Or, more specifically, it's not only the dude. I'm no longer a depressed mess for a myriad of reasons, not simply that I'm dating what my adviser and bestie called "a hot young stud with a big dick." Actually, the big dick part may be my words. Serafice and I were half-joking anyway, because objectifying M is not something I do, or want to do. (Unless it's part of a sex game.) He's a good guy. At least I'm trying to believe he's a good guy.
I've learned you come out of a toxic relationship damaged in ways you only really discover when you dip your toes into another relationship. So, trust is an ability I'm still trying to resurrect within myself, along with even the most basic communication skills. Sometimes I listen to myself talking to M and think, "Why did my I.Q. just plunge 50 points? Why am I yammering??" Sometimes I think, "I can't do this. I'll take a lifetime of one night stands over having to be even the least bit vulnerable with anyone ever again."
And that includes M, with whom I seem to have a pretty awesome thing going. Dating - Christ, I hate that word. What does it even mean? - him is fun. He doesn't make me feel badly about myself. He doesn't make me feel badly about anything, actually. This whole thing has been really easy so far, with no angst or drama or craziness, which might make me run far, far away. Like, Antarctica far away. Hey, I've been meaning to get there. Some days a gig swabbing floors in a station at the South Pole dedicated to researching penguins or whatever sounds absolutely perfect.
But less so lately. And that's not just because of M. Brain chemistry probably has something to do with it - after all, they tell me I'm bipolar. I guess something in my head finally jigged after jagging for the past six months or so, and blamo, I'm feeling a lot more chipper. Aconcagua figures into all this, too - coming down from that mountain changed me. It made me face myself, just like those two days alone in Mendoza did. There's nothing that brings you closer to the elemental truth of who you are like traveling solo. Fact it, I think I like myself best when I'm tucked up alone in some far-flung place. The voices in my head quiet and I stop believing that I have to prove I'm worthy of...everything. Love, success. Joy. I can just be me.
So, it's not just M. I worked too hard at carving out some small bit of peace for myself to just hand over my happiness to the next guy who comes along, no matter how swell I think he is, or how goonily I grin when we so much as talk on the phone, like we just did. Prior to my breakup with T, I had spent my entire life - and I mean my whole, entire life, from about age 16 until a few weeks before I turned 50 - coupled. I went from one relationship to another pretty much without pause, absolutely terrified to be alone.
That's part of Borderline Personality Disorder, with which I've also been diagnosed. That's the heart of it, actually. I don't know if I thought I'd spontaneously combust if I weren't partnered - it sounds like a the joke it's meant to be, but honestly, the fear felt that primal. Maybe I was just afraid I wouldn't be able to take care of myself. That I couldn't be trusted, that I'd end up homeless, or in an institution. Maybe it was because I was certain that without the distraction a relationship brings I'd drown in pain, that relentless pain I've been feeling since I was a teenager.
Of course, if you're a woman you don't have to have a mood or personality disorder to believe that you damn well better be with a man if you're going to have any worth at all, to yourself and society, too. It wasn't until 1974 that women were allowed to apply for credit in this country - and it wasn't until 1993 that marital rape became criminalized in all 50 states. 1993. Let that sink in. Of course, North Carolina still has a law on the books that allows men to continue having sex with (raping) a woman who has given consent EVEN IF SHE TELLS HIM TO STOP LATER. Basically, in the Tar Heel State a woman cannot change her mind about having sex. Because apparently men getting off is a lot more important there than a woman's right to say, "You know what? I don't like this. Stop."
How is it possible that women aren't rioting in the streets this minute? Let's take a moment to remember the song John Lennon wrote about women's place in society. If you don't know it, look it up. I think he nails it.
