Charlotte Sometimes

As a teenager, my favorite band was the Cure. This was pre-Radiohead, pre-Editors, before bands—even alternative bands—tended to be literary. Yet the Cure turned out songs like “Killing an Arab,” based on The Stranger by Albert Camus, and “How Beautiful You Are,” an echo of Charles Baudelaire’s essay “The Eyes of the Poor” (both facts that I discovered, in those dark ages before Google, when I fortuitously—serendipitously?—stumbled upon the originals… one in a borrowed book that I came this close to not taking home with me). In that arid early-90s musical landscape, the Cure was an exception in more ways than one (the Smiths were another, but Morrissey has gone so far off the deep end with his white nationalism these days that I find it hard to listen to his music). I remember, during those years, several vivid dreams featuring the band’s teased-haired, heavily made-up vocalist Robert Smith, including one in which he appeared at my Shelby, North Carolina home to take me away with him.


I mention the Cure because the title of one of their songs—“Charlotte Sometimes”—afterward became a kind of euphemistic shorthand with which I would refer to the period of months I spent at two different mental institutions during the fifteenth year of my life. My parents, at their collective wits’ end with my depression, self-harm, and runaway attempts, had decided to “send me off,” as it was referred to in the common parlance of my hometown of Shelby, North Carolina. (In retrospect, I have to say that I think my depression was justified; a close friend had recently been left paralyzed by a stupid, completely avoidable accident, and my reading of a college environmental studies textbook had convinced me not only that the adults running the show were doing a shit job of it but that the entire planet was in imminent danger, both of which have turned out to be all too true.)

The lyrics to “Charlotte Sometimes” fit the circumstances of my internment with an eerie similarity. The hospitals were both located in Charlotte, and my stays there were intermittent, first one, then another, over a period of months. The song describes a girl who lies in bed, eyes open, in a city in which the streets look strange. It mentions the “expressionless games” that the people (nurses? psychiatrists?) around her play. There are many of these strangers—they have “many different names”—and they’re too close to her; they crowd in on her. The song describes the wall around the girl, “glass-sealed,” and refers to unfamiliar sounds and lights (industrial, fluorescent?) that seem too bright and glare off of the (hospital’s?) white walls.

There’s a line in the song about the girl preparing herself for bed, which stands out because, one night as I lay in bed, eyes open and not yet asleep, one of the counselors came into my room to “tuck me in” and rubbed his hand from my cheek down my neck to my chest, where he got a good feel before finally bidding me good night.

I spent the next day nervous and uneasy. I suspected that Jamal, the counselor, would come back into my room that night, and that his groping might escalate into something more. Finally, in the evening, I made what I thought was a discreet inquiry: “Is Jamal working tonight?” When Nurse Radcliffe told me he was, I must have looked worried enough to prompt concern. “Why, April?” she asked gently, at which point I burst into tears.

I was a minor, away from home, and under the care of a group of adult healthcare professionals. Today I see clearly the potential for a lawsuit, just as the hospital’s administrators must have seen at the time. Jamal was phoned and told not to come in that night. Kids were questioned. It turned out that, although no one else accused him of sexual misconduct, he was well-known for making jokes and comments of an inappropriate, often sexual, nature. Jamal was fired, I was apologized to, and my parents were called in, presumably to head off any thoughts of litigation.

The administrators needn’t have worried. The only anger my parents expressed—privately, in my room, after a meeting with several hospital bigwigs in tailored suits—was with me. They were miffed at having to drive all the way to Charlotte on a weeknight for what they viewed as a tempest in a teapot, and my mother blamed me for provoking the incident. “You must have done something,” she concluded peremptorily, “to make him think you wanted it.”

When I look back on Charlotte Sometimes, I’m surprised how vivid my memories of that time are. I can still taste the spicy Blistex handed out to soothe the effects of the canned heat, and see the city’s rosy morning skyline as it was framed by the window of my room. It was a welcome revelation to encounter doctors and counselors who blamed my parents for most of my problems, who told them to stop making me sleep in the bed with my nine-year-old brother or capitulate to his other demands. Forced to eat a healthy diet for several months, I realized that I felt better. When my period came, for the first time in my life, it wasn’t heralded by gut-wrenching cramps. One of the counselors, a dark-haired young man named David who wore cloth shoes, told me that I should go vegetarian. “You’re too compassionate a person to eat meat,” he said with a smile.

