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Breath & Shadow

Spring 2020 - Vol. 17, Issue 2

"Fool's Gold"

written by


I don’t know much about economics or geology, but I know that there’s a screaming tightness in my chest and that it’s been there for a week and that I don’t know if it’s there because I dug too deep or if I just couldn’t pay the price of upkeep for the kind of mining operation I was trying to run.

Each morning I have woken up, carefully wallpapered over the hole in my heart where you were tucked only a few days before, and gone about my day. By the time I finish my eight hours of Monday-through-Friday intensive outpatient therapy and come home, by the time I’ve curled up with my cat and surrounded myself with music and smoke, it’s rotted away to reveal the emptiness beneath.

I’ve lost friends before. There’s a toll to move through life when your brain is trying to kill you: people come and go, relationships break under the strain and crumble into the rushing rapids. Gradually, the phone calls or texts stop coming, and you never know if it was natural or if it was something you could have prevented. Either way, it starts to feel natural, in the same way as a cave-in or a hurricane feels natural regardless of the human forces that might have played a part.

Sometimes we meet people, and we love them and they love us, and that love doesn’t pan out.

But I’ve never lost someone this suddenly.

One day you were there, and by the time the sun set you weren’t.

Your smile is seared into my eyelids, your voice is ringing in my ears. I can’t scrub away the titters of your laughter at my terrible, terrible jokes. I can’t stop thinking about the piece we were going to collaborate on, the collage-drawing hybrid that now hangs in the same museum as all the other masterworks never created.

We probably wouldn’t have been friends forever. I’m not an easy person to stay friends with. You can attest to that now. But we were friends, and that friendship meant more to me than I’ll ever be able to remember. I’ll have to forget. If I let it hurt forever the way it hurts now, if I let it mean this much in perpetuity, then I think the friction will make my heart spark and my body will burn down.

I’ve always been good at smiling, even if there’s precious little to smile about. Gods know that I have a habit of laughing at the wrong time. Maybe that’s why I decided to be a clown in the first place. Maybe I realized I was never going to really be able to tell when I was joking and when I wasn’t so I slapped on some greasepaint and loaded up my prefrontal cortex with a laugh track.

I made you feel safe, made you feel seen, made you feel listened to and perceived. That’s what you told me. I wonder if you were ever really any of those things when we were talking, or if you were wearing greasepaint too. Lord knows your smile was bright enough to shine through the darkness of this mineshaft of a mind.

“I’m a little worried,” I said. “I’ve got BPD, and I’m really trying to work with it. But like, I like you a lot, and I’m a little worried that I’m just. Idealizing you. If I am, I’m not doing it on purpose. People online call it like, ‘favorite person’. When you like someone too much. When someone turns into your lantern and becomes the only thing helping you see your path forward.”

I didn’t say it exactly like that, but any writer who claims that they don’t dabble in historical revisionism is a goddam liar.

“I’m a little worried about that too,” you said. You told me how you thought you probably had BPD, how your ex-boyfriend, who’s also my ex-boyfriend, thought you probably had it. When he told me you did, it hadn’t been a “probably”. It had been a diagnosis. “But I’m not too worried. I like you a lot.”

“I like you a lot.”

We said it back and forth, like picks falling in an alternating rhythm to unearth the gemstones beneath.

Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, the whole mine’s gonna blow.

Maybe it’s stupid to be this fucked up about things. We only knew each other what, half a year? Maybe all of this pain I’m feeling is only because I was already feeling it and needed somewhere to put it. Maybe that’s why I freaked out the way I did. I’ve always known how to put on a show. Maybe pushing you away was just a burlesque I penned so that I could reshape the hurt that was already there into something identifiable.

I don’t want to believe that. If I believe that my pain is performative, it means that the entire bedrock of whatever the hell we had was too, and if that’s the case, then what was the point of losing it?

I’m writing this because I can’t write to you. I uninstalled myself handily from your life, knew just the right keystrokes to tap in just the right order to ruin everything right on queue. The wirework was already there. I only needed to push the plunger.

