Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Dear Xandra, Am I Just Plain Insane?

Note: the following is an excerpt from my novel-by-blog, which is appearing in serial installments at http://www.mynovellive.blogspot.com. The novel Switch!! is a mix of murder mystery and time travel. It features a nun, Sister Renata, who in 1883 was accused of killing her cousin, Antonie. She is facing the gallows for the crime. It also features a modern narrator who thinks she is the nun; she thinks too that she can save the nun from hanging. Curiously, the blog site has already had 6,930 hits. And that may be the biggest mystery of all: who exactly is reading this Sister Mystery?

This time I’m on the phone with my best friend Xandra. This time I’m trying to explain it and finally I think it's making some sense.

But then I hear myself. “So I’ll be sitting there, reading a book, or playing guitar, or just standing at the counter, cutting a grapefruit or peeling a carrot,” I begin, “and then suddenly I close my eyes and something comes over me and I switch, boom, I am just...her in the prison shaking the bars or sitting in the courtyard with Sister Teresa just staring up at the lion-colored hills.”

The last words come out as a whisper. Xandra, who is closer to me than my own sister, was my roommate at Brown an eternity ago. She was a chemistry major, thoroughly practical. Grounded and rational. She spent long afternoons in laboratories measuring clear liquids into glass beakers. She went on to grad school where she learned how to use something called a single-beam spectrophotometer. She mastered ion-exchange chromatography. And electrospray ionization mass spectrometry. And now she lives in San Jose where she has a fancy job at a company trying to develop some kind of machine that will sequence DNA.

Curiously, though, Xandra also happens to be a certified yoga and meditation teacher. Which on the surface seems to make no sense, until you know Xandra.

But the most important thing about Xandra is that she loves and really understands me. I can tell her anything and now I have told her the terrifying truth, that I think I'm a nun living in 1883. And that by telling the nun's story, I believe I can free the nun -- who is falsely accused of murdering her cousin.

A moment goes by. Xandra speaks. “Well, so, it sounds to me like you're really getting into your characters. What's the problem with that?"

In college, I was the English major. I used to stay up nights writing by a candle. Xandra would find me in the morning, my head on the desk next to melted lumps of white wax.

She used to read every short story I wrote. Every poem. All of it. Often she would write comments like, "I'm not sure I get the point of this one, honey, but honestly I love it. I really do."

I am pacing the kitchen now. Ten steps to the door, ten more back to the jade plant in the corner. Around and around the granite counter three times, my fingers trailing the cool surface. “The problem, Xand, is that I can’t stop thinking that I’m her. Sister Renata. The problem is that I’m in her life as a nun more than I am in my own. The visions are coming more and more often and they are so.....”

I close my eyes.

I feel my backside damp and cold against the stone bench. I feel my fingers gripping the bars. I see my ankle crusted in blood and the infection in my leg spreading. I smell the rust on my hands and the cabbage slop in my metal dish and the sweat in my pits and worst of all, I smell the shit in the foul pail. The putrid odor is a swamp rising out of the corner of the tiny cell. Only when I yell and yell and bang my spoon incessantly on the dish does the jailer finally come down the hall jangling his keys and complaining about having to retrieve it.

“Gina, are you still there?”

"Yeah, yeah, sorry.” I snap back to the phone.

"As long as you’re getting to work, teaching your classes, and functioning in the house," Xandra says, "I don’t think you should worry too much.”

I run my finger, the one that’s sore from playing flamenco rasqueados on my guitar, along the granite counter. Quartz crystals the color of a cantaloupe glisten under the kitchen light. “But I do … worry,” I say, very softly. “Lately I worry a lot.”

Xandra sighs.

“I know you do,” she says. “You worry way too much.” She doesn’t ask what I worry about. She doesn’t have to. She flew back East numerous times eight years ago, just so she could be with me through the chemotherapy and radiation, the horrifying treatment that almost killed me, for the cantaloupe-sized tumor that filled my chest. She has also accompanied me on occasion to see a few other doctors too, namely, my shrink. Once she helped me make a list of all the meds I’ve been on -- Ativan to Prozac to Zoloft. She assembled careful notes when side effects forced me off.

And she’s been with me through the last couple of years, too, through more phone conversations than I can count, when I wept over my last child --Adam-- leaving for college.

