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From the moment I was laid under the fluorescent lights in the hospital room, all proclaimed I was a girl. From the moment I was swathed in a pink blanket and cap, the expectations of girlhood were placed upon me, many years before my brain could compute girlhood and femininity.

I am 27 years old now and my femininity and womanhood have existed as a dynamic, oppressive cloud over my head, changing forms and redefining itself as societal forces shoved my self-concepts around, exerting their power upon me.

This month is also Women’s History Month. As it stands, I have two decades and seven years of history as a woman to share.

The experience is different for every single person who becomes a woman, their own ideas of what it means shifted and molded by the powers that be. I am interested to hear about everyone’s experience, whether they were born with female genitals or a female spirit, or some dynamic other identity that incorporates femininity.

Now, I share my own experience and all the memories and associations that define it.

After being told I was a little girl for over a decade, adolescence brought me the new, jarring idea that I didn’t look feminine. A particular memory rises to the surface: a summer day, standing on a pond’s dock in my friend’s backyard. I was twelve years old, and my friend Casey lounged on a rubber raft on the pond’s murky green water. Her older brother Zane and her brother’s friend sat on the edge of the dock and we exchanged snark, arguing about something that didn’t matter at all.

Zane’s friend ended the argument by zeroing in on my appearance with the examining precision of a doctor in a patient’s room. He pointed to the thick black hair on my legs, pond water forming trails between each strand. He pointed to my square face and my black eyebrows. He patted my broad shoulders.

“You don’t look like a girl. You look like a gorilla!”

I looked down at the brown drops of water trailing down my legs. Shame shot me through the heart; the observation seemed so accurate. My friend, lounging on the raft, wore a bikini and already had a curving shape that I wouldn’t even achieve until I was twenty. Her hair was bright blonde, her face a lovely oval that formed a delicate point with her soft chin. Her lashes were longer, her small shoulders sloped. The blonde fuzz on her legs was invisible.

But me, but me… it was true, I was square: my shoulders square, my frame square, my chin square. Nothing tapered. My hair was thick. I could easily pass for a boy, if I wanted.

His argument silenced me. The boys laughed triumphantly.

Just as easily as a boy could tear me down, unsex me, he could just as easily force my own sexuality upon me and make me feel vulnerable, exposed. This gesture was never anything I could reciprocate. I could fight back with words, but sexuality was always this dangerous last resort. Something I was never prepared for, thus leaving me defenseless and confused. No one had ever given me any guidance regarding what I experienced, and all I had at my disposal was “boys will be boys.”

This began at the same time the criticism of my appearance and femininity began, at twelve years old. The boys that liked me would approach me in the pool and wrap their half-naked bodies against me, forcing my friends to pry them off while I ran. They would trap me in the back of the bus and refuse to let me out until they touched my breasts, still small and developing. I would look to the other boys for help, begging them to help me get away, and they stammered to their friend, “Hey, man…. that’s… that’s not okay.” So timid it had no effect. The same boys I would turn to for help would also make jokes about chopping off my breasts and masturbating to my body. They were my friends.

We were adolescents. They approached this with the same air as a game. There was laughing—I laughed. But I was also the brunt of the joke. Me, and my body, which was in the same stroke prematurely being described as inadequate and masculine. My confusion was thick, the fragments of my identity developing and coalescing poorly, with no answers or direction. I was ashamed.

My body gave me many things I was taught to be ashamed about. When my mother spoke to me about periods, her words were quiet and she warned me against allowing men to see my disposed feminine hygiene products. She told me I had to dispose of it all in a separate garbage can, in another room, away from the eyes of the men in my family. Whatever other instructions she gave me, the message was clear: this is gross, shameful.

I internalized the message. I have a horrific memory of being eleven, walking through the mall with my friend Casey and her mother. While browsing through the stores, I felt my period arrive unexpectedly. We took a bathroom break and I saw that everything was far worse than usual, blood everywhere, dripping down my legs and soaking my pants. Every last fiber of my being was wracked with shame and mortification as I spooled out the toilet paper to make a make-shift pad, standing up and pulling my winter coat down below my bottom. I could have told my friend that I was in a dire situation, but she hadn’t begun her period yet. I should have told her mother, who was ushering us along and running errands, but my shame prevented me.

