high school

More Than Words

His hands were the first thing I noticed about him.

He was sketching, brushing feather-light pencil lines effortlessly across the page. One of his hands commandeered the pencil while the other scratched nimbly at the nape of his neck. They were beautiful. Whatever was on the paper in front of him was beautiful, too.

I stood for a while, just observing, until it occurred to me that what I was doing was a little bit creepy. So I edged in front of him, clearing my throat. “Do you mind if I sit down?”

He looked up at me, startled that someone had the audacity to disturb him at work. But his eyes met mine and softened a little around the corners, a wordless gesture that gave me the confidence to slide into the seat across from him. I half expected him to tell me to get lost, that he was concentrating and needed to be alone, but he just went right back to his drawing like I’d never interrupted him at all.

Anna Karenina was calling me; I had almost sixty pages to read before AP Lit. Yet I was going cross-eyed reading about Levin’s domesticity, and my gaze kept shifting unwittingly toward this quiet boy and his expressive hands.

After a few minutes of staring at my book with utter futility, I surrendered to my curiosity. “What are you drawing?” I asked, quietly enough that he could ignore it if he wanted to.

He didn’t, though. He didn’t look up, but he answered me, pausing between strokes and biting his lower lip. “I’m not sure.”

“Well, it’s nice,” I said, letting the conversation fade to silence before speaking up again. “I’m Sophie.”

He cracked a knuckle. “Adam.”

When the bell rang, he finally looked at me. The corners of his mouth twitched into a smile I hadn’t expected as he extended his hand across the table. The heel of it was shiny with graphite, the pads of his fingers dented from holding the pencil, but his grip felt like a promise. “Very nice to meet you, Sophie.”

***

The next time I sat down across from him, I didn’t bother asking for permission. He was eating an apple, tongue darting out every once in a while to catch the juice that threatened to escape from his mouth.

“Hi, Sophie,” he said with a genuine grin.

“Hi,” I replied, blushing when his eyes lingered on mine for a little too long.

We didn’t talk much. He drew, I read – Anna Karenina, Great Expectations, A Clockwork Orange. His drawings were strange and smudged and haphazard, but they were all equally lovely. He made the kind of art you’d put in a museum in hopes that someone would be smart enough to understand it.

I jokingly asked him to draw me one day. He laughed and said he didn’t really know how to do people.

“You never had to do portraits or anything?” I asked, wincing as I recalled my pathetic attempt at a self-portrait back in the fifth grade.

“I didn’t say I’d never done it.” He brushed his forehead absent-mindedly. “I just don’t really know how.”

“What do you mean?”

“People are tricky,” he said. “The thing about people is, you can get them wrong. This,” he gestured toward the paper in front of  him, “nobody is going to tell me this is wrong. With people, it’s different.”

I agreed with him, kind of. The self-portrait I made in fifth grade was definitely wrong. But I didn’t believe someone like him could draw anyone less than perfectly. Maybe he was just seeing them the way nobody else could.

***

“I wish I could draw,” I confessed one day as I watched his hands at work.

He laughed. “You can. Anyone can draw. It’s one of the first things babies learn how to do.”

“Yeah, but I wish I could draw like you. You know…” I trailed off. “Well.”

I was waiting for him to say something encouraging, because he was that kind of person, but instead he reached into his sketchpad and pulled out a folded up, slightly torn square of paper. He hesitated, rubbing it between his fingers for a couple of seconds, before handing it over to me.

He stopped me before I could open it. “No,” he said simply as I tried to unfold a corner. “Not right now.” So I slipped it in my pocket and didn’t say a word.

When the bell rang, he disappeared before I had a chance to say anything else.

***

The next day, I kissed him.

I didn’t plan it; I didn’t even consider it ahead of time, I just sat across from him like I always did and opened The Picture of Dorian Gray. It took me seven agonizing minutes to realize what he was doing.

“Is that…what are you drawing?” I asked incredulously as his pencil strokes became rounded, fluid, detailed.

“I’m trying something new,” he said.

“I can see that.” I rolled my eyes. “I mean, that. That’s a person.”

“Yup,” he replied without taking his eyes off the page.

“I thought you didn’t do people.”

He shrugged. “Figured it was worth another shot.”

The person – the girl – took shape in front of my eyes. Angular chin, slightly downturned mouth. Eyes a little too far apart. Feathery eyelashes and bold eyebrows. A slight dusting of freckles on the tip of her nose.

