by Stephanie Johnson
Sweet pea, my savings account gathers dust and I pray every time I start my damn
car. This is all I have over you: more scars and more hurt in my heart. I have
memorized where the bombshells lie.
I must stress to you, I’m no God. I don’t have all the answers.
You succeed. That’s what I’m writing to tell you: breathe deep, feel the air go
through your lungs and your belly. I would never lie to you.
Staring into a mirror in a public bathroom, I learned your eyelids do puff
up when you cry hard enough. In the past two years, I’ve studied how I
feel when I’m about to spill over. I’m practiced at clearing a stuffed nose.
I cannot unclench my jaw when the tears start. That’s my next project.
You stare at the world through the windows of your school bus, searching for
Saddleback Mountains and dry grass. But you see rain and retention ponds; nothing is
familiar here. The air smells fresh, not like dust. You are used to the scent of wild fire,
carried over the Santa Ana winds.
I spent over a year in counseling: leather couches, wadded tissues,
listening, titled heads. I’ve done the work, but I’m never done.
It’s hard to maintain good self-talk when you’re bathing in awkward newness. Laura told me to value my story. I’m already clenching my fists.
You cry alone in your purple bedroom, missing everything familiar: your mountains,
your friends, your theatre company, your shopping plazas, your church, your childhood
being mere feet away.
In your bookstore-bought journals, you scribble that you’re okay.
Rename your tear ducts Tragedy and Mourning. Cry as much as you need and light candles in vigil.
Fire and angst can rage from the ends of your hair in static.
Claim your right to be Not Okay.
No one warns you about growing up, about comforting yourself when
you’re broken. No one tells you when you’re playing hopscotch or house:
eventually, you’re going to have to hold your own arms as you weep. At
the end of the day, that’s who you’ve got, kid. Lovers and friends help, but
who holds you when you’re alone?
Your friends are stretched across the map. You squeeze their memories in your fists, punch them at potential companions in this land of humid summer.
Friendships are not a monogamous phenomenon, dear-heart. You can find
possibilities here, amid the hurricanes and summer rain of Central Florida.
These are people you expect to graduate from after high school, but they surprise you by traveling through adulthood with you. They will blunder with you through the tumult of first jobs and first apartments, of moving and rent, coupling up and breaking up, and down payments on less shitty cars.
That girl with criss crossed arms will photograph one of the happiest moments of your life.
That boy who covers his pain with electric guitar will one day be your lover. His emotions will light your future like lanterns.
“I’m okay. I’m okay. You’re alright, you’re alright.” I’ve created a chorus I
breathe to myself every time I cry into my pillow. I wind my fingers
through my own hair, the way my mother did when I was a child.
You found the dandelions growing from the cracked sidewalk in Long Beach beautiful because they punched up through concrete.
This miracle occurs in Florida, too: saw-grass grows through rivers beds, thrives in
the currents, and pushes up through the water to grow.
I try to love myself the best I can in watery moments. I line the bottom of
my purse with Kleenex and Advil. Sometimes, I just grit my teeth.
Sweetheart, your parents love you, despite your cross-house shouts of “whatever!”
and the repeated whispered chorus of “fuck you”. Over the next fifteen years, you
navigate this balance with a compass of DNA strands and text messages.
Light a candle each time you have an honest conversation with Mom and Dad.
Celebrate it like a birthday cake.
Because I was tired of using paper sheets, I snuck into my father’s bedroom and stole his handkerchief.
Your parents have forgotten how fifteen feels. They try to help, like a lion teaching
a giraffe to roar. Your slammed-door emotions bewilder them.
There’s nothing wrong with reminding them that high school resembles an untended fire in a forest of dry leaves.
Ask Dad about his school dances, to remind him what awkward feels like. Invite Mom dress shopping with you so you can learn other women’s bodies aren’t just magazine kindling.
I stole the blank white hankerchief in my father’s underwear drawer, the
one no one would miss. I could pretend I’d inherited, rather than thieved.
The cliché “I don’t know what came over me” isn’t true. I ached to
transform my emotions into beautiful moments; a flourish of a hankie is
graceful. I still carry it in my purse.
Here’s how your parents love you. You wear a beautiful sky blue dress to
homecoming junior year. You begged it down from a thrift store window, where it
posed as a beacon. It follows your body like wax until your hips and then poofs into a flame of tulle. A boy will ask you to dance.
His class ring will catch the material as he grabs your ass.
You, rightfully, slap the bastard and march away.