I suppose I should make it clear now that although I've learned the invaluable lesson that I can survive alone it doesn't mean that this is something I actually want to do. I've had a lot of women reach out to me since I started this blog to tell that they've been without a man for X amount of time and have "never felt happier." Good on you, guys. For real. You're far more evolved than me. Because I don't ever, ever want to go another year without sex (or cuddling, or kissing, or getting a phone call that makes me goonily grin) again. Hell, I don't even want to go a month without that stuff, although I will, all but the phone call, because I'm going to be traveling for 5 or so weeks beginning next month.
And by the way, when I hesitantly told M about how long I'd be away, do you know there was no guilt trip, no recriminations, no irritation, nothing but giggling? Because I said I felt like I was going away to war or something, the way I was being all dramatic, and he said, "Yes, Jill, I will wait for you." And then we laughed. That could not be more different than the absolute bullshit I went through with T. And that goes an awful long way toward building trust. And communication skills. And maybe even unwrapping another layer of bandage from my still-bruised-but-almost-healed heart.
So here I am, holed up in this funky little hotel in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, right outside of Pittsburgh. I'm here to meet my new lover, or paramour as he likes to be called. M lives in Pittsburgh; I'm in State College. He came to see me last weekend, this weekend I'm here to see him. Because we're both caregivers, living with our parents, if we want to fuck, we need to get a hotel room. That's okay - I think that excites us both.
The place I picked to meet is perfect. Once respectable, maybe even upscale, this inn has grown weary around the edges - the carpet a bit stained, the walls marred here and there by past visitors, careless with their bags, hurrying on their way to somewhere else. It's like a faded celebrity. Not quite sad, but no longer vibrant, vital. I love it.
Because the hotel doesn't entice prospective guests the way it once did, the rooms are cheap and I was able to book us a suite. It's like the public spaces, charming and frayed and maybe a little mysterious, too. The wood of the dining room table has been worn to white in spots, but there's a massive whirlpool tub backed by mirrors in the bathroom and a working gas fireplace I'm sitting in front of right now. The heater is waging a losing battle against the chill of the rooms, probably thanks to the big arched windows overlooking the highway that I believe M plans to fuck me against at some point over the next two days.
M. He's exactly what I need now, as if he were dropped out of heaven by the dating gods. Young, at least much younger than I am, taller than me by half a foot (a rarity for a woman 5'9") and spectacularly hung - enough so that he hurt me our first time together, a little. I actually saw my gynecologist today to make sure everything is in working order. She told me that I'm in good shape, red and plump and juicy with no signs of vaginal atrophy, a terrible affliction which hits more than 60 percent of women in postmenopause and can cause dryness, painful sex and all kinds of other evil bullshit like incontinence and clitoral shrinkage. I plan to absolutely not ever have vaginal atrophy. The best defense against it, by the way, is lots and lots of sex.
Which is actually what I need in order to stretch everything out and end my newfound pseudo-virginity, according to my doc. Lots and lots of sex. M is happy with this prescription and I am, too. We both are of a mind to push each other's limits sexually; there's much we can teach each other and learn together, too. I told him this time to leave deeper bruises with his mouth, purple, black. He agreed. I feel set free, and I guess I have been - my ex kept me caged in more ways than one. I don't know what exactly I like yet or how much of it I want. But to be able to discover what pleases me, safely, with someone I very much enjoy, who arouses me with merely the sound of his voice on the phone - I know how lucky I am.
My life feels absolutely new. I came off of Aconcagua, it turns out, with exactly what I needed. Somehow the mountain taught me that don't need to ever be anyone other that who I am. I will never again apologize for being too boisterous, too sexy, too needy, too loud, too angry, too flashy, too prideful, too adventurous, too strong, too weak, too emotional. I'm 51 years old. I've got red curls and long legs and a big mouth. I laugh loud, I love sex. There isn't a country I wouldn't visit. I want to climb mountains. Still. I'm writing a book and I'll sell my soul to make it great.
