"Make sure you wear a sports bra," she says, the night before the parent-child field hockey game.
"You're kidding me, right?" I say. "Of course I'm going to wear a sports bra. But I'm still going to look like this."
I jump up and down. I shimmy. I wiggle.
She blanches, then shudders. Point made.
"But you have a sports bra, right?" she presses.
"I will wear two," I say.
"I guess you already knew to wear a sports bra," she acquiesces.
"I am 43," I say, "I do know when to wear a sports bra."
I do not sleep well the night before the field hockey game. This is nothing new -- poor sleep is my calling card! my battle scar! my pride! -- but the day of the game is also a day for another goodbye.
By 43, I think, in addition to knowing the right brassiere for any occasion, I should know how to say goodbye. I should be able to say goodbye with conviction, without looking back. At least, I feel like I should be able to do this. But I am always looking back, hoping for one last glimpse, one more wave. No wonder my neck and spine hurt all the time. I ache with goodbyes. They twist me and contort me.
Stay the course, the grumbly voices say. They are never happy with me. Don't look back. For once in your life, don't look back. Jesus, you're pathetic.
This day -- the morning of the game -- I enter my therapist's waiting room, painted horrid yellow and anemic sage (what had he been thinking?). The wooden corner shelf where his ancient stereo used to sit is now bare. The absence of the stereo and its bland classical music knifes me in the gut, unexpectedly. When he opens the door to his office to greet me, I am already gulping back sobs.
"Your stereo," is what I manage, gesturing to the empty shelf.
He nods sympathetically and welcomes me into his office for the last time. I have seen him for the past eight years. These have not been the best years, these eight. But he is my best safe place. He is the person who asked all the hard questions in a soft voice and remembered the answers. He is leaving on Saturday with his wife. They are headed for Mexico, daily farmers' markets, and blue waters.
"So I'm pretending that you're already dead and that a fairy granted me a wish to have just one more hour with you," I say.
"That works," he says. By now, he is used to my interesting coping skills.
"I also feel like I'm in a dinghy and you're in a dinghy. And we're in a big ocean with no land in sight. And the rope holding our little boats together is finally frayed to bits so the waves are going to take us off in different directions. And I have to remember really hard what you taught me about navigating my dinghy."
"I'm glad you put us both in dinghies," he says.
"Well, if you had a ship, you'd have hauled me onboard a long time ago," I say. "It's just obvious. It has to be two dinghies."
I ask him about Mexico and the RV. He says he's not going to have a home base for quite a while, he doesn't know how long.
I am suddenly crying again. "It must be amazing. To be your own home base, wherever you go. I want that someday." I really do. I want this more than anything. I don't know how to be my own home base, because there is a big hole in my heart where home base should be.
He nods. His eyes go red and shiny. He has faith in my crappy dinghy and my navigational skills, he really does, but he knows that home eludes me. He knows I'm going to need a little luck out there.
"You've worked so hard. Really hard," he says. "You did this work."
"I did," I say. "I did something in here."
I give him my favorite book. He gives me his favorite book. We did not plan this.
We talk, we shoot the shit. I tell him that I am going to play in the parent-child field hockey game despite the fact that my reptile brain is telling me to slither back under my covers for several days because all is lost. All was lost before, but now extra all is lost.
There is nothing he can do for me now that he hasn't already. There is nothing I can do now, in our final minutes, that I haven't already.
All the work has already happened here, in this room that I will never see again.
We talk about the people who seem fine. There are so many of them.
"I think," he says thoughtfully, "they are just talented socially."
"They know how to keep busy, you mean. With other human beings."
"Exactly," he says.
I would like to keep busy with other human beings. He and I both know that I am afraid of most of them, which is a slight impediment to any chance I may ever have at normality.
We fall silent. He is far too classy to turn to look at the time.
"I think it's time," I say, bravely. I am the captain of my own dinghy and the omnipresent clock says 1 o'clock, gallows hour.
"Thank you," he says, after a moment. "For just talking. I'm glad we had this hour to just talk."
We stand. We hug, hard.
I leave pressing the book he's given me, "Loving Kindness," to my chest. I don't look back, this time. Catch and release. It must always be catch and release.
