“Before and After” by Stephanie Vessely

Issue 18 / Summer 2019 / Abortion Ban Protest Special Issue

 

This morning I was scrolling through my Timehop feed and came across a photo from 2008. Timehop is an application that sifts through old photos and social media posts, and then shares with you what you were doing “on this day” a year ago, five years ago, etc. At the bottom of today’s feed was a photo taken by…I don’t know whom—my younger brother perhaps. It’s of me, sitting in a chair at the kitchen table at my older brother’s house. It is night, as evidenced by the dark outside the windows behind me. I cradle my eight-month-old nephew in one arm. He in turn holds an empty bottle of Stella Artois (presumably drained by me) to his teething gums. Also visible: a stuffed toy on the table—a baby wearing a pink and orange dress and striped socks—a corner of a high chair, the arm of the person sitting beside me. My shirt is bright white against the backdrop of night. The caption reads, “A man after my own heart.”

The application has been showing me a lot of posts from 2008 lately—mostly quotations or random observations—since this is when I really started using Facebook. This morning was the first time I have come across a photo, which was like some strange trip back, looking at some person I used to be. Seeing the photo was a reunion of sorts, and a remembering. Wait, no. A trip or a reunion is too gentle. It implies that the memory is akin to a snapshot captured at a high school dance, or a Christmas Eve family gathering. In photos like that, you enter the memory—you try to remember the place, the time, the people, the occasion. You notice things like how young you were, your terrible fashion choices, the way everyone was wearing their hair back then. You laugh or feel nostalgic and think about time, where it’s all gone, and then forget and continue on your way.

This photo was not that. This photo was not me reaching into the past, trying to call forth what I could. This photo was more like a bomb going off, suddenly and without warning. It was like one of those time warps on TV, in which a character travels through a psychedelic tunnel and is immediately standing in the past, except it was the past that traveled forward and suddenly surrounded me. There was no need to recall details, to try to piece it all together. I knew exactly when the photo was taken, and who I was in it.

Joan Didion famously writes about keeping “on nodding terms with the people we used to be…Otherwise,” she says, “they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.”[1] I have kept on nodding terms—more even—with the person I used to be. I’ve kept the 2007, 2008, 2009, 10, 11 versions of Stephanie close in, tucked away so that she’s safe. But that turns out not to have mattered much. Didion’s advice, while sage, is not applicable here. The person I used to be still surprised me this morning. She still came hammering, demanding, asking for amends.

 

*

 

Based on the timing of the photograph, I know we were gathered as a family in Colorado—my two brothers, my parents, my sister-in-law, the eight-month-old twins—to celebrate my father’s birthday. Nine years ago, I was thirty and living in Boston. I had taken a long weekend to come home to visit Ben, my then boyfriend, who was still living in Denver, and to see the babies and celebrate my father’s birthday, none of which you can tell by looking at the photo. There are other things you can’t tell, like how tight my jeans had become since I moved away, or, because I’m looking down at my nephew, the way my eyes don’t match the smile on my lips. I’m reminded of Roland Barthes’s concept of punctum[2]—the part of a photograph that pierces you, that wounds you. Except I keep thinking about the opposite, how in this case the punctum is what isn’t visible in the photo.

Take the arm, for instance, or rather, the person attached to it. Ben. He wears a gray hooded sweatshirt, and I imagine, though I can’t see it, his favorite orange beanie. We are in year three of our relationship and have been dating long-distance for about six months. I had left for Boston to get away from him, from our cycle of moving apart and coming together. But I had failed to stand firm when he had told me one gray Saturday morning a month after the move that he couldn’t live without me or that he didn’t want to live without me or something like that about him and me. So, our makeshift plan became to see each other once a month. My trip home that October was that month’s fulfillment.

Ben didn’t like family gatherings. He didn’t like my family. I imagine he was there because I had begged him to be, and this was one of the very rare instances in which he had given in. But surrender did not equal enjoyment, or ease, but rather a discomfort he most likely buried in multiple drinks. That discomfort is why he is leaning away from me and avoiding the camera’s eye. That was his signature move, as if the act of being captured in a photo with me would mean something, would tie him down, would make it harder to get free.

