He said: I can’t make your mistakes for you…

(From the anthology, He Said What? Seal Press, 2011)

He said: “I can’t make your mistakes for you.”
I was fifteen, fifteen and a half, maybe, almost sixteen years old, and I was leaving home.
I was all packed and ready.
Trying on my new knapsack … on and off, on and off… resting right there on my back and shoulders so when I hitchhiked from San Francisco to Medford, Oregon, I looked oh, so cool and groovy, and felt oh, so cool and groovy, and not so top heavy. There is nothing worse than wanting desperately to look cool and groovy while hunching over due to excess poundage. There is, I suspect, a lot of bullying and hushed snarky remarks that go along with that particular fashion faux-pas statement. I had packed every single peasant blouse and long Indian skirt and tie-dyed t-shirt I could manage to find. I also tucked deep in the knapsack, hidden away into a corner, my small bottle of Jean Naté perfume, some make-up: powder blush, mascara, an under-eye concealer in a very light shade (I think, but I’m not sure, all were Maybelline), and the pièce de resistance, the one item that would cause me deep, profound shame: the forbidden double-edged Gillette razor.

He drove me to Kennedy Airport, where he would put me on an airplane that would fly me across the country so I could meet up with my friend who would later break my heart in many teeny pieces. Some remaining crushed for years and years. He drove me from our home on Long Island, where my mother stood in our doorframe, never once stepping out from behind the screen door, a cigarette dangling from her lips.
She stood, and for many, many minutes, a word not spoken.
“Okay. Bye, Ma.”
“Shiva. I’m sitting Shiva. You coulda just stabbed me, woulda been easier.”

I had dropped out of high school. Jewish girls from middle class families didn’t drop out of high school. They had nervous breakdowns, or went on all-day shopping sprees at Roosevelt Field, or would cut school and go to the park and make out with various boys, or go to the one movie theater, and watch a movie over and over and over again, because in those days you could. You could sit in a movie theater, stay all day, and you could also smoke cigarettes. I would be swooning over Omar Sharif in Funny Girl. I wanted to be Fanny Brice, married to Nicky Ornstein, and I wanted to be Yiddish, and I wanted more than life itself for a period of about, oh three months, to stand on the bow of a tugboat with a floral arrangement the size of frickin’ Texas, and sing Don’t Rain on My Parade. I know, i know… a big gigantic dream for a very short period of time. And of course, the only hitch was that I had no singing voice, none whatsoever.

Although now that I write and remember this, we did sing show tunes while driving in the car. Any and all car trips consisted of playing a game show, like The Match Game, and singing show tunes. On this particular day – driving to the airport – Fiddler on the Roof was the show my dad chose to sing, the complete score, from our home on Long Island to the airport in Jamaica, Queens. Singing If I Were A Rich Man seemed both somewhat peculiar, and deeply moving as I was embarking on a life-changing experience. Of course, The Grateful Dead or Laura Nyro would have been my choice, but my father was much more of a show-tune aficionado. Every single Sunday morning without fail my father would sit in his favorite recliner in our den, surrounded by shelves filled with books, playing his favorite musicals so loud on our stereo that he would wake our entire family. He was a man who loved art and culture and theater and musicals and gambling and poker and his children and most definitely his wife. And I can tell you right now, as he drove me to that airport on that day, while he didn’t say it, he knew I was making a mistake, and he was not happy with my decision. He was tense and scared and worried, and held my left hand with his right hand while he gripped the bottom of the steering wheel with his left hand.

Making the trip was a decision I blurted out at the dinner table so matter-of-factly it could have gotten lost in normal dinner conversation: “Hey, can you pass the salt? And a little more steak, less rare, more well-done. And hey, by the way, I dropped out of high school, and can I have some more string beans please? Thank you.”

I was at a stage in my fifteen-and-a-half-year life where breathing felt like a chore. I was so miserable, and unhappy, and I felt so alone in the world. I was running with a bad crowd, and stealing dollars, lots and lots of dollars from my dad’s wallet and mom’s purse and drawers – here and there, lots of here and there – and buying hash, and marijuana, and cocaine, and lying about that. I was acting out all sorts of self-loathing behavior. I will spare you the details, but suffice it to say that there was a time in my life where being bad and feeling bad just blended together into plain old BIG BAD BAD.

