Phone home

“The love we do not show here on Earth is the only thing that hurts us in the after-life.” ― Steven Spielberg

“You could be happy here, I could take care of you. I wouldn’t let anybody hurt you. We could grow up together, E.T.” ― Elliott from ‘E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial’

I was four years old when my parents took me to my first horror movie.

It was 1982. Laura Branigan was belting out Gloria, unsuspecting Chicagoans were dying of cyanide-laced Tylenol, Ronald and Nancy were getting cozy in the White House, and every velour sweatshirt-wearing youth was infatuated with Stephen Spielberg’s new flick.

Naturally, my mother and father assumed I was just like every other fun-loving kid in our quaint New York City suburb. Following this logic, they wholeheartedly believed their daughter would adore the nationally-heralded blockbuster hit: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

They were wrong.

As witnessed through my hyper-vigilant, existentially-aware young eyes, E.T. was the very opposite of adorable. He was no cuddly, cute alien visitor; no magical galaxy wanderer, nor innocent foreign friend. E.T. was, at core, terrifying. And he was sent, from outer space, to kidnap me.

I emitted no wails nor screams in the movie theater; I gushed no buckets of tears down my face. Sheer panic, however, pulsated through my entire body. Seated between my mother and grandmother, their empathetic heartbeats soothing mine, I quietly burrowed myself in their arms for protection. And I continued to watch in utter terror as E.T. revived a dead chrysanthemum, faltered in health, symbiotically sickened Elliott, suffered scientific experimentation, and peddled across the moon. Given my resultant PTSD, it’s a wonder I ever ate Reese’s Pieces candy again.

The realm of fantasy play was reserved for the shimmering rocks and hallowed trees in my best friend’s backyard. Make-believe was for my grandmother’s closet, with her strings of pearls and polka-dot scarves. But that wrinkled, emaciated creature on the screen… that thing had to be real. And there was nothing that anyone could do, or say, to convince me otherwise. E.T. wanted to take me away from my family and rocket me into space. Never again would I return to this planet, let alone to my mother’s arms or my home.

I did not consciously decide to torment my parents for their epic miscalculation. I admit to no pre-meditated indictment for being cinematically-traumatized at the Pelham Picture House. My unrelenting night terrors held no pointed manipulation; nor did my utter lack of sleep, or my constant disquiet when left unattended.

As penance for her innocent transgression, my mother vigilantly adhered to my stalwart regimen of “The Nighttime E.T. Checklist,” which confirmed the following:

E.T. was not under my bed.
E.T. was not in my closet.
E.T. was not biking outside my window.
E.T. was not downstairs.
E.T. was not outside my door.
E.T. was not in the chair, hiding between my stuffed animals.

It was imperative that she repeat this checklist a minimum of seven times before shutting the light, kissing my forehead, whispering “goodnight sweetie,” and closing my door into oblivion.

The advanced portion of the evening ritual consisted of five silent beats, followed by ten minutes of holy terror, as I bellowed, “Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!” until she ran exhausted, frustrated, and angry (mostly at herself for buying the movie tickets…) back into my room, to once again verify that E.T. was not: under my bed, in my closet, outside my window, etc.

She never once found E.T. lurking in the shadows. But I knew the truth. As soon as my mother abandoned her post at my side, E.T. would emerge. And if granted enough time, he would abscond with me in his spaceship. With that creepy oblong alien head, he was diabolically awaiting the absolute right moment to remove me from my existence, to imprison me, to take me away.

I wished my parents could understand I was not being unreasonable or irrational. Couldn’t they see … their daughter was not safe. A powerful, unknown force wanted me gone from this world. We had to be vigilant to ensure my survival. Otherwise, absolutely everything and everyone I loved would be lost to me, forever.

Child psychologists vary in their interpretation of bedtime strategies for troubled sleepers and anxious toddlers. A popular approach is to “let the child cry until she stops.” Too heartbreaking for some parents, that methodology nonetheless statistically meets with successful results, whereupon the child eventually calms herself, stops crying, and goes to sleep, enabling a lifetime of self-soothing faculties.

I have always been one to defy statistics.

