Editor’s note: Katherine just turned 20, which means she no longer qualifies for the job of “teen diarist.” Don’t fret, though—she’s not leaving us! She’ll be writing other kinds of things for us from now on.
“Can you give me a kiss, Brisen?”
My baby cousin obliged, leaning forward and surprising me with a huge wet kiss on the mouth. A few days later I had a fever. I reassumed the habits of my younger self, the one who spent summers and breaks alone in my room like a sickly shut-in, although I was perfectly healthy. Now that I was genuinely ill, I was afraid people wouldn’t believe me, but I didn’t have the energy to perform my sickness as proof. I felt dizzy and weak. I had to remind myself that I’m not always like this. I am not what my parents (and I) think I am.
My grandmother and I recently took a road trip together to Florida. On our second day of driving, we stopped at a Texaco station. I stepped out of the car to stretch and was paralyzed by the hot humidity, the first real warmth I’d felt since September. A heron appeared in front of me like a figure from a dream, as if he had summoned his own existence in the flash of an eye. He looked dirty and cheap. In the gas-station-snack world he would be those barbecued pork rinds that are actually Styrofoam peanuts with powder on them. I was staring at him when my grandmother, not for the first time, said, “I want to teach you how to live dangerously.”
“Please do,” I said, but I wasn’t sure what she had in mind. Did she think I should be going out more? For the past few days I had accompanied her to everything she asked me to, and I always had fun. I asked her to do stuff with me, too, and I made sure I talked about the kinds of things I do at school. I felt like it was clear that I’m decently active, but I guess not?
She repeated her exhortation Sunday morning at brunch. I told her I didn’t know what more I could be doing. Did it have to do with parties and alcohol? I invited told her to visit me at Smith next year—she could hang out with me and my friends and see how we are. (This is the best fantasy life I’ve ever created.) She could “live dangerously” with us, I said, insinuating that there are stories I just can’t tell her, the way she has stories of nights out that she won’t go into detail about, even when I ask. There are definitely things I won’t tell Mimi, but they’re not the kinds of stories she’s looking for.
“I’ve been the wild card in certain groups,” I said.
“I just want to see you live more dangerously!” she said again, but, in her typical fashion, refused to go into detail.
Maybe she meant dating? I just turned 20, and I have never dated anyone. I have neither kissed nor been kissed. I have expressed interest in no one (and vice versa). I have flirted with very few people (and vice versa). I feel mutual attraction with very few people. I’ve had potentially delusional inklings that some of my friends’ parents have been attracted to my energy, and sometimes that feeling, real or imagined, was mutual. Having a boyfriend would help my case, but that’s not something that’s currently available to me. I wasn’t about to try to pick someone up on a weeklong trip to Florida with my grandmother—that would probably be too dangerous for her.
Should I have told her about my crushes? I hate talking about that stuff. It makes me feel like some large part of me is being ripped out of my body. “I have a crush on every boy,” I falsely moaned to my friends at sleepovers in middle school and early high school, to make them laugh and to get them to stop asking me about crushes. So I can’t tell Mimi about my crushes. Crushes are a safe space, a private space, and there’s something about them that makes me melancholy.
Should I have told her how once, in a darkened pizza parlor in Arizona, sated with pizza and drunk on the feeling of deep bonding that one can feel only after a week of camping, doing construction work, talking about God around campfires, and not showering, a boy turned to me when no one was looking, caught me wiping tomato sauce off my face, and said, “God, you’re so pretty. Like…gorgeous?” When I didn’t respond immediately, his expression dimmed and he said, “Did you know that?” And then I continued to not respond. I did not move or change my expression or make a noise. I just sat there and stared at him for a minute, then I stood up, walked slowly to the bathroom, and bent over the toilet to vomit. I didn’t end up puking, but I stayed in there for a long time, sure that I would.
I didn’t tell her this story, because although it might convey the kind of devil-may-care attitude she seems to be looking for, it would also show her that I am incapable of interacting with people, and therefore incapable of actually “living dangerously.”
My parents would probably agree with her. They think I’m a shut-in. And I am sometimes, but not always, not even most of the time, and on the whole it is not as pitiable and boring as they suggest, nor as tragic and final as I sometimes feel it is. It’s so many different things at different times.
This diary doesn’t help my case with my parents. But I determine what I write about here, so it’s my fault, really. This is the persona I so often choose to show the world. I hold it up and turn it this way and that in front of my peers like I’m on QVC showing off a gaudy ring. Depending on how the light catches it, it can look elegant, tragic, funny, inconsequential, pitiful, embarrassing, brilliant, dignified, dull. When I look at it in the privacy of my room, I can see how much of it is me and how much is a lie.
