[NONFICTION] Red: A Study
It is the 3rd of February, and I am months into a depressive episode.
My body and I are on stable terms; my brain, however, is throwing a fit. My dad, who has seen me through countless iterations of seasonal affective disorder, has taken to reminding me every few hours that I have been here before; that I will survive, make it through, as I have all the times before.
I am grappling with love. That is the absence of. That is the perception of absence, and everything that comes with it: loneliness, paranoia, social overwhelm. I lie awake at night, spooned by grief.
It is the 3rd of February, and I am four Google docs deep in a thorough reread of a self-insert roleplay.
I’ve been roleplaying on and off for over a decade. My best friend and I have made a kind of art form out of it. We’ve written hundreds, if not thousands of pages, all with a unique storyline, largely shaped by whatever we’re obsessed with at the time. Sometimes it’s modern prophets. Sometimes it’s cryptid hunters. Regardless of the narrative, the aesthetic, it’s always the two of us—that is, us in another life. In an alternate universe.
It’d be easy for these alternate realities to feature idealized versions of ourselves. And, in some ways, they do. My best friend, a brunette in real life, is always a redhead, and I am always capable of smiling with my tongue between my teeth—an idiosyncrasy I’ve dreamed of since watching Doctor Who for the first time in 2010. But these doppelgangers are still informed by the less-desirable parts of ourselves. They are, for the most part, refractions, shot through a pane of glass. Warbling. Sometimes, on occasion, prone to catching the light.
There are differences, depending on the setting, the time frame. Every time a new Star Wars movie comes out, we imagine ourselves as smugglers or Jedi or smugglers-turned-Jedi. Last summer, during our Poldark phase, we became fixtures of the Cornwall landscape during the 1700s. But the differences are forgettable. These refractions are, I suppose, prettier than me—teeth straighter, whiter, hair like molten gold. Cosmetic changes. Illusory.
That, and I am always able to walk.
I’ve roleplayed several disabled characters. But their disabilities are, for some reason, always kinder than my own. I never invoke the truth of the thing by diagnosing, by naming the disease. The language is vague, easy to overlook or dismiss: a limp, a weakness of the body. My favorite character to play, a Jedi Guardian, has a spinal disorder; we share dozens of things, scoliosis one of many. The only difference is that, where I have scars marring the skin of my back, she has cybernetics knitted to the column of her spine, accepted in the world of Star Wars. Luke Skywalker himself has a cybernetic hand.
I’ve roleplayed two characters in wheelchairs. One just can’t walk—there is nothing odd about her, or strange, or sickening. The other is more like me, wrists bent at awkward angles, rib cage sharp and exposed. There is nothing pretty about her, pale or petite. She is, like me, unsettling. An attempt at truth-telling.
She belongs to a simple story. My best friend and I, college roommates, closer to real life than most of our roleplay characters. I fall in love with her English partner, a wine-drinking, Shakespeare-quoting war veteran; she secretly dates her English professor.
Reading this roleplay is an exercise in embarrassment. It’s obvious how uncomfortable I was writing this character who, by most accounts, is far too real. She uses the accessible door plate, grips the controller of her wheelchair with a sweaty palm. Her roommate invites the war vet to dinner—clearly an attempt at matchmaking, yet all I can think of is my character’s inability to feed herself. Would her roommate feed her in front of the war vet? If so, would the war vet even be interested in her after watching that awkwardness unfold?
It’s fiction. Anything can happen in fiction. But my engagement with the narrative is constrained by what I know to be true, that I would never eat in front of a handsome, turtleneck-wearing war vet; that a handsome, turtleneck-wearing war vet would never fall in love with someone like me.
Most of my characters can walk. It is, in many cases, the only tangible difference between me and my doppelgangers, fractures in the red glass of my body.
They can walk, so they lead normal lives. They study abroad, work at bookstores, share an apartment with their best friend. They flirt with strange men in coffee shops, anxiously clutching a well-loved copy of Peter Pan. In this way, we live dozens, if not hundreds of lives, none of them tainted by the faultiness of this body. The faultiness of me.
The urge to roleplay is strong when I’m depressed. When the absence of love is a physical pain, I drive myself crazy, impale myself with want. Many of my friends are in years-long relationships. A majority of my Facebook friends are engaged, married, or expecting kids. Meanwhile, I cannot stay on Tinder for more than a couple of months. Meanwhile, the only relationship I am able to claim is a complicated, abusive thing, with a boy I met online my freshman year of college.
I think of the war vet, my character’s best friend feeding her leftover pasta bake, the moment strained to breaking. It’s easy for my best friend to write that, in this idealistic mirror-version of the real world, he is able to look past the wheelchair, the fingers curled awkwardly against legging-clad thighs. In truth, I can’t see myself with anyone—the vision distorted, practically an impossibility.
There is no shortage of love in my life. I have five, maybe six good friends. I’m close with my parents. Every night, my cat curls against the bony curve of my shoulder, and together we watch the moonlight drag its gauze over the wood grain of my armoire.
There is no shortage of love in my life. But it’s not the kind of love I find in roleplay, the love I’m denied in real life: the intimacy of waking up to someone every morning, brow smooth from sleep, lashes framed with runny golden light.
I gave up on love when I was 15 years old.
I don’t know when it happened, exactly, only that it did, that I somehow managed to condition myself. Whenever love became anything more than a vague and impersonal concept, I would redirect my thoughts. Something about the incompatibility of love and disability, how much pain I would save myself if I could just rewire my brain.
