I could spend a lot of time setting this up, but I won’t.
Humans are storytelling animals. I certainly like to tell myself stories, and more often than not, they’re all just fancied tragedies. One of the prevailing ones is a narrative of failure. Certain situations summon this mean, inner narrator, and almost without me having to do anything, the story begins. It’s a tale I’ve told myself for a very long time, and it always ends with me feeling like I’ve been through an existential meat grinder. Such was the case on the day I lugged myself into the domesticated hell of Katy, Texas.
I had been invited to an 11-year-old’s basketball game. I’m in a period of heightened emotional sensitivity, and I understand myself well enough to know this was going to be one of those experiences that have the ability to call forward that catty narrator. Maybe this sounds pathetic – the idea that I have to mentally prepare for seemingly normal encounters – but it’s true. And I decided I don’t care what you think. I gave myself a lame, quiet pep talk, walked into the gym, knowing full well I might get weird about it, and took my seat.
I’m not shy about being non-traditional. In fact, I talk about it a lot. Maybe too much. Who cares? I was obsessed with the idea of normalcy for a long time, which was probably a product of my childhood. I spent half my life in a restaurant, and diligently practiced the art of screaming as a form of communication. I used to be a hypochondriac, and I did that to get my mother’s attention. It worked about 85 percent of the time. We had a delightfully abnormal upbringing that I didn’t appreciate until I got older. And for the record, my brain exaggerated most of the details and I’m convinced I have the very best parents on the planet. It only took me two and a half decades to figure that out.
When I graduated high school, I didn’t go to college right away like books and movies told me I should. That was the American way, right? I was scared of classroom situations and found marriage to be another way to get out of the house. I met him April 15, 2004, got engaged two months later, and married him two months after that. I medicated myself with various chemical cocktails all throughout this time, spiraling ever downward. I went to jail. I almost died. I spent a Christmas in a mental hospital once. Thankfully for everyone, I tapped out of that game in 2008. Six months after my last drink, I separated from my ex-husband. I got pregnant. I got divorced. I gave birth to my daughter in 2009.
Here’s what I did: I played a game of coconuts with major life events. I mixed them all up. The story I mentioned earlier emerged from this decade-long mess. I titled it, “I Screwed Up.” That paradox I lived in – the one where I idealized and wished for some self-constructed version of the American Way, while simultaneously living an opposite reality – doomed me to misery. Sobriety did much to help me accept life as it was, but there was still some lingering guilt over the failures I assigned myself. They followed me like a shadow that only I could see – heavy and gray. When I’d go to church with my family for the holidays, the narrator would interrupt, “I Screwed Up.” At the private Baptist university I attended after I got sober: “I Screwed Up.” At parties, work, and the grocery store: “I Screwed Up.”
As I watched a bunch of B-team kids shoot and miss every shot they took in this mecca of suburbia, I felt the narrator take a seat in my frontal lobe. She pulled out her usual book, the one with pages worn from constant flipping, and began recounting the same, nasty story she always did.
I looked down the row of chairs where all the cheering parents were seated. These people had life insurance policies; they lived on cul-de-sacs; they wore slacks ON THE WEEKENDS; they said things like, “bless his heart!” And when they laughed, they slapped their knees. Across the street from the junior high gym, there was a high-end shopping center that looked like a wing of the Hogwarts School of Magic. The neighborhoods a mile away from this area had the names of the community plastered in cursive on the concrete walls of their entrances: “Pine View Ranch,” “Silver Ranch,” “Bring a Gun to Work Ranch,” etc. They drove sedans and foreign SUVs.
When this type of stuff is going on I always feel like a little graffiti stick figure some bored kid added in the corner of a Normal Rockwell painting. I began to sink inside myself – something I like to do when I’m uncomfortable. I was sitting in the epicenter of Normal – a drug addict, unwed mother, and perpetual washout. I remembered to smile though. I didn’t want them to see the thousand-yard-shame-stare, lest I be removed from the game. I marinated in this suburban hell for nearly three hours when something suddenly, and thankfully, happened.
Before this unexpected moment, I’d always resented my non-traditional circumstances. I used them as a whip while alone in my house. Whoa, you don’t need to call any hotlines. It wasn’t every day. No one knew about it, save for a few close friends. To the rest of the world I screamed just a little too loudly how much I didn’t care. “Let your freak flag fly!” This mantra is great, especially when it’s authentic. Mine wasn’t.
As shoes squeaked on the waxed floor of the gym, and parents (ALL COMPLETELY NORMAL OF COURSE) yelled positive slogans to their awkward, uncoordinated kids, everything in my soul decided I didn’t want any of this. Ever. And this decision was sincere, unforced, and smooth. Some missing piece connected. That made-up American ideal – the one I outwardly repelled but inwardly desired – suddenly and uneventfully died. The planets aligned just right and I snatched the book from the narrator. This one is long overdue for a rewrite.
And just like that, acceptance settled in on me. I liked myself. I really liked my weird, unorthodox life. And I didn’t need to tell all those parents anything about it. I couldn’t wait to get back to my ratty, little house behind the Dollar Store, the one with the turquoise walls and holes from when I used to drink (which I will finally fix with the paychecks from my new, big girl job).
I didn’t want to turn my nose up and call them yuppies under my breath. I didn’t want to prop myself up to look like them either. It was no longer a matter of being better than or less than. It was simply a matter of being different. And it was okay.
Sometimes the earth’s plates get caught against each other while dancing over the surface of the gooey mantle. The pressure mounts, shoving the hardened earth against each other in a war of organic strength. Physics decides the winner, and eventually the plates are able to slip past one another. The energy released in this process is what causes earthquakes. And stuff just falls into the earth during an earthquake. Perhaps I was sitting on a fault line in Katy, Texas. I don’t know why the epiphany came to me that day, or why it had come so peacefully. Usually my prophetic realizations come with more screaming. A plate slipped past another, and the story I’ve always told myself fell into the abyss. Good.
I’m rounding out this small piece of writing on my porch. My favorite tree on the planet is the one in my front yard. I can see a warm, yellow moon between its branches on this mild Sunday night. My daughter is asleep in the house. “Destruction” isn’t a happy word, but I’m glad that story I wrote a long time ago is gone. I’m content, at least for this night, with my corner of the earth and how I came to be in here. I suppose I can thank friction for this.
I only have one story, and some of it is actually true. Like I said, I’m up for a rewrite. This time I’m picking comedy. It’s more fitting anyway.