You know the body swap genre? Movies in which two characters gain insight by switching bodies, or one goes forward or back in their own body to gain insight? Then they go back to who they used to be, only a bit wiser for the wear?
It’s exhausted, I know, but what if it were true? Not the swapping bodies, but swapping lives?
Eleven years ago today, I was in Iguazu, on the Brazilian side of the border between Brazil and Argentina. It was the day before my 30th birthday.
Thirty’s a rough year for women. Only recently have I heard it called the “Saturn Return” by astrology observers. It’s in uncomfortable time wherein one does the reflecting necessary to leave youth behind, absorb the lessons, and join adulthood.
By 29, I’d already established the superficial trappings of adulthood: marriage, a career, houses, some wealth. Children had been put off, though we’d tried, the ex and I. After four months of going off birth control when I was 26 to get pregnant, I had a mental breakdown from unregulated hormones (I’d gone on birth control soon after my 18th birthday because my menstrual cycle was about as erratic as this fall’s election and I first self-diagnosed anemia that would plague me to this day). Shortly thereafter, I got the diagnosis of bipolar disorder. The diagnosis and subsequent medication and shame associated with mental illness did a doozy on my self-esteem. I went to therapy sometimes twice or even three times a week, but my therapist was awful. No one told me how to pick a therapist or what therapy was supposed to do for me, and everyone around me saw bipolar disorder as my terrible self-brought-upon curse, so I just kept going even though she probably did more harm than good.
But, even at 29, I could still hold together a narrative quilt that looked like success, just as long as you didn’t get too close to see how threadbare it had become. It was an illusion, but I was a master of slight of hand magic and pretty good at convincing everyone, including me, that I had it together. Pick a card, any card, and it would have come up with me winning.
I didn’t want to turn thirty. The idea, when I entertained it at all, was terrifying. The part of me that engaged in reality knew I wasn’t ready. I felt half-baked. I needed way more time in the oven before I could adjust to actually being an adult. At 29, I’d yet to make a single life decision voluntarily. I’d only done things I was explicitly forced or backdoor into by strong suggestion. None of it was anything I’d wanted or sought out…not the husband or the lawyer gig or either of the homes bought “for” me. I capitulated because I’d been told that all these things were markers of inner happiness. But so far, they’d failed to reveal any happiness at all and I was becoming disillusioned with how I’d spent an entire decade of my life building someone else’s dream for me. So I manufactured a loophole to turning 30 and then jumped through it: if you turn 30 below the equator, it doesn’t count in the northern hemisphere.
I talked over travel ideas with a high school friend/college roommate/mortal enemy (because you don’t share a room with a friend unless you want that friendship to end)/rediscovered friend. Her birthday is the day before mine.
I remember the first time she told me this. I was standing in line to hit a piñata at a birthday party held in the McDonald’s parking lot in Nogales (downtown, there was no Mariposa McDonald’s then) and she was in front of me. She turned around, and with some satisfaction, she told me she was a day older than me.
The relevance of that comment was two-fold: 1) adults line children up by age to hit the piñata from youngest to oldest so that the little kids get a chance before the big kids to whack the piñata to death. By being in line in front of me and being older than me (as if one whole day were some huge deal), she was getting some perceived secret advantage. Not that I cared. I wasn’t competitive about using a stick to break a papier-mâché effigy and scramble for candy on the ground. I was just really fucking good at it. I’ve said it before, but I really was a hulk of a child and unaware of my own awkward strength. Now, if she’d whipped out her standardized test scores…I might have bitten at the bait. My whole world was built upon a foundation that I was the smartest person in the world (don’t build houses on foundations of arrogance, kids).
2) This girl knew not only who I was but also how old I was, when I’d never seen her before in my life. And if I had, it wasn’t memorable enough for me to register it. Why it mattered to her to tell me anything, but especially this fact, puzzled me so greatly that the memory is still pronounced to this day. The memory didn’t lodge in my head that day at McDonald’s. It was pulled to the foreground when she reminded of me when we were teenagers. That’s how important this was to her. Again, just sort of puzzling. But things like this happened to me all the time because of my lack of awareness and my inability to form human connections with real life people. I also was unable to see, even when it was laid bare, people’s bad intentions. I’m still having “aha” moments about all of that.
