I used to have a big extended family. Aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins, grandparents. People I saw pretty much every week my entire life, people I had lived with at times, or who had lived with me, people who I assumed would be my closest friends in adulthood, people who loved and supported and gossiped about me throughout all my weird phases, people who I loved despite having no clue what I liked about them.
And then suddenly they were all gone. Not dead (well, some of them are dead now), just not a part of my life anymore. I wish I could say this in a less vague way, but the truth is I’m not sure what happened. Everyone stopped talking to everyone at the same time and I didn’t understand why. I called a few of the family members I felt closest to, was ignored, saw that I was blocked by them on Facebook, and decided to keep myself extracted from the drama. My mom (who had never stopped talking to me) explained the specifics (something about eviction threats, possibly fake cancer, and a blow-up doll purchased on someone else’s credit card). It felt pretty run of the mill for our family. I mean, there had always been a few thousand reasons to dislike one another, but so what? Family is messy, annoying, and an endless futile exercise in accepting other people’s unpleasantness, and the Martin family was a beautiful example of that.
Pretty much simultaneously, for reasons unrelated to the family situation (partially because my dad wasn’t “family” as I defined it) (but possibly unconsciously tied to my lifelong love of irony) (or maybe because I’m a shitty Martin and therefore gravitate to the most dramatic and inconvenient timing for everything), I decided to cut my dad out of my life. I had first met him when I was sixteen, and immediately knew it wasn’t a great fit. But I gave it the Ol’ Eight Year Strained Effort, tried to find ways to deal with his narcissistic personality and emotional manipulation, made an honest (regrettable) effort to change who I was, and then decided to just fucking give up.
But I didn’t ghost my dad the way my family had ghosted me—not that I wasn’t tempted to be gone without a word. I tried to talk to him about it, told him I needed time away from him so I could figure out how to address our problems. “Maybe we can talk again in the future,” I said, unsure if I meant it. But apparently my dad did not have the same approach to handling rejection as I did. He harassed me daily, threatened me, and simply did not accept my decision. I was patient in re-explaining my reasons for it, sobbing while answering his emails for months, before finally getting the courage to start ignoring him.
His behavior made me feel vindicated in my neutral response to my family’s disengagement from my life. I was giving them space. Space is what they needed to get over this temporary drama and realize they loved me as well as each other, and then things would go back to normal. We’d get together for Christmas again. We’d yell at each other about stuff that didn’t matter and then just move on, never feeling the need to apologize or be apologized to. Someone would start watching golf at the highest volume in the middle of dinner. One of my uncles would give one of the children pot or alcohol and only I would see him do it, and I would tell my mom or one of my aunts and she would save that information as leverage for a future argument with my uncle, or the child’s mom, or even the child. It was gonna be so great.
In the meantime, I had art, and the ability to design fictional characters on which I could project my emotional turmoil. I began writing Mickey . I created a protagonist obsessed with her on-again off-again boyfriend, obsessed with the nature of “on-again-off-again,” which in its nature is always either coming or going, always needing to be defined and therefore something that perpetuates its own existence. It was an outlet to think about what it means to have a role in someone else’s life, how permanent or impermanent it is, what influence one has over what that role is, or how it is perceived, or how important it is.
It was cathartic for me to write this character, to have control over her messy world. And I made it very messy. I relished making her manipulate and confuse Mickey. I imagined their relationship similarly to how mine had been with my family: terrible, but not for any good reason. A horribly dysfunctional version of love, but love nonetheless, consistent in its dysfunction, unconditional in its desire to perpetuate the dysfunction. Dysfunction you could count on.
But I still hadn’t heard from my family, and it had been years. It was actually starting to really hurt. I still hadn’t been unblocked, and they still hadn’t returned my calls from years ago. I wondered, for the first time in earnest, if everyone had really stopped loving each other, if it was too late to make amends. What kind of person am I, really, to pretend not to notice that my family suddenly wants nothing to do with me? I wondered if I had made a mistake by giving them space, if they had been waiting for me to extend a hand, to offer my love without the promise of love in return, the selfless kind of love reserved for family.
My dad kept finding ways to reach me, even though by this point I had changed my phone number and blocked his email addresses. I could not seem to effectively abandon him.
I felt that I had flubbed both situations. I did a horrible job at both being abandoned and abandoning someone. I had tried to be accepting of other peoples’ actions, or absences, or rejections of my absence, tried to walk this perfect line between not caring what people thought about me, but still trying to be receptive of their feelings, but defend my own feelings also, and it had all gone completely wrong.
I put these feelings into Mickey . The narrator broke up with Mickey but flubbed the breakup, unsure of what she wanted but wanting to control the outcome anyway. I did some rearranging and put their breakup at the beginning of the book. The rest of the story would be the fallout from that decision, every new stress and problem colored with the knowledge that she had brought this on herself. But while reading over my in-progress draft one day, suddenly these lines stuck out to me:
I AM SURE THAT ONE DAY I WILL BE A GREAT ARTIST.
I’LL BE SO SUCCESSFUL THAT YOU’LL BE AFRAID TO TALK TO ME.
AND I’LL STILL BE AFRAID TO TALK TO YOU, TOO.
I didn’t remember writing those lines (not that I normally have vivid memories of writing) but I did remember copying and pasting from my “notes” document to my “draft” document the day before. They were funny, I thought, but didn’t actually make a lot of sense in context of the book. My narrator wasn’t afraid to talk to Mickey. She went out of her way to find inopportune times to communicate with him. And she wouldn’t have been addressing anyone else. No one else, at that stage of the book, mattered to her. The only person she could be addressing was Mickey but, again, that didn’t make sense.
What was the book trying to tell me? I wondered, as if my Word document had suddenly turned into tea leaves. What was the book trying to be about?
I realized that the narrator could (like me) be trying to deal with her feelings about something without dealing with them directly at all, and without realizing it, without understanding the source of her feelings. Maybe someone had hurt her, but she didn’t have the tools to deal with the hurt directly, forcing her to project the confused feelings onto Mickey. So Mickey turned into a love triangle, sort of. An untraditional one, without a clear definition of “love,” and with an inactive third party: the narrator’s mysteriously absentee mom.
Mickey was now not only an outlet for my familial troubles, but an outlet for how I was processing those troubles, and how shitty and sad I felt to be processing them this way. The art itself, the art that I felt was helping me through this time in my life, was becoming my unhealthy way to deal with interpersonal problems, i.e. attempting to reach an artistic and intellectual understanding of a situation before attempting to solve the problem, i.e. focusing only on myself, i.e. never really trying to solve anything actually.
A few months ago one of my cousins tried to re-friend me on Facebook without a word. I felt newly pissed for having been unfriended by her years before, and pissed again because she thought she could come back without apologizing, or addressing the situation, or even saying hi. And I was pissed that I was being forced to make the next move, having no more information about her perspective or reasoning for ignoring my calls and texts and unfriending me than I ever had. I considered wordlessly ignoring the request, losing nothing I hadn’t already lost. I considered accepting the request but saying nothing and then stalking her page for clues. I considered writing an all-caps message demanding to know what had happened, why everyone seemed to hate me, why she had wanted me out of her life for all these years.
I clicked ‘accept’ impulsively. I guess I still loved her.
“Hi,” I wrote, and clicked send.