Derailed

It’s my last night in town, and my childhood best friend and I are drinking at my ex-boyfriend’s rival bar. Although maybe it isn’t proper to call it his rival bar now that he’s shirked off all responsibility and his parents are running it. Anyway, I feel fairly assured that he won’t show his face here. I order a Whiskey Sour; it comes in a plastic pink cup with a lime green straw and tastes neither like whiskey nor like lemons. A watered-down version of both. No house spin on the classic. Certainly no egg whites.

Holly orders a Moscow Mule, and her drink comes in a cute copper mug.

The bartender informs us that he stops with glass glasses and starts with plastic at 9 o’clock; otherwise, drunks tend to break ‘em or run off with ‘em.

I sip my drink over the next hour—not because I’m savoring it, but because I’m actively trying not to get drunk. Drunk like I was two weeks ago, at this very bar with my cousin. I’d had my third beer here, as well as a shot of tequila, and a surprisingly civil conversation about politics. After which I excused myself to use the bathroom and ended up engaging in a profound struggle with the bathroom lock: is this lock seriously jammed, I asked myself, panic filling me like a decanter, or am I really this big of a lightweight?

My second and final beverage is a rum & coke. It is more rum than coke, but Holly used to work here and doesn’t hesitate to reach across the bar, locate the soda hose, and top my drink off with more coke. Better. I excuse myself to use the bathroom now, and I resolve to use the same bathroom I used the last time, even though I now note that it’s marked Unisex, while the other door is marked Women’s.

The door locks and unlocks easily enough. Mystery solved.

On my way back to my seat, a middle-aged white man stops me. “You just used the men’s room!” he exclaims, floored. “I couldn’t believe it! I saw you across the bar, and then I saw that you opened that door! I guess you never know. A buddy of mine . . .” he recounts a story of his buddy who’d spent some time checking out a woman at the gym only to end up next to them at a urinal in the locker room.

I listen uncertainly, waiting for the story to turn transphobic and mean. It doesn’t.

“You do realize the bathroom’s unisex?” I ask him.

He hadn’t.

I have a moment where I experience the same relief I’d felt at the airport when I’d been called up to the counter at my gate and handed the ID I hadn’t known I’d left behind in a bin at the security checkpoint.

We have a friendly fifteen-minute conversation in which he tells me his life story and I parcel out details about myself: I’m from here originally, but I live in Seattle; I’ve been back visiting family and riding my bike around town, hoping no one thinks I have a DUI; and I don’t have a Facebook.

Then we shake hands, exchange names, and I go back over to Holly.

When I get to my seat, I see that Holly is immersed in conversation with Charles fucking Scott*. The thing about Charles Scott is that he’s one of the last people I expect to see in CC, Iowa. He isn’t an ex-boyfriend. He isn’t even an ex-friend. He isn’t really anybody to me. Except.

You know how there are people in your life and you know things about them without actually knowing them? You’ve been around them without actually spending time with them? And therefore you have all sorts of ideas about who they are, what they’re like, and what they’re going to do? And you really like the ideas you have about them?

It’s like that. He’s more than an acquaintance but less than a crush.

Now that he’s here, I think he’s who I would be if I stayed in Iowa. Or the best-case scenario for what kind of guy I’d have dated.

I eavesdrop on the next two sentences that come out of his mouth: something about quitting a glorified secretary position at the Charles City Press. I remember hearing that he got that job. I remember thinking: maybe that’s what I would’ve done.

When Holly heads to the ladies’ room, Charles plants himself on a barstool next to me.

“I hear you’re out in Seattle now,” he starts.

“I have a flight back tomorrow,” I confirm.

He asks me what I’m doing back here, and I tell him: I’ve been visiting family for the past three weeks and working on my book. I’ve hopefully finally finished it.

We start talking about writing, just like I hoped we would. Charles Scott has always struck me as the writerly type. This is partly because his dad is an eccentric high school English teacher. It’s also because in one of the only conversations we’ve ever had he told me about making up his own language.

Little nuggets of information like this had convinced me that Charles Scott was going to get out of Iowa long before me, and Do Things.

It did not matter that he was a grade behind me in school.

Apparently his dad invited him to class to talk about The Great Gatsby. Charles asked him if he was sure, because aren’t English teachers supposed to be the experts? And his dad had said something to the effect of, “I know a lot about Gatsby, but you know it. You live it.” And I guess what he meant by that was: drinking and debauchery.

Charles asks me if I write any poetry, which I don’t. He tells me he does sometimes. When he’s drunk. He’ll wake up with no memory of having written and read what he wrote. And it’s beautiful.

He also tells me about the many character sketches and hundreds of pages of outline he’s written out. He has everything written down. Everything but the prose.

I ask him if he’s ever heard of NaNoWriMo: National Novel Writing Month.

He hasn’t, so I tell him about it.

And he says, “It’s too bad you’re going to back to Seattle tomorrow. Especially now that we’re talking writing.”

“It’s hard to find good writer friends,” I say.

But we won’t exchange numbers. We won’t keep in touch.

I learn as much as he’s willing to show and tell me in just one night: that he smokes fair-trade cigarettes and that he’s jumped onto moving trains. That he actually has a DUI, which limits him to walking around or riding his bike. He’s done ‘shrooms with my senior prom date. He had a random sexual encounter in the bar bathroom where I once watched my ex-boyfriend try to punch out his own reflection in the mirror. The woman Charles had been chatting up at the bar had followed him into the men’s room stall. He let her. Eventually somebody knocked on the door, told the two of them to come on out. The barroom applauded Charles for his experience.

Never in all my wildest ideas . . .

Now I know: even though we share roots and a history of overlap, had I stayed in Iowa, I wouldn’t have been Charles Scott.

We just have stories set in the same spaces.

I have no idea who the hell I’d be.

*Charles Scott is a made-up name; I don’t assume that people who drunkenly tell me personal stories in bars want those stories shared with the Internet.

Reset — Part I

You can’t love anything before and after nine to five/
The only thing you cannot buy is time
The Smith Street Band – “I Want Friends”

I’m haunted by something a sociology professor of mine once lectured at us: “Work,” he said, “is time out of life.” I started working at fourteen, and there are no gaps in my resume. I’m twenty-five now. Let’s not subtract the hours.

Before I got my first full-time gig, I already had a weird relationship with work. In high school, a summer spent helping out at a family daycare home, a stint as a waitress at the Uptown Café, and over a year as a cashier at Kmart made up my resume. At these jobs, I inadvertently scared a child so badly that he burst into tears at the snack table, watched in terror as a co-worker pulled out his own pubes, and called in so often on Saturday mornings that my colleagues joked about my “brown bottle flu.”

I didn’t have the brown bottle flu.

I did have anxiety. I still do. In fact, I prefer to call it capital-A Anxiety. It’s like having a sense of impending doom coupled with nausea and muscle cramps. Think of it as a hangover, but from life instead of booze.

College was better for me. I worked as a tutor for America Reads/America Counts, and I only quit because I decided to get a job I could work through the summer, so I could stay living in my college town for the season. That was Little Caesars. I only quit there once I landed another tutoring gig—this time at Iowa State’s Writing Center. I stayed until I graduated, long enough to watch it evolve into the Writing and Media Center.

At my happiest, I was pulling 13+ hour days on campus, going from my classes to work and to the library for coffee and study dates. I loved it.

At my most depressed, I spent my commute home thinking about how not even one hundred years from now, myself and everyone else on the bus would be dead in the ground, about the inevitability of it.

I was more happy than not.

There was variety in life. There was more “I get to” than “I have to.”

Post-graduation, I moved back into my high school bedroom in my parents’ basement. Above all else was one clear thought: “I have to get the hell out of Iowa.”

Five months later, I did. I moved to Bellevue, Washington to begin my first full-time job. Title: Editor. Not bad for an English major. I got my own cubicle, complete with not one but two computer monitors. I set the computer wallpaper to pictures of my cat and decorated the cubicle walls with scrapbook paper featuring typewriters and word art, the word today typed over and over in tiny, tidy font. I propped up a sign my aunt sent me that read, “I am silently correcting your grammar.”

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The company’s contract was for five years. I thought I’d stay for at least half of that. But, a year into it, the novelty and newness had worn off. I’d gotten increasingly efficient at my job, so I had more downtime than ever. For a while, I was put on a phone project, which amped up my anxiety but not too much, and helped to fill the time. When I wasn’t on the phone or editing cases, I was good at using the time productively—namely for reading and writing. But eventually even those things became tedious. I felt like I was holding my breath all day, counting down the hours and minutes to lunch, and then the hours and minutes until I could clock out for the day.

A few months later, I moved to a northern neighborhood in Seattle, making my commute a whopping hour and a half one-way via three buses. I’d leave my apartment around 8 o’clock in the morning and get back around 8 o’clock at night.

And then within a short amount of time lots of things happened: my favorite grandmother unexpectedly died, the jerk I’d been seeing got progressively jerkier, my scary ex-boyfriend I hadn’t talked to in years tried to get in touch with me, I got a tattoo, my friend-turned-roommate got suddenly weird and distant, I quit Facebook, I made an OKCupid account, and I started having panic attacks and intrusive memories at work (which eventually led to me getting a therapist and a PTSD diagnosis).

