This is where I’m safe. I’m nestled in our couch that smells of buttered popcorn and barefoot Julys, zipped into my Minnie Mouse footy pajamas. The Land Before Time blurs through black that kisses and warms. Mom is sunk in beside me, grazing the tips of her fingers along my back. My eyelids fall like a first snow, then half-rise like an uncertain spring. I watch Littlefoot and his friends through the broom of my lashes. If I sleep, Mom will carry me to bed.
Yes, this is where I’m safe. This is where I know.
My 7-year-old feet dangle high above the floor, the untied laces drooping into the wheels. The office chair swivels but itches my thighs where my shorts end.
I cup my face in my hands and glare at the blinking cursor on the computer. It scorns me for not spilling my story in seconds, for not scripting the world like Roald Dahl. It should flow masterfully. I’ve been imagining it since breakfast.
My lead character, Stacy, offers the world everything I can’t. She’s gorgeous, flawless, and 12. Her sunshine hair waterfalls halfway down her back and she laces up Sambas. She walks to school every day, on time, and is greeted by dozens of friends, girls and boys. Her confidence and kindness skip into other’s pockets like rocks across a pond.
And me? My shadowy hair spurts into a mullet. The back and bangs wildly flip with cowlicks; it’s more a self-portrait of a plane taking flight than a hairstyle. I own oversized turtlenecks in lieu of a wardrobe, and I’m more at home clinging to Mom’s hand than hugging anyone hello. There’s nothing done up about me.
The cursor continues its judging. If Stacy stood beside me, she’d know how to paint beauty with a keyboard. She’d glitter me with the wisdom of 12 and overnight, I’d stop memorizing the pattern in the linoleum at school and raise my hand. I’d grow roots at my desk instead of seeking shelter at the nurse.
But Stacy isn’t real. And the story won’t come. I’ll have to wait, wait, wait until I’m 12. Middle school. That’s when things will start.
I’m 12 now and in fourth period social studies. The oscillating fan rustles the American flag and my neighbor drums a pencil on the edge of his desk and my teacher’s heels click clack like a detonating swan and I’m here.
I’m staring at the jagged “S” I wrote at the top of my worksheet. Its curves should be smoother, rounder. More like I printed it from a computer. I stare at it as though it’s a car crash. So much wreck paved into a quarter inch of paper that I cannot divert. I stare at that S and beg it to channel magic and appear as the perfection I imagine.
“It’s okay,” Kind Side of my mind coos. “The S doesn’t matter. Move on. It’s legible. Looks great. It’s okay.”
I know Kind Side tells no lies. I know it just as I know my reflection and I know my behavior maps insanity. I know this and yet I cannot move forward.
That jagged S haunts and taunts like a poisonous shadow. It’s a parasite clawing into my mind and screaming, “FEED ME” with every bloody strike. “Fix the S. Then I’ll stop.”
So I rewrite it.
“Still not good enough! Fix it. FIX IT NOW. You can’t answer the questions until you do.”
I’m paralyzed except in my ability to obey. I erase and rewrite, erase and rewrite, erase and rewrite again and again and again, each time pleading with the parasite: please. This is good enough. Please let me stop.
But the S’s curves could still be smoother and rounder, so the parasite claws deeper and my mind floods with the tears I’m not crying. I erase and rewrite until I tear through the paper.
“FIX IT. NOW.”
I can’t tape the worksheet and make it new. There’s nothing I can do to obey.
With that realization, my corner of the room freezes. I hear my classmates whispering about Harry Potter and chairs scraping across the floor and the tap of my teacher scribbling on the chalkboard, but I cannot melt myself to join.
All I can do is listen to the parasite’s tantrum because I’m bankrupt of perfection. Staring at the hole, tears overflow and pellet onto my worksheet.
I won’t care about a jagged S when I’m older. High school. That’s when I’ll be okay.
