July 14

I was working at Burger King that summer.

I had ditched my mall job at the Children’s Place earlier in the spring.  They were unhappy with my constant need to have this day off or that as my senior year schedule heated up.  I needed a lot of Fridays off, a lot of evenings for various awards assemblies and graduation activities.  My manager started complaining, and it didn’t take me long to look for something else.

My friend Karen was working at Burger King.  She told me that I could work whenever I wanted; they wouldn’t complain.  And I’d likely be able to work a ton in the summer to save up for college, when I hoped to not have to work.   A few other kids from school worked there, and nearly everyone we knew hung out there.  I’d been trying to avoid working fast food for years, but I wanted something that would fit better with my schedule.  It was a perfect fit.

Since I was also one of the few teenagers whose parents didn’t mind them out past midnight, I’d often find myself getting assigned the late shift.   The place closed at 2 in the mornings on the weekends.  By the time we got everything cleaned up, it would be three or so.  Who would sign up for that?

I did.  Our young, twenty something manager loved the hardworking crew of older teens he had working for him.  He would take us often out to breakfast afterwards, or he’d buy us beers and we would drink behind the restaurant after it closed.   There were many nights that summer when I would come home as my mother was getting up for work; she never said a word about my late hours.  She had to have known that Burger King wasn’t open quite that late.  But she never gave me any grief about it.

It was on one such morning, as I brushed my teeth while she curled her hair, that she was unusually bitchy.  I of course was unused to her saying anything about my crazy hours that summer, and so I finally said, “Gee, what is your problem today?”

“Today?  Today is my problem,” she answered curtly.  “Today is his birthday.”

It took only a second for me to know who she was talking about.  The baby she’d had and given up, the one that she’d told me about years ago.  I’d never known his birthday before, only the year.

The date was July 14, Bastille Day.  Now I knew:  my half brother was born on July 14, 1962.  He was, somewhere, celebrating his 26th birthday.

“I’m so sorry, Mom,” I told her and reached to hug her.

She didn’t have tears in her eyes, but she held on tight and returned the hug for longer than was usual for her.

We never mentioned that date again.

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This Changes Everything

I was waiting alone in front of a grocery store on a warm, May day in 1988.

I thought I looked pretty good, actually. I had picked my clothes carefully; I can still remember exactly what I wore. Black pants, a black tank top, and a white cardigan style knit top over the tank top. I dressed carefully because I wanted to look good that day.

I was going to see a performance by the school’s jazz band. I’d been invited the previous night by Joe, of my sixth hour independent music study. I’d been thinking about going anyway; all of my best friends these days were in the jazz band. There was Joe, of course, who had continued to grow his friendship with me while taking breaks from practicing for college auditions. There was Dean, a piano player who was so extraordinary in his talent that we all thought he might seriously be a little nuts. But he had a kind heart, and I had been getting closer with him this year as well. There was Mike, who was salutatorian to my valedictorian, and the other Mike, who was a year younger than us but had more talent than most of us. I knew pretty much everyone in the group, and liked them, so I wanted to support them by showing up. It wasn’t like a lot of people would show up to a grocery store performance.

When I showed up, I was the only person there. Everyone was grateful I’d shown up, and I soaked in the sun and the music gratefully. I was finally starting to feel good about my life; I was about to graduate, I had many new and wonderful friends, I knew what I wanted, finally. No one was pushing me down, I was moving forward. A few more people showed up as the performance began.

Dean and Joe invited me out after the performance. Dean was a piano player I’d been working with for a performance that was coming up. He and Joe happened to be best friends, so it was a natural thing; I knew and liked both of them. I was excited that they both wanted to spend some time with me, a girl. I respected them both for their musicianship; plus the both just seemed like cool guys.

Not only that, but I felt like something was happening with Joe. Each time I saw him, I felt like a thin wire was drawing us closer together. As the hours passed, I started to tick off small confirmations that he felt the same. Dean was driving the three of us; I would catch Joe looking at me and then quickly look away when I caught him at it. He offered to sit in the back seat with me so I wouldn’t be alone back there; his body was just a little closer than it needed to be. There were questions, there was talking, and suddenly it was evening and none of us wanted to leave each other’s company.

We went back to Dean’s house and to his finished basement. He had tons of music equipment down there; Dean and Joe started futzing on the equipment while I supplied an eager and interested audience. And then suddenly, Dean needed to leave; I don’t remember at all why. What I do remember was that Joe and I started joking and laughing, and then he was tickling me.

