Nena’s Love Universe

September 2020 

I haven’t been able to write for days. Not since I found out about Nena. She took her own life one week ago and I have been shocked into a crumbling state, floored by the incredible pull of gravity, still unable to believe the truth. Today is my first attempt at pen to paper, truth to the page—a terrifying thought—as if by writing it down, she will finally really be gone. 

I met Nena more than ten years ago. We spent a summer working together at a small bed and breakfast in Lake George. We made beds and cleaned toilets together, passing most afternoons in fits of laughter as we examined the possessions of strangers and imagined what kinds of lives they led, how much money they had, if they had sex, and what kind of secrets they might have been harboring. One weekend, we took off from work and drove to New York City in my grandmother’s car. My ex-boyfriend had a rich stepdad with a huge apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I brought Nena there and watched her pretty face marvel at the skyscrapers, the people, and the sexy vibe of the pulsating city she had heard so much about. I was thrilled to show it to her. We went to a classy bar in the Lower East Side. She wore a tight black dress and a new pair of heels she had bought that day. She kept exclaiming her disbelief, feeling like Carrie Bradshaw in a sea of single New York City men. I watched her throw her head back in laughter as she flirted with a man who approached her by the bar. She was young and happy. Our friendship blossomed from there and later withstood the distance when she returned to Slovenia to finish her university degree. 

I now live on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey, 1,500 miles away from Nena’s hometown in Slovenia. I have seen her sporadically throughout the years. I was supposed to visit her in May 2020. I had been planning a two-week visit to Slovenia with my husband and we were going to see her again for the first time since she came to our wedding in Turkey one year ago. We postponed our plans when Covid-19 began to rear its ugly head beyond the confines of the Chinese borders. I explained to Nena that we would reschedule when this was all over. Of course, she understood.

I hadn’t really been in touch with Nena much after that. We did have a few brief conversations when we both started teaching yoga online, a slightly uncomfortable but practical approach to offering classes in the middle of a global pandemic. She messaged to ask for my help. She was nervous about teaching on camera. I helped her with setting up a Facebook group and downloading Zoom. She began to offer online classes through a local Ljubljana gym where she used to work before the pandemic. We took each other’s classes and sent brief messages of encouragement and care. She seemed inspired and hopeful.

Today I will lead an online women’s meditation circle, as I have been doing almost every weekend since the beginning of the weekend lockdowns here in Turkey. Every Saturday, I have witnessed the bravery of women as they shed layers of judgment, shame, conditioning, and resistance as we explore topics like belonging, forgiveness, gratitude, and unconditional love. As a way to honor Nena, today I will introduce themes of support, showing up, and holding one another even when we don’t think we need it. I will never forget what my teacher in Brooklyn once told me while I was training to become a yoga instructor. We were learning about yoga philosophy and mindfulness techniques, and she emphasized how these practices may seem strange or empty while we are in the midst of happy, peaceful, and neutral moments of our lives, but that it is important to purposely practice during these easier times so that in hard times we have them as tools that support us and bring us back to ourselves.

At the same time, I have my doubts. Nena had access to many tools, she danced, she did yoga and meditation, she loved reading and writing, and often wrote or shared poetry and inspirational words. She was not so unlike me in these ways. She walked the Camino de Santiago a few years back. She did it without money and instead brought only her trust in humanity, exchanging quotes and poems on small slips of paper for a mid-day meal, for ten euros, or for a place to rest her sleeping bag for the night. Sometimes she asked for donations. I sent her fifty dollars through PayPal when she was somewhere near the halfway point to Santiago. She called this experiment her test of the Love Universe. She was so afraid but also so brave, and she had built a life with tools that kept her strong, adventurous, and trusting of her fellow humans. 

