The bitterness, Charlotte Sometimes was known for it. They disliked her for it. For their own part, people thought (if they bothered to think about it at all) that Charlotte Sometimes would be fine the day she finally decided to be fine, when she finally accepted that nobody owed her anything, and that nobody could change anything for her but herself. If she could just make that conscious decision, please, to be nice, for all that was holy. Because even if she followed all of their rules, and refined her manners down to the precise reflection of Emily Post’s, there was always something off about it, something amiss in the pageantry of it all. As if it had been rehearsed, time and time again, but some element of discord kept persisting, and throwing off the whole production.
Of course, what they did not know was that Charlotte Sometimes was born with a tiny critic attached to her shoulder. They could not hear the constant complaints made by the man with the receding hairline, who sat just atop her clavicle at his bureau à gradin, Mont Blanc tucked carefully behind his ear, ca. 1963 Smith-Corona always at the ready. The critic, her own private Christpher Hitchens, loved to give notes, lived to give notes. He gave her notes all day long, whether she liked it or not, because he was never so useful as when he could be of service. He gave notes on every step she made (how it might be improved or made to be most efficient), dissected the contents of every breakfast she ever ate (which nutrients had been overrepresented, and which she had failed to consume at all), and went over every list she ever made (what she had forgotten, what was not needed, what was important, and what was not). And he expected the best from her, if “expect” is the right word: he expected that, by the time he was through with her, at any rate, then the best she had to give would have to have been found. And his methodology was harsh, unforgiving, but it was also effective. She did things perfectly, and when she could not, then she abandoned them. Because things were not worth doing, if you could only get them wrong.
It was not the most perfect of arrangements, but it was what she had always known. And for her own part, Charlotte Sometimes wondered what they would do if they, too, had been born with a tiny critic attached to their shoulders. If they had every single solitary move or thought or contemplated move or thought, broken down, dissected and ridiculed, how might they have fared? Would they have been always able to execute the behavior that best befitted them as ladies? She doubted it.
Because even if the critic had given her a share of advantages, he was still her burden to bear. It was still so difficult to have him there, looking askance at all she did, always ready to type up an angry piece for Slate or whatever media outlet to which he had been most recently sublet. There were days when she felt that without the critic, she might have been able to escape those solitary days in a chilly apartment, forgotten by the world, with only the cat and the dog, and the coffee pot that she turned on for herself each morning. She thought that without the critic, there might be nobody in the world who much cared, but then there was nobody who much mattered, either. And she consoled herself, because even if the days were long, dark, and lonely, they were her days, hers to do with as she chose — lonely, poor, alone, rich with too much time and too much thinking.
But finally there came days where the critic’s voice was not the only one she could hear. The critic was still there — nit-picking, parceling, vicious as ever — but she feared his standards had slipped and slackened over the years. Because even if she had to hear his voice before, at least it had saved her from the caucaphony of voices from outside. And now, those voices were everywhere, confirming her worst fears, matching her critic’s complaints point-for-point, with honest-to-goodness examples, exhibits, documented shortcomings. It was all very exhausting. It made her so sour that she wanted to give up.
And she thought about how if it hadn’t been for the sunshine, then she would have been dead long ago, because the constant cutting, outside and in, had become too much to bear, and she had finally realized there were things that existed that could not be made perfect, no matter how hard she tried, or how hard the critic pushed. When she had faced such things in the past, she had abandoned them because of it. She could not do that now, and even though the intensity of the pain was enormous, it was also exquisite in its effort to destroy her. And she thought perhaps she had met her match in this force that wanted to pull her down, because if she had been tortured her whole life, mocked in every attempt at earnest human emotion, by this ceaseless critic, then there would have had to have been a reason for it all, wouldn’t there? And here was hers — it had been preparation for this moment, the one greatest fight of her life, that she could do everything she needed to protect what had been given to her, against all odds, because she was the only one who would know how to do it.