Dreaming in Silver
There is a figure at the edge of the playground, standing perfectly still and silent. Were it not for the little tells—the way the October wind teases her hair, ripples her dress—she very well might be part of the architecture, like the benches or the swing set. That’s the trouble with being human. There will always be little clues that reveal our humanity.
There is only one family remaining at the park. The time for visiting parks is nearly over; winter is just around the corner. Yet the children run, shouting and laughing while they skin their knees. At first, they do not pay the figure any mind. After a while, the oldest child, a girl of about ten, stops and stares.
“Holy shit,” she says. Her mother shouts “Young lady!” from the picnic table where she watches, wearily and warily. “Sorry, Momma!” the girl responds.
As she approaches the figure, there is wonder in her eyes. “You’re real,” she says. More a statement of fact, than a question.
The figure does not move, does not respond. She is tall, silver from head to toe, her face hidden behind a masquerade mask. A basket is clutched in her hands, and at her feet, a bowl with a few loose bills inside.
By this point, her three brothers have joined her. They stand in wonder around the figure.
“Move!” says the youngest, his pudgy cheeks flushed with excitement.
“She can’t move,” the sister responds. “She’s one of those statue things.”
“I’m gonna kick her,” says one of the middle children, matter-of-factly and without malice.
The sister shoots an arm out, glaring at her brother. “Don’t you touch her.”
“But she won’t move!”
“That’s her job, dummy!”
They stand around her for a while, debating the finer points of the statue’s existence, with particular focus on what kind of weirdo would go stand in an almost-empty park painted head-to-toe in silver? They lose interest after a while, and they return to the playground. That’s one of the joys of childhood; things may be transient, may hold attention for only a moment, but children lose none of their joy from the friction of brevity.
Soon enough with his siblings distracted, the youngest child approaches. He looks up at the silver woman. There is real wonder on his face.
“She’s a fairy,” he says to no one in particular, his voice painted with awe. His grubby fist unclenches, releasing a handful of pennies and one nickel hitting the bottom of the bowl.
Slowly, the statue lowers herself down to the boy’s level, reaching into her basket. There, on her outstretched palm, is a small scroll tied with a purple ribbon. He takes it in the greedily curious way of children. The statue smiles, putting a finger to her lips, and then returns to the same pose she has held all morning.
Of course, he does not heed her request for secrecy. He runs towards his older siblings, shouting, “She moved, she moved!”
“Bullshit!” says his sister, earning another “Young lady!” from their mother, this one more forceful. “Sorry, Momma, but he’s lyin’ again!”
“I ain’t lyin’, she moved!” he insists. “She gave me this!”
As the siblings gather around to look at the little scroll and she is sure that there are no wandering eyes to witness, the corners of the silver woman’s lips—my lips—turn into a smile once again.
When I was a little kid, I went to California for the first time. I remember two things about that trip. The first was I was told I would earn “my wings” on the flight. Three-year-old me was dazzled by visions of getting to run around San Francisco with full-size Buzz Lightyear wings. It was a bit of a blow to discover said “wings” comprised of a little metal pin. Nonetheless, I wore it with pride. Besides, I got to see inside the cockpit and even sit in the pilot’s seat, which was a pretty great consolation prize.
The second thing that I remember was the statue. There standing near a fountain, surrounded by pigeons, was a man. He was painted bronze from the tip of his top hat to the toes of his shoes, and he stood stock-still. One of my parents slid a dollar into my hand and told me to offer it to him.
Timidly, I held out my open palm, and the statue jolted to life. He smiled down at me, performed a robotic dance during which he plucked the dollar from my hand. Then he returned to his stationary pose.
I was enchanted standing there with the statue towering above me, once again silent and still. I was in love.
Love later found me sharing a bed with another woman for nearly five years. I figured my life was as good as over when I suddenly found myself sleeping on my best friend’s couch instead. A three-year engagement had crumbled nearly overnight. Now I was living out of a backpack and stealing food from Western Michigan University. I had not attended Western in three years, but that didn’t stop me from smuggling gallon freezer bags into their dining halls and walking out with enough spaghetti and stir fry to feed the multitudes outside Bethsaida.
To say I was somewhat despondent for the first few days would be an understatement. But soon after I had a revelation. My life falling apart meant my life no longer had any boundaries. I had nothing to lose. I was free to do all of the stupid, wonderful bullshit I always wanted to do and never been able to due to domestic obligation. So, I ordered a silver wig and makeup online, took a trip to Goodwill for clothes which I then covered in silver spray paint. I was reborn.
I remember the odd looks I got the first day I dressed up; the bus driver looking at me with suspicion as I, silver from top to bottom, sat with a basket full of scrolls in my lap. Kalamazoo, Michigan is a pretty small city so far as cities go. While you see plenty of weird things on the buses—I once saw a woman carrying a stack of no less than five VCRs—my appearance was certainly novel.
For someone who’s always wormed her way into the spotlight, I’ve always had a hard time when it comes to being noticed. I used to hide those insecurities behind eccentricities, things like wearing a top hat casually. Oddness had always been a shield. However as I felt people’s eyes trying to peel back my metallic layers, I realized that this was different. This new face that I had painted on, this new identity, was no shield. It was a shelter. The only difference, I realized, between a bridge and a wall is the angle from which it is built. I was no longer a stranger in a strange land, but part of the architecture of our world. I was humbled.
The first day, I decided to establish myself on Western’s campus. There was a certain kind of cosmic rhyme, I thought, returning to the school I had left. Only this time, I returned not as a student but as part of the campus landscape.
