Sometimes the past feels heavy.
Today it feels like something warm and withering, perched on my chest like a living thing as I blink up at a white ceiling. I play a childhood game, staring at one blade of the spinning fan as it circles above until I’m dizzy. I’ve got my bedroom window open even though it’s at least a hundred degrees outside in the middle of an Arizona summer, but I need fresh air. My house has started to feel like a tomb, the walls too close and the air too still. A strange part of me, maybe the part of me that was born to the dry desert heat, craves the vaguely sticky feeling. It reminds me of blistering high school summers when the class bell propelled us out of air conditioned classrooms into the heat of the varied courtyards in stampeding herds. The tepid breeze reminds me of summer nights roaming local parks or walking alongside busy roads because we were all too young to drive, wearing shorts my father wouldn’t have approved of and stripping off a few layers to let the sweat dry on our skins. There had been something electric about those moments, something vitally alive.
I like these memories, the gentle cadence of a time before everything became complicated, before I truly understood the volatile nature of reality. Here in my adult life, cresting the vibrant curve of my later twenties, I appreciate the struggles that brought me to this moment as much as I feel crushed by them. A strange mixture of pride and regret –a feeling I actively try to avoid. I’m lying in a bed that’s mine in a house that I own, surrounded by things I bought for myself (aside from the few bits I’d managed to steal from my parents) leading a life that is both comfortable and unremarkable. Unremarkable on the surface, I consider, rolling into sheets that I should probably wash; the heat has brought out the vaguely floral scent of my shampoo that’s been painted across my pillow case for several weeks. This moment, and those as an unpredictable teenager, seem like pages taken out of the same book, but the years in-between feel like they were part of a different life; like a book I read but never personally experienced.
It’s a form of repression, I’m sure. The human mind and body can only handle so much stress, pain, and fear before it either pushes it aside or caves in; sink or swim as they say. Though I would compare my attempts at survival as more of a desperate dog paddle than a confident breast stroke, but we do what we can. I wonder if my ability to shove those years down beneath me, like a monster under the bed, are a sign of strength or more likely of weakness. I’m not dealing with the shadows and skeletons in the closet, I’m simply ignoring them, a habit perfected into almost seamless second nature. Thinking about those years, huddled in the darkness with my electricity shut off, my daughter sweetly oblivious and asleep in her bed, clutch at my throat in the cheery brightness of a summer day. Days where I had little food as I prepared meals for my daughter, my mouth watering as I watched her eat, haunt me sometimes over hearty meals with friends and family. I know what it feels like to be hungry and not out of some concern for weight or mental disorder. I think of the things I take for granted now: food, money, clothing, and extravagances like TV, video games, and hell, even sleep. I guess, in a weird way, I now feel uncomfortable in my own skin, like an actor in a really bad play. I spent years being anxious and worried, never knowing if I’d be able to afford my rent or bills, if my beater car would be repossessed, if I would cave under the pressure of motherhood, school and work and lose it all. I always felt on the edge of something, something dark and treacherous, because desperation makes people do very foolish things. The world is a harsh, shitty and judgmental place. People cover it with a shiny, plastic veneer, but we’re all animals under there, just ready to snap. Oh, there is kindness, but not nearly so much as there is harshness. Single parenthood taught me that, and it’s a lesson I don’t want to forget.
But it’s a time I don’t talk about, never out loud. It’s a span of years that I shrug off and laugh away with a dismissive wave of my hand. I’m just another divorcee with an unplanned child who happened to push herself through college, a cautionary tale of foolish mistakes and poor judgment. Nobody really wants to hear about it, they’ve formed their opinions and I don’t really blame them. But those years eat at me like an infested wound, creeping through me a little more all the time. Years that as much as I try to forget, spring out at me carrying armfuls of baggage to remind me that happiness isn’t a stasis thing. It isn’t a constant of life and at any moment it can be swept away so efficiently, so cruelly, it’s like happiness never existed at all.
I rise and shut the window, sweat trailing from my hairline down the back of my neck. I’m supposed to be cleaning and going through my clothes; I have way too many shirts. I pull the curtains slowly together, remembering a time when I had two pairs of jeans and maybe a dozen shirts, all of which could fit into one drawer. Now I have a closet full and far more than I needed. I turn toward the room, eyes adjusting to the sudden loss of harsh noon light, and wonder why those years suddenly feel more real to me than this box of contented ease and leisure. I wonder if there is something broken in me that feels more alive when everything is on the line and desperation pushes me toward action. I’ve grown lax in my comfort and I wonder now what I should be more ashamed of; the years I struggled or all the years I’ve spent trying to pretend that I didn’t. People are molded through their mistakes, through their suffering, and through their failures. And that’s not something I can afford to forget.