More Than Words

His hands were the first thing I noticed about him.

He was sketching, brushing feather-light pencil lines effortlessly across the page. One of his hands commandeered the pencil while the other scratched nimbly at the nape of his neck. They were beautiful. Whatever was on the paper in front of him was beautiful, too.

I stood for a while, just observing, until it occurred to me that what I was doing was a little bit creepy. So I edged in front of him, clearing my throat. “Do you mind if I sit down?”

He looked up at me, startled that someone had the audacity to disturb him at work. But his eyes met mine and softened a little around the corners, a wordless gesture that gave me the confidence to slide into the seat across from him. I half expected him to tell me to get lost, that he was concentrating and needed to be alone, but he just went right back to his drawing like I’d never interrupted him at all.

Anna Karenina was calling me; I had almost sixty pages to read before AP Lit. Yet I was going cross-eyed reading about Levin’s domesticity, and my gaze kept shifting unwittingly toward this quiet boy and his expressive hands.

After a few minutes of staring at my book with utter futility, I surrendered to my curiosity. “What are you drawing?” I asked, quietly enough that he could ignore it if he wanted to.

He didn’t, though. He didn’t look up, but he answered me, pausing between strokes and biting his lower lip. “I’m not sure.”

“Well, it’s nice,” I said, letting the conversation fade to silence before speaking up again. “I’m Sophie.”

He cracked a knuckle. “Adam.”

When the bell rang, he finally looked at me. The corners of his mouth twitched into a smile I hadn’t expected as he extended his hand across the table. The heel of it was shiny with graphite, the pads of his fingers dented from holding the pencil, but his grip felt like a promise. “Very nice to meet you, Sophie.”

***

The next time I sat down across from him, I didn’t bother asking for permission. He was eating an apple, tongue darting out every once in a while to catch the juice that threatened to escape from his mouth.

“Hi, Sophie,” he said with a genuine grin.

“Hi,” I replied, blushing when his eyes lingered on mine for a little too long.

We didn’t talk much. He drew, I read – Anna Karenina, Great Expectations, A Clockwork Orange. His drawings were strange and smudged and haphazard, but they were all equally lovely. He made the kind of art you’d put in a museum in hopes that someone would be smart enough to understand it.

I jokingly asked him to draw me one day. He laughed and said he didn’t really know how to do people.

“You never had to do portraits or anything?” I asked, wincing as I recalled my pathetic attempt at a self-portrait back in the fifth grade.

“I didn’t say I’d never done it.” He brushed his forehead absent-mindedly. “I just don’t really know how.”

“What do you mean?”

“People are tricky,” he said. “The thing about people is, you can get them wrong. This,” he gestured toward the paper in front of  him, “nobody is going to tell me this is wrong. With people, it’s different.”

I agreed with him, kind of. The self-portrait I made in fifth grade was definitely wrong. But I didn’t believe someone like him could draw anyone less than perfectly. Maybe he was just seeing them the way nobody else could.

***

“I wish I could draw,” I confessed one day as I watched his hands at work.

He laughed. “You can. Anyone can draw. It’s one of the first things babies learn how to do.”

“Yeah, but I wish I could draw like you. You know…” I trailed off. “Well.”

I was waiting for him to say something encouraging, because he was that kind of person, but instead he reached into his sketchpad and pulled out a folded up, slightly torn square of paper. He hesitated, rubbing it between his fingers for a couple of seconds, before handing it over to me.

He stopped me before I could open it. “No,” he said simply as I tried to unfold a corner. “Not right now.” So I slipped it in my pocket and didn’t say a word.

When the bell rang, he disappeared before I had a chance to say anything else.

***

The next day, I kissed him.

I didn’t plan it; I didn’t even consider it ahead of time, I just sat across from him like I always did and opened The Picture of Dorian Gray. It took me seven agonizing minutes to realize what he was doing.

“Is that…what are you drawing?” I asked incredulously as his pencil strokes became rounded, fluid, detailed.

“I’m trying something new,” he said.

“I can see that.” I rolled my eyes. “I mean, that. That’s a person.”

“Yup,” he replied without taking his eyes off the page.

