Salvatore doesn’t remember me. I’d lay money on that. I was merely one of his victims, and probably not the most interesting.
He terrorized an entire middle school, after all.
Salvatore won the adolescence lottery – while the rest of us were still waiting on deliveries of impending hormones, he got his testosterone nice and early, shooting up to six feet tall before he finished sixth grade. He dwarfed teachers. And he wore wifebeater shirts to show off his muscular arms and had one deep, bellowing call:
If Salvatore saw you, and you weren’t clutching books protectively to your chest, he would punch you in the chest as hard as he could.
I got hit twice. All it took.
So I clasped my books against my chest like it was a baby, hunching my entire body around it, as did everyone else around me. People in the halls scurried, because when Salvatore hollered his call even the teachers mysteriously disappeared.
I’m forty-eight years old. It has literally been thirty-five years since I had to worry about Salvatore.
But my body has still not unclenched.
I know this because I’m in personal training right now, and they are panicked about my posture. They point out all the muscles that have atrophied because I am a habitual slumper, the damage I’m doing to my spine. They give me exercises specifically to strengthen my neck because my head hangs forward.
It’s been a month, and when I walk the dog, it’s now uncomfortable to slump. I have too many aches in those clusters, so it’s easier to stand straight up with my spine properly aligned.
And I feel like an idiot.
I don’t have some crazy worry that Salvatore will appear out of nowhere and punch me – that’s the sort of simplistic one-to-one bullshit that bad writers think up. No, Salvatore’s crumbled into a finer sediment.
What I feel when I walk properly straightened is foolish. Because I grew up in a middle school where, because of Salvatore, “standing straight” was a form of pride. Few kids stood up straight, and those that did usually got cut down something fierce by Salvatore, or had their own unique middle school qualities that made them unappealing to Salvatore’s form of bullying.
I’m not afraid of standing straight. It feels preposterous. I feel like people are staring at this idiot walking by with the puffed-out chest and the straight-ahead vision, this Frankenstein bodybuilder’s swagger, and who the hell does that guy think he is?
Yet when a photo of my recent book signing – which, I should add, I’m doing another one in Boston next week, and in San Francisco the week after – surfaced on Facebook, people didn’t recognize me at first. “You’re looking a lot younger and you seem to be more comfortable standing,” said a friend who’s known me for a decade. If people notice the way I’m standing, it’s probably a positive impression.
Yet there’s Salvatore.
And there’s all sorts of other memories churned up by walking properly. I’m not craning my head down to see my feet, so I can’t see where I’m stepping directly, which makes me anxious because I had issues in gym class that caused me to self-identify as a clumsy kid and oh God I’m going to trip why am I walking like this. I read while I walked on the way to school, and subconsciously I’m angling myself to read the book – or, now, the phone – that I should be looking at while I bumble along.
(Note that #2 contradicts #1. The archaeology of my memories do not have to make sense when combined.)
And I’ve never thought about these. It’s just ancient history silently bending me into another shape. It’s only once I struggle to break free of this that I see how many influences I’ve quietly absorbed to make me believe that this is how I should be.
And I remember a friend of mine, when I told him, “We’re all controlled in part by subliminal impulses we don’t quite understand” and he said, confidently, “No. Oh, no. I know every reason I do everything.” And I thought, even then, that this was a comforting lie he told himself in order to maintain the illusion that he was a being of pure rationality, because the alternative – that much of what we unconsciously decide is shaped by forces we had no control over – was terrifying to him.
But the truth is, we do have our own archaeologies. Even something as simple as standing is the sum total of a thousand memories, and a few wrong inputs at the right time can change your position forever.
Imagine how complex it gets when it comes to relationships. Or sex. Or sex in relationships.
And that’s not to say that you’re powerless to fight these forces. You’re only powerless if you deny their existence. I’ve watched my rational, knows-everything friend make exactly the same mistakes across two divorces now, headed towards a third, in part because he can never see how his unconscious habits are undercutting his stated desires.
I’m not saying I’ll learn to stand properly. This may be a lifelong battle, as it is with my weight, as it is with my mental health, as it is with my writing. But it’s another tool I can use to battle back something harmful.
And I keep watch. I wonder what other aspects of myself got concretized without my ever knowing it.
I wonder what parts of me I get to dig up tomorrow and replant.
Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.