The Storybook Villain

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So I’m twelve chapters into my sequel and something is bothering me—there is no obvious villain in the story. Or should I say I still haven’t decided who, among the many characters, I want to assign the role to.

Literature is littered with too many cases of cardboard villains who, for reasons unknown, have decided to exist solely for the pleasure of thwarting or doing harm to the protagonist. These days, however, it’s hardly enough to be a baddie, just because. One’s gotta be a good baddie, complete with a credible backstory, unjustifiable yet understandable motivations, a dangerous but persuasive personality, an underlying vulnerability, and so on.

Given the implications, and how I’ve grown to care deeply about every single character, no matter how minor or major a part they play in the story, I’m going back and forth on several possible scenarios. Even the possibility that the baddie is everyone and no one.

Stop overthinking it, just write, I tell myself. But to pull off a convincing showdown between opposing forces, I first have to be convinced—and I’m struggling with the struggle because I’m a toughass critic when it comes to these things.

Because here’s the thing: I don’t want to have a villain simply for the sake of having a villain, especially the sort that everybody loves to hate. And then I wonder, more generally: in life, do we even need villains in order to overcome obstacles? Granted there are many irritating people in our lives who’ve made difficult situations almost unbearable—but are they the issue itself or just the catalyst that forces us to face a more significant, pre-existing problem?

Pondering on the subject of villains has got me a little introspective, I’ll have to admit. Revisiting my history of run-ins with ‘baddies’—and dredging up memories that are tied to specific times and places—has not been easy. Also, in order for me to reframe these unpleasant individuals within a larger narrative, a fair bit of reconditioning is involved.

That’s been an interesting exercise, to say the least.

As I unpacked my memories (especially ones I’d much rather forget) and reconsidered their place within my mental catalog, I was able to detach them from the emotions that went with the particular encounters. As a result, many horrible people of my past started to look less like the powerful and enigmatic villains I’d made them out to be, and more like, well, people. Yes, they were manipulative, calculating, opportunistic, and mean-spirited, but still just people.

And as I examined the various instances in which various ‘baddies’ made my life hell, I noticed that my fears and insecurities—and how I responded to them—were a common thread.

These same fears and insecurities were the real villains, whose rules everyone played by, me and my tormentors included. The ‘bad guys’ only won because they recognized this fact, and I didn’t. As a result, even if I believed myself to be on the side of ‘good,’ I lost. Every single time.

As someone who grew up reading any book she could get her hands on, and being thoroughly acquainted with every storybook villain imaginable, I always assumed the bad guys came to bad endings. The evil character was always, always vanquished, no matter how seemingly weak the protagonist was. Because that’s how it is in fiction. Good always wins.

But frankly, since I began to write my own books, this whole villain conundrum has made me think twice. Why did I always assume a novel’s main character was ‘good’ just because they narrated the story, and that the antagonist was someone outside themselves?

So what happens if the villain lies both without and within? I guess I’ll have to keep writing to find out.

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The universe of my swimming pool

Swimming girl [title unknown] by Eric Zener, via Pinterest.

Swimming girl [title unknown] by Eric Zener, via Pinterest.

It’s Monday and I’ve chosen to begin my week with a spot in the pool.

I’ve talked about how I swim every time the noise of my thoughts gets a little too deafening (here and here). The buzzing never completely quietens—there is never a minute of absolute silence—but what the water seems to do is numb me to it. Little by little, stroke by stroke, breath by breath, I recognize my longstanding battle with anxiety for what it is, and my prayers go from, “Lord, what the hell is happening? I want answers!” to “Just enough courage for today, Lord, and some leftover for tomorrow.”

What worries me? And are all my fears founded? My family and closest friends would probably say no, given my overwrought nature and hypochondriac tendencies, but we all know bad stuff happens to all, anxiety or no. The only difference is our coping mechanism; in my case, lack thereof.

