The first time I saw Miranda lying stretched out in a chair, I thought she was a large inflatable doll.
Above her head was a clock with no hands that said: “Menagerie, where time has no meaning.” Menagerie was part antique store, part cafe for people to come and drink coffee for hours. Around Miranda were various items: a three-way mirror with pink gilt roses around the border, some delicate cup and saucer sets. The owner, Pat Gresham, presided over her store of various and sundry items as though it were a large tea party where everyone was invited.
I stared for a few seconds at the doll, and as if feeling my puzzled stare, she roused herself, shook the white hair that fell to her waist, and opened eyes that were such a pale blue I had the feeling that I was entering another world. This woman, who was about the same age as me at the time, mid-40s, put out her hand and said, “Why, hello. I’m Miranda.”
I took her hand and told her my name. Miranda had come to Menagerie for the same reason: to sell a few paltry items to Pat so that she could buy cigarettes.
After our initial meeting, I saw her often, sometimes in the middle of the night, walking a dog she kept muzzled. With her dark glasses and long woolen coat, she looked like some subterranean creature from another dimension.
One cold, blustery afternoon, I saw her getting ready to enter her building on Emerald Street. To my surprise and delight, she suddenly became very friendly and asked if I would like to come up for tea.
“I would,” I replied, and thus began my three-month journey with a woman whose gifts and torments seemed to have been given to her in equal measure. Her apartment was all angled ceilings and tiny rooms, like a French pension, and it was enchanting to me, as was Miranda herself.
“I’m schizophrenic,” she told me at my first visit, as if to explain all of the oddities about her. There was no stove in her small apartment, but she set to work boiling water on the hot-plate she kept in the drawer of an antique cabinet. A vase of dried purple and yellow flowers sat in the window, and she tied her dog in an adjoining room.
“Don’t tell anyone,” she said, “but Valentine is part pit-bull. He will go for your throat if he thinks I am being threatened.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” I replied, wondering if I shouldn’t get up and run.
“Sometimes children throw rocks at us and laugh,” she told me one evening as we sat in candlelight drinking cup after cup of hot coffee out of plain white mugs, smoking cigarette after cigarette after cigarette, sometimes in silence.
I didn’t know how to respond, so I said nothing as Miranda sat rocking back and forth, staring at the flame of the candle. We often sat like this. Finally, Miranda showed me her art, for she had graduated from UT as art student. Her paintings were beautiful and disturbing—upside down women in blues and grays and lavenders, with perhaps a streak of orange; women with masks, women singing, shouting, weeping; but all of them, all of them, suffering some sort of agony.
I sometimes drove Miranda to her psychiatrist’s appointment, where he might spend less than 10 minutes with her, if that. By this time I was certain that Miranda had multiple personalities, now labeled associative identity disorder, and I wanted to discuss it with him. I was told he didn’t have time, i.e., didn’t want to be bothered, which is frequently the case with psychiatrists and their patients.
These various selves would manifest themselves quite suddenly, with a shift of expression and mannerism to suggest that another person had entered the room. The first and most distinguishable was a person I described as Ramona, who was quite sultry. Miranda would slip her dress down low on her shoulders and reveal a large portion of her breasts. She would then giggle and glance across her shoulder at someone—who?—and motion for that person to follow her. After a time, Ramona would sit back and begin rocking back and forth, back and forth, as Miranda resurfaced.
I never commented on this shift of personas but continued to drink my coffee and smoke my cigarettes while shafts of moonlight cast fabulous shadows against the angles of the room. These evenings were fascinating for me but quite less so for Miranda, I imagine. When I like a person I wear them out, until eventually they have to find escape from the burden of my company.
Miranda’s escape came in the form of hospitalization at Lakeshore. Before she was hauled off in an ambulance, she threw the keys at me and said: “Take care of Valentine.”
Take care of Valentine? Who me? I thought.
On the first day I put food and water in bowls, shoving them with my boot at Valentine, who just looked at me as he ate and drank. After 16 hours or so of him not going to the bathroom, I put on my coat and my courage and said: “Either you’re going to kill me or we’re going to go outside and have a nice walk.” It wasn’t without fear that I walked over to the dog, gently patted him, put him in muzzle and leash, and walked him out into the clear, warm night of August, where fireflies darted in and out of the trees. We walked and walked that night, Valentine and I, while I told him stories—stories about other dogs I had had, stories about what it was like to be a person, questions to him about what it was like to be a dog in a muzzle, and musing about what it would be like to trade places.
Miranda came home shortly after that, but not before I had completely redecorated her apartment, hung all her pictures on the wall, and replaced her velvet curtains with light, airy sheer curtains. Miranda was aghast when she entered the room, though she tried to be polite.
“It’s pretty,’ she stammered, but soon after expressed fatigue, and I departed.
Shortly after that Miranda dropped me. Not only were our cozy, little evenings in the candlelight all gone, but so was Miranda. When I approached her on the street, she fled from me in terror. I had become the enemy, the tormentor, and there was no going back. In retrospect I can’t say I blamed her. I had encroached on her world in an unforgivable way, threatened her in ways I could not even perceive.
Sometimes I imagine I see Miranda and Valentine in the blur of the summer heat, but no, it is only the shadow of time, for enchantment like that only occurs by grace, as gifts to receive and cherish, but never to capture and contain.
Donna Johnson describes herself as a person who thrives on breaking the rules other people have made while also creating rules for herself that do make sense. “My rules do not necessarily follow the law set out by the government and law-abiding citizens,” she says. “They follow an inner law, one unto myself, and when I attempt to go outside this, to conform, disaster follows.” Her stories are often about people who are not recognized by others, who may even seem invisible, but “they often have a great truth to share if one but listens.”
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