I walk into her room for the first time. Catherine is lying on a makeshift bed on the floor reading a massive book by John Irving. An ex-boyfriend that she ran into last week in New Orleans gave it to her—Until I Find You.
She is icing her neck, which she broke in a car accident last October. Her right arm was partially paralyzed. Now she’s re-teaching herself how to write by setting a timer for 10 minutes every morning and sitting down with “How to Draw The Little Mermaid.”
Scattered around her on the mattress are dolls, some of which she’s had since 1967—the oldest one was brought to her when she was living on a reservation as a baby. She introduces me to Volo, which she was given nine years ago from another old boyfriend. He was an artist. He would buy bags of dolls at thrift shops and paint them but she thought Volo had too much personality to become art.
Catherine pulls out a box with “The Adventures of Volo” scrawled across the front in black Sharpie. She opens the box and hands me a large sketchbook filled with scratchy, childish handwriting. More than half of the words in the book are misspelled and I worry for a second that she doesn’t know how to spell at all, but then she explains that Volo has the writing skills of a kindergartener.
Volo’s origin story consists of an evil plot to take out his innards and turn him into a robot that will participate in heists all over the world. Instead he rebels, runs away, and joins a Bulgarian cooking show, where he meets Team Trouble, the rest of Catherine’s dolls.
She is in a relationship with Volo on Facebook.
I had a case worker who explained me as one of those diagrams that overlap. She said, well you had this childhood trauma and just this trauma would’ve served to make you an eccentric person with a few issues. And you’ve got this genetic predisposition and this chemical imbalance that would make you an eccentric person with a few issues. But when you had both of them, well you’re just screwed. I was like, thanks for the vote of confidence.
Sometimes grocery stores were just overwhelming because there were all these colors and shapes and it didn’t translate into food. I’d wander up and down the aisles and finally leave because I couldn’t find any food. I had this poor kid who was trying to live through this. I looked down and saw her looking at me one day and I realized, holy shit, my own kid is terrified of me.
I decided as a teenager that my calling in life was to go out and experience all aspects of what it means to be completely human, like all aspects of the human experience. I just wanted to go out and see what it was like to be alive on this planet in every different permutation. After a lot of pain and hard lessons I realized, mostly for the sake of my child, that I needed desperately to get control of it and I didn’t want to be crazy.
There’s nothing at all romantic about insanity. It’s terrifying. It’s hard on you and it’s hard on the people around you. It’s a good way to ruin a life and it’s why we’ve got so many homeless people. Luckily my family helped me get an apartment and having a home made all the difference. Because otherwise I would have been a homeless person with a child. My kid was dumpster diving by the time she was seven. She’s had to do a lot.
My daughter wrote a lot of poems that got her into college from it. We’ll just let her describe it. They’re beautiful, they’re really touching. And you know what, it makes me realize that even if I never succeed in anything that’s considered success in life, when I read this poem cycle that she did when she was 19, I realize that there’s a terrible beauty in a human being losing their shit but trying desperately to claw their way back to reality. That even if this isn’t magazine pretty, I was a success because I had lived beauty. It’s like the stars are beautiful, the trees, the color green is beautiful, God’s creation is beautiful. And the worst aspect of me, me at my most terrified in trying to deal with that terror, like with magic of my own creation, there was a certain beauty there. Just the way sometimes you see certain musicians. Some people think that maybe they’re tragic, that you see the human soul laid bare. You know some artists’ work is like that, most all music is like that in one form or another, some people are just that walking around. It’s something that we’re not usually comfortable being around very much.
Catherine gets sensory overload. When she was working, she would come home to her room where she would have a tent set up. She would get into the tent where it was dark and quiet and lay dolls over her. One counselor thinks that she gets through the difficult times in her life by having Team Trouble there for backup; another thinks that Volo is her alter ego. Everyone knew that when Cat got home from work she’d be in her tent covered in dolls.
We sit on the porch, swatting mosquitos. Catherine tells me I look good in glasses because my face is round. “It breaks it up, makes you look more grown up,” she says. “People don’t tell you that shit and it’s good to know.”
I try and start with where she was born. Ottawa, Canada. She lost her green card traveling in Europe as a teenager, got it re-issued but slipped through a loophole in immigration law in the mid 1980s. She finally became a naturalized citizen under threat of deportation.