He was right. A month after I was discharged from the second hospital, I dropped all meat from my diet. My only regret is that I never got to tell David what a difference he made in my life. For twenty-eight years, I’ve eaten considerably more vegetables than typically figure in the American diet. When, after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, I learned about the importance of a vegetable-based diet in combatting the symptoms of the disease, my first thought was, “If I’d eaten like other people all these years, I’d probably be in my grave.”

There was another benefit to my Girl, Interrupted interlude. Though I had always been a voracious reader, in the first hospital I was exposed to a new kind of literature, writing so fresh and exciting that, I’m ashamed to say, I tore several pages out of a literary anthology—including poems by Allen Ginsberg, LeRoi Jones, Ted Berrigan, and Sylvia Plath—to take with me when I left. Like the Velvet Underground’s Janie, whose life was saved by rock and roll, in a very real sense, my life was saved by literature. That delicious tome and others I found in the seventh-floor library offered me a glimpse of a new world, one in which I would immerse myself just a few years later, when I majored in literature at the University of North Carolina at Asheville.

When my parents had me committed, I don’t think they expected to be blamed for my problems. They resented my talking about my home life to doctors and counselors, “telling their secrets,” as they saw it, and they retaliated by declaring that they’d spent enough and wouldn’t be shelling out a penny for my education. The last time I visited them, twenty-eight years after Charlotte Sometimes, my mother was still complaining about what my stint in the hospitals had cost them. As if I’d asked to be locked up.

I’m sorry that my parents feel this way, because, in spite of the downside, I view the experience as one of the best things that ever happened to me. Today, as “a woman standing where there was only a girl” (to come back to the Cure), I see Charlotte Sometimes as formative in my life, a turning point. Those months “off” taught me that the world was bigger than my parents’ house, bigger than the town of Shelby, broader and grander and more interesting than anything I’d yet seen. As Robert Smith would say, “the party just gets better and better.”


Missy’s Got a Gun

“I don’t want to live in a country that doesn’t allow me to own a gun,” I yell, shoving my chair into the dining table. Rob wears a blank expression like he hasn’t meant to start one more war with me. We’re married liberals who can’t talk about anything political, especially gun control while details of another school shooting are roaring from television speakers in the next room.

“I didn’t mean to…” he starts, dropping his fork, pushing his plate of fish away.

“Yes you did,” I sneer. “You always mean to force me into discussions I don’t want to have. Then, when I disagree with your point of view you’ll say, You’re not thinking clearly, Melissa, or, Melissa, you’re being naive!”

“Okay, so I did mean it.  But surely you can see that guns do more harm than good.  And Jesus, you’re not living in a backward, little, redneck town anymore. It’s West Hollywood!  Get a grip,” he says, reaching up to touch my arm as I jerk it away.

“It disgust me that you can’t hold it in your consciousness that life’s different for women, Rob, that I might actually need the right to own a gun someday. If this country fell under attack, exactly what do you think would happen to women?”

Rob’s head drops. He doesn’t plan to answer.

“Well, I’ll tell you what’ll happen. If we can’t own guns, women will be forced to rely on men for protection. Now, let’s traipse back through history and see how that’s gone for us. You gotta know, even the men you thought were the nicest will expect payment for services rendered!”

“Oh God!  Six shots are going to keep you from being raped?” Rob throws his hands in the air. “It’s always that for you, after all these years,” he says, pulling up an empathetic, daddy face that almost looks genuine with his snow-white hair. It’s bullshit. Rob’s a master role player when his back is up.

“You damn right it’s always that for me! I have a vagina! Any catastrophe that happens in the world has the potential to be so much worse for me. If war broke out, sure you might be killed, but women will be taken and used like toilets! And your sudden benevolent tone after bullying the fuck out of me on the topic makes me sick!”

“Now you’re just being belligerent, Melissa,” he says, rising, leaving the room.

I don’t stop him from leaving because I want to right myself, and I can’t right myself in front of him. Whenever the gun control battle comes up in an amplified, frightening way, Missy, my angry, fifteen-year-old, teenage part of self comes up too, wreaking havoc through my forty something psyche. Missy’s rage sends rooms spinning in my mind. I begin to vibrate from the inside out until I’m covered in hot sweat. Her long-standing feelings of diminishment, and desecration, are much stronger than the feelings of the kind, intellectual person I’ve become after two decades of recovery.   

Gathering my keys, driving to Canters Deli, I’m overwhelmed by my own division. Adult me is having to consider damage control with a spouse, frightened over the reality of another school shooting. While teenage Missy opens a flood gate of memories she holds of our massively large, violent, lunatic mother, and the pearl-handled thirty-eight revolver she owned while we were growing up in the ugliest poverty. 