Similar to Nena’s experiment of walking for forty days across Spain without money or a plan, true participation in a women’s circle requires actively reaching out to others—in the spirit of radical vulnerability—by sharing not only joy and beauty, but also pain, suffering, regrets, doubts, and uncertainties. Sometimes it is all too heavy for us to carry on our own, and that is where support from others comes in. I am learning that these others do not necessarily have to be friends, family, or even acquaintances. Maybe they are just strangers—humans who also experience pain, suffering, regrets, doubts, and uncertainties. 

I am just learning this now. Nena knew it all along. 

She was thirty-five years old. She rarely talked about her family. Her mother who she had been estranged from for years, recently passed and she had never known her father. She was a motherless child, single, and living on her own in a small apartment in Ljubljana. I visited her about five years ago and we shared her small bed, fitted with light pink sheets and a flower-printed duvet, talking late into the night about our dreams of travel, romance, and connection. I was a part of her found family, a collection of women she had gathered over the years to support and inspire her. 

Women have fewer opportunities and maybe fewer practical reasons to come together these days. In a country like Turkey where I have lived for the past four years, brotherhood is a powerful resource. Why is sisterhood not measured with the same importance? Some women resist this wholeheartedly. It scares them deeply. For what will we see in the eyes of another woman sitting across from us, in all her pain, beauty, and glory—but ourselves? We are a mirror for one another, but we can also be a safety net for when we look in that mirror and feel all those scary things.

Did Nena have a safety net? Would it have made a difference if she did? 

My certainty is momentary, my doubt is a constant and steady stream. What could I have done differently? I wish I had just flown to Slovenia while I had the chance, before the lockdown. What if I had called her more? Will I be able to lead this circle today and talk about Nena and promote the very support I failed to give to her when she needed it most?

Despite my doubts, I feel sure about showing up today. I plan well for these monthly circles. They feel like an anchor in an otherwise wavering and unsure world. Every day of my life right now feels unsteady and scary but the beauty of these circles is that I just need internet access and a place to sit. I can always show up. I don’t need to drive or walk or even get dressed. I don’t need to brush my hair or use deodorant. I clutch my cup of coffee and watch as the faces of women from around the world appear on the screen—two women who are my regular students here in Turkey, a friend in Australia, my grandmother and mother in Florida, a high school friend from New York. Every week is a beautiful mix of women I once-upon-a-time crossed paths with somewhere in the world. Showing up today is something I feel sure about and maybe that means everything in this upside down and unprecedentedly uncertain world. 

I envision a beautiful safety net of women who are all there to catch one another. But maybe this all has a much more selfish origin. Maybe I just need a safety net for myself—to know that I could create one and that this sisterhood, this coming together, is still something that could happen in this world. I want to experience it for myself.

Nena walked five hundred miles across Spain with no money. She stayed safe and did not starve. She called it her test of the Love Universe. Maybe this is mine. 

When we need it and when we think we don’t, can showing up be our priority? More important than the dirty dishes, the unfinished work, the so-called urgent tasks we need to attend to—can showing up for ourselves and for others be our priority? Can we make more space for silence, reflection, growth, rest, forgiveness, and processing with loved ones (both with blood relatives and found sisters)? Can we take off our labels and lives for a while and finally rest in the safety net of fragile and intertwined arms, all reaching for the same exact thing?

A Life of One’s Own

Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.

Shakespeare had a sister. She died young—alas, she never wrote a word. She lies buried where the omnibuses now stop, opposite the Elephant and Castle. Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the cross–roads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here to–night, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed. But she lives; for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh.

― Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

It is early morning and the sky is still dark. The house is silent save for the soft sleeping sounds of grandma in her temporary bedroom next door. She now sleeps in her art studio, conveniently fitted with a Murphy bed. A few years ago, my husband and father spent a sweaty afternoon arranging the pieces of the bed, screwing parts of it into the wall, and making sure that it folded up as it should. Of course, the Murphy bed was intended for guests, but everything has changed. Grandpa wakes too often in the night, so an aide comes every evening at eight o’clock for the night shift. Her name is Alphia and she sits by his bedside, waiting for grandpa to need the bathroom or ask his re-orienting questions in the middle of the night. 

