Getting Better

by Stephanie Rogers

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding

How strange to return to a place unchanged, only to find how you yourself have changed.
Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom

“The magic of the Beatles is their perpetual capacity for self reinvention and innovation. In 1965, ‘We Can Work It Out’ and ‘Day Tripper’ were released as double A-side singles, which actually never existed before that moment in late 1965. This,” my professor said, tousling his hair excitedly, “this is the height of the Lennon/McCartney duo, in form, creativity, and collaboration.”

My professor was a dead ringer for Zach Braff. I like Zach Braff okay, but fleeting celebrity resemblance still isn’t enough to keep me engaged in class.

I sighed and lowered my head onto my desk, feeling defeated. I couldn’t care less about double A-side singles, truth be told. It was Monday morning, and I was trapped in the basement of the music department, head still sloshing with vodka from the night before. Why did I think that drinking half a handle on a Sunday night was a good idea? It was board game night, not Friday night. Why did I think that coming to class was a good idea? My stomach was roiling.

I need a fucking bloody Mary, I thought angrily.

“Miss Rogers?”

My head jerked up. “What?”

“We were discussing next week’s presentations. Have you picked your album yet?”

“Oh, uh…Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” I mumbled, looking at my shoes.

“Excellent. We look forward to it.” Zach Braff narrowed his eyes at me. “Class is dismissed.”

I never should have gotten out of bed.

Later, I flopped onto my bed and opened my diary. April 18, 2013, I scrawled in big letters across the top.

Today is my last today of being a teenager. Should twenty feel like a big deal? I wrote. I set my pen down and stared out the window. My hangover had barely let up. I didn’t think that hitting decade number two on planet Earth would suck so bad. Almost twenty. Never had a boyfriend. Almost twenty. Hair can’t hold a curl.

The house I was renting was over a hundred years old. It was beautiful during the day, all arched windows and sprawling Southern-style porch, but by night it was scary. I heard singing from the basement. There was a trapdoor in my bedroom to the basement, out of which anything might emerge. Rats lived in the walls.

Both of my roommates had boyfriends, who stayed over almost nightly. I heard Audrey and Alex giggling through the walls, April and Peter whispering in intimate tones at midnight. Usually, I was in my room eating ramen by myself, stoned, listening to the rats scurry in the walls and waiting nervously for the ghostly music to start up again. The house was built in a circular pattern, all the rooms flowing into each other, so I had to pass through two hallways, the kitchen, and the living room to get to the bathroom. At midnight, I rarely had the courage. Sometimes, I was so scared and full of water that I was forced to pee in a plastic cup that I kept hidden inside my closet.

Almost twenty, peeing in a cup because I was still afraid of ghosts. No wonder I didn’t have a boyfriend.

I wanted to be in love. I wanted it more than anything else in the human world. Love was like a secret handshake, the password into a room where life was full of infinite possibilities. I watched my friends with their significant others, the way boys would lay their heads on their girlfriends’ shoulders at the end of a long day, the intimacy of touch. I wanted to sit in the golden room, bask in the spotlight of the most important feeling in the world. The early Beatles are all about love. Before they started doing LSD, I want to hold your hand, eight days a week, she loves you, yeah yeah yeah!

I wanted to sit in the golden room where everything was perfect and nothing hurt.

I wanted to be in love.

I wanted perfect hair. I hated everything about myself, then. The way I couldn’t keep my head up in my Beatles class, and the fact that I had to drink in order to stay calm in any given situation. My eyebrows were too dark and thick. Turning twenty had done nothing to make me understand my hair better. All I knew was that I needed bangs to cover my eyebrows. No one could tell me that my eyebrows looked like caterpillars if they never saw them. I was always messing with my hair—twisting it around irons and barrels, spraying Sun-In at the roots, braiding it with mousse to give it body. Nothing worked. It just lay there. Not unlike me. When I first moved to Asheville for college, I tried to backcomb it to the root and force it into dreadlocks. Of course, that didn’t work either.