Instead, I endured and kept completely quiet. Her mother decided to go to the food court, decided to stop at the library. We picked up her brothers. Meanwhile, I stood stiff as a board, legs pressed tightly together, my stomach twisted inside out with sharp, corrosive shame. I spent hours soaked in blood because I was terrified to say anything. Looking back at the awful experience, I see now how easily I could have spoken to her mother after our bathroom break.

But shame is powerful. No one had ever told me what to do, or that this was normal.

Confusion continued to shape my experiences as I moved through my teenage years. My femininity was like an object I couldn’t quite stick a pin in. My male friends pushed it one way, then another; my girl friends pulled it vigorously in another direction; my parents told me I was too abrasive and opinionated for a girl; media and society pressed down from above.

When I was fourteen, I was sitting on the couch with a friend when I noticed her breasts for the first time. They were much more shapely than mine—they turned me on. I realized in a quick, horrifying moment that I was attracted to her body. I attempted to shove this realization out the window, but the seed was planted and these thoughts dogged me for the rest of my adolescence as I ran as fast away from them as I could.

I never escaped it.

When I was twenty, I hesitantly, timidly, tip-toeing, began to think of myself as bisexual. I began to do what I had always wanted to do and kissed girls. Even still, I could never say it confidently until well into my twenties. Again, shame and paranoia shadowed me.

At the age of sixteen, I cut off all my hair. I wanted to look like a boy. It was a subversive act—everyone was always asking me why I don’t date boys, I was confused, and I wanted my difference from the other girls to show. But my confidence only lasted as long as it took until all the hairs were cut from my head. After that, I was again vulnerable and subject to criticism. The other girls in my class asked me over and over again why I didn’t style my hair. It wasn’t enough to say I didn’t want to, and I was too ashamed to tell them I didn’t know anything about styling my hair. My mother had always been aloof about appearances and taught me nothing feminine except to hide my biological functions. I had no guidance, no base knowledge. I had no role models that were women. The other girls implied that this was wrong.

When I did finally strike confidence, I had an explosive oil well of it. I grew my hair out and experimented with my femininity. My shape began to morph, my body blooming later than most others’, while I was in college. My associations were so strong that I wasn’t able to experience confidence until I felt I looked like a woman. I began to take leadership positions and faced the onslaught of criticism with much more energy than I used to have, my shame at that point tucked away in the core of my being.

My mother was mortified by my outspokenness and structured the narrative that I was a bad, selfish person. I made enemies, and they called me aggressive, abrasive, and crazy (in a spectacular long adventure in gas-lighting that succeeded in convincing me and put me in the hospital). I felt as if I had moved from being acceptable and a vulnerable victim, to unacceptable and willing to defend myself.

With all of these trials came experience, and as the years wore on, my experience helped me sift through my identity and gather a coherent picture of myself, as a woman, that wasn’t like any of the images pushed on me, but something unique to myself. It took a long time, but I slowly gained the ability to make affirmative statements: I am bisexual, I am a woman, I am intelligent, I am feminine, I am masculine too, I am a leader.

And I am a role model.

I understand that a lot of my sense of femininity has come from my body—but that’s just my personal experience. Not every woman gets a period or has female sex organs. For me, these were identity-shaping factors, but I recognize everyone has their own experience.

I want everyone who is femme to discover their own womanhood and femininity on their own terms. It shouldn’t be forced upon them, it shouldn’t be explained to them. Every idea that was imposed on me just suppressed and confused me. It’s for each and every one of us to discover for ourselves.

My hope is that it won’t take as long for others as it took for me.

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People large with winter coats bustled in the foyer, blocking it up with conversation and children. I toddled through the glass doors with my family, a small child in a perpetual state of scared silence, bumping back and forth and losing my balance. The church was compact with human life. Heat radiated from each of us and made us sweat under the slick fabric of our coats. We, the holy mass of people seeking mass, squeezed through the double doors on either side of the foyer into the warm holy belly.

The high vaulted ceiling of the nave, ribbed with wooden beams, ballooned upward and outward, catching all of the sounds and spinning them around in an echoing hum, like someone had struck a tuning fork. The vibrations seeped from the building, reaching every Catholic in the town. We were all here on Christmas Eve. We spilled into the chamber, summoned, by faith, by insistent family, by tradition, by the helpless acquiescence of youth.

