Peachy Keen Pork n’ Beans

August 2017, I am 25
This time, it begins with Peach Rings. I find them in the candy drawer, which on an average day is full of cast-off heart-shaped boxes from Valentine’s Day, protein bars coated in chocolate, and fruit-flavored energy chews. Occasionally a bag of Reese’s peanut butter cups will take up residence in the drawer, but generally the candy drawer isn’t so much a place you go to get candy to eat, but a place you go when you’re desperate enough to eat the candy that lives there. Finding a tub of peachy goodness means this is no average day!

So I’m reading a book while happily munching away, licking the sweet grit of sugar, chewing the peachy ring. I’ve probably eaten half a dozen rings before I pick up the container lid, a long list of ingredients affixed on top. I begin to read them, another Peach Ring already pressed to my tongue.

The first line of ingredients is innocent enough: Glucose Syrup, Sugar, Dextrose. Basically: sugar, sugar, and more sugar. Then the second line begins: Pork Gelatin. Not simply Gelatin, but Pork Gelatin.

I immediately remove the Peach Ring from my mouth, return it to the container, and close the lid.

Now, isn’t like I didn’t already know what gelatin is. It’s one of those quintessential gross-out facts of life that kids love to be the first to share with other kids.

gelatin. (jěl’ə-tn) An odorless, colorless protein substance obtained by boiling a mixture of water and the skin, bones, and tendons of animals. The preparation forms a gel when allowed to cool. It is used in foods, drugs, glue, and film.

I used to love being the one to break the news at family gatherings: “Do you know what Jell-O is made from?” I’d ask my cousins. They would lean forward, anxiously awaiting the answer, because of course they didn’t know. And I’d deliver the news: “Crushed up bones and hooves!” Their eyes would widen with fascination just before their expressions collapsed with disgust: “Ew!”

And our parents would chide us, “Not at the dinner table!”

Girl Scout Camp 2003, I am 11
I’m at Girl Scout Camp with my friends Wendi and Bre. More specifically, we’re at bike camp. At this point we’ve left Camp Tanglefoot in Clear Lake, Iowa, and now we’re at a public campground somewhere in Minnesota. I’ve been calling myself a vegetarian for the past couple of months. At school, I’d been opting for the salad bar instead of taking hot lunches even though I find salads boring. My mother is concerned about my protein intake, and the salad bar includes eggs and nuts because the school isn’t a nut-free institution (yet). At home, I’d been eating a lot of Boca “chicken” patties.

Girl Scout Camp has neither a salad bar nor any Boca burgers. Vegetarian options aren’t a thing. When I announce to our camp counselors over the picnic spread of meat, meat, and more meat that I am a vegetarian, they exchanged an “Oh, fuck” look. We’re having Hamburger Helper. “Can you pick out the meat and eat the noodles?”

“I guess,” I tell them. There’s a lot of meat, and since it’s ground beef, it crumbles, tiny specks dotting each piece of pasta. It’s virtually impossible to actually pick all of it out. But I try. I make a pile off to the side of my plate.

Wendi glares at my dinner, clearly annoyed. “Not eating it doesn’t change that it died, and now you’re just wasting it,” she complains.

She doesn’t get it.

The problem is, I don’t really get it either. I’m a sensitive kid, and eating meat feels . . . wrong, somehow. But the way Wendi puts it, not-eating it feels wrong, too. I can’t win.

An older girl watches me pick at my food and asks me, “Do you eat marshmallows? Because vegetarians don’t eat marshmallows.”

“Why not?”

“Well, marshmallows are made from gelatin, and gelatin is made from . . .”

I sing with the other girls at the campfire that night, but I don’t roast any marshmallows.

***

A couple mornings later, though, I wake up famished from the combination of biking for hours each day and under-eating. At breakfast, I usher several strips of crispy bacon onto my plate. I’m halfway through a strip when one of my counselors notices and says, “Aren’t you a vegetarian? What are you doing?” And I tell her: “I need protein,” and shrug.

October 2016, I am 24
My boyfriend and I are at his college friend Rachel’s wedding in Portland, and I love Portland. It’s a cute venue, with lots of wood and fairy lights. I spend a lot of time admiring the venue, because everyone else knows each other from college and maybe haven’t seen each other since, so as soon as obligatory introductions are over, it’s all catching up and inside jokes. A few names stick, but mostly I have no idea who’s who.

Except there is one girl I absolutely know who she is. Because even though I don’t have Facebook anymore, I’ve Facebook stalked her. She’s Boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend, and she flew in all the way from Germany for the wedding. I’m prepared to be intimidated.

