Sophia Moore, age 19 (alum)
I’m grappling with turning twenty in a little over a month, and this piece is part of that processing. True to the ending of the story, however, I know it’s the next part of my life and I’m excited to see what it has in store. This ode to being a teenager is almost advice to my younger self, who thought happiness was rarely possible, regret was never an option and bravery was not something I was capable of expressing. All of the short stories in this piece are true, and they’re moments that are on my mind often and reflect some of the major themes of my teenagehood.
Autorretrato: Teenagehood in Three Movements
A young woman walks into the room. She is windswept, tired.
She was rushing to get here, I say to myself, I should have told her this is all on her time – she doesn’t need to rush for me. I get up to greet her, beckoning toward the stool in the center of the room. She breathes lightly as I approach her, almost as if she ran here. Oh well.
I survey her as I shake her hand. She’s not necessarily tall, but her limbs are long, with the capacity to be graceful. I take her in surreptitiously once more. I bet if she caught herself in the mirror, she’d look like a ballerina in the right light. Maybe she was a dancer in her childhood? I motion for her to sit on the stool as I take my place behind the easel.
She’s wearing a long, black dress that she fidgets with before drinking in the room. Her eyes, bespectacled but wide, run over the wide windows flanking the high walls; they’re for natural light, I tell her. I’ll paint you better, more true to who you are, in the light. She blushes before telling me she prefers to be seen in the dark. She thinks she looks more beautiful that way, that a boy told her that one time, on a trampoline. She stares into her palms, her California tan absorbing the sunlight in the room.
I bite my tongue, wishing I could tell her what a shame it is that a man is dictating what she thinks of herself. Instead, I address my canvas, blank and patient. I instruct her to sit still and pose how she’d like to be captured; a soft smile falls on her face as she wraps her hands together in her lap.
Be natural, I tell her. She tells me she’s trying, she’s always trying her best, for everyone. Upon saying this, her eyebrows crease slightly and I abandon the canvas. Okay, I say. Pretend none of this is here; pretend it’s just you and me and we’re just hanging out. I come over to her, setting my hand on her shoulder. Close your eyes and tell me a story, I say. She tells me she doesn’t know what story to tell, but she closes her eyes anyway. What’s your happiest moment, I ask, moving back to the easel slowly. I grab my palette and brush, preparing to capture her. She looks so peaceful, so gentle. She’s still so young and she doesn’t even know it.
I thought I was going to die. Not actually, of course, but I was fifteen and had a tooth that went gray out of nowhere. After a quick Google search, I learned that gray teeth are dying teeth, and dying teeth can get infected, and naturally, I thought that meant I was going to die. As if we lived in the 1500s or something.
I was an anxious high schooler.
It was winter break of my freshman year, and my parents had planned a trip to Disneyland for my sibling and me. It was the first time the four of us were going to Disneyland in years and, seeing as I was anticipating my abscess to kick in after the trip, I wanted to go all out. I wanted to enjoy myself and every moment possible in the park, and I wasn’t going to let a stupid gray tooth ruin that for me.
It was a cloudy day in Anaheim – not necessarily cold, but definitely dreary. It might have even rained that morning. I remember my mom was worried we weren’t going to spend the whole day at the park. She was wrong, of course, partially because our family is the kind to spend the whole day at a theme park if we paid for it, and secondly because I wanted to linger at the Happiest Place on Earth for as long as I could.
When we got to the park, my dad had a game plan. Because of the dreary day, he wanted to spend as much time on indoor rides as possible in the morning until the cloud layer burned off. Because we were at Disneyland, my sibling and I couldn’t care any less for his plan; we were thrilled just to be there. In line with his vision, my dad steered our family first to Tomorrowland, where we’d start on Space Mountain.
Space Mountain was always one of my favorite rides. When I was a kid, my dad, sibling and I would rush to Space Mountain first thing in the morning and ride it until we were sick – that was always a tradition for my birthday. On this particular trip, I knew we wouldn’t be riding Space Mountain more than once because my mom wasn’t a fan of that approach, but I also knew that I had to ride on Space Mountain like it was my last time. I steeled myself for the bittersweetness of the experience but, while in line, resolved to ground myself fully in that moment.
