Youth Laid Waste
“Very early in my life it was too late.”
—Marguerite Duras, The Lover
WHEN I was a teenager I skipped school so much I’d get taken aside by my teachers and told I’d missed the most school of anyone in the history of our little Montreal-West, public-for-smart-kids prep school. I brushed them off and kept writing myself doctor’s notes and answering my phone in French when the school secretary called, pretending I was my mother, saying, “Yes, Melissa has another terrible tonsillitis, depression, stigmata, mononucleosis, but she should be back on her feet in a week.”
I was still in band, on the school paper, got decent grades in enriched biology. But, having been raised by artist wolves, I was oftentimes overwhelmed by the normalcy of my peers’ day-to-day. Teenagers seemed like children to me, their mothers still bought them clothes and made sure they got haircuts and gave them curfews; sometimes their parents still cut up their apples into quarters to make it easier for them to eat with their braces. They went to camp, they knew how to play softball. I had no idea how to relate.
So I’d stay home and carve out some time for myself.
When I was in my mid-teens, after a series of unfortunate episodes, including one in which my stepmother tore up the side of my face with her thumbnail, muttering, “I hate you!” I decided to move in with my mother full-time.
Although my mother had no permanent position, she made a living teaching art at both elementary schools all over the island and at a few universities in and around Montreal. She was out of the house in the fives each morning. I’d wait 'til she left—sleeping past dawn was not difficult for a teen. And then I’d run myself a bath. I’d put on my mother’s blue and white Japanese kimono, feeling bohemian and nearly-womanly. I’d reheat coffee from the morning’s pot. Eat a couple of teaspoonfuls of lemon curd from the jar. Play my mother’s "The Best of Barbra Streisand" record. Give a couple cursory glances to her ’70s women’s erotica—a.k.a. My Secret Garden—then leaf through her stash of ’70s craft magazines for outfit ideas. And then I’d head to the front of the apartment and flip on the computer—one of those Macs from the early ’90s, square and friendly as a miniature Westfalia—and start writing. I’d sit there totally blissed out from writing, a big cup of reheated filter coffee, my poorly self-cut, hennaed mess of orangey hair smelling strangely of herbs. Happy happy happy.
I wrote novels. A Judy Blume-inspired teenaged love story: The Shrimp. A horror novel—something gothic where a character went through a mirror and ended up in the water. And my masterpiece—my human-lady-loves-mermen novel in three parts, Of the Sea. But even if I skipped school a lot I never got into any real trouble. I only ever got one detention in all of high school, and it was for wearing a mock turtleneck. (My geography teacher dragged me by the ear to the office and informed me that our agenda specified in the uniform regulations that only turtlenecks that folded over completely were permitted.) I was introverted and secretive and ultimately a bit of a goody-two-shoes. (Shortly after I graduated, I dated a guy from high school and he said his memory of me then was of me sitting on the floor by my locker reading fat books or giving speeches at assemblies.) Those days when I skipped school, stealing hours for myself, I was teaching myself to write. To look out the window of our apartment on Claremont at the tiny square of Mont-Royal we’d see from our front window and to keep on typing.
So it was a good habit. I learned to write. It was a bad habit. I became a days-long daydreamer. A daydreaming addict. A lover of mind drift.
I took that dreaminess well into my twenties. What did I do with my twenties? I took a really long time getting a BA. I went to university part-time and paid my way through by working as a florist, nanny, advertising exec, translator, shwanky sweater folder to jazz soundtracks, ad hoc theatre helper, circus stage manager, furniture salesperson, and occasional interior designer. My writing goals were that maybe I’d publish some children’s literature at some point. And that maybe I could work part-time in a library or natural food store. I took weaving classes at a women’s craft centre and only learned years later that the centre was for women with serious learning disabilities. No wonder they thought I had talent.
I took flute lessons and oboe lessons and harp lessons and kept typing up bad novels on old typewriters. I smoked Captain Blacks and shopped for Virginia Woolf books at the Salvation Army, picking the Penguins from the Judith Krantz dregs (there is a copy of Scruples in every single charity shop). I rented foreign VHS cassettes and watched Royal Shakespeare adaptations of plays and learned about Ingmar Bergman and spent afternoons at the rep house in bizarrely concocted outfits that made me look homeless. I was a bougie little ragamuffin. Highbrow interests, low-fi duds.
And then in my late twenties I had a breakup that led to several years of me wanting to be romantically unattached.
I travelled a little. On a trip, someone asked me, in passing, why I hadn’t published much until then. I didn’t have a good enough answer. So I started to publish. And a year and some change later I was suddenly editor-in-chief of a bunch of publications, and I found myself on a business trip in the Caribbean. I couldn’t believe my writing had gotten me to an all-expenses-paid island sunset.
The more hustling became habit, the less I could account for all those dreamy hours of my youth. It wasn’t just the time I couldn’t get a handle on, but also that broad- spectrum aimlessness masked as curiosity, that lack of agency, that treading water.
My youth. It’s funny that it’s over.
For a while I didn’t have to do anything to look young. I was a similar agelessness for about fifteen years. And then all that overtime and catching up, all that newfound agency compacted across my face. My face has now hit some kind of midlife crest. Shall I wear my trousers rolled? Shall my laugh lines get injectables?
Marguerite Duras says, in The Lover, “my face hasn't collapsed […] It's kept the same contours, but its substance has been laid waste. I have a face laid waste.”
I saw it happen to a friend of mine when she was twenty-seven. Her face just fell, suddenly. You never know when your middle-aged face will strike. Mine showed up a couple of months ago. I’m surprised to find that I mind.
I tried to perform my youth well in my late twenties, post-waking-from-my-daydreaminess. I made myself wear bikinis. I decked myself out in Salvation Army getups—if it made me laugh it was a great idea to wear. I drank with the guys until the lights came back on after last call. I forgot to eat and got scurvy. I squeaked home tipsy on my ten-dollar bike, staring at the star-filled sky, happy happy happy, propping myself with make-sure-you-live-it-up reminders. Maybe I did. Maybe I didn’t.
I fight my daydreamy nature every day. The busier I am, the easier it is. And my dream has changed; it’s normy, now. Mostly because I’m still trying to catch up on normy (groceries, vitamins, matching clothes). But I miss the sound of a quietly ticking clock. The promise of public radio breaking up the day. Light casting itself in beams that move from one end of my crooked tiles to the other. Adding more hot water to the bath. Letting all the thoughts drift in and out, unattached, unrecorded. Blurring.
These days my partner lives away from our home, and as a result so much of my life is spent in my head, or with my cat. Or walking while still in my head. Being a humanity tourist. Watching people and all that they do. It’s so lively out there. Although I work full-time at an office and am finishing up a Master’s degree and I write and publish regularly, now—books, articles and one-offs—in a sense, there are, once more, few distinct markers to my days. Being alone a lot does that. Which is bad, and good.
But the main difference between this nearly-forty time and my early-twenties time is my impatience. If I’m not resting from writing or writing or earning a living or resting from earning a living then I feel, very urgently, that I’m wasting time. There’s a channelling of energy, a hunkering down, a focus, a terrifying panic that drives me now. A concrete realization of time running out. Partly fuelled by the big, big worry and shame that I fucked up my twenties. That I lollygagged. I’m scared more than anything of not living up to my potential—I know that I’m not. I’m scared of wasting more time.
I’m scared I won’t notice how much I’ve wasted.
Published in SubTerrain magazine, 2016