8: Sometimes it’s o.k. if

My parents separated when I was in high school. One morning, I think it was July,  my mom and I woke up in the house we’d lived in for over a decade, and went to bed in our new apartment, two miles away. There was little fanfare, or warning or justification. When my friend Molly came home from her trip to Israel, she drove to visit me at the wrong house. I didn’t provide a direct explanation, but, by then, my friends knew better than to ask me for one.

For two years before I left for college my mom and I lived together with our dog, in our new home. It was a loosened up lifestyle, mostly missing the consistency and predictability I’d always known. Everything before that had been governed by strict routines and non-negotiable timelines: There were three, square meals per day and age-appropriate bedtimes. Carpools planned three months in advance and homework neatly organized in brightly colored folders, then the pages of crisp, white planners, for every day of the week.

A combination of my mom’s pure, emotional, exhaustion, my dad’s absence, and the freedom afforded me by a driver’s license and a (new) car created a perfect storm for a revolution in the character and patterns of our daily life. I can look back now and name the experience of those two years as a hybrid of my first year in an apartment in college, and my first year in an apartment on my own.

The rigid structure of my childhood gave way to the fluidity that evolves from chaos. My relationship with my mom permanently shifted and it was during this period that I first called her my best friend. And, after so many years of devotedly following them, I learned to break the rules.

A little at a time.

My mom taught me that sometimes it’s o.k. to buy a bag of Mother’s chocolate chip cookies, and split it between two people, for dinner. That sometimes it’s o.k. if we eat Samoas ice cream, straight out of the carton, as long as we don’t do it every night. That sometimes it’s o.k. if my drunk friends sleep on our living room couch or in the back of my SUV to avoid facing their own parents who have yet to lighten up.

I didn’t have a curfew and never had to tell my mom where I was going or when I was coming back. My friends blasted music, sat on the countertops in the kitchen and talked to my mom openly about how they smoked pot.

One time, before I graduated, I threw a party while I was home alone. Because sometimes it’s o.k. to let twenty of your friends and fifty random strangers trash your mom’s condo on a Friday night.

When I talk to her now, my mom denies most of this. She claims she had strict boundaries and concrete rules and I couldn’t have possibly thrown a party without her permission.

What she does admit, though, is by the time I was old enough to drive, the rules and control and prescriptions had failed her. My brother was raised on scheduled bedtimes and regimented after school hours and high standards for homework and test performance. He had a curfew and driving restrictions and all the responsible parenting impositions suggested for teenagers in books.

None of it worked.

He broke his curfew and disregarded his homework and cut school and failed all of his tests. He drove my parents cars when they let him and stole them when they didn’t. He got drunk, all day long. He threatened my mom and he lied to my dad and there was nothing either of them could do to stop it.

So, by the time her marriage is over, and our house in the suburbs is just a place she used to live, and her oldest child is an alcoholic, my mom, is ready to let the rules slide.

A little at a time.

And it’s a powerful lesson, for both of us.

About letting go and giving in and occasionally eating ice cream for dinner. About acknowledging the importance of structure, but allowing it to bend, and change, once in a while.

Tonight, I’m reminded that sometimes it’s o.k. if I skip yoga to make brownies and hang out with my friends. To eat cupcakes and drink wine on a work night and stay out too late for how much I have to do when I get home.

To publish a blog without re-reading it, or remembering in the morning what it says.

Sometimes it’s o.k. to be messy and unedited and all-over the place.

As long as you don’t do it every night.

4: Freak flags and crazy capes

Before I went to law school, I worked as an intervention counselor at a public high school. It was hilarious and heart breaking and endlessly entertaining. My favorite student was an edgy sophomore who reminded me of myself, in college. She was smart and sophisticated and mostly had her act together. She was an outlier in the distribution of my blatant favoritism.

Because I’ve always had a soft spot for a complete mess.

For months, I’d been hearing about a girl with a rolling backpack. She wears a floor-length black cape with white clouds on it.  At the end of each period, as soon as the bell rings, she busts through the classroom door and sprints, at top speed, to her next class.

She’s infamous. A campus legend.

One day I get a referral for a freshman named “Sarah,” I recognize her last name because her older brother is already one of my most-loved disasters.

Promptly at 11:15, a tiny, curly-haired girl in a giant black robe stands in my doorway.

“My teacher says I’m here now,” she tells me, then abruptly takes a seat. She insists I call her “tight” because that’s her name, today.

I ask a few preliminary questions to make sure she’s comfortable, but her demeanor and facial expression is unchanging, so I switch to a direct approach.

“So, tight, do you feel like you’re making friends at school this year?”

“Not really,” she responds casually. “Most people think I’m totally weird,” she continues.”I carry a rolling backpack and I wear this big cape and I sprint from class to class. People just point and laugh about it, they think I’m a freak.”

I’m stammering. Completely caught off guard and unable to handle her pure honesty, her genuine and precise insight.

“Does it bother you that they think you’re a freak?”

“Of course not. This is just who I am. If they don’t get it, they probably wouldn’t be a good friend for me anyway.”

Now, I’m speechless.

She is some sort of adolescent outcast guru. She’s pure wisdom and no ego. The most self-aware person I’ve ever met.

