You're a junior in high school. You just started dating a guy that you are crazy about, your second real relationship. You're crazy enough about him to let him touch your boobie - once - over the shirt. You're so crazy for him that you show up early at school to sit next to him in the hallway outside the band room. So crazy about that when he whispers "I think I could marry you," you shiver and believe him. Neither of you have any idea what that actually means, and when you finally do get married, you'll remember this moment. You're actually going to dump that guy in the spring for another tall dorky happy-go-lucky guy. You'll regret it pretty much immediately, and then after several months of Lionel Richie and Journey and Chicago on repeat, you'll get over it. Welcome to your first broken heart.
Your family moves across town. Every morning you wake up, shower, curl your bangs under, put on your flannel shirt and jeans and drive to school. You'll have your first car accident in the summer of 1997, and it will be a doozy. A blowout will flip your car over on the expressway at rush hour on the way home from down the shore, and you and Caryn will both walk away without a scratch. It will be the only time you seen your father cry until 14 years later, when the dog you haven't even brought home yet passes away. It will be the first time you recognize that you are not invincible.
You'll spend your senior year dating older boys - men - and ooooh girl, what a hot mess you'll make of that. You are still an awkward kid with no social skills, but you have your band friends. Being drum major is everything you thought it would be, and cements your decision to major in music. You ignore college applications until Mom takes you to Laura, a woman who works in admissions and who's influence will take you all the way to Indiana University-Bloomington. You'll be cranky about being dragged there but secretly excited that Mom wants you to go to college this badly. You actually accept at University of North Texas first, but your late acceptance and scholarship come from IU in April, and you make a spur-of-the-moment decision to go there. You're going to make a lot of major decisions in your life this way, and almost all of them turn out to be great.
I would love to tell you not to chop 18 inches off your hair 2 days before going to college, but I can't. You're going to carry that ID around for the rest of your life as proof of the worst haircut you've ever had. You spend the summer before college falling in love again, falling hard, and a lot of your freshman year is going to be spent in tears after the first breakup of many with that man. You're going to waste a lot of tears in your life on him, and I wish I could tell you that he's not worth it, but even now I'm not sure if that's the truth. You're going to get your belly button pierced and Mom's going to see it when you go to the mall on winter break. She actually isn't that mad.
On the first day of college, you're going to get lost trying to find the marching band rehearsal building and end up not joining as a freshman. You think this is a good idea, but when you show up your sophomore year, you'll know that's where your people have been hiding. You're still that awkward band nerd, and you love it. On the day of your 19th birthday, someone throws a party and you get drunk for the first time because you make screwdrivers - half OJ, half vodka. A really good guy with only one eye takes you home, brushes your teeth for you, and puts you in your jammies and to bed. You'll spend the next 24 hours throwing up, but you'll party pretty hard for the next year or so anyway.
Because of that man, the one who haunts you, you're going to transfer to USC. You'll spend a few months there being too afraid to knock on his door before you realize that this choice is all wrong for you and transfer back to Indiana. I can tell you now that it was necessary. Sometimes you have to make really huge mistakes to realize you were actually on a good path. You get a 4.0 for the last 4 semesters in college because of it. You start running with one of your best friends, just because you think she is cool and want to hang out with her more. You're going to find out her boyfriend is cheating on her and tell her, and it's going to ruin your friendship. You won't stop running.
You have a boyfriend, a pretty good one who will videotape "Friends" for you on Thursday nights, but his parents and brother don't like you. You give up on an amazing job in San Diego to be with him. If only you knew that you were going to dump him as soon as you move to Virginia after declaring "I'm taking the next job that I get offered." A month after moving, you get a funny pain in your knee while running on the treadmill in your apartment building. It hurts too much to run.
Teaching is hard, and stressful, and you're going to blow off steam by dating a lot of really unsuitable men and, on one memorable occasion, throwing up through the screen door after doing shots with band directors at your supervisor's house. And you'll be carried out shouting "you're a bad father" at one of your mentors and will wake up the next morning and realize you're acting like a child. You finally meet a nice man that seems calm and generous and even though there are no sparks, your girlfriends convince you to keep dating him because they think you aren't attracted to nice men. And you let yourself be carried away into comfort, but there are still nights where you play Nickelback - loudly - in your headphones and wish for the phone to ring, 3 hours behind and a lifetime away, while you sit in the dark like some kind of awful cliche. You start playing the french horn at the age of 25 because it seems like a good idea, and a year later, when you are accepted to graduate school, you're going to leap at the chance to quit teaching and move to Boston.
After 4 years of pain and no running, your big sexy orthopedist does surgery on your IT band. You move to Boston a week later, and it's going to be hard and lonely and you are going to hate it. You aren't going to have any money and you're going to live in a really bad part of town, but you'll love your crazy teacher. You're going to meet exactly one friend in Boston, and invite her over for grilled cheese sandwiches and green martinis and Grey's Anatomy, which you just started watching. She is the kind of friend that is worth a year of rat-infested hell. But other than her, you don't fit in. You'll start going to hot yoga because it's the only place you ever feel truly warm, and you'll learn to love it. In Boston you're also going to learn that sometimes you can fearlessly leap at something and work your ass off, and it still doesn't work out. And that's okay.
