Author: alexandrarak

Perfectionism Develops In Childhood

I finished my run and was stretching my legs in the backyard when I caught sight of a colorful fallen leaf. It reminded me of an art assignment in sixth grade. We were told to find a bright-colored leaf and make a drawing of it. The one I picked back then looked just like the one I saw today.

I didn’t complete the assignment by myself. I made my aunt do it. This didn’t seem like a big deal then, but today,  I’m wondering:

1) Why did I want my aunt to draw the picture for me and claim it as my own work?

2) Why did my aunt (and mom) agree to that without hesitation?

The first one is obvious. I wanted her to draw it because I knew she could do better than me and I wanted the assignment to be good. Was this an early sign of perfectionism? And if so, where did it come from? Researchers used to say that unsatisfied (and dysfunctional) parents, who push their children too hard, are to blame, but the newest studies imply that perfectionism is genetic. Either way, thanks, Mom and Dad!

I’m not a perfectionist. I do have high standards and I can be too harsh on myself sometimes, but considering all the impulsive decisions I made and all the things I’ve tried in life, I don’t think I’m even close to being a perfectionist. Anyway, this isn’t the point I’m trying to make here. I just find absurd that I wouldn’t allow myself as a child to complete an art project in my own lame way.

My aunt’s drawing didn’t get me an A, by the way. I got a B and I was happy because I thought B was a good enough grade. So why didn’t I draw that leaf myself? Maybe I thought that if I had tried, I would only have gotten a C, which I didn’t consider good enough. Or maybe I was just too lazy to draw. Or maybe I just didn’t like drawing at all.

This got me thinking about some other things I didn’t do because either I didn’t feel like spending time with them or thought that the end product I could deliver wouldn’t measure up to my standards. I have no idea why I doubted myself so much, I was one of those gifted kids that flew through school with ease (and one who got an award for being the school’s best student) yet I created these enormously high expectations for myself and didn’t care what my parents or teachers thought of my achievements, if I didn’t think I was doing great, it was all for nothing.

***

I love storytelling. I guess I always have, but I remember thinking as a child that I was terrible at it. We used to get assignments in English class to write about various topics. That caused me a great deal of anxiety because I always felt I couldn’t come up with anything entertaining. So instead of writing stories in English, I asked my mom to draft them for me in Hungarian (that’s my mother tongue), which I would then translate and improve. Never mind that this was three times more difficult, considering Hungarian is one of the hardest languages in the world. I was confident in my English skills but felt absolutely incompetent when it came to my storytelling abilities.

I spent a lot of time thinking about this as an adult. “How is it possible that someone that didn’t like storytelling and sucked at it (so I thought), became a writer?” I realized I had it all wrong. It’s not storytelling I didn’t like or wasn’t good at, it was the lack of creative freedom I couldn’t handle. They always gave us concrete topics to write about (which I found, most of the time, boring) instead of saying, “Tell a story about anything you like.” And only now, twenty-something years later, I can see how harmful and stupid that was.

***

I was part of an experimental class when I started school at age six. We were taught how to read and write using an alternative method, which encouraged individual work. This meant that as soon as a child could read and spell, (s)he was given permission to complete all the exercises in the book without any assistance, guidance, or supervision.

There were a few pupils in my class that could already read when we started school, so they were allowed to work on their own from day one. I wasn’t. I didn’t know how to read when I went to school and it took me a while to learn it, which made me irritated because I couldn’t bear the idea of someone else finishing the book before me. I begged my teacher to let me go ahead individually, but she thought I wasn’t ready, so she wouldn’t. (Man, was I upset!)

Finally, after five other kids had already been working on their own for months, I got the green light. I was over the moon. My grandma picked me up from school that day, and I told her that we needed to hurry because I had a lot of homework.

We arrived home (the journey felt like ages) and I was pacing around impatiently as my grammy was unlocking the door. When I finally got into our apartment, I ran to the bathroom, washed my hands, ripped my bag open, and pulled out THE book.

I didn’t have a desk at the time, so I placed the little red wooden chair, which my grandma used to stand on to reach the upper parts of the window in the kitchen, in the middle of the bedroom and kneeled down in front of it. I put the book on the chair, took a deep breath, opened it, and didn’t stand up until I finished it. The entire book in one evening.

It was way past my bedtime, and I remember my grandma and mom approaching me several times, asking me to take a break to eat something or just relax for a while, but I was adamant. (I wish I could have this focus these days.)

Why did I do it? I honestly don’t know. There wasn’t any reward for finishing the book, nor did I get any special treatment for doing it, so I guess the look on my teacher’s and classmates’ face was my prize. I wanted to show them that I could. Isn’t this crazy?

***

I was a lucky kid and teenager as I had a bit of talent for most of the things I had tried my hand at. And if I didn’t, I just dropped that particular thing because there were plenty others to choose from. Even when I was only second-best at something, I would just refuse to do that thing or pushed myself until I became the best.

My parents couldn’t always keep up with this. They wanted me to learn how to play the piano, so they made me take lessons for five or six years from the age of six. As much as I love music and my ability now to play an instrument, I loathed piano lessons. I hated having to practice every day; I abhorred having to perform twice a year in front of a committee that would rate us, and I despised the mandatory solfège class with all its sight-readings and solmization. Why? Because I never felt I was talented enough to sacrifice so much of my time and to put in so much effort. (But mainly because I felt that everyone else was doing better.)