Missy ached for our mother’s gun to be hers as she watched our mother place the revolver in the glove box of her burgundy Oldsmobile, or at the top of her bedroom closet in a small, tan metal box. 

Missy ached to own the gun because she wanted to point it at our mother, who habitually slapped her face until it lost all feeling, and say, “You’re not such a tough bitch now, are you? Just take one step closer! I’ll show you just who you’ve been fucking with all these years!”  

Missy ached to own the gun because she wanted to wield it at the random men coming in and out of our house who made her feel like she had to step out of her body, to set it aside for awhile, like her body was a pair of pants or a shirt, and say, “I’m going to blow a hole in the center of your chest if you try and take my body! It’s mine! I fucking live in it!”

Missy would sneak the pearl-handled thirty-eight down from its place in the closet when our mother was out, and though she was too delicately framed to raise the weight of the pistol with confidence, she’d practice taking aim with her free hand under the butt of the handle aiming it at different objects in our mother’s bedroom. The bedside lamp. The large metal fan. A clock on the wall that wouldn’t stop ticking. Other times she’d set the gun gently down on our mother’s puke-green bedspread, running her fingers over the cool metal, marveling at the beauty of the pearl. She’d dream of days when she wouldn’t be small, having no way of knowing she’d never get very big…that many things would always feel futile.

Sitting in my Civic in Canter’s parking lot, I see a text from Rob flash on my phone. “Where’d you go?” 

I don’t answer.

I want to get my adult self back to the forefront of my mind and body. I don’t want to live in the shadowy darkness of my past. I feel I need to cry, but I can’t.  My body won’t produce tears when I get like this, and this is another sign for me that the teenager in me, Missy, still has a strong hold. Missy won’t cry if you’re pulling her fingernails out. Her pale-skinned face looks like mine, only it’s hard like the metal of the pistol, and cold to the touch. Her eyes are black disks without my wide range of expressions.

I watch in the short distance a little, old, black lady sitting on a stool on the sidewalk holding her Styrofoam cup up for change. Her lips are moving.  I know she’s singing a gospel hymn because I’ve heard her singing many times before. Watching her, a her I’ve experienced in times when Missy’s been sleeping, by handing her change, or asking how her day’s been, tight bands start to relax around my rib cage. I start to feel more like adult me. I know I’ll soon be able to go into Canters and eat a mountain of rugelach. The cinnamon with nuts are my favorites. The raspberry runs a close second. I’ll get Rob a black and white cookie. I’m not the kind of person who can go home empty handed.  

With my excitement over feeling more like myself, my depression kicks in too.  Missy doesn’t have depression. It’s my old, adult friend, my sobering, my acceptance, my no longer denying in a certain moment something about myself that is true. Spending over half my life in therapy has not defused my teenage self, Missy. I can’t stop her circular, relentless thoughts about the pearl-handled thirty-eight revolver anytime a strident discussion about guns comes up. It doesn’t matter that I’ve made us a professor, a writer, that we’re ambitious, well traveled, successful, living in a different state from our birth, in great comfort, or well liked by a great many people. Protection, protection, protection…it doesn’t mean anything to her.

At home I slip up behind Rob who’s sitting at his computer in his office. I set the bag with the black and white cookie on the desk next to him. I can still hear the school shooting news in an endless loop from television speakers in the other room. The news frightens me, because I’ve  known loss so intimately.  Adult me desperately wishes there were no guns in the world, certainly no automatic weapons.   

“Feeling better?” Rob asks. “You want to talk?  I know you don’t believe me, but I didn’t mean for things to get ugly.”

“I can’t afford to get into it right now,” I say, not wanting to wake Missy after getting her settled down again.

“Fine,” Rob says, flippantly adding, “But you can’t live the rest of your life like someone’s coming for you, Melissa!”

“Why can’t I, and why shouldn’t I?” I ask. My voice is somewhere between firmness and a shout.

“Because you’re living in a more civilized time than the one you were born to!”

“Prove it!” I say through gritted teeth, feeling Missy stir, only slightly.

“I can’t prove it,” he says. “It’s just so! All you can do is count how many years you haven’t been violated against the years you were physically violated, and be reasonable.”

“Reason is for people like you, who can afford it! I’ve never had that luxury!”

“I seriously hope you discuss this with your therapist. I want you to get help!”

The cavalier tone scorches me, “You know what I want you to want for me, Rob?” I seethe, afraid I won’t be able to keep Missy at bay now, but I do.

