50 Stories, Week 27: To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before, Part 1

When I think about the original intent of this 50 Stories project, a sort of reverse bucket list, I realize that many of my most memorable moments would not have been possible without the love and support of my girlfriends. I only wish I’d had this wisdom early on. When I was little, I was a tomboy. If you didn’t want to catch crayfish in the creek behind the church or get your hands sappy climbing a tree or cut all of Barbie’s hair off and hang her from the garage door opener, well, we probably weren’t going to be friends. 

As I grew into a teenager, I became far too focused on boys – what they were thinking, what they thought of me, why they weren’t thinking of me, what I could do to get them to think of me… (I know, what an absolute waste of time.) I wasn’t unpopular, certainly not with the boys, but girls didn’t really do it for me. Except for my best friend Sheelu, mostly because she wasn’t a girly girl. But at some point, a shred of self-esteem kicked in and I realized that being around girls and women could help me become the person I was capable of being. Women that were caring and smart and funny were inspirational to me. And so on that note, I thought I’d tell short stories about some of my wonderful girlfriends.

As one of my friends used to say “You have to be a good friend to have a good friend.” And I have learned from the best. I’m breaking this into volumes and this one is Vol. I, Part 1 (in no particular order of importance ladies!)

Pam – Somewhere are 1991, I was in-between living situations in San Diego – I’d been staying with a soon-to-be ex-boyfriend and our roommate had been dating my soon-to-be new boyfriend so things were… complicated. A friend said I could crash on her couch until I found a new place and her roommate was Pam. Pamelita. Pamelaya. Pamster. Paaaaaam. I could tell stories of our escapades like a road trip where an Elvis impersonator changed our tire, looking for miracles at Grateful Dead concerts, singing two-part harmony in the car (or at my wedding,) or just being straight up dorks, but the moment that cemented my ever after love for Pam was in 2007 at Burning Man. 

I’d been both excited and apprehensive to finally go to Burning Man. Having been in the Bay Area since the mid-90’s, I’d known many people that had been, including Jackson’s dad shortly after it moved to Black Rock City. The problem wasn’t the crowds or the fanfare or the cost even, I knew I could figure those things out. And it wasn’t the fact that I no longer did drugs. I’d spent plenty of time playing Julie Cruise Director to friends having bad trips on acid and needing safe direction home. That stuff didn’t bother me at all and I knew I could still have a wonderful time experiencing the art, music, and community. What made me nervous, up front, was days spent in the desert. Far far away from medical care. For all of the adventurous things I’ve done (and will continue to do,) I still have anxiety about being far away from civilization. But I prepared like a scout. I had first aid kids and electrolyte packs and masks and eye protection and sunblock and so much water. I was good. Solid. Except the thing about bringing all of that stuff is actually remembering to use it. Especially when you’re in the midst of watching someone swallow fire or climb an upside-down 18-wheeler or ride a triple decker bicycle with one hand. 

It had been a beautiful cloudless day, and Pam and I caught up with some friends to watch the Burn. I remember feeling so much gratitude, to be able to be there with people I cared about and share such an enormous experience. It was magical. And then walking to the porta-potties after, I began to feel spacey. And then irritated. And then tired. And then angry. And of course nauseous. So I thought, oh, I should drink some water, but then I realized I didn’t have any left so the fear kicked in. By the time Pam helped me to the first aid tent, I was fully dehydrated and having a panic attack. The nurse gave me some electrolytes and water but all I wanted was to go home. When you’re in full anxiety sometimes all you want is the thing that will make you feel most safe – your own bed, perhaps. It was about 2am at this point and while I felt so badly for asking, I knew Pam understood that I wanted to leave. 

I was still feeling irritable hours later as we packed up the car. I imagined that Pam must be upset with me for making her cut the adventure short, but she continued to check in with me – asking how I felt, if I was ok. Pam is one of the most curious, inquisitive people I know and so she asked me questions. She kept me talking, and helped me figure out what I needed and wanted. Though I was dehydrated, the anxiety had just made everything worse so getting to a place of calm began to change everything. I was able to take care of myself. She suggested we stop at Lake Tahoe on the way back to visit a friend. I barely remember being in their house but I do remember walking down to the lake’s edge and immediately getting in. Pam had seen me safely out of the woods (so to speak) and into the pure water that felt like a rebirth. She didn’t judge me for my inability to regulate my electrolyte intake or the whining terror that ensued. She reminded me that I was not alone, and that when weird shit happens, we can take a dip in a lake to start over. It’s been almost 30 years now of friendship and I’m looking forward to our next duet.

