The Bathtub: the Most Dangerous Place to be

I used to think that being in the bathtub during a thunderstorm was the worst possible life situation out there. I was morbidly afraid of natural disasters due to my sixth-grade science class lectures that varied from the different categories of clouds all the way to “here is a horrendous wave of water that will entirely obliterate most objects and life forms.” I, much like the weather, have never been too keen on grey areas. 

I stare at my naked body now, my hips resting on the porcelain whose top portion is coated with a thick mask of hairspray residue that displays stray hairs like paintings in an art gallery. I’ve never liked looking at my own body. Whether that’s internalized trauma from when Daniel C. told me that my leg hair looked like his father’s chest or simply the implied insecurity that comes with teenhood, I’m not sure. It felt like one day I became overly aware of what all that it could build and destruct, and I shied away from ever displaying myself as the force that I was. I am uncomfortable with being seen because I cannot control what others see in me.

The water looks murky now, distastefully so. Lone islands of slowly deflating bubbles scatter the slightly grey surface of the bathwater that has devoured me for three hours now. I like baths. I like dissolving into another earthly element, secluded in my home, and taming the water to suit me. The same element that easily wipes out civilization is now simply caressing every exposed rib, every ingrown hair, and even that small spot right above where the insides of my thighs meet and there is a simple gap before skin starts up again. I am in control of an element that could easily kill me in the right place at the right time. Could be a hurricane. Could be a lightning strike. Could be holding my breath for a few seconds too long. 

Here, I run the show. I know which albums to play that so beautifully radiate off of the confines of the tub and gently make the water ripple. I always light the same sage candle that reminds me of my grandmother’s closet filled with nightgowns in every color under the sun. I have a set of books that I am okay with watching the paper melt at the touch of the water or cringe in reaction to the steam. I know this terrain. This steamy, personal terrain that makes my body feel alive. 

By nature, I am what some people would call a “loner.” I think “introvert” is the appropriate term nowadays, but I’ll just call it like it is. I’m lonely, and yet I prefer to be alone if given the option to stay home and watch Gilmore Girls for the third time or go out with people. 

Loneliness hits me like the small waves that melt around me every time I shift under the tub’s water. I am okay until I shift my leg. Then, my waters are disrupted and I am met with ripples that seem to signal that there is more movement to life than I am allowing myself to experience. Sometimes I create these ripples intentionally, sending a risky text message to a friend or downloading a dating application just to be reminded that the sweaty mass of flesh that I am inside is desirable. But after a while, the movement of the water quiets itself and I am alone again. Other times, though, I’ll drop my book in the tub, or I will realize that my phone, expertly perched on top of the countertop has it’s uncovered front camera staring directly at me. In a frenzy, I will spin my hips and try to pat the dampened pages dry or flip my phone over without completely exiting the tub. And when I look around then, my water will be splashed on the carpet, my towel will be too wet to use later, and my phone will have water droplets near the speaker. Those movements, although they ultimately are mine, are uncontrolled and unintentional. That is what I fear the most in life. 

I never learned how to be with people. Interview them, write about them, sell them coffee, listen to their problems, talk about my writing, sure. But to simply be, no strings attached, is a skill I’ve never mastered. 

There are two people I can think of in my life where I feel like I do when I am in the bathtub, calm and controlled. Their presence is as tepid as the water that surrounds me and they seem to ride out the ripples alongside me. For everyone else, I feel like I am either trying to stir up the waters to perform like some weird, silky aquatic animal or I am trying to smooth my surface so that it is deceivingly calm. I have an instinct when I meet people to push them away or lure them in. 

My trap sometimes works and my bath becomes this communal pool for a bit. I feel momentarily comforted by others’ presence in my sacred area. I welcome the ripples as this novel experience, unique to my limbs, and I have this realization that life is not a private bathtub with a perfectly calculated temperature. It is the weather that I am so afraid of. 

With people, you have to allow yourself to be swept up in their waters and enjoy the ride, even if the water is flooding your nostrils and choking you. You have to welcome others into your bathroom and not gawk at their toes when they’re in your water and touching your skin. You have to learn that everyone is just as much of a storm as you are, and by hiding your force, you are missing out on truly knowing anyone or allowing yourself to be known.

I was around someone I used to be relatively close with a few days ago for the first time in roughly two years. It was a fine, cool night with rain speckling the concrete around us like paint splatters on a grand, worldly canvas. As I sat on the same wooden stair that I had spent many summer nights on previously, I was surprised to find that the rain was warm. My top was small, leaving my shoulders, chest, and upper back exposed to the July air.

I felt him staring at me. Every time I met his eyes, I felt like I did the summer when I was sixteen: so sad, so confused, and so infatuated with someone like a hummingbird drunk on sugar water. He was a storm I could always revisit. The same, warm rain coming in waves every few hours but never staying for long.  

It was that night I realized that loving people always feels like forever but never is. Just like the weather, our connections with others and with ourselves change on the daily. The pressure, precipitation, and the predictions for the week are often faulty, misleading, and flat out inconvenient for our plans. Sometimes the soap gets in our eyes and our towel gets wet. But that’s the point. 

As we grow older, we no longer drown in every thunderstorm and sunburn during every ninety-degree week streak. We learn to manage our internal bath temperatures and prepare for the outdoor clouds. We begin to understand why others carry the forces that they do, and we make the decision as to whether or not we allow ourselves to get caught up in them. If we are really lucky, similar storms will grace us again and we will no longer drown in their waters, but rejoice in their warmth. 

I feel very caught up in my own storm. I’m stuck in my bathtub and the waters aren’t settling. The door to my bathroom is shut, the speaker is off, and all of my books are water-damaged. I’m not sure what to do, but I know that I miss people’s storms, even when I am engulfed by them. 

The first step is to get out of the tub, I guess. After all, I’ve heard it is the most dangerous place to be in a thunderstorm. 

Plato: the Jeweler

Author’s Note: This essay won a national gold medal from Scholastic Art & Writing and was unpublished prior to my submission. It won me a scholarship opportunity as well as the attention from my entire zipcode and school district. I did not write this for vengeance, otherwise trust me… it would be much harsher. I wrote this for me, for the other girls who were targeted, and for all the people who have been through something similar. I’m not saying I have it the worst, but I have had a taste and my heart goes out to victims of similar crimes and more disgusting ones. There will be a follow up as to what this essay spurred in my community. People only care when you pose a great enough threat, so if I leave you with anything before reading this essay, it’s “fortuna fortibus favet.”

I was fourteen when I learned about Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” for the first time. I was too young to grasp the concept as a whole, but I knew that it excited something inside of me. Something deeper and quieter, like a drum that throbbed in the folds of my heartbeat. 

What was more exciting was the man teaching me. Steven was far more alluring than an ancient man droning on about shadows. His shoulder blades broke up the projector light and stretched the colors around him, casting his own shadow on the board in front of us. Strands of his messy hair stood out like hairline fractures on an X-ray. I was intoxicated by the young teacher in front of me. I had no idea that as he was shedding me of these metaphorical chains of ignorance, he was placing his own around my neck.

For years, I was taught to fear my peers. I was taught to pull my skirt down at the first sight of a fellow fourteen year old, wait until marriage to engage in any sort of physical activity, and told stories about the horrors of fraternity parties and red solo cup events. No one ever told me to fear the hands that fed me this information.

Authority has always been a tricky topic in my life. I tend to level the playing field in my relationships. I make teachers my friends, administration my acquaintances, my bosses my gal pals and girlfriends. I don’t have this issue with authority because I’m viciously rebellious or because I have an overwhelming amount of teen angst. I do it because it’s the only way I’ve learned how to survive. If they are my friend, it won’t hurt as bad when they ruin me. I will be losing a friend, not being abused. 

I stopped wearing skirts after the school counselor used to touch my knees in hidden offices when I was thirteen. He would come to my science class and take me into his office, locking the door behind him and pointing out how to use a planner. He’d hold my hand when he talked, his breath taking up so much room between us that I stifled mine. His office was an old storage closet with a desk, a filing cabinet, a lamp, and two chairs all wedged inside. There was no way of sitting in which you were not close to him, and he never let me sit in the chair with the door closest to me. I’d sit in the corner, and he would pull his chair up so close that his knees would press against mine. His hands would gradually find their way to my legs where he’d rest them lightly.

