I woke up the first time at 6:47.
God, please. Food poisoning. A fever. Something. I can’t do this. I don’t want to do this. I’m scared –
I curl into a ball with my face towards the wall of the camper, pull the blankets back over my face, and fall back asleep, disjointed and desperate prayers still hanging in the air above me.
The door of the camper opens and I’m dragged out of my last round of sleep around 7:45. I stumble into my room to throw on a pair of sweatpants, wrap my hair into a bun with a ponytail, and brush my teeth. I figure that I might as well stay comfortable as long as possible since I’m going to feel extremely uncomfortable later.
I passed my mom in the hallway at 8:04 on my way to the bathroom. She hugged me and I cried when I was safely locked inside of the empty room.
My aunt pulls me into the kitchen right before we leave.
You can do this, sweet girl. I’m so proud of you.
I’d thought I’d run out of tears.
At 8:40, we were nearly to the church. My poster board and card table were stowed in the back of the car. My stomach was full of little sharp winged butterflies flying circles and I wanted to badly to be sick.
But I’m not.
We walk from the gym, which is where the reception takes place every year, to the sanctuary, where the ceremony takes place every year, to walk through everything. I try to joke, to play, to laugh, and hope that people can’t tell how much I want to run away.
My hands shake when I go up to the piano to play through my piece, and I make three – no, four mistakes.
Bad rehearsal… great show, isn’t that how that goes?
McCauley makes me prettier when I get home and shower. She straightens and then curls my hair and patiently answers my questions about beauty stuff. Lindsey brings me peppermint tea to keep me from falling asleep while McCauley brushes powders on my eyelids. Aunt Heather sits on my bed, watching us and talking about a future visit to D.C.
I can almost pretend that we’re just hanging out. But I know that it isn’t true.
We’re ushered into a side room to put on our caps and gowns. Me and my parents, and Lindsey and Aunt Heather and McCauley, the first ones there and, as more of the graduates and their parents fill their room, I find myself helping other girls with their collars and caps and, before I realize it, it’s time for the parents to go sit in the sanctuary and for us to go have our photos taken by a woman named Lisa and… my parents are gone before I can give them a hug.
Eleven minutes. And then seven. I perch on the edge of a staircase and pray that I don’t throw up, that my hands stop shaking. One of my friends comes and stands in front of me, giving me words of encouragement before one of the lady’s on the committee comes and pulls me into the side room that leads out onto the stage.
Stand here. He’ll announce you. You’ll do great. I love you.
I can do this.
Don’t trip over the step. Make sure the bench is far enough back. Find the right keys. Don’t look out there, don’t look out there. Breathe in. Breathe out. Play.
I only stumble over the keys a few times, and when I finish I stand and turn and ignore the applause and just try to make it off of the stage before I embarrass myself. I sink down onto the steps and drop my head into my hands, giving myself a minute to calm down before I make my way around to the front of the church to join the other graduates.
I keep my gaze focused on what’s right in front of me as I walk down the aisle. Don’t make eye contact. Smile. Don’t swing your arms. God, James, smile.
I drop into my seat and inch over as the other girls drop down beside me. Kaysie leans towards me.
Weren’t we supposed to stay standing until we all got over here?
I feel as if I’m watching my body go through the ceremony, or like I’m standing in for someone else. It’s like my brain is asleep or just gone, and my body is going through motions that don’t have a meaning or a purpose.
I’m feeling stir crazy and can barely sit through the ceremony, my attention bouncing from the canvas on the wall and the lady giving a speech and the loose hair of the girl in front of me and a hundred other things that keep me from thinking about the fact that I’m about to walk to get my diploma.
And then it’s time to get up and we’re all pushed into a claustrophobia inducing room, lined up along a small set of stairs and crammed in the closet-like space that we have to wait in while another speaker ejects some valuable budgets of wisdom that can’t be left unsaid. There are four other graduates ahead of me, and then three, and then I blink and it’s my turn and my knees are shaking and my shoe catches on the step and I manage not to fall but my parents are walking towards me and I want to cry but I don’t because I know that if I start to cry I won’t stop and it won’t be pretty tears, it’ll be heavy and unattractive sobbing.
I love you.
Daddy moves my tassel from right to left and Mommy hands me the diploma, then they hug me and we all move towards the steps that lead to the seats and they go one way and I nearly follow before I remember – you’re on your own this time, James. I stumble towards my seat with the other graduated adults.
Please don’t let the building burn down. Just, don’t let anyone drop their candle.
My hand isn’t shaking anymore. My knees can barely hold me up, though, and it doesn’t help that I involuntarily dance along to the beat of our class song that’s filling the sanctuary. I feel like nobody can see me in the dark, but I know that isn’t true.
Meagan turns towards me, candle extended. I hold out my unlit flame and press it against hers, waiting until I can see the flame flickering at the tip of my wick before pulling it away and turning to Kaysie, shielding the feeble flame until it grows in a few spurts and waves of growing energy.
There we are. Unstable sparks lined up in a row, none of us with any certain future set ahead. We could all be snuffed out in the blink of an eye…
Or we could all catch fire and grow into a blaze.