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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.

We were too busy to shout “Happy New Year,” so the DJ calmly expressed his well-wishing as we clasped the arms of the people closest to us and pressed our bodies together. The second floor of the club, splattered with layer upon layer of graffiti that commemorated a thousand separate memories, crowded us together between several pillars on a flimsy dance floor that shuddered under our bouncing weight. Once midnight hit, our friend had been pounced by an old fling of hers whose eyes were wide and sparkling, rolling on molly, and they were entangled in the middle of the room in a kiss.

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My partner and I had moved to this city inspired largely by her, but once we arrived her life fell apart. She lost her wife, she found someone new, and then she lost her too. The overwhelming density of her strife meant we had also lost her. She lived down the street but she was adrift in her endless preoccupations, not answering our messages and canceling plans. I was irritated, yet empathetic, and through my annoyance I continued to comment on all her photos and reach out to her, even if she didn’t respond.

And now, once she parted from her most recent lover and stumbled away, she came to our arms and we hugged her and told her we loved her and were inspired endlessly by her.

The three of us left the narrow old building that housed the club, standing on the sidewalk with goosebumps crawling up our arms and Uber vehicles crowding along the side of the road. Our friend’s tryst stood in the doorway, her body alight, her wild eyes trained on us, insisting we enter her vehicle and come downtown to Black Mass with her, dance away the rest of the night with her even though they would soon be unable to legally serve alcohol. We weren’t alive with uppers, however, and had multiple bottles worth of depressant drenching our organs, so we slid into a van to head back to our friend’s apartment.

Around the time I entered the Uber, my hair slick with sweat and my damp shirt slipping down over my shoulder, 200 miles away in another state, my father’s heart muscles struggled to receive a supply of oxygen. He laid down in bed, squeezing his eyes shut and thinking that if he died, at least the pain would stop.

But he woke up the next morning. He went to the hospital and they slithered a wire through his veins and put a stent into his heart with a balloon catheter.

My little brother contacted me the following morning, our lives so different yet his brain so much like mine, doing neurotic circles, a game show reel spun out of control and every prize actually a possible demise. He had recently had his first child and he held his newborn, contemplating worst case scenarios. When I called my father’s cell phone, my mother was a manic scribble as well.

My own neuroticism was firing off and so I recalled the progress I had made, the progress I had reflected on while drunk and silly in the graffiti’d club bathroom the night before, fluffing my hair in the mirror and staring into the drunken spiral of my eyes, observing the purple half-circles of perpetual illness standing out crass against my pale skin. I rubbed my face to bring some color and, as the New Year’s occasion called for, reflected on my personal progress of the past year.

I assume that others, during the whir of drama and chaos and inebriation, stare at themselves in the mirror and demand the truth. My soul procured what I most desired in that moment, which was pride — in myself. For what? What good had I done in this past year? I had barely made enough money to get by, many bills going unanswered and mostly unnoticed; I had worked pitifully small jobs and hardly lived up to my full potential, failing to inspire during job interviews; my relationship had completely fallen apart and I had managed to slap it back together with skill and grace. So much failure, but that last one — the latter conflict — had put me on a path of realization.

It hasn’t been that long since my last meltdown, my last time checking into a crisis service center and begging them to help me sleep. A year and a half, not even. Since then, I had put forth a considerable effort to help myself, or, to try to build up some defenses and thought patterns that would prevent myself from shutting down again. I read articles and books that were not necessarily always about self-help but had the sort of content I could use to infuse myself with good ways of thinking that I could practice.

I had practiced changing my thoughts. Swiveling away from the anxiety and neuroticism to more constructive ways of thinking. I flexed my brain cells, attempted to build a reflex toward reason. I read many articles on, simply, how to breathe. I felt silly reading them, but still — I caught myself not breathing when I stressed out. I found myself remembering to take good breaths.

I also found myself asking this question that had been repeated to me over and over again by therapists, who I had ignored: What can I take care of right now, in this moment? I began to seriously ask myself this. Often, the answer was nothing. Often, I found myself jotting down a time in which I would take action toward solving a problem, which wasn’t at that current moment. I had trained myself into a habit. This question had been meaningless to me for so long, until I managed to prescribe it with my own personal, intimate meaning of self-improvement. Maybe one day it will be meaningless again to me and I will need to find a new question to infuse with intimate personal power.

Standing in the club bathroom, surrounded by graffiti about hot, wet pussy and colorful tags, I stared myself down and acknowledged that a year had passed and the work I had put into myself was noteworthy and fruitful. Though continuously plagued with insecurity, I felt pride bubbling up in my chest. A sense that these thoughts, habits, friendships, myself… were not worthless.

I could hold my pettiness in my hand and then gently swat it away, just like any normal, pained human being. After this continued reflection of the night before, I held my phone in my hand, thinking of the neurotic triad of my mother, brother and myself. We had all influenced each other, touched by conflicts and trauma that traced far back into the past. It would be a long story to tell, if I were ever so inclined to write it down, but I knew where my anxiety came from. I knew who I shared it with. I knew, also, that I was capable of handling anything, that I had proven that to myself.

I spoke to my dad after speaking with them. After his dazzling heroism had worn off years ago, I had spent the majority of my adult life being angry with him, for his bad politics and prejudices. But this evaporated into a petty cloud of smoke in the conversation in which he told me his thoughts about believing that he was going to die.