I remember watching his fingers lay gently on my thighs. I remember wanting to throw up. I also remember thinking that would be disrespectful. 

Seeing as though I was a straight-A student, a club level athlete, and I won writing competitions at the age of twelve, I was not the student he needed to meet with. And yet, I was there every week. 

The counselor used to give me massages and tuck his fingers underneath my school uniform collar, kneading my neck like a stress toy. He would ask me for hugs and pull me up into his chest so that his face rested in my neck. I used to try and hide from him in the hallways, but he’d spot me out from a crowd and motion me over, grabbing my hands and caressing them in his. I remember his hands were dry. Cracked on the knuckles, bandaids on some. They felt like sandpaper against my virgin skin that he found some sort of pleasure in feeling. I always tried to pull away, but he was the adult. He was the teacher. He was the protector. I could never disobey. 

I knew what he was doing was wrong, but no teacher ever stopped him. I told many, but nothing ever happened. My parents thought I was being overdramatic. The administration had to deal with which faculty members were sleeping with each other. No one had time to deal with my petty pleas for help. I think that’s when I learned that no one was ever going to help me when I needed it, not even the men who promised to do just that. I didn’t like any of them.

When I entered high school, I was unaware of my resting perceptions of men. Trauma has a funny way of hiding itself until you’re stable enough to look back and feel its bite. I met Steven on my first day of freshman year and felt this visceral relief wash over me. I didn’t know what it meant at the time. I just knew that he was not like the school counselor. He wasn’t going to touch me. He wasn’t going to tell me he liked that I seemed older. He wasn’t going to hurt me. 

That was the fun part for him. It was never about sex. It was never about having budding young girls fall to their knees, eyes resting on his belt buckle. It was about control. 

I quickly developed a close relationship with Steven, as I was one of the few kids that participated in class and who could write an essay in twenty minutes. I was smart enough to pick up his adult wit, intuitive enough to know that he was going through just as much in life as we were, and light-hearted enough to take his teasing comments with a grain of salt. I could bite back, too. All men like that. 

I began to sit in his room after school just to talk with a few other girls who also admired him. I quickly was sucked into the speech and debate team, the group that these girls were apart of. Not only would I take a class with him next semester, but I spent every Saturday with him and the girls who seemed to be the only people on the planet who understood me. We all wore the invisible necklaces that he hung on our necks during that first Plato lesson. We all had the gleam in our eye that held Steven in the brightest light we could imagine. We were all brainwashed. 

Steven was this catharsis we all sought for some reason or another. Some had daddy issues, some were raped, some were depressed, and some just needed a reminder that not all men were dull and trashy. I adored Steven because he saw me as what I was. My early high school years came with an onslaught of health issues. I was diagnosed with a chronic pain condition before I could say “homecoming,” and was put on Zoloft before I could say “I’ve got the mean reds!” Every day, I showed up to school medicated, depressed, and in so much head pain, I used to dig my nails into my wrists to take my mind off of it. My migraines came every day, and I learned to love Excedrin and Midrin more than any man. Steven treated me as an equal. He looked me in the eye when I spoke, pushed me in my studies, and never let me feel sorry for myself. Everyone else at the time treated me as though I were a ticking time bomb with “1:34,” blinking on my forehead. 

My debate team spent hours a day together and created a bond that was centered around Steven. It was a connection created by hours of argument revision, poetry recitations, and hotel antics that took place in our club meets. The debate team was the first, and the only, time I have ever felt any sense of community. Being around the girls and Steven’s open ears made living through my teen years, which were riddled with health issues, more than bearable. Steven made life feel worth it. 

Even when the first allegations arose, I didn’t even bat an eye. None of us did. After all, it was Steven. Steven would sooner rob a bank than hurt us. 

I saw no red flags because Steven’s mere existence is a red flag. His gravitation towards a specific type of young girl and his ability to pull them closer to him, donning the same chains around their necks, is astonishing. From loathing the administration of our school just as much as we did, slipping curse words into his rants, and wanting to know more about our personal lives, Steven managed to slither into our lives and root himself inside of us, the closest he could get without laying a finger down. He got off on knowing what we were going through. There were no boundaries with Steven. No off the table questions or topics. He wanted to know as much as possible, even if that meant sharing specific details about our issues. He wanted to hold our stories like a librarian guarding a secret shelf. He told us he was “sharing the burden”, but really he was hoarding our trust so that we would defend him in a time of need.

For the three years that I knew Steven, he was my dream man. I wasn’t in love with him, or even lustful. He just represented everything I ever wanted in someone. Patient, witty, intelligent, and verbose. Moreso, his presence didn’t hurt me. I didn’t feel gross after leaving his office like I did when I left the school counselor’s room. I never felt unsafe or uneasy around him. 

I was alone with him four times, memories I have raked over more times than I’d care to admit, trying to find a sign that I missed. I’ve come up dry every single time because his actions are so ingrained in my soul as “normal” and “safe” that I can’t even tell you that anything he said or did was out of character. 

I talked to Steven the day before he was fired, telling him that I’d be transferring schools the next year because my health was deteriorating. I remember him looking at me, the way he always did, with the same patience and kindness I always adored, and telling me he’d miss me. 

I had never felt that before. The feeling of having that sort of impact on someone else’s life enough to be missed. Thought of, sure. But missed? That was something else. That was a connection that wasn’t parental or grounded in blood. It was a created connection. One that was kindled with hundreds of memories bound together like hairs until a rope was formed. 

I would miss him, too. I was abandoning the only friends I had ever known, one of the few men I have ever trusted, and the only sense of self-confidence I had discovered. I was leaving behind the therapy sessions I used to have with him, the comedy shows he would play in his classroom during off periods, and the snacks he would give me to keep my blood sugar stable. Even the thought seemed to break something inside of me.

The next day, something was off. The entire chemistry of the school seemed horribly acidic and dark. No kids looked at me in the hallways. Steven was nowhere to be found. We had a school meeting about his absence. An email was sent out saying that he was immediately terminated after allegations of an inappropriate relationship with a student arose. And he was gone. 

No one believed it. No one who knew him, at least. For a year, I defended Steven’s name until my tongue got tired of reciting the same thesis statement with three supporting arguments. I spoke to every parent that asked, every student that ridiculed me, and every teacher that inquired. I knew my truth. My truth was Steven’s truth, and if he pleaded innocent, then that is the Truth.

Eight months later, I learned that this was not the only time. I saw messages of his to other girls. I saw proclamations of love, his desire to abandon his wife and suburban life, requests to go out drinking with underage girls, and comments on his students’ attire. I heard stories of his drunken slurs of passion and his business scheme that always seemed to pick young girls as his interns. I saw the secret messaging app. I saw it all. 

There’s no way to sugarcoat the fact that I began spiraling. I was not faced with feelings of fear or hatred. Not yet, at least. Rather, one thought kept reappearing in my mind. 

Why not me?

I was so confused about this feeling of wanting to be with him. I saw inappropriate conversations. I knew what he wanted, and yet there was still a desire to be the girl he preyed upon. It was almost an honor to be picked by Steven like we were allowed to finally pay him back for the years of guidance he had given us. I wanted to be those girls. 

I messaged him the next day, nonchalantly sending a Facebook message about a book he had given me. When he responded, I started crying. I left the classroom where I was texting him under the lab table, and stuck two fingers down my throat in school the bathroom, gagging until my fingernails pressed into the back of my throat. I needed to expel these thoughts of wanting to be his pawn. Rip him out of the fabric of my identity. That was not easy because his presence was dye-like and seamless. I vowed to bleach every fiber I could. 

I spat up a child’s size amount of bile and leaned against the steel door. I wanted to be numb. I didn’t want him to respond in the same tonality and cadence that had brought me so much comfort for years. I wanted him to be sleazy and upfront, if that’s who he truly was. I wanted him to tell me everything he had ever thought about me and the rest of the girls. I just wanted to know. If I knew, then I could move on. 

