The first thing you need to know is that some girls have auras of bright colors, but mine were silver stars on walls, tears when I sat at mother’s bay window, and sometimes an odd feeling of time over a never-ending space, where I followed a dark hole, layer through layer, opening to a time before me, God, and a time before that, until the emptiness settled into stones in the pit of my stomach and I had to touch anything: a polished shoe, a porcelain cup, to be sure I was in this world before it shifted and fell.
I don’t know if this is what Dostoevsky felt before seizures—his glimpse of awe and understanding—but for years, this trance descended while I sat drinking Mountain Dew on the couch, drawn to the window view of David Street below, where older girls in games of rope jumped on the cracked sidewalk, and I wrapped myself in the exquisite sadness, pondering the blackness of eternity as I fingered the patches on my bell-bottom appliquéd jeans.
The second thing you need to know is that this was the 1970s in a steel town and I was a white girl who wanted to be a cheerleader and was more concerned with smoothing down my stick-straight blonde split ends with Vaseline than glimpsing God and the beginning of time on a regular basis. So really, no one should care about my story at all. My auras weren’t ecstatic like Napoleon’s. At the time, steel was a metal that shined so molten even mill-men’s children could feel more than working class and were tricked into thinking they lived a middle-class life until they grew up and realized that was in the suburbs, not in the alleys filled with trash cans cleaned with lavender soap by housedress women, nor in mud-diverted yards that could hold 102 of my brother’s Mustang Hot Wheels and which were mowed without chemicals. It was a bendable time when I blew the pollen from dandelions and steel lost its shine. And it was a time someone could care about if they cared to note the before’s and after’s of the industry’s demise: between overtime and my dad on the crane with chipped ham sandwiches and our fridge full of sirloin and salmon, and the time of abandoned porches converting to Section 8 on my street. It was a time of teetering between two certainties: before and after blast furnaces. Before and after DARE programs and weed, which was always pot, and before kids were signed up for recreational sports.
And it just happened to be a time when my brain’s gray matter moved me to sing each time I looked outside a window, or straddled the banister at the top of my two-story brick porch, where I too teetered—my thighs hugging its concrete width—waiting for boys to pick me up while my mother voiced shrill pleas from the kitchen, beckoning me to “Stay off the banister!” as though in her dreams she had seen each of her four children fall from there to the Bavarian door of our cellar where “191” was carved in iron loops.
I was the fourth child. I could not fall. A decade and more separated me and my three older brothers who grew up to be engineers and Ivy League students due to the lucky recruitment efforts into the hidden valleys of Western Pennsylvania where no major highways entered. I was the “Wild Laurel” in the family: the only one to achieve the district’s most lopsided SAT score, the one to take Algebra 1 as a senior to graduate, the one who let five alcohols from a friend’s unlocked liquor cabinet be poured into Tupperware cups, and when lifted to her lips, drank—the one who knew the Pennsylvania state flower was a plain Mountain Laurel and filled in that answer correctly on third grade worksheets.
I knew the secret drama in my pocket: the overactive neurons firing like sparks emitted when bumper cars collide. The “Erte” Lady who showed up in my dreams each night when the twitching wouldn’t tame with thoughts of static and an extra tablet of phenobarbital. I thought I was a movie star when I used the rotary dial phone in my parent’s dining room to call a boy like I’d seen them do on soap operas, but neurological texts say even the spaces between spells were suspect and traceable: like the tears that came when I did the singing on those nameless afternoons while Days of Our Lives played on the television and all I needed to do was look out a window to cry. I was a mill-town girl collecting glitter stickers for good vocabulary and one who got to sit on stuffed pillows in the highest reading corner at school. But I was also captive when the spells descended, to follow stars down dustless shelves that held depression glassware and encyclopedias and could not look away, before following my girlfriend’s smoke-lit tips of Marlboro Lights down Messenger and Horner streets into the night.
