The gravestone is just the same as the others. I slide my back against it, feel the warm sun bleach the ends of my hair. What is special about this man? I barely noticed his name, more interested in the twisting Spanish moss over my head, the heat shimmering around me, the gnawing in my stomach. I don’t feel watched over, haunted by the dead in this graveyard. It’s the living who follow me: the things I so desperately want, the fourteen year old self I cannot begin to understand, the braces that I don’t get to shed yet. It’s the friends I can’t seem to keep. My head swirls, all the same problems, all the year full of them. I trace circles in the dirt instead of writing in my journal about this Selma graveyard. I don’t care about this. I don’t have anything to say. I look over to where Elizabeth sits, her dark sheen of hair rippling in the sweaty sun. I want to be that beautiful, and my body shivers with the thought. She is writing, a head full of good thoughts. I imagine that she paid attention to her gravestone. That she is telling their story, whoever they are, the bones under her feet. I imagine that she understood what the assignment was.
I am at the beginning of high school. I wear strange knit pants and too many collared shirts with a couple of buttons that always strain against my chest, because I haven’t learned how to breathe in and out inside my own body, and I keep imaging I’m shaped like the girls I see around me. I don’t know how to put on any makeup, but I believe I should, so it’s stashed in between underwear and socks in my duffel bag. It has stayed in the same place for the whole three weeks, because I’m afraid of it. It’s not really my makeup anyway, just the free stuff from a Clinique bonus, but I took it in a moment that felt brave, and now, I’m paralyzed.
The sun streams through the moss, and I can hear a bird calling out for its mate, but the call goes unanswered. It drops off into silence, only to screech louder, more desperate. I imagine the bird has come home to the nest and she is missing. The cry rings out over my head – where are you? Where are you? I still haven’t put a word on paper. I feel thirsty and tired and the sun keeps beaming on me and Elizabeth at her gravestone with her rippling black hair writing in her Moleskin journal and my shirt sticks to my back, finds all the shape in me that I wish away. It reminds me that I am not a slender gazelle. I feel my braces and in-between hair, all my fourteen years.
I know the teacher will call us soon, will want us to go over to the meadow across the street, next to the graffiti concrete wall full of the heroes of the 1960s. He will call us to step into a field and sit in the dust next to each other, sharing our stories and experiences. He will tell us to breathe deep the Selma air, to imagine Martin Luther King walking across the bridge. He will ask me a question about A Rose for Emily, about the man whose gravestone I sit next to now. He will call me out of myself and into the past, which is not quite past, and into the future, which stretches too far ahead of me. He will whisper to us, our eyes rounded in surprise, that we are all in a meadow of time together, and our pasts which are not past will someday meet our futures which are present, and not. He will tell us time in a mystery. He will tell us that perhaps, in that meadow of time, we will recognize these selves we are now next to the selves we will be.
Tonight, as I write, I am next to her – and all her braces and all her jealousy and all her writer’s block. Tonight, I watch her struggle to put her pen on paper, struggle to live inside the curve of her hip bones, struggle against the longing to be a slender gazelle with white blonde hair. I watch her try desperately not to care about things. But there isn’t a cynical bone in my body, and she never had one. I watch her stand, brush the dust off her shorts, and turn to read the gravestone.
This is the beginning of loving ourselves: simply the recognition. That girl, she is me. And tonight, I walk through the graveyard in Selma to meet her. Our insecurities are not so different eight years apart. Our fears and longings, not so different.I think that high school self, she has something to teach me.