“Where is Eileen? What time is it? Why won’t you put this bar down?” he asks repetitively. He hates the bar across his hospital bed which now sits next to the double bed he once shared with my grandmother. He hates the constriction, the lack of freedom to move and do as he pleases. 

More than forty years ago, my grandmother wanted to be a tennis instructor. She was a fabulous tennis player, a sport she began training for at the early age of ten, while still living in Scotland. She immigrated to New York when she was nineteen years old and met my grandfather soon after. After a wedding and four children, she found herself in her early forties, being offered her first job opportunity since giving birth to her eldest daughter nearly twenty years before. My grandfather made the decision for her. He did not want her to work. He felt that her place was in the home. He felt more comfortable that way. That warm feeling of knowing his wife was contained within a large, suburban house-shaped prison where she could prepare a hot dinner for him each evening. 

Last night I sat beside grandma on the sofa after grandpa had gone to bed. The aide had helped him to get from his recliner to his wheelchair, from his wheelchair to the toilet, from the toilet to the sink to wash his hands and brush his teeth, and from the sink to the bed where his diaper needed to be changed and his pajamas wiggled over his stiff and heavy body. I waited to hear the predictable rhythm of his deep snoring. I looked grandma in the eye and rather than turn on Netflix or discuss plans for the following day, I decided to be honest.

When does it stop? Can it stop? More importantly, do you want it to stop?

My grandmother has sacrificed for my grandfather since she was nineteen years old. She now has the power to stop, and the money to make it all possible. She is an intelligent, emotional, and wealthy woman (in money and in love), with more resources than most people in the world could ever even dream about. If she could get out of her own way, the possibilities are endless. If she could finally choose herself, the possibilities are infinite.

I picture a life for her where she finally has a house of her own. A place of her own where she can breathe. I envision her visiting my grandfather every day in a facility with staff who are trained to care for people like him—people who have lost most of their memory and the ability to care for themselves. I envision her painting every day in her small studio with the soft sunlight streaming across her canvas. I envision her going to the beach and making friends. I envision the last years of her life full of female energy and support—from friends, family, and caring professionals. I envision her sleeping well in a bedroom without hospital beds or glow-in-the-dark bottlenecked urinals–but instead a feminine space that has been designed with only her needs in mind. Her needs! What a fucking revolution! What if her needs were the priority? So the question looms—do we move him to a nursing home? Do we rip him from the comfort he has known all is life so that instead, grandma can be comfortable? If grandpa’s daily needs are met—food, shelter, company, care—could the energy in this house be shifted so that grandma enjoys the end of her life on her own terms? 

Before she immigrated to the United States, my grandmother used to travel around Scotland—sometimes for tennis tournaments, sometimes with her girlfriends—staying in youth hostels around the country. She was young and she was free. Her life was her own.

It is a radical thing for women to claim ownership of their own lives. It is a radical thing to shelve the needs of men, to leave them alone where they sit so that a woman can finally find the space to breathe. It is a radical act for women to prioritize themselves in a world that has always told them to care for others. It is a radical act for a woman to give herself permission to enjoy her life, on her own terms—no matter how guilty a man might make her feel for doing so. It is a radical act to say “enough” while still remaining compassionate, caring, and loving. It is a radical act to fall on the floor in a million pieces and then allow others to help pick you back up and put you together again. 

When my grandmother was a small girl, it was the middle of world war two and resources were scarce, toys were even more so. She once told me a story of a china doll that her mother had given her. The doll had two halves, a front and back, which were glued together. One day when she was playing with the doll, it split in half along this center line that glued front to back. She was devastated and crying. She ran from her friends’ house back to her mother and thrust the doll into her mothers’ hands. My great-grandmother looked at my grandmother and began to laugh. She took some glue from a drawer and glued the two halves back together. It is a radical act to glue ourselves back together, just like my great-grandmother did for my grandmothers’ doll—to laugh at the broken pieces and realize how all along they were just fragments of a whole. 