“I thought you didn’t do people.”

He shrugged. “Figured it was worth another shot.”

The person – the girl – took shape in front of my eyes. Angular chin, slightly downturned mouth. Eyes a little too far apart. Feathery eyelashes and bold eyebrows. A slight dusting of freckles on the tip of her nose.

“Me,” I breathed. “You’re drawing me.”

It was both fascinating and terrifying to watch his capable fingers trace my likeness across a piece of paper. No one would mistake it for a photograph, but he was capturing something that was decidedly me, and I knew I had been right the first time I asked him about drawing people. He saw things the way that nobody else ever could.

When he finished, he held it up for me with a sheepish grin, and I smiled back while something warm and heavy spread through my entire body.

“Did I get it sorta right this time?” he asked, nervously raking a hand through his hair.

“Sorta,” I said breathlessly in the seconds before my mouth was on his.

***

He kissed like he drew: carefully, skillfully, and a little selfishly. It didn’t take me very long to figure out that he loved that way, too.

The first time we said it, we were sitting under the tree I used to climb as a kid. I told him about the time I fell off the fourth branch and broke my arm, and he drew me a little cartoon – a tiny upside-down freckled girl, her mouth curled into a surprised “oh!”, dangling from the fourth branch of a towering tree. I laughed until my stomach hurt and kissed him until my lips tingled, relishing the feeling of his wonderful hands as they roamed across my back and shoulders and face.

“I love you, you know,” I whispered to him when we were catching our breath.

“I love everything about you,” he whispered back, running a finger along my jawbone. We laid there under the tree, our limbs tangled together, until the sunset started to spill across the sky and we remembered the rest of the world.

***

“I never looked at that note you gave me,” I told him one day while he was cooking dinner.

“What note?” he asked, scraping a diced green pepper into the saucepan on the stove.

“That folded up piece of paper. The one you handed me, and acted really cryptic about, and never mentioned again.”

He smiled knowingly. “I wondered why you never said anything about that,” he said before starting to hum his favorite ABBA song.

Neither of us mentioned it again.

***

I found him again at our five-year high school reunion. He was sitting on a barstool, his heel tapping on the leg, sketching on a napkin. He hadn’t changed at all.

“Do you mind if I sit down?” I asked, gesturing toward the seat next to him.

“Sophie,” he said, letting his eyes crinkle a little as he half-smiled. “Hi.”

“Hey,” I said back. The silence enveloped us like a blanket, warm and familiar and comforting. Being around him always felt private, even when there were a million other people in the room.

“You know,” he started after a few minutes, “I didn’t…I just, I mean -”

“I know.” I rubbed my thumb across my bottom lip. “You don’t have to say anything.” To tell the truth, I didn’t really want him to. It was easier this way, without words. Words can never really mean everything they’re supposed to.

“I’m glad you’re still drawing,” I finally said, squeezing his shoulder as I stood up to walk away. “You really are amazing.”

I could have let him talk. There were plenty of stories I could have told him, about the rambunctious high school English classes I was now teaching or the incredible man whose ring I was wearing, but it wouldn’t have mattered. Our relationship wasn’t about words and sentences and conversations. It was about feelings and instincts running wild, smudging the lines in a picture nobody could figure out anyway. We were art, and art was messy, and the artist never got a happy ending.

That night, as I unfolded the fraying piece of paper I kept on the nightstand by my bed, I was glad I hadn’t let him say anything. I ran my fingers over the fading pencil marks, the ones that knew me before I knew him, and I saw all the pieces of him he didn’t want me to see. “Art is the lie,” Picasso once said, “that enables us to realize the truth.”

His drawings had always said more than he ever could.

