Moments Before Thirty

I am seventeen. Maybe just turned eighteen. Washing the dishes, thinking about having broken another school record in the 200 meter dash that afternoon.

I am so happy I’m not sure how I’m staying in my skin. I had won. I had beaten my demons. After years of running injured I had learned how to run healthy. I was young and strong and exactly who I wanted to be.

I started to dance to the music on the radio. A strong, athletic dance. Lots of leaps. The dish soap flew off my hands and onto the window in front of me. Obscuring my reflection against the dark outside.

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Journal entry Nov. 9, 1986. Age 20.

Driving on my way to my new job a few weeks ago, I break into a big smile. Two moments before, I realized I would be turning 30 in a couple of months. One moment before, I remembered what I was like at 20. How upon hearing about someone who was 24, I marveled at how anyone could have the endurance to live so long. If you had told me then that I would live to be 30, that I had to, I might have crumpled up in a heap right there.

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I am 18 again. Broke yet another school record at the track meet that afternoon. The track bus stopped for ice cream at the dairy bar near the school. I got a soft chocolate cone and am finishing it as I bound into the evening review class for the advanced placement history exam, a little late. My hair is pulled back into a pony tail. My teacher asks me how I did. I say, okay. He asks me if I won. I say I did.

He tells me my classmate Tim qualified for the state swimming meet that afternoon. He said something about how he was happy for our success — then backtracks and says, of course, people are never truly happy at others’ success. People are too jealous. We secretly hope others will come to ignominious ends, he says.

The other students take the remark in stride. I take exception to it and my teacher beams at me. I am making him smile wistfully. I stop in mid-sentence and joke, “What? Am I being naïve again?”

He smiles. Takes the question a bit too seriously and says, “Yes, you are. But it’s nice, it’s wholesome and refreshing.” He pauses, looks a little sad. “It’s dangerous, though.”

I joke to a friend later that he has killed any chance I have to be popular with this “wholesome and refreshing” stuff. I joke, but I am strangely unsettled. I know he’s right. I sense the danger. I am young and strong and exactly who I want to be.

But I know he’s right. I just don’t know the specifics.

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I am still eighteen, but much, much older. I am a college freshman on break after my first semester. I have just gotten out of the hospital. I was in for six days when I was only supposed to be in for one. And, I am worn out.

I had a cyst removed from the base of my spine. The cyst was bigger than expected, with gnarled fingers that went in deep — amazing really how deep with no real clue on the surface, my doctor says.

I go to visit my old track coach at the high school. It is profoundly sad that I do this.

I am thinking that it’s safe. We have agreed, no more. It was awful for me, my first time. Not quite as painful as the cyst surgery but more painful than the knee surgery the year before. He hissed at me to shut up when I cried out in pain. The physical pain was the least of it. That healed. The other times were not much better.

But I figured I was safe this time. We had agreed and there was nothing sexy about me that day. Tired from the hospital. Smelling of gauze. My ass a pillow of bandages, dried blood and iodine. And we had already agreed.

And he was my coach, my favorite person in the world. The man who had looked into my teenage heart and figured I must be sad that I never had a boyfriend. I thought that was so perceptive. To ask me about it, so caring. Nobody else thought to do that.

He told me not to worry, that boys were sending me signals but I just wasn’t seeing them. He said that I’d make some man very lucky some day. And when he said it, I believed it.

Later, I learned he was just fishing to find out if I was a lesbian. He didn’t want to make a pass at me if I was a lesbian. That would be wrong.

So, I’m figuring I’m safe. I haven’t felt pretty in a long time anyway — if I ever did — but now it’s official. I can’t even shower yet. There is nothing sexy about me. And I still have to believe that he cares about me, that I am worth more to him than this.

I am tired, worn out from a semester of losing everything I ever believed in, including myself. Worrying about maybe being pregnant and not being able to tell anyone who the father is. Not being able to tell anyone, anything, ever.

Then I get a cyst the size of a gnarled hand tugging on my spine, keeping me up nights with the physical pain. It’s war and I’m the only one fighting against a shower of bombs. Those who are supposed to help are the ones with the bombs.

And I’m thinking: I could really use a hug. That’s why I go back there. I’m thinking it’s safe and I could really use a hug.

And I don’t get one. He agrees, best not to risk popping my stitches because that would have to be explained to the doctor. We’ll do it the other way.

I say no. I say I just want a hug. I hug him. His arms stay down at his sides until one moves up to push my head down. I say no, softly, all the way down. He is wearing a maroon sweater that I will never be able to get off my cheek completely. You can call it rape, or not, but both he and I know it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference whether I say no. I’m not sure why I bother. I’m just not going to get a hug. That’s all I know as I’m choking.

In a moment of self-preservation, it is as if I step out and quietly witness the scene from behind and above. Then I go back in to pick myself up, drive myself home.

