Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 3.4]

Prom came and went. I couldn’t bear to go with anyone else or watch Ryan go with Amy, so I sat home watching scary movies with Dad and Sammy Terry. A few days later, someone came up in the lunchroom and told me that they’d heard Ryan had applied to UCLA. That was 2,000 miles away, so if this was indeed the case, then he had certainly written me off. He couldn’t possibly want me in his future if he was going so far. For the first time in months, I picked up the phone and called him. He was upbeat and cordial—in a friend sort of way. He told me he’d applied to a state school not far from us and to UCLA because his dream was to go to film school. UCLA was his parent’s first choice for him, also. Being salutatorian, he was accepted early.

I passively, hopelessly, watched him graduate and prepare to leave. He kept up the intermittent phone calls and visits. I always offered, and never demanded anything in return. I didn’t think I had the right to. I certainly didn’t have the self-confidence to. On two occasions, he tapped on my window after midnight, came inside, and just cried and cried. He said he felt lost and scared and that his life wasn’t his own to control. He said he really did love me and that he didn’t want to leave. I held him and told him how wonderful he was—and would be—at anything he went on to do. In between these visits, he seemed almost overly upbeat, like he was forcing a character. I knew his vulnerability, which provided all the more reason to stick by him and not give up hope.


Thankfully, I had two activities to throw myself into that summer. Finally old enough to get a job, I knew exactly the one I wanted. For years, I’d envisioned being a carhop at a local hotdog and root beer stand. It seemed like a fun place to work. The owners mostly employed cute, popular, cheery girls—and I SO wanted to be one of those girls. I was elated when I got hired at the start of the summer. I also threw myself full-bore into conditioning for the upcoming circus season. Two high flyers had graduated, leaving two positions open. I was clearly one of the next in line and was determined to prove I was worthy of it. Although Ryan was never out of my head, I found it possible to put on a smile around everyone and keep my sadness about losing him to myself.

I was very optimistic about flying tryouts, especially after a few of the returning flyers shared that they thought I was a “shoo-in.” I let myself fully embrace the dream of making the act. Flying was major therapy for a heartbreak. However, juggling both practices and a work schedule, with only a bike for transportation across town, became more challenging at times than I’d expected. Once I had to miss flying practice altogether, and a few times I arrived fifteen to thirty minutes late. The trainer berated me a bit and I apologized, explaining about my new job. He told me sternly that I needed to keep my priorities straight.

One night after practice, a veteran catcher caught me on my way out and warned me to “be careful.” He’d overheard the trainer say he was worried I was becoming a “prima donna.” This was not good news. I knew of one other time he’d called a flyer a prima donna, and he’d punished her lack of humility by making her sit out of the act for an entire season. I made certain I was never late after that and took the remaining practices before tryouts very seriously. The night of tryouts, each of us had to complete one easy trick to the catcher and back, and attempt one more difficult trick without the catcher—to the net only. The trainer asked me to attempt a double back flip, which I had never tried before. I took this as a positive sign of his confidence in me. He hadn’t asked anyone else to try such a difficult trick.

I biked home and slept soundly. By noon the next day, the rosters listing who made which act were to be posted on the outside door of the building. I rode over to the root beer stand to check my work schedule before going to the arena. I wasn’t overly concerned or anxious to see whether my name had made the list of flyers. It never dawned on me it wouldn’t be there. Around 1 p.m., I pedaled up to the huge red arena doors where a group of performers had gathered to check the rosters and discuss their achievements and disappointments. A friend of mine walked up to me and asked, “Hey, are you okay?” When I looked confused, he grimaced. He realized I hadn’t checked the list yet. I walked around him and up to the door, scanning the flying roster—five times—for my name. Nope. My name was definitely not there. My stomach dropped and a lump the size of a golf ball expanded in my throat.

I didn’t even check the other lists to see what other acts I’d made that year; I knew in an instant that I wouldn’t be returning to the arena that summer. There was no way I could handle watching the flyers practice and perform. I grabbed my bike and rode away, crying the entire way home. As I lay in bed sobbing into my pillow, I realized this disappointment hurt even worse than losing Ryan.

