It wasn’t the first time I felt like I wasn’t in my own body. I sat across from the therapist, unsure if she was real or just a mirage I’d made up in my own head, a pixelated image to entertain me like the characters on TV who felt more real than flesh-and-blood companions. I wanted to reach across the room and poke her, but I knew that was against the rules. What finally did seem real was her diagnosis that I have depersonalization disorder.
I feel depersonalization most when I’m alone, and I felt it least whenever I stood on the busy corner in Seattle, waiting to transfer from one bus to the other on the way to my weekly therapy sessions. Those moments alone but not alone were way less jarring than accompanying myself in a car on a lonely stretch of road, listening to my mouth open and my vocal cords make music, wondering how I was making the shell that encapsulated me produce sound like voodoo magic. Or maybe the shell was really me, and the fake me was the puppeteer pulling the strings. My singing selves only mesh when I belt out the notes in a karaoke bar—the voices and faces staring back at me proof that I stand there before them, and their own voices proof that they hear mine.
I spent the ‘80s, ages three to nine, in a large corner house in Santa Cruz, California—the personified backdrop town of Jordan Peele’s thriller Us about a girl with a mysterious doppelganger. Before that, Mom and I had lived with my dad in a one-bedroom apartment at the end of downtown and in walking distance to the boardwalk. When I was three, my dad threw my mom across that apartment one too many times. Her body shook as she held me on her hip and then turned on her heel out the door. We moved to my grandma’s house on the hill, which she shared with my twelve-year-old uncle, Adam. My room was the laundry room, and Adam had the master on the other end.
Once when I was about five years old, Mom, Uncle Adam and I returned from the beach, where we had jumped from rock to rock at Natural Bridges State Park. Uncle Adam’s tan legs reminded me of Peter Pan as he soared through the air like a graceful wild animal. Whenever he jumped in front of me, he’d turn around and give me one of his goofy grins, with one eyebrow going one way and one going another. His face was the first one I had ever photographed, his features slightly blurry and off to one side. His daily gaze of me, as a boy who wasn’t responsible for me but still enjoyed my company, was my first, longstanding proof of my corporeal body—that I existed as more than a mirage.
When we first got home from our day at the beach, the sand was still in my shoes—the lumps acting as punishment for my need of the sun, of the crashing waves, and the roar of the ocean. I sat out on the step in the backyard, off the doorway that exited from the hall bathroom and next to Adam’s room, and I dumped the punishment on the concrete. I hit the soles of my shoes against the step to make sure all the grains were gone. Then I took my bathing suit off and put a shirt back on, so my back wouldn’t be exposed to anyone or anything that couldn’t keep itself from brushing against me and making my hair stand on end.
While I got the sand out, my eyes saw the potted plant next to me wrap its spider-like arms around my neck like the tentacles of the sea anemones and starfish we saw in the tide pools at Natural Bridges. I sucked in all the air I could find but there wasn’t enough to fill my lungs. It was like standing at the shore and feeling the sand run away from beneath my feet when the water rushed back into the ocean. I broke away from the plant and screamed so loud that Mom rushed through the bathroom and through the open door that led to the back step. She picked me up but I could still feel the plant around my neck. It felt like a spider web and I choked as the tickle engulfed me. Mom put me in the bathtub and I still screamed. She scrubbed my neck with a washcloth and I screamed some more. No matter how hard she cleaned my neck, the spider web was still there. No matter how scared her eyes looked as she tried to comfort me, my throat couldn’t stop pushing the air out so hard that I sounded like a teapot on the stove. It was my second panic attack brought on by a spider hallucination, the first landing me in the hospital when my parents didn’t know the cause. This time, my mom knew my neck was untethered, but she hated my pain all the same.
Grandma’s hall bathroom was scary enough, with the long mirror that almost reached from one side of the wall to the other. I never peed with the door closed and instead waited until I was sure no one was about to walk up or down the hall. Sometimes Uncle Adam did, and he’d close the door as he passed. I wished instead that he’d enter and keep me safe from whatever might appear in the mirror’s reflection.
If the House of Mirrors in the movie Us really existed on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, I might never have set foot on the sand. But, just like Peele’s young Adelaide, who sucked on a red caramelized apple and whistled “Itsy, Bitsy Spider” as she walked off by herself into the dark house, I could very well have made the trek across the boardwalk that she did, in a Thriller t-shirt over scrawny, brown-skinned legs. What she saw in one of the mirrors defied reality, and she ran from the house in terror, forever changed.
I always skipped the Haunted House ride, the closest real boardwalk attraction to the movie’s House of Mirrors, and made my way instead to the Cave Train at the end of the boardwalk. If I was lucky, Uncle Adam sat next to me as the train entered the bowels of the cave—a whole world that existed underground. The cavemen and women moved their arms and turned their heads in amazing twentieth-century feats of gesticulation. Their laughter and merriment came not from their mouths but from the unseen surround sound within the caved walls. They were forced to dance for us, as puppets with no puppet master. Each trip on the Cave Train produced identical results—a dependability in the darkness.
Right before I turned nine, Mom and I moved away but still lived close enough for Grandma’s house to feel like home. Sometimes Uncle Adam drove me to a hole-in-the-wall rental shop for rollerblades, and we made our way up and down West Cliff Drive, which follows the ocean in splendorous curves. We whooshed past walkers, bikers, friends, and lovers—as locals of our own paradise. We looked over our shoulders for confirmation of the other’s progress, stopping occasionally to take in the spray of the ocean. During one stop, we gazed down below at a small beach peppered with sunbathers. Our eyes landed on a group of naked bodies—their breasts and privates saying hello by their presence alone, cutting through the space in between us and almost blinding our vision. Uncle Adam and I looked at each other sheepishly and then continued on, careful next time to stop somewhere less likely for a show.