So, when I was twelve, and my solfège teacher gave me an F for my performance (only because I sang the song too slowly), I never showed up again. My parents freaked out and were begging me to go back, but I was relentless. They took me to a psychologist because they thought there was something wrong with me. The shrink told them that she thought that a child who was part of the basketball and volleyball team, took private English lessons twice a week, performed in school plays and voluntarily attended a first aid course, might as well have the ability to decide whether she wanted to add more to the agenda or not. So my parents didn’t have any other choice but letting me be the boss in this. No piano lessons ever again.

***

High school wasn’t much different, except that there were many more smart kids in the pool, which meant more things for me not to be the best at. I went to great lengths to manipulate my environment in a direction that served me most. Don’t think of anything evil, I give you an example.

We were due to write a test in History class, which I didn’t study enough for (to get an A). Getting anything worse than an A would have been an unimaginable outcome for me, so I approached all my classmates one by one and asked for their permission to speak to the teacher on behalf of the class to persuade her to postpone the test for next week. And it worked. Every single time. People were grateful that they didn’t have to write a test that day and I gained the extra time I needed to prepare to write the best test the week after. Win-win.

In my junior year, all my final grades were going to be As except Chemistry. I got the same amount of Bs as As during the semester, and Mrs. Thompson decided to give me a B as my final grade because “I wasn’t going to study Chemistry in college.” I didn’t like her way of thinking. I went to see her after class and told her that I deserved an A because I knew everything I was supposed to know and I said I was ready to prove it. She was game. She gave me three days to go through the entire book again and said that if I answered all of her questions correctly, she’d give me an A. You bet I got it.

***

You’d think I’m proud of myself for my achievements as a young person. And to a certain extent, I am, of course, but from an adult’s perspective, I have some unsettling thoughts.

Have I been manipulating myself through life because I’m afraid that I’m not good enough?

Should I assume that me always choosing the more difficult, time-consuming, and indirect routes is the result of being scared to take the direct path because I don’t believe in myself?

Does pushing ourselves harder and harder make us feel more accomplished, or in the meantime, do we lose the sense of what is important and fulfilling?

Would pieces fall in place easier and would success come faster if we didn’t compare ourselves to others, or if we didn’t try to exceed our own expectations all the time?

I’m yet to find the answers.

More in the mood for fiction? Read this.

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The Peculiar Average Saturday of Roberta Polonowski

Roberta Polonowski was just like any other twenty-six-year-old woman: too young to care about her pension but responsible enough to get her yearly Pap smear done.

Her alarm went off every morning at seven o’clock. She liked to keep the same routine on the weekends as well because she “didn’t want to waste her life in bed.” She always felt like she was running out of time. This Saturday started just like her every other Saturday for the past two thousand three hundred and four days – since the day she dropped out of college and decided to become a painter. She never had a feel for words, but with the paint brush, she felt she could convey her thoughts the “right way.” Her father never forgave her for this decision and hasn’t spoken to her ever since, but her mother, despite their differences, was always supportive. Even when Roberta needed to move back to her place for an entire year because she couldn’t afford rent. Her parents got divorced when she was thirteen, and her mother never again found anyone she would have trusted enough to share her house and life with.

Roberta was just like every other struggling artist: juggling multiple jobs to keep her head above water, waiting for the big break. She had her work showcased here and there (mainly in friends’ friends’ pop up bars, out of pity) and she even managed to get one of her paintings into a respectable gallery known as the “new hip place for up-and-coming young talents” because she once helped out the gallery owner in an important matter, and she wanted to return the favor. But even though a few collectors were excited about her work, the painting didn’t sell.

As she was wriggling out of her Alpaca blanket (a gift from a wealthy friend) on that morning, images of the fight from the night before were flashing before her eyes. She felt awful and the more she thought about it, the bigger the knot in her throat grew. They always had fights, but this was different. She said things no one ever should say to a mother and although she was right about the facts, she wished she could take her words back.

They never had an easy relationship. They were like cocoa powder and cold milk – never quite mixed smoothly, but if you worked on them hard and long enough, they slowly embraced their unity. It took years of effort, arguments, tears, and sweat that they got where they were. They finally learned to understand and respect each other and became friends. And now all that was in danger. Roberta was concerned that she might have caused irrevocable damage.

She walked into the kitchen and put the kettle on. She glanced at her phone, hoping that her mother had called, but all she saw on the display was the little icon of unread emails. She threw the phone on the counter and poured oatmeal in a bowl. She always wondered how she wasn’t bored of eating the same breakfast every single morning, but she didn’t like change, so she stuck to porridge. She never read emails before breakfast as she couldn’t take any news on an empty stomach. If it was bad news, she needed to throw up, and if it was good news, she became so lightheaded, she almost fell.

She found her fondness of oatmeal peculiar because she thought she’d never eaten anything more tasteless than that. For her, it was the definition of anti-flavor. She tried to boost it up with a generous sprinkle of cinnamon and frozen berries, but it was still like chewing on wooden splitter. Sure, the ones that came in a pack of eight and were industrially flavored, tasted much better (“Strawberries and Cream” was her favorite), but they were full of sugar, which she refused to eat. Sugar made her lazy in her body and overactive in her brain. She couldn’t handle that.

She usually read a book while munching on her insipid breakfast. She was in the middle of a story written by a guy who used to work in a hotel and recounted all the disturbing behind-the-scenes anecdotes you don’t want to learn about as a potential hotel guest. Not that she could have afforded to stay in a hotel or even travel, but just in case, she was trying to remember all the don’ts. She didn’t want her toothbrush soaked in toilet water by an angry housekeeper or butler one day.