There’s also the matter of the baby I’m holding—my nephew—the weight of him. At that time, I was four months past my second abortion, and seventeen months past my first, which, reader, if you do the math, tells you that had I never had the first abortion, I too would have had a baby that needed holding. My niece and nephew would have had a cousin, my parents a third grandchild.

The months that had gone by had not been enough. The abortions were still too new. There did not yet exist a compartment I could put everything in, or a wall by which things became separate. Time had not yet had a chance to distance anything. Holding my nephew felt like a loaded experiment in trying to keep my shit together. It also felt like a great show I was putting on—a performance for the ages—about a woman who is totally fine, thriving even, in the wake of it all. Because that’s what I was supposed to be—fine. I was a woman of 2008. It was my body, my choice, and so all was well. But I was still doing the thing where I knew exactly how old the first baby would be had it come to term. I was still doing the thing where I knew exactly how far along I would be if I were still pregnant. Nine months. Five months. Ben was the only person in the room who knew about the abortions. I was putting on a show for no one, or as it turns out, I was putting it on for myself. I was trying to convince myself that I was okay, that what had happened in the last year didn’t bother me, or at least, had changed nothing. I was acting as if I was still the person I had been before, as if there wasn’t an after, as if the cataclysm did not exist.

 

*

 

Although I said before that I keep this version of myself close in, perhaps I really don’t. I think until last year I had all but abandoned her, left her behind to fend for herself. I didn’t realize this until I returned to Boston for one day last fall. I had had the feeling for some time that I needed to go back, but I didn’t know why. I only knew I was searching for something.

When I got to the city, I took the train to my old neighborhood. I ate a bagel at the Panera down the street from my old apartment, where I used to sit on Sunday mornings and try to write but would instead watch the young couples with their small children and think about family and my overwhelming desire to feel like I belonged to something. I stopped at Brookline Booksmith too, and wandered the used section in the basement. I looked as I always do for titles by Kerouac. I walked down Harvard Avenue, past JFK’s old house, past the small park where the kids played on the weekends. I walked past the Jewish deli where I picked up my Saturday morning bagel, past the shoe shop that always had rain boots in the window, and past the restaurant where young, trendy people were always waiting outside, even in winter. I had the feeling that seven years had never passed, like I wasn’t walking merely to check out my old place, but that I was walking home from errands on an ordinary Saturday.

Which was a strange feeling, because when I had lived there, Boston had never felt like home. Boston had always been the place that was keeping me from home, that was holding me captive, that wouldn’t let me go. Now it felt like I had always been there, that I had never left.

Time is strange in this way. There are physicists who believe that there is no such thing as time, that the past, present, and future are happening all at once, and that if this is the case, it’s possible to move between them. Einstein was one such believer. Holes have been poked in his theories, but they have not been disproved. Stephen Hawking is skeptical. He has said, “If time travel is possible, then where are the tourists from the future?”[3] Barring my obvious lack of knowledge of physics, and science in general, and with all due respect to Hawking, I posit that time travel is possible, that on the Saturday I spent walking the streets of Boston I was a tourist from the future. I had stepped through some portal into the past where everything was just how I left it.

 

*

 

In the evenings sometimes when I lived in Boston, I would wander the streets of my neighborhood, where all of the old houses stood beneath the enormous maple, oak, and sycamore trees. The homes there actually felt like homes, like places where people made their lives, unlike the apartment I was renting. There were cars parked outside and strollers propped up by front doors. There were chairs on porches to sit in in the evenings—the warm evenings, anyway. There were flowers potted in containers, plants lining the walks to front doors. There were garbage bins on the sides of the houses, overflowing recycling tubs, and air conditioners in windows, because the futures of the people who lived in these houses weren’t uncertain. They could make purchases like air conditioners and not wonder if they will need them next summer or if they will even still be there next summer. Because they would be. Or they would be somewhere just like it.

