March 19, 2003

My current temp assignment has moved me to an off-site file storage facility. This means no daytime internet access, and only brief dial-up access at home in the mornings and evenings. Tomorrow, I'm going out of town for four days. And next week, I'm probably working at the storage facility, as well as preparing to leave for an international trip on April 2nd. Bottom line: there isn't much blogging time these days. I apologize to my three readers for the hiatus, and I'll be back for sure in mid-April. I might manage to squeeze something in before then. Thanks for your patience with me.

March 13, 2003

Normally, I won't put two postings that involve the same person so close together, but today is the sixth anniversary of Donna's death, and I can't help but think about the memories I have that relate to her. However, the one I'm putting down today really only tangentially features Donna, as you'll see.

More directly, it features Drew, a person who will almost certainly make his cameo in more than one of my future entries. When I'm in a light mood, I refer to Drew as "my high-school obsession-crush." However, this designation overlooks, among other things, the fact that that crush extended well beyond high school into at least my first two and a half years of college, and in some sense continues today. Like all good obsession-crushes, this one's foundations were shaky at best. There is no question that Drew and I were friends, forging a connection soon after we met at the beginning of our junior year of high school. And I suppose it can't be denied that I fell for him, hard. The thing that throws everything into cloudiness is my seemingly limitless ability to idealize him, in the face of what was often his selfish, thoughtless behavior.

Drew had a girlfriend throughout the two years during which we spent mornings together at a regional magnet school in Mediumville. But it wasn't purely my imagination that made me think we had a chance. He was often intoxicatingly affectionate, and his friends all thought our relationship was headed somewhere. Some days, I too was convinced, and I lived for his hugs and teasing comments. But Drew had a selfish streak a mile wide. I can't count how many times in high school and after that he broke commitments with me, always with some excuse just plausible enough to be unassailable. Or how many times, once we left for different colleges, I called him without him ever making an unsolicited call back. How many times I'd email him after a long period of no communication, only to have him email back that he'd just been thinking about me, and he was so glad I'd written.

[Interesting - as I read back over that paragraph, it's almost laughable how deluded I sound. From what I've written, it seems obvious that I was carrying on a one-sided crush that he was just too nice to nip in the bud. I'm not sure how to show that that wasn't the whole story, but I know that it wasn't. If nothing else, I have the letter he wrote me during our sophomore year of college in which he claimed to have been in love with me since high school. Reading that letter was one of the most amazing feelings I've ever experienced, but we were never quite able to move the words from the page into the real world.]

I could go on for pages trying to explain the complexities of what Drew represents to me. On one hand, it's rather simple - he was my "first love," that one you never really get over. But on the other, I constantly remind myself that what I felt for him was not love, but a kind of worship - one that was based on all the good times I'd had with him and conveniently ignored his potential for callousness. This fact became obvious to me when I realized that my post-high-school periods of pining for Drew nearly always coincided with periods of dissatisfaction with my romantic relationship at the time.

Ah...I digress (and how). The point is that, at the time of this memory, I was deeply immersed in my feelings for Drew, and I had not yet recognized the worst of his character traits. I was, to my mind, in love.

March 14, 1997, 17 years old

It is a rainy morning, and I have just pulled into the parking lot behind the math and science magnet school that I attend every morning before returning to SmallTown High for the afternoon. I sit in my car with the ignition off for a moment, and contemplate that the day before had possibly been the worst of my life. It had been about fifteen hours since the phone had rung in my kitchen, announcing Donna's death. I try to wrap my mind around the idea and find that instead of sorrow, I feel a strange sense of adrenaline, butterflies in my stomach.

I know what this means, and it sickens me. Because here in this parking lot, nearly every morning, I meet up with Drew. We have spent practically an entire two years pretending that it's just coincidence that we arrive at the same time, never admitting that whichever of us gets to school first inevitably dawdles in his or her car until the other pulls in. It's a long way from the parking lot to the school building, and I savor these precious daily moments when Drew and I can walk and talk together.

