She held a hotel pen in her hand; a surplus Bic with blue ink, salvaged from one of the many cities my Dad visited during his long, respectable, well-lived career.
We sat on unmade beds in our humid mint-green room, while a box fan combatted the heat of the Summer.
Her: “OK, don’t peek… Tell me when to stop.”
I closed my eyes, listening as she etched tally marks on a sheet atop a stack of old scratch paper, counting the marks as accurately as I could by their sound…
…1, 2, 3, 4, 5…
Her: “Okay… You got seven, I’ll go through it”
My sister began the crossing out then, as I wrung my hands and analyzed my choices.
First up was where I would live: a Mansion, apartment, a shack, or a house… followed by which boy I would marry: Casey, Mike, Nick, maybe Allen… onto Career, Kids and Cars; we filled in the columns with what we’d learned would define a grown woman’s life.
She cycled through each section with vigor, counting until seven and eliminating husbands, professions, wedding colors and cars, until only one of each topic remained. Once that was done our futures were destined, as the last on each list showed our forever fate.
To show we could be martyrs, the yuckiest boy would make our husband’s lists, and we’d add in our Dad’s Ford Taurus as a car possibility. Readying ourselves for lives as old-women-living-in-shoes, we’d include an overwhelming number to the column of kids: 10, or even go to 11.
Summer days of our youth were spent like this- Mash games written by chubby, pink-polished fingers. Hours were spent dreaming of what was coming for us, instead of what was for now. We were sisters and fortune tellers, pulling back the curtain to get a glimpse of our future selves, believing we could have anything we’d circled on a list.
Peppered through these years were the elementary school seasons… Septembers transitioned us from our endless games and pool days into backpacks and lunch lines. Nights leading up to the first school day were spent struggling to fall asleep, bedtimes long surpassed as we thought of the friends in our classrooms and the teachers we’d been assigned.
Fourth grade brought me my favorite teacher: a rotund Mrs. Noland-a jolly woman that smelled of cigarettes, with colorful acrylics she’d relentlessly pick and a palpable love of reading. She kept ledgers tracking the books we read and held a highly anticipated “auction” at the end of the year, rewarding us for book reports we’d completed.
Noland managed to make the sporty, competitive kids start reading, while the more scholarly of the class felt less shame about mowing through three Judy Blume’s per week. With her gray permed hair and her floral, shoulder-padded tops, she’d listen and laugh with us, an art that seemed lost to most.
Whenever we’d have a test in class, she would pass out trifold privacy screens. Three pieces of cardboard, connected together by yellowing masking tape; the make-shift barriers would be ours to balance around our desk’s perimeter. As soon as they were in place, each of us would have our own three walls to hide behind, encouraging us to focus on our work and resist the temptation to peek at our peer’s papers. I was prone to daydreaming behind my personal border, and occasionally stole glances at the boards of the boys in my class, pondering which might be added to the husband’s section next time my sister and I played.
These juvenile games and cardboard securities fizzled out of my life as new things took their place.. hormones and curfews, college and urgent self-sufficiency, jobs and responsibility. Memories of summers with my sister and peeling scotch tape off my desk behind my 4th-grade trifold were packed away with my high school year books before I left home in 1999. I hardly looked back at them and never gave a second thought as to what they might have taught me.
Years passed and life progressed as my real Mash sheet developed, mostly without me slowing down enough to choose the outcomes with intention.
One category hit me head on when I found out I was pregnant in 2006. By this time I had a reliable car, an apartment I shared with my tattooed, first-love boyfriend, and a decent paying job. Some choices had been made in my game, but this one was different. A child was more serious than anything else I had. Motherhood wasn’t a role I had ever added eagerly to the ones my sister transcribed- but there I was with my “children” section, now chiseled in stone.
I would be a mother and would be forever.
The pregnancy lit a fire in me, catapulting me into an almost frenzied state. This was it, I had reached a precipice, as I shifted my focus from happy hours and softball games to nursing bras and sleep schedules. It was time for me to Adult. Distractions including a social life and date nights and any fun in general, took a backseat to what I thought my life should now be… I would give up anything that didn’t portray the seriousness of the role of motherhood.
