Afterwardsness (German: Nachträglichkeit)
- (psychoanalysis) The concept that an earlier event in one’s life can later acquire a meaning.
Maggie was a chain-smoking alcoholic in her late fifties with Coke bottle glasses and an easy laugh. She lived next door with her husband, Ernst, in a slightly haunted-looking tudor style house.
It was 1979. We had just moved into my grandparents’ basement.
Mom and Maggie became best friends pretty much immediately.
Maggie was a riot. More importantly, she was good. I couldn’t have articulated what good meant at the time. It was just something I could feel in my bones. I was an anxious kid, and I felt safer in her presence than I did in many other places, and I loved her for that.
She and Mom would sit and talk and laugh for hours. My brother and I would swim and splash in their pool, and play with their sweet old German Shepherd, Max, and sift through dusty boxes of dinky cars long forgotten by their own grown kids.
Inside, the house was dark and kind of eerie. My brother and I loved to dare each other to walk past the shadowy painted portraits on the staircase. We’d watch their hollowed eyes seemingly track our movements, and we’d squeal with a mixture of terror and delight.
We loved it there. It was a respite from the heaviness of the underground world that we inhabited next door. And for my mother, it was a respite from the oppressive, disapproving cloud cast by her parents living above us.
Maggie was Mom’s confidante and cheerleader.
And a bit of a shit-disturber.
“Godverdomme!” she’d exclaim in her thick accent when Mom complained of the criticisms leveled by my grandparents. They saw Mom’s status – a depressed, unemployed single parent – as a rather significant character flaw.
Maggie would shake her head, light another cigarette and take a long drag. “Fuck ’em. They don’t deserve you.” She’d fill a tumbler with Brandy and slide it over to Mom, then top up her own. They’d continue on, talking and laughing and forgetting. I could tell Mom felt safe in Maggie’s presence too, which comforted me.
I often visited Maggie on my own during the summertime.
My favorite activity was painting her nails.
She’d let me pick out the polish. Then she would smoke and gab and dutifully follow my instructions: Fingers straight. Now the other hand. Wave it around, it needs to dry. Careful, don’t let your cigarette touch it.
After I had applied the final strokes, she would look at the results (in reality, a globby mess made by my seven year old hands). She would whistle with amazement and praise me as though it was an absolute work of art.
It became a ritual, painting her nails. I got much better at it over the years.
Occasionally I would ask my mom to let me stay overnight. I treated the whole experience as though I was a jet setter heading to Paris, arriving with my mom’s suitcase jammed full of the entire contents of my dresser drawers.
I’d paint Maggie’s nails. I’d play with Max and stroke his paws. Maggie and I would play a few rounds of the board game Sorry!. Then I’d head to the guest room and snuggle under the covers, feeling pretty satisfied with life.
But the shadowy paintings were not as fun at night as they were during the day, and I’d often wake up in the dark in a panicked sweat, wondering if they were watching me through the bedroom walls.
So I’d tiptoe silently across the hall and hold my breath, hoping the eyes didn’t notice me. I’d slip into Maggie’s and Ernst’s bedroom, burrow between them, and let out a big gasp of relief. I’d fall asleep cocooned by the warmth of their solid, steady bodies. And I knew that when I was between them like that, I was shielded from everything bad in the world.
Until the last time.
It was the time I woke with a sudden, horrible feeling that something was very, very wrong. And I watched, frozen with horror, as those painted nails drunkenly drifted across and lingered on parts of my nine year old body where they did not belong.
I was fourteen when I heard that Maggie had died. Lung cancer. I remember not being able to feel anything at the time.
Today, my mind remembers her boundless love.
Today, my mind desperately does not want to remember the rest.
But my body…my body remembers. And it colors those lovely memories with a particular afterwardsness – that of a visceral, palpable disgust with my body. Of a horrific, pervasive knowing that my eternal nakedness exists beneath my clothes. Of a formerly ubiquitous sense of safety mutilated so badly that I wished I had never felt it to begin with.
I feel that afterwardsness like I used to feel Maggie’s goodness – in my bones.
Those two truths – the before, and the after – live in my bones still, cramped and entwined.
I don’t know if they are embracing each other or if they are locked in a fight to the death.
How do we reconcile the good and the bad in the people that we love, and in ourselves?
What do those words even mean to me now?