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Thirteen, Thirty-One, Forty-Nine

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Some years back, I was at a neo-Pagan shop picking up a particularly nice-smelling incense they specialized in.  After he’d fetched it for me, the clerk suddenly gave me an intense stare, peering at me through his glasses and between his shaggy bangs.  “When’s your birthday?” he asked.

“……why?”

He grabbed a notepad.  “I want to do your numerology,” he said.  It was a bit slow at his counter, but that still doesn’t explain why he was that determined to give me a complete numerological workup at that exact moment.  He asked me my birthdate and name, and then, pen flying across the paper and fixing me with intense looks as he spoke, he gave me a five minute dissertation on numerology, complete with telling me my birth number, how to calculate it, what such a number portends, and how to calculate a separate number based on my name and how it also affected me.

I have forgotten nearly all of what he told me – I’ve always been a little dubious of numerology – with one exception.  “The thing about life,” he said, “is that it goes in eighteen-year patterns.  Or, more like pairs of nine-year patterns,” he added, sketching a curved line for me on the page – up, then down, then back up.  “It takes you nine years to go from here to here,” he said, pointing first at the beginning of the line up high, and then the valley.  “And then, it takes another nine years to go from the bottom here back up to here.  And then it repeats,” he said, continuing the line in a few more swoops up and down the page.  “So if you want any insight into where you are now, a good way to find out is to look back eighteen years to see what was happening to you then.  That’s when you were at the same place in the pattern.  Not nine years,” he warned, staring at me and tapping the paper.  “Eighteen.  That’s the pattern.”

In late June Alex told me he was moving to Los Angeles.  It wasn’t entirely surprising – he’s always wanted to get into screenwriting, and after visiting friends there this spring he came back saying that writing jobs were “free-flowing” there and I suspected this would happen.  What did surprise me was how his brave leap started me thinking about what I’m doing with my own life as well.  “It looks like you’ve triggered a midlife crisis,” I joked to Alex, “it’s just manifesting as something deeper than a facelift.”

He moved out this Monday.  But I had a decent amount in savings, so I’ve chosen to treat August like a sabbatical – take my time finding the next roommate, and otherwise live alone, trying to do some digging into my own brain and clearing some things out while I did the same with the apartment.  It’s going to be a tough job – not only have I built up an amazingly stupid amount of junk in this apartment that should probably go, I’m afraid that I’ve buried some bits of myself out of necessity and they need to be unearthed.  Doing that out of sight of any other human is probably going to be a very wise move.

It’s scary as hell, I’m not going to lie.  It’s triggered some really uncomfortable moments at work, where I’ve had to fight back the urge to burst out crying at my desk out of sheer frustration that I even have to be there instead of….somewhere else, doing….something else.  But that’s the thing, I haven’t been sure yet what the somewhere and the something else are, or what I want them to be.

But it’s a start.  And looking back a couple of eighteen-year jumps, it looks like that may be the pattern.

Eighteen years ago I was 31.  That spring I’d been working as a secretary in a bank while working as a stage manager when I could, mostly at a little company on the Lower East Side five minutes’ walk from my house.  I wrote a little bit for them as well.  But then in June, the department I was working in imploded, and they laid off about 70% of us, me included. But at my meeting with Human Resources, they presented me with an eye-poppingly huge severance package.  “Ah,” I thought.  “I’m not being laid off.  I am having a summer of theater funded.”  The first rehearsal for the latest show at my theater was that evening; I’d been tapped to be the company dramaturg, and I turned up early to tell the director, “you know how you didn’t want to ask me to stage manage because of my job?….Good news!”

That summer was the beginning of a full-bore concentration on theater.  I dedicated myself to it more intently than I had before, a move which carried me through another seven years and nearly 30 shows, an Equity card, three Fringe Festivals and a stint off-Broadway complete with seeing my name in a review in the New York Times.  It also led me to doing double-duty in writing – that same director moved on to another theater the following year, and when they needed someone to write program notes for their shows, he called me up and even offered to pay.