Samantha – In 1992, I was living in San Diego and went to visit my crew of guy friends up in Portland, OR. Gregory, Jason and Kyle were originally from NH and had all ended up moving to the Northwest. Samantha was dating Kyle, who was my best friend Sheelu’s ex-boyfriend. (I know. We liked to keep it all in the family back then.) During the visit, the guys thought we should go all snowboarding on Mt. Hood. Having grown up in New England, I learned how to ski on ice, and I thought snowboarding was for sissies. You know where this story is headed.

It might have been on my second run, in which I told the others not to follow because I was fine and proceeded to try some jumps because how different could it possibly be, that I landed on my head. Because of my ignorant independence, I looked around and saw no one I knew. Someone approached and suggested I remove the board so I could walk to the bottom. But an employee from the lift noticed I had gone down and came up quickly behind me. I remember he began asking me questions but all I could say was that the sky was cloudy and the snow was white so he escorted me to the medical office. I sat in that office for what felt like two minutes or two days in a state of contented spaciness… and then Samantha walked in. I think I had only just met her, so the fact that I recognized her was a miracle. I was so happy to see a familiar face. And that’s when I realized I must have hit my head pretty badly. She spoke to the medical attendant – I didn’t know at the time that Sam was studying to become a doctor, so she knew the right questions to ask. She gingerly escorted me out to where the guys were waiting and we headed home. I’m not sure how the decision was made, but I stayed at Samantha’s so she could keep an eye on me. I am sure that I was afraid, as I realized I had a concussion and things started coming back to me piece by piece, but I also felt calm. Even though I didn’t know Samantha well, I felt safe and she felt familiar. Her endless empathy as to how I was feeling and what she could do was a quick reminder that I rarely held myself in the same regard. I also loved her approach to candor, which is to offer it first. Many years later, I ended up dating someone in Portland so I was visiting more often. It can be safely said that the best part of that relationship was getting to know Samantha better and being able to call her my girlfriend.

Annie – In 1994, I was interviewing for an admin role at a safari company where Annie worked, and I thought she was the most interesting person I’d ever met. Not just because of how she was handling a tricky divorce but because she was wordly yet had no pretension about her. A few months after we met, Annie was there for me after a particularly scary bike accident. Greater still, though, she was instrumental in helping me have the kind of natural childbirth I wanted many years later. She had been trained as a doula, gave me great books to read, helped me find a women’s labor group, and answered my incessant questions about birth. When I asked what it was really like, she shared the best quote from Carol Burnett – “Giving birth is like taking your lower lip and forcing it over your head.” I have always appreciated that brand of honesty.

Annie had planned to be at the birth but when I went into labor three weeks before Jackson was due, she was still visiting a friend in New Mexico. We talked on the phone, her assuring me that even if she left now, she’d miss the birth, but still, I asked her to come. When she arrived a day later, I was still in labor and hadn’t even begun pushing. By that point, I was so exhausted and losing steam, that her voice and presence helped push me over the hump. I proceeded to labor a while longer and when I’d been pushing for a few hours, the doctor came in to ask for an update. She was concerned I might have been pushing too long so Annie told her I had JUST started. The doctor replied “Well, if she is still pushing in an hour, we’re going in with forceps to pull the baby out by the head.” I remember going to use the bathroom and staring at myself in the mirror through contractions thinking “I have to go have a baby now. No more fucking around.” Throughout the whole experience, it was Annie’s voice reminding me that this was an experience women have been having since the beginning of time, that it is often our fear of the unknown that can create an unpleasant birth, and that I had to learn to trust my instincts and advocate for myself and my child. These are lessons I have held close throughout my son’s life and am so grateful for her influence on mine.

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