And so I quit high school, and decided to tag along to a commune with my friend who I made out with in the back seat of the car, where we kissed so long and so hard our lips cracked and bled. But I wasn’t his girlfriend, and he wasn’t my boyfriend.
He said, “I don’t like you in that way. I like you plenty, but you know, not as a girlfriend. I don’t love you, I mean, I’m not, you know, in love with you.” But no other girl was willing or wanted to go with him to Medford, Oregon, and so, I said yes. Yes, I’ll go. I’ll quit high school, and I’ll stop straightening my hair, and stop shaving my legs, and never, ever go to Ohrbachs again, and yes, yes, I’ll hitch hike from San Francisco, and spend a night at a small scary, dirty, creepy motel off the side of the road somewhere between San Francisco and Medford, and yes we’ll have bad, unappealing sex once or maybe it was twice, and yes, I’ll cook macrobiotic foods, and sing songs written by Joan Baez and Pete Seeger. And I’ll tell everyone that I love The Three Stooges when in fact I had secretly wished them all ill will, and yes I will allow myself to be unhappy, and confused, and keep all my feelings wrapped in a little ball and bury them deep. Just like the Jean Naté perfume, the make-up, and the razor.

I can’t make your mistakes for you, he said as he left me at the gate while my knapsack was making its way to the plane by way of the conveyor belt, my peasant skirt dragging on the floor, my hair curly and unruly. He handed me a couple of hundred dollars and said “Please, our secret,” and I smiled and kissed him and hugged him so tight I could feel his heart breaking, “I can’t make your mistakes for you,” he whispered in my ear, and then he turned and walked away. And the mistakes piled up one after another, year after year after year.

There was the pregnancy. The one where I behaved like a needy, desperate young woman, using that pregnancy as a weapon: to try and get the man to love me, to want me. To want me, and the baby.
“Why don’t we abort you, and keep the baby?” He said.
I sat alone in the abortion clinic where another man, a middle-aged, short, heavy-set bespectacled man said, “I will help you. Come with me.” And a half an hour later I was in a room with about ten other girls who had just had abortions and I can tell you right now with complete conviction that none of us felt good about what had just happened, none of us. And I would go so far as to bet none of us ended up with, or stayed with, the guy we had sex with, the one who got us pregnant. Because none of us in that room, on that day, quite understood or believed at that stage in our lives how vital, and necessary it was to love the whole of ourselves, to honor our whole self. I was young and lonely and had absolutely no self-worth whatsoever. Self-esteem was so out of reach for me, I would have fallen down if I tried to grab hold of it. I was desperately searching and hoping for love.

That mistake: the desperation of wanting to be loved, later in life became a deep mission: the desire to become a woman of unlimited self-esteem. Wouldn’t trade that mistake for the world now.

Then there was the boyfriend, the horrible, bad boyfriend. The one who I knew from the get go, from the moment I met him, that he was not right for me. He. Was. Not. Right. For. Me. I knew it, and I didn’t pay attention to my own instincts. There was a voice that said, “Nah, don’t, he’s not good for you, this doesn’t feel right, don’t do this.” I did not pay attention to that voice. Nor did I did pay enough attention to his anger and his mood swings and his need to be right all the time, and his violent streak and the hole that remained punched in the wall, or the way that he humiliated me in public, or the very first time he threatened me, with his big hard hands wrapped around my throat. His hands wrapped so hard he was choking me, “I could kill you” he said in a hushed scary voice.

I sat in my car in bumper-to-bumper traffic. A few of my personal belongings scattered on the back seat, along with a black and blue mark stretching from my jaw-line to my clavicle, as I replayed the entire five years over and over and over and over again wishing more than anything I had paid attention to that voice, my voice, telling me DON’T, don’t do this. Why didn’t I listen? What didn’t I trust about myself, my own voice, why did I constantly turn down the volume?

That mistake: not paying attention to my own voice, my own life, later led me to a deep-rooted passion: the desire for all women to speak up, to speak their truth, to be heard. Oh, no, I wouldn’t trade that mistake for anything.

And then there are the mistakes that bring us shame, the ones that make us weep in the dark, the ones that keep us at arms length. The ones that we marry. The ones that we try desperately to hide, the ones that have prescription numbers, the ones that are hidden away in cartons. The ones that we forgot. The ones that are thrown up in our face over and over and over again. The ones that come back to haunt us. The ones that feel so unbearable we think we’ll die. The ones that get you down on your knees. The ones you die with. The ones that make you feel not worthy, or deserving. The ones that keep us invisible.

A different airport.
A different city.
A different time.