“Me,” I breathed. “You’re drawing me.”

It was both fascinating and terrifying to watch his capable fingers trace my likeness across a piece of paper. No one would mistake it for a photograph, but he was capturing something that was decidedly me, and I knew I had been right the first time I asked him about drawing people. He saw things the way that nobody else ever could.

When he finished, he held it up for me with a sheepish grin, and I smiled back while something warm and heavy spread through my entire body.

“Did I get it sorta right this time?” he asked, nervously raking a hand through his hair.

“Sorta,” I said breathlessly in the seconds before my mouth was on his.

***

He kissed like he drew: carefully, skillfully, and a little selfishly. It didn’t take me very long to figure out that he loved that way, too.

The first time we said it, we were sitting under the tree I used to climb as a kid. I told him about the time I fell off the fourth branch and broke my arm, and he drew me a little cartoon – a tiny upside-down freckled girl, her mouth curled into a surprised “oh!”, dangling from the fourth branch of a towering tree. I laughed until my stomach hurt and kissed him until my lips tingled, relishing the feeling of his wonderful hands as they roamed across my back and shoulders and face.

“I love you, you know,” I whispered to him when we were catching our breath.

“I love everything about you,” he whispered back, running a finger along my jawbone. We laid there under the tree, our limbs tangled together, until the sunset started to spill across the sky and we remembered the rest of the world.

***

“I never looked at that note you gave me,” I told him one day while he was cooking dinner.

“What note?” he asked, scraping a diced green pepper into the saucepan on the stove.

“That folded up piece of paper. The one you handed me, and acted really cryptic about, and never mentioned again.”

He smiled knowingly. “I wondered why you never said anything about that,” he said before starting to hum his favorite ABBA song.

Neither of us mentioned it again.

***

I found him again at our five-year high school reunion. He was sitting on a barstool, his heel tapping on the leg, sketching on a napkin. He hadn’t changed at all.

“Do you mind if I sit down?” I asked, gesturing toward the seat next to him.

“Sophie,” he said, letting his eyes crinkle a little as he half-smiled. “Hi.”

“Hey,” I said back. The silence enveloped us like a blanket, warm and familiar and comforting. Being around him always felt private, even when there were a million other people in the room.

“You know,” he started after a few minutes, “I didn’t…I just, I mean -“

“I know.” I rubbed my thumb across my bottom lip. “You don’t have to say anything.” To tell the truth, I didn’t really want him to. It was easier this way, without words. Words can never really mean everything they’re supposed to.

“I’m glad you’re still drawing,” I finally said, squeezing his shoulder as I stood up to walk away. “You really are amazing.”

I could have let him talk. There were plenty of stories I could have told him, about the rambunctious high school English classes I was now teaching or the incredible man whose ring I was wearing, but it wouldn’t have mattered. Our relationship wasn’t about words and sentences and conversations. It was about feelings and instincts running wild, smudging the lines in a picture nobody could figure out anyway. We were art, and art was messy, and the artist never got a happy ending.

That night, as I unfolded the fraying piece of paper I kept on the nightstand by my bed, I was glad I hadn’t let him say anything. I ran my fingers over the fading pencil marks, the ones that knew me before I knew him, and I saw all the pieces of him he didn’t want me to see. “Art is the lie,” Picasso once said, “that enables us to realize the truth.”

His drawings had always said more than he ever could.

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Throwback Thursday: College Essay

I wasn’t expecting very much when my parents drove me to the parking lot of my dad’s company on an insignificant day in the middle of June. I thought maybe my dad had forgotten a project he had to finish, or he’d left his briefcase there or something. So when we pulled in right alongside a beat-up Buick Le Sabre with patches of rust all over the body, I wasn’t really thinking anything other than, “I wonder who let THAT happen.”

But people always surprise you, even parents who tell you that they would never in a million years buy you a car. That 15-year-old beater came home with us that day. It needed work, of course, considering its age, but my dad told me that as soon as he was done, I could have it. Not astoundingly, I was overjoyed. It was every sixteen-year-old’s dream to have a car of their very own. I certainly didn’t care what it looked like, or that it smelled a tiny bit like cigarette smoke, or that it had perfect little cylindrical holes in the seats, or even that the A/C didn’t work. It was a car, and more than that, it was my car.

