I’m turning 21 on Thursday, and there are some bad habits I’d like to let go of before then.

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It’s there– faint, fuzzy movements in your memory, a feeling you can recall just enough to remember feeling stupid for it.
You can still make out the images: it wasn’t even that you had trust issues or even that you built high walls and someone finally made it over in this big, breathless, unforgettable moment– maybe it’d be easier now if that had been the case, if you had just turned around and built higher walls and grown gun shy.

No, it was subtle. So you shut it all off instead of restoring your defenses, and you condition yourself to forget so much that it’s still static when you reach back into the far corners of your mind, searching for that soft moment— the moment without the fireworks, where the world didn’t stop spinning, the one that was so insignificant that you can’t pinpoint when it happened– because it happened so naturally, so mindlessly, like your heart beating without you having to consciously tell it to: that was the moment you just believed someone would stay, without a doubt or a question.

And then you were wrong.

There’s just got to be this balance of not orbiting around another human being and yet, not getting too lost in your own head trying to figure out how to care less, to match their pace, just to blink back into the reality that you lost them in the midst of trying to keep them.

Well I know one thing is true about my frantic, misguided, neglected memory: I’ve made sure to take hammer and nail to the forefront, plastering a list of the names of every person that couldn’t stay.

But did I ever make a list of the people who didn’t leave?

These nerves detach, uproot from the happenings around you. So that when you sit across from a boy who looks at you like you’re home, the sound of your own mental repetition of “He could stay, you can trust the process,” makes you nauseous, and you yell at people when they ask you how you feel.

The truth is, I met a boy who makes me nervous, and no one has ever made me nervous. He’s the boy who everyone adores, and I swear he’s another reminder from God that it’s okay to be kind, to care, to get back to the girl who was soft.

He makes me tacos for dinner, and I want to kiss the mess out of him.

Instead I sit and smile and say, “Thank you,” and I make keeping him something I have to figure out.

Because it’s been two years, and I still can’t shake the feeling of loosing someone I made the conscious decision to believe.

Because the first time someone leaves, you’re surprised.
You go on, light-hearted and wide-eyed, believing out of nature, not habit.
The second time someone leaves, you start to wonder.

Then you’re eighteen, and you’ve had to make belief a habit.
Now you coax yourself into trusting.
You spend too much time remembering the names of every person who didn’t stay and forgetting about the people who haven’t left. 

I wonder what my life would look like now if I spent less time making a habit out of trying to believe that people will stay and spent more time being thankful for the people who have stuck with me.

So here it is:
I like a boy. Very much.
And that’s hard to say.
And saying that it’s hard to say is hard to admit.
But I want to be bold, and say the things that I’d rather clutch close, if only for the people who have been bold enough to not stop loving me.

Twenty-one.
I want to step into twenty-one reconditioned; I want to scrape the names of the leavers off of the inside of me, and thank the stayers more often; I want to believe that people are good the way my heart beats and lungs pump– effortlessly, mindlessly.

Because people aren’t mindlessly good– that’s something we have to try at.
I want twenty-one to teach me how to clap louder for all the good.

 

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That was the year Taylor Swift wrote “Innocent” for Kanye West, and I still have to skip that song when it plays on shuffle.

Brown hair, green eyes, clean hands– my knuckles hadn’t been bruised; button my polo shirt all the way up, straighten my khaki skirt out when I stand up. Figure out where I’m going to college just to spend the next four years of high school trying to get accepted, and make it into the journalism club. Study hard for the learners permit test, and don’t let the boys see me giggle when they remember something small about me or say my name differently. 

And the quarterback of the football team said my name differently.

Blue eyed and golden, he called me “Jen” and unknowingly started a trend that would stick with me for the next 7 years. 

He watched me like another boy for four months before he told me that all he wanted was for my eyes to shine when he spoke to me– before he told me that he hurt when I hurt, and I thought that was everything I had ever needed to hear.

The entire school watched our love wind up and then unravel; the girls stuck their noses up when they walked pass the new little freshman who had caught his eye, while the rest of our friends started to ask if I had lost my mind.

But he was good. He would make me lunches, making sure to pack two kinds of pb&j sandwiches: one with a lot of jelly and one with less, just to be sure. He brought me flowers and danced with me; I followed him around the state to watch him play, cheering the loudest, and lifting his chin up to tell him how awesome I thought he was after his dad had critiqued his game.

We dreamed big, planning our lives together.

But he had secrets. Secrets a fifteen year old kid stuck in the spotlight couldn’t stand to carry, who’s knees buckled beneath the weight of the parts of his life he was keeping hidden. And without a warning, he took it all out on me.

There were nights spent crying so loud to him on the phone, that my mother would have to come in and end the conversation for us; I started wearing long sleeves and asking my mother about shaving my arms, because apparently, the hair there was less than appealing to him; I covered up my smile–and still struggle to do otherwise to this day–because he pointed out my overbite and how unattractive it was to look at. 

So I walked away, and he didn’t even act like it hurt. 

Now I try and visit his little sister whenever I’m in Athens and try to keep our conversations short when I run into him in town. 

Until four nights ago. When I received a text.

After seven years, he wanted to know why I ended things. 

After seven years, he hadn’t been able to carry on in a functional relationship with a girl because he had held tight to all of his pain and questions about the brokenness we’d failed to fight through. 

After seven years, he wanted answers. He wanted closure. 

Because you don’t just let go of the first person who ever meant something to you. 

So I met him at a Starbucks, and we talked about the years we’d missed out on in each others’ lives. I told him about all the pieces of myself he had left me to pick up, and he told me the pain he’d clutched tight since our freshman year of high school; he showed me his car, and I heard him laugh again— closure. He has it now.

And then I cried all the way home, because the one thing I’ve wanted in this life is to leave a hole; to be significant enough that my presence is missed; craving to carve a spot out in the lives of the people who walked away from me.

We should want more than this.

I’ve spent nights on my bathroom floor trying to understand how someone can go on living like they never were touched by my life, while there’s a boy who lives a few exits up from me who has been carrying the weight of my absence like a nightmare.

While I’ve been crippled in the wake of not being missed, he’s been paralyzed– stuck in ninth grade, trying to figure out how to let go and move on. 

We want the wrong things.

Trust me, I’ll be the first to admit that being a hole person is the only thing I’ve written about in the past two years, but let me just tell you– it’s nothing like our broken hearts make it out to be. 

I sat across from a boy who needed to rid himself of me so badly because all he wanted to do was learn how to be in love with someone again.

If this is what it looks like to haunt someone, I want no part in being a ghost girl.

—-

There’s this nagging feeling in the back of my mind lately– this feeling that maybe our twenties is the most grace-filled time of our lives; maybe, right now, we’re so busy growing and learning so much about ourselves, that we start seeing other people clearly, gracefully. And maybe their harsh edges don’t bother us, because we’ve made a few scratches ourselves. Maybe their temper doesn’t throw us off, because we know we’ve been angry in our loneliness, too. Maybe we’re bothered less and start to care more, for a time. 

I want to slow down; I want to take more breaths and act less; I want to wait and watch and notice, and not count people out. I want to spend less time hurting people and take more time to hear them; I want to grow faster and ask more questions. I want to make new lists and set new goals, and ask God for different things than what I’ve begged Him for in the past. I want to give people more time and space to change their minds, including myself. I don’t want to be the ghost that keeps him up at night– I want to be a memory that makes people smile, and the absence to be something we both learn to bloom around.