The year I turned 13, two things happened: I got my period, and I moved from Oklahoma to Ohio.
There are roughly 1,000 miles between Oklahoma and Ohio, but it might as well be 10,000. I’d spent my entire life in the reddest of red states. Church was Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night (because Satan never rests so why should you). Services lasted hours. I got my first migraines in church. I’d press my throbbing head against the cool porcelain sinks in the bathroom and whimper at the muffled sounds of the evangelist screaming and writhing over the auditorium’s PA system.
In Oklahoma, everything is big. The churches are big, the trucks are big, the high schools are big…even the land is big — and flat. A person could be forgiven for doubting our blue and green home is a marble. On the dusty ground in that flattest of plains states, there are no wrinkles. Everything is pressed smooth.
But the summer I turned 13, my world stopped being flat. To use a tired metaphor, it turned upside down. I switched states and schools during one of the most vulnerable times in a young person’s life.
In my big church in my flat state, I’d been raised to believe that demons make people do bad things and that the only difference between a murderer and a chain smoker is the type of demon inhabiting the person’s soul — like how a fracture is worse than a sprain but ultimately caused by the same class of trauma. My stepmother once convinced me our house was surrounded by demon-possessed frogs “waging spiritual warfare” over our home as a way to test our faith. I prayed all night.
You can probably imagine I had a tough time fitting in at my new school.
My accent was weird. My clothes were weird. I had hair past my butt. I blushed and stammered when boys spoke to me. Oh, and I believed demons passed the time by inhabiting amphibians.
I spent five long, miserable years in that school district. I did not date. I never kissed a boy. I was never asked to a dance. I didn’t go to the prom (any proms). I had no girlfriends. I didn’t hang out at the mall or spend hours on the phone or pass notes to my friends. When teachers clapped their hands and said, “Everyone pick a partner!” my stomach clenched. Note to teachers: Please don’t do this. Draw names out of a hat or something. Please. As a nerd, I’m beseeching you on behalf of my people. You’re giving us diarrhea.
I didn’t know how to connect with those teenagers. They were aliens to me. And I was an alien to them. What they probably perceived as snobbery was just awkwardness, shyness, and the pain universal to kids who’ve weathered divorce and neglect.
Run Baby Run
I hate running, so naturally I decided to join the Army right out of high school. Really, I just wanted to run as far away from that school as I could. I was a decent student, but I wasn’t brilliant enough to get any scholarships. However, I’d heard the Army National Guard offered a tuition grant. Maybe I could run as long as the ground was flat enough.
I mean, I’d grown up in a place where you could stand in one spot and see for miles. If you look hard enough, you’ll eventually find something worth running toward. I figured I’d just train my gaze on the horizon and keep going.
I’m a terrible runner. “You are the worst runner I have ever seen.” — direct quote, my drill sergeant. But I graduated Basic Training and AIT, and I ended up at Kent State University (pretty much the farthest you can get geographically from my high school without leaving the state).
By the time I arrived at college, life and distance had helped me shed the religious indoctrination of my childhood. I didn’t check the perimeter of my dorm building for demon-frogs, for example. The Army hadn’t turned me into a great runner, but it had given me a fledgling sense of self-confidence.
The thing is, confidence is something that has to be nurtured to grow. Mine was like a thin shell. If the wrong person had come along, it would have shattered. I’d spent too long being hurt, feeling stupid, sitting on the sidelines. Observing.
But then I met this boy.
He never believes me when I tell this story. “There is no way that is true,” he says, and I just smile. (It’s true, by the way. All of it.)
We met our sophomore year at Kent, where we both worked for campus security. It was a natural job for me, since I was an MP in the National Guard. He was a dispatcher. Our jobs consisted of making sure our fellow students had as little fun as possible. Contact highs were a regular event. I still can’t smell burnt popcorn without thinking about weed.
He had a girlfriend. I’d lost my accent, and I didn’t believe in demon-frogs anymore, but five years as an alien in an Ohio high school had taken their toll. I was polite and more outgoing than I’d ever been as a teenager, but no part of me ever assumed boys were interested in me — except maybe to borrow money or perhaps ask for directions. If I flirted with a guy, it was only because I literally tripped and fell on him. “Ohmigod, did my boob just touch your hand, sir? I am so sorry!”
We worked four- or eight-hour shifts. If you worked a four-hour shift, you started at 8 p.m. and stopped at midnight. I normally walked home from work, but one night we got a ton of rain. Like the kind of rain that makes you gasp and start yelling profanities into the sky because it is just so insanely wet it defies all reason. Rain that ruins your shoes and soaks your shirt and even clothing you didn’t realize you were wearing.
“I’ll drive you home.”
He offered me a ride. We held folders or something over our heads and ran, slipping and laughing, to his SUV. He got there first, hopped in, and slid across the seat to pop open my door by the time I reached it. I climbed in and slammed the door, still laughing and breathless. I bent down to mess with my wet shoes, and when I sat up a clear thought shot through my head.
What if I marry this guy?
And right then, with zero explanation for how that thought got there, I knew I would.
I’d never dated. He took me everywhere.
I’d never been to a dance. Our first date was a wedding. We danced until my feet hurt. Three years later, we got married in the same building.
I didn’t go to prom. “Prom is dumb,” he told me. “We can get drunk at home.”
I had no friends. When we lost our first baby, he drove me to the beach and sat with me under the stars. “I don’t care if we never have kids,” he said, his voice steady. He grabbed my hand and squeezed it. “I married you. You are my family.”
I didn’t go to the mall. He led me through malls and shops in Vegas and California and Mexico and other places. Outside a theater I stopped, disappointed.
“What?” he asked. “What’s wrong?”
I pointed to a sign. “It says it’s dark. They must only offer shows in the evening.”
He looked startled, and then he burst out laughing.
“Oh, honey.” He threw his head back.
“What? Why are you laughing?”
He grinned. “It’s theater talk. There are no performances at all today.”
I didn’t spend hours on the phone or pass notes to my friends. Our first year together, we had a long-distance relationship. There were no iPhones then, and texting was primitive. I didn’t realize it at the time, but we were among the last people in the world to write love letters. There is something both fragile and powerful about a love letter. Paper is one of the most delicate substances on the planet, but words are perhaps the most enduring thing we’ve ever created.
I never kissed a boy. Checked that box off, too.
Reader, I Married Him
When I was 13, I moved 1,000 miles across the country and it changed my life forever. Nothing about that trip or what came after it was easy. But I was raised in a place where if you stand in one spot you can see for miles. Look hard enough and you’ll start to see something worth running toward on the horizon.
I found you.
He never believes me when I tell this story. (It’s true, by the way. All of it.)