Despite the disgusting details, the book was funny and it usually put her in a good mood. But that morning, even the funniest lines sounded mundane in her head and couldn’t divert her thoughts from her mother. She finished breakfast and washed the bowl. She had a brand new dishwasher but never used it. Not only did it smell like sewage water after finishing a cycle, but she also thought it would make more sense to just rinse that one single plate and mug she always used. She dried her hand and reached for her phone again. Still no message or call from her mom, but another email notification popped up on her screen. It was from the girl that worked part-time in the gallery; they knew each other from a wedding where they were both trying to make some extra cash by waitressing.

Her painting got sold. She thought she’d misunderstood something and read the email one more time. And again. And once more – just to make sure. But it said the same thing every time, and finally, she believed it. In the moment of exhilaration, she speed dialed her mom and only realized what she had done when the call went to voicemail. She hung up and the smile vanished from her face. Suddenly she felt the saddest she ever was. She wanted to share the big news with her mother.

She decided to visit her and make amends. She wasn’t sure how her mom would react, but she didn’t care. She threw on an old Led Zeppelin T-shirt (one of the remainders of one her exes) but didn’t like herself in the mirror and the day called for something different from black. She opted for a light blue mini-floral pattern shirt – the one she wore when she wanted to make a confident-but-gullible impression. Jeans, boots, and a navy blue trench coat, of which the belt was missing, so to hold it together, she wrapped a scarf around her waist. It looked awkward and undoubtedly unfashionable, but she never cared too much  about what others thought of her outfits or looks.

She grabbed her bag and poured its contents on the table. To her, starting with a clean slate meant a spotless bag as well. She couldn’t believe there were also bonbon wrappers in the pile, she hadn’t eaten chocolate since college. This made her wonder about two things. Number one: how lucky she was not to have discovered a half-eaten hot dog or banana instead and number two: it was probably time to get a new bag. Or at least wash that one. So she took a mental note of that and added it to the thousand other things she was planning to do to get ahead in life.

As Roberta was running down the stairs, she stumbled upon a garbage bag somebody left in the way and almost fell over. She managed to keep her balance but hurt her ankle a little. She wasn’t even surprised; clumsiness and unexpected small accidents were part of her everyday life. When she opened the heavy metal door and stepped out on the street, the sunrays were so bright, they hurt her eyes and she had to squint.

She loved spring. The blue sky, the perfect level of warmth, the occasional cool breeze, and the fragrance of flowers in the air, which she never understood where it was coming from and how it lasted so long in a city full of gray concrete buildings and people that sometimes threw their trash on the ground and didn’t shower for days.

It was a perfect Saturday.

She was striding the streets; she wanted to pass by the gallery to say thank you to the girl before visiting her mother. As she turned at the corner, she caught sight of a flower shop on the opposite side. She thought it’d be nice to get some flowers for her mom. Nothing fancy, something sweet. She ran across the road and picked a bouquet of orange tulips. Not mediocre but not too prominent either. There weren’t many things they had the same taste in, but flowers were one of them. Her mother loved tulips ever since she visited Agassiz, a tiny Canadian village with a not so tiny tulip festival.

She grabbed the doorknob and was about to leave the store when the florist rushed to her and handed over her wallet. She left it on the counter. She always did such silly things. She wondered why she was so forgetful and scattered at times. She thanked the florist, smiled, and stepped out of the store.

She felt a giant hit on her head, just above her temple, and everything went black. She heard some noise but couldn’t figure out whether it was people speaking, cars passing by, or the sound of garbage trucks emptying bins. She was lying on the ground facing the sky, feeling numbness and something warm on her cheek that was slowly making its way down to her chin. She tried to open her eyes but her eyelids felt too heavy and she didn’t have the strength to lift them. The noise became sharper; it was people screaming. Somebody grabbed her wrist, “She’s got a pulse,” a panicking female voice shrieked.

Roberta tried to shape words with her mouth and in her head, it sounded like she was speaking but nobody seemed to hear it or they were just too busy picking up the tulips and rearranging them into a bouquet. Until that moment, she didn’t have any pain but all of a sudden, it felt like her head would explode. She was used to migraines and knew how bad they could hurt, but this was different. It felt like somebody had put her head in a vise and kept tightening it until her eyes popped out.

She felt something on her hip. It was a familiar sensation but it took her a moment to realize it was her phone vibrating in her pocket. Nobody ever called her on weekends; she knew it was her mom. She never wanted anything more than to answer that call. Deep down, she knew she wouldn’t be able to do that but attempted it anyway. She managed to move her hand closer to her body, but digging into a pocket felt like lifting a ninety-four-pound bag of cement above the head and no matter how hard she tried, all she could do was slide the tip of her thumb in.

The sound of sirens and the voices around her became quieter until they died off completely. There was  only silence and blackness, and the vibrating sensation on her hip. An image floated before her eyes: she was spinning around in a fairy costume her mom made for her for Halloween when she was eight because she was scared of witches and skeletons and didn’t want to be any of them.

It was an eggshell dress with tulle skirt and little flowers on it. They were made out of colored crepe paper and her mother spent an entire night sewing them on one by one. It was beautiful and she remembered that she’d felt like a real fairy when she’d put it on. One that makes dreams come true.

Her mother smiled and that was the picture in her head when her phone stopped vibrating. And the last picture she saw.

She made it to the New York Times. Not quite as she’d ever imagined. “Sudden Death of Young Talents,” the title read. Normally, no one would give a fig about her existence or the lack of it, but oddly enough, on that same day, a famous soccer player passed away from the same condition and so they mentioned her as a comparison. The autopsy showed that Roberta was a ticking time bomb in all her live. More precisely, her head was. She had half a dozen of aneurysms in her brain (bulges in the wall of blood vessels) and she could have died at any given moment if one of them had ruptured and nobody could have done a damn thing about it.

