Growing up the middle child of transatlantic parentsher down- to-earth mother and romantic fatherBella Pollen never quite figured out how to belong. Restlessly crossing back and forth between the boundaries of family and freedom, England and America, home and away, she has sought but generally failed to contain an adventurous spirit within the confines of conventional living.
When she awakes one morning stymied by an existential panic, Pollen grudgingly concludes that in order to move forward, she needs to take a good look at her past. In Meet Me in the In-Between, Pollen takes us on the illuminating journey of a life, from her privileged, unorthodox childhood in Upper Manhattan through early marriage to a son of an alluring Mafioso, to the dusty border towns of Mexico where she falls in with a crowd of Pink Floyd–loving smugglers. Throughout all, Bella grapples intently with relationships, motherhood, career ups and downs, and a pathological fear of being boxed in.
Interwoven with exquisite passages of graphic memoir, this is a tender, funny, and deeply honest story of one woman’s quest to keep looking for the extraordinary in an ordinary life. With patented mix of humor and pain, novelist Bella Pollen takes a dead-on look at what it means to be a smart, reasonably sane woman navigating the modern world.
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About the Author
Raised in New York, Bella Pollen is a writer and journalist who has contributed to a variety of publications, including Vogue, Bazaar, The Spectator, The Times and The Sunday Telegraph. She is the author of five novels, including the bestselling Hunting Unicorns and the critically acclaimed Summer of the Bear. She lives and works between the US and England.
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The demon came as demons do, during the faithless hours of early morning. I'd been ascending through ever-shallowing layers of sleep, when finally I breached the surface, stretched for my phone and groaned.
Four a.m. is a brutal time to wake. Too late for a sleeping pill, too early for a new day. I shut my eyes again, but almost at once the worries began crowding in, quickly magnifying from the banal to the overblown.
What if the accumulation of everything I've learned adds up to nothing?
What if the story I've sold myself about life isn't the real story?
What if I'm dying of that rare kidney disorder I read about in Time magazine last week?
4:02. A branch tapped against the curtainless window. Outside it was wintry black. The night had a picture-book quality to it: a waxing gibbous moon, spores of mist seeded through it. The air became eerily still, and for a moment I felt dislocated, suspended in time. My insomnia makes me vulnerable to the tricks night plays so I wiggled my toes under the blankets; then, reassured that I was awake, resolved to count my way back to sleep on the rhythm of tiny taps and creaks generated by the silence. I was close to succeeding, too, when I heard something. At first faintly, then increasingly clearly — the tread of footsteps coming up the stairs.
My eyes snapped back open. Alone on the property; this was the first night I'd slept here. The grounds were still a building site. My bed, the only piece of furniture in the house.
Mac and I had bought the place two years earlier and immediately begun renovations. The project nearly did us in. It was as though the house had been storing up its grievances for centuries and now, with every brick pulled, was releasing them back upon us. Bats, rats, floods, rot. One by one they came, the seven plagues of the English countryside. The house was an old rectory next to a Norman church and graveyard. There was a sense of unrest about the graveyard's higgledy-piggledy layout, as if bodies and bones had been shifted to make room for newcomers, and now the original occupants were muttering like angry commuters on a packed train. It was possible, I suppose, that this honey-coloured village had been an idyll for milkmaids marrying their farming loves, but it was equally likely that it had been a finger-pointing, witch-burning community, meting out innovative torture in the name of God. Long before the footsteps stopped outside the door, I'd wondered whether the place might be haunted.
Transfixed, I stared at the door handle but too late. The presence was already in the room.
The side of my bed dipped, as if someone had sat down heavily. Covers began pulling away from me like waves receding off a shore. I felt the embrace of pins and needles as a body pressed against mine. It seemed to be made of iron filings — millions of them, detached, free moving, yet somehow magnetically drawn together into the shape of a man.