My dad and I were sitting together at the airport in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Waiting, waiting, waiting at the gate for a plane to arrive from Atlanta, Georgia. We were sitting for hours. We had arrived at the airport very early, and the plane was four hours late. There were delays and headwinds, and storms, and all the god-awful pacing back and forth, back and forth, and checking his watch every five minutes. This was my dad’s all-time favorite past time, worrying, and then finally after circling the airport for another hour, the plane landed. Safely. Finally. Finally. And then my father exhaled, this big gigantic huge exhale. The kind of exhale that makes you wonder, how did he hold that in for so long? And then a few minutes later, along with other weary passengers, his carry-on baggage in one hand, and his “camera” hat in the other, my husband, my sexy, funny, quirky, oh so very kind and loving husband, got off the plane. And as he walked toward us, I remember thinking: What if, what if, my father had never said to me, I can’t make your mistakes for you?

All those mistakes, all those god awful, embarrassing, shameful, secretive mistakes that brought me closer to another person, that I swore I would never ever repeat, the ones that seemed to pop up every which where, the ones I couldn’t seem to live without. The ones with names like Bob, and Robert, and Peter, that kept me waiting for hours in restaurants and hotel lobbies and late-night bars, the ones that never called back, never showed up—all those mistakes led me here.

Category: Uncategorized 6 comments »

6 Responses to “He said: I can’t make your mistakes for you…”

  1. Melissa Soalt aka Dr. Ruthless

    Amy, you kill me. You are an amazing and eloquent writer- you capture the beating heart of what it is with immense style and grace without foresaking the raw. The underbelly. This piece speaks volumes to me as does your piece on your Mom’s Dementia- speaks to more than I care to share here.

    I am in awe of your narrative story telling skills, and by the way I hail from MALVERNE NY (LI) and also had a very different than most coming of age experience – to put it mildly. Where did you grow up?

    XO Melissa Soalt

  2. Maya

    Oh honey, if me-now had only found you-then, I would have told you what I told my granddaughter only yesterday. “Welcome to future you. I’m future me and I’m proof that it’s real because–I’m here. You are the mother of future you–as young as you are. What do you want for her? What do you want her to remember, because she will remember everything you ever do. Do you love her? You do? Then you have to make your decisions based on love for this daughter who is future you. Not for me, not for your mother, or anybody else, but for you. You are the only one who will truly live with the consequences of your choices, so weigh your willingness to do so. But do it for yourself, because you deserve the very best.” And then I would have said “And if you aren’t sure about what you want to do, imagine for a moment that a child (hypothetical, if necessary) of yours was about to do what you’re thinking of doing. If Your Hair Stands On End when you think about your child doing it, don’t you either. You are no less precious than any child you will ever have, so go forth and live accordingly.”

    These two things are about as flawless as advice can get, but here’s the deal. If I had told you these awesome things and you had learned to navigate by your brightest star, you would not be who you are today. You wouldn’t be married to your sweet, juicy, delicious man, you wouldn’t have what you do. Knowing you, it still would’ve been awesome–but it wouldn’t have been this. Why is why I, particularly, have learned to appreciate every damned horrible thing I did or that was done to me, even though there are still consequences (PTSD anyone?), because everything that hurt me or challenged me came with gifts and they are infinitely valuable.

    And if I hadn’t done exactly what I did (not quite so adventuresome but still…), I never would have met you, and my life would have been infinitely poorer.



  3. Judy N

    This is a beautiful and powerful piece, Amy, and also a lovely column for father’s day.

  4. Stevie

    I absolutely loved this piece. The anthology was on my list to download….I think I’ll do that sooner than later. ox.

  5. kristine

    Dancing at the Shame Prom, came from:
    “And then there are the mistakes that bring us shame, the ones that make us weep in the dark, the ones that keep us at arms length. The ones that we marry. The ones that we try desperately to hide, the ones that have prescription numbers, the ones that are hidden away in cartons. The ones that we forgot. The ones that are thrown up in our face over and over and over again. The ones that come back to haunt us. The ones that feel so unbearable we think we’ll die. The ones that get you down on your knees. The ones you die with. The ones that make you feel not worthy, or deserving. The ones that keep us invisible.

    And now, thanks to you, so many women’s burdens are eased, lighter, shared by soul sisters, laid down forever or recognized for what they are…OLD, UN-NECESSARY PAIN.

  6. Michelle O'Neil

    Gorgeous, gorgeous piece. I love it.

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