I was now using my downtime at work to lock myself in the “serenity room” to freak out. Then I got assigned another phone project.

The project involved calling hundreds of numbers per day and verifying information with actual humans as opposed to automated machines. I remember staring at a spreadsheet of providers, holding the phone up to my ear, and trying to will myself to dial the numbers on the keypad. Five minutes passed. Ten minutes. Fifteen. Twenty.

I couldn’t bring myself to do it, so I called my boss instead. (She worked on the East Coast, along with the company’s director.) She told me not to worry about it for now and that she’d see if they could put somebody else on it.

A week later, I was called into our West Coast supervisor’s office on a conference call. It was said supervisor, my boss, the director, and myself. The director told me that I don’t get to pick and choose what I do and don’t do. When I’m assigned a project, I’m to do that project. It’s the fine line included in all job descriptions: performs other duties as assigned. I explained that I’d tried and couldn’t, how Anxiety had stood in the way.

“Does that make sense?” I asked, doubting that it did.

My director told me, “Anxiety isn’t an excuse. You can bring in a doctor’s note if you want, but I can’t guarantee that will get you out of it.”

On my very long commute home, I started fantasizing about jumping off the Aurora.

Instead of jumping off the Aurora Bridge, I called and talked to my dad. He told me not to do anything stupid. He told me, “There’s no reason for you to ever do that.” He used the words “safety net” and “reset button.”

I didn’t need to end my life; I just needed to change it.

So I threw myself into a job hunt.

And I got a new job, some much-needed therapy, a new roommate, and a boyfriend.

Yet—fifteen months later, working at a very different job and living a much different life, I found myself in the same headspace. Holding my breath, counting down the hours and the minutes until I could clock out. Feeling like my life wasn’t my own. Feeling desperate and clinging to sad things. Binge-watching Netflix Originals about suicide, binge-listening to the STown podcast, reading about Nietzsche’s theory of Eternal Return, fantasizing about filling up a backpack with wishing stones and walking into the Sound. Quoting Louis C.K.’s latest suicide jokes.

My parents used to worry every time I quit a job in high school: Will this be her pattern?

I gave my two weeks’ notice two weeks ago.

Will it?

Every Breakup Has Its Soundtrack

Fearless (2008):
White Horse
You’re Not Sorry
Tell Me Why

My on-again, off-again boyfriend and I split with a higher frequency than Taylor Swift released new break-up songs. The first half a dozen times we called it off, her album Fearless played as my soundtrack. Quite literally. The very first time I resolved to break-up with Topher* I played “You’re Not Sorry” on repeat as I shoved his things, mostly clothes, into a plastic bag: a Minnesota Gophers hoodie, a faded yellow t-shirt, a pair of plaid pajama bottoms. I’m sure there was more, but the clothes are what I remember. I wore them to bed most nights. They smelled like me.

Earlier that day, my parents had tiptoed into my bedroom. I was still in bed, because it was before noon on a Saturday; I was seventeen and still had a penchant for sleeping in. They cautiously sat down on the edge of my bed. They had something to tell me. The something was: “That boyfriend of yours is a sketchy bastard.”

I’m paraphrasing, of course.

Topher was a 23-year-old, part-time bartender. He worked something like Monday and Wednesday nights until close and Saturdays until 6 p.m. Well, apparently he’d exchanged numbers with one of my mom’s friend’s daughters at the bar. The two had been texting since. He was encouraging her to come hang out with him at the bar “after hours.” She was telling her mother all of this, and at some point her mother stopped her and said, “Isn’t that Anika’s boyfriend?”

So the daughter texted him first, “What’s your last name again?”

He answered with his last name.

And second, “Do you have a girlfriend?”

He answered, “Does it matter?”

My parents had just finished telling me all of this when my phone began buzzing. They were still there, still seated at the edge of my bed. Topher. I answered, playing dumb. He told me good morning and asked were we still on to hang out tonight after he got off work? Of course! I told him I was looking forward to it.

When we hung up, I added, loudly: I hope you choke!

My dad commended me on playing it so cool. He didn’t know I had it in me.

When I arrived at Topher’s parents’ house, where he still lived, with my plastic bags in tow, his eyes did that deer-in-headlights thing. “What’s this?” he asked me. I’m pretty sure I delivered those famous four words: We. Need. To. Talk. And then we ever so discreetly stepped into the garage to do so in private.

I told him, “I heard that you’ve been a sketchy bastard!”

And he asked me, “Who did you hear that from?”

And I told him, “A reliable source.”

Topher wasn’t amused by the “reliable source” bit. He made a clucking noise, and I guess it was effective, because I ended up giving away my source. He then explained to me that my mother is a basket case—“Your mother is a basket case!”—And that I’m just as bad—“You act like a psycho half of the time!”

He stormed into the house and back out, his car keys in hand. I trailed after him, out of the garage. “Where are you going?”

“To the bar!” he announced. Not that it was any of my business since I was no longer his girlfriend.

It figured he’d go to the one place I couldn’t follow.

#

Speak Now (2010):
Dear John
Mean

Halfway through my senior year of high school, T Swift released her album, Speak Now. Around this same time it occurred to me that I should start applying to colleges. Topher and I had gotten back together (and broken up and gotten back together who knows how many times by now) and we were both set to graduate at the same time—he with an Associate’s degree, and me with a high school diploma!

Topher was encouraging me to go to NIACC, the local community college. It wasn’t a bad idea: cost effective, close to home, sometimes referred to as “the ivy league of community colleges.” But I already sort of went there—I took night classes a couple times a week at the actual campus, and I also took a number of dual-credit courses at my high school.

He applied to Iowa State University—or he at least considered it seriously enough that he pulled the application up on his laptop and started to fill it out—so I applied to Iowa State. I got it into my head that we should go to the same university. We could both move on to bigger and better things—together! We’d move out of our parents’ houses, get out of town! We could even rent an off-campus apartment!

We talked about scheduling a tour of Iowa State’s campus.

I kept asking him, “When?” And he kept saying, “Not yet.”

He was always making me wait.

Topher liked to give me vague answers when I wanted concrete plans. Always, “We’ll hang out when I get off work,” or, “Late afternoon.” Never, “I’ll pick you up at seven.” If I asked for specifics, he’d snap, “Do I need to write you a fucking itinerary?” He’d get off work at six, and I’d text him at quarter past with a “Hey, just wondering what time?” And he’d reply, “Soon.” But then it would be seven, or eight. Later even.

So I booked a college visit to Iowa State with my mother instead.

Topher was not impressed.

Campus was buried in snow, and it was cold, freezing. But it was beautiful, picturesque. I could picture myself there. I was going.

When I told Topher my decision, he announced he’d be returning to UNI in the fall. A university he professed to hate and had already quit once. He wasn’t going to move though. No, he’d commute from home—his parents’ house. That’s when I realized: He wasn’t going. He was never going to go to Iowa State. He wasn’t mad because I went on a visit without him. He was mad because I’d thwarted his efforts to keep me from going.

#

I still wonder how Topher got Taylor Swift to sing all those songs about him. Every time I listen to Dear John just to get to the part where she sings, “You are an expert at sorry and keeping lines blurry, never impressed by me acing your tests.” Every time I belt out, “I can see you years from now in a bar/Talking over a football game/With that same big loud opinion/But nobody’s listening, washed up and ranting/About the same old bitter things/Drunk and grumbling on about how I can’t sing/But all you are is mean/All you are is mean and a liar and pathetic/And alone in life and mean . . .”

What I wish Taylor would’ve told me was that I didn’t need to leave the small town first. I didn’t need to live in the big ol’ city before I got rid of the big, mean boyfriend.

#

Red (2012):
We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together

It was a happy coincidence that Swift’s single We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together started playing on the radio at the exact time I needed to break up with my then-boyfriend. It was my first serious, long-term relationship post-Topher, and I’d never needed to break up with anyone more. That summer, I cranked the radio up wherever I was—usually in my car or at Little Caesars—and sang out loud, rivaling my coworker/frat boys’ passionate (not to mention choreographed) renditions of Call Me Maybe.

#

1989 (2014):
?

My current boyfriend teases me now, saying he fears I might dump him if T Swift releases a catchy enough break-up song.

But I know better now: I don’t need a song.

*Name has been altered, not to protect the guilty, but to better convey what a tool he is. Perhaps if Christopher had gone by Topher instead of Chris all of this could’ve been avoided.

Let’s Get Physical

The Saturday after Trump’s inauguration, I marched. Getting dressed felt like making a statement. I wore “Stay Away From Assholes” socks, combat boots, a long, flowing pink skirt, an “Angry Liberal Feminist Killjoy” shirt. Applying my makeup felt like donning war paint. I didn’t make a sign, but by the end of the march I carried one anyway.

There were so many signs. Signs that said, “We will not go quietly back to the ‘50s!” Signs that read, “Pussy Grabs Back.” Signs with Princess Leia’s face that announced, “Woman’s place is in the resistance.” Signs adorned with glittery uteruses proclaiming, “Shed walls, don’t build them!” There were pussy hats galore!