The immense space above the pews daunted me as I slipped inside. All the emptiness between our heads and the ceiling’s spine. We looked like we were shuffling onto an immense boat, we were animals coaxed onto an ark, baby animals wailing and pulling at their mothers’ hands. Where were we going? Why were we really here? Our boots pushed in the snow from outside, it moved across the foyer with us, melting as it went and leaving brown slush and puddles that loudly slapped and sloshed and sucked under our boots.

My family plopped to the right, I dipped my hand into the holy water cistern as we went and stuck a wet finger to my forehead, leaving a fat tremulous drop there. Once we reached the pew, there was a lot of sliding, endless scooching along the smooth wooden benches, and we nestled like birds on a tree branch. We preened and wiggled our butts around on the seat, formed a nest with our coats and hats and scarves and gloves. Suddenly, everyone I had pinballed off of in the foyer was now close to me again, their heads hovering in rows above the pews, an endless sea of bobbing heads in all directions, their sweaty hair plastered to their scalp from their disrobed winterwear.

My eyes spun, assessing all the strange smells and sounds from people pressed up against me, the scabby backs of their heads hovering so close to my nose, their white moonfaces pointed at me from behind. We all squeezed in even closer together to fit more people; the pews were filled to the brim, people were standing in the back, standing on the choir loft, there were faces peeping out of a soundproofed window in the back where people patted their screaming babies. I could smell deodorant and sweat and Listerine and perfume, all mixed into the hot soupy air, occasionally stirred by a frigid breeze sneaking through the doors.

This once a year experience — a packed church — was overwhelming and exciting for a child. My confusion regarding religion would eventually swirl around and coalesce into a profound atheistic indifference, but in that moment I peered over the sea of heads to see Jesus Christ hanging in the apse over the altar, his head and legs twisted, the tendons carved taut, with textured muscles and folds of skin. Then the choir began and the spiraling, humming cacophony boomed down from the belly of the boat, bouncing off every beam and stained glass pane and surrounding me as if I had plunged into a deep pool, the unintelligible human sounds and echoes clashing and crashing in waves through my head. I sank down into the pews, toward the slushy ground and onto the padded hassock. The statues in the sanctuary disappeared from my sight and the sounds flew over my head. I entered the world of mud and boots and wood patterns and footrests and fallen gloves.

When the sound ceased, the booming noise cut off in order for the priest to speak and be heard, the dramatic shift filled my chest with awe. I listened to the reverberating words from my spot hidden down on the hassock, surrounded by puffy coats and the warmth radiating from my relative’s fat thighs, the Lord’s message flying over my head and resounding off the massive stained glass window above the choir, off the image of a blue-gray dove rising into the sky amidst flames and spirit. “The Lord — his disciples — God’s will — Creation — His mercy.” I played with my hair and stared up at the vault of the nave’s roof.

I didn’t emerge from this den underneath my family’s kneecaps until the priest called the children up, which he did every Christmas Eve, summoned them past the crossing and onto the elevated sanctuary around the altar. I crawled back onto the pew and over the laps of loved ones until I stumbled into the aisle, desperate to go to some place that I was never allowed to go at any other time of year, some mysterious location with a new perspective — at the helm of this big boat. Stumbling with the other small children, I stepped up onto the chancel and slid between the giant poinsettias gathered there, boots scraping against the carpet as I squirmed to and fro and knocked heels with other children. The world had gone from the darkness of the pew crowds to the blindingly bright stage where all sound now originated, so close to the slamming, monstrous notes of the organ and the priest’s voice, which occupied every corner of the apse and escaped to reach the very top of the nave, the timorous organ and sermon and holy hum and the high-pitched warble of the old women in the choir all blending and separating and re-mingling, seeping into my little ear canals and stunning my brain.

The priest looked at all us little children, our legs bent every which way and our noses up, mouths hanging open, and told us a Good Samaritan story that checked with everything we had been told about being nice for Santa. Occasionally a small child would start screaming and sobbing, nostrils dribbling, and a parent would come grab them and carry them back to the sea of bodies below. They couldn’t take it, all the light and the sounds and the statues staring down and the life lesson. I could though, I could.

When it was over, I proudly slipped back to my spot in land of mud and boots and uncomfortable hassocks. I sunk down past my mother’s knee and crouched on the floor. The congregation was nearly at an end, I knew from memory — there would be the Peace be With Yous, elderly strangers would clasp my hand and squeeze it while they stared down into my eyes and wished, implored, for peace to come into my life. I spun in a circle and everyone, strangers with poor circulation, little boys with clammy red palms, held onto my hand. “Peacebewithyou/Andalsowithyou.”