I will not ever, ever seek, or find comfort or strength in invisibility. That's a big thing now - older women, in their 60s, maybe even my age? - embracing how little they appeal, or matter, or are simply seen in every way, but especially sexually. Frances McDormand talked about it positively in a New York Times interview, which disappointed me. With age comes a fuck-it-all freedom in which I revel, but it is the freedom of someone who has finally, after a lifetime of pain, learned to love herself. Or at least like herself. I will be loud and proud, wearing short skirts and shiny lips for as long as I wish, which will probably be forever. As a sometime lover and longtime friend recently told me, "Jill, you'll be talking about orgasms when you're 90."
Accepting invisibility of any type in this fucked-up patriarchal society feels like capitulation, at least to me. But then I've always seen all the world as a stage. And if we're merely actors, we can be anyone we want. Why not be women in our 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond, who teach the world that sexuality doesn't end with fertility, or firm breasts or even with the onset of the dreaded vaginal atrophy - which, if this weren't a patriarchy, we'd all know a lot more about. (Like, for example, that it can be reversed with estrogen cream or pills.)
I spent a year disconnected from my sexuality while I tried to believe I was a person worthy of love and lust and success and satisfaction and the other good things life can bring. I don't know if anyone looked at me twice in all that time. Since coming back from Argentina more happy than I've been in years, since beginning to date M, I see men give me appraising glances all the time, which I return with a grin. The only invisibility I want to know about is Wonder Woman's plane.
I've met someone. It happened, the way it always seems to, when I was looking the other way. Innocently minding my own business, getting ready (or so I thought), to summit the highest mountain outside of Asia. I was planning to start dating again when I returned, to maybe try some dating websites, a prospect that I find only slightly more thrilling than getting my teeth cleaned by a dental hygienist hopped on speed and mescal. But this man, who I met briefly a few years ago - I'm not sure we were even properly introduced - and know from Facebook, where we've followed each other's doings since that time, started messaging me a week or two before I left for Argentina.
It's been one week to the day since I was banished from Aconcagua, summarily sent down from it, like an inept baseball player kicked from the major league to the minors. I haven't really had time to process what happened, or to understand what it ultimately means to my life, other than to label it a failure. After all, I wanted something - to reach the tippy-top of the highest mountain outside of Asia - and it didn't happen. I didn't summit Aconcagua. Hell, I didn't even get close. I didn't even make it past the approach camp, a victim of mountain sickness, according the physician who fretted over my vitals before announcing, with great gentleness, that I was in jeopardy and would continue to be until I descended.
That's failure and I will always label it as such, which seems to confound and annoy just about everyone around me. I've heard this week that I can't be a failure because I tried to accomplish something most wouldn't, because it was my body that gave out and not my will, because this kind of setback is just a part of mountaineering and because, simply, I didn't die. I understand the reasoning behind all that, and am grateful for the kindness that led my friends and fans to share these thoughts with me. I just don't agree.
I had a goal. I didn't achieve that goal. I failed.
Why are we so afraid of failure in this country? Why do we twist and turn the situation in which we failed upside down and all around, spinning it like a kid appraising a package on Christmas morning, just so we can call it anything but what it is? The way I see it - and I'm quoting President Obama here - "If you are living life to the fullest, you will fail." As Oprah Winfrey says, "If you're constantly raising the bar, if you're constantly pushing yourself, higher, higher, higher, the law of averages, not to mention the myth of Icarus, predicts you will at some point fall."
And that's okay. Because the alternative, to not even try, is far worse for me. I don't mean to sound like Dr. Phil or Tony Robbins or Brene Brown, as much as I love her, or Yogi Bear or the Dalai Lama himself. I don't feel comfortable making pronouncements about how anyone else should live. But for me, passion, adventure, excitement, which I now get mostly from pushing myself damn hard and then harder and harder still, make life bearable. If I didn't try - be it anything from climbing a mountain to moving to a country where I know no one on not more than a whim - there's a chance I might go mad. Or at least back to the self-destructive ways I once utilized to get my fix of chaos, the metaphorical equivalents of driving too fast in a big-motored car down a dark highway, fucked up on mania and dope and lust, the thick fingers of the dangerous man perched beside me in the passenger seat creeping up my naked thigh. Or, actually, the literal equivalents, too.
