A million miles – like feeling low

“I entered the school totally unready for what would happen.  I didn’t know what I would say, but at least I had Mr. Edwards and Dennis alongside me.  When the students finished entering the room, Mr. Edwards turned toward me and said, ‘This is the face of a former teenage prostitute.’  Although I stumbled a little in my delivery of who I was and how I’d come to live the life we were discussing, the students were never disrespectful, even in their shock and horror.  At one point that day I went into the bathroom and a teenage girl stopped me to talk about how she’d been in a bad place herself, but had asked for help and was much happier now.  Her kindness and obvious relief at being in a better and safer place now was touching.  I made sure to mention it to Mr. Edwards when I returned as I did not want to do her a disservice by making untrue anything I had told her or the others I’d met that day.  Of course, that also meant that I had to continue to live a lie.”

So started a paper I wrote my freshman year of college.  A paper that one of my classmates, Paul, reminded me about a year or two later as we worked together on the school’s newspaper, The Dolphin.  I had written about a day in the very rural town of Blossburg, Pennsylvania, when I was role playing as a part of a program through my high school called the Mental Health Players.  The man who ran the program, John Edwards, worked at the Elmira Psych Center, though I have no idea what his title was or what he did when not with us.  He used students from my high school as peer educators, of a sort.  We went to schools, meetings, and even conferences to talk to kids primarily, but also, on occasion, to parents and civic leaders about health issues (mental and physical) affecting teens.  Part of the deal with our presentations was that Mr. Edwards would not tell us who we were going to be that day or what issue(s) we’d be dealing with until the last possible minute.  I’m sure that the reasoning was that we would be more likely to respond within the role if we just had to react by gut instinct, rather than having time to rehearse lines and practice them, which could sound just as made-up as they would be.

Paul’s reminder of that paper struck me as funny – I loved that I had “caught” my audience when I read it aloud in class that day, and that they had laughed at the ending.  I was touched, too, that he would recall such a thing with clarity as he did.  But, I have come to learn that he is very observant.  He pays attention to things that really matter.

Paul became my editor at the college paper in our senior year.  The years prior we had worked together – he as a writer and I as an artist with at least one opportunity to write – for the April Fool’s issue of The Dolphin, which we called The Blowfish.  I suppose I undercut myself from asking to write because it mattered too much to me.  I knew I was an ok artist and cartoonist, so I focused on that because there really weren’t any others lobbying hard for the job.  My senior year there was a far more accomplished cartoonist on staff and as I recall, I retreated – I was the Art Editor, but I didn’t produce the art any longer.  This undercutting, quitting, was something I did to myself for many, many years.  I did not really try at things, even when I really wanted them.  If I tried and failed, then I was a confirmed failure, whereas if I did ok without any real effort then I could always say that I’d not put any work into it.  Although I am and was an intelligent person,  I’m not sure why I came to this conclusion (about failure) nor why I didn’t make the very obvious leap from it that my thought wasn’t working.  I couldn’t go to the colleges I felt were within my ability.  I couldn’t get into the classes I felt I should pursue.  I avoided art and writing classes, though they made me feel like I was coming alive.  It seems like I was forever punishing myself just for being myself.

So, here was this man, Paul.  I knew that he liked me and I enjoyed his company a great deal.  He was certainly physically attractive – dark hair, dark eyes, a little taller than me and a runner’s physique.  His body would have made me rule him out (because I was insecure with men who were not bigger than me in size), but I’d actually lost a good deal of weight when waitressing the summer between my junior and senior years of college, so I was feeling a bit more confident.  The things, though, that truly drew me to Paul were his intellect and his sense of humor.  Oh he was so funny.  We could talk about politics, college issues, our future plans and then he’d start making me laugh by acerbically lampooning a professor or national politician.  We’d both attended Catholic schools growing up, were from small families, had had body issues – he had been heavier when he was younger, before becoming a runner.

The problem was that Paul cared about me and I knew it.  He was kind.  He took me on a date to the theater – which at the time was in an old fire station just across the street from campus.  He even brought me a rose when he picked me up.  Both of those were firsts for me in college; in dating as a whole.  I had never really dated – I just assumed that I was unloveable, undateable.  His kindness scared me.  Truly terrified me.

When I went on an Emmaus retreat my senior year with a group of students, Paul told me I’d really enjoy it.  I remember that it was well into the winter as Cazenovia Lake was frozen over and the backyard of the retreat house was deeply piled with snow all the way down to the water’s edge.  Although students ran the retreat, the woman who ran Campus Ministry was there for supervision and Fr. Ned Coughlin, a Jesuit, was there to do all of the cooking for the weekend.  The house was a big old lake house – worn in and a bit shabby, but warm, comfortable, and inviting.  It was a sprawling farmhouse – big rooms, lots of windows, especially facing the lake – so there was lots of room to gather, as well as be alone.  In my mind, I remember it being quite peaceful – there was some music, some prayer, lots of contemplation and an overwhelming feeling of community.  The fragrant scents of savory fare that would envelop us at meal times was as vibrant as the blindingly bright sunshine on the thigh-high mounds of snow that we, of course, had to lope through and play in at least once over the weekend.

At one point near to the end of the retreat we all received thick packets of what we were told were “palancas.”  These were essentially letters written by other students who had previously gone on the retreat – well wishes, sharing of insights, and sometimes even a personal note.  I remember that there was a note from Jim, whom I’d hooked up with, though to call what we’d done “dating” would be overstating it by a mile or so; and there was a note from Paul, who had made efforts to court me and win me over, wonderful guy that he was.  The note from Jim was brief and generic.  I don’t remember a thing about it, other than it existed.  The note from Paul was more heart-felt and genuine and touched me deeply.  I still have that packet full of notes to this day.   When I want to revisit a positive experience from college I pull it out to reread them all.

The days escape me now – which unfortunately may just be a poor memory or could be attributable to some medications I’ve taken throughout the years which had the (at the time unknown to me) undesirable side-effects of loss of memory and mental confusion.  I’m sure if I asked Paul he could recount the times we came together and many of the things we discussed.  However, I remember nights spent editing the school’s newspaper.  I’m sure we spent Dolphy Day together (a springtime tradition at LeMoyne where classes are cancelled and there is much drinking and partying in the quad for the length of the day, usually starting around 4 or 5 a.m.).  I recall him visiting me in the art studio when I was there late into the darkness of night working on a linoleum block print of my version of a self-portrait that I was fashioning on a remembrance of Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery and trying to find the answers to life in its creation.  There was at least one time at the Dewittshire Tavern where he guarded the guys’ bathroom door so that I could run in and use the facilities when the ladies’ room had a ridiculously long line.  Each time there was something – a moment of poignancy and kindness that scared me – and I’d either screw things up with him that night, or ignore my insecurities and let myself be treated like one should.

What I do remember, with crystal clarity, is hurting him.  That memory makes me ache.  He was too good, too kind.  It wasn’t the “bad boys have all the appeal” crap that you see in Cosmo or other young women’s sex and fashion magazines.  It was the fact that I did not love myself.  In fact, you could easily argue that the way I treated myself was as one who hates another.  So, to be confronted with a man, a wonderfully clever man, who seemed to love the damaged person I was, scared me witless.  Being confronted with his acceptance and caring was too much.  I wanted and needed emotional abuse and neglect because it was what I expected, what I felt I deserved, if I deserved anything at all.  Paul wasn’t the first man in college who had offered me such – there were two others – but he was the only one who really fought with me to try to get me to accept his love.

We reconnected once again during Senior Week, though his roommates, a band of merry men who were also very good friends to Paul and very loyal to him, did not like me whatsoever (not that I blamed them one iota).  But, the heart has reasons which reason does not understand – and wistfulness at the end of an era can be a very strong factor, indeed.

He sang.  Did I mention that?  There was this group of seniors who had created a little band.  I don’t remember anything that they played other than when Paul would take the lead and sing “Low” by Cracker.  He could totally rock that song.  Yep, it makes me smile to even think about it now.  We went to the Jamesville Grove for a clam bake during that last week of being a college senior.  The band was under a pavilion and just going crazy – having a blast playing music together for maybe the last time ever.  And the rest of us were soaking up the sun, singing, dancing, and seizing the day for all we were worth as the days of freedom and college living wound down.  Paul and I ended up at my room at Harrison Hall afterwards.  Luckily, my annoying roommate who had driven me nuts all year, had also been a sophomore, so she had been sent on her way days before.  We didn’t have trouble with physical intimacy – I had trouble with intimacy of the heart.

There was also a trip to Alexandria Bay for a boat cruise.  Somewhere in my boxes of belongings is a picture or two of us on the boat, arms entwined as the sun set.  Looking at it, I can see his love and my discomfort, even as I wanted to be with him.  And I did.  I wanted, so badly, to be in love with him.  To enjoy him and being with him just as much as he did with me.  Of course, I also look at that photo now and it seems like I am just ridiculously young.

At some point that summer we connected and went together to his friend’s wedding.  We stayed at a hotel nearby, as did some of Paul’s other friends and their long-term girlfriends.  It was beautiful – as summers in upstate New York always are and weddings between two young people in love just have to be.  There were flowers everywhere and lots of kids I’d gone to college with.  But, I didn’t really enjoy it because I felt like a complete fraud.  I was afraid of Paul, afraid of his friends somehow exposing me publicly as not being worthy of Paul, all the while also afraid of being alone… And, I just ran away.

I gave Paul up – broke off ties.  He was living near Albany and I was living at home.  I was waitressing again, and had applied to the Jesuit Volunteer Corps: South to volunteer for a year because, with an English Literature degree I was essentially unemployable.  I was overqualified for some jobs and underqualified for others.  My best friend from college had a part-time job with Barnes & Noble in Syracuse and we had always planned that I would move back there and we’d live together.  Above all else, I did not want to stay home with my parents.  When things blew up in a spectacularly messy way at my summer job, I had just heard from an AIDS agency in Mobile, Alabama, offering me a position as a Case Manager for a year.  I took it.  I was terrified of going, but more afraid to stay.

I don’t even know if I said goodbye.  It’s taken me years to say I’m sorry – to both of us.  I’m still at work on forgiving myself.


6 thoughts on “A million miles – like feeling low

  1. Jen,
    I’m loving your blog!!! As I read this entry, the only thing that continuously smacks me is the down side to going to Catholic school and being raised Catholic. The recurring theme of that religion is that we are never deserving, never good enough for eternal love so how could we possibly be good enough for the physical love that we might find in this life? Life IS sin and suffering. This life is atonement for past and anticipated sins. A Pay it Forward Penance. When that message is taught at such an early age (even in diluted form), wonderful people and opportunities might present, but that must be crazy luck because we don’t deserve them. I’m not interested in vilifying Catholicism. I have beautiful memories and values I carry to this day from that experience. I also cannot deny the power it had over me and how it made perceive myself as another underserving bloke walking through this world.

    You’re right to say if you can’t love yourself, you’ll never be ready for the love others have to give you.

    I was also part of the mental health players! Wasn’t that an incredible experience? It was impromptu theatre before it become popular. We were avant-garde and exceptionally hip for our age, but had no clue at the time.


    1. 🙂 Thank you!!! I, too, have no interest in vilifying my Catholic school upbringing, but among other students I say I’m a survivor and we all chuckle and shudder. You’re right, of course, about the Pay It Forward Penance concept. If anyone(s) taught me through religion that I was unloveable, it was my great-aunts and, in some ways, sadly, my beloved Grandmère.
      We were total coolness in the Mental Health Players and John Edwards was literally and metaphorically larger than life. I remember going with him to a rabbi’s conference in the Catskills (sounds like a joke set-up) and having to say that I had AIDS. Oh my they went into tizzies and then swore they knew we were “faking” at the end. Pah!!!
      Again – thanks. I’m loving the blog, too.

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