Afterwards, when the priest spoke we echoed back with memorized lines, sending our collective voices to the top of the nave so they could come rushing back to us tenfold and rattle our saturated brains.

“Lift your hearts.”

“We lift them up to the Lord.”

“Let us give thanks to the Lord, our God.”

“It is right to give Him thanks and praise.”

I suspected that perhaps peace was with me by this point, and everyone rose and we moved like a storm back to the foyer, where the slush had dried and the ushers had opened the doors wide open so the cold air could smack us in the face and knock the peace out of us before we all descended to the next level of family tradition, which was perhaps quieter, definitely less bright, in the kitchens of our relatives, to stuff ourselves disgusting with the Wigilia meal and tasteless papery bread that cleansed our palate of vivacious spirit, menacing holy sounds, and lessons echoed through an ark full of animals.

On our first date, we sat at a counter in a local restaurant, facing the windows that stretched from the floor to the ceiling. They displayed the television show that was main street. There was a smattering of hard clumps of snow on the ground and yellow Christmas lights wrapped around the trees by the roadside. I was too nervous to eat and I watched the endless stream of people passing by while he unfolded his taco and regaled me with stories that were doing an excellent job at convincing me that he was interesting and adventurous.

“On our way to San Diego, we got into a pretty bad car accident. It was on the highway. We were just riding along – I was asleep, he was driving – and then out of nowhere,” He slapped his hands together. “We were flying! Someone coming from an on-ramp merged into our lane from the left without seeing us, struck us from the side, and my car went flipping across several lanes of traffic. I was still trying to figure out what had happened when he yelled for me to get out of the car, and we did. My car was completely totaled!”

“Were you hurt?”

He pulled out his phone and flipped through his photos. He still had the pictures they took at the hospital afterward. “Here I am,” he said, showing me an image of himself where he looked younger, with longer hair, yellow bruises on his face. Other than that, no real injuries.

I tried to imagine being in a car as it flipped across the road. I couldn’t. I had been in several minor car accidents at this point in my life, but they were nothing more than fender benders. Anxiety bloomed in my chest just thinking about it.

My first experience with a car accident occurred when I was twelve years old. My friend’s mother was driving and my friend Casey and I were in the backseat, her little brother sitting in between us, his face a dense map of freckles and his nose running. We were driving to an amusement park on an island, vibrating with excitement. We bickered with her little brother, who whined about our presence as her mother swore and sighed loudly at the wheel.

“Stop touching me,” I snapped at the little boy. I had known him since he was two years old and felt as if he were my own little brother. “Why are you such a brat?”

“You smell! It’s not my fault, you smell!”

Suddenly all of our heads snapped forward. I hit the seat in front of me and let out a loud exhalation of air. Casey grabbed her brother and her mother screamed, “Fuck!” She then leaned the front of her body into the backseat and began patting around at us, asking us if we were alright. We were fine, just confused. I looked around, only seeing a gas station through the small windows in the back.

A young woman in a Chevrolet in front of us had slammed on her breaks in front of the gas station. The back bumper of her car was smooshed inward. Our car, on the other hand, was completely fine, for all I could tell. Casey’s mother ordered us to stay in the backseat and left the car door open while she went to talk to the young woman. We waited in the backseat for what felt like a long time, watching all the cars on the road passing slowly and staring over at us.

“Stop staring! Who do they think they are?” Casey huffed.

“Yeah, what do they think is happening here? Look away, losers! Bye!” I said.

We made faces at everyone spectating.

Eventually a young police officer showed up, and he stuck his head into the backseat. He looked incredibly large looming over us. He asked each one of us a series of questions that seemed unimportant and unrelated to what had happened, interviewing Casey’s little brother last. He asked him for his home address multiple times, but the little boy just stared at him blankly, the quietest I had seen him that day.

“He’s five,” Casey told him testily, laughing. “He doesn’t know his address.”

The police officer stared at her, then disappeared without saying a word.

After more than an hour, we were finally free to finish our journey to the amusement park, since there was nothing wrong with our vehicle. We drove away, leaving the miserable-looking young woman behind. The day proceeded from that point as it was meant to and we grew sunburnt and content underneath the crisscrossed shadow of wooden rollercoasters.

