“Tuffy!” my father called out, and I could hear his voice rebounding against the rolling waves. “Be careful because I won’t be here.”
I was fourteen years old and it was August. I stood in the East Hampton surf, willing myself to ride the next wave that came my way without being caught inside of it like I had been that time last summer when a chaos of funneled water spun me into what I’d been briefly sure was the absolute nothingness of forever. My father was heading down the shore to cast for bluefish. In less than an hour, he’d be dead. Those were the last words he ever spoke to me.
And the thing is, I have been careful. I knew that to fall apart completely in those first terrifying teenage months would only serve to harm me spectacularly in the long run and I guess I’ve always been someone who considered where one moment might fit into the puzzle that was the rest of it. So instead I did the normal sort of rebelling that was so common for a suburban girl growing up in the days when people looked into one another’s faces instead of down at a screen. I sometimes drank cheap beer in basements. I came home from afternoon barbeques held in my friends’ backyards covered in hickeys. I knew the terror of the second when the condom breaks and how difficult it is to pee on a stick when your hand is shaking and you’re not sure if the screaming is inside of your own head or some external audible omen.
I told secrets to people I should have known based on precedent not to trust. I stayed up late into the night wrapping my legs around the backs of men before I’d even held their hand. I’d watch the sun come up as a sliver between the half-openings of Venetian blinds and I’d wonder if there was any way I could get up to go pee and maybe put on some of the makeup that was always stashed somewhere in the bottom of my purse so I would look pretty when the light came in for real. I kept gum in my mouth for the entire night, even as a slept, so I would always taste minty.
But I never went through a completely promiscuous stage and I never shrugged off the idea that maybe I’d hurt someone. I was careful, like my father told me to be, about how I spoke to people. Even my harshest comments – and there have been many – have been delivered thoughtfully. I might have walked into confrontations unafraid, but I always recognized that I would have rather been anywhere else than inside that circle of loud debate and I always entered it expecting that I’d leave with a resolution in much the way I used to leave birthday parties with a gift bag stuffed with Twizzlers and Combos.
Yet I still gave second chances…and third chances…and fourth chances, too. I used my own history as a guidebook so I thought it was possible for someone to change an opinion or a feeling. I thought that since I was honest, others must be honest as well. I believed the gripping clench that would take place in my stomach when I saw I’d done or said something that caused someone else to sweat in that bad way must be contagious.
I was careful, but I was also sometimes wrong.
I was never a big drinker and I’m still not. I never found anything that didn’t taste like how nail polish remover smells and I wound up in far fewer bushes throwing up both my spleen and the splashes of evil still sloshing around my stomach as a result. That’s not to say such an event never happened, but it didn’t happen frequently. I suppose a part of me was worried because I recognized early on that those spins my friends would mention with a shudder was actually a feeling I sort of loved. When my mind hopped on a conveyer belt, I never felt scared. I enjoyed the ride and would just lie back and wonder where I’d be propelled to once it all was over and the mystery felt strangely satisfying.
I once smoked something on the street with a guy I knew pretty well while it was still light outside. It was during my last inhale when I saw a filter of darkness coming on fast. I have to go inside and lie down. I was sure I’d said those words out loud, but his smile after the sentence dripped from my mouth confused me. I remember him leading me inside and that we had to go through a revolving door to get to the elevator and how that was the one time I didn’t enjoy spinning. I don’t much remember the ride up to his floor, but I know I leaned against him and that he guided me down a narrow corridor and that he reached out at one point and kind of held me around the waist while trying to unlock his apartment. Hold on, I remember him saying to me while I wondered if this right here was what fainting felt like. The darkness that followed was temporary, quick, and he deposited me in his bed and rushed to bring me a glass of water. I sipped it carefully and I was too confused to even be embarrassed. My entire body then broke out in a sweat that even left my hair wet and I carefully got up and walked over to my overnight bag and took off all of my clothing including my bra and underwear and put dry stuff on. I don’t know what just happened, I told him when he came into his room with some bread and melted brie on a plate for me to eat. I do know that I slept very soundly later that evening and that I was grateful for my dreams.
I learned early on that being a good person took work and I made the choice to do it anyway. Instead of reacting instinctually because a comment launched by someone hit me like a rocket, I’d take a breath and consider the motivation, what the colors were that were maybe shading that person’s world at that particular time. If the hues were from anywhere in the midnight blue or grey area, I would sometimes let the comment slide. I wished I could be granted the same leeway, but I learned to shrug off the idea because sometimes such a thing seemed that it could not be possible. I tried to look at the entire shared history that existed between me and someone else and that allowed me to disregard a moment of unfair verbal brutality.
