On Becoming A Success Story: The Things I Didn’t Leave Behind
At one time, I was small-shouldered and strange, a little black-haired girl with eyebrows too close—and teeth crooked and never fixed. I would try my best to make myself look okay; I stole my mother’s lipstick early on. I had a preoccupation with the aesthetic of things—material, illusions, everything that could be seen and judged.
Ironically, I had nothing. I was the girl at school who sat with the other silent ones, and we’d find a space there between us that was at once a prison and our only way out of ourselves. I didn’t tell them I had nothing, but maybe they could tell? I wanted to tell them, to tell them my mother was on drugs, that last night she didn’t come home, but that she loved me—she did, deeply and does today—and that I was so sad, and it wasn’t just hormones or angst or for fashion (everyone loved to wear sadness). I once cried in the street without shoes on. I did that on the streets in the Port of Elizabeth, New Jersey, where men would roll down their windows and scream obscenities which, on some level, made me feel seen. And my friends would stand there without a thing to say.
From the Port we ended up in homeless shelters—places where, I swear, the cruelest of men would place their enemies with glee. I have not unseen what I’ve seen: those dark hungry hours, those thin walls, the papery faces of women undone by heroin, my mother’s brittle blonde hair and her bony neck, her silent tiredness, our eating white bread on the curb outside in the summer, the babies born shaking from the opiates pulsing through their blood.
Everything deserves to be pure for at least a little while, I thought then. Even then. But there, nothing was, not even the children, not me.
There was a trip once, and all my friends went. My mother had no money. I didn’t go, so instead I came to school and wandered the halls. Up on the top floor the piano class was open, and if you squinted, outside wasn’t a breeding ground for poverty and pain and 99-cent stores. If you sat there at the piano at the right angle you could see only the sky. This was when I was sponge-like enough to learn how to play with two hands and actually read the music. I was able to let it all in—all that shimmery, soft, soothing music.
But then one day things got so bad, and I ended up in foster care, and I just couldn’t play anymore. My heart was too preoccupied with displacement, and I forgot to read the notes and I forgot how to play, and now when people ask if I can play piano, I’d rather just say no.
These are all the things I lost, and all the ways I never spoke up.
I want to go on the school trip.
I want to ask for help. I’m lonely.
I want to learn how to play the piano again.
I want my memories back.
I don’t want my mother to use.
I don’t want to live in a homeless shelter.
I don’t want to end up in foster care.
Now I’m 30. I’m a ‘success’ story. And that sounds so reductive, like I should have disappeared into the blackness and just given up or died.
In time, of course, some people just go crazy, I suppose. But sometimes wounds just heal up depending on how often you obsess on them, or they dress up well enough to not be seen; mostly that’s life now. But where the blood used to be morphed into just a very good act. In my mid-20s, I smiled and nodded, and sometimes I’d speak up, but mostly out of anger.
Don’t look at me like that.
You’re an asshole.
I’m better than you.
I had too much of a voice, too much of a trauma-induced well of everything. I was blossoming like a rabid garden, poisoned by its own overgrowth, dry without rain. I was an enough-is-enough girl. I was a bad girl. I was fighting anyone who wanted it. I was trying to kill everything I remembered. I smashed glasses, slammed doors, spent all my money on booze and books and cheated my way through relationships that were as unstable as I was. It was a classic act and a transparent one. I thought in wild, free, carelessness there was a coming-to, a blooming, a becoming, a healing.
But in time my body gave in and I was tired. Of the fight. Of the masquerade. Of the turning my body into a gun.
It turns out the silence wasn’t my enemy; it was a process. It was my process. And in some cases, it’s the process that we all need—to dilate, to wait, to consider, to calm down enough and figure out what it is you need to say.
For me, it’s thank you—for making it as far as the waterfront in Manhattan. Everyone who passes me sees one woman. But there’s two. There’s the me now and the me then, and sometimes we trade days; sometimes we are fancy and we get invited to conferences to speak. Sometimes we’re a little like a black cloud.
We’re dimensional. We’re not a perfect resurrection but we’re not dead either. We’re watching the water move and we’re alive. We’re forgiving, we’re okay with saying we’re sad now, we’re okay with being a little bossy, we’re okay with saying “give me time.” We’re funny, and neurotic, and painfully opinionated. We’re a whole person who speaks up; sometimes, if only to ourselves.
Are you alright?
—Today I am.
This essay originally appeared in the Wild issue. For more inspiring stories about women, check out What I Learned as a Woman Traveling Alone and The Journey of a Female Sommelier: From Paris to New York.