She was there for me for all the rest of it too. The rest of it being the stuff that I'd like to forget but can't.

The rest of it being the shitty PTSD that still plagues me.

Let's just say there have been buckets of tears filling Xandra's and my transcontinental conversations of late.

I thank her again for sending me a half dozen embroidered hand towels for my bathroom. She used her super deluxe $7500 sewing machine to embroider each towel with my favorite flower -- a yellow rose with blood red tips.
That also happens to be the very same rose I see so often when I close my eyes and open them back in the other life.

“You are more than welcome to those towels. I felt bad I didn’t get them to you sooner, in time for the holiday. And I felt bad we didn’t get to see each other this year over Christmas or New Year's. So are you thinking of coming out here for a visit any time soon?”

“Maybe.” And then I start to say something that I had no idea whatsoever I was going to say until the moment I say it. “I might need to come out to do..."

I stop.

“To do what?”


“Research? On what?” I can hear Xandra's genuinely curious.

“Well, so, you know. I would be researching this...this story about Sister Renata because I feel like...like maybe it could actually be..."

Xandra interrupts. “I would say just do what you have to do. Come out. Stay with us. Maybe this is what you need. Maybe you'll finally let me teach you a little yoga. And get you meditating. Gina, I've told you this time and again, you need tools to handle your stuff. You need to find a way to manage all the heartache and trauma you’ve been through.” She sighs. Her words feel like cold little hammers tapping on my heart.

I can't count the times she's lectured me about yoga and meditation. My reply is the same one that I give my friend Denise, who, like Xandra, is always trying to sell me on what I call spiritual shit.

"Xand, you know me, I don't have a head for meditation. And I don't have a body for yoga."

Xandra says nothing.

“So, what I wanted to say, Xand, is that I honestly believe the nun story could actually be...true. I mean, I keep seeing the newspaper in my mind.

November 13, 1882

http://renata1883.blogspot.com/2006/06/this-is-newspaper-that-condemned-her.html“Honestly, I see all it so clearly that....” I let my sentence go off a cliff of silence.

My dear dear Xandra, always there for me, catches it. “Well you are always welcome here,” she says simply. “Whatever it is you want to do, Don and I would love the company."

I close my eyes and I see Xandra. Not only is she over-the-top brilliant. She's also gorgeous and sexy, with a flawless brown complexion and a head full of long fluffy dreds.

“So Xand, then you don’t think I’m...totally insane?” I hold my breath.

Xandra laughs. One short laugh. “Of course I think you’re totally insane. You’ve always been insane. You're just a little more insane now than before. But that’s OK, that's what I love about you. Or one thing at least.”

Xandra can say this to me and not make me feel the least bit bad. Maybe because we've had so much history together. What's amazing is that we are as different as we can possibly be. She spends her days hunkered down in the chemistry lab. And writing impressive research reports about this brand new machine that she's trying to develop. The way she explains it, we'll soon be able to walk into the doctor's office and ask for a reading of our DNA.

I've never had the guts to ask her why I should want to know the gory details of my DNA.

At home, her house sits in one of those immaculate California suburbs. The streets look buffed. Inside, her house is carpeted white. Her closets are organized with blue plastic crates. They are all labeled. She makes lists for every day of the week and she checks off each item she has completed at the end of every day. Her conversation is peppered with phrases like “at this point in time.”

Meanwhile, I'm living in a funky 18th century Dutch farmhouse that is also home to a slew of mice and ants and ladybugs. I haven't cleaned out a closet in two decades. I can't remember the last time I washed the windows or the curtains. If I make lists, I never manage to remember where I put them.

Anyway, I say goodbye to Xandra and go out to the backyard. I walk in my house slippers across the grass and stand looking toward the pond. The moonlight turns it into a shimmering silver coin.

David is inside. I call to him. He joins me in the middle of the backyard. He holds me by the shoulders. We gaze in silence up to the dark sky. Then he kisses my cheek and goes back in the house.

I remain, staring at the pinpricks of light. Glittering stars. Blinking on and on and off and off. The stars start it going. The switching.

I close my eyes and there I am, under a pale green night sky, and I'm riding on the wagon with SeƱora Ramos once more.Renata1883.blogspot.com.

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