I didn’t experience another car accident until I was nineteen years old. At this time, I was working at home for the summer and staying with my parents to shorten the commute. One night, my boyfriend at the time managed to finagle away his grandfather’s car and came to pick me up so we could spend the night drinking in a nearby suburb with his scruffy neckbeard friends. His grandfather was a solid blob of a human being, melting into his recliner, never speaking a word, making this a rare opportunity.

My boyfriend decided to take me home around 2AM and we began our drive through the inky darkness of the countryside. My parents lived deep in the woods, where the streetlights were rare and glowed eerily under a blanket of insects. We could see little of the road in front of us, the asphalt continuously spawning with a ghost-like haze, the sailing vehicle surrounded by darkness on both sides. I had my window open as I leaned against the door and let the cool wind whip at my face.

Then a figure loped into the road, a brown comet soaring out of the blackness. It passed quickly in front of the car and nearly cleared its passage when —

CRACK. The sound exploded as if a bullwhip had come crashing down next to my ear. The doe’s head struck the right side mirror and rolled wildly on its neck. My face was just a foot away. I watched her glowing eyes spin as she ran, leaping back into the endless black.

I screamed, I screamed. My boyfriend pulled the car onto the gravel shoulder and began shouting, “Fuck! Fucking deer!” He turned to face the abyss beyond the ditch. “I hope you’re dead! I hope you’re fucking dead!”

He ran along the side of the ditch looking for the animal, but she was gone. He said that maybe she had only been slightly injured since she had been able to run off. I remembered the hideously loud crack. “I doubt that.”

The right side mirror was dangling from a single vein. My boyfriend was yelling and swearing as he tried to snap it back into place, mortified that he had damaged his grandfather’s car. We fiddled with the mirror for a while, then gave up and drove to my parents’ house as I held the mirror on the ledge of the door.

I didn’t want my parents to discover we had hit a deer, so I crept into my house and searched the supply room for gorilla glue — or something. My little brother, still in high school at this time, appeared in the kitchen doorway, his eyes squinty from sleep. “What are you doing?”

“Do we have some sort of — strong glue?” I whispered, then told him about the deer.

“No.” He laughed, shaking his head, his long hair sweeping in front of his face.

I found some duct tape and held it up victoriously.

He shook his head even more vigorously. “You’re an idiot.”

I glared at him, then glanced out the front door at my boyfriend sitting in the car. Maybe I was an idiot.

It would take me another two years to affirm that I was indeed an idiot.

Meanwhile, my next car accident would happen the following summer. At this point I had saved up enough money to buy my own car, a blue ’99 Chevrolet Cavalier that I called Bathsheba. One day I drove several towns over to pick up the same dopey deer-killing boyfriend and took some backroads as I brought him back to my parents’, where I was staying while I had my car inspected by someone we knew.

Despite having chosen the backroads as a short cut, I was feeling incredibly impatient and couldn’t fly through the woods fast enough. The roads were long and straight, with small rounded hills that sent my car flying into the air as I struck them going 90mph. I felt exhilarated and my blood roared in my ears. My GPS had given me an estimated arrival time and I had managed to shave five minutes off of it. I was incredibly impressed with myself.

“We’re almost there!” I shouted, my car lifting off the road and seamlessly rolling back down. I realized my turn was coming up soon, quicker than I had expected, and I spun my wheel to catch it.

As I rounded the corner I tapped my brakes to slow down but felt the back of my car continue to drift. Alarmed by the way this felt, I slammed down harder on the brakes. Bad idea. The vehicle was far beyond my control at this point. My boyfriend grabbed the handle on the ceiling as we spun across the intersection, the car turning sharply to the right and veering straight into a deep ditch.

I hyperventilated for a moment in the front seat, still fairly new to this sort of thing. Finally, I stepped out of my car, walked through the weeds in the ditch and looked down at my poor automobile sticking up at an acute angle. It looked like someone had chucked my car down there from the sky and made a bulls’ eye.

I called my mother, who was just down the street. “M-m-mom?” As I held the phone up to my ear I saw some damp spots on the road from water. It had rained earlier. “I — hydroplaned.” Yes, I’d been taught about this once. The lie was effortless and removed some of the guilt from driving recklessly. “I hydroplaned on the wet road and my car is stuck in the ditch.”

She groaned, her instinct most likely tuning her into my lie. Naturally as well, I grew annoyed that she didn’t believe me.

A tow truck showed up eventually and struggled to yank my car out of where it was stuck in the ditch. The first heavy duty, beastly-looking chain snapped. The second chain did the trick. My car was fine, despite the mud and weeds crammed up into the grill.

