The steady slap of the windshield wipers lulls me into a trance as we drive away from the only home I’ve ever known. Tears trickle down my face, leaving hot and sticky trails in their wake. I quickly brush them away, looking around the cramped car to see if anyone has noticed. Feelings aren’t entirely welcome in our family, and this definitely isn’t the moment to decide to have some. At 12 years old, I am half girl, half woman, desperate for love and affection but too cool to admit it to anyone. Moving to Texas may have sounded like a fun adventure to my parents, and initially, it had seemed like a good idea to me after I had the misfortune of trying out for the cheerleading squad months before and had epically failed. Shy and admittedly awkward, I met my doom when I walked into a gym full of screaming fans. While most of the girls had some sort of formal tumbling training and wowed the crowd with back handsprings and flips, I ran in to do a single cartwheel, let out a sad sounding “woo!” and then joined the other girls for a less than memorable performance. My best friend made the team, and I, well, obviously didn’t. Moving had provided a convenient escape, but now that my small Oklahoma town was in the rear-view mirror, it didn’t seem like such a great idea. Fresh tears sting my eyes as I watch the rain hit the pavement outside my window, shoving down all the sadness and anxiety that’s bubbling up inside.
I don’t know where my home is anymore.
I chug the last of the water bottle and lace up my shoes. Darkness waits outside and a shiver crawls up my back as I venture out into the night air. I hate running. But I hate my body more. I hate feeling like a puppet in my own life, like someone else is holding the strings and I’m just following blindly as they swing me to and fro. The girl who has no voice. Smile. Nod. Stay thin. Be impossibly beautiful. Drill team has provided a sense of community in an overwhelmingly large high school, but parading around in front of peers in a mere leotard and tights on a daily basis has a way of making you criticize every fold of flesh on your body. It’s hard to hide an eating disorder in a house with so many people, so I unbind myself at night, running as the humidity in the Texas air sticks to every part of my body I vow to change. The darkness alone carries my secret. I dodge off the path 2 miles in and throw up, purging myself of everything that’s been buried deep inside. Expectations that are impossible to keep. Once home, I make a beeline for the bathroom, splashing water on my face before I join my family in the living room and promote the façade that I have got it all together.
Home feels like a distant memory.
The icy water hits the naked flesh of my stomach as I walk deeper into the pool. Beer cans lie scattered along the pool’s edge. Music and drunk laughter fill the late-night air. The crisscross straps of my push-up bikini dig into my shoulders, and I no longer care about the oomph they had created for cleavage purposes. A pair of hands grab my waist under the water and I’m instantly uncomfortable. I try to convince myself college is about freedom and testing limits, but these mostly drunk upperclassmen are all older than me and I feel like I’m floundering to fit in. Later, we stumble into his house, the moon lighting our way. Wet hair tickles my back, jolting me back to reality. Silenced by the drunk taste of his mouth, I know I shouldn’t be here. I stare up at the ceiling, lying in his bed listening as he snores loudly, and thank God that nothing happened, that he passed out in a drunken stupor.
What am I doing here? I have to go home.
The water crashes gently into the shore. Ducks waddle toward us from the water’s edge, closing in around us as I reach into the bag of bread to pull out a little black box. It is all a blur as he kneels on one knee, confessions of love and forever. Three years of friendship and a slight obsession with his college roommate have brought us to this pinnacle moment. Trading out all of the first dates and drunken curiosity for something real. Finding my voice, I answer “of course!” as he slides a diamond onto my left hand and we rush off to call home with our big news. Newly married, a college diploma lies at the bottom of a stack of bills as I dress for a job that does little to inspire. Young, naïve, and uncertain of what to do with a degree in psychology, I’ve settled for a temp job filing papers at a bank, dreams of something bigger shoved under the stack of growing bills.
Home is where the heart is. Right?
A rush of water trickles down my legs as I lie uncomfortably in the hospital bed. A machine next to me roars to life. I feel a wave of nausea as the contractions grow stronger. It’s been a full day of waiting, so it comes as a surprise when a flurry of activity whirls around me and they rush me into the operating room. “The baby is in distress. We have to go in and get him.” Groggy, exhausted, and scared to death, they tear him out of me and then leave me for four hours wondering about my new son. Weary and frightened, I wish I was someone else, loud and bossy, demanding to see my baby. My blood pressure skyrockets as the anxiety pours over me, and nurses poke and prod, insisting my blood pressure has to go down. After an eternity, they deliver into my arms a baby boy that is absolute perfection. Plump little cheeks, soft red lips, and a head full of curly hair. I hold him close and whisper to him.
Let’s go home.
Long, wet strips wrap around her arm rhythmically as she whimpers, and I assure her that she’s fine. Her three siblings crowd around to watch in wonder, each secretly praying a prayer of thanks that it’s not them. Donning a new pink and purple striped cast, we head for the doors, all of us desperate to leave when she stops in her tracks and says, “I can’t feel my fingers.” I pause in the lobby and inspect, probing her, “You really can’t feel your fingers?” “Well, maybe I can,” she supplies. I knew at that moment. I knew something was wrong. That innate sense of knowing that moms are gifted with from the moment they see those 2 pink lines. I would be crazy to march in there and tell those expert, award-winning doctors that they didn’t put her cast on right. Me – with absolutely zero knowledge of anything pertaining to the orthopedic world! My daughter brushes it off, immediately admitting that she can feel her fingers, she thinks. And just like that I ignore what I know is true, and bury the uneasiness that rises up, convincing myself that everything will be fine. Aren’t moms supposed to do something about what they know? Why can’t I? I wrap my arm around her as we proceed to the doors.
Let’s get you home.
Water drip drip drips, a steady ping onto the rocky surface. I look down at my feet, toes curled as I grip the slimy rock floor, and notice how the rock has hollowed out where the water gently falls from above, changed not by force but by sheer persistence. Staring at the reflection on the water’s surface, I peer back at a person I don’t recognize. Haunted by all the things I’ve left unsaid, the feelings I dared myself not to feel, the person in the water fades as a ripple breaks across the surface. I throw myself forward, plunging headfirst into the watery abyss. A scream erupts from somewhere deep inside, a voice I vaguely remember. First, warm air blows through my hair, rendering it wild and free. I hit the water, the impact startling me back to life. Changed over time, the persistence of expectations I was made to keep. Be good. Stay quiet. Don’t feel too much. Don’t feel anything. Coming home to who I was always meant to be, feeling alive, blood finally coursing through me again, I swim further and further away from the shore. Daring myself to feel again, I sink below the surface, fully submerged, gliding freely until I have to burst up for air.
Samantha Branch is a writer from Houston, TX where she lives with her husband of nineteen years. She is a busy mom to four rambunctious kids and two lazy dachshunds. As an Enneagram 9, she believes in the power of words to bring people together, and strives to find beauty amidst the chaos of life. You can connect with her on Instagram @sammylynn82 or through her monthly newsletter.
This is fantastic. Moving. Inspiring. Thank you, Samantha.