The snow came down in flakes so large and fluffy that they reminded me instantly of that book I used to love when I was little, the one about the boy who experienced so much delight during a snowy day that he tried to keep a bit of it as something tangible so he shoved a snowball in his pocket to have a memento of the moment. It’s always during the very early mornings or the middle of the nights when the tales I read as a child feel the most present and maybe it’s because I feel then like I am myself part of a waking dream. It’s funny – those mini memories never wind around any of the major memories from that time. I think far more about how I loved Sesame Street and the way I knew every single word of that Blondie album than I ever reflect upon my parents’ divorce or how I went from not even thinking about something like heat to knowing quite well what kerosene smells like.
Many years ago, I made an appointment with a therapist. I can recall perfectly what he looked like and where the box of tissues sat in his office and that one potholed-lined parking space outside, but I cannot remember what caused me to go see him in the first place. I know that I was feeling depressed then. If I close my eyes for just a second, I can still feel in that bottom part of my stomach those thuds of panic the feeling of being lost created within me. I know that I dressed up slightly for our first meeting because it was, for some reason, very important to me that my new doctor would understand that I clean up well. I know that I didn’t rehearse a single thing I said on the way over and that I didn’t feel nervous about any part of the process because I was too bleary-minded to hope for anything except for relief from the pain that had taken up residence in my head and seemed to have no plans to vacate the premises, no matter how hard I’d tried to reason with it like it was a professional squatter. I’ve always found that being proactive – that making a plan – is the first step on my way to feeling somewhat whole again and this therapy visit was my first step and I’d arranged it all on my own and I would be paying for it all on my own and I would eventually return home after the appointment was over and I would then, once again, be all on my own.
I gave up my demons quickly. There was no casual chitchat required. I sat dry-eyed and recounted what I’ve come to now see as the table of contents from my early days: The Divorce; The Day I Was Five and Was Taught the Word Austerity; The Resentful Sibling; The Custody Shift; That Time My Father Died In Front of Me. I watched as my therapist jotted things down on a yellow notepad he held in his lap and I became aware of the few seconds when he just kind of stared at me when I shrugged and said, “Pain happens to everyone.” It took me a few sessions to convince him that such a statement wasn’t an act on my end – it wasn’t my way of achieving a sense of cool by the embracing of the blasé – but instead it was my legitimate mindset and there was no changing it. I was a child and then an adolescent and I’m now a woman who pays attention to the way someone’s eyes squint when recalling aloud a tough memory. I notice easily the stories that compel a man to laugh shortly and gruffly so the story will be over more quickly and I knew early and I knew always that pain is pain and we all walk around with some of it.
I didn’t stay in therapy very long, and just as I can’t really remember what it was that made me go in the first place, I’m not positive about what caused me to stop. I know that at a certain point I would sit on his couch and complain about a few assholes at work and the venting felt nice, but the rest of me felt somehow healed and I rarely woke up in the morning wishing for the darkness. The lessons I learned during that time in my life were, on some level, things I had already known and they had to be reiterated to me, I suppose. I learned that to forgive someone is a mark of strength and that to be weak is a choice and I internalized those lessons again and swallowed them like a pill and made a deal with myself that I would keep them inside of me forever.
Somewhat ridiculously – but not really, not if you know me – the reminder of all that I know and all that I am came back to me in a burst on a very recent morning while I sat on my couch with a cup of black coffee and a sweet white puppy and flicked on my TV and settled in for a day of full body vegetation because I had myself a snow day that came courtesy of a blizzard. Although I’d gotten word the night before that work was cancelled, my body was used to rising before the sun and so there I sat, awake and not at all annoyed, because the truth is that I can get up at any early hour just so long as nobody expects me to do things like shower and flatiron my hair and think about how I can best impact the lives of teenagers. But to sit on my couch in sweatpants and an old Motley Crue tee was something I could handle and I smiled for real when I scrolled through the channel guide and saw The Breakfast Club had just started on one of the cable channels.