I received a reprieve then in my life from smashing my car into things, such as other cars, ditches and deer. I was doing fairly well, actually, until I was around twenty-four and working at a charter school downtown as an English teacher. On my way to work one day I found myself smacking into the back of someone’s car in a rather uneventful fender bender, startling an old hippie who was just as desperate to get to work on time as I was. He waved it off and slid back into his car, which was crammed full of boxes of paperwork.

I continued my jaunt to work and arrived late. The gym teacher found out that I had been in a car accident that morning as I stood around the faculty room, sipping at a coffee, and she grabbed my hands and stared down into my eyes.

“Go home, sweetie. Go home.”

This made me incredibly nervous. “N-no, I’m fine. Everything’s fine! I need the money anyway.” I had a contract with no paid sick days.

She continued to stare at me unblinkingly. “Go home. I’ll pay you. I’ll pay you right now to go home.”

I pulled away from her and told her I couldn’t accept that. This woman had a skeletal look about her and routinely took off work to go in to donate her platelets. They looked like they had sucked the meat off her bones in the process. She quit later that year.

Stress from work forever rendering me a shaky and manic creature, I had fender benders in my stars. I had only recently learned to not fly over the road like a madwoman and that was after being forced to take a class for “At-Risk Drivers” that was supposed to reform me. A year later, I bought a newer car — not new, newer — also blue — and named her Esmeralda.

I had Esmeralda for only around three months when one day I was driving home from work, wracked with stress over a new after-class program my charter school had me in charge of with a few other teachers. The program was called Study Hall (not a traditional study hall) and was after last period. Since the middle schoolers weren’t allowed to walk home or catch a city bus, every single one had to file up to the cafeteria after their class period and be subjected to this regimented work period. Near 200 adolescents would file into the cafeteria, screaming from the maddening flux of hormones coursing through their bodies and exhausted from the school day, unwilling to take another pointless direction. Eventually we would organize this chaos a little better and develop ways to lessen the traffic, create group activities and bring in guest speakers. At the beginning of the school year, however, the administrators had thought very little of this out and also not given us time to plan for it.

Four teachers struggled to figure out how to contain the storm of pre-teens. We were miserable, we hated it. Eventually we figured out how to keep 200 children moderately quiet, but this hadn’t happened yet.

My hands were trembling on the steering wheel, my nerves frayed in all different directions from the hour of unorganized madness I had just endured. I drove down the wide road that cut the city into two, waves crashing through my brain: How can we group the students with so little space, the tables so close together? My feet hurt. Red light. How can we lower the noise level? What do we do about the stairwells? Is Class Dojo even worth it? Green light. What worksheets and activities are worthwhile and even possible with so many kids? How can I make sure they do their homework? My feet hurt. Why was Isaiah so rude to me? I thought I had been rather nice to him. Red light.

Green light. I sped up. A wave crashed and I saw an errant movement out of the corner of my eye. Several cars ahead, a vehicle moving forward had suddenly braked and turned left without signaling. This resulted in a series of cars slamming on their brakes.

HIT THE BRAKES!

I was too slow. I watched as the bumper of the car in front of me came hurdling toward me, my car sliding forward despite the effort of the brakes. I watched our bumpers collide and my head snapped forward, my chest smacking the wheel, bruising my ribs. I sat stunned. Cars simply drove around us.

I pulled out my phone and texted my co-worker: “I crashed my car because of Study Hall.”

The driver in the other car didn’t get out. I climbed out and approached only to find an ancient woman, shriveled into a mantis-looking creature, clinging to her steering wheel and looking confused. She turned toward me, her neck trembling and making her head wobble. Her wrinkles had hardened into narrow mazes without an exit point. She wore glasses that magnified her eyes to the size of walnuts.

“What do we do?” she asked.

“Pull over,” I instructed her. “We need to exchange insurance information.”

She spent five minutes carefully writing out her information on a piece of paper, each letter formed with noodled lines. Eventually a police officer showed up, looking massive with a cowlick dampened with product. He told us to get moving in a monotone voice and I sat on the corner to watch liquid leaking out of the front of my car. My hood had buckled and would no longer close. He raised his voice and told us we needed to go. I snapped at him, “Aren’t you supposed to help?”

I ended up needing to bolt my hood down with pins in order to keep it from flapping around menacingly on the highway.