Physicians and philosophers once named seizures a struggle between science and magic and this is where I resided: on a bean bag chair in a lime green bedroom polishing my saddle shoes and moving a pen across my yellow-channeled tablets. When my mother knocked on the door, I pretended I was asleep.
To know what auras look like you have to picture vast, empty swimming pools, like the ones you catch sight of off the sides of highways in winter when you’re probably laughing and flicking a cigarette ash out the window, listening to some old REO Speedwagon song and gossiping. And then you see it, down over some hill where the tilted neon lettering spells “Fun City” and fills you with the same sudden eeriness I felt at the top of Camp Allegheny’s tallest hill —behind the fence surrounding the deep end of the Olympic pool at night, where my bunkmates and I ran to sneak hits from rolled strawberry papers. Its concrete depths drained of life for fall camp, not even blue at the bottom, but patchy yellowed cement: that’s the blankness. That’s what the end of the universe looks like, if you believe me at all; except you need to superimpose a bored, foggy deity and a long sweep of an arm, and then you’ll really have it. This is what I’d glimpse at night in my calico print bedspread, under the cream-painted canopy, or maybe eating oatmeal on the couch after school, or during the strains of the breathy part of the chorus to “Blessed Assurance” on Sunday mornings.
At Beulah United Methodist Church, in the tiny borough of Dale—where the Grecian and massive green-domed architecture loomed over the 1,200 inhabitants nestled in the valley of the Laurel and Allegheny Mountain ranges, I had learned that we were all sinful by nature. So I prayed for purity. In Sunday School, I was the first to memorize my Bible verses. In Junior Choir, I sang the loudest and always got the longest speaking parts in the Children’s Day programs. Other girls had to look at a little index card that Mrs. Berkebile would write out for them in case they got stage fright. I marched straight up to the podium and spoke my little verses and had memorized everyone else’s in case they threw up before the program and couldn’t do their part.
Secretly, I was banking good performances so that one Christmas Eve I could be cast as Mary in the live nativity we hosted each year after our candlelight service. At the back entrance of Beulah church, creamy Corinthian columns punctuated a portico that faced out toward Bedford Street, a busy main artery that connected our downtown to the “hills” where the new malls and lawns without dandelions were. The ladies in the church kitchen made hot chocolate with boiling water that burned our tongues as we tried on burlap cloaks with worn rope ties. There were plenty of donkeys, shepherds, a Mary and Joseph, and a plastic baby Jesus, if he wasn’t played by a real baby. Kids not old enough to play the larger roles, like me, were just dressed as children from the Bible. If I were Mary, I thought, no one could see me as sinful or evil. No one would ever see that hidden, black space that roared inside my head.
One year when I was about ten or eleven, Amy Layton, slated to play the mother of Jesus, had caught the flu for Christmas and in a careless flinging of a blue scarf in the costume closet, I latched on and had gotten my long-held wish. I beamed as the lights of cars sitting at the red light reflected back on me. I waved more like a queen in a parade than a silent mother holding a baby, but I couldn’t help it. I was Mary and I wanted to scream it out to the people of Johnstown driving home from their candlelight services—all of them who had stacked themselves into pews and sung the requisite anthems; anxious for the darkening of the sanctuary and “Silent Night” to start up on the organ so that the tiny wax candles could be lit. I waved to young men who had to be cajoled into putting on their Sunday trousers and red ties and were peeking out from the backseats of cars. I waved at the ones who hadn’t been to church all year—sturdy mill men who were hiding the mist in their eyes that formed when the chapel shadows hit their jaws and they stared up at the altar and got swept up in the last chorus…
”Slee—eeep in heavenly peace…”
I waved to giggling kids in the backs of Impalas peeling candle wax from their fingers. I waved to them all in my peasant cloth costume, full of the church closet mothball smells, and they all waved back at me. Mary. Pure and whole.