He knew I was trying to coax him, and we virtually danced around each other with rhetorical questions and discussions about reading I was doing in my English class. I told him we were discussing free will and its power, if any, over biological impulses. He told me that he thought people who couldn’t control those impulses were ‘trash humans’. I agreed. 

He’d reply almost immediately after I did, always trying to get me to say more. I spent my free period in my car, replying to him and feeling my gut wrench every time he said something that pushed me to say more. He knew what I was doing. He also knew that he had me, and the rest of his girls, wrapped around his finger tighter than his wedding ring. 

I never got much else out of him. I stopped messaging him for my own sake and safety, and just spent the rest of the year piecing together this massive jigsaw puzzle. One comment here, one message there, a touch in that room, a compliment in the hotel lobby. I finally felt the chain that had been wrapped around my neck for years. It had dug into my collarbone and pushed so hard, my skin peeled back, bloody and dripping. I finally saw what he had done.

His chains were just a service charge to be around him. Be enlightened, be complimented, be loved, and just accept his chains as jewelry. 

Months later, an old staff member walked up to me at a restaurant that I frequent downtown. I knew his angle from the slanted shoulders and the inability to meet my eyes. He said he was sorry. I knew he was being honest, and yet I still felt my gut churn. Was he grooming me too? The fear that had once been a physical tingling on bare knees had been replaced with an earth-shattering discomfort around a kind acquaintance who simply wanted to know how I was doing. No one could be trusted. 

I told him I was going to be okay. I was going to be okay on my own terms, though, and if that meant hating every guy who told me he loved philosophy for a bit, then so be it. Trauma never goes away, but its grip fades with every ounce of power you take from it. 

Looking back, I think I’d rather be groped in hallways then ever experience a ‘Steven’ in my life again. I’d rather be hugged by old men and have my knees at their palms any time they’d like than ever sit in a room with a man whose only desire is to indoctrinate me until I am fuckable. 

It would be easy to end my story with an “I hate men! Men are trash!” type of manifesto with a lackluster call to action. That is not what this is about for me. This is not about “getting back” at men who have wronged me or approaching every new man with a can of pepper spray in my hand. This is not the school counselor’s story. This is not Steven’s story. This is my story, and I’ll be damned if I end up as a mere display of an abuser’s feeble attempts to make dolls out of young girls. 

My life is in my hands, and it always will be. It is up to me how to process and utilize what I have been through, and I am choosing to be hopeful. I am choosing to go about my future endeavors, knowing that there are good men out there. I’ll find them. They will get stories of their own. I am no longer Steven’s pawn. I am the queen. This is my game, and he is no longer a part of it. 

Picture: Dior exhibit, Denver Art Museum 2019

Orange Sherbet & Lemon Ice

As I close my eyes and let the Valium seep into my bloodstream under my tongue, I imagine my happy places, just like my therapist told me. I let the tears fall from under closed lids like rain droplets from a swollen cloud. I let my mother hold me. I let the nurses watch me deteriorate as I sink into a drug-induced sadness that no one can help me up from. 

I hate this feeling of “letting.” My walls come down suddenly and all at once, reminding me that being vulnerable has never been a choice I have consciously taken. You’ve got to drug me and threaten me with needles in order to get me to let up. I checked my courage at the door like overweight luggage and am now just a child in pain. I am dissolved into the figure of a sick, broken bird on an Ikea reclining chair.

I pretend like I am okay. I pretend that this is something I am doing voluntarily. I am thankful for the help. I pretend to believe that these injections will help me. I control my breath and walk into the examination room, wincing at the sight of the cold metal table with three syringes and a can of lidocaine on it. I follow the doctor’s commands in a submissive haze and fall onto the table. I tell myself that this is not my last resort and that more hope lies beyond the doorway to my left. This isn’t the end, only another hurdle that my foot got hooked on mid-jump. 

With my face pressed against the sanitary tissue on the table, I try to imagine the last time I wasn’t in pain. The last time I felt like a kid. An untouchable, happy kid. This is when I begin to curse the deep breathing and meditative exercises I’ve been taught. It’s just dissociation. Tune in so carefully that you can tune right out. 

I am brought back to the summer beaches of Cannon Beach, Oregon. I can see myself reading books on the sand, wrapped in a blanket to ward off the frigid breeze. I can feel the tiny grain stuck in my eye and hiding itself so far to the right that I look like a maniac, blinking repeatedly and fingering my eyelid like its a vinyl at a DJ bar. It is an overcast afternoon with rain clouds hugging the horizon that is sprawled out before me on a wondrous stretch of ocean. 

That morning, I went out to uncover sand-dollars with my mother near Haystack Rock, collecting them in plastic newspaper bags. We got up at the crack of dawn, when the morning mist was still melting around all visible figures, and wandered around the shore. In the evening, after walking around the town barefoot and ordering Nutella crepes from the local shop, I will walk on the small islands the tide reveals come sundown. I will stand there on my small, temporary worlds, in the middle of the ocean, with sun rays at my fingertips. I will sing songs I make up on the spot under my breath and wonder when my life will really begin. Life was so serene and tangible. 

With the soft pop of the syringe sanitary top, I am forced back. I can hear the doctor talking, but I can’t decipher his words. After all, it is likely just a blur of useless disclaimers, trying to prepare me for what I am about to feel. I never liked doctors much who lied to me or complimented me into some minor state of trust. At least this time, he told me it was going to hurt. 

It’s not the pain I am worried about. Frankly, I am not necessarily worried about anything. I am hopeful that it will help. Hope is the worst pain of them all. 

Having needles in your head feels exactly like you’d expect. The insertion is numbed by Lidocaine, but there is a malicious presence in the back of your skull, creeping up your scalp. I can feel his fingers pushing the numbing fluids around my nerves like he is trying to navigate a map of very complex and very damaged streets. There’s been road work for years now, I want to tell him. I just flinch but let his hands do as they please, a game I have played for many years now. 

As I wait for the second needle, I am back in Cannon Beach, only this time, I am in the house with the purple hydrangeas in the lawn. There are two sets of bunkbeds, each neighboring a window that looks out onto the ocean. I am sitting at the desk, writing away in my notebook. To the right of me, there is a window that looks directly into the neighbor’s bedroom. There is a teenage girl in there, cleaning her closet and discarding laundry all around. I watch with a thrill of existing without being seen, a sensation I have sought ever since. I write my stories in the quiet night with my friend, the neighbor girl, picking out her outfit for the fourth of July. 

The second needle enters the right side of my head and I give up. I stop crying because I am dried out and my oceans of resources are back in Oregon. I can feel my mascara sticking to the sanitary tissue stretched over the table, rubbing the charcoal pigment around my eyes. It burns, but that is the only sensation I allow myself to feel. What’s the point in feeling pain when it is a feeling you have mastered? It is time to move on, for I have felt all it has to offer me. 

But it stays. It stays like the scent of my ex-boyfriend’s cologne that some days, I still can’t shake. It stays like an unwanted cousin clinging to my heels at a family event. It stays like a hangover lingering in my stomach after Christmas Eve special eggnog. It stays, I tell myself, because it has nowhere else to go. It sticks to me like a malignant presence because it knows that I understand it. I am the only one who can properly articulate what it feels like. At least that’s the lie I have manufactured and chewed until it has melted into my tongue like the dissolvable Valium.

The third injection comes and I think I can see God. Only this time, He doesn’t feel like sunbeams in my hands, like the world is alive on my skin. He hurts, and I realize there is no point in believing in something that only watches you suffer every day. No one is up there, at least not for me. At least not now. I think about my old coworker telling me to “ask” if He is there. I ask, but just got the answering machine again. 

Hey God, it’s me. Just wondering if there’s a point to the whole me being a child and wanting to die thing or if you’re just bored. LMK!!

Beep.

The doctor moves the third shot of anesthesia around the bulb in my neck, a hardened knot that disappears and reappears every few weeks as a result of my muscles trying to protect my nerves. I feel my hips lift softly from the table and try to recoil from his touch, but his hands remain in place, kneading my neck with the needle still in. I want to scream at him and stab myself with the dirty syringes. I want it to end. But all the nurses see is a wince. They hear a whimper and congratulate me on my high pain tolerance. 

