Sunday, July 21, 2013

Fives

5

I was assigned to the "P.M." kindergarten section at Washington Mill Elementary School in the Mount Vernon area of Alexandria, Virginia. At some point in elementary school I realized that the kids in the P.M. group were all from nice neighborhoods, and most had two parents who were still married like mine. These parents all seemed to have graduated from college, and they had white-collar jobs; in my neighborhood the parents were lawyers, a few doctors, high-ranking military officials who sometimes had rainbow license plates from Hawaii, successful real-estate agents whose faces were on the shopping-cart child-seat flaps at the grocery store and on ads in the junk mail. Our next-door neighbor was a leading brain at NASA; my brother's Pakistani friend's dad down the street was pals with Clinton and rode with him on Air Force One. The kids in the "A.M." group were from neighborhoods that were not as nice, where the houses were smaller and closer together, and some of the kids lived with only one parent or their parents were divorced. It seemed, as I got to know them later in elementary school, that most of the A.M. kids' moms worked, unlike mine.

A lot of the P.M. kids' moms worked, too, but I had the sense that the P.M. moms didn't work so much out of necessity as out of a drive to "do something meaningful" with their lives, to contribute and grow and achieve, to be out in the world. The P.M. moms had the luxury of doing this when it was convenient, once the kids had hit a certain age and could be occupied in the afternoons with soccer practice. Nearly all the kids in both groups, and throughout the entire school, were white, unlike the more diverse junior-high and high schools I would later attend. I don't know if this is correct, but I remember wondering if the A.M. kids went to school early so their departure time would line up with when their parents left for work. Meanwhile, in my neighborhood, the bus wound its lazy way up the wide street around lunchtime, and the moms would wave from porches or sidewalks, in casual clothing.

This realization of where my family and I fit into a larger context instilled in me a sense, early on, that I had been born lucky. It did not make me feel superior; if anything, I felt guilty. Later, especially in high school, I would dread carpool rides home. I would brace for the inevitable moment, after someone's mom had pulled the minivan past the squat brick pillars with the name of the neighborhood, Mount Vernon on the Potomac, engraved on imperious plaques (my neighborhood was a bit nouveau-riche, like my parents who moved up here from small-town Appalachia four years before I was born), when someone in the car would point out the "mansions," or say something along the lines of, "I didn't know you lived in a rich neighborhood!" I would cringe, feeling the riders' perception of me adjust according to what they saw, and I would vanish sheepishly into the big brick Colonial with the four columns up front.

I felt this way especially when I was in high school during the 1990s, when everyone was dressing like homeless lumberjacks in floppy flannel grunge, when looking poor was chic even in the pages of Vogue. But I also remember on some level relishing this aura of intrigue that having secretly lived in "a rich neighborhood" all along (especially because I would never tell someone that; they either saw it for themselves or they didn't know this about me) seemed to confer on me for people who did not live in one.

I'm the oldest of three children; my brother and my sister were both born by the time I was four. At home, before I started school, I had been (partly by default) bossy, Lucy van Pelt, put in charge of younger children, and had dazzled my mom with how many nursery rhymes I could recite by memory at the age of three (she recorded an audio tape of this, in which my baby brother can be heard wailing in the background; at one point I scold him for attempting to eat part of a potted plant). I had been a happy, jovial child who could not wait to start school -- there are photos of me, I'm guessing around age four, shortly before I began kindergarten, all dressed up and "playing school" in some outlandish nightgown-based outfit and carrying a red plastic briefcase that was probably full of coloring books. As far as I can tell, I was not especially shy until I was among lots of other children my age; my siblings and I never attended day care or pre-school (because my mom never had an away-from-home job), and we played only with cousins and neighborhood kids, and mostly with one another.

In my kindergarten yearbook picture, which would have been taken in the fall, I look timid, being unaccustomed to having a stranger photograph me (except, of course, for the photographers at Olan Mills, but in those instances my siblings were always with me), and I'm dressed up. The word "frilly" comes to mind. My mom, having been overweight as a child and an adult -- she had a thin spell in high school and college, around the time she met my dad, and only after a period of extreme dieting that caused her to sometimes feel faint -- was relieved that my siblings and I had inherited the fast metabolism and lean body type of my dad's side of the family, and she loved to play dress-up with us, especially my sister and me.

School-picture day, like Easter, was one of those occasions when my mom would fill the shopping cart with fluffy dresses and shiny Mary Janes (and always white straw hats for Easter, with pastel ribbons and elasticized chin straps). We would sleep with our hair pinched in rollers the night before, and go to school or church looking like the corkscrew-tressed porcelain dolls our mom ordered from QVC and kept in a glass-fronted display cabinet in the guest room. (The inside of our house wasn't fancy; we just maybe had more middle-class stuff than some families -- the QVC dolls, recliners and Little Debbie snack cakes, "Roseanne" playing on a big-screen TV, an intercom system wired by my engineer dad, a laundry chute from the second floor to the basement through which we sent my brother's Mr. T figure on journeys to the mountain of bedsheets at the bottom.)

I was my mom's shy dolly on picture day in kindergarten, my long hair curled and my bangs cut too short, in ruffles of back-to-school-catalog red plaid. I have been told to smile, and am missing my two front teeth. I look scared. And I was scared. My shyness presented an irrational aspect as early as that first year of school: When asked what beverage I would like to have with my lunch every day for October, milk or juice, so an aide could put in an order for the class -- I burst into tears. The reason was that I had asked for milk in September, and I liked milk; I was not sure that I liked orange juice, and had feared that I might not be allowed to order the same drink two months in a row. (If I recall correctly, this ended in my resignedly ordering the juice, and my friend Sarah reassuring me that "It's OK, Christie; juice is good, too.")