“I just skirted the system because I’m white and I speak English. I’m under the radar, nobody cares. And Canadians aren’t rushing the gates or anything!”
She has me laughing.
The laughter continues until she begins talking about things outside the range of my experience, real life stories that feel like a novel, that take my optimistic innocence and give it a good hard shake.
I’ve never had a career. I’ve always had a series of shit service industry kind of jobs. I can’t call myself an anything and that has been something that has panicked me for most of my life, that I can’t label myself, I can’t say I’m worth taking up space and clean air and water on this planet because I am a ________, this is what I contribute.
The only thing I know how to do really is how to love people. I’m good at building little sacred spaces. My friends say I should be a shrine-builder. I say, yeah, but it’s not really a job description. Then all the different guys that I’ve known, most of them have been artists and musicians, and most of them have been like, it’s your job to be basically a muse. It sounds snotty to say, oh, I’m a muse. It’s a fucking dick thing to say, right?
There’s nothing more mortifying or embarrassing really. Other people are having real jobs, getting married, doing shit. Your arty friends are either killing themselves or throwing it in, getting married and moving to the suburbs. But at a certain point you feel like you’re just this loser, this leech on society. It was the most embarrassing thing. I had no idea how to hide from people. People would be like, how do you support yourself? You’re working 10 hours a week for 10 bucks an hour! And there was no way I could say, I get a $700 a month disability check because I’m psychotic. How do you admit that you’re on disability when you seem to be fully able? “But Catherine’s always had character! She’s always been an entertaining one!”
We were standing in the kitchen.
“Hey Cat, I’ve been meaning to ask you. You look amazing, when I first met you I couldn’t believe you’re 50, I thought you must be 30. What’s your secret?”
“Well,” she said. “That’s what years of crack cocaine and alcoholism will do to you!”
She had this way of dropping bombs with her sentences, pulling the rug out from under my expectations and setting it on fire.
I started drinking a lot when I was a teenager and I’d drunk a hole through my stomach by the time I was 18. I had a bleeding ulcer, I ended up in the hospital with a bleeding ulcer.
But then by the time I was 19 I had moved out and I was living with this guy who was like 33 and he used to take coke and cook it up into rock, and we’d smoke half of it and sell half of it. It was interesting because just on the other side of MLK and about 5 blocks south of Cherry there’s this house that we used to go to. He had a connection for black tar heroin.
I always say I had a job as human collateral for a while. Lenny, the guy I was living with, and the guy he did business with, the exchange would be made at this house over there. They’d play this game with me and this woman called Snaggletooth Carol. Heroin makes your teeth fall out and it’s usually these teeth, up here. So she was called Snaggletooth Carol because she was missing teeth. Every time I saw her she always wore this filthy knit tube dress thing. I’ll always remember this garment, perhaps because of the conditions I had to stare at it under. It was traffic cone orange and magenta. They’d wait until she was really starting to jones – she hadn’t had a fix in a long time and she’s starting to get really angsty about it – and I was just, well, you know.
They’d put us in this room and they’d lock the door and lock us in there. They’d stand there at the window and make bets on us. There were always weapons in the room. There’d be a knife on the table, these big swords mounted on the wall. There’s this woman eyeing me, this scrawny angry black woman eyeing me from the couch and I’m sitting there on the chair, thinking thinking thinking as fast as I can. Ok, I don’t want to make any sudden moves around her because the minute I start to make a move it’s all over, but trying to calculate if I could get to what was on the table before she could. It was just a bet. They’d bet money on us. Yeah.
But we also knew that Carol wasn’t getting a fix until this was over. And the deal wasn’t going down and I wasn’t going home and cooking up some rock until this was over. So we both had motivation. I would lunge and go ape shit and count on the fact that I was still relatively young and healthy and had only been abusing drugs for about a year. And she looked like she was at least forty years into it – she had teeth missing already. And I knew I also had a good twenty pounds on her and nothing was going to stop me.
How could you fight fair under those circumstances, are you kidding? I would fling myself over there and just—BAM. The minute one of us was down we’d start shrieking, ‘Open the fucking door!’ But one of us had to be down for them to open the door. It was crazy. You look back on it and think wow, why did I put up with that shit, why would I ever get myself in that situation? And it was just because I was young and I was really more interested in smoking more rock and I thought I was in love with this guy and we were a team somehow.
It was another evening in the kitchen. I told Catherine that I wanted to hear her life story.
