“Here is the question: If you could talk to your 16-year-old self, what would you say? What advice, warnings, or encouragement would you give your younger self?”
I’m supposed to tell you I’d hug her.
Sixteen and she’s swallowed three seasons of the year by a men’s black wool coat that she thinks makes her look mysterious and androgynous, Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club or Jimmy Smits in NYPD Blue. Bangs to hide her face, soft plum of a chin, then another chin. Her acne’s bad but it could be worse. A couple of months ago, it dented her cheeks like someone held her face too long.
She’s hiding in the attic, reading, always, or writing plays for movie stars that come back – return to sender – accompanied by lawyer stationery, disclaimers. Mr. Martin has not received or read this material. It’s hard to think with the engine. Outside, her father’s driving a tractor in circles, chopping and spitting weeds. Her mother wants her to drink more milk.
On her elbows so long her hands go numb. There’s no screen in the attic window and the bees get in, fat and wobbly, and fly around the small of her back, their feathery legs dangling.
She doesn’t want a hug, doesn’t want anyone to touch her. She wants to know the future. Is asking me, ghost of thirty-four, of iPads and crow’s feet and trick knees, about the future. And so maybe I tell her.
I am sorry to inform you that sixteen is the year someone will throw twenty-three spitballs at the back of your head while you’re in the library reading Norman Maclean’s Young Men and Fire. Twenty-three: you’ll count them. You’ll pretend it’s not happening because you think you deserve it somehow, will wish you were thirty-four and brave and could walk over and tell this person to go fuck himself. But it won’t matter because when you’re thirty-four, you’ll see a photograph of him and he’ll be hunched and bald, wearing sockless loafers, standing on a boat that’s supposed to make up for the fact that his high school years were the best of his life.
You’ll see. Little by little, the bandages will come off.
You’re going to go to college, you’re going to go to New York, you’re going to have sex, you’re going to cry a lot, you’re going to sit on a wet bench smoking cigarettes, watching strangers get married in a park, the bride’s dress sweeping through goose shit. You’re going to talk to your friends on the phone, tell them how miserable you are while snow blows on the foot of your bed. You’re going to put cinnamon in your coffee and you’re going to call your mother and ask her how to make scrambled eggs. You’re going to watch Juliette Binoche in Blue and decide that’s who you want to be, French and beautiful and widowed, wearing a new, more form-fitting black wool coat. You’re going to have a crush on a girl in your D.H. Lawrence class whose cheeks look like apples and cream and you’ll decide you’re a lesbian for three months until you develop a crush on this girl’s boyfriend who has a beard and wears flannel shirts and smells like wilderness. You’re going to be bored and foolish and scared and thrilled. You’re going to, for an indecent amount of time, live on mashed potatoes and bagels.
It’s not going to be what you want because you’re not ready for it. You’re going to be surprised. This poor girl, she doesn’t even know.
The things you love, the things you hate, will basically be the same in twenty years, give or take. These questions will keep you up at night, irradiating you, a trembling skeleton in the bed. That’s okay, really. Your heart will gush, but you’ll sit up, dip your pen in the blood, and write it all down. You’ll write a whole fucking book.
The things you find funny now – that time rehearsing “Tom Thumb, Tragedy of Tragedies,” when somebody farted, when you squeezed each other into corsets, when you and your best friend were each other’s prom dates, when someone mispronounced a word and it became hilarious in its new incarnation, a word you’d carry around and pull out like a magic trick prompting cackle-laughter and snort-spit – all these things you will forget for a time, scattered and fallow in your skull. But they will come back, buzzing like locusts.
You should thank your teachers. Tell them the truth, that you don’t understand everything – anything – but you know you want to be like them instead of like Juliette Binoche. Stop skulking. Your teachers have given you a gift, and the least you can say is, hey thanks, I’ll remember you. Because you will.
That man you’ve been looking for? You already know him. One day soon, out of the blue, he’s going to call you up and for no reason either of you can understand, you will whisper into the phone for five hours, until your throats hurt and your mother leans through the kitchen and shushes you. You’ll lose him for a few years, keep bumping into him buying trash bags and talking about books in parking lots. Have you by any chance read – ? Yes. Yes. Yes.
That your mother was right about the milk.
That terrible things will happen, and beautiful things will happen, and you will live them out but not work them out, for they are the things that pull at you and freckle you and make those parenthesis around your eyes. Dearie, your body is recording your life.
But maybe I won’t tell her any of this, because I don’t believe in straight lines, in inevitability, that there’s a high probability that she will become anyone. I don’t know what would happen to her, what could happen to her, if she waits five more minutes, takes a different train. There she is now, shapeless and jittery, on a street somewhere, pretending she doesn’t need a map.
Oh hell. Can’t I give her a map?
_________________________________________________ © 2012 Elizabeth Eslami
Elizabeth Eslami Bio: Elizabeth Eslami is the author of the novel Bone Worship (Pegasus, 2010). Her essays, short stories, and travel writing have appeared in numerous publications, including The Millions, The Nervous Breakdown, Matador, and The Literary Review, and her work will be featured in the forthcoming anthologies Not in My Father’s House: An Anthology of Fiction By Iranian American Writers and Writing Off Script: Writers on the Influence of Cinema. Her story collection, The Hibernarium, was a finalist for the 2011 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. She currently teaches at Manhattanville College. For more information, visit her website at Elizabeth Eslami