My ninth grade yearbook and town directory fan at my feet; I’m crouched in the back of my closet blanketed in the aroma of mothballs and dusty wood. In Mom’s eyes, the worst that can happen when I ask him to the dance is he says “no.” In my eyes — reality — the worst that can happen is he laughs. That it’s such an insane notion that his vocal chords cannot form a polite “no” and burst into a thunderous cloud of laughter until he slams the phone down.
And yet, he could say “yes.” It’s possible. The blur of a yes dances out there, swaying its hips and seducing me into dialing his number.
A strange woman. Not sure what I expected. Nearly anyone who answered at this home would sound strange.
My voice sticks in quicksand.
“Hello? Is anyone there?”
What do I say?
“Look, I can hear you breathing.”
My voice pokes its head out like a groundhog judging whether this woman can offer spring — “Uuuh…”
No, it cannot possibly emerge now. Six more weeks of solitude. I’m not nearly prepared to speak.
Click. She’s gone. Well, that was atrocious.
I bet they have caller ID and Benesi now scrolls in their phone and he knows why I called and he’s mocking me to his friends as I compress into a Tootsie Roll in my closet with laundry from two weeks ago. I must call back. To explain, if no other reason.
Maybe a script would help. I cannot be trusted to talk and seem cool at once. I’m not Britney Spears.
I scribble, “Hi, this is Sarah Benesi. We’re in math together. …I’m good, how are you? So we have this dance, and I was wondering if you’d like to go with me? It’s okay if not.” Sounds better than me.
Ring, ring, ring.
“This is Sarah Benesi,” I froth upon the strange woman asking. “Um, we’re in math together.”
“Hold on, honey!” She’s friendlier when I’m not a mysterious breath monster.
Then all too quickly — “hello?”
Okay, Voice. You’re up. You got this.
“Hi! This is Sarah Benesi. We’re, um, we’re in math together.”
“Yeah! Hi, Sarah. What’s up?”
What’s up? That’s not in my script. What do I say? What’s cool? He’s way out of my league. “Oh, um. Not much. You?” Nailed it.
“Sweet,” I giggle. “So we have this dance… and I was—” I study the crack in my wall. “—I was wondering if you’d, um, like to go with me? It’s okay if not or if… something… um, yeah…”
“Okay. Yeah, sounds fun. Thanks for asking me!”
You’re thanking me? More like thank you! I won’t let you down. I’ll be outgoing and fun and — Sarah! Say something!
“I have to go though. Bye! I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“See you in math!”
He said okay. I could vomit molten rainbows. I crawl out of my closet and squint at the lemony blaze of late afternoon. He said okay. I gallop and pelvic thrust and flail my arms like a helicopter. He said okay.
But wait — tomorrow. How should I act? Should I talk to him? What is up? Are we friends now? Are we dating? No, you’re not dating. I think you know that.
He said okay. I grin. Okay.
One day, I’ll sweat brilliance and boys will form queues. Someday. That’s when I’ll be cool.
At 29, I’m realizing there is no “that’s when.” No age or life stage contains the answers. No one is a pristine teacup tucked in the top cabinet away from cracks and smudges. We’re experiments. We never stop being experiments. We grow roots and confidence, lessons and wisdom, and we’re experiments still. Beauty isn’t born in a book of answers.
Accepting our imperfections, learning, and launching forward — that’s what we have. Maybe we won’t ever have it all together. But maybe that isn’t the point. Maybe the point is to kick life’s ass with every ounce of ourselves — to do it the best we can, despite not seeing a script. Maybe that’s bravery.
This is where I’m safe and terrified and a puzzle piece drowning in dust under the bed — I’m nestled in my couch with a massive college hoodie. Friends glows through a strangling darkness that smacks of alone. My eyelids fall like a first snow, then half-rise like an uncertain spring. I watch Monica and Rachel through the broom of my lashes. Before I drift to sleep, I roll off the couch and carry myself to bed.
Yes, this is where I’m safe, terrified, and lost. This is where I am.