I don't know why I'm writing this all down, but I guess that's what a woman has to do sometimes, you know? When something bothers her, she puts her pen to paper and pours her goddamn brains out.
It's hard to know when it all started, when everything got so messed up, but I think it was Mrs. Chalberg that really set the whole thing in motion.
My fifth grade teacher used to give us assignments every Friday, where she would send us home with a slang word, and we were supposed to ask our parents what they thought it meant, in "their own words".
It was a cute idea, except that my mom didn't really speak English well enough to be familiar with slang terms and idioms, and my dad was always at the office. I used to think he had to be without us, but now I realize that he didn't want to face his life at home, his life outside of his work.
I used to take the assignment to my mother anyway, and she would rest her head in her arms, her black curls going every which way, and she would shake her head. "Leave me alone," she'd say in her Algerian dialect of French. "Go ask your father if he loves you so much."
I knew she was lonely, but I never understood why she wouldn't even try to help me.
I've always resented my parents for that one year in my life. It sounds harsh, but imagine Mrs. Chalberg, her beautiful blond hair framing her sweet face, looking down at me in disappointment every time I wasn't able to do the assignment. I would have done anything to see her smile at me, remark on my high test scores, or tell me that my penmanship was improving. Instead, she treated me like I was a delinquent.
She used to make me stand at the front of class during recess and look up words in the thick dictionary on top of her podium.
"If you don't like slang, this is what you should stick to," she'd say, perched on top of the desk with her long legs crossed and her bright blue pumps pointing down.
The dictionary was old and tedious, but the yellowed pages and the smell of it reminded me of better books, like Anne of Green Gables or The Secret Garden, books where girls whirled right off the pages. I wished I could have been more like Anne Shirley or Mary Lennox, saving other children and winning people over. Both my tribulations and my joys seemed petty compared to those I read about in my school's library books.
Instead of focusing on the task in front of me, I let my mind wander. When I looked up the word jalousie (a type of window) in that massive old dictionary, I imagined the word as a person, or a character in a book. Jalousie was a woman, probably French or something, and she liked those crisp autumnal mornings, when the breeze swept right through her.
I don't know if Mrs. Chalberg ever realized how much I daydreamed during her supposed punishments, but if she did, she made no indication of it. I think she was the one who really made me realize how much I hated school. No matter how much I tried or how bright I proved myself to be, I was still the focus of her disdain.
I'll never forget her.
It's not that I dropped out in the sixth grade or anything like that, don't get me wrong. I had good teachers and bad teachers, but school became like a performance for me. I didn't do it to learn, I did it for the grades, for the approval and the awards. I did it without the help of either parent, because neither of them were really there for me. My father was physically absent, but as time went on, my mother too became absent, albeit in her own way.
She grew more and more detached from me. Every morning, she tied my hair into thick braids on top of my head, but she never smiled the way she used to, the way she did when I was little.
I asked her what was wrong once, in the middle of our morning ritual.
She rested her chin against my head and looked into my eyes through the reflection in my vanity mirror. Our matching black curls seemed to spin into themselves, and for a moment, I thought that maybe everything would be all right. I thought that maybe we really were as inseparable as we looked.
But then she sighed like she always did, and the moment was gone.
"My life is over," she said to me, her teeth grazing over the Arabic words. They were said in that unfriendly tone, the one that did not invite a response.
I had to will myself not to cry.
She left me and my father when I was in the eight grade. She was an artist, everyone said, and that was what artists did. They flew away, and no one could keep them caged in.
Personally, I thought that was bullshit, because artists are no different from doctors are no different from firefighters, but that's life, I guess. We swallow down the stereotypes to make ourselves feel better, to keep life from tasting too bitter. It's easier to think of mom as a free spirit than to really acknowledge that I wasn't enough for her.
But I don't resent my mother, for whatever reason. A woman's got to do what a woman's got to do, and I hope she has a better life now. I don't think the Minnesota weather suited her anyway. I hope she's happy and blooming in Algeria or something. Most of all, I hope that it was worth leaving me.