Santa Cruz always pulled at me, and I moved back to Grandma’s as an adult. Adelaide returned too, at the urging of her husband and children in their summer excursion back to the boardwalk. Adelaide, however, had no desire to return to the place that had haunted her so. At her now-deceased mother’s house, she flattened a spider on the kitchen table, while my adult self let an unwelcome, eight-legged inhabitant take over the hanging lamp in the kitchen, with the iron curly-q’s, until Grandma and Adam came home to reclaim the territory. Uncle Adam had a girlfriend now and didn’t have much time for West Cliff Drive. But he gave me behind-the-wheel training in his red pickup truck, weaving in and out of a neighborhood called The Circles.
Adelaide feared returning to the House of Mirrors, and yet she couldn’t remember why. Something on that boardwalk had altered her that day in her Thriller t-shirt. If she returned, it might come back for her, and yet, she was being pulled, against her will, to the very location that had altered her being.
When I was twenty, shortly before Christmas, Adam and I found ourselves home alone. A house full of empty rooms always felt haunting, and the length from one end of ours to the other was unnervingly winding, with blind corners at every sharp right turn.
That night, we drove to Blockbuster for Edward Scissorhands—his favorite movie—and to Safeway for our own carton of mint chocolate chip ice cream. The dim lighting in the living room felt soothing with him there, and I forgot about the clay mask on the wall gifted to Grandma by her Japanese exchange student—the gaze of which I usually tried to ignore, as I did any gaze from wall art, as if it watched my movements. Adam and I sat on the plush, gold couch as we watched Edward, the titular, not-quite-human character, navigate the suburbs and fall in love. Edward’s magical, falling snow and his finely crafted topiaries paired perfectly with the green- and red-hued ornaments on our giant Christmas tree.
“I’m like Edward,” Adam said. “That’s why I love this movie.”
“He doesn’t know how to act like a normal guy. He’s too sensitive to be friends with the jocks. And he doesn’t say much. But Kim really gets him.”
As the ending credits rolled and the lights on the tree twinkled, Adam and I sat in silence. Then he leaned over and put his head in my lap. I froze.
Grandma always bragged about Adam’s and my special relationship, and how it took a strong woman in his girlfriend Sarah to understand it. When Sarah and Adam got engaged, I spent less time at home, and my homeless boyfriend and I slept in my silver Saab on West Cliff Drive. We woke to the battery-powered alarm clock and I returned home to take a shower before my job at the library. When I got married, to someone else, Adam walked me down the aisle. After my divorce I celebrated a one-month “anniversary” with my gay best friend Ian, utilizing Adam’s hot tub for the purpose. “You would never go in naked, would you?” Adam had asked a few months prior, in reference to himself and my cousins, who had. Instead, I took Ian, first holding his hand as we walked down the frozen grocery store aisle for ice cream.
I always had the nagging feeling that someone had abused me, but I never—or rarely ever—knew who. I tried to conjure up images of my dad acting inappropriately. He fit the bill: a poor, alcoholic womanizer, and, for anyone who believes stereotypes, Black. Or maybe it had been my dad’s father or brother, whom my mom had left me with for a week one summer in Wichita, Kansas. But all I’d remembered from that trip was my stepgrandma’s pancakes, undercooked in the middle, and the chigger bites on my legs.
Then in 2011, during an otherwise normal phone call, my mom said my dad had called child protective services on Adam when I was three—and that her unintentional complicity had haunted her from that day forward. Visions quickly floated before me: Adam flashing me from his bedroom window that overlooked the back porch; putting a paper airplane in his underwear and pulling it out for me to run after and return. “You told me about that in high school,” my best friend said, when I relayed the conversation and its subsequent revelation. I had no memory of ever remembering. But, then, in high school I’d also broached the subject with my grandma, who’d said: “If anything happened, it was your fault for being a flirt.” My three-year-old self now screamed from the nether world, thirty years into the future, and made my ears ring.
She came out for real one night in 2012 after vodka shots at a friend’s neighborhood club, with Skinny Girl wine beforehand. As we returned home and crossed through her front door, my world became fragmented: a flash of crying on the couch; a flash of puking in the bathroom; a flash of rejecting a frozen meal on the coffee table; a flash in the passenger’s seat, with a dark, winding road ahead; a flash in a hospital room with a shot of Ativan coming toward me with the promise of bringing me—the real me—back. Or maybe of putting the real me underground again.
“What was I so upset about?” I asked my friend the next day, as I sat on a rocking chair with a blanket wrapped around my body. “You kept saying, ‘He left me.’”
I longed for the very thing that took away my life.
Two years later, I moved back to Santa Cruz. West Cliff Drive stood a mere two blocks from my rented basement apartment. I walked and rode my bike along the winding path. I jumped from rock to rock in Natural Bridges State Park. I walked along the boardwalk—my eyes looking up at the ever-present gargoyles welcoming riders to the Haunted House. I looked the other way, toward the ocean, at the cavemen and women seated on the Sky Glider, taking in the panoramic views. I walked home with the sand in my shoes, the familiar punishment. I eventually moved away from Santa Cruz again, but the boardwalk is almost as real in my recurring dreams, beckoning me to return.
That three-year-old girl did enter the House of Mirrors. It didn’t exist on the Santa Cruz sand, but she walked through that doorway just the same. She traded places with an identical body and was forced to experience the rest of her life through imitation. The salty air hit her face, but she never really felt it. Her body kept moving, but she was below the boardwalk, and she still doesn’t know how she’ll ever get out. As I drift to sleep, I wonder who the real me is and who’s the imposter. Maybe the real Adelaide will appear by my bed one night with her scissors, dressed in her red jumpsuit, demanding a switch.