I caught it right at the beginning, right at the Bowie quote, the one whose significance I didn’t fully understand the very first time I saw the movie. I’ve seen The Breakfast Club a zillion times, but it’s been a while since I’ve seen it from the beginning. I still knew every single line and that didn’t surprise me – in fact, I’ve more than once told someone that, should we ever be stranded on a desert island, I could help us pass the time between gathering coconuts and building a rescue fire by reciting several movies in their entirety. It’s been a longstanding joke of mine for years that the reason I know almost nothing about math or geography is because there are too many movie lines and song lyrics crowding up the real estate in my head, but I’d be a liar if I told you that I was ashamed of that side of me. I’d also be a liar if I told you that I ever thought Molly Ringwald looked particularly pretty in pink, but I do know that I was only nine years old when I saw the lace-up brown leather boots she wore in the film and I wondered how old I’d have to be to get a pair like that for myself.
Watching the movie was an easy way to pass the time and a convenient way to get my mind off the things I wanted to escape from, but it also got me thinking because the essay the authority figure in the movie demanded those kids write during their long day of detention kept bouncing around my head throughout the rest of my day. You know how it can be when the snow is still falling all those many hours later and the world feels like it’s somehow come to a standstill and you gaze out the window to try to ground yourself in something that resembles reality and all you can see is a mile of pure whiteness and remnants of the sky falling through the illumination of the streetlamps? And so I filled a bath with scalding hot water and dumped in a ton of that silver Philosophy Snow Day gel and slid easily until I was submerged with my hair piled high on top of my head in a messy bun and I wondered, for the first time in a really long while, the same thing those movie characters had been asked to consider: Who do you think you are?
Me? I’m so calm that sometimes I feel internally comatose. I react with logic even though it doesn’t always serve me well in an illogical world. I pick up on cues and clues that I would do anything on this earth to have been able to ignore. I mull things over in my head before I say them out loud.
I get frazzled when there’s something in my life that I cannot control and that frazzled feeling immediately leads to a quiet panic that comes out in words that sound cold and detached, but it’s the only way I’ve found that works for me so I can somehow keep it all together. I sometimes go quiet for days on end and even responding to a text feels like it could maybe take too much energy. The people who know me best now accept this from me and I know which ones will get nervous if I’m out of touch, so I will be sure to send them a quick message that buys me a little more time and a lot more solitude.
I never speak without weighing my words because I know the power they have. I laugh easily and loudly and people then laugh at my laugh. I wear mostly black even though I look better in white and I will probably never be fully content with my appearance.
Weak people bother me far more than cruel people, and that’s something I still don’t completely understand, but my guess is that one of my biggest fears is being weak and being confronted with walking weakness is like experiencing a cautionary tale come to life. That said, I’m not someone who particularly embraces cruel people, but I wonder about them a lot and their motives and what it must do to a soul to be so ruthless and how freeing it has to be on some level to never worry about the corroding of something you can’t see, like a soul.
I’m a very good friend, loyal and considerate. I will remember a birthday and bake something that person will love. I know how to just keep quiet and let someone speak. I also know how rare it is to find a true friend as an adult, to find someone who will root for you and celebrate your accomplishments and hold your hand through the worst of times, and I have learned to tread carefully so as not to compromise the human blessings that have come my way.
Someone I recently met asked me if there is someone I tell everything to, and I thought about it for a good few silent seconds and then responded, “There are a few people who know just about everything.” The truth there is that some things I just can’t allow myself to share, not while they’re happening anyway. Maybe I’ll break later and recount the entire story, but chances are high that I’ll leave a few anecdotes out. It’s not shame exactly that keeps me from being completely forthcoming, especially because I know that those few people I trust with my world will not encourage me to embrace that shame. I’m not exactly sure what it is, but I’m guarded and I decided long ago to deal with the worst of it on my own. It’s a choice, but it’s not one I’m particularly proud of making.
I hear songs on the radio and, like everyone else with hearing and the capacity for memory, I am shuttled through my life and reminded of hot nights on wraparound porches and afternoons spent in basements and lying atop towels on a beach and driving alone in my car. At this point there are no songs off limits to me, meaning I can listen to anything and – transported or not – I don’t shake and pray for silence. I used to be that girl, the one who couldn’t hear something that reminded me of a day when I’d been happier, but now I see my past and the regrets that live there as things I’ve survived and I actually feel stronger when I hear the chorus of a song that used to sort of terrorize me. I see it as being akin to watching a scary movie for real and not peeking at the carnage through the protection of my fingers.