The night before my Sergeant Pepper’s presentation was due, I decided it might be a good idea to actually listen to the album. I rolled a joint, lay down on the Oriental rug in my room with an ashtray, and put the record on. That night, I fell in love a little bit. I’d always liked the Beatles— everyone likes them—but that was the first Beatles record that didn’t belong to my parents, my professor, or anyone else. It belonged to me. Lying there in a cloud of marijuana smoke and drifting through my own world in my scary, hundred-year-old house with ghosts and creaky floorboards, I listened to each track: the spliced madness of “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” the bizarre, melodic lilt of “Fixing A Hole,” the orchestra strings in “She’s Leaving Home.” And of course, “A Day In The Life”—a song so monumentally important to the history of music that we’d had an entire reading assignment dedicated specifically to its intricate production and cultural significance.

The one I liked best, oddly, was “Getting Better.” It’s a Lennon/McCartney song, but not a particularly interesting one; certainly not as seamless a collaboration as “Day Tripper” or “We Can Work It Out.” But something about it just struck me.

It’s getting better all the time, sings Paul.

No, it can’t get much worse, retorts John.

I set my clock forward three weeks ago, and while the daylight faded in gold and pink through the marbled glass through my window, I felt like maybe I was getting better. I might learn to curl my hair this year. I might become someone who didn’t have to drink to feel at ease, and sat straight up in class and never got hangovers. Maybe, I would become the kind of person who lay on her Oriental rugs and listened to a new record each week. Maybe I would become the kind of person who was happy.

That night, my friend Kate invited me to play kickball on the quad with some of her friends. I didn’t know Kate very well, but with a presentation merely hours away, I was looking for any possible means to distract myself. And I liked going places late at night. I liked getting into cars feeling like I was going somewhere, caught up in something much larger than myself. That night was the first night that felt like spring—warm, damp, fragrant with flowers, stars deepening in soft, violet twilight. I rode my bike to campus, kicked off my shoes, and introduced myself to her friends. Kate was friends with people that read Karl Marx and talked a lot about overthrowing the government. Most of them were straight edge, a term in the punk community applied to people who do not drink or take drugs. And they were funny.

There was Chris, an aspiring future filmmaker. He was skinny, pale, with slightly buggy eyes and a crop of dark curls. I knew him vaguely from one of my theory classes. There was Jozef, a poetry major of Polish descent. I knew him from my literature classes. He was always hunched over some obscure Kafka book in the hallways of the Lit Department. And there was someone I had never seen before.

“This is Jamie,” said Kate, gesturing in the direction of a boy with a slight frame and dark, slicked-back hair.

There are certain moments that burn like film in my mind, an empty center on the edge of experience, to which I return again and again. A photograph obscured by fingerprints, touched so much it’s disappeared altogether. I don’t remember the color of his eyes, or what I was wearing, or the words we exchanged. But when I looked at him, I knew that something was about to begin.

Our shouts echoed on the empty quad as we breathlessly ran bases, skinned knees, and punted the half-flat rubber ball all the way to exam week. When Chris said, “Let’s go to the observatory to look at the stars,” we all eagerly assented.

We climbed the hill to the observatory, from which you could see all of Asheville and its flickering lights. I peeled off from the group to go look at the stars alone. I was thinking of the twin paradox, a thought experiment in which one twin is sent to space for a year, while the other one stays on earth. When the first twin returns, he finds that everyone on earth has grown old, but he has aged only a year. This is because time moves differently, depending on where you are in the universe at any given moment.

“Hi,” said a voice, and I jumped. It was Jamie.

“Hi,” I replied, startled.

He looked at me directly. “Do you ever think about space?”

“All the time,” I said.

“Me too,” he said, lying down on the ground with one arm beneath his head, like a pillow. “All those lights we see are from stars that are already dead. When I look at the sky, I feel like I’m looking at the future, but it’s really just like looking backward.” He turned to me, and smiled. That night, Jamie and I stayed up until five in the morning, long after all our friends had gone to bed. We watched French New Wave films on his tiny television set and kissed. I woke up in his bed the next morning to a light drizzle of rain in the mountains beyond.

His sheets were pastel pink. I was twenty years old.

It was strange, at first, being with someone who didn’t drink or take drugs. Many of my friendships in college were founded on the principle that swallowing tabs of acid together was the epitome of a meaningful experience. The last two years had been all Friday nights, swallowing hard liquor in locked bathrooms just to carry on a conversation. In those moments, I felt emptied of everything, a foreign body unto myself. I hated not being able to stand still in my own skin, but at the same time, I craved self-erasure. I didn’t want to know myself. I just wanted to become someone else.