I don’t meet her until later. Until after the ceremony, adorably officiated by the bride’s grandmother; after the chairs and tables have been rearranged for dinner; after the pre-dinner drinks; after we’ve all been through the dinner line, which has both a meat and vegetarian option. I finally meet her when we’re about halfway through our meals.

There’s a vegetarian option on the plate in front of her, and a glass of wine in her hand. She says, “I might have to go and get some chicken.”

And someone else at her table says, “Aren’t you a vegetarian?”

“Yeah,” she replies. “But I’m like the worst vegetarian ever.” She recounts a story where she once covered her face in slices of salami and then ate them off in front of someone who asked about her vegetarianism. Someone at the table probably laughs; I don’t.

I have two good friends who are vegetarian; one of them lives in Iowa, the other in Nashville. They won’t even eat chicken broth.

Boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend downs some more wine, and then she stands up. “It’s happening,” she announces. A minute later, she comes back to the table with a plate of chicken. And it’s not just chicken. It’s like, chicken-stuffed-quail or something. A bird stuffed inside of another bird. It’s aggressively non-vegetarian.

I watch her eat the whole thing.

September 2017, I am 25
I strongly consider omitting meat from my diet.

When I visit my best friend Christine—a vegetarian who eats a mostly vegan diet—I eat meat only twice in the week that I’m there: I get pho with beef in New Orleans, and I consume a small package of alligator sticks. I also try two vegan restaurants: one in Nashville, and one in New Orleans.

Back in Seattle, I begin watching videos.

First, I watch a YouTube video about the production of gelatin candy that “tells the reversed story of how gelatine candy is actually produced. Starting from wrapped candy, going all the way back to the living pig.”

Pork Gelatin.

Then I start on documentaries available on Netflix: Fed Up, What the Health, Food, INC., In Defense of Food, and Food Choices, which assure me that protein deficiencies aren’t anything but a common myth.

At this point, the meat on my plate looks less like food and more like a dead animal carcass, which, of course, is exactly what it is.

Early November 2014, I am 22
I buy raw meat for the first time since moving to the Pacific Northwest. Now that I have my own studio apartment, I’m ready to try cooking that isn’t just boiling water for pasta and instant mashed potatoes. I have a recipe for pumpkin turkey chili, and I also have the leanest possible ground turkey I could find. I don’t care that it cost more.

The meat inside of the package doesn’t look like anything that ever lived, but that doesn’t stop me from apologizing to it the entire time it sizzles, browning in my skillet.

September 2017, I am 25
I go out for conveyer belt sushi with Boyfriend, and I eat several rolls and a few slices of seared tuna. It’s decadent and delicious, not gross at all. I think: Maybe I could be a pescatarian.

 I join my friend Emily and her parents for a little vacation to Crater Lake. I let her know ahead of time I’m eating a mostly vegetarian diet. Her sister is vegetarian, and she was vegetarian in college, so it’s no big deal. They get it. They’re wonderfully accommodating. When we go grocery shopping for food to bring to the cabin, we don’t purchase any meat. Instead, we pick out sweet potatoes and grind our own peanut butter and fill up a bulk bag with chocolate-covered raisins.

The few times we dine out I have limited options. I consider fish, but I get the veggie burger instead. Emily’s mom orders the rainbow trout I thought about, and it comes out with its head on the platter. I think: Maybe not.

October 2017, I am still 25
I read Jonathan Safran-Foer’s book, Eating Animals followed by Ruth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats. I now know too many things that I can’t un-know about the food industry.

 I begin to cook a lot, primarily using recipes from the blog, Chocolate Covered Katie. None of her recipes call for meat, and as she states on her FAQs page, “this blog can be suitable for vegans as long as you choose nondairy options for ingredients such as milk of choice.”

I already use almond milk for almost everything that calls for milk (and the almost is just there to qualify the times I use coconut milk instead). I still use dairy cheese, but only because I tried Daiya vegan cheese, and it tastes like evil if evil had a taste.

I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, so I go for her “Healthy Meal Ideas” category.

So far I’ve made:
Yellow Curry Thai (although I add a mango’s worth of mango)
Pizza Quinoa Burgers
White Enchiladas – with Lightened Up Sour Cream Sauce
Cheesy Mexican Black Bean Quinoa Casserole
Creamy Broccoli Garlic Pasta
Sweet Potato Burgers
Panda Express Orange Sauce with Cauliflower Chicken Nuggets
Fall’s Favorite Curry
Sweet Potato Chili

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Cauliflower is my favorite veggie.