I used to walk in the dimming light and the damp air under the millions of leaves and think about a line written by Wallace Stevens: “We make a dwelling in the evening air, / In which being there together is enough.”[4] I would think about Ben and how all I wanted in the world was such a dwelling with him. Even then I knew that it would never exist, that it never could exist, except maybe in some strange alternate universe where neither of us were quite so damaged. This knowledge wouldn’t keep me from trying though. It wouldn’t keep me from moving back to Denver the following winter, setting up house with Ben, and commencing my search for the feeling in Stevens’ line. That must be how she got left behind—that Boston version of myself. She got lost in the shuffle of the move, of the new emphasis I placed on living with Ben. Or I purposely left her there, ignoring her because I didn’t like what she had to say—that I was still hurting, that I hadn’t dealt with the abortions, that Ben was never going to marry me.

I suppose this is where Didion’s advice comes in. This is what we are not to do. We are not to leave the parts of ourselves we don’t like behind. If life, or I guess love, is a battlefield, then the rules of warfare apply—leave no soldier behind. I did not follow this rule. If I was broken and injured in Boston, then my mistake was not tending to the fallen. Instead of picking her up and hobbling to safety, I walked away. I left her there—cold, in shock, bleeding out.

So, I was surprised when I went back to find that she was still there, alive and well, as if she had been waiting for me all that time. She was standing behind the yellow line of the Park Street T station, waiting for her train to come screeching around the corner. She was studying the mural on the train station wall, smelling the stale underground air. She was walking down Coolidge Street, admiring the flowers she had never seen growing in Colorado. I saw her through the window on the second floor of the house numbered 86, where it was mostly quiet. She was at the corner of Naples Road and Commonwealth Avenue, where the buildings were suddenly stonier, suddenly taller, suddenly older, getting ready to cross the street. There, it was not quiet, with the train coming by, the cars moving in both directions, the protesters across the street. One of them, a woman, stood the requisite 25 feet from the clinic, wearing a sandwich board covered in photos of unborn fetuses and parts of dismembered dolls.

“It all comes back,” Didion writes in Slouching Towards Bethlehem. “Perhaps it is difficult to see the value in having one’s self back in that kind of mood, but I do see it.” I see it, too. Or I saw it too, that day. I had initially thought that maybe I had come back to Boston to face Ben, to face the two of us, to face how things had gone wrong. But that wasn’t it. Ben had not been in Boston with me, save for a few long weekends. I realized as I stood there watching the protesters, watching the police watch the protesters, that this was mine. Boston was mine, Boston had always been mine. I had come back to face myself, not Ben. I had come to remember, to reclaim, to gather the parts of myself I had left behind.

And I did. I went everywhere in the city I could think of that day. I gathered her the way I gathered my belongings the time someone broke into my car. The thief had taken CDs, money, smokes, but had left behind CD cases, notes I had written, pages of magazines. They had scattered debris in a broken trail around the block, and I had spent that following morning combing the area, picking up what I could find.

 

*

 

It seems kind of cheesy, no? Or overly sentimental? All this talk of finding myself and reclaiming myself seems like something out of a spiritual memoir in which I share with you all the ways I’ve figured everything out. I tell you about how grateful I am for that time and for the hardships and the sadness and the fear. I tell you about how all of those things—Ben, the abortions, the loneliness—got me to where I am today and how I couldn’t be happier.

Except I could be happier. Except I don’t really know what it all meant or what I am meant to do with the version of myself I re-gathered and brought home. She’s not who I thought she was. Maybe that’s the problem. I don’t like her. I thought she was the fun Stephanie, the up-for-anything Stephanie. I thought she was the version of myself who wasn’t afraid of heartbreak, the one who was quick to laugh. But she isn’t. That version of myself, I realize now, came long before, and went long before too. She’s the one I’ve lost touch with. Maybe that’s what the photo showed up asking for this morning, not 2008 Stephanie, but the version of myself that existed before her. Before Ben. Ben who I loved so much. Ben who took so much. Maybe the photo showed up as a reminder of what was possible, what my potential was. Maybe in the photo it wasn’t yet too late. Maybe if I had only looked up, looked around, been paying attention, I would have seen how to get out, how to make my way back. But as it was I was already paralyzed by fear, already in for the long haul. The photo is the dividing line between before and after, between who I was and who I would become.