This is what grandma must do now. So many people love and support her. She has everything she needs. It would be a radical act for her to take that support, embrace it, and listen to the call of her own inner voice—the one that has been there, waiting for her all along. As a woman, it is a radical act to listen to our inner voices and follow our intuitions, regardless of the consequences. We must save ourselves and unfortunately, for women of this world, that is the most challenging but revolutionary decision we could ever make. 

Facing this challenge is the answer. We will rise to it? Can we? More importantly, do we want to?

Feeding the Squirrels

The squirrels are eating the birdseed and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. 

Also, what makes the squirrels less deserving than the birds? Why do we feed the birds but not the squirrels?

I am sitting outside with my coffee this morning. It is just past seven AM and the sun is up. Grandma is still sound asleep. Grandpa is in a hospice house for five days of respite. The mornings have been so quiet since he has been gone. I know he probably does not want to be there. Of course, he prefers to be at home. 

Before this week, I did not know that “respite” was a word. Respite is defined as “a short period of rest or relief from something difficult or unpleasant.” Respite is not for the dying, but for those that care for them. Out of necessity, we have chosen to take this opportunity. We—my grandmother, my mother, and me—need these five days to regain our energy, to experience a silent house free from my grandfathers constant needs. 

He has always been so terrified of his own death. Determined to solve every medical problem thrown at him throughout his life. He bought books, listened to lectures, made appointments with hundreds of doctors, and filled any moments of silence with stories of his growing knowledge of trigger points, carpel tunnel, and how gluten contributes to memory loss. He’s still fighting. His fighting has brought him to this moment, away from home and in the kind of place he would have never chosen to spend his final days.

When I am not here sitting outside, the squirrels probably eat this birdseed all day long. Today I am sitting here and aware of it, so I want to control and fix it. What if instead I just watched the squirrels eating their birdseed breakfast, without getting worked up about a situation in which no one is in harm, and over which I really have no control? Can I do that? Witness without trying to control? 

This is so hard for so many of us. Grandpa tried to control his health, denied his own demise, and because of that he didn’t plan a damn thing. He refused to sell the lake house, he bought a new house when he was well into his late seventies, and he would not consider any assisted living situations—he was not “that kind” of elderly person. It’s actually a miracle that he decided to sell the bed and breakfast, that he was able to see an end to his working life. He retired from owning his own company in New York City, only to begin running a small bed and breakfast in Upstate New York. He officially stopped working once he reached his early eighties, forced by the desperation of my grandmother who finally demanded rest. 

He was the invincible business man, perpetually in a state of work, produce, consume. Should I admire him for this? For his hard work that is now paying off in the form of around-the-clock personal caregivers at 22 dollars an hour? Or should I take it as a lesson—to slow down, neither producing nor consuming—the absence of the one inevitably cancelling the other out. Or maybe I could produce just enough to consume only what I need. Is that selfish? Could I instead sit in the mornings without rush and take time to ponder my own powerlessness, over the squirrels and otherwise—my own lack of control, my own demise? 

We are all destined to grow old and if not, we are all at least definitely going to die. Grandpa had the great fortune to grow old. However, his growing has finished. He is now in a state of retreat, finally facing the fear and paranoia that was probably plaguing him all along. What if the paranoia is not a symptom of his dementia but instead just a surfacing of what was always inside of him, inside of us all—the fear of death and deterioration, the fear of being alone? But he was always alone, we are all always alone, and almost always living in the perpetual state of “Me, me, me, what will become of ME?” 

We all have our stories. Grandpa mostly only told stories of himself, but maybe that is all I am doing too. We all have our stories and we are desperate for someone, anyone, to listen. My mom visited grandpa in respite yesterday. She said he found a quiet old man to tell his stories to. His years of running a business, of traveling for work, of attending night classes for his MBA. Stories I have heard a hundred times. Where is the line? When do we stop listening? When is the time to draw the line, recognizing our own exhaustion, our own need to retreat inward and away from the stories of others? And when is listening an act of love that we must practice? Where is the boundary between drawing inward and expanding outward? Listening to a dying man’s finally attempt to tell his stories is tiresome, but don’t we all deserve to be heard? 