Every single one of the recipes turns out not only edible, but also good. To hell with salad bars and Boca burgers! I don’t eat any meat, including broth and gelatin, the entire month of October. Even though I didn’t eat much meat to begin with, I realize I was eating a lot more of it than I realized. My digestive system gets a little upset. I get a little hungrier. I lose a little weight, even though I admittedly don’t have much weight to lose.

And it feels . . . right. I feel better. Healthier. Stronger.

Who thought the month of Halloween would be the month I’d discover that I don’t need to feast on the flesh of once-living creatures to become strong and powerful?

Now it’s November 1, 2017

I haven’t been able to call myself a vegetarian yet.

Again.

But I guess that’s what this is.

What I am.

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Find What Feels Good

Whenever I break up with someone or get dumped, I like to make a list of all the nice things I got out of the relationship. The lists include tangible objects like ceramic mugs, books, and jewelry, but I also count introductions to people, places, and things. For example, in college I briefly dated a guy named Michael who bought me my first Chuck Palaniuk book and introduced me to National Novel Writing Month, Hyperbole and a Half, and Fruit Ninja; each of these items made his list.

I already know what the first two items on my best friend’s list would be even though I hope I’ll never have to write one for her. (And by that I mean I hope I die first.) The first item on this list—that technically does not exist—is almond milk. When I lived in a house with six other people, there were always several containers of milk in the fridge, and I figured at least one of them had to be considered communal; I only need two tablespoons here, half a cup there. So when I moved into my studio apartment, I added milk to my list. First I bought a gallon, then a half-gallon, then an eight-ounce carton, but no matter the size of the container I never finished it off before it went bad.

As an adult, I hate dairy milk as much as I did as a child when I would just as soon eat Oreos held under a sink faucet as dunked in a glass of milk. The cartons of mandated milk placed on my school lunch tray went unopened and into the trashcan. I even lied to my friend Sarah’s mom insisting, “I can’t drink milk! I’m allergic.” Which is how I discovered that I hate soymilk as well.

So when Christine told me, “You should try almond milk!” I was skeptical. But now it’s all I use: when cooking, in cereal, by itself in a glass! And because her endorsement of almond milk turned out to be life changing, I readily accepted her next recommendation: YouTube’s Yoga with Adriene. It helped that I already owned a yoga mat I’d bought for $5 at a Menards. I didn’t hesitate; I put on my XL child’s size sports bra and my Ravenclaw leggings and hopped on my purple mat. I took an instant liking to Adriene with her sweet but subtle Texan accent, her humor and energy, and especially her find what feels good approach to yoga and life.

It felt serendipitous when Yoga with Adriene’s Find What Feels Good Roadshow 2015 coincided with Christine’s planned trip to visit me in Seattle. Christine booked our tickets immediately, and I happily worked the event into the itinerary I was composing. I couldn’t wait! Christine had never been to Seattle before—not even the Pacific Northwest, and I was eager to show off my new life, especially because my best Seattle friend and I had recently signed a lease for a dumpy but adorable apartment in my favorite Seattle neighborhood; I’d honestly been worried that it was a Craigslist scam: no application fee, no pet deposit, no pet rent. But on October 1st, our new landlord handed over our keys, and we moved in with our two black cats and immediately began decorating for Halloween.

I’d also started seeing a guy who fancied himself to be a musician, and because Christine’s a rockstar, I was looking forward to introducing the two of them. Seeing this Josh guy had even inspired me to write a song for the first time since eighth grade (lyrics, not music, because I can’t even read music). I had it in my head that the two of them would jam and maybe we could even set my song to music! Everything was possible!

And then . . .

A week before Christine was supposed to visit, my grandma died; I flew home to Iowa for the funeral, where I delivered the eulogy I wrote. While home, I paper-wrapped her collection of teacups, skimmed the pages of her journals, and flipped through photo albums. I packed a few keepsakes to bring home with me—a stained glass DeGrazia angel, a framed art portrait of a girl reading, and a photograph of my grandmother as a little girl on a farm, her arms overflowing with kittens.

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Christine still visited as planned, and I was still excited to see her—how could I not be excited to see my best friend?—but since returning to Seattle, I felt generally horrible. And when I didn’t feel horrible, I felt numb. Not numb like from Novocaine, when the numbness itself is a sensation, but numb like from shock, when you feel fine-just-fine even though you’re pretty sure you should be dead right now. Numb like when your body is lying to you so as to protect you from feeling the extent of your injuries.

I tried my best to shelve my grief.

Christine and I ate Caribbean sandwiches at Paseo, took pictures at the Fremont Troll, and toured the Underworld downtown. We shopped at Pike Place Market and browsed the Fremont Vintage Mall, where I purchased a pipe to complete Josh’s Halloween costume for my roommate L’s mom’s Halloween party. He was going as F. Scott Fitzgerald—even though he hadn’t yet finished reading the copy of The Great Gatsby I’d lent him—and I was going as Zelda. It was a dubious couples costume choice, considering F. Scott notoriously plagiarized Zelda’s writing and her life and then had her thrown in an insane asylum.

