I grew up in safe world, a secure world, a place where the word violence did not exist in my lexicon. It was the late 1970s, a time in which I fully embraced the teachings of Free to be You and Me, because the lessons learned reflected my experiences. After all, most mothers in my upper-middle class, academic neighbourhood worked in some capacity--why would they not? In my little-girl mind, mothers and fathers were by definition equals, given their bigger-than-life stature in comparison to me. I grew up in a safe world. In this world, Bad Things (if they existed at all) were almost mythical in nature, relegated as they were to ancient fairy tales and the occasional made-for-TV drama. In my mind, Bad Things included flying monkeys, the evil stepmothers of beautiful princesses, and the occasional monster under my bed. The closest that Bad Things ever came to the boundary of my safe world was when I saw a highly unsettling episode of Little House on the Prairie, where a young girl is raped by a man from the village. Of course, rape was not in my lexicon either, so I filed it away under the category of "Bad Things that Happened During Pioneer Times and Are Possibly Fictional Anyway". I grew up in a safe world, a world in which women and men were not only equals, they were friends, spouses, colleagues. My immediate world was populated by three loving, often teasing males: my father and my older twin brothers, each of whom could be counted on to protect me should the need arise (such as the time I was drowning in a lake and the brother I annoyed the most dove into the water to rescue me). As I grew from a little girl to a young girl to a young teen, my world also grew, but its bubble of safety never popped, choosing instead to expand in order to accommodate my perceptions of security. Again, the idea of violence in general, and violence against women in particular, never entered my mind, and why would it? Years of watching Free to be You and Me in grade school were followed by years of learning about teen pregnancy, STDs, and how to put a condom on a banana in high school. Never was even the possibility of being assaulted by a member of the opposite sex brought up and discussed. While there was one disconcerting episode from Facts of Life regarding possible sexual assault, that was an anomaly, and clearly associated with attending boarding school, so that was okay. As far as my memory goes, there were no similar episodes to be found on Love Boat, Silver Spoons, Growing Pains, or Who's The Boss (or, if there were, I missed that week). My world was filled with passing notes during classes with my friends, rushing home from ninth grade to do the 20-minute workout once the bell had rung, and spending hours on the family phone to discuss the latest gossip, while my beleaguered brothers complained in the background. I grew up in a safe world, until one day, I didn't. When I was sexually assaulted as a teenager in my family's garage, my initial reaction to what was happening was not fear, but shock. The assaulter was a seemingly "nice" boy; a stranger to me, yes, but one who had walked me home from the local grocery store, wanting to chat (the very fact I let a strange, large, somewhat ominous boy walk me home is proof of how safe I perceived my world to be). So he had six inches and seventy pounds on me, so he was saying somewhat inappropriate things about how he felt about me on our walk back to my house. So what? It was the middle of a Saturday afternoon, in the middle of an incredibly safe suburb, and he was just another fellow human being. During the initial moments when this large stranger lunged at me and pushed me against the wall inside my family's garage, my brain whirled with confusion. What was he doing? Didn't he realize we had been having a pleasant conversation? Why wouldn't he stop? Violence against women was not in my lexicon. After I was assaulted, I told no one, partly due to shame and guilt (I must have done something for a nice boy to hurt me that way!), and partly because I didn't have the framework or words to explain to others, let alone to myself, the violence that had happened to me. Thus, once I had my own children, forefront in my mind was the decision to make sure that they would not grow up in such a safe world. Consequently, despite an almost innate desire to completely protect my daughter and three sons from any knowledge that Bad Things (and Bad People) exist, I have made sure that they are more aware. Yes, Free to be You and Me remains my basic philosophy for child rearing, all four of my offspring well-educated in the importance of treating males and females as equals. Men are not better. Women are not better. The world is diverse and each person deserves our respect. Coupled with this important lesson, however, is knowledge, knowledge which I try to match with developmental level, an awareness that the world isn't completely safe, and that Bad Things do happen to Good People. From toddlerhood on, I've instilled the lesson that if lost, my child shouldn't seek out any random adult, but should approach a mother with children first, if possible. Is that sexist of me? Absolutely. Is this a lesson I feel is still important? Sadly, yes. Many other lessons have also been taught, with news stories often used to help hammer home whatever I'm trying to teach with my older two. Given that my littlest sons are barely past the preschool age, the lessons I've tried to bestow on them have been limited. With my eldest son, however, I made it a goal throughout his teenage years to emphasize the importance of not only never treating a woman with disrespect (physically or emotionally), but to not be a bystander if he observes others behaving in such a way. A few times I've overheard my now 18-year-old speaking about the need to respect women, which tells me that a lot of what I wanted to convey has gotten through. With my now fifteen-year-old daughter, the lessons have been more complicated, with the importance of not frightening her having to be balanced with the realities of our world (violence against women must be in her lexicon). We've talked about cyber-bullying, slut-shaming, date rape, of the fact that I will not judge her or blame her for anything if something Bad happens. Of the fact that I will believe her, unconditionally.You name it, it's been discussed, all the while also trying to convey that so many men are decent and kind (like my father and my elder brothers were to me, like her dad, stepfather, and brothers are to her). And so, as I reflect on International Women's Day, I'm reminded that the lovely sense of safety which I grew up with did not (and cannot) compensate for the terror experienced when being sexually assaulted as a teen. No, I cannot prevent a similar Bad Thing from happening to my daughter, or to anyone else's daughter, for that matter. All I can do is augment the good lessons learned within the Free to be You and Me philosophy, reminding my children time and again that no one can truly be free until we live in a world in which the violence that is committed against women is universally condemned. So no, my children do not grow up in safe world. I have made damn sure of that.
