Many of us are familiar with the technique of mentally visualizing a quiet or peaceful place in order to relax ourselves in an anxious moment or to bring on a happy feeling or to help us to sleep or to otherwise calm our minds. Some of us might imagine what it would be like to be in stasis on some sort of fantastic space journey (nerds), or others might visualize what it would be like to be free of the confines of our bodies, able to travel the expanses of time and space in the blink of an eye because oneness and nothingness and meaninglessness twoness and meaningfulness and threeness are all the same thing (hippies).
Most people probably gain comfort by visualizing themselves in a tranquil place in nature, like on a beach at sunset where warm sands meet a calm sea. Or maybe laying out on a cool rock in the sunshine, soothed by the sounds of a babbling brook.
When I was about eight, my dad got transferred to a job in Southern California, where we lived in Anaheim for about a year or so. What this move meant for me was going from a home where I lived on four acres and had my own horse to living in a house that was less than three feet from my neighbor and less than five miles from Disneyland. Trippy? Yeah.
Until this move, I had only spent the night at the homes of grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins and such. With my relatives, it was all about cowboys and camping and hunting and fishing and motorcycle riding and ranch chores and swimming in the river - I’d never had an overnighter with a school friend, let alone someone who lived in town.
My first experience spending the night with a girl from school came shortly after we arrived in Anaheim, when one of my wealthier classmates asked me to stay over night Friday night, and then go to Disneyland with her and her family on Saturday.
I arrived at their very fancy mahogany door dragging my sleeping bag, and with my change of clothes and teddy bear tucked safely in a paper sack. The parents of my friend - I can’t remember the girl's name, so let’s call her Brittany for simplicity’s sake - Brittany’s parents waved to my mom as she pulled away, assuring her that all would be well. My mom was no sooner out of sight when Brittany’s parents departed as well, leaving by the still-open front door to go to a cocktail party.
Brittany and I were left in the care of the au pair. As the parents said their goodbyes, the au pair shut the front door, looked me over from top to bottom, and in a voice that could corrode metal said, “Is that your sleeping bag?” She tugged the fabric. “Is it canvas? And - oh my god - is it lined with plaid flannel? It is.”
Brittany - who had always been very nice to me in the classroom - changed her stripes in an instant and eagerly joined in with the au pair in making fun of my rig. “She brought her clothes in a paper bag!” she hooted, pointing.
Noticing the stuffed animal peeking out of the top of my sack, the au pair said, “A teddy bear? Really? Your parents can afford to get you a teddy bear, but they can't afford to get you a Barbie?”
“I have Barbies, too,” I said. “I like Fred better.”
“Your teddy bear’s name is Fred?!”
And so the evening went.
Here’s what’s strange. I didn’t feel nervous or upset or hurt or angry in this situation. I was then (and still am) a big fan of fairy tales, mythology, and fables - the violent, horrible versions, not the cleaned up ones. For some reason, in that moment, I just felt an inexplicable degree of confidence that these two trolls were gonna get it in the end. Until then, all I had to do was take things in stride and figure out a way to handle the situation.
Finally, after an evening of being roundly bullied and made fun of, it was time for bed. We went into Brittany’s room, and even though there were two matching (frilly, pink, canopied) beds, the au pair said I had to sleep on the floor in my sleeping bag because she didn’t want to have to make up an extra bed the next day. So Brittany climbed into her princess bed, and I hunkered down on the floor next to the bed in my (badass, hardcore, old-school) sleeping bag.
I don’t know what came over me at that moment, and I can’t explain to you in any logical way why I did what I did next. A few minutes after the au pair had turned the light out, I shoved my teddy bear and paper bag of clothes under Brittany’s bed, then scooted under the bed after them, sleeping bag and all.
“What’re you doing?” Brittany whispered.
I jammed my knee in between the slats of the bed in the general vicinity of her back, and in my best Exorcist voice said, “Shut up, you!”
“Quit it!” she hissed back. “You’re being scary. I don’t like scary!”
This time I used both knees and shook the whole bed by the frame. “I SAID SHUT UP YOU!!”
Brittany started sobbing. Like, really crying. Loud. From where I was under the bed, I could see straight out Brittany’s open bedroom door and into the living room where the au pair was watching TV. The au pair kept saying, “You girls better not make me come in there,” but in spite of my escalating fright tactics and Brittany’s increasing wails, the au pair never came in to check on us.
(Note: In hindsight I do feel a little guilty about the psychological damage I probably did to this child. I wonder to this day if she checks under her bed before she goes to sleep, or hears voices in the dark. But in the moment, at that time, scaring the beejesus out of Brittany was the most fun I’d ever had in my brief little life. And it was about to get better.)
It was around this time that the parents got home. From under the bed, I watched as they staggered into the living room. Both of them were clearly drunk, and when they heard their daughter crying and saw the au pair just sitting there watching TV, they became irate drunks. “Is Brittany crying?” the mom slurred angrily.
“They’re just being loud and dramatic like girls on a slumber party do,” the au pair reassured her. “Going in there would just encourage them.”
The dad walked over to the door and flipped on the light. He scanned the room. I didn’t make a peep from under the bed as Brittany lay there above me, sobbing. The dad was really drunk, and you could tell that things were taking a minute to register with him. He looked at his daughter, and then at the other, unslept-in bed, then back at his daughter. “Brittany,” he said, very serious, “where is your friend?”
Brittany was crying hard, but she managed to say, “There’s something under my bed!”
The dad knelt down and lifted up the bedskirt. I froze. I was partially hidden by a box of shoes and some toys, but I was sure the dad would see me and that would be that. He scanned under the bed carefully, and at one point he looked right at me. But instead of ordering me out, he lowered the dust ruffle and stood back up. “There’s nothing under there, princess. Now I need you to calm down and think. Where is your friend?”
The mom walked in. “What’s going on?” She too looked around the room. Suddenly a whole lot more sober, she said, “Where’s Jen?”
“I’m sorry for making fun of Fred!” Brittany wailed.
“Fred?” The mom asked.
“Jen’s teddy bear!”
The mom stormed out of the room and confronted the au pair. “Were you making fun of Brittany’s friend?” she demanded. Then, before the au pair could answer, “Where did she go? Did she run away? My god! Did she run away?! Is there an eight-year-old walking around the streets of Anaheim at 1am because of you? Crap! We have to call her mom. SHIT!! We have to call the police!!”
“Don’t panic,” the dad slurred. “No one panic. She couldn’t have gotten outside without setting off the alarm.”
“How can you be sure of that, Gordon?” the mom demanded, near hysterical. “How can you be sure?”
“I said calm down. She’s in the house. She’s got to be. We just have to look for her. Come on, now. Let’s look. Let’s all look.”
As the mom, the dad, and the au pair tore the house up looking for me, as the parents berated the au pair until she dissolved into tears, as Brittany lay in the bed above me, weeping with terror...
I hid under that bed and realized, even at that tender age, that I had never felt more happy and calm in my entire life.
To this day, if I’m feeling anxious or overwhelmed, all I have to do is center myself and bring my mind back to that moment under the bed, and I instantly relax.
And that is some fucked-up shit right there.