BY KATHLEEN W.
Everyone must meet their sirens. Most people stuff their ears with wax, albeit with the help of friends and family and counselor(s) and sometimes strangers on 40th street who ask are you okay? Most people continue past the sirens’ island, if a little worse for wear, and soon forget the colors of the island, the sound of the waves, the calls of the sirens.
Odysseus listened to his sirens, but Odysseus tied himself to a mast. I had no wax and forgot rope. From a young age I listened to beautiful-faced sirens borne of my insecurities, or depression, or suicidal tendencies, or some other deep mourning.
Perhaps I was too sensitive. At age six, I asked my mother why anyone bothered to live if everyone died. At age nine, I learned to avoid the playground as one or two bullies lobbed casual barbs about my Chinky eyes and face during recess. I suffered my father’s tirades about my failings (my lack of social grace and inferior intelligence etcetera) until disappointment in myself was comfortable. Or perhaps it was inevitable. The same frustrated grief that straddled my grandfather as he withered in bed, the same self-disgust that threaded through my father’s words as he reckoned with his failures—they were my inheritance. I was of their blood.
In high school I could ignore the sirens using calculus homework, walks along a two-lane road to Lake Washington, dates with friends at a nearby Starbucks. Once I started college I thought these coping mechanisms would become childish remnants of high school Kathleen.College Kathleen would find fast friends and do well in classes. College Kathleen would adopt the refrain of “Work Hard, Play Hard” so often repeated at this campus like a prayer.
I was an idiot. I’d left Seattle, an evergreen city alongside a deep sound, for Philadelphia, a hunched city with bared teeth. I’d left high school, where I was infamous for my test scores and array of pre-professional blazers, to college, where I was another Asian girl a drunk frat boy could holler at. I applied and denied to dozens of clubs, gained eight pounds in two months, and ate lunch alone at a table in the back of the dining hall.
I turned to my sirens. They kept me company as I walked through campus until I stopped looking at the light sifting through the trees. They curled around me in bed until I stopped sleeping more than five hours a night. They settled over my shoulders so that when I dropped my pen during math lecture and watched it roll down to the lectern I hated myself for the simple gaffe.
I used to stay up past three a.m., door closed, lights off, my roommate cramming for a Psych midterm in the library, my hallmates attached to the latest Law & Order marathon. Then the sirens would ask why I was so dumb I didn’t understand any Lil’ Wayne references, why I was so unpopular I wasn’t invited to Sunday brunch, why I wasn’t accepted into some business student organization, why I scored below average on a midterm in a class considered easy, why I couldn’t have one decent conversation with my father. Just down the hall, Mr. Engineer had a 4.00 GPA and maintained meaningful relationships with his family and friends. Mr. Engineers joined the engineers’ student council and sang in a holiday acapella group and joined a prestigious business association. The rest of my peers performed for the university president and rushed business fraternities and smoozed with prestigious societies and competed at national case competitions. If you were worth half as much as them, the sirens asked, why can’t you?
I watched as everyone around me sailed past the sirens’ island, wax in their ears and ropes secure around their chest, eyes trained toward the curving horizon of midterms and downtown parties and on-campus recruiting events. I wondered if they would think me selfish for listening to a song no end else could hear, if they would call me pathetic for refusing dinner with my roommate because the sirens told me I wasn’t wanted. I lingered near the sun-cracked bones of victims who had quaked at hellos and how are you’s and strayed towards the sirens.
Why would I listen to the sirens? Why couldn’t I stop? These were my roommate’s questions. She dragged me out for dinner and introduced me to gaggles of her friends and sometimes kept me company until the early morning. She told me to turn away from the sirens and move past their island. I tried. I tried, but my blood already pumped to the leitmotif of the siren-song, and my baggy sweaters were already canvases for its cadences, and I already felt its crescendo vibrating through me whenever I read news coverage of suicides.
I didn’t sleep much, but nobody slept much. I didn’t self-harm. I ripped out my hair sometimes; it coiled under my desk. I peeled off layer then layer of skin sometimes, leaving little hard spots on my knees and in the creases of my hands and on the balls of my feet and on the back of my neck and even on my scalp; the dead skin flaked to the floor and settled in small off-white, off-red heaps.
When I decided it wasn’t worth living as a college ID number, a few unflattering photos I’d been tagged in on Facebook, what I considered a mediocre GPA, and an empty resume that still included awards I’d won in high school, I made an action plan. If I couldn’t amount to anything in life I would gain notoriety in death.
I envied the students at my school who had already committed suicide. How dare they die before I could, I, who was not as affable or as beautiful or as athletic or as intelligent. There was nothing that would distinguish me in the sound bites that would follow my suicide. So I decided I’d jump from the top of a ten-story parking garage right next to campus. It would make a statement. Even be poetic, maybe. I put the deadline for a few days after the end of spring break. By mid-February I started cleaning my part of the room, keeping the spaces under my bed free of dust bunnies and dead skin and picking my hair off the floor under my desk. I thought it would be cruel to make someone else go through my things, so I Googled local donation drop-offs bins and planned to box the rest the day I jumped. I figured it would be a kindness.
