...coming back from New York on the train one day, I slip into a familiar gap. It's right before Christmas in a packed coach car, the overhead shelves crammed with suitcases and spilling bags and packages. I settle into a window seat with the backrest tilted far back. It's the only place left. Behind me, a young woman -- maybe nineteen -- asks me to move my seat up. After fiddling with it for a second, I tell her it's stuck in a deep recline. Then I lie back while passengers clot the aisles and jam in their overhead bags. She leans forward and says, very close to my ear, I bet if I yanked your hair, you could move that seat.
And from my sagging state of half-sleep, I snap awake and shoot back, You picked the wrong bitch to fuck with on this train.
Around us, the entire car stops. People hold gestures midair. She starts to kick the back of my seat -- hard and rhythmically, which I don't respond to at first. If I were thinking like anything but an animal, I would've apologized to her by now. But I sit there fuming instead, telling myself stuff like, She's just doing this because I'm a woman of a certain age. I'm determined not to respond to the kicks that keep coming, but eventually, she says with force, You better not get off in Albany, bitch, 'cause I'll slap your face.
With blood pounding in my temples and all the venom that a woman disappointed in love can bring to an instant, I press my face into the slot between the seat and the window and hiss, If you touch me, I'll cut your fucking hand off.
I don't even know where this sentence comes from. Not to mention that -- in terms of cutting off a hand -- I lack even a pair of cuticle scissors. All human activity within sound of me ceases. The entire car is throbbing with hatred for us both. The girl withdraws like a slug doused with salt, and the train lurches west.
About twenty minutes out of the station, while I sit infused with acid at the outburst, I try to write the girl a note, but I wind up crouching by her seat to apologize. She shrugs coolly.
Once home, I call my sobriety coach, Patti, who says, What d'you expect, Mare? Run around without a meeting, and eventually, you'll start acting like a drunk again.
I wasn't that bad back then.
Silence from Patti, who knows better.
Okay, sometimes I was.
She suggests I doctor bathwater with lavender salts, set votive candles all over, kill the lights, then step into my own baptismal fount. Maybe there I can rethink events on the train. Follow that, she says, with a list of how your life has changed since you quit drinking.
Lying back in the fragrant water, I let a washcloth obliterate my features, rewinding to the days and hours before I got on the train.
It's the old story. Underslept and underfed, I'd been running with my shoulder bad thumping against my butt, doing quarterback dodges and rolls on crowded holiday streets, while behind me, pedestrians dove for cover. I was behind in every conceivable way. So the old attack dog started howling through my head as I'd loped. Take the subway, the sane voice had said. Take the subway, you can buy a sandwich. Then counterattack claimed I needed cardio for the blubber on my ass. A sandwich isn't the solution. You need to refinance. You need five hundred dollars this week or Dev's Christmas is Tiny Tim's.
You might as well call it the voice of the Adversary, for once I tune into it, I've lost my real self -- the God-made one, akin to others. The Adversary's voice can suck me into the maelstrom of my tornado-force will, which'll chew up anybody in its path, me included.
The washcloth steams my features soft, and once the water's cold, I oil myseslf up like a bodybuilder, slip on sweats, then towel-wrap my hair like a Turkish pasha.
Heating up meatballs for Dev and his pals loudly playing air hockey in the basement, I do Patti's list of what's changed in ten years. The boys clattering downstairs are a nightly antidote to the shipwrecked houehold I grew up in, and we no longer have to roll coins from the sofa cushions in order to afford meatballs. Last month at Mother's surprise birthday, I floated in the pool alongside her and Lecia while brother-in-law Tom worked the grill and Dev and his cousin did cannonballs.
The night after the train debacle, I drive under a sky black as graphite to meet my new spiritual director for the Exercises -- a bulky Franciscan nun named Sister Margaret, patiently going blind behind fish-tank glasses that magnify her eyes like goggles.
Asked my concept of God, I mouth all the fashionable stuff -- all-loving, all-powerful, etc. But as we talk, it bobs up that in periods of uncertainty or pain -- forlorn childhood, this failed ralationship -- I often feel intentionally punished or abandoned.
How's that possible, I say, if I have no childhood experience of a punishing God?
Margaret says, We often strap on to God the mask of whoever hurt us as children. If you've been neglected, God seems cold; if you've been bullied, He's a tyrant. If you're filled with self-hatred, then God is a monster making inventor. How do you feel sitting here with me now?
I don't know, like some slutty Catholic schoolgirl.
She laughs at this and says, I see you -- she peers through those lenses -- what I can see of you, as my sister, God's beloved child. The hairs on your head are numbered, and we've been brought together, you and me, to shine on each other a while.
So you don't judge me? I want to know.
For what? she said. I don't even know you.
Well, I say, I'm not married, and I aspire to be sexually active again some day.
She says, I'm not naive. But Jesus might ask: Should you be vulnerable to a man without some spiritual commitment? Is that God's dream for you?
God has a dream for me? I say. I love that idea. It sounds like a Disney movie.
I know, Maragaret says. Her pale round face opens up. Everybody uses the phrase God's will or plan. That has a neo-Nazi ring to it.
I like the Disney version.
I feel you, she says, and I sit for a minute silently disbelieving she's a nun. She adjusts her heavy glasses, and her eyes once again magnify.
Let's eat a cookie and pray for each other's disordered attachments, she says. Mine involves pride and cookies.
Mine, I say, involves pride and good-looking men.
Together we bow our heads.
From "Lit" by Mary Karr.
I love this book. Wish I could say I've had my nose buried in it, but I've been reading it on my Kindle; my eyes nearly burned out by reading the illuminated screen.