Dear 17-Year-Old Tawni Vee,
I remember you best that day when you gave the most precious pieces of yourself to that first unworthy boy. Or he took them. I still haven’t hammered out a cohesive timeline of how it happened, exactly. I don’t think it really matters. I know he was drunk, and his eyes were red. So were you. I know that you were crying. I know that “Stairway to Heaven” was playing. There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold. I know that I couldn’t listen to it for years because when I heard it, instantly I would become you, watching him walk out of the room throwing “Don’t get dressed” over his shoulder, as if you were a slave, a bag of flesh, a whore.
You got dressed anyway. I’m proud of you for that. Even then, you had a strength about you. Your bones were made of iron. You just didn’t know it yet. You wiped your face, pulled on your white blouse and stonewashed jeans. Because you had been crying, your eyes were that vivid blue, the way they get after they storm. You were beautiful. But you didn’t know that either.
I remember you best that day because it changed everything for us. It took us decades to fight our way out of the hell we crawled into when we accepted that dumb boy’s version of what we were. We lived in that bedroom for a long, long time. It became our prison cell. Again and again, we looked up to find his red eyes staring down at us. We hated him for years. Sometimes, we still do. I wish I could say we’ve gotten all zen, but we aren’t quite there yet. Some days we still want to kick his ass.
I have good news though. He’s ugly now. I saw his picture on the internet, an invention you can’t possibly begin to understand. Just know that someday, almost all of the men that abuse you will end up ugly, and you will see their pictures, and you will gloat. You are like that sometimes. You try not to wish bad on those that hate you, but look, honey, you’re only human. I love you anyway, even the ugly parts of you.
People write these letters because they want to warn their younger selves about things, but I’m not going to tell you not to walk into that boy’s bedroom. It was dark, and it ripped you up the middle. It paved the way for worse and worse versions of him to careen into your life and break you again and again. But the part of you that believed you deserved to be abused had to learn to fight, and I don’t think it would have if you hadn’t walked into that room. Life is school. One of your most important classes was “Learning to Love You.” He was your first (but not your worst) teacher.
I have bad news and good news. The bad news is I’m way fatter now. The good news I don’t care. I don’t throw up anymore. I never, ever think of hurting my precious body. I never let anyone else hurt me either. Hurt us. You still live inside me, and you’ve finally stopped crying on that bed. You left the dumb boy’s bedroom eventually. You danced down the street, singing, watching the butterflies wing. You sing every day now. You know how pretty you are.
Speaking of pretty, like I said, you are. Speaking of fat, you’re not. You’re curvy though, and it’s beautiful. That whole skinny = pretty (happy) thing is bullshit. (P.S. You pick up a mean fucking swearing habit. Sorry.) You’ll get really skinny for a while, and it won’t make you happy. You’ll hate yourself more when you are a size 7 than ever before. That’s as skinny as you get. You never make it to 120 pounds even though you tape the number on your fridge, even though you run miles and miles, even though you throw up. You are a failure as an anorexic (thank God). Your love for ice cream runs too deep. It’s one of the best things about you, your ability to drink life down, swallow it whole. You have no gift for self-deprivation. Bulimia can only take you so far into slow suicide.
Speaking of suicide, shut up about that shit. Really. I hate to go off on you, but honey, the fact that you can even imagine hurting the precious creature you are pisses me right off, the way it would piss me off if you kicked a dog or ran over a baby. You would never do those things, I know. You need to understand you are just as worthy of love as dogs and babies are. You need to find out that self-loathing isn’t humility. It’s blasphemy.
But I’m jumping ahead. You will find out. You do. I’m going to fast forward to right now, my love. You sell books, baby! You do it. It takes years and years, but you make it happen, because you are powerful like that, and when you want something, you never quit, no matter how hard it is. You leave that boy’s bedroom, and you travel the world. You see everything there is to see. You do everything there is to do. You’re amazing someday. You’re amazing now. You’re just a little blind. But like the blind men in the Jesus stories, you find sight.