You talk and talk and talk about death. You talk about it in the abstract, you talk about it in the specific. You talk about how no one else has the balls to talk about it (goddammit!), how no one else is willing to even consider the inevitability of their eventual demise. You talk about how materialistic and clueless the masses have become, how they actually believe that they will be the first ones in the history of the universe to live forever. You sit on your threadbare throne in the middle of the university campus centre, a sophomore masquerading as an ivory-towered professor, and you talk. You pontificate about the irrationality of those around you, all the while deluding yourself that by cognitively manning up to death you will somehow keep its nerve-gas vapours from seeping into your own alveoli.
And I listen.
I listen and I watch you, with your apple cheeks, your yellowed fingertips, and your Levis-button-fly-faded-blue legs. I listen and I watch as you and your underlings suck at your Benson & Hedges, all the while debating the merits of Kierkegaard versus Nietzsche, Sartre versus Tillich, each point sounding as original as the views of any Philosophy 101 student who might be milling about. But I keep such critical thoughts at bay. Your mind is brilliant, after all. It deserves to run free. So I listen and watch all of you baby Kafkas, as you ponder and pick apart such weighty issues as futility, authenticity, and existence.
But mostly I just watch.
I watch as you casually flick ash in my direction. I sit mute and adoring as your words and your smoke blow against my face, reminding me of the relentless burn of a March wind. I watch as you stomp your Doc Martens across the campus centre floor, your pubescent swagger a childlike parody of each university student who surrounds us. And I wait. I wait until you return from the vending machines with a paper cup of coffee (always one cup, never two; why never two?). Once back on the sofa, you resume your deep conversation with your fellow deep thinkers, ignoring me as I silently obsess about the ways that I might court death, that I might convince death to come just a little bit closer (yes, right there), in order to snuff out the despair that's begun grabbing at my ankles each morning from underneath my bed. Eventually I scamper off to the washroom, my Keds squeaking as I go, each shoe too white, too freakishly new, each a glaring symbol of just how much I do not belong here.
Once inside a stall, I push down my jeans and etch your name into my thigh. For here's what you don't know. Here's what you can never know. I own you. Not with words, but with this razor and this rivulet of red dripping onto the toilet seat. Your name fills its trench, then overflows. With a paper towel, I blot the borders until they are clear once more. I crumple the towel in my fist, then scamper back to the sofa, my Keds announcing my arrival before I even reach you. Later, as you head outside without me to pass around a pilfered bottle of Peppermint Schnapps, I stuff the bloody towel into your now empty paper cup, daring you to find the hidden treasure. Once back next to me, our legs barely touching, you chase your Schnapps with yet another cigarette, using my cup, using my need, as your ashtray.
I start to bring my own posse to the campus centre, to allow my own swagger to cross the floor to the vending machines. No longer will I wait for a proffered cup of coffee that never comes. I will buy my own goddamn cup myself! Not to mention a bag of Cheetos, the snack that your pretentious self so objected to, clicking your tongue whenever I licked my orange-tinged fingers. Now, as I walk by your sofa, I wave my stained hands in the air, hoping that the mere scent of manufactured cheese will waft towards your face, as your goddamn smoke always did towards mine.
Because, guess what?
