I do know why the music from those dark times stands out for me and makes me want to hold onto the memories. I could say life transforms even the worst things into beautiful things, but I don’t think that’s true. What I do think is that to be alive means to have a soul, and an opportunity to become aware of that soul. And, for me, the moments I became aware of that soul were when I couldn’t avoid it anymore, usually when I was between a rock and a hard place. That means suffering, generally, although I don’t think it’s necessary to be suffering for all that is glowing and gorgeous and weirdly happy in us at the same time we don’t think we are to make itself known.
I think it’s because the point of life is not necessarily to be happy in the way we are happy when we get our way. Our soul is like one of those giant parachutes they use in elementary school gym class. It’s starts out a square smaller than a man’s belly. As it begins to unfold, you are encased in color and wonder as the size of that beautiful, wonderful thing slowly takes your breath away. As it opens completely, you realize it takes up a whole room, can hide fifty children, with some room to spare. We are not here to stare in the mirror and remark at the amazingness of the four square inches we know of ourselves today. We are here to unfold ourselves into the full extent of what we are.
Because the person, oh sweet person, is disposed to avoid pain, pain itself is the way to tempt them out of hiding. Staying closed up and closed off becomes so painful that we must destroy ourselves or, like a rosebud, bloom. Music is like rain on the rosebud of my heart. As I squeeze my way through this dark tunnel of my thoughts, which people say repeat themselves in the same pattern everyday, a song plays nearby and all I know is that, despite my being nearly completely buried in my own ideas of my life, that song gave me a glimpse of what was really happening: I was at a party. There were people about. Boys and girls were looking at me. There were “drug fairies” offering spliffs and shrooms to whoever knew what they had in their backpacks. I was lonely, and that loneliness was in itself a sort of company, as I look back on it. It was such a constant companion, even in big groups. In fact, Ms Loneliness became more solid when I was around other people. She stood with me and waved people off, saying, “No, she doesn’t want any” to anyone who offered me drinks, company, etc.
Later I would learn these parties were a sort of meeting ground for lonely half-children like me, who had learned not to reveal that they were lonely. They all felt like that only one in the room who looked that weird. They all felt like they were being looked at. I used “all” relatively here, because I’m sure there were those well-adjusted kids who made real friends, and those confident extroverts who never gave these things any thought. But the kids I watched were the addicts. And I have learned, addicts are pretty much, without exception, lonely.
I felt like I was the most awkward girl who had ever set foot on that campus. I overanalyzed even when I took too deep a breath, or when someone else did. I watched everything so closely that I stopped seeing it, the world just turned into a sizzling pan of anxiety in which I was becoming confit. I thought of things to say but because I didn’t have the wherewithal to just SAY them the moment passed and either I said them and it was awkward, or I didn’t say them and it was awkward. I did not bond with my class, as my class did with each other. Or seemed to.
Let me tell you how deeply my class seemed to bond. They stayed up late into the night before papers were due, drinking and taking silly photos with high res cameras that they would later post on Facebook just to emphasize how good of friends they were. They took up smoking so they wouldn’t have to be alone when the others stepped outside to smoke. They said things on social media about being “freakish twins inside and out” with regard to a girl dyeing her hair the same color as the commenter and I sat in disbelief at their lack of restraint in these shows of “friendship.” When it was time to go to parties, or dances, or do anything, they went together.
I was fairly certain that you did some things alone, but these people made my aloneness conspicuous, particularly to me. My class was small, 23 people, and several had dropped out by the time I got sick of trying to fit in and sat alone at lunch every day. I had painful social anxiety. I wanted friends. I wanted to blend and not be seen alone (I hoped not too many people did see me alone as much as I was) but I didn’t feel like I could breathe when I hung out with my cohort, and I felt even less like I fit in. I also felt like they judged me. I also felt like they would abandon me, and one another, in a pinch. Maybe that was everyone at my school. Maybe that was 19 and 20-some-year-olds. Maybe I was afraid of abandonment so I projected sinister qualities on my peers just in case.
It was certainly a combination of all of these things. All I know is it was the strangest period of my life–maybe because the late teens and early twenties just are strange. I felt like I was emerging from something, at the same time I was being shoved into something else. My isolation, my trademark and pride, became the punishment it was always going to be after a few months, and my fear and resentment grew. A mythology emerged in my head about this group and I never stopped longing for their acceptance until years later. The truth was I thought they were the cool kids. They were most assuredly the cool kids, with respect to me. There were other, different, more down-to-earth cool kids and I made friends with them (even if I didn’t get close, because I didn’t know how–I will go into that later). I separated myself so cleanly from my freshman cohort that they acknowledged me warmly at functions (I am someone I have learned it is hard not to acknowledge warmly–people tend to like me) but did not include me in their clique, which had survived the throes of shallowness and become a standing friend group.