We were on the floor, laughing and rolling and giddy with all of the physical contact, when suddenly I looked into his eyes, with a question. A moment, a hesitation, and then we both moved towards each other with our mouths slightly open.

It was the longest, sweetest, slowest first kiss. It went on for what seemed like hours. I didn’t want it to stop; it was the most amazing feeling. I’d never experienced anything like it. It was sweet, like thick honey; I knew I should stop, but I just couldn’t.

We heard Dean coming back and pulled apart. We got up quickly off of the floor and sat together on the sofa, so close to each other that our legs were touching. Joe took my hand in his, and used his free hand to stroke the top of mine.

Dean took one look at us, with our flushed cheeks and intertwined hands, and said, “Oh, wow, that’s awesome! Good for you guys!”

Joe and I looked at each other; we both knew that this was going to be something big.

College Bound

It was official. Despite a rough year filled with roller coaster worthy ups and downs, despite several attempts at trying to take my own life, despite the therapy sessions that I was sure no one else I knew had to engage in, despite rotten choices all around me and self destructive behavior, in spite of all of those things, I still had done it.

I had been named class valedictorian, along with two other boys. I was going to give the benediction at graduation, the valedictory being given to one of the other “Vals”.

I had been accepted to every college I’d applied to. I had won a full scholarship to Wayne State University, the local urban university. I won a much smaller scholarship to Michigan State University. Calvin College in Grand Rapids also offered me a small stipend. Boston University and Tulane offered me nothing but their acceptances and well wishes.

My sister and brother had both gone to Wayne State. Both had dropped out of school prior to graduation. My sister had lived at home with us, driving downtown each day to attend classes. She dropped out in her sophomore year when her then boyfriend, now fiance, got terribly ill and was hospitalized.

My brother dropped out after his freshman year. My father, who had taken custody of him after three psychiatric hospitals proved his current environment was not the best place for him or anyone else involved, had enrolled him in a prestigious Catholic boarding high school. Not ready to have him homebound and commuting after that experience, my father leased an apartment for my brother and furnished it with garage sale finds from all over the Detroit metro area. My brother, who thrived under the strict structure of the Catholic boarding school, floundered with his new found freedom and failed more courses than he passed. My father did not renew his lease and told him he had no other choice but to enlist in the military.

So while WSU with its fat scholarship offer would seem the logical choice, the alarm bells that went off in my head at the thought of it gave me pause. Further, my mother encouraged me to go away to school and have a campus experience, something that could not happen at WSU, which had no dorms.

Michigan State, with its proximity to Ray’s family, held an easy familiarity to me and seemed like the most logical choice. They were still offering money, they had an excellent teaching and music program, and they were close enough to home should anything happen. My friend Karen was also planning on attending MSU, so we could room together.

So the choice was made, in April of 1988, that would direct the next turn in the road for me. I would go away to State. I would turn down the full scholarship to the commuter school. I would major in music education, combining my love of music with the practicality of a teaching degree. It all seemed to make perfect sense.

Choices, Choices

The new semester brought a new schedule at school and a whole new set of experiences.

I was trading out my awful prerequisite typing class for an opportunity to be an aide in Mr. H’s classroom, my English teacher from two years prior who had turned into my counselor/advisor/closest thing to a friend a former student could have. I was excited to get the opportunity to be in his room. I was pretty sure my major in college was going to be education, having worked as an elementary tutor and classroom helper all fall through the National Honors Society. Plus, I wasn’t going to lie, I loved the idea of seeing Mr. H every day. I still nursed a healthy crush on him, even if it meant nothing. I loved that I was being singled out for this position, and that gave me affirmation that I always needed.

The other class I was trading out was newspaper. I’d spent the fall working on the school newspaper, in a half hearted attempt to follow in my friend Dawn’s footsteps. She was now the editor, and writing all of the time, earning all sorts of accolades for it. But I hated writing for the newspaper. I hated not being able to editorialize and embellish with my own words and thoughts, having to just stick to the facts. I wasn’t earning the respect I felt I deserved, so half way through the year, I was trading it out for independent music study.

My music had become increasingly more important to me throughout the year. I was working with my friend Jill on improvisational pieces, I was training with my music teacher George on modern, fusion pieces, and I was working hard enough in my band class to be consistently sitting in the first or second chair of the flute section. I had set my sights on an incredibly difficult jazz piece, a solo piece, for the late winter music competition. I needed the extra time in the day to practice, because with work and my National Honors Society duties, plus homework, I wasn’t finding the time after school.

