Taken Back

I was going through jewelry, getting rid of some things, when I came upon a pair of silver peace signs, small and dangly with black backgrounds. I smiled inwardly and remembered:

It was the early 90s; my friends and I were at Lollapalooza at Starplex Amphitheater in Dallas. All our favorite bands were there, but I was most excited about Alice in Chains. Between shows, we wove our way through the vendor’s booths of hand-woven bags, scarves and homemade jewelry. Russell had asked me to carry his wallet for him. I was wearing my favorite, low-slung jean shorts and would have carried his anvil if that boy had asked me to. And so, I perused the jewelry, oversized 90s guy-wallet sticking out of my back pocket.

I came across the peace earrings, smiled and fingered them. I said, within Russell’s earshot, “I really like these.” I moved onto the next table of wares, confident he’d heard me but not at all certain he would choose to take the bait. That boy was full of mysterious processes I could never figure out. He had an ulterior motive for stashing his wallet with me, I’m sure; but to this day, I’ll be damned if I know what it was. I liked being in charge of his things, though — having a sense of propriety of him. My heart blossomed with delight when he reached over to pluck his wallet from my back pocket to purchase the earrings for me.

He cares; he wants to make me happy.

The woman behind the table chastised him for using his girl’s cash to buy her a present, but strangely he didn’t correct her. Perhaps he’d given me his wallet to set up precisely this situation for whatever convoluted motivations lurked in his grey matter. Or perhaps I’m giving him too much credit.

That same day, ensconced in the shade of the main pavilion between acts, we sat side-by-side waiting in amiable silence. We were early; there were a few people scattered here and there throughout the bolted-down folding seats. To pass the time, I watched them. A dude came galloping through the empty chairs, leaping over rows and eventually tripping. He fell but recovered himself quickly. He had a wild and unfocused look about him. I casually thought, he’s drunk.

Russell turned to me. “What did you say?”

“Nothing,” I answered, as I turned toward him, my eyebrows raised questioningly.

“No, you said something about that guy being drunk.”

My mouth fell open. This is an ability my husband has now — something that drew me in when Jason and I first got together — that uncanny habit of voicing what I almost opened my mouth to say.

Those earrings transported me to a snapshot of the past when I felt confident and connected to the person I was with. It was a day of fun and good music — one when, for once, I didn’t secretly long to go home before everyone else I rode with was ready.

That relationship, mine and Russell’s, was, for the most part, a fucking mess. It was on-again-off-again and rife with infidelity, manipulation and mind games. When I look back at the four years I spent wringing my hands and crying over him, I shake my head at my younger self. How could I not have gotten disentangled from that doomed liaison sooner? The earrings, and moments like that day at Lollapalooza, remind me, though, that there were good times, there were reasons (maybe not solid ones) I kept hanging around.

Our relationship wasn’t so much banging my head against a wall as it was sitting at a slot machine — one that, as time went on, payed off less and less, but I still kept playing, hoping for another break. Rats will learn to push a button, when they’re hungry, to receive food pellets. They’ll push it obsessively, even after they’ve eaten their fill, if they only receive food pellets ever so often. Russell was my Vegas, my gambling habit, the one everyone in my life could see was dragging me down but me. I did, at long last, break it off for good. It has been a good 20 years since I even laid eyes on him.

It started when I was 16 and had been legally driving less than a year. Four years later, when I called it quits over the phone and knew this time it would stick, I was 20 and what passes for an adult. I was closing in on a degree and had modest career aspirations. Those are some formative fucking years. During that time, I fashioned a life in a new city, learned how to make friends and grew into a person independent of her parents’ house and finances. Russell was in my life through all of that, often on the periphery, throwing a wrench into my works by showing up when I least expected or by his conspicuous absence when I needed him most.

