When I think back on it, I think simply of the color red. In truth, only the curtain hanging behind me was red, but the whole room and every face in it may as well have been, so completely did that yawning velvet throat swallow me and graciously house me in its belly for a night.
On that night, I had emerged from a dark corner, the sort of corner where poems are born, a corner so warmed and sweetened with my own scent that I could not distinguish between gratitude and guilt over being able to call it mine; at thirty-two I’d recreated the womb, and been allowed somehow to stay in it. In this corner of a small studio apartment on the outskirts of the University of Toronto campus, I would sit each day submitting poems and stories to various literary magazines, at which I felt I had a fair chance at publication. Once a year, I would submit to The New Yorker, seeking out that shining moment just after submission, the moment of maybe, at its very freest and longest. I expected and welcomed my rejections from The New Yorker, and this year I’d already decided how I would catch my piece when they threw it right back to me: like an egg, letting it swing into me to soften the impact, keeping it whole so that I might toss it out again, perhaps to someone new this time. With acceptance unlikely, all I wanted from The New Yorker was to make them play catch with me. Somehow, that was enough.
Raconteurs Storytelling was different, though. I did not make plans for a rejection from them. Raconteurs was not an exclusive magazine looking for “exquisite” literary art but a live venue for courageous storytelling, and I felt an odd, unfamiliar pull to submit to them. In my three-paragraph pitch I told the story of learning to write again after being prescribed lithium. I had struggled to write while medicated, but with that harsh, bloodsucking willpower that some bipolar people have, I had refused to stop, and watched with delight and disbelief as my writing, once purely short stories, morphed along with my new brain into smaller, shorter works of pure poetry. I wanted people to know that this had happened to me, though it was hard to say why. My dark corner seemed to feed into that red gullet naturally, as though I were already being gulped.
The response from Raconteurs came three days after I’d submitted the pitch. It was beautiful and terrifying and brief: “We would love to have you at the event next Wednesday,” wrote founder Laura-Louise Tobin, “if you can be ready that soon!”
“Fuck!” I exhaled at my laptop screen, laughed and shook my head and wrote back that yes, I could be.
Over the next week, I repeatedly set my iPhone timer for ten minutes, their desired story length, stood facing one wall of my apartment and stuttered through my monologue, always interrupted by the timer. Out of a fear of relying on written notes, I had decided to write down as little as possible. When bits worked well, I scribbled them out in shorthand on a post-it. When they didn’t, I banished them from my thoughts. Again and again, I proclaimed my story to my wall until it was exactly ten minutes in length and had a rhythm of its own, and then I told it to the refrigerator. I told it out the kitchen window, to the apartments in the building next door. I told it to the teddy bear on my bed and looked directly into his eyes while I did it. My nerves remained unshaken by his shining, scrutinizing black beads. I told my story while doing dishes, in the shower, and facing any wall in the apartment I had not yet used as an audience.
Wednesday night came around and the week had been obliterated, crushed to mere dust by my nerves; days had felt terrifying and long and crammed with stress, though they were filled only with me confessing my story to no one while I spun in circles in my dark apartment corner.
As I dressed for the show I decided I should wear something nice, perhaps a dress and boots. I chose all black and dressed myself a half-hour too soon, sat down at my desk and waited, staring at the clock on my phone. Just before leaving, I tore off my black dress and boots, left them crumpled on the floor and pulled on jeans, sneakers and the black sweater my cousin Esther gave me, the one with the butterflies on it. Butterflies meant Grandma Joanie was watching, the two of us had once decided. Esther was the first cousin I’d ever built a friendship with. We were essentially strangers until I moved to Toronto, where she’d lived all her life. We came from emotionally impoverished families who did not speak to each other. The day we decided that butterflies meant Grandma Joanie, who had loved the only two granddaughters in the family in a way wholly transcendent of vapid squabbles, the two of us saw butterflies everywhere: on greeting cards and wrapping paper, on children’s lunchboxes, in storefront windows, and real ones, emerging from their own sweetened darkness for the start of a new season. That was when I decided that I had a real family. After all those butterflies. The sweater was a sort of talisman, I was sure, and I felt only a mild shame at my certainty of the fact.
When I arrived at the Tranzac Club and Laura-Louise asked me how I wanted to be introduced, I replied just that I was a writer, and shrugged. At the beginning of the second act, Laura-Louise stood up against the red velvet, behind the long-stemmed microphone and spoke my name, first and last, to the packed room and coupled that with the distinction of writer. I took tiny steps across the narrow stage front, to the meek sound of obligatory claps for a stranger. Red velvet burned on one side of me and open black gaped on the other. I saw the folded hands and blinking eyes of a couple in the front row, pressed to each other in anticipation as though climbing for the first plunge of a roller coaster. The head of a man at the back table shone bald and reflective. I remembered passing that man on the way in. He had a glass of red wine in front of him and was already smiling though I hadn’t spoken yet and I clung to his apparent friendliness. The spotlight was not uncomfortably warm on my face as I’d feared it would be; it warmed only the top of my forehead. I had told myself that when I stood up there, I would use my very first word as a test, a test of how close to the microphone I should stand. A test of how loud I should speak. A test of how smooth my voice sounded, and whether my throat needed clearing. A test of why I was doing this at all despite being terrified. My head crept towards the microphone like a turtle extending from its shell.
“Hi,” I began, far from fearless, and the word rang from my mouth like a song note. The entire smiling, shining bald-headed room was my very best friend and as my story progressed my forehead warmed further and the red behind me burned and heated my backside and the air was thick with illuminated dust and with my rich and seamless tale, heavy as the hanging velvet behind me. It poured without effort, nearly as a recording of the one I’d spoken some thirty times in solitude.
I had decided resolutely on my last words, too. “Thank you,” came out less as an expression of gratitude, and more as a quivering, concluding declaration of my presence. As I wobbled down the steps from the stage on shaky legs, Laura-Louise grabbed my shoulders. “That was perfect,” she said in a low voice, and I believed her. She stepped up to the microphone, where again, she spoke my name, first and last, out into the glittering dark. The claps and whoops and whistles struck up again, louder this time and as I settled into my vinyl seat among audience members, hiding my shaking hands by folding them over each other, the chairs around me turned to smile and clap and nod in my direction. It occurred to me, with an acute, sentimental pang, that those who were whooping and whistling so loud, those people didn’t know me at all.
And with each of the sharp-edged smiles around me like a line of cocaine, my guilt set in, as it always does, for I had made them listen to me and it had been far too easy to gain their acceptance. I hoped that I had not made anyone like me too much, for it was not an acceptance I believed I could maintain. Stand up too many times, I reasoned, and soon, they know you too well. Soon, you come to know them. Faces and voices fade in their richness like over-chewed gum.
That Wednesday night at the Tranzac Club, it was straight down the gullet I went, as a burning shot of vodka, savored once and for all in the dark, churning belly. Acceptance, it seemed, was best enjoyed when paired with distance. As I readied for bed later that night in a well-warmed, solitary cocoon, I recalled a fact I’d known for some time already, that for a thousand moments of open-armed, bright-eyed kindness in my life, I had only strangers to thank.
Elizabeth Bolton presented at the Toronto Raconteurs Storytelling event on February 8, 2017. You can see her performance here. Raconteurs is a monthly live event where people share true personal stories on stage. Find out more here or tweet at them @RaconteursStory