GROWING DOWN

WRITTEN BY MERISSA NATHAN GERSON
Merissa Nathan Gerson teaches workshops on inherited trauma as well as sexuality and religion nationwide.  Her writing appears in The Atlantic, Playboy, Refinery29, The New York Observer, Lilith, Tablet and beyond. She was the inherited trauma consultant to Amazon's hit show, Transparent and writes text message romance novels for A&E's new app, Read My Lips. 
Photos By Grace Gregory
In her work as a creative producer for ENDPAIN, Grace draws on her degree in American Studies as well as her experience writing, acting, photographing, and working in radio. She strives to bring compassion, empathy, and thoughtfulness to each ENDPAIN project she works on.
Growing Down

This essay is part of our month exploring the theme of Aging. Follow along with us all June to read more stories on the theme.

I sat on a bench with a Danish fireman, a French boat builder, and a mid-Western former Christian. We were escaping the party beneath us, a live band that ushered in the island of Martha’s Vineyard’s teenaged population for what they called “dock dance.” We were too old to be there, and hoping other too-olds would have also shown up—but this time it was a sea of wealthy teenagers moving their bodies in a way that made us all ashamed.

We sat on a wooden bench amidst smoking, snap-chatting, sexed up teenagers with a quiet view of the moon over the harbor. It was awkward, as if we had all gone out to escape something and failed, leaving us speechless. Four bodies. One bench. And an almost full moon.  

“What happened to your wrist?” one of them asked. I had forgotten. I looked down and there it was, wrapped in an ace bandage. Seeing it I remembered.

“No one knows,” I said, as if the entire island was discussing the happenings of my extremities.

I knew, roughly, the truth, though. I knew about how another young boat builder, 24 years old to be precise, had become this 34 year-old's literary muse, and how in trying to find him, trying to grow down, to grow young, to exit the fate of my own age to learn from him, I had put my body in precarious situations.

One weekend I was flung from the hood of a car. I opted to attend what was basically a teenaged house party where I discovered a vehicle, as I left, hanging over a ditch. I offered to sit on the hood to help leverage the front weight of the vehicle. When it came un-stuck, I went flying off and somehow landed on two feet, knee deep in thorn bushes that slashed my lower legs.

I went to the party searching for the boat builder. He wasn’t there.

Another weekend I got on a sailboat to watch his friends bid him adieu before he left the island. I sailed a harbor in circles with a dozen young men, also there for his goodbye. But he was grilling on the beach, and joined us late, and was, of course, on another boat. Eventually his girlfriend and I, she a decade my junior, to be young and free leapt into the ocean from the rear of the vessel. She pulled herself back up. To get back on, three international sailors pulled me up by the wrists.

I AM NOT 24. MY BODY DOESN’T JUST BOUNCE BACK, NOT FROM BOAT RIDES, NOT FROM CAR ACCIDENTS, NOT FROM MARIJUANA OR CIGARETTES. IT CAN’T EVEN BOUNCE BACK FROM SUGAR. I’M IN A DIFFERENT BRACKET OF ALIVENESS

I am 34. My wrists have been through hell like drunk drivers smashing into my car and epic falls on black ice. They have been bandaged and braced and also touched, caressed, soothed through hours upon hours of physical therapy. I am not 24. My body doesn’t just bounce back, not from boat rides, not from car accidents, not from marijuana or cigarettes. It can’t even bounce back from sugar. I’m in a different bracket of aliveness.

The third incident I was in fact with the young man, my momentary well of inspiration. We were walking by the ocean and he leapt up onto a boulder. It was my idea actually. “You think we can go stand up there?” I asked, so excited. “Sure, we can,” he said.

I was wearing a onesie. I may or may not have looked like a giant baby. I was barefoot. So was he. Tall. 24. Fit. Island man. He jumped up on top of that rock in one fell swoop.

“Here,” he said, “You want a hand?” He was smiling, reaching towards me, so bright eyed.

“No,” I said. “I can do it myself.”

His hand outstretched scared me, made me feel all kinds of things like fat or old or vulnerable or loved—a bloody mix. I tried, instead, to wedge my foot into the crags of the rock, to use my arms, and my knees, and to pull, heave myself up on that rock face. It happened three times. I made him turn away. My arms and hands slipping. My body smashing against the hard, crooked surface. And like in a bad comedy, I slid, onesie and all, all the way back down into the sea, full frontal press against the jagged stone.

I gave up and sat in the sand and watched him up there, king of the rock, and I rubbed my wrists, which were bloody, as were my knees, as were my elbows. I just didn’t know how to be that age with him.

According to the chiropractor I have tendinitis in my left wrist and it is a result of being thrown off the car. I didn’t tell her about the other two incidents or about my history, about how people used to think I was a boxer wearing double wrist guards after double accidents. She said I had to cut fruit and carbs and any form of sugar as well as all root vegetables and night shades out of my diet. “An anti-inflammation diet.” She said.