When it was finally our turn on the rocket ride, I was afraid. Not of the ride or the speed, but of that actually being my last time on Space Mountain. Fear welled up from deep inside me when I thought of my tooth and how much it could take away from me. I turned away from my sibling so they wouldn’t see the tears in my eyes as the ride started on its journey to the stars. Behind me, my dad cheered as the ride took off and up into space, and I knew I couldn’t spend my last time on the ride crying. That would be a waste. I wiped my eyes and took a deep breath: this was my moment, and mine alone.
In the darkness of Space Mountain, with intergalactic rock music blasting in my ears, I screamed. I cheered, I hollered, I let myself feel it all in that moment: my fear, my love, my appreciation for my family and the moment I was in. I felt truly weightless and free despite believing my life was over.
On paper, I suppose this shouldn’t be my happiest moment given the headspace I was in, but I can’t help but smile every time I think of it. That day was so memorable because of my fear – of course, my tooth was fine. I went to the dentist a few days later and he said my tooth was graying not because it was dying, but because that happens to teeth sometimes. Naturally. And not for any bad reason. I felt so silly hearing that, but truly my fear at Disneyland turned itself into full presence in my time there, and specifically on Space Mountain.
I long to feel so free, so weightless, so happy again. I still listen to the Space Mountain song while I’m walking around to feel just a fraction of that happiness I did that day.
* * *
She adjusts herself on the stool, smiling. I see her gray tooth peeking out, her right canine. I want to tell her I would’ve never noticed it if she hadn’t said anything but I decide against it. That was a lovely story, I tell her. She asks if it would help for her to tell another one. Yes, I say, that would be fantastic.
Her eyes are still closed, which is fine for now but will be an issue when I need to paint her face. She also speaks with her hands, so I scour my brain for a topic that will keep her still, but not sad. Can you tell me about the hardest lesson you learned, I ask. She winces, but nods. Her hands fold in her lap and I pick up the paintbrush again.
I really thought I was going to marry him. For our first anniversary together, I bought us a pair of rings engraved with the date we began dating – promise rings, I called them. It was a sweet gesture at the time, but a mistake, nonetheless.
We were together for two years, which felt like a lifetime as a seventeen-year-old. He was sweet, he was charming, he was the perfect high school boyfriend who I brought with me to college, someone who I wanted to have in my life forever. Someone who, I thought, was supposed to be in my life forever. I cemented him into my brain, fused his life to mine and wove him into all I could in my world. Again, a sweet gesture at the time, but a mistake, nonetheless.
The hardest lesson I had to learn was how to let him go. We broke up in December after our first semester of college. I felt trapped, like I had to be the person I had been in high school with him, and he said he felt the same. We parted on good terms, we promised we’d always be friends, and I secretly promised to always love him.
Deep down, I had internalized that we were going to get married, that he was my Person, capital P. My one and only. He was my first love; I don’t think there was anything I could have done to stop such a deep emotional bond from forming. Even though I was the one to initiate the breakup, I knew it wouldn’t be easy to get over him.
I cried. A lot. I cried in January when we were both in our hometown and all I wanted was to see him. I cried in February when it was Valentine’s Day and I had already planned part of the gift I was supposed to give to him: a playlist, a plushie, a poem. I cried in March, when my roommate told me he had started dating someone new – a girl I knew, a girl I had introduced to him. I cried in April, when we went to a concert together with tickets we had bought while we were still together. I lied and told him I was fine, told him I was happy that he was happy – a sweet sentiment but, alas, a mistake.
May was the first month I didn’t cry. I knew we were both going to be home for the summer and he would be away from his girlfriend. I thought maybe I could win him back, at least be his friend and not have to lose him to his new lover.
I invited him to lunch when we returned home, under the guise of debriefing our first year of college. In reality, I wanted to gauge the situation with his girlfriend, see if they were going to make it long-distance over the summer. It was a shady move, but I was obsessive and sad and didn’t feel like I had fully healed before he moved on, and that bothered me.