At L’s Mom’s Halloween party, I proceeded to get very drunk. It was exactly the thing you might expect a Prohibition Era flapper girl to do. Well, maybe not exactly—there were Jell-O shots involved. And Twister.

 

I drank to stay in character and because of the free-flowing availability of booze, but also because I was grieving and harboring hurt feelings. I wanted to be a girl at a party with her best friends and the guy she liked. A guy who’d read a book because she liked it and he liked her and who’d dressed up as its author to impress her. Instead, I was the girl at the party drinking to sanitize her inner wounds and my date was a boy who couldn’t have been dressed as a brighter, redder flag if he’d tried.

Drinking made me feel good–lively and effervescent–until it made me feel ill.

The morning after, I woke up with a sour stomach and a foggy head. Even my skin felt sick. After sleeping it off a little longer, Josh agreed to drive Christine and me to our Yoga with Adriene event, so I put my hair into a bun and pulled on my yoga pants. I felt and looked like hell, but there’s anonymity in city life, so I didn’t have to care.

Except Josh was driving. And Josh decided he needed to make a stop at his parents’ house, where he lived, to change out of his disheveled F. Scott clothes. He’d been trying to get me to meet his parents for a while, and I’d been resisting. I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of being anyone’s girlfriend, and the prospect of meeting his parents felt too real to me.

Now Josh insisted: “They’re home, so you can’t just wait out here. That would be rude.”

He guilted me into it.

Since we’d started seeing each other the month before, he’d made me feel weird about a number of things. He informed me that I have terrible taste in music. He opined that my roommate’s indiscretions with her married tattoo artist were immoral and questioned my taste in friends. He criticized my housekeeping skills—“I didn’t know girls could be dirty like that”—and my cat, telling me that Sawyer “could use a good brushing and a bath.” He got tested for STIs at Urgent Care after dropping me off at work one morning. Later, he became convinced one of us had bedbugs and acquired a lotion treatment for scabies from the same clinic.

Josh’s parents were lovely, and I was happy to have Christine with me as a buffer. His mother made us pumpkin pancakes from Trader Joe’s and poured us coffee. I drank it just to look alive. His dad asked me about my job and my writing. Josh had told them a lot about me—all good things. I resented being there anyway.

Christine and I were the last two through the doors of the yoga studio. Josh had not only driven us but had parked and set off to find somewhere to continue reading The Great Gatsby and wait for us. We rolled out our mats and stretched. Within the first few minutes of the two-hour practice, I could feel something shift in me. My emotions took on hard, tangible shapes like jagged blocks: stress in my shoulders, grief in my lungs, anger in my liver, and trauma in my hips.

I cried it all out.

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We even got to meet the famous Adriene!

By the end of class, I felt emotionally and physically exhausted. And when we met back up with Josh, I wasn’t happy to see him. The careless things he’d said were trapped in my head like stuck song lyrics, and I could feel his words rubbing me the wrong way, sharpening my edges. He lingered like a bad headache. To make matters worse, he hadn’t even managed to read a second chapter in the 180-page novel. Then, on the drive back to my apartment, a family friend of Josh’s called, and he put the call on speaker. During their conversation, Josh referred to me as his girlfriend.

Something stirred in my brain. The same something twisted in my stomach.

My mind and my body were in agreement: I am not your girlfriend.

I repeated it in my head like a mantra.

Then I set it as my intention, meant to serve me off the mat.

The Shrimp Have Eyes

While in Greece for my semester abroad, I signed up for a beach camping trip in Corfu. On the way, I watched out the bus window as signs I couldn’t read flitted past. Foreign words made from a foreign alphabet. The metric system. How many kilometers were in a mile again? The drive there felt excessively long for what was supposed to be two hours. Once we arrived in Corfu, our program facilitators showed us to our cabins. We guffawed; the tiny campers we were to call home for the night were not the cabins we’d anticipated.

So far, there had been a lot to Greece I wasn’t anticipating, and my levels of cognitive dissonance were high. In restaurants, water cost more than retsina (Greek wine); on the streets, cars parked erratically, across streets, sidewalks, and curbs; at the shared apartment in Thessaloniki, I had to flip a switch and wait twenty minutes to heat water for my nightly shower; bathroom stalls included a toilet, a trash bin, and a warning not to flush the toilet paper. Many restrooms didn’t even provide toilet paper–but we got smart fast, and at least one of us carried a roll in her purse to share.