I would never see it, but this was the image that developed in my head as the arms gathered me in. Dear God, was it spooning me? For the first time in a long while I felt cherished and safe. Tears blurred my eyes. I was exhausted, demoralised, struggling to finish a novel. The renovation work had caused so much antipathy between Mac and me that we'd barely been speaking, let alone spooning. I sighed. The arms tightened in response, as if aware of the comfort they were giving. My every muscle loosened. Again the arms tightened — the iron filings moving fluidly into the gap left by my exhalation. I pushed out against my diaphragm, but once again as my lungs deflated the space was stolen from me. I began to panic. Whatever this thing was, it was not benign. I tried to call out, but no sound came. I strained to break free, but found I could no longer move my arms or legs. Soon I could no longer breathe. Pressure rose in my chest, but just as my mind started to close I saw a memory, flickering like a pinprick of light through the darkness. I'd experienced something like this once before, during the delivery of my first child by Caesarean. Something had gone wrong while they were stitching me up, and the pressure had built, culminating in a tremendous burst of pain in my heart. Simultaneously I'd heard the beep of the monitor flatlining. As medics pounced, some misplaced survival instinct told me they were trying to kill me and I'd fought them with the last of my strength. Now I did the same, mustering something internal, something almost telekinetic. My limbs spasmed. I felt the violent throwback of an explosion, and suddenly I was free.
In the bathroom, I splashed cold water onto my face. I've always suffered from nightmares. I can't tell you the multitude of ways I've watched my family being dispatched to their graves over the years. My brother hanging from the mouths of monsters. A faceless woman leading my mother away. My son waving at me, then turning to jump to his death down a bottomless black hole. Nor am I merely a spectator at the horror show of my subconscious: my hands have been chewed off by creatures of the deep, my eyes prised from their sockets by gelatinous fingers. In one of my cheerier recurring dreams I am forced to walk down a narrow corridor whose walls are a pulsing lattice of serpents, some oily and brown, others speckled and wickedly fluorescent, all with tongues that flick out as I pass. As if in a video game whose next level is unattainable, I am invariably struck before I reach safety.
Something grisly in childhood is supposed to account for adult phobias. My mother grew up in Africa, and certainly her stories of being chased across the plains by the black mamba were the stuff of bedtime legend. Closer to home, I remember running barefoot through the long grass at my grandmother's house and seeing the coils of mating grass snakes below me. In one airborne second, I managed to adjust my trajectory. Grass snakes are harmless, amiable creatures; nevertheless I later felt sick at how close I'd come to landing on that foul, writhing mass.
Further back still there had been a strange incident at the Bronx Zoo. A cobra, demented by captivity, had repeatedly bashed itself against the glass of its enclosure. Even as my mother tried to pull me away, I'd stood my ground, as fascinated as I was repulsed. So, snake nightmares I could account for — as for the rest, who knew?
"Fuck," I said to my reflection. "Fuck, fuck, fuck."
Back in bed, I tried to regulate my breathing but after a while became aware of my body feeling fractionally out of sync with its surroundings. The branch scraped against the window — a Maurice Sendak world of moons and fairy tales knocking to come in. Again the air stood still. My mind began to separate. No, I thought, no.
I scrunched my toes under the covers and looked around the room. Everything was as it should be: the edge of the mantelpiece, the tissue I'd dropped onto the splintery floorboards, my hand raised in the gloomy light.
This time when the bed dipped, something whispered in my ear. My skin began to burn. Arms closed around me. I heard a guttural noise and then realised it was the sound of me choking — choking on nothing. Pressure began building. Quicker this time, more urgently. Suddenly, spuming up through my terror, I felt a savage, primordial arousal, then the sensation of being penetrated, utterly possessed, before the unstoppable rush to orgasm, as intense as it was short, after which, spell broken once again, I found myself alone.
I curled into a ball. What was happening to me? Nightmares I could deal with, but this was no nightmare. This had happened while I was awake.