The butterflies have appeared because today, I can be special. I am, in some perverse way, excited to tell Drew about Donna's death, because I know he'll be moved by my tragedy. I am astounded by my own self-centeredness.

Drew's black Rodeo pulls into the lot, and I start gathering my books. In a phenomenon that I will come to recognize whenever I face trauma, I feel as if my mind and my soul are both working furiously, in opposite directions. It is my soul that has digested the full meaning of losing Donna, and it is from there that the tears well up unpredictably and breathing becomes difficult. My mind has lagged far behind, willfully ignoring what the soul understands, concentrating only on the superficial, the opportunistic, the here and now.

Drew and I walk together under my umbrella, and I give him some indication to ask me what's wrong. He does, and I ask if he remembers the English teacher I had told him about. The morning before, Donna had lay in a hospital, on life support after being slammed into by a driver asleep at the wheel. Drew nods, and I can feel the butterflies whipped into a fury as my mind anticipates the impact my words will have. Before I can speak, however, Drew gives a little laugh and says, "What? Did he sexually harass you or something?" For a split second, my mind flares, fully pissed that he would ruin this perfect moment of revelation. He has confused Donna with another of my English teachers, one that, I had recently mentioned, gave me a strange vibe.

Suppressing that flash of anger, I maintain my somber tone and explain to him what has happened. Now he is gratifyingly distraught, stopping in the rain to hug me close, and looking at me with newly concerned eyes. He stumbles over an apology about his initial comment, and I wave it aside. I don't want to think about his gaffe and how it intruded on the buildup of my dramatic moment. I just want to keep his arm around me.

Throughout all this, my soul is crying out. How can I possibly be exploiting my own sorrow so selfishly? How can I be thinking about Drew's embrace, when I have lost someone so close? Am I really so cold? My mind retaliates, rationalizing that Donna would be glad that she could help me, even in her death. It conjures up the image of her, looking down from a cloud, giving me the ol' thumbs-up.

My soul is not appeased, but it won't win out on this day. My mind is too strong, too taken with its own shrewd devices. I rest my head on Drew's shoulder and allow him to worry over me for the rest of the morning.

For quite a while afterwards, I was ashamed of my thoughts and actions that day. All I could see was my own selfishness, my desire for Drew's attention overwhelming even my strongest emotions. But from this vantage point, six years later, I am less harsh towards the 17-year-old that I was. What happened that day was not the result of some congenital crippling of my emotional existence. Instead, I realize that the division between my mind and my soul was the only way I could arm myself to face the world, fifteen hours after part of it had come crashing down. My dispassionate mind kept me together that day the only way that it knew how.

I can pinpoint the moment when mind and soul re-fused, and I was forced to contemplate the full consequences of Donna's death. I am grateful that none of my peers were there to witness it.

March 11, 2003

It occurs to me that, as fun for me as putting down these memories is, they're probably not all that interesting for my "readership" (all three or so of them) without some sense of who I am now and where I am in my life. So I'll try to interject a present-day entry every now and then, just to keep things on an even keel. The first of these will be a little piece of current biography:

I am twenty-three years old, rapidly approaching twenty-four, and have for the last six months made my home in Atlanta, Georgia. Before moving to the world of peach trees and traffic jams, I spent a little over a year living in New York City. If you've read more than a couple of entries in this blog, you know that I'm a SmallTown girl, but my relatively enlightened parents and plenty of horizon-broadening experiences in high school and college made the transition from SmallTown to Big City much smoother than it might have been.

I lived in a tiny apartment in Brooklyn, and I would do it again without much hesitation. I could never be a hardcore New Yorker, but I loved all the little things about it that people always say they love. I miss my Brooklyn neighborhood, and I miss all the details you experience because you walk everywhere. I miss the awesome hummus and stuffed grape leaves at the hole-in-the-wall three blocks from my place. I miss that frisson of striding down the sidewalk on a chilly evening, feeling every bit the girl-in-the-city. But I don't miss the long winter, or the mouse that made his home in my toaster, or the lack of access to a Target. I don't miss my bedroom, so small that my double bed touched three of its four walls. And I certainly don't miss the obscene portion of my paycheck that I had to fork over to my landlord each month.

