The Secret Life of Avoidant Cutlery
by Colleen T. Reese
"Turn right on Towanda Trail," said the virtual assistant as she interrupted some moody folk singer playing in my headphones. I was 32 years old and still using Google Maps to take a ten-minute walk from the Airbnb I was renting to a beach in Arrowhead Lake. A canoe named Chippy was fabled to be waiting there, a dark green three-person canoe that I planned to drag into the lake on my own.
As with Chippy, I was convinced that using Google Maps for this ten-minute walk held some deeper meaning than it really did. This feeling was expected. It had been years since I sat down and tried to write seriously. Throughout the week, I kept catching myself grasping at every moment that passed, desperately searching for meaning. The coffee I drank, the meals I ate each evening, the decor of the house, the wool-blend of my socks, the wine I selected, the sun in the windows, the unplugged television. This was the first trip I had ever taken by myself. I felt it with each inconsequential step.
After the first turn, I had already noticed several motorcycles parked in the neighborhood. I always looked for them in places like this one. I took comfort in the idea that somewhere among the manicured lawns was an underbelly, beckoning like a gentle and dark whisper for people like me. But, despite the occasional leather vest or startling sound of an engine turning over, I felt like a spy caught behind enemy lines. Was it obvious that I didn’t belong here? I looked around at the babbling water features and neatly paved driveways.
To my relief, most of the houses were empty along the walk to the beach. The only people I found were appliance techs and cleaners on their way to flip the houses in between renters. I had reserved the cabin for the week after Labor Day for this very reason. \ I always liked to operate this way: I vacationed in the fall almost exclusively; I never went to the beach; I prefered the night shift; I enjoyed drinking in the middle of the day. My desires in life were almost exclusively voyeuristic, like an unimportant secret I couldn’t wait to keep.
People in my generation are quick to pathologize these behaviors as avoidant. It's as if any deviations from the very social structures we've deemed as violent (at best) are still nothing short of a disease to be sought out and treated. We do this with particular vigor these days, to the point where it's almost a parody, a first date question.
"What's your attachment style?" the woman in my imagination asks me from across the table. She is well dressed and definitely makes more money than I do. In this maladaptive daydream, I don’t have the perfect retort for her frankly obtuse question. Instead, I am more curious if she had considered that many of us are hesitant to give up the paltry and strange benefits afforded to us when whatever triggering event thrust us out of the bosom of normalcy and called us "other." Benefits that included a unique vantage point, resourcefulness and, above all, intrigue. Infinite, delicious intrigue.
I gave up on the argument before it went on for too long in my head. I had other things to worry about, like finding and unlocking this fucking canoe when I got to the beach. But, when I arrived at the beach, it was empty.
"BEACH CLOSED AS A PRECAUTIONARY MEASURE DUE TO HIGHER THAN ACCEPTABLE LEVELS OF COLIFORM," the sign read.
It was enough to make me reconsider the coffee and canoeing for the day. I sat, awkwardly, on the sandy beach behind the cautionary sign. I had no chair or blanket, just the long hiking jacket I was wearing. At least it covered most of my legs.
They call what I was doing that week deep work, which refers to time spent away from distractions in order to pursue a singular effort. I never imagined that I would be able to do something like this when I was younger. There was, of course, the idea of money to contend with first of all. (I never imagined making any.) And secondly, I wanted to be a writer so I assumed that my life would always be deep work. It never occured to me that I might become a bad writer and need to pour a month’s rent into disappearing an hour away from my home to even try.
But there I was, a thirtysomething-year-old woman, scribbling in a notebook stacked on top of a bright orange dry bag stuffed with Bolaño and Murakami and granola. I must have looked wholly unprepared. I felt like the people around me could smell it, that my presence might even be unnerving to them. It was a familiar feeling.
"Your writing reminds me of a sharp knife," Jess said over the phone.
Jess was a writer too, and much better at it than I was. We worked together at an advertising agency a few years ago. The job was one of the worst I've ever had but it bonded us and so I didn't feel shy about asking her to edit a meandering story I had written about my alcoholic father who passed away from liver cancer. At the time, I found her note complimentary. This was the most important pain that I had ever felt in my life (or at least I thought so at the time). I wanted that pain to be clean and sharp and specific.