I am so tired. 

My mother helps me stand up and guides me to the bathroom, where I hold my head in my hands to stop myself from bashing it against the porcelain. As I pee, I can’t even feel the urine leaving my body. I link my fingers together and press on my lower stomach, trying to push out whatever I have in me. The Valium has done a successful job of numbing most of my physical processes, and although my mind is no longer racing through past memories, it is still slowly strolling through a few. 

As I stare at my blotchy red face in the mirror, mascara smeared all around my lid, I remember the first time a boy called me beautiful. I was fourteen, and he left the next summer when I was stuck on that tiny island in the ocean. Sometimes I wonder if he still thinks of me and if like the beach sunsets, his affection still lingering like the misty, colorful haze of orange sherbet and lemon ice. The girlish, immature part of me wishes he still does, even though I’m fully aware that many days have past since then and we are two entirely different poeple. I wonder if he would still think I was beautiful after seeing me like this. I wonder if anyone would. I wish I could be her again, so infatuated with a boy and a sunset in Oregon. I wish I could be eating crepes, walking barefood amongst the flowers, and reading my books on the shore. 

But mostly, I wish I was back on my island, so separate from the force of the waves, so sure about my stories, my boy, and my life.

If I close my eyes hard enough, I can almost feel that damn grain of sand still stuck in my eye. 

Mild Neuroticism AKA Being a Writer

This is what we call: a brain dump.

The idea of being a creative is a pretty one. Artists with their hair in shaggy updos, paint staining the insides of their fingernails as they tell you about their new project. Poets furrowing their brows as they stare into their Moleskin on a park bench, armed with a Pilot pen like a sword. Writers frantically scribbling nonsensical ideas into an app or onto a sticky note, never fully revealing the contents of their words. It all seems so movie-like. 

When I think of how I write, I find nothing magical about it. I think sometimes people like to imagine me sitting in some high-class coffee shop, an Americano neighboring my parchment as I pour beautiful words with a quill. Something like that, at least. People see the awards, the published pieces, the excitement of being seen. What they don’t see is the fact that I have to take two showers a day to thaw my body into a state of operation. I typically write in my bed, likely naked after one of the aforementioned ‘thawing out’ sessions, wrapped in an electric blanket, with a face mask sucking the life out of my pores. 

My ‘writing process’ is about as chaotic as I am. I try to explain this to my philosophy teacher, a nice man with an overwhelming amount of good qualities that makes me think he has killed somebody or something awful. They don’t make people that good anymore. He laughs as I stutter in trying to respond. My process? I’m a teenager with access to the Internet. I wouldn’t necessarily call myself the next Salinger. 

My pieces are a product of the mind-nubbing, semi-sociopathic narrative that drones on in my brain constantly. Most of it is incoherent mumbling or intrusive thoughts I have to bring to therapy and beg for some kind of logical explanation as to why I can’t walk down a sidewalk without vividly imagining myself tripping and watching my skull crack open like a melon. I think I should note that I struggle with a pretty severe anxiety disorder. This neat, polished essay is brought to you by three doses of Buspirone daily. 

I used to reject the idea that you have to be fucked up to be creative. I was really into the concept that everyone was capable of being an artist or a writer, but the older I get, the more I realize that I don’t think people have the stones or the balls to do it. Cruel, I know, but honestly, if I told one of my peers that he had to write about his trauma and make it “spicy” with a few metaphors and humorous lines to publish and allow the general public to make a spectacle about it, I can’t say I think he’d jump at the idea. I do think you have to be a little twisted to create. That’s why creatives have to create. If we don’t, we explode. 

I mean “explode” in as close of a direct definition as I can physically be. When I don’t write for a few days, I can feel my mind build up like a pebble stuck in my shoe that gradually grows bigger than my foot and just crushes my bones from the inside of my Doc Martens (told you, intrusive thoughts). I think everyone struggles with this need to express, but everyone does so differently. Some people release this energy at work or while exercising or even during something as simple as popping their knuckles. I just happen to want to die if I don’t drain my brain every few days. Can’t help it. Always been this way. 

I think about writing things about as often as I’d say the average young adult male thinks about sex… maybe one with suffocated sexual desires who can’t help but get a hard-on in the middle of the day. Unfortunately, my thoughts are released in a far less fun way. I practically think in twelve-point, Times New Roman font. I fantasize just as much as they do though, imagining myself walking in Carnegie Hall wearing a purple gown, ready to accept my national writing medal. I see myself writing love letters to faceless men I have yet to meet. I visualize myself getting a book deal on the eighteenth floor of some publishing office in New York City. We all have our fantasies. 

What’s weird is that the accolades and purple gowns feel great in theory, but every time I even get a mild taste of success, I am overwhelmed by the attention. From floods of Facebook comments to people approaching me about my pieces, I get so uncomfortable in the weeks that people notice me. I want to be able to accept others’ kindness and feel proud of what I’ve done, but I get paralyzed in the spotlight that is cast on me every few months. Once the thrill wears out and the dopamine has run to the hills, I am just left with my stories. Stories that others love to read but have absolutely drained my heart to write. 

My stories are my life. They are chapters in a never-ending story that I have thought about ending many times. They are eggs of ideas that I have sat upon for years, waiting for the right time to crack onto the skillet and watch parts of my soul get cooked in front of a live audience who will be nourished with my pain. In a lot of ways, this is so fulfilling. I get to hear stories about how my pieces have helped struggling kids and adults alike. I get to hear my words transformed into living beings, not just stale syllables on a word document. I get to see the “power of the pen” or some other lame English teacher phrase. That is great. It’s all the other components that bog me down. 

I wish I could say that that is the reason why I write, but I’m afraid that would be a lie. I write because I literally can’t not (see ‘exploding’ in the preceding paragraphs). I don’t know how to properly cope with situations or understand what I am feeling unless I see it in chicken scratch or carefully typed out. I feel emotionally stunted in some departments and can only convey affection if it exists in the heart of a couplet or two. I feel ostracized and confused by my everyday environments and can only quell the stemming frustration by making it into a few paragraphs. So yes, I’m thrilled that people benefit from my writing, or are even just mildly entertained, but I don’t do it for others. I’ve been writing my entire life and publicly publishing it since I was 12. I never did any of this for anyone else. I did it because I had to. 

I write things in my head. At my old job, I used to wash dishes for hours at a time and had so much fun doing it. I’d essentially just dissociate and climb into my head where I’d write out ideas and keep saying them until a line stuck. I wrote my entire senior paper on Jane Eyre in my head one afternoon shift. It was due the next day. I went home, spilled as much as I could remember, and called it good. 

I also remember sitting in the back of a car and watching a boy smoke a cigarette for the first time and instead of partaking in the activities, I declined and wrote “he smoked like his cupid’s bow longed for the paper more than anything else. I wanted to be the cigarette” inside my phone notes. I probably looked cool: reclined in the backseat, painfully sober because I’m high on life, minding my own business and texting my countless friends. In reality, I was writing stories like the lonely loser that I am. 

Living like this is fine. It has gotten me into writing programs, won me countless awards, and has brought me closer to random people. However, I forget to live sometimes. I am so caught up in trying to “find” my next idea or pull one out of the depths of my hellish brain that I forget how much is happening at the moment. Instead of having fun at a party, I am scanning the scene and trying to ascribe appropriate modifiers to my peers’ sluggish, drunken behavior. Instead of allowing myself to have feelings towards someone, I am writing the last chapter to the book that hasn’t even started. I get stuck trying to tell the story of my youth that I forget to live it all together. 

My writing process is basically me dipping in and out of a dissociative state. Some medical professionals might call dissociating an “unhealthy coping mechanism,” but I’d simply call it a skill that I have learned to help me live. Does it have mild repercussions like gaps in my memories and the risk of de-realizing life? Yes. But a hammer can be used to push a nail in or bash someone’s brains out. It all depends on how you use your tools. 

