I don’t know what it’s like to look at someone and see only goodness. I do not know what it’s like to stand in front of a group and be afraid. I do not know what it’s like to stand in front of someone and not be afraid. I am always afraid. It’s a survival tactic, to always be on the move, to always be ready to change directions, to zigzag across the next minefield. It is also a survival tactic to be able to control my emotions, which I can do rarely and never for very long. I have learned after great struggle and a lot of time to turn my sadness into anger and my happiness into motivation. I have learned to hold my sadness inside my throat like a treasure I have won with great sacrifice. I have learned not to cry but instead to dig my fingernails into my skin until I draw blood. I have learned to bite my tongue when people say Stop, to turn words into bruises, to turn bruises into secrets.
I have not yet learned to fall in love, at least not properly. That’s silly because I’m 21 and logic says I should have fallen in love at least once by now. I tend to fall in love with little, transient things, like the jasmine on the fence outside the dumpster, or the fluorescent light at the end of the hallway at three in the morning. I fall in love with myself when I wake up after a long night of fighting darkness. I fall in love with myself when I eat a balanced meal. I do not fall in love with myself when I sense jealousy or when I focus too long on a reflective surface. I do not fall in love with mirrors at all.
I like the way that I wake up on Saturday mornings, my arms crossed in front of my face, knees tucked up to my stomach. When I am asleep I am still protecting myself, but not from anything I can name, and I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing. I am always alone when I wake up on Saturday mornings. Let me tell you a story, a smaller version of what I’ve been telling you from then until now: when I was five years old my parents got me a cat with blue fur and small, pointed ears. She had a round face and green eyes and would politely wake me up when my alarm went off and I didn’t get up. The last time I woke up in my parents’ house I was seventeen and my cat was twelve and I was not sleeping in my own bed, but in the guest bedroom. Somehow my cat had found me there. Somehow she was sitting on my chest, facing me, her paws tucked under her body and below my collarbone. I can still feel her warmth when I wake up too early.
Sometimes when I am in class or at a party I feel time slipping away from under my feet, like I am standing still and everyone and everything else is moving more and more quickly into the past. I want to grab the closest person – the guy playing computer games in front of me, my sometimes-friend who hasn’t yet seen me at the party – and tell them Don’t leave me. Don’t you dare go into the past too. I can see two versions of everything. I can see the colored version and the black-and-white version that will stay in my memory until it is pushed aside for the skeletal structure of cholesterol or the properties of vancomycin. People’s voices stretch and warp into echoes and I stand still, but I am not scared, because I know where I am going.
I once wrote to a friend studying abroad that I was very good at waiting, but I did not know what I was waiting for. All I know is that I am still waiting, I wrote. By the time this letter gets to you it will be a week from today but these words will be no older than the day I am writing them, which is right now. I never sent the letter; I didn’t need to. I folded it up and put it in a box in my closet, and I suppose someday my children will find it, either that or a disinterested janitor in some forgotten building that was once an apartment or a dorm. Someday my children will ask me why I have a scrap of blue-gray fur folded up in a silk pouch. My children will ask me many things but there are only so many things I can tell them. Maybe I will have learned how to love people by then (there are two different types of love, writes my psychology professor, and you probably know at least one) or maybe I will still know only a list of macromolecules and their different names, but I will still have boxes, and I will still have my dreams, and I will still sleep with my arms crossed and my knees tucked, whether or not I am alone, and whether or not it is the morning.