I know grandpa is afraid. Maybe he is afraid that when he goes, his stories will go with him. That may be the case as most of us tired of his stories long ago. Ultimately, his legacy is not up to him. We will remember him in our own ways, hand-picking memories to soothe a very complicated grief. 

There are three squirrels now. They are arguing over the birdseed, jumping from tree to tree as they plot their launch to the bird feeder. The birds have been scared away, probably for good. Yesterday in a moment of lucidity, Grandpa asked me to fill the bird feeder whenever I get a chance.

I think I will do that today. 

The Beach at the Bottom of the Hill

While we were living with my grandparents, the beach at the bottom of the hill became our summer ritual. It has a real name—Diamond Point Beach—but we never used it, despite it being less of a mouthful. The beach at the bottom of the hill was a small slice of sand, a public town beach wedged in between two large private lakeside houses. The town provided picnic tables, public bathrooms, and rusted barbecue grills that jutted out from the sand. Only a five-minute drive down the big hill, that beach was the place where we had summer barbecues and built sandcastles with our new neighbors, a brother and sister close in age to my sister and me. We used to bury my father and cover the big belly of his napping body with plastic shovel after plastic shovel of warm sand. In the earliest days, it was the place where I learned to swim with my father, while my mother watched from the dock with her pregnant belly full of my little sister. We went there almost every day for the first few summers of my childhood, but less often in my teens. Now, as an adult, I manage to visit once or twice per year.

There used to be an elderly couple who would be there every day, sitting on the dock in their low beach chairs. They called themselves Lee and Beep Beep, and they had dark, leathery skin from countless hours under the sun. Beep Beep, Lee’s husband, never told us his real name. He used to just ask us to touch his nose, responding with an instant “Beep Beep!” My sister and I would squeal and run away each time, regardless of how many times we did it. We knew what to expect and relished the opportunity for bellyaching laughter. His beach chair was so low that his nose rested directly at our eye level, waiting for the touch of our sticky toddler fingers at the beginning of each beach day. One day, when I was around eight years old, Lee and Beep Beep stopped coming to the beach. (I found out later that…add story here)

We would spend hours in the water. There was a large rock resting on the shoreline that I particularly loved. It was a flat slab of stone that jutted out from the water and met firmly with the sandy shore. It reminded me of something that Ariel, the Little Mermaid, would lounge on with her large and slippery mermaid tail. I used to pretend I was her and keep my legs glued together, lounging on the rock, halfway in and halfway out of the water, waiting for my prince to come.

The beach at the bottom of the hill was safe—a natural and quiet place that I associated with play and with family, with long days spent with cousins and grandparents. On most summer days, we would head down to the beach after breakfast and bring enough food for a lunchtime barbeque. Sometimes, when I was older, my parents would let us walk to the Pot Belly Deli down the street to buy cold drinks and ice cream. The long days often ended in tears: we were exhausted from the day but at the same time unwilling to leave our magical little corner of the world.

In recent years, on visits back to Lake George, I sometimes take a drive down to the beach at the bottom of the hill. I take a low beach chair similar to the one that Beep Beep used to use, a thermos of coffee, and a book. I sit and look around, memories flood back, and I long for those easy summer days. So much has happened in my short life since those innocent years when I seemed to permanently have sand in my bathing suit. Friends and lovers have come and gone. I have studied and worked and sometimes taken breaks to explore the world and figure out where and to whom I belong.