I'm not a great white shark - I don't need to be in constant motion to survive, although I have some former lovers I expect would disagree on both counts. But I do need something to work toward. Looking ahead keeps me sane. I need to challenge myself, the more viscerally the better. That little divot I have inside my soul, the place damaged, if not quite broken, by what I've never discovered, is filled for a time when I do. Risking it all, or as much of it as I can, soothes me.
My plan to climb Aconcagua and Kilimanjaro, which I announced a little more than 18 months ago, was undoubtedly an outgrowth of this need. But more crucially, it was an attempt to save myself. I was in danger back then, more danger than I ever faced on that mountain. The loss of my brother to a heroin overdose, an event that still lurks beneath every moment of every day, ready to rise up and throttle me with grief; the decline of my parents, with whom I live, rendered in cruel close-up and most recently encompassing my mother's dementia diagnosis; and the final blow that nearly destroyed me, the end of a relationship filled with enough love and toxicity it's taken me nearly two years to emerge from it fully, like a freed prisoner creeping slowly from a basement cell - these events and more, piled fast one atop another, made me question whether living was a worthwhile effort. I questioned it a lot back then.
I needed to find a way to quiet all that tragedy, to hush it, so I could hear the sounds of life again, find the path back to it. Embarking on a quest so massive it was ridiculous, like scaling two of the Seven Summits within a year, seemed the way to do it. I hoped along the way it would turn me into someone I wasn't - a woman not vanquished by pain, but one heroic, strong, invincible. A warrior, inside and out. A woman who ascends big damn mountains. And I failed. I came down from Aconcagua two days after I went up it. I suppose I should be humiliated.
But I'm not. Because I have felt a shift within me. Maybe I'm simply riding high with a giddiness born from emerging off Aconcagua with fingers, toes and nose intact (I was never really afraid of the mountain killing me, but not so the idea of of losing bits and pieces of myself to frostbite). Maybe I'm simply grateful to be released from the exhaustion I felt nearly as soon as I started the first trek. Pervasive and absolute, it destroyed my resolve, turning what was supposed to be an easy five-mile hike into a grim battle marked by my tortured, runaway breath and staggering feet. The next day, when I was forced to ask one of my expedition's guides to take me back to camp less than halfway through our trek, was worse. I didn't understand why, when I'd trained so hard for Aconcagua, I felt a fatigue on its lower trails that nearly trumped what I endured during my eight-hour push to Kilimanjaro's 19,341-foot-high summit.
Would Aconcagua have killed me if I’d have bullied and begged, stamped my feet and cried, somehow convincing the physician - an improbably beautiful and compassionate Argentinean woman who looked like a grittier version of Salma Hayek - to let me continue the ascent? I don’t know. I don’t know how sick I really was, only that over the course of two nights my blood pressure had risen from 140 over 90 to 165 over 110. My heart rate increased to 130 and my oxygen saturation fell to 84. Not awful numbers, but what concerned my glamorous doctor was that my vitals were worsening instead of getting better. I wasn’t acclimatizing to the altitude.
It hurts that I failed to summit Aconcagua, hurts like a pinch cruel enough to leave a bruise, a result common to the collision of dreams and reality. But I'm grateful for the experience I had in Argentina. Right now, as I sit here typing this, I feel something that could be called hope and I think that brutal bitch of a mountain that I love and fear in equal measure returned it to me. Will I return to her? I don't know. But my hunger for her summit, a growling yearning very different than the pain that consumed me 18 months ago, continues.
Today, just now, my mom was admitted into hospice.