I left New York and moved to Georgia for, well, love. My boyfriend, Blue, and I have been together for almost two years now, and when he got a great job in Atlanta, my roots in New York weren't deep enough to keep me from going with him. I have no regrets about making the move - I love Blue, and I love the life we're building together. So, if (when) I use this space to complain about my inability to find gainful employment that doesn't consider alphabetizing a primary skill-set, or about my increasingly womanizer-like attempts to make some female friends, or about the fact that I've traded the half-hour of reading time that was my subway commute for twenty minutes of death-defying automotive maneuvers, know that despite it all, I am confident that my decision to move to this stupid city was the right one.

And I mean that.

About the city being stupid, yeah, but also about my decision being right. This assurance doesn't mean I haven't dealt with some serious bouts of insecurity, loneliness, and general confusion as I try to figure out what I'm doing with my life. It seems the "quarter-life crisis" is almost a rite of passage these days. But the more I replace pitying myself with challenging myself, the better I feel. These days, I'm feeling okay.

March 07, 2003

The most rudimentary way that I classify my early memories is "old house/new house." Just after my sixth birthday, my family moved from one part of SmallTown to another, upgrading our house in both size and quality. The move provides a line of demarcation, and I can almost always place a memory on one side of that line or the other, whether the memory actually took place at my house or not. It helps me arrange my memory timeline a little more accurately in those nebulous pre-third-grade years.

This is an "old house" memory, though I can't get much more specific than that. (Remember, all dates are approximate.)

Spring 1984, 4 years old

I am in the living room of the old house, sitting on the couch with my brother, who is two years older. There are a number of magazines on the coffee table in front of us. One of them is a newsmagazine - probably Time - and its cover features a photo portrait of a native African woman. The context of the conversation is lost to me, but just as my mother comes into the room, I point to the picture and refer to the woman as a "n****r." I have no memory of where I had heard the word, or how I knew that it was associated with dark-skinned people. What I do remember is my mother's uncharacteristically swift and furious response: "Don't you EVER let me hear you say that word again! EVER!"

I am shocked. My mother generally belongs to the "patient, but firm" school of parenting, and I have never heard her raise her voice to me so unexpectedly. She realizes then that I don't understand the repugnance of the concept that the word represents, and her tone softens. She explains to my brother and me that that word is not, and will never be, acceptable for us to use. Somehow, I understand that it belongs in a category beyond even the cuss words I've heard older kids trying out around the neighborhood.

Years later, I will understand intellectually why the "n-word" has no place in my vocabulary. But no intellectual understanding will ever take the place of my mother's stunningly visceral reaction. My intellect tells me I should not use that word. The seed my mother planted means I cannot.

March 05, 2003

Donna was one of my high school teachers, and she was my friend. She was young, smart, and ambitious - qualities all too rare at SmallTown High. For me, she represented that shining world outside SmallTown, the one I would join full-time once I got to college. In that world, I figured, I would be surrounded by people like Donna, and I couldn't wait to get there.

If this sounds like a eulogy, there is good reason. Donna was killed in a car accident in March of 1997, my senior year of high school. She was 28 years old. There is much I could write about the day of Donna's death, its effect on me, and the continuing effect she has had on my life, and perhaps at some point I will. But not this time.

December 1996, 17 years old

When the school year started in September of 1996, Donna was no longer teaching at SmallTown High. She had left in preparation for pursuing her second master's degree - one in creative writing to complement the one in liberal arts she had obtained four years earlier. We stayed in touch with occasional letters - she would send me short stories she'd written, I'd ask her to critique my college application essays. She lived a few hours away, with her husband of just over a year. We didn't see each other in person that often.

On the December day in question, Donna and I have met in Mediumville to have lunch and catch up. We eat at Shakers, and talk about our plans. I'm waiting to hear about early admission to my college of choice. Donna is weighing potential fellowships. We gossip a little about students and teachers in SmallTown. Finishing lunch, we head over to the nearby mall. Donna has something there she needs to pick up.