The tulle will tear.
You will call your father and mother crying.
They will drive forty-five minutes to pick you up.
They will buy you McDonald’s.
You will scoff,
but also feel like a princess because, despite the tear in your dress, you are the
prettiest creature that McDonald’s has ever seen.
Your parents love you like this.
I pretend to be a graceful woman. Emily Post was always prepared, a lady. That’s what the hankie means to me. An attempt to prepare myself for the hurricane of tears.
Keep that dress, even with the torn fabric.
Do not cut the straps from the shoulders, trying to make it sexy.
Let it be beautiful and innocent still.
Years later, you’ll miss it when you forget what it’s like to be fifteen and delicate.
Keep that dress.
Stephanie feels like a name you must dust and shine, something gilded and breakable. I am made of rubber—stretching thin, but I always bounce back.
I value lovely heirlooms, but am not one myself.
Precious girl, you will start flirting and kissing boys and sneaking off to dark corners of the theatre. Your heart will alternate between decorating the ceiling and dirtying the tile. You will start experimenting with sex.
You are completely allowed.
Sew your own sexuality and wrap yourself in its warmth.
The shame that you feel about sex was made by men in crowded churches, not God.
The furrow-browed pastors and stern-voiced fathers are trying to care for you in all the wrong ways.
This said, wear your own damn armor and don’t shed it unless you feel safe. “Safe” does not mean “alone and your parents won’t find out.” Safe rhymes with the following words: respected, honored, sometimes even loved.
Talk to that boy about your boundaries: tell him it’s never okay to tell other people where you like to be touched. Discuss everything with the thoroughness of a wildfire.
I treat my name with fragility because I’ve betrayed it in the past.
Honey, wear these words like a beautiful gown: you are allowed to be different.
If your older sister asks you to read your journal out loud on a train and your
stomach scrapes the filthy falling-apart carpet, say so. Don’t pour your heart out right
there because you were commanded to do so. Set strong boundaries.
Simultaneously, when that same sister says “he’s too old for you,” she’s speaking the truth. Separate her words from her guilt-tripping.
Your younger sister keeps your play programs. Even though you always feel like the dumb one in comparison, sisterhood should never be a contest.
Here’s a lesson you must learn, a damn hard one: how do I care for this broken creature, this tiny shard of blown glass?
When that boy leaves you in the dusty theater balcony in nothing but your bra and
panties, carrying your floral dress over his shoulder like a winged trophy, that’s power play.
He’s carrying your sexuality away with him like he won you. He isn’t being clever or cocky or cute.
You did not consent to abuse.
No one owns you like that, sweetheart. To hell with the boy who tries.
I belittle my pain: Well, yes, but I always had food. No one ever hit me.
Caring for myself means my lack of voice is infuriating. It means standing
up for myself and my story.
Lovely, stop throwing people to the wind like slips of paper. Don’t toss away
friendships when they stop being easy.
All the gossip you pile on the Reputation Funeral Pyre makes you look bad. Grudges don’t match with maturity and everyone forgets what they’re about eventually.
Every heart functions with the same machinery as yours.
I cried through two soggy years. I filled trash cans with crumpled tissues,
found space to tuck Kleenexes away across my apartment. Eliot wrote that
he measured life in teaspoons; I’ve done so in tissue boxes.
Sweetheart, when you break up with a boy you’ve been dating on and off, leave it off. Don’t reignite old flames with a gas station lighter.
There was a reason you left in the first place and it was a damn good one, too.
Trust your emotions. When a boy makes you cry twice a week, it may be a good indication he does not care about your feelings. You deserve fire and passion; do not settle for unanswered phone calls and secret hallway glances.
Last night in class, I cleared my throat and began. “I . . . have been here
four days . . .”
I broke down to small pieces in front of twenty strangers. Their bewildered
faces were blurred. I pursed my lips and bit my tongue, but everyone else
was leaning in, nodding their heads.
Ignore the titles of “pretty” or “preppy” or “goth”. Focus on the people, not their
labels; friends aren’t designer clothing.
Some of these women tell you you’re beautiful when you aren’t wearing make-up.
Some of them buy you flowers when you’re single.
One of them shares a secret—she didn’t like you when you first met because you seemed too elegant.
Stick your tongue out once in a while. Restore your ability to be goofy.
How do I put everything together without sounding predictable: what do I
have to say that a thousand women before me haven’t?
Marvelously messy, Laura said.