And I felt so fucking hopeful. There was hope in our numbers, in our showing up, in our sign wielding. Hope in our words, in our ability to maintain a sense of humor.

After marching, I felt a lot of things: exhausted and hangry, but also empowered and optimistic. It was a cautious optimism, but still optimism. I was holding out hope. That maybe this wouldn’t be as bad of a thing as it seemed. That maybe it was all an elaborate hoax. That maybe for the next four years Trump would be too preoccupied lashing out at people who don’t like him on Twitter to do any real damage.

Then came the executive orders. The Muslim ban, signed on Holocaust Remembrance Day. The U.S.-Mexico border wall.

#

I was in the kitchen, wearing my green dish-washing gloves, scrubbing a casserole dish when my roommate Alex came home from Happy Hour. She took a nearly empty bottle of Fireball off a shelf and set it down on the counter. “Want to do a shot with me?”

“Yes, please,” I told her, stripping off my gloves.

She pointed out the med school acceptance letter she’d fastened to the fridge. “Doesn’t it look like a wedding invitation?” she asked.

It did, especially surrounded by a plethora of wedding invites.

Alex pulled two shot glasses out of the cupboard. She filled them both, emptying the bottle. We clinked our glasses together, and threw them back. Then she pulled down a bottle of Jim Beam, poured us each another shot, and we repeated the process.

“Tell me about IUDs,” I told her. A few weeks before, I’d mentioned via text I was considering getting one, what with the current political atmosphere. She’d responded enthusiastically, saying how she loves talking about birth control.

Now seemed as good a time as any.

Alex disappeared momentarily into her bedroom and returned with a blank sheet of paper and a pen. She drew me a uterus, complete with fallopian tubes, ovaries, and a cervix. Inside of the uterus, she drew an IUD—a tiny, t-shaped device with strings coming out of it, down and out the cervix.

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A uterus with an IUD in it

“What are those?” I asked, pointing to the strings.

“Wires,” she said. “You won’t want your doctor to cut them too short, and if you keep them longer, you can sort of wrap them around your cervix.”

I nodded.

Alex had done a lot of research before choosing to get an IUD herself. She told me the difference between the hormonal IUDs and the copper IUD. She told me the differences between the two hormonal IUDs, recommending the Mirena over the Skyla. She also told me that a hormonal IUD is more effective than getting your tubes tied.

“Holy shit,” I said. “Really?”

“Really,” she said. “I love it. And,” she added, “I have, by far, had the worst experience of anyone I know with one.” She had an insensitive doctor, lots of pain, lots of spotting, and worse cramps during her menstrual cycle than she ever had prior to the procedure. “And I still wouldn’t want any other birth control,” she finished.

And somehow, with that, I was sold.

She’s going to be a great OB-GYN, that girl.

#

During my lunch break at work, I scheduled an appointment for an IUD consultation with my doctor. During the appointment, just as my roommate had, Dr. D picked up a pen and drew me a uterus on a blank piece of paper. She basically reiterated everything my roommate had told me about my options. We narrowed it down to the Mirena and the Skyla.

She then asked me two questions: Would it bother you not to have a period? And, Do you plan on having a baby in the next three years?

To which I answered, No, and God no.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not one of those Millenials who hates babies. In fact, I spend more than 40 hours any given week with babies. I work at a corporate day care/learning center, and my official title is “Infant Teacher.” I make sure they’re fed, napped, and diapered. I’m known to roll ’em around in paint. (I’m sure this entire paragraph would shock the hell out of 15-year-old me, who used to gleefully tell dead baby jokes in the high school cafeteria.)

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Baby Valentine’s artwork Georgia O’Keeffe would be proud of!

Every month, there’s a day or so that I freak myself out. Birth control pills are pretty effective, but they’re also dependent on you remembering to take them, preferably at the exact same time every day. It’s a big, important responsibility, and sometimes my head is already full of all the other big, important things I have to take care of on any given day, and I forget. I depend on Aunt Flo to reassure me every month that I’m not knocked up.

During these freaked-out times, I marvel at the size of the babies’ heads, the width of their shoulders. Sure, they’ve grown since birth. We can’t accept them into our care until 6 weeks. And yet—I distinctly remember the distress of using a tampon for the first time.

I asked Dr. D, “Will this hurt?”

“It’s different for every woman,” she said. Then, “I’ve done a lot of IUD insertions since November 9th. I’m very good, and I’m the fastest.”

It would be a half-hour appointment. “Sometimes it takes me five minutes,” she said. “Sometimes it takes the full half hour.” She assured me that it wouldn’t be a half hour of pain. “It would maybe be five minutes of intense cramping.”

My roommate had told me the worst of the pain lasts about fifteen seconds.

Fifteen seconds, five minutes. Okay, I thought. I can do that. I’d managed to sit through a three-and-a-half hour tattooing session—albeit while screaming bloody murder the whole time—so I figured I had it in me to handle five minutes.

Dr. D suggested we do the procedure during my period. She said it would make the insertion easier because my cervix would already be slightly opened up.

“Great!” I told her. My period was the following week. As was Valentine’s Day (the 14th), and my one-year anniversary with my boyfriend (the 16th).

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Happy Valentine’s Day, Boyfriend! 

Before scheduling the appointment, I asked whether insurance would cover the cost. My doctor told me it should be fully covered by my insurance. For now, anyway. Under the Affordable Care Act/Obamacare, my copay for birth control pills had gone from $10/month to $0/month. That’s $10 I now donate to Planned Parenthood, an organization whose services I’ve never personally used.

I scheduled my appointment for Wednesday, February 15th.

#

Between my consultation and my appointment, I talked to a lot of women about birth control methods: friends, acquaintances, co-workers. I listened to a great (but also somewhat fear-inducing) podcast that had the added bonus of drowning out the sound of two crying babies on a bus ride from Seattle to Portland. I experienced a lot of anxiety: both kinds, nervous and excited.

I showed up for my appointment on Wednesday afternoon, and so did my period. (If it hadn’t, I would have had to take a pregnancy test to ensure that something wasn’t already taking up residence in my uterus.)

My boyfriend met me at the clinic, and we went in together.

I hoped that the procedure would be akin to a rough pap smear. I popped 600mg worth of Advil at once, without water. I wasn’t familiar with all the instruments laid out on the table, except the speculum. I’m uncomfortably familiar with speculums. I undressed and situated myself on the table, naked from the waist down, a paper sheet pulled over my lap.

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A speculum, as found via a Google Image search

Dr. D knocked before entering. We said our hellos, and I introduced her to the boyfriend. She encouraged him to pull up a chair next to me, and then encouraged him to scoot the chair back. She held up the box with the Mirena in it and told me not to worry. The box was apparently much larger than it needed to be, the IUD itself being a relatively tiny thing. The box’s size was to justify the expense of the device (approximately $950)!

Once I got into position (head on pillow, ass on edge of table, feet in stirrups, knees spread wide), my doctor went about the uncomfortable task of dilating my vagina. With a speculum. Super fun! There was lots of swabbing and cleaning in preparation for the IUD insertion. At some point, my doctor said, “Your uterus is standard. Standard is good. Medically, you want to be boring.”

I nodded in agreement. I’d worried that because I’m a diminutive woman, I might also have a diminutive uterus, making the procedure more painful, or undoable. This was good news.

When Dr. D opened the IUD kit box, I tried not to pay too much attention. At my tattoo appointment, I’d wanted to see it all: the tools, the inking, even the blood. This time I wanted to see as little as possible. I caught a glimpse of the applicator, and my boyfriend squeezed my hand. “You’re so tense,” he told me.

I was. Like usual, I had to remind myself to breathe. When I’m anxious or concentrating, I hold my breath. It’s why I used to get lightheaded working as a cashier at Kmart, holding my breath through the majority of transactions. It’s why I’m not so great at yoga.

My doctor warned me when it came time for the actual insertion part of the appointment. “This is it,” she said.

“Okay,” I replied, I grabbed ahold of my boyfriend’s hand and also his arm, clutching onto him with both hands.

Dr. D instructed me to breathe. “Take a deep breath in, and a long breath out.”

I took deep, audible breaths. First came the intense cramping, which I breathed through. Then came a sharp, stabbing sort of pain. My breathing hitched.

“Breathe,” my doctor reminded. “Wiggle your toes. Rub your tummy.”

And my boyfriend said, “Kill my arm as much as you need to. You’re doing so good.”

So I breathed, wiggled my toes, and dug into his arm. I also let out a strangled scream.

It was a long fifteen seconds.

And then it stopped. The pain stopped, and I let my breathing quiet.

But my doctor didn’t say anything. She was still sitting in a chair at my feet, the IUD applicator in her gloved hand. And I thought to myself, That had to be it. Was that not it?

Dr. D then had to tell me that the device had come out with the applicator. It wasn’t supposed to. She’d basically already tried insertion twice. “It wasn’t you,” she told me. “It wasn’t anything to do with you or your body. It’s a manufacture error. I’m so sorry.” She asked me would I be okay for 30 seconds while she went and grabbed another device?

I said yes, okay. Third time’s a charm.