In Pennsylvania, at least when facilitated by and paid through Medicare, you're admitted into hospice when a physician has determined you have six months to live. In my mom's case, this is connected to an advancing case of COPD that now makes it difficult for her to go up and down the stairs without losing her breath. She has other health issues, including an aortic aneurysm that is slowly enlarging and can't be ameliorated through surgery due to her fragile condition. She's had two recent mini-strokes and she's in the early stages of dementia. So, I suppose this new categorization shouldn't have shocked me and my dad. But it did, of course.
The nurse who arrived to talk to us about all this asked us a lot of questions about extraordinary measures to save my mom's life and if we've picked a funeral director and whether we want chaplain services. My dad and I numbly mumbled answers (no, we don't want any; no, but we're thinking cremation - it's starting to be a family tradition, after all, since my brother's death - no, we're not at all religious, but boy, it's times like these I wish we were). I found myself hating the nurse, who's name was Becky. Becky should be a cheerleader. Becky should be a capable mom, arranging car pools and swim lessons. Becky shouldn't be the woman who comes to tell you your mom is dying.
I've been told that I need to face up now to this fast-approaching loss. It'll make it easier in the end, my friends say. But the truth is I'm already at the very edge of my ability to cope. These last couple of months I've felt so relentlessly hopeless that I'm not certain I can take one more blow right now, one more goddamn tragedy in the endless stream that the past few years have brought. And so I've been willfully, with a streak of pure, perfect stubbornness I inherited from my mom, disregarding this looming eventuality. Breakdown now or breakdown later? Later seems the better answer.
I've been afraid for as long as I can remember of being alone. It's the fear at my center, the one that has motivated so much of what I've done in my life. And now here I am at 51, on the precipice of it. Unable to even date, if the truth be known, because my last relationship was so damaging I'm terrified I'll end up with the same type of man. My brother dead, my mom dying. My dad, 85 and walking around with kidney issues and an unhealed broken neck, getting a little bit more frail every day. No family here. No close friends, they've all scattered to the winds like starlings lifting off from a telephone line. No kids. I might as well be adrift in deep space. The future feels as cold and merciless as I imagine it to be.
I'm so fucking scared. I'm so scared.
And I don't know what to do. I'm less than six weeks away from climbing the tallest mountain in the Western Hemisphere, the thing I've spent the past 18 months directing so much of my energy, except what I've spent trying to care for my mom and dad, toward achieving. Getting to and up that mountain is the goal that's guided me through the the pain. The heartbreak and the loss. It's kept me sane and promised me a future less ordinary. If I give up now I don't know what will happen to me. But going up Aconcagua is a three-week trip. How can I leave my mom and dad for three weeks now?
I'm trying so hard to be strong. I'm squirreled away in my room, writing, because it's the safest place I have. But I've got to stop crying and go hug my dad. After that, I don't know.
I don't know if I can do it. When I look at images of Aconcagua, like the one above, I don't know if I have the courage to do it, the stones people might say, if I were a man. This mountain scares the hell out of me. And it should. It's the tallest mountain in the Western Hemisphere, and the tallest in South America - in fact the tallest outside of those man-killers in Asia, the Himalayas. Aconcagua takes people, too. They die of the cold - the weather blows in from the Pacific, turning from rain to snow and ice so fast it seems like sorcery might be to blame. Or they die falling, or from the altitude, like the two journeymen American climbers who died on the mountain a couple years back.
So here I am. Tucked away in a lodge in Tanzania, so close to Kilimanjaro I can almost feel its shadow caressing my body. Just a little more than a year ago I swore I'd spend my 51st birthday climbing Kili, one of the Seven Summits, as the tallest mountain on each continent are called. I'm five days late. I'm okay with that.
I started taking an antidepressant today. Wellbutrin, to be specific - a low dose, 150 milligrams. It's been a long time coming. I held out after my brother overdosed three years ago, after my father broke his neck and our dog died and my mom started to lose her mind. Held out, too, when T left almost exactly a year ago. Held out even when my mother was diagnosed with dementia a couple months ago. I told myself over and over that given what I'd been through, was going though, I was doing okay. Anyone in my position would be sad, right? Anyone would struggle. This isn't illness; this is a natural response to a series of vile little gut punches, the kind that life seems to gleefully dole out every once in awhile. I'm okay.