It was all very utilitarian. Fatalistic, even, but I knew it as practical. I was supposed to die at nine years of age. I’d already wasted six years in pursuit of this thing—foreign to me, strange and eldritch, yet simultaneously as inextricable as the rods framing my spine. I couldn’t afford to waste any more time on the chase, not when the endgame was something as unlikely as love.
It lasted a year or two, that conditioning of mine, and yet I carry it with me. I tell my friend about the boy I, for the first time in years, can see myself dating, and follow it up with a disqualifier: not that it’ll ever happen, or even just lmao. My therapist asks me if I date; my impulse is to laugh.
“I wish,” I tell her eventually, my cheeks hot. A confession. A delusion of grandeur. Love, want of; madness. It’s all the same thing, in the end: a cold bed; aches you cannot locate; hands that never unfurl.
This is no time for romance. A mantra of mine. I liken myself to Joan of Arc, sunlight glinting off plate armor, a hand raised in triumph. I am not afraid, they claim she said. I was born to do this. It is easy to deny want of love when born unlovely, or a saint, like Joan. In any case, extra-human, extra meaning more than, to a greater extent than usual. Easy to deny want of love when made for greater things.
I think, dimly, of a poem: “There is something big coming, / bigger than love, bigger than aloneness. / She’s staying up all night for it.” She being me, cat on my shoulder, moonlight devastating. And another: “My wound existed before me; I was born to embody it.” Wound, surely, meaning want of love, meaning absence.
Did Joan struggle, I wonder, or is it just the humanness in me?
I’ve taken to calling it “longing.” An ancient terror, this want née absence, my wound and I on a first-name basis. We grapple the night away. There is only red, the color of madness, throbbing like a heartbeat in all my visions. What is embodiment but possession? And what is possession but an itch you cannot scratch?
What is a wound but an endless ache?
I recognize my wound in our Poldark roleplay. How, at the height of last year’s summer, I still carried a winter gloom.
I’d just finished reading Heroines by Kate Zambreno, a reclamation of the wives and mistresses of modernism, and so I wrote of madness—mad wives, sequestered away; of denial and want: “She can’t wait to be rid of this dress. All night it has haunted her, redness seeping from her like a mortal wound.” I know it to be longing, now, this dress of red silk. That which neither of us has been successful in shedding.
Later, I compare the redness to the spots of Lady Macbeth: “Out, damned spot! Out, I say! — … What, / will these hands ne’er be clean?”
“Look,” the doctor says, “how she rubs her hands.” I think of depression. How I devour roleplay docs, desperate to fill the holes in me. How, as a high schooler, I tried to bleed the want from me. How, even now, I am trying to wash clean of the redness—and yet the longing clings.
“Yet here’s a spot.” Or, in another translation: “There’s still a spot here.” Still meaning that it remains, persists. That perhaps Lady Macbeth, like me, is possessed, the madness spearing through her.
“You wish,” my therapist echoes.
My thoughts return to Lady Macbeth. Act 5, Scene 1: “You mar all this with starting,” she mutters to herself, lost to sleep.
My instinct is to lie. To simply not mention it. It’s better, I’ve found, to pretend I’m void of want than to admit I’m dying of it. It feels like a defect, a failure of mine, that after all these years—all that conditioning, still kicking around in my skull—I’ve yet to wash the stains out. I wonder, briefly, if it’ll always be like this. If, in the absence of love, I will always fight for want of it.
“I know it’s unlikely,” I say finally. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t still want it.”
Roleplaying is, in many ways, a kind of escapism. I open a doc and exit my body; I open a doc and exit the world. It’s a symptom of madness, I think, to prefer fiction over reality, but it’s what I’m driven to—compelled by want, vision a haze of red.
“Write what you want to read,” people say, so I do; science-fiction/fantasy novels with a disabled girl as the protagonist. The manuscript sits on my hard drive, half-finished, burdened by the conditioning. Another world entirely, disabled characters left and right, yet I struggle to make the romance authentic. I nitpick everything, tear it to the pieces, feeling like the mistresses of modernism—nothing is good enough, no part of it real.
It’s easier to roleplay. And it’s easier to roleplay the versions of myself that, unlike Lady Macbeth, were able to rinse the stains out. Refractions, light bent by water, centimeters off from the real thing. The difference being that, in the real world, I am splintering—have been for years, unraveling for love since the day I was born, since the day I recognized the wound in me.
In my all-time favorite roleplay, I’m married to the love of my life. We live in London, minutes away from my best friend, and I am—
I guess you’d call it whole.
In this world, my husband and I are celebrating our one-year anniversary. Over the course of this week, usually in the afternoons, my best friend and I will roleplay their date. Six hours ahead of me, she will go to bed about 7 p.m. CST, and I will be left to grapple with this thing in me, this longing, how eagerly I impale myself. When the depression hits—when my brain throws a fit—I’ll open a doc, reread a roleplay until something settles.
When my cat curls against me each night, whiskers quivering in the moonlight, my bed will be cold; my fists furled against a want-laden body.
Brianna Albers (she/her) is a storyteller, currently based in St. Paul, MN. In 2016, she founded Monstering, a magazine for disabled women and nonbinary people; in 2017, she co-founded ZRIE, a private new media collective. She is also on staff at SMA News Today, and writes the column “The Wolf Finally Frees Itself.” A multiple Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee, her work can be found in DIALOGIST, Guernica, and Word Riot, among others. Find her online at briannahopealbers.com and on social media @bhalbers.