I don’t know if there was something wrong with me because I never developed the instinct to join and stay in cliques and “friend groups.” The thing about friend groups is I didn’t get to choose who was in them, and people, especially men, especially men who drank, scared me because I didn’t know how they would act. I was excessively cautious. I also argued with myself when I didn’t like something, especially people, because they were so scarce in my life. And I worried I was just insecure.
I fell in something–I will call it love, because that is the most validating term for what I experienced–with a guy named P in my cohort. He was seven years older, handsome, outdoorsy, and calm. He included me like a mature older person should. His energy relieved me–I remember experiencing the deepest peace I ever had while studying in his room with some other students. He was wearing a plaid shirt, as he usually did, and he had just turned on some classic jazz. “You want some tea, Alma?” I smiled at him. I don’t remember if I said yes or no. Just that combo–the shirt, jazz, tea, and something else, like warm breath in my ear–warmed me from deep inside. I felt like I was home. I told my therapist, and she suggested I ask him out. I was taken aback by the idea that feeling at home with someone was a reason to ask them out. I told her, firmly, that he was too old (she said he wasn’t). Still, that strange peace and good feeling remained between us for a few months. I got very shy around him, as I did around everyone, but he seemed to have a tolerance and even fondness for the shy, like a horse whisperer, that nonetheless affected me.
Later I learned he comforted a lot of people with his presence. He hung out with May, the youngest girl in our class (17). They did homework and drank and probably did drugs, and hung out with the same people. I would see them together and instinctively think he hung out with her because he unconsciously knew she needed daddy (she and I both had absent dads.) I began to appreciate P in the platonic way one appreciates a family member, like, “Thank God Bill takes mom to the grocery store every week–what would we do without him.” I kind of didn’t think about it, at the same time his mountainous calm inspired wonder in me.
After a while, he began to flirt with me. It was just a little bit. I liked to sing, and though my voice trembled like glass in our choir classes, he didn’t miss a chance to compliment it while introducing me to someone who was auditing our choir class–“where you serenade us with your beautiful voice,” he said. Another time we found ourselves standing side by side at the tea counter and he asked me what kind he should drink. “Does it matter?” He bent forward–he was very tall–and looking at my eyes with the genuine sweetness of an old dog, he said, “I respect your opinion.” Maybe he did this all the time. Maybe good feelings with girls were easy and cheap to throw away for him. But for me, this was a moment. Not a romantic one. But it was a weirdly friendly, exciting moment. I will daresay, to me, it was loving. In this period where I felt invisible to everyone, P took the time to notice my opinion, or at least act like he did.
Then there was the Lodge Party. I had one beer in the common room, hanging with a bunch of guys from my class, before C, a very, very tall student (6’9″) who bellowed everything he said, came in yelling about a bill for damages he didn’t cause. One thing led to another and we decided to go to a party at a house called The Lodge. We got in C’s car, me next to P, and went. C was drunk, but luckily, the The Lodge was not far, just a few turns in the dirt road away. Awkwardly, as we trundled along, someone asked, “What if the cops pull us over and you’re drunk, C?”
C said, “I have an ACLU and a ‘Don’t Mess With Texas’ sticker on my car. No one will pull us over.”
Then, without thinking, I said, “C, you just got a bill for something you’re not even responsible for. You’re a shit magnet! We’re gonna get pulled over.”
Everyone in the car laughed. P had his arm resting on the back of my seat. “Careful, guys, Alma has a beer in her.”
And I felt it. That guy appreciates me. Or something. Then, after we parked (we weren’t pulled over, as C assured us would be the case) and everyone was walking up the hill, P reached conspicuously into his pocket and declared he had in his hand a “hottie sensor.” He had nothing in his hand. He pointed the invisible sensor at C. “No, nothing,” he said. Then he pointed it at me. “Beep beep beep.” Later, he bought me a beer I promised I would pay him back for. It was very watery and cost $5. I spent the night vaguely aware of P and imagining that he might be aware of me. But I liked that he was friendly with me. That he trusted me to give him the $5 back (I never actually did.)
P had a certain stiffness that made my heart ache. I could tell he was a little shy at the same time he seemed seasoned and had an easier time talking to people than me. He drank like an experienced drinker. He seemed like the kind of person who kept things in order, to a degree that bordered on quiet but awe-inspiring rigidity, at the same time the tell-tale signs of romanticism–alcoholism, for instance–showed like a tag sticking out of his shirt. I still wondered if he was boring, though. I thought a lot of people were boring at that time. He seemed like a jock to me. Being that girl who got picked last in PE and hit in the butt with the ball five minutes later while standing on the sidelines basically in tears, who later got chubby and became even more convinced she was not the athletic “type”, I expected him to judge me. Athletic people, I thought, must. So I hid myself from him, as I did from most people.