I have written this entire thing about writing because I can’t write anything else at the moment. Competitions I have fought in for years are complete. Colleges are gotten into. The stories I’ve been dying to tell for years have been told. So what the hell am I supposed to do now?

I know the answer. I know I have to live in order to find the future stories I have to tell. I’d be lying to you if I said that didn’t scare the living daylights out of me. I am just unclear where to start. Do I pierce my nose? Get a semi-regrettable tattoo? Download Tinder? Approach strange people on the street and ask them to tell me their life stories? Who knows?

I wish I could go to someone for help, but I have played this game before. This whole “life” game is one that is primarily played alone. It is a lead acting role with supporters, beautiful sets, fun costumes, and confusing time changes, but ultimately it is a story lived and told alone. 

So my writing process? Mild young adult neuroticism with a dash of loneliness. 

How to Drive a Broken Car

I am going on my fourth year of living in chronic pain, and I can’t quite seem to understand how I’ve done it. I could tell you a few, practical reasons like my mother bringing me food in bed, doctors plunging needles into my muscles, medications that have just pickled my body into a state of obedience, alternative methods that have given me hope. That all makes sense. I know the steps I’ve taken to keep my body alive, and somewhat functioning, until the next season.

But mentally, I really have no idea.

A few weeks ago, I curbed my car during a freak blizzard on my way to work. I was going nineteen miles an hour and managed to pick up the momentum of the curve in the street just enough to slam me into the curb. I couldn’t tell you what happened in the moments before the collision. I just remember saying “no, no, no” and trying to viciously pull my wheel in the other direction. But the second you realize you have no control over the events that follow, there’s no point in saying or doing anything.

That’s what I feel like with my condition at this point. I am a sliding car with no idea if I’m going to straighten my wheel out and get down the hill, or collide into a curb and ruin my front alignment. I can’t even tell you I feel like I’m in the front seat. My consciousness is in a booster seat, cradled in the center back. I have a clear vision of the driver, the passenger, and the road ahead. I’m just not a part of controlling the journey.

There are some days where I can cruise around the streets of my city without a second thought. My playlists feel profound and perfectly curated to my thoughts. The day feels lovely and bursting with possibility. I speak softer and listen more. These easy days are typically the ones I write about. The ones where I can make my pain seem like this moral teacher that makes me a stronger, deeper person. Where I can take a bucket of dirt, and show you the pearl.

Those days are often few and far between. Most days, I can’t even pull out of my driveway without hitting a curb. I can’t wake up without feeling the same, familiar throbbing and wanting to cry. I can’t wash my face without feeling soreness in my cheeks and temples. I can’t brush my hair without feeling my neuralgia scream at me from the inside out. I can’t eat without immediately wanting to throw it up. I can’t breathe without being reminded of the absolute car wreck that I am trying to drive around.

I think in these last few months before I turn eighteen, I am falling into an even worse pit of depression. For years, I have been told that there is a possibility that my pain will disappear at the golden age. After all, when you’re told that your illness is just a mishap in puberty, a blip in hormonal control, it is natural to set a goal to be better in a few years. Those years were full of discovering all the different mechanics that make up my beat-up car. How the pain isn’t just hormonal. It’s also the AC that doesn’t work. The bumper sticker that will scratch the paint up. The check engine light that is always on. The tires that have never been equipped for winter weather. There are so many broken gears that contribute to the fact that I can’t stop curbing my car, and I’ve never wanted anything more in my life to be able to point to one cause to blame.

If I had one broken headlight, I could tell people that it is hard for me to see completely in the dark and that is why my alignment is always off. I’d be able to blame it all on that one light. Ideally, people would shut up and accept that answer, but we all know someone would tell me to ‘just replace the lightbulb’.

If only it were that simple.

With every new doctor referral and treatment option, I feel my car breaking down even more. She is a tired, old whip that needs a good car wash, but I keep running her on the highway and praying she doesn’t break down. I pump the cheapest gasoline into her and wonder why the mileage is so poor. I slap stickers on her to make her more appealing, knowing full and well that there is not much room in her space to share. But she is tired. And she often just stops when she wants to.

I have to let her stop, and I am learning how to find joy in those pauses. They give me an excuse to listen to three-hour podcasts about LSD or musicians. Even though I’m better at knowing when to hit the breaks, I’m still awful at warning others when they’re about to get whiplash. I find it increasingly more difficult to tell people I am in pain as I grow older because I cannot stand the way they look at me. That stare hurts more than any condition ever will.

I don’t like hurting people, and my mere existence does precisely that.

I hate that the people I love most in this world have seen me suffer in ways that have probably shaped their entire perception of me. I hate that my mother has found me unconscious and has held me as I pass out in showers. I hate that my father has to exchange ice packs every few hours when I’m in bed. I hate that my best friend has had to worry about if I am alive some days. I hate that my grandmother has been spending the last few years of her life worrying about if the little girl who used to read books under her desk is still in pain. I hate that doctors apologize to me at every appointment. I hate that my ex-boyfriends see me as a charity case. I hate that the only thing family friends know about me is my condition. I hate that my uncontrollable car not only crashes into curbs, but also people.

I navigate my streets very carefully, and I periodically pick up hitchhikers. Some end up scratching my paint even more, but once in awhile, I’ll find a passenger who knows a thing or two about cars. They’ll show me how to check my oil properly and how to jump my battery when it dies. That is the only reason I keep quiet in the back seat and watch myself crash and rebuild. One day, with enough knowledge about my car and enough tools to keep parts of it operating, I will climb over the center console and take hold of the wheel. I have every reason to believe that day will never come, but I’ve got a lot of miles behind me, and plenty more to go.

$110/ Session: How To Be a Therapist

People ask me all the time if I was a sad kid. That’s their way of asking if I’ve always been depressed or had these never-ending thoughts that eat me alive. Although my parents would probably say “no, it’s the god damned social media! She was never like this!”, I would tell you otherwise.

I live a privileged life. And I say that to state a fact, not to please some political crowd or way of thinking. I’ve never had to think twice about what I was going to eat for dinner, never had to pick up a job to support my family, and my parents never hid drugs in underwear drawers. However, to assume that all sorts of distress and trauma evaporate when a family income reaches a certain value is to be blatantly ignorant to a good majority of people and their stories. I don’t think many people believe that, but I live in constant fear that everything I’ve been through will be dismissed as a white girl’s daddy issues.

To answer their question, yes I was always a sad kid. It was very internal, though, the way sadness typically is. I used to get so annoyed and overwhelmed by one of my friends that I’d tell her to play hide and seek and then proceed to hide as well behind my bookshelf, making her sit in her space for thirty minutes until she started crying. I never went out to look for her in the first place. Her crying made me feel bad, but even more so? It annoyed me.

Our neighborhood pool parties put my antisocial tendencies in the spotlight. I used to hide from the other kids and scoop ice for my father as he poured drinks for everyone. As the veiny plastic etched ravines into my my thighs, I’d watch the sun kissed skin of my peers flail in the water. Sometimes I’d go out if the kids I liked asked me to, but being around some of the girls made me want to dig a blunt butter knife into my eyeballs. Still does.

Right now, this probably sounds like the dreary lead up to me telling you that I am now a serial killer, but I never wanted to hurt anybody. Rather, I found my place in friend groups and families alike by being the peacemaker, the Golden Child, or the buffer. It’s my way of satisfying my human desire to connect with others while simultaneously remaining completely detached.

That line really made me sound like serial killer. Let me explain. 

I’ve done this my whole life. Cycling in and out of most people’s lives with only a distant ghost of a past connection. In all these years of giving, I had managed to dissolve into perceptions of people rather than create myself. I had to be the anti-sister, the listener of everyone while telling no one, the patient therapist. I lived my life the way I had always known: be the buffer for them, and they never ask you questions.

So when I walked into the crowded living room, feeling the murmur of heavy bass stifled by hardwood, hearing my name made me want to walk right out.

When you feel like your entire identity is at the hands of others, you thrive in environments where no one knows you and for once, you have the pen in your hand. New schools, new people, new parties: they are all euphoric experiences where you can simultaneously blend in and be yourself.