 

Honestly I hadn’t known what to expect of Greece. I’d read and seen The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. As a seven-year-old, I’d wanted to become an archaeologist. But mostly I found myself there because my ex-boyfriend had once suggested we go together.

The beach, at least, was close to what I’d been expecting. Except the water was bluer, maybe even bluest, there were small rocks instead of sand, and kids older than you’d expect ran around without any swimsuits on.

 

I’d only been in Greece about a week, but already I had a pretty solid friend group. Including me, there was nine of us: eight girls, one guy. Not all of us were on the beach trip, but those of us who were all located lounge chairs and lathered our bodies in sunscreen. I ordered a pina colada, paid a ridiculous 10 euros for it, and stretched out on my chair. I had my library copy of Anna Karenina with me, but I didn’t read much.

It didn’t often happen that I got along with a large group of girls.

We were talking books when a girl outside of our friend group—let’s call her Elizabeth—asked me, “What was that one book that everyone has to read in high school, where the guy goes crazy and runs away to New York?”

I stared at her blankly, but Kieran—the sole guy of our friend group—piped up, “Do you mean Catcher in the Rye?”

She did.

“That might be the most succinct summary of Catcher in the Rye I’ve ever heard.” Kieran laughed.

He wasn’t wrong.

Next, we watched Amy and Marianna bumping a volleyball back and forth where there weren’t any chairs or people. They missed the ball more than they hit it, and the ball landed in the camp of half a dozen amused-looking guys. Two of them joined. The rest of us noted how the guy with the blonde ponytail looked like Jesus (white, westernized Jesus, of course), and Kieran added, “I think they’re speaking German over there.” And so the guy with the ponytail quickly became German Jesus. His friend became Boardshorts.

Now I was intrigued—not because I was boy-crazy, but because I’d taken three years of German in high school. I’d also gone out for volleyball in seventh grade—and then quit after a week. I hadn’t touched a volleyball since then, but I had rum mingling with blood in my veins, so I went for it. Because the sand wasn’t sand at all, but loose gravel, I got pretty banged up from all the diving and kneeling.

After volleying for a while, German Jesus held onto the ball, and we all finally made introductions.

German Jesus’s given name was Daniel, and his friend was Simon. When it came my turn to introduce myself, I said, “Ich heisse Anika,” instead of “My name is Anika.” And when German Jesus asked me, “You speak German?” I should’ve said “Ein bisschen,” because I was ninety-nine percent sure that was correct for “A little” auf Deutsch, but I got shy and answered in English.

Marianna twisted her hair around her finger and flirted her way into us all having dinner together that evening, so naturally we chose a place that served an abundance of seafood. I’d grown up landlocked in Iowa, but I loved seafood. My family ate at Red Lobster for special occasions: shrimpfest, lobsterfest, my cousin’s graduation. When we ate at China Buffet, Dad and I finished off our meal by cracking crab legs and seeing who could remove the largest, intact hunks of meat. For Christmas and New Year’s, we bought large frozen cooked shrimp rings with the cocktail sauce in the middle, and I looked forward to finishing it off well before presents and midnight.

So I was really excited when everyone at the table ordered shrimp dishes.

But, like many things in Greece, dinner wasn’t what I’d expected. As a child, whenever my parents bought shrimp rings, I had a hard time imagining what a live shrimp must look like. Crabs and lobsters were more straightforward; they were drawn as cartoon characters and displayed in tanks by the hostess’s station at restaurants. Now I didn’t have to imagine; the shrimp lay on my plate, slathered in a rich, red sauce, with their legs, heads, and burnt black eyeballs all intact.

I didn’t feel so excited anymore.

 

Two summers before, I’d spent three months living with my then-boyfriend in Des Moines. We’d started dating just a few weeks before the end of the school year, and he’d asked if I wanted to stay with him at his dad’s apartment. I didn’t plan to say yes, but then I showed up with a suitcase.

We split the time between his dad’s apartment and his mom’s house. His mom had a full house—there were the two of us; Ben’s two younger siblings; three dogs; approximately seven cats, most of them feral; an albino rat; and an aquarium filled with fish and a cleaner shrimp. For a time there was even a wild, wounded bird living in the master bathroom.

Ben and I spent a lot of time gazing into the fish tank, commentating on the behaviors of the aquarium life. The shrimp and a fish named banana were my favorites. Many of the fish swimming around the tank were colorful but vapid. Banana was different. He lay low, poking his unassuming little head out of the decorative reef at the bottom of the tank. Seeing him, the little red shrimp would scuttle on over, and Banana would pull forward, announcing himself: “I am a Banana!” Then Shrimp would go about the business of cleaning his friend Banana, teaching him all about good hygiene—probably in a thick French accent; Banana wouldn’t understand a word of it. It was all very endearing.

