Caitlin’s Story: The Magic Woman of The Forest …
“The magic woman of the forest prepares to battle the evil lily pads.” I was a freshman in college and working as a grip for a senior’s BFA film project, which meant sitting with ten other grips on a once-white sofa that smelled of stale beer, ignoring the history of sexual acts preformed on it, to which I had been the unfortunate witness during the year’s smattering of parties held at this bachelor pad (now film set), code-named the “Flamingo.”
It was day two and still none of us had touched a light, a sandbag, or anything remotely resembling film equipment. We were playing word games. Occasionally the art designer would run through the room, covered in orange paint or shouting at the sleeping art team for more chicken wire. The assistant director would stop in from time to time asking if we were hungry. One or two people would look up at the noise and, like checking the caller I.D. to see that it was only mom, would put their heads back down—the message machine would get it.
Our current game involved strips of paper folded into eight sections. In a circle, each of us held one in our laps. In the first blank box, we wrote a sentence, then passed it to the person to our right, who drew an interpretive picture of it, only to fold the sentence down, leaving just the picture remaining. Then, the papers would be passed again. A sentence would be written about the drawing. The drawing would be folded, hidden and the new sentence would be passed—a chain of blind interpretations.
My friend Anna had just passed me a picture of a forest. In-front of it an angry, slender figure, with pointed ears, slanted eyes, tight clothing and a bandana stood in an on-guard manner—like Nicole Ritchie trying out for the part of Legolas in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. In front of her lay a row of circles with a random smattering of dots on each. I wrote: “The magic woman of the forest prepares to battle the evil lily pads.” I passed it.
When all eight boxes were filled and the papers completely folded, we’d unravel them into bouts of laughter, God turned into a happy pumpkin and Clive Owen into an albino ghost. Sentences appeared that would remain in our repertoire of quick punch lines: “Hey remember ‘the musical creature in the sky that sang of a time when gas prices were lower’ or ‘the sad dog with an udder who was surprised when his ass turned into a fan and fall commenced?'” We would unfold these nonsensical chains of strange sentences and crude drawings in fits of hysterical chuckles. Favorites were passed around. We gathered our heads close to see how our minds could lead each other astray. The boy in the white-striped shirt, who was obese as a child and, as a result, could stretch his neck skin out like a lizard if you got him drunk or bored enough, laughed, but it wasn’t like the other times—he looked at me. He passed his paper to the next person, a mousy girl, raised in a hippie commune in Maryland, whose hair always smelled like pot. She also looked at me and started laughing. The paper continued its vicious path, until it reached my friend Anna. “Oh my gosh!” She said in her rounded Pittsburgh accent: “Caitlin!” She handed me the sheet of paper.
The first box read: “The young man sets off down the path:” the beginning was normal enough. Below it, someone drew a small stick figure, whose eyes were fast little dashes, giving him a hastened, angry look. The head was a small and drawn quickly, the two ends of the circle didn’t meet up, one overlapped the other at the forehead, like a headband. The path before the figure was comprised of round stones with little dashes, perhaps for rough, visual effect.
The fascinating part about this game is that every person—just as one reads from left to right—draws from left to right. The man appeared first in the sentence, so he was drawn on the left, the path, being last, stretched out to the right. Often mysterious patterns and continuities are carried from drawing to drawing, simply by the structure of the connecting sentences, without any visual information needed. From the first drawing alone, I knew where it led: “The magic woman in the forest prepares to battle the evil lily pads.” What was so funny? I saw the sentence that connected the first drawing, to the one I had interpreted. The sentence read: “Elijah Knowles emerges out of the woods following the pizza path” “Oh my god.” I let my head rest in my hands. I laughed in a nervous, last resort kind of squeal. We all were.
“Oh no. Oh no. Don’t let him see this!” I shook my head. I was dating Elijah Knowles. I was dating the magic woman of the forest and, in that moment, I knew I wouldn’t be for much longer. That instant had finality like the edge of paper; there was no more room. We had been a series of moments strung together, evolving into an obscurity of missed cues and old expectations hanging dry on someone else’s clothesline.
We had started dating after a drunken hook-up in the Flamingo’s skuzzy basement with fifty other film kids loving-up on each other in the dark. A week before, Elijah had professed his love to me in that same house, while the world rolled and sloshed with cheap vodka and the bodies of people I don’t remember. There were at least eight of us tipping and rolling on that white couch, trying to find steady ground. The music was loud and he shouted in my ear: “I really like you!” I screamed back: “Great, but do you mind that I am in love with someone else?” In the morning he didn’t remember. A week later, with enough rum inside my stomach to set the entirety of Boston ablaze, I decided to try to forget the “boy back home” and there was Elijah: available with a decent sense of humor and the aloof aura of an on-campus celebrity.
He was freakishly devoted to film lighting, spewing out facts about aperture, rigs and light temperature. In the microcosm of our school’s film department, he was a rising star. I got a cheap thrill from the second-hand attention. “Whose the special person?” Lanky boys would ask as we passed them in the dormitory hallways. They’d walk off smirking and sometimes even give Elijah a high-five. I let myself become a thing attached to his arm.
Along with all the film crew boys, Elijah adopted the uniform of tight, ball-breaking, hipster pants, topped off with a bandana tied around his head. He had a small frame, exaggerated by his form-fitting fashion statement, hence, the magical woman of the forest. It was no secret that I could pick him up—I consistently won our wrestling matches. Yet somehow I was attracted to the angst he exuded. When I first met him, he had a pink splotch of dye in his hair, just because he was bored one day, and two lip piercings that said: “fuck you” to his southern gentleman upbringing. Standing next to each other we looked like cruel joke, a Saturday Night Live scenario of a hippied-out Anna Nicole Smith dating a thirteen-year-old Jet Li after a bad day at the body-piercing parlor.