However, I had a boyfriend that year, and he was the boy whom all the girls liked. His name was Tyler, and he lived in my neighborhood. I don't know why he liked me, but I wonder if it had something to do with how ostentatiously dolled-up I always was for school, in contrast with the more tomboyish and 1980s-appropriate brightly colored cotton knits that the other girls in our class wore. I also wonder if, perversely, it had something to do with my aloof demeanor, which even that early could transform into a defensive sort of haughtiness -- the more I snubbed his shy advances, the more lovelorn he became.

10

My niche during the later years of elementary school, the role I would have played in a sit-com, was the "shy friend" on the edge of the group of popular yet studious girls. I was not pretty -- I had braces and an infestation of freckles and was skinny, with bony little pale stick legs -- but at that age I "fit in," I was falling into line, I was walking down the path I was supposed to. I was doing my homework, I was singing in chorus. I had one best friend who loved horses, and another who was the principal's daughter. We all watched the back-to-back episodes of "The Brady Bunch" that came on TBS from 5 to 6 p.m. We wanted to sing like Whitney Houston, and we made up dance routines to Debbie Gibson. Ronald Reagan was the only president we could remember, and we thought the USA was awesome; at the time our country seemed invincible, always morally correct, and the only "issues" that I knew of were from pop songs -- Michael Jackson singing about the homeless, and "Just Say 'No' " to drugs.

Fifth grade was the year when, for the first time, a teacher would express concern about my psychological well-being. I knew that I was shy; that word had defined me since I first heard it. But I got along OK, I had friends, I was happy. When Mrs. Waterman took me out of class and into the hallway, apropos of nothing I can recall, and asked me if everything was OK, her earnest eyes full on me as she said, "You just look so sad..." -- I am sorry to say that I privately found her concern laughable, well-meaning but daffy. I politely insisted that everything was fine, because it was -- there was no tension at home or anywhere else, nothing bad had been done to me, I had never so much as been bullied in any significant way. Later I mocked her to my friends, to my family. I remember that an older cool guy had been walking past us in the hall, and my class crush was back inside the room, and I remember devilishly hoping they both thought I was some rebel, that I had been pulled out and given a talking-to for something mischievous.

I think her concern did affect me (it would assume a little more significance later, in the ninth grade, when a similarly well-meaning teacher would send me to a school counselor's office full of pictures of clouds to talk about why I seemed sad or troubled), but mostly it just felt like proof that I was "different" in some cool way, some tortured and artistic way, some exciting and obscurely glamorous way. By 10 I already had a history of trying on what felt like radical stances -- there was most notably a period, in about the second grade, when I worried my mom with claims that I "wanted to be a boy." I knew full well at the time that it was not just a ploy for attention, but a fashionable one; at that time all the cool boys at my school liked tomboys (this was also why I quit ballet). And I had probably filched the longing-to-be-a-boy idea from "Little Women" 's Jo in the first place; it just didn't jibe with my love of pretty dresses and self-chosen pink canopy-bed trimmings. (Another radically different identity I had tried on around second grade: talking with a British accent.)

More evidence that I early on interpreted "different" as "good" (or as, at least, satisfyingly attention-getting): In the first few years of school I had taken pride in writing stories for my blue Creative Writing folder (I remember each writing had to dutifully progress from Outline to Rough Draft, through Edits and Revisions, to First Draft, Second Draft, sometimes Third Draft, then Final) that stood out from the fray, that featured flying dinosaurs in purple sneakers or other safe suburban fancies consistent with the Punky Brewster/Muppet Babies milieu in which I was then immersed.

A proud early moment was when my second-grade teacher bestowed upon me a class-superlative certificate, "Most Imaginative," reflecting the very image of myself I'd been hoping to project. My first foray into realism -- an account of finding an abandoned rifle by the marina with my brother -- was censored by the writing aide because "it contains a gun." I recall the sense of injustice swelling in my flat little chest -- even then I had an inkling that something wasn't right here, that no subject should be exempt from writing, that stories should reflect real life and everything in it. The urge to rebel began early for me, it seems. By 10 it had toned down some, as I choreographed steps to "Electric Youth" with the principal's daughter and duly did my homework, as I filled my head with tame pop candy -- Sweet Valley Twins books and the Babysitters Club. But still -- I felt a thrill at the thought of cool boys thinking I'd been naughty.

15

Sophomore year in high school for me was the end of one era and the start of another. In eighth and ninth grades I had looked OK; this was pre-acne, and I had a heavy-metal-loving trenchcoat boyfriend whom I thought I was in love with (every love song seemed to be about us). Sometime around the seventh grade I had switched alliances from the good-girl homework club to the headbanger kids who all seemed to either come from broken families or who at least lived in smaller houses or even apartments; they had about them a wildness and a knowledge of things -- music, but also the darker, messier bits of adult and family life I'd never known -- that I found exotic and exciting and in some way useful.