My favorite word in the English language is the word "safe."
I think it is a beautiful word. It stands its ground. It takes up just as much space as it needs, but no more.
I did not grow up in a safe place.
My grumbly voices say, Don't say that, what will people think?
I will stand my ground: I did not feel safe. My heart did not learn to discern safe from unsafe. I still do not often know what is good or true or right or real. I don't know what or whom to trust.
I was never held at gunpoint on my way to school. No one at home hit me or forgot to feed me. I had a warm house, meals, my own bed. But there were certain things that were not to be discussed. Sex, money, alcohol, the profound unhappiness of my parents' marriage and its ugly, chronic fallout -- these topics were off limits. Where I was every night until three or four o'clock in the morning -- only my younger brother dared ask me this. He would sit on the shaggy pink toilet lid, watching me with tears in his eyes as I lined my lashes in frosted blue and lied to him that I was fine, that the boys I knew treated me fine, that I couldn't be better.
We were swimming in secrets, the liveliest, funniest, wackiest family in town, with its living room cluttered with books and maracas and stray guitar picks and overflowing ashtrays. I assumed everyone grew up this way, fronting. I still cannot say much of those years without it feeling like betrayal. I can simply say that I did not want to know what I knew. I did not want to see what I saw. We were living a lie behind closed doors, like many families do, and we had the practiced, oversized smiles to prove it. I still have mine. We were fine.
I did not feel fine. I felt uneasy, most of the time. I still do. It is difficult for me to feel safe. I startle easily. Some very bad things happened once, more than once, and I can't unhappen them. There are words for this: PTSD, complicated grief. But the words don't do any good.
I stop breathing when I hear an angry voice. I am saying my diaphragm ceases its gentle, automatic in-and-out. They can do that, in case you didn't know. When I hear anger or feel it in the air, I freeze. I breathe from my throat up. The words leave me and I shut down and become unreachable -- even in the face of anger that is justified and measured, or anger that has nothing to do with me. I will run to the other side of the planet without taking a step, if you raise your voice. I am not thinking when I do this. It is a survival skill that no longer serves me well. I have outgrown it, but it has not outgrown me.
If you have been my friend for more than a few years, you are a person of kindness, patience, and persistence. And you are probably more than a little bit wily. You can put that on your resume.
I can't stop crying. I can't do another goodbye. I'm afraid my heart is going to harden into concrete, I text to the one whose own scars abrade mine. We love each other and we terrify each other and we love each other some more. He is 3000 miles away and no one can understand us because we can barely understand ourselves.
Slow down, he says. Watch some TV or something and write me when you can think.
But it is the thinking that is the problem.
On the field, parents charge their offspring with wooden sticks. A very hard orange ball is in play. Our children do not back down. I am playing a thing called defense, which apparently means I am supposed to hang back and wait for things to get bad. This is my M.O., so I plan to be very good at it on the field in a nice professional setting.
But when my friend's blonde, blithe daughter drives the ball toward me with a psychotic gleam in her caged eyes, I realize that playing defense means that I am the one who confronts the offense. Going into the game, I thought the defense would talk it out nicely with the other defense before things got hairy, maybe share cookies, watch the offense beat each other up.
But no: here comes the long-limbed, blood-thirsty offense, straight for me. I find this suddenly very offensive. I chant oh no oh no oh no as she approaches. I spread my legs. I hop side to side. I keep my stick so low it sticks in the ground and Miss Blonde Offense sprints past me. Behind me, her mother the sweeper is wheezing with laughter.
Later in the game, when three lithe girls surround me and there are sticks jutting and snapping everywhere and I cannot get the ball which is right at my feet, I yell fuck fuck fuck. No one throws a yellow or a pink card or makes any strange arm gestures so I stay in the game.
The mothers on the field, having gone to great, saintly pains to keep these beautiful young women alive in our wombs -- almost ten months a player, that's a lot of months on the field. The mothers are in no great hurry to advance the ball. We listen to the coach. We keep our sticks down, way down. We love our daughters' eyeballs and teeth and spinal cords more than we love our own.
