Dorothy: Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more. The Wizard of OZ (1939)
When I was in grade nine, I auditioned for a school production of “The Wizard of Oz.” All the other girls wanted desperately to be Dorothy or Glinda but I wanted to be the Wicked Witch. I admired her fierceness. Unlike the other female characters who might be more sweet natured, the witch took matters into her own hands. Sure, she was angry, but that made sense to me. After all, Dorothy’s house had just landed on her sister. Why should she just forgive and forget?
I got the part, but this may very well be because I was the only one who wanted it. The week the show ran I was in heaven, it didn’t even matter to me that the cool girls in the cast wouldn’t speak to me. Every time I stood on that stage wearing my drama teacher’s black evening gown and the pointy witch’s hat that my dad made, I knew I had authority.
The other evening I visited my favorite second-hand store in the east end of Ottawa. The shop shares it’s parking lot with a seedy 1960’s motel that I suspect rents mostly by the hour. While I was searching the racks a young woman started talking to me. She had dark hair and big blues eyes, and would’ve been very pretty had she not been covered in scabs and so thin. She didn’t exactly look like India but her coloring was similar and she reminded me of her. I judged her to be about eighteen. She pressed a black halter top dress against her chest and said to me, “I really like this but I think it’s a little sleazy. What do you think?”
I stifled a laugh. Her shorts barely covered her bum. “It’s nice. It would look good on you.” She smiled, and continued searching through the dress rack. Occasionally asking my opinion on another outfit. I answered her questions, and smiled at her thinking she sounded lonely and stoned. Eventually I headed towards the book section and we drifted apart.
We met again at the cash. The older woman standing behind her, stood several feet from her as if she was afraid to get to close, sighing impatiently each time the young woman spoke. I wasn’t sure what was going on but there seemed to be some sort of problem with what the young woman wanted to buy. This continued for several minutes, finally I asked if she needed money. The young woman smiled, “No, no thank you. I’m okay. It’s just they used to let us girls working the street have stuff for free. But the new manager didn’t like it. You know, some of the girls started using in the changing room and just leaving their smelly shoes in the middle of the shop. You know what it’s like, it only takes one bad apple.”
I smiled as if I understood. She gathered up her belonging and headed towards the door. “Thank you,” she said as she passed me. “That was real nice of you.”
The woman in front of me rushed up to the cashier, and I leaned against the counter willing myself not to cry. Over and over I kept thinking, that’s someone’s daughter. Someone’s daughter. I had a daughter. What if this was my girl?
Where was her mother? Did she know where her child was? Did she care? At the same time I was angry with the young woman. Why the Hell was she killing herself when she was lucky enough to be alive. But I knew it wasn’t right to feel like that. Somewhere along the way she’d been damaged. After all nobody would choose to live that way. I was also angry with myself. While we’d been talking I’d wanted say, you need help, it doesn’t have to be like this. But I hadn’t. I was too scared of being ripped off. As if it really mattered, I only had twenty dollars in cash and all my cards could’ve been cancelled.
Finally I made it to the cash. I was crying. The cashier gave me a sympathetic glance.
“Sorry” I said. “My daughter died.”
“Life is hard,” she answered with a heavy Russian accent.
Mark and I have now been home a month from our trip across the States and Japan. I’ve had a difficult time adapting. On the road, if someone asked me if I had children I could choose to lie or answer simply, yes. It gave me a sense of control over my life. Back home, I can’t do that . Not long ago I had to tell three people in one day India died. Each time I said it was like being punched in the stomach. Then as if that isn’t enough, I ended up comforting them as if it’s my fault. This isn’t supposed to be my role but I can’t just stand there and watch people cry.
Unlike the young woman in the thrift store, my marginalization isn’t visible. (Though in my mind I look like one of those transparent anatomical manikins at the science museum that anybody can peer into it. I’m always shocked when people tell me I look good.) But the truth is a society that has embraced a death denying culture can’t help but render those in mourning powerless. I’ve lost my place in society. People who used to call don’t and I no longer feel comfortable in many of the social situations I used to enjoy. As an extrovert I was the queen of small talk. Now I find it exhausting and find myself gravitating towards conversations that matter and people who have also known loss or are unafraid to confront it. People willing to understand how it feels to grieve. “Putting yourself in someone else shoes is a very radical act,” a friend of mine recently explained. “It can mean questioning your own values or your preconceived notions about someone. That’s why so few are willing to go there.”
Since I’ve returned home I’ve begun to notice that I’m changing. I don’t have the patience I once had and find myself blurting out feelings that I’d once have censored. At first I tried to stop it, push it down. I was afraid I was becoming mean, but I understand now I merely don’t have the energy to contend with certain levels of superficiality. Grief seems to amplify the everyday cruelties the same way taking a finicky friend camping suddenly makes all their fussy quirks seem annoying. It’s as if I’m an apple and I’ve been peeled all the way down to my core.
The only time I ever questioned my choice to play the Wicked Witch of the West was after a matinee performance at a local grade school when the kids gathered about the other leads, but avoided me. I even remember telling them, “I’m not really a witch, it’s just a costume,” but none of them would chance it. The last nine months have taught me a great deal about risk, those I’m willing to take and those who are willing to take them with me. Like the wicked witch, I may live on the outskirts, and may even be feared by society, but there’s opportunity in that. A chance to finally get those red slippers.