My relationship with him was by far the most volatile of my entire life. I still harken back to it because I learned so much, so painfully — that some people will take advantage of my openhearted nature, not because they consciously intend to, but because it’s the only way they know how to be. That I, despite the apparent ability to leave, had a tendency to become complicit in my own misery. I also now realize that, in retrospect, he may have been an asshole, but he wasn’t the only asshole in that relationship. My connection to Russell burned blisters into my soul, then formed callouses. Callouses that protected me from future harm. And from future connection. Much much later, I slowly began to file off those callouses, began to trust that the people in my life would be gentle with the soft tissue underneath.

It was dramatic and hard to ignore, even in the present.

I can look at those earrings, smile and recall the parts of my life that held some joy at the time. I can even remember the rocks I dashed myself upon too many times to count. And I can be grateful I learned those lessons then and have them to better navigate my life now.

Treasure Chest

cedar-chest-1

I have a cedar chest that sits on the floor of my office. My grandfather made it for me when I was a kid, and my mom and I stained it to match the desk I sit at now – also from my childhood bedroom. Until recently, the chest was in a closet, and I’d sort of forgotten about it, but, in a recent bout of rearranging furniture, I decided to move it downstairs. (Jason is both exasperated and patient with my penchant for moving heavy furniture up and down the stairs periodically.)

It didn’t even occur to me to open it until the kids asked me, “Mom, what’s in there?” So, we sat down on the floor and started pulling things out. Some of the things I remembered: my white, satin flag corps jacket with my name and “Captain” embroidered in green on the front, a story my mom had written about two little girls named April and Bonnie (me and my sister) at the beach, and various trinkets from my years as a Girl Scout. And there were things I had forgotten: photos from high school, sticking to each other with tape residue, because I had taped my favorites to my closet and mirror, a doll from the 1950’s that was my mom’s. I saw the marks on her face (the doll’s, not my mom’s) and smiled as I remembered Mom telling me their dog, Tippy, had gotten a hold of the doll. Tippy is long gone, but those teeth marks persevere.

The kids lost interest, but I sat on the floor of my office for a long time, looking at photos and items I had at some point deemed significant enough for the cedar chest. Most of the objects sparked a visit to the past: view-finder-style photos of my childhood best friend, Kim, and me at Great America. I had been visiting her in Chicago where her family had moved. Children of the ’80’s, in the photo, we’re all poofy bangs, big earrings and NKOTB/George Michael t-shirts. Some of the things, a greeting card with a cow on it and absolutely nothing written inside, I stared at quizzically. Why the hell did I keep this?

It’s been a long time since I allowed myself to revel in the past so thoroughly. In my adult years, I’d begun to see it as a self-indulgent waste of time. But, as I’ve thought about my childhood and adolescence as a result of those cherished cedar chest items, I realized there is more there than just fond (and some not-so-fond) memories; I started to remember how I felt as a child. Before puberty, before I became self-conscious about how I looked, before I was assaulted with social pressures and hormones, I was free. I played joyfully naked in the sprinkler in the front yard. I put on eclectic outfits from my dress-up box and danced in the living room, sometimes with no music but what was in my head. I did headstands just because I liked to. I played with other kids when I felt like it and went home to my room when I was ready. And I read a line in the story my mother wrote, “April was an imaginative child,” and I realized I’d forgotten that. I didn’t remember that I was always full of imagination, much like my youngest child now.

I’m rediscovering a little of this freedom. Through a little reading and a lot of contemplation, I am remembering that un-selfconscious feeling of childhood – living in this moment, free from worry of being judged. It’s an even better feeling as an adult, because I have an appreciation for it. I see it in contrast to the times I feel anxious, awakening at 3am, suddenly worried by my pesky adult brain: Did I remember to call that contributor back? Am I supposed to send snacks to school today? When I said that thing to that person, did she take it the wrong way? And what about that horrible thing I did twenty years ago… 

Those worries still happen, but now, more and more, I have reclaimed that unabashed sense of self I had as a child. I am just me, April – not a writer, not Mom, not an introvert. I mean, yes, all that, but simpler, boiled down I am just me. It was always there, that comfortable, confident sense of self. I didn’t lose it, but like the trinkets in my treasure chest of the past, I just forgot I had it.