Only one memory pushed to the forefront of my mind then. I was five, vulnerably small in my large bedroom, my bed pushed up against the window over the driveway and the apple tree so I could see the comings and goings of the outside world instead of the tall shadows of my cavernous room. I lay in bed with my nose pressed up against the windowpane and watched my dad’s car crunch up the driveway to rest under the tree. I was supposed to be sleeping, so I pulled the covers up around myself and pretended. My dad came up the stairs and set something next to my head, kneeling over me for a minute before leaving.

When he was gone, I rolled over. There was a book. He had brought me a book.

My entire childhood, my dad gave me books. It is because of him that I love to read. It wasn’t something that just happened, I didn’t just find books and devour them. He summarized books for me, sparking my interest, then put them in my hands. This became an integral part of my identity, leading me up to the point where I am today.

In the midst of conflict, anxiety, despair, I have managed to hold the good in my hand and ruminate over it with a calm heart. I have curled into myself in the bathroom, my chest crushed and holding back sobs that threatened to rip me apart, and I stood up afterward and recovered. This did not just happen. I wasn’t able to immediately use my legs properly after being shoved so forcefully to the ground.

But with effort, it happened.

I mull over these new realizations, habits, and histories on my drive into work, now that I’m working consistently again every day, driving a half hour to a school that offers me the best experience possible, even if without insurance benefits. I think about myself, about the politics blasting from my speakers and shaking my flimsy car; I think about the friends who both push and pull, disappear under their grief only to hold me tightly in an embrace the next time we meet. The patience I forward to my friends is worth it, despite the frustrations.

January has brought cold, icy rain that slicks up the roads and makes everything gray. I swish along the hissing water on the highway every morning, the sky blanketed with black clouds, navigating myself using the golden halo from the street lamps overhead. The sound and smell of constant winter rain is the backdrop to my thoughts on this place inside myself I’ve slowly discovered, this infinite ocean of patience that swells and moves, that is colored by my mood and kept undisturbed and endless through simple and sheer willpower. Underneath the anxiety bursts, the paranoia, the self-doubt and insecurity, it’s still there. Underneath the troublesome clouds of despair, it’s there. It’s somewhere at my center, infinite in all directions.

Acknowledging its presence doesn’t make the chemicals in my brain flux correctly however. This ocean isn’t a panacea, it’s just there and accessible. I still have my bad habits, such as washing my poor brain with all sorts of drugs to modulate my experience.

On Friday, one of the few friends I’ve made in this city returned from Saudi Arabia — having visited her family over her school’s break — and she returned wanting to do two things for her upcoming birthday. She wanted to go to her first concert ever and she wanted to take LSD while she did it. We had taken acid together before after a tryst we had the previous year, so there was nothing objectionable about this situation. I was hoping the acid could help me clear some of the depressive gunk in my brain, something that was far more difficult to rid with healthy thought patterns because it just calcified to my personality and ebbed and rose in mass throughout the month.

After the show, I burst out into the night, holding her and my partner in an embrace and breathing in cold air and tasting it, tasting the colors of the lights, tasting red and blue on my tongue. The following day, sunshine radiated through my brain and the shadows disappeared. But my energy was zapped and my heart was beating too fast.

Another week begins, my mood is high though I’m exhausted and no amount of sleep after Friday has been good enough. I want to be wide awake and I want to sleep forever. I caught myself not breathing this morning, my heart thudding in my chest, holding my breath for no reason other than anxiety rearing its face at the change in my daily schedule, however small. I’m struggling at both being awake and receiving the appropriate amount of sleep, knowing that mixed up in my desires is the need for balance in order to actively maintain good habits.

And underneath this flux of daily routines, too much sleep or not enough, distant friends and needy friends, the eternal complications of love, unexpected troubles and matters of life and death, I am aware of that infinite ocean of patience. I may lose sight of it again one day, but it’s there. It’s always there.

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.

I feel shitty due to a dream, a good dream.
I reconnected with a college friend, she laughed,
fussed with her hair like she always did, rosy face
framed by her hands. The world was a mall,
we browsed through arts and crafts, all of that,
I saw everyone I used to know, even people I hated.
I looked great, all of us functioning fluidly in a seamless social scheme.
“How is it that we don’t talk anymore? Can I see you more often? I miss you so,”
She was amazing, everything I miss, connective conversation drawing me in —

but she’s not actually like that. She breached the surface of
that colorful, that connecting, that stimulating, for three days in time —
and if we were to reconnect it wouldn’t be like the dream at all,
she was never that bright or friendly, and if I spoke with her again,
the motions would be cold, and even — the horrible truth — awkward,
she’s just not who I wanted her to be, didn’t turn out how I wanted her to be,
she had every right to be something other than what I wanted,
but how am I nostalgic for something that never even was?

Sometimes it’s not that you burn the bridge,
it just crumbles due to poor infrastructure
and you dream of the blueprint and a matchbook.

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 hate you so—I want to touch the contour of your face,
look into those blue eyes and long lashes and hate you.
I want to disappear into the warmth and mass of your arms, hating you.
I want to curse your name and sing your name a thousand times,
hit those two syllables like I want to hit your jaw, cut my knuckles
on the smile you ever dared to use on me.

I want to bury you in the earth for hurting me, I want to dig you up,
breathe air into your lungs, bring a knife down on your chest,
over and over, replicating the wounds you left me.
I am 1000 miles away and right next you, dead and very alive.
Is it possible to talk with you, now, constantly, and never again?
Can I exist between both of these parallel universes, experience both?

Look at me—never think of me again. Talk to me, let’s never speak again.

SheldUnbreakable

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