I speak carefully to the people I love and I know all of their positive qualities just as I’ve catalogued their flaws. I know who I can rely upon for real and I know who just really wants to talk about themselves. I sometimes hang up the phone with certain people and I’ll look at a picture of my father that sits atop my coffee table and then I’ll close my eyes for a second and wonder if my ability not to explode comes from him. I think I get a lot from him. About a week ago, someone told me that he figured my strength must have come from my dad and I thought hard and I really tried to remember if such a thing was true. “Some of it probably did,” I responded. “But he died when I was fourteen and I couldn’t have internalized all of those lessons by then.” I think now it’s just life and a resolve that has taught me to be strong.
It takes me a long time to get over a heartbreak and my biggest regret in life is the way that I’ve wasted time. I’m not someone who believes that every single miserable moment occurs for a reason and the most voracious fights I’ve had are with myself for walking into a situation I knew from the start would cause me harm. Still, I have learned how to forgive, others and myself, and though I’m a person made up of some regrets, I don’t have many. I rarely regret how I treated someone because I have this kindness that defines me and no matter what difficulties fall into my path – no matter what difficulties I invite inside – that kindness is not going anywhere. For better or for worse, it’s just who I am. I wish I felt more proud of that.
I do the random things a lot of girls probably do. I accept Oscars in my shower and make speeches thanking the people who got me to a place where I held a Pantene bottle naked while imagining myself clad in Gucci, circa the Tom Ford days. I choose bras and matching thongs carefully if I think someone will see them. I question my own worth and sometimes weep into layer cakes. I dry my hair by dancing wildly to old school Dave Matthews and Pearl Jam’s Ten. I am sometimes crazily ambitious and sometimes lazy beyond comprehension. I used to be the world’s biggest procrastinator, but I destroyed that part of myself in my early twenties on the day when I waited until the very last second to write two twenty-page papers for grad school and I got both of those papers done in that one day and I earned an A for each, but I recall the fear and the knots of stress and the smash of awareness that I didn’t have to put myself through such complete wretchedness. I didn’t have to type until I had callouses on my pointer finger and I didn’t have to look up desperately at a clock and puke up orange juice, the only thing I managed to consume that day and it didn’t even stay down.
I read constantly and I recommend certain books to the people I really love. I almost get offended if they don’t shove their entire lives to the side and start reading those books immediately and not every person is recommended to read the same book. There’s a piece of me that thinks that if I can choose a book that will alter your life in the very best of ways it’s because I really and truly know you and I’ve lived enough life to understand that there are not that many people who will ever know someone for real. If someone I meet shrugs at these movie titles, I know we will never be close: Pulp Fiction, Fight Club, The Graduate, Almost Famous. I sat at dinner with someone late one evening and listened as he attempted to convince me that any work Springsteen had released post-The River was a disappointment and I waited for him to finish embarrassing himself before I looked him straight in the eye and then said, “Everyone is entitled to an opinion. And your opinion is wrong.” I came home and called a friend of mine to tell her of the horror I’d just lived through and she commended me for not stabbing him hard with a fork.
I thought about all of this while I watched The Breakfast Club and how one of the things that was so convenient for that movie was the way a collection of stereotypes learned to embrace their individuality and, by doing so, they embraced one another. But I know I have never been a stereotype. I am smart and wise – they are two very different things – and I’m also consumed by all I don’t yet know. I am pretty and sometimes riddled with self-doubt. I am the friendliest person in the entire room who often just wants to be left alone. I love the nighttime even though I’m sometimes scared of my own dreams. I started lifting weights and was immediately stunned by my own strength, but all I could think about was how I wanted even more of it. Those kids in the movie, they initially labeled themselves as a brain, an athlete, a princesses, a basketcase, and a criminal and eventually an amalgam of all of those qualities – and they figured it out after just one day spent getting high in the most gorgeous school library in the history of fictional high schools. But me, I think I’m still trying to figure it all out and I hope I’m able to do it before the snow melts.
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