Dear Taylor Swift, Here Are 22 Things That 22 Actually Feels Like

1. Not being able to pay your grocery bill because you bought that extra handle of Fireball.

2. A dizzying lack of sleep.

3. Drinking day-old coffee because you’re too lazy to make a fresh pot.

4. Digging in all your coat pockets for enough quarters to do a load of laundry.

5. Rapidly approaching unemployment.

6. Choosing Netflix over a frat party and feeling really good about your decision.

7. Realizing that you have no more birthdays to look forward to.

8. Having more respect for your crockpot than your roommates.

9. Panicking about how soon you have to pay for your own health insurance.

10. Wondering whether it’s acceptable to get your news from both Buzzfeed and the New York Times.

11. Calling your mom to ask how to use the toaster oven as an oven.

12. Screwing up your taxes.

13. Forgetting what it means to have to wear something other than men’s boxer shorts.

14. Trying to figure out at what point it is no longer okay for your mom to be your emergency contact.

15. Losing all respect for pretty much anyone under the age of 21.

16. One giant, horrible, disorienting hangover.

17. Actually waking up when your alarm goes off.

18. A slightly terrifying readiness to become a contributing member of society.

19. Finally starting to become friends with the siblings you once wanted to strangle.

20. Learning how much shit you thought was free you actually have to pay for.

21. Complaining about back and neck pain.

22. Okay, maybe I do feel happy, free, confused, and lonely at the same time. Damn it Taylor Swift. Looks like you got something right.

I Don’t Hide My Insecurities, I Hide Behind Them

“I don’t know,” I say with a frown as I angle my body sideways in the mirror. “Does it really look okay?”

“It looks fine,” my best friend replies, rolling her eyes. “You look good.”

I smooth the ruched fabric over my protruding hipbones. They are the part of my appearance I will never accept, no matter how long I spend trying to convince myself that they’re normal. I spin one way, then the other, watching as my shape goes from backyard stick to lopsided pear. But nobody wants to hear my complaining, so I just sigh and move away from the mirror.

“You don’t dress like you hate your body,” a friend remarked once as we ride the el to our downtown destination. I didn’t know how to respond to that. I didn’t even know what that meant. I felt like I should be offended, but I wasn’t sure why.

I’m bothered by a lot of things about myself, not just my hips. I’m bothered by how quickly I clam up in social situations and how easily I blush when I’m embarrassed. I hate that I have to work twice as hard as the people around me to do something as simple as eating breakfast in the morning, because my brain refuses to process things the way that it should. I hate that I take everything personally and spend maddening hours feeling guilty for things that aren’t my fault.

And I’m open about all that, I really am. I write posts like these that present my inner turmoil for the world to see. I crack jokes about my social ineptitude and never fail to cry loudly when the situation demands it. And I guess when I put it like that, it sounds kind of admirable.

It’s not.

I’ve been known to drunkenly disclose my eating disorder when I’m scared someone is getting too close. I tend to use my awkwardness and social anxiety as an excuse to avoid putting myself out there. And I guess, yeah, I don’t dress like I hate my body, because I don’t want to feel like I’m lying. I emphasize the parts I hate the most for no good reason other than the fact that I want to drive people away. Truth be told, that’s the one thing I know I’m pretty damn good at.

Some people hide their insecurities, faking self-confidence until they start to really believe in themselves. Some people actually embrace the parts of themselves they don’t love, because they know it makes them beautiful and unique and human.

Not me. I hide behind them, using them as a crutch, constantly making excuses to wallow in self-pity. I dwell on my insecurities until they’re all I see, and I make myself believe that I don’t deserve good things because of them. I’d rather force people to leave right away instead of waiting until I’m attached and the loss actually hurts.

I hide because I can. Because drowning in self-pity and self-loathing is the lifestyle I’m accustomed to, and because it’s easy, and because that way I’m the only one who’s allowed to hurt me or hate me. I hide because that’s what I do.

I take one last look in the mirror on my way out the door, turning away when I feel the tears brewing in my eyes. Someday maybe I’ll be really, truly brave. Just not tonight.

 

Who Am I?

I. A daughter

I was born to walk the middle ground, the first child of type A and type B
[and what does that make me?]
Constantly stuck between too small and too tall,
Talks too little, reads too much, sings too loud,
Hips too big, mouth too small,
Needs too little, wants too much, dreams too big.
I am a combination of everyone I’ve ever known,
But mostly I am too much like my mother,
And too much like my father,
[and too torn between the two people I am to really know who to be.]

