My “Dear Teen Me” letter goes live today. Thanks to the moderators for this wonderful, important site.
Hello! How are you?
Wait, I know how you are. You’re struggling with high school in a small, one-stoplight town. You get told you’re “too good” or “stuck up” when all you are is painfully shy. And it’s that row of teenaged boys in their steel-toed boots, flannel jackets, and John Deere ball caps who get to you most, isn’t it? They line the hall outside the gym, rating the girls who walk past: “too skinny,” “big butt,” “bitch.” It’s probably the right decision to live with “stuck up” rather than reveal the truth. Like dogs, the good-ole-boy gauntlet can smell fear.
Wait. This is a letter. Let me try again: Wish you were here!
Except I don’t. Ronald Reagan is president where you are, long distance phone calls are very expensive, and you think you know everything. No offense, but I don’t want you here. Those 30+ years between us represent a lot of hard-won battles and besides, you’ve only just seen your first Apple computer. You’d be a little behind in my world.
(Sigh.) I’m avoiding the purpose of this letter, aren’t I? I’m supposed to impart some wisdom or perspective to you, but I can’t decide: should the advice apply to the you of 1982? Or to the you that will be me in thirty years? I mean, I could help you avoid some seriously stupid mistakes…but I’ve seen enough Will Smith movies to know it’s not a good idea to mess around with the past. Will Smith? Oh, he’s a rapper, turned TV star, turned movie star, turned…never mind. You’ll like him.
So, I guess I won’t warn you off any future relationships—they each teach you something and I’d hate for your kids to just—poof—disappear…plus the wrong men ultimately lead you to Mr. Right. So try to be patient.
You know, kiddo, I guess I do have one important thing to say—you don’t need bigger boobs. In a few years you’ll discover the push-up bra and your problem will be solved…as far as the world can tell. Anyway, you’ve got good legs, and those can’t be faked, so stop wasting your time fantasizing about all those magic creams.
Oh, and one more thing—it pains me tell you this, but—you need to come to grips with the fact that your love isn’t magic. It won’t save you and it won’t save anyone else. I know you want it to, desperately, but those three-legged-dog dreams you keep having? Those are only the start of a lifelong struggle to understand that you are not The Fixer. I can tell you this, though, one day you will write a healing sort of book and strangers will contact you to say it eased their suffering or gave them hope, or courage, or peace. That will be enough. It will have to be.
Because you never will reconcile the fact that your father dies alone, living in a halfway house, in a room that is really a closet.
Sorry. I should have broken that to you more gently. Yes, you will lose him two months after the birth of your first child. He will never get to hold her. It will haunt you.
Later, you will worry that you were the classic enabler. Maybe you are. You let your father—okay, our father…my father…Dad—call when he is drunk. You let him ramble for hours and when he calls two nights in a row, you let him say the same things all over again for another hour. You stay silent when he calls you The Fruit of His Loins, even though it creeps you out. You laugh at the jokes you already know by heart. You encourage him when he expounds on his Next Big Thing. You never tell him not to call when he is drunk. You give him hours of your life.
And he doesn’t even remember.
Later, you bring him food because he is skinny in a painful-to-look-at way. You ship him cheese for his birthday and he tells you it’s the first thing he’s had to eat all week. You want to do more but you are in college, barely keeping your own head above water.
But here’s the crazy thing, I want you to understand that even though it’s hopeless, even though I’ve told you how it will end, don’t stop trying to reach him. It will be important, when he’s gone, that you tried. That you did everything you could think to do. In fact, try harder, even though you will fail.
Because it will help to have tried.
And even more years from where you are now, when the sister you love like your own breath turns away from you, when she pulls out of life and turns her back on hope, on love, don’t stop trying with her, either. It’s worth the effort. Take it as a sign of hope that when you are given the date that this letter will be published, it will be her birthday. Believe that it means something important in The Great Plan. Send her a link. Tell her that you love her.
And now, you see, the accordion of time has folded, and I am writing not to you, but to the present-day me, working in my lonely writer’s room, bringing to light what I have been avoiding. Call your sister, Mary. Call her again. Reach out your hand, even if she refuses. There is at least love, at least hope, in the reaching.
Older N. Wiser Me
Mary Akers’ debut short story collection, WOMEN UP ON BLOCKS, won the 2010 IPPY gold medal for short fiction and she co-authored a non-fiction book (ONE LIFE TO GIVE) that has sold in seven countries. She is Editor-in-chief of the online journal r.kv.r.y. and co-founder of the Institute for Tropical Marine Ecology. She received a Pushcart 2012 Special Mention and has published a book of short performance pieces for use in high school dramatic reading competitions (MEDUSA’S SONG AND OTHER STORIES).