Relatedly – although I didn’t know it was related at the time – that summer also introduced me to my friend Colin.  But “friend” wasn’t what we were thinking initially – we actually met through an online personal site, and…er, in the interest of discretion I’ll just say that that was the avenue we explored at first.  We dated only very briefly, but had already been talking about working together by the time we called that quits – so when Colin called me literally the next day to ask “I know we just broke up, but…do you still wanna try working together?” I surprised myself by saying “you know what?….I do.”

First we tried working on a quick fundraising event for his own company, and then I gave him some help at another event, and a couple months later he invited me to join his company fully, a move which lead to us co-producing another 10 years’ worth of plays and founding a playwriting contest that at last count helped to launch the careers of three different writers.  I was there to see him meet Niki, the woman he would ultimately fall in love with (and ultimately move to Colorado with last year), he was there to see me meet the man I fell in love with (and who ultimately broke my heart).  I helped him and Niki paint their first house.  He did my taxes for two years simply because he was convinced I could do better than taking the standard deduction.  He teased me for being a sucker for plays about people growing up Catholic, and I teased him back over his soft spot for bioplays about Shakespeare.

We developed a conversational shorthand that relied heavily on quotes from Princess Bride and Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and a professional decision-making method that involved southern barbecue and pitchers of margaritas. We worked in the same office for nearly eight years and only had two major arguments, neither one about work (they were instead both about politics, which lead me to decree that henceforth, on Election Days, we were only allowed to talk to each other about puppies).  We once giggled ourselves into breathlessness over the title of a play we received – “To Barcelona!”, complete with exclamation mark – because after three hours neither one of us was capable of saying the name without heroically shouting it in a Castillian accent and pumping a fist in the air.  We both nearly got trampled at a protest march when a group set fire to a banner in the middle of the crowd behind us, sending a crowd of people stampeding at us from behind and a flying wedge of cops charging at us from the front (I grabbed him and dragged him onto a side street barking that we’re going to walk this way RIGHT NOW, please). We both recognized in each other a few years back that “it looks like neither of us is really into theater any more,” and I know that helped me face that it was time to close that chapter of my life.  He has an insight into me and my mind that I have come to value tremendously.

Eighteen years ago today, I didn’t know any of this was ahead of me – I was likely only just finding Colin’s profile online and sending my first “hey, how are ya” message before slipping off to rehearsal for the show I’d just started working on.

Eighteen years before that I was just thirteen.  I was only a few months into puberty, something I find comically ironic now that I am likely only a few months away from the end of that part of my life.

I don’t really remember all that much of that year. I keep on thinking of things but then realizing they came either a year or so before or a couple years after; meeting my best girl friends Sue and Cliona came when I was eleven, writing a goofy book with Sue and another friend came in high school, when I was fourteen.  I even tried browsing a couple history sites for news events from that year, but save for clinically noticing that “okay, I remember that movie” it didn’t trigger anything.

But doing the math that may be because there were things that went down that spring that I’ve wanted to block out.

I was bullied as a child for a solid three or four years, pretty much from fourth grade up through seventh.  Not for any real definitive reason that I know, either – I was a little bit quirky, prone to nerdishly obsessing over random things, and perhaps some kids didn’t know how to relate to that so they turned on me.  Or, maybe it was just the reason any kid gets bullied, because I was there and I usually didn’t fight back.  I didn’t know how to fight back, either – when it started, my parents advised me to just ignore it, which I internalized as “even though you do hear what they’re saying and it hurts, don’t let them see that you’re hurt.”

And a lot of times the things they said would seem like compliments if you were to type them out and read them.  They would tell me I was smart, I was pretty, I was their best friend.  They would wave really big at me when I walked into a room. They would tell me that my hair was pretty and my clothes were cool.  But they said it in exaggeratedly sarcastic, syrupy-sweet overly fake voices that made it obvious that they were picking on me.  It was especially insidious, because how was I going to complain to a teacher about that?  “They’re picking on me by telling me I’m pretty”? I had friends, but only a couple, and they weren’t always around and didn’t really know what to do to help me either.

And so I sat, in classroom after classroom, in lunch room after lunch room, for four years, listening to the giggles and sarcastic whispers telling me that I was sooooo smart and sooooooo pretty, and knowing they meant something completely different from what they said and not being able to do anything about it. To this day I have a hard time trusting praise or compliments from anyone because my bullies taught me that sweet words are usually insincere.  Only when I know you well will I believe you if you praise me, and sometimes not even then.