I think I live pretty dangerously now. I accept every invitation to hang out. I get out of my dorm room as much as possible. And since I read Charlotte Brontë’s novel Villette, I’ve been trying to avoid ending up like the main character, Lucy Snowe, a woman who finds herself stuck in isolating circumstances and habits.
God, Lucy Snowe! Has looking in a mirror ever made me feel as much like I would vomit everything in my body—all the food, viscera, bones, and deeper layers of skin, until I am paper-flaked to pieces—as this book did? Lucy’s story aligned with my reality in many ways, which scared me enough to convince me that I should change the way I live and how I experience, consider, and choose isolation. Lucy takes pride in being emotionally removed from things as they are happening, but she is uncomfortable being alone. I am trying to lessen the distance between myself and things that are happening around me. Lucy dresses in dark, plain clothing and suppresses her personality; I want to dress more distinctly and to be more social in general. Lucy tries to avoid interacting with people who are mean or thoughtless or who strongly disagree with her philosophies about life. I would like to be more open to getting to know all kinds of people, instead of giving up immediately when something doesn’t instantly click.
Mimi wants me to experience more danger, but I’ve always felt it everywhere. I’ve faced danger and acted despite it many times. I’ve tried out for plays and dance shows in high school. I go out a lot even though it’s often, if not emotionally grueling, at least incredibly distracting.
There have been times when I’ve lived less dangerously, and those have had their own rewards. Every day I’ve spent hiding has been as rich with drama as every day I have tried to connect with someone.
There was the drama of the dark and necromantic world I lived in when I was younger. The moral confusion and the fire-filled labyrinth I imagined as its metaphor.
The drama at the start of each new friendship, and at the end. My friendship with Chloe, my first friend at my new school, and still the one I am with most often. The drama of our difficulties, and the way friendship morphs into new good shapes and new bad shapes.
The drama of starting to have a close relationship with my brother. Of helping each other out.
The drama of deciding whether or not everything you feel is based on something you’ve imagined. Having my first crush at Smith in my French class and being unable to feel even the despairing kind of hope I generally use to torture myself, because that kind of hope hinges on possibility, and I thought she had a boyfriend. Feeling instead a different kind of hope that is a fevered knowledge of impossibility.
Discovering later that what she had was an ex-girlfriend, recently anointed. Getting lunch and overhearing her friend ask her how she felt about the breakup. Hearing her respond that she felt bad, but wouldn’t after this weekend. Feeling unsure if she looked at me when she said it or if her friend grinned slightly and knowingly when she noticed me watching them. Being unable to read her body language because her movements were too slight to be certain. Experiencing a sublime feeling akin to being taken over by a fever when she tapped my ankle three times under the table when we were studying together later that day, because I think the second and third tap maybe lingered. Changing my position to check. Being unable to concentrate all afternoon and for days after, feeling feverish while reanalyzing our interactions and wishing I had risked embarrassment and said something, lived more dangerously. Beating myself up for everything I had said around her, and for everything I hadn’t said. For missing chances to ask her the questions I wanted to ask. For missing the opportunity to have any connection with this person. Later, I recited to myself: “I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed / And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane. / (I think I made you up inside my head.)”
I think I made you up inside my head. There are so many experiences that I might have only imagined. So many aspects of my friendship with Chloe, so many looks from people, so much of many things. There’s a madness that comes with being often isolated and struggling to connect with others while also being incredibly naïve and exceptionally inexperienced.
I remember a scene from the French movie Fat Girl where, in sight of her sister and the dude her sister is flirting with, Anaïs swims back and forth between a pole holding up the diving platform at a pool and the pool’s ladder. When she reaches each one, she holds it and talks to it and kisses it like it’s her lover. What she tells these inanimate suitors is intelligent but naïve: “Women aren’t like bars of soap, you know. They don’t wear away. On the contrary, each lover brings them more, and you get all the benefit.” Then: “You make me sick. How can you disgust me and attract me so much?”
When I go to bed, I feel myself expand into the surrounding darkness and feel myself walking, moving, touching surfaces as I move about with people I love. Talking to them and using my hands to touch the words we’ve spoken.
I’m in Florida with Mimi, and I realize how much I love her. A great side effect of getting older has been being able to talk to her and having her share more with me. I have my brother. I have my dad. I have school and people I like there.
I feel fine. I’m not bitter or overly tragic or any of the other things my family says I am after reading these entries. I’m just in limbo, swimming back and forth between my own two poles. I have, if not an early life lived dangerously, one in which I have keenly felt everything. In fact, I have had hundreds of real experiences. I’ll have more. ♦