I wanted to know the stories behind the tattoos on her hands, behind her laugh. This great, gleeful thing that would erupt out of her. I asked if I could write about her, about the woman who lived in the next room over who shared my name and had lived such a different life from mine.
Of all the things I will remember about Catherine, I will remember her stories and her two nose rings and her dolls and her laugh.
“My daughter is always telling me I should write down my stories,” she giggled. “Failure is always interesting.”
Failure is always interesting. We always look at car wrecks. Hot mess – that’s a phrase for a reason. We’re all attracted to that. We don’t want to get involved with it, but what have all the best movies and books been based on? I mean, really, that’s just an observation.
It’s funny that you said the thing about laughing because when she was a child, Emily would get really angry at me. She’d be like, why do you laugh at all this stuff, she’d be so frustrated. I used to drive her because I was afraid of her taking the bus to school because I was afraid that she would be snatched while waiting for the bus in the morning. And so I’d insist on driving her to school. We had this Subaru wagon that had literally four different body color parts on it. At one point, you know those votive saints candles? After I burned them I would steam the pictures off and I’d glue them all over the sides of the car and put glitter all over it. And the car would be crashed so many times that instead of a turn signal we’d put a piece of wooden block and screwed a trailer hitch light and wired it into this piece of wood. The window wouldn’t roll up and down and then even the trailer hitch signal wooden block would stop working and I’d stick my arm out to signal.
Emily was just mortified to be seen driven to school in this. I’m in my pajamas and swearing at everybody, sticking my arm out the window. I was like, don’t be embarrassed, this totally gives you street cred, this makes you tougher than anybody. She didn’t give a shit about street cred, that means nothing when you’re in fourth grade.
It was one of those things where she was like, how can you laugh about everything? It just seemed so evident to me – if I don’t laugh about this I’m going to fucking kill myself because there is no other option. This sucks. I hate every minute of this. All you can do is try and step out of your body and look down at yourself like you’re watching a TV show or a movie and just laugh because I mean, otherwise it’s just too hard to go on. Otherwise I’ll obsess about the fact that what am I going to do for a job? I’m trying to become a fucking online tarot card reader for god’s sakes. At this point, this is a viable option for me, okay? Just want to put that out there.
See, you’re laughing. It’s really all we can do. Otherwise I’m screwed and I cannot admit that I’m screwed because admitting that, you just have to lay down and die. Or lay in the street and wait for someone to run you over. You’ve gotta laugh and hope that you can keep going until something else presents itself, or you can fool a few more people, until maybe one of them gives you a job or invites you to come live in Mexico.
We’ve been talking for hours. My mouth is dry but the stories don’t end.
I have one last question.
“As a mother to a daughter, what advice would you give me as I am starting out in the world?”
“Did you ever think to just jump on a freight train? Forget your phone or your bank account or anything that ties you to anything you’ve known and just give yourself two years?
I would say go outside of your comfort zone more. Just because you’re going to need to build up your resilience. We all have it but it’s like any other muscle. It needs to be exercised. Don’t exercise it so much that you put yourself in danger. Just because I’ve heard you say that you’re good at school and because that’s really all you know. You could ride that for the rest of your life. But the world’s a much more terrible and beautiful place than that. And I think you’d be denying yourself a lot if you just stayed in the safety zone. You also have resources that will help you. You’ll probably always have medical insurance or a vehicle at your disposal or things like that, so take advantage of that and go ahead and go out on a few limbs. Shoot, I don’t know. There’s nothing that I can say that won’t sound trite or like a fucking cliché. I just want to say, just be brave. Just be brave. And trust in yourself. There’s got to be another word, because believe in yourself sounds stupid, that’s like a coffee mug.
But at some point or another eventually some man owns us in some way, no matter how strong or smart or arms-length you are. Someone’s going to own your heart, and that’s a good thing because that means you are capable of fully loving and that’s an important part of being human. Don’t let it derail you. I’ve watched my life get derailed by stupid love affairs and I’ve watched my own daughter lose a couple months here and there to questioning herself and her emotional integrity or her intellectual integrity because some guy is just fucking her around. Sometimes it’s not intentional, sometimes you’re just collateral in their own defense mechanisms. At some point we all run into that with other human beings.
We go inside and sit on the living room floor in this big red house in Seattle that neither of us can call home.
She lays out my tarot cards.