I don’t know if I had ever been so dedicated to anything in my life. Instead of going out with my friends the following Saturday, I stayed at home cleaning the car. I vacuumed the interior, shook out the rugs, scoured the windows, scraped tar off the dashboard, and even tried to take off some of the rust. I had a few mishaps; while trying to scrape the rusty bottom with a broom, I accidentally punched a hole through the entire panel. But I worked, without a break, until it was too dark to continue.

My car became a part of me. Vladimir, as I called him, became not only a tool of my independence, but a fortress of solitude in which I could lock my doors to the rest of the world. I explored new places without having to leave behind the familiar, venturing far beyond where I had ever dared to go alone. In the comfort and solace of the front seat I was free to emote as I wished, screaming in celebration or sobbing in disappointment, separate from the eyes of any others. And somehow, he always seemed to understand what I was feeling, keeping his headlights pinned on the horizon, reminding me to find assurance in what lay ahead. I began to rely on him not only for transportation, but for friendship. He was loyal and dependable, honest and helpful. His presence in my driveway was like the constant presence of an old friend.

However, Vladimir was aging every day; rusting, cracking, squeaking, faltering, breaking. The strength and invincibility I used to feel within his walls started to be replaced with panic and frustration. On the day he died, I stood in the dusty parking lot for hours, attaching and reattaching jumper cables, trying uselessly with everything I had to coax him to come back to me. And at that moment, it hit me: that I had put all my faith and trust in something inanimate, fallible, and unreliable. As much as I had convinced myself of all Vladimir had taught me, in reality I had made my own adventures and judgments, as I could have done with or without him. He was only a vehicle in which I had traveled; everything else that I had made him was my own imagination and wishful thinking. He did not have magic powers, and he was not in tune with my emotions. He wasn’t even a he. I had not lost a friend. All I had lost was a broken 15-year-old beater car with patches of rust all over the body.

Two weeks later, my dad fixed Vladimir, and now he runs as well as he ever did. But I no longer rely on him for all that I used to. I have friends I can call when I need to scream in celebration or sob in disappointment, and they assure me better than just some high-beam headlights. And I still go on adventures, but I know he’s not driving me anywhere. I’m the one driving, I’m behind the wheel, and I get to take charge: I can steer him anywhere I want to go.

In Defense of the Indoor Kids, And Why We Should Change

I never was particularly outdoorsy. As a kid, I much preferred curling up on the couch with a book to the overly aggressive lifestyle of the child athlete. Certainly, I appreciated a game of H.O.R.S.E. as much as the next girl, and some of my fondest memories include several consecutive rounds of kick the can. In general, though, I was pretty content exercising my brain instead of my body. Years of basketball and soccer did nothing to cure my aversion to physical activity, and I quickly had to accept the fact that I was never going to wear a varsity jacket. Sports and I were simply not meant to be.

The lowest grade I’ve ever received on a report card was given to me in ninth grade P.E. And trust me, it wasn’t for lack of trying. I always wore appropriate gym attire and listened carefully to instructions, never complaining that it was too hot (which it often was) or that I was being mercilessly bullied (which I often was). I took my place on the team like a good little flunky, whether it was in the outfield or on defense or on the left side of the tennis court. I just, quite simply, sucked ass. At just about everything.

To be honest, it was hard for me to be so bad at sports. There weren’t a ton of things that were difficult for me, especially in school, and I wasn’t used to the uncertainty and self-doubt that went along with lack of natural ability. That’s just kind of the truth of the matter. I was uncoordinated, and too gangly, and awkward, and way too shy to actually get myself in the game. At some point my gym teacher suggested that I try individual sports, like swimming or cross-country, and it turned out I pretty much sucked at those too.

I joined theater, thanking God that I wouldn’t have to make a fool of myself on a sports team. Turns out even that requires some athletic ability. When I was in my second musical, I was disheartened to learn that my dancing skills were absolutely abysmal. I had a hard time telling my right from my left, and I was about as graceful as a tipsy elephant, and it was all the director could do not to burst out laughing at my sad attempts to travel across the stage. It was horribly embarrassing, and I would lock myself in my bedroom for hours practicing for the next time I had to subject myself to an audience.

