Seventeen

Steve Edwards revisits an early heartbreak to ask: “How do we find compassion for who we used to be?”

Steve Edwards | Longreads | December 2018 | 19 minutes (5,135 words)

I don’t remember the therapist’s name, only that he had closely cropped silver hair, a soft voice, and kind, deep-set eyes. He was a postdoc in the psychology department — whatever that meant. He wanted me to know that our sessions would be recorded and could be included in his dissertation — whatever that meant — and would I be OK with that? I said sure. He smiled and studied my face. It was September, a smell of rain in the air. One of those evenings when the dark sets in early and surprises you.

I’d just started my senior year of high school but had already been accepted to Purdue, which was only a half hour from home and where my brother had enrolled two years prior. I’d been to campus once or twice to go to parties with him. But I’d never been there by myself. I’d never been inside the psych building.

My mother set up the meeting. I didn’t know what I wanted to study, and she thought the university would have career counselors. She looked up counseling services in the phone book and made an appointment.

It was an honest mistake. Like the time I told her I needed a cup for baseball and she’d bought me a plastic drinking cup. She hadn’t been to a four-year university. My father, who had earned a degree in chemistry from Eastern Illinois, wasn’t any help with administrative tasks and probably wouldn’t have known any different either. What other kinds of counseling services besides career counseling would there be at a university? And I went along with it because that’s what I did: I floated like a cloud through my life. If my parents thought I needed to be somewhere and do something, I went there and did it. Not out of duty so much as out of a desire to avoid conflict. The thought of fighting over things I didn’t care about depressed me.

And I went along with it because that’s what I did: I floated like a cloud through my life…Not out of duty so much as out of a desire to avoid conflict. The thought of fighting over things I didn’t care about depressed me.

If anything, however, I thought maybe counseling services could help me choose a major, which apparently was important. I’d looked at the lists when we filled out the application, and most of them seemed terrible. Economics. Accounting. Some I didn’t even know what they were. Sophomore year of high school we’d taken a long fill-in-the-blank aptitude test to help us identify future careers. One question asked if we liked to be outside. I said yes and was told I should be a farmer. But even I knew that that wasn’t how farming worked. I felt duped by the test and wrote it off, like I’d already written off most of school. It was all one big time suck, state-sanctioned babysitting until we turned 16. None of my teachers seemed happy with their lives and careers. Better not to even think about it.

The therapist asked me a few questions about myself and I answered them. I’d grown up in a tiny town not far from campus. My folks were still married, and both worked — my mom as a doctor’s assistant and my dad for a pharmaceutical plant — and my brother went to school here. We were in a band together. I played bass.

“You’re interested in thinking more about choosing a major. Thinking about a career,” the therapist said. “Yes?”

“I guess.”

“What sounds good?”

“I want to be a poet,” I said.

He nodded thoughtfully and wrote something in his notebook. When he looked up again, I said if not a poet, a rock star.

“A musician?”

“Sure.”

He nodded again, wrote more in his notebook. I glanced around the room, which was square and sterile, lit by a fluorescent light, the walls a soft neutral tone. I had no idea where the camera that was recording us was located.

Over the next hour, as we kept chatting, the questions got surprisingly personal. But what did I care — I floated. If this was what I was here to do, might as well get it over with. Might as well tell the truth. Did I believe in God? Sure. Was I sexually active? Yes. Or at least I had been. Had I ever considered suicide? Yes. What was the occasion? Some nights, I said, just out driving, I thought about popping my seatbelt and steering into oncoming traffic. What kept you from doing it? I didn’t know. I didn’t want to hurt anybody else. And I guess, honestly, I just wanted to see how everything was going to end. He wrote it all down. This was a far cry from the fill-in-the-blank aptitude test I took sophomore year. I kept looking around the room, my armpits sweating. Wherever they had hidden the camera it was very discreet.