The twitches started one morning getting ready for school. I was standing over the sink in our bathroom swishing a toothbrush in my mouth when my arm started jerking away and the toothpaste ended up on the flowered part of my bell-bottom jeans. I’d wipe it off with my mother’s peach hand towels—the white foam drooling from my mouth—while switching hands, and then that hand would jerk the brush away again. I don’t think I was scared or too bothered by it. I had makeup to put on and jeans to lie down on the floor to zip up which Mara Whitley had shown me how to do when your love handles got a little too poochy for your pants. I had a school full of friends and boys to flirt with (including Jonathan Matsock in third period Social Studies) and damn if I wasn’t going to get ready and dry my limp wet hair and gloss my lips!
The odd movements would go away for a few minutes so I’d start my hairdryer and stand in front of the full-length mirror in my bedroom. And that’s when the twitching turned: every color was charcoal, every limb twisting into a stranger as my fingers, hands, arms, elbows would jerk away in staccato involuntary movements and the dryer would no longer be drying my hair but banging itself repeatedly on my forehead. Sometimes it left a solid bump, or a little red cut. I’d curl my hair over that part and hide it. I had a lot of hair and it was pretty easy to do.
Tina Bolin would be at my kitchen door soon, with her breakfast toast in her teeth, hurrying me to the bus stop. It was a few months after hitting my head at the spillway, and there were a lot of changes going on in my body. This was just another one of them. I had started wearing a bra. My breasts were two little mounds, but just enough to bounce when I was doing the Yellow Jackets fight song cheer with my junior high squad. I had turned twelve since the accident and gotten my period. I was told in health class in school that a lot of things would be happening to my body with this thing called “puberty,” and that they were all “normal.”
“Changes in your body are nothing to worry about,” Mrs. Kutcher said in the Ferndale gym that substituted as our classroom for health one semester of 7th grade. This is what I clung to. I figured the shaking must be happening to all the girls at school whose breasts were swelling up. I also figured it probably had something to do with touching yourself down there, so I decided I’d try to stop that too. But after Mrs. Kutcher had reviewed all the female parts on the anatomy posters she alternately hung up and tore down between classes, she never got to the twitching part of puberty. When would she get to that, I wondered? Since all the changes were occurring at the same time, I figured they had to be connected. It wasn’t like I was “sick” with anything. My body was just jumping and startling a bit. I must have thought that the twitching was some gateway to an enlightened state of advanced puberty which would happen at an appointed time, with trumpets and fireworks, and where the errant movements of my limbs would cease and I would be pronounced “mature.”
As the weeks and months went on, I got pretty smart at hiding my quirks. I spent a lot of time in my room, which probably didn’t seem strange to my mother because I’d already spent years on a bean bag chair holding a phone in one hand and inspecting Fleetwood Mac album inserts with the other.
“Why are you always clenching your fingers under the desk?” Bree Domani asked during first period Algebra the following week. I had been working on my mind trick for the past few weeks which I thought was starting to work well enough for stopping the jumpiness. I’d try real hard to think of nothing. If I concentrated enough, I could get my head to fill with a kind of static, not unlike what you’d hear on a radio station at midnight when they used to sign off the air before 24-hour broadcasting. The thoughts of that nothingness, that beige assemblage of dots, the sound that wasn’t really a sound at all, except maybe the sound you hear between dreams during REM sleep, worked to relax my hands under the desk and I’d bring them out in plain view of Bree and her inquisitive eyes. “Nothing’s wrong,” I said. “See.”