I spent most of my young life this way: convinced that it was a good and honorable thing to understand pain. I wrote about pain. Listened to music about heartbreak. I was fascinated by sculpture—anything that felt like stripping something down. I remember the moment when I recognized that adults would pay extra attention when I wrote something about pain, as if they could already see it tattooed on my fingers. This one won’t carry it well.
Eventually, I became convinced that the path to self-actualization was subtractive too, like those art forms I adored so well. All I had to do was cut out the impurities. I was something like a homing pigeon for my pain. I could always find it and I didn't hesitate when it came to wielding it against myself or others.
As I turned Jess’s feedback over in my mind, I began to think of myself like a knife—a tool suitable only for very specific tasks. You don't just keep knives lying around with a deck of cards or the blanket you use to keep warm at night. That would be absurd. You put them in a drawer with the other knives.
Imagine, for instance, arriving at a friend's house and seeing a knife in an unexpected place. The knife itself is fairly banal, but it doesn't belong out in the open with no one attending to it. And maybe it's not so banal. Most normal people are unnerved by the presence of any unfamiliar knife. Perhaps this is why I found it all so difficult, to understand and be understood.
Like the unfamiliar kitchen knife, I unnerve the people around me. I have a lot of friends who find it generally uncomfortable to be alone with me. I can see it, you know. The shift in their posture, the way they balance their weight from one foot to the other. To be fair, the act has always been poor on my part, punctuated by bursts of poor attempts at people pleasing or sometimes outright lying. I’m not going to do anything with the knife, I’m just holding it! Really, it’s a testament to their character and intelligence. They are not easily fooled.
There are, of course, people who are very comfortable handling knives, even unfamiliar knives. I like to think of these people as handlers. And handlers are even rarer than knives. That’s what keeps the circle small. This is how alternative and subcultures work.
But then you go out into the real world and you have to ask yourself if being a knife is enough for you. Is it enough, to only be useful and welcome in very specific scenarios and otherwise stashed in a drawer with the other tools. Were we all so unimaginative that there could be no fulfilling life for us, the sharper people? The night people? The metalheads and wasteoids? The traumatized? Would we really spend a whole life outside of the normal flow of things, collecting these little beautiful moments that no one else would ever see or feel or touch?
As I peered at the sixty-year-old woman who had suddenly materialized next to me with her boat hat and arduous-looking paperback, I could only answer yes. It was enough for me. In fact, if I was as honest as I would need to be to accomplish what I came here to do, I would have to finally admit that I choose these alien and anonymous little seconds over acceptance from the people I know and love every time.
“Do you care if I smoke,” I asked her. And I held my breath, unsure if I had miscalculated her. The heavy book. The oversized shirt.
“Sure. But don’t let those guys in the carts catch you. They’ll fine you for smoking on the beach.” She replied with a smile. I could see that some of her molars were filled with metal.
“Do you want one?” I extended my hand toward her. She declined before I could fully extend my arm. I shuffled a few steps away to make sure I was downwind of her. As I exhaled, she peered at me from behind her sunglasses. We both smiled. It wasn’t hard to look her in the eyes.
“My daughter would hate it. She doesn’t like it when I smoke,” she said after a few moments.
You see, some of us are marked forever and in no rush to disfigure ourselves back into some perverse imitation of our more palatable selves. It’s not just the trauma that marks you, after all. It’s the hard-won beauty of a new perspective all the years after that leaves fingerprints on your cheeks.
A relaxed moment with a woman in a boat hat. The way the city feels when it’s asleep and I’m still awake. The purple humor of the edges of a party. That sweet, strange smugness that comes with the knowledge that not everyone makes a full recovery. Learning this is like possessing a secret knowledge, one that lays bare the world around you. They need us, it speaks. To keep the knowledge and reflect it back at them. To show them what they look like from the outside.
On the way back from the beach, I passed by an older biker who looked like a grittier version of Sam Elliott. I knew it was customary in these kinds of communities to wave at people as they passed. (The gesture would normally gross me out but I felt a kinship with the biker.) I flashed him a peace sign, my head tilted up in a knowing nod. He took his right hand off of the handlebars and crossed his chest in a wave, amused if not a little nonplussed, as if he could have spotted me from a mile away. Was it in alarm? Communion? Understanding? Most of all, I wondered if he could hear it too, like the woman on the beach… that little voice in the back of his head.
Knife! Knife! Knife!