By 15 the erstwhile love of my young life had dumped me for the third and final time, and during the course of the summer before tenth grade I'd grown zitty and solemn. My grades had dropped from the straight A's I made in elementary school -- they were now an alphabet soup of token A's (in courses such as P.E. and band) and B's (in English, but only attributable to the strength of my writing and the sympathy of my teachers, as I never did the homework) to C's and, by eighth grade, my first F. It was for me, I am sorry to say, the era of parent-teacher conferences, a period in which the word "interims" (those halfway-through-the-quarter grades printed on slips of paper that were handed out in each class, for us to in turn distribute to our beaming or angry parents) inspired a dread in me like no other word could. I was consistently placed in the advanced classes that would probably have been appropriate for me had I "applied myself" and "worked up to my potential" (in parent-teacher-conference parlance), but, to be blunt, I was lazy. Diabolically, almost impressively lazy.

And sulky. I failed to see the connection between completing these 40 math problems on a piece of loose-leaf paper, or working for an hour tonight on a history project that was due in a month -- and anything that then mattered to me. It all just felt like chores. I didn't like causing my parents grief, but I seemed locked in some myopic downward spiral (perhaps it didn't help that I was then listening to nihilistic bands with album names such as "The Downward Spiral," and scribbling bad poetry, in the margins of math classwork, which romanticized such despair and self-destruction). My head was fogged with heartbreak and introspection; I chronicled every little hurt. I couldn't be bothered to do homework, and couldn't fudge it on the tests --- I re-took geometry in tenth grade, and that dreary summer after ninth grade I re-took Earth science in summer school, riding a bus for a long time each way to a regional school where the class was conducted. (Turning to black humor to cope with the indignity of going to summer school, to friends I characterized my fellow bus riders and classmates as freaks straight from the bar scene in "Star Wars.")

At 15, I listened to bleak rock CD's on my Discman in my bedroom, and I looked at avant-garde fashion in Vogue (fashion experimentation was one of the few subjects other than writing that held my interest). At 15 I held my breath until the next time I would silently pass my ex-boyfriend in some hallway (by then we no longer talked), living for some glimmer of recognition, approval, shared pain. In my bedroom I would lip-synch to passionate music and imagine reaching him through a performance that in my mind was somewhere between a rock concert and a school assembly.

The emotional holding pattern I hovered in over my ex-boyfriend at that time sounds melodramatic, and it was. But it wasn't tragic posturing. My ex-boyfriend and I had two classes together, English and P.E., that year. Here are two things that happened in those classes:

-Our English teacher asked us to form small groups. My shyness had reached its apogee that year, and skyrocketed to a truly irrational extreme in my ex's presence (I remember sitting in a desk that was diagonally behind him, contorted and crunched over during silent-reading time so he wouldn't hear my growling stomach in that class scheduled just before lunch). Upon the command to "get into groups," I sat rigid while others' desks all around me scooted and formed little islands. No one thought to ask me to join one of the groups, and I was too shy to ask if I could join one -- so I walked out. I just walked out the door. I think I even left behind my purple Britches Great Outdoors backpack. I went downstairs and to my locker, where I turned the dial again and again, reckoning that if some administrator out on patrol saw me I could say I'd arrived late. My English teacher dispatched a student to go find me, a girl who approached me with caution as if I were a crazy person. "We'd like you to come back to class," she said, or something like that, sounding like a priest talking to a person on a ledge. "I'll be there in a minute," was my odd reply, turning and turning the dial, as if this were normal, as if it'd been my plan, as if I really did need to get something from inside there. When I entered the classroom, a hush overtook the room. I'd be lying if I said I hadn't hoped my ex thought of this as a symptom of my pain -- some Joan of Arc for him.

-In P.E. we sat in "squads," little rows arranged in alphabetical order according to the surnames scrawled in Sharpie across our gray-T-shirted chests. The gym floor was covered in an odd, bouncy rubber that seemed to absorb sound. I was hyper-aware of my ex sitting in his squad, once again diagonal and in front of me. As the teacher called the roll, I carved at the floor with my nail. I wrote "Helter Skelter" into the rubber, just because it seemed like a thing to carve into a high-school gym floor, vague and anarchic. I carved at my own skin, at my knee, digging nearly into the blood, admiring my marks. We did not then all know about "cutters," did not make jokes about kids with emo haircuts doing that. I didn't think of doing this -- nail into skin, thinking sometimes that I'd hit a raw nerve -- as some "big deal," as either shameful or thrilling, as some case study that'd appear in Time magazine about the sad things our nation's kids are up to these days. I just felt nervous to the point of nausea, nervous to a point that obliterated all awareness of anything outside myself and my laser-focus on my ex. And I liked to think that the pain was appropriate, that it was what I deserved. I had failed him, I had failed me. I didn't fault him for breaking up with me, because I didn't think he had been wrong to. Even now, at 34, I can't keep myself from writing about him in my 15-year-old voice, a voice that spoke of things like black velvet skies and bleeding hearts and crystal teardrops.

But by 15 I had made some new friends, and they would be the bright spot for my remaining years of high school. My friends and I were quiet -- around other people besides us -- but we laughed so much in classes that we were sometimes reprimanded by teachers who threatened to "separate" us if we didn't stop exhibiting so much mirth. These girls were playful and creative and their sense of humor was precociously absurdist. They were my long-lost soul mates. We wrote long, private-joke-filled stories (about a ragtag group of escapees from a mental asylum; not the most PC fare but, as I recall, it was comedy gold) that took up several composition notebooks. We engaged in Surrealist pranks of which Dalí would have approved -- we assembled a bowl of cereal, complete with milk and spoon, and abandoned it in the center of a school hallway one morning, looking down from a second-floor balcony at the confusion we had wrought. They were loyal, and smart but not in that sheeplike, extracurricular-obsessed, gotta-get-into-a-good-college way that I found annoying. None of us dated, but it didn't matter; aside from my private fixation on my ex, guys seemed in general like something peripheral to our existence, elective, something for maybe someday, no rush.