Once upon a time, I belonged to the beach at the bottom of the hill. I belonged to Lee and Beep Beep and to the sand in my bathing suit; to the flat mermaid rock and to the teenage lifeguards working their first summer jobs. I belonged to my parents, my sister, my neighbors, my cousins, and my grandparents. The feeling of support, the gravity beneath my feet, came from them. As an adult I have often asked myself: who and where do I belong to? Why do I want to belong? And then: can I belong to myself? Can places and people belong to me instead of me to them? Can the beach at the bottom of the hill belong to me, even after everything has changed? Even after Lee and Beep Beep have died and the dock has been replaced with new planks of wood and the lifeguards have changed? Can the support I am looking for in this life come not only from the people and places of my past and present, but also from within? My relationships with others are important, but what about my relationship to gravity and to my own body—my own bones, muscles, and blood? Shouldn’t that be just as important?

The last time I went down to the beach and sat in that low chair, I had returned after months of being away. I had found love and lost it again. I had lived in new places and learned new languages, only to come to know a fleeting sense of belonging with people and places that were never mine to begin with. I came back and felt emptied, lacking—a hole had formed where my sense of belonging used to be.

I have to find a way to belong to myself, otherwise I give that power away to those who love me and who do not, to material things that I can or cannot acquire, and to whatever country or city I find myself living in. Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “Wherever you go, there you are.” I am the only person who will be with me for the entirety of my life, every single moment. I often dig deep, cry out, scream; but then I find ways to rest, recover, and reemerge more beautiful than before, as an imperfect but whole human being.

So sometimes I find myself sitting on the beach at the bottom of the hill, smack-dab in the middle of my adult aloneness. Sometimes home calls to me and the waters that raised me have the unique ability to wash away months, even years, and beginning again becomes gentle and easy, like waves caressing and patiently shaping the sandy shore.

Split

You live like this, sheltered, in a delicate world, and you believe you are living. Then you read a book . . . or you take a trip . . . and you discover that you are not living, that you are hibernating. The symptoms of hibernating are easily detectable: first, restlessness. The second symptom (when hibernating becomes dangerous and might degenerate into death): absence of pleasure. That is all. It appears like an innocuous illness. Monotony, boredom, death. Millions live like this (or die like this) without knowing it. They work in offices. They drive a car. They picnic with their families. They raise children. And then some shock treatment takes place, a person, a book, a song, and it awakens them and saves them from death. Some never awaken.

Anaïs Nin

I spent my twenty-seventh birthday on a Slovenian bus from Ljubljana to a small mountain town cozied up to the shores of Lake Bled. The town was busy, but I walked the one-mile perimeter of the lake and found a quiet wooden spot on the shore where I could take my clothes off and wade in, despite the dropping November temperatures, to wash off the previous year, which had been so full of walking, loving, losing, and starting over. I felt hopeful but devastated. I felt a deep divide within myself, and I was not sure who to be. Half of me identified as an idealist and a feminist—a pure, spiritual, and grounded individual. This half was a faithful girlfriend, an inspiring example, and a daughter who knew how to make her family proud. The other half of me was darker—the blind but passionate lover, the cheater, the greedy, chaotic, spontaneous, selfish, eternally unsatisfied, angry, and uncompromising woman who sometimes enjoyed the comforts of the patriarchy.

I knew the experience of living life in such a way that numbness creeps up from the toes, slowly ascending the legs and torso, finally reaching the arms, fingertips, neck, and skull. While living in New York, the divide inside me became only a faint crack on the corner of my heart. I forgot about it for a while, and when I did remember it, I ignored and denied it. But then I would read a book or take a trip or have a coffee with one of my many fire-breathing, life-living, strong female friends, and the crack would begin to grow. As I traced the edge of the lake with my footsteps, I understood that I had now stayed away long enough from the life that made me numb, forcing the crack to become a split, jagged but traversing the entire midline of my body. Life had begun to tug and then pull at my spontaneous and selfish side, tempting me with the smells of new countries and the sounds of new languages rolling off the tongues of new and beautiful men. I found myself sitting under new constellations, falling in love not just with the humans around me but with all of humanity. I swam in the lake and imagined all the possibilities I would miss out on if I continued to deny half of myself. This split inside me had formed a gap, and it felt as if I was now two entirely separate human beings. I desperately wanted them to live peacefully together, but often they seemed to be at war.