Whatever her reasons might have been, it made my dad really wake up. He started coming home early and tried to engage in conversations with me. Sometimes he even helped me with assignments. I think maybe he was glad that she was finally gone, but my grandmother said it was because he was afraid of losing me too. I wasn't that receptive to him. After all, he was something of a stranger to me, when you thought about it, and I blamed him for my mom's abandonment.
One morning though, my freshman year of high school, he made couscous for dinner, the way my mother used to. It didn't taste the same, but I guess in that instant, I felt sorry for him. I realized he missed Mom every bit as much as I did, and I started to forgive him.
There were a lot of things he wasn't able to help me with, but goddamn, he did his best. There were times, of course, when I wished I had a mother. I felt awkward asking my dad about boys, and no matter how hard he tried, he was never able to tame my unruly black hair the way my mother could.
But we managed.
In my last year of high school, I met him. It's funny, because I don't really believe in love at first sight, but if there's any such thing as friendship at first sight, I swear by all the gods, it happened to me.
It was the first day of school, and the teacher had just announced that we could sit anywhere we like. Everyone rushed to their desks of choice, and before I had a chance to blink, only two desks were left open. One was next to Janie Hall, and the other was next to Emmalou Richardson.
Emmalou never showered.
I looked to the left of me and saw a tall, lanky boy looking at the seats as well, likely thinking the same thing I was. We both dashed to the seat next to Janie Hall, and then looked into each other's eyes.
"Please," was all I could say without offending Emmalou, who was well within earshot.
Some of the students' heads had turned in our direction to see the drama unfold.
He laughed and then looked searchingly at me. "Please, yourself!" he said, tilting his head towards Emmalou and then looking at me as though he expected me to give up the seat.
I didn't blink, and I saw him gulp, his adam's apple sliding. This sounds so dumb, but right then, I knew that we would be friends. There was nothing handsome about him, nothing striking or special, but there it was.
Peter. His name was Peter, I later learned.
We didn't become friends in high school, oddly enough. He took the seat next to Emmalou Richardson, and I took the seat next to Janie Hall, and we never really had any further opportunity to speak. He was so internal, never really doing the assignments or otherwise participating in class. I knew that he liked to draw, because the top of his desk was covered in inky swirls, threatening to spill over and overtake the entire desk, and I knew that he was smart, because I'd heard that his ACT scores were in the top percentile, but that was really all.
My friend Elaine was extremely enamored of him, even though neither of us ever spoke to him.
"I think he has blue eyes," she said to me once. "What do you think, Pippa?"
I could neither confirm nor deny, though from that day on, I tried to get a closer look and check for her.
She wrote him cute little notes now and then, and she joined Art Club to be closer to him, but was always disappointed. "He treats me like a freshman girl," she'd said in frustration. "I don't think he even knows I like him!"
The fact that Elaine was even bothering with art meant quite a lot, but I doubted that Peter realized that. And so I consoled her by writing out comics with her where she ended up with Brad Pitt or someone better, much better than skinny little Peter. I was the writer and she drew the pictures, trying to get more in touch with her 'artistic' side. It was pretty stupid, even for a comic done by teen girls, if that can give you any idea of it.
When I wasn't entertaining Elaine's crush on Peter, I was devouring every last book in our school library. The look of them, the feel, it was all beauty. Some of the older books were available online, but why would someone read it on a computer when they could read it printed and bound? I didn't understand it. Jane Eyre and the Byronic Mr. Rochester fascinated me, and I dreamed of meeting a stormy man with an ironic smile as I thumbed through the pages and ink.
I took special pleasure in bending the pages instead of using a bookmark, because the wear and tear of books were what made them special to me. A book isn't special straight out of the bookstore, after all. It's not special until people read it and love it, until they crack the spine. I know a lot of you will disagree with me, will hide your books away on the shelves and never let your friends borrow them, but trust me, Catch 22 will read a lot better if you let it breathe.