I see now, but did not see then, that my disdain for the college-obsessed students and their join-every-club drive had a little to do with my assumption that I could always start out going to college somewhere, anywhere, it didn't much matter to me where, and my parents would pay for me to, because that was how it was supposed to work, at least in my naive mind. I saw it in the same light as my parents not charging me for rent as a child and as a teenager; I just thought paying for college was something parents did, that everyone's parents had some mythical college fund they'd dropped pennies into a little along the way every day since the day their child was born. I had no concept of the high cost, or of parents' -- and striving students' -- struggles and sacrifices made years before the acceptance or rejection letters hit the mail, years before my slacker "uh oh" at realizing senior year was almost over and I'd better have a plan. To me college was an extension of high school, just one more place you were supposed to be but did not necessarily want to be. To me it was all still one big chore.

I also see that part of my bad or (to be charitable) unenlightened attitude was not knowing what I wanted my future to look like, let alone how to break that goal down into concrete and attainable steps like something a guidance counselor might show you in a video at the career center. It never occurred to me to, say, pick a major then research schools with good programs in those departments. Such maturity was years beyond me. I knew that I wanted to be a writer and harbored this vague notion that I would one day write a book -- I always thought it would be a novel -- but I didn't know anyone who'd ever done that, and I didn't know how it could be done. I guess I thought I would one day lock myself in a cabin and just bang one out; college never seemed a necessary part of the equation. I knew I'd have to do something for money, but it was not until my last year of high school -- after three years on the school newspaper staff, initially because I had stupidly thought that in journalism class we would be writing in journals -- that it occurred to me I could be a journalist, and that I could conceivably write to get paid by going down a bona-fide career path outside of the dreamy write-a-great-novel notion.

At 15 my head was not in school at all, apart from sporadic bursts of concentrated activity such as re-submitting an initially rejected experimental short story to the annual literary magazine that came packaged with the yearbook, entering the story again at my English teacher's passionate insistence that the magazine's student staff had "made a mistake" in turning it down the first year. But I often say to people now that high school was a happy time and place for me -- nail carving "Helter Skelter" into the gym floor and bailing when not asked to join an English-class group notwithstanding -- because of my friends. I miss seeing them every day.

20

20 was the year I turned my academic career around in a way that surprised my parents and even myself. My first two years of college truly had been, as I'd suspected, an extension, at least grades-wise, of high school. I stumbled into classes and slumped over in the back. I raised my hand in English classes but barely registered the rest. I took computer science as a way to weasel out of taking math. I went to a party school for rich dumb kids my first year (I'm too embarrassed to even tell you the name; my high verbal SAT score is surely the only reason I was accepted even there), then to community college for my second year.

That fall semester at NoVA was about as lackluster as my performance outside of English class had always been, but something kicked in that spring. I remember it started as a private experiment: I wondered if, were I to read all of the assigned textbook chapters and hi-lite pertinent terms, were I to listen and take notes, and then study for at least a night or two beforehand, were I to try, could I get an A on a college exam? I tried it with Geology 101, which I was of course taking for the second time because I'd gotten a D the time before. I gave it a try; I aced the exam. In fact, I answered the bonus questions correctly and got a grade of 105 percent. It was a rush; I wanted to do it some more.

So I did it some more, for all five of my classes. I got straight A's that semester. I transferred into the big college that my then-boyfriend (soon-to-be-fiancé) wanted me to attend with him; I made straight A's there as well. I grew addicted to extra-credit assignments. I went above and beyond, as the starry-eyed teachers say about their dream pupils -- for a political-science project in which we had only to write five pages (double-spaced) about our personal political philosophy, I turned in a play I wrote that was easily twice that length (and single-spaced), an imaginary round-table discussion among me and three of my friends who were at different points on the spectrum (they were Pious Bob, Tree-Hugger Liz, and Right-Wing Greg), in which I weighed their views and tried to decide what mine were. When I went to pick up the graded assignment from my professor, who didn't know me from anyone else in the auditorium-large class, I swear she became verklempt and said it was the best one she had read.

At 20 I was engaged to Right-Wing Greg, he of the political-science-class play that had dazzled my professor. I had a diamond ring and everything. For the second time in my life, I was walking down the right path, or so it might have seemed from the outside. We weren't just casually engaged, either -- we had the wedding venue all but picked out (we were considering the small but elegant church in which my parents were married, Madame Russell Methodist Church in Saltville, Virginia, my parents' hometown), and his family had been mildly irked at my family's laid-back attitude toward publishing an announcement in our respective local newspapers, in Alexandria and Roanoke (apparently sending an announcement to the local papers is the bride's family's duty, if you're the type who cares about tradition). But I broke it off before we became a smiling posed couple on black-and-white newsprint (CHAPMAN-KESSLER), before my parents and his parents were "proud to announce the engagement of" their children, who had met on AOL. It never became a fact that someone might stumble across in microfiche in some dusty (or more likely digital) library of the future.