One of the interesting things about standing completely still, your only interaction with the world in your direct line of sight, is that you realize how little other people notice. As I stood by the flagpoles in the center of campus, hundreds of students passed me. Only a handful noticed me. I even saw one of my friends, who passed by less than ten feet away. When I asked him later about the statue, his puzzled response was “What statue?”
There’s something about the lack of acknowledgment that makes any attention or response morph into a holy act, a kind of communion. I stood there on the first day for maybe four or five hours and earned about ten dollars. Each rumpled bill was worth far more than any paycheck I ever received.
On the way back to my friend’s apartment, I was accosted by a group of Jehovah's Witnesses who were apparently delighted by me. They laughed and tried to get me to talk. My silence only seemed to excite them more. They didn’t offer any change, but eventually they did give me some literature. The concern for my mortal soul did not go unappreciated.
When I arrived back at my friend’s apartment, I began to sob, my tears cutting streaks through my silver makeup. They were not the hard, razor-edged tears that I cried every night since the breakup, but a fountain of raw joy. It was, I realized, the first time I had really felt alive in more than a year.
And so she came to be.
The original name I came up with was “The Tarnished Poet.” But after my best friend posted a blurry picture of me walking through her backyard with no context online, the good people of Facebook bestowed upon me a much simpler (and far less pretentious) moniker. “The Silver Lady.”
My first name came from the core of my performance. I would go to the used bookstore in the basement of the library, find poetry books that looked as if they had been there the longest. I especially enjoyed finding local poetry collections that had been printed, and then forgotten, years ago. My favorite was a chapbook of poems by fifth graders that had been published sometime in the early Aughts. I would then gently tear out each poem, roll it into a scroll, and tie it with a ribbon. For everything that was placed in the bowl at my feet, be it a handful of bills or a single penny, I would hand the person a poem. One day, a child gave me a piece of candy. They received a poem in return.
Art does not exist in isolation. It is a metaphysical conversation. Acting as a gateway for these fragments of writing, the little pieces of themselves strangers poured onto paper, made me feel connected to everything around me in a new and humbling way. For as long as I could remember, it had been my dream to change the world. There in those moments handing out scrolls, I realized we change the world every day. It’s not the magnitude of our impact, but the grace with which we move.
On perhaps the second or third day, a girl timidly dropped a dollar into my bowl. She shuffled away quickly as soon as I handed her a poem. About a half hour or so later, she returned. Tears shone in her eyes as she smiled and met my gaze, which she had not done before. She said “thank you” before dropping a five dollar bill at my feet and scuttling off. It was the only money I made that afternoon. I never felt richer than I did that day.
However as nice as it would be to pretend the money didn’t matter at all, we unfortunately live in a reality where that is not the case. My attempts to find an actual job were fruitless. With no steady income, there was no way for me to get an apartment of my own. Ultimately, I ended up in the homeless shelter due to my presence in my best friend’s apartment causing conflicts with her roommate. The details of that stay are a tale for another day. Suffice it to say it was a nightmare. Yet there was a shimmer of hope even then. As I left the shelter each morning, I would don my true refuge, painting my face and putting on my mask and stepping out into the cold. Even as the first winds of winter whipped around me, I felt safe in my silver skin.
My body had long been a source of shame and fear for as far as my memory reaches back; a treacherous scrapyard I needed to navigate with care to avoid slicing myself open against my own sharp edges. The dysphoria flowing through my veins turned my body into a broken down carnival of fear and loathing.
But to stand there, silver, silent and still, my only purpose simply being, was an exercise in existence. I could feel my atoms touch those of everything around me. For the first time I did not feel apart from the world, but a part of it. I felt like a tiny grain of sand somewhere along the shores of time. That smallness did not make me feel worthless or insignificant. It made me feel humbled.
There were no screams of anguish from between my legs, no worries about how much I weighed or how my body occupied space. After all, a statue’s only purpose is to exist, to take up space, to be exactly what it is. For the first time, my body became not a straight-jacket but an instrument. I had been acting and performing since high school, but this was something different. It was a becoming, a transfiguration. I was not playing a statue. I was the statue, a sculpture I carved from my own flesh. I transformed the raw elements of my body into something that made me feel real and beautiful.
After I secured an actual job, I did not stop standing on street corners. When I eventually did, it was due to the weather when it became too frigid to perform safely. I’ll admit there were a few days where I should not have been out in the elements but gave myself freely to them nonetheless. It was my statueing, in conjunction with a fundraiser one of my friends set up, that allowed me to finally escape the shelter. At the shelter, we were required to relinquish our paychecks to the management. So I carefully kept the money I made performing in a folded sock. Eventually, I scraped together enough for a down payment on a place. Hand in hand with my silver lover, we broke free.
We made plans to take the bus to Chicago and perform there, but they were cut short by an accident. I landed in a wheelchair for about four months. As a result, I still walk with a cane, and it has left our future together an uncertain. I do not know if I will ever be able to stand unfettered the way I once did before. But I know that I trust her to guide me where I am supposed to go.
She is a part of me, of course. There is no Silver Lady without a V.F. Thompson. But she is also something far greater than an outward manifestation of myself. She is my savior. She danced my way in a metallic dream and offered her palm. It would be easy to say that she saved my life, but I think that’s only half-true. In many ways she killed me. I am not the woman I was when I first painted my face and stepped out into the world. Nor is the life I am living the life I lived then. She taught me that we live and die a thousand times before we leave this world. It’s how we come back to life that truly defines us.
The first time I dipped a sponge in silver powder and put it to my lips, her mouth pressed against mine and breathed the universe into my lungs. Every beat of my heart sends liquid metal swirling through my veins.
What a joy it is, she whispered to me, to simply be.