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It is entirely my father's fault that I'm sitting here well past two in the morning, watching baseball in the dark. I don't recall precisely when he began teaching me about the game, or even when I began to love it. But I can easily pull up the memories of childhood hours spent at Shea Stadium, Keds crunching discarded peanut shells on the concrete beneath the blue metal seats, clutching a new, ridiculously expensive felt pennant while leaping up to celebrate another Daryl Strawberry home run. And I remember sitting beside my father, quietly learning about passion, loyalty, and joy.
While there are many photos of me that depict me as looking as awkward as I remember feeling during so many of my younger years, I may never have looked more self-conscious than in the snapshots that show me on the day of my First Holy Communion. In many of them, I'm standing there on the church's front lawn like a prepubescent mini-bride, eyes squinting against the sun, lips pursed to hide two missing front teeth and the fact that although I just completed this sacrament, I still felt very small and no closer to understanding religion, let alone God.
I don't remember which year it was, but the Halloween where I didn't get dressed up, the one where I stayed back on the sidewalk with my mother while my little sister ventured up the walkways to neighbors' doors, that was my favorite one. The leaves were thick and brilliant on the ground, the air was especially crisp for October, and somehow, despite the fact that I'd get no candy and wasn't wearing a silly wig or bright makeup, it's the one that stands out. It was one those moments where I started seeing adulthood as something worth reaching for.
I still remember the way that the wallpaper felt against my skin. On sticky summer nights, I would lie in bed, sheets violently pushed aside, and put my legs up against my cool bedroom wall, swishing them against the raised dots and flowers. I'd pretend to be walking, heading towards the ceiling, like in that Lionel Ritchie video. Sleeping on those nights was next to impossible, even with the air conditioning on. It seemed wrong to be going to bed when the daylight was barely gone and there were still hours left to watch fireflies dance excitedly through the yard.
The books that I especially loved as a child were filled with delicious sadness, and characters consumed by it. There was Heidi's sickly friend Clara, bound to her wheelchair and to a life indoors, living vicariously through the little orphan's adventures. I loved the spider Charlotte, doomed to her short life of barnyard inspiration. I re-read sections of books wherein characters met their early deaths – there was burned, heroic Outsider Johnny Cade, hell, even drug casualty Sweet Valley High princess Regina. It was drama and trauma at a safe distance, in a time where, luckily, I still knew neither.
Fantasy helped me survive my adolescence. I know that now. I spent countless hours writing what today would be dismissed as pathetically Mary Sue-laden real life fan fiction. I should probably be embarassed about this, as I sometimes was then, but instead, I now see those lovingly crafted stories scrawled in red pen on hundreds of sheets from dozens of yellow legal pads as telling and poignant indicators of the distance between who we were and who we dreamed of being. So much can be understood from the slipping down of a spaghetti strap off from an idealized teenaged shoulder.
On the day that I turned sixteen, every teenage paradox showed up for the party. Mouthing the words to The Beatles' "Birthday" at another girl's celebration, "it's my birthday, too, yeah," pretending that I didn't care that I was being overshadowed, yet dreading the unwanted surprise party that I knew was planned for me a week later. There were angry tears and then relieved hugs with my drama-prone best friend in the bathroom, cake, a sleepover, Kurt Cobain resplendent in a yellow prom dress on Headbanger's Ball, and the sense that the whole world was suddenly changed and yet unmoved.
I always loved it when it was our turn to host my father's semi-regular poker games. The basement would be transformed by the simple unfolding of a green-topped poker table and the laying out of cold cut platters and cake. The men would arrive, one by one, cordial to my mother and playful with my sister and me, and then they descended the stairs, where they'd be well into the early hours. I'd fall asleep with their voices beneath me, audible but never close enough for me to make out words, the mystery of the world of adult men maintained.
Perfect moments: new but already ageless friends, simultaneously turning smiling faces towards the waiter holding the camera in a posh English hotel lounge, champagne flutes in their raised hands. Suddenly understanding, from a place beyond intellect and even above the (fleeting -- yes!) sadness of mourners in the pews around you, that the person at your side has become your family, your home. The feeling of wind fluttering your eyelashes while walking slowly home in the rain, willfully ignoring those staring at you, in your soaked skirt and quickly unravelling espadrilles, from under the false, spiritless shelter of black umbrellas.
Calm moments: "Here Comes the Sun" playing in the planetarium while you lie back and watch the nightscape change from cloudy back to clear. Lying half asleep in a dormitory bed, one leg out from underneath the quilt that you were allowed to pick out yourself, your roommate snoring softly above. Watching tiny snowflakes drift into the beams of streetlights. Being lulled by the rocking of a silver subway car. Entering a quiet room after a rock concert, hearing fuzzy, throat raw from singing along. Seeing Big Ben rise into your line of sight upon emerging from the tube station.
