This week in my therapy session, we talked about anchors. Anchors are stimuli that trigger certain states of mind - thoughts and emotions. They can be brought on unconsciously without knowing what the anchor is. They can be triggered by memories, like the smell of a rhubarb pie making me hungry, the sound of an old favorite song making me nostalgic, or the love I feel from the unconditional kiss and wagging tail my ten-year-old dog greets me with whenever I come home. An anchor can be a scent, a sight, a taste, a feeling, a person, or a sound. People develop hundreds of them as we grow, unconsciously.
I'm back in Toledo, Ohio – my hometown – for the holidays. I've been thinking about the anchors that draw me back to this place. For me, the smell of a Gino's pizza, extra crispy with pineapple and banana pepper makes me feel like a salivating seven-year-old. The Christmas Eve tradition of spaghetti dinner with our best family friends brings me back together. No matter what's happening in my life, on that night there will always be meat sauce, paper crowns, and lotto tickets on every seat. Even tomorrow night, despite all my pain and holiday cynicism, there will still be hot spaghetti and those dear friends.
Tonight, I'm in my bedroom, sitting in the same bed I've slept in since I was ten years old. My bed is an anchor.
I remember lying here when I was in the sixth grade listening to Love Phones on my alarm clock radio. It was a late-night hotline style radio show where callers rang in to ask about sex-related questions. I would listen to it for hours before falling asleep with the radio volume as low as possible, so my parents wouldn't hear. I was certainly not supposed to be listening to such content. I learned much more about sex than an eleven-year-old should have ever known.
I remember being in this bed when I was a junior in high school and my on-again/off-again boyfriend came over after school. He was just supposed to be dropping me off, but when we saw that my parents weren't home, he came in. Mid-session, my father came home. He saw my boyfriend's car in the driveway. We could barely pull ourselves together before my red-faced and furious father, stormed into my room, doors slamming. The boy had one leg out my bedroom window. He was trying to make a dash for it, Dawson's Creek style. Until that boy became a dear and platonic friend a decade later, he was never the type to enter or exit through the front door. I was grounded immediately and from that point on (until very recently) my parents had a very mean nickname for that guy.
I remember this bed when later that same year, I was recovering from a major back surgery. I had been diagnosed with stenosis and two herniated disks in my low spine. After eight months of major pain killers, physical therapy, and unrelenting numbness and pain – I was operated on at the University of Michigan. A couple weeks after the surgery, I had my preview night for my senior year of high school. I went to school a shadow of my former self. The once fun-loving, social, impressionable cheerleader could now barely put on a pair of pajama pants and had no desire to see any of her friends. It was that night when I realized the months of overly-prescribed medication had resulted in an opiate addiction. Wanting to reconnect with my true self, I went cold turkey that night. My mom had to sleep in my bed with me for days while I sweat, shook, and had visceral nightmares while I detoxed from the dosages the doctors had prescribed me. (To this day, spare a near-death motorcycle accident, I haven't gone near painkillers. That shit is poison.)
I remember this bed when I was twenty-five and got laid off of my job working with the Olympics and broke off a five-year relationship all in the same week. I moved out of the condo I had shared with my partner and came home. I stayed home that summer trying to piece back together who I was. Or maybe I was trying to figure it out for the first time. That summer, 2009, I had no plan. No man. Nowhere to go. Nothing to do. Nothing. That summer, it felt like freedom. It felt like anything was possible.
The canvas has drawn a blank again for me in a way now. But this time, it doesn't feel like freedom. It feels like a noose has been tightened around my neck. It feels like the floor has been ripped out from beneath me. It feels like I can't breath. It feels like emptiness.
You and I slept in this bed together just two times. You were a part of this anchor too. The first time was about eighteen months ago. We came home for a wedding. We stayed half of the time at my parent's house and the other half at your parent's house. We liked that. We thought it would always be like that when we would return home for holidays and trips over the course of our life together. The second time was less than a year ago. My grandmother had died and I flew home immediately. You had a gig that night, but joined me in Toledo just a day later after her memorial service. Your flight came in very late and I was exhausted and worn out by the time we made it home from the airport. I was beyond emotional at the loss of my grandmother who had served as a beacon of class and generosity for me as a young woman. You cradled me as I cried myself to sleep. Of all the times I slept in this bed, that was the most comforted I had ever been. You held me tight, just like my mother had when I had sweat out painkillers a dozen years before. But that night last year, there were no nightmares. There were beautiful dreams of the beautiful life we would share. It was just the dawn.