“Sandra Lorene! Tina’s here to pick you up to cheer for the game!” my mom would wail most evenings outside my bedroom door. The activities bus would be leaving soon but it was taking me hours to get ready. I made sure my door was locked. I had just wrestled my shaky limbs into my Yellow Jackets’ Black and Gold uniform and fought my fingers to tie my saddle shoes. I was in the process of putting on makeup, but every time I’d close my eyes to rub it on, the little Cover Girl bottle would fly out of my hands up and toward the ceiling, with “medium/light” coverage spilling in dribbles from the air. I’d set off to retrieve it from the bottom of the hissing radiator on the other side of the room, wipe it up, reapply, and proceed to mascara—applying the black/brown coating to my eyelashes with one hand, while clenching my fists around the post of my canopy bed to be sure that I was still holding onto the earth. But my fingers kept jabbing the mascara onto my cheeks in a thick glob, and my legs—usually steady—started giving out, and I’d find myself being thrown down in an involuntary pitching motion toward the curved legs of my dresser. Undeterred, I dabbed a few tissues with Vaseline for the face slip-ups—that and a little spit—and I’d be back at it. But the falling was new and something I didn’t have a trick for. Luckily my wall mirror extended far enough to the floor that I could finish getting ready there—crouched down on the shag carpet.
That patch of two square feet became my base of operations and I’d lay out all my things I needed there: nail polish remover for sopping up the stains my errant hands created, the make-up, the tissues, brush, curling iron—all the while making sure to keep my eyes open and not close them for any seconds at a time, so as not to worsen the twitching.
No one knew this was happening but me.
Sometimes I’d be wiping up a little smear of blood off my banged-up shin when Tina blew in the door with her frown and panicked eyebrows.
“Save it, I’m ready already,” I’d say, and we’d walk out the door like nothing was amiss. I don’t know why, but the shaking always got better when I left the house and was out in public. Maybe it was the nap or whatever sleep I had just had was wearing off over time and so the “trigger” was wearing off as well. I also didn’t have to do as many things with my hands that required coordination when I wasn’t in the busy motions of getting ready.
One summer day in that year since the spillway accident where I’d hit my head and began drifting toward the undercurrent of Lake Stonycreek’s whirlpool, I heard my mother singing her usual hymns while doing her Tuesday ironing. I walked into her room and sat myself tentatively on the bedspread and we talked a little about “female stuff,” which was not the easiest thing to do with a mother who was Evangelical by birth and only recently had embraced the idea that dress pants could occasionally be appropriate for church. I assured her I got through getting my period OK (which had happened one night while she was working her part-time job at Sears drapery department and I was left to ask my father to drive me to the drugstore) but then I slipped in: “Do you shake in the shower too, Mom?” Just at the moment she was making a crease in my father’s Sunday dress shirt and started hitting the high notes of “Cross of Calvary,” and I don’t think she really heard me right. I sort of lost my nerve to ask again.
But one morning I woke up to get ready for school and the twitches were everywhere, more insistent. I needed a plan not to be caught, so I figured I’d start the shower so my mom would think I was getting ready, but then I sat on the hamper with my head in my hands, careful not to close my eyes. Any connection back to sleep would spark my brain, so I was desperate for static, the gray of the dots on the television screen after the Johnny Carson band played them off the set at midnight and the brassy notes of the National Anthem played out. That kind of emptiness was what I needed—not unlike the peace I imagine I’d felt at the spillway that day when my body drifted unconscious toward the whirlpool, the violet spray bubbling up in my mind’s eye in a weightless floating that felt like it would go on forever.
“You’ll miss the bus, if you don’t get going!” my mother yelled. I moved toward the warmth of the water roaring behind the curtain, “just put one foot into the tub, the next into the water…” I closed only one eye, careful to rinse only one side of my head at a time. But my body was a stranger. My fingers moved like claws, bending back on themselves and then turned numb. I held out for tricks, mind over matter, but I could only watch the washcloth in my hands drop to the floor.
I glimpsed the empty swimming pool; I flew up out of my house and hovered over the vacuum repair shop at the edge of Dale, into the Solomon hills and onward to the deep V of the Conemaugh Gap on Route 220, and somewhere, out over the Alleghenies I saw it: the spinning of the universe and eternity just sitting out there waiting for me like usual—like they were bored with nothing to do, and didn’t I already know how it could all be so vast but so disappointing at the same time? And, every time I got that far, that close to understanding it, it swept me away— powerless to stop it until it was done with me.