Rome is Burning
As I stood on the side of Kingsway in Holborn, on the first morning with characteristically dreary skies and the hovering threat of a drizzle, I began cackling almost manically. London commuters all around me politely ignored the way that I covered my mouth and at some points even doubled over, crippled with the laughter I was failing to keep suppressed as I caught up on yesterday’s headlines. Collusion. Russia. EMAILS. Junior. Treason.
As I crossed the road, I recognized this laughter: it’s the laugh in the face of tragedy type of laughter, laugh at Death with echoes of John Donne and Emily Dickinson in your head, laugh because there’s nothing left to lose at this point, type of laughter. Death be not proud, though some have called thee so. I suppose I’d never be as calm as Emily, though, as Death stops by to gallantly take her away in a carriage comfortably fitted for her social class. No, Death would probably show up on my doorstep with no ceremony whatsoever because I don’t have all that much class. He’d offer me a joint while I was still stunned, and as I took a drag I’d just start cracking up at the futility of it all. Because what else are you going to do?
The last time I laughed this laugh of the Gorgon was when my house burned down. Apartment. Here they’d call it a “flat,” then I’d be homeless and deported. Or probably not. Because I’m white.
I was 19 and my world had already turned upside down. I grew up on the affluent side of middle class to two actually really adorably reasonable parents. My dad had a temper. My mom worried too much. But they are really good people. Abnormally normal. I was a good student and I swam competitively, looking for an athletic scholarship to pay for college. My dad promised to buy me a new car if I got myself a full ride. (I only realized much later that was a really cracking deal for my dad, compared to four years’ tuition without a scholarship.)
So how does one rebel against totally reasonable parents who would have supplied birth control and snickered about drinking escapades that could never have rivaled my fathers’? You become a religious zealot. I joined a super right-wing, bordering on cult, evangelical church when I was fifteen.
You know the kind — the purity culture kind.
Even though I primarily understood my self-worth through swimming, academic achievement, and the attention of young men, pretty soon I decided to “give up kissing” at 16. Then shortly before I turned 17, I gave up dating altogether. I had decided (based on the rhetoric of my religious community) that dating was not only pointless before one was “of marriageable age,” which was 18 by the way, but it was also needless temptation. So I gave up dating dudes, unwittingly fell in love with my friend Eva, and chased off more than a few interested partners who clearly saw the word “WIFEY” stamped across my forehead.
I met my first husband shortly before I turned 18. About a month. Just long enough to fall into a head over heels teenage infatuation so that when I turned 18 I began dating him immediately because there was nothing my parents could do about the 5-year age gap at 18. Fairly instantaneously the talk went from dating to “God’s chosen partner for ________”; in fact, it was determined that I was probably created (five years later) with the specific purpose of being ________’s “help-meet.” We got approval from our pastors. Actually, ________ said to our pastor, “I think I’ve found my wife.” And the pastor says “Is it Angie?” And within 2 months my fate was sealed. We got engaged later that summer (around the 4 month mark), and set a wedding date for the following May.
In the mean time I went away on my swimming scholarship and started experiencing increasing anxiety. I had my first panic attack. In a pool. The University put me on Lexapro. It was reasonable, they said. It was understandable, being away from home for the first time, they said. It didn’t feel reasonable. And it wasn’t because I was away from home (which I actually found really exciting).
We married. Our first kiss was at the altar. The eagerly anticipated honeymoon was terrible. I mean TERRIBLE. We moved to Kentucky, where I had my scholarship, and life that summer was so, incredibly miserable that as the end of it neared my husband convinced me that our misery was being caused by Kentucky itself. And if we went home to Vegas everything would be fine.
I sobbed as I gave up my scholarship. My teammates helped me pack up our one-bedroom apartment and load it onto a UHaul truck that looked exactly like the UHaul truck they had helped us unload two months earlier.
Vegas was more expensive than Kentucky, though. And my barista husband could no more afford the $555/month rent there than we could the $355/month rent in Bowling Green. Not even as an assistant manager with my academic scholarships lumped in.