But the thing is, I'm not. I'm not okay. I'm in a dangerous place, a place I've been before, long ago. I have the scars to prove it on the inside of my wrists. Long, vertical ones, the kind you have when you meant it. I've lost the ability to concentrate. I can't focus. Writing - pulling the words out, making something beautiful with them, the thing that's kept me mostly sane this past year - has become nearly impossible. I've slid downhill in the past few months, inexorably, but so slowly at first I didn't notice. I cry all the time now. I do have a few hours occasionally, maybe a couple days or a week if I'm lucky, when I feel a little less pain and fear, when I might actually experience little chunks of happiness. But then I tumble down that well, falling with what seems like no end. I lose hope. I start thinking it would be such wonderful relief to stop this monstrous hurt. I start thinking I want an end like my brother's...just drifting away, peacefully.
I think about it, but I don't do it. Instead, I bear down. I push into the hurt until it abates. And then I pick myself up and I go on.
But I'm so tired. I can't live this way anymore. And so I messaged my doctor and asked him to write me a script for Wellbutrin. I've been on it before; I know it's about the only antidepressant with no sexual side effects. Hell, even at my lowest there is no way now I'm going to take a med that lessens my ability to experience pleasure, or lowers my interest in having it. That really would send me over the edge. So, Wellbutrin it is.
Hello, old friend. It's been awhile, hasn't it?
At one point, after I was hospitalized a little more than 15 years ago, I was on Wellbutrin. Seroquel, an anti-psychotic, too. And Depokote, a mood stabilizer, and Celexa, for anxiety, I think. The maximum dosages of all them. I was no longer a menace to society, fucking 21-year-olds and snorting Ecstasy and taking off for Philadelphia with a guy I barely knew to a house I'd never been with nothing but chaos on my mind. Instead, I slept 12 hours a day. I never got sad. I never felt happy. I was stable, doing fine, only occasionally wondering what had become of the woman I once was. I'd been declawed, made safe by swallowing sanity in a bottle. But it felt like just about everything I'd been - good, bad, all of it in between - was lost along the way.
After a few years I went off the meds. I was with a partner, living in a beautiful old house in a small town, far removed from havoc and the desire to create it. Without any warning my girl parts turned traitor, demanding that I have children, and fast, before it was too late. So I went off the pills, those bright little bits of stability, all of them, under my psychiatrist's supervision. I stepped down slowly, by lowering the dosages of each med one by one, until I was clean. It took months, unbearable months, when I was so sick I could barely move from the couch. Low-grade migraines that never ended, nausea, exhaustion, dizziness, all day, every day - it was akin, I imagine, to what chemotherapy patients endure.
I never got pregnant, but I stayed off the meds. And I was okay. For better than 15 years I was simply Jill: Mercurial yes, difficult but not dangerous, with a shiny spirit that drew people to me. I still sought the edge, but never went over it. I began building a career, discovered that I have an ability to write that people will pay for, and found that I could satiate my need for thrills with sky diving and volcano boarding and the like - less dangerous pursuits then bad boys with big drugs and fast cars and malleable morals. And then I fell hard for T, the man I believed was him, the great love of my life. I'd walked away from the woman who'd been diagnosed as possibly bipolar, but definitely afflicted with Borderline Personality Disorder. I was no longer ill. Not me.
And now here I am, back on medication. Does it mean I'm sick again, this little dose of Wellbutrin? Or does it mean I'm well enough to know I need help, a bit of a bump, to set things right again? I thought it would feel like defeat as I slid the first tablet onto my tongue today. But it felt a lot more like relief. I might not be okay, not really, but I think I will be soon.
I was in the gym yesterday, training. Working my body hard enough on the elliptical that sweat was running down my neck, my breath coming in gasps and pants. A song called out over the speakers, a silly song from the mid-90s, when I was sort of a big deal as the night jock at an alternative rock station in Oklahoma City.