Also a talented innovator since birth, I launched an inspired sleeping arrangement in our household, whereupon my mother took up nightly residence on my bedroom floor, occupying a 3’x10’ space between my twin bed and the wall. Like a teenage slumber party, my mom layered multiple comforters, blankets and pillows, and smushed herself next to my shelf of Care Bears. And there, she remained, for the night. Many nights. An entire season of nights. My father’s snoring resounded from the adjacent room, confirming his restful repose in their king-size bed. Despite my mother’s physical discomfort on the floor, I felt comforted knowing we had collectively thwarted E.T.’s plans. He would not dare enter my room to vanish me from my existence with my mom mere inches away.

As I attempted to barricade my home from E.T.’s calculated invasion, my best friend Christina graciously invited the little devil inside her world. Betrayed at the age of four, by the pink-leotard-wearing girl around the block. Universal Pictures’ marketing department hit the motherload with Christina, as her parents filled their home with E.T. posters, stickers, t-shirts, pillows, bed linens, games, mugs, and the worst offender – a life-size E.T. plush toy. I still give her mom tremendous kudos for trying to circumvent a Pre-K societal breakdown. For every “Alison + Christina” playdate that occupied their house, the kind-hearted woman spent a good hour prepping their home for my arrival. This required hiding all E.T. paraphernalia from plain sight, covering up the wall art, and sternly reminding Christina’s older wise-cracking siblings not to point an index finger in Alison’s direction – or else. To add insult to injury, Christina demanded an E.T.-themed party in honor of her 5th birthday. To honor social graces, I attended the festivities, but sequestered myself upstairs in their kitchen, while two dozen toddlers ate an E.T.-designed cake off E.T.-imprinted plates, and received E.T.-themed goody bags.

I can’t recall when exactly I started sleeping on my own again. Or when I was brave enough to perform the nighttime checklist by myself (but I did continue to check…for a lot longer than I care to admit). The haunting threat of ET lingered for years, concurrent with my belief in Santa Claus. Perhaps the turning point was the shocking revelation that my mother often crept into her own room in the middle of the night to continue her nightly repose in her grown-up bed. My developing mind had to wrestle with the cognitive dissonance that I was objectively left unattended most of the night, and yet nonetheless, awoke safe and sound in my bed, on the planet Earth, the next morning. Despite the diatribe my mom received when I discovered her underhanded tactics, that may have been the proof I needed to risk the nights alone.

Two decades later, as a college graduate spending quality time alone with my mother over a game of Trivial Pursuit, I landed on a pie-piece for Arts & Entertainment. Drawing a card from the overused deck, my mother first read the question silently to herself, shook her head, sighed, and then resigned herself to read my match-point query out-loud.

Mom: “What popular movie was banned in Sweden for children under the age of 11, because of its threatening and frightening content?”

Me: “What? I have no idea. I never get a good question when it matters.”

Mom: “Think about it. You know the answer.”

Me: “No I don’t! Sweden? What the hell. Why would I know that?”

Mom: “REALLY. THINK. ABOUT. IT.”

Me: “I have no idea. Star Wars?”

(No. It wasn’t Star Wars.)

My taunting cries of “I TOLD YOU!” could be heard several blocks away for hours, after she reluctantly revealed the answer:

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

“Sweden knows!” I exclaimed. “Sweden understands me!”

Subsequent research unearthed quite the fun fact: Sweden wasn’t the only country to issue this decree. Most of Scandinavia seemed overtly concerned that this “family friendly” film would traumatize an entire generation of their blond-haired, blue-eyed citizens. If only this level of artistic censorship had existed in the United States, I would have been spared years of anguish (and maybe my mother would have gotten to sleep before 1983).

It’s now 2019, almost four decades since my E.T.-induced night terrors. The irony here is: my agonizing fear has actually come true, just in a context and role reversal twist that was astronomically wilder than even my untamed childhood imagination.

For the last four years, I’ve been a stranger in my own strange land. Tossed and turned and spinning, I was thrown out of my former life, city, and home by an energetic force much greater than myself; a force I cannot seem to control despite my intellect and resourcefulness; a power that is omnipresent and yet invisible. And I’m not the only one. I’ve been poked and prodded by medical science; and I’ve been experimented upon by strangers and friends, without my knowledge nor consent. I’ve sought asylum from kind-hearted, compassionate souls along the way.

Turns out, I am not so different from E.T. Maybe my youthful intuition knew what was in store. Despite Sweden’s solidarity, maybe a prescient mind was the reason for my unrest.

