I was fourteen when I met Kristina. I lived with two dancers who retired from the ballet and moved to Las Vegas. I was their live in babysitter. They were young, in their mid-20’s, beautiful, in exquisite shape, and determined to make a living with bodies that were considered too old for the grueling regime of professional dancing. They instead, danced on the strip. Nude. Wearing only strategically placed pearls.
One night, one of their friends helped sneak me in to watch their show from the shadows as I was much too young to be anywhere near a casino. They turned me over to a girl I remembered from school. Her mother worked in the wardrobe room and we hid under a pile of giant ostrich head dresses taller than we were and watched enthralled. It was the most beautiful performance I ever saw. Yes, they were nude, but all the controversial bits were covered up so what was left were two exquisite human beings dancing as if they were the only two people left on earth. I always think of them when I dance alone like I’m the only person left on earth.
For the next year when I wasn’t in school or helping my dancers care for their young daughter, I spent it with Kristina helping repair costumes her mother brought home. Her brother lived with a dancer and we often met at her apartment in the same complex. It was tedious work, but enchanting to a young girl who never imagined work clothes as sequins, pearls, tiny bits of material all elegantly stitched into a costume. I was never the princess type, but I held magic in my hand with all those beautiful pieces of sparkly things. I saw everything differently then because you can’t hold magic in your hand and see the world the same.
I was a painfully shy kid. I still have trouble with that. I have accepted that it’s a lifetime thing. I learned if I tell people upfront that I have a “problem” with shyness, they will help me out by talking, asking me questions, or letting me sit quietly until I feel comfortable enough to join in. People are mostly kind. And they understand what it means to be shy. Kristina was the complete opposite. She was outgoing and everyone she met was a potential friend. When I met her my friends were all in books. She changed that when she became my first real friend. It turned into a lifetime bond.
Recently, during one of our long email exchanges that writers often get into with each other, I realized she was the only person who knew me in all the transitional phases of my life. She was my support, my ear, the one person who understood why I cried so hard when my dancers got a job in Europe and I couldn’t go with them. I remember how she hugged me and told me it was going to be okay, that she would help me survive going back home. Neither of us believed it, but we said the words anyway, her to me, and me to her. Her father was just as violent and mean and drunk as mine, and her mother, like mine, put up with the abuse because she “loved” him.
None of the people who became part of my life after I left Las Vegas know what I went through just as none of her friends know what she went through. We knew. We understood. And over the years as we grew into our new lives, we kept in touch, but rarely mentioned those days. They were the past, buried, dead, gone, forgotten. The scars became fainter. People quit asking how we got them. We no longer had to lie.
But the wounds were still there. When we both turned 70 this year, the quality of our emails changed. We began to poke around in what we thought was forgotten. For both of us, the realization that ripping the bandage off old wounds hurt like hell came as a shock.
I suspect we’re going to have a lot more to say to each other about this in the next months. It’s way past time. In a strange way we both are looking forward to it, much as one looks forward to finally cleaning out that dark closet with all the clothes that no longer fit, the pieces of broken things that are saved for the memories and not because there’s anything left to repair. It’s time.
In her last letter we told each other how we healed some of the worst of the wounds. Unlike Kristina, I was never able to verbalize my feelings or talk about what happened to me. I was forty before I was able to say I love you easily. I’ve always put everything in my journals, into my poetry and my art. I tried traditional talking therapy and it went nowhere, mostly because the words just wouldn’t shape themselves into anything that described that time.
But life often gives you what you need to move forward if you let it. For me that was finding a way to heal that didn’t involve talking. I learned to heal the physical trauma through the body, to change where and how I stored the bad stuff. I learned that I kept my arms crossed to protect myself. The months of relearning to walk, sit, and talk without needing to protect myself opened the door to the rest.
I learned that I was afraid to look at someone because I associated eye contact with pain. Look at me! Look at me! He always wanted me to make eye contact before he hit me. He wanted to see my fear. I learned to look at people’s noses when I talked. It helped but it’s still difficult. Some things never go away. I’m like a wild animal that way if someone tries to make eye contact with me. But it’s getting better.
One of the other things Kristina and I shared was the simple joy of being outside in the desert, climbing rocks to get high up a canyon where we could look out and see nothing but desert for miles. Las Vegas was a small place then, just the strip, downtown, and a few houses on the west end where we lived. In between there was desert, great big open expanses of it. And that blissful silence. We would sit for hours in that silence. We drew strength from it. And for most of our lives, we looked for it. Neither one of us are loud or noisy. We are the peace we sought.
We both live in quiet, small, isolated places. She lives in a small cabin in the mountains up a dirt road no one drives up by accident. I live on a small island with a few hundred people and a ferry that stops running for the night at 8:30. I have few neighbors, and they are several acres distant in the trees, along the water where I can’t see them. Kristina has taught herself to paint because most of her neighbors are artists and they convinced her to try. She learned she’s quite good. Many of my island neighbors are artists, writers, musicians, people who require lots of quiet time alone. We know we are there but we don’t need to see each other to feel supported, loved, welcome.
In many ways, mine and Kristina’s lives have followed a similar arc. We began as abused children who made a blood oath to protect each other. Two 14 year old girls who didn’t know much but had already experienced too much. We went through the hell of high school together with our meager handful of friends, none whom we knew how to get close to the way we were close to each other. We were part of the antiwar movement and got spit on together by people who also threw garbage at us and called us commies. We both lost people we cared deeply for in Vietnam. It only motivated us to fight for peace harder. We still do.
And now as we age, the arc takes us on yet another similar path, one where the good memories seem to magically rise to the surface to push the bad memories aside. We’ve both contacted the good people, the kind people from those days because we both feel it’s important they know that kindness matters, that the world needs more of it, and especially to remind them it’s still there in them. If enough of us let kindness rise to the top and push the bad stuff away, maybe just maybe we can still make that bit of difference we always swore we would make to change the world. Maybe we can heal not only each other but also all the other wounded children who never stopped hurting. It’s worth a try.
My personal website:
Ursine Logic’s Books and Art