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That I would accidentally end up in therapy was emblematic of my life at 17. Things just seemed to happen to me, and out of curiosity and boredom I went along with them. Other people were such mysteries. I would watch my parents and teachers and kids at school and wonder why they did the things they did or thought the things they thought. It all seemed arbitrary. And no matter how long or deep my ruminations, I got no closer to understanding. The path of least resistance became my mode. I rolled my jeans, wore only certain brands of shoes, combed my hair how everybody else combed theirs. I wasn’t a conformist in hopes of attaining some higher social status. Rather, it was the easiest way not to care. I had music and TV shows and being outside and reading if the book was any good. Maybe someday I’d get motivated.

That I would accidentally end up in therapy was emblematic of my life at 17.

***

I hadn’t known Rachel Thompson well when we started going together the previous spring. She was a grade behind me. She ran cross-country and was a junior varsity cheerleader, and when she and her friend got dumped by their boyfriends mere weeks before prom, they approached my best friend and me about double dating. It was only after agreeing that I learned Rachel had something of a reputation.

“You play your cards right,” my friend whispered to me conspiratorially over the phone one night, “and you could end up getting laid.”

I didn’t hate the idea.

How many times had I paused in the crowded hallways at school and watched girls rushing to and from class, laughing, books in their arms, and wondered — sadly, self-pityingly — if any of them wanted it as badly as I did?

But I wasn’t enough of an asshole to commiserate about something like that with my friend on the phone. Or at least not about a specific person. Or maybe I’m getting it all wrong in the remembering and we were always talking about girls at school, objectifying them, talking up the things we would do if given the chance. Maybe I didn’t commiserate on the phone that night with my friend because this time it was about me.

Rachel Thompson lived in a little farmhouse way off in the country. School consolidation in our rural Indiana county put 25 miles of cornfields and grain silos between us, distance enough that every trip out felt like a journey. Her dad worked at a factory in town and was missing his front teeth but wore partials. Her mom was friendly and frail, a special ed teacher where I’d gone to middle school. They had a biological son who was 21 and already married, and Rachel, who they’d adopted as a baby. They loved each other and were a happy family and they welcomed me as one of their own straight away. The day of prom I came dressed in my tux and with a corsage to pin to Rachel’s dress, and everyone was there, all smiles and warmth and good cheer. Her brother had a camcorder and kept ribbing me about being unable to get the corsage on right until finally her mother stepped in and straightened things out.

I liked the Thompsons, and I liked Rachel. In the weeks after prom, we spent more and more time together. We were both on the track team and would hold hands and talk on the long bus rides home from away meets. On the weekends, I’d drive out to her house and watch movies on TV with her and her folks, and afterwards we’d hang out in the living room alone. They had a piano. She’d play and sing “The Rose” and “From a Distance” by Bette Midler. I loved the warmth of her voice, the way it filled the whole house.

“Play your cards right and you could end up getting laid,” my friend had said. But he didn’t know how she played the piano. Neither did I. I couldn’t have anticipated the intimacy of those performances in her living room. The occasional missed chord followed by a correction. Her voice reaching up for a note.

Being around her made me feel like a different person. Or maybe more like myself. As though I didn’t have to blend in or hide. As though I was worth something for no other reason than that I was here and we were together.

‘Play your cards right and you could end up getting laid,’ my friend had said. But he didn’t know how she played the piano. Neither did I. I couldn’t have anticipated the intimacy of those performances in her living room. The occasional missed chord followed by a correction. Her voice reaching up for a note.

We used to listen to Pink Floyd late at night. We made out to it sometimes, too, down in my folks’ basement. I didn’t understand the meaning of the lyrics, just that they were meaningful. The way a line could lift me out of myself and remake me. The way kissing Rachel could lift me out of myself and remake me. I felt stupidly lucky. Happy. What had I done to make any of this happen? I had no idea. And I didn’t care. I couldn’t see a single advantage to thinking too much and somehow jinxing it all.

