When she was born, her mom was on her back, in the hospital, confused and in a hazy pain, twilit spots scattered across her eyes. Her dad, in a different room in the same hospital, fiddled thumbs, paced to and fro, rocked back and forth, checked his watch and then checked the clock, and watched a UNICEF concert that was supposed to celebrate and market “International Year of a Child.” Gilda Radner and Henry Winkler hosted.
When she was one she stuck her fingers in her mouth and pressed down on her gums, experiencing self-inflicted pleasure and pain, having not yet been taught that these sensations had two different names.
When she was two she said the word “bang” over and over again, slapping her hands on tabletops, and the brown retriever mutt, Dusty (who never acted like he minded), and also her mom’s chest, and all the mailboxes she walked by, and also record players and chairs and her own head.
When she was three she learned how to read. Not that anyone believed her when she mentioned it.
When she was four she brought her favorite spoon to show and tell. She liked it because it was a particularly deep spoon without being too wide, and also because it made a complete sound when banged on the Formica. She didn’t have the words to articulate this, so instead she said, “This is my favorite spoon and it makes everything taste great. No one else touches it. Just me.”
When she was five she read The Velveteen Rabbit and cried herself to sleep for a week straight. She started taking her stuffed duck toy to school every day, which was often stolen at recess by a group of three boys. This eventually led to the beak ripping, hanging off the duck’s face like a broken branch. Her mother sewed it back on.
When she was six she wanted to be a drummer when she grew up.
When she was seven she took to wearing fake, round, black-rimmed glasses because Micky was her favorite Monkee and she saw him wear these glasses once. She daydreamed being married to him. These daydreams were mostly about how they’d run through the street together, laughing, and then something terrible would happen, like Micky would have to go to the hospital, and during that time she’d have a terrible car accident and her pet duck would die, and everyone would feel sorry for her. Then Micky would get better, and they would run through the streets again and laugh. But sometimes, in her daydreams, Micky would also die, and everyone would feel sorry for her all over again.
When she was eight she took a ballet class, a tap-dancing class, a figure-skating class, a diving class, and even a rhythmic gymnastics class. She wasn’t bad at any of them. She also didn’t have a lot of promise, nor much interest.
When she was nine she was at a sleepover at her older cousin’s house, playing with a jigsaw puzzle, separating the edges and corners from the rest of the pieces, when someone put a movie in the VCR, and she became enraptured with a girl named Baby and a man named Johnny Castle, who taught her and all the women how to dance. She didn’t understand what was wrong with Penny, or why Baby and her sister didn’t get along, or why other people at the country club looked down on Johnny Castle because he obviously was so cool and didn’t really seem dangerous or dumb at all.
When she was ten she climbed the highest she ever would on the Northeastern fir behind her grandmother’s house. Her cousin was afraid of heights, but cheered her on, and exclaimed, “Oh my god, Michelle, no one has ever climbed that high! Be careful! Oh no the branch is shaking! Please come down! Please come down! That was so high!”
When she was eleven she walked to the corner store for a frozen Charleston Chew and Tiger Beat magazine when two guys in a truck drove by, whistling approval. She giggled when it happened, like she did when her mom nervously handed her a training bra. But mostly she so badly wanted the freedom of riding in a dusty red truck with the windows down, laughing and listening to K104, and because of this, she waved when they honked the horn.
When she was twelve she thought being fifteen would be the coolest because you’d get to hang out at the mall unchaperoned and wear dangling earrings, but you wouldn’t be too old.
When she was thirteen she wore a Mormon-style Jessica McClintock frock to a bat mitzvah and felt a distinct mortification and shame when half the other girls showed up wearing strapless dresses.
When she was fourteen she heard Queen Latifah for the first time, blasting from a car stereo. She was getting a ride home from the mall with her cousin and her cousin’s friend. They were in the front and talking really fast about who did who and where and how it was so fucked up because the girl was drunk. They smelled like bubble gum mixed with an ashtray that was doused in Jovan White Musk, and they endlessly drummed their press-ons along the dashboard and steering wheel, drowning in the sounds of themselves.