Everyone relishes a good haunting story. Bella has a sex ghost. The delighted whispering circled back to me within the week. Suggestions poured in. I should approach the local priest; hire a ghost buster. Friends recommended their latest psychic in the same casual manner they might have passed on the number for their plumber.
"Ask it to leave," Mac advised unhelpfully. "Unless, of course, you prefer it stays."
By the time my dentist, who'd recently completed a course in hypnotherapy, offered to cure my insomnia in between fillings, I was so unsettled that when he told me to relax and find a happy place, the best I could come up with was the chocolate croissant display in Prêt à Manger.
During this period, I suffered two more visitations. Both came at four a.m., both while I was awake. Before going to bed I had shut windows, jerry-rigged a bedside light, tuned the audio of my hearing to its most sensitive frequency for signs of unlawful entry. Nothing worked. Each time, the presence, as it was now officially known, returned a few minutes after I initially broke free to push into the empty crevices of my body, take me to the edge of the sexual abyss, and then carelessly drop me over, adding a frisson of shame to what was already a profoundly frightening experience. I was being defiled, brutalised. The creature had worked its full will upon every inch of my body, and yet, yet ... I was taking pleasure in it?
It was a friend, a journalist and polymath, who identified the problem. "What you've just described," he told me over dinner, "is a classic visitation from an incubus."
"A demon who lies upon women in order to engage in sexual activity with them."
Terrific, I thought, picturing the reluctant old lady from whom we'd bought the house. Seemed she'd gifted us with something a little extra alongside her already generous endowments of mould and woodworm.
Back home I hit Google. Attributed to everything from incest to the slovenly habit of eating in bed, the visitation of an incubus appeared to be a phenomenon in every corner of the globe. Cultural and mythological variations aside, all came with the same dread warning on the label. Under a helpfully graphic image of a satanic creature hovering over a prone unconscious female was writ: Repeated sexual activity with an incubus may result in deterioration of health, possibly even death.
Thoroughly spooked, I refused to stay alone in the house, shunting up the motorway to London on even the grimmest of nights. All of this produced a shimmering resentment, the full force of which I directed at Mac. The pull of his roots, this move to Oxfordshire, with its cultivated hedges and walled gardens, was his dream not mine.
Frankly I have only to look upon a flower for it to wither and die.
Now we'd lost so much money shoring up the place, it was becoming obvious we would have to sell before we moved in. All that agony for nothing, and as soon as my part in it was done, I bolted to the American West, taking my mess of a book with me. I wanted lions, not ladybugs. A bigger landscape, the sound and silence of wilderness. The West was escape, and escape was my oxygen.
Weeks later, having barely given the incubus a thought, I checked into a sweet roadside motel for the night. Four a.m. to the minute, I woke to a sense of heightened unreality and the presence between my thighs. I reached down in disbelief and felt the unmistakable iron fingers close over my hand.
By the end of that year, having received three more drop-ins — all in places I had gone to lose myself — I understood with a terrible clarity that I could not outrun this thing. Wherever I fled to, however far I travelled, there it would be, sitting next to me on the airplane, unfolding its iron-filing legs, reading the in-flight magazine and ordering the chicken or fish. This was no demon living in a house back in England. The demon lived inside me.
"You don't need a psychic," Mac said. "You need an exorcist."
In the panoply of the supernatural, possession is one of the more terrifying concepts: the idea of something lurking within you, something inherently evil, something that can't be controlled or killed off. Poltergeist, Paranormal Activity, The Devil Inside. Like everyone else, I tend to watch these horror flicks through spread fingers, laughing nervously at the pastiche of the girl in her white nightie — haunted, controlled, before finally being dragged across the bedroom, her nails leaving raw scratch marks on the wooden boards.
None of this exactly lulled me to sleep at night. It wasn't long before I found myself caving in to the self-pitying mantra of the victim: Why me?