Didion writes, “We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget…I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be.”[5] She connects the two—the forgetting and the losing touch. But what happens if we remember, but have lost touch anyway? Are some parts of ourselves gone for good? Is that by design? Some physicists don’t want time travel to be possible, because it would enable us to alter the course of history. “If, for example,” Michio Kaku writes in Physics of the Impossible, “we were to go back to the era of the dinosaurs and accidentally step on a mammal that happens to be our ancestor, perhaps we would accidentally wipe out the human race.” It sounds extreme, but I suppose it’s true, that sometimes we can’t know what the far-reaching consequences of our choices will be. I didn’t know what the consequences of returning to Ben were when I repeatedly made the choice to do so. And I can’t know what my life would have looked like had I never met him. I can’t imagine that if we had never come together it would have altered the course of the world’s history in any significant way. It would have altered the course of mine though, which is what I see when I look at the photo—who I was before, who I was then, who I could be now. Simultaneously I am pre-Ben, during-Ben, post-Ben. But mostly I am post-Ben, and I’m afraid pre-Ben can never be found, that she’s gone forever, that Ben took her, that Boston took her, that they both took what was good in her, and that she’s never coming back.

 

*

 

At a writing conference once, I heard Philip Lopate speak about time. He said that there is no such thing as the past, that everything exists in layers. He said the events of history, the events of our lives are “constantly percolating into the present,” which is to say that if this is the case then the physicists are right—everything is happening now, it’s all here. The past, the present, the future. If this is true, then maybe I am not lost to myself, maybe I am simply buried beneath sediment and soot, and if I just keep digging, I’m bound to turn up something.

I’m not so sure that it’s possible to separate the pieces of ourselves out. If everything is in layers, then who I’ve been since that time is sitting on top of who I was. Like a rock, or a mountain, one cannot simply pull out an era of time. It is all solidified into one mass. Or maybe it’s not that it’s solid so much as it’s inseparable, the parts and pieces bound together so that the whole cannot exist without the parts. Even if I found the version of myself that existed before Ben, I would still have to carry around who I am today. I could not simply toss one version for the other. Everything that’s happened, has happened. Ben happened. Boston happened. The abortions happened.

I was wrong before. It’s not that Ben took me, or that Boston did. The abortions did. As they should have, maybe. They should’ve taken something—as reparation, as consequence of my repeated refusal, for turning down what was offered. Ben and Boston are inextricably linked to that, to each other, to me, and so I have a trifecta of loss.

I think what Lopate said applies less to exchanging versions of myself and more to the way I move through the world now. Everything is weighted. When I hear about someone’s pregnancy, I cannot avoid thinking of my own, of the things I’m not supposed to know—like how the body feels different—bigger, heavier—even in the beginning. I know about morning sickness—how it lasts all day and feels like a continual hangover. I know about being tired—the kind of tired in which you can sleep all day—as if something is draining the life force from you. Which it is. Even fictional pregnancies—on TV, in movies—bring the past into the present, as does the presence of small children. My choices are never not there. This is what Lopate was talking about, I think. The past is always seeping into the present. Time, and the events of our lives, are like ocean waves. If we are standing at the shoreline, the past is continually lapping at our feet. It is constantly receding and pushing in.

If, as Didion says, the past showed up this morning looking for amends, I don’t have any to offer. There is nothing I can say, nothing I can do to mend anything. The photo was supposed to have been captured for its cuteness factor, and for its comedic potential—the woman who, at the time, liked to knock a few back, was rubbing off on her nephew already. Ha ha. Cute. Funny. Instead, the photo is a memento of a past that can never be changed. Its presence a reminder of what is absent. And that absence, itself, a presence.

 

[1] Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 1968.

[2] Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, 1981.

[3] Hawking, A Brief History of Time, 1988.

[4] Stevens, “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour,” The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, 1954.

[5] Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 1968.

 

Stephanie Vessely is a writer and editor who lives in Denver, Colorado. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Regis University, and is currently seeking publication for her essay collection. Her work appears in december, Hippocampus, The Offing, and elsewhere. Find her at stephanievessely.com or @vesselywriter.

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