I will not be another of your little underlings anymore. I will not be your disciple, your minion, your flat-chested flunky. No longer will I listen to you go on and on ad nauseam about death and dying, as if you have any clue what the hell you're even talking about. I am sixteen, for fuck's sake! I want to drink, I want to get high, I want to drink and get high while lying spread-eagle across the asphalt of the university's main road, all the while knowing that I am somehow immortal, that I will somehow dodge the proverbial bullet.
Take that! And that! And that again!
But don't be fooled. As I swagger across the campus centre floor with my fuzzy orange fingertips, I still see you. I still watch you. I still listen. I still need you and crave you and wish you and dream you. I still want to float away on a river that's red, curled up against you like a baby shrimp. So don't be fooled.
It's not working. This swagger and this bravado isn't goddamned working! Why don't you notice me? Why don't you care? How can my absence from the right side of the sofa go so undetected by you? I used to be your sidekick, your buddy, your confidante (even if most of your ideas were bullshit). How can you keep pontificating when I've left so much space behind?
But then, so quickly, my space gets filled up by another girl. By another goddamned girl! A girl with big tits and big, wide eyes, and not much else. A girl who doesn't have brains enough to know what the hell you're talking about most of the time, let alone disagree with your words (even if only in her head). A girl who seems to stare at you like Bambi to Thumper, as if you're god's greatest gift! A girl who makes your apple cheeks redden, a girl whom you have the audacity to bring outside to drink your Peppermint Schnapps, your hand tucked into the back pocket of her acid-washed jeans, claiming her. Did it somehow escape your mind that I am the one who's already claimed you?
And so I begin to disappear. In theory, at least, if I begin to shrink, then my need will shrink, too. The smaller I get, the smaller you'll become. I cannot need you. I do not need you. At first my stomach starts to growl. Next, my stomach cramps against itself. Finally, my stomach raises its white flag and begins to forget about what hunger even is. You may still be talking about dying, you may still be intellectualizing death, but I'm the one with arms like popsicle sticks and legs like willow branches. I'm the one who is willing to move closer and closer to the cliff's edge (closer than you and your philosophic prattle will ever dare to go), hoping to get a peek of what lies on the other side.
I stop going to the campus centre. I start staying at home, reading Dostoyevsky. My parents start to worry.
I decide to get rid of my bed's box spring and shove the head of the mattress into my closet, the overhanging clothes forming a cave around me. I hold my knees against myself and rock, attempting to push myself back into the womb, back into before. Unlike you, so unlike you, I become the one who is straddling the line.
I am taken to the family doctor. I'm advised to start eating more green vegetables, bread, and meat.
Time passes, but my need for you, you with your goddamn yellowed fingertips and your button fly, won't shrink. If anything, my need grows, until it becomes a fat, globular mass that burrows deep within my concave chest. True, I'm no longer banging my fists against the floor, howling with grief. I'm no longer keening theatrically, begging all and sundry to Look at me! Look at me! But still, if you place an ear against my bony chest, you will hearing something, a barely audible something, underneath the soft thud, thud of my heart. If you really listen, you will hear a soft moan, a fragile thread of sound that comes from somewhere deep and will not stop. Like the cry of an abandoned child, the whimper of the broken. A requiem for the dying.
My parents' worry kicks into overdrive. I'm taken back to the doctor. I'm sternly lectured about my mood. I'm told if things don't change, I'll be put into the hospital.
Instead, I do the only thing I can do. I grab my knapsack, a fistful of twenties, and make like the wind. The train I take to Niagara Falls may not lead me to paradise, but it's still to somewhere, somewhere far away from you.
The story of Niagara Falls doesn't matter here. All you need to know is that standing by the Falls reminds me that this is where lives have ended, either by accident or on purpose. Mostly on purpose. One leap and it's game over. There are no second chances once you're falling through the air, just a rush of pure freedom or horrific regret.
Somehow knowing the Falls is so close at hand is oddly comforting. If I ever need it, it's just a twenty minute walk away from my motel. More than once I bring something to throw over the railing, opening my fingers to watch it descend into the white roar. I want to pinpoint the moment when something becomes nothing. I want to know. The Falls sound like nothing else I've ever heard. They sound like what would happen if you stuffed all the possible noises in the world into one container and shook it up. They sound like I feel. Angry. Alive.
Months pass. They always do. My mood finally lifts and I decide to stop being a runaway/high school dropout and rejoin the populace you once scorned with the flick of your cigarette. School becomes my drug of choice and I focus all of my energy and passion into proving that I'm as smart as you. No, fuck you, I'm smarter.