I tried not to think of the little red cleaner shrimp now, similar to the way I tried not to think of Ben, and felt disturbed. Unfortunately, I wear my feelings all over my face. Elizabeth asked me if I knew how to peel the shrimp, and I shook my head no. She showed me how like she’d done it a million times. Nimble-fingered. Unperturbed. First she twisted the head off the body, then she removed its legs, and finally she held its tail and pinched her fingers on the last section of the shell, popping the prawn out.

I thanked Elizabeth and ate the prawn without tasting it. I could not bring myself to peel any of them myself. Elizabeth kindly continued peeling more shrimp for both herself and for me. It might have been that she’s actually that nice or it might have been that I was pathetic enough to inspire maternal instincts.

Amy noticed Elizabeth helping me out and exclaimed, “Huh! I never thought of that as a big deal, but then again my family also taught us to spit out fish bones when we were little kids.” I’ve never eaten a bone-in fish. Not even at China Buffet. I wondered briefly if the difference was geographical or cultural—her being a Chinese-American from New York City and my being a German/Irish-American from small town Iowa, but the Germans sitting around the table looked unfazed by the entrees.

Of course, they’d likely never met a shrimp that had a bananafish for a best friend.

That was just me.

Friendship Set on Fire

I met my first boyfriend on MySpace. My best friend Christine and I were instant messaging, and she copy and pasted the link to his page. “He has the most amazing About Me section,” she told me. He hadn’t even written about himself. He’d written about something his grandfather had said about time. It was beautiful, and deep. It blew my fifteen-year-old mind.

And I thought: this is perfect.

Christine was clearly interested in this guy, and I wanted to make sure he was interested in her. The two of them were already chatting, which I took to be a good sign. After all, she and I had become close friends from consistently chatting on MSN messenger since exchanging email addresses at a basketball game over a year before. So I asked Christine for his email, added him to my messenger, and waited for his screen name to appear.

Then I did my best to talk her up.

It wasn’t because I was being a good friend. It was because Christine was dating Jared. And I wanted to date Jared. We’d been in a weird love triangle thing. He knew we both liked him, and he liked both of us, and we let him decide. He even took me on a New Year’s Eve date to watch Christine’s band play. Eventually Jared chose her—she’d been very vocal about liking him, and I’d kissed him on the cheek but kept quiet.

So this time I wasn’t going to shut up.

This new guy and I talked a lot. It wasn’t just that first night either. I’d log on, and after a few seconds he’d message me first. I’d get a stupid grin on my face. I mentioned him to another friend of mine, and every day she’d asked me, “So how is Boy?” because “Boy” was how I referred to him. One day she asked me, “What’s Boy’s name anyway?” and I realized I didn’t know. It hadn’t struck me as odd until that moment.

Next time Boy and I messaged, I asked his name.

When I reported back to my friend, she scrunched up her face and said, “I like Boy better.” So we continued to call him Boy instead of Tyler.

And Boy and I continued to chat until one of us confessed, “I like you.” I don’t remember who admitted it first. I do remember him telling me: “I do have feelings for you, at least as much as is possible without meeting in person.”

We decided we should meet.

Christine felt betrayed. She was the one who had shown me his MySpace page in the first place, had given me his email address. She lived only a 15-minute drive away from him, while I lived 30 minutes away.

Of course, Christine was dating Jared . . . and Jared went to my high school.

She even wrote a blog post about the whole ordeal on her secret Xanga.

And I shared her secret blog with Jared, who then broke up with her.

I guess I misunderstood the quote “Love is friendship set on fire.” It doesn’t mean that to fall in love you must set your best friendship on fire. But that’s pretty much what I did.

The night before Boy and I were supposed to finally meet, I had a dream that we met, and I woke up panicked because I realized I had no idea what Boy looked like. Upon waking up I immediately pulled up his MySpace page and went through his images. Even then I couldn’t really tell what he looked like. He wore reflective aviator sunglasses and an over-sized hoodie. He smiled without showing teeth. It wasn’t a whole lot to go off of.

We instant messaged up until he was supposed to drive over with his MapQuested directions to my parents’ house. My parents were going to the 7 o’clock movie in town, and I expected him to show up before they left. But they were about to leave and he still hadn’t shown up. Was he standing me up? Was he lost? He didn’t have a cell phone, so I had no way of reaching him.

“Text us when he gets here,” they told me.

And I thought: Really? You’re leaving me here alone to hang out with the seventeen-year-old boy I met on the Internet? What trust!