It didn’t have to be a brick that fell from a roof on a Saturday morning, but it certainly didn’t help.

Fancy a poem about love and desire instead?

I Wanna Be You

I wanna hide in a smile and freeze on your face
I want to be the eyes that cannot hold your gaze
I wanna lurk into a tear drop and roll down your cheek
I want to be your fast fluttering heart that skips a beat

I wanna be a sigh and die on your lips
Become one with the gentle rock of your hips
I wanna be the catchy song in your ear and the whisper in your head
I want to be the joy in your heart and every word that you ever said

I want to be the light breeze that catches your hair
The excitement that makes every inch of you flare
I want to be the noon sunshine that warms your skin
The brightness of the morning light that makes you squint

I wanna be the pink shade in the twilight that makes you smile
And want to be the joyful moment that makes you want to fly

I want to be the rain that washes away your pain
And be the thought that whatever you want you can gain

I want to be the air that surrounds you and hold you forever
And a star in the sky that shines on you when we’re not together

The goosebumps that cover your body
A cuddle that never lets you go
The chuckle that buoys you up
A soft touch that makes you glow

I wanna be the laughter that escapes your mouth
I wanna be the fluff in the clouds that makes you dream
I wanna be the sound of the sea that lulls you to sleep
I wanna be the sweet taste in your mouth and melt on your tongue

Oh, if I just could be you,
And you would be like me,
We could be together, forever.
And life would be wonderful,
So wonderful,
To me.

Oh, if I just could be you,
And you would be like me,
We could be together, forever.
And life would be wonderful.

What if you could meet your 85-year-old self?

The Old Lady That Looked Familiar

Another night when worries kept me awake. Insomnia came to pick me up at the same time every evening and we walked hand in hand until it became pointless to fight it. The lack of sleeping made me dizzy in the mornings. This Sunday dawn wasn’t different either. I crawled out of bed and washed my face, but I still felt like a marathon runner a mile before the finish line. I stopped drinking coffee because it made me jittery and somehow I felt more exhausted after having a cup.

I needed some fresh air to clear my head. The view of the mountains across the sea and the sound of water splashing against the rocks always made me feel better. So I headed to the harbor just like every Sunday morning.

I was walking down the coast and trying not to think of anything. It’s a difficult thing to do and I always find myself thinking of the nothingness I’m supposed to think of, which is thinking after all, so it never works.

The marina was quiet just like on any other Sunday morning.  The rising sun has painted the sky in a pinky shade and the fog hasn’t lifted yet. There were barely any people around, mainly dog walkers and elderlies that couldn’t sleep too long. 

Despite my best efforts, thoughts kept chasing each other in my mind and my head became so heavy I could barely keep it straight. I stopped and squeezed my eyes shut. I took a deep breath and massaged my temple and pressed on certain points on my face a reflexologist friend suggested once. It helped a little.

I rubbed my eyes and when I opened them again, I caught sight of a strange figure in the distance. She was hunching forward and dragging her left leg as if she was keeping a quarter under her foot to hide it from others. Even like this, there was something noble and elegant in the way she carried herself and although I couldn’t see her face as she was far away and walking the same direction as me, I imagined her to be a proud and poised woman. Her moves were like that of an old, broken music box – a few sounds were off, but the melody still filled your heart with joy.

As I was watching her, an unexplainable feeling of familiarness overcame me. I couldn’t tell why, but I thought I met her somewhere already. I got curious, so I picked up the pace to catch her.

All of a sudden, she halted as if she wanted me to gain on. I startled. And then something happened that made my blood freeze in my veins and the realization struck me in the head like a giant hammer that could break a skull open with one single hit. I knew her. Who else would do such a thing? She opened her arms and bowed to the sun, then spun around twice. Once clockwise and once the other direction. Otherwise, she gets too dizzy. How silly is that, really?! I know only one person who does that. I know her well.

Tears filled my eyes as I started to move again. Slowly but confidently, I was walking toward her.

I had to meet her. I needed to talk to her. I was sure she would know all the answers. I wanted to ask her and tell her that it was okay. In case, she felt differently. The distance between us started to shrink and I was less than a few feet behind her when she abruptly turned. I flinched. We were face-to-face and I could clearly see her then. A shiver ran through my body. My legs were shaking and breathing felt so heavy as if Mount Everest was resting on my chest.

It was her. No doubt. She hasn’t changed a bit. I mean, she got older, you could tell. The wrinkles and the silver hair were new, and her skin looked somewhat paler, but that mischievous sparkle in her eyes and her slightly crooked smile were the same. And that triangle-shaped scar on her forehead she got when she fell from the apple tree in her auntie’s garden. Those would give her away even if she disguised herself as a man.

We made a few more faint-hearted steps toward each other until we got so close we could have touched. She was a little shorter than me, and I could see the cowlick on top of her head that made it impossible to have a stunning coiffure for the prom. A bittersweet smile appeared in the corner of my mouth.

She lifted her head and gazed into my eyes. Her face was peaceful and warm, it made me feel calm. It felt like she could see right through me and I got scared that she would be disappointed and a lone teardrop escaped from the corner of my eye. She raised her shaking hand and put it on my shoulder. “Everything is gonna be fine,” she encouraged. Her voice trembled but there was something undeniably confident in it. Like she knew it. For sure. And I believed her. I wiped my face with the tassel of my scarf and looked at her puzzled.

“I have nothing,” I avowed in a hoarse voice. It sounded like I haven’t talked for days. “Don’t be silly,” she said with so much compassion I haven’t felt since Mom died. I had to swallow the knot in my throat and cough to be able to carry on speaking. “No roof over my head, no family, not even a job I would enjoy.”