Walking through one of the anchor department stores, I'm struck with the sense that Donna and I are a bit of an odd couple. To the outside observer, our age difference is obvious, but our closeness should be too. Donna isn't anywhere near old enough to be my mother, but a bit too old to be my mall buddy. I wonder outloud if someone, seeing us, might think we are sisters. As I say this, we are walking past one of the many mirrored columns that decorate the store. We stop in front of this mirror, Donna just behind me with her hands on my shoulders, and contemplate the two faces in the reflection - Donna's round and ruddy, framed by thick, auburn hair; mine small-featured and angular, set off by a stick-straight blondish bob. The idea that anyone might think us related is patently absurd.

We laugh and move on. We'll never be sisters, but there is something overwhelmingly sisterly about that moment, that image of the two faces, close together in the mirror. This day is the last one I will ever spend with Donna. This image of her is the one I will always remember.

February 28, 2003

I don't have a lot of female friends. A few years ago, in a more immature time, I may have been That Girl - the one who claims that other girls just don't like her, and that she'd much rather hang out with her guy friends. Since then, I've realized the childish competition and insecurity inherent in that attitude. I still have close relationships with several guy friends, but I also have a much greater appreciation and desire for close female friendships. Unfortunately, developing and keeping those can be harder than it sounds, particularly once you're out of school, in a serious relationship, and in a city far away from the female friends you do have.

All of this makes me nostalgic for one of the most uncomplicated friendships of my youth. The friend was Mac, a girl I had known since early childhood, but with whom I didn't really become close friends until she moved down the street from me when we were about nine. There are hundreds of stories I could tell about Mac - she was the girl-down-the-street, my primary companion. From ages nine to twelve, I spent more time with Mac than with any other person outside my family. Though we had our conflicts and competitions, there was something very steady and reliable about our friendship, and I suppose that's the way good friendships should be.

Mac moved away from SmallTown just before seventh grade, and that loss genuinely affected me. Though I certainly developed other friendships throughout middle school and high school, none of them were ever quite as straightforward and easy as it was with Mac. Much of that is almost certainly due to the onset of adolescence and its ability to wreak havoc on all kinds of peer relationships. But I also wonder - if Mac had stayed the girl-down-the-street with me through our teenage years, would I have a better idea of how to handle female friendships now?

The following is perhaps my strongest memory of the friendship Mac and I shared. I think it resonates because I have never quite managed to duplicate that sense of no-questions-asked on-call-ness in my friendships since then.

Fall 1990, 11 years old

It's after school, and I'm alone in my house. My mother will be home later, held up by some sort of faculty meeting at the elementary school where she teaches. Until then, I'm just killing some time, and talking on the phone to Mac. (To this day, I still remember the phone number she had back then - it's burned into my brain right next to that of my sixth-grade boyfriend.) Her mom is in the background, fixing dinner. I'm using the phone in my parents' bedroom, sitting on top of their dresser, and leaning back against the oversized mirror that covers most of the wall behind me. Absorbed in the conversation, I fail to realize that the mirror, rather than being attached to the wall, is simply propped there, with its bottom edge resting on the dresser. A few fidgets later, the left side of the mirror slips off its resting place on the dresser, and crashes down hard into the space between the dresser and the wall. This, of course, forces the right side off as well, and following another crash, the whole mirror is now resting heavily on the floor.

By some small miracle, the frame and glass remain intact, but the mirror is much too large for me to move on my own. Scenes of my mother's reaction upon returning home flash ominously through my 11-year-old imagination. On the other end of the line, Mac has heard the crashes and my gasp, and I fill her in on the debacle in front of me. Before I even realize what's happening, Mac has commanded me not to touch anything and to expect her at my front door in forty-five seconds. And then she's hung up.