The fathers are a different story. They are brutes, ridiculously competitive. One man in casual business wear limps onto the field, insisting he can play. In five minutes, the coach subs him out. In another five minutes, he's begging to be let back onto the field. All around our dear children, men are lunging with sticks, en garde! One wields his like a golf club, mid-swing. I want to yell YOUR SPERM HAD SOMETHING TO DO WITH THESE BEAUTIFUL CREATURES, BE A LITTLE MORE CAREFUL WITH YOUR JIZZ, MEN.
But I have already yelled fuck fuck fuck so I keep my defending mouth shut and roll my eyes. A ball finally, blessedly comes my way, unaccompanied by mouthguarded gazelles or frothing middle-aged men. I do the smart defending thing: I skip to the lou, straight to it, and as I am about to urge it very nicely to go elsewhere, away from our goal, I am suddenly slammed from behind by what I can only guess in that moment is a Sub-Zero refrigerator shot out of a local Civil War cannon.
My feet go up. I am a minus sign, a sports hyphen, a field hockey em dash. I am very proud of myself in the split second that I hover horizontal in the air. Then gravity intervenes and I thunk to the ground, which is also playing offense.
"Sorry!" yells the dad who has barreled me over. I am one with the earth. I ask the earth if I can move my neck. The earth says yes, so I get up gingerly. I cannot breathe, but as I have mentioned before, I can go like that for days. I am sure my lungs are around somewhere, maybe near the goal.
"You okay, Jenn?" calls the coach, now possibly second-guessing her decision to put this many rabid man-children on a field with fine-boned daughters and slow-moving mothers.
I am not exactly okay. I am not exactly not okay, either.
I can walk. So I remove my baseball cap and thwack the offending bull-man hard, several times. YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO BE ON MY TEAM, I yell, thwacking his jacked-up, XY-chromosomed pecs. THWACK THWACK THWACK.
"I know, I know, I'm really sorry," he says, "I was just going for it."
I keep playing. Because if I don't, I will have to stop moving. I will have to sit down, and I will have to remember this morning's goodbye. I will remember the hole in my chest. I will remember all the things I am playing this game to forget.
I play almost the whole game. The coach only takes me out once, for a little while, then sends me back in for the limping dad who shouldn't have been playing in the first place. I yell PUT ME IN, COACH after she has already put me in. I don't want to miss the opportunity. It feels good, even if the timing is wrong.
My daughter scores the final goal, winning it for our offspring: 2-1. I drink all my water.
"I wasn't that bad, right?" I ask her.
"Um, you were pretty bad," she says. "But not, you know, the worst."
"What are you talking about?" I say. "I GOT RUN OVER BY A BEAST. I got up. I kept going. I even hit the ball in the right direction a few times. And I wore sporty tights LIKE A BOSS."
She squints at me, her impossibility. "Yeah, you weren't bad. You were all right."
"The dads were insane," I say, in defense of my defense.
"Yeah," she agrees, shaking her head. "They get, like, crazy."
But she is safe and happy. Everyone is safe. Safe enough. Maybe that's the best any of us can hope for, really.
Later that night, when I stand up, my uterus yelps. My lungs have returned to their proper place, but my uterus is being decidedly weird.
I text my friend the sweeper, whose former husband was the one who sacked me: I THINK YOUR EX-HUSBAND DISLODGED MY IUD.
BEST TEXT EVER, she writes back.
At bedtime, I pray for sleep to be kind. I pray that my dreams stay dreams. I pray for all the usual things: to not let me fuck up my children too badly, to learn how to lose gracefully, to say goodbye to the right people and not goodbye to the wrong ones. I pray for loving kindness, given and received. I pray that my IUD is still in place. I pray for home. I pray to know someday that I am safe. I pray for what my therapist used to call "discernment." I pray that I will not always sleep alone.
But I am still leaking words.
I watched some bad TV, I write to the faraway one. And these are the words that took shape.
When I can write no more, I press send and tug the silver chain on the bedside lamp. In the dark, the violent, lonely dark, I abandon prayer. Tonight requires old-school coping, the big guns: wishing, pretending, a bit of time travel -- 20 years back, or 10 years forward, the usual. I want to take it all back and give it all back. I pull the quilts up over my ears. I curl into a comma, becoming my own pause for the night. This is safe enough. This will have to do, for now.