The modern world around me now looks and feels different, wrong, foreign. It’s a place I no longer comprehend, and where survival takes precedence over living. And what is mind-numbingly baffling is: this is, in fact, still my planet. I did not crash elsewhere in the galaxy, after traveling light-years on a spaceship. I have been here, in place, this whole time. And yet the world shifted around me. The energy changed. Literally. With environmental hazards, toxins, and artificial electromagnetic fields that do not mesh with everyone’s body, but which very much make me sick and dysfunctional.

The paradox is: I am here, but no longer able to be here. Despite my birth on this planet, I am now one of many positioned as “foreign.” As “alien.” And the problem is, I can’t get back home. Because, my home, and my world, has forever vanished under a cloud of electrosmog. (But hurrah! Everyone gets to have free Wi-Fi and live without cords! Yes, that’s totally worth the cost of individual life and liberty…)

E.T. wasn’t human, but he had every right to his existence. In whatever way we can understand “life” beyond the concept of Earth, E.T. was after all, a living being, made from matter and propelled by laws of physics.

The radiant heart inside his tiny skeletal chest beat with that collective, undefinable ethos:

Love.

The glowing touch of his finger illuminated what binds the universe together as one:

Energy.

E.T.’s right to live, to be happy, to be safe, and to be home, is the right we all share. It is unjust to have all of that taken away, without due process, without recourse, and without ample and affordable opportunity for sanctuary. But, that’s where we are. Whether people want to admit that or not.

For me, the three most chilling lines of Spielberg’s movie were as follows:

“E.T. phone home.”

Haunted by E.T.’s freakish mechanical tonality, and his melancholy eyes, I could hear that phrase echo in my childhood nightmares for months. Now at the age of forty, that line is only unnerving because it is so personally heartbreaking. I may not use a rigged up Speak & Spell, but I’ve got my own concoction of wires, cords and electronic devices that connect me through the digital lines to my erstwhile home, the great metropolis of New York City, an unsafe terrain pulsating with radiofrequencies and electromagnetics that would have shocked even Tesla.

Since I can no longer actually be home, I am left with one recourse:

Phone home.

And that’s what I do.

So, I call…

My mom.

There are no more nighttime checklists, but I need to hear her voice again at night. I ask for reassurance: “Will everything be ok? Will I wake up in the morning?”

She says yes, but I don’t always believe her.

I’m old enough now to know the difference between a movie screen and the real world.

That the life we are living was not fabricated in a Hollywood studio.

That our technologies and gadgets aren’t merely special effects and fake animations.

That in reality, it’s quite possible E.T. never returns home, no matter how many times he calls, or how hard he tries. Because “home” no longer exists.

Now that is truly terrifying.

Doors

“I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out;
and I thought how it is worse, perhaps, to be locked in.” 
― Virginia Woolf

“He tries to find the exit from himself but there is no door.” 
― Dejan Stojanovic

There is little in this world more anxiety-provoking than someone telling me:

“I’ve left you the key. Feel free to let yourself in.”

I’m not good with doors.

Or keys.

Or locks.

I’d make a terribly ineffective robber of bank vaults.

Similar to my childhood fear of entering a grocery store to buy a carton of milk, I’ve always accepted this charismatic quirk as part of my hyper-vigilant persona (What if people are watching me as I attempt to do this mundane task?). Or perhaps one of the many intolerable eccentricities that emerge through an apprehensive countenance (What if I can’t open the door because the key won’t turn, it gets stuck in the lock and breaks in half?).

But if a cigar isn’t just a cigar, then a door isn’t just a door.

Twenty years ago, much to my relief, I met a college friend with the same logistical-psycho-social stumbling block. Tara and I were both extremely creative, intellectual, worldly individuals who could be taken down by a singular access point. The absolute terror of visiting each other’s dorms for the first time – there was way too much to navigate: the building’s exterior door (unlocked until midnight on weekdays; 2am on weekends), the interior gated doors (always locked; passage granted via scanned card to dorm residents only), the vestibule access code, the phone-intercom system, the RA on duty at her post checking IDs, the elevator hidden around the corner at the end of the hall, and at long last, the dorm room door (knock… that was the easy part).