Here is where my love life started to get ugly; here is when I cheated for the first time. I had my clear-cut reasons for ending the engagement, most related to the fact that he was Right-Wing Greg. After I broke things off with him, I quickly entered into what would become a nearly decade-long relationship with the other guy, the guy with whom I had cheated on my fiancé. Part of me tried to excuse it retroactively, thinking I had only scrambled the chronology of things, made things overlap where there should have been a gap, a patch of white space, or at least a line break. There was no line break, only sentences typed over each other saying contradictory things, pretty lies over confessions. 20 was when I cheated for the first time; it was also the first time I had been in a serious relationship, and therefore the first time I'd even had the chance to cheat. It wouldn't be the last time, and would in fact become a habit. Maybe it was due to some aberration in my emotional DNA, or maybe I was just good at being duplicitous, even to myself.

The new boyfriend had manic depression, was "a cutter" (by now everyone knew what that word meant, and had heard the emo jokes); he had a few five-alarm suicidal moments but mostly "just" self-destructive ones (I had to hide knives and pills from him, and once had to remove his policeman dad's gun from his hands). The way his depression affected me the most on a day-to-day basis, though, was that he would interrogate me. This would last for hours, and for a period of several years it is no exaggeration to say that it happened every day. His mind zeroed in on things that displeased him; he could not deal with the fact that I had loved my ex-fiancé, or that the ex and I had ever been in any way "physical."

I had to miss some of my favorite classes (including a sociology one in which I had completed all of the required reading and had been eager to participate in class discussion, like 4-year-old me with her red plastic briefcase eager to go to school) and postpone a job interview with a small-town paper because of my boyfriend's "freak-outs." I knew that his depression was a medical condition, and that he could only help it so much, but I saw him sometimes control it when he wanted to. He never, to me, seemed appropriately remorseful about what it did to my life -- about the parts he could control.

25

At age 25 I was living a life that in some ways I envy now. I was writing for a daily newspaper in Lynchburg, Virginia -- a small city, bigger than a small town in the sense that it was more a center of a small metropolitan region, and it was big enough to have room for another daily newspaper besides us, plus several competing news crews who worked for different TV channels. I was living in a quirky apartment carved out of what had once been a dorm building for a girls' school (with hatches leading into the hallway where girls could dump their laundry for whatever den-mother type took care of it), in the cool part of town -- Rivermont Avenue, home of "the Cav" (the Cavalier, a knockabout bar where the young reporters all hung out) and the Texas T-Room perched on the James River (the sort of place that serves fried eggs on top of cheeseburgers and shows up in articles about mom-and-pop joints to visit on road trips) and the apartments of nearly all my other twentysomething fellow reporters.

The newsroom was full of smart people, writers and editors, who were all as passionate about comma placement and "there" versus "their" and "they're" as I was, and who shared my delight in learning (and making ostentatious use of) obscure new words. The work was interesting, and we felt that it mattered. We cared a lot about our integrity -- when an employee discovered that our managing editor had made minor (and mostly non-substantive) tweaks to some of our stories before entering them in a statewide contest, we reported the scandal ourselves, he was promptly fired, and we gave the awards back, even though nobody said we had to. Getting the scoop mattered, but not as much as our honor, as barf-inducing as that will surely sound.

I didn't appreciate my journalistic life when I was 25. I still longed to write fiction, and was doing so in my free time. I felt resentful of my job for taking me away from what I felt was my natural calling, my reason for existing. I romanticize my old newspaper days now, like some glinty-eyed grandpa in a rocking chair talking about back when people didn't have to lock their doors. But at the time my high-adrenaline beat -- the "night cops," or night crime, beat -- frayed my nerves, in no small part because I was required to listen to two chattering police scanners (broadcasting communications among local cops and five different police-dispatch centers -- the main city department, and four county sheriff's offices) for the duration of my nine-hour shift, including my dinner break.

After a year I was placed on a more laid-back beat -- out of mercy; the paper never kept anyone on night cops for too long -- and was given two counties to cover (everything from local government and its tempest-in-a-teapot politics to local court cases, schools, "the arts," touchy-feely "features," environmental issues and, well, anything that occurred within those two counties). But the stress didn't end then; ultimately I simply grew weary of people not wanting to talk to me, of too many people viewing me as intrusive or insensitive when I had to pester them for quotes or information. There were plenty of people who did want to talk to me, and in fact the small Southern city overall was full of friendly folks, but the people who wanted to talk to me and the people I needed to talk to for my stories were generally not the same. I was rattled by the handful of people who didn't welcome me; thoughts of them kept me up at night.

During this period, I was sort of living with my boyfriend, the one with the manic depression -- "sort of" in part because my mom wouldn't have approved of our living together before marriage, but also because he didn't have a job (he didn't work at all during the near-decade we were together, except for a couple of months at the end) and I secretly felt reluctant to take him on, for him to be my "pet boyfriend." So I decorated the apartment on Rivermont Avenue the way I liked, as if it were simply a bachelorette pad, and at first he only slept over on weekends. Eventually, he did move some things in -- funny things, quirky things, sometimes downright-batshit things: a "Mr. Beer" home beer-brewing kit from Wal-Mart; a joke "voodoo shrine" he made out of trinkets we'd bought in New Orleans, which he assembled on a striped corduroy ottoman from Target. By the time we moved out, the place was sufficiently weird for me to not just wonder but worry about what the exterminator or plumber thought when they had to come in while we weren't there.