“I think I figured out what’s wrong with your head,” my ex said to me once. We were on our way home from class, driving through the rain. I was in a creative writing workshop and she was taking psych. She was thinking about being a psychologist, just like she had thought about museum curation and mortuary science and starting a folk punk band.

“Yeah?” There had been no malice in her words, if perhaps a tinge of exasperation. I had been expertly dodging any kind of therapy for the duration of our relationship. I saw somebody for two weeks, but then school started and the schedules crashed into each other. Fool’s luck.

“Borderline Personality Disorder. It’s like Bipolar, but without the mania. It basically means you don’t have a sense of self because you’re so dissociated from personhood by trauma.”

I had heard the term before, here and there. “Doesn’t that require, like, a super in-depth diagnosis?”

“Vivian, I’ve lived with you for three years. I know you better than any doctor ever will.”

After we broke up, after I tried to kill myself and got chucked into the circus with the rest of the people who couldn’t hack it in real life, the diagnosis finally came—along with bipolar, for good measure. Well, the doctors told me I had them both, anyway. Comorbid. I never got an official written diagnosis. They said they needed to observe me more, talk to me more, before making any definitive statements, and then they could tell me which type of each that I have. Then the insurance money ran out and I was back outside, blinking away the sunlight.

She’s gone too now. That ex. Ex fiancé, actually. We actually stayed friends for an entire year before I finally managed to make myself a heavy enough load for her to drop.

That one was a slow burn.

But this isn’t about her, at least that’s what I want to tell myself. If it is about her, that means that every relationship I’ve ever had is just the same damn story, another card, another face, another actor cast in the same recurring role of Favorite Fucking Person.

This is about you. It has to be about you. If it isn’t, why the fuck am I writing it? Why aren’t I penning some fantasy instead? Why am I holding on to the ghost of someone I’ll never talk to again if I was never really talking to you at all?

The Fool is the first card of the Major Arcana, or the last, depending on what deck you’re shuffling. In the Tarot of Versailles, she is called Il Mat. The beggar, or the madman. She makes her way up the ladder, becoming each archetype, molding herself into each new face and losing what precious little of herself was there in the first place with each transfiguration.

In our friendship, I think I began to finally see a reflection of someone I could like. Or, if not like, someone I was at least okay with becoming. Maybe it was never really me that I was seeing. Maybe I just liked you so much I wanted to be you, and mistook that for being okay with myself.

“I feel like you understand me. Like we can talk on the same wavelength.”

We both said it, another back and forth. Maybe we were just tuning the dials to nothing at all and mistook the static for each other’s voice.

Perhaps our friendship was only performance, a bacchanal to dance the fear away for a little bit. If that’s true, then it means my pain is only a performance as well, and if that’s the case, let me call this greasepaint mask my face. If nothing I feel is real, then at least let it be beautiful.

My whole life I’ve drawn on my smiles. The corners of my lips ache.

But doctor, I am Pagliacci.

I have hidden my pain in plain sight for as long as I can remember, spinning it into jests and japes to keep myself from processing any of it. If I know that I’m fucked up, I’ve reasoned, if I can quip about the cracks in my soul, then that’s close enough to okay.

You told me that everything was okay. You told me that things were alright, that I was overthinking things. Maybe you were right, and maybe I was right to worry. Maybe I just lit the gunpowder that would have ignited by slow burn anyway.

Maybe you were wearing the same makeup as me, the same clown white and the same blood red lipstick, and maybe that’s why I mistook your face for my reflection. Maybe it wasn’t a mistake. Maybe we were reflecting each other, and maybe that’s why this time was different.

Maybe it took finally seeing what the people around me have seen for so long, as I’ve wandered through the house of mirrors in my mind, taking a pickaxe to each one. When we shattered, I think I finally saw how sharp those shards really are, saw just how deep the jagged edges of my refracted smile can cut.

You saw me at my worst. You saw the scars beneath the makeup, self-inflicted and world-inflicted alike, as if there’s a difference.

I understand. It’s always been too much for me too. It always has.

I didn’t mean to scare you.

