My students often ask me about personal essays, “How do you know where to finish?”
Life is ongoing, you see? So how do we know when to finish?
I always tell them that I don’t have an answer, that I usually know how I want to finish an essay when I start it, that the final line is often the impetus for the entire piece.
I am someone who sees endings before I see beginnings.
My book is finished. It is off to the galley printers.
On campus, people keep asking the standard question, “How are you?”
And I keep answering, “Good. I’m really good.”
My friend Brad once said that we are all existing in a competition of “tired.” We ask one another, “How are you?” And we respond, always, with “Tired. I’m tired.”
But you know what? Right now, I’m good. I’m really good. The writing of my book has come to an end, and for that, I am grateful.
I write about being in the gym a lot. That is not because I spend so much time in the gym, but because, lately, I haven’t been doing that much to write about.
Tonight, I ran on the treadmill. I had my final physical therapy appointment yesterday, and my physical therapist gave me permission to exercise fully, so I went for it today. I pushed myself, and pushing myself physically did something to me emotionally.
I wanted to cry; I wanted to rage.
In the window, I could see the reflection of the man who I met in the gym. I could see him looking at me, seeking my approval.
I ignored him. I ran faster.
I could see the reflection of the man on the machine behind me. That man had seen me out on one of the rare nights when I was out drinking with friends. At the time, that man had laughed and said “hello” guiltily (as had I). Then, I texted the other man from the gym, and he showed up and escorted me home.
I was home by 10:30 pm.
Nothing happened with either man.
Still, they now both give me that look.
You know that look.
We all know that look.
I am so tired of endings.
No matter how hard I try, I cannot write the ending to my own story.
I had sent my book a while ago to a writer I admire, and she wrote back today with many kind words, but what struck me the most was this, “… I will forever go back to it to try and figure out how you made this gorgeous, difficult, complicated, hopeful piece of art.”
How did I make it?
I don’t even know because I was in a trance.
Thank goodness that I didn’t have Reed for the summer because the entire summer was stuporific.
How did I even function?
I didn’t even have my body because of my back injury. My body, too, was angry at me. I couldn’t run. I couldn’t walk up the stairs. I couldn’t even clean my house.
I did all of that stuff anyway because, when a single mother is ill, who takes care of her?
Every night, when I close my eyelids, and every morning, when I open them, I am only ever alone.
This is a lesson I have learned.
I have so many endings that I want to talk about. So many endings that have hurt me.
Pete / my first love / the alcoholic / No one will ever again break my heart like he did / Clayton / the only emotionally stable man I’ve ever dated / I wasn’t good enough for him / Caleb/ the love of my life/ I married that motherfucker / River Guide / I could have loved him / He didn’t love me.
There are so many others.
So many heartbreaks.
The guy from the gym yelled at me in front of all of the other gym members who were there.
He yelled, “You just can’t get over yourself, can you?”
He later said that he missed me. He said that our fall-out had been keeping him awake at night. He said, “As, I’m sure, it has you too.”
I said honestly, “I haven’t really thought of this at all.”
He looked hurt, and I overcompensated by talking about how busy I am.
What I wanted to say was, “If you knew me better, then you would know that I have had my heart broken in the worst way possible, and an aggressive guy yelling at me in the gym does not have the capacity to hurt me.
What my therapist said was something along the lines of, I hate this guy because he’s driven you back into therapy, though you don’t care about him at all.
There was a time when I was skiing with a friend. She was braver than me and took off from the normal run to the trees, so I followed. But I crashed.
I landed in a tree well, which is a very dangerous trap of loose snow around a tree. The snow in a tree well is basically like quicksand, but maybe worse
As I dug to get a foothold, I felt myself sinking into that depth. I hadn’t yet heard tips on how to get out of tree wells, but I intuited them. Lean into the solid. Get yourself out on your elbows.
I could feel the ground under my feet caving below me, but I knew that meant I was supposed to depend upon my arms. I used my elbows to edge my way out.
And in the end, I survived.
I’ve always survived.
The end to this story is a woman who went through hell but still loves herself,
But really, the end to this story is the tunnel left in the wake of that darkness.
What could have happened in that tree well?
Why do we all need to face our own tunnels?
To learn to use our elbows to edge our way out?