When I am thirteen there are a pair of boys that call me sometimes after school. I am bewildered by their attention, still more interested in books than in boys. It is a bad year. I spend it feeling alien, awkward in my thoughts if not in my body, and there is always someone for whom I am not enough.
And in the years between that one and 37 there will always be those for whom I am not enough, the ones who want me to be prettier, the ones who want me to be thin, the ones who want me to be less intelligent, the ones who tell me I am cold because they don’t understand a language of love that is expressed in anything beyond just words, as if there hadn’t been generations of parents walking babies up and down halls in the dark, as if there hadn’t been that father in Hayden’s poem who, “with cracked hands that ached/from labor in the weekday weather made/banked fires blaze,” as if there hadn’t been shirts pressed and folded, someone praying by a bedside, as if there hadn’t been someone showing up, just always showing up.
I will meet the first one again at a party in high school, will spend two years trying to love him enough to make it work. We will be bad for each other and to each other, in the careless way that teenagers often are, think that love is meant to be some kind of vine twisting through insides, something that aches and aches and is never still.
I will leave him when I meet my husband, spend the next 15 years with him until he dies.
The second one I will meet again the year after my husband’s death. We will become people whose children hang out. Then we will become friends. And then we will become no longer even that, maybe something just resembling mess.
He will hurt me worse than the first one did.
“Do you still think about him?” my counselor asks.
“Of course,” I tell her. “Because I still care about him, and I worry about him.”
“What do you worry about?” she asks.
“I worry that the same things that caused our friendship to fail, that caused him to leave the woman he thought he loved, that plagued him in his marriage, that those things are still with him, that they’ll impact his ability to be genuinely successful in any long-term relationship.”
“Maybe that isn’t meant to be part of his path,” she says.
“Maybe not. But I can wish it for him anyway, can’t I?”
What else indeed had I wished for but his joy, since that day I watched him push his daughter on the swing, singing “The Rainbow Connection” in Kermit’s voice, the summer sun coming down, his eyes, brown, alight, easy laughter peeling out across the porch?
Except perhaps too a happiness of my own. And in this sense I am still no different at 37 than I am at 13, when an awkward boy had laughed with an equally awkward girl. Whether I am 13 or 37, I will not want to change just to please them. I will just want instead a different story, one in which who I already am had been enough.