II. A sister

I had bite marks on my back and my arm in a sling
Because that’s what it means to have your thunder stolen
When your parents decide to procreate again.
[I guess it also means feeling important,
Because someone looks up to you so much
That it makes you want to be better than you would be for yourself.]
And I would have laughed if you said someday I’d be proud
To have him for a best friend,
But the first time he asked for my advice
[because he thought I was wise]
I thought maybe the bite marks were worth it.

III. A friend

I learned more about friendship from the people who didn’t stick around
Than from the ones that did,
Because I learned when to hold on
And when to let go.

IV. A scholar

I’ve been taught to question everything.
["Don't be so gullible, Gwen,"
I hear as I fall for another stupid joke.
"Don't believe anything you can't prove."]
I go to class and they tell me,
“Think critically, Gwen. Pick it apart. Find the truth.”
But I don’t think there’s just one truth.
I think sometimes the truth is that you don’t have to question everything.
[my professors disagree.]

V. A writer

My fingers bleed a lot because I pick the skin,
My brain bleeds words because, because?
[because it's the only way I know how to feel.]

VI. A survivor

Once I thought that to be happy,
My bones had to poke out of my skin,
And my worth as a person was dictated by a number
On a scale
[or the label of my jeans.]
But when I stopped chasing perfection,
I found someone wonderful,
[Daughter, sister, friend
Scholar, writer, survivor]
I found me.

 

Written for the Weekly Writing Challenge. I don’t usually write poetry.

A Finals Week Pick-Me-Up/Knock-Me-Down

It’s finals and I’m having trouble thinking up a post that doesn’t involve combinatorial analysis of a tic-tac-toe board. So I’m sorry, but this is not going to be intellectually stimulating at all.

Instead, I’m going to ruin the ending of as many books/movies as I can think of, because it’ll make me feel better.

  • She dies in the fight.
  • He dies of cancer.
  • She dies in a car crash.
  • He’s been dead the whole time.
  • She dies of AIDS.
  • He kills her little sister.
  • She was sleeping with her boyfriend’s dad.
  • He gets abducted by aliens as he’s dying of cancer.
  • The devil ascends in human form.
  • It was all a dream.
  • He gets hit by a meteor.
  • She jumps in front of a train.
  • He euthanizes her.
  • Only the virgin lives until the end.
  • She turns out to be a psychopath.
  • He goes insane.
  • It wasn’t a training session.
  • He was depressed because he was repressing sexual abuse.
  • The butler did it.
  • The ex-boyfriend did it.
  • The not-really-dead twin sister did it.

Don’t you just love happy endings?

And now, back to combinatorics. Peace out, y’all.

On Graduating College, Or Why Time Needs to Move Slower

Screenshot 2014-03-17 19.20.05

I set a countdown last night for the day I finish my last final. Now I have this blinking clock at the top of my computer screen that says pretty much the scariest sentence I’ve ever seen.

“2 months and 25 days until you’re done with college.”

Seriously? How did I get here? It feels like just yesterday I was receiving my first college acceptance letter – but no, that was 2009. It’s been more than four years since then. And it’s been a long four years. Definitely challenging. Invigorating. Heartbreaking. Eye-opening. And in a little under three months, it’ll all be over.

I don’t feel like an adult. I still feel like the same shy, terrified little freshman who cried her eyes out every night because she was so homesick. Hell, I have even less of an idea of what I want to do with my life today than I did in 2010. In what universe am I ready to graduate? I don’t know how to fold a fitted sheet or use the broiler on my oven. I forget to empty the trash can in my bedroom for months and sometimes even to lock the door when I leave the house. I’m a kid pretending to be a grown-up, and I’m not even doing a very good job of it.

There are moments, though. Moments when I think, “wait a minute. This is my life.” My apartment is a disaster area 85% of the time because we don’t do the dishes enough or put away our shoes, but you know what? I have an apartment, and I pay my bills, and I couldn’t have done that when I was eighteen. I talk to people when I go somewhere new; I network and make connections and four years ago that would have paralyzed me. Even though some of it feels the same, I’m not the person I was when I rolled my suitcase to Willard 228 for the first time.

