February 13, 2013

"On the Island of Midnight Margaritas" by Lea Graham

I come for midnight margaritas.  I come to dance. This is what I softly repeat to myself each time I watch Denise Di Novi’s 1989 Practical Magic in which a pivotal scene captures a family of beautiful witches dancing around their kitchen island to “Put the Lime in the Coconut.” They shoot tequila in their pj’s, sing and lean into each other.  They comically insult and tell truths about one other.  To me, it’s a pop cultural version of the Eleusinian mysteries, sans buried pig. The women are joyous, sensual, candid and there’s something spiritual in the whimsy of this tiny episodic arc in which we learn a haunting, possessive man is about to create chaos in their lives. But before this knowledge is revealed, Sally, played by Sandra Bullock, playfully swivels her hips as she descends the stairs to join the dance; Nicole Kidman’s character, Gillian, purses her lips in simulated seduction.  Diane Wiest’s Aunt Jet raises her arms in a sexy hallelujah, and she and Aunt Frances, played by Stockard Channing, recite the margarita recipe like a spell with gusto, sending the blender whirring.  The spirits imbibed are commensurate to the rapturous spirit of multi-generational female intimacy and play. 

Watching this scene both comforts me and reminds me of my own versions of this occasional, feminine joie de vivre.  Chilaquiles and Malbec around a Cape fire pit.  Awakening to accusations of missing communion wine after a night repeated in “Tangled Up in Blue” and dirty pool.  Skinny-dipping, a dozen women and one upstate New York night yelling into a July moon.  A beach in Cadiz and photographs featuring our mugs behind signs written in Sharpie:  You wish you were this badass.  The sun rising, glinting on the Twin Towers after dancing, palm reading and falafel. Days and nights of revelry alongside hard truths told and heard.  Occasions when my women friends have dispelled both my lonesomeness and my loneliness temporarily.

I prefer the word “lonesome” to “lonely.”  I am a lonesome woman.  I feel alone often, with or without people around.  I image this feeling through various rooms I’ve lived and worked in:  my bedroom on Wedington Drive where I memorized Casey Kasem’s Top Forty Countdown each week and read anything I could find.  My grandparents’ farmhouse attic where I slept amidst milk crates of National Geographic and Reader’s Digest, the papery combs of wasp nests studding each corner.  A basement office window that looked out onto a sidewalk from which I could hear student chatter and heels click into evenings when I worked late.  From my current apartment in which freight train whistles systematically cut across the Hudson River, organizing each night’s silence. 

I have learned that this feeling I live with, the schism between the world and me, has little to do with other people.  Or I should say, I am in the process of learning this.  If I am being honest, I often wish for boundless acceptance, comfort and companionship, conversation and silence in just the right measure.  In wishing to staunch this loneliness, I am almost always wishing for the impossible.  Or at least wishing for something I can’t name.  Yet, it is this schism that attracts and keeps me longing for those momentary, intimate and celebratory occasions with other women—occasions that I know can’t solve my current or future lonesomeness beyond a night. 

When I tell my friends about writing this essay, they smirk or chuckle, then smile almost sadly.  They remind me that the movie ends typically with a man emerging from the wings.  They tell me that midnight margaritas aren’t the whole story and that the powerful freedom the women exhibit in revelry (and in exorcism, later in the movie) is subverted by the happily-ever-after of Sandra Bullock’s and Aidan Quinn’s romantic union.  My friends remind me that in chick flicks women alone are never enough.

In looking up the difference between “lonesome” and “lonely” in the Oxford English Dictionary I’m not surprised that the former is defined by “having a feeling of loneliness,” while the latter means “to have no companionship or society.”  The feeling of alone versus being alone.  I know that my preference for “lonesome” embodies the mystery, a feeling that might or might not be an actuality.

When I trace back my lonesomeness, I can’t locate a narrative that fully embodies it.  The closest I come is to a memory of riding shotgun as my mother drove afternoons through Ft. Smith, Arkansas, between tennis lessons and shopping, singing along to the Carpenters on the radio.  There was something about her harmonizing to “Yesterday Once More” and “We’ve Only Just Begun,” that told me what she couldn’t.  It has only been in the last few years that I have realized that that was the summer just before she left my father.  It must have been during that period that he told her he loved another woman.  I think about the silent lack I felt during those drives, the Arkansas humidity, Karen Carpenter’s clear, wistful voice and my young, beautiful mother, lonesome and alone in her heartbreak and choices.  While pieces of the over-arching story of my parents’ divorce have been supplied over the years, that initial silence and song continue to shape my definition of this feeling that is a part of me.

The summer my own divorce became legal, I decided to walk a portion of the medieval pilgrimage, the Camino de Santiago Compostela.  I arrived in Spain not knowing what to expect, spending my first jet-lagged days restless with questions about what seemed a crazy mission.  Could I walk the 117 kilometers alone? Could I find lodging each night without reservations?  Would this journey help me?

On the second day, hiking from Pontedeume to Betanzos, I experienced a light-heartedness that is still hard to describe.  I walked beneath grape arbors, through open fields and cedar stands, past gardens where the belladonnas were as big as my head.  I sang Bob Dylan songs. I propped my feet up on my pack like an old pro.  I peed in the tall grass.  I lunched on strawberries, yogurt and fresh bread. I spent the day alone, but never lonesome.

When I arrived in Betanzos with burning feet (uneducated at that point about liner socks and Vaseline), I immediately saw a sign for a men’s wear shop carrying the same first name as my ex.  As I turned to decide which street looked most auspicious for hostels, I noticed that the jewelry shop next door bore his last name.  What had been a day where I joyfully companioned myself turned briefly into a reminder of the loss of a thirteen-year marriage.  I slept fitfully that night on a damp bed in a shadowy albergue. When I left the next morning, walking once again past the two shops, I stopped to ask directions.   The man told me vehemently and roughly in Spanish:  “No, not this way! You must go in the opposite direction.”  These were the magic words. My gloom abruptly ended and I headed off for Bruma, a ten-hour walk, feeling as if I was journeying into the wilds of glorious future rather than signs of past sorrow.