She reached for my hand and buried it in hers, then lifted it to her face and gently pressed it against her cheek. She slowly moved her head, so my hand was stroking her skin and I could feel her smooth but cold lips and warm breath on my palm. She stared at me again. “You have this,” she said softly and put my hand on my heart. I could feel my own impatiently racing heartbeat with the tip of my fingers. And as I felt the warmth of her hands on mine, gratitude flooded my soul.

“Am I gonna be happy?” I asked. And as the words were leaving my lips, I felt ashamed and started shaking again because I realized it was the wrong question. I took a deep, anxious breath and slid her hands in mine. I squeezed them a little and looked into her eyes again. “Are you happy?” I asked fearfully. She moved away so I couldn’t reach her anymore and flashed that cheeky look of hers at me one more time. Then she opened her arms, bowed, and spun around twice.

I burst out laughing but couldn’t stop the flood of tears running down my cheeks. They weren’t sad tears, though. They were tears of relief and love. And a sense of wholeness. She just giggled like a kid that catches sight of a butterfly for the first time and walked farther and farther away from me. As her silhouette started to blend into the mist again, fear overcame me. “Wait,” I shouted after her. “What’s the secret?”

I heard her heartfelt laughter fading in the distance as the morning breeze became stronger.“Share it,” the wind carried her voice and she disappeared on the horizon.

Were you an easy teenager or a nightmare for your parents?

I Was an Easy Teenager… Just Don’t Ask My Mom

I’ve been living my adult life in the absolute conviction that I was the greatest child and the least troublesome teenager ever, who never gave any reason to her parents to worry, freak out, or be unsatisfied. I excelled in school; I was good at sports; I had drama-free friends (sort of); I didn’t drink alcohol and never used any drugs. What else could a parent dream about, right?

If I could choose, I’d still prefer to be a college student for the rest of my life, but being a grown-up has its advantages, I can’t deny that. I’m wiser and understand things better. (Or so I believe.) I see things from a different perspective and finally have a normal relationship with my mother. We can actually talk for an entire hour without getting into an argument.

Taking advantage of that, a few days after my thirtieth birthday, I took my mom out to dinner. I planned to have one of those groundbreaking mother-and-daughter talks where we bond over a glass of wine while she’s telling me hilarious stories about my childhood and adolescent years. I started our conversation with a bold “I was a really awesome teenager, right, Mom?” question, which was more of a statement. This created an expression on her face that people would have in a packed metro car if a passenger took off all her clothes and started belly dancing. Confusion, a mixture of shock and surprise, and a sense of insult. “I wasn’t?” I asked in such a high-pitched voice I didn’t even know I was capable of. And then she started to talk.

She said it was “extremely” difficult to deal with me. (How dare she?) I got upset and gave her a dirty look. “Why?” I asked again in the voice of a Japanese cartoon character. So, here is a collection of anecdotes she recalled about my “easy” teenage years.

I love dancing. And I loved it already when I was fourteen years old. (That’s practically a child. With boobs. Barely noticeable boobs, in my case.) I had some older friends I hung out with those days, but they were fine, and Mom knew and trusted them. Kind of.

One night, I decided to go out dancing with my “mature” friends to a club out of town. I was going to stay out all night, of course, because that’s what disco is about, right? Dancing all night. According to my  fourteen-year-old self. I started getting ready in the bathroom when my mom appeared in the door and asked me where I was going. So I told her I was going dancing.

She didn’t get mad or anything. She quietly said, “You’re not going anywhere,” and calmly walked back to the living room. I ignored her and continued whatever I needed to do to feel pretty that night. Every now and then, she would pass by while I was doing my hair and repeat in a measured tone: “I told you, you are not going anywhere,” but I pretended not to hear it. When I finally got ready, I – very thoughtfully – reminded her that she shouldn’t wait up for me because, most likely, I would come home only in the morning.

That’s when she lost it. She raised from the couch, walked up to me, and shouted in my face: “Are you out of your fffff… mind?” That’s how she said it. Fffff. “I told you, you are not going anywhere, so you’d better move your ass back to your room and chill out.” We started arguing. It was pretty boring for the first couple of minutes. She would say I couldn’t go, I would ask why, then she would reply that because she said so, and I would say that was stupid and I was going anyway.

After minutes of word battling, I made my way to the hall and announced that I was leaving. She blocked the door with her body and wouldn’t move. We started shouting at each other and when I had enough of it, I looked her straight in the eye and in a calm but firm tone, I articulated, “I am going, Mom,” emphasizing every syllable, and with a gentle but solid push, I got her out of my way and left. Horrible, I know. But back then, I had absolutely no idea what her problem was, knowing that I was a “good girl.” In my understanding, she just forbade me from dancing, and that I found unreasonably stupid.

My next “stunt” that caused my parents a micro heart attack occurred when I was sixteen. It was in tenth grade, and I was still a top student. On a lazy September afternoon, I decided that I didn’t feel like going to classes anymore and I’d rather be home-schooled – only without any parental or tutorial help. I thought I could manage it all by myself without going to classes and only taking exams at the end of the school year. I’m not sure how this works in other parts of the world but where I come from, you can’t just not attend your classes if you are enrolled in a school. You have to be present all the time and can only miss a certain number of lessons if you have a medical certificate to prove that you were ill.

There are two ways, however, you can go around this. Either you have to be an exceptional talent in sport (and I’m talking Olympics level here) or a doctor, a neurologist or psychiatrist, has to give you a piece of paper, which states that school visits are not recommended for you. (Basically saying that you are mentally impaired in some way.) My decision to join the basketball team was solely based on the fact that I was in love with one of the players, so you can guess which option I went for.