I was exactly in the last place any one of my old friends expected me to be in. Me? Social? At an event? Must be a holograph.

My old friends were collapsed on the couch, staring at me in disbelief. Backwards baseball caps. Same tee shirts. Same vacant smiles. Same everything. It was like the one time I tried to be normal and fun, I was sharply reminded that it wasn’t my place. I was reminded of who I was supposed to be to them, rather than who I actually was at my core or how high I had built my life since they helped raze it only a year prior. Immediately, I felt this rotting flower in my stomach pick up her leaves at the sight of old friends. I wanted to ask about his mom and her dog and how that one super dramatic scandal turned out. I wanted to know how his kid sister was and if his dad found any good music lately. I wanted to ask everything, but not a single word came to my mouth. They got tangled up in the roots of the flower of my past and were pulled straight back down.

It’s like they were ghosts. Premonitions of what once was, constantly haunting me like the ghost of Hamlet’s father. They didn’t seem fully real, like they were still stuck in a year ago and I had been blasted into the future. There was a blanket of soft shimmer that covered their tanned skin as nostalgia for the close past tends to tint things, but I was no longer entranced. Their personalities were no longer desirable or compatible with mine. I could see past the shimmer now.

The thing was, I wasn’t angry. I didn’t want to stand on the couch and flaunt my new friends and new accomplishments. I didn’t feel spiteful or pissy. I just felt out of place, something I thought I had found for a bit. I was rudely reminded of everything I used to be.

It was hard to even look at them. Let alone partake in the stressed affection of side hugs and the conversations that bored me to death. They didn’t seem as charming or funny anymore. I just kept remembering that at the end of the day, I could have been dead in a ditch and none of them would have known. The second I needed help, the second my therapy services weren’t available, they didn’t care. That’s why I can barely speak when they’re around. It’s like watching a bunch of pestering pixies fly around with my life in their tiny hands, taunting me.

The thing about being used is that it is often by the people you love the most. You can feel it from the start, but you let it happen because you’d jump in front of a train for some people. Sometimes I do it to be self-destructive, but most of the time, I let people treat me like a therapist because it is the only way I know how to love. Give, give, give until you are left with a skeleton and three functioning brain cells. Maybe then, you’ll have less time to worry about yourself.

And there, my friends, is the root of the problem. Saying that ‘life is cruel’ and ‘people suck’ is me trying to be a victim when I know fully well that I inflict most of the pain onto myself. I choose the wrong people because I want to fix them. Because I want to sloppily mold them into people who will one day turn to me, see all that I have done for them, and love me because of it.

The problem with that mentality is that life is not a romantic comedy. Men do not stand in yards with boom boxes on their shoulders nor do most girls get deflowered in football fields after prom. If you want better relationships with people, then try. If you want love, then give it to yourself first. Know yourself. Spend lots of time alone until you are ready to put yourself out there and try again. And when you do, at least charge $110 a session for people who treat you like a therapist. I used to think that “constantly going through something” was a never-ending cycle of sadness. Now, I realize that “constantly going through something” is also known as “living”, and for once in my life, I really, really want to do that.

The Reason Behind Rocka

People ask me about my hobby every time I bring it up. “Job” sounds too much like a seventeen year old trying to tell you she’s one of the major music journalists of the time. “Hobby” sounds like I’m belittling the hours of work I put into my site, so take your pick as to what my whole gig is called.

I interview bands… if you didn’t know already. I’ve been doing it for about two years now, starting with another online magazine, local magazines, underground punk publications writing under my stripper name and then branching out to start my own website where I could post when I wanted to about people who deserved to be heard. I didn’t do it for the clout, and you can look at my Instagram for that, seeing as though girls from my high school alone have much higher follower counts than I do. I didn’t do it because I wanted to sleep with guys in bands (although this is certainly a factor in a few cases ((I don’t follow up on this, dad))). I did it because I had questions to ask.

Curiosity is a hunger that I can never seem to appease. I’m the cat that hasn’t been killed (yet). I’ve always wanted to know the “what”s and how things worked, but more so, I wanted to now the “why”s. I think as a writer, I examine everything until I have the roots of it in my hand and dirt underneath my fingernails. I have crushes just so that I can figure out why that one kid in my calculus class is so damn rude and why every “nice guy” ends up being a creep. I talk to girls with fun hair because I want to know why they choose to bleach their hair every other Tuesday. I force relationships with authority because I always want to level the playing field. I want to know why people do the things they do.

Musicians are the perfect subjects for me. They do the job that everyone dreams of, that has “very little money in it unless you’re Ariana Grande” (in the words of Izzie Jinx), and one that family members roll their eyes at while simultaneously sharing projects on their Facebook feed. The struggling artists. The high school friends in their parents basement. The men who found no satisfaction in getting a 9-5 job, or ones who choose to spend their non-working hours in makeshift recording studios set up in bedroom corners.

There are a lot of phonies. A lot of guys who use the musician card to unzip some flies and slither their way into the pants of girls who are mesmerized by three chords on a guitar. There are girls who pierce their septum and make howling noises into a microphone, trying to prove to you that they are somehow “deeper” and more “sophisticated” than “other girls”, meanwhile sounding like every other bedroom pop, over-synthesized indie band.

I write for the realones. The people who are willing to talk to a teenager in her bedroom and pour their hearts out to strangers. To me, that’s the art. That is real music to me. I’m not invalidating any popular music, either. In fact, music is meant to be enjoyed. That’s why there’s so much money in the music industry that the Bigwigs of most record labels could probably pay for most millennial’s college debts with a flick of the wand. It’s okay to listen to the Top 40. It’s okay to like country music. Music should be an experience unique to the listener. Who cares if that’s Charlie Puth in the 5pm rush to get home?

I won’t bore you with commentary on consumerism or how our culture, specifically in the past few decades, is drowning in the over-sexualization of literally everything. Sure, the Romans loved sex, a lot of the time with children, but it was not to the extent that we seem to live and breathe it. Back to my point.

On the fly interviews are my favorite because that is when the artists are at their most vulnerable. The Shakes, one of my favorite groups to work with in my extensive two year career, called me in the back of a van on their way home from a show. There was no script, no time to think, and every answer was said through a lens of ecstasy after performing just minutes before. Their shaky voices and eager tones answered every question with as much depth as possible, making my job as a journalist easier than ever. I didn’t have to provide any artistic element in a desperate attempt to make boring, unsuccessful musicians sound interesting like I’ve had to before. I just had to tell their story as honestly as I could. There was an excitement and a raw element that thus far, has not been matched.

I know that part of the criteria for journalism is being objective, but frankly when it comes to art I think that’s nearly impossible. Art assumes some sort of connection with the subject, and separating from that takes away from the experience itself. I try to write from a “this is my perspective and how this artist influenced my life” maybe because it’s the inner fangirl in me, but mostly because that is the only way I can truly tell people to listen. I could write articles where I spill the facts in a mildly interesting sequence and find some new word combination of “up and coming”. I do, sometimes. At the end of the day, I just want to tell stories. The pages behind the covers.

A few months after my interview with The Shakes, I found myself at a concert up in a shady side of Denver. The venue was hugging a small, rundown bar with a few regulars confused at the sudden influx of teenage girls who were crowding the floor, furrowed brows and space buns. The band is a bigger one, so I won’t mention their actual name. I’ve seen them three times now not because I’m particularly in love with their music, but mostly out of habit. Their gigs are always cheap, the band has a fun aesthetic, and the songs are catchy. I even had an interview with them about a year ago after meeting the bassist while trying to tip a massive Gatorade cooler in order to get water. That, my friends, is another story.

Do I think they’re the next thought-provoking, anti-mainstream prophets of my generation? No. They’re just fun to listen to. They are my Charlie Puth at 5pm on the way home from work.

Before the concert began, I saw the lead singer slumped over the bar with his hood up, clinging to a glass of whiskey. The other members were mingling with the fans and dipping in and out of the door that led to the stage.

He seemed unimpressed by the tens of people who showed up to see his band and completely detatched from reality. I watched him drink two more glasses before pulling his hood up farther and awkwardly cutting through the crowd to the stage. The fans were too afraid to ask for a picture or say hi and before we all knew it, he disappeared from his spot at the counter.