I come from generations of pragmatic, no-nonsence copers, whose answer to almost every shape and size of dilemma is to tuck in our shirts and press on. I resolved to stop feeling sorry for myself. If the thing was feeding on fear, I would make light of it. Write the stupid thing clean out of me. I began working on a comic novel about a depressed obsessive-compulsive who falls in love with his succubus, as the female of the species is known. She was fleshy, voluptuous, and a marvellous cook, if something of a slob, who left crumbs in his bed and liked to gobble Viennese Sachertorte in his bath.
I couldn't make a single thread connect. Would my hero choose death and happiness with a figment of his imagination, or the misery of survival with his unloving, bloodless wife? No point asking me. Having ceded control of my own life, I seemed equally unable to puppeteer the lives of others.
The creative block that followed was both absolute and shattering. Day after day, I sat at my desk while the iron filings, like grain filling a barn, continued to pour into the empty store of my imagination.
Mac remained wearily patient, but I couldn't make him understand. I hadn't lost my muse. My muse had been destroyed by a ravenous pathogen.
In lieu of working, I took up reading. Hefty tomes, dense, discursive. I managed about five pages before straying back to ghost stories, ones that freaked me out as a child. The Turn of the Screw, A Christmas Carol, Edith Wharton's "The Eyes." Patterns began to emerge. James's narrator was haunted by corrupted innocence, Scrooge by his greed and misanthropy. Wharton's egotist Andrew Culwin was tormented by the manifestation of his guilt and shame. So I wondered: What if my ghost was also a metaphor for some buried, unexpressed emotion? Forget the monsters, the rippling tapestry of serpents, the bottomless black hole. What if the thing I was most frightened of was myself?
"About that exorcist," Mac said. "I think what you really need is a shrink."
He persevered: "Has it not occurred to you that you might need to work through your past in order to move on to your future?"
No, it hadn't, and fuck that AA bullshit anyway. I was brought up to believe that talking about oneself was the height of boorishness. My family doesn't do shrinks. We don't do depression, body dysmorphia, or white-hot hysteria. We don't do alcoholism, chronic anxiety, or postnatal blues. Or, at least, when we do do these things, standard operating procedure requires us to do them in private. Even so, on the continuum of sanity, I've always considered myself closer to well-adjusted than to the twitchy loon of the asylum. So what if the inside of my head is full of politically incorrect gags, muddled ethics, and colourful flash cards of what to eat for my next meal? Nothing any doctor can say is going to straighten out the kinks in those telephone wires.
The very idea of finding a shrink raised antediluvian images of smoky rooms and Old Testament stares. You have only to look at my incubus to see I haven't always been the best picker of men. If the shrink I chose was subpar, he'd likely fall for my tricks and lies; if he was savvy enough to tap into the dark oily streams of my unconscious, chances are I'd be spending the rest of my days amid the whispery chatter and muted shrieks of the Hospice de la Salpêtrière. Were he to suggest there might be one or two things we could work on together — well, I know myself. I'd make up any number of deceits designed to show me in the best light, then I'd sleep with him. Seducing my shrink would prove he was a jackass and thus negate the need to listen to a single word he had to say.
"You could always opt for a female therapist," Mac pointed out.
"Now you're being ridiculous," I said, and flounced off to sleep on the sofa.
Later, blinking through the dust of insomnolence, it occurred to me that were I to ever commit to therapy — and the idea was making me more schizoid by the day — I would need a superior being, one free from the shackles of human fallibility. God, for instance, would tick a box or two. As the unseduceable, infallible, ultimate figure of male authority, he'd be a good fit for me, except for the fact that I don't believe in him. I don't believe in any kind of organised religion, but neither do I have faith in the process of therapy. Summarizing myself to some pen twiddler? Synopsizing my insecurities in the hope of extrapolating some life-changing realisation out of my own applesauce? I don't think so. Everyone walks through fear and pain. However crooked the journey that brings us here, here is where we are, and to trawl through the past looking to send your parents to the tumbrils for the way you turned out seems neither right nor fair.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Met Me In the In-Between"
Copyright © 2017 Bella Pollen.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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