It turned out movement was unescapable. Who knew? No matter what I decided to spend my time doing, I couldn’t avoid having to display at least a little bit of athletic ability. Even these days, when I spend 90% of my time sitting on the couch watching Netflix, I have to climb four sets of stairs to get to my math class. And it’s kind of embarrassing to walk into the room panting from exertion of walking up stairs, but when you’re me, there’s really no other option.

Sometimes people ask me what sports I played in high school, because that’s a normal question to ask, and I get scared that maybe they’re looking down on me when I tell them how miserably unathletic I am. I know that’s not where my talents lie, and that should be okay with me. It’s just…not. I wish I were one of those people who turned into an animal in the right uniform, the ones who go out and run a marathon and feel euphoric afterward. Instead, I’m petrified of the ball and I want to throw up after I run about a quarter of a mile. That’s who I am.

I like being outside. I like walking, and I like lying on the beach reading a good book, and I like the view from the top of a mountain. I was scared of the outdoors for a long time because it was the place where my inadequacies were realized, but that’s such a small part of what lies out there in the world. There are too many beautiful things there for me to spend my whole life afraid, or lonely, or stuck in a book. Even if I trip over my own feet, at least I’m living. That’s more than lots of people can say.

We Are More Than How We Look

I found a document on my computer today that hadn’t been edited since 2004. It was a letter to a friend, apparently one that I typed, printed, and mailed via USPS because that’s what people did back in ’04. To be honest, the content was really not that exciting. It was more along the lines of, “woke up, ate toast, pined over the boy who sits behind me in math class,” etc. than anything else – exactly what you’d expect from an eleven-year-old.

Except the last paragraph, in which I completely brutalize my body. I mean, it’s really bad. It makes me uncomfortable to think that someone received this letter from me because those were not words that you’d want to casually share in a friendly letter. I feel a strong need to send this person a written apology, like, yesterday, for subjecting them to the completely inappropriate musings of my prepubescent brain. But we aren’t really friends anymore, so I feel like that would come across as more creepy than anything else.

It just got me thinking, like, I always claim that my eating disorder didn’t start until I was nineteen – which I guess technically it didn’t – but there were definitely issues long before that. Before I was run over by the mack truck that is puberty, I was weird-looking. I had a massive overbite with a huge gap between my front teeth, thick Coke-bottle glasses, and an extra six inches in height, a combination that didn’t exactly endear me to my peers. Then once the hormones kicked in, I started growing out instead of up; my hips widened exponentially as my chest very stubbornly refused to budge. My limbs were still too long for me to handle gracefully, and I developed this unyielding mound of flesh on my stomach. Basically, I was never even remotely okay with how I looked.

When I was in fifth grade, I filled out a questionnaire in a stupid book I got for Christmas that asked me all about myself. Favorite color, favorite song (it was Britney Spears’ “Lucky,” by the way), celebrity crush, all the questions you’d expect from a kids’ book. But the answer that struck me the most was the one I wrote next to “favorite thing about yourself.” In my bubbly kid handwriting I had written, “I’m so ugly but at least I’m skinny.”

Whoa, what? Hold on. First of all, when someone asks you your favorite thing about yourself, you can’t lead with “I’m so ugly.” Way to blatantly not answer the question, fifth-grade Gwen. But although my disregard for the rules was shocking, rereading that answer was even more so. I couldn’t think of anything else to write down in that situation? I really thought the best thing about me was that I was skinny (and also apparently ugly)? I was in fifth grade, and my body was already the only thing about me that mattered?

And then in this letter, the letter saved on my computer, I went on and on about how no one was ever going to like me because they wouldn’t be able to look past the disgusting way I looked. My boobs were too small, I reasoned, and my hips too disproportionately large. There was nothing attractive about someone as tall and lopsided as I was. I was destined to die alone and sad, spending my last earthly days surrounded by a clowder of feral cats.

Oh, dear.

I get that being a kid, and being a teenager, and pretty much just being a human, is really difficult. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone in our society who doesn’t struggle with issues of self-esteem and body image every once in a while, especially in the scarring formative environment that is middle school. But that doesn’t excuse the fact that eight- and ten- and twelve-year-old girls, the ones who should be focusing on learning and exploring and all the wonderful things that childhood has to offer, are spending their precious time worrying about whether they’re pretty enough. And that’s heartbreaking.