Dear one, eat. Eat vanilla ice cream and Kraft mac and cheese. Eat chocolate chip
cookies and roast beef and fresh pineapple and strawberry yogurt.
Not eating won’t get you attention from boys. It will get you in sobbing fights with
your mother in the kitchen. She’ll cry when you turn down pineapple-carrot-raisin salad, a previous favorite. Eat, sugar.
The boy you’re trying to impress by just eating half an apple and a diet coke will
become his alcoholic father after graduation.
Four years from now, you will see him in a bar and he will be fat. His fingers will smell of piss, his breath of cigarettes. He shaves all that dreamy, curly hair into a terrible buzz cut.
Goddamn it, I thought. How am I going to get through this intact?
If someone tells you, “You really shouldn’t be so emotional,” fuck them.
Your emotions are valid.
Love cannot be easy and honest at the same time.
I’ve starved my body. I’ve screamed at my parents. My emotions are a
multi-color wheel of pain and joy and sorrow. And they are mine. This is
Dear girl, when offered your first drink in college, when all the bottles look the
same, when you don’t know what to ask for, when five gay men shout that “we’re
doing shots, bitches,” when their one straight friend leers at you from the corner couch,
ask for vodka and sprite.
Or just the sprite.
Do not just point and pick. Tequila is not a good choice, ever, but especially when you’re one hundred and twenty pounds and haven’t eaten in four hours.
Last night, Laura discussed “your holy voice”. My voice? Holy? Haunted
felt more apt.
When a man with glazed-over eyes and too-friendly hands tells you to stay and
dance, listen to your feet. Leave that room. March away, armed with your kick-ass
black stilettos and all the confidence that you’re worth more than the whiskey on his
Going into the pain, I trek through the stalagmites of my emotions.
College isn’t an ivory-towered escape after the hell of high school. Graduation doesn’t
have confetti. Some of college looks like the insides of a trash can. The six months after
graduation set my tolerance for crushed dreams.
I open myself to my story—fingers ready.
God doesn’t speak the language of guilt.
Anyone who tries to convince you otherwise sees God as a pinhole. You have always seen God as a kaleidoscope. Until now, you’ve been handed a warped, crooked tube.
Churches and youth group and reading your Bible doesn’t make a god.
Years from now, an old man, a poet, will quote Lenny Bruce to you: “Every day,
people are straying away from the church and going back to God.”
Sweet pea, you find peace in your soul the moment you stop attending church.
I’ve felt like damn near every woman in the Bible—Ruth in pain, Esther in fear, Mary in self-abuse. Let yourself feel like Hannah: joyful.
After years of not valuing them, I push the stories out of my belly, and empty my gullet onto the page.
Loved one, write.
Write like a crazy motherfucker.
Who cares about rejection? Do it anyway.
Write. Write at your desk in the bedroom. Write on napkins at Starbucks. Write in
notebooks on the bus. Keep all of it.
Don’t worry about careers and a 401 (k). These things will come, and then you’ll
leave them to go on another adventure.
You’ll find, my dear, that the best opportunities worm their way into your life
without you having much say about it.
Trust these gifts. This letter proves you can do it.
Small me I see in childhood pictures, lovely me I see when I cry, forgive
yourself for desiring more than humanity.
Take long walks. Buy flowers. Love yourself, dearest. Be gentle and caring.
You are the stuff that makes up the universe.
You are stardust,
You burn and get up again. This letter is proof. If all the dumb, lovable, sweet-idiot shit you did worked out, I wouldn’t be here, writing to you. Thank you for not getting it all right.
Write what you feel. Listen to yourself; listen to the song emerging from
your throat and your fingers.
This will be a theme.
Forgive yourself for trying to be perfect.
Forgive yourself for being less than.
Forgive yourself for stupid mistakes.
Forgive yourself for beating yourself up.
Accept the freckled, dimpled skin you have. Accept the story you’re telling.
Accept the well of pain and the overabundance of joy.
Stephanie, be as magical as you feel. Don’t let anyone, not even someone you love,
tell you otherwise.
All of my love to you, dearest. Keep burning bright.
Amen and amen.
Stephanie Renae Johnson is a pretty rad lady living in Asheville, North Carolina. She is currently pursuing her Masters in Writing at Lenoir-Rhyne University where she writes some funky poetry about old dead poets and young dead poets. She has previously been published by Danse Macabre, Prick of the Spindle, and First Stop Fiction, among others. You can find her kooky art at dablobblog.wordpress.com.