In between reading, school work, and getting ready for college, Elaine and I wondered what Peter was like. Since I never knew him, I could fill his blank pages with whatever literary character I wanted. Sometimes he had a bit of Austen's Darcy, while other times he was much more like T.H. White's Lancelot, an Ill Made Knight of sorts. Certainly he looked the part.
"Maybe," Elaine said, tapping her pencil against her chin, "maybe he's a Heathcliffe."
We both shuddered at the thought.
We graduated, and as one of the top ranking students, I was invited to a special student-teacher dinner, where we were supposed to invite the teacher who was the biggest influence in our school years. I chose Mrs. Chalberg as a vengeful joke, and though she never responded to my invitation, it's one of those things that I have no regrets about. I hope she remembers me the way I remember her.
It wasn't until I was well and settled at Macalester College, when the sharp autumn breeze turned into the cruel Minnesota winter, that I ran into Peter again. I think I noticed him at the back of my mind, but it didn't really register, since I was cutting across the snow covered lawn, rushing to avoid the bitter cold as I made my way to my Philosophy lecture.
He reached out and grabbed my wrist, and I remember feeling absolutely shocked. When I realized it was him, all thoughts of my lecture flew out of my head. "Peter?" I asked. "I didn't realize you were going here." The wind seemed to eat up my words, but he heard be anyway, and smiled.
He pulled out his phone and we exchanged numbers. He joked about how he had gotten the the raw end of the deal, forced to sit next to Emmalou, and that I probably should buy him coffee for his ordeal. "Besides, I always wanted to talk to you, Pippa," he added, just as I was turning away. "I guess I just wasn't brave enough when we were back in school."
Elaine was right, I realized as I rushed off to my lecture. He had very blue eyes.
People exchange numbers every day, but for me, it was something special, because I'd been waiting for an opening with him for a long time now, and here it was, staring me in the face. You can be damn sure I called him the next day.
I always knew that Peter wasn't for me, in the romantic sense, but as far as friends go, we just clicked. We could sit in a coffee shop, but our conversations traveled to China and back, as we discussed everything from art to politics. With anyone else, it would have been the same old talk, but somehow together, the two of us reached new heights. No one else sparked me intellectually, no one brought out my wit the way he did. He was the most intelligent boy I'd ever met, and even though I felt inadequate in conversation with him, I wanted to hear him say more. When we talked, people around us would lean in to listen, or even join in to give their own opinions.
It was only with him that I saw people become impassioned about Mucha or Leonid Afremov. We used to traipse around downtown St. Paul, looking for cute new coffee shops to meet up in, new people to engage with in our arguments and discussions. It was a quirky town for quirky people, and we took full advantage of it.
We also started calling each other outside of our coffee shop meetings, and I began realized there was more to Peter than just an intimidating intellect and sharp wit. He was poor, so poor that it made me feel bad for flaunting my own relative wealth. He was paying for every cent of his college education on his own, something that was unthinkable for me, and he was always ashamed to even ask his parents for money for groceries.
"No wonder you're so skinny," I'd joked. I don't think it made him feel any better.
He was terribly insecure, worried about meeting and dating girls, which was why I finally mentioned Elaine to him. "She liked you a lot, you know, back in high school."
I don't think he believed me, and in that moment, I wondered if T.H. White really had somehow written Peter for us. He was cruel to himself, and it made me feel awful. There are people, so very many people, who never realize how wonderful they are no matter how much you try to show them. Peter was one of them.
Of course, I was eager to set him up with Elaine. She was studying at the University of Minnesota, which wasn't far at all from our campus. We were still close; even as everything became frosted over, I still braved bitter wind and the sheets of ice in order to go see her. She and I spent many a snowy morning in downtown Minneapolis, taking pictures and hugging the Mary Tyler Moore statue, sometimes at the same time.
In mid-February, when there was enough snowfall, I invited Elaine to come to our campus to make a snowman with us. That was when I finally had the pleasure of introducing her to Peter.