I understand why I did. You told me that you couldn’t talk about it anymore, that it was too much, and I kept my slapstick act right up, stumbling and tripping over my words as I tried to back-peddle and over-explain and only succeeded in digging my pit deeper and deeper.

I scare myself too. It’s why I’ve been faking laughter for so long that I forget what it feels like for my vocal chords to really vibrate.

I crossed a boundary. You had no guarantee I wouldn’t do it again.

I have no guarantee that I wouldn’t have.

For so long I have been afraid of the villain I could become, of what harm could be extrapolated from my trauma, that I have made myself dangerous to love. For the protection of others, of course. To maintain distance. Let myself be a liability so that others will maybe, finally, stop loving me so I can finally, finally let go.

But people don’t stop loving you. I’ve learned that the hard way. Sometimes, they just have to start loving you from afar.

It’s easier to tell myself that I am broken beyond repair than to tell myself that I don’t have to be. A broken mirror might still have cracks, but it can still reflect. Treated with care, it can even be turned into something else. A mural, or a collage, or maybe even just a beautiful flash of light that lights up the world for just a moment.

Nothing gold can stay.

I’ve lived in such fear of what card I might metastasize into that I’ve stayed here at the precipice, unable to bring myself to shuffle myself into the deck, so paralyzed by my fear that I haven’t noticed the deck shuffling around me.

The day after, I went and checked myself into a psychiatric facility.

I was finally ready to admit that I wasn’t okay.

That I’m not okay.

That I might never be okay, and that I have to learn how to be okay with that.

That’s what I’m telling myself. I’m telling myself that there’s a reason for this agony inside, that this was all part of some grand plan for me to finally achieve a state of mental health enlightenment.

It wasn’t.

It isn’t.

All I know is that I never want to feel this way about a friend again. In non-esoteric tarot, in the pub games from which the divination was derived, the Fool isn’t part of the Arcana. She exists outside of it, an adaptable card that breaks the game in different ways depending on the game being played.

There’s divinity in foolishness. I believe that with a conviction reserved for very few beliefs. Belief is a tricky thing when your brain is this fractured. And if there’s divinity in foolishness, then there’s danger in divinity. Endless ascendance with no grounding influence. A red balloon floating up to heaven, popping and sublimating into the atmosphere.

I’ll always play the Fool. It’s who I am as much as the Lovers are lovers or the Magician is a magician. I’ll never be able to stop scribbling on other faces, sampling every emotion that the universe has to offer. I’m too much of a curious cat for my own good, and I have no doubt the old adage on that subject holds more weight over my future than any reading ever will.

Sure, nothing gold can stay, but I’ve never had much use for gold. So maybe I stop shuffling, digging deeper and deeper for gold that means nothing, and start finally letting each card hold meaning as it presents itself.

Maybe I wipe off the greasepaint for a bit, and scrub away the red from my lips, and learn how to rehearse real smiles. Maybe I take myself out of the deck, start keeping the card tucked into my sleeve, and learn to break the game. I’m tired of gambling with the lives of the people I love, and if cheating is what it takes not to lose any more, than call me a filthy goddam cheat.

Gods know that my brain has never exactly been a fair dealer herself.

You broke the game when you walked away. You broke the pattern of endless shuffling, struck the match and let the shaky latticework of the mineshaft do the rest as it crumbled into itself. If endless ascendance leads to oblivion, then burrowing down forever leads to the same.

Maybe it wasn’t you at all. Maybe it was only my reflection that I caught in the shards, and I mistook her face for yours.

Maybe there’s no reason for it to be one way or the other.

I don’t know what I’m doing or where I’m going, not really. But the stairway to heaven is closed off, and the mouth of the mine is caved in, so I guess I better heft my stick and start travelling.

I don’t know much, but I know that I’m through with playing the Fool.

It’s time to try and let myself become her.

V.F. Thompson is a writer and activist based out of Lansing, Michigan, where she is involved with the DIY art and queer organizing scene. When not writing, performing, or otherwise creating, she enjoys howling at the moon.

Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr.

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