When I was in fifth grade, I was kind of awesome. I was a great writer, a voracious reader, and a wonderful friend. I had teachers that inspired me and a family that loved me and an imagination that refused to take no for an answer. But when push came to shove, the only positive quality I could drum up was my weight. It’s no small wonder that when I was no longer “skinny enough,” I thought I had nothing left.

But skinny or fat, ugly or pretty, I was never down to nothing. I always had my family, and my sense of humor, and my way with words. Even in the darkest hours of my life, there was always something worth fighting for – something in me. Something that had absolutely nothing to do with what I saw when I looked in the mirror. Because that, what’s on the outside, is just the tiniest fraction of who I am.

I wish I could go back in time and tell my eleven-year-old self that there are so many more important things she could be worrying about, like reading more books or telling people how much she loves them. But since I can’t, I guess it’s just forward motion. Trying hard to remember that I’m so much more than how skinny I am, or am not, or whatever. Swearing that whenever I come across a lost little girl, I’ll do my best to make sure she knows that, too. We’re not just our bodies, no matter what anyone tries to tell us. We are fearsome, and we are beautiful.

Throwback Thursday: A Poem

“Identity” (11/12/08)

Who am I?
Who says I know?
I am a jigsaw puzzle
Made of a million different pieces—
Some are lost,
Some are dusty,
Some haven’t been placed yet
Because they haven’t found anywhere to fit.
Some people give up and say I’m too hard to figure out.
How can you go anywhere
When you can’t even put yourself together?
But I don’t have to know where all my pieces are,
They don’t have to fit.
I am incomplete,
But I look ahead.
There’s a picture on the box
Where I see myself whole.

Who am I?
Who says I have to know?
My future is calling,
And I’m calling myself
To define nothing,
To experience everything,
To pretend I’m not looking for those pieces
And let them show up on their own.
Who am I?
I am undiscovered,
I am a mystery,
I am a million little pieces
Just waiting to become something beautiful.

The End, In Three Parts

I.

She was always the first one to notice.

“You’re bleeding again!” she’d yelp as she dug through her backpack for a Band-Aid. No matter how many times I drew blood, I never learned to carry them around with me. When she was there, I never had to.

She learned to solve a Rubik’s cube somehow. I was too impatient to figure it out on my own, so she taught me too. “It’ll give you something to do with your hands,” she said. “So you won’t destroy your fingers.”

My history teacher took it away because I wasn’t paying attention. She handed me a Band-Aid, marched up to the teacher, and got it back. “You need this,” she whispered as she slid it across my desk. I spent the rest of class quietly spinning the faces of the cube under the table. I didn’t need the Band-Aid, but it was nice to have it, anyway.

I thought, “this is what it’s like to have somebody you can count on.”

II.

She slept three nights at my house during the Great Ice Storm of 2008.

The days we spent together were full of jokes and musicals and molasses cookies. Then at some point after dark, unexpectedly, she’d slip. Her face would suddenly be devoid of emotion, her voice high-pitched and soft. She’d curl herself up into a ball at the foot of the bed and just lie there, unmoving, until whatever it was had passed.

“Is there something I can do?” I asked once, helplessly, desperate to fix her somehow.

She was quiet for a moment, and I heard her breath hitch before she spoke. “No. There isn’t.”

When she was like this, she never looked at me. She responded to questions sometimes, if I was lucky. But she wouldn’t turn around. I didn’t get to see her face.

I was there, but that wasn’t enough. I turned out the lights and tried to sleep while she kept drowning two feet away.

III.

She made me a card for our high school graduation.

“Don’t forget about me, okay?” it read. “I’m nothing without you.”

I didn’t make her a card. I didn’t even say thank you. I was never good at that sort of thing, and I figured she knew how I felt already. She was my best friend. She’d always be my best friend. Isn’t that how it works?

I took her for granted. I forgot.

And she wasn’t nothing. She was something more.

I’m Ashamed To Like You, Because You’re Just Interesting

My seventh grade crush had these really big ears that stuck out of the side of his head, kind of like a cartoon mouse. People used to whisper about them, but I thought they were nice. They fit with the rest of him, all awkward and gangly and full of subtle imperfections. I liked that he didn’t look like everybody else. I thought he looked interesting, and that was better than just being pretty.

I was always kind of weird that way. My friends teased me mercilessly for my taste in men (boys) until I learned that there were only certain types of people I was allowed to like. Straying from the norm would only cause problems, and I was already socially insecure enough without alienating my friends, too.