Nothing feeds my overactive imagination like uncertainty—that murky space we all wade in before deciding if we want to find out if our worst case scenarios will play out, or if by pursuing a definitive answer, we’d buy some peace of mind—until the next maybe-crisis comes along.

Is there anything in life that’s certain, except that nothing is? And don’t we all struggle with that thought that lurks at the back of our minds—the one that goes, “It’s probably nothing, but what if it turns out to be something?” As we age, the many probably-nothing-but-maybe-somethings can only increase, but at no point will we ever know with any certainty when ignorance is bliss and when a little knowledge becomes a dangerous thing.

For me, the hardest part is managing my overarching need to know the status of and solution to everything happening to me, which proves to be an exercise in futility each and every time. Yet I can’t help myself. I desperately want to know what’s going on, but I am paralyzed with fear that it’s not the answer I hope for. I cannot begin to describe how much I dread the state of vulnerability, mostly due to its unique ability to stir up fear in my heart. To be governed by fear is a life sentence to an unfathomably miserable existence, and I wish that on nobody, least of all myself.

It’s a windy morning and the pool is unusually cold. As my head bobs above and underwater, I observe how different things look when separated by a mere surface. Coming up for air, I see swaying palm trees and empty lounge chairs; my neighbors are at work or inside their homes, domestic helpers are hanging the laundry or walking the dogs, and the maintenance staff are cutting grass or planting new hedges. But as I dip my head back in, there is only blue water and square tiles.

Pulling and gliding away in my solitary universe of water, I wonder if the seemingly disparate worlds above and beneath the surface are all that different. In or out of the pool, aren’t we all going through the motions and numbing ourselves with a daily routine to avoid having to think about how to answer the myriad probably-nothing-but-maybe-something questions that would flood our consciousness the second we stopped to be alone with our thoughts? Don’t we all do laps back and forth in our little lagoons of life, thinking we’re getting somewhere but really just bobbing between the respective realities above and underwater? Sometimes it’s bustling with life and activity, and other times, it’s just colder, blue-er and calmer.

It’s been 25 minutes and I decide that’s all the time I need for the day/week/however long until my next swim. I climb out and hurriedly pull on my bathrobe, shivering slightly from the drafty morning air. But as I remove my hair-tie to towel my hair dry, it slips from my grip and splashes back into the pool with a tiny ripple. I watch it sink to the bottom, wondering for a moment if I want to venture back in and retrieve it, but something catches my eye. The reflection of the sky and the feathery white clouds overhead.

In the end, I wade back in to grab my hair-tie, but this little ‘interruption’ has caused a thought to form at the back of my mind. There’s the world underwater, and the one immediately above, but there’s also the surface—and maybe that deserves more attention than we pay it.

Perhaps the water surface is holding up a mirror to life. Today’s gusty winds have allowed me to see in the pool’s reflection fragmented and faceted slivers of the sky. Its appearance is rippled and somewhat unclear, but by God, isn’t it beautiful?

Everything Takes Forever: A Story of Waiting (Part 13)

Image via Pinterest

Image via Pinterest

[Continued from Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7,Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, and Part 12]

I don’t know her name, but for all intents and purposes, let’s call her Jennifer.

A fleeting glimpse of Jennifer is enough. We exchange a glance for about two seconds before I break away. As if I could ever forget.

Everything about Jennifer—and girls like her—triggers me. I have memorized her gaunt face, protruding cheekbones, hollowed eye sockets, and pronounced collarbones. I see how she piles on the makeup to soften hard angles and mask the perpetual fatigue. I feel the effects of her sleep deprivation: migraines, brain fog, and lightheadedness. I hear the drag in her step and feel sympathy for those bony legs—subject to acute cramps that jolt her awake in the dead of night.

