I started playing the saxophone in middle school because it was a boys’ instrument; girls played flute and clarinet. I played saxophone and I made sure I was better than all the boys, which didn’t necessarily change anyone’s mind about saxophone being a boys’ instrument but did earn me a little bit of respect, and a little bit of self-respect for doing something unexpected and unique.

Playing music taught me that it feels fantastic to be recognized for being good at something. It feels especially fantastic when you don’t have to work too hard at it. I was fortunate to pick music up fairly quickly — to slide by on “‘talent.” I never had to practice as hard as some of my bandmates, which came back to bite me. When I reached the point where I needed to practice to reach a higher level — in my case, being a good improvisational soloist in jazz band — I didn’t know how to put in the work. Frustrated and uncomfortable at not being the best anymore, I started selling myself short to avoid rejection. I decided I was a good accompanist. That was true, it was also an excuse to skirt the fear of not being a good soloist by never trying. I deferred my soloing opportunities to other people in the band. Eventually I chose to stop playing entirely rather than grow through the growing pains of becoming talented. In the process, I failed to learn that talent is something you develop, not something you have or don’t.

Shortly thereafter I went off to college and into a variation of the same process. I’d always been at the top of my classes, the “smart girl,” again without having to try too hard. I was unprepared to go from a high school with a graduating class of five hundred to a university where one of my classes might have five hundred people attending lectures and competing for grades. I’d been a big fish in a smallish pond, and someone had dropped me into a big, deep, cold ocean. To further complicate things, I’d decided I would study science because it was important, because I thought it would be the most prestigious choice, not because I felt a driving passion for it. Biology fascinates me, but it doesn’t sparkle in my blood the way books and language do. Being average and having to work my ass off for something I didn’t love was uncomfortable and unpleasant. I got my first C+, then my first C-. Flashcards didn’t help, home-drawn posters of organic chemical molecules didn’t help. I called my mother and cried.

Eventually I switched over to study language. This made me happy, and I thrived in the new program. Still, I couldn’t let myself off the hook for changing paths — for “failing” at science. I spent a damn long time selling myself short by making excuses. Science had been too hard. I wasn’t as smart as the other students. I was too poor; I had to work, so I couldn’t study enough to be competitive. By switching to the humanities I could have two majors and a minor, not just one major.

All these barriers to success. All these barriers to admitting that I wanted something, and going for it. All these barriers to being myself. I was getting my ass kicked over tiny little things, but I wasn’t learning anything except how to be stuck. I wasn’t learning to fail gracefully or how to risk until I earned a reward. I was following one safe path until it turned rocky and narrow, then cutting across to a new one. I never had to ask myself what I wanted, or what I was good at, or what it would take to combine those two things. And now it’s ten years later, and I still feel stuck.

It feels so personal and isolating, but there’s really nothing special about this struggle. I’m not the only cog in the machine that thinks she’s the only one keeping everything going, but I’m not. None of us are, really, which should be more liberating than frightening. Everything goes on without us; except to the people we love, we’re each completely unnecessary. And to the people we love, we’re each already everything we need to be.

I had that thought alone in the middle of a rainforest, and it was the most beautiful and liberating moment of my life so far. I have that thought here, back in the middle of the machine, and I freeze up in fear. Why the difference?

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phoenix

April 24 was the day I left my marriage. April 22 was the day I told my husband I would leave him, but I stayed to pack a bag and attend one final counseling session to hash out the nuts and bolts of a separation. That’s what I called it a separation. Not because I thought I might ever come back, but to soften the blow a little, to ease him into it. As an intended kindness, I suppose, though maybe it would have been better to let the wave hit all at once.

April 24 was the last day of the most painful period of my life thus far, and the first day of my scrabble back to myself. It’s the day I remembered what it felt like to be my own person, and nearly the day I started to forget again. Within a few months of leaving, I tried to tangle myself up inside another person, began changing my plans to give them what they need, making the same concessions that had caused me so much grief in my marriage. I decided to give myself a year to be single before I entered into another relationship; a year on my own. And so I marked a year in my calendar. On April 24, 2013, I’d be ready to be with someone again: Game on.

It was arbitrary, sure, and it didn’t exactly work out that way. To be honest, the anniversary might have passed me by as nothing more than a bad patch, if not for the note in my calendar. I might have thought that the bouts of anxiety, mysterious tears, and sadness had to do with the changing seasons, or the travel I’d been doing, or were just a part of me. I might have forgotten about this final milestone, forgotten that I was — am — marking the anniversary of my “before” life going up in flames.

But I’d left myself a reminder, and it’s clear that the symptoms will linger beyond a day. Because it wasn’t just the walking out on April 24; I’d been on fire for a solid month before I admitted that I couldn’t stand any longer and pretend everything was fine. I watched everything turn to ash around me, watched the person I thought I was go white hot around the edges and lose her features.