When she was fifteen her cousin died in a hit and run. The other driver was never found.
When she was sixteen she lost her virginity to a hot, mean-looking high school dropout and, after they shared a joke about how lame the mall was, she told him how when she was young she wanted to be a drummer, like John Bonham, and he told her that his dad was an alcoholic who beat him until one day he defended himself and knocked his dad out. When they finally fell into kissing each other in a dugout on an abandoned Little League field, and she breathed a sigh of relief that was pent up for what seemed like forever but was really just a month, and he muttered, “a cool one, finally,” she had never, ever! felt more understood. When they were out in public, he often ignored her, and afterward, when she pouted, he’d ask her to marry him. She’d respond without believing it, and eventually he faded into some other girl’s background.
When she was seventeen she bought her first non-drugstore item of makeup, a department-store lipstick that she declared her “signature” color, named “Stiletto” by the company that manufactured it. “Stiletto” was the color of a rooster’s waddle. On the way home from the mall the car radio ate her Black Reign tape.
When she was eighteen she bought a cigar, and thought it would be cool to smoke it on the Russian Orthodox church steps across from campus, and she nearly choked to death. She threw the four-inch-long lipstick-stained stub into the bushes, but continued to tell people that she liked smoking cigars.
When she was nineteen she watched Dirty Dancing twenty times while in bed with mononucleosis for a month, laughing about her previous naivete at not knowing Penny had an abortion. She cried each time Baby finished saying to her father, played by Jerry Orbach, “I’m sorry I let you down, I’m so sorry, Daddy. But you let me down, too,” and then Baby would run off the porch, and Jerry’s face trembled, and oh god.
When she was twenty she walked home at 4am, keys visible in one hand, high-heel shoes in the other, wearing flats she had brought to the party so she wouldn’t attract attention with the sounds of her heels clicking on the pavement, cold stare straight forward while eyes in the back of her head, posture upright, chin up, almost a speed walk, taking the long way home because the short cut was dark and went right past Sig Nu, the members of which were indiscriminant with their nasty whistles.
When she was twenty-one she bought a cigar and smoked it in the bathroom of a bar, trying to form smoke rings while puffing sultry in the mirror, whispering “Take off your clothes” in a coy French accent. Her friend danced on bar tops for the vets and old-timers that made up the regulars. After coming out of the bathroom, she had a shot of gin, and decided to never care too much about anything. Then her friend fell off a table, cracked her skull, and she screamed at the sight of so much blood, scaring everyone in the place. But her friend was fine.
When she was twenty-two she moved to New York City and struggled to find a job that offered health insurance. And then it became impossible.
When she was twenty-three she drank on the Lower East Side and she fell in love with a drummer who was fifteen years her senior. She was, truly, mad with envy of his carelessness and carefreeness. He wore leather and smoked indoors and said what he felt and everyday seemed to have forgotten the script he had learned the day before.
When she was twenty-four she got divorced.
When she was twenty-five she found a job that she hated, but it had health insurance, thank god, because her acne had flared up and her breasts were constantly achingly sore.
When she was twenty-six she was still at that job.
When she was twenty-seven she was still at that job.
When she was twenty-eight she was still at that job. She got into a habit of coming home, changing into a dirty tracksuit, texting her friends she’d meet them at the bar, but then drink so much wine she wouldn’t be able to go out. Dear friends moved away, like they said they never would. She started to keep lists of things she had to do before she killed herself, like “trash old journals,” and “erase Internet history.”
When she was twenty-nine she went off birth control for the first time in thirteen years.
When she was thirty she bought the anniversary edition of Dirty Dancing on DVD and watched it on her birthday, and then on Patrick Swayze’s birthday, and then the day Patrick Swayze died. She talked to her dad on the phone a lot that year. She talked about how much she used to love Dusty.
When she was thirty-one she quit that job.
When she was thirty-two she watched sixteen different documentaries and also Frontline specials about global warming, food prices, peak oil, water shortages, and she also watched Children of Men twice.
When she was thirty-three she stocked up on her favorite lipstick because she read on an exclusive fashion business website that it was going to be discontinued in a few months.