I honor the girl I used to be, because she is the one that allowed me to become who I am. But I’m glad I’m not eighteen anymore. Everything was life or death back then – picking a major, joining a sorority, staying in touch with everyone from my graduating class – and it was exhausting. I lived in a constant state of pressure and fear. I didn’t know how to let all the petty stuff go.

I’m not an adult, I know. I’m still clueless and scared and unprepared. But I’m smart enough to figure it out. These past four years have been the hardest I’ve ever faced, and look at how I’ve conquered them! Despite the fear, the misgivings, the doubt, I’m ready for what happens next.

2 months and 25 days. Let’s do this.

16 Reasons My Roommates Are Better Than Yours

  1. They let me eat their leftovers.
  2. They call me out when I do something really disgusting like clip my toenails on the couch.
  3. They proofread my blog posts when I’m a little too intoxicated to string together coherent sentences.
  4. They make the best chocolate chip cookies in the entire universe.
  5. They introduce me to a wide variety of really wonderful and really terrible movies.
  6. They enforce the “every time you say something bad about yourself you have to say three good things about yourself” rule.
  7. They know the difference between times when it’s appropriate to mock my singleness and times when they need to hold my hand because I’m completely convinced I’m going to die alone.
  8. They don’t get mad at me when I drink all their liquor and then buy them a replacement bottle and drink that too.
  9. They share my affinity for Buzzfeed quizzes and understand when I get weirdly emotional about the results.
  10. They decorate the house for every single holiday. And I do mean every single one.
  11. They are somehow still okay with the fact that I’ve crashed 80% of their dates for the past nine months.
  12. They do my dishes sometimes even though I don’t deserve it.
  13. They’re super weird and loud and hilarious. This counts as, like, 3000 reasons.
  14. They have become quite skilled at convincing me that I’m being ridiculous and overdramatic and I need to CALM DOWN.
  15. They actually let me dress us up as Lady and the Tramp and the bowl of spaghetti for Halloween.
  16. They’re smart and sassy and successful and they got me through a really tough time in my life. If roommates were flowers, I’d pick them every time.

Did You Love Him?

“Did you love him?”

***

I met him when I was six and he was seven. My parents had just finalized the world’s most hostile divorce, and my dad and I moved into this tiny little ranch house in a part of town I’d never seen. “A whole new start, babe,” he said, reaching behind him and ruffling my hair. “This is our home now. “

Next door, a silent little boy stood still on the front porch. No matter how many trips my dad and my Uncle Keith took carrying boxes into the house, he was still there. Watching. Waiting. Waiting for what?

I wandered over when I had a chance to slip away. He was a little taller than me, with white-blond hair and huge green eyes. I was startled by how big his eyes were. Maybe staring like that made them grow.

We didn’t say anything. We just sat down on his porch swing and dangled our feet until my dad got mad and carried me home.

***

In fifth grade we had to dissect frogs in science class. They smelled like death and formaldehyde, and the second my teacher handed me a knife, I felt woozy and had to sit down.

He was my lab partner, like always. He wasn’t loud, but he was smart. He smiled at me and put his hand on my shoulder and said, “It’s okay. I’ll take care of it.” And I tried not to watch as he cut and peeled and poked and pulled out organs, and he never once let me look at anything. He did the whole lab, all by himself, and proudly wrote both of our names at the top.

“Our names look good together,” I joked. I think I already loved him.

***

When we got to high school, he got even quieter. He barely spoke in classes, never said hello to anybody in the halls. The only times I ever heard him talk were in the afternoons, when we’d sit on his front porch and drink grape soda and work on our homework. He was still so smart, and so kind, and so lovely, those hours we spent on the porch. But we’d get to school the next day and he was back to radio silence, not even an “excuse me” when he nearly ran me over in the English wing.

One afternoon he was quieter than usual. I looked up from The Scarlet Letter and saw him gazing sideways at his picket fence and the setting sun. “Are you okay?” I asked him softly, resting my hand on his knee.

He turned to face me, and he stayed so quiet, so calm, as he slowly moved closer to me and his eyes swallowed mine and our mouths were touching, so lightly, and he tasted like grape soda and our tongues brushed against each other and it took all I had to pull away.

