I used to sit in the passenger seat of my father’s tan car, stare hard at the blur of forest green woods just outside my window as we drove by them, and wonder if there were any dead bodies hidden back there. I was always somewhat certain that at least a few had to be buried underneath makeshift heaps of brown leaves that had turned a little bit grey from the rain.
I would walk across the docks in the harbor town where I grew up, the planks of old wood bending and creaking beneath the sneakers I used to wear then. I’d gaze out into the distance by squinting my eyes against the rainbow-colored glares of the sun. Far off, I could see glinting flecks of light that looked like silver sparkles dancing on the water’s surface that I knew were caused by the sun but I couldn’t help wondering if perhaps a mermaid had formed them herself when she took a break from brushing her long hair while reclining on a rock.
I went to sleep every night only after bracketing my body with stuffed animals. Cookie Monster slept on one side of me while my bear, Mr. Gerber, reclined on the other. I felt safer somehow if I wasn’t alone in my bed. I guess I still do.
I moved into my sorority house as a junior in college right after I’d spent part of the summer going on a true crime reading spree. Despite a rather overactive imagination that might have caused my parents great concern back in my toddler years, I grew up into a person who was able to talk myself out of getting too freaked out by the scary stories I enjoyed consuming for entertainment. But the tales about Ted Bundy freaked me out entirely because I just knew I was the kind of person who would have stopped to help carry some books if a nice-looking guy appeared to be struggling with them and I also knew that’s how Bundy got some of his victims. Lose that lining of naiveté you’ve still got surrounding your heart and your mind like Tupperware, I told myself once as the Bundy story kept me awake well into the early morning and I pulled my Cookie Monster closer. I finally managed to get over that fear. I just promised myself I would never stop to help some random person ever again and sure, I’ve struggled with such a proclamation, but I’ve comforted my tortured soul by explaining to it that at least it wasn’t being tortured in some psychopath’s basement.
I used to kiss the back of a ring my father gave me on the day I turned twelve after saying any prayer. My lips connecting with gold felt somehow like an extra surge of hope that brought me comfort, but I always made sure that nobody could see me do it because even I knew how weird it was.
I would lie awake some nights as my boyfriend slept easily beside me and I would check out the slope of his cheekbones and how his lashes would flutter ever so slightly and the way he would sort of purse his mouth like he was maybe about to say something and I would think for hours about whether or not it could be possible for me to care about this man long into the future because wasn’t there some kind of expiration date on romantic love and what would I do when just the sight of him didn’t leave me feeling fluttery and so fucking lucky?
At various times, I dreamed of becoming a doctor, a film critic, an actress, and a green water tower. I rarely wanted to play house with the childhood friends who lived on my block but I always wanted to play school. My favorite thing to do was to put on a show and I remember thinking my original productions were hysterical and so very clever and today I feel very badly about anyone who once had to sit through any of it.
I spent what felt like full summers in high school fraying the ends of jean shorts until they looked perfect, like they’d frayed naturally. Those shorts got shorter and shorter as I got more and more comfortable with my body. I’m quite sure that if I put on a pair today from back then, you’d be able to see my cervix. I took the laces out of Keds, wore a leather bomber jacket like Tom Cruise did in Top Gun, and bought sweaters at the Gap and J. Crew that everyone else already seemed to own. Still, I never once had hair that was covered with enough hairspray that it appeared petrified. Even my shitty style had its limits.
I’d go through stages every now and again that I recognize now were anxiety-ridden existential crises. Back then, though, the only way I’d be able to articulate what it felt like to wish desperately that I could unzip my own skin from my own body was to say, “I feel out of sorts.” I recall those snippets of life occurring more in the springtime back then. Today they show up in the late autumn when the year is inching towards a close and I know there is still so much I have left to accomplish.
At various moments in my life, the following were my favorite snacks: Fruit By the Foot, Rice Krispie treats, shelled raw peas, Pringles, gummy bears, gummy worms, crunchy cheese doodles, puffy cheese doodles, and Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food. I also sometimes only snacked on air when the dark thoughts would invade my head that whispered how nice having control might feel and that food consumption was one thing I could most certainly control completely.
Every time I took a vacation, I would feel a plummeting inside of me on the second to last day. I knew that soon it would be time to leave and return to life and responsibilities and I would feel let-down for sure, but I would also feel almost afraid of going back home and I never knew exactly what it was I was so afraid of and it was that unrelenting uncertainty that seemed to haunt me.