So we lived in a shit hole in the most run down and dangerous section of town, close enough to the university that I could ride my bike and let him drive my car to and from work. It was us, the crack heads, the undocumented folk, and the cockroaches.
We talked about renter’s insurance.
Some vagrants moved into the two story town home above our one-story, cave-like 1-bedroom apartment.
He got into an accident in my car.
And then one night we miraculously awoke to find the whole apartment filled with smoke. We didn’t realize what was happening until the bedroom window above our window exploded and a ball of flame shot out, at which point we ran into the closet to clothe our naked bodies in whatever would get the job done in the least moves, all the while expecting the roof to come down on our heads. I ran out of my apartment barefoot, grabbing only a half-charged Nokia, and I looked over my shoulder to see a wall of flames spurting out of the door right above the one I’d just run out and the entire two-story town-home engulfed in flames.
911 was called. Yelling was done. People were gotten out. 3 buildings, 18 apartments consumed in the end. Nobody died.
In a matter of months I’d felt trapped into marrying someone who turned out to be a sociopath, moved across the country twice, voluntarily given up the scholarship I had worked my entire adolescent life for (at my husband’s cajoling), lost my team-family, and was well on my way to losing my sense of self.
And as I watched my every worldly possession go up in flames I began to just laugh. It was a laughter of disbelief mixed with resignation. A letting go.
There was this feeling of, literally, “what *else* could go wrong?” I had literally lost everything — my freedom, my happiness, my sense of identity, my scholarship. And now, every material thing to my name. And I found some kind of, not joy, but pleasure, in the sheer totality of this destruction, this literal completion of the metaphor I’d been living.
But lest you think this metaphor is about to get uplifting — all, “you have to hit rock bottom before you can climb back up” and whatnot — let me just clarify, it got a lot worse before it got better. It was another three months before someone told me to my face that my husband was “violent, abusive, and lacked a conscience,” and another two after that before I could finally insist upon a separation. In the intervening five months, I lost my sport (with a permanent injury), what was left of my identity, my sense of reality, my faith in my own judgement, my reproductive health, the sense of feeling safe in one’s own home, and even my grip on my own sanity.
The thought that went through my brain as my home burned was “how much worse can it get?!” The answer was a lot.
Nevertheless, I had a sense of relief as I watched the dumpster fire that was my life literalize itself. Externalize the destruction I’d been living through internally.
As I stood outside and laughed, I watched the roof go up in flames, spreading from the townhouse above ours (where the fire had started, in the carpet above our heads as we slept, when one of the vagrants kicked over their crack stove before fleeing without alerting anyone to the danger) to the two others in our building, and then leap across the roof of one to the next building and the next, a strumming started playing in my head.
“The roof. The roof. The roof is on fire.”
And I just cracked up. Because the roof was literally on fire. I was doubled over laughing until I cried in the street in front of our apartment complex waiting for fire trucks.
“The roof. The roof. The roof is on fire.”
“We don’t need no water, let the mother fucker burn.”
If my sense of helpless jouissance in destruction is an indication of some kind of parallel, these are hopefully the sparks of the fire that burn the house down. And any other structures in the vicinity. Some things may be salvaged. Recoverable because they can withstand both the flames and the drenching from the fire hoses and the ensuing mold as they sit in a dank cave waiting for hazmat teams to investigate and declare the premises safe enough to start recovering items. In the mean time, looters who care less for the rules and precautions will steal a number of things. My dad walked in and retrieved my laptop (miraculously workable).
Come on party people. If this thing really is going down in flames, it’s going to get a lot worse before anything gets better.
“But if I go to hell, well then I hope I burn well. I’ll spend my days with JFK, Marvin Gaye, Martha Ray, and Lawrence Welk, and Kurt Cobain, Cojack, Mark Twain, and Jimmy Hendrix’s poltergeist…”
Maybe it’s the anti-authoritarian anarchist in me, but for the first time since November I am experiencing some kind of a sense of relief. Like there might be an exit from this travesty, even if it costs us almost everything. Democracy. The rule of law. The constitution.
But were those things every going to survive a sociopathic abuser in the first place?