Back to 2009…
We threw around ideas of where to travel to celebrate our birthdays, Machu Pichu was a hard “no” for me (bugs and snakes and required coordination) and basically any of my ideas were a hard “no” for her (because some people are manipulative and will pose a question to which the only correct answer is the one they hide behind their backs). We settled on a Virgin travel package deal. Rio, Iguazu, Buenos Aires. And then, without any discussion, she invited two friends along, one of whom I knew from Nogales. Long story short, the trip was part exploration, part nightmare, and I would never speak to any of those women again. But I managed to accomplish my goal of jumping through my own loophole and not turning 30 above the equator (above, below…relative terms and part of the Eurocentric model of supremacy…let’s just say it was outside the jurisdiction that had purview over my chronological age and leave it at that).
It was one of these friends, the one I’d known from Nogales, with whom I would swap lives. I became unconventional and she began dating my ex while we were separated and then they lived happily ever after…or whatever, I don’t know because I cut contact with anyone who would bring her up in conversation. One of those people was my own mother.
My mother said something to me once and I forgot it. And then she told me a second time and it stung enough to trigger my recollection of the first time she said it, in which it had initially stung. Basically it was this: this woman pursued my ex in part because I’d spoken so well of him on that fateful trip to South America. It didn’t sting because of what she said, but because of how she used it callously as a weapon against me. As though I’d given out a family recipe and someone had gone on to monetize it at my expense. As though this woman’s gain was my loss. As though I’d been stupid to speak so well of my then husband. As though I should have hoarded him. It didn’t hurt that she was with him, it hurt me deeply that my mother treated my divorce as another constant source of my shame. And for that, I was not allowed be sad or hurt or in any way vulnerable. I was just supposed to wear a dunce cap or a Scarlett letter or some sandwich board for the rest of my life. A sign on my back that said, “Kick me.”
And how did she come up with this allegation? Someone unnamed had gone to her and told her. She’d been holding onto gossip about her own daughter. There were levels to her betrayal and treachery.
I get all of it, sorta, but not really. I know there are women who see a supposedly unhappy husband as a challenge to conquer and as a of measure their own worth. It’s a whole thing I don’t care about but half of Nogales does. He’s a total catch on paper. And if they’re happy, more power to them. And I get that divorce is shameful to an entire culture where a woman’s worth at some point gets handed over to her spouse, and divorce means she must have fucked it up and doesn’t deserve any of her worth back once he’s peaced out. The men escape unscathed. Meanwhile, the few women who were in my social sphere who have gone through divorce have all experienced this shame and required self-exclusion. It involves begging for a seat at the table, never really be accepted by the “successfully” married women, and being pitied and judged for eternity. For ever and ever, til death do you part, you and the shame.
The two pieces feed into each other, you see. She gets the guy, which means she’s better than you…not that it’s much of an accomplishment to be better than a pariah. But this is the gist of Mexican female reindeer games.
That’s the uninteresting bit.
The interesting bit is that my life at 30 went from conventional to non-existent to super duper unexpected, unapproved of and completely uncharted (at least to me–I don’t have any chart at my disposal with an X marking the spot I’m supposed to be in search of. If you do, please share the Google Doc link, thank you very much). Maybe, and this might be the other side of the loophole, if I crossed that imaginary meridian again, I’d end up on the other side with a furrowed brow denoting my seriousness and a job as in-house counsel to some corporation with a credenza covered with frosted glass doo dads handed out at regional corporate awards ceremonies. Maybe I’d own a closet full of sensible shoes and a cabinet of wine glasses and coffee mugs with quippy phrases that allowed me to carry on thinking I was still hip and capable of self-aware irony. Maybe I’d be a mother with kids at a private school in Tucson and I’d live through them. Maybe I’d drive a Lexus and wax nostalgic about how great the 90’s were. The nightmare scenario could go on forever because that bitch (29-year old me) was so basic (“how basic was she?”) that I could fill in the blanks for her to her eventual last days without giving it much thought.
But the point is that it didn’t go that way. I somehow broke the spell and ended up where I am, in this alternate reality. Where that is, I’m not really sure.
All I know is that tomorrow I turn 41 in Brooklyn, a place that, at 29, I would have bet the farm I’d never end up in. And all bets are off right now because life, as it was, is currently suspended in pause mode. We’re all just hovering in mid-air waiting for Earth’s magnetic force to return.
So while I’m hovering above the crust, I’m gonna start making moves that would be harder to do otherwise. I’m gonna use my 20,000′ observational viewpoint to get a lay of the land and see what my options are. Turn the chess board around and look at it from every angle. I might not end up at the top. But at least I’ll land on my feet.