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I turned twenty-five and planned my death.
I'm not sure exactly why I waited until then, except I think I always knew I'd do it, and for as long as I can remember, I've known I'd do it before I turned twenty-six.
It wasn't hard. In fact, it made a lot of things much easier. Life always gets hard. That's a given, and anyone who'd tell you otherwise is selling something. Religion, diet supplements, or hair dye. Take your pick. So, whenever the bills piled up, or the boyfriend didn't call, or my hair looked awful, I could always reassure myself that there would be an end to it, so it didn't matter. Life may be hard, but fuckin' suicide is easy.
Don't misunderstand me. When I was alive, I was very much alive. I did all the things that alive people did. I went to school, I dated, I graduated college, and I started a profession. I kept an apartment. I ate, I exercised, I put on makeup, and I kept my clothes ironed. I didn't spend my days listening to dark harpsichord music or making practice cuts up and down my arms. I didn't do drugs, and I drank only socially. I was well adjusted and, by all appearances, happy.
Except I wasn't. I don't think I ever had been.
I watched happy people and tried to figure out how they were happy. Not why. The why was the easy part. You have money in your pocket and a good- looking guy to hang on to, ergo, you're happy. You have an orgasm most of the time and you have perky tits, ergo, you're happy. You have a home, and a job, and enough money left over at the end of the month for some nice new outfits, ergo, you're happy. You drive your car to your middle- management job and come home at night to your two-point-five tow-headed children and loving spouse, ergo, you're happy. Those are the whys. It was the hows I didn't get.
Happy people always seemed so natural. They just seemed to have "happy" as a part of their skin. I remember, I must have been eight or nine-couldn't have been much older-I asked a classmate how. Just how.
"Allison? How are you happy?"
She gave me a funny look and walked away, and I was called to the principal's office the next afternoon. My parents were there. So was Mr. Ratcliff, the school counselor. I spent Tuesdays and Fridays for the next nine weeks in "sessions" with Mr. Ratcliff. I don't know what he said to my parents, but by the end of the quarter he must have figured out that I didn't intend to do anything to myself, not at ten years old, and after the Christmas break he stopped coming in to get me on Tuesdays and Fridays. I liked Mr. Ratcliff. He was nice enough and we had a pizza party for lunch before the holidays, but we also had gym class on Tuesdays, and I always resented having to miss it.
The adults seemed so settled. The kids seemed so simple. I couldn't imagine being either. Once I realized that I was different, I stopped trying to be the same. I also learned not to ask questions. Once I stopped trying to really be like them, it was easier to figure out how to act like them. So I watched, and I listened, and I copied, and I became what Mr. and Mrs. Davis wanted for their little girl. I became Well Adjusted.
When I was eleven I started hiking with my father. Outings To Bring Father And Daughter Closer Together. A Chance To Bond. I think it was something they read in a How To Keep Your 'Tween Healthy and Happy or some other pop-parenting bullshit. I went at first expecting to 'Yes, Daddy' and 'Of course, Daddy' and 'This was fun, Daddy' my way through the afternoon. But we were both surprised. I loved it. Something about the expanse of world around me. No people, no lights, no noise save what we ourselves made. Massive trees surrounded us. I should have felt small and insignificant, but I didn't. I felt more real. More human. More alive than I ever felt at home, or at school, or with friends, or at the mall.
I reveled in the times that my father could escape from home with me for an afternoon. Sometimes for an entire weekend. We'd take bedrolls, and fire starter, and beef jerky, and canteens, and we'd be mountain folk for a weekend. Just the two of us.
I was my parents' only child. There were no sons upon whom my father could shower his masculine words of wisdom. No testosterone-laden little-boy reflections of his DNA. So, like so many sonless fathers, he compensated by indulging my non-girly interests. Our first full-weekend trip to the woods was, in short, an invitation to disaster.
We hiked for an hour or so, him pointing out bear and deer tracks, listening to squirrels chatter angrily at us from overhead, stomping our boots to scare away snakes, until we came to The Camping Clearing. I cleared rocks and twigs from the camping area while he scavenged for fallen firewood. But that night, as soon as he started the fire and put water in the cook pot for soup, the clouds moved in. Storms come on fast sometimes. One moment it's clear and moonlit and you're counting the stars in Orion's belt, and the next the sky is black with storm clouds and you're wondering just how waterproof your tarp really is. It was one of those storms. For about fifteen seconds, it was huge drops falling and then it was solid sheets of water and any creature with any sense had moved up into the trees and caves to wait out the torrents.
There we were. A middle-aged advertising executive and his eleven-year-old daughter, armed with a catalogue-ordered Orvis two-man, three-season tent and a couple of flashlights. I was in heaven. We sat in our tent and listened to the rain beat on the nylon. My father told me stories about his grandfather's adventures as lobster fisherman. For a night, I was happy.
The next day, back home, I was clean and warm and in bed, still hearing the patter of rain in my ears and ready to drift off imagining the feel of the ground under my shoulders, when my father came to tuck me in. He had a book in his hands.
"Dani. This is for you. My father gave it to me when I was a bit older than you are now. Keep it with you. Read it, and understand it, and let it guide you."
I turned it over and over in my hands and traced the lettering on the cover and the spine. Wildwood Wisdom by Ellsworth Jaeger. I flipped the pages and marveled at pictures of rope knots and fires and animals and knives and bows and tents. I was hooked.
My father and I spent as much time as possible over the next two years in those woods. At least one weekend a month-maybe two, depending on how often he could get away and how often my mother would let us disappear from the house. We tromped all over Montana, and he taught me how to survive with what I could carry on my back. He taught me how to read a map, and how to use a compass, and to read directions by the stars, and to find water, and to figure out which plants were okay to eat and which ones to avoid, to track away from predators and to shoot a gun if necessary. On my thirteenth birthday, he gave me a new map, and a new compass and a new all-purpose knife and set me loose to plan and scout and prepare and set up our trip. The whole trip was my call, and we would live or die by my decisions. It was perfect.
Then, a few months later, he decided we were done. He and my mother told me over pot roast and potatoes and carrots and gravy. "You're getting too old for weekends with Daddy, Dani. You're not a little girl anymore. You should be spending time with your friends instead."
I should have seen it coming. But I was young and I had started to believe that maybe my pretending-to-be-happy had brought it to be.
I fought with them for hours about it. All the way though the roast and through the apple pie with ice cream and through their after-dinner coffee until the news came on and they declared the matter settled.
"No, Dani. It's not right for a teenaged girl to spend the weekend in a tent with her father. The matter is closed."
So it was closed. No more weekends with Daddy in the woods. But I realized that it didn't really matter.
School started in September and the new Junior High School experience brought a new set of pretend relationships and friend making and blending in. It wasn't all that different from elementary school. Dress the dress, walk the walk, and as long as you don't really care, you'll do just fine. The people who had the hard time in school were the ones who wanted to belong. They tried so hard to be part of the in crowd they lost themselves to the effort.
.... There is more of this story ...