I indulged in inane escapism to get my mind off things -- not just work, I now realize, but the general picture of my downtrodden life with my dependent boyfriend, a life that felt destined to stall or dead-end. Every evening he and I would head to the local Barnes & Noble to just sit in the cafe area and read magazines. Beneath my respectable reading material -- the New Yorkers and Atlantics, the Economists and Harper's -- I would slip a stack of celebrity tabloids. I still have trouble figuring out exactly what this was about, but I guess I found a kind of solace in "turning off my brain" and going intellectually catatonic while I flipped through glossy pages of pretty people wearing fashionable things. I didn't care then and don't care now about which actor or actress got dumped by whom, or "who wore it better" among starlets who showed up at places in the same designer gown. It wasn't the dirt that lured me -- it was the prettiness, the gloss, and perhaps also the narcotizing illusion of wealth making lives easy. I would engage in childish mental games -- construct some imaginary dream wardrobe out of items of clothing I saw in magazines, say. Or better yet, construct some imaginary dream version of myself, to wear the imaginary dream wardrobe. It was really no better than playing with Barbies.

By the end of that year I had won this big award, the top journalism-writing award given in the state each year; Bob Woodward, writing for The Washington Post, had won it the year before I did. I always slip that fact in when I'm telling someone about it -- "Bob Woodward won it, then I did." It even says this on my résumé, nine years after the fact. I remember feeling unworthy when I won it. (I felt lucky but also guilty, a bit like how I'd felt about my upper-middle-class neighborhood and happy homelife.) The articles that won were pieces in a four-part series, with many components -- photographs, charts and images created by our paper's graphic designer, even some online bits and a corresponding story that aired on our TV-news partner's station in Roanoke.

I did not "get the scoop," nor was the article series my idea. Our then- managing editor, the one who was later fired for tinkering with awards submissions (but not with mine -- he'd made sure mine was perfect before it ever ran), assigned the project to me because, he said, he had faith that I could write it. (Well, that and at the time I was mostly just sitting around listening to police scanners -- the series gave me something to do on slow news days.) I believed that I could do it, too; I felt "up to the task," and conducted many in-person interviews, spent time with the family whom the story was about, observed and took notes and tried to push the writing deeper than normal daily reporting usually went. But it really was his baby; I guess I felt more like the midwife. He had the baby, then he showed it around the hospital, going, "Isn't my baby adorable?" And so everybody (the awards-contest judges) knew its name. Besides, the series was about a tear-jerker subject; part of it was about a child getting shot. Of course it won the contest.

"Make sure you wear something nice at the awards ceremony, because a lot of eyes are going to be on you," said the lady at the office who knew before I did (because I was not supposed to know; it was supposed to be a surprise) that I had won. That we had won, that it had won. That my editor had won.

30

I had made another jump. The big one.

The one I can't stop talking about.

Anyone who knows me has heard the story ad nauseam -- of how I got laid off from my high-paying marketing-writer gig at the global software company, how I packed up just a few of my favorite books and my computer and a couple of trash bags of folded-up clothes and drove to California to begin a new life.

I had broken free from my dependent, manic-depressive boyfriend; somehow we're still good friends. I was in love with someone else. He was not in love with me, or he was ambivalent about me, but I pursued it bravely, both respectful and courageous. It's one of the few things in my life that I did right, regardless of my missteps, and regardless of the outcome.

On the night of my 30th birthday, so my mythology goes, I was dancing in a gay bar with a self-confessed crack dealer to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" on the jukebox. I lived in San Diego for a whopping total of four months, made a lot of homeless friends who hung out near where I lived downtown, and soon found a job writing copy for a small, hip marketing firm whose office sat on top of a classy jazz-heavy "supper club" three blocks from where I rented a guest room in a kindly pothead's condo in Little Italy. I drove back to Alexandria on Thanksgiving only after work and money and love had all dried up, and I needed to regroup.

That winter I was back in the brick Colonial box with my parents, in the bedroom that'd been mine since I was four (a "temporary" tattoo of a Smurf's mushroom house still smeared on the windowsill). I worked for a couple of months at the old Barnes & Noble in Georgetown; the store is no longer there, I saw the other day. I'd thought at first that it would be romantic to work among books, like Bella from "Beauty and the Beast," like the improbable "sexy librarian" whom smart guys claim to fantasize about. My first day there I was given an apron and a choice of hairnet or baseball cap (I chose baseball cap) and sent to work in the cafe, the least popular department because it feels the most like working at McDonald's. I slept with two of my co-workers in a two-month span. And then with a couple of other people after that. I was drunk every time. I was bad at being single. I wanted too badly to be in love.

I reconnected with my now-boyfriend on Facebook -- we went to the same high school; he'd been two grades ahead of me -- while he was over in Baghdad. He was there first during the invasion but was, at the time we reconnected, working for an intelligence company that had an office over there.

After four in-person interviews and four subsequent rejections, I got a full-time writing and editing job with a national nonprofit organization that publishes a patient-education magazine and newsletter and had other stuff that needed to be written. I signed the lease for an apartment -- the first place I'd ever had all to myself. I gave it little "make-overs," scraping up enough money to buy a real (upholstered) couch to replace the wicker lawn furniture from my parents' basement, and a boldly patterned chair from TJ Maxx, and a super-low-tech snow-cone machine (a glorified razor blade and conical paper cups).