I was turning my passion into myself for the first time instead of looking for it outside of myself. It was exciting, scary and hard, hard work.

Turning Point

Journal Entry: 12-25-1987

“Today is Christmas Day, 1987. This Christmas seems really humble as far as it goes, pretty ordinary. But I came to a big realization today, and it is embodied here: I trust, I have faith, that I never had before. There is a part of me that is content, even though not everything is perfect in my life. Not everything is rotten, either.

But I hit low (again, you can tell where I pick up even in this journal; I’ve really been a downer lately) last Thursday. Jill and I had just played in public together for the first time – a dream come true. Even though it was only a school concert, we tried to bring some professionalism to it. It went…fair. Both Don and John – Jill’s and mine ex boyfriends – showed up to see us. John’s a little better around me, but he can obviously not take me for very long.

After our ‘decent’ performance – Jill is hypercritical and it is getting to me – I was ignored by John. Jill and Don began to get very comfy. So I took off. This ticked me off because no one seemed upset. I tend to run away when an uncomfortable situation arises. So I went home feeling very blue. I wanted to call someone, but there was no one to call.

Sadly, I remember this night well. My parents showed up for the concert but missed my pre concert lobby stylings of our jazzed up, improvisational Christmas carols with Jill before the show. It was the biggest thing I’d done up to that point with music. Jill and I had spent so many afternoons at the local community college practicing in their practice rooms (they had pianos in them, the high school didn’t). We were very proud of our hip, jazz holiday music. I’d built up the evening into a huge deal in my head. And the exes showed up; I wanted to be good, fantastic, fabulous. I was dressed in a hot, red dress of my mother’s. After a year of working out with her every morning I thought I looked pretty good, and I wanted insane jealousy and misgiving on John’s part. I didn’t get it. I sat up for hours that night, looking at old photos, listening to music, thinking of how I just screw everything up. I screwed up my brother’s life, that’s why he was always hitting me; that led to screwing up my mother’s life by having her son removed from our home; I screwed up my sister’s life by not allowing her to live her teenage years normally, instead she had to be around to watch after me. The negative self talk went on, building on itself in my head until well after my mother fell asleep snoring on the sofa.

Long story short, I was alone, and I took a lot of pills. I felt very sorry for myself. I tried to call Ray after (to tell him off and finally give him a piece of my mind), but changed my mind.

I woke up around 2 am with an incredible stomach ache. I couldn’t sleep. So I thought about a lot of things.

I felt stupid. Really stupid. At one point I actually thought I was dying. I really did. The world got very fuzzy and far.

My mother had tons of old headache meds in the cabinet in the bathroom. My eyes blurry from tears, I went in there and started swallowing handfuls of little, pink pills. She had no idea. No one did. It proved, in my head, of how alone I was. But as the world started drifting away, I started feeling something else: fear. This was different than when I’d cut my wrists last spring. I could feel things getting fuzzy and blurry and slippery in my head. I started to panic, only to heave up all of the pink pills in the middle of the night.

But I didn’t. I got ready for school the next morning. All of my friends were there, it was the last day before break. They all wished me Merry Christmas, etc. I have good friends. They are there for me, even though I didn’t tell them. One kid found out about it. He was upset for not coming to him. Even my flute teacher, for no reason at all, assured me that I can call him any time and talk to him, or to his wife if I need to. But it didn’t click until today: these people aren’t just trying to appease me. They really care.

I guess it’s better if I don’t try to figure out why. And if there is something good and right for me out there. God didn’t let me die – I just need the trust and faith to ralize that even in my imperfection, I will turn out OK.

I realized I wasn’t alone the morning after it happened. My friends were gracious, even though none of them knew what had happened the night before. I got Christmas gifts and hugs and happiness, and I was overwhelmed. Mr. V, the journal reader, wrote kind words of reassurance and offers of help if I needed it. Mr. H had been doing the same. How could I let all of these people down? Enough. I wasn’t going to be a victim of my past any more. Yes, my head was a mess. But I had help, and I needed to recognize it and accept it.

Addendum to Mr. V: I just have to say this: thank you so much for your little reassurances in here. Just knowing that someone is out there willing to listen – someone with more than a little intelligence – it helps immensely. I am so glad I did not die, but so scared that I wanted to. I just had to let you know that your notes in here were not ignored.”

Mr. V’s response: “If I may amend this (the last sentence in the entry): you are already OK. Thank you. I need reassurance too – just as much as you. My ear and my heart are open to you – in this journal or in person.”

