Annie doesn’t make enough money to live on, though she has a Master’s degree and works two jobs. She does have a car and an apartment, though both often need repairs. She thinks she doesn’t have friends: the old ones are unreliable, and the new ones are not aware that she is lonely. She understands that her family is very dysfunctional, but still wants to have a mother and father, and wants her two brothers to be sober and communicative, as she is.
Annie grew up in an alcoholic home. Both parents drink, and are emotionally, and often actually, absent. Her father rages. Her mother withdraws. In childhood, her younger brothers acted out. Annie didn’t; she taught herself to draw, and spent hours each day making precise, offbeat pictures of creatures that had human characteristics but weren’t quite human. Some of the pictures were self-portraits of a serious pixie. Her high school art teacher recognized her talent, and encouraged the quiet, solitary girl to apply to Fredonia, the arts hotbed of the state university system. Annie went off to college with minimal support from her family, who seemed not to notice that she was gone.
Campus life was stressful: too many new people, too many social challenges. She edged her way into the periphery of the 2-Dimensional fine arts group, and learned to paint. Before too long, a classmate, Andy, latched onto her and the two teenagers became inseparable. Andy was even quieter than Annie, even more on the fringe of the social scene. They were given wide berth by their classmates. At semester breaks, they each went home to families wracked by angry silence, and retreated to their childhood bedrooms to draw. During the last semester of their senior year, Annie realized that Andy was not going to be an artist, as she was, and that he was much more of a social outlier and recluse than she wanted to be. When she decided to move across the country to Portland, which had a good rap at Fredonia as an artists’ town, Andy assumed he’d tag along. When she told him that she wanted to go to Portland alone, Andy said nothing, and the subject did not come up again. He went home before the graduation ceremony, and she has not seen or heard from him since then. She graduated alone, without her compatriot and without her family, who didn’t make their way one hundred miles to Fredonia to witness her accomplishment.
Annie worked as a car rental clerk for a year in Portland. Finances required her to share an apartment, and she became involved with her roommate, a virtually silent man who gradually became more and more odd, before suddenly becoming violently psychotic and nearly killing her. “Luckily,” she said when she told the story, “I had been getting uneasy about his advancing weirdness, and had applied to the MFA program at Cal Arts, and gotten in. I decided I needed to move to California sooner rather than later, and was able to pack up my pencils and paints and head south when Nathan was hospitalized. I had no money, no car, and no apartment lined up, but I knew I had to get out of there or I might die.”
Cal Arts was cliquish and competitive, but Annie was accustomed to being on the outside. She ultimately landed in the experimental animation track there, and her Master’s project, a hand-drawn animation film about a solitary girl, won several national and international awards. Her classmates in animation began to get jobs in Hollywood, entry-level gigs at Pixar. She didn’t want to sell her soul, nor to work all day at a computer, and eventually ended up heading back to the northeast when her current boyfriend’s behavior began to remind her of the man in Portland.
Annie moved near a high school friend, who had established herself as a massage therapist in an alternative therapy center. Annie got part-time jobs working in an art gallery designing catalogs for the small exhibitions in the fancy gallery, caring for a child with autism, and writing copy for an online arts magazine. She settled into a small apartment, made friends, and had little time to make art because she was too busy eking out a living. Gradually, however, she developed a new project making stuffed animals by hand, and she began to write performance pieces for a monthly open mic program at a local arts studio.
I saw her the day after her first appearance at the open mic. Dressed in ochre jeans, and a green and pink Japanese anime tee shirt, she described the process she had been through writing and editing the piece, the logistics of the show, the audience, the introduction, the applause. And then she stopped.
I waited a moment. “It sounds like it was a success,” I said finally. “But what was the piece about, and what did it feel like to be up on stage with dozens of pairs of eyes on you?”
She looked down at her beautiful hands, interlocked in her lap, clearly distancing herself before she spoke. I felt her gearing up, putting on armor to go into dangerous territory. “I loved the eyes on me,” she said at last, quietly. “The piece was about a girl who was mean to me in third grade.” She looked up. “I made it funny, and the audience laughed in all the right spots. I loved that too.”
She read the piece to me; it was voluptuously vulnerable, fiercely frank, disarmingly dissident. It was also heart-wrenchingly hilarious, half Robin Williams, half Spalding Gray: one-hundred percent Annie. As she made me laugh at two little girls in an elementary school cafeteria, she simultaneously made my eyes fill with tears.
Self-aware, and always articulate, Annie was able to explain her experience on stage at the performance. “I forgot everything. I was just there, focused on what I was doing. I was just me. I’m at home on stage; it’s where I belong. I can’t read people’s faces, can’t assess how they are seeing me. For the time I’m on stage, I don’t care how they are seeing me, as long as they laugh at the right times.”
“But you’re so exposed,” I said. She looked me in the eye. “Like Eve,” she said. “Like Eve, before the fall.”