My mom went to school with a guy, who – lucky me – became a neurologist. So I convinced my dear mother that she asked the dude to give me the required document. And she did. And then he did. So I filed the paper and stopped going to school.

You need to understand, though, that my intention was never to not finish school or not go to college. I wanted all that. I liked studying and I was good at it. I just felt at the time that I couldn’t be in the school, among all those people. (Whom I’m still friends with.) But no matter how hard I tried to explain to my parents that I still wanted to be an exceptional student, they took it all in the wrong way. Huge drama.

My dad thought that beating me up would be an efficient tool to change my mind, but all he’d achieved was that I got upset and didn’t talk to him for months. Mom was only desperate and confused, so she cried. But the point they both agreed on was that I needed to get a job and pay for my lodging because “now that I stopped going to school, I obviously had all the free time in the world.”

This I found unreasonable and ridiculous because I thought that learning everything on my own was much more difficult than sitting in school and absorbing everything there. (And boy, I was right.)

I couldn’t see how I would have the time to work after all the studying I had to do, but in the end, I did take a part-time job to make them feel better and also enrolled in a Saturday language course to prove them that I was still into studying, and that gave them some peace.

The school year flew by quickly. I passed all my exams with good results, and one day, I woke up with the idea that going to school wasn’t that bad at all and I wanted to go back. So I started the eleventh grade in the same class with my old classmates like nothing had happened. Until this very day, I couldn’t figure out what made me not want to go to school in the first place. But who understands teenagers, right?

Another episode of my adolescence my mom didn’t handle well was dating a guy, who was ten years older than me and had a girlfriend he shared his home (and life) with. Our affair lasted for more than a year, but eventually, I dumped him. He didn’t take it well, which made him do all sorts of stupid things. He followed me everywhere; threatened every single human being I was in any kind of relationship with; stalked my new boyfriend and held him captive in his car for hours; ruined my holiday with my classmates; and made a habit of embarrassing me in front of the entire school.

But that’s a story for another time.

Wanna know why there are so many single people these days?

Why Are We Single?

I know so many attractive, fun, and intelligent young people (there’s one right here, typing this) that are single. Why is that? Why are there so many eligible and available women and men alone? Why don’t we find our partners in crime, better halves, soul mates, lovers, buddies for life – you name it?

Have we become too picky? Or too ignorant? Or are we just blind? Have we become people that only pretend to be longing for a relationship but secretly prefer to be on their own? Because it’s easier and effortless, it doesn’t require any compromises, and it’s safe? Or is it because we don’t need to shave our pubic hair that often? Convenience. Comfortableness. Security. Laziness.

I travel a lot and rarely stay in one place for longer than a couple of months, so my family and friends always blame my lifestyle for not having been in a stable, long-term relationship for quite some time.

I thought about it but when I took into account those friends of mine that have been living in the same place for years yet are still alone, I realized there’s more to this.

So what is it? Why are we single?

One of the reasons must be the past. Many of us had nasty and painful experiences, and fixing a broken heart isn’t a walk in the park and takes a long time, so we’ve become more cautious and reluctant to get into anything that could potentially hurt us. And for those, who only had these dreadful experiences and no positive ones, it’s not as easy to change the I’ll-never-find-love-and-die-alone mentality to an I’m-an-open-book-let’s-make-babies attitude.

I consider myself lucky because even though I haven’t had a proper boyfriend in years, I was fortunate enough to have had healthy and loving relationships in the past, so I know what it feels like to be in one and what I’m looking for. (Don’t worry that one of these loves happened seventeen years ago, it burned into my memory forever.)

I’m an unconventional person in many aspects of life, but when it comes to relationships and love, I’m probably more traditional than anyone from the same age range and background. I believe in love, and I think that no one ever should settle for anything less and be in a relationship just for the sake of not being alone. To me, being together with someone I’m not in love with is a burden and it feels suffocating.

I want spark and passion and laughters that shake my whole body, butterflies and fireworks, long gazes in the eyes, hugs so tight I can’t breathe, and rose-colored glasses. And as an eternal optimist, I’m convinced that we all find true love sooner or later, but I’m not surprised that it’s difficult to find someone that sweeps you off your feet.

Although there are a lot of free “catches” out there, we don’t always bump into each other. And not everyone suits everyone and the chance to encounter a right fit is getting slimmer and slimmer as we age. Meeting new people used to be easy when we were in college. Not only because we had an infinite pool to choose from but also because we had the opportunity to meet on a regular basis and were forced to talk to each other, at the very least in class. So we had the time and “setting” to get to know one another and pick accordingly.

As life got more complicated growing up, so did meeting somebody – I can’t deny that. But we can either whine about it or do something. In case you don’t belong to that one percent that meets “The One” on a subway ride, you won’t fall in love if you don’t go out there to see people, and loneliness will become the norm. So my advice: move that sexy ass of yours and increase your odds.

And don’t ask me where and how to find him or her because I don’t know! Go jogging in the park, volunteer, join the local community theater or attend yoga classes, go to Meetup events, stalk people in that new juice bar around the corner, put aside your prejudices and give a chance to online dating, pick up a new hobby, get funny-drunk in bars and dance the night away, send a smiley face emoji to that hot colleague of yours, or accept invitations to friends’ friends’ birthday parties where you don’t know anybody. And show up. Whatever suits you best. Experiment. And stay receptive.

Being single is a choice. It’s a way better alternative than getting stuck in an unfulfilling relationship or being with someone just because you can or don’t have anything better to do. So if you’re single because you’re not willing to settle for less than you deserve, give yourself a pat on the back and be proud. And if you don’t like being alone anymore, do something about it.

