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Sunday, October 23, 2005

Words

There are some things that people say that I never forget. Sometimes the words are formative, and sometimes they're destructive. Either way, people's indiscernible fragilities make me cognizant of how frequently I speak, and of how infrequently I think before doing so. Right now I teach 180 high school students - I think about the words that come out of my mouth sometimes when I'm frustrated, and when no one will sit down or agree with my contention that it really is possible for a 10th grader in Baltimore city to stop genocide in Sudan. I told Cortez that I wanted to run him over with my car - what if he becomes an ax murderer as a result of my irresponsible use of hyperbole? What if Cortez, or any of my other students, are like me: ostentatious and ridiculously self-assured yet secretly vulnerable and sensitive to the potentially destructive words of others? I should have studied bugs or worked in a lab training rats.

When I was 16, April, a friend on the track team, told me my stomach was too fat for such a skinny girl. I was 5'10" and weighed 135 pounds, but all of a sudden I was self-conscious about something other than the ferocious zit on my chin. I started doing sit-ups. 11 years later, I gave up because the washboard abs never materialized. I still don't like my stomach, though.

I also remember my high school friend, Selina asking me how I could be so stupid. We were at a friend's house doing math homework my senior year. Some type of trigonometry, I think. I was in 12th grade. I haven't taken a math class or balanced my checkbook since.

In ninth grade I remember Neil telling me I was pretty. He was a curly-haired senior on the cross country team, and I was a gawky long-legged freshman, covered with mud and sweat, topped off by frizzy post-running hair. Still wearing our respective ITHACA cross country mesh tank tops, we were crammed on a yellow school bus on our way from a mid-week meet. I don't remember Neil's last name, nor how I did in the race that day, but I do remember thinking it was some sort of miracle that someone found me pretty. Especially after a cross-country race. People must not have called me "pretty" very often.

Rather than list the innumerable things that I've selectively ingrained into my bizarre memory, I write this to encourage you, when you're breaking up with someone, to choose your words more carefully than one usually does. Sometimes things stick and, like your favorite jeans that you wash with a piece of gum in the pocket, there is no amount of peanut butter or patience that will ever return things to normal. Jeans, post-gum, are always a little bit jacked-up.

When Jim and I broke up, he left quickly. He had to. He was upset, I was upset, and I knew that if he stuck around for more than 8.5 seconds I'd start frothing at the mouth, beating him with my frying pan, or cleaning the toilet with his head. So he packed fast. I was still wearing my pajamas, sitting on the floor, clutching my knees to my chest. Everything around me started to look blurry and the back of the couch was scraping into my backbone and the carpet itched and I couldn't figure out what to do. So, while he packed, I did nothing. I couldn't even think or pray or remember that I was stressed-out about the school year that started in two days. I might have started rocking back and forth a little; that's what crazy people do, I think. I felt like I was going crazy.

A few days later I realized how much stuff he'd left at my apartment. In addition to the mess of what used to be me, he'd forgotten a lot of his crap. CDs. Pictures. Books. A few t-shirts that I'd worn to bed earlier in the summer. Looking for an excuse to call him and hear, "April fools, Kate! I'm coming home, I love you, I never cheated on you etc. etc.", I decided to call him. Since it was August, there was no "April fools!" rather a terse, emotionless conversation which went something like this:

Me: Hey, how are you.
Him: Not great, how are you?
Me: I'm sitting under my desk.
Him: Why?
Me: I just am. Listen, you left a lot of crap here. Do you want me to mail it somewhere, or do you want to come by and pick it up sometime I'm not here?
Him: Neither, don't worry about it.
Me: I'm not going to throw out all of your pictures and books and stuff. Where do you want me to mail it? You left an entire CD of vacation pics here...
Him: Listen Kate, if I left it there, I obviously didn't care that much about it anyway. If it's still in the apartment, sell it on eBay or throw it out - I don't want it back.

Rationally, I knew he was talking about his stuff. Rationally, I knew he probably wanted his books and CDs and pictures back, but felt guilty having me mail them all to his "new" mailing address. Still, the only thing that came out of my mouth was the word, "Clearly." I sucked in a breath of air that tasted like dirt, and the conversation ended shortly thereafter.

I since resolved to throw out most of his stuff. I finished the book that I'd borrowed from him, and gave it to a friend, turned a few of his T-shirts into gym t-shirts and tucked the shoes he'd bought me for my birthday, and the Ray Lewis jersey I'd bought him for his, to the back of my closet, and threw the rest down the garbage chute.

My advice, though, is this: if, while in the process of shredding someone's heart with a rake, you need to move out, please choose your words more wisely if you leave things behind. It's inevitable that you'll forget a few things; material things you can qualify much easier than the mess of a person you leave behind. Speaking from personal experience, though, it's hard enough to think you're dumb at math, or to spend a decade sucking in a non-flat stomach, but it's even harder to be relegated to the status of an over-listened-to CD or a paint-stained t-shirt. Personal resilience only goes so far.

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