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Fucking ouch

“You’re tough,” my doctor told me after I endured not one, but like, three insertions. She advised rest, ibuprofen, and ice cream. “No sex tonight,” she added.

I left the room sweaty, shaky, and pale. “I think I might throw up,” I told my boyfriend. I stopped in the middle of the hallway on our way back to the lobby. “Or pass out.” I felt dizzy and dehydrated. In the lobby, I sipped water at the drinking fountain. I sat down in a chair and put my head in my hands. After another sip water and a visit to the bathroom, I was finally ready to leave.

Once safely strapped into the passenger seat of my boyfriend’s car, I texted a friend who by complete and total coincidence had an IUD appointment on the very same day at the very same time. “I’m not doing so hot,” I told her. I felt like I was having the worst period cramps of my life. “How are you?”

If we weren’t feeling cramp-y and gross, our plan had been to meet up for celebratory drinks. To prioritizing our reproductive health! To no pregnancy during Trump’s presidency!

“Fucking ouch,” came her reply.

We agreed to do drinks another time.

At my apartment, I curled up on the couch, and my boyfriend heated up my lavender lamb eye pillow in the microwave, turning it into a lavender lamb heating pad. We watched a few episodes of Stephen Universe (because what could make me feel better, if not space lesbians?). I ate mint chocolate chip gelato.

By morning, I felt 100%. The cramping had ceased. I didn’t even appear to have bled throughout the night, despite being on my period. At work, I greeted the babies in my care by announcing: “I like you all so much more now!” Now that I’d bought myself five-to-seven baby-free years. I’m still holding out hope that I won’t need eight.

Now I Know My BAC’s

Post-Greece, my stomach took the brunt of my reverse-culture shock. (And I had a lot of the symptoms upon returning home: frustration, boredom, negativity towards American culture, and missing the people and places I’d called home for the past six weeks.) It’s funny, because while abroad I’d most missed three things about America: that our plumbing system is equipped to deal with flushed toilet paper, free water at restaurants, and, perhaps most importantly, Hidden Valley Ranch dressing.

When in Greece, our family-style meals lasted hours. There was no rush. Often, the longer we stayed at a table, the more hospitable the restaurant employees became: bringing us free desserts, and on one occasion, offering us free alcoholic shots. We lingered over the shared dishes, sampling a little of this and a little of that, actually tasting what we were putting in our mouths. Sure, water didn’t come free, but wine (retsina, specifically) was cheaper.

At the market, I sampled a red grape, my teeth sinking into its delicate flesh and then crunching painfully on a hard kernel. I pulled the seed out of my mouth, having forgotten that grapes even had seeds. And later, when a group of us went in on a watermelon together, I remembered what fun it had been as a kid, spitting out all those black seeds, worrying over whether a watermelon seed could grow in my stomach if I swallowed it, like Chuckie in the Rugrats.

I’d become accustomed to drinking wine with all of my meals and a glass of water per every glass of alcohol. I ordered things off menus that I didn’t know what they were, based on the vague English descriptions. I ordered bold-for-me things, too: shark and octopus and calamari. I ate so many Greek salads even though I profess to hate salads. (The same way my friend Hallie’s roommate professed to hate tomatoes, except in Greece.) I learned that I actually prefer the taste of frozen shrimp-ring shrimp to fresh, full-shelled shrimp, and that I can’t eat anything that still has a face or legs that resemble legs. I gained eight pounds!

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Now, back in America, I was getting sick after pretty much every meal. Even three weeks after my return, when I was ready to move into my campus apartment for the fall semester. Prior to unloading all of my things from the car into my apartment, I ate lunch with my family at Carlos O’Kelly’s. As soon as we arrived at my new place, I christened the new-to-me toilet. At least it flushed like a champ.

Within the week, I made plans with my friend Jacob who was also back in our college town. He had also been to Greece over the summer, but his stomach was faring better than mine. We agreed to meet at Indian Delight, because I figured my body would process matar paneer better than Americanized anything. It wasn’t until we were halfway up his apartment steps that the feeling of I-need-to-go-lie-down-and-probably-die came over me. I’d figured wrong.

Jacob told me to text him later if I was feeling any better, since I had up until that moment been planning to go out. So after a few hours of painful digestion, I pulled myself together and did just that. Jacob was with some people I didn’t know at the Chicha Shack, a hookah bar I knew well. I drove myself over, found a place to park near Welch Ave, which wasn’t nearly as crowded during the summer as during the school year. Ames’ population decreased by approximately 30,000—the entirely school population—during the summer. I walked into the sweet, smoky lounge, found Jacob, pulled up a chair.

The only person besides Jacob who I remember meeting there was Mike. Mike told me he’d recently been abroad, too: in London, visiting family. He hadn’t liked it and was annoyed that no one there could tell him exactly what the drinking age was. I had no idea what the drinking age was in Greece (but I was already 21 and the novelty of being 21 had worn off right around hour 3 of my 21st birthday). The novelty of drinking in Greece had been that bars didn’t close at 2 a.m. (or seemingly ever) and if I wanted to buy a wine cooler from a vendor and drink it on public transit, I could.

I ordered a Bud Light, and I smoked whatever everyone else was smoking when the hose was passed to me. It was something mixed with mint, because that’s what we typically ordered: mint with something. Something fruity or something floral. I sucked in the flavor and then breathed the smoke out through my nostrils. It made me feel lightheaded, but not in a dizzy way.

Time passed swiftly. We asked for more hot coals, and I ordered another Bud Light. Top 40 songs from the 90s played as a soundtrack to the night, and every so often, we’d stop talking and sing a few lines, a chorus. Grown-up nostalgia.

Eventually we left to go back to Jacob’s apartment, where we took apart his lofted twin-size bed to use the baseboard as a makeshift beer-pong table. While playing the game, I overheard Mike answer the question, “How are you doing?” with “Good,” and drunkenly scolded him: “You don’t do good! Batman does good! You do well!” Then I turned back to my game, which happened to be the longest, sloppiest game of beer-pong I’ve ever played—probably because I was no longer drinking. I didn’t even care when I won. I was just so happy the tedious game was over, and then I was ready to go home.

“Are you good to drive?” I was asked several times.

Of course I was!

Not even halfway to my apartment, patriotic red and blue lights flashed behind me, a siren whined. I pulled over, and watched in my rearview mirror as the police car pulled over behind me. I panicked and shut off my car. When the officer reached my driver’s side door, instead of restarting my engine and rolling down my window, I cracked open the door. “Hello Officer,” I probably meant to say.

“Is something wrong with your window?” the officer asked me. He looked like one of my coworkers from when I worked at Little Caesars—same olive skin, curly brown hair, bemused expression—only this guy’s uniform wasn’t covered in marinara sauce and flour.

“No, um, I—I just got nervous, and I shut off my car.”

“Go ahead and turn it back on. Roll down your window.”

“Okay,” I said, pulling my car door closed. I totally didn’t sound like a drunk person. Not. At. All.

Once I’d restarted my car and rolled down the window like you’re supposed to, the officer asked me for my license and registration. As he looked them over, he asked me if I knew why he pulled me over, which I actually didn’t.

“You were speeding,” he enlightened me.

I’d thought the speed limit was 35, but apparently it was only 25. Oops!

“Have you been drinking tonight?”

“Earlier,” I told him truthfully. “I had two beers.” I held up two fingers.

He told me to hang on for a second, and walked back to his car. When he returned a few minutes later, he said, “I’m going to have to ask you to shut off your engine and step out of your car.”

Great. Excellent. My friend Lace and I once watched, through her apartment window, wine glasses in hand, as a guy—a very drunk guy—performed a field sobriety test. Performed and failed. I was happy that despite being in a 25 mph speed zone, the area certainly didn’t look residential. If I couldn’t see them, they probably couldn’t see me. I definitely passed the walk-and-turn test and the one-leg stand test. I could’ve recited the alphabet backwards for him if he’d asked.

Unfortunately, reciting the alphabet backwards is not one of the three tests that comprise the Standardized Field Sobriety Test. I had to take the horizontal gaze nystagmus test, where I was supposed to follow the officer’s hand—I don’t remember whether or not he was holding an object—from left to right with both eyes.

“Keep your head still,” he instructed me. “Just follow with your eyes.”

I couldn’t keep my head still, and I was shaking pretty hard.

Because it wasn’t clear whether or not I was intoxicated, he pulled out a breathalyzer.

I thought to myself: what if I am drunk? Even though I haven’t had anything to drink in hours, I did drink. I was just playing beer-pong. How is a drunk person supposed to know she’s too drunk anyway? Drunk people are unreliable!

I blew into the device until I was told to stop.

The officer read the result, looked at me and said: “Well, this shouldn’t surprise you,” and I thought for sure he meant it sarcastically. As in: You know you’ve been drinking, and that you’re drunk, and that you shouldn’t have been operating a motor vehicle! I felt a different kind of sick than I’d been feeling the last few weeks.

He showed me the reading: 0.00.

Not drunk at all.

How to Have an Existential Crisis

Since becoming an adult at age 22 (upon moving out of my parents’ basement and across the country), I’ve realized that the more living I do, the more terrified of death I become.

I’ve exchanged my teen angst for existential dread.

