Everything I Never Told You

When I was in my late teens, I predicted I’d die in a car accident before I was 30. At 35, I can say that I was wrong–or at least, entirely off on the digits. The closest I got was a collision with a muse in the land of Santa Claus of all, which we both survived.

I used to be rather indifferent about death. I didn’t understand why people made such a big deal out of dying: if one’s life would end anyway, did it matter when? Besides, on the larger scale of things, Pale Blue Dot large, I could even less justify the importance humans attached to their lives.

Theo Maassen, a Dutch comedian, had a joke about “turning the lights out for humanity” in his show called Ruwe Pit (Rough Pit). I made it into my go-to cocktail party question: “Imagine you were given a switch, like a light switch, and flipping it would erase all the humans on our planet. Would you flip it?” I never met anyone who said “Yes,” which I found both worrying, and ironically, inhumane.

A few years later, I swapped the switch question with “Are you happy?” followed by “Why?” From the outside, it may seem less grim of a question. It wasn’t. The sentiment was the same, and I was still trying to understand people’s attachment to life.

I did explore the concept of suicide in high school, but it was more of a phase than anything else. An idea that friends flaunted, and I tried on as if it was a borrowed jacket. It didn’t look too convincing on me. Neither did disordered eating, cutting, binge drinking, petty crime, nor drugs. But try for a time, I did all.

Perhaps the dark costume changes were about belonging (isn’t everything?), but I can’t know for sure since no therapist ever confirmed. I never went to therapy, mainly because I believe it might magnify the worst of life, and I can’t risk discovering that one of the jackets fits. Also, I once read that you don’t need therapy if you can stay in the now.

Being present, though, is only something I started practicing consistently about eight years ago. Before that, my mind would be in a state of overdrive. I’d retreat up there to kill time, wishing for a better present by imagining different ones. Or, I’d replay social scenes on repeat. Overthink. Overanalyse. Until I’d silently scream “stop.”

In elementary school, I assumed I’d be one of the cool kids. But as fate would have it, I was a foreigner in a very Dutch country. Anne, a girl in my class, was set to make my life a living hell. She succeeded. My years in elementary were the longest ones of my life. I was never aggressively bullied, but I was left out, which to me, felt worse.

In high school, things changed for the better. Although my nemesis and I transferred to the same school, she failed to turn people against me on day one. Instead, as karma had it, her actions turned everyone against herself. This gave me some mojo back, but by now, I already felt like an outsider seeking approval too hard, and thus, I made friends with whoever made it easy. Anne, by the way, would go on to become a teacher.

I got my first kiss from a boy in a basketball tenue, a friend of a friend, on Sarajevo’s main street, the Ferhadija. He had only introduced himself minutes ago, and the smooch was a goodbye. There had been a lollypop in my mouth, but it hadn’t stopped him. I was paralyzed and in love. Though I never saw the boy again, later that day, a girl named Lina accused me of kissing her boyfriend. After looking into my bewildered eyes, it took her only a second to come clean and tell me her accusation was a setup by a jealous friend. Lina and I became best friends.

I spent most of my summer holidays in Bosnia and Croatia. The war ended in December 1995, and by the summer of 1996, we’d drive 1800 km down from Delft (Holland) to our family home in Sarajevo and each summer after that. The atmosphere before these road trips was tense.

Mom, without fail, would pack just about enough to fill the car to the roof. We’d have bags stacked under our feet. Enough food to last us a return trip, presents for friends and family, and all the things that were difficult to get in Sarajevo after the war. And without fail, my parents would fall into an argument standing in front of the boot as they did their Tetris dance. And again, every time they missed a road sign.

Just as I had gotten rid of Anne by moving to high school, the girl that had put Lina up to mischief was working tirelessly to make my life in Sarajevo miserable. She was the daughter of a friend of my aunt’s. And she liked to spread the weirdest shit about me, call my parents to rat me out, and go after every boy I fancied. At the height of her evil, she told people I was a wandering SOA. She also informed her neighbor that I had called her a whore, which earned me an open palm slap in the face, also on Sarajevo’s main street, the Ferhadija.

Looking back, I suspect basketball boy might’ve cursed me. Since his appearance, other women would aggressively pursue the men in my vicinity. It’s a pattern that has repeated itself with former flings, guys I expressed the slightest interest in, and most favorably, current boyfriends. Exes and new interests flocked at le boyfriend as soon as our relationship became official.

Four of G’s former girlfriends reached out within the first months we were together; a couple included elaborate letters and songs. Two exes and one colleague offered themselves to serious-boyfriend #3 (which were offers, by the way, that he accepted). A girl who serious-boyfriend #2 had unsuccessfully chased for ages kissed him the first week we were dating. And serious-boyfriend #1 to whom I lost my virginity, actually lost his with a classmate months before.

As you can imagine, my trust in women became slightly strained over time, and I mostly made friends with guys. I didn’t realize until I was with G that the fault wasn’t entirely with the other women. Still, I had other reasons for making friends with men.

I found girls boring. They ruminated. Gossiped. Complained. All the time. The music they liked was too poppy. Their hobbies, lame. Plus, they chittered and chattered about boys–so much–while I preferred to talk to them directly.

The latter might also be why I haven’t had a shortage of male attention in my life. Although I’ve pursued a couple of men I wish I hadn’t, and I could’ve skipped a one-night stand or two, overall, I’ve no regrets. I can count a handful of occasions where consent was blurred or absent, and I went along with more than I intended, though none so bad that it scared me, and now that I’m aware of such a thing as consent, no man could ever cross those lines again.