Still all of that was prelude to when I was thirteen.  It wasn’t constant, either – it came in fits and starts, as different people saw me in different classes.  But that spring it suddenly got physical when a group of girls in my gym class took to laying in wait for me after I changed out of gym clothes and was trying to get to my next class.  When I was with my friends, they would leave me alone, but when it was just me, they’d giggle and follow me, trying to corner me against a wall and…and I didn’t know what they wanted to do and I didn’t care, I saw enough menace in their eyes.  Once they even trapped me in the stairwell and one threw the threat of a punch at me, all of them giggling when I flinched.  It got worse as the semester went on, with them not even waiting until after class sometimes, trying to corner me in the gym itself.  I’d spend most of class trying to dodge them and escape their notice, and was not always successful.

But sometime that April, at the beginning of a gym class when we were playing volleyball or something, the teacher told us to all form ourselves into groups for games.  I saw my buillies heading my way and I was cowering, knowing they were going to try to pull me into their group so they could corner me – and suddenly three other girls from class that I didn’t know got to me first, standing around me in a protective huddle.  “Hey, wanna play with us?” they said, a mite louder than necessary.

“Uh….okay?”  I dumbly followed them, and they introduced themselves to me as we found our way to a net.  We played a haphazard game – the three of them had known each other a while and had a lot of in-jokes that I didn’t really know how to relate to, but they treated me decently, and we all were equally bad at volleyball so it didn’t matter as much that I was bad and I took their laughter when I blew a serve as the good-natured laughter it was.  I was still puzzled about why they’d sought me out, but went with it.

After class they told me what they were doing.  “We don’t like seeing you getting beat up by the tough girls every day,” they said.  “We decided we wanted to do something.”

“Really?”  The thought that anyone even noticed what was happening to me, much less actually wanted to do something about it, floored me.

“Why don’t you tell the principal?” one challenged me.  “You don’t have to take that.”

“I don’t know….I don’t think he can really do anything, he won’t understand.”

“That’s stupid!” she retorted.  “Of course they can do something.  And you don’t have to take that, it’s not fair to you.  You should tell him!” When I still hesitated, she added, “I’ll come with you and hold your hand, want me to?”

She did hold my hand.  Literally, as I sat in the principal’s office and sobbed and hiccupped my way through finally telling someone what was happening, she sat in the chair beside me with my hand in hers.. She’d taken it when she saw me start crying and held on.

The school mismanaged it, of course, by trying to set up a mediation between me and each of the other bully girls, and I had to sit in front of the principal as they lied through their teeth about what they’d been trying to do.  Schools usually mismanage bullying, in my experience.

But the notion that someone standing outside of my hell had even noticed me, and had decided to try to help me, was a crack in this sense of self-belief I’d been constructing that told me I didn’t deserve anything better. I was on my way to believing that this was just what I deserved and that was that.  Those girls reaching out just that one time was the first inkling I had that that was bullshit.

I didn’t realize I was thinking that the August I was thirteen.  Mostly I was just relieved that round of bullying had ended, and I was trying not to think about it any more.  It’s only now, 36 years later, that I realize that it was the last time I was properly bullied at all.  I did have a few more people try a time or two over the next couple years, but I thought differently about it; it was a reflection on the bullies, not on me.

The August I was thirteen was the end of a hard few years and the beginning of realizing that I deserved better.

I’ve had a hard few years.  I was starting to believe that the rut I’m in is as good as it can get; I had to settle for less, just to protect myself.  But that’s over now.  I’ve started looking into ways to change the path I’m on and do more with it; it will take time and years to get there, but I’ve started to remember I am worth that path.  And it’s very possible, if my history repeats itself – as it seems to have done – that the things ahead of me might be rich indeed.

Eighteen years.  That’s the pattern.

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One response »

  1. Thank you for writing this. And goddamn… preteen and teenage girls are the WORST. Been there, with the syrupy fake-nice bullies. Reading this made my heart hurt as I remembered.

    Reply

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