Your relationship with your family is going to be strained for a long time. Your sister will ask you to be in her wedding, and will then terrorize you for 5 months about the shape of your eyebrows. That relationship will never recover, despite your best efforts. Your mom will scream at you one time too many and you will pack your shit up the day after Christmas and drive home. This will actually do more to improve your relationship than any amount of therapy ever could. You talk more on the phone, and through email, and you are so happy to finally have a good relationship, even if she doesn't quite understand you. And you spend every day wanting, hoping, to be more like your dad, even though you don't have a lot in common.
You're fighting, a lot, with the calm no-sparks man, about money and how he lies to you and how you never have sex. And when he proposes, you desperately want to say no but can't find the words. You're going to spend the next year locking yourself in bathrooms crying and feeling terrified. I wish I could hug you, 27-year-old Katie, and take you someplace to let you breathe and yell and work this out, but you're convinced that marriage will the thing that makes you feel safe. The thing that will finally make you forget, finally put the ghost to rest.
You're going to start talking to that man again, one of the ones you think got away, and it's going to make everything leading up to the wedding so much worse. You're going to call him two nights before, drunk and sobbing and sitting on the curb, and he's going to offer to rescue you. And you're going to have visions of him bursting in the door of the church and putting a stop to it, this avalanche that you haven't been able to escape from. It won't happen, and the fact that it doesn't should teach you something about that other man, about his weakness, about his heart. Your wedding will be gorgeous, a great party, but you'll feel like the whole day is surreal and you are trapped. You'll spend your wedding night eating room service in the newlywed suite with your best friend - an amazing woman who you are so lucky to have in your corner - while your brand-new husband gets drunk with his brothers on South Street.
Your life is about to get really ugly, and you need to know that it has to. Things need to get really awful before you finally wake up and decide to dig yourself out. You'll move back to Virginia as your spanking new marriage disintegrates. You think - but aren't sure - but definitely think - that your husband is going to have dinner - and more - with a woman from his past while traveling. A comment he hurls at you months later during a nasty fight confirms this. You start talking about divorce less than 2 months after the wedding. Both of you stick your heads in the sand after this conversation, and co-exist in silence for months.
You're going to lose a job that you both loved and hated, and go back to working for Apple. But you'll be working somewhere different now, a different store that is a terrible match for you, and it's going to take 11 months of rage and anger and stress to finally walk away. Home is filled with anxiety and work is filled with incompetence. You've finally been running again, and it's the one outlet in your life. You're going to spend 11 miles talking about poop while it's snowing with a friend you've reunited with through running, and you're going to get a stress fracture in your foot, and that break is going to be what finally makes you buck, crumble.
You're going to start drinking, a lot, often and too much. The spring will pass in a blur of speeding tickets and Miller Lights. You have three girlfriends who are doing their best to be there for you, but you need to be the one that picks up the pieces and changes your life. You hide, for months, not talking to anyone, before you finally have the strength to put the divorce in motion. It's a sad conversation, and you can probably never go back to that Outback Steakhouse, but it's the right one. You decide to buy him out and keep your house, your big, fat, falling-down money pit. And when the judge stamps your divorce papers final on September 30, you feel nothing but relief.
You find another job - or rather, it finds you. You aren't sure about it but take it anyway. I can tell you now it's going to be the best job you've ever had, even though the guy who is at first your boss is driving you nuts by calling you every 10 seconds. You're going to work 2 jobs for 3 months, and the day you finally walk out of Apple for the last time is one of the great days of your life. You're going to start dating a guy that you've known for a while, and you're going to finally know what a great relationship is like - one with joy and love and fairness and laughter and passion. You don't even really mind when he sings off-key to the radio or rigs the bathroom cabinet so everything falls out when you open the door.
You aren't completely sure about it, but you bring home a tiny wiggling puppy, and he makes your life - your family - complete. 2 days before New Year's Eve, you decide to run a 4 mile race with that same running buddy (drinking vodka out of your Fuel Belt the whole time), and this is what bring you full circle.
You're going to start running again, and, oh Katie, I wish I could hold you back. But you're so excited and happy to be out there that you're going to start stacking up the miles and get hurt. And this injury is going to shape the rest of your year, and the rest of your life. You'll start swimming again, and cycling, but you just can't live without running. After 8 months of anguish, you decide to have surgery. It's the right decision.
At 30, you don't quite have life figured out yet, but you're getting there. You can't imagine feeling happier than this moment, than loving these days. You don't have a lot of girlfriends until your late 20s, and it makes these relationships seem even more valuable and sweeter, and these girls - your girls - are so much your safety net. They add a dimension to your life that you've never had. You would never guess it at 16, but your parents love you. A lot. Your mom in particular is not always very good at showing it, but you'll eventually be able to recognize what it is and find ways to show it back. And you finally feel like you have a family, maybe not the same kind of family that everyone has, but it's yours to come home to, and you need to fiercely protect it.
I love you. Happy Birthday.