And I am young and broken and not really a person anymore.

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Six months before that, I am standing on the stage at my high school graduation. I have won a lot of awards and my classmates give me a spontaneous standing ovation. I look down. I pretend I don’t see them doing this.

A couple of months later, I go to the high school to say my good-byes before going off to college, which is only an hour away from my hometown. My 30-year-old coach, who has a young son and a pregnant wife, takes me into the school basement, shows me a PlayGirl magazine and a hard-core magazine featuring a porn star who reportedly had the world’s longest penis.

I am standing with a man who, before this, had never even cursed in front of me. A sweet-natured and funny all-American type who played football for Notre Dame. People had marveled at how alike we were — like brother and sister, almost. The letter I wrote thanking him for being such a great coach, saying how I would never forget him, was probably still lying around somewhere in his home.

He points out sexual positions in the hard core porn magazine and asks me if I would like to try them. I am so bewildered all I can say is, “with who?” And he, a little taken aback at the question, says, “With me.”

He is holding onto me, a stranger breathing into my hair, waiting for my decision. I am thinking where the door is, focusing on the light coming in from the stairway, which seems far away. He lets go of me to walk further into the dark basement where he has a gym mat all set up for me.

I feel a flash of anger at his cockiness, that is he so sure I will follow. The anger propels me the other way, up the stairs and into the light. I am free if I want to be because my legs will take me anywhere. Fast.

He calls to me to wait, sounding like his normal good-natured self and it’s too much, this having to run from him. So I wait. I pretend for a moment that we are what we were and that everything isn’t ruined, because I really need it not to be. Have never needed anything so much.

He catches up to me. He tells me he’ll walk me to my bike. On the way he hisses at me that he may not be as big as the porn star but he is sure he is big enough for me.

I want to spit at him, but I can’t, because he is my coach and my favorite person in the world and I don’t know what to do.

So I get mad at myself for wanting to spit.

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Maybe five years before that, I am standing in junior high gym class. A friend strikes up a conversation with me and we chat. She is one of those girls destined to be a high school outcast. She is overweight, a poor student, not gifted socially. But, she is a nice person. So I feel deeply lousy when she leaves and one of my friends makes a fat joke about her and I don’t make the slightest protest. I vow to myself that I won’t do that again. And, I don’t.

One of my mottos was, “Feelings are everywhere. Be gentle.” I read it in the Quotable Quotes section of the Readers Digest. It sticks because it makes feelings tangible to me. I can picture them, easily hurt by unkindness.

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I am five years old and standing in front of a cliff. It is maybe 15 feet high, which when you’re five is a mountain. I resolve to climb it. There is no one around and I know I must begin climbing before someone sees me and stops me. I am really scared, but it is something I must do, so I do it. Carefully, painstakingly, making sure each foot and handhold was secure, I reach the top where the view is beautiful, even if it is just of the road I walk every day.

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I am three years old and at the hospital. There is something wrong with my kidneys. I haven’t gone to the bathroom in a long time and everyone is worried — except me. I don’t see what the big deal is. Don’t see why the night before I wasn’t allowed to go see Mary Poppins because I was sick, but didn’t feel sick.

They put me in a bathtub in the hallway and leave me alone. Nurses walk by, no one seems to notice me. I’m supposed to go to the bathroom in the tub, but I am potty trained by this point and so don’t understand why they want me to do what I’m not supposed to do. I look down past my chest into the water. It is a very short distance. My chest is smooth and white, my tummy a little chubby. The water is a chalky white.

Later, I am in my room in the children’s ward, in a crib with a locked top. I can see the lock, know I can’t get out. I am miserable and trapped. My eyes scan the cartoon characters on the wall. Daffy Duck. Bugs Bunny. Tweety Bird. In one of the beds, an older child is crying. It is a monotone moaning sound and it just makes me feel more miserable.

I look at the lock. I don’t cry because I am a good girl.

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Journal entry Nov. 23, 1986.

I am twenty and crying. Not quite believing how I got so far gone but since I was, wasn’t the best thing just to go completely? I am in bed, with the covers thrashed off. Naked because I can’t stand to have anything touching me, can’t even have my fingers touching each other. They are outstretched like I am telling people I am five years old.

I am crazy. There is nothing left of me but pain and what I want to do to end it is to fill the tub with water, get in and then throw a plugged in iron in. I remember a movie from years before where someone is murdered by jumping into an electrocuted pool. This is how I want to murder myself.

It has been nearly two years since I was on my knees in my coach’s supply closet behind his classroom. The picture perhaps too ugly to hold allure even for him. We decide to pretend that the whole thing never happened. That he was just my coach and I am just some girl who ran for him.

It is more pleasant this way. I put up a good front, get good grades, make my friends laugh with an automatic wit that encases me like glass. But each night the only way I can fall asleep is to pretend I’m dying and take comfort in the thought that maybe I wouldn’t have to wake up in the morning.

