White Oleander – Janet Fitch

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“Dear Astrid,
Don’t tell me how you hate your new foster home. If they’re not beating you, consider yourself luck. Loneliness is the human condition. Cultivate it. The way it tunnels into you allows your soul room to grow. never expect to outgrow loneliness. Never hope to find people who will understand you, someone to fill that space. An intelligent, sensitive person is the exception, the very great exception. If you expect to find people who will understand you, you will grow murderous with disappointment. The best you’ll ever do is to understand yourself, know what it is that you want, and not let the cattle stand in your way.
Moo.”

‘Loss. That’s what was in there. Grief, sorrow, wordless and unfathomable. Not what I felt this morning, septic, panicked. This was distilled. Niki put her arm around my waist. I put mine around hers. We stood and mourned. I could imagine how Jesus felt, his pity for all humanity, how impossible it was, how admirable. The painting was Casals, a requiem. My mother and me, Niki and Yvonne, Paul and Davey and Claire, everybody.

How vast was a human being’s capacity for suffering? The only thing you could do was stand in awe of it. It wasn’t a question of survival at all. It was the fullness of it, how much could you hold, how much could you care?’

“What was the point in such loneliness among people. At least if you were by yourself, you had a good reason to be lonely.”

‘Loneliness is the human condition. Cultivate it. The way it tunnels into you allows your soul room to grow. Never expect to outgrow loneliness. Never hope to find people who will understand you, someone to fill that space. An intelligent, sensitive person is the exception, the very great, very rare exception. If you expect to find people who understand you, you will grow murderous with disappointment. The best you will ever do is to understand yourself. Know what it is you want, and not let the cattle stand in your way.’

‘Always learn poems by heart. They have to become the marrow in your bones. Like fluoride in the water, they’ll make your soul impervious to the world’s soft decay.’

“I don’t let anyone touch me,” I finally said.
“Why not?”
Why not? Because I was tired of men. Hanging in doorways, standing too close, their smell of beer or fifteen-year-old whiskey. Men who didn’t come to the emergency room with you, men who left on Christmas Eve. Men who slammed the security gates, who made you love them then changed their minds. Forests of boys, their ragged shrubs full of eyes following you, grabbing your breasts, waving their money, eyes already knocking you down, taking what they felt was theirs. (…) It was a play and I knew how it ended, I didn’t want to audition for any of the roles. It was no game, no casual thrill. It was three-bullet Russian roulette.

“I regret nothing. No woman with any self-respect would have done less. The question of good and evil will always be one of philosophy’s most intriguing problems, up there with the problem of existence itself. I’m not quarreling with your choice of issues, only with your intellectually diminished approach. If evil means to be self-motivated, to live on one’s own terms, then every artist, every thinker, every original mind, is evil. Because we dare to look through our own eyes rather than mouth cliches lent us from the so-called Fathers. To dare to see is to steal fire from the Gods. This is mankind’s destiny, the engine which fuels us as a race. “

“It’s such a liability to love another person.”

“You ask me about regret? Let me tell you a few things about regret, my darling. There is no end to it. You cannot find the beginning of the chain that brought us from there to here. Should you regret the whole chain, and the air in between, or each link separately, as if you could uncouple them? Do you regret the beginning which ended so badly, or just the ending itself? I’ve given more thought to this question than you could begin to imagine.”

“I know what you are learning to endure. There is nothing to be done. Make sure nothing is wasted. Take notes. Remember it all, every insult, every tear. Tattoo it on the inside of your mind. In life, knowledge of poisons is essential. I’ve told you, nobody becomes an artist unless they have to.”

“That was the thing about words, they were clear and specific-chair, eye, stone- but when you talked about feelings, words were too stiff, they were this and not that, they couldn’t include all the meanings. In defining, they always left something out.”

“To know I was beautiful in his eyes made me beautiful.”

“I felt like an undeveloped photograph that he was printing, my image rising to the surface under his gaze.”

“Panic was the worst thing. When you panicked, you couldn’t see possibilities. Then came despair.”

“How many people ask you to come share their life?”

“I closed my eyes to watch tiny dancers like jeweled birds cross the dark screen of my eyelids.”

“I understood why she did it. At that moment I knew why people tagged graffiti on the walls of neat little houses and scratched the paint on new cars and beat up well-tended children. It was only natural to want to destroy something you could never have.”

“Oleander time, she said. Lovers who kill each other now will blame it on the wind. “

“The pearls weren’t really white, they were a warm oyster beige, with little knots in between so if they broke, you only lost one. I wished my life could be like that, knotted up so that even if something broke, the whole thing wouldn’t come apart.”

“How easy I was. Like a limpet I attached myself to anything, anyone who showed me the least attention.”

“But I knew one more thing. That people w ho denied who they were or where they had been were in the greatest danger.”

“It’s all I ever really wanted, that revelation. The possibility of fixed stars.”

“She would buy magic every day of the week. Love me, that face said. I’m so lonely, so desperate. I’ll give you whatever you want.”

