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The Soul Makes Room

by Eriana Ktistakis

 
I spent years living in a glass house. Being a glass person. Learning what it means to be so transparent, for people to see right through you. Learning to seem strong and rigid until you shatter into a million pieces. Until you get caught in the flesh of everything around you. 

And then I became opaque.

I found myself more alone than I’ve ever been this year. And maybe the most myself. I met with an old friend and we laid on my bed and sifted through the last three years. She told me about all the boys she’s kissed and the places she’s travelled to and her new job offer. I told her about the dozens of new pill bottles that lined my wardrobe and how I no longer talk to any of my siblings. And when I looked at her and said that it was “liberating,” we laughed harder than I’d laughed in a long time.

I don’t like to look back on my life– on all the times I’ve shattered. It was like clockwork: 12, 15, 18, 21. And every time, the world became filled with shards of me, with all my transparency. With fear and regret and grief and anger. But the last time I splintered, I splintered like a dying star. A concurrent collapsing and expanding that created something so much bigger than itself.
My life fell together in the moments after it most fell apart. 

As the air turned crisp and days became filled with classic carols and new traditions, my grandmother spent an entire night praying. In the morning, she came to me with an outstretched hand and a notification on her phone. It was a name. The name of a doctor in Colorado. Someone who could help me. Call it what you want– a miracle or kismet or her connection to God. But as
I scrolled through the article, I knew she had just handed me my last chance.

I went to church again for the first time in months, and for the first time voluntarily in maybe my whole life. My friend was moving to Texas and holding a παράκληση– a personalized prayer ceremony– for herself. I stood next to her brother, John, in the wooden pews as his grandmother remembered me over the span of minutes— who I was, how she knew my grandfather once, how we spoke together over Easter. She called me beautiful from her wheelchair. John told her she was the most beautiful woman in the world. She laughed at him. I felt loved that day.

The room was freezing. I sat across from Dr. Goldberg in my jean shorts and tank top and ignored the hunger digging into my stomach. I told her about the years I spent in and out of the hospital, about all the poking and prodding that made me feel like a fucking lab rat. A spectator sport. The EMGs and ECGs and MRIs and the rest of the alphabet that promised to give me answers and never did. Anxiety that cascaded into agoraphobia. False hope that crumbled at my feet like dead autumn leaves. Over and over and over again. 

I think about my siblings more often than I care to admit. More often than I did when they were actually part of my life. I think about my brother and the years I spent trying everything I could to be close to him. And my older sister who’s planning a wedding I don’t know if I’ll be invited to. I think about my little sister and wonder if she’s getting help in the ways she promised– the ways she once knew she needed. I wonder if they think about me, too.

At home, I spend most of my time in the garden. I always start strong with close-toed shoes and proper gardening clothes, and by the time the second week rolls around, I’m getting dirt in my flip-flops and sulfur on my white tops. I like being there. With my pruning shears and bucket and my floppy hat that’s way too big for my face. I like the way butterflies flutter through the tomato plants and meld with bees that hum around unripe grapes. My grandfather cuts them when they’re ready, and my grandmother takes me to pick capers when the sun dips low. My fingertips are bloody and pricked by the end, but I get to hear her talk about her life. The first time she came to this island. Spending nights with friends at the beach and the music they played on their guitars and the brand-new powder blue outfit she ruined sitting under a sap-covered mastic tree. All the bloody fingers in the world are worth this. 

My grandfather praises me every time I come back from the garden with buckets of lemons and white eggplants and zucchinis. I grill them and make lemon loaf for dessert. “Γεια στα χέριασου,” he tells me every day. “Bless your hands.” He is so proud of me.

The agoraphobia manifested itself in different ways. Fears of cars and planes and eating out. Paralysis at change in routine. I lost 15 pounds that year, I told Dr. Goldberg, sweating profusely in that cold chair. And that was when it happened. My body fell apart, my hips and knees and shoulders perpetually slipping from their sockets. And then there were the constant migraines. The exhaustion. The bruises. “And what about now?” She asked me, grey eyes looking up from a silver laptop. “How often are the dislocations?” “Maybe a few times a week?” I say, and then I continue.

I think about my siblings in the same way people think about their greatest what ifs. I feel that same nauseous pull inside of me, that same sadness. Sometimes I think it’s grief. Grieving every nonexistent moment I tore myself apart for, mourning the relationships I deserved to have. I spent my whole life trading the best parts of myself for broken promises and boundless berating. Giving them every piece of me to try to make them into the people I believed so deeply they wanted to be. And then I woke up. I refused to be shoved into fire and stretched and twisted at their will. I was no longer their creation, and they were no longer my glassmiths. 

I learned να κεντήσω, to embroider, the same mastic trees my grandmother ruined that matching set in so many years ago. How to clear the land under those bunches of tiny leaves and how to lay down powdered white marble under twisting trunks and bending branches. It’ll hold the sap when it falls. Which tools to use to dig at the bark and how deep to make the cuts to let the sap run out of them like tears. There’s a story about that. I watched in the mirror as Miss Angelica
wrapped my dark hair in the first scarf she ever used to cultivate these trees, a scarf as old as I was. She told me about Saint Isidoros, about how he refused to convert from Christianity and was dragged across the island in retaliation. How his tears became the sap that streams from these trees. How this separates us from the rest of the world.

