Dear Young Dumb Self,
Think back to the closing months of your first year in university. A frantic time: the insulating pattern of school-dorm-school-dorm was about to end, and you needed somewhere to live.
You’ve never been good at times like that, have you? Other people, you’ve noticed, accept uncertainty calmly. Or they seem to, at least. You’re not like that. Other people dine out on nutritious, well-balanced everything-will-work-out slow-cooked zen while you’re in the corner stuffing yourself with refried panic. Wait for a solution to present itself, I say. No sudden decisions. No rent in the smooth fabric, admitting despair. Steady hand on the tiller, I say.
You never listen. You hurl yourself away from calamity without looking where you’re going, like that extra in Titanic who plunged from the stern of the beleaguered ship. Any decision at all would be better than clinging faithlessly to that slippery railing. Waiting is agony. Patience is agony. You’d rather manufacture a solution, act on it, and hope for the best.
Which is why, at the end of your first year at school, you found yourself accepting an uneasy alliance with three other girls from your dorm who also needed a place to live. It was a perfectly fine solution, you told yourself. You even began to imagine a cozy, shabby-chic sitcom set where the four of you would become lasting friends. What a prospect! What a dream! And so you relaxed your grip on the railing, and you jumped.
But we all remember what happened to that guy in Titanic, right? The propeller. The meaty thunk. The lifeless, pin-wheeling corpse.
It must have been March or so. A couple of months before finals. You and the three girls spent a day looking at apartments for rent, and as you studied carpet stains and poked around mouldy bathrooms you began to feel the first alarming pinpricks of doubt. Not about the unsanitary housing—you sort of liked the grimy romance that frocked those dim student lodgings. No, the problem was the girls. All three of them. After the first starburst of relief burned away, you began to see your future housemates as something other than deliverers from uncertainty. That day of apartment hunting showed you how catty, precious and demanding they were. They were rude to anyone they found mildly distasteful, which included most of the elderly or, frankly, non-white landlords and landladies we met that day. If they did happen to find someone worth their attention, especially if that someone was young and male, their aggressive flirtation revealed how rarely they ever heard the word “no.” They carried massive designer purses in the V of their elbows and shielded their eyes with manicured hands even when there was no sunlight, as though the effort of peering from their glittering world into your dingy one might scald them.
Does this sound ungenerous? I guess it does. That day is a hazy memory, obscured by the polluted atmosphere of the year that was to follow, so I may not be getting it right. And besides, it wasn’t that you were better than them (or worse). It was just that you were different. They were the same, and you were something else. This put you at a disadvantage. It meant that when the differences between you eventually swelled to the size of a desert canyon, you would be alone on one side of it.
I tried to warn you. Remember the dog turd you found on the basement step of that Regent Street listing? That was me. Remember the unlikely early-afternoon thunderstorm? Me. Remember how alien you felt in the car while the other three sang along to music you’d never even heard before? Me, me, me, trying mightily to send you a message. I was trying to say, These are not your people! Turn around! Go back! Borrow money and live on your own! Move in with that stranger from astronomy class! Apply to an upper-year dorm! Anything but this! Anyone but them!
I had to do something. I needed to knock you out of your lane. I did it right after your last viewing of the day. Remember? A snail-shell coil of identical townhouses. The landlord was sitting in a muscular pickup truck, waiting for the four of you to arrive. He was your housemates’ preferred type: young-ish, frat-ish, cute-ish, with antennae precisely calibrated for the signals they cast. He showed you around the townhouse with affected nonchalance. The place was clean and new. Immaculate carpets, a bulb in every ceiling light—it was miles better than anything else you’d seen that day. It was clear, almost right away, that you’d take it. This was the most comradely thing you ever did with those girls: you agreed, through a series of nods and high-fives, that this was where you’d live together.
Even though I was its maestro, I have a hard time remembering how the next thing happened, exactly. You were all back at the car. The door on your side was open, and you were getting ready to climb in with the others. But something interrupted you. Maybe the landlord wanted to discuss the lease, or maybe the others decided to go back for a second look. It doesn’t matter—what matters is that one of the girls reached out and shoved the car door closed before you had time to move your hand out of the way.
You can remember the moment of impact. You can remember the slow, gristly crush of flesh and bone as you dragged your right thumb free. You absorbed the shock into your brain’s delayed-reaction centre. You thought: I’ll deal with that later. You tucked your thumb into the warm middle of your fist and bit down on the pain. No one noticed. Later, in the backseat of the car, while the girls shouted along to the radio, you snuck a private look. The nail was unnaturally white. Over the next several days it would turn red, then purple, then black, then one day, as you sat in a study carrel at the Weldon Library, cramming for finals, it would fall off entirely and you’d stare at it on the desk, trying to associate that nibbled, diseased black disc with something that once belonged to your body.
This was my last and most forceful message to you. But you still couldn’t hear me. You signed the lease for that townhouse, and your real troubles began.
Today, when you talk about university, you emphasize how much you loved it. You talk about the compressed energy of that first year, and about the shabby-chic sitcom set where you actually did live later on, along with a pack of wonderful friends and a scrawny adolescent barn-cat you named Tycho. In all of that talking, though, you usually leave out your second year. You don’t want to think about it. It was a small valley in an otherwise relentlessly upwards curve. You don’t want to think about how mean those girls became as the year lurched along. You don’t want to picture that townhouse and all of the passive-aggressive bullshit that went on inside of it. You don’t want to think about how, even now, there’s a certain type of woman in the world who can make you feel twitchy and small because she bears some imprecise resemblance to one of those girls, though she may turn out to be perfectly wonderful if you overcome your aversion and get to know her.
Most of all, you don’t want to think about how easily you might have avoided such an unpleasant experience if only you’d approached uncertainty with reason and patience and self-awareness.
But even as you suppress that uncomfortable memory, your body maintains a tangible reminder of it: a shallow ridge halfway down the nail on your right thumb. No boyfriend, caressing your hand, has ever remarked on it. No manicurist has ever paused to strategize over its treatment. It’s so faint that even you often forget it’s there. But now and then, in a moment of idle reverie, your index finger will find that small notch where you once sustained injury. You’ll remember everything about that particular time in your life, and you’ll feel luminous with affection for how you used to be, and what you overcame.
Your body is marked by many of these scars and imperfections. They bear testimony to the uncertainty you’ve bumbled through and to the scenes which have shaped who you are. Some of them, like the thumbnail, say: Look at all the propellers you hit—and survived! Others say: Look how much fun you had! And still others: Look at what a terrible decision you made, which turned out to be not so terrible after all!
This may surprise you, Young Dumb Self, but I’m all for making a deliberate addition to this abstract canvas. Mark this moment in time, I say! Prove to yourself that you are surviving, and that you’re having fun, and that your terrible decisions may turn out to be not so terrible in the end! Choose something that will remind you to take it all lightly. Put it inches from the notched thumbnail, as a counter-spell to all the calamity of that stupid year. Why not? Do it, Dumb Self. Get it right now, today, with your friend sitting next to you in the tattoo parlour, witnessing the moment when you actually chose the next scar your body would bear, and the meaning you would give to it. When you face uncertainty again, let your tattoo remind you to have patience. When you're unsure of yourself, let it remind you of who you are, just as much as every mark on your body reminds you. Treasure each of them. This one, most of all.
For once, I know you and I can hear each other.
Old Wise Self