When was the last time she’d had a decent meal and good night’s sleep? Jennifer hasn’t the faintest idea, nor does she care. Hunched over in hunger, her skeletal shoulders flinch defensively everytime someone touches her. Most of all, she harbors an abject hatred for mirrors, unable to recognize or face the monster she’s created. What is happening? Why do I no longer look like me? Can I ever go back?

I may no longer look like Jennifer, but there’s no fooling her. For neither my fleshiness nor her litheness can disguise the fact that we’re two peas in a pod. Branded by our common experience and sporting the same battle scars, we belong to a category of people hardwired to live in our heads and never feel comfortable in our own skin. Right now she’s hiding behind excessive makeup, and me extra layers of fat, but the second our eyes meet, the jig is up.

ED recovery is hard enough without triggers like Jennifer. The way ahead has been paved with frequent indigestion, perpetual abdominal bloat, uneven distribution of regained weight, the vengeance of two years’ worth of PMS, and constant confusion that comes with still thinking I’m a thin person but no longer inhabiting the body of one (and the redundancy of almost two-thirds of my wardrobe). It’s well and good to talk about rebuilding a loving relationship with food and your body, but know this, ED recovery is no walk in the park.

I long to make Jennifer, and all other triggers that threaten to derail my ED recovery, disappear with the wave of a magic wand.  So I do that—in my head. I mentally compose a “Trigger Box,” into which go Jennifer and the rest of my “trigger list,” including (but is not limited to): thinspo blogs, celebrity magazines, weighing scales, food labels, calorie-counting apps, cooking, baking, my running shoes and weights, the gym and treadmill, and all “petite”-sized clothes I once starved myself into. The Trigger Box is sealed (and reinforced) with duct tape, and I scribble with a red marker “DO NOT OPEN” before hurling it down the basement, i.e. the deepest recesses of my subconscious.

As Jennifer’s gaze bores into my back, I can feel her desire to reach out and connect, but I refuse to engage. She’s silent but the cacophony of her thoughts is deafening. You busted your ass to be thin, only to throw it all away? How could you? What will you do now?

“Excuse me! Wait!” she calls out, her low, gravely voice stopping me in my tracks.

I have no choice but to turn and look her squarely in the eyes, which are wide with a strange mix of curiosity and fear. “Were you talking to me? How can I help you?”

Jennifer bites her lower lip nervously, before launching into spurts of short sentences. “Yes, you. Thanks for stopping. I’m sorry if this is abrupt. I’ll make this quick. I just wanted to know … what’s recovery like? I mean, what’s it look like?”

“You’re referring to … ?” I mouth the words ‘eating disorder.’

She nods, her eyes fixed intently on mine.

“I don’t know,” I reply, “but I hope that if and when I get there, I can tell you.”

“I don’t wanna do this anymore,” she mutters in a low breath, “but I’m afraid.”

“What are you afraid of?”

“Being fat. I could never let myself recover unless someone could assure me a hundred percent I wouldn’t get all plus-sized. D’you know what I mean?”

“I do. But I’m sorry I can’t tell you anything. I don’t even know where this is heading.”

“So you just jumped in? With your eyes closed?” Jennifer asks, incredulous and taken aback. “You’re so brave!”

Am I? Until she mentions it, I hadn’t really thought about how I’d cope if I settled into a post-ED size of anything that fell outside my comfort zone of a US 6/UK 10. Suddenly aware how swiftly I’m edging toward a US 8/UK 12, I feel seized with a newfound fear of the unknown. Gee, thanks, Jennifer.

“I have to go. Can I give you my number? You’ll call me when you get there?” she asks.

We part with awkward smiles, her cell phone number programmed in my mobile as a personal reminder to get better, even if not on Jennifer’s terms.

Does a huge part of me hope my ED recovered size falls within a range that isn’t too hard to accept? Of course. But being called brave is something new. Maybe there’s something to be said about having “jumped in with my eyes closed”  and representing a fragment of hope for someone else who’s still contemplating.

And just like that, Jennifer escapes from my Trigger Box.

[to be continued]