I Will Never Be Safe, So Loving You Is Strange
All love affairs have an origin story, but love at first sight experiences have invisible roots forming for years before eruption. Once sprouted, these buds of May are stunning in their infancy, irresistibly blessed by fortune. And over a life span there will be wilting and death, sometimes out of ignorance, and sometimes because sunlight and water are deliberately withdrawn. As humans we talk a lot about nurturing relationships, deciding when to stay and when to walk away. But many of us do not consider the roots.
I was bred and buttered to form a more perfect union with life through alcohol. Without any knowledge or intent, my roots were thirsty, porous, and uniquely able to transform liquor into lifeforce. I made the subconscious choice time and time again to separate myself from any real integration with the world, or even my family, who loved me dearly. My earliest fully formed memory is of preschool: being separated from my peers by the door of a bathroom stall, able to hear them and see just a sliver of their movements. Several girls giggled, teasing me from the outside: “I know you’re in there, kid. I can see your butt. It’s ugly!” Paralyzed on the toilet, I believed that there was something so foreign and rejectable about my presence that it could waft through metal. Afterwards, I mumbled something vague to my teacher, who sent a note home. My mother, tucking me into bed that night, asked if something bad had happened at school. And without forethought or hesitation, I feigned ignorance in order to turn her away. She couldn’t help, anyway. I just needed more time to be there alone, in bed, in the darkness.
With something so small, so outwardly fleeting and commonplace, I began committing to a totalitarian belief system, an immortal buzzard that hovered over my experience of the world for thirty years to come: You are an outsider, and you have a secret. The secret will remain a secret to you and to the world, but it is something that makes you both inferior and superior to everyone else here. There was something ripe inside that felt this on such a deep level that any future evidence to the contrary would fail to register, would be taken as nothing more than a temporary reprieve from the truth. For a girl like me, the truth was not going to be arriving from the outside. Truth was not going to be received from friendly mouths or from the pulpits of teachers and preachers. Truth could only be felt. It was accessible in my mind’s eye, self-generated and self-sustaining, and it could only ever confirm what I already knew.
There was no time in my life that this modus operandi felt more electric than age 15.
Late January, 2001– 20 minutes outside of Niagara Falls, Ontario
I have a safe space here, and it is my bed. Not mine, really. It belongs to this school, 229 miles away from home. I know it is 229 miles because my father had gotten driving directions from Mapquest, printed them out, and taped them onto the steering wheel of his 1989 Lexus. Jade Black was the color of that Lexus, a shade that looked entirely black unless the car was parked directly in the sunshine, where you could see its underlying tones of deep and brilliant green. I loved that. I hoped it was the color of my soul. Jade Black sounded imperious, impervious.
Ass-worthy was the word she used. This girl was a grade above me, maybe two, and clearly had the respect of the other girls on our floor. She spoke to me after the weekend meeting in our common room area, where the R.A’s ensure we are all following the rules: reminding us not to leave our towels hanging in the community showers, not to keep our snacks in the TV area unless we are willing to share with the entire floor, not to forget the existence of a Skintimate shaving gel thief who lurks in our midst.
“You’re the girl from the States, right?” she asked, taking a moment to scan me up and down. “There will be a lot of talk about you going around for a while. Just talk, you know, about what you look like, whether or not you’re ass-worthy.”
“OK,” I replied, my heart starting to pound. “That’s good to know.”
“Yeah,” she said flatly. “So, see you around. By the way, my boyfriend’s name is Wade. Don’t ever talk to him.”
Her words burned like a slap. I was hotly aware of a cluster of fellow sophomores witnessing this exchange, and immediately slunk off to the nearest exit, which I hoped was in the opposite direction of Wade. I tried and failed to brush ass-worthy out of my teeth in the community bathroom, the same one where there were at least three illegally hanging towels and a distinct lack of Skintimate shaving gel. I file away this new proof: There must be something wrong with me to cause this girl to announce her boyfriend’s protected status upon first sight. She told me his name, but not her own, and it is because she senses that I am not to be trusted. Not acceptable. Not a girl’s girl. No one is ever going to be saying, “Wait, guys! Where’s Christina? We can’t start without her.” Just thinking about it made me wince, the same way I wince whenever I am forced to say my own name. It never sounds natural, never. Not when I was the one saying it.
I have a roommate here, but with my headphones on, I can forget she exists, too. Not that she’s a bad roommate. She’s polite and kind, fair and studious. By outward appearance, you could even say I won the roommate lottery. But she has friends, and an easygoing nature, and a Canadian passport. She belongs here much more than I do. I am the perpetual loner, even back home in the suburbs of Cleveland — much more so here, though. So much more so, here.
And so, I begin a bedtime routine, one that will continue every night. At 10:30 PM, when the common room closes and the halls empty out, when the catty voices hush behind cinderblocks and brass doorknobs, I will reach for a small and faceless MP3 player and listen to two songs on repeat: “Father of Mine” by Everclear and “Stitches” by Orgy. An anthem to childhood abandonment, followed by an ode to orgasmic numbness. And I will succeed, every night, in forgetting that girls don’t like me, and friendships with teenage boys will invariably crumble under the pressure of badly masked erections and accusations of “mixed signals.” I will accept that I have unsafe, untrustworthy pheromones, just as I did in that bathroom stall in preschool. That no one will be interested in my arguments, my evidence, or my exhibits. Bail denied.
In a week, I will forget about the 18-year-old boy who tells everyone that, because of the way I sit in my uniform skirt at chem lab, he can see everything.
In two weeks, I will forget about the anonymous person who messages me on the school’s intranet system to tell me I should go the hell back to the U.S.
In April, I will forget having sex for the first time with a 19-year-old in the office of the athletic prefect, unloved, disassociated, without a flicker of hope that anyone in the world knows me or sees me or believes anything that I say. I will wonder so often if that 19-year-old had any idea that I was not there with him. Gone, desaparecida. That he was lying on top of a specter.
In May, I will leave this school and return to Ohio, but I will keep these lessons close to my heart. I will waste no time fashioning a functioning superiority complex, ruthlessly ambitious, strong enough to rival Narcissus and his mirror, or maybe Gollum and his Ring. And at night, when ambition has been exhausted, I will transform into a numbness apologist. Every disillusionment, every indignity, every desperately sad confirmation of my paranoid fears, they will all lead me to this one assurance: I can press a button, and will it away. No matter what occurs, I can find at least one dark hour a night to detach from the fact that I have feelings. To forget that I exist.
At some point in the future, when one hour of numbness is no longer enough and headphones alone cease to do the job, I will move on to more terrifying things. But at age 15, I can close my eyes and listen to music, to the voices of the imperious and the impervious, until all I see is Jade Black.