Little by little, I became a self-sufficient adult again (even if my diet was still Holly Golightly, all Pop-Tarts and yuppie sandwiches from Starbucks; I didn't even have salt and pepper in my kitchen). I shot a short video tour at the halfway point of one of these little make-overs; in the recording, you can hear me self-consciously laughing as I play the Cure's "Just Like Heaven" via iTunes on my computer. The apartment was pretty damn ghetto, nowhere near "just like heaven," which was part of the joke, but I loved it. For a brief while I had geraniums and tomatoes growing on the balcony. I set up a "Scrabble station" using a TV-tray table and two folding outdoor chairs.

I began the year in love and ended it alone in another bachelorette pad that would later turn out to be plagued with bedbugs, but I was having promising chats on Skype with my now-boyfriend in Baghdad. I began the year at a gay bar in downtown San Diego, dancing with Columbo who was old enough to be my grandpa, a scrappy street-smart hustler, but mostly, to me, a colorful character for a future story; I ended the year at my apartment in quiet leafy Fairfax, slowly filling up my own place in the world with small things that I loved.


35 

Looking back on it now (from my oh-so-eminence-grise vantage point of a whopping two days past my 36th birthday), 35 was for me the age of wanting to “have it all!” as the women say on sit-coms – the ones who want the careers, the babies, the passionate love lives, the gym-fit bodies, the passports full of exotic stamps, the ever-clean and chicly decorated homes, the book deals.

I guess there’s just some human *thing* that makes a lot of us -- even once we've achieved stability and created (or lucked into) a life that appears successful, at least on all public fronts -- want more than we have. I guess that would be called “greed.” I guess that would be called being a white middle-class American in the year 2014 who has never had to deal with any real tragedy in her life.

Right about here I could give you the Christmas-card write-up version of my life these days ("Junior is at Notre Dame on a football scholarship! Little Suzie is conducting research for her doctoral thesis in anthropology in the Amazonian rainforest of Brazil!"):

Shortly after I turned 35 I got married to an honestly *wonderful* man (yeah, I know I’m supposed to say that, but it’s true; it constantly floors me that it’s true). We're living in a cozy townhouse just across the street from an entrance to Accotink Park, a wooded wonderland of trees, a ~four-mile hiking and biking trail, and the big lake we got married in front of. Thanks to him, we're growing stuff in the community garden -- more cucumbers than we're able to carry home and turn into pickles, jalapeño and bell peppers; our former housemate has an herb section in our plot that includes spinach and basil. My husband goes into the thickets behind our townhouse row and picks black raspberries and blackberries and turns them into jam that we use for PB&J suppers while watching movies and TV-show reruns via Netflix on the projector we have in lieu of a TV in the living room. (Yeah, we don't have a TV; I'm afraid we are *those people* who listen to NPR in the car and buy only vegetarian groceries and *don't have a TV*.)

After years of un- and underemployment, cobbling together a patchwork of temping and freelance gigs in order to pay my fair share of the rent or (once we bought the townhouse) mortgage each month – I have a full-time writing and editing job in DC, a job at which my creativity and writing skills are valued, my boss is nice, I manage an award program (a quarterly award that I had already received within a year of working there; I was nominated for it another time before that), and I've even gotten one speech under my belt at the Toastmasters chapter that meets in my work building every other week during lunch.

I have good health insurance now – and boy howdy, have I made use of it. After 34 years of robust health, it’s as if my stoic, secretly weary body were just waiting for me to get decent health insurance, saving up all its ails and agues. I now have a retinologist (apparently there’s a hole in my eyeball; benign for now and common among near-sighted folks, but something I need to have checked out every year from now on), an allergist/dermatologist (I’ve now been prescribed prednisone twice for severe contact dermatitis, from coming into contact with pernicious oils from poison ivy or somesuch dastardly weed, that once resulted in oozing orange blisters on one arm and a man on the Metro asking warily, “Are you contagious?”), a long-suffering male gynecologist who patiently answers my many “TTC” (trying to conceive) questions I send to him through his office’s online “patient portal;” a dentist who upgraded some decroded fillings that’d been languishing and crumbling in my back teeth for who knows how long like a tiny metal Rome; and soon I’ll need to find a more general practitioner – a doctor-doctor – to give me some basic shots.

I need the shots because my husband and I are going to Nepal next month. It’s a combination (very) belated “Himalayan Honeymoon” (as my tireless PR machine, a.k.a. me, keeps calling it) and one-year-anniversary trip. We’ll have an overnight layover in Doha, Qatar each way, and I’m trying to figure out if we’ll have enough time to ride dunebuggies in the desert. (No clue how feasible this is; I saw a woman write in her travel blog about how that was a good time.) This is coming less than a month after I took a solo road trip out West in a rental car – I took a plane to Denver, then drove from Denver to San Diego, with stops at Moab, Utah; the Monument Valley, Arizona photo-op spot; the Grand Canyon; Las Vegas; and the Mojave Desert of California. The trip was basically my revisiting the sites of my cherished memories from 2008, the year I went out that way to live, the year I turned 30. You could say it was my own personal ghost tour. 

I no longer worry about money, ever. (I mean, I'm not stupid with it -- but it's no longer a source of stress in my life.) Even the boring material stuff in my life is A-OK. I drive a perfectly adequate car, even if it's not my beloved 2001 Honda Accord who got me to the Pacific and back in 2008, whom I *cried over* when I had to dump her off at Carmax in exchange for $500 toward one of their newer, better-running cars. The one I toodle around in now is sort of “my” car but sort of my husband’s, although he drives a different car most of the time; it started out as his car, and is synched up to his car insurance and not mine (I don't have any car insurance right now), however -- I’ve decorated the glove box with those stickers they give you when you put cash in the fireman’s boot, so it’s really just… ours, like a lot of things.