Dr. Goldberg pulled at the skin on my neck and the backs of my hands, measured how far my elbows and knees bent in the direction they weren’t supposed to. Eighteen degrees. We talked about my diet and daily routine and why my feet were purple and the bruises on my arm that I’d gotten three weeks before but still hadn’t faded. I walked back and forth on my tiptoes and then my heels, and was reassured that she’d catch me if I fell from standing up too fast. She asked me about my dreams as she tested my balance and who I wanted to be as I brought my thumb to my forearm and my palms to the floor. So many questions. So many answers. So very transparent.

I’ve spent a long time trying to put into words the feeling of being a glass person. The way doctors would liken my pain to party tricks, and how they’d call others to watch. The way my siblings would pile their problems onto me until I buckled at the knees– until I took all those parts of them they didn’t want to carry and absorbed them through my skin– because it was my responsibility. And the way it felt like everyone could see it. That’s the vulnerability in being transparent: the way you can’t hide anything when you feel like people can see right through you. But now, instead of finding the right words to describe a glass person, I get to learn what it means to step away from it.

I remember playing in those mastic trees when I was a kid. The way I could swerve between them expertly, swinging along branches and knowing exactly where to grab them without getting my fingers sticky. Picking off those clear teardrops and popping them in my mouth like gum, chewing them until they grew small and hard. Just like my grandparents taught me. I’d sit behind a veil of low-hanging leaves for hours, listening to the distant sounds of the ocean and the rhythmic buzzing of cicadas, to my grandparents’ voices on the veranda. I’d trace lines of dried, yellow resin along scaly waves of bark, sap that had never been harvested or cleaned, and run my eyes along hues of browns and greys and reds. And then my grandparents would call my name, first in Greek and then in English, and tell me it was time to eat.

After that appointment, I sat in the unfamiliar scent of the rental car and felt time drift away. I’d come all this way for an answer– to know why I felt like a rag doll being swung around from its arms and legs. And I left with three. Three answers. Three diagnoses. All chronic. Unchangeable, unfixable, unhealable. I sat on those hot seats the same way I sat between gratitude for these answers and being broken by them. Sitting, waiting, not sure where I would go next. Right at the point of transformation.

I spent months balancing that feeling of grief with that of liberation. It was weird, when people asked me how I’d been, to say so much better. I’m finally feeling like myself again, when I’d lost the people I was supposed to be closest to. But I couldn’t keep forcing myself to bend for people who wouldn’t do the same for me. Because glass does not bend. It breaks. And I was so tired of breaking. I was so tired of being glass.

The cold basement of my grandparent's house has always smelled like oregano, as far back as I can remember. It hangs upside down in dried bunches tied with green string, row after row tied from wall to wall at eye-level. I cut them down and lay them on the kitchen table. My grandmother sits across from me, her thin purple glasses perched at the end of her nose as she pops tiny sage spheres off the brittle branches one by one. She likes to pat them on the designated floral tray every once in a while, make them flat and even to check for any sticks or little leaves that shouldn’t be there. It also makes it look like she’s done more than she has. I ask her questions about her childhood, her first jobs, her parents. She usually doesn’t answer them. Instead, she’ll sing “Blame it On the Bossa Nova” or listen as I complain about fights with my siblings or how I have no clue what I’m going to do with my life. She’ll tell me “κάθε εμπόδιο για καλό”, every obstacle for good, and I’ll try to breathe that phrase in. Then my grandfather walks up to us, predictable down to the second, and offers my grandmother half a banana that she never wants but always accepts. We do this for hours, branch by branch, bunch by bunch, until my back aches and she and my grandfather go off to take their afternoon nap. 

I’ve found crumbs of opaqueness in these moments with my grandparents. The moments I felt cared for and understood, the moments I was looked at, not looked through. I used to wish I could take these crumbs in my hands and stick them to my skin, to hold onto this sturdy clarity and sureness of self that would always slip away from me. To make myself whole and visible with morsels and scraps and shreds. To exist in opaqueness, tiny piece by tiny piece, even if it were false. Even if I had to glue them to my flesh one at a time and hold them down and pray that they wouldn’t fall off. I wished for so long that I could stay in these moments forever. That I could exist as this near-human collage, as someone who could be seen. In a different way, I think I’ve found that.

I think quite often about a line from my favourite novel, a line I’m always sure I almost understand. I roll it around my fingers like a coin trick, balancing it on each knuckle as it travels back and forth. I think of it in the garden and under the mastic trees, in the spaces I share with friends and the way I grow around my grandparents. I think about it as I choke down eighteen pills a day, morning, afternoon, and night, courtesy of Dr. Goldberg. I remember it in the moments I think about my siblings, and the way I have grown so much in our separation. The way I’ve become opaque. 

Still in the process of becoming… the soul makes room.

 

Eriana Ktistakis grew up in Athens, Greece. She is currently obtaining her BA in English Creative Writing at The Ohio State University, where she serves as a reader for The Journal. Her work is forthcoming in Deal Jam Magazine.


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