Fortunately for me, I’ve healed my relationship with women over the last decade or so. My tribe is mighty now. And as I age, my admiration and empathy for the female species keep growing. It’s fucking hard to be a woman in a man’s world. And I’m dead fixated on fixing crowns.

Besides, an opinion I resisted for my entire life has become rather credible. It pains me to accept it, but as much as I love having men as friends, I’m now in the camp that believes 9.9 out of 10 times heterosexual women and men can’t be just friends.

I got my first side job when I was 15 as a waitress at lunchroom Leonidas in Delft, serving soups and sandwiches and high teas. I loved being a waitress, and over the years, I’ve fantasized about keeping being one for a day a week.

I revel in the short interactions, the personal stories and all the characters you meet, and how you have the opportunity to make people laugh and feel cared for, but also that you can make someone’s day by doing a good job.

I made it my superpower: doing a good job.

Next to the lunchroom stood a chocolate shop. It was a magical store where I especially liked hovering during the Easter, Sinterklaas, and Christmas holidays when we’d go all out and create multiple layered chocolate boxes tied with gorgeous ribbons.

A couple of years later, as part of a homework assignment for a computer science class, two of my classmates and I created a website for Leonidas. This time, I was that uncommitted student who left most of the work to the others. To think that I could’ve started my coding career right then had I continued to do a good job.

After Leonidas, not necessarily in this order, I worked in a bar, bakery, music shop, lingerie store, department store, and three restaurants. I also worked at concerts and festivals as a waitress, babysat, cleaned a house, and had a few very shitty data entry jobs. I’ve been an usher and a receptionist, at least thrice.

The worst job I ever had was promoting a new gas type at 05:00 in the morning at various gas stations around the country. Imagine starting sales pitches at this time of the day. Now, also, imagine Dutch weather.

Getting a job was never challenging, but staying excited about one was almost impossible. Most jobs weren’t intellectually stimulating, the routine would get to me, and I’d get bored fast. The few office jobs I had, though, shaped my life more than anything else. They taught me I’d never want to work in an office, and I never did.

I don’t have many clear memories from before I was twelve—just a general sense of how life was. Years seem to blur into one another, and I have to make an effort to piece events back.

I’ve only ever owned a few memories. Barely moving still lifes of which I can’t even say how much they imitate the reality of my past. They could be carbon copies of what happened or constructions drawn from stories and photographs. – From War With Love

But I do remember what I think was the first time I was in distress. It was in our garden in Sarajevo. I had stuck my head through the bars of our door gate, and there it was now. Through had gone fine, but back out, my ears were in the way. With my head peering out to the street, I panicked hard.

One of my earliest memories, if not the earliest, is of eating potatoes in our living room in Sarajevo. Grandpa (mom’s dad) is there, and so are my brother, dad, and mom. I don’t remember who called grandpa–it was either my brother or mom, but I know why they called.

Dad had been drinking and he and mom got into an argument. My brother and I hid in the bathroom behind the washing machine. At one point, I think my mom joined us. Then, someone crawled to the phone. Now, we were all sitting around the salon table, eating halved oven-baked potatoes doused with butter and sprinkled with salt.

My parents used to argue daily. About the little things. The non-existing things. The big things. All of it. Once, I was close to phoning child protection, but mom caught me and told me they’d take me away from them if I did. She played the foreigner-in-a-very-Dutch-country card, and I relented. I still wonder what would’ve happened if I had called.

Not surprisingly, I grew up with a lot of anger. It’s my weakest trait, though it may be fairer to call it a bad habit. Combined with the Dutch culture, which encourages children to speak up, I was a ticking bomb that kept going off when confronted with other adults.

When I was younger, people tended to excuse my harshness and outspokenness because of my age. They thought it was endearing to talk to someone both so intense and young. When I got older, though, people were less forgiving. Aggressivity is not the most favored quality in women. I won a lot of arguments, but not many friends.

Some of the least proud moments of my life were when I responded to insults with insults–like when I told my mom that she wasn’t a role model to me after she attacked my career choices. At the same time, some of my proudest moments were when I didn’t react but stayed calm–like when I didn’t scream at, make fun of, or hug G’s Muslim colleague, who refused to shake my hand in front of a crowd.

But the very least proud ones have all to do with being ignorant, judgemental, and harsh with others. While my most proud ones involve understanding, empathy, letting go of the need to be right, and choosing kindness above all. And though I still mess up a lot, I’ve learned to apologize–quickly and well–and I found it makes all the difference.

To my parent’s distress, I’ve lived life at a relentless pace. Throughout it, they urged me to slow down, but I’m glad I didn’t. At 35, I’ve lived some people’s lives triple over. Were I to die today, all I could say is that my life has been a full one already.

Most importantly, I lived most of my life as myself, routinely ignoring outside pressures to conform. Authenticity is my strongest trait, and although I wear my rebellion as a badge of honor, I’m nowadays less interested in starting fires as I’m in softening my core.

Now, there are still two elephants left standing in my life’s room: the war and G. I didn’t witness the war, but I did already write about the collateral memories it created. As for G, I can hardly imagine the person I’d be today without him. But the story of us, I’ll keep for another day.

So, am I happy? –Yes.

Would I flip the switch? –No doubt.