I remember one afternoon we were driving some empty county road listening to the radio and talking as the cornfields whizzed past. Rachel reached over and lay a hand on my thigh. I glanced at her, smiling, uncertain. She stared straight ahead. As I kept driving, she inched her hand over until she was holding me with it. Everything got quiet. The music and the fields swam away from us. I pressed on the accelerator — 60, 70, 80 mph. Nothing had ever felt as thrilling. Then she laughed. And I laughed. Finally we came to a stoplight at an intersection with another highway and she took her hand back.

“Don’t think bad of me,” she said.

“Why would I?”

“For that.”

“I don’t,” I said. “I liked it.”

I never thought bad of Rachel — for anything. She knew what she wanted, and people who knew what they wanted fascinated me. How did they know? Was there something they understood about the world that I didn’t? Some anxious part of me always feared I was living life the wrong way. The thought of screwing up paralyzed me. Even as a kid, my family had called me “Lump” because rather than jump into the action, I sat back and studied the other kids and only joined the fun when I knew it was safe.

Rachel didn’t need a career counselor or to take an aptitude test. After high school she was going to enroll in a two-year associates degree and then work as an administrative assistant. She already typed 70 words per minute and with practice could reach 100 or 110. She had a starting salary in mind, a neighborhood where she wanted to live. I’d listen to her tell me these things and marvel at her confidence.

I didn’t know what I wanted. I didn’t even really know my options. I figured I’d go to college and see what happened. That had been the only real story my parents had pushed on me — go to college. We didn’t talk about what it would be like or what I might do once I was there. One night my mother was helping me fill out my application. I had to check a box for a major as part of the process. I mentioned Creative Writing, the only thing on the list that looked halfway interesting. My mother pointed to the major right above it: Communication. She thought liberal arts majors all took pretty much the same classes and said communication might sound better on a résumé. We were sitting at the kitchen table. She looked up at me, pen poised and ready. “OK,” I said. “Communication.”

Some anxious part of me always feared I was living life the wrong way. The thought of screwing up paralyzed me.

I didn’t want to argue because on some level it didn’t matter. I wasn’t going to convince her and I didn’t want go to the trouble of trying. It was easier to concede. But beneath that expedience opened a sinkhole of unacknowledged truth. I didn’t want to share that part of my life — my private thoughts and feelings, my hopes and dreams and vulnerabilities — with her. Or with anyone. It didn’t feel safe. There is plenty of poetry in small-town Indiana but there aren’t many poets there to sing it. For years, on instinct, I stuffed down my emotions, hid my heart away, kept secret the million delicious melancholies a poet perceives before language arrives to set them free. Part of the reason people who knew what they wanted fascinated me was that I couldn’t figure out how they dealt with the pain of being so exposed. Or didn’t they feel what I felt inside? The burden of some fragile, unacknowledged gift. A sense of life’s utter strangeness. Life’s brutality and grace. What I had learned was to blend in, to keep perfectly still. If no one knew me, no one could hurt me.

But at the same time, I was desperate to be known. On long drives through the country, or after we’d made out on the couch in her living room, I’d spill my guts to Rachel, talking music, telling stories about my family, sharing poems I’d written in a journal. And I’d ask questions, too, and listen to her answers. She was kind, thoughtful, funny. That she could so easily be herself had opened up space for me to do the same. And she never judged me. I remember when we finally had sex — my first time — she didn’t laugh at how quickly it was all over. Or she laughed but not in a bad way. She said, “You’re kidding, right?” but seemed more amused than anything, and after a few minutes we tried again with greater success. It was tentative and awkward and fun and sweet.

Afterward, we got dressed and drove to her brother’s house for a family picnic and kept looking at each other, sharing glances. I realized half the fun of sex was knowing you’d had it, the secret in your smile. Though maybe if anyone in her family had really looked at us just then they’d have known. And that was the other exciting part I hadn’t considered — the work of keeping it a secret. Her hulking factory-worker father with the missing front teeth, giant teddy bear though he was to Rachel, could have crushed me like a beer can. But I was too dumb and happy to be afraid. I piled baked beans and hot dogs and potato salad onto a plate.