When the opening act was playing, I looked around and saw that directly to my left, he was leaning against the wall with his hood still up. I kept staring because there was something so odd about his demeanor. He looked like the kid in high school who ran the Dungeons & Dragons club and hated jocks, not this indie pop star who danced on stage in pastel colors and feather earrings. Our eyes met and I shyly raised half a hand with a small smile that spread across my face hesitantly. As if grateful for some sort of non-screaming, non-Instagrammable interaction, he smiled and bowed his head in my direction. He had another glass in his hand.

The next time I looked over, he was gone again. A half an hour later, a microphone had replaced the whiskey and he was his upbeat, melodramatic stage persona. His eyes were fixated on the back wall for the entirety of the set, though. As if acknowledging that he had spent his life writing and performing for underage girls was too much to bear. I understand that I am one of those girls and I also understand our power in music culture, but I can see how that would feel unsatisfying. I’ve seen groups of girls eagerly run up to bands like them, Juuls in hands like swords, and suggest sexual favors (that’s the most clean way of putting it). They’re not there for the music at the end of the night, and I can’t imagine how not only annoying, but also how defeating that must feel. Crowds of girls at their knees probably sounds like a dream to most, but not when you have a message to send and no one is listening.

A bunch of untouchable fangirls bowed to him at that stage like peasants to an altar, only I don’t think he liked the feeling all too much. Most musicians I know don’t need to drink half a bottle to sing the songs they poured their lives into. But what do I know?

The juxtaposition between how we present ourselves and how we actually are is why I write. The different ways bands I talk to present themselves is far more revealing than they understand. The truth, however, is in the music. Most listeners can tell the difference between the shallow end of the pool and the deep end.

Why I love music is another conversation and is certainly a factor in my writing, but breaking the boundary between ignorant fan and part of the scene itself comes at a price. The curiosity of who these artists really are behind a Spotify streaming number and a perfectly curated color scheme on Instagram is too much for me to bear. I want to know the grit. I want to know why guys chose to talk to me in the back of a van. I want to know the guy who needs liquored lips to sing.

Steve & The Painfully Hot Hot Chocolate

There are many men who come into the coffee house on a daily basis. The lonely soldiers with a keen eye for the pretty potential wives. The businessmen who orders cappuccinos because it sounds professional, meanwhile not knowing what they’re ordering. There’s the teenage boys seeking dope in the form of 2,000 calorie drinks, running their parents credit cards without a second thought. There are many men of every height (or lack thereof), width, density, and sophistication.

Then there’s Steve and Joe.

The ancient duo: alanky cancer survivor and his stout sidekick waltz into the shop nearly every day to tell the starry, blue-eyed boy at the register that he looks like Buddy Holly. They flirt with the ladies, begging to take us on lavish weekend trips to Vegas. We all scoff at the offer, some even twist their wedding rings to prove they wouldn’t tolerate such comments from anyone else. I guess every lady is a “lady of the night” when the lights come down, even if we try to hide it. We don’t need Vegas for that.

Steve and Joe order the same drinks at the same time in the same Colorado weather that changes like God is PMSing and dictates precipitation by how mean he’s feeling at the current hour. The weather itself is not the same, but rather how terribly inconsistent it is. That never changes.

Today, Steve came in alone and ordered his “hot, HOT chocolate — so hot it’s gonna burn my face off hot chocolate” and cringed when I asked him where his handicapped partner was (but don’t get it messed up, they’re not “funny” together after hours).

“Off with the girlfriend,” he replied dismally, looking out the window in a playfully dramatic manner. There wasn’t a word that fell from his lips that wasn’t wrapped in humor with a smile tied around it like a bow. He could joke all he wanted to with me, but Steve had been through hell and back a few times. I reckon they’ve got a street named after him and everything. The wrinkles near his eyes aren’t just from aging. Even a fool could notice that.

Joe had apparently fallen for his caretaker at his assisted living home down the block. A tall, blonde lady with a tacky name like Vickie. An overrated broad in the eyes of Steve, an absolute gem to Joe.

“I was watchin’ them sneak in the side door,” Steve tells, running his hands nervously through his synthetic hair. “Well, you see, those relationships aren’t allowed there. They have to sneak around.”

The whole situation reeked eerily of the hormonal cesspools I had become far too familiar with: high school. The sneaking around with a younger girl. The forgotten best friend watching from a car with envy. All of it was too perfect.

See, high school is said to be a miserable (sometimes glorious for the carbon-copied) four year expanse of time. Some films will show it to be a coming of age film with camera flares and Arcade Fire playing in dark cars with smuggled alcohol. Some show it as the dark sides to that one jock or the cheerleader. None show it as it actually is. The truth is, the pettiness, unspoken social rules, unattainable standards, and clique rivalry has talons on your life forever. Life is forever a petty, unfair, and cruel affair. High school is just a scapegoat we use to cover up our awkward phases of childhood. Long live the mean girls, the car breakdowns, the awkward pimples, and the relationships that are drawn on far too long.

Steve was distressed by the whole situation. I could tell by the way he couldn’t stand still and kept watching the door, hoping that Joe would come stumbling in with his cane dropping every few feet. We both knew he wasn’t coming, but hope is an awfully pretty lens to put on clouded eyes.

“I haven’t seen ya in a week. Why’d you ditch me?” He said, peering over the counter to make sure I was boiling the milk properly. He’s always skeptical until my hand can’t touch the pitcher any longer.

I told him I was touring colleges on the west coast and liked the weather and coffee, just not what I was actually there for. I confessed that I’d probably have to stay in state or go to a junior college for a bit before I could move on because my health was so bad. It felt embarrassing. I had been an advanced student in nearly every class since they day I entered school. Sure I have some natural ability, but most of it is the amount of work I put into everything I do. I’m not a genius. I’m not going to cure cancer. I just know what I want and how I want it. Work will get me that every single time.

I knew the question that was coming next. I always know it. I can see it in people’s eyes when I drop easter eggs of information about my illness or make quiet jokes about not being able to see properly.

“What’s wrong with your health? You’re upright and smiling,” he asked. He still teetered back and forth on his white New Balance sneakers that stood out against his baggy grey sweatpants. He gave up the prospect of his friend joining him and focused all of his attention on me.

I explained my “diagnosis” and gave him my Sparknotes synopsis of the past three years of my life. I’m working on being honest with people and not sugar coating what I go through, because sugar just gives me more headaches. I am quickly reminded why I hate telling people though, because his face contorts and I feel like I’ve added another line to his wrinkled forehead.

“I’m seventeen now and have been on twenty or so medications,” I reply slowly, almost as if for the millionth time of me reciting it, I had finally tasted the words.

Instead of feeding me the typical response of pity with a spoonful of “have you tried ______?”, Steve’s lips fell to a singular, conjoined line. I also knew what was coming next. He had mentioned her in passing a handful of times before, and I knew that the sparkle in his eye only comes around at the mention of her.

“Those doctors don’t know anything. Same thing happened to my wife. They told her ‘take this’, ‘take that’. Stuck needles in her arm all day and nothing helped. She took all those pills till she died. Now I hate ‘em all. Every single one of those doctors. I hate ‘em,” he muttered, shifting his red cap back and forth.

For the first time in my life, I felt like someone got it. I felt a rush of relief and sadness hit my core and explode outwards. I don’t want to cry because I’m sure he’s got a ‘pity-detector’ of his own, so I just watched him.

I always feel guilty when I snap at my doctors or refuse medication. Then I remember that they are just educated idiots. No matter what diplomas we stick to our rear ends and no matter how high we hold our noses, we are all chickens with our heads cut off in the yard. Moreso, my body and ailments are just as much of a business as the coffee shop I work at. My doctors are nice men, but they have mouths to feed as well. It’s in their best interest to give me their “best shot!” that conveniently comes packaged in those horrid orange containers. I’m wary of the whole process. I just don’t buy it anymore.

I told him that I hated them too.