Dumb luck intervened.
Before spring break began, I was offered an internship with a human rights group in Botswana. A girl who’d interned there the year prior told me accept it and go to the Embassy Restaurant for their curry and eat fresh fat cakes and visit Victoria Falls. I asked my mother if I could. Don’t tell your Dad, she said, which was approval enough. A few high school friends, hearing I was headed home for spring break, texted me when are you back? let’s hang out! I went to dinner with strangers from a club I’d joined second semester and managed to laugh. I scored higher than the mean on a math midterm. I went to Sunday brunch (nobody asked why I was there). My hallmates started watching Jeopardy, shouting answers at the TV, placing bets on whether or not Game-Theory-Arthur would win again, and when I sat atop of one of the lounge sofas nobody told me to leave. My roommate kept staying up with me and kept assuring me I wasn’t worthless and she didn’t hate me for it.
This new music jarred with the sirens’ harmonies. At last I heard the scavenging crows cry as they picked at rotting corpses, saw the sun-cracked bones leering at me and then I knew I, too, would become bones if I stayed. Good, the sirens cried but I wondered if I’d just made a place for myself, atop one of the ugly lounge sofas, if the sirens’ music was truly all I’d ever hear. I stood up. I found just enough strength to scramble for the ocean and then I escaped the sirens’ island. The ocean waves carried me to an untroubled white sand beach and I lay there, where sand kisses salty water, and I listened to the glissando of the waves and to the staccato of my own heart.
I stopped my three a.m. self-evaluations. I slept instead.
College Kathleen honed new coping mechanisms: a few guitar songs I taught myself, even longer walks around campus late at night while everyone rested or studied or partied, a ridiculous amount of news articles to read at lunch, more clubs and social groups, six classes (six hard classes). For all intents and purposes, I had sailed past the sirens’ island, joined with the rest and pivoted my eyes toward the horizon of midterms and downtown parties and on-campus recruitment events. I left the island with no scars; hair grows back and odd patches of hardened skin are easy to miss.
I rarely spoke of my sirens. I was frightened that even friends who knew of my sirens might someday turn toward me, faces transformed into the beautiful ones of my sirens, and spit out the same words I heard in my dorm room at 3 a.m.
Halfway through sophomore year, Mr. Engineer, now one of my three roommates sharing a three-bedroom apartment, still a 4.0 student, still a source of considerable envy, told me he was taking the rest of the semester off. I leaned against the doorway of his room. He said he was leaving in a week and wanted me to know. He said he’d been under too much stress. He’d said he’d lost perspective. Wasn’t doing the things he had wanted to do. Was unhappy.
There, the composition of his siren songs. And I, who has incised the sirens’ music deep into the flesh of my heart, I stood silent. I, who, on the sirens’ island, got so close to the sun-cracked bones that I breathed their fine dust, I only had platitudes. Mr. Engineer left campus with sirens singing in his ears. A few days later I moved out the double I shared and into his room.
For all intents and purposes, once I had left the sirens’ island I wanted to forget.
I am still sometimes an idiot. To forget the sirens, to forget the beauty of their island and the certainty of my own self-hatred would be a cruelty. To refuse to acknowledge the sirens would be to disdain the suffering that plagued my grandfather, that plagues my father, that plagues me. To ignore this story would be to ignore Mr. Engineer, the friends that care about me, the strangers still drifting around a siren’s island.
Today, I have an internship at a prestigious government agency. I will be studying abroad in Lyon, France in the fall. I like my classes. I have a boyfriend. I ignore my father. I have not ignored my sirens. I speak more about my sirens, now. To friends, boyfriend, sometimes, my mother. Mr. Engineer and I spoke in quiet voices once about our sirens, the songs they sing. Nobody has turned to me, faces transformed, and told me the words my sirens once did. Maybe I am using up all my luck; maybe I was ungenerous to the people who care about me.
It is easy to be scared. I left the sirens’ island with no scars; it’s only fair that I left with fear of their music. In my sleep I dream of the sirens’ beautiful faces telling me someday I will be enraptured again by their music and sometimes, at an after-work social in a bar I don’t know, I hear snatches of the song’s refrain. How easy it would be to go to their island again, to slip into that comforting old sound, but. I have made small places in my friends and family’s hearts and duties to fill and new music to hear and with this siren song I will still continue living.
This is my story but this is also the story of those who have yet to face their sirens, those who face them still and tremble at their melodies, those who have managed to move past the sirens’ island, sometimes scarred, sometimes not, all with the haunt of a song. This is the song we share. We who once faced our sirens without wax and without rope–we who left the sirens’ island–we who still hear their music in lieu of silence and we who still remember their faces–every time we hear the siren song’s echo we are reminded of how we chose to live.
The author is a rising junior at the University of Pennsylvania. Photography by Sarah Neukrug.