It was objectively amusing when we attempted to travel Europe together. Medieval castles are not known for their easy passages: up the coffin-width spiral staircase, through the cobblestone alley, over the old moat, around the shrubbery maze, through the wrought iron, fifty-ton gate, then look for the costumed guard on the opposite side. Italian cafes with their dollhouse-sized washroom closets that never seemed to lock for privacy. London double-decker buses with their lack of doors (Wait, what? Hop on/off the bus through an open-air egress, while the vehicle is still sorta kinda moving? And where exactly do we pay for this amusement park ride?). British university libraries with their dusty stacks of books to infinity that precipitated disorientation and their creaky revolving wooden doors (FYI: a multi-partitioned door that continually spins in a circle is a particular kind of hell…). Even domestic hotels became inordinately stressful once the hospitality industry adopted magnetized key cards. Slide card in + slide card out + taunting red light = panic. At least Chicago’s Hotel Monaco added some whimsy to the experience by leaving a swimming goldfish in a bowl outside the neighbor’s room (at his request).

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Years later as a resident of New York City and a successful international business consultant, Tara was emerging from her posh downtown apartment building and walked smack into the double-glass doors leading to the outside world. Like one of those birds who doesn’t realize the window isn’t the sky, she was knocked down, stunned, bruised, and bleeding. The ER doctor questioned her marital relationship, but I believed her truth. Doors can be very tricky, particularly when they’re often left open for you or deceivingly crystal clear. Ever since Tara’s cautionary tale, I’ve been extremely wary when approaching anything that resembles air.

When I finally had a sufficient salary to afford my own Manhattan residence (aka rationalize spending 70% of income on a 350-square foot studio apartment and still be able to feed and clothe self… well, sometimes…), it should come as no surprise that my top requirement to my realtor was “doorman building.” It seemed safer to have someone in a proper suit, hat and nametag guarding the doors 24/7, even if that “someone” was a stranger from a strange land who could barely pronounce my non-Slavic name, and thereby only referred to me by unit number (“14K, you have a dry-cleaning delivery”).

Single and alone in New York City was challenging enough. Between dragging heavy grocery bags home down long city blocks in the heat, rain, snow; awaiting bulky furniture deliveries (“Lady, if the couch don’t fit in the service elevator, just tip the guy to walk it up the 14 flights of stairs, yeah, no problem”) and Time Warner Cable service calls (“We’ll be there on Wednesday sometime between 7am and 9pm… if our guy can get out of Queens”), it was relieving to know for certain that at the very least, a skilled aperture professional would be able to hold open the door, and maybe even smile and say hello (in Albanian).

I’ve questioned if my apprehension negotiating doors (particularly of the unfamiliar variety) equates to agoraphobia. But neither my super-social nature nor my therapist have ever concurred with that theory. I’m both comfortable being in, and interacting with, the world at large. Bring me to a networking event or professional conference, and I’m in my element. Invite me to a party, and I’m at ease (dare I say, even joyful?) making new friends and connections. In fact, the thought of remaining inside my residence all day fills me with depressive dread. My morning motivations out of bed include visions of bustling coffee shops and the world beyond my abode.

It appears, however, that I am perceptibly anxious, uncertain, and fearful of the transition itself. The openings and the closings. The movement from one side to the other. The hellos and the goodbyes. The “here” versus “there” of it all. From Shakespeare’s perspective, “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.” But it’s their “exits and entrances” that unbalance my equilibrium, and leave me with a pounding heart at every twist of a knob; stunned and dizzy at every click of a lock.

One of my favorite films is the 1998 movie Sliding Doors. A convincingly British Gwyneth Paltrow character lives out two alternate versions of her reality – one in which she misses her train; and one in which she just barely makes it. We follow her two vastly disparate iterations of the same year – romantically, professionally, and personally – and the various incarnations of what’s good and bad in each.

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We are left to ponder the expansive consequences of our minuscule everyday decisions and movements; how dramatically different life can be if we hail a cab versus walk, run back to grab our forgotten cardigan, stop to clean up our spilled coffee, or sit in one train car versus another.

The film’s ultimate plot twist extrapolates the concept of fate. If something’s meant to be, then no matter what door we walk through, will we eventually meet our destiny in some shape or form? Or will we forever be off-track from the people, places, and things that are authentically fulfilling? And can we possibly ever know with conviction which door to open, when to open it, if to walk through it, when to close it, and how long to keep it locked up?