I write to my coach at the school for help. I say I am stupid and that it is all my fault, but that I didn’t want to live. Was that okay?

He ignores the letters. I go to visit him and he tells me his father always told him never to leave “written evidence.”

My coach’s father drank too much. When he did, he beat his son. I knew this from before, when he explained why he did not drink and was so strict that his athletes didn’t either. One of the things I loved about him when I was a kid was his determination to be a different kind of dad, a different kind of person. There is reason to hope that I am the only evidence that he failed.

But, in this moment, when I am 20 and alone, it dawns on me that it doesn’t matter one way or the other to him if I live. Maybe it is even better for him if I die.

It is a relief in a way. I had been living because I thought my death would make him feel bad. I didn’t want anyone to feel bad. And now I didn’t think anyone would.

What is stopping me this early winter night is that I’m thinking I should write a note, but I don’t know what to say. I figure I have to apologize to my roommate who will find me when she comes back from her weekend home. I don’t want her to have to go through this, but I am so far gone and really just can’t make it anymore and hope she will understand.

Then an inner voice tells me that I’m sniffling and my throat is scratchy — maybe I was coming down with something. It tells me to take some Alka Seltzer Plus Cold Medicine because that knocks me right out.

Suddenly, all that is left of my consciousness is dedicated to averting this cold. I get out of bed obediently, walk into the bathroom where I wanted to die and get the recommended dosage from the medicine cabinet. I take it to the kitchen, pour myself a glass of water, drop the tablets in and watch them fizz. I make a face as I drink it down. I put on my red high school track sweatshirt so I don’t catch a chill. Get back into bed and pull the covers over me. I fall into a deep sleep.

When I wake up the next morning, the first thing I check for is the cold. I don’t have one. I have beaten it after all.

Then I smile. I find myself amusing. I think how I wanted to die but I didn’t want to get the sniffles.

I get up and pull the shades on the window, look down at the street below, at the adult book store across the street. I make a decision. I tell myself, almost sternly, enough of the eternal debate. If I was going to kill myself it would have been last night. I missed my chance. End of story. Okay?

okay.

Then, having decided to live, in the next moments I decided how to live. I knew being a good gentle person with beautiful mottos to live by would not protect me. All bets were off. I could be anyone I wanted to be.

The years scroll out in front of me. Their weight makes me want to go back to bed and stay there. But I stay standing, making one more decision — that all I had left intact was my compassion. It must be protected at all costs. That’s where I start.

It wouldn’t protect me. Nothing would protect me. But I would protect it.

Journal entry March 9, 1987. Age 20. First draft of what would become a letter to the high school principal telling what happened.

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I am 29 and writing this essay and trying to figure out not only how to end it, but who to give it to when I do. People either give me standing ovations or recoil from me when I tell this kind of stuff. Neither reaction is necessary.

I talk for the same reasons anyone talks about the things that hurt them. There’s the noble reason of trying to prevent the same things hurting others. But, sometimes, it’s just to tell war stories, to let people know you’ve been through the fire. Sometimes it’s just that the pressure of silence becomes too much. You speak almost because you know you’re not supposed to.

But this particular bit of speaking is both part of a birthday celebration and to right an old wrong.

When I was twenty and decided to live, I thought the only way to do that was to pronounce the old me dead. I cut myself off not just from the eighteen-year-old on her knees in a dark supply closet, but from the eighteen-year-old who had the grace to be embarrassed by a standing ovation, the thirteen-year-old who chose kindness over popularity, the five-year-old who climbed mountains, the three-year-old who felt trapped and miserable in a locked hospital crib but did not cry. She refused to cry.

I had decided that I needed to start from scratch, that the old me was too broken, too battered, too far gone — and I didn’t know what about the old me had caused my favorite person in the world to decide it was ok to destroy me. So I decided to get rid of all of it and started new.

But I didn’t die. None of me died. It’s all still there. Sometimes I break my own heart when I see how I try to protect myself from a recurrence of the bad stuff, how I put spines and barriers up, how I go through life half-expecting to be slammed out of nowhere by someone I like.

But it’s the strength of the kid I was that gets me through all that. The kid who constantly worried over doing the right thing, who stood up to bullies until she met up with one who was just too big and meant too much — and who eventually stood up to him too. It was the kid who longed to lose herself in alcohol but refused to drink a drop because she knew that would kill any chance she had to get out of it. The kid who kept waking up every day, but was not sure why she did it.

She did it for me.

It was that kid who got me here, excited about my thirtieth birthday and my fortieth and my fiftieth. As many birthdays as I’m lucky enough to have. As many days as I’m lucky enough to have.

And it’s to that kid, who wasn’t afraid to be corny and sweet and funny and smart and brave, that I want to say I’m young and strong and exactly who I want to be.

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