The theme of loneliness and lonesomeness is evident from the past sorrow in the opening tale in Practical Magic. Aunt Frances narrates the history of Maria, the first Owens witch, who is pregnant with her married lover’s child. She escapes hanging because of her magical gifts, but is exiled to an island off Massachusetts.  Consequently, her exile takes place on Maria’s Island—as if she was being sent away into herself.  Her name becomes a place that is simultaneously lonely and powerfully autonomous. It is both isolating punishment and freedom from repression.  This double-ness is also the legacy that her descendants receive.

Maria’s punishment by the community not only recalls the Salem Witch Trials, but also the ancient myth of the Medusa, who is punished for defiling Athena’s temple after being raped by Poseidon. Her hair, the source of her beauty and competition with the goddess, is turned serpentine. Anyone who dares to look upon her is turned to stone.  It is also Athena who commissions Perseus to cut off her head, the image of which adorns her battle shield after the beheading. 

Both Maria and the Medusa are sexually abandoned or violated by men.  They are exiled, re-imaged and renamed by women.  The townswomen both shun the Owens witches and seek them out when suffering from love sickness.  Athena arranges for Medusa’s murder only to capture the Gorgon’s stone-turning image on a shield, a talisman to vanquish the goddess’s enemies.  The townswomen and Athena, perpetrators of the exile and violence, recognize the power of their sister victims.  They understand them as negative doubles of themselves.  They must exact punishment to assert their identities within the patriarchal order (Dumoulie’). The end result is not just spiritual or physical death for our victims, but a legacy of ostracism: bitch, prude, crazy, slut, feminist.

In Gillian’s life on the road, we find her dancing by the pool in a group of men and consorting with the sexy bad boy.  She is living la vida loca. This narrative is what Belden C. Lane, in Landscapes of the Sacred, categorizes as “freedom of movement, joie de vivre…’space at its best’” (222).  She has escaped the name-calling and finger pointing, the fixed place of her eccentric childhood.  She has traded her close-knit family of magic women for transience and the wilds of men and open highway. 

In contrast, Sally’s stationary life with her aunts and then with a husband and children embodies the comfort of “place” or “the myth of the small town” (222).  She yearns for what she calls “normal”—the domestic structure that she finds briefly for herself and which also pacifies the town.

Both sisters want intimacy and acceptance, but yearn for it in different ways, in different terrains.   Both also experience the opposite pole of space and place: the “fear of being lost in space” and the “revolt against the village”(222).  Gillian’s freedom becomes the terror of being far from home with a violent, possessive boyfriend.  Sally’s domestic comfort within the town turns to rejection once her husband dies. It is only when the spirit of Jimmy Angelov, the evil boyfriend, possesses Gillian that a coven is formed with townswomen.  They arrive at the house with brooms, excited curiosity and varying degrees of empathy.  The intimacy and acceptance that the sisters have longed for is manifested, at least temporarily, in this scene of exorcism, where clasping bloodied palms, “Your blood, my blood, our blood” is the spell that breaks the curse. Gillian is restored to herself and the Owens women are free to find romantic love without the premature death of their lovers.

While this scene renders the ritual as ersatz, it also provides comfort.  I am reminded that rom-coms and the act of watching them are ritualistic.  There’s a pattern to be followed. Renewal by the end.  A community that is formed or forming. Conversely, I wonder if lonesomeness and loneliness are the by-products of our lack of meaningful ritual—the kind of ritual that allows for who and what we truly are, in all of our ambiguities.

I’m both comforted and conflicted in the resolution of the movie. I know that acceptance and union are dubious, puzzling and often, ugly states.  Still, I query the power of even ephemeral female unity. Even Hollywood-rendered unity seems momentarily gratifying.  Perhaps, even within commercial production, there is recognition that the power we have to soothe and celebrate matches our power to isolate each other. Even as ersatz ritual, a need is met and lonesomeness subsides.  I’ll play Athena, you be the Medusa.

I began writing this essay from a wintry island where the sea foam flutters as the tide goes out.  During night walks, I turn stone cold and study the full moon, having learned recently that it was often referred to as the “Gorgon’s head” in Orphic poems.  I consider the place itself, the books I’ve brought and morning NPR reports as companions.  I sometimes talk to crows at the window. There is no man waiting in the wings. I am in between convivial gatherings with my women friends.  For whatever reason, I am not lonesome here even though I am alone in a small, borrowed trailer-turned-apartment.  I've found, momentarily, a space that might be sacred. 
Works Cited

Lane, Belden C.  Landscapes of the Sacred: Geography and Narrative in American Spirituality.  Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.  Print.

Dumoulie’, Camille.  “Medusa in Myth and Literary History.” Modern American
Poetry.  30 December 2012.  On-line.

Lea Graham is the author of Hough & Helix & Where & Here & You, You, You (No Tell Books, 2011) and of the chapbook, Calendar Girls (above ground Press, 2006).  Her poems, translations and reviews have been published or are forthcoming in journals such as Sentence, Southern Humanities Review and Fifth Wednesday. She is an Assistant Professor of English at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, and a native of Northwest Arkansas.

1 comment:

pardoc05 said...

Wonderful essay ! I especially like the part about seeing your ex's names and being told to head in the other direction. This is an inspiring and "airy" piece (IMHO), yet it also has an inexplicable feeling of groundedness. Thanks for sharing! <3