Recently I reconnected with someone from my childhood and I realized that time is flying by when you remember things from 40 years ago and know that you don't likely have 40 years ahead of you. Tomorrow is never promised so it is important to share our memories and our lessons with each other. The single most important thing I have learned is to cherish people's presence in my life. It doesn't matter if someone is in your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime, they all become part of us and our own story. I have always measured wealth in the quality of my friendships, so I can tell you in this way I am ridiculously rich so in this vein of thought I wish to share with you a short story I wrote a long time ago. It has been written and re-written but this draft does it justice. This isn't the story of any one person but many people I have known and I dedicate it to all of you...
We, The Broken People, unwittingly find each other. We avoid personal questions to stay safe from the threat of exposing our broken lives. We find comfort in the presence of other broken people. Our kind understands the need to manipulate conversation; they won’t challenge us when we abruptly change the subject. Our acts of self-preservation, our defenses, are, at their core, the acts of the insane. We repeat the same actions, expecting a different result after each instance. We are each a broken record playing over the same scratch in the vinyl that materialized when we realized we were not like everyone else, something inside of us broke and, emotionally, we froze in that moment. Like Adam and Eve, we were ashamed and wanted to hide. The past we so desperately wanted to conceal now smothers our future. We know we are searching for something but we lack the ability to recognize what that something might be.
It is night and the darkness allows me to feel anonymous. I enter the high school; a building that represents to me the time in life when one becomes acquainted with labels and the power they possess. The halls smell of chalk and quiet desperation. The angst of adolescence clings to the corridors and makes a fitting venue for the night-dwellers around me. The night school classes are already in progress, but Monday is also the day assigned to meetings that end in “anonymous.” A casual observer could see the difference between the two kinds of people: the student, whose steps are purposeful and deliberate, eyes full of determination; and The Broken, whose gait is unsure, eyes darting or fixed to the ground, carefully avoiding eye contact. I skulk about in the shadows, on the fringe, hoping I am not easily identified as one of the broken.
Cautiously I move toward Room 203, making sure the hall is empty before I enter through this door. I take my usual seat in the last row, washed by the dimness of the flickering bulb. The tales of the other broken people are riveting. Their words cause me to grieve for them and for myself as I relive the horrible memories but I cannot bring myself to share my own. I come and listen, and perhaps I even convince myself that I am not actually one of them. What do I believe will happen if I stand up? Still my fear is greater than my need to be free, so I remain silent.
After some tears, some applause, and a prayer at the end; the meeting is over for another week. I slip out of Room 203 and into the world beyond just as anonymously as I had entered it. I blend in with the crowd in the corridor and follow the masses.
I hear the muffled discord of words from a distance as I approach the cafeteria. The vending machines offer up stale snacks and coffee, but mostly people are just gathering to study or socialize. The sole reason for my visit to the cafeteria is a woman. I watch her from a distance week after week. Various people join her to chat. I imagine they are classmates, talking about their assignments. I absorb the way the curls in her hair dance on her shoulders as she tries to suppress a laugh. The room is well-populated. I can hear only random pieces of several conversations at once. I strain to hear her voice but my safe distance from her denies me the good fortune. Mentally, I trace the dimples in her cheeks, and file the image away with her dancing curls and the sound of her laughter. Inevitably, with the ring of the buzzer, people disperse and carry on to their real purpose. I am the last to leave. I take the closest exit and the door clangs shut behind me.
The following week is like any other; one day indistinct from the next. I discover I have more questions without answers and I do not know where to look for resolution. Alone in my apartment I observe the bookshelf that is chock-full of self-help books. They all felt full of promise when I read them but each inevitably ended in disappointment. Tools are useless if you have no skills. They are an attempt to find a magic pill that will heal the void. I convince myself that there is safety in my silence. Another week, another meeting, nothing gets better and nothing gets worse. My broken logic sees this as good enough.
It is Monday night and I am running late. I have misplaced my keys. I panic. A frantic search ensues. The Broken often have a need for order and planning. Subliminally, we believe if we have control, we can prevent chaos from returning. By the time I find my keys I am spinning. I find composure and continue on to the meeting. I berate myself for bothering with this sad ritual. My customary parking place is taken. I find another in an unfamiliar part of the lot. There is no time for me to seek my usual entrance. The night is damp. I trip clumsily up the stairs and enter through a heavy door. I think its weightiness fitting symbolic of the emotional baggage that brings me here. The buzzer has already sounded and people are scrambling to their destinations. I get turned around in the confusion and find myself struggling to find Room 203. Unnerved, deprived of the safety of the shadows, I surge on. I make my steps more deliberate and hope I appear confident, important: a man with a purpose. I round the corner and catch a glimpse of familiar curls entering a room. I instinctively wish to retreat. I stop and realize I have arrived at Room 203. Did I see her go into Room 206? I am motionless. My mind is racing. I feel weightless; an unfamiliar, yet intoxicating feeling. I snap out of it and enter the meeting to discover that my seat is occupied and I am unaffected. I find a vacant seat and settle into it. I do not share, but I do not attempt to hide. I am unable to concentrate. I will the buzzer to sound. The meeting concludes and I fight the urge to fall behind as it disperses. I break my pattern and approach the door with my head up, hopeful that I will see her. We surface almost simultaneously and, without any plan, I make eye contact then I struggle with the impulse to look away. She smiles and I can feel myself smiling back. Before I have time to listen to my own negative self-talk, or even over -think what I should do next, I hear her voice acknowledging me.
“Survivor too, huh?”
Survivor. I hear this word and it takes on a life of its own. I repeat it aloud, tasting the word on my tongue. It is delicious and it sounds like music. The experience of saying this word travels through my brain like a million tiny electrodes. My heart pounds like it has just been shocked back from death. In this fleeting moment I see everything in the past flash before my eyes in vivid color. Who could believe this one small word could grant a life-altering moment? In an instant I transformed from victim to survivor. Survivor was a title instead of a label. I am reminded that words are powerful. I have spent an existence agonizing over others’ perceptions, only to change my own, seeing myself through someone else’s eyes. Broken, but not without hope. I nod.
“Yup… and today is the first day of the rest of my life.”
© MELODY FOWLER September 2012