic cat figurine with faux fur I took from a hallway cart in my grandmother’s nursing home before she died of cancer (that probably belonged to someone next door who died just days before she did). A magnetic key card I accidentally stole from the Hotel Chopin in Sochaczew, Poland that I must’ve thrown into my suitcase as we hurried out before dawn to catch a flight back home. Tickets to magical places: Les Misérables at the National Theatre, the Angels in America production held at my university, Lorde’s Melodrama world tour where I mourned over my adolescence under fluorescent green lights, a personalized walk-through of the Vatican Museum, the crumbling Rocca Maggiore castle in Assisi (where I got stuck in a spiral staircase in the tallest tower), a Lufthansa plane ticket to Rome from when I was 16 years old and a world traveler. Clutter that normal people would throw away in a heartbeat: a suspiciously perfect cube of rubber I found in the grass after my senior year homecoming game and just never threw away, a gravy-stained receipt that a former coworker used to write a note of encouragement to me– Hi Michelle! You got it!— when I worked the front line of my minimum wage food service job scooping potatoes and turkey for a massive Thanksgiving feast. My middle and high school ID cards, playbills of the musicals in which I took center stage (Shrek! The Wiz! The Addams Family!), a tin container of unwrapped soap that, to me, can only be described using the word “Christmas.” A folded letter from my dear friend Julie from our first semester of college, dozens of orchestra medals from when I was first violin concertmaster, proof I’ve lived a life I chose for myself: a postcard from Wexford, Pennsylvania when I first visited my love in his own city, a stamped slip to ride the Duquesne Incline in downtown Pittsburgh, a lanyard from Virginia Tech’s freshman orientation back when my world felt brand new, blurry Polaroids of people I can’t call friends anymore, the first poem I ever felt proud of writing: “A Time Will Come,” written on a manual typewriter in the winter of seventh grade. Photographs of various eras: prom night, sitting with my friends in a sunflower field, group shots of a Catholic retreat I went on three separate times even though, at the time, I couldn’t tell you I believed in God at all. A brochure to the Sylvia Plath exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery where I stood very still for an hour, basking in the relics of my idol. My high school graduation announcement. A tiny jar of gold leaf flakes from Santa’s elves in 2004 that came with a note of warning: “Do not open. Water will turn you into a frog.” My dad still finds that one clever. A bucket list I typed out before I turned 13: Marry the love of your life. Take a selfie with a shark. Try a weird ice cream flavor (like pickle!!!) Skydive. Graduate high school with flying colors. I smile to myself before crossing that last one off. It feels good. 70% of people with my mental illness do not end up graduating. I think of the girl who wrote that, the girl with all of this stuff in her mind with no place to put it. I imagine her smiling back, proud of me.

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