And what better way to explore oneself, to rise from one’s own ashes, than falling in love? I loved being in love! College classes were dull, but being someone’s girlfriend was endlessly fascinating. I bought black Converse high tops to match his, and enthusiastically downloaded any music he showed me. In his warming light, my world became new again. I saw the familiar unfamiliar times, riding my bike home from Jamie’s apartment at strange, liminal times, early morning, when the sky looked like sherbet and steam rose from the asphalt in hot, translucent waves. Every day, I sat dreamy through class. Slid handfuls of change across the gas station counter in exchange for a Styrofoam cup of black coffee. I listened to Magical Mystery Tour, then The White Album. My grades went up, and my vodka stayed untouched in my freezer. Each night, I went to Jamie’s, where we would curl up to the couch to kiss and watch Godard films as the orange slice of the moon moved upward into the sky, seemingly suspended from string in the ether of twilight. Once a month, I rode my bike to CVS for herbal tea and birth control pills. It was as though the Earth I’d always lived on had finally found an axis around which to turn, and I was the still point at its center.

We bonded over a shared interest in post rock and horror movies, and books by Albert Camus. I often sketched him while he read, and he wrote me poetry all the time. That summer, I went to California for the first time, and worked at a sleepaway camp in the Appalachian Mountains. I called him from Big Sur. I called him every night when my campers were asleep. He wrote me letters from summer school. He mailed me Polaroids his friends took of him, and a page ripped out of his journal that said, “I want to fall asleep in a curtain of her hair.”

My hair. I refused to shower at his house. I didn’t want him to see me with wet hair and bangs pushed back. I worried it might make him love me less. And yet, the thought that we would one day be apart had never entered my mind. I always assumed that when you fell in love, you stayed in love. No one bothered to tell me how love can darken and change, shifting like a snake around its center until it is unrecognizable.

That semester, Jamie dropped out of school, citing money, family stress, and not knowing what he wanted to do with his life. I signed up for classes as usual. I pierced my nose, procrastinated on papers, and drank coffee at midnight. He called me less and less. I was too busy, he said. And maybe I was. I couldn’t have even told you where he worked. One afternoon, we were lying on his mattress on the floor of his apartment, watching the sun set over the mountains.

“I need to tell you something,” he said.

“Okay,” I said.

“I tripped acid last weekend.”

Jamie had broken sobriety. He didn’t want to be bound by legalism, he said, and any form of prescriptive behavior was, in his words, problematic. I didn’t pretend to understand this.

“Aren’t you worried about all the addiction in your family?” I questioned.

“I’m stronger than that now,” he said.

“Okay,” I said.

On Halloween, we shared a homemade gin and tonic at a party at his best friend’s house. We had never drunk together before. That night, as we lay in my bed, I drew him with a piece of charcoal and wrote I love you up the collar of his shirt. He looked at it, folded it up and stuck it in his pocket. Beneath the crust of the same Earth, something, imperceptibly, had shifted.

We still saw each other on weekends, in empty moments, but all he wanted to do now was get high. I began to feel farther and farther away from him, drifting off again in a cloud of marijuana and malcontent. There were no more Polaroids or poetry. Just bong rips and acid trips. He had new friends.

One night we were walking home from the grocery store. I was wearing a long blue skirt I had bought at the thrift store. I never had worn long skirts before. I climbed up on the stone retaining wall beside the sidewalk and stretched my arms wide, head back, feeling the wind lift my hair and skirt. I felt so beautiful, emptied out, blowing away into the autumn night.

“Stop acting like you’re some Greek goddess up there,” Jamie said, without even turning his head. “You’re not.”

“I don’t understand,” I would say to Kate or Jozef on my porch, running my hands through my hair. I mined them for answers. When was the last time you saw him? Did he seem okay? Has he said anything to you? But they never knew what to tell me. We haven’t seen him either, they said. But he’ll come to his senses. He would be crazy not to.

One October night, Jamie and I were sitting in his filthy bathtub, filled with water and lukewarm soap bubbles. “My therapist told me I shouldn’t talk to you anymore,” I said.