At lunch, he told me only vague details about his love life, of course. He had always been a private person, and I, now demoted to just a friend, didn’t have the privilege of hearing about his new romance. He told me things were good, and I told him that was good, that I was still so happy for him. He told me he hoped I could find someone new when I was ready. I felt like he was patronizing me, but I wasn’t done trying.
I invited him to a going-away party at my house. It was being thrown in my honor before I jetted off to New York City for an internship. I had only been home for three weeks before I was planning on leaving again – a mistake – but all I wanted was a night with my closest friends before moving across the country.
The night of the party, I resolved to be normal. I didn’t want to make a scene, especially since most of my friends at the event knew about my ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend. I’m fine, I told them, I’m totally cool with it! I didn’t like lying to my friends, but also, I didn’t know how big of a lie that was.
As the night went on, I grew more upset. How could he just come to my party, stay in my life and refuse to acknowledge how quickly he moved on? In a moment of spontaneity, I told him this – and the floodgates opened. For what felt like hours, I went on and on about how unhappy I was, how hard it was for me to move on, how unfair it was that he had a girlfriend and still expected us to be friends. I cried that night in June, and he cried too.
The next morning, he told me he didn’t want to speak to me anymore, and I knew he was right. I couldn’t be his friend, I couldn’t be his ex-girlfriend, I couldn’t be anything to him. I had to let him go, or else I would never be free. Every month I cried, I had hung onto him a little tighter: to the memories, to the idea that we’d end up together, to the feeling of knowing that, if we stayed friends, maybe we’d get back together.
As terribly as it ended, I needed to let him go. I needed to air my grievances and move on, and there was no better way to do that than to move 2,780 miles away. I regret so much what happened that night, but it needed to be said. For my own peace, I needed to tell him how I felt. In the aftermath of that night, I learned that letting go does not mean losing the memories, it just means giving myself the space to be free. It was the single hardest lesson I’ve ever had to learn, and I regret the pain and hurt it caused him and me, but finally, I’m healed.
* * *
She exhales, with finality. Her hands are still folded in her lap, her voice decidedly measured throughout the retelling of the story. I’m proud of you for making peace with the situation, I tell her. I know breakups aren’t easy, but you deserve peace. She smiles and nods, opening her eyes, which have welled slightly with tears. I drop the paintbrush and go to her, embracing her small shoulders in my arms. She inhales deeply – one, two, three – and exhales into my chest.
Would you be able to tell me one more story, I ask her. I would just need you to tell it with your eyes open – I have to capture your face. She wipes her eyes and looks up at me, her face blank. For a moment, I’m afraid she’s going to walk away and leave my portrait unfinished. We stare at each other, silent.
Then, she steels herself and tells me yes, but she wants to pick the topic this time. Fine by me, I say. What’s this story going to be about? She locks eyes with me as I walk back to the easel, picking up the paintbrush a final time.
I realized I was afraid of heights when I was eight years old and trapped in a shaky gondola above a ravine in Palm Springs. The world had never seemed bigger to me than in that moment, when a gentle desert breeze tapped on the packed cart and I shut my eyes, praying we wouldn’t fall. I gripped onto my dad’s hand, asking him to tell me when we made it back to land.
From that moment, a characteristic stomach flip has accompanied my every interaction from three stories up or higher. I don’t look down from balconies, I can’t bring myself to go rock climbing, and I certainly won’t dwell on the thought of living in a penthouse. Ironic, then, that I ended up in New York City the summer after my freshman year of college, living on the seventh floor of a high-rise in Midtown Manhattan.
Large didn’t even begin to describe the size of the buildings in my neighborhood. Looming, gargantuan, deadly were the skyscrapers sprouting out of the ground and into space, like a twisted beanstalk for iron giants. The energy of the city was enough to distract me from the heights on a daily basis, but at the beginning of my summer, I set one goal for myself that I wanted to achieve by the end of my stay: visit the Empire State Building.