“I walked along the side with the spray-painted trees, some in white like a starched chemical snowfall, others painted gold, pink, red, even black. The black tree, about three feet high, looked like it had been burnt. I wondered who would want a black tree, but I knew someone would. There was no limit to the ways in which people could be strange.”

“The decor bowled me over. Everywhere I looked, there was something more to see. Botanical prints, a cross section of pomegranates, a passionflower vine and its fruit. Stacks of thick books on art and design and a collection of glass paperweights filled the coffee table. It was enormously beautiful, a sensibility I’d never encountered anywhere, a relaxed luxury. I could feel my mother’s contemptuous gaze falling on the cluttered surfaces, but I was tired of three white flowers in a glass vase. There was more to life than that.”

“I left walking backwards so I wouldn’t miss a moment of her. I hated the idea of going back to Marvel’s, so I walked around the block, feeling Olivia’s arms around me, my nose full of perfume and the smell of her skin, my head swirling with what I had seen and heard in the house so much like ours, and yet not at all. And I realized as I walked through the neighborhood how each house could contain a completely different reality. In a single block, there could be fifty separate worlds. Nobody ever really knew what was going on just next door.

“I thought clay must feel happy in the good potter’s hand.”

“…You know the mistrust of heights is the mistrust of self, you don’t know whether you’re going to jump.”

“Reading LOVE JUNKIE is like watching a sleepwalker taking a stroll on a freeway. All you can do is pray. Gorgeously written, piercingly honest.”

“That was the thing about words, they were clear and specific–chair, eye, stone–but when you talked about feelings, words were too stiff, they were this & not that, they couldn’t include all the meanings. In defining, they always left something out.”

“They wanted the real mother, the blood mother, the great womb, mother of fierce compassion, a woman large enough to hold all the pain, to carry it away. What we needed was someone who bled… mothers big enough, wide enough for us to hide in… mothers who would breathe for us when we could not breathe anymore, who would fight for us, who would kill for us, die for us.”

“I imagined Kandinsky’s mind, spread out all over the world, and then gathered together. Everyone having only a piece of the puzzle. Only in a show like this could you see the complete picture, stack the pieces up, hold them to the light, see how it all fit together. It made me hopeful, like someday my life would make sense too, if I could just hold all the pieces together at the same time.”

“If I were a poet, that’s what I’d write about. People who worked in the middle of the night. Men who loaded trains, emergency room nurses with their gentle hands. Night clerks in hotels, cabdrivers on graveyard, waitresses in all-night coffee shops. They knew the world, how precious it was when a person remembered your name, the comfort of a rhetorical question, “How’s it going, how’s the kids?” They knew how long the night was. They knew the sound life made as it left. It rattled, like a slamming screen door in the wind. Night workers lived without illusions, they wiped dreams off counters, they loaded freight. They headed back to the airport for one last fare.”

“I liked it when my mother tried to teach me things, when she paid attention. So often when I was with her, she was unreachable. Whenever she turned her steep focus to me, I felt the warmth that flowers must feel when they bloom through the snow, under the first concentrated rays of the sun.”

“Life should always be like this… Like lingering over a good meal.”

“I nodded. A man’s world. But what did it mean? That men whistled and stared and yelled things at you, and you had to take it, or you get raped or beat up? A man’s world meant places men could go but not women. It meant they had more money, and didn’t have kids, not the way women did, to look after every second. And it meant that women loved them more than they loved the women, that they could want something with all their hearts, and then not.”

“I wanted to hear what she was saying. I wanted to smell that burnt midnight again, I wanted to feel that wind. It was a secret wanting, like a song I couldn’t stop humming, or loving someone I could never have. No matter where I went, my compass pointed west. I would always know what time it was in California.”

“Who was I, really? I was the sole occupant of my mother’s totalitarian state, my own personal history rewritten to fit the story she was telling that day. There were so many missing pieces. I was starting to find some of them, working my way upriver, collecting a secret cache of broken memories in a shoebox.”

“How could anybody confuse truth with beauty, I thought as I looked at him. Truth came with sunken eyes, bony or scarred, decayed. Its teeth were bad, its hair gray and unkempt. While beauty was empty as a gourd, vain as a parakeet. But it had power. It smelled of musk and oranges and made you close your eyes in a prayer.”

“That kind of tenderness couldn’t be permitted to last. You only got a taste, enough to know what perfection meant, and then you paid for it the rest of your life. Like the guy chained to a rock, who stole fire. The gods made an eagle eat his liver for all eternity. You paid for every second of beauty you managed to steal.”

“I wondered why it had to be so poisonous. Oleanders could live through anything, they could stand heat, drought, neglect, and put out thousands of waxy blooms. So what did they need poison for? Couldn’t they just be bitter? They weren’t like rattlesnakes, they didn’t even eat what they killed. The way she boiled it down, distilled it, like her hatred. Maybe it was a poison in the soil, something about L.A., the hatred, the callousness, something we didn’t want to think about, that the plant concentrated in its tissues. Maybe it wasn’t a source of poison, but just another victim.”

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