True to her word, Mac tells her mother simply that I need help with "something," and sprints across the two front yards that separate our own. Within five minutes, she has helped me re-hoist the mirror, deftly hidden a chip on the mirror frame behind my mother's jewelry box, given me a big hug to calm my nerves, and raced back to her house in time for dinner. I am left feeling as if the whole emergency never happened, and to this day, that is certainly what my parents think.

I have my chance to return the favor some months after, when a nervously home-alone Mac calls me to say there's a strange man knocking on her front door. Taking the backyard route, I slip into Mac's kitchen, and together we are strong enough to stand resolutely out of sight behind the door until the man goes away.

Just one down-the-street girl looking out for another.

February 24, 2003

Every girl has her bad boy crush at some point in her life. Mine was Wheels, the boy who reappeared at SmallTown High after having lived in the mysterious world of "somewhere else" since early elementary school. As absurd as my desperate crush on Wheels appears to me now, thinking about his smile still gives me butterflies. Such is the power of the bad boy.

Summer 1994, 15 years old

First piece of background: My mother's sister lives in Australia, and during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of high school, Mom and I went to visit her. It was an eye-opening trip in many ways, not the least of which was finding out just how much more "cultured" Auntie was than we. We also discovered just how much "cultured activities" can equal boredom.

Second piece of background: The aforementioned Wheels had solidified himself as my hardcore crush by the end of our freshman year, mainly by sitting behind me and flirting with me in, of all places, Latin class. (I know what you're thinking, but he really was a bad boy, I swear! He even stole a car once! Okay, it was his grandparents' car, and he brought it back, but still. I was certainly scandalized. He mooned people from a school bus window - how about that? It got him kicked off the baseball team, at least...) I was convinced that he was only a few more classes away from recognizing our joint destiny when summer inconveniently arrived. I have pictures that I took of him during Latin class on the last day of school. (Need I even tell you that I only pretended to have brought my camera for more general last-day-of-school reasons?) I also ended up in some pictures from that day, and I am wearing what, at age 15, was my most seductive outfit: a shortsleeved black bodysuit (the kind that snapped in the crotch) featuring a surprisingly low-cut neck, and dark green shorts with the legs rolled up as far as dress code and decency rules would allow. I seem to remember that I got those shorts at Cato - some people will appreciate all that that implies - and that they came with a black "leather" belt sporting a large, slightly southwestern-style buckle. I was, of course, wearing the belt that day as well. Despite such a carefully put-together ensemble, Wheels never took the hint, and I entered the summer of 1994 with my love for him unrequited, any chance of seeing him quashed both by summer and by spending three weeks of that summer on the other side of the world.

All that somewhat digressive background brings us to somewhere near Sydney, Australia, where my mother and I are attending a dinner party with Auntie, her husband, and some of their friends. The actual dinner has come and gone, and all that I remember of it is my introduction to mascarpone. The adults are solidly into a post-dinner conversation involving Australian politics, and though I didn't realize it at the time, I can almost guarantee that my mom is nearly as bored as I am. It is late enough, and dull enough, that I can get away with actually resting my forehead on the dinner table, something Mom would normally never let me do at our own house, much less at someone else's.

In the distinct memory I have of that night, my forehead is down, but my eyes are open, and I'm staring unseeingly at my shoes under the table. In my mind's eye, all I see is Wheels. I imagine him smiling at me, holding my hand, sitting next to me at a basketball game, so close that my entire leg touches his. And in my supreme conviction that he will soon see the inevitability of our pairing, I imagine telling him about this night - about how I escaped interminable boredom by daydreaming about him and his smile and his soon-to-be-proclaimed love for me. It will be a funny story for me to tell, particularly when he responds by listing the myriad times that same summer that he drifted into reverie thinking about me.

It will come as no shock to anyone who was ever fifteen (or even just in love with a fifteen-year-old boy) that these revelations never came to pass. No, the closest I ever came to such a deep conversation with Wheels was listening silently on another extension while Volt, my best friend at the time, called him and not-so-slickly tried to get him to discuss how he felt about me. Because that's just the kind of bold, liberated, confident 90s woman I was.