dancing on my own

At a certain point, you have to accept that you just aren’t going to be a prodigy. That’s easier said than done. But I have a fourteen-year-old pen pal; I’ve been staring this one down for months now.

It’s not that I never tried to be exceptional. In my tenderer years I hammered my way through scales on the piano, entered children’s writing contests, briefly attempted to train myself into ambidexterity. I was a spelling bee champion, for God’s sake! Honorable mention at Math Field Day! But none of this, absolutely none of this, changes the fact that if my pen pal wrote right now to ask what my most exciting recent accomplishment was, I would have to tell her the truth: that I helped my boyfriend assemble an IKEA TV stand, which we purchased based on its reasonable price and neutral, professional color scheme. No one who gets excited about a nice FJÄLLBO is young enough for a Guinness World Record anymore.

I won’t say much about my pen pal – my friend – here. As far as I know, she doesn’t yet use social media, and she should get to decide for herself who she is on the internet someday. It’s enough to say that our families go to church together back home, that she loves writing and reading, and that I am enormously fond of her, so last Pascha I gave her my email address. There’s almost never enough time to say all you want to say, but what I wanted to say in the church hall that day was I would love to keep in touch with you, and it barely took any time at all.

Ever since, S and I have sent book recommendations back and forth, compared notes on our adventures, written our way into knowing each other better. Sometimes a whole month goes by between messages, which is usually my  fault. A month is a long time: it’s one rent check, or two therapy appointments, or about fifty swipes on an MTA card. Or four phone calls home – more if I’m especially happy or especially sad. But a month is about how long I need to think of something interesting to say.

In my letters, I’m on my best behavior: no swearing, no stories about drinking or kissing. No existential dread. No bummers. Which is funny, because I don’t want her to feel like she has to be on her best behavior with me. Does that make any sense? It’s as though I don’t know exactly which fourteen she is yet. Some fourteens are older than others. And some twenty-sixes are younger.

2017-12-22 20.11.16

self-portrait circa 1997

The thing about writing to a fourteen-year-old, especially if your own experience of being fourteen was kind of traumatic, is that you end up feeling like you’re writing to yourself.

And I do remember being that age. Being that girl. I remember what it was like to have my first-ever boyfriend, my first-ever high school class – what it was like to know that every day I was alive was a new personal record. The Guinness Book of Adolescence, basically. No one had ever been this young, this old, this terrified before. No one had been me before in a way that was going to be useful, though I kept reading through the library stacks hoping to be proven wrong. What I remember is that everything felt like so much, and there was no way to feel it less. When my first-ever boyfriend gave me the first-ever Franz Ferdinand album for my fourteenth birthday (had anyone been fourteen before?), I put it on the stereo while my parents were still at work and danced, alone, awkward, giddy, through song after song after song.

But that’s why it’s hard to write to S sometimes. She’s herself, not a reference to anything else. That’s the other thing I remember about being fourteen. Adults were always looking at me and seeing themselves, talking to me as though I could give their younger selves whatever message they’d needed. Which I absolutely could not. After all, I was busy being the first-ever teenager, inventing love, inventing sorrow.

Recently, in the course of trying to fix a problem that I think I actually created, I messed up my email inbox. In short, I have two personal accounts, both on Gmail: one is nina.sabak, created when I was applying to college, and the other is two words I thought sounded nice together, created when I was thirteen. The former is forwarded to the latter, though it would have made more sense the other way around. And when I was rattling around in Settings, I hit something that made nina.sabak re-forward every email it’s ever gotten.

A week later, I’ve more or less clawed my way back to the surface. Twelve thousand emails is a lot of emails, even when most of them are alerts about sales that ended years ago. After deleting all the junk, the old news, the expired notifications, I am intimately familiar with my entire inbox. And that’s to say that I am intimately familiar, so far as such a thing is possible, with every self I wrote myself into being between 2008 and now. Ten years is a long time, you know. It’s the difference between applying to college and willingly assembling a FJÄLLBO with your boyfriend at 2 AM on a Saturday night.

I saved all of S’s emails from the purge, obviously. I saved all the emails that mattered and all of the emails that half-mattered, plus the emails that might matter again someday. Gracious replies from authors I loved; orientation details from my undergrad enrollment at Pitt; everything my mother has ever sent me.

If I’d actually written anything to my fourteen-year-old self, I would have saved it too. I like to think.


self-portrait circa 2006

I’ll be twenty-seven next month, which is easily the most ludicrous thing that’s happened since I turned twenty-six. Each year I drift farther from the piano scales and spelling bee trophies and closer to becoming who I am next. I am not done growing up. I may never be.

One of these weeks S will write back to me to tell me what book she most recently loved. One of these weeks I’ll go request that book from the library so I can read it and tell her what I think, because that’s how this works: we both give a little, and we both take.

A funny thing happened while I was sifting through my mountains and mountains of duplicate emails. For once, I could see how whole years of my life fit together. On one page I found an email from that first-ever boyfriend titled “sorry,” and on the next page I found another. In the end I found more apologies than I wanted to count, more half-apologies, more angry parting shots. I found years’ worth of his words that still sting. On one page I found the first message one friend ever wrote me, and a few minutes later I found the last. I found my own letters to my mother from when I needed to tell her that I’d invented panic attacks and insomnia, from when I had my heart broken for the first time, then the second, then the third. I found alerts about sales that ended years ago. I found bus and train and plane tickets, Seamless orders, notes from myself exhorting myself to be kind.

And I found the first email S sent me last year. And I found my reply. I think – I hope – it was adequate. What is it I should be telling her? What advice, if any, would do?

I already know what I’d tell myself because I’ve had my whole life to think it over, and because it’s the advice I still need to hear. Be gentle with yourself. Let the world in. Are spoilers permitted? There are so many shortcuts I’d take. It ends badly, I’d say to my kid self as we read the apologies and flinch, so get out now. Maybe I’d follow myself to school, dog my own reluctant footsteps, whisper you don’t have to do this alone. 

Over coffee, which one of us likes and one of us hasn’t yet learned to, I’d tell myself that it works out okay, at least so far. That I make it to the future. That I grow up and move away and learn to cook orzo in my kitchen in Brooklyn while my boyfriend lies across the couch and tells me jokes just to hear me laugh. That swearing and drinking and kissing are among life’s great pleasures, and that you can love your life even while you’re still learning how to love yourself. I would tell myself that there are more important things to be than exceptional. And my younger self would nod at all of this and take careful notes and believe none of it, because your own life is not something you can be told.

S doesn’t need advice from me. If anything, I’m the one who should be listening.

No one has ever been this young, this old, this terrified before, Nina. Not even you.