As their car pulled out of our driveway, a station wagon made its way down our dead-end street.

He was here. We were meeting. I could finally put a face to all those weeks’ worth of messages, to the voice I’d heard over the phone.

The awkward thrill of it lasted a few moments. Tyler looked like his picture, except now he had eyes and measurable height. From there we decided to go rent a movie. I gave him the world’s worst directions to Mr. Movies, because I was fifteen and license-less, used to my parents driving me everywhere while I daydreamed, never really paying attention to what was where. Netflix wasn’t ubiquitous yet.

Mr. Movies was set up with New Releases all around the outside, while the aisles in the middle were arranged by genre. We gravitated toward Horror, which already in my short life was a favorable first date genre. We scanned the titles, looking for something neither of us had seen. Tyler picked up the Re-Animator, which he said he thought a friend of his liked.

We made it approximately ten minutes into the movie before we shut it off.

“Let’s go for a walk?” I suggested. It’s what I usually did with my friends–when I had friends.

There was still some light outside when we hopped on the bike trail a couple blocks from my parents’ house. We headed toward town, away from my high school. There wasn’t much to look at, just skinny crowded trees on one side and dumpy houses with chained up dogs on the other. We walked past the abandoned trains stuck on their tracks. When we reached the end of the trail, we kept walking. We walked clear across town in the dark, from one pool of lamplight to the next.

I led him along the Cedar River to our town’s suspension bridge. “It’s over one-hundred years old,” I boasted. It was also the emblem on my Uptown Café shirt.

“Yeah,” Tyler said. “I’m not sure I’m cool with this.”

“Are you afraid of heights?” I asked him.

He stared ahead, and I tried to see what he saw. The bridge had always made me a little nervous, but that’s part of what I liked about it. Biking over it scared me more than walking across it ever did. I remember aligning my bike tires with the nails in the boards as I rode across, as if that would save me if all the cables snapped. Now I wasn’t worried about falling.

“Will it help if you hold my hand while we walk across it?” I tried.

It worked like a charm. Better, I would argue, than a horror movie.

The bridge held our weight, didn’t collapse under us. When we got to the other side, our hands still clasped, we walked to the Lion’s Field Park. We climbed on top of the playground equipment, and we found the tallest point and stood together there. His heart rate had probably gone back to normal, but not mine. I wanted him to kiss me, but I didn’t want to ask; I’d used up all my bravado on the other side of the bridge.

We climbed down. We walked back. It was colder outside now—nighttime in Iowa, in March. I was glad I’d worn a hoodie. We held hands to keep warm. Back at my parents’ house, we took a picture to commemorate the night. And then it was late, and he still had to drive home. So I walked him out, and we hugged goodbye but didn’t kiss.

Not that it mattered—I didn’t have anybody to tell.

We dated for the next six months. When we broke up, it was for a few reasons, like distance and time and waning interest. But I think what it boiled down to was that Tyler was more interested in having friends than having a girlfriend.

And when we broke up, I got my best friend back. Not right away, but eventually.

Once Christine and I reconciled, we became Facebook friends again. I went through her pictures, trying to catch myself up on everything I’d missed out on. I went far enough back that I came across a picture of myself at her house, wearing our matching black-and-white striped shirt and kissing her stuffed panda bear. It was from the last time we’d hung out. She’d added a caption that read, “That bear is going to be her only friend once Wicky leaves her.” (Tyler was a boy of many nicknames.)

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I messaged her with a link to the photo and said, “You might want to change that caption now that we’re friends again.”

Christine promptly deleted the caption. “Wow,” she said. “I do not remember writing that.”

And I said, “Well, it isn’t true anyway. I didn’t even have the bear. It’s your bear!”

A few months later, I tried my luck again. I went through Christine’s latest photos and was reading comments left by her other Facebook friends. One of the comments read, “This picture is pretty amazing,” and upon reading this comment–and low-key stalking the commenter–I thought to myself: I must get to know this person. So I requested his friendship, and he accepted my request . . . and then immediately messaged me to tell me he has beef with people adding people they don’t know on Facebook.

In less than one week, I’ll be a groomsgirl in his wedding.

Reset — Part II

At the end of April, I booked a flight to Iowa and quit my job. I flew home to spend time with my family and to finally finish my book. The latest feedback on my work-in-progress had been overwhelming but positive: You are really getting there now. You are almost there. But it didn’t feel like it. I didn’t have the room to think, the space to breathe. I had a full-time job that left me exhausted at the end of every day, already dreading Monday at Friday’s clock-out; a job that filled me with existential dread at the sound of my morning alarm.