When I was small, I used to go into Manhattan with my father on Christmas Eve, to spend the day in his high rise office. I'd kneel in a chair, in my dress and cable knit tights, and write stories on memorandum paper, dutifully placing them in the out box when I was done. In between tales, I'd stop to marvel at the glittering Christmas tree across the plaza in Rockefeller Center. I remember thinking that if this was what work was like, then I couldn't wait to have a job of my own, in an office just like this.
I don't remember anything specific that we talked about, beyond our mutual love of Perfect Strangers. I do remember the feeling of the rough upholstery of the dormitory issue couch on my calves, as I crossed and uncrossed them over the course of the night. I remember the crackle of connection, the sense that this friendship was deepening and morphing into something that I didn't quite understand. But the knowing look on my sleepy roommate's face as I tiptoed back into our room after sunrise forced the eureka! moment – this was love, and I was the last to know.
It was clear that it was going to take a long time to become more than just the next girl, the one after the girl that they had loved, had assumed would be a permanent part of their family. The engagement portrait was still framed on their mantle, her hopeful eyes bright beneath that mass of blonde hair, when I was brought to meet them, ironically, at a family wedding. Theirs was supposed to be next; perhaps there were hopes that it still could be. Bold, yet shaking, I closed my eyes and began working my way into the frame.
It wasn't the first apartment that we'd lived in together, but it was the first one that we'd chosen together, in a city where we knew no one else but each other. We settled a short bus ride away from campus, on a street that somewhat uncomfortably straddled opulence and poverty. The landlord was slightly creepy. The upstairs neighbor would pound on our ceiling should our voices go above a whisper. But it was always warm, and often filled with friends. And underneath the stress of graduate student life, there was always the sense that something strong was being built.
Surprisingly, I had managed to fall asleep, on the den floor. The night before, I had been kept awake by terror, and by the rattling of window panes as the wind picked up, my first hurricane. I imagined the worst -- tornadoes spawned, errant lawn furniture tossed through the kitchen windows, power lines downed and stepped upon. Not quite yet awake from my nap, I bolted to sitting, hands anxiously grabbing the rug, absolutely convinced that the tree falling towards me in my dream could crash through the barrier between my unconscious and the real world and crush us all.
She looked up at me, eyes simultaneously glazed and panicked. She explained, muttering, that something had happened to her earlier that day, something that she didn't understand. She'd tried to just run away from it, from the feeling, but it had chased her all the way back here. She just sat there on her perfectly made bed, picking at her penny loafers, the struggle all over her face – wanting to me to help her find what was broken, but also wanting to forget it. She turned away, and I knew immediately that it was in more ways than one.
After I'd devoured the new issue of Metal Edge, I'd turn to its center, remove the staples, and tear out the best of the new posters. It was often difficult to decide which side should go up – how to choose between Mark Slaughter and Gary Cherone? I'd have to clear some space on my walls, which were quickly becoming as covered in color as Tommy Lee's arms. Next I'd put a piece of Scotch tape on each of the four corners and tap the photo into place, stepping back to check for straightness and to admire the new scene.
Peering in through the open door, I could see that it was someone's birthday. Balloons had been tied to the chairs around the dining room table, which the group of roommates stood around, about to cut into a cake topped with the numbers two and zero; someone was leaving their teens behind them. Offered a slice by the birthday boy, I smiled, passed on good wishes, but refused my neighbor, whom I barely knew, continuing on my way, cheered by the glimpse of celebration. Ten years later, we're the opposite of strangers, and every year, I bake the birthday cake.
There is a recording of the approximately six year old me being asked a question that adults seem to be all too eager to hear the answer to: "What do you want to be when you grow up?". I'm silent for a moment, and then I confidently state my wish to become a mountain climber. Years later, my answer would become "a writer," but it always felt nearly as improbable as that first desire seems now, the literary heights that I held myself to just as frightening as actual peaks. Still, I carried a notebook with me for years, hopeful.
Her giggle rose above the squeak of the shocks as the bus pulled away from school. "Wait until you hear this," she hissed, with a glint in her eye, unfolding a piece of notebook paper -- the latest missive from a mutual, histrionically-inclined friend with whom we had recently fallen out of favor in the way that teenaged girls, their alliances always shifting, are wont to do. Upon reading the letter, it was clear that yes, our friend was being silly. But I suddenly wondered, frowning slightly, if we weren't being just as foolish in finding glee in her pain.
I didn't know to savor those easy but thrilling moments, like sitting on her back porch, pretending to study for finals while playing with new kittens, feeding them onion dip from our fingertips. Sitting on the curb, goofily waving at passing cars, cherishing the bewildered looks we'd get in return. Surreptitiously watching videos ("the devil's music" – really!) in her living room before her born-again mother came home from work. Cultivating crushes on her older brother's friends, flirting clumsily. Drinking cranberry apple tea around the kitchen table, gripping and then letting go of the too-hot mugs, gripping and letting go.