This morning, I got out of the shower and walked into my bedroom. I dropped the towel that I'd had wrapped around my torso and I stared at my naked body in the mirror on the back of my door. 'The mirror is an anchor too,' I thought. That mirror has seen my body morph more than any person. It has seen my reflection grow over decades with many backdrops. It has seen an adolescent swimmer of ten with creamy pink walls behind her, jumping on one foot, head cocked to the side, trying to get water out of her ear. It has seen a nervous thirteen-year-old ballerina trying to pin up her bun perfectly with bobby pins while popping a zit; behind her the walls are now wallpapered with pages of fashion magazines and a collage of sixty-nine photos of Leonardo DiCaprio is taped on the mirror's glass surface. It has seen a naive young woman of sixteen trying on the outfit she'd wear to school the next day, grey pinstriped polyester pants her crush said made her butt look 'hot' – the walls are now neon green and orange. It has seen a high school senior, in her cheerleading uniform practicing herkies while lip synching to Britney Spears's remix of "I Love Rock and Roll", the walls now a more mature palette of brown and tan. It has seen a woman leaving her hometown for the second time for Austin to find herself and a new career, dressed in Banana Republic slacks because now she's grown up – the walls have finally been taken over by her parents after a remodel, they are off-white.
The mirror in my childhood bedroom has seen me more over the past month then it has in years. I looked at my thirty-year-old body. I noticed how it's changed over the decades. I noticed places that were softer, larger, firmer, or smaller. I moved my face up-close and ran my finger across the thin wrinkles on my forehead. I searched for a grey hair amongst the blonde, surely one has sprouted over the past two months. I turned the edges of my mouth into a fake smile and looked at the laugh lines that had been starting to form because of all the smiling I did with you. I started to cry, a woeful sob. I watched the tears drip down my cheeks in the mirror's reflection. I saw the tracks that the tears took, my face now recognizing the path of salty sorrow. I saw an ugly woman staring back at me. She had my eyes, but they were sadder now. She was so much older than I remembered her. In a way she looked like a stranger.
That mirror has witnessed a lot of tears over the years. But of the decades of tears it's seen, lately, they've been the most sad. There is no comparison to tears of grief. They even look different than other tears when studied under a microscope. They are sharp fractals without any order or pattern. They look painful to touch. In fact, they look an awful lot like they feel. These are not tears from a boy who didn't call a fifteen year-old girl. These aren't tears because I'm pissed at my parents for grounding me for sneaking out. These are not tears from belly laughing at a funny punchline so hard that my eyes water. These aren't tears because I was cast as the ugly step-sister instead of Cinderella. These aren't tears because I got wait-listed at my first choice university. These aren't tears because of a breakup that is sad and hard, but instigated by me. These aren't the tears I cried when my grandmother died peacefully at ninety-plus years.
These are tears of deep, deep devastation. These are the tears of loosing the father of the babies I couldn't wait to have. These are the tears of not being able to call my best friend. These are the tears of shattered tradition. These are the tears of loosing the life I'd always dreamed of. These are the tears of a second family slipping away through my fingertips. These are tears of questioning the value of life without you. These are tears of confusion. These are tears of loosing faith. These are tears that really have no words to describe them.
The anchors remain. The ones here in my bedroom remind me nostalgically of childhood. But in my current state of grief, retreating to memories of the past, before these tears, is comforting. The anchors pull me in and ground me. They remind me that while you aren't here, there was something here before you and there are still things that remain here now. This is your hometown too. And in your absence I wish I'd had the time to learn more about what pulled you back to memories, what rooted you. I am not sure how it will be when I return to our house in Colorado next week. There, the anchors all bear the weight of memories of my life with you. I want it and I fear it at the same time. So for now, I will lay in this bed. I will curl up and try to remember what it was like to sleep peacefully like I did as a child.