He flicked water into my face. “She would be so disappointed if she knew you were here.”

All I could see was his cheap shampoo, oozing pink on unscrubbed caulk. I pulled my knees into my chest.

Don’t cry.

I rode my bike home, again, for the last time. It was dark outside, the new moon barely visible in the indigo sky. Already, the night had grown cold.

There was someone else. That was the only answer. And I knew exactly who it was: Alina, one year younger than me, with beautiful eyes and chocolate brown hair. I had seen them last week on the quad. He was looking at his shoes and smiling, and she was tossing her head back laughing, touching his arm gently. I saw the way he looked up at her, the way she tucked her hair behind her ears. I wasn’t stupid. And I hated her. Alina and her thick, perfect hair, falling in waves down her back. If I could laugh like that, head tossed back and lips parted, Jamie would never have fallen out of love with me. If I had hair like that, none of this would have happened.

“He dumped me,” I said, banging open the door to my house. Audrey was lying on the couch reading a book about the mating habits of insects. “Will you help my bleach my hair?”

I sat on the kitchen floor in my underwear crying while Audrey used a cheap plastic comb from a Walmart kit to soak my hair in bleach. The overhead light was too bright, and the scent of peroxide too pungent.

“You know,” she said softly, as she brushed the bleach through my ends, “you are a strong independent woman who don’t—”

“Need no man, yeah, I get it,” I interrupted her. “Please just keep bleaching it.”

That night, I lay on top of my unmade bed and stared at the ceiling. It was plaster, warped like sea glass and run through with cracks at intervals. I had lit a stick of incense, and my eyes wandered over everything I had taped to the walls—photographs by Ryan McGinley, pages ripped out of art magazines of models and bands that I liked, disposable camera photos of my friends at parties, naked on the beach, smiling with glitter in their teeth. Around my bed were tacked scraps of poetry I had written last year during class, and little paintings I made on printer paper.

And then I stared at myself. What I saw: dark circles, pale skin with freckles coming to the surface, and black, vacant pupils. What I wanted to see: anything else than what was there. I got what I wanted. I had fallen in love. And still, I hated myself.

How strange and exquisite, the process of becoming someone else. How many knots to tie, and how much more must be left behind. To write about love is to write, if only extrinsically, of loss. That first morning in Jamie’s pastel pink bed, I remember looking at him while the rain fell, and thinking, One day, there will be a moment that this is no longer happening. One day, there will be a moment that we cannot be in the same room together.

Why bother with any of it? Why bother to take yourself apart for someone else, from whom you will eventually be estranged, distant as two bodies traveling ever farther away from each other in space? I did not know then, and still I wonder. Some things, their death rattle lasts a lifetime. And yet, there is nothing more beautiful or worthwhile than seeing yourself through the eyes of the one who loves you, even if that too will pass. There were moments in which I felt like the world could have gone on forever, and that in and of itself is saying something.

This is how you do it: you put the letters in a box. You wake up crying every morning for weeks. You eat ice cream during the day and watch the Katy Perry documentary three times in a row, sobbing. You read the letters. You put them back in the box, and put that box on the top shelf of your closet. You go for walks. You bleach your hair. You bleach your hair again. You forget what you look like.

You wear coats, you buy snow boots, you comfort your roommate when she gets fired from her job at the discount grocery store. You take tests, you make flashcards, you stare into space in the library more often than not. You take pictures on your webcam to remember what you look like. You still get confused when you walk by mirrors.

You plant a garden. You start painting again, and the place beside your bed fills up with poetry.

You read Anais Nin and books for school. You occasionally write letters that you know you will never send. You cut the bleach from your hair, and realize, that once again, it is spring.

Stephanie Rogers is a part-time freelance writer and full-time human being. Her work has previously appeared in Asheville Grit, where she writes a personal essay column about sex and relationships. She currently serves as a digital media intern at AVL Today, and as a salon coordinator. She looks forward to publishing a collection of essays that her friends will describe as “a little much.”

About Getting Better—This began three years ago with a single paragraph I wrote before coffee in bed. Since that morning, it has slowly taken form, with the influence of many writers, readers, and close friends.