“But he’s so short,” they complained once when I told them I had feelings for my best guy friend. Another time I got a wide-eyed, open mouthed stare and a “…him?” They could not fathom the idea that I might be attracted to someone who was, well, not “cute.” You know, in the way that middle and high school heartthrobs are supposed to be cute. And in the case of my particular suburb, also white.

The thing is, I’m a sucker for interesting. I’m amazed by how many people I come across who think that’s an insult, a blow to their looks or their intellect or whatever else. Our culture has somehow given that word a negative connotation; it’s simply a placeholder for when you can’t think of anything nice. “Oh…interesting,” you say, when really it isn’t at all. But what can we ever hope to be if not interesting? Why would anyone strive for less?

Sometimes it’s the element of surprise, like when the quiet kid who sits behind you in tenth grade English class suddenly starts rapping Li’l Mama’s “Lip Gloss” from memory. Sometimes it comes from the respect and awe you feel when you see the class clown act so kindly toward everybody, and you think, “how can anyone possibly be that patient?” And sometimes all it takes is exposure to a millisecond of somebody’s greatest passion: a musician strumming his guitar, an engineer discussing circuitry, a sports fan yelling at a TV set. You’re hooked.

Sure, there are times when you get to know them and they’re not as intriguing as you thought. Nice enough, interesting enough, but that’s about it. But there are other times when you get to know them and they’re utterly intoxicating. Everything you learn about them pulls you in deeper, and no matter how much you know, you want to know more. Maybe interesting isn’t the right word after all. Fascinating. Captivating. Complex and wonderful.

I regret that in my life I’ve left a lot of interesting people behind. I spend far too much time caring about what other people think, so much so that I completely tune out my feelings. By the time I graduated from high school, I’d missed my chance to chase the two or three people I’d really wanted. By the time I graduate from college in June, I will have missed at least three more. And for what? For the brief satisfaction of knowing nobody was going to laugh at me?

I wish I had the balls to tell my seventh grade crush how much I admired his tenacity – and his ears. Or to tell the guy I didn’t go to prom with about the time he came over to return my book and it took everything I had not to kiss him. And right now, I wish I could call up the boy I barely know and ask him a million questions, just so that he knows someone wants to listen. I want so badly to not give a damn what anybody else thinks about it.

Above all, these boys should know that they’re interesting. To all of you: there were, and are, people out there who spend a lot of time thinking about you and wishing they were brave enough to say so. Regardless of whether you meet objective standards of beauty or intelligence or humor, there is somebody who thinks you’re the most wonderful person on the planet. Even if they wait seven years to say it. Even if they never do.

And to the rest of us: screw what everyone else thinks. Love the interesting ones. Love the weird ones. Love the ones you never quite understand. Just love.

And Oh, My Dreams

dramatic dream

When I was little and had nightmares, my parents used to tell me it was because I had to pee. “Go to the bathroom,” they’d say. “The nightmares will stop.”

For the past three nights I’ve been having the strangest, scariest dreams. And no matter how many times I get up and try the whole peeing thing, they aren’t going away.

I’m probably just going insane from shutting myself up like a hermit in my apartment and doing nothing but study for my exams. That’s the most likely scenario I can think of. But in my semi-insomniac state, I always think my dreams are trying to tell me something. It’s not impossible, right? They could be. My subconscious is probably more in tune with reality than I am right now.

In high school, my chorus teacher had this really old book on dream interpretation on one of his bookshelves. One week I casually mentioned to him in passing that I’d been having a lot of dreams where I was massively pregnant, and he told me to look it up in the book. Apparently that meant I was on an archetypal journey to self-awareness. Duh. Like every other fifteen-year-old girl on the planet.

A couple of nights ago I kept waking up and falling back to sleep into the same dream world. It was very 1984-esque; everything we were doing was constantly under surveillance, and there were strict rules about things we could and couldn’t do or say. I texted one of my friends about it and she said I was probably feeling smothered. (Yes, absolutely. By finals.)

I hate being the kind of person that believes in dreams. It’s like palm-reading or gazing into a crystal ball. Except it’s not, because it’s me, and I’ve learned lessons in weirder ways. This doesn’t even make the short list.