The one person I told, a friend since kindergarten who I knew I could trust, said, “Have you even told her you love her yet?”

“No,” I said.

“Do you?” he said.

The question surprised me. I hadn’t considered it once in the whole time Rachel and I had been hanging out. It felt beside the point. Of course I loved her. Did I have to say it for her to know? Had I made a mistake by not saying it? Had I broken some unspoken rule? It pained me to think I’d messed something up without even knowing.

The next time we had sex I whispered “I love you” in her ear. She didn’t say it back. She sighed and said, “You’re sweet.”

Of the two of us, Rachel was the sweet one. I remember on her dad’s birthday, she wanted to surprise him at work so we hit Taco Bell and Burger King and McDonald’s, got him a big bag full of his favorite fast food treats for lunch. He worked on the shop floor at Alcoa, an aluminum supplier. When he came out to greet us he was sweating and streaked with grease. And at first he thought something was wrong — what were we doing there? Then she handed him the bag and he looked inside. Tacos. Burgers. A hot apple pie. The look on his face as he realized she’d gone to all those different places for him. I thought he might cry right on the spot.

The next time we had sex I whispered ‘I love you’ in her ear. She didn’t say it back. She sighed and said, ‘You’re sweet.’

My dad worked in a factory, too — a pharmaceutical plant — but I’d never taken him lunch as a surprise. I hardly even knew what he did there all day long. Family meant something more to Rachel. On one of those nights she’d played the piano and sung for me, we ended up snuggling on the couch. She told me about her biological mother.

“All I know about her,” she said, “was that she was morbidly obese. So I have to watch myself. That’s all I really know.”

We’d had sex several times, but I’d never felt closer to her, or more overwhelmed by tenderness, than in that moment. It was how she said I love you back.

One Sunday night in early summer, I went with the Thompsons and some of their friends to a carnival a half hour down the road in Crawfordsville. Rachel had been coming to the carnival, she said, for as long as she could remember. It reminded me of the county fair I’d gone to every summer when I was a kid and would stay for a few weeks with my grandparents in Illinois. It made me think about how inside Rachel was a whole world of memories and experiences, and that I was lucky for a glimpse. That night we walked the fairway holding hands. Barkers called for us to toss softballs into milk canisters, pitch pennies onto plates. Swells of melodic pipe organ music spilled from the carousel. Kids spun themselves dizzy on a Tilt-A-Whirl. I remember looking up at the Ferris wheel — this giant spinning disc of light against the night’s darkness — and how, at the very top, an empty seat rocked back and forth. The poet in me knew it meant something but I wasn’t sure what. For a moment, I felt unaccountably sad and alone, even though there were people all around and I was in love.

***

In mid-July, Rachel and I spent a week apart — and at 17, a week is a long time. Led by my mother and a friend, my church youth group attended the Presbyterian Youth Triennium at Purdue, where some 5,000 kids from around the country swarm campus for seven days of fellowship and singing and sharing ideas.

It was something to do the way going to church was something to do. Every Sunday I dutifully got up, got dressed, and endured boring Sunday school lessons and sermons and droned along with the hymns. I liked some of the stories, like when Jesus turned over the money changers’ tables in the temple, but the supernatural stuff left me cold and I instinctively hated people’s moralism and judgmental attitudes. Part of every service was a prayer the congregation read aloud. The gist was to acknowledge our selfishness and insufficiency, our pettiness, our weakness, the stain of sin made manifest through our desires.

It fetishized shame.

I remember always wondering why we should apologize for being human when we’d never asked to be born. And if God made these bodies of ours, why deny ourselves the pleasure or pain of inhabiting them?

On the first night of Triennium, everyone gathered in Purdue’s Elliot Hall of Music. It was crowded and noisy, more like a rock concert than a church service. “Brown-Eyed Girl” played over the loudspeakers and kids my age — several thousand of them — sang and swayed and hung off each other. I didn’t know what to think, only that I liked it. And whatever it was that allowed them to so freely express themselves — I wanted it.