Eventually, I get to know Sarah pretty well. She joins one of my support groups that the pretty, popular girls take to get out of class once a week. One morning  their ring leader plugs in her straightener in the corner of the room. We get to talking about some pretty deep stuff. She gives her well-adjusted, socially appropriate opinion while she carefully styles Sarah’s characteristically unruly hair. She’s calm and focused, like she’s been doing it at a sleepover for the last ten Friday nights. When the bell rings, they all pose for a picture together, then exchange phone numbers and authentic, girl-friendy hugs.

Sarah says “peace out” and darts for the door. She disappears into a sea of teenagers, before the other girls take a single step outside.

Later in the year, Sarah repeatedly gets in trouble with her grandmother for bringing her scary, stuffed doll to school. It has a bloody face and black x where each of the eyes should be. Grandma is concerned the doll is alienating the other students, but Sarah keeps sneaking it in her backpack each morning.

When, at Grandma’s request, I try to intervene, Sarah tells me simply, that she doesn’t get it. “He’s a part of me. I’m not myself without him. I have to be myself, especially at school.”

I want to tell Sarah that she’s a revolutionary. That, especially in high school, her unrelenting adherence to “being herself” is nothing short of extraordinary. That I talk to a hundred kids each week and they’re all trying desperately to be exactly like everyone else. They all wear neon hoodies and skinny jeans and fix their hair the same way. They all walk at the same pace, from place to place.   I want to invite her to my yoga studio where I practice, every night, in a room of sixty grown-ups who are there, at least in part, to learn how to be themselves.

I want her to know she is teaching me a powerful, important lesson, every time she runs through the halls.

I was never a social outcast and have always made friends with ease. I only use a rolling bag at the airport and save my cape collection for special occasions. But when I question whether my eccentricity is holding me back, I need a reminder to celebrate my uniqueness. To silence the voice that wonders whether I’d be happier or better off, if I fit in better with everyone else. If I wore a sexy witch costume instead of a muscly ninja turtle, out on Halloween. If I spent more time with my peers and less time with my mom. If I drank modern, fancy cocktails or listened to hip, indie bands. If I wanted pretty engagement photos, a big wedding and a house I owned in the suburbs with a manicured front lawn.

Maybe I could even land a boyfriend, if I’d just stash the freak flag away, for a while.

But then again, “it’s so important to be myself.”

And anyone who can’t understand why I am the way I am,

“probably isn’t a good friend for me, anyway.”

 

 

 

*I changed “Sarah’s” name, because, well, you never know.

First Love

The Thong Song came on in spin class tonight. It took me straight back to 2001. I pictured myself on the dance floor at homecoming. I felt a rush of blissful nostalgia as I thought about dancing and sweating my ass off in the Rio Americano Small Gym. My mind traced my favorite memories from my Senior Year. Throwing my first party when my mom was out of town. Listening to Incubus at my friend’s cabin in Alpine Meadows. Cutting class. The cold plastic seats at Jimboy’s tacos. Each image came and went quickly until I flashed on the night I met my high school boyfriend. I smiled. Relaxed. and soaked up his memory.

He was infamous. I knew of him long before I met him. He asked a girl to a dance by putting a giant banner across the biggest freeway overpass in my hometown. I was so jealous. And so impressed.
He had wild blonde hair and a tongue piercing. He was five foot six with the confidence of a man ten inches taller. He oozed teenage boy sexy.

He was yelling about something in the middle of a crowd of Senior boys on the side of a steep, grassy hill. I was aware of him immediately. Captivated. Intimidated. Totally enamored. It was October in Sacramento but unusually warm. The air was rich with the smell of fall and the energy of adolescent hormones. I remember everything about that night.

He grabbed my hand and looked me in the eye. “I’m Brad.”

“No shit,” I thought.

I was already in love.

That night, we had three, short exchanges. For the next four or five months I couldn’t stop thinking about him. I did everything I could to run into him, without telling anyone I was trying to run into him.

Finally, I caved.

We had dinner with a group of friends at Chevy’s. I ordered a cheese quesadilla and a diet coke. I wore my favorite light denim jeans and a striped yellow and blue polo shirt. I showed off my fake tan and flat stomach. We laughed hysterically about everything.

We watched reruns of “Friends” on VHS. When he left, he kissed me. On the street. By his car. In front of my friend’s house. It was soft and slow. When it finally ended I just about exploded from the excitement. And disbelief.

We had a beautiful, innocent, pseudo-grown-up love affair.

He lifted me off the parking lot pavement, whirled me in a circle and kissed my forehead the night I got accepted to UCLA. He was greasy all over and caked in mud from his rugby game. It felt perfect.

We were inseparable.

We ate huge plates of Mexican food and drank Venti Frappucinos. In large groups of our friends we disappeared into a secret bubble of intimacy and connection.

He loved me for my intelligence. For my funny, outrageous behavior. He thought I was beautiful and perfect and lovely. Throughout high school, I’d struggled to love myself. I battled anorexia. And perfectionism. and all sorts of judgement about how I didn’t live up to the unattainable standards of beauty, wealth and achievement in my community. When we met, I’d been starving for two years.

In his presence, I felt comfortable, appreciated and understood. Safe. Satiated.

We were partners. and best friends.

A decade later, the memory of him still fills me up. The way it felt to love and be loved. To listen and be heard. Witnessed and protected. The bliss of love without expectations, or baggage or fear.

First Love. Self Love. Beautiful, beautiful love.