Losing contact with all my circus friends, as well as the tremendous longing I had to be in the arena as I had every summer for the past six years, was simply gut-wrenching. That entire summer, I avoided riding past the arena itself for fear I might get a peek at other performers practicing when the doors were left open on hot days. My catcher friend later told me the trainer said he didn’t think I was “emotionally ready” to be a flyer, that he sensed I lacked focus. He was also concerned I wasn’t keeping myself in the best physical shape. This was devastating. I’d grown up idealizing and idolizing those trainers, many of whom had flown on the trapeze themselves back in their day and knew how magical it was. I considered them surrogate parents and assumed they held me in the same regard. So, whereas I could logically understand all the variables involved in Ryan’s decision to move away, being axed from my chance of flying felt like an outright and cruel rejection of ME and it made me feel that all those people I loved didn’t really love me back. It was too painful, in fact, for me to even discuss it with Dad. I stuffed my feelings and let numbness set it. I wasn’t aware of it then, but looking back, I can recognize that my main “go-to” coping mechanism was becoming Dissociation. It certainly explained why I came to feel so fragmented.


That summer, I began having regular, violent, and gruesome dreams where I was being chased by angry black tornado-beasts. Feeling powerless and overtaken by something so vicious and unforgiving was terrifying. And, these dreams felt so real; I could vividly hear every sound, feel every change in the wind, and notice every change in color, size, and motion of the tornados—which seemed to have a conscious, singular desire to hunt me down. In one, I would find myself alone in a wide-open field where tornadoes would begin rapidly dropping out of the sky, straight down, forcefully like spikes, narrowly missing me. I was soon trapped on all sides by a dozen or so of them. Eventually, I’d give up and stop running through the maze they’d made, at which time they would form a continuous circle around me and start to close in. I’d frantically grab at the grass for an anchor until the grass would pull out. Then, I would dig my hands deeper into the earth (until I admitted it was futile) and brace myself to be sucked upwards.

In another dream, I was down in a deep valley and would sense tornadoes approaching from the distance. Feeling trapped and vulnerable down in the bowl, I raced to climb out and up to a hilltop. Climbing the hill was arduous, as if I was weighted down by something heavy. When I had almost reached the top, I would look back to see tornadoes actively looking for me in the spots where I’d been. I worried that they were enraged because I’d evaded them. When I finally reached the summit, I became heavy as lead and couldn’t move a muscle. All I could do was watch in horror as the tornadoes discovered me, switched directions, and raced toward me in a line with no mercy.

Another dream involved me alone in an expansive field, one with only houses and barns way off in the distance. One huge, mile-wide, black tornado would appear suddenly and barrel straight toward me. Its power was intense—huge enough to have its own gravitational field. It was a race to get near a structure. Barely making it in time, I would dive against the cement base of a house and lie down as flat as I possibly could. The tornado would pass directly over me in perfect cylinder form. As it passed, it sawed off two-thirds of the top of my skull, like a chainsaw would, exposing my brain, which would then sting painfully in the wind and be pelted by small bits of dirt and debris.

But the last and most disturbing dream always began with me alone in my house, jolted by the sound of a tornado siren. I knew a tornado was hunting me, but I thought I could trick it by hiding next door. I would run out the back to find several of my family members in the yard, including my mom and dad. Panicking, we realized we didn’t have time to get away, so we all decided to tether ourselves to large trees by tying our wrists to one of their branches with a thick rope. We all held on for dear life and covered our eyes as the tornado passed over. After it was gone, I was still tethered up in my tree and felt relief that it hadn’t taken me. I would then look around for my family and, to my horror, discover they were all hanging by their necks from the trees, swaying gently—dead, skinned, and with their huge, white eyeballs popped loose. When I looked at myself and saw that I was unscathed, I realized the tornado had punished my family because I’d tried to run from him. I always awakened from these dreams with a sinking feeling that maybe I was starting to lose my mind.

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