That Girl Then


I often think of my parallel life. Or lives, more correctly. What would have happened if I had chosen differently? I think of it as a movie reel spliced with alternate endings as my eyes go a little soft and I imagine cellulose curls filled with other choices and players I’ve not yet met falling to my feet. The road forks in my mind and I follow it to another girl’s life, what could have been mine.

My own Sliding Doors.

When I was sweet sixteen and never been kissed I had my first jolting experience with what could be. There were no boyfriends, no prospects and I took to baggy shirts and boy jeans to cover the curves that arrived the previous summer. I was sitting in the living room of a young Indian couple that had started attending my church. They opened an album filled with colors, excitement, presents and gold; their wedding photos. The celebration lasted seven days. There were silk saris in every imaginable color, elephants, body paint and gold everything.

It was amazing.

While the new bride showed me pictures and modeled saris, her mother-in-law began speaking in Tamil. Her husband, Aadhi, conversed with his mother quietly in the corner of the room. I noticed that mom’s tone was becoming more insistent and as my friend smiled from ear to ear, clearly amused by whatever was happening, Aadhi finally looked up, “My mother thinks you’re very pretty.”

I glanced at my friend, Toni, assuming he was talking to her. Aadhi smiled and redirected my attention, “Jeanette, my mother thinks you are very pretty.”

I smiled, thanked her and looked up at the bride as she wrapped a sari around her waist. She looked as though she had a secret as her mother-in-law chattered.

Aadhi seemed annoyed as he nodded to his mother and turned toward me again, “She wants to know if you’re in school.”

I looked up from the album on my lap, “Yes, I’ll graduate next year.”

“What kind of career are you going to pursue?”

“I’m not sure yet,” I smiled at Aadhi, “probably accounting.”

He translated and Aadhi’s mother began to poke him, prodding. He sighed loudly, his wife laughed.

“My mother would like a picture of you.”

I looked up, confused, “A picture?”

Aadhi’s mother was talking a mile a minute at this point and he was quickly stabbing at her with terse Tamil words to keep her pacified, “She would like to know if she can meet your parents.”

“My parents?”

I looked over to see Aadhi’s mother was eyeing me with a Jesus glow about her eyes. She nodded and smiled as if to convince.

Aadhi turned away from his mother and sighed, “I’m sorry to embarrass you. My mother is here to find a wife for my brother. She likes you and wants to see if she can make an arrangement with your parents. She thinks you would give my brother much happiness and beautiful children. He is a doctor in India. She would arrange for a large dowry. Tell me no and I’ll make this go away.”

“Um, I’m sixteen.”

“I know. You wouldn’t get married for some time. You would write letters, send pictures and then when you were a little older my brother would send for you.”

“Send for me?”

“That’s how it works.”

I looked at all of the beautiful saris, the gold, the tiny pierced noses and thought of a life outside of the Florida swamps. It was sexy, adventurous, exotic. I would ride elephants into rivers and fill my fingers with henna. Then I thought of the doctor that would send for me, the brightly colored fabrics glaring against my pale complexion and the likelihood I’d eventually get bored or freaked out, run off to Paris to fall in love with a street performer and bring great shame to my family because I was sixteen. Boyfriend or not I wasn’t ready to be sent for by anyone who had to ask his mother to find me.

“I’m sorry.”

Aadhi smiled and winked and like that my parallel life came to an end.

As I was driving home today thinking of all the roads, choices and simple decisions, conversations and chance meetings that have spliced my life into a cinematic wonder I thought of all the saris and gold. How different my life could’ve been had I been curious enough to pursue an Indian doctor who wanted to, when you get right to it, pay my parents for me.

We were broke and I was mouthy so they may have considered.

I kid.

I think.

I also thought of the summer job as a customer service rep for a regional bank where I got in trouble with my boss for showing up with wet hair. The bank was purchased by a national corporation with executives that noticed something about me (I dried my hair by then) and so began the eventual promotion from “the matchstick girl” (my boss liked that nickname the best) at $7.35 an hour to a woman that travels to places she couldn’t imagine because people value her advice.

I thought of the faces and places that pulled me out of my own way. The demons that showed up on occasion to force me to rise above, to cling to the happiest of endings. The bad boys that made me cry in parking garages with flailing arms and the girlfriends that taught me what it was like to be your barest most primal beautiful self and still be loved.

There were never mistakes. There were definitely decisions I wouldn’t make today, but I had to splice a few movies to build the knowledge base. I can’t fault That Girl Then for the choices made, but I can forgive her because she squirms a little in the remembering.

There were lessons that, in all honesty, my daughter won’t know about until she’s in a crisis in her twenties and needs to know mom was human too. It has to be a good crisis where she’s on the verge of inconsolable with snot running down her face that she’s not even wiping, that bad, but those lessons were the foundation for something better.

I think of my daughter’s Sliding Doors and that makes me squirm too. All parents want the perfect life for their children, but that doesn’t build them. They have to lay the foundation, brick by brick, concrete messes, cracks and rebar. I know that she will have choices to make that could lead her away from me. I just hope that the editing I’ve done has created such a rich story line that she will always find comfort knowing she has a willing production assistant and a soft place to land when she has her own alternate endings to consider.

As I write I smile. I am fully aware that 75 year old me will one day stumble upon this post, The Me Today, and think of all the life I had ahead of me when I wrote this, look at you thinking you are so grown up and have lived a full life. Aren’t you adorable. You haven’t even (enter something amazing and completely unimaginable) yet. Just you wait.

I hope I make her proud and at the very least, give her some memories to cherish.

I’ve certainly given her stories.

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