College had made Elaine wise up in many ways, and instead of passing cute notes to her object of affection, she leaned into him and touched his arms coquettishly, remarking on the size of his biceps as he stuck a carrot into our rather lumpy looking snowman's face. Peter was oblivious, but not for long, and I remembered noticing the exact moment when he realized she liked him, the way the tips of his ears flushed scarlet.
I gave the snowman the hat off my head, along with my scarf, and called it a sacrifice to the Winter gods.
I look back with quite a bit of pride at finally getting Elaine her man. Within a month they were dating, and they were inseparable. Elaine was beautiful and clever, and Peter was exactly the troubled sort of boy that she and I had dreamed about in high school, her very own Byronic hero, as far as she was concerned. In Peter, I think we both saw a man we could save.
But I noticed as Peter grew more distant towards me, spending more and more time with Elaine. He was working a job and trying to keep his scholarships, so I was usually understanding, though I did have fits of insecurity regarding him. He was my best friend, after all, and I must admit to being jealous.
But I was happy for my two friends, and I had other friends to keep me distracted.
Through a mutual acquaintance, I met Drew, who, like Elaine, was studying at the University of Minnesota, a campus so large that I wasn't surprised they had never crossed paths. He was a man's man, and when he walked into a room, every girl's eyes fell on him. I admit I was pleased when I realized it was me he talked to, me he searched for at a crowded party. We weren't dating, but part of me hoped we would be, even though there wasn't anything I actually liked about Drew. I liked that he was liked, and I liked the way other girls were jealous of me when his arm was hooked through mine.
Peter met him once, and told me that Drew was just a "stupid jock". I was so hurt that I actually cried myself to sleep, because Drew was nothing of the sort. He played baseball, but he was sharp too, and he loved Latin American history. We played old NES video games and watched a late-night Christian game show together, partly to see if we knew the answers and partly to check out the hot game show host.
It wasn't until the night that Peter insulted him that I realized I actually, honest-to-God liked Drew.
But Peter's approval was important to me, so I had them meet a few more times. Drew and Peter were visibly at odds, and it made things tense and awkward. It didn't bother me all that much, though, until Drew made a crack about Peter being ugly. I didn't speak with him for three days, on my best friend's behalf.
In his defense, Drew had only said, "But he is."
It was how Drew dealt with pressure and emotions. He laughed about things and made a mockery of just about everything.
Drew was a charmer, smooth and fast. I fell into his bed, and I didn't mind one bit. He wasn't like Peter, in that he never put on intellectual airs, and I loved that. He taught me how to watch baseball and bought me tickets to a Twins game, and once, when I was sick, he actually tried to nurse me back to health. The antibiotics probably did the trick, but him being there was a godsend.
I stopped attending classes at Macalester and started spending all my time around Drew and his friends. Sure, I felt a twinge of guilt about it, but when you're in love, you stop thinking rationally. All you want is to be with a person, to feel loved back. He had an apartment in Dinkytown, a vibrant student neighborhood not too far from the U of M campus, and I loved soaking in the atmosphere, the small shops and family owned Chinese restaurants. It was a cozy little community where the Christmas lights were kept up deep into March, and we used to spend our nights romping through the various diners and bars, or catching live shows at the Varsity Theater.
My favorite place to go with Drew, though, was a little suspension bridge that looked worse for wear. Called the "M" bridge, it connected us to the main campus, and it overlooked the train tracks. On most days, it saw fairly heavy pedestrian traffic, but on Sunday mornings, Drew and I used to walk to the middle of it and then just stand there, watching life stand still with us.
Peter and Elaine broke up after over a year together, and they both started calling me more, but Drew liked having my undivided attention, so he didn't let me pick up their calls all that often.
I talked to Peter on the phone only a few times, just to tell him about my boyfriend. After a while, we didn't even email, because Drew always read my emails over my shoulder, and I knew that Peter made him jealous.
Drew was great, but when he got angry, his demeanor changed. At first, it wasn't so bad, but as time went on, he started openly berating me or teasing me in front of my friends.