Because my father died knowing full well how much I adored and respected him, I was able to sail through the undertow of grief without a life preserver. Even then, I knew that not having regrets would be the thing that could maybe save me so I tried to make sure the people I loved knew how I felt every single step of the way. I refused to let conflicts burn and there was more than one instance of picking up a phone and saying to the person on the other end, “I realize that you want to take some time to internalize your fury, but we are resolving this right now.” I knew, you see, what that kind of fury could do to your insides, that it would scald them and sting even in the future. I knew there was too much already living inside of me. Nothing caused me more pain than someone refusing to talk something out and I understand now that it wasn’t necessarily closure I was after; it was a cathartic release I knew was required to clear the white noise from the inside of my head.
I learned how to choose friends who would root for me and there was nothing I valued more than loyalty. I developed a skin thick enough that I legitimately grew to not care what other people thought, but the casual cruelty that I was met with more than a few times still managed to stun me and I hated that I could continually be surprised. I had in my arsenal, many times, information that could have emotionally stunted someone for the rest of eternity, but I chose not to share it, not even as a rebuttal. I guess when you’re someone who sees callousness and pain in visual bursts that you cannot remove from your mind no matter what it is that you try, you’re less willing to share that sort of tragic horror film with anyone else, even if they deserve to watch it on a fucking loop inside of a dungeon where the bars of the place are constructed out of the person’s abject hatred and your own broken dreams.
I became intimately acquainted with loss and it happened far too often and far too early on in my development in a way that tested me and I always passed the test. If a loss was indefinably permanent, I could figure out a way to eventually move on. That logic I often rely upon played a big part, but so too did a resolve that I think maybe always existed, perhaps even from the moment of conception. But if there was a chance to reverse a loss, I would become consumed with figuring out a plan and that plan would rule my days and my nights and it was only after I saw that this plan had compromised my sanity that I learned to finally accept that there are some things that I cannot change and it was then that I finally understood why certain people gravitate towards religion because it turns out that certain prayers and psalms make a whole lot of sense.
I allowed myself to agree with people when they told me I was cynical, moody, judgmental, brutally honest. I could tell before they could when I was turning cold inside. I realized that being invited into a problem that didn’t involve me meant that I was being thrown into an issue I would not be able to solve and that sort of impotence infuriated me. To this day I have not gotten over my anger about the notion that people who are monsters cannot possibly be reasoned with and I go to sleep at night wondering if it’s easier to be monstrous and I know it must be because I’ve seen several monsters sleep clear through thunderstorms and huge claps of lightening.
I stayed away from drugs that could rob my bank account of funds and the prettiness from my face. I learned there are certain things I should just keep my mouth shut about and I should have earned a degree in REASONING WITH PEOPLE ABOUT ISSUES I’VE YET TO FULLY UNDERSTAND. I play the peacekeeper and I have for years and I wonder sometimes if anyone else knows how exhausting it is, but I don’t dare ask. Other people may be afraid of you, but I’m not one of them, I told someone recently. I never will be. Then I came home from permanently destroying my relationship with that person and put on my sluttiest shirt and I didn’t wear a bra even though it was January and I saw in the mirror that my eyes looked dead because they’d finally caught up to my heart.
I sat with an old friend from high school and we paged through a photo album of how we used to be before a crease or three lined the sides of our eyes. He’s someone I used to get partially naked with now and then all those years back, but he never saw me fully naked and as we flipped the pages, he remarked that I didn’t whip my top off in front of a lot of guys back then the way so many of our other female friends once did. I never judged those girls for their choices, but I thought it wise to be careful of my own heart. It seemed pretty clear – even at seventeen – that nobody else was about to look out for me and I wanted to protect myself.
It’s that last lesson where I’ve floundered over the years. Maybe the layered nonsense of having to be an adult caused me to give people extra chances the way I never considered doing in my past. Maybe the absence of a father made me crave the embrace of male love. Or maybe it’s just impossible to constantly heed a lesson about being careful when you’re the kind of person who holds her breath and then ducks under the waves.
Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle. Also be sure to check out her website at nellkalter.com Her Twitter is @nell_kalter