At this point, whenever I drove I began to see the image of a bumper rushing toward me, faster than I could react. While on the highway my imagination would paint vivid pictures of the car in front of me suddenly braking, racing toward me as my car pummeled forward, my brakes ineffective as the metal crunched. I imagined that familiar jolt as I hit the steering wheel and my neck snapped forward. I dreamed about car accidents, waking up from the force of the impact.

I began to think that surely that image of a car backside rushing toward me would be my manner of death. One day my car finally would flip and it would be the end of me. The more I drove, the greater the chances.

If you ask me now how I think I’ll go, I will still affirm — a car accident. A real one. All these shocks and fender benders were just training for something bigger. So I could recognize what was happening in the moment and really understand my fate.

Last year I hit a patch of ice on a bridge and spun, smacking my bumper on the side of the bridge. I had been driving slowly — carefully — dreading — so there was merely a crack in the plastic. I looked at the crack, at the cars driving around me, and I just got back into my car and moved on.

These things happen. Accidents happen.

I’ve never liked water, but I like metaphors, so there I am, a fussy cat sitting on the deck dipping my toes in the pond. The deck is covered in blistering spots with the green paint coming off, and I peel at the thick chips while she and all her brothers splash around in the water and tease me. I say I can’t swim very well. They’ve all seen me swim before, so this doesn’t fly.

The depth of the pond makes me nervous, but this isn’t enough to stop me. After all, I can awkwardly paddle my arms about in a way that passes as swimming and keeps me afloat. The water is a bit cold, but I know that my body will adjust to this in just a minute. The sun is scorching above our heads, and I can feel a bead of sweat trailing down the back of my neck. I’m made of water — it’s not the water that scares me.

I won’t be self-aware enough to articulate this for another decade, but it’s the moment of impact. The dread of hitting the water, knowing I’ll be awash in an entirely new environment and temperature so quickly that my senses will go reeling. It won’t matter that I’ll adjust, that I know I’ll adapt. I’m still paralyzed with fear at that sudden change that runs through the body from toe to head. That second of shock, the clamp of cold hands enveloping my entire frame and squeezing.

When given a beach, I wade in slowly. Slumping through the water, my arms folded up on my chest as friends flip around much farther in. And I tip-toe towards depth, like an astronaut bouncing forward on the lunar surface. Careful, purposeful.

But often it’s just a deck high above the pond’s surface, or a ladder that drops into a pool. I’ll pace back and forth, back and forth, my feet suctioning to the damp surface as my friends and cousins laugh and splash and dive down. They all ran and jumped in immediately while I paddled over puddles to peer over the edge.

Decades later I’ll find myself on dry land far more often. There’s too much work to be done, and no one owns a pool anymore because we don’t own houses. We’re far too saddled with debt. But as I sit completely dry at the table, clacking away at a laptop, I wonder how much the dread of impact has to do with my perceived failures.

All that time pacing in front of an opportunity, fearing the change of total submersion. It’s an awful lot of time to waste. I wonder, how much time have I wasted? Is life just a series of opportunities, moments of jumping off the deck and into the water, and is that blithe bravery the key to success?

I do jump. I do — but it takes a moment. A lot of moments, of building myself up and bracing myself for change. Is too much time lost?

I’m still trying to figure out what it means to be successful, and as I spend too much time thinking and piecing things together, I can tell you at least that I’ve jumped enough times that I can be quicker, braver, more rash when presented with a pool on a hot summer day. I’m braver, if only by a little bit.

I can shut off my brain, and jump.

I have my mother’s chin and cheekbones—my dad’s eyes and pomposity. I need to worry about diabetes, as it runs on both sides of my family. My mother’s side of the family is riddled with mental illness, and so I have inherited that load. My mother modeled depression and anxiety for me, and from her I learned the art of worrying without cease. As I watched my dad’s bitterness develop, I inherited that as well, though I channeled it through different venues.

My grandmother—my mother’s mother—modeled the same things for my mother and her sisters and brothers. My dad is too insecure to reveal the source of his bitterness, but I imagine he learned that from somewhere as well. Maybe it was merely the fact of growing up in a poor rust-belt community, working hard at a mindless job for little pay, that did him in. I am an expert now, on bitterness, and often it emanates from me. Although I’m not having children, I speak with children daily and sometimes I find myself instructing them with the best intentions, but with advice stemming from deep-rooted acidity.