We stayed for a moment, just looking at each other. Everything was falling into place around us and the particles in the air were still, like each one of them was listening to our heartbeats and silent conversation. He was still for the first time. No fidgeting or cap turning. I wanted to ask him a hundred questions about life and his story with illness. I couldn’t imagine the guilt of surviving something without your partner, just as much as he couldn’t imagine my pain. Pain is isolating and unique, derived like an unsolvable math equation, just for us. But all math is its own, secret language made up my magicians and understood by only the trickiest of us. Pain is the thread that unites us as the ‘Hefty bags of blood with too big of brains’ that we are.

It wasn’t romantic. It wasn’t spiritual. It just hurt in a very relieving way. The way we all need to hurt sometimes in order to take some of the weight off of living.

He smiled softly and grabbed his “hot, HOT chocolate — so hot it’s gonna burn my face off hot chocolate” and walked towards the door, asking when I was working next. He called me by my name and winked before letting the greeting bell hit the glass door and walking to his car.

Steve reminds me why I choose to work during my teenage years when I could easily mooch off my parents like most of my peers do. His kindness and humor prevail against all odds. He is living proof that the human spirit is a resilient one. A beautiful one. A strong one. His heart is made of oak and whittled into a flute whose music we all wait every day to hear. I just hope his wife, wherever she is, never lost her hearing.

Steve’s the kind of guy that makes me want to get up every day and prove my doctors wrong. I’ll use my extra pills as bullets to this damned world that pushes me down every day. If not for myself, then I’ve got to do it for Steve.

Crushes, Boys, and Growing Pot

When I was fourteen, my high school made me read Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen”, a painfully long novel about two boys in Brooklyn who belonged to different sects of Judaism. It was grueling to get through. I remember the pages softly leaving marks on my stomach as I read, sprawled out on a lawn chair in June while my friends read Nicholas Sparks and swam in the pool that had an annual tradition of a child defecating and ruining everyone’s afternoon. Parents were sneaking vodka into their gas station styrofoam cups, the older teenagers were flirting and oiling their acne-ridden bodies up, the lifeguards were bobbing their heads to the Top 40, and I was in a bikini reading about two boring Jewish boys with photographic memories.

The story follows this friendship and the relationships with their fathers. The most important passage of the book is engrained into my memory. I even copy it into every new journal when I grow out of the old one. The most important scene of the novel is when the silent and distant father communicates all his wisdom to his son. It’s heartbreaking and enlightening and feels like everything good and holy in the universe is blessing your brain in a few pages. That might just be me. I’ll include the shortest quote to summarize what I mean.

“A word is worth one coin, silence is worth two”

I was rudely reminded of this seemingly insignificant novel a few years later when I was peeling the fabric string of my tea bag into individual fibers and mentally begging the boy across me to shut his mouth. ‘A few years’ felt like decades. My date was an eighteen year old who worked at my favorite pizza place downtown, and I felt like a middle aged woman with a career, talking to a child. After visiting way too many times over the summer and being stunned by his striking similarity to a lead singer in one of my favorite bands, I developed a playful obsession with him. People don’t really understand that when I have crushes, I don’t mean anything by them. When I have actual feelings for someone, my mouth remains shut. Crushes are harmless and fruitless pursuits that I use to find some sort of common ground with kids my age. I think because I’ve always felt like an outsider, I use a very human and incredibly teenage girl obsession to be relatable. There is a bond girls form when boys are involved. Other than that, I really don’t have much to talk about with some kids. I rarely mean anything by them and that’s how I end up hurting people without meaning to. That’s my secret. Not so secret anymore, I guess.

He was cute. Curly dark hair. Nice complexion. Pretty unproblematic to look at. His voice didn’t hurt my head, his arms weren’t too skinny, and he had straight teeth. There was nothing that stood out about the kid until I realized that he literally had no personality. After he started talking about wanting to grow cannabis for a profession and that he dropped out of community college to pursue his noble pursuits, I realized that maybe the Jewish boys and their religious fathers had a point.

Sometimes people just need to shut up.

Hot stuff, I know, coming from a writer and a girl who has an opinion about everything. (I’ll make one up if I don’t.) But my illness and experience in the past few years has made me a better listener. I always have been, seeing as though the root of many of my issues is listening too much and adopting problems that aren’t mine, but when you live in chronic pain, you tend to be selective about your words.

This essay isn’t about chronic pain, though, so let’s get back to the Jewish boys and my dream date being boring.

It wasn’t that he was a bad person, or that growing pot is the worst thing in the world. He could’ve said he was going to start a band or something. It was just that everything that came out of his mouth had no value or purpose, and yet there were so many words. He had no favorite movie, but spent five minutes explaining the complexities of Marvel. He didn’t read and I didn’t want to say “clearly” so I just grimaced and stared at the barista who had a Harry Potter tattoo on his hand. He probably read. Conversations that I was desperately trying to resurrect were killed within seconds with nearly no effort to uphold or contribute. He was an awkward medium between talking too much and being mute.

I realized about halfway into the date that I liked boys a lot more when they didn’t talk. That kind of went for everyone.

People are a lot prettier when they are quiet because all the control is in your head. You can think of their tone and expressions. You can orchestrate conversations and actions. You can romanticize them in aspects that they’ll never be able to fully reach. This is one of my greatest flaws.

You’ve heard the line in every indie film or book. It’s hinted at in Arctic Monkey songs, Buzzfeed or Cosmo articles, and girls in fishnets with short, bleached hair will probably say it a few times when talking about their ex boyfriends.

“I fell in love with the idea of them.”

Maybe it’s vice versa, but you get the point. We all have a tendency to romanticize each other. We’re all consumers to a fault, so it’s natural that we try to make our lives and our relationships as theatrical as possible. When that melts away though and we’re left with people as they truly are, it’s pretty obvious that we’d want a refund on the person we ordered.

People aren’t dinner orders or the outfits online that say “size fits all”. They’re messy, flawed, and often pretty boring.

I’ve had firsthand experience with that line, as much as he probably grinds his teeth at reading this (Lord knows my ex-boyfriends don’t read my pieces unless there’s a glowing header with their name and social security number on it). My second boyfriend had a crush on me for years, even back into my pixie cut, mean girl phase. When he finally “got” me, I wasn’t something to be lusted after. I wasn’t an unreachable fantasy. I was just a girl who’s head hurt a lot and who was uncomfortable with attention. His brain was probably in all sirens screaming, “REFUND PLEASE!”. Again, that’s an assumption (I’m rarely wrong about these things) that I am making because that is my idealized ending to our situation. Boom. Back in the tailspin of trying to figure things out.

Silence is the most beautiful part of life to me. You’ve seen this in poorly made Facebook pictures and typewriter font Instagram poetry, but I’ll write it here just for fun.

You know you love someone when you can sit with them in silence and not be uncomfortable.

Ew. Your aunt would probably share that to her friends. It’s true, though. The root of most cliches is honesty that just gets distorted by reality and cynics who like to pretend like they’re different. That used to be me, so I’m allowed to say that, you morality police. I really don’t think any teenage girl would scoff if a boy brought her roses. I didn’t.

Most moments of my life that I cherish are ones that are quiet. Being in planes late at night. Car rides with a quiet playlist. Baths. Naps. Reading. Coffee shops in the morning. Sleeping. I understand that I sound like a sixty year old recluse, but when I can shut my mouth and listen to my surroundings, I reach a level of peace in my very loud and obnoxious head.

I’ve got to cut my boys some slack and take a portion of the blame, seeing as though I’m a lot. I also use them as targets because they’re easier to be around than girls, but I think a lesson we forget to teach kids is to shut up. It’s all about expression and being outspoken and unashamed with who you are, but I don’t really think that’s all that great. I learned by best lessons in being quiet, listening to people, and reflecting on the things that I do choose to say.

I think by encouraging reflection and learning to value silence, we’ll learn to balance ourselves and possibly… hear me out… become more interesting and insightful people. Those are just my thoughts though in a scattered sequence. People will continue to settle and fill every emotional void with boring partners to appease an obsession with fictitious life and romance. Hell, I probably will, too. All I know is that I want to create melodies in life, not just noise.