Over the course of the week, I met kids from California, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Hawaii. They were vibrant and energized. They talked about travel, music, movies, art, poetry, philosophy. Things no one had ever really talked to me about before — or at least not with that intensity. Learning about their lives gave me a glimpse of something beyond Indiana and its cornfields and grain silos and empty railroad tracks, and beyond boring hymns and the weekly recitation of my inadequacies at church. What if instead of being passive and private and cautious, I became joyful and engaged with life like these people I was meeting? What did I have to lose?

What if instead of being passive and private and cautious, I became joyful and engaged with life like these people I was meeting? What did I have to lose?

Rachel and I spoke by phone once or twice that week. It was hard to explain to her what was happening inside of me. I didn’t have the words yet. And I felt guilty. Anxious. A feeling had begun to creep over me that I’d been dishonest with her somehow, that maybe I hadn’t really loved her but only been interested in sex. If I was going to be joyful and free, I had to look at myself clearly. I had to be honest. That I wanted sex at all felt like an indictment enough against my character to prove I was capable of using someone for it. I don’t know. It was irrational. Somehow feeling excited about a new life seemed a betrayal of the old.

I remember driving out to see her the day after Triennium ended. We laid in a hammock in her backyard and I probably sounded like a lunatic trying to convey to her how spiritually enlightened I felt. That night we had dinner and watched a movie with her folks. After they went to bed we made out on the couch.

“Do you think,” Rachel said breathlessly in my ear, “that you’d come right away … I mean, if we just put it in for a second?”

“Yes.”

“You would?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Probably.”

We sat up and straightened our clothes. Her curly hair glinted in the lamp light, the ends all frazzled. She was pretty. She smelled like fresh laundry. It seemed like maybe a thousand years since her mom had helped me pin the corsage to her prom dress.

We broke up at the end of July, during the Tippecanoe County 4-H fair. I don’t recall exactly what Rachel’s involvement had been with the fair but her being there meant we didn’t see each other or talk on the phone much, and with that on the heels of my week away, an inevitable drift set in. I remember feeling secretly grateful for the time apart. Since that night at her house after Triennium, I’d only started to feel more guilty and anxious about our having had sex. It had nothing to do with her but with me. It had nothing to do with sex. Or God. Rather, it was the part of my psyche obsessed with protecting itself from hurt. I don’t know how to explain it, only that it’s always been there, a dark current in my thoughts. The most generous interpretation I can give it is to say that it wielded shame like a weapon in a misguided attempt to save me from myself. It raised doubts. It lied. It preferred the cold certainty of loneliness over the chaos of love. I was too confused to say anything to Rachel, to even try to talk things through. Instead, I said nothing. I stopped acting like her boyfriend and waited for her to break up with me.

The night she called and suggested we hang out with other people, I quickly agreed. She said it just seemed like we were in different places right now. She was confused but not upset, or at least not outwardly so. I said she should enjoy being at the fair. She should have fun and hang out with whomever she wanted.

After we hung up, I waited to feel something, but nothing came. A coldness, maybe. There had been guys in her life before me, and there would be guys in her life after me. That’s what I told myself to assuage my guilt. I had chosen fear over her.

The last time I saw Rachel that summer was in my parents’ kitchen a few weeks before school started. She stopped by to drop off a T-shirt or something I’d left at her house. She talked for a while with my folks and my brother, and then we were alone.

“My period came,” she said.

My cheeks burned.

“Good,” I said.

She had told me when we first started having sex that the physicality of her cross-country training meant that sometimes her period skipped a month but not to worry about it. It startled me to have already forgotten to worry. Meanwhile, the whole last month, she had been wondering if she could be carrying my baby.

“It’s weird, isn’t it?” she said, pushing a glass of iced tea from one hand to another. “To think that we used to do that?”

“No.”

“It’s not weird?”

“It’s not weird,” I said.