Together, we took up nearly the entire front row, some of us having waited all day outside in the rain for these tickets. We settled in, pulling on cardigans and whiskey lemonades to warm us before the curtain rose. Most of us knew all of the words by now, knew just when the "key" would drop near our seats, a keepsake for the quickest of hands. In the second act, the words took on a double meaning for us: a tenuous bond, the death of a family, leaving for another place. Hands extended across laps, shaking the row with sobs.
I had been tugging on this new dress all morning, feeling self-conscious about the way the burgundy knit clung to my hips and belly. I was still unaccustomed to wearing anything this feminine, this revealing of a curviness that I had never felt comfortable with. I had wanted an air of professionalism to surround me at the convention, where I knew I would encounter both like-minded colleagues and amazing women that I had only read about. But upon walking into the hotel and feeling the unmistakable energy of acceptance, my unease changed quickly into a sense of intoxicating natural power.
I was a Brownie when I was six. The one weekly session that I can remember clearly involved working toward the first aid badge -- learning, for instance, how to fashion a sling out of a roll of gauze. I had volunteered to be the pretend patient, and my arm was wrapped as if broken. Loving the dramatics of this, I kept the bandages on, intending to amusingly fool my mother into thinking that I'd had some traumatic playground accident. But as soon as I saw the panic in her eyes, I knew that I was a very foolish child.
I'd expected to feel emotional when I got up the nerve to tell him that I was finally quitting, but I'd anticipated that I'd mostly be fighting my righteous indignation at being the one to show a company that saw me as expendable that it was I that no longer needed it. But as my sweet, sad boss, who scrubbed floors on his day off so that he could transcend mere subsistence, looked up at me to listen, I felt tears fill my eyes as I fully understood how grateful I was to be able to leave this life behind.
The party was finally flourishing. But my friend, the hostess, was nowhere to be found. Glancing around, I noticed that our boss, an older man underneath whose gaze I'd always felt vulnerable, like prey, was missing, too. Moving towards her bedroom, I could hear their commingling laughter from behind the closed door. I sank into worry, thinking about my friend, a girl who loved nothing more than attention and was increasingly enraptured by the thought of it coming from a desirous man. Later, as she tried unsuccessfully to hide her flushed cheeks, I tried unsuccessfully to be happy for her.
Halfway through the sentence – "Boy, I hope I never get on your bad side" – I realized that I knew for sure that as I spoke the words, they started their journey towards becoming prophetic, ironic. She'd just cast off another friend without explanation; I understand now that this was just another symptom of her disorder, her pain. But weeks later, when I found myself hastily packing my things into black garbage bags, fleeing this once-ideal home and this friendship, I found myself questioning every time I'd felt alive and loved in her presence, and, even worse, in anyone's.
"I love your sweater," he said, as we walked the hall together, clutching textbooks. I was keenly aware of the distance between us, shorter than I was used to, but there were sparks here. I thanked him, this big bear of a man-boy, surprised that he'd noticed such a small thing. "It would look better crumpled up on the floor next to my bed." I stopped, shocked, blushing and kind of...turned on, but then frozen. Was this fluttering in my chest joy at finally being seen, or trepidation over the now very real possibility of lust actually being acted upon?
Encounters with famous people: Alice Cooper (in leather pants, not in drippy black eye makeup) shopping for antiques with his wife amongst the yuppies in Sausalito. John Hannah waiting for the Tube, at first trying to not be recognized, but then looking miffed that he hadn't been. The local weather man smiling, all teeth, through a smoked glass diner booth partition. Kathy Najimy on the other side of the cash register while I silently wrapped her clearance rack nightgown in tissue because I'd overslept and not had time for a shower, wanting very much not to be smelly stalker clerk.
The first kiss was stolen, nearly a week after Valentine's Day. They'd fought again, she still refusing to believe that there would be no reconciliation, that I was no cold-footed diversion. Looking up from my books, I saw him in the doorway, flushed, wanting to know if I'd take a walk, blow off some steam. We stopped on stone steps at mid-campus, with a view of passing traffic. Though my eyes were following red taillights, I listened intently, empathetically. But with my senses forked, I'd missed that his lips were so close until suddenly, there they were against mine, insistent.
When the guidance counselor suggested state universities from behind his college magnet-covered metal desk, I held my hand up to stop him in mid-sentence; I understood even at seventeen that there were limited opportunities to heed my desires without any considerations, and I'd already decided that I needed to learn a new zip code. He paused, clearing his throat, and thumbed through less worn folders. It was the first time that I'd felt powerful in that dark office. Some happy months later and several miles away, I thought of that counselor, and the way he yielded to my clear resolve.
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