Basically, I read just as many young adult novels and have just as many mortality-related panic attacks as I ever did, but now I can buy also my own booze.

Here’s how I did it!

(And you can, too!)

Move Far, Far Away
You should do this alone, and preferably to a place where you know absolutely no one. No friends, no family. This way no one will have any preconceived notions about you. They’ll only know what you tell them (or what they find out while stalking you on Facebook.)

When you visit your hometown, your friends, your parents, everything will seem different, and you’ll realize that what (or who) has changed most is you. Especially because you only visit that place and those people once, maybe twice per year. If you have parents like mine (who inexplicably seem never to age), you’ll notice the passing of time by your mother’s hair—one day it falls down around her shoulders, the next its ends tickle her collarbone. You’ll notice your father’s buoying weight. The brother that was a skinny kid when you left will suddenly look like a young man with your dad’s waistline and stubble on his chin.

The best friend whose voice you hear, tinny over the phone, almost every day, will insist upon taking dozens of pictures of the two of you, reunited. She’ll look at her phone screen, an image of the two of you on display, and say, “I can tell we’ve aged.” You’re both young women now. Your smile in the next frame will look pained because even though you see your reflection in the mirror every day, you hadn’t noticed yourself.

Adopt a Pet
Go to your local shelter. Move past the cage covered with a blanket while something snarls and thrashes behind it. Stop in front of the one that appears to be occupied by a shadow with yellow eyes shaking in the corner. Ask an attendant to open the door for you. Reach your hand inside, stroke his fur. Read the chart pinned to his cage: seven-years-old, a stray. You don’t want a kitten anyway. Pay $25 and he’s yours.

Promise him that you’re his forever home, even when he’s still greeting you with a hiss and hiding in a cubbyhole. Feel better about the promise when he greets you with excited screaming and spends each night and nap not curled up at your feet, but tucked under your arm like a small spoon.

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Panic a few months later when he gets sick, really sick. He’s lethargic, even for a cat, sleeping all the time, more than usual, and when he’s not sleeping, he’s throwing up. Quarantine him in the bathroom while you’re at work with his food, water, and litter box. Come home to him wrapped around the toilet, his fur matted, the fuzzy mat on the floor speckled with vomit. He looks lik a classic drunk. You’d laugh if you weren’t crying.

Take him to the vet, where they pump him full of fluids, slap a bandage on him, and charge you $300 dollars for inconclusive tests. The vet tells you, “Sometimes they just need a little reset. We’re not sure why.”

He rebounds, this time. His forever is almost inevitably shorter than yours.

Get a Tattoo
Get it because it’s pretty, not necessarily because it means anything. Make it a big one. Take pictures as soon as it’s done. A tattoo is a wound, and the ink is only this fresh once. Before new skin grows in, before it heals over. Take better care of this patch of skin than the rest of your body. Rub SPF over it every time you’re going to be out in the sun to keep it from fading. Smooth lotion over it on dry, winter days. Notice how much brighter it gets every time you smooth a razor over it, erasing the fine, blonde hairs that grow in. Wonder what it will look like when it fades for real. (You doubt you’ll go back for a touch-up when it hurt too much the first time.) And, like everybody says to someone who’s thinking about getting a tattoo, think about what it’ll look like when your skin gets old.

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Quit Your Shitty Office Job
Your commute takes three buses and an hour and a half. That’s just one way. You sit in a chair at a desk in front of two computer monitors, where you spend 70% of your workday reading the NYT Modern Love column and BuzzFeed articles, scribbling in your notebook, texting, or IMing your co-workers. You spend the remaining 30% of the workday on the phone with your boss, who asks about your cat and the most recent date you went on; on lunch, on break or in the bathroom; and actually working. It’s tedious.

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What’s also tedious is explaining to new people what you do. It’s like you’re Chandler Bing. Except, the more you try to explain, the less sure even you are of what you do.

Start feeling desperate.

Start applying for new jobs.

The closer you get to getting out, the more desperate you start to feel. It’s dark when you wake up and it’s dark when you walk out of the office park in the evenings. Fantasize about jumping off the Aurora Bridge (after all, you live right under it). Fantasize about sticking your head in the oven (after all, your new apartment has a gas stove and it’s almost the anniversary of Sylvia Plath’s death).

Snag phone interviews and in-person interviews.
Get a request for a background check.
Email all your references.

Get rejected.

Quit your job without having a new job lined up, because you just can’t anymore.

Get a New Job
On the last day of your Shitty Office Job, get an offer for a New Job. You’ll be making about $3 less per hour, and that’s not counting the bonus you made every other month. Orientation starts in 2 weeks. You gleefully accept.

Your new job doesn’t come with a cubicle. Your new job comes with classrooms, filled with children ages 0 to 6. You catch a nasty cold within the first two weeks of the job. You get the stomach flu three times in the first 6 months. Also, after 6 months of covering teacher lunches and breaks and assisting in every classroom, you surprise everyone, especially yourself, by falling in love with babies.

You step into an infant classroom, full-time. One day your co-worker Laura says, “They make me realize how much my skin has aged,” and I look at them and exclaim, “When you’re my age, I’ll be . . . oh my God. I’ll be fifty.”

I watch them, as they go from gummy bears (no teeth), turtles stuck on their back (weak core muscles) to little people, who make meaningful gestures (a hand waving goodbye) and take their first steps. It all happens in a matter of months. Right now they need me (to keep their basic needs met; they climb me when I sit on the floor; they rush me and cry and clutch me hard when a stranger walks into the room; look for and even cry for me when I leave the room) but when they’re twenty-five, hell, when they’re five, they won’t remember this at all.

They don’t get to keep the memories. Who am I forgetting?

Fall in Love
Exhaust date-worthy friends of friends and acquaintances of friends. Join OKCupid on a whim—hey, online dating worked for a couple of your role model couples—and fill out your profile while drinking a beer. Get messages when all you’ve done so far is post pictures. Delete pictures while you work on the written things portion. Over the next few days, get overwhelmed with messages.

Develop a screening process. Just say no to:

  1. Guys who greet you with sexual innuendos. AKA perverts.
  2. Also guys (and girls) who invite you to have a threesome. Thanks, but no thanks!
  3. Guys who comment your physical appearance. It’s a dating site—if you’re messaging me, I already assume you think I’m cute.
  4. Guys who message me despite being outside of my specified age range. If I drew the line at 32, and you’re 50, it’s a no-go. When you message me anyway, you’re showing that you don’t respect my limits.
  5. Guys who match me less than 75%. I know Internet Algorithms aren’t perfect, and neither is my judgment.
  6. Guys who are shirtless in their profile pictures.

Enjoy the effectiveness of the screening process!

Stop enjoying the effectiveness so much when, a few months later, you start getting feelings. Feelings were not part of the deal. You just wanted to meet some cool new people, maybe partake in some heavy petting. You especially didn’t plan on getting feelings for the first person you went on a date with. You were just going to be friends. Writer friends. You would never actually date another writer. Would you?

Flee the state over Valentine’s weekend. Go to Valentine’s party in Portland where everyone plays spin the bottle. Kiss every person there. Feel calmed down a bit because you haven’t even kissed this person you might have feelings for. You just almost-kissed that one time. Text him. When he sends you messages that suggest he also has feelings, hide under the nearest blanket.

Make plans to hang out the day you get back. Try not to be a freaked-out mess (even though that’s exactly what you are. It’s February and you’re sweating bullets. Because of a boy). Worry that kissing him will ruin everything. Kiss him anyway.

At home that night, deactivate your OKCupid account and courtesy message the other guy you’ve been seeing even though you’re not even anybody’s girlfriend yet. It was just kissing.

Inside of a week, you agree to be his girlfriend. It terrifies you because:

  1. You only officially date people you can see yourself falling in love with
  2. You haven’t been somebody’s girlfriend in years
  3. All romantic relationships end in one of three ways: break-up, divorce, or death.

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Work in Progress

A word of warning: This isn’t like my usual monthly posts. It isn’t really an essay. I started to write an essay, but this isn’t that. It’s just that my novel manuscript, my WIP, is the foremost thing on my mind. And because it’s taking up so much space in my mind (and on my computer, and on my Google Drive, and about 70% of my handwritten notebooks) it only stands to reason that it should take up some space on my blog. Cheers!

Saturday, November 2, 2013
I met up with my friend and co-editor Kristen at Arcadia Café. We both worked on the University’s literary magazine together. She was filling out graduate school applications, and I was querying literary agents for the first time. I’d recently finished my first novel manuscript. It was short at 55,500 words, but I reasoned that this was okay given that Gatsby was even shorter (47,094). Kristen was one of my first beta readers, and it felt right to have her sitting across from me as I hit send. We were both set to graduate the next month. Both trying to figure out what was next. After I’d hit send, I commented that it felt anticlimactic. “Shouldn’t there be virtual confetti or something?” I asked her.

The email was time stamped at 11:23 AM.

Monday, November 4, 2013
The agent I’d queried emailed me back. She wrote that she would love to read it. That she would be in touch as soon as she’d reviewed it.

The email was time stamped at 9:22 AM.

At 4:40 PM, I emailed her back, including my manuscript as an attachment.

