Sabrina Orah Mark’s monthly column, Happily, focuses on fairy tales and motherhood.
Illustration from a book of 1920s halloween costumes, Cole S. Phillips
When I was nineteen I lived with a wizard. Her hair was like dandelion seed, and she had a map crookedly taped to her bedroom wall. She smoked unfiltered Lucky Strikes and her clothes were always wrinkled and she gave me Walter Benjamin and the poems of Paul Celan and she kept me secret. No one knew I lived with a wizard in an awful, cold apartment that cost $940 a month. She spoke many languages in an accent that seemed to originate from an ancient ruin. I thought she might give me a brain. I already had a dumb heart, and even dumber courage. She was the farthest place from home I could go. The first time we kissed I knew she would undo me.
In L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the Great Oz appears as a head, a lady dressed in “green silk gauze,” a beast, and a ball of fire. The first time my wizard appeared to me, she was my literature professor. Her office had no window. I don’t remember her ever smiling, though she did laugh and so her laugh must have resided in a face slightly distant from her face. Like two cities over. I didn’t know then, as I know now, the difference between worship and love.
The Wizard in Baum is a humbug. He’s a sweetheart and a fake. My wizard was no sweetheart and she was no fake. She needed no curtain because I was the curtain. When I pulled myself all the way back there she was. The Wizard of Oz’s real name was nine men long: Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkle Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs. My wizard’s real name was a little girl’s name. It was the wrong name for her. Her name was the name of a drawing of a girl eating an ice cream cone in a soft pink dress. But I called her by her name anyway. And she called me by mine.
What even is a wizard? A master, a father, a mother, a lover, a god, a magician, a rabbi, a priest, a president, a beautiful, enraged professor? Like Godot, the wizard can be a holding place for what we emit but can’t yet claim or name or know. Our dust in the sunlight. The spell we have but don’t yet know how to cast. Each of us wants something different from the wizard. I wanted to be undone.
“On the fabrication of the Master,” writes Lucie Brock-Broido, “he began as a Fixed star.”
Unlike the Scarecrow’s brains, and the Tin Man’s heart, and the Lion’s courage, Dorothy Gale didn’t already have home inside her. She had a strong wind. It was already in her name. It was a twister. By lifting her up, and whirling her around, it saves her from “growing as gray as her other surroundings.” It gives her life. “She felt,” writes Baum, “as if she were being rocked gently, like a baby in a cradle.”
The wizard was my twister. But I didn’t touch down in Munchkin Land. I wasn’t welcomed as “a noble Sorceress.” I landed only a few miles from where I grew up. I landed in a cold apartment filled with German philosophy and cigarette ash, where my wizard would eventually—on a sunless day—call me a parasite. A horsehair worm. A barnacle. A sponge. My wizard meant she was my host. She meant I was eating her.
When I left the wizard I weighed eighty-eight pounds. I was as heavy as two infinities.
I left the wizard, and went to my mother.
I don’t remember my mother saying a single word. She just opened the door and let me in. I had my cat Lucy with me. We were back from Oz.
There’s no place like home when there’s nowhere else to go.
This is not a cautionary tale about falling in love with your professor. It’s not that simple and anyway, years later, when I was a grown-up, I married one and our love is tender and complicated and true. My story, like everybody’s story, is a question with at least two opposing answers. Just like there are good witches and bad witches, there are wizards who give us doors that lead into rooms filled with light and love and there are wizards who give us doors that lead into rooms filled with booby traps and dust.
“Over a period of a year,” writes Brock-Broido, “then another, then more years, my idea of the Master began an uprush—he became a kind of vortex of tempests & temperaments, visages and voicelessness. He took on the fractured countenance of a composite portrait, police-artist sketch. Editor, mentor, my aloof proportion, the father, the critic, beloved, the wizard—he was beside himself.”
When I was nineteen a wizard kissed me and gave me a pit I thought was a seed, but it wasn’t a seed. It was a hole. And down, down, down I fell.
