Portfolio • Bette Howland
I would like to put this in a recognizable form. For a long time it had seemed to me that life was about to begin—real life. But there was always some obstacle in the way. Something to be got through first, some unfinished business; time still to be served, a debt to be paid. Then life could begin. At last it had dawned on me that these obstacles were my life. I was always rolling these stones from my grave.
…I couldn’t sleep. The nights were hot and stormy, unseasonable, the tattered window shades twisted and rattled. Morbid thoughts overtook me; they flocked to my bed unbidden. I dreamed of strange, vivid acts: the squint of razor blades digging and sawing my wrists…. Thoughts of suicide had become constant; I dragged them around like a weight. In my thick, drugged sleep it was the same, a ball and chain; an incubus visited me, I felt its numb pressure beside me on the bed, holding down the bedclothes. It rolled on top of me. I had a fantasy: I would be smothered in the act of fellatio with the devil.…
One thing surprised me. Dying was not what I had expected; it wasn’t anything like what I had imagined it would be all those times I’d gone over it in my head, stretched out in the dark as if awaiting its approach. And I thought I knew it so well. I pretty quickly regretted what I had done and called the doctor; he couldn’t be reached. I told the voice on the answering service what had happened and sat down and waited for him to return the call. That was all.… Evidently I had gotten undressed, a creature of habit, and lain down between the sheets in an orderly fashion… I had no recollection of this at all, I have never remembered it; it was just as if no one was home.…
People were asking about me. What could we tell them?…
Why tell people anything? Why not tell them the truth? It seemed so much simpler.…
All I knew was this: I couldn’t take it any more, no longer could bear this burden of concealment. Things seemed bad enough without adding extra weight. I wanted to be rid of it all, all of it. I wanted to abandon all this personal history—its darkness and secrecy, its private grievances, its well-licked sorrows and prides—to thrust it from me like a manhole cover. That’s what I had wanted all along, that’s what I was trying for when I swallowed those pills—what I hoped to obliterate. That was my real need. It had at last expressed itself, become all-powerful.
“Tell people where I am,” I whispered. “And ask them what they want me to make for them.”
—from W-3, a memoir by Bette Howland
Bette Howland is the author of three books, W-3 (Viking), Blue in Chicago (Harper & Row), and Things to Come and Go (Knopf). Her work has also appeared in such magazines as Commentary, First Things, the Noble Savage, and Triquarterly. Born in Chicago, she lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
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