I couldn’t believe it! A real, live New York City agent had my manuscript sitting in her inbox. Because she wanted to read it. Because she’d requested it. At this rate, I thought, I could have a book deal before I’d even graduated.

Friday, November 15, 2013
I was tutoring at the Writing and Media Center. As occasionally happened during my shifts, I had some downtime. And, as it just so happened, I was spending a lot of my downtime compulsively checking my email. So it wasn’t very surprising that I immediately noticed when an email from the agent, THE email, appeared in my inbox. I told myself I wasn’t going to open it just then. What if it wasn’t what I wanted to hear? Then again: What if it was? I opened it. I read it fast, skimming it from beginning to end. From the first line, “Thank you for the chance to read . . .” to “Character A, B, and many of the other secondary characters felt underdeveloped to me” to “I’m afraid I never found myself completely invested in the characters and their story” to “I’m not the right agent for this.”

 I texted my mom. After some back and forth, I persuaded her to call me. I took the call out into the hallway. By this point I was crying, and I was like, “Give me an emergency.” I had a mandatory work meeting after my shift, and I needed a way out of it. Or else I was going to spend the whole time openly devastated and crying. Which meant people would inevitably ask what was wrong and I’d cry harder. I was too upset to conjure up my own lie. I needed Mommy to do it for me.

I hung up my phone, walked back into the center with my phone in hand, still crying, and sputtered out one word. “Grandma.”

Suddenly, the meeting wasn’t so mandatory anymore.

I spent the rest of the night curled up in my bed binge watching LOST and crying.

December 8, 2013
I decided to submit a few short stories for publication to various small presses and literary magazines. A woman in my Write Like a Woman creative writing course had done it. She’d gotten published from submitting one of the pieces she’d written for the class. And I thought: Well, if she can do it.

Besides, I figured, I needed to get used to rejection.

I couldn’t cry myself into dehydration every time I got a NO.

I wasn’t ready to submit my novel again. (In fact, I would never submit that particular draft again.) But I could submit other stories. Stories I’d written for class. Stories I’d stored in folders on my computer and forgotten about. Stories that didn’t hurt so much.

December 19, 2013
I published a thing! A short story!

I’d written it for the Write Like a Woman course when I was 19. That was the first time I’d taken the class, as a sophomore, at a 300-level. Now I was taking it again, as a senior, at a 400-level. It amused me that both myself and the other woman from class had both placed pieces from the same assignment. (The assignment was to write a story using only three-word sentences.)

December 22, 2013
I graduated from college with my BA in English Lit.

January 2014
I started rewriting my novel.

March 2014
I finished writing my novel for the second time.

Now it was 72,500 words long. And I was so happy that the previous draft hadn’t been published. The first time I’d typed THE END at the bottom of my manuscript I’d thought, “Is this supposed to be how you feel when you finish a novel?” Because I hadn’t felt finished. It hadn’t been the story I wanted to tell. This was closer.

Now
Thanks to my handy-dandy Agent Hunt spreadsheet, I can tell you that between

September 2014 to November 2015
I submitted to 57 agents. Fifty-seven.

Out of these 57 agents, 10 requested materials.

Out of these 10 requests, 2 were for partials and 8 were for the entire manuscript.

So far, they’ve all been no’s, but none of them have made me cry. Especially not like that first one did. I look at the bright side: agents are requesting to see more; they’re saying they’re interested: in the premise, the sample chapters, the synopsis; they’re saying I’m close.

And it only takes one yes.

Now
I’m rewriting my novel for the ninth? tenth? I lose track of which draft I’m on. With every draft, my manuscript feels more like a book. I’m probably more than halfway through my current rewrite. Maybe two-thirds. I think a total of one scene from the original manuscript survived—the one I queried for back in November of 2013. Between the draft I’m working on right now and the draft before it, I kept something like half of the words.

My current word count is 89,810.

Writing a novel is nothing like I thought it would be. And it’s nothing like I thought it was the first time I “finished.” Hell, maybe it’s nothing like I think it is.

It’s always changing. I’m always changing it.

Sometimes I think it’s as much of a work-in-progress as I am.

On the Corner of Main and Kelly Street

“Do you really hate me that much?” my co-waiter asked me. I didn’t hate him. I was a little afraid of him, sure, but I was afraid of everyone at fifteen. Whenever possible, I wore sunglasses that hid half of my face. I had the problem of wanting to be noticed, but not wanting to be recognized; I could never figure out what to do with attention once I had it. Had sunglasses been at all appropriate in the small, dim-lit restaurant, maybe I could have passed for someone who had her shit together. Someone who hadn’t shown up to the second shift of her first ever job already on the brink of tears.

I didn’t want to be a waitress.

I’d agreed to a job at the Uptown Café under the impression that I’d be back in the kitchen scrubbing dishes like a modern Cinderella. Instead, upon my arrival, a grandmotherly woman named Mary told me, “Girls don’t do dishes” and handed me a black apron that I donned with reluctance.

“Is this your first day?” my co-waiter asked me next. (Girls couldn’t do dishes, but apparently this guy was allowed to wait tables.) He had a name: Hunter. He also had a beard. And giant holes in his ears. He was a self-described human pincushion.

“Second day,” I corrected him as I secured my apron around my waist.

“Gotcha. Who trained you?”

“CC.” Oh, CC! She was a middle-aged woman with a southern accent and a penchant for tanning beds and bleaching her hair. I was honestly relieved that she wasn’t here tonight.

Unsurprisingly, Hunter told me to forget everything she’d taught me.

“You mean I shouldn’t sit on men’s laps when I take their orders?”

I laughed so I wouldn’t cry instead.

***

My parents did their best to reassure me. They said it would be good experience. My dad said, “Nobody expects you to know anything about anything. You’re new!” And when I worried about how long I could use that excuse for, he told me, “At least six months.”

They expected that this job would teach me something: responsibility, work ethic, confidence. Or, at the very least, the worth of my time: $3.50 an hour. Plus tips!

That might’ve been so if all I ever worked were lunch shifts. Or if my life were a Sarah Dessen novel.

Lunch shifts usually involved four older men who sat at the counter and talked to me with a paternal sort of affection. They enjoyed telling me what a bustling town Charles City used to be—before the tractor plant closed, before the half-mile wide F5 tornado of ’68 tore through. As I fetched them coffee, they gently teased me about boys. One of them once told me, “Now boyfriends—those are always catastrophic.” I smiled like I knew what he meant.

I had no idea what he meant. I’d technically had—and then not had—one boyfriend at that point in my young life. Our relationship mostly consisted of awkward lunches in the middle school cafeteria, group dates to the movie theatre, and a boy-girl birthday party in which we were peer-pressured into a closet together. We made out for approximately one of the obligatory seven minutes. It was my first kiss. I brushed my teeth half a dozen times when I got home, desperate to exorcise the memory of his tongue inside my mouth.

I hadn’t liked having a boyfriend. I didn’t even really like the idea of having a boyfriend. Mostly, I wanted to be liked. I wanted reassurance that I was capable, and interesting, and smart, and cool, and pretty, especially because I wasn’t sure I was any of those things.

The Uptown Café made me even less sure. Mary—the very same woman who told me girls don’t do dishes—called me spoiled for not having to do chores at home. Jeff, the owner, scolded me for answering the question, “How are you?” with an, “Oh, pretty good. A little tired though,” and encouraged me to smile more.

I wasn’t good at that.

A) Smiling felt physically awkward to me. Like, not only was my mouth too small for my face, but I also had too many teeth for my mouth. Or something.

B) I wore my heart on my sleeve, and my feelings all over my face.

Every time a new customer walked through the front door, I had to swallow my fear. I’d silently plea that they not sit down at the counter. Then, when they took a seat at one of the eight booths, I’d have to conjure up enough bravado to actually wait on them and not succumb to the very strong urge to A) duck behind the counter and hide or B) stare intently at my order pad during the entire interaction, pretending that if I couldn’t see them they couldn’t see me.

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My dad tried to assure me that people didn’t think of me half as much as I believed they did.

But then one of my favorite lunch shift regulars came in with his wife, and she exclaimed, “Oh! I used to be a skinny thing like you,” and nudged her husband. “Don’t you remember when I used to be a skinny little thing like her?”

And there was my less-than-favorite regular, peg leg Jim, who, if his wife wasn’t present, greeted me with his favorite refrain: “I thought I told you to wait in my truck!”

There was the friend of my boss, a fellow business owner, who told me, “You’re pretty, but if you gained ten pounds, you’d be gorgeous.”

My co-waitress Brittany, who put her hand lightly on my back and exclaimed, “My god! Your shoulder blades are like half-formed wings.”

And come summer, an anonymous older woman, who complained to my boss that my shorts were too short. I spent the rest of the season wearing Bermudas.

I felt ugly, and because I knew I wore my feelings all over my face, I was sure I looked it.

Fortunately, I managed to find some solace after the lunch rush, during the dead of the afternoon. The place would empty out, Mary might come in to bake pies, and the dishwasher and the cook would go outside to smoke cigarettes, or upstairs to smoke pot. Finally, I could worry about what I needed to do without worrying about how I looked doing it. I’d prepare salads by tearing lettuce, peeling carrots, chopping red onion, and mixing dressings; refill ketchup and mustard bottles; and roll all of the silverware. I’d fill a bucket with hot, soapy water and heave it from booth to booth, wiping down the burgundy upholstery and tabletops, followed by the counter and barstools.