I was a wild thing then, not even 30 years old. I changed my hair color on a whim, from black to red and back to black, and I changed my men that way, too, though I was married. Married to one of my great loves, a man I hurt terribly, one of the few regrets I will carry forever with me, a stone on my soul.
I was very, very good at my job. I was sexy and funny and ditzy and smart; I was all the things I'd been told a few years before by a radio consultant I couldn't be at once. As a woman, he'd said, I could choose - my on-air persona could be the seductive kitten, or the bubbleheaded cheerleader or the amusing sidekick, if I worked morning drive. Nothing more, though probably a lot less.
But I did what I wanted and was pretty much exactly on-air who I was off. I was a big hit - there was a lot of talk almost right from the beginning that I was going to end up in L.A., or maybe New York. Along about that time I met S and all those dreams dissolved, like sugar in hot coffee, though far less sweet. S was an addict and a dealer and I fell for him for no good goddamn reason at all. Except he thrilled me. He spoke to me with sly poetry and seemed capable of feeling every big, bright, dangerous emotion I did.
Every night with him seemed like it might spin out of control, might spin me right off the planet and into the black, silky darkness. I liked that. The way I liked that he played Dylan - Tangled Up in Blue - while he fucked me, once after he cuffed my hands behind my back and pushed me facedown over the back of the couch. I liked it the way I liked how he helped me shed my clothes beside a motel swimming pool after we'd dosed ourselves with LSD and wanted to feel the water, shockingly cold on that hot Okie night, against our skin.
There were other drugs of his ahead for me. Crack. Meth, injected with a needle once. Never heroin. Somehow I avoided heroin. This was all a couple years in the future, though. So was the night a dealer waved a gun at me, as S sat frozen and I smiled, beautifully high and figuring I'd be fine.
But every night that long-ago Oklahoma summer, every time I was on the air, I played "Semi-Charmed Life." The lyrics tell the story of a couple undone by drugs, looking for something else to get them through "this semi-charmed kind of life." It was a light little alt-pop confection, no great art, but when I heard that song it seemed it was written just for me, cursed as I was with my own semi-charmed life.
I hadn't heard it for years and years before yesterday in the gym. But as I listened to it, my eyes starting to burn with tears I didn't want to release, I realized I wasn't that girl anymore. The self-destructive one, the one tormented and broken, a great, shining magnet for men even more broken then her. The one who hungered for any experience, especially experiences of the darkest kind. I'm not her at all.
The last couple of years have hurt, so deeply and profoundly it makes me want to believe I've gotten all the hurting done, though I know it's not true. My brother's death from an overdose, after he discovered the only drug I'd managed to avoid. My parent's decline. T not simply leaving me after all our years together, but abandoning me with the greatest speed, as if I were hazardous to him. Or just, I suppose, as if I were worthless.
And now, my mother's dementia diagnosis. It was less than a month ago, but it seems to be chewing its way through her, through what's left of my family, very fast. The more she slips away into strange fantasies built on long-ago truths, the older my father becomes. I'm watching it happen, but I haven't processed it, or come anywhere close to accepting it. Do you ever, I wonder? I'll guess I'll find out.
A week after I listened to my mother tell her doctor it was 1976, that we were living in her long-dead grandmother's house in a town an hour away, I received an email from a company offering to host me on a Kilimanjaro climb. In exactly 95 days, on July 27, I will place a foot at the bottom of that mountain. I'm not coming down until I've touched the top of the world.
This is my semi-charmed life, every tragedy, every triumph, and for the first time I'm embracing it, arms open, eyes forward.
Maybe he's just what I need, when I need it, this feral man I'm about to take off across the South with, just the two of us and his guitar in a throwback maroon van, shiny with chrome, smelling of me - patchouli and lemongrass - and him - clean sweat and sweet weed - and the musky, satisfied scent our bodies create together. It wasn't supposed to be this way. I didn't expect to see him after Nashville and that weekend I can't quite remember that left me with a broken foot and a lost voice and shining eyes and a pretty-near healed heart.
