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The manly smell of my father’s things wafted out of the drawer as I slid it open.
As a small child, I loved to look at the box my father kept in this drawer. It was a place where he kept strange little things I didn’t yet understand: a medal from the National Guard, a picture of my mom long before I knew her, small pins that represented things I didn’t know about, a picture of himself in what I assumed was his favorite car, a ticket, and a matchbook or two.
I would hold these things in my fingers, tracing their edges, and wonder what magical meaning they had and what made them so worthy of this box. Nothing of me was in it.
I was 15 now, though, and the pins and pictures had long since held any mystery for me. I only went into my father’s drawer for one thing usually. Spare change. Inside this drawer was an assortment of coins and dollars that I pilfered because my friends always got to go “overstreet” for lunch and I never did.
In my tiny Vermont hometown, overstreet is literally the term for crossing over the street and going to the store. Other kids would go and buy Mountain Dew and chips for lunch. I never got to do that. My mother always sent a check for hot lunch which cost about 75 cents a day, or she would humiliate me and make me pay with change, including pennies.
No, it did not occur to me that there were people in the world who couldn’t afford lunch. I was a precocious, self-absorbed, self-conscious teen and could not have cared less about such things. At least, not how they related to the fact that I had to pay for my lunch with pennies from my mother’s piggy bank.
I slid the drawer open one particular day to find a gun sitting in it. A big gun. A revolver with a revolving cylinder that held six bullets. Just like in the movies.
My father had always had guns, but he kept them in a locked cabinet in the basement and he rarely shot them. He usually just had old rifles. He even had a musket. But this was different. This was a gun gun. A big gun. And the bullets were right there next to it. My parents weren’t home, so I touched the gun, feeling like I had taken a fourth cookie for dessert without my mother knowing. Then I picked it up.
I guess I assumed it wasn’t loaded. My father just isn’t the kind of person who would leave a loaded gun around. He is cautious, generally, and back when I was kid, leaving something in your dresser drawer was akin to locking it up. At least, it was to him. I held the gun and even pointed it in my mother’s mirror. At myself. It was frightening and thrilling. And then I quickly put the gun back the way I found it when I heard my parents’ car come up the driveway.
In the same year, I had been constantly sexually harassed and was alternately hated and bullied by various girls in my school. At the same time, I had an on-again-off-again boyfriend, and I had a love affair with every movie made in a foreign country: “A Room with a View,” “Lady Jane,” “Cyrano de Bergerac.”
(Thank God there was no Facebook then, as the poetry I would have subjected you all to would be a very real cross-section of what I can only describe as emo-Elizabeth Barrett Browning.)
I was perpetually weeping and ecstatic depending on the day. My highs were high and my lows were low. I was also a good student, an ace on the debate and forensics team, a varsity basketball player, and a sought-after babysitter. At night, though, after a particularly brutal day of bullying or taunting, I would put myself to sleep by thinking of ways to kill myself.
I’m not sure how it started but I know that it was soothing. It still is, once in a while. An old parking garage with a wall way too low on the top level left little to the imagination. I could see myself standing on the edge and pictured the trip on the way down. Would I be happy? Sad? Would I regret the decision as soon as it was too late? I’ve always been scared of heights, so why didn’t the thought of standing at the edge in my dream terrify me? I expanded my repertoire. Walking in front of a truck. Sleeping pills and vodka. I thought about hanging but it seemed too prone to fail. And too complicated. I’ve never been good with knots.
One day, when it had all been too much, I flopped on my parents’ bed after school and watched TV. I was distraught. Thirty years later, I have no idea why. I wish I could have told my 15-year-old self that in 35 years there would be no memory of most of these ordeals. Some, of course, would stay with me forever.
But on that day, lying on my parents’ bed, tears streaming down my face, I went to the drawer. I took out the gun and I put bullets in it. Then I cocked it. But I couldn’t get the cylinder to close. And the cock thingy stuck down. And the trigger wouldn’t move. I couldn’t even kill myself. With more wailing and sniffling, I slid the bullet out and put the gun back, still cocked. I went to my own room and cranked the music.
I never heard a word about it. Not like the time I stole a cigarette from my father and then flushed the whole pack. Not like the time I drank a thimbleful of gin out of my parents’ bottle and then almost threw up from the taste. But the next time I went to the drawer, the gun was gone and all I had left to comfort me was the dream of the fall.
I’ve reflected on those times occasionally, since then. Now that I’m 50, I don’t really have those same overwhelming desires to end it—and I don’t find as much comfort in the thought, although sometimes I do. I think what I most consider is, would it have been better? Was my decision to stay more selfish or less? Certainly, with all of the kids I have now, it’s more selfish to leave. At least, I think it is. But I’m never absolutely sure.
What I do know is this: I am the happiest I’ve ever been in my life, right now. I know that the only way to get to this point was to go through all of the other points and just keep waking up, putting one foot in front of the other, and doing the things that need to happen to make the next day come.
I also know that there is no way—no way—that I could have predicted where I would be right now. And that’s the joy of life. You never know what could be coming around the corner. At my lowest—I know that even as I stared into the abyss and thought that relief would never come—I knew I wanted to know what happens next.
I will always want to know what happens next —the good, the bad, the ugly, the joyous. There was comfort in that drawer, for sure. But there is also comfort in joy, contentment, and boredom. Seeking joy, embracing it, and always hoping there’s more around the corner, is its own comfort.
Now, at 50, I wish I could go back and tell the girl to close the drawer, to fight the bullies, to be confident in her own looks, thoughts, and ideas.
I can’t tell her. But I can tell you.
Close the drawer. Be bold. Be brave. Or just be present. And then maybe, see what happens next.