But I said it in a way that meant I didn’t want to keep talking about this — not if it was going to hurt. In that moment I was the human equivalent of a closed door. I thought the best thing for both of us was to pretend nothing had happened. I couldn’t look her in the eye. I said again it wasn’t weird, and that she shouldn’t feel bad. She stared into her glass of iced tea. If there was more she wanted to say, she kept it to herself. She said she should probably go. I said OK.

A therapist might have been able to help me sort through the complexity of such a moment and find some compassion for myself. A therapist might have inquired into the circumstances and early life events that made turning into the human equivalent of a closed door seem like my best option. I could also have used a therapist to process my return to earth after the high of my spiritual awakening. Maybe I’d had a vision of some new possibility for a life outside Indiana and the narrow walls of my thinking, but I still had a year of high school to get through. I spent most of it goofing off, playing guitar, pretending I was some kind of poet by reciting “The Waste Land” in speech class. It made me feel important to tell a room of my peers that April was the cruelest month. Who cared what it meant?

In the process, I might have seen Rachel more clearly, too. At 17 I didn’t understand how much our culture hates women, that a woman couldn’t want sex — the same thing I wanted — without paying a price. I thought if I loved her none of that mattered. I thought being nice was enough. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that I carefully avoided thinking about those things. Nothing in my training for manhood required it.

At 17 I didn’t understand how much our culture hates women, that a woman couldn’t want sex — the same thing I wanted — without paying a price. I thought if I loved her none of that mattered. I thought being nice was enough. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that I carefully avoided thinking about those things.

I remember in the hallway at school one day that fall, Rachel’s ex-boyfriend came up and slapped me on the back and said, “Know why we go out with girls like Rachel? Because they like to fuck.”

He said it matter-of-factly, without a trace of rancor or vengeance. As I recall, he was smiling, practically congratulating me. In my naivete, I chalked it up to his just being an asshole, end of story. Across the years, however, what I see is a boy convincing himself — and trying to convince me — that fucking is all women are for. There aren’t enough therapists in the world to fix what’s wrong with men like that.

I’ve had the good fortune of returning to therapy as an adult — on purpose this time — and one of the questions my therapist likes to ask is what I’d say so my former self if I could. What would I like for him to know in moments of hardship or stress? And I’m always shocked when the answer arrives, some bit of simple wisdom that was inside me all along. That to be human is to hurt. That love is worth the suffering it brings. But really all I want to do is put my arm around him and tell him to buck up, maybe read him a poem by somebody who’s still alive. I want him to know nobody’s perfect and there’s a chance every day to make things right if you fuck up. And I want to thank him for that image of the empty seat at top of the Ferris Wheel, which has become a talisman for my intention to open myself to things I don’t understand. “You did your job,” I want to tell him. “You got me here.”

Not that I know for sure how that all happened. I had maybe three sessions with the kind-eyed “career counselor” at Purdue before I figured out that we weren’t really talking about careers. And I think it surprised him at the end of that third session when I announced I would no longer be coming to see him. He was surprised but didn’t try to convince me to stay. He said he thought I was very mature for my age, and that I had a bright future ahead of me. I felt bad and hoped I wasn’t letting him down. I didn’t want to mess up his research and writing. But I could tell from his questions about my life, and from his genuine interest in the answers, that if we kept talking he was going to make me feel things I didn’t want to feel. I wasn’t ready for that. I didn’t know if I’d ever be ready. What kind of comfort was there in confronting the things that hurt you? The times you’d been cruel or the victim of cruelty? What could possibly be gained by diving into the question of why you wanted the things you wanted? The longer I could put off that conversation the better, even if some part of me knew it was inevitable. What I wanted at 17 was to glide just a little longer in the safety of my childhood. What I wanted was to float. And that’s what I did, out of his office into the dark of another September night.

***

Steve Edwards is author of Breaking into the Backcountry, a memoir of his time as the caretaker of a wilderness homestead in southern Oregon. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife and son.

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Editor: Krista Stevens

Copy editor: Jacob Gross