I’d finally relax, let go of the breath I’d been holding.

And then the bell attached to the front door would chime. Or I’d catch a glance of my reflection in the mirror on the wall as I cleaned it: the smattering of acne on my forehead, baby hairs that refused to be slicked back into the rest of my ponytail, my smudgy eyeliner applied too thick.

I’d hear my dad’s voice in my head: You’re your own worst critic.

It didn’t help much. I wanted to be invisible more than I wanted to be beautiful.

One weeknight, after the dinner rush, I got stuck with bathroom duty. (A task Mary surely would’ve deemed “a boy’s job.”) There were only three of us clocked in, and I was the only waitress. Besides me, there was Sean, the dishwasher, and Seth, the cook. Seth handed me a bucket of soapy water, a spray bottle of disinfectant, and a rag.

Part of me was disgusted—while Jeff was a stickler for clean countertops, he apparently cared less about bathroom maintenance—but part of me was just grateful not to be dealing with people.

Sean appeared in the doorway after a while with a smug look on his face, while I crouched on the dirty tile floor next to a urine-splattered urinal. “What?” I asked him. He shook his head and crossed his arms over his chest. “Nothing,” he replied. “You know, if you’re not doing anything, you could help,” I told him. “I don’t even use this bathroom.”

He made up some excuse about how his dishes were soaking.

“Are you really just going to stand there and watch me?” I asked him. He looked highly amused. He also looked high. Seth and he both did, with their beanies pulled over their stringy hair, and the way they walked around with the whites of their eyes all red, and their eyelids half shut.

“Yeah, sure, I’ll help,” said Sean. He slid his hand underneath the waistband of his boxers, riding up behind the edge of his baggy jeans.

I stood up and took a step back as he pulled out a small, painful handful of pubic hair.

“Fuck!” he exclaimed. His eyes watered and his face reddened. His lips formed a sort of hybrid expression between a smile and a grimace, and the sound that escaped his mouth came out as a cross between a laugh and a scream.

“What the hell did you just do?!” I said. Although maybe I should’ve asked what the hell he was on.

He sprinkled his pubic hairs over the urinal I’d just been cleaning.

“Thanks, man,” I told him, with narrowed eyes and disbelief. “That’s a big help.”

I held out the rag to him. “I am NOT cleaning THAT up.”

It was bad enough when the stains I was scrubbing out were anonymous stains.

When he didn’t take the rag, I threw it at him.

Then Seth appeared in the doorway, unaware of the goings-on. “Shit,” he said. “Customers just walked in. Anika, I need you to go take their orders.”

I probably should’ve felt saved by the chime of the front door bell, by the nice old couple settling into a booth, unwinding scarves from their necks. Instead, I crossed my arms over my chest. “I’m sorry,” I told Seth. “Somebody told me I’m in charge of cleaning bathrooms. And I’m not done yet. My order pad is on the counter. You can do it. Or make him do it.”

I really did hate waitressing that much.

The Hostess with the Mostess

When I was a teenager, my mother used to chide me for being a terrible hostess. I had a “this isn’t even my house” and “my friends know where the fridge is” mentality. Now that I am a little more grown-up and live in what has been lovingly referred to as a murder-apartment, I like to think I’m more accommodating. Like, I’ll offer my guests a drink if I’m getting myself a drink: “I’m going to grab a beer. Do you want a beer?” Or I’ll get up and get myself a beer, resume my seat and whatever conversation I was having, take a sip of my beverage, and then say, “Oh, do you want one of these? I can get you one.”

That’s pretty much it.

I think it has a lot less to do with me being a thoughtless friend and a lot more to do with me being a really subpar adult.

When my friend Holly came to stay with me for a few days last month, I all but took off work and picked her up from the airport. That is to say, I gave her my full address and my boyfriend’s phone number, instructed her to take public transit and to call him if something went awry, described my apartment (pale pink, sketchy smokers’ porch) and the surrounding area (across the street from a halfway house, a plant nursery, and a brewery), and taped a cat key to the bottom of the welcome mat outside my door.

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sketchy smokers’ porch

That Thursday night, we ate bagels for dinner because that’s what I was eating for dinner that week. Actually, I might have been alternating between bagels and Honey Bunches of Oats. Because I have no car and rely on public transit, I go grocery shopping approximately once a week and buy only what can fit into one reusable bag. Sometimes this means sacrificing almond milk for whiskey, or avocados for gelato, or anything vaguely nutritious for Hot Pockets and wine.

On Friday, I enlisted the boyfriend to entertain Holly while I worked. No matter that the day before she had asked me to remind her of his name and that it was essentially a blind friend-date. It ended up a success from what I could tell; she got Instagram photos at the Troll, a BLT from a gourmet burger joint, and a sparkle frog tattoo at the zoo.

He’s a tough act to follow, my boyfriend.

But, as I did when my friend Christine visited, I asked myself, “When in Seattle, where do you take a ______?” Christine was many things well suited to the city: environmentally conscious, a musician, a vegan, a yogi.

Of course, Holly isn’t Christine.

Holly is a beautiful stoner.

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So we ventured over to the pot shop around the corner on a street that—I shit you not—is named Stone Way. A brown Labrador and a cheery white-haired woman greeted us inside the door and asked for our IDs. The nametag pinned to her vest read MOM. Once she verified that we were over the age of 21, she encouraged us to check out all the goods filling up the glass cases and shelves. We were particularly drawn to the pre-rolled joints and the edibles. Before we made any final decisions, though, we decided that we needed other provisions: wine and snacks.

As Holly put it, “We’re going to get the munchies, and we’re going to need something besides bagels.”

She wasn’t wrong. I’ve seen enough housewives on TV—from Kitty Forman to Betty Draper—to know that first and foremost a good hostess keeps snacks in her arsenal. Of course, I don’t keep snack foods in the house. Hell, I barely keep food in the house. Occasionally I have chocolate, but never chips. Usually I have macaroni and cheese, but seldom is there even a pizza in the freezer.

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The other day my boyfriend turned to me and said, “I can’t believe you’ve never cooked for me.” It’s true. I’ve never cooked for him, ever.

“That’s only because I barely cook for myself,” I told him. Then, I added, “Do you want a Soylent?” because meal replacement drinks and food bars now constitute about one-fourth of my diet. He (not so politely) declined, which is fair considering that I’ve gotten pasta from scratch and homemade pesto out of him.

Anyway, Holly and I made a trip over to PCC, which is the grocery store nearest me and made up of 100% overpriced temptation. We walked away with microwavable mac & cheese, a take-and-bake supreme pizza, a small quiche, and a bottle of pink wine. After, we returned to the pot shop, where we purchased a pre-rolled joint to share, caramels, and chocolate bars.

We then proceeded to get high on legal marijuana out on my sketchy smokers’ porch while my oven preheated. It wasn’t until after the pizza was out of the oven, resting on a potholder, that I realized I don’t own a pizza cutter. I do, however, own a plethora of large knives. We improvised.

Instead of coloring in our coloring books as planned, we ate pizza standing up and had giggling fit in my kitchen over I don’t know what. Then we opened the bottle of wine and drank it out of mugs even though wine glasses are one thing I do not have a shortage of. We curled up on my couch and drank and talked and everything and nothing. We didn’t even turn the TV on.

Saturday morning, we wake ‘n’ baked. It was Holly’s 25th birthday, and I had a tentative plan for the day. We bussed downtown to the Space Needle just to visit the gift shop because I appreciate few things as much as tacky souvenirs. (And I really detest paying for a view that doesn’t even have the needle in it.) Holly gravitated towards a fudge vendor, mumbling about how she needed to get herself some birthday fudge. Hearing this, the curly-haired woman at the counter insisted that birthday fudge was free fudge, at least when she was working.

Next, we moseyed over to the Pacific Science Center to get tickets for The Art of the Brick exhibit: a collection of LEGO art. At the window, we also inquired about laser shows and forked over the $3 extra to go to the Laser 90s matinee. We showed up fifteen minutes early as recommended. While we waited for the doors to the laser dome to open, Holly and I wandered around the gift shop; I ate half a pot chocolate bar while looking at a surprising amount of cat and Saturn-related paraphernalia.

Inside the dome, we lay down on the floor instead of taking seats in the theatre chairs. I’d done the same just a week before, only that show had been the grand finale to a Friday night happy hour event. And as brilliant and mesmerizing as it had been, I’d wished I had edibles instead of alcohol. And what do you know? Wishes do come true.

It’s funny—for the longest time, I never got the point of pot. I never could stand comedies like Pineapple Express and Harold & Kumar. When I was dragged to a Hemp Fest back in 2014, I lamented that the fight to legalize marijuana was my generation’s prohibition; alcohol is so much more romantic to me than cannabis. Personally, I blame the Fitzgeralds. I would have so much rather have been hiding out in speakeasies.