“I have reading to do,” I said as I turned the page. I didn’t bother to look at him. I knew what I’d see.

***

He kissed me again one morning, before I even had a chance to say hello.

His kiss was a breath, a question, the product of a boy so scared he could barely figure out how to move his body even a centimeter forward. I felt his lips grab mine, sucking, asking if I was okay. He didn’t need to ask. I was already drowning in a sea of ecstasy, wondering when he would get bored of my lips and move somewhere else.

“You’re the only fucking thing that makes sense,” he breathed into my ear one night as we laid tangled up in each others’ limbs. “You’re the only thing that matters.”

***

“Yeah,” I said quietly, catching a teardrop before it spilled over onto my cheek. “Yeah, I loved him.”

I loved him, and I hated him.

It was the circle of life. He loved, I loved, he left, I grieved. He was everything. Life in a flag, lamb on a breeze. It was only a matter of time before our time ran out, but I’d never love him any less.

 

Throwback Thursday: College Essay

I wasn’t expecting very much when my parents drove me to the parking lot of my dad’s company on an insignificant day in the middle of June. I thought maybe my dad had forgotten a project he had to finish, or he’d left his briefcase there or something. So when we pulled in right alongside a beat-up Buick Le Sabre with patches of rust all over the body, I wasn’t really thinking anything other than, “I wonder who let THAT happen.”

But people always surprise you, even parents who tell you that they would never in a million years buy you a car. That 15-year-old beater came home with us that day. It needed work, of course, considering its age, but my dad told me that as soon as he was done, I could have it. Not astoundingly, I was overjoyed. It was every sixteen-year-old’s dream to have a car of their very own. I certainly didn’t care what it looked like, or that it smelled a tiny bit like cigarette smoke, or that it had perfect little cylindrical holes in the seats, or even that the A/C didn’t work. It was a car, and more than that, it was my car.

I don’t know if I had ever been so dedicated to anything in my life. Instead of going out with my friends the following Saturday, I stayed at home cleaning the car. I vacuumed the interior, shook out the rugs, scoured the windows, scraped tar off the dashboard, and even tried to take off some of the rust. I had a few mishaps; while trying to scrape the rusty bottom with a broom, I accidentally punched a hole through the entire panel. But I worked, without a break, until it was too dark to continue.

My car became a part of me. Vladimir, as I called him, became not only a tool of my independence, but a fortress of solitude in which I could lock my doors to the rest of the world. I explored new places without having to leave behind the familiar, venturing far beyond where I had ever dared to go alone. In the comfort and solace of the front seat I was free to emote as I wished, screaming in celebration or sobbing in disappointment, separate from the eyes of any others. And somehow, he always seemed to understand what I was feeling, keeping his headlights pinned on the horizon, reminding me to find assurance in what lay ahead. I began to rely on him not only for transportation, but for friendship. He was loyal and dependable, honest and helpful. His presence in my driveway was like the constant presence of an old friend.

However, Vladimir was aging every day; rusting, cracking, squeaking, faltering, breaking. The strength and invincibility I used to feel within his walls started to be replaced with panic and frustration. On the day he died, I stood in the dusty parking lot for hours, attaching and reattaching jumper cables, trying uselessly with everything I had to coax him to come back to me. And at that moment, it hit me: that I had put all my faith and trust in something inanimate, fallible, and unreliable. As much as I had convinced myself of all Vladimir had taught me, in reality I had made my own adventures and judgments, as I could have done with or without him. He was only a vehicle in which I had traveled; everything else that I had made him was my own imagination and wishful thinking. He did not have magic powers, and he was not in tune with my emotions. He wasn’t even a he. I had not lost a friend. All I had lost was a broken 15-year-old beater car with patches of rust all over the body.

Two weeks later, my dad fixed Vladimir, and now he runs as well as he ever did. But I no longer rely on him for all that I used to. I have friends I can call when I need to scream in celebration or sob in disappointment, and they assure me better than just some high-beam headlights. And I still go on adventures, but I know he’s not driving me anywhere. I’m the one driving, I’m behind the wheel, and I get to take charge: I can steer him anywhere I want to go.