Start looking. Initiate. Talk. Dare.

Maybe that girl from your local grocery store is thinking about the same thing whenever you two cross paths with each other.
Or maybe it’s your neighbor’s cousin who visits every Sunday.
The bartender of your favorite club, the guy you see on the subway every morning.
The last listed name in the book you borrowed from the library.
The stranger that glanced at you at the entrance.
The person you’ve known for a decade but never looked at “that” way.

Anybody.
Everybody.
Go and get them.

Want to know how I had pancakes with my dead mother?

Pancakes With My Dead Mother

I lost my mom when I was twelve. It happened the day before I got my first period and when I saw the blood on the sheet in the morning, I thought I killed her. What a stupid idea. But how would I have known, I was just a kid with no mother who could have told me it wasn’t my fault.

She didn’t suffer, they say. The bullet hit her head right in between the eyes and went straight through her brain. It was a quick death, an accident, they say. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Could have happened to anybody. That’s what they say. Like this would make it more acceptable or less painful.

 

Well, it didn’t. Because it hasn’t happened to anybody. It happened to my mom. And I didn’t know for a long time how to forgive her for leaving me behind. And I didn’t know how to be a kid anymore because it felt like I wasn’t one and I had to grow up overnight, but nobody taught me how to be an adult.

Nobody told me what to do when I awoke at night in cold sweat, gasping for air, with my heart wanting to burst out of my chest, and feeling not only sad but with an emptiness of a hangar inside. So I cried as long as there were tears in my eyes and when they ran out, I just lay like a piece of dead wood, staring at the ceiling and praying that I could fall asleep at some point to not have to see my mother’s face in front of my eyes.

 

When the crying didn’t want to stop, I took one of Dad’s leather belts and wrapped it around my neck. I buckled it and pulled it tighter and tighter until I couldn’t breathe and when I started to choke, I couldn’t cry anymore.

There weren’t always tears, though. Most of the time, it was just pain. It hurt in a way I never experienced before. Not like when you fall and scrape your knee or like a wasp sting. More like as if someone took a pair of scissors and cut out tiny bits of the paper-thin skin under your eyes.

But pain wasn’t always a bad thing. There were times when it hurt so much inside that I couldn’t bear it. I thought of dying. A lot. I needed a distraction. I dug out Mom’s tweezers from the drawer of her bedside table and started to pull out my armpit hair one by one. It’d just begun to grow, a few months maybe, so I didn’t have much. On bad days when that wasn’t enough to numb the pain, I plucked the hair in my genital area. And when it hurt so much I got tears in my eyes, I suddenly felt better.

Dad and I hardly spoke to each other. He stopped talking to me. He barely even looked at me, but when he did, I could see the same pallid sadness in his eyes I saw when I looked in the mirror.

Not that I felt like talking, mostly, I didn’t. But there were days when I wanted to say things and would have needed him to listen. But he didn’t. He couldn’t, I guess. I heard him crying at nights when I was awake.

I started talking to the doll Mom gave me to my sixth birthday. Her name was Lola. She became my friend. She listened to me when I wanted to talk and gave me company on my sleepless nights and when I felt lonely. But she couldn’t answer my questions and I got frustrated, so I locked her in the closet and didn’t let her out, not even when she was crying. And I cut all her hair off because she reminded me of Mom too much. 

One morning, I woke up to some unusual noise. Actually, it wasn’t unusual at all, I very much knew it, it was just unusual since… you know. It was humming. Mom always used to hum and sing in the mornings while she was preparing breakfast. I sat up in bed and listened carefully. It was the same French song she always sang when she was in a good mood.

Mom was French. Classy and beautiful. Dad fell in love with her when he studied in Paris, on the stairs to the Sacré Cœur. À la claire fontaine,” she started singing. I walked to the door and listened. Loud clinking shattered her peaceful voice like someone would have dropped a metal container on the tile floor. The smell of cinnamon and pancakes floated in the air. I ran down to the kitchen, and there she was.

When I walked in, she turned and smiled at me. “Good morning, sweetheart. Are you hungry?” she asked and put a plate and my favorite mug, the one with the rainbow, on the table. “I’m making pancakes,” she chirped and showed me a tray full of steaming hot, golden brown pancakes. I sat down and just stared at her. She was more lively than ever.

“What are you doing here?” I finally asked. “What do you mean?” she asked back smiling and poured tea into my mug. I kept goggling at her confused. “I live here, remember?” she mocked. “Not anymore,” I whispered, keeping my eyes on my empty plate.

She pretended not to hear what I said, but I knew she did because her hands were shaking as she slid a pancake onto my plate. And then she started gushing about the decoration she was planning for Christmas and a new recipe she discovered in a long-forgotten cookbook she found underneath her bed, and a lot of other nonsense while I could only focus on one thing: what the hell is my dead mother doing in our kitchen?

I looked up from my plate and waited until she was facing me. “Mom,” I addressed her with unexpected authority in my voice. She winced and almost dropped the syrup she was holding in her hand. We stared at each other for a few seconds; it felt like hours. My heart was pounding in my throat.

“What are you doing here?” I questioned her again, and this time she could hear in my voice that I wasn’t going to take a bullshit answer.

I was watching her face. I could tell she was trying to smile but the muscles around her mouth refused to make the effort. Tears appeared in her eyes. “My clever girl,” she said in a choked voice and stroked my head. “You never believed any silly things adults tell their children, did you?” Now she smiled. She pulled up a chair and sat down opposite me.

