In 1991, after my freshman year of college at the University of Arizona in Tucson at age 19, I went to live on my own in my older sister’s apartment in Bloomington, Indiana, my homestate. That summer the song, Winds of Change, was the best-selling single and played nonstop on the radio and MTV.
“The world is closing in
Did you ever think
That we could be so close, like brothers
The future’s in the air
I can feel it everywhere
Blowing with the wind of change”
You might remember—the Scorpions were from East Berlin and documented the fall of the Berlin wall in this song—very romantically. Another popular song that summer was Color Me Bad’s I Wanna Sex You Up… A lot seemed possible in a summer with these songs as its soundtrack.
Being back in the state I grew up in—older, wiser—and living in my sister’s place—in her life—was exciting. I felt at grounded and brave. So I decided I’d use the summer to get a handle on death; this seemed like a good summer project—I was that kind of nineteen-year-old. In addition to getting a handle on death, I thought I’d also get a handle on love, specifically, on the unrequited love I felt for Sam, who I met in freshman college English. This second project felt the most pressing of the two. In retrospect, I admire the ambition and earnestness of this nineteen-year-old Adrienne, taking on death and love as summer projects—even as I recognize what was a new impulse to try to manage and control things that are vast, slippery, and mostly uncontrollable, as a way to feel safe and on solid ground.
Three years earlier when I was sixteen my mom had died unexpectedly, tragically. After the funeral, and after family left, my dad insisted my sister go back to college. I made it through my junior and senior years of high school by compartmentalizing my grief. When I thought about my mom and death I’d have panic attacks and feel like I was falling headlong into a black hole. So I stopped thinking altogether about my mom and death. When I left Indiana for college at the University of Arizona, my sister and I lived across the country from one another and were never in the same place long enough to process what had happened together—how we felt, how we were doing, how we were dealing. That summer of 91 Christie had just finished her junior year and left to be a camp counselor. Missing her again, I lived in her apartment, hung out with her roommate and her boyfriend, Mike, and his friends. The summer was hot, humid, green, and bright, and I was nineteen and everything was significant; I dutifully documented it all in my journal—sometimes in poetic verse.
The summer job I found facilitated my work on these two projects. I wandered up some precarious winding stairs into a tiny New Age bookstore, Libre Books, and the owner hired me on the spot. She gave me a few instructions and handed me the keys. She didn’t check references, wasn’t concerned I’d never had a job; clearly, she sensed my good energy—-could feel that I was trustworthy. It was as if Libre Books was waiting for me. Every day there was wonderfully solitary; all alone in the soothing little treehouse bookstore, I read nineteenth-century novels—a reading project since age 15. This summer I read Nathanial Hawthorne’s ghostly, romantic House of the Seven Gables and wrote in my journal while listening on repeat to the few acceptable store cassette tapes for sale: whale sounds, Deep Breakfast by new-wave music composer Ray Lynch, and Tracy Chapman’s Crossroads, turned out that this was a good mix for figuring out of death and love.
Very few people came into Libre Books, so I resented anyone who did and interrupted me; I was cordial to customers but felt impatient to get back to reading, writing and entertaining the fact I would die someday. Every afternoon, sitting behind the counter, I’d deliberately conjure up the void, the black hole that to me was death; I’d make myself think about that one day I’d cease to exist and stay there in that fact, and feel all the feelings that came up: horror, fear, sadness. I’d exit this place when it became too much. At this point in my life I’d never seen a therapist, never read books about death and loss; this was the process I’d landed on, and I did this every day for longer and longer stretches of time. You can see why I found it inconvenient for people to come into the store and look around and buy books.
The other project, which produced even more journal writing in Libre Books, was to stop being in love with Sam; it was an exquisite- torture-kind-of-love—he had not yet declared his love for me, and I was waiting for him to make the first move. Sam and I spent a lot of our freshman year together after we partnered for an English class project. He was cute, lanky, funny, a little dorky. He had nice hands and green eyes, and he tried to talk about books and deep things because he knew I liked that and him. Our favorite thing to do was drive around the Tucson desert in his white Honda Accord talking and listening to The Cure’s song Close to Me on repeat—I longed for him to kiss me and love me. What I didn’t know then was that what we were doing was probably all I could handle at that point in my life. Despite that I enjoyed this way of loving, that summer in Indiana so far away from Tucson and Sam and that version of myself, I decided it was in my best interest to move on, to try to love differently, less intensely.