I can’t ignore my dreams. They make sense. Lately I’ve been feeling scared and trapped and lonely, and I can see all those things in the images that dance through my head every night. Sitting alone at round tables in big rooms. Trying to jump from the dock to a boat that’s just a little too far away. Finding myself in places that look familiar, but aren’t quite right. As hard as I may fight, falling asleep doesn’t give me relief from my emotions. It strengthens them.

Sometimes I wake up in a cold sweat and I tear the sheets from my sticky skin and I shake there for a little while, staring at the ceiling, and wish that I weren’t all alone. And then I drift into dreamland once more, only to find myself completely abandoned in a place I don’t recognize with people I barely know. I don’t need a book to understand my brain. I’m always on my own. I’m scared I’ll always be on my own.

Reading Is Different Now

I love a lot of the books I read for my classes. I really do. The Sound and the Fury and The Sun Also Rises and Dracula and The Brothers Karamazov…I mean, I’m lucky that I can at least sort of understand such complicated and important literature, you know? I’m confused a lot, but I always end up taking at least something from each book. Learning history, understanding society. I like feeling intelligent when I read; I like that it’s sometimes a challenge.

But sometimes, I miss the simplicity of reading. I miss the honesty. I miss being able to relate to the characters, to look for pieces of myself in them. Those books that I read through my childhood, the ones with no “literary merit” whatsoever, those are the books closest to my heart. Sometimes, before I go to bed, even if it’s late, I take one of them off the shelf, open the crinkled, worn out spine, and start to read.

Sara Nickerson’s How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found is one of my favorite books on the planet, and it’s about a twelve-year-old. The book doesn’t criticize society or have some important philosophical message behind it; there isn’t any symbolism or really any rhetorical devices at all. It’s just a twelve-year-old girl, on a quest to discover the truth about the death of her father and her complicated family history. She doesn’t fall in love, although she does realize the enormity of possibility. The writing is simple but clever, and the story is sad but hopeful. I remember being twelve, all that horrible confusion, and reading this book is kind of a moment of clarity, a tribute to the past.

This is the kind of thing I feel like the big-time classics I’m reading now don’t offer me. I’m not transplanted there anymore, I don’t begin to feel as the characters do. Opening a book is like trying to understand a foreign language instead of meeting a new friend. It’s different now, I’m older, I should be able to handle more. But I still hold onto those midnight readings of children’s books, waiting for the day I’ll find the same truths in something else.

I’m Good At Being Afraid

There are butterflies in my stomach, but not the nice kind; they seem to be trying desperately to escape at the expense of my internal organs. I can’t keep food down, can barely swallow. My heart runs a marathon through my chest, the echo of its thick, rapid beats reverberating through my veins. The constriction of my chest muscles freezes my body in its tracks; I hyperventilate. My brain jolts, sizzles, runs haywire like a fuse that is about to explode; my vision blurs and my entire frame trembles. I have already lost control. I cannot hear you talking to me; you cannot help. The only thing you can do is sit with me until this stops, until I can focus again.

Fear. It’s a word I’ve been hearing for a long time, from the first day I went to the doctor and told them I couldn’t breathe. The doctor looked at my mother and said, “Your daughter may have an anxiety disorder.”

What does that mean to an eleven-year-old? It meant that sometimes I couldn’t sleep because I was too afraid that my heart would stop beating in the middle of the night, and that when I saw a piece of glass on the road I was terrified that I would swallow it. Irrational, unexplainable fears. It was as the doctor described: I had a keen awareness and anticipation of danger that caused me frequent panic attacks as a result of seemingly insignificant triggers. Some spells were worse than others, but I was always able to handle it on my own. As early as the fifth grade, I knew how to get through an anxiety attack in school without the teacher ever noticing. By seventh grade, although I was not able to eat more than a few bites of any meal for over three months, I seemed like an expertly adjusted individual. And at the end of sophomore year of high school, I taught myself how to do things as complicated as math problems in the midst of a full-blown panic.

I’m used to fear. Even when I go months without the irrationality and terror of the true disorder, I still get scared. I’m afraid of being in front of people and saying the wrong thing and dealing with my emotions. I’m terrified of how people perceive me and how I perceive myself. And every day, I turn down the things that I really want because I’m too frightened to face the unknown. Sometimes those facts discourage me, but mostly I just know I have some more growing to do. Maybe it’s true that I have a pretty long-term anxiety disorder, and right now I might let fear rule a lot of things. But I have already conquered so much of it on my own. I am capable of so much more.