It hadn’t started out that way. The job had started out shiny and new: with Keurig coffee, comfy couches, coloring books, and ultra fine point Sharpie markers set out for our fifteen minutes and lunch. A jar filled with chocolate and candy on our director’s desk: an excuse to check in. I’d been amazed that so many kind, beautiful, and funny women had been hired to work for one place, and that I was among them.

I loved the way I had to stay present. There was a strict no phones policy, but I was too busy to check my phone, to even think about checking my phone. I was hired to be a support teacher, to step in for classroom teachers for their breaks and lunches, to help with activities, snacks, and naptime. It was a far cry from my last job as an editor for an office, where I’d had too much downtime, anchored to my chair, burdened by my thoughts. Right away, working with children forced me to step outside of myself. I was learning how to participate, to be silly, fun, and curious. How to be thoughtful. How to think about someone other than myself.

It was good for me, good for my writing. When I arrived home, I hadn’t been staring at a screen all day. (As an editor, I’d been staring at two screens all day.) I could open my laptop, put my fingers to the keys, and write. And rewrite. So I did.

Of course, harsher realities of the job eventually set in: they expected too much and paid too little. I got the stomach flu three times in the first six months. I never felt better than 80% for the first eight months, plagued by a constant cold: a new baseline for health. The turnover rate was high. “It’s the nature of the industry,” people said.

At six months, I stepped into a classroom.

At a year, I was the only one left from my orientation class. The comfy couches were gone, replaced by hard chairs. The coffee from the Keurig machines made my heart race and my hands shake. The Sharpie markers had dried out, and the coloring books were moved, stacked on the bottom shelf on an otherwise empty bookcase. The candy jar was empty. I was so tired that I spent the first fifteen minutes of my lunch hour eating and the next forty-five asleep in a chair in the lobby next door. Nobody checked in anymore.

At least my immunity had kicked in.

I spent eight months in the classroom. Eight hours, five days per week. And in those hours, weeks, and months, I fell in love. In high school, I’d been the girl cracking dead baby jokes in the cafeteria, and now my official title was Infant Teacher. (And here’s the part where everyone’s like, Infant Teacher? But what do you teach them? They’re babies. I’m not going to get into it, but let me ask you, “Why do you need an English teacher? Don’t you already speak English?” and, “Why do you need a Biology teacher, aren’t you already alive?” and, “Why do you need a P.E. teacher, don’t you already have a body?”)

In those hours, weeks, and months, I learned a lot of practical life skills: how to prepare a bottle, how to change a diaper, how to get babies to sleep. I learned that a baby crying isn’t a distress call; it’s just basic, one-size-fits-all communication: I’m tired/hungry/want attention, and I have teeth cutting through the tender flesh of my gums for the very first time, and I have a diaper rash that looks like a third degree burn. I learned that babies can and will shove ALL OF THE THINGS into their mouths, and that it isn’t because they’re trying to kill themselves, but because that’s how they first explore the world. I learned that mouth injuries bleed a lot but heal quickly. I learned what a plethora of childhood illnesses look like, including conjunctivitis and hand-foot-mouth. I learned what stranger danger looks like. How an unfamiliar person entering the classroom will send a baby crawling, scream-crying across the floor and into my arms, because I am her safe place.

Most surprising to me, I learned that babies have personalities. Because babies are people, even though it seems impossible that they will grow up to be adult humans.

Quitting a job you hate is supposed to be liberating, easy. But this wasn’t as easy as hating my job. And it wasn’t as simple as quitting.

So I gave my two weeks’ notice, sent a letter out to the parents of the children in my care, and flew home to Iowa for three days shy of three weeks. When my family—my parents and my brother—picked me up at the airport, Dad asked me, “Any buyer’s remorse yet?”

He meant my plane ticket home.

“Not yet,” I told him.

On the drive home, Mom and Dad said, “Tell us what you’re thinking.”

And I told them: I’m here to finish my book.

And they asked, “But why here? Why not in Seattle?”

Because I’ve always had a day job in Seattle
Because if I’m not working there, I’ll feel like I should be
Because there are a million things vying for my attention there
Because Christine has told me a million times that time moves slower in Iowa
Because I haven’t spent more than a few days at a time in Iowa since I moved
Because every time I’ve visited, I’ve been bombarded with places to go, people to see
Because I miss you guys
Because I haven’t been home for Mother’s Day in four years
Because I can write while you’re all at work, and then see you in the evenings
Because while it’s not true that there’s nothing to do in Iowa, I know there’s often nothing better for me to do than write
Because Iowa is where I started my book, and it seems right that I should finish it here
Because you once told me that if I ever needed it, there’s a reset button I can hit.

(To be continued . . .)

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.