When she was thirty-four she went to Europe for the first time because her young boyfriend was drumming with a band that was touring Germany with Thurston Moore. Inspired by Germany’s dedication to sustainability, when she came back she stopped using a dryer and hung-dry all her clothes. She also made a list of things to put in an emergency backpack. Her boyfriend kept touring. She lost track of him.
When she was thirty-five she gave up reading current-event and policy websites in an effort to relieve her apocalyptic anxiety and humming apprehension about the state of the earth, but also about probably never having children, and all the advice, heartache, self-doubt, judgment, and general noise contained in that decision, which wasn’t a decision at all, really, just the way things worked out because that was what happens sometimes no matter what plans you write down in your journal or how many marriage proposals you get, and since she was now avoiding reading everything of substance, she missed the study that came out linking a coloring agent used in certain cosmetics with various adrenal disorders as well as a rare form of thyroid cancer.
When she was thirty-six she got a job working for a nonprofit organization that provided musical instruments and instruction to young girls and teenagers. She was in charge of development, but also ended up volunteering as a mentor after going to one of the talent shows. She had never seen a group of girls so focused on their own self-contained passions, and she felt inspired and jealous.
When she was thirty-seven she scored the kind of apartment you only hear about in urban myths or see in sitcoms that are filmed in Toronto. It was four rooms, close to the subway, full bath with a soaking tub, exposed brick, hardwood floors, laundry in the building, full access to the roof, and only $1550 a month plus utilities!
When she was thirty-eight she sometimes thought she saw Dusty standing over her bed, chin resting on the edge, head bashed in, but then upon closer inspection, it was nothing. She figured she should see a therapist, and then she figured that realizing she needed help was just as good as getting help.
When she was thirty-nine she drank an entire bottle of wine on midterm election night. No one was up for small talk at work the next morning.
When she was forty she developed a deep bond with one of the girls in the program she worked for, and considered herself the girl’s mentor, and held her hand before her first gynecology appointment, and cheered her on when, hair flying and arms waving, her all-girl group won the local high school’s battle of the bands.
When she was forty-one she ate granola every morning, salad every lunch, a “sensible” dinner, and gained fifty pounds.
When she was forty-two the funding was cut for the nonprofit she worked for. She was let go, so she started freelance grant writing. The health insurance she could afford covered a yearly physical, a yearly dental cleaning, and one emergency room visit.
When she was forty-three she went to her parents vow renewal ceremony, after which her mom told her that she had always envied her freedom and self-reliance, and that she was proud of her “marching to the beat of her own drum,” and hearing her mom say this made her deeply sad.
When she was forty-four she gained another twenty-five pounds. She was always hungry. She declined invitations to barbecues and pool parties her old friends threw in their new suburban homes. Her doctor performed multiple internal ultrasounds, looking for any sign of a cyst. This was expensive.
When she was forty-five she received a wedding invitation from the girl she mentored, and declined. The girl sent a few e-mails, saying she understood of course that weddings weren’t everyone’s thing, and that of course she’s young, relatively, with some relatives anyway, and that’s weird, but her fiancé is so cool, and totally into whatever she does, and she’s still going to drum in bands, maybe even her fiancé’s band, and please, maybe they can have lunch? Because her friend had never gone this long without talking to her. And her friend was worried. A few days after receiving this e-mail, she bought all-new dish- and glassware for herself. She bought designer wallpaper and put it up on one wall in the bedroom. She admired it.
When she was forty-six she went to bars by herself and read a newspaper. She also did her freelance work there. Her parents moved to Florida and went on cruises to Alaska and seemed increasingly uneasy around her, unsure in their worry. They made suggestions for taking classes, going to clubs, joining a gym. Maybe even go on a travel adventure package with other singles? Or with them? But maybe other singles? Maybe a retreat package at a yoga spa that served vegetarian meals? They would even help pay for it.
When she was forty-seven she trashed her diaries and cleared her Internet history.
Writer, reader, and friend to birds, Jane Liddle’s short-story collection Murder is available from 421 Atlanta. She is on Twitter: @janeriddle.
Photo credit: Alvimann, morguefile.com