Sometimes I would stand in my shower and accept an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. I was often at my most creative in the shower so my acceptance speeches were fucking stellar. I rarely win awards in there anymore, but I do have long conversations with people I never actually was able to have in real life and my voice never catches with emotion because the beating down of the water makes me feel strong. I’ve missed certain people more than I ever have before while I was standing in my shower on some random Wednesday, the conditioner settling deep into my dark hair as something inside of me that I’d tried to ignore for such a long time shattered and I raised my face to the stream of hot water so I could stop feeling my own tears.
I fantasied for years about being in a band. I was always the lead singer in my vivid figments of tone-deaf imagination. I’m slightly embarrassed to say that I think it was the potential admiration that sponsored that long-running fantasy, but I am not at all embarrassed to tell you that I was always very gracious to all of my invisible fans.
And now I’ve changed. I don’t have many one-sided conversations in the shower anymore because there’s not too much I have left to say. I’ve gone from being broken to being defiant, from feeling angry to choosing to forgive. I’ve trusted too easily and I also didn’t trust nearly enough. I laughed through pain and made excuses to allow myself to feel better just for one single second and I turned fury inward when it should have radiated like a scalding beam of light from my eyes. I’ve apologized for being wrong and for being hurtful and I’ve forgiven people for causing me harm because I just feel lighter inside when I can really and truly tell myself that I just don’t have to care so much anymore.
But I’ve also chosen to stop forgiving so easily in my present. And I don’t really care how this sounds: I’m very aware of the blessings being close to me can add to someone’s life – and I’m more than okay now if someone who’s earned that absence has to suffer just a little bit because I’m not there anymore.
Other changes? Well, I went from not ever eating breakfast to spouting to the masses that it is indeed the most important meal of the day. I’ve become a wet dream come true for the Board of Directors of Egg Beaters’ and I’ve sat back and contemplated how differently the day feels when I start it feeling hungry. I don’t quite know how to explain it, but when I feel ravenous for food at the crack of dawn, I also sort of feel ravenous about everything else and I’m just more on-point with my goals – and I’m not at all uncomfortable about going after all I have decided that I want.
I’ve learned that the adage of time healing wounds is somewhat true, but I don’t think all wounds can be healed; it’s a shrugging internal acceptance that tells me I’ll eventually be just fine.
I sometimes tell people not to read what I write and I tell others that I’m really sorry, but once I write something, I’m just done discussing it. Feel free to talk about it amongst yourselves, but I’m not interested in clarifying anything or having a debate and I certainly will not ease any of the fears you think have been caused by something I’ve typed because whatever it is you’re really afraid of is racing inside of your own mind and that’s where it lives so resolve the matter on your own. I recognize that’s an odd stance to take and that maybe it’s just a little bit selfish – and I don’t give a shit.
And that last sentence? That’s something I didn’t used to feel.
I’ve moved from being slightly suspicious of certain things to knowing with absolute certainty that my suspicions were correct. A small part of me even laughed about the capacity for deception in others and how much cruelty is able to soar but I’m just not surprised by a lot anymore. I question motives and actions and reactions and I felt a weird combination of being both tremendously sad and tremendously proud when someone I know inflicted some truly horrible things on people I’m close to and I was asked, “Aren’t you shocked?” and I was able to softly answer, “Not in the least.”
I think good people will always be wired to be good and bad people cannot actually change. I no longer care if the world at large is good at heart; I just don’t want any of those people to vote for Donald Trump. That said, I also believe Trump is going to win in a way an old version of myself never would have admitted, but I guess some of the optimism that used to define me has started to rust.
But even though a part of me has hardened in ways that are probably both necessary and unavoidable, my smile looks the exactly the same. I smile so widely and so often that it was only yesterday when someone stopped me in a hallway to say, “You always look so happy!” That smile is – has always been – exactly who I am. It’s a smile that comes from joy and from hope and from regard and from harnessing a realization or three. The dimples in my cheeks sometimes indent deeply and sometimes you can only see them in a flash or a flicker, but that smile is not for show. It’s the same smile I had when I turned to my father and asked him if he thought there were any dead bodies buried in the woods. It’s the same smile I wore the night I glanced over at that guy lying beside me before I started fretting about the future. That smile looks very similar to the one on my face when I won my shower Oscar by a landslide and it’s exactly the one that covered my face when I wrote something that made me feel like I had finally solved a mystery that had been living inside of me for way too long.
That smile is living proof that a part of me will never really change.
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.