But! I once read in an article (from a source I can’t recall and may very well never find again and whose content I’m probably misremembering) that the real issue with pot isn’t that it makes people tired and lazy. It’s that it makes us content. Because, you know, god forbid, America.

About halfway through the Laser 90s show Hit Me Baby One More Time started playing along with the laser imagery. As I lay on the hard floor of the laser dome with my childhood best friend—a girl who could remember the me that dressed almost exclusively in white tank tops; a girl who could remember when I tilted my head to one side in every photograph taken of me; a girl who could probably remember the Britney Spears poster I was imitating that came out of the CD-album in creased quadrants and hung on my wall—I was content.
I grabbed Holly’s hand and squeezed.

Rumor Has It

Rumor has it that I was laughing at the scene of the accident. I’m not sure what I supposedly thought was so funny about crashing my car. I’d plowed into the car ahead of me going approximately thirty-five miles per hour. Before we hit, I was fumbling for the phone buzzing inside the front pocket of the small brown backpack in my lap (stupid, stupid!). My best friend screamed my name from the passenger seat, but I heard her too late; the front of my Corolla was already ramming into their back fender, my bumper crunching against their license plate.

I opened my eyes to see my deployed airbag exhaling smoke. I hadn’t expected that being punched in the chest by an airbag would hurt so much. I also hadn’t expected it to be a sickly yellow color. Hadn’t expected to see a rich, red smear across it. I checked my face out in my rearview mirror—the only unbroken glass in sight—to find where the blood was coming from. It had to be my nose. By the feel of it, the sharp ache, I was sure my nose was broken. But my nose wasn’t crooked, bent, or bleeding.

It was just my nose.

My face was still my face.

And the blood on the airbag wasn’t blood at all—just my red lipstick.

My windshield was broken, splintered across my vision, and on my passenger side—Christine’s side—the glass was bowing out in the shape of a head. She was sobbing and talking with her phone pressed to her ear. I heard her choke out the words, “car” and “accident” and “I’m alive” before I could doubt that she wasn’t.

I found my own cellphone sharing the driver’s seat with me and picked it up.

“Hello?” Christopher. I’d known Before that he was calling without seeing his name on the screen, and I knew what we would’ve said when I answered. He was going to ask me how far away I was, and I was going to tell him I didn’t know, but I would’ve guessed not too far. Then he would’ve told me where to turn even though I was following a line of cars all going to the same place: Sunnyside Memory Gardens, Charles City.

But I guess I’d answered him at some point—Before, During, After, I couldn’t say—and then quite literally dropped the call. “I crashed my car,” I told him, “I’m not going to make it to the burial,” and hung up.

Just one week before, Chris had called to tell me Sydney was dead.

Now I was calling my parents to tell them that I wasn’t.

I got ahold of my mom first, letting her know that we were okay and where we were. We were on the road between Kmart and Kwik Star, where I used to cashier in high school and where I used to buy cheese sticks and marinara sauce after my shifts. It would’ve been hard to miss us—three cars unmoving in the left-most lane on the highway out of town. Three cars, because the car I hit had hit the car in front of it.

Strangers kept rushing my car, stopping at my driver’s side window—first a woman who’d watched the wreck happen, already on the phone with 9-1-1, and then the EMT who asked me whether I’d lost consciousness, whether my head hurt. I told him no; I’d lost seconds, not minutes; and I wasn’t about to let him put me in a neck brace, or onto a stretcher and into an ambulance to the hospital two blocks away. He told us to sit tight and stay in the car.

A couple of girls from the car in front of us came around to ask whether we were okay. We said we were, and I asked about everyone else. Something about whiplash. Something about a bloody nose. Nothing serious. The girl with short, red hair muttered, “Great, now we’re all going to miss the burial.”

As if the greatest inconvenience was that none of us had died.

As if we weren’t all headed to the same place.

I don’t know how well those girls knew Sydney. Maybe they were close friends. Maybe mere acquaintances. Sydney and I shared the same last name, but we weren’t related. I only remember meeting her twice. The first time was at the Cedar Ridge golf course; I was there with Chris, who was my boyfriend at the time; she was there with her mom. She’d persuaded her mother to let her drive me around the course in a golf cart. None of us were golfing. Half of us were drinking. Sydney drove the two of us, slow and cautious at first, then wildly once we were out of sight.

“Don’t tell my mom, okay?” she said.

And I probably said something like, “As long as you don’t tell my boyfriend on me.”

She was a skinny thing, her legs nearly the same thinness from calf to thigh. She talked fast and emphatically. Her blonde hair whipped across her face as we sped around curves. Sydney was almost a teenager, but she had the fearless energy of a child; I got the impression that she wouldn’t stop until she crashed. Inside the golf club, Sydney spied a karaoke set-up and grabbed a microphone and a barstool. We were the only ones there. She sat down and sang Carrie Underwood’s Before He Cheats, pronouncing the “s” in Louisville every time the lyrics, “I took a Louisville slugger to both headlights” lit up on a screen. I listened to her sing over the talk of the adults.

I was a teenager, too—closer to her age than Chris’s.

I didn’t know she was sick, didn’t even guess it, until Chris told me. Sydney had CF, lungs that sucked at being lungs. Her mom wasn’t just your average overprotective mother who didn’t want her daughter driving too fast. She didn’t want Sydney living too fast.

The last time I remember seeing Sydney was at her house. Christine was in town, and Chris had asked if we were interested in playing board games at Sydney’s. We played Yahtzee at her dining room table, a game I’d only ever played at my great grandmother’s assisted living facility before she passed away at age 96. Sydney was still a fast-talker, and the entire time she talked a big game, sacrificing air for words while she sat across from us in her wheelchair.

Eventually, the EMT gave us permission to exit my vehicle. Christine and I clutched onto each other in the middle of the street, thanking a god neither of us was sure she believed in. A police officer wrote me a citation for “following too closely” which is basically the definition of a funeral procession, and my mother arrived on the scene. She asked us several times, “Are you sure neither of you needs to go to the hospital?”

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We were sure, even as we watched as most of the kids from the other cars—including the girls who had walked over to ask us whether we were okay—were loaded onto stretchers and filed away into ambulances. We were still there after the emergency vehicles had left. I watched as somebody got into the driver’s seat to the car in front of mine and drove it away.

My car wouldn’t drive. Later that day, my Corolla would be declared totaled, and I’d have to take out all of my belongings. Fortunately, I didn’t keep much in my car: a CD case, my GPS. What took the longest was disentangling the car ornament I’d hung around my rearview mirror from the lucky rabbit’s foot that also hung there. The ornament was a gift from my church confirmation class, and it read, “Never drive faster than your guardian angel can fly.” The lucky rabbit’s foot was a souvenir from the road trip Christine and I took after high school graduation. It was purple when I bought it but had since faded to a grayish white.

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“A lot of good that rabbit’s foot did you,” my mom teased me later.

“A lot of good Jesus did me,” I teased back.

“Well, you’re alive, aren’t you?”

“Could’ve been that rabbit’s foot,” I told her.

Christine drove herself home to Allison shortly After our accident and visited her chiropractor. Only a couple of hours later, my dad and I were on the road to Allison as well. He had a game plan; it involved not lying, but omitting the truth from my grandma about why I needed to borrow her car. On the way there, I checked out my reflection in the mirror. Did I look like a girl who’d just been in a car accident? I wasn’t bruised or bloodied, just tired and sore. My nose had swelled, but Dad said he only noticed it because I’d mentioned it. I let him do all the talking at Grandma’s, and then I anxiously drove her ’92 Dodge Spirit the thirty miles back to Charles City.

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A few hours later, Christine drove the same stretch of highway back to my house to spend the night. She’d be headed back to Boston for school soon, and it was my last night in town. We’d been taking photos all summer to commemorate our hangouts. The morning I’d gotten the call about Sydney, Christine was on her way to my apartment in Ames; we went to the Iowa State Fair, and both of us posted an entire album containing photos taken that day.

The morning Before the accident, Christine had taken a picture of us in my not-yet-crashed car; in it, she’s smiling an exaggerated smile at the camera, and I’m giving her a sideways glance and smirking. We have no idea what’s coming.

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The evening After, Christine drove us just outside of Charles City to an abandoned farmhouse, where I pretended to be Iowa’s Next Top Model. She took pictures of me as I posed in this ridiculous, brown and green plaid dress she owned. There are photos of me lying next to a pile of chopped wood, peering into a broken window at the side of a barn, standing between rows of corn much taller than I am, and jumping off a large rock in front of an old, wiry windmill.

We laughed a lot then, and I swear it was the first time all day.

The next morning, anxiety rode shotgun as I drove the two hours back to my college town for my shift at Little Caesars. It never crossed my mind to call in, to tell my boss, “Hey, I was in a car accident, and I’m not going to make it in tomorrow.” I would’ve even had the proof to get out of work. My mom saved me a clipping of the newspaper article. The headline in the Charles City Press read something like, “3-car, multiple-person injury accident” complete with a photo that made it all look much worse than it was. Only in such a small town would an accident so minor be considered newsworthy.

I waited to tell my boss when I got there, and he promised not to have me lift anything too heavy.

After all, most of all, I was anxious to get back to my life.