But CC called me after I got home and I answered and he hasn't stopped calling and I haven't stopped answering. I texted him a few weeks after Nashville late one night, wrote him that I was thinking of how we had lain naked and smooth together under that white, soft sheet. We should hook up, he replied. New Year's. We met in the middle, exactly halfway between us, in Charleston, West Virginia, and he wasn't irritated I was hours late. I could hear his guitar as I walked down the motel hallway and when I opened the door he smiled.
We spent most of those three days in bed. He's as hungry as I am. We've been tormenting each other for a week now, as we get closer to our next tryst. Whispering what we want in late night phone calls, swearing that we aren't touching our own bodies, that we're saving it all, every bit of longing and need, for each other. We laugh, saying those desk clerks better give us a room on a deserted floor. He was going to head down to Florida, to warm weather and beaches, though he prefers the mountains to the sea, like me. I wasn't going to get involved again, at all, for a long, long time.
CC fascinates me the way broken-not-bent people do. I recognize myself in him, I think. He inspires my bones. He sings to my wild. In the hours we spent in the cool, grey light of our motel room he shared such intimate pieces of himself. He was open, unguarded in a way T had never quite been, not in the five years of our relationship. CC told me he was nearly illiterate when he went to prison. He taught himself how to read with Lee Iacocca's autobiography, the only book he had, pouring over it again and again. When he got out a couple years later he bought shelffulls of books, whole rooms full. He said he shipped them all home to his mother for safekeeping when he left LA for Hawaii, but he doesn't know what happened to them.
He told me spent years in Hollywood, trying to be an actor. It surprised me a bit at first but now I can see it. There's a certain vanity to CC, and a charisma, too. He takes care of himself - drinking wheat grass juice. working his body out hard - the way people who know they're beautiful do. He told me he's half-Cherokee and half-Polish. He has the high cheekbones and bold brow of a Native American. The strong nose, too, and I can see an echo of his heritage in the shape of his eyes, though they are a muted green rather than brown.
He told me when he was about five or six his father took him and his three brothers to K-Mart, where he set them loose, instructing them to go play. Instead, CC quietly followed him, watching from a hidden spot as his dad picked up a set of golf clubs and tried to return them for cash. When the cashier refused, he walked out of the store with them. CC says his dad was a con man.
He told me about the women he's loved and the trouble he's made, about his brothers and his mom and how alcoholism runs rampant through his family, like it does in mine. The more CC talked, the more I liked him. He's like a great literary character, I kept thinking, he really is Dean Moriarty in On the Road. I want to write his story - or perhaps I want him to help write mine.
I set off in hours for two weeks travels with him, from Nashville to Memphis to Clarksdale, Mississippi, to New Orleans, to Florence, Alabama and back up to Nashville. I've packed more lingerie than I knew I had and stuffed beside the corsets and nighties are fleece jackets and hiking boots, because we like to get outside almost as much as we like to stay in bed. Almost. Along the way we'll be hitting up juke joints and dive bars, blues clubs and honky tonks, as I ferret out the songs of the south for a magazine assignment.
I don't know what to expect. I don't know how it will all go down. Maybe we'll end up in Honduras. Maybe he'll teach me the guitar. Maybe we'll part ways and never speak again but always smile when we think of each other.
Oh, I love that. I'm so grateful life has the ability to surprise me yet.
is a journalist based in the Appalachians of Central Pennsylvania. She has contributed to Woman's Day, Country Living, Gothamist, Washingtonian, EDGE Media Network, Canadian Traveller, Country, Country Woman, and a host of other festive publications and websites. She is the travel editor for the nation's most beautiful publication, Faerie Magazine. Her column, Rebooted, is published across Pennsylvania.