“I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the coloured arrows from a Fourth of July rocket” – Sylvia Plath
I encountered The Bell Jar in my first year as an undergrad. Late in the day for a literature-lover to arrive at what’s considered such a modern classic. But as it turned out, it wouldn’t have sucked me in the same way if I had read it any earlier.
Six months after stepping out of the bizarrely comfortable battlefields that represented high-school, I had finally reached a settling point at college. The initial flurry of half-remembered nights giggling and stumbling out into the cold while whirling through circles of ever-changing people; the panicked fear and phone calls home as I imagined I’d picked the wrong courses; the slightly different stories told each time life details were solicited by new faces – all this had descended to its natural close. My best friends were made: we knew that forever after, laughter, drinks, and nights out would occur with each other, and we didn’t want it any other way. My work-ethic had dwindled to embarrassing depths, but emerged startled and refreshed: invigorated and ready for the challenges ahead. Hesitations and obfuscations had wearied me out: they faded out to welcome in an easier honesty and simplicity. I accepted myself without having ever realised how strongly doubts had lingered in my mind.
Strangeness interspersed with familiarity. Enough of one to be able to eagerly anticipate discovery and change; enough of the other to provide treadable, secure ground. It made me happy. I was happy.
So why the unsettling, niggling feeling of despair that, without warning, sidled into my stomach, my throat, and stuck there, choking me into silence? Why the sudden furrow in my brow that would appear as I looked down at a flashing phone? Why the half-bitten lip and shaken head as I resisted picking up and looked around the crowded room, suddenly feeling empty and alienated – empty and alien?
Talking to him made me feel sick. I listened to his laughter, mocking those we once knew. His warning teasing that he was watching me. His tragic note of self-pity as he insisted I was becoming too intelligent for him – for our crowds. His calculated, yet nonchalant, mentions of how fast news travelled, and how any relationship dispute us meant everyone who circled us went to arms – all would go to arms in a battle he would undoubtedly win, going to all lengths to strip me of every kind of virtue. In a self-professedly virtuous society where relationships were more sacred than the self, his derisive reminders of the inequality stung: ‘I can do no wrong. But you can’
Finally: ‘don’t forget I stuck by you once. I loved you. You owe it to me now.’
I felt trapped by the past.
I was his puppet.
The present felt different. A new kind of space, where weird was actively welcomed. Where conversations over cigarettes drifted from the oddities of linguistic differences, to political shortcomings, to cultural nuances noticed. In between flipping open a pack and tossing around lighters, topics floated from light-hearted chat about those around us, to play-by-plays of exhilarating classes attended. We rehashed the latest book read, movie watched, essay idea sketched, – talking, listening, learning. We did it all, we recounted it all, we celebrated it all.
If I went home, we’d only talk about what everyone else did.
If I brought up a new topic, they’d mock my pretensions.
If I tried to do something new, laughter would be the first reaction.
If I tried to explain we were growing apart, anger would be quick to flare.
If I told them what he did, it would turn into my fault.
Listless lethargy began to spread as the limitations of my life grew clear. I was firmly chained within a relationship which demanded only specific qualities and loyalties from me: the rest were irrelevant – almost impermissible. I was in a space celebrating freedom, possibilities, the mind, the body. I was dividing time between forgetful joyousness, and sinking memories – one moment collaborating in creation, the next, pushing aside silver steel to examine blistering red-marks around my wrists, ankles, neck.
I began to read the Bell-Jar. My listlessness grew. I imagined Esther and I floating together, ensconced in a soapy, slippery bubble: a once-blue globe wiped squeaky-clean of its appealingly vast, brightly-drawn continents. Clear windows mocked us with dazzling visions of the limitless world outside, the millions of people fulfilling dreams: succumbing to urges to create, inspire, write, illustrate, love and communicate – through art. We’d occasionally stagger up to run, and our bubble would harden into a hamster’s wheel, spinning slowly, and then faster, faster, furiously beneath our feet – leaving us locked in, whirling in our own cages, dervishes gone crazy for lack of mental sustenance rather than addictive stimulation.
I finished the Bell-Jar. Soon after, its fluid interweaving with personal reality condensed in my head – demanding answers, action, change. My positive spin on the lingeringly demanding, soul-searching, psychologically frightening novel hit home – hard.
I didn’t have to run further and further away from my past; didn’t have to ignore it, deny it, frantically try to escape it through suppression. I had to take it on. Stare at it in the face; diminish its importance, ability, it’s hold over my life. Had to step out of its steely gaze, it’s deathly, vice-like grip. Had to hold up the bubble triumphantly – prick it, and watch it burst.
I had a future to build. A future celebrating and creating myself, the world, others. A future where the only hurdles which arose would be my own mental and physical ones: and these, I would joyfully, excitedly, determinedly jump up and cartwheel over to overcome. After a life fighting others, I was ecstatic to finally face limitations which emanated from within myself – not from the heart and mind of one bitterly crushing my being within his clenched hand.
The future would be spent living: challenging, testing, pushing beyond all boundaries, discovering all aspects, accepting all dimensions, improving all flaws – reveling in the beauty and ability of the mind.
Seeking experience, seeking sparks and flashes of inspiration, seeking vibrance, encounters – ready to celebrate my topsy-turvy multi-cultural reality, ready to let it inspire my sketches and my trajectory.
I made the phone-call. I fought the fight. I tore off the steel chains and watched them fall – slow-motion – and clash onto the dungeon floor. I walked out: slowly, first – dazed, struck with disbelief, dignified. Walked faster, brisker – broke into a run, a sprint – dashed out, up and over the fences, into the exhilaratingly open dark blue sky –
peppered with vibrant fireworks.