I wrote this piece back in 2012. Somehow it feels pertinent this week after the testimony of Dr. Ford. For those of you who read my blog post last week entitled, “Visiting a Past Trauma While Watching Dr. Ford Today,” please note that I am writing below about the summer in which those three days occurred. In fact, I flew to Texas from Utah to visit my “boyfriend,” and returned three days later forever changed. However, I still managed to connect with the young man in the story below on the most basic of levels: a simple smile. The truth is that our innocent encounters were as important to me as they were to him. It’s just taken over forty years (and Dr. Ford’s testimony) for me to realize that truth. Such is the power of trauma and repression. The parts in blue are my comments today. The black type is what I wrote in 2012.
When I was nineteen, I transferred from the University of Texas to the University of Utah. (I initially was just at the University of Utah for the summer, but after the traumatic event with my boyfriend, I decided to officially transfer.) My sister was getting a divorce and asked if I would come out and be there in Salt Lake City with her and her kids. I was happy to do that. The idea of being out-of-state for the first time in my life appealed to me. (I knew I needed to be as far away from this man as possible.)
I lived in the dorms on campus that first summer and every day on the way to the cafeteria, I passed a fellow who was about my same age. We smiled at each other and said, “Good morning,” and it developed into one of those silly, sort-of private jokes we shared after only a few days. A greeting and a smile, day after day. (This began before I went to Texas for those three days and resumed immediately after I returned.)
I saw that same fellow over the next 3 years, occasionally in the student union or en route to class and we always repeated our smiles and our salutations. It was as if we were old friends though we had never said more than 2 words to each other. Just before I graduated, I saw my “friend” at the University pool. Unlike the other times, he walked up to me and said, “Could we talk for just a minute?”
“Sure,” I said.
“I need for you to know something about me.”
“That summer we were both in the dorms was a really terrible time for me. My dad had just died and I was so depressed I was considering suicide.”
“Oh, dear…” (Post-trauma, I was terrified that my “respectable” boyfriend was going to show up unexpectedly, take me away and hurt me again. That fear included people seeing us leaving the library where I studied and not having any idea what danger I was in.)
“Knowing that you were going to give me that big smile of yours is the one thing I held onto that whole summer…your smile saved my life.” (I looked forward to his sweet smile as well after recognizing that he had no ulterior motive besides our daily short encounters.)
I didn’t know what to say… (At that point, I had compartmentalized my trauma so effectively that I didn’t even recognize that he and I helped each other that summer.)
He touched my arm. “Never underestimate the power of a smile. Sometimes that’s all a person needs until life turns a corner.” (I recognized the truth in that statement, but not in terms of how it related to me as a person in pain.)
We hugged and said good-bye.
Over these past forty years, I’ve made a point to smile at people when I walk down the street. (I do this even in LA where it’s not common. Most people don’t give me eye contact, but some do and this feels good.)
After all, I never know when someone might be waiting for life to turn that corner. (Or when I may need that small connection as I wait for my life to turn its own painful corner.)