And so, months become years. School turns into a steeplechase, with me trying to leap over one hurdle and then another. Eventually I become a psychologist (I'll bet you didn't see that coming, did you?). For years I'm a therapist to hundreds of wounded souls, people who likely once filled spaces next to posers like you.
I marry a nice man early (much too early), then divorce. Later, with two children in tow, I marry another nice man, but this time the matrimonial glue manages to stick. I become the mother to two more children. I work, I parent, I love. I finally let go enough to let my branches begin to bud and flower. Not that things are perfect (when are things ever perfect?). I'm still too stubborn, still too mute. I still seek out the safety of closets, I still have waves of feelings that can crash through walls, a tsunami of hurt. I still have scars, scars that I sometimes rub when things become too much, but they remain my personal hieroglyphs, ancient messages from another time, a time before medication, before meditation, before I was taught the words I needed to ask for help. For you see, my erudite little friend, I am no longer waiting to pinpoint the moment when something becomes nothing. I am no longer straddling the line.
Once in a while I'd think of you. I won't lie about that. What would be the point? So yes, once in a while I'd think of you, but in a fond, almost distant kind of way. Like you were a weekend trip I once took somewhere (Where was that place again, honey?). A nowhere kind of place, pleasant, but forgettable. Occasionally I'd wonder if you'd contact me, if only to catch up. A temporary thought, a little blip in my mind. Perhaps you'd ask to "friend" me on Facebook. Likely I'd take a day or two (or even three) to consider, but then I'd probably (maybe) accept. It wouldn't make much difference, really.
Maybe through a handful of emails we'd reminisce about that crazy, messed-up time from before (We were so dramatic then, weren't we? Ha, ha!). It's possible that we'd even venture onto ice that's slightly more precarious, tiptoe towards that frozen-in-time night when our lives intersected. Remember that night? Don't tell me you've forgotten. Don't tell me you don't remember how a depression-addled me happened to stumble into the campus centre and do a Kramer-like pratfall across your sofa. And don't say you have no memory of me pulling you (a stranger!) into a corner, throwing all my woes at you and daring you to catch them. I'm sad! I'm alone! I need you to chase after me if I make a run for it and find me! I need you to listen!
And don't tell me you forget how you in turn pulled me out of that corner, plunked me down on the sofa next to you, and let me stay in that hallowed place for months and months, allowing me to glom onto you, like a leech stuck between your toes. And don't pretend you that you forget how you once suddenly reached out, grasped my cold fingers, and squeezed some hope back into me, if only for a moment. Please, please, please don't ever forget that (By the way, did I happen to mention that I am now a generally stable, well-medicated adult, who worked for years as a psychologist?).
It wasn't as if I was planning to look you up or anything. I've had too much going on, after all, with four children, manuscripts to edit, and a kitchen that isn't about to clean itself. I've had barely enough time for my husband or my current friends, goddammit, so who would expect me to take even two minutes out of my incredibly hectic day to try and contact someone who didn't have the decency to buy me a lousy cup of fifty cent coffee (who the hell can't spare a measly fifty cents?). Besides, if you've been willing to wait almost twenty-five years to talk with me again, when I can be found so easily on bloody Facebook, then you can wait a few weeks (or months) more!
Now I guess it's your turn to make me wait (and wait and wait). For you see, I've learned that you, that Levi clad, sixteen-year-old, close-to-forgotten you, have died suddenly. And by died suddenly, I mean that for whatever asinine reason, you chose to end your life by your own hands (were your fingertips still yellow?). This is all I know, and it is more than enough. To be honest, right now it seems like almost too much.
Now I find it ironic that in the years that followed my adoration of you, my anger at you. my anger at me, I became a clinical psychologist, and you--you became someone who decided to make the political personal. Instead of me, the obvious choice, you became the one who chose to leave the party earlier than planned and to not reach out to the one person who was still desperately waiting for her turn to offer up that goddamn cup of coffee.
In the years that followed me at fifteen, as the depression slowly dribbled away and I began to see you for you, I always assumed that someday I would tell you what your brief knowing of me had meant, how being allowed to sit next to you (legs touching and fingers once squeezed) had temporarily stilled my frenzied grief.
I always meant to pay you back. Once the depression was doused and my fucked-up-ness gradually faded from fiery red to a still there, but more manageable pink, I had the best of intentions to pay you back. Now the best I can do is pay it forward, and that just isn't good enough for me. Not yet.