"Pippa was so stupid, she forgot to use her student discount", or "Pippa failed her Psychology Exam, what an idiot!" Even worse, if he was running late, "Pippa was bitching at me again," became a common excuse. I'm fairly certain that his friends all thought I was a cross between a nagging bitch and an idiot.
I retreated into my books to try to avoid him on his angry days, but one afternoon, he came storming in after me and ripped apart my copy of Anne of Green Gables.
Tears started pricking at my eyes as I saw the words flutter to the floor.
"If you're always reading this shit," he said, his breathing labored, "then you'll never amount to anything. How many of your classes are you even passing?"
I was too frightened to point out that the only reason I was failing was because I skipped my classes to hang out with him on his campus. He never came to visit me, that just wasn't the way we worked.
Instead of coming up with some kind of snappy response, I just shrank in reply, hiding my head between my knees. He shoved me and pushed me out of my protective position.
"Don't be a coward, Pippa," he said, smacking me across my head.
I wasn't a coward, I wasn't, but somehow being in that kind of situation made me absolutely shut down, which made him even more furious with me. He told me it was my own fault when he hit me, because I never fought back. He called me names and made me hate myself, until I was only a shell of the girl I used to be.
When he became angry with me, I remembered Mrs. Chalberg, sitting on top of her desk and glaring down at me with disappointment. I remembered my mother, who didn't need me, my friend Elaine, who had forgotten me, and Peter, who would never love me the way I must have loved him, in that unacknowledged, secret part of my heart.
All I had was Drew, or so I thought. There were times when I would wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, remembering my mother's words. My life is over, my life is over.
It was Peter who caught on to the situation first. I had made the mistake of posting one detail too many on my livejournal, which I hadn't realized anyone was still reading. He told me that he watched Lifetime movies before, that he knew a bad relationship when he saw one. He begged me to leave Drew, told me that no one would think any less of me if I did.
Well, here's the thing, because I don't want you to misunderstand. It wasn't the hitting, you know, that hurt the most. Drew manipulated my life around me, until I was so scared and so miserable and so insecure that I wasn't really capable of doing much at all. And so I defended Drew, because he'd really only hit me a few times anyway, and besides, at least he loved me.
And it's really important to me that you know this, because while it's unfortunate, it's also the truth. You see, Drew was the only boy who had ever loved me. "Pippa and baseball," he'd said once, with that charismatic grin of his. That one still makes me cry. Yes, Drew hit me, but underneath everything, he was a real person, and he was a real person to me.
And I said this to Peter, and for once in his goddamn life, he didn't have a thing to say, no witticisms rolling off the tip of his tongue. His face was ashen white when he realized that I was determined to be with Drew.
We stood in awkward silence. He leaned into me and looked a little unsteady on his feet. "You're the smartest girl I know, Pippa, but you're so stupid."
I had flushed at his comment. I never realized that Peter had thought me (of all people, me!) smart, but I couldn't come up with any good response to him.
Even though Peter and Elaine were broken up for quite some time, he told her and all my other friends that I needed help, though I'm not sure if he explained why. Many of them tried to contact me after that. They called so many times that Drew actually got pissed at me and blocked their numbers on my phone. "If you're not going to fucking pick up their calls, don't make me fucking listen to that ringing," he'd said.
My professors ignored me as I fell through the cracks, but my academic advisor emailed me, asking why a bright girl like myself wasn't working to get herself off of Academic Probation.
"You used to do well in school," she wrote at the end of her email.
It was true, I realized, but I only did school for the sake of doing it. Somehow the idea of not doing it didn't seem so terrible either, because in the end, I didn't really know what I wanted, if that makes sense. I envied the characters in books who were so singularly determined towards a goal. I wished, as I still wish, that I had a dream to work towards.
I guess it's also true, though, that we draw strength from strange places. I think seeing Peter again helped me realize who I used to be and what I was before I met Drew. It made me realize that I didn't like where my life was going.
I thought about calling my dad for advice, but then I pushed the thought aside. Dad was a successful businessman, and he'd always gotten good grades and never disappointed anyone. He couldn't understand what I was going through.