I dressed quickly and found a small café to grab a hot coffee for the bus ride back to Ljubljana. I clutched my coffee and watched the sunset roll past my window. At that moment, I acknowledged that maybe I didn’t have to choose a side. Maybe choosing was never an option. Perhaps instead I could work every day to merge this split, softening its edges, integrating my halves into a whole—a whole human who radiates energy from her presence, and people trust her and love her because of it. But more importantly, she loves herself because she accepts both sides, the dark and the light, without ever having to choose.

Home in a Daydream

We travel, some of us forever, to reach other states, other lives, other souls.

Anaïs Nin

Austria is like a dream. The worn cobblestones gleam from years of foot traffic, and the February sun reflects from the surrounding snow-covered peaks and A-frame Alpine homes. The main street is dotted with small shops and tiny cafés, and the snow covers almost every surface, absorbing most sounds save for the click of heels on cleared sidewalks and the faint sounds of birds. Maria Alm is a ski town surrounded by nature, but it still maintains an air of metropolitan Europe. The natural hot springs in the area give the town a faint smell of sulfur mixed with fresh mountain air.

The sensation of finally arriving somewhere you were always meant to be drapes over me, warm and comforting. I wander the streets in awe, curious but unsure, wishing so badly that I was here alone and slightly older than fourteen. Yes, my sister and parents are with me, and this is one of the first family trips I have ever taken to a new country (Austria in February because the plane tickets were cheaper), but this only makes my desire to appear eighteen and independent that much stronger. Since I arrived, the desperation to fit in and become a part of this world has been my sole preoccupation. To start a new life in Europe where the boys are more handsome, the clothes more fashionable, and the hairstyles eccentric and incredibly cool to my fresh suburban gaze.

I wonder what it would be like to leave it all behind: my high school and the imitation of friendship that pervades the hallways; the rumors and gossip that follow me around like a virus; the boredom of upstate New York, where the most exciting thing I have recently found to do is smoke pot. Instead I could exchange it for this. I daydream constantly about how much better my life could be. I play flirty eye games with most of the boys I see—at the Vienna Opera House, or when boarding the metro, or when making side glances while I sit with my family at a coffee shop. I convince my dad to buy me two new blouses, one two shades of pink, form-fitting, with a deep neckline and a collar; the other black, a crop top with the golden face of a lion printed on the front. I get my hair highlighted for the first time, blonde streaks to blend with my pale skin and blue eyes. I sit in the chair at the salon. German syllables float between my ears, but I am mostly unaware. The glow of cosmetic light bulbs envelops me and my new hairstyle, and I finally start to appear as mature and independent as I feel.

The school bell rings, and winter break is over. Ninth grade still exists, and now Austria really is a dream. Part of me yearns for the novelty of the place, the foreign language, the fashionable women and their sleek presence, so far removed from the lazy American style effortlessly perpetuated by every human in my insignificant town. The other part of me walks tall through the high school parking lot, drawn in by the possibility of admiration from my peers. I enter through the side doors of the building to rows of faded blue lockers, the metallic noises of dry hinges and ribbons of steel slamming, the click of combination locks. I prepare myself as I cross the cheap linoleum floor, a fake marble surface covered with skid marks, to my locker.

I feel transformed, like maybe I could be the focus of high school jealousy, the kind that gets you the right friends for all the wrong reasons. The inside of my locker door has a mirror, and I glance at my reflection and adjust a few strands of blonde hair, the corner of my mouth turning up into a shy smile of anticipation. I gather my things and walk to English class. Mrs. G., who’s writing notes about Hamlet on the board, greets everyone with a timid smile. She’s the kind of teacher I could easily manipulate, and I have. But I also like her. She is a humble woman with a thin frame, and she’s the kind of person whose sincerity feels like a guarantee, no matter who you are and how well you do in her class.