The sadness and grievances experienced by our parents do not stop with them. We inherit their problems, their poverty, their fears, their beliefs, their sadness. These things move, like a cancerous mass, through the generations. These things don’t dissipate through time. Inequality works this way as well, “a cultural force, insinuating itself into family life and classrooms and replicating across generations.” The effects of inequality are sometimes not seen until the following generation. One of the things that impressed upon me in Toni Morrison’s work was how she showed that while slavery ended, the effects of slavery did not, and that trauma is passed down.

A Swedish study shows that children with parents who are experiencing depression score lower grades in school. Grades are not the be all end all, but this does show an effect on focus and motivation, factors involving stress. The data shows an impression on a social, academic and professional life venue. I certainly remember sitting on my stairs at the age of sixteen, my mother laying motionless in bed several rooms away, refusing to speak with me. I didn’t quite understand what she was going through then, but I certainly do now. But that is the thing, here—I didn’t understand, yet the experience diffused through my developing character.

I just wish a few more words had been spoken, from some source, to help nurture an understanding. Perhaps certain things would have been different for me, if only slightly. Perhaps I could have more to give now, to those I speak to and influence.

It’s very easy to be silent and cover up the issues involving our inherited grief. But, as with most things, attention and acceptance and the brutal power of honesty can help ease the burden of what moves through every family. What have we inherited? What problems do we pass on? What can possibly be helped, alleviated, soothed?

What can we do, about this sadness that moves through our families’ generations?

It just won’t happen ever gain, at least not like that. You’re so far removed from the time and place that even trying to conjure up the images and feelings takes some effort. It takes a dream that plunges its hand deep into your subconscious to remind you.

We won’t slide open that glass door again, to have that massive night sky hang heavy over our heads as our feet stepped out onto the back patio. The house inside was so dirty, but it didn’t bug us in the way that it would now, we were aware of it but it was so much easier to navigate through trash and laundry piles and crumbs back then. There were few houses and no towns for miles and miles, so the sky lay brilliant over the landscape, a million lights puncturing through the oppressive darkness and sprawling like a painting far over our heads. There was something about being so small and naive and stepping out underneath that in the dead of night, something mystical would take up residence in the chest, something long ago extinguished. The patio was cool and the backyard opened up to woods, and fields, and other dark, dangerous things that welcomed us like exciting locales from an adventure story. Nothing about any of that land made us wary, and we would run out into it with bare feet, our toes slipping through dew. Everyone would be sleeping, would’ve been long gone, and it was so easy to pretend to be wild then.

And right after being wild, getting ourselves muddy and covered in pond scum, we would slink back into one of those tiny rooms wedged in between the others so awkwardly in that one-level ranch home, a hallway but also a bedroom somehow, and we could cram ourselves in between so many pillows and blankets, with the window wide open letting in that mysticism. The television we tuned was at the foot of the bed, small and old and dirty; we could put on anything and our tabula rasa souls would accept it, have no standards to define it by. We collected faulty and fractured narratives to build our Frankensteined concepts of the world, plucked from the trees and the sky outside, from the VHS tapes, from our own imaginations, slapped together with childish glee like it was a game. There was no such thing as ten years from now. Everything was magic.

I feel as if I can almost pinpoint the exact time that the magic drained from our veins and we woke up to some disgusting, coarse adult world that drove us to make the most banal decisions and to drift far apart onto our own islands. The beginning to our current state, lost at sea forever. We didn’t even wake up to it. We approached this moment as innocently as we approached everything else, we stepped out onto the cool back patio, we laid down on the lounge chairs with our feet pointing up to the moon and stars. We talked, and we talked, and we hobbled together ideas about adulthood and life and growing older, on the cusp of some new segment of our lives, some school year thick with responsibilities. We spoke of all this, sheer speculation, if we had recorded it I’m sure we had been wrong about absolutely every detail, until the sun began to rise over the field of tall grass to the east of us. By the time the sun was up, our sleepless dreams had been cauterized and the magic in circulation was thoroughly exhaled.

When we stood up, the current began to shift.

Navigation is difficult; you can’t find your way back there. Even the subconscious slips over the details. A full on excavation of the self reveals some important details, scenes that can never be reached again, atmospheres completely dissolved into the remote corners of the human spirit. The bonds aren’t broken, but they’re stretched thin. You reach out and take handfuls, hoping to catch something revitalizing, romantic, beautiful.

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