Soon after the birth of my first son, I found myself in a constant position of suspended destination salvation. After late night feedings, cramped in our second floor, single bedroom apartment in North Hollywood, I would pace through the living room, the kitchen, the bedroom, holding my newborn and trampling stained carpet as I counted down from 100 in a whisper, “100, 99, 98…” hoping that by the time I had reached number 1, my son would be sleeping and soon I would be too, getting through the hours and then through the years, just a little bit faster. I was waiting and wading, eager to “arrive” at my final place of contentment. I was counting down from 100, not only towards bedtime but in every day of life, my mindset requiring that I meet finish lines in order for my happiness to be fully realized.
“Once I’m through with the baby-phase, I’ll be comfortable”, “As soon as I have my perfect profession, I’ll be complete”, “After the wedding, our relationship will be ideal”.
As I stumbled through my late twenties, I split from my older sons’ dad, moved to Arizona, mothered my children and met a confident partner. By my mid-30s I had my third and final son, got married and bought a mini-van, then settled into a fulfilling profession.
Although the journey was muddled and rocky, I was following the inked outline idealized in my youth, still certain that all I needed was to post my stakes into what I’d absorbed would define my womanly life. There were certain expectations we’d placed upon ourselves, markers we’d needed to meet. Good girls followed the guidelines and I was nothing if not an achiever with my self-imposed syllabus.
As young sisters we had created a blueprint, believing that our lives as adults would be as secure and compact as the area within those 4th grade trifolds. Cozy, fluffy, cushioned lives, determined by roles we held, the number of children we had, the car we’d drive and how many bridesmaids were included at our weddings.
And I was a good little girl, a rule follower and entertainer, with a youngest child’s need for approval: I wanted so badly to get it all right. That desire had stayed with me, into my twenties, into my thirties- a constant longing that life was just on the other side of the finish line, that elation would be reached once I had all we had promised ourselves as we sat on our beds, with blankets rumpled in our stuffy mismatched bedroom.
It was shortly after my 38th birthday that I had an epiphany and focal shift that would have dismayed who I was in childhood- this audible brought about by sobriety and divorce. In 2019, I made the declaration that I would stop drinking- not forever but just for that day, then the next and the next, as long as I felt I should. 6 months into my break, another step had to be taken- my marriage was not going to last. Love is a choice, a decision to be constantly made, and for years we’d been choosing other things.
It was the stripping away of my crutch of alcohol and the dissection of my marriage that delivered me to where I am now. Here, in a place where life has uncovered clear instructions to a game that I never knew existed. The game in the spaces between.
As girls we were given stacks of scratch paper and pens, with the freedom to draw our own map, but as good little girls we had learned how to sketch it. The fairy tales had taught us that we’d have happy endings, the movies portrayed women holding down the fort while raising everyone up. We were to act like ladies and achieve all we should, without having to stop for a snack.
What we didn’t know was that the real game of life was written in the margins of our Mash games. Real living showed up in the messy doodles and scribbles as we tested out our ink. The gift of my divorce and the teaching of my sobriety has been that life isn’t found in the list of achievements written in Sharpie, it’s found in the spaces between.
Life is lived alone in the bedroom, bouncing back after betrayal. Life is in the evening, finding the strength not to open the wine. Life is what happens in the waiting, beauty found in the brokenness and rebuilding. Real character is discovered not determined, joy is often experienced through experimentation. Life is realizing that we will never get it right but everything will be beautiful, in its own way, although it lacks perfection.
My sister and I never could have imagined or written down what would define our lives as adults.
I never could have dreamed what was beyond my 4th grade screen.
As women we overcome, we overreact, we sometimes choose perfect avocados. We help elders with shopping carts and live in the silence of the orchestra. We grasp hands of all colors with strangers in church, and listen to garbage trucks too early in the morning. We watch terrible movies and cry at good books, we hold in breath at our child’s diagnosis.
We are more than a blueprint, a checklist, or fairy tale. We are women and phoenixes rising from ashes, we are harvested pearls from the shells. We are fighters and lovers, we are angels and bitches.
We are more than we ever imagined
John Steinbeck wrote “And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good”.
But instead of being good, I’d like to be mended. Instead of being perfect, I’d like to be whole. To me, that’s the point of the game.