This was a long time ago, when in the wake of something awful you upheaved your entire life in a matter of weeks: you left the city you loved, you left your friends, you left your family, you bought a crappy car and you took a job teaching a crappy class in speed reading and mnemonics, a job that moved you from southern college to southern prep school every four weeks. You traveled alone, lived alone, did everything alone except when you were standing in front of the students whose parents had signed them up to take the crappy class.
You have no idea why you’re thinking about that year these days, those colleges and prep schools, these days, but you are. You still feel guilty at the thought of that stupid class you taught, and the money the students’ parents paid for it.
Speed reading? Why should anyone speed read? What’s the point? And mnemonics too. Mnemonics are kind of cool, in a way –to this day you can memorize an extremely long number in 30 seconds flat– but do they have any real use for a person’s education? No.
But the job was there and you took it for one reason only: to get out of the life you knew, because that life was shredded beyond recognition. The only problem was that once you were out of that life and speeding down I-95 in your new crappy car, you realized that you were still inside yourself, and so was the shredded life.
Too late. You had left everything behind. Your sister had a new roommate. There was no place for a car in the city. The dotted line had been signed. A whole year of four weeks here, four weeks there stretched before you, and you had to make it through.
Once a month a slender wad of twenties arrived at whatever school you happened to be at, wrapped in folds of paper and sent through the U.S. mail. The slender wad of twenties didn’t cover lodging, gas and food, so one of the three had to go, and it was usually lodging.
Sometimes you slept in your car. Sometimes you camped in state parks, you and your pup tent and sleeping bag and Apple IIc, which you lugged to whatever electrical outlet you could find, usually attached to a primitive shower/outhouse building.
Once a ranger came to check on you. You and he were the only ones in the entire park. This was somewhere in Tennessee, you’re pretty sure.
“Miss? You going to be all right out here?” he said in his soft southern accent. “It’s pretty cold at night now.”
“Oh sure,” you said, putting on your fake tough-northerner voice.
He was right. It was cold. You used to stay in places like Wendy’s until it was close to closing. You ate a lot of Wendy’s baked potatoes with various toppings. Sometimes you ordered chili and took as many of the cellophane-wrapped crackers as you could back to the tent.
You could not get away from yourself no matter what you tried. You called your friends from pay phones but they were all still in their lives and you missed them. You missed your life. You had to figure out a new one but you didn’t know how.This was supposed to be a new life but it wasn’t.
You rummaged around for anything that would lift you out of yourself. Reading worked, for a while. Sink into a big fat book. Driving, fast and for hours on end, worked. Walking, fast and for hours on end, worked. Dancing worked. At one college –in Louisiana, maybe?– they let you stay in the infirmary, which was empty.
The little infirmary room was tiny, with a narrow vinyl bed, a sink, cinderblock walls. This infirmary had a long hallway with polished tile floors. Late at night it was dark in there and you blasted music from your boombox and danced up and down the dark hallway.
This infirmary dancing is the most distinct memory you have from that entire year. Hugely loud music filled up your ears and drove everything else away. What were you listening to? Warren Zevon. Joan Armatrading. Annie Lennox. The driving beat of some of those songs, and Annie Lennox’s enormous soaring voice, was perfect for the way you felt. That was a year of loud, loud music.
And I’ll be (the ticking of your clock)
And I’ll be (the numbers on your watch)
And I’ll be (your hands to stop the time)
I’ll even be your danger sign.
What else lifted you out of yourself? Teaching.
Teaching was something you didn’t even think about when you took the job. Your only goal was to get the hell out. Teaching had nothing to do with anything; it was a means to an end.
Until you stood in front of the first class on the first day, looking out at those students sitting there with their notebooks and pens, and opened your mouth and started to talk. And rolled a piece of chalk around in your hands and turned and wrote on the board, and turned back and talked some more, and watched as hands went up and young faces asked questions, and you answered.
You can do this, you remember thinking. It was as if you were standing outside your body, that poor body, so exhausted and skeletal from loss and confusion, and watching yourself do something that you were born knowing how to do.
Despite being descended from a line of teachers, teaching was not something you had ever considered. Here you were, though. It was a crappy class, and probably useless to those who had paid to take it. But the act itself –teaching– transcended the stupidity of the subject matter.
And it lifted you out of yourself. Those hours that you stood in front of the students, you were finally, finally outside of yourself. Escape.
The girls in the classes you taught were southern girls with southern names, many of them with two first names. You loved saying those names. Some of them you can still remember: Mary-Perron. Cassie Sue. Helen-Mary.
Every day it felt as if you couldn’t bear going into the class and standing up there and talking, and every day, once you were actually in there and doing it, it lifted you out of yourself. Some of your friends loathe the phrase Fake it till you make it, but not you. You love it and you trust it.
Back then you were young and you thought that your suffering was greater than others’. You shake your head at your young self now. You would get angry at her, for such self-centeredness, but that would do no good. Now, when you’re suffering, you don’t try to shove it away. You let yourself be, and you picture everyone else out there who, at this exact moment, is hurting. And paradoxically, the hurting eases.
It would take you many years to see that those times you thought you were standing outside yourself, outside your life, watching yourself, you weren’t.
It’s all the same self, the same body, the same life.
If you could reach back in time to your 24-year-old self you would tell her, in the wake of awful things, not to leave behind everything she loved and everyone who loved her. You would tell her to do nothing, to stay put, to wake up every morning and make it through each day until it gets better. You would tell her that it will get better.
You would also tell her that even if she does everything wrong –even if she upheaves her life, sets herself adrift, plows on without knowing what the hell she’s doing– it will still, eventually, be okay.
Because everything changes. In time, everything becomes something else. Even unbearable things become bearable. Wait long enough and they fade and fade and fade until poof, days and weeks go by and you wake up one day and realize you haven’t felt the stab of that particular pain in months. That’s a hurt of a different kind.
One of your students, a southern girl with one of those beautiful hyphenated two-first-names, said to you, on the last day of the three-week class in Virginia, “Alison, you know what? Someday, a long time from now, I’m going to be in an airport, and I’ll see you walking by me, and I’ll call out your name. And we’ll have us a reunion.”
Every time you’re in an airport, surrounded by travelers rushing this way and that with their wheelies, you think of her. You can’t remember what she looks like, or what her voice sounds like. The day might still come, though, when you’re wandering past a Cinnabon or a Hudson News in some anonymous terminal, and you hear her call your name.
Sweet dreams are made of this
Who am I to disagree?
I travel the world
And the seven seas
Everybody’s looking for something.