I rounded the corner that leads to my school this morning and saw a thick layer of fog covering the football field like a coalition of ghosts had chosen to have an early meeting near the fifty-yard line. On any other morning, I might have reacted simply to the aesthetic of it all – I’ve always been perversely drawn to things that appear generically spooky – but today, on this first day of a new school year, all I could see in those foggy shadows was a collection of days and people that have already gone by.
I’m not sure that I will ever be a person for whom beginnings won’t immediately cause me to connote the haunting imagery of endings but it’s not all bad. Gone are the days when I felt anxious and chilly-tummy-terrified before the first day of school. I mean, I actually slept last night without having even one nightmare about arriving at school braless (which actually happened once, but thankfully it was a chilly day). The only part of my first-day outfit that I really put a great deal of thought into was my shoes. (They’re these insane new strappy, studded booties and I love them, though I will probably have to amputate a toe or three by day’s end.) But what remains in the location where I used to store my pre-school anxiety is a level of awareness of how much has changed – and how much I have changed. The changes aren’t necessarily negative though I guess maybe they’re not fully positive either. They just are, and so that means that I better start understanding them.
I tell myself that understanding is the key that will lead me towards bliss. I have almost convinced myself that such a mindset is true.
I saw a friend recently who has gone through an experience that could best be defined as complicated. When I saw her face (she looked really pretty and emotionally frozen all at the same time), this need to protect her came roaring into my chest and all I wanted was for her to not feel uncomfortable. I walked over and I kissed her hello and we sat down and chatted about regular and routine stuff. I got a text from her later that day thanking me for treating her normally and it broke my heart, but the truth is that I am an expert in knowing how to keep things light and I just used it that time to her advantage. I can pretend having this expertise just means that I have a skill, but it’s really a defense mechanism of the highest order and it’s meant to protect me from revealing too much or from feeling much of anything at all unless I want to feel something – and it’s only a part of what I’ve got ready to go in my expanding arsenal of defense.
“So listen,” I said to my best friend over the phone. “I have to tell you something and it might be the hardest thing I have ever had to say."
“Okay,” she responded slowly, her mind clearly conjuring up images of me disrobing for former boyfriends while performing a choreographed dance for their pleasure.
“I ate a strawberry shortcake yesterday,” I told her, and the words came rushing out just then.
“That’s not a big deal,” she began soothingly. I could hear it in her voice that she was organizing her thoughts and deciding whether or not it was better to tell me that I’d been eating so healthy that I was bound to break eventually or that I could just pretend it hadn’t happened and hop back on my spinach-colored journey. I appreciated her thoughtfulness and all, but I wasn’t after solace; I was trying to make a confession.
“I think you’re not understanding me,” I said. “I did not eat a slice of strawberry shortcake. I did not even eat two slices. I ate a strawberry shortcake. I went out and I bought a cake and then I ate that cake in one day. And I got so sick.”
“I’m actually a little bit impressed,” she responded with a laugh.
“I have been so careful,” I whispered. “What could I have possibly been thinking?”
“Well,” she said, “I’m no psychiatrist, but I think it might have something to do with you starting work again.”
Her comment made me laugh because of course that’s what the cake thing was about – you know, along with a fleeting sense of self-control that lasted almost twenty-four hours. I needed to fill (or stuff) some void created because my days of freedom were ending and eating that cake (oh God, the entire thing) became yet another defense mechanism, one that I will not allow myself to repeat because this particular defense mechanism has way too much sugar. But here’s the thing I realized: if you want to avoid having a particular emotion, I’m your girl because I will get you to feel a very different way almost immediately. If you’re about to tear up, I will make you laugh. If you’re about to wander into a rage-filled tunnel of fury, I can soothingly lead you back to a semblance of calm. Stick with me and I can teach you how to never feel a fucking thing.
A colleague I don’t know very well came over to me yesterday to tell me that she went on vacation over the summer and she got to lie on the beaches of Cozumel and read a book from cover to cover and it was my book that she read.