That night we walked back to campus together because we were both ready to go home around the same time. That was another thing I liked about him–he went to bed early. He didn’t hang around waiting till peak drama hours at parties. He avoided them. I was still deciding what my tack in these situations would be but I felt safer with people who avoided drama. They were the smart ones, to me. I didn’t think much of my intelligence at 19, at the same time I believed I was a special sort of genius like many people my age at my school. But I had reasonable instincts, even if they protected me from a lot of experiences, even those which might have been fun.
There was a trail back to campus from The Lodge lit by glowsticks. Expecting P to be the brain when it came to direction, I started out following him. He chattered about missing his friends in Boulder. As expected, I was a little bored. I was scrutinizing him as a potential boyfriend and he, like almost everyone else I’d met and tried to get to know so far at school, was turning out to be boring. I wasn’t sure what that meant. I had a deep suspicion it was because I worried I bored people, but that hadn’t come to the fore yet. We walked and he kept not finding the glowsticks. I asked him questions and he answered about he was looking forward to spring break, and things like that. He had a silly, relaxed manner of someone who had learned to take himself less seriously. As he lost the trail, he would chuckle and look to me to find it, which, to my surprise, I did. Maybe he wasn’t dumb, but too drunk. Another student, an older one like P but with far less finesse and a much bigger mouth, told me I had a superiority complex. I judged people as dumb a lot.
“It’s because I actually have an inferiority complex.”
“What you have is an inferiority complex, wrapped around a superiority complex.”
Later I would learn to tell men where they could stick their fat-headed, patronizing psychoanalyses, but now it was on my mind. I knew I judged incessantly, and I was probably wrong. Besides, P didn’t seem too concerned with what I was thinking. There was a brotherly warmth about him that I felt particularly grateful for as he waved goodbye, said, “Thanks for leading the way home, Alma” and walked toward his dorm.
I went back to my room, safe. I presume I went to sleep, like that night was no big deal. It was just that. But I remember it, and wonder what I could have said that made things different. That made me different. Because if there is one thing a broken heart will do to you, it will make you want to change. Change the past, but the present, also. In fact, very little has been as effective. Imagine P, lighthearted, easy-going, but also secretive P, our class Dad, with his bouncy shoulders and the graceful stride of a gazelle, being that big of a deal!
I don’t know what he really thought. I don’t know who he really was. I just know, in a time I felt really alone and almost worth nothing, he made me feel like I was worth something. He did what Jesus, that great man, would have done: he included me. I have scrapbooks planned out for people who have included me throughout the years. He made me feel normal. He made me feel interesting. Even a little cool, sometimes.
And then there was that home thing, and whether he felt it too, and the fact that my therapist said I should ask him out. But asking him out felt like deciding to climb one of the magnolia trees from my childhood–looked reasonable from a distance, basically impossible in real life, at seven or nineteen years old, it didn’t matter. He was so old to me. I also didn’t feel that strongly about him, and I think I secretly knew once I decided to “like” him the soft easiness would go away. Or maybe I didn’t know. Or maybe there was lots about him I didn’t want to know, a big reason why I had never asked anybody out, ever.
The next day, we left for spring break. He was wearing his red plaid shirt in the campus coffeeshop, I remember. We–P, myself and some of the guys from our class–were discussing the night before. Apparently, one of the girls in our class and a senior guy had hooked up. M, an aspiring comedian, said something like, “You just have to hold still long enough” to hook up with this particular senior guy, and everyone laughed. When things were quiet, P said, “Hey, Alma led the way home last night, guys.”
Before I got on the shuttle for home, P stopped me, presumably to say goodbye. I told him I was still upset about what one of the guys in our class had said about me. He said it was water under the bridge.
That peace. That easy, restful thing in him revealed: water under the bridge. Maybe that was it. He asked me for a hug and I gave it to him, and we said goodbye.
For all this writing about P, I didn’t start thinking about him much until three or four months later. I was surprisingly restrained and zen about the tall, quiet guy who flirted with me a teeny bit. Maybe because I was in too much pain to give it much thought. And because my crushes always became obsessions, and that was where those relationships went to die. I didn’t want to do that again. I liked having him as my friend, even if we didn’t know each other much. Getting along with someone was a surprising balm for my lonely heart. I wish I could have driven a stake into the flow of time and space and left it that way.