Bittersweet, but mostly Bitter

All of my friends had dates for Homecoming my senior year, but they encouraged me to go anyway.

My friend Karen was going with Alan, who probably had a huge crush on her. My friend Dawn (who I’d had a huge fight with over my crazy competitiveness about our writing…she was right, and I was so upset at her being right that I refused to admit it) was going with Bill. They were both considered outcasts, and were going just to spite conventional wisdom that outcasts couldn’t go to Homecoming (picture the two outcast friends from Mean Girls). Lauri was going with Todd, who’d recently broken up with his longtime girlfriend (and one of my less close friends these days) Andrea. Mark was going stag, and told me there was no shame in going stag.

So I decided to go anyway. I have a photo of me getting ready in a peach dress next to my mother, who was getting ready to go out to the bar with her girlfriends. She looked fantastic; she’d lost fifty pounds and was working part time at Casual Corner to help pay for all of the new clothes she needed for her new figure.

Everyone was having fun with their partner, but I was watching all of them together, interacting. I wasn’t as sad as you’d expect, except for a few melancholy moments as people paired up for the slow dances. My friends had asked me to come, so they made a point of including me in their groups; I had conversations, I had a place to sit, I talked with the few graduates who had come back with younger dates. But what I remember the most about that evening was seeing an acquaintance named Joe.

It was the first time I’d ever really noticed him. He had been in band with me all along, ever since freshman year, of course. But I’d never had any other classes with him. I never ran into him, never had a conversation with him. But he was dating a girl named Amy, who was neighbors with my friend Karen.

Joe was handsome, with dark hair and a lean and lanky figure. A strong nose and angular face, he lit up when he smiled and looked peaceful when in thought. He was kind and engaging, even though it was clear he and his date were having a bit of a rocky evening. Karen confessed to me later that she too found him attractive, and Amy was harder on him than he deserved. She predicted a break up would occur sometime soon, at Amy’s hands. Not Joe’s. He was the type that stuck, she told me.

I left alone that evening, alone still when I got home since my mother had not yet returned from her evening out. Despite my friendly conversations, despite the dancing and the fun I thought I’d had, when I got home, the feeling of being alone was so palpable I could taste it on my tongue. It was bitter, like anticipating the sweet taste of creamy chocolate and finding out you’d just bitten into an unsweetened bar instead.

I longed to spit it out.

The Wood Became Alive

It was the second week of September in my senior year, and I was staring at a blank page.

My advanced composition teacher, Mr. V, had assigned us a journal to be kept over the course of the year. My literature teacher the previous year had done the same, and by the end of the year I was writing song lyrics in it because she never read it. I’d write stream of consciousness words in there of whatever was stuck in my head that week.

But Mr. V was different. Rather than blindly assign us pages, he’d asked us to respond to a news article. It could be any news article, about anything at all. But we had to write two, two hundred fifty word reactions a week. He’d check, on a random basis, whether or not we were keeping up. And since I was bucking for class valedictorian, it never occurred to me not to keep up.

I had so much to say, but I wasn’t sure how closely this was going to be read. I wanted to talk about my brother’s high school graduation, my visit to music camp over the summer, my devastating break up with John, my award winning piece on the charity group working with unwed mothers in Detroit, of my huge fight with my best friend Dawn, my mother’s new boyfriend. Prudence would dictate I keep my ramblings to something safe.

I clipped an article about Suzanne Vega, and her new record, Solitude Standing. I talked of how I related to her music and how the haunting chords and layered lyrics spoke to me on many levels. I talked of how much I enjoyed solitude, but not being alone, which were two very different things. I talked about how I felt alone even in the most crowded settings, such as Mr. V’s classroom. I mentioned a recent break up and the turmoil that had set up within me, which made me feel like the Small Blue Thing that she sang about. I referenced the Undertow and how I was friends with it too. I quoted her song: “And when I’m dead, if you could tell them this – what was wood became alive.”

The entry dated was 9-18-87. I thought I was being vague but reading it tonight with eyes that are now older than his were when he read it, I see that I was not subtle in the least. The only thing I didn’t say but might as well have was that there were fresh scars healing on my wrists.

Mr. V responded in red ink at the end of the entry:

“It’s comforting to know that there is someone out there who feels as you feel, who expresses so well the turmoil within. And based on what you wrote here, you are already alive. Thank you. You’ve trusted me with some of your most meaningful feelings. Yours is a journal with much thought and reflection.”

It was a life raft, and I grabbed onto it for dear life.

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