“Do you remember when you were little and Dad and I tried to make you believe that they built the tunnel by the river to protect the bridge from rain?” I nodded and tried to smile a bit. “We told you that they would push the bridge into the tunnel when it rained, and you were protesting so vehemently that you moved to the other side of the bus and didn’t talk to us for the rest of the ride,” she recounted.

“I remember,” I mumbled and my face became serious. We stared at each other again. A thousand words were trying to escape my lips but I couldn’t say a word. She was still smiling but her eyes were the saddest I’ve ever seen. I was about to pin her down again, but she put her fingers on my lips and looked deep into my eyes.

“I’m here to answer,” she said softly.

“Answer what?” I asked. 

“Anything,” she murmured.

My eyes welled up with tears and I felt dizzy. “Why did you leave me?” I muttered and wiped off a teardrop that rolled down on my face.

She cast her eyes down for a second but then looked at me again and grabbed my hand. She squeezed it so strong, I hissed. “I never wanted to leave you. Do you understand?” I closed my eyes. I couldn’t bear seeing her face. “Please look at me,” she said calmly and stroked my face. I obeyed but could barely see her, everything was blurry. “I’ll always be with you… Here,” she whispered and placed her other hand on my heart.

“It’s not the same,” I snapped.

“I know, darling,” she cooed and was touching me all over my face and my hair. Her eyes became wet. “But this is all I can offer.” She was fighting with her tears. “Leaving you was the hardest thing I ever had to do, but every time, I watch you tossing in your bed at nights or hurting yourself, I want to die again.” She couldn’t hold her tears back anymore, they were flowing down her cheeks relentlessly.

“You can see me?” I asked in awe. She nodded and wiped her tears off with the back of her hand. We stopped crying, but our faces were all wet and we were biting our lips not to start again.

“It’s not fair,” I objected and looked away. She took my face in her hands. “Look at me, honey,” she said and wiped the remainders of my tears with her thumbs. “Life is not fair. And sometimes people – even good people – get hurt. Life can be mean and let bad things happen to good people. Things they don’t deserve, things that don’t make sense, things that make them suffer and cry.”

I wanted to run away. Or die. But every word that left Mom’s lips felt like a warm cuddle for my soul.

I missed her voice so much. And her hands. Her laugh. Her beef stew and even the chewy but delicious escargots. And the way she pronounced “ratatouille.” She’d left France when she was five and spoke perfect English, but her accent came out when she said certain words. And she was so beautiful. All the boys in my class were in love with her. And I think some of their dads, too.

“You are strong. And smart. And you need to keep going with your head held high. You need to push through this, honey.”

She sounded so confident and I believed her; I wanted to believe her, but I still struggled to understand. “Why do I need to carry on?” I questioned her.

“Because life is worth it. Because there’s so much you are yet to experience and learn. There’s so much beauty out there. And I want you to see it all. You have to travel. You have to see the world. You have to fall in love, get your heart broken, and fall in love again. And you have to find your passion, and follow your dreams.” She paused for a moment, gave a heavy sigh, and continued, “And because you have to teach all the things I wanted to teach you to your daughter one day.”

She smoothed her dress down over her hips. “Do you understand now?” she asked. I was hesitating for a second and then nodded. “What do I do with Dad?” I wanted to know.

“Be patient with him. Give him time. He needs you more than ever. And he loves you, he is just a little lost now. Hold his hand and remind him of the beautiful things. You.” She smiled and for a blink of an eye, I did, too. “You can help him,” she added.

“And who helps me?” I asked sheepishly. She took both my hands in hers. “I will,” she said in that soft tone I remembered from when she was singing me lullabies when I was little.

“I’ll lie next to you when you can’t sleep at night and put my arms around you when you feel cold. I’ll wipe your tears when you cry and laugh with you when something joyful happens. I’ll hold your hands when you are scared of doing something and tell you that it’s okay to fail sometimes because that’s how you grow.”

 

She gazed at me as if she was trying to memorize every single detail of my face and continued, “I’ll be the warmth in the sunshine that strokes your face and the light breeze that catches your hair. I’ll be in your heart and you can always speak to me when you need my advice or just want to share something. I’ll always be with you. And even if you won’t see me and can’t touch me, know that I’ll always be there, watching and protecting you.”

She kissed me on the forehead and squeezed her eyes shut for a second. When she opened them again, there was no sadness in them anymore. They were clear and green and happy. And I could see my reflection in them. It was a happy reflection.

***

I woke up in my bed and Dad was standing in the door. “Are you OK?” he asked. I pushed myself up and my head felt a little hazy. “I think so,” I replied. “What time is it?”

“Nine in the morning. You must have been exhausted,” he answered. I looked at him puzzled, so he added, “I found you sleeping hunched on the kitchen table.” I was looking around one more time to see if I was really in my room and when Dad saw my perplexed face, he added, “I didn’t want to wake you, so I carried you upstairs.”

 

Then he stared at the floor. “This was the first time you slept through the night since…” He didn’t finish the sentence. He didn’t need to. We both knew. And we both wished we didn’t understand each other without words so easily when it came to Mom’s death. But pain was a language we shared. “I should get back to work,” he murmured and off he went. “Daddy!” I shouted after him. He turned back to face me. “Thank you,” I said. He gave a brief nod and dashed off.

I stretched my arms and rubbed my eyes. Something has changed. I felt differently. Lighter. I wriggled out from under my blanket and sat on the edge of the bed. As I slid my feet into my slippers, one of my toes got caught in something. I took off the shoe and shook it out. A gold necklace with a pendant fell on the floor. I picked it up and had a look. I’ve never seen it before. It was engraved and said, “Always with you.”