I bandaged my wrist and touching it I remembered the evening on July 3, 2006 when a drunk driver careened into my driver’s side door. I remembered my thoughts that night as I parallel parked my car on a quiet side street—a simple act turned quickly into a nightmare.

It was exactly a decade earlier, when I was the same age as the young intoxicating boat builder. It was before my neck was operated on for an enormous herniation that threatened, potentially, my ability to walk. The accident was before a trip to Brazil where I was desperate to pretend I wasn’t in excruciating pain, where I wanted to be happy and free and wild with dance school, the sea, and all the beautiful people.

It was before I went to Mojo di Sao Paolo, a tiny Brazilian vacation island with a British model who I asked, almost begged, in the middle of the night to please get me some ice, “Please, from the bar?”

And he refused and I walked alone towards the night life in search of ice like a crazy woman, hunched over in so much pain because my disc was bulging, because my shoulder was crushed from the car accident, because I was older than 24 and younger than 34 and it was very, very confusing.

When I started to catastrophize the fate of my arms, my legs, my back, and my future this week, all because of one inflamed wrist, I went to hot yoga. My thoughts were spinning out, focused on my unrealized 24 year-old subject, his flight off the island, the way my heart felt it could rupture when I looked in his eyes as if he were real, as if he weren't a story I was learning to tell. I thought about the ocean, and the rocks, and my bloody knees. And I thought about the days after he left, the boredom in his absence, the return to the same rocks and stones and how maybe something was stuck in the meridians of my wrists.

I went to hot yoga on a rudely hot summer day and decided to face my fear of my body, and of heat, by enduring the 100 degrees at will and by pushing my hips open, touching my toes, by twisting and arching and moving every sinew, every muscle, until something let go, something released. At first I grimaced. I was scared. It was annoying.

And then something broke in that cauldron of a room and I felt my hip unlock, and then my shoulder, and I remembered I was older, wiser, better than I once was. I knew, in that room of sweat and vigor that my wrist was going to heal, if simply from releasing, if simply from allowing my shoulder to open.

AND THEN SOMETHING BROKE IN THAT CAULDRON OF A ROOM AND I FELT MY HIP UNLOCK, AND THEN MY SHOULDER, AND I REMEMBERED I WAS OLDER, WISER, BETTER THAN I ONCE WAS.

Every time we rested, sweltering, I thought of Brazil—that strange time after the accident and before the surgery. Every time we rested I thought of that time when I wanted, desperately, to be okay, for that drunk driver to never have smashed my car, and my body. I was there in Salvador de Bahia on the coast of Brazil to dance and to write and my body was in the most excruciating pain of my life. I iced and tiger balmed my shoulder like it was my job but sitting hurt, dinner hurt, yoga hurt, dance was impossible, sleeping hurt. It hurt in a way I can’t even recall now, not the degree—a piercing, a leave the body horror, a steady and all-encompassing distraction from any kind of social grace.

I remember the dead mice in our house. I remember the enormous woman begging in the street, or the man with no legs who pushed himself on a skateboard. I remember the dead body I saw in the highway when I arrived from the airport or the Brazilian clown, topless and beautiful on the roof of the house who they asked me to share a tent with when I arrived because my room, it turned out, was occupied.

I remember Brazil and I remember the day I went to physical therapy and she pulled my arm and I felt a pop and I looked in this woman’s eyes as if she were a lunatic. I walked then, to the bus, along the roaring ocean. I daydreamed the whole way back to my home in Salvador, of moving there, of staying for six months, of having this dream bohemian life. And as I opened the gate to go home, as I entered I realized, with complete clarity, that my body was in grave danger and I had to leave. I was on five planes, emergency evacuated, within twenty-four hours.

I had major surgery a month later—my neck sliced open, my disc removed, a dead man’s bone screwed in in its place.

My catastrophic tendinitis lives somewhere between the moon and me, somewhere in memory, somewhere between 24 and 34.

I left that dock dance, and the men on the wooden bench silently watching the water practically billowing from the gentle wind. A boat of tourists drove by, they waved up at us. I had glitter on. I wanted to be 18, to dance, to move. I was locked inside myself that night.

But the next night I felt, as I lay face down on the yoga room floor, my right arm shaking, that I was being unfurled. Because there I was able to remember my body, to recall its story, to know that in my wrists are far more than tendons and heart meridians. In my wrists, in my hips, in my body, I remembered, was the story of my life, the history of my people, the traced lineage of my being in this here world.

To heal my body was to know, to remember, and to feel. It meant to let go of stories, of pain, of yesterday, while still remembering my own history.

“I feel like we really released things in there,” the hot yoga teacher said to me when I left.

I wanted to say, “I mean, yeah.” I wanted to say, “Brazil haunted me.” I wanted to say, “I let go of the very things I am not to ever speak of.” I wanted to say, “I am haunted from wrist to wrist.” I nodded instead, thanked her, and cried in my car as I drove to a kickball game in my onesie again.

Today my wrists are not swelling, or hot, or even in so much pain. We did release. Today I am 34.5 years old, growing younger by the minute, and counting.

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