I was living only a few blocks away. From afar, it was gorgeous. I watched the sun set on the Empire State Building from my apartment’s terrace and snapped photos of its multicolored patterns through the summer for Pride Month and the Fourth of July. I figured I would push off my visit to the top of the building until the very end of my stay, and maybe by then I would abandon the dream for a different one.
The summer came and went, and August crept into the city with a hot, rainy vengeance. I was set to leave for college the third week of that month. I knew if I didn’t face my fear before I left, I would never do it. On impulse, I bought my admission ticket, paying the hefty entrance fee as collateral. For reasons I couldn’t explain to myself, I needed to get to the top of that building. I wasn’t going to let myself leave New York City until I did.
As quick as a summer monsoon, August 19 tapped on my shoulder. I had planned my visit for around sunset, per the advice of a coworker; if I was going to do the Empire State Building, I had to do it right.
I walked fifteen blocks to the building, passing through the heart of Midtown and mystified tourists. By that point, I was jaded: the city was no longer the bright, inviting place I had thought it to be in June; rather, it was circumstantially where I had spent my summer and I was growing tired of its relentless energy.
Venturing further into the belly of the city, I found myself at the entrance of the building. This was it. Alone, I presented my ticket and resolved to make the most of it. In typical me fashion, I felt like I was going to die. What if the building suddenly collapses, or I somehow fall off the top of it? My fear was speaking louder than the moment, but this time, I wasn’t going to let it drive my experience.
I thought, briefly, of Disneyland and my gray tooth, and how that moment, happy as it was, was also rooted in fear. I didn’t want that for my experience at the Empire State Building. Before moving into the security room, I pulled over and inhaled deeply – one, two, three – before exhaling and putting my earbuds in. I was going to do this on my own terms, and I was going to love it.
To the sounds of Duran Duran and Gorillaz and Taylor Swift, I boarded elevator after elevator, drinking in the history and wonder of the building. Golden sunlight shone unobstructed through the windows as I climbed higher to reach the top, chewing methodically on a piece of gum to calm my nerves. When the elevator let out on the eighty-sixth floor, I queued Louis Armstrong’s version of “La Vie en rose” and, as confidently as I could, walked onto the deck.
My breath hitched in my throat as I looked around me: the city I had come to call my home sprawled out below me like a giant animal. Streets became arteries and parks bloomed like organs, all of it working together in perfect, living harmony. Wind whipped my hair and chilled my skin, but I hardly noticed. In a rush, the city regained all of its splendor and beauty in my eyes and I cried. I was on top of the Empire State Building. I was on top of New York City.
I spent almost an hour there, walking circles around the compass of the observation deck. I took photos of touring families and smiled at the staff of the building. I wanted to share my joy with everyone who would listen. I was so thrilled at the view that I hardly thought about the height: I kept myself grounded and removed all worry about the distance from the ground. I put my trust in the solid foundation of the Empire.
I almost didn’t want to leave. Had it not been for my early train to school the next morning, I would have stayed longer and watched day turn fully to night on top of the world. I would have listened to the faraway beeps and music of the city at night, I would have bathed in moonlight high over the city of my dreams. Knowing the moment couldn’t last forever, I let it go, appreciating the view for what it was while I had it. Reluctantly, I returned to the earth and its busy sidewalks, walking home in a city stupor.
I wasn’t sure if New York would ever come to feel like my home, but for a brief moment, on top of the Empire State Building and on that fifteen-block walk home, I was a part of the animal. I was just one cell in a sea of millions contributing to the vigor of the sleepless city. For the first time that whole summer, I knew I was one with the city. I was in it and it was in me, and no amount of distance or heights or time would ever be able to take that away from me.
* * *
I step back from the portrait, surveying my work. In the fading light of autumn, there I am on the canvas: almost 20 years old, lost and found, free. I have never been as old or as young as I am right now, at this moment.
I sign my name at the bottom of the painting in clear, bold letters. I know I will change and grow and one day, this self-portrait will be nothing but a timestamp of my life, but right now, it’s who I am. I place the brush down on the easel and leave the portrait there for the next version of me to find someday.
I walk out of the room as quickly as I walked into it, but something has changed. I am remembering where I came from and loving where I’ve been, but I am onto the next thing.