My body stores memories just as much as my psyche; I feel the tension I carried in my shoulders and across my back. I feel the pressing on my chest, recognize the shallow breathing. I need more sleep, I crave more food, my hands and feet refuse to stay warm. I brace myself to fight at the slightest whisper of confrontation. My muscles remember the motions required to keep my spirit alive.

My body remembers the fire.

The only boy who could ever reach me (and all the rest of them)

He always was the kind of boy that Dusty Springfield ought to sing about; the son of a preacher man, gentle and sweet with a hint of wicked. I loved him in that aching, desperate way teenage girls do. I wrote poems, lived to hear him play guitar, clung to his image with wanton abandon. I kissed him in the backseat as our friends drove, held his hand as we ran through dirty festival grounds and tangled up together in stacks of straw. I fawned, and pined, and waited for him to fall in love with me.

He didn’t.

Somehow he never knew. Maybe that’s why we remained friends. Tangentially: the love that filled the room when we got together could suffocate you, but we didn’t get together that often, keeping up with each other through word of mouth, pictures on the internet, that special metaphysical gravity that you develop with the people you love when you’re young. Miles, states, coasts apart, we continued to orbit each other and the sun of a shared history. Then, something shifted. We aligned again.

Summertime, he came through my town for seven hours: ready, set, go. Lord, I’d missed him. Stealing kisses from me on the slide.

Winter found me on a bus headed toward Baltimore and familiar arms. Taking time to make time. Twirl me, I said before I came. Show me your city.

Teach me again is what I meant.

Teach me again how to dive into love like I did back then. Teach me how to offer the back of my hand for a kiss, how to rest my hand on your chest before we kiss. Take my face into your hands and send lessons firing like sparks up and down my spine. Climb up on the roof and give me the sunset, flirt with the people selling food on the street. Dance with me while we wait for dessert, because they played your song and because we can. Decide this will be our anniversary, and remind me every year. Be wild and tender and romantic, then hold on to me tight, I’m leaving in the morning. Remind me how it can be. I’m leaving in the morning.

He did.

He plays bass now, mostly; upright, an instrument you embrace and coax notes from. His hands are still graceful and wise. He writes in verse, even if we don’t call it poetry anymore. And he will forever, ever, ever reach me.

*****

When I was younger I fell in love hard, and frequently. I suppose I still do, to a certain extent. I love making eyes, flirting, first kisses and the moment right before when the world swims through closing eyes.

Now that those pleasures are available to me again, I’ve been taking advantage where I can. I wouldn’t have guessed, but the best new connections I’ve made have been old ones. I’m being taken apart and put back together by a small army of familiar small-town boys.

Most of them are new to me in one way or another, but the difference between old-new boys and the new-new ones is that I don’t have to be anything for the old ones. There are no expectations; they already know me as someone, so I don’t feel like I have to change to please them (which is something I do with new people). And surprise surprise, they want to be with me anyway.

And each one of them who remembers me who I was before I knew to hide her, and loves me anyway? Each one of them chips off a little bit of the plaster I used to cover over myself. Each one peels another onion layer, leaves me a little more vulnerable and a little more safe in that vulnerability. Each one heals me a little more.

He’d kiss & tell me everything is all right…

the beginning

Let’s call him S, mostly because his name doesn’t start with S.

I was sixteen when we met. During the summer. We must have crossed paths two years prior, during the year we attended the same high school, but it would have been just that – walking past each other in a hallway. Certainly we didn’t know each other until he’d graduated, and I’d come into my own a little more.

Still, it was just after I started school that year that something stirred and I began announcing to my girlfriends that I thought my soul mate this time around was male (announcing this even as I was deeply in love with one of those friends, and trying to get into the pants of several, and oh oh do I feel silly typing all this out), and that we’d already come across one another. I didn’t think back on that much, until recently.

Anyway, summer. I’m sure we met through mutual friends. I don’t specifically remember our first contact, nor do I remember our first kiss (though I wrote a journal entry describing it with more than a little heat). My first major memory isn’t really of him at all, it’s of letters I wrote to him. Four days after that first kiss (again, I know this thanks to my journals), my aunt took me to Europe, and rather than documenting my travels in a journal, I wrote daily letters on ruled yellow paper and sent them off to him in thick packets. I bought all my envelopes in Italy; they were orange and if I folded my letters in half twice — lengthwise, then crosswise — they fit perfectly. I’d always intended to copy those letters down into a proper journal, and I tried several times, but I only finished last year, after I moved into the house I bought with (for) my ex. Just a few months before S showed up again.

(Lord, this is going to be a really long story if I keep up with these tangents.)

So, after knowing S for a very short time, I trusted him with all my memories of the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me. I trusted him blindly, and though it’s not the point, he lived up to it (except for one letter that succumbed to water damage when he slept outside with it and it rained). I spent three weeks in Europe with him tucked in my pocket, on the tip of my mind.

When I got home I found letters he had written to me on his own summer travels, letters with paragraphs I remembered exactly all this time. Sometime that summer I made copies of my letters to him; fifteen years later I finished copying them into my journal. And in between, life trucked along.