So I have all of this – the best husband on the planet, who wants to start a family with me; a home that I love more than any other; the best job of my career, in many ways; enviable travel experiences; all the First World comforts and conveniences I need to get me through my days.

And yet – so help me, I have angst.

For going on a year now I’ve been moping about my purported inability to get pregnant (although wow, duh, I recently figured out that we’ve probably been getting our timing completely wrong all along, mostly because I was placing all my faith in this one drugstore device that supposedly tells most women when they’re ovulating [emphasis on "most," i.e., not *all*). I’ve written terrible sad stories about this that I haven’t even bothered to publish on my own creative-writing site, the one for which I’m writer, editor, publisher, publicist, and God. (The stories don't get published because sometimes I'm unable to meet my own standards.)

Which segues us into the other source of my angst (OK, one of many sources) – at 35 I remained a thoroughly amateur writer, just some chick who’s told by kind friends that she writes well, and who, OK, has wowed this one snotty writing group on a gratifyingly regular basis, and whose weirder work has appeared in the online ‘zine of a pal with connections… but who otherwise has no real proof she has anything but a glimmer of potential. A chick who sticks her stuff on her Blogger site because she’s impatient for her hot-out-of-the-oven work to be read, and because she doesn’t even know where she’d want it to appear in a perfect world.

That’s the strange and sad thing – I really don’t know.

Every time (all two of them) that I've rounded up some stamps and manila envelopes and printed-out pages from Kinko’s, and flipped to the back pages of “Poets & Writers” (kind of a redundant title, but anyway) magazine to where the publications seeking submissions and the contests are – something about it feels alarmingly hasty, as if I'm “winging it,” “flying by the seat of my pants." It doesn't feel considered or deliberate enough for something I care so much about.

Part of me wants to do it... differently. *Not* send pieces off through poky snail-mail to obscure magazines that only other writers (those wanting their stuff to be published in those very pay-your-dues-before-being-published-by-a-*real*-magazine... magazines) read anyway. *Not* go around praying and begging and kowtowing via cover letter to fancy-pants editors and literary snoots, hoping to convince them of my marketing appeal. It feels slimy.

But what’s the alternative? Keep publishing my rough stuff on my own site for free, with no promotion (unless you happen to be among the 130 souls on my Facebook friend list), "toil in obscurity"? Actually, you know – this doesn’t sound bad to me. I have always maintained that I have zero interest in making money from my creative writing. I don’t need to be a JK Rowling or that chick who wrote “50 Shades of Grey.” I only want to be read, and respected -- and (on the less appallingly selfish side) I want to write things that make people feel less alone, that make them *think* and *feel* things. Besides, as I wrote just a few paragraphs above – I don’t worry about money these days.

At the same time I know that’s giving up. It’s throwing in the towel I was using to wipe off the sweat as I wrestled with mortality, and saying, “You win, mortality – I’ll die a nobody, with nary a book on my shelf that has my name on it.” (Actually, that’s not true – there are already two such books on my shelf: a self-published-style, hardbound collection of some stories I sent to my husband via email and that he put together in book format for me as a wonderful Christmas gift; and “The Care Bear,” the [surely copyright-violating] story of two Care Bears who love their totemic objects [a “heart necklace” and a four-leaf clover, respectively], written by me at age 5, with wallpaper-sample-covered cardboard squares for the front and back covers.)  

I *care* about this – not just the stories I write, but where they live and how they’re delivered to people. Hmm, I’ll think about this some more and let you know what (or if) I’ve decided when I’m 40. The shameful truth is probably that I'm just plain old too lazy to ever rise to a level beyond my current comfortable amateur one. My head is too often full of fog, and mindless distractions lure me with their boring siren song far too often. I don't want to believe these things about myself, but I know they're true.

But here’s another thing that’s true – if a magical genie popped out of my Starbucks cup right now and told me that by age 40 I could either have a book or a baby, I wouldn’t even hesitate.

A baby. I would want a baby.

Me in the Mojave Desert, CA, August 2014, shortly before turning 35.

3 comments:

  1. I wanna see the Bob Woodward After story!! Really enjoyed reading this. That lil' photo of you is adorable. What a great idea, maybe I will write about fives. No one reassured you that you could order milk? You were self-sacrificing even so young, darling girl.

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  2. Mostly, I like to read history of religions, specifically spirituality, specifically mysticism, specifically love mysticism, but this was pretty interesting and a little bit funny.

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  3. Asplenia: Yeah! I really should post some of my gems from the ol' journalism-days archives. Those days were *just* before we all started collectively putting absolutely everything online -- we had this little old librarian named Gloria who toiled in a library upstairs, painstakingly clipping out our articles for us and slipping them into manila folders with our names on them, and we got to take the folders full of clips when we left the paper! And yes, I seriously *stressed* about that milk. I'm neurotic from waaay back.

    Doug: Good to know! Hmm, let me see if I can include some more stuff containing interesting facts about religion -- pretty much all I know about is the holy-roller brand of Appalachian Pentecostal that my mom's family adheres to. I'll see what I can do! And ha, I'm glad this was at least a little bit funny to you! Thank you, as always, for reading!

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