“What’s that,” he says, turning all the way around to face me with a smirk.

“If there’s ever a time when I’m cornered by a group of men who’re about to rape me, I want you to hope for me that I at least have a thirty-eight revolver in my hand so I may kill the first six men coming at me and watch them die before the seventh man gets to me!”

Rob turns his chair back around, opening the bag with his black and white cookie. I walk away, unable to shove off the last images I hold of Missy running her fingers over the cold metal of the pearl-handled thirty-eight revolver. She’d been fantasizing about what she’d say if she could hold the gun up in the face of  a particular, filthy, middle-aged mechanic, a friend of our mother’s who’d been spending time around our house. Missy was fast running out of ways to avoid him when our mother was out.

Mid fantasy the door to our mother’s bedroom sprang open, slamming into the wall. Missy scrambled to cover the gun with the green bedspread because her first thought was of how our  mother would beat her for having the gun out. But she couldn’t get the spread up from its tight tuck at the foot of the bed. In the same scrambling instant it was coming to her consciousness that it hadn’t been her mother who’d shoved open the door to the room. It was the mechanic.

Missy broke into a cold sweat, looking from the man’s stunned, grizzly face, back to the gun on the bed. With six feet between Missy and the man, seconds of time rolled into one long permanent moment. 

In that interminable moment the man’s face moved from stunned to cautious to jeering, as Missy’s right hand fumbled backwards feeling the cold pearl on her fingers tips.

She could pick up the gun, she thought. She could blow the biggest hole right through the mechanic’s heart, spattering blood all over her mother’s bedroom, just like she’d imagined. 

“Aw, you won’t do it,” the man sneered. “You’re just an itsy, bitsy girl!”

Missy’s teeth chattered wildly as she didn’t know how to make herself take a firm grip on the pearl handle.

Light flashed to darkness, to light, to darkness again. The room shook wildly as though the earth would destroy it from utter distaste. Then there was the scream. The hideous sound that never reached the surface of Missy’s mouth. Where all memory ends, endlessly cycling back to the beginning with our massively large, violent, lunatic mother, and how she once owned a pearl-handled thirty-eight revolver, while we were growing up in the ugliest poverty. 


SELFIE INTERVIEW | Evelyn Sharenov

Evelyn Sharenov lives and writes in Portland, OR. She received degrees in literature and piano performance in NYC, where she grew up, and then returned to school to become a psychiatric nurse. Her fiction and essays have been published in Glimmer Train, Oregon Humanities Magazine, the New York Times, Fugue, Mediphors and other journals. She has been accepted to residencies that have taken her from the BigIsland to Nebraska City and beyond. Her work has been helped along by an Oregon Literary Fellowship in fiction and an Oregon Arts Commission grant to complete a project. She has written extensively about her with the mentally ill population. Her journalism and reviews have been published in Bitch Magazine, the New York Times, the Oregonian newspaper and Willamette Week.

Eckleburg: What drives, inspires, and feeds your artistic work?

Evelyn Sharenov: Reading, listening, watching drive my artistic work – wherever I am. I fell in love with books and the characters therein at a young age. Later I fell in love with the authors and teachers of literature. One afternoon, a professor asked me stay after class to talk to him. This was after turning in an assignment: choose one of the assigned books and write an additional chapter that fits in, doesn’t stand out as an extra chapter or something that doesn’t belong there. The course was Urban Literature. I was cowardly at first, then let go and wrote a chapter that worked. The professor was impressed with the writing and the fit and wanted to know if I had done more writing. I hadn’t. But that was the day I started. Certainly the encouragement of others – editors, other writers, competitive spirit, and even rejection feed my artistic work. Love feeds it, anger feeds it, jealousy feeds it, sex feeds it. Strong human tastes and proclivities feed it. And books. It always comes back to the books.

Eckleburg: If you had to arm wrestle a famous writer, poet or artist, either living or dead, who would it be? Why? What would you say to distract your opponent and go for the win?

Evelyn Sharenov: I would ask Danielle Ofri, MD, for an arm wrestle. I believe she would be a worthy and well matched opponent. Her essays and practice of medicine are in harmony with my idea of the art of medical literature. She’s brave and successful. The word I would use is DEATH. This might distract her or inspire her, as it would me. Perhaps it would be a draw.


Eckleburg: What would you like the world to remember about you and your work?

Evelyn Sharenov: I would like the world to remember that writing is hard work, and that I worked hard.