So I bounced ideas off of myself instead, and even though it took a little while, I started to see things with much more clarity. I thought about Anne Shirley, and how she never settled. I thought about how Anne would never be with someone like Drew.
What Drew didn't know was that he didn't have me completely under his spell. He may have ripped my book, but I had saved the pages. And so, while Drew wasn't home, I taped my copy of Anne of Green Gables back together, laboring over each and every page. At first, it was like a puzzle, the story all mixed up and the characters strewn in every direction. But surely enough, the story came back together, and with my roll of scotch tape, I saved Anne Shirley.
Drew came home from school and saw me reading my taped up copy of the slim book, my bags packed and at my feet. His face fell, and he shifted his weight awkwardly. "I'm sorry I ripped it," he said.
I stood up and tucked the book under my arm. "I'm sorry too."
But life after Drew wasn't pretty. I didn't know who my friends were anymore, and I hardly even knew how to go on without his constant presence and support. God help me, but I missed him. Every time I read about Gilbert and Anne, part of me wanted to die. That secret, unacknowledged part of me wondered, why can't I have that?
It got harder and harder not to respond to his texts, not to pick up his calls or respond to his emails. I'm sorry, he'd say, and it was tempting, so tempting to fall back into his arms.
Tempting, because he was the only boy who had ever loved me. But you know what? I loved me too, and I didn't go back to him.
And even though I tried to pick my life back up, straight failing grades meant that I was put on Academic Suspension. I appealed the decision, but in the end I got kicked out of school anyway. That's just life, I guess. I was ashamed, but in a way, I was already so removed from everything that it almost didn't matter.
After I was informed of the board's decision, I put on my cap and gloves, wrapped a scarf around my neck, and then walked over to that rickety old M bridge in Dinkytown. It's funny that a place like that felt like home to me, looking out on the old buildings of a campus that wasn't even mine. It was cold, but it cleared my head. I must have stood there for hours, paying no heed to the people who walked past me. When the sun was starting to look low in the sky, I pulled out my phone and started composing a text message. It wasn't long, but it was to the point, and I sent it to everyone in my address book.
I've been kicked out of school. They suggested reapplying in a year. -Pippa
I signed my name at the last second, assuming that many of my friends had probably deleted my name from their phones and wouldn't recognize my number. Yes, it was a cowardly way of telling everyone, but it was the only thing I could think to do.
I got replies back, some long and helpful, suggesting places to seek employment, and others with just the words "I love you" or "Just keep on going!". They made me smile.
Oh, and Peter texted me back the next morning, asking if I would be available for coffee. I haven't replied to him yet, but I think I will. I've always liked him, and I think that he and I are destined to be the best of friends.
Some people didn't bother replying, one of them being my father. I'm sure that he was too shocked to say much, at first. He'd poured so much money into my education, and it hurt him to hear that I had wasted it all the way I had.
I guess of all the things I regret, disappointing him was the worst.
A few days later, though, he called me crying. I'll never forget what he said to me then.
"Pippa, don't worry, sweetheart." His voice cracked. He didn't stop there, though. He talked with me well into the night, telling me about his own successes and failures, the times when he thought he wouldn't get back up again but did, and then he told me about how devastated he was when we lost Mom. I started crying too, because I remembered it too. If we made it then, we could make it now.
"Remember that your life isn't over," he said. "You can come home to me, or you can go somewhere else, but your life isn't over."
They were the words I needed to hear, because at that moment, I was so afraid that I'd ruined my life irreversibly.
So, my father turned out to be way more understanding than I gave him credit for. Not only that, but he was actually able to relate to me, which was the biggest shock of all. I guess I'd spent so much time feeling like the biggest failure to walk the earth, I never realized that maybe other people went through the very same thing.
I might reapply, or I might not, I really don't know. But school, grades, and boys? Those things don't determine my worth- I determine my worth, and I'll do it my own way if I have to.
And Mrs. Chalberg? She can suck it.
Author Note: I would love to hear your thoughts! This story isn't very... um, refined, but I tried.