None of this bothered me. I folded it out of sight and kept playing. I continued writing secret letters to the boy back home. Elijah and I became official. We had sex. Terrible sex. Sex with Elijah was a fluorescent lights on, dorm room, make-it-quick-so-the-guy-next-door-doesn’t-hear affair. We had a routine, from who took their pants off when, to which breast he mouthed first. One day, at lunch with his friends, a loud girl in a purple jacket started talking about prude couples “who only fucked in the missionary position.” I choked on my soup. When I think of good sex, my mind always goes to the scene in the fourth season of the Sopranos when Tony bones the BMW sales woman in the nocturnal exhibit at the Zoo. They’re exposed, right out there with the snakes, bats, and hedgehogs, school groups threatening to turn the corner at any moment. He penetrates her and they move back and forth for a moment. Then she looks at him and says “Stop, just stop.” Tony is confused but does. They pause, arched, shaking, feeling that high of nerves, joy and fear that surges through the skydiver before leaping out into thin chance, about to know the world as a destination, a death, a home-safe, all the while wondering if they are about to see as God sees, giving themselves over to prayer and a parachute. All that next-door to the lions, the food court and the howling monkeys, all that from the absence of movement. The bizarre, the savoring, the slowness—that is sensuality.
Sex with Elijah was more like making love to a paint mixer. Afterward, I associated it with the machine gun sound-effect little boys like to make with their mouths: eah-eah-eah-eah-eah-eah-eah-eah-eah-eah-eah! Finish. Once I tried. Once I said: “Stop. Slow down.” “Why?” He said and continued. Not only was he afraid of discussing or experimenting with sex, but he was afraid of others knowing we had sex. Despite the “signal” system we set up with his roommate, whenever we heard a knock on the door, he’d jump into his clothes, stick a sweatshirt on me and open the door, like nothing had happened or would happen. We had to schmooze with his friends and entertain his perpetually stoned roommate, unfulfilled, still smelling of sweat and cum, me, braless with my hair in tangles.
A knock would sound. He’d freeze. “Let them knock.” I’d say. “No. Let’s just stop.” “Why?” I’d ask. “I just don’t want them to know.” “Know that we’re having sex?” I asked. “Yeah.” He’d say like I was finally getting it. “But they do know.” “Yeah,” He’d say “but not right now.” “Is now not a good time?” I’d ask, but the sweatshirt would already be over my head. The door would open. It reminded me of the time my grandmother confessed to me how my grandfather refused to be seen buying toilet paper: “Everyone shits!” she said indignantly. I refused to see the problem. The rest of the story is textbook-bad relationship material: I started neglecting my friends. I realized he was an alcoholic. I cleaned up his puke on numerous occasions. During his southern upbringing, he also picked up what the south is trying desperately to leave behind: racism, bigotry and misogyny. I ignored it all.
Why? How could so many poor decisions line themselves up without my intervention? I now realize that something bigger was happening: I was unhappy. Not just unhappy with my relationship, but with my lifestyle as a whole. I didn’t like my school, my city or the path I seemed to be careening down at lightning speed. I used Elijah in every definition of the term. I used the physical closeness of our relationship, despite its shortcomings, as a crutch. I used him as a doll: an arm to hold me and a body to sleep next to me. I used the semblance of our relationship as a mask of normalcy. I used him to forget the past, but it still nagged at me: when we kissed on the subway, when we ran across the frozen pond throwing snowballs, before we fell asleep at night. He was a distraction and an abstraction.
It scares me how easily I let myself fall into such a negative situation. Everyday I thank the fate that brought me to that film set and that word game, the fate that passed me the drawing of the magical woman. It was the sheer bizarreness of the situation, the hilarity of my inability to recognize my own boyfriend, which made me realize I had, in fact, lost the ability to recognize myself.
While this essay is, on one hand, a self-centered, cathartic release, on the other, I am writing it as a message of hope. Friends confess to me that they date people because they feel they should, because it seems timely, or because there is something greater they don’t want to deal with: insecurities, stress or malcontent. I am writing this as proof that there is a way out, another answer, a new direction.
A year later, I left film school and moved abroad. I am now studying in Europe. I have been to more countries that I can count on my fingers and have learned more about people, relationships and culture than I could have in thirty years at the Flamingo. I learned to face my past and the fact that I am still in love with someone I am not ready to be with. This essay is about valuing the self, more than a relationship and finding definition from within, rather than from another.
This isn’t an anti-love essay. Love is as necessary as breathing, as beautiful as gold light and as exciting as a finger slowly moving down your spine. But love is something that shouldn’t be saved for one other person. It should be practiced everyday. Love should be given and received from friends, family and strangers. Love comes out of every moment if you let it.
After Elijah, I stopped trying to use a relationship as a safe hideaway. I cast away my fear of what others thought and my pre-conceived notions of what was right. It took my grandmother fifty-five years of marriage to conjure up the courage to leave her high school-sweetheart fantasy and realize that she had fallen out of love. She is now with another man and the happiest I have ever seen her.
I don’t date as often, but when I do, it means more. I’ve learned to value myself, my freedom and my feelings. I still sometimes dream about Elijah. He appears, attempting to convince me to take him back. When I wake up, I question my decisions and wonder what would I do if I saw him again. For a moment I feel regret as I picture the moment we kissed in Times Square with large snowflakes falling around us and sticking to our hair, but then I see the magic woman of the forest. I laugh. I work my way up the chain of memory, unfolding the crying, the puke and the bad sex and I know I am done with all of that and that I am ready. I am ready to pour my love into something real. I choose to give my love to today.