“I’ve waited hours for this
I’ve made myself so sick
I wish I’d stayed asleep today
I never thought this day would end
I never thought tonight could ever be
This close to me.”
My summer project to stop being in love with Sam had an upside: a summer romance with Mike’s friend, Jamie. I’d never had a casual romance, and thought this would be a way to get over Sam—-and also a low-stakes learning experience. Jamie was handsome in a soft, pretty non-threatening way—I liked his pale skin and full pink mouth—and it was cool that he was three years older than me, experienced. Given the serious death work happening daily at Libre Books, a romance with Jamie would be easy, pleasurable—and productive.
In the evenings, I’d walk from my sister’s to the apartment of her boyfriend Mike, a chemistry major, quiet and easy to be around. We’d go get hot-wings, hang-out with his guy friends, and go to mellow house parties on the weekends. Jamie began to gently take the lead with our romance—this was new to me. We’d take walks, hold hands, and sit and make out in the evening in thick Indiana grass. Jamie was the second person I’d kissed and he was good at it—I thought—it was nice. We didn’t talk much, he didn’t inspire me, so sometimes it felt like I was outside myself, removed, observing, thinking this was just part of my summer project, learning how to kiss, not loving someone so much that it hurt me. Sam and I were writing letters back and forth, and I casually mentioned Jamie, wanting Sam to see I was desirable, loveable. He encouraged me to have fun, that it was good for me. Huh. I guess I needed to keep going with the project and with Jamie.
By the end of summer the lines between what was casual and what was serious became confused. One afternoon I shared poetry I’d written with Jamie, and he appreciated it, telling me it was good—exciting—and then he offered to give me “a back massage,” and I said okay, but as things progressed I became nervous and asked him to leave. One night after seeing a music show, Jamie told me to come inside—he had something to give me, and when I did he immediately began kissing me—hard—and it was so abrupt and different than before that I ran out of his house upset. When I got inside my sister’s apartment, I cried, not exactly sure why, but it felt like I was losing something, or had lost someone. Journal-writing in Libre Books followed the next day, facilitated by incense and Tracy Chapman. Things had gotten out of hand—out of my hands—I didn’t feel in control anymore, and it felt pressing that I sort it out, which I wasn’t equipped to do at the time.
What I didn’t see that summer was the connection between my love project and death project. A psychoanalyst could make a case for the connection being about the trauma of suddenly losing my mom, needing intimacy, and about revisiting and reenacting loss in order to learn how to handle grief and heal. It would take me years—and relationships and lost loves—to fully understand this—and that it isn’t death that frightens and panics me, but more that I don’t want to lose people and relationships and life too soon or before I’m ready, before I’m finished. That summer I began to connect the dots.
At the end of summer my project to get a handle on love—on loving, on how to love and not to love–didn’t feel like a success. I couldn’t manage a casual summer romance, and I was still in love with Sam and still wanted to feel dramatic and romantic about it and close to him. While I deemed my love project a failure, I believed I got somewhere with my death project; in the final days of my Libre Books residency, I declared confidently in my journal: “I have come to terms with death and that I will someday cease to exist.”—-that’s a direct quote from my journal. While this is an admirable testament to the success of my summer death project, it was really just the beginning of what would be a life-long project to grieve for my mom and that relationship and learn how to handle loss. That feeling I had “come to terms with death” was a temporary state of mind, but it was an exhilarating and liberating feeling for me then, one perhaps only possible when nineteen and experiencing a summer filled with lots of time and the quiet of a New Age bookstore and whale sounds and 19th century novels and making out with a new person in thick green grass on warm nights with the Winds of Change telling me that old walls can come down.