You guys don’t know Julia, but trust me… it was ridiculous how rich she was. Her gated community was so gated that there was like a gate around each house. It was ridiculous how many horses. It was ridiculous how robust her household staff was. She could have reenacted the entire film The Help before the maid cleared the breakfast dishes.
And it was incredibly ridiculous that I even cared about these things because she was a 15-year-old girl and I was a 31-year-old woman who really should have had my life together.
I did not have my life together and that was why I met Julia in the first place. You see, thanks to a divorce and the recession, I had been demoted from being a normal, respectable human being and was instead living life as a drivers ed instructor.
I do not recommend living life as a drivers ed instructor.
First, you have to wear a uniform. And not a cool uniform like doctors or astronauts get to wear. This uniform is khaki. All khaki. It’s stiff and it’s hot and manages to make every person who wears it, regardless of their gender, size or body type, look like they have man boobs and lady hips.
The second worst thing about being a drivers’ ed instructor is that you’re BEING A DRIVERS’ ED INSTRUCTOR.
Considering how much was going wrong in my life at the time, I really shouldn’t have cared about Julia’s life. She was just some kid. But she was the kind of kid I had wanted to be was young. And she was living the kind of life I wanted to live now that i was less young.
She was a ballet dancer. And when I was her age, I loved ballet. But when young me told my mom I was interested in ballet, my mother told me in no uncertain terms that I was too fat to be a dancer but that was okay because “black people don’t get skinny anyway” and that maybe I should consider engineering. So not only was Julia a skinny dancer, her mom also liked her.
Julia had a nice new car…several, in fact, the driveway was lousy with cars. At the time, my car had been stolen. Rent controlled apartment – great! Being the only person on said block who wasn’t in the Canoga Park Alabama gang, not great.
Apart from not living in gang terror, Julia was popular. She had a busy social life. She had enough money for groceries. Her house had heat and at the time, I was huddling around my stove at night because that was the utility I could afford to turn on.
And just when I thought I couldn’t dislike her anymore, I made the mistake of asking her what she was going to do for the holidays. I had just made peace with the fact that I would be having Christmas dinner with the wait staff at Jerry’s instead of with family or friends, so I thought I could handle her answer.
“Ugh,” she said with an impressive Valley accent considering her family was from Manhattan. “We’re going to Hawaii. Again.” She said with so more disdain than I thought could possibly fit in her 80-pound body.
“Awww, you know, I’d love to be able to go to Vons without freaking out, much less Hawaii, so why don’t you just shut your ungrateful little face until you at least learn how to drive stick!!!” was what I wanted to say. But you can’t say something like that to kids, so instead, I said:
“Hawaii. That sounds nice. What do you like to do there?”
“Ugh. I’ve been so many times. I don’t even do anything anymore. I hate it”
What I wanted to say was: “Awww, you’re a horrible human being and I wish that I could drive this stupid car right into your community’s stupid gate and run over your stupid face!!!”
But you can’t say that to a kid. So instead, I said. “Ugh, sorry about that. What about the new year? Any resolutions?”
“Ugh. I just hope this year is better than last year.”
Now, I knew the girl had broken up with her boyfriend and that she was bummed out about that. But I was going through a divorce. I didn’t care about her stupid breakup that she was going to forget about by next semester. But you can’t say that to a kid, so instead, I said:
“Oh, you mean because of your boyfriend?”
“That,” she said. “And hopefully my back will get better.”
“What’s wrong with your back?”
And then she told me about that one time when she was almost paralyzed. About how her one dream, the one thing she’s wanted to do more than anything else in the world might be taken away from her before her sixteenth birthday.
Julia had been dancing at an elite level since she was in elementary school. She told me about the hours and hours and hours of rehearsal every day, of top-tier competition and of show after show after show.
She told me about how earlier that year, she started feeling like her arms and legs were on fire. About how there were days when she just couldn’t feel her thighs. About how she danced anyway. About how she started downing ibuprofen like candy and strapped ice packs to herself all day long. And about how this one time after this one show, she laid down to relax and couldn’t get back up again.
It was a stress fracture in two of her vertebrae. And the doctors said that it was only because of chance and luck that she was still walking.
One more show, one more fall, a stumble on some stairs, a jerk from her dogs on the leash during a morning walk, a badly timed sneeze and the break could have been permanent.
“It’s all I want to do,” she whispered. “I don’t know what else to be.”
And I got that. At that time, I didn’t know what I was going to be either.
When we got home that day, I looked at Julia’s mansion. As gorgeous as it was, as many lovely, brand name, top shelf things as she had in there, as expensive as they were, they were worthless if they couldn’t give her what she really wanted.
But you shouldn’t say that to a kid. So instead, I told her, honestly, that I hoped she had an amazing vacation.