A few months ago, I experienced my own Sliding Doors moment. A small, but important professional gathering was happening in a city two hours from my residence. Given the distance, I was on the fence about attending, though nonetheless drawn for various career-related reasons. Having driven the route countless times before, I knew my departure from home could be no later than 4pm should I wish to arrive with enough breathing room for a 7pm event. And yet, as the clock struck 4:00, I still had not decided if I wanted to make the effort.

A friend nudged me that I’d probably enjoy the solitary road trip on the sunny and warm autumn day, and the shift in scenery would be uplifting. That wisdom sent me dashing upstairs to change attire and make myself otherwise presentable. And I threw myself into my car at 4:10pm, already ten minutes behind schedule.

Much to my chagrin, Google Maps informed me there was a crash along my route, only 10 miles from my endpoint, recalculating my journey to almost three hours on the road. I logically presumed that accident should clear before I reached the disastrous intersection. But, with each passing minute, the traffic did not break. After two hours on the highway, close in mileage to my destination, but stuck in grid-locked traffic, my GPS advised I take a local route off the highway to save 20 minutes. Heeding the digital navigation oracle, I weaved my way through local byroads and side streets, fretfully hitting red lights, slow drivers, and other road blocks, and challenging the speed limit whenever I had open road.

Arriving in the city center at 6:50pm, I swiftly pulled into a parking garage, only to be informed by the attendant that they would close in ten minutes. He redirected me out of the lot, down the street, and around the block, to a garage with a bandwidth until 10pm. I secured my car in a space, leapt out, locked the doors, walked five long strides before realizing I left an important notebook in the car. Dashing back to my car, I unlocked the door in a frenzy, grabbing my neglected item, and with three minutes to spare, I rushed up the street, around the corner, through the glass doors of the lobby, to spy the elevator doors just starting to close. Using my native New Yorker skills, I skidded on the linoleum floor to the elevator in a split second, stuck my hand in the door to prop it open, jumped into the elevator disheveled and harried, and standing right there inside was:

My friend.

Or, my ex-friend, to be exact.

(I had no idea he was going to the event.)

“Right. Of course you’re here,” were the first words out of my mouth.

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We had quarreled to an epic relationship collapse a mere six days prior. After telling me goodbye, I had watched him walk away and shut the door in finality and anger. I did not imagine sliding through yet another gateway, in a different city, to find him yet again on the opposite side.

He and I had opened and closed many doors on each other – and for each other – over the three tumultuous years in which we attempted to manage our transcendent connection. Those same doors which usually unfastened methodically and effortlessly, often slammed shut carelessly and indignantly. A dizzying spiral of conversations, connections, breakdowns and apologies… a carousel of restaurants, homes, and vehicles… each with a door firmly demarcating our entrances and exits; but with no stage directions to inform us where to stand in relation to the other, nor any indication of who held the master key. And when a passageway was blocked or a precarious wall came crashing down, it was always easier to blame the other one for crossing boundaries and unlocking the door without permission.

Two months after that elevator encounter, I awaited his scheduled entrance at a restaurant, in an ethereal town that has served to move us both, individually and together, as though mythical gliding staircases and shifting corridors were predestined for a cosmic metamorphosis. Through that rustic restaurant door, he once humbly asked for my friendship back, which I granted. Less than two years later, through that same door, we agreed to barricade all windows, lock up for good, and throw away the keys. As he motioned to leave, I remained in my seat, claiming my space inside, and watched him exit stage left, end of Act III, curtain closed, let’s all take a bow for such captivating and passionate performances.

It’s been said to close a door if it leads no where. But I’m not sure I agree with that last part. Yes, of course we close doors on people, places, and things that cause us pain and suffering, situations and relationships that end in disaster, circumstances that belittle and demean our nature. But, despite the heartbreak, an open door never leads to oblivion.

It’s what happens after the threshold is crossed… the transition from one room to another, from one stage player to the next. Each step, each space… it always leads somewhere. Even if it’s to another door with an equally confounding lock. Or to another place where we don’t want to be.

The trepidation is not what we’ll discover beyond the entryway, or if we are strong enough to survive. The anxiety is based in this: We have the power to open all doors. We have to decide if we want to turn the key.