The wizard and I spent many hours in bed watching Holocaust documentaries. She took me to Rome to meet her father, whom she hated. Afterward we drove to Amsterdam where she gave a paper on the superego at the Fifth Conference of the International Society of European Ideas, and then she ignored me for days. I saw nothing of Amsterdam but the inside of her rage—which, like a tornado, was the color of a bruise in the sky. Black and blue with spots of yellow.
“I think you are a very bad man,” Dorothy tells the Wizard. “Oh, no, my dear; I’m really a very good man,” he replies, “but I’m a very bad Wizard, I must admit.”
Each time my wizard appeared to me her face was a different face. She spun like a slot machine. Her face was three reels. Sometimes it stopped on disgust, love, and despair all at once. I had no lever and I had no coins. I never won.
It’s not that my wizard was a terrible wizard, it was just that she was a very bad man.
Listen, it must hurt to be a wizard. For hours my wizard would lock herself in her study and write about hypnosis, and trauma, and empathy, and fascination, and catastrophe, and survival, and anxiety, and disarray, and freedom. It sounded like hail. It smelled like smoke. I sat in the living room and played solitaire. When she emerged, she emerged like the Wizard arriving to Oz: “But I found myself in the midst of a strange people who, seeing me come from the clouds, thought I was a great Wizard. Of course I let them think so, because they were afraid of me, and promised to do anything I wished them to.”
On my twenty-first birthday we drove to Montauk, the easternmost point of New York State, also known as “The End.” She gave me no card, or gift, or even a spoken “happy birthday.” We took a road called 495 as far as it went, and then there we were. Did I even look at the ocean? I didn’t. Did I make a wish? I don’t think so. Why did I love her? I cannot remember.
Why am I writing this down? If my sons, when they are older, ever read this I will say this is just a tornado in the shape of an essay. This is just a very bad dream.
I’ve only written about my wizard once before. No, twice. But I’ve carried her around with me for twenty-five years, like a brick. A yellow brick that could be mistaken, when the sunlight hits it wrong, for fool’s gold.
In the 1939 classic film The Wizard of Oz, the tornado was actually a muslin stocking spun around in dust and dirt. The snow in the poppy scene was made of asbestos, and the flying monkeys were only six inches high, cast out of rubber, and hung by piano wire. I believe in the necessity of illusion. Without it, the boy in bed looking out his window who sees the tree branches against the night sky as long, skinny men will blink the branch back into view before the men even have a chance to sing. Without illusion there is no metaphor. And without metaphor there is no poetry. When I looked at the wizard’s face and heard the words she spoke, none I can now remember, I shook with gratitude. She chose me, and not you, or you, or you, to bear raw witness to her genius.
One of the last images I have of my wizard is her dandelion-seed head yelling out the window, like a furious flower, as I walked quickly away forever. I have zero memory of what she was yelling. I wish it had been the call of a wizard crying out for her hot air balloon to come carry her away, but I know it wasn’t. It must have been November, but I remember it as a night in June.
It wasn’t raining, or maybe it was. Maybe I was melting. Maybe my wizard was writing “Surrender Sabrina” with the smoke from her Lucky Strike in the night sky. All I know is that it was a night of two broken hearts and everything was all mixed up. Look at all these pieces. It’s impossible to tell who was the witch, who the wizard, and who was the girl.
I would like to say I wrote myself away from the wizard. I would like to say each word I wrote was another yellow brick I lifted up and left behind. But that’s not true. The road I walk is a spiral. And there’s a heap of bricks in the middle. I once looked out and my sons were climbing it. This is a true story. Their knees were scraped and their cheeks were flushed. When they got to the top, they asked, “Will we learn a lesson?” “Like what?” I asked. “Like what happens when you do something dangerous” they said. I wanted to say “Come down,” but instead I said, “Sometimes you fall, but sometimes you get to see something you otherwise wouldn’t have seen.” “And what good is that?” asked my sons. I gave them an answer. It was a perfect answer. But by then they were so high up they could no longer hear a word I said.
Read earlier installments of Happily here.
Sabrina Orah Mark is the author of the poetry collections The Babies and Tsim Tsum. Wild Milk, her first book of fiction, is recently out from Dorothy, a publishing project. She lives, writes, and teaches in Athens, Georgia.
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