Jake, the new kid, sits in front of me, my best friend Carrie to the right, and a blur of other faces fill the gaps in between. Jake has broad, muscular shoulders, a shaved blond head, and an attractive baby face. His torso is trim, and he wears his baggy jeans low around his hips. I have noticed the sharp outlines of his hip bones enveloped by toned muscles and creamy white skin. He has a sharp tongue, and probably a sharp mind, but he mostly wastes this strength on the effort to score girls and drugs and attention. I am not impressed, but many girls are.

Jake turns, looks me up and down. “What’s with the hair?”

I look at him in confusion. His tone hints at ridicule rather than the admiration I was expecting.

“You think just because you went somewhere fancy and got some new clothes, you think you’re better?”

My throat tightens as my Austrian dream begins to chip around the edges. I thought this was my opportunity to finally be cool. Jake dates the most popular girl in my grade.

I am unable to consider it at the moment, but Jake is popular for his looks and his white-boy gangster swag that he picked up from whatever inner-city neighborhood his parents removed him from. I heard he went to juvie, but maybe that’s just a rumor. So what else could he do with a girl like me? Privileged, recently returned from a family vacation to Europe. He doesn’t understand. How could he?

I feel tears welling in my eyes as he continues his smooth smack-talking. The words roll off his tongue and into my ears, and I give up. My entire face blushes and the tears release, sliding down my cheekbones to a place where they can’t be taken back. I am humiliated and crying in front of my entire ninth-grade English class, and my life is over. I look over to Carrie, my friend since middle school. Carrie comes from the kind of family that I have only seen in the movies. Although her friendship gives me a sort of strength that I find myself needing, I hate going to her house. It’s the dwelling of her alcoholic parents and intimidating older sister. She is so much like Jake in many ways: her mouth moves so that her trauma stays dormant, unobtrusive, and unable to alter her cool and swaggering reputation.

Carrie is tough. She’s expert at presenting and reminding me of my flaws. The presence of this unstable friendship in my life has become more important than maintaining my own self-worth. Staying close to Carrie is a survival technique that keeps me from drowning in the teenage suicide of trying to navigate these waters on my own. I have learned the hard way to no longer talk behind her back, because she usually finds out and refuses to talk to me for weeks. Those are the days I eat lunch alone. But this is a good day, and things have been going smoothly. Today she is my friend.

“What the fuck is wrong with you? Mind your own damn business, trailer trash! You know you’re just jealous. What the fuck kind of goal do you have, making her cry?”

She bites him with her words, smacks him clear across the face with a defense he had not anticipated. My tears stop, not because I have regained my confidence but because I am in disbelief. I am shocked that Carrie would put herself out there in the high school spotlight, making herself vulnerable to criticism, to the endless cruelty of bored suburban teenagers. Of course Mrs. G. backs her up, verbalizing her disappointment in us as a class, in our failure to support and be kind to one another. But Mrs. G.’s reaction is something I expect, and her support extends only as far as the next school bell, when the dark hallways will swallow us once again.

There have been many days when Carrie has used that same verbal confidence and energy to attack me and my words and my wardrobe, but this time she has used her power to defend me. For the first time in my short high school experience, someone has stuck their neck out for me. I stare at Carrie and think, “I want to be like that.” I want to somehow absorb her confidence, that targeted and purposeful aggression that lives inside of her.

I glimpse something that my mind subconsciously considers returning to in the future. Maybe after all of this is over—the superficiality of high school and the keeping up of appearances, “European cool” or otherwise—perhaps I could instead aspire to what is real. Carrie and her confidence. Strong words in intimidating situations. Defending a friend.

Anaïs Nin, in observation of her lover’s wife, once wrote, “She lacks confidence, she craves admiration insatiably. She lives on the reflections of herself in the eyes of others. She does not dare to be herself.” And I think about what a shame it would be if this is how someone were to describe me.

This occurrence weighs heavy on my heart.