"Which one?" was the question I asked in response – and I felt like a douchebag immediately even though it’s a fair question to ask because I have two books. Still, the second the words left my mouth, I felt two distinct things: uncomfortable and very certain that “uncomfortable” is probably exactly the wrong reaction to have in that scenario. What I should feel is pride that I wrote a book that someone got to recline with and enjoy in an idyllic setting. I should feel grateful that I earned some more royalties. I should feel positively giddy that my book lives on a shelf in somebody else’s home, but I didn’t feel any of those positive things and so all I wanted to do was change the subject so I could alter the feelings and so I did – and I pulled that shift off in a nanosecond.
I think that maybe some people have figured me out. They know full well when I’m rearranging where a conversation between us is heading and I believe that some of them are just allowing me to get away with it because they see something that probably resembles a flash of fear pass through my eyes, which, along with my lips, are easily my most expressive features. Let’s just say that you’ll be able to tell if I care about you by whether or not my eyes are shining and whether or not my lips are relaxed or pursed into a hard smirk that I can’t always seem to control, though I’d better work on that because that smirk’s gotten me into a bit of trouble. Perhaps I’ll add the lip thing to my list of New Year’s Resolutions of behaviors I shouldn’t partake in anymore and hope for the best and maybe it will actually be something I can accomplish, like the way I finally mastered the art of not swallowing gum right after college. Of course, the lip resolution could also go the way of how I swore I’d never eat an entire cake in one sitting too. I guess what I’m saying is that making and sticking to a resolution can be kind of a crapshoot.
I think what I’m really doing right here is trying to change the subject yet again.
We’ve all got defense mechanisms. I know people who react to uncertainty with a peal of nervous laughter that is a higher decibel than anything you’ve ever heard outside of a helium factory and I also know somebody who just randomly goes off on a compliment rampage when she’s nervous. She will literally compliment you on the soles of your shoes and on your fresh breath and on your hair when it has been pulled back into a haphazard bun due to the steady stream of humidity and all of these strands are making a break for it all over your head and you have never looked grosser or hairier in your life. I know her well enough to realize when it’s happening now, but it’s still strange when she compliments me on something like my eyelashes simply because she’s having herself a weird internal moment. Maybe more distressing are the people who become immediately argumentative as a defense. Their bodies tense up and there’s a fluttering of tautness that overtakes their features in a way that’s almost frightening and they will fight with you just then about fucking anything – including how your eyelashes look.
My defenses have always been of the calmer sort. They are quiet and they become only mine. I will not project my shit onto anybody else, but I will do things like sleep for hours at a time or not eat for a full day or dive mouth-first into a bakery item. I will take a shower that is longer than any shower should ever be so I don’t have to get out and start my day. I will ignore phone calls and texts and only shoot back a quick response if I think one of those people will worry because of my monk-like momentary oath of silence. I will read a book I’ve already read a hundred times so I don’t have to deal with anything that feels new – even something that’s fictional – because new can feel scary and fear causes a defense to take hold with the kind of grip one should only have when you’re holding the hand of someone you adore with all of your might.
If I’m in a crowd when I begin to feel the need to be defensive and a total physical retreat seems impossible, that’s actually better for me. My public defenses are kind of nice. I will smile a lot and keep the conversation moving so I can direct it like it’s a short film for which I also wrote the screenplay. I will tell a funny anecdote and excuse myself to the sound of the laughter I’ve left behind because I had no desire to leave the truth there instead.
I think maybe the reason why the fog I saw this morning hit me like it mattered is because it reminded me of myself, or at least of the person I used to be. In that collection of ghosts was a girl who didn’t feel the need to steer conversations quite so frequently because she had less to hide. She lived without an agenda and she had less of a drive and there were moments when she really felt satisfied with what was instead of the thirst of what might be. She freely shared stories with the masses because she hadn’t yet made the distinction in her mind about which people she deemed worthy. That girl hanging with the ghosts was a little bit naïve and she didn’t find it necessary to haul around an arsenal of defense and I suppose that I could feel a bit maudlin that I’m no longer the person I once was, but I actually feel no shame for any of it except for the strawberry shortcake episode. It feels right to have changed. It feels good to know that, should I want it, I can take control. It feels great to have figured out my weaknesses and to forgive other people for theirs. And maybe that’s why I rolled my window down in the car and thrust my hand out into the early morning air and allowed the breeze to move through my fingers as I all but waved to my ghost.
Nell Kalter is the author of the books Student and That Year, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle.