I am twenty-five, sitting in the passenger seat of a car with a half empty cup of coffee on my lap. Next to me is Charlotte, and we are driving back to the city from the suburbs where we’ve just spent the fourth of July. Our eyes are red and our necks are sore because we have slept for thirteen hours in uncomfortable positions on uncomfortable things in her mother’s house. Me, the floor. Her, an armchair.
“This was so fun,” I say, and mean it. “I’m glad you wanted me to come.”
“Of course!” she smiles. “You’re family, we all love you.”
I start fussing with the radio. The first station is playing Nickleback. The second station is playing Creed. Char turns it off.
“Thank God,” I say. “If I’d have changed it again, you know it would have been Dave Matthews.”
“We would have had to throw ourselves out of the car.”
“Just ‘Okay, that’s enough.’ Door opens. Tuck and roll.”
She laughs. “SO good.”
I am twenty-five when I am driving with Charlotte and I am eleven when I make my first friend. I’ve spent my entire childhood up to this point alone because other kids and I don’t go together very well. I read a lot, I make things, I climb trees. In class I do my work, I sit alone at lunch and write stories. I’m never sad about this because I never know any different. Up until a girl with a long dark braid volunteers to show me around my new school.
“I’m Jasmine,” she says.
“Hi,” I say. “Why are you talking to me?”
Jasmine knows other girls. Belinda, Natalie, Jessica, Lauren. Nicky. Cassie. Melissa. They talk to me and I talk back. Gradually I learn to be social. I do not make it easy on these girls; it’s like trying to domesticate a wild cat sometimes. I’m bossy and aggressive and blunt to the point of being unkind, but slowly I learn to trust them. I realise that they want to know me not so that they can make fun of me, but because they like me. I realise that I can like them back. I start to forget how it was before, being alone.
I am sixteen and in a new country and have so many feelings that I’m absolutely sick with them. I’m lonely and angry and sad and totally, utterly grief-stricken. I hate everyone. I hate that I cared about people, that I made these friends that I can’t live without now. I hate that I ever felt love for anything or anyone. My heart is trying to roundhouse-kick its way out of my chest. My skin is cold and prickly. I’m constantly tasting bile in the back of my throat. I hate all of it, this heartbreak, this MISSING that is so intense I’m reasonably sure it’ll kill me. The few moments I’m not wishing that I’ll die I spend wishing that everyone else will die.
I never say anything out loud, never have a Scarlett O’Hara moment of resolution. I clumsily start putting myself back together and I know that I’ll never let anything affect me like this again. I’ll never love anything so much that it’ll be able to hurt me if I lose it. WHEN I lose it. As God as my witness, I’ll never have feelings again.
I’m twenty-one and a boy has broken up with me. Publicly. Humiliatingly. My ego, how she is bruised! I don’t know what to do. I’m the one who gets the call when something like this happens, I don’t make that call. I’m Alle Malice for god’s sake, I am THE tough cookie. Boys don’t make me cry; I make them cry. I am not the girl who gets upset over a guy, who worries when he doesn’t call, who dreads what’s coming. I am better than this shit.
Am I better than this shit?
And now I am twenty-five and have learned that things can get worse than a boy. At this very second I’m finding out exactly how much worse, because I’ve just been given the most awful news of my adult life. I keep thinking that I’m okay, that I’m prepared, but somehow I can’t get a handle on my emotions. I keep lashing out at people, I’m always on the verge of tears and for someone with superhuman emotional control this is both embarrassing and really scary. I expect my friends not to care or worse; that they’ll pity me or be frightened.
And yet. Every person I reach out to reaches back and grabs my hands and tells me that it’s okay. I’m going to be okay. Can they do anything for me? Bring me something? Come over? Even with all this gentleness, I still can’t say Yes please, help me, I’m alone and I can’t do this alone. I sit in my bathtub and press my knuckles into my eyes until I see spots and I cry. It doesn’t make me feel any better, which makes me angry, which makes me cry harder.
I hate crying. I have always hated to cry. It’s so futile.
“I would hate to think I’d raised a daughter who was too afraid to take a chance,” says my mother over the phone one night.
“It’s not that I’m afraid,” I say. “It’s just that I need to know how it’s going to be with people. Situations. Relationships.”
“And if you can’t?”
“Then I don’t want to do it.”
“Because what if I trust them and they betray me? What if I get invested and they go ‘Oh, sorry, done with you now’? It’s not worth it. That pain is too much. I’d rather just not care.”
“Life is scary, Honey-Girl,” says my Mum, using her super-secret pet name for me. “It might happen. But if you live like that and only let people into your life that don’t really matter, you’re going to be miserable. I know you’re okay with being alone, but I don’t want you to be lonely when you’re with people.”
I make a face that she doesn’t see. “Yeah, well, maybe I can deal with that.”
“No you can’t,” she says, a hard edge creeping into her voice. “Listen to me, Alison. You don’t have to open up to everyone. The world doesn’t have to be your best friend. Find people who are going to love you the same way that you love them. If that’s one best friend or a group of five or a nice man someday, fine. Those are the people you need.”
I roll my eyes. “As if THAT’s going to happen.”
“Don’t say that.”
“I’m just saying that I don’t think anybody will ever love me the way I want to be loved.”
Now I am twenty-five and I finally, finally understand what my mother meant. I think about my people, how they’ve been there for me, and I know that they love me exactly the same way that I love them. I realise that loving people doesn’t just mean being there for them all the time. You have to trust them not to try to hurt you when you’re strong and to love you even when you’re a mess. A screaming, sobbing, nuclear-meltdown mess. They’ll help you put yourself back together. You just have to be able to say the words. You just have to be able to ask.
It’s been fourteen years since I made a friend and learned what it was to feel safe with people in my life. I’m still learning what that means. But I’m driving in the car with Charlotte and we’re laughing and I know that I’m on the right track.
“Are you okay?” she asks me as we’re turning onto the expressway.
“Yep. I’m fine.”
And I am.