Speaking of Jesus, follow that rock band. Love that Jesus-y man. It will be the best thing that ever happened to you. It will make you the woman you were born to be. Do it as long as it’s good, and when it stops being good, when it starts to be something that makes you less instead of more, walk away. Get good at walking. Leave when things are bad. There is no nobility in staying and suffering. Life is too short for that shit.
Because baby, it’s flying by. I’m 44. Our lucky number. I still see numbers as colors, and four is still yellow. This year has been a great big burst of sun. We just sold our third book. We’re going to live in France for a while. Our skin is starting to be wrinkly, but I think it’s pretty. Our bones are wearing out, maybe because we’ve walked away so often. Maybe because of all the running. Maybe because you drive a truck through the wall of a McDonald’s play place when your brakes go out. Maybe because all of the above. But our bones hurt every night, and it is clear to me that our earth suit is starting to die. Slowly.
And I said I wouldn’t tell you to change anything, but maybe just change this. Spend those moments you wish you were dead living. Because death will come for you, my love. It’s coming for me now. Maybe I will get 44 more miraculous years, but someday, I will die. My body is no longer allowing me an illusion of immortality.
Right now, I’m in a little paradise overlooking an ocean in California, and the waves are singing our name. I take time to see them for real, taste the salt air, because I know someday my eyes will close for the last time. Someday, Tawni will never see waves again, so I hold on to them, but not too tightly, because I am not afraid of death. I am not afraid of losing. Even the worst losses come bearing gifts.
Because of losses, I have learned to let go. I have learned that glory and beauty are never wrapped up in any particular moment, any situation. Stasis is early death. Living things change. Trust the river of life to carry you where you need to be, from glory to glory, as Daddy’s Bible said. Trust magic to weave itself effortlessly into the fabric of every moment you live. Don’t hold on tight. To men. To marriages. To houses. To your children. When the time comes, let your children go make their own mistakes, learn their lessons, just like you learned yours.
You have two kids. They are beautiful. The first is a perfect girl with blond curls, just like you already dreamed. (Your dreams are, in fact, psychic. Trust them.) You name her Desiree just like you said you would. The second is a boy. You name him Tim, after your dad. To remember him.
Because precious girl, he dies. A few years from now, on a sunny day, you will be getting ready to go to the zoo with him, and your phone will ring. When you answer, your mom will say, “Honey, your dad had a heart attack.” And you will throw the phone. You will race to him, thinking he’s still alive, but he won’t be. He’ll be dead and blue on a gurney when you get there, and you will never forget the feel of his motionless chest against your cheek as you weep. You will always see the cuts on his hands that will never heal. I want to tell you the pain goes away, but it doesn’t. Some wounds hurt for life. This one does. It’s been 23 years since that day, and I still cry when I write about it.
We go to his grave in that dried out desert cemetery often, even though he told us not to, even though he said he wouldn’t be there. He is, maybe because he’s always there when we need him, even after he’s dead. He comes to us, flies overhead screeching, a hawk. Every time we want him, a hawk appears. Every time we need comfort, he comes to us in our dreams. And even though his death is the worst thing that ever happens to us, it comes bearing gifts. From this we learn that love is stronger than death. From this, we learn that death is an end that gives way to another beginning. The third book you publish is about his death, or at least what you felt when he died, though you give your pain to an imaginary character. Your third book is about the impermanence of death and the endlessness of life.
The way I see it, after we die, there will be another you, another 17-year-old Tawni, though that will not be your name. And while I can’t change what you did in this life, maybe I can forward this to you in the next one. Next life, remember the lessons you learned. Don’t give yourself away for free. You are precious. You are beautiful. You are perfect. Only those who are willing to love, honor, and respect you deserve a piece of you. We have “beloved” tattooed on our wrist now, in the place you used to want to carve the word “whore,” because we know what a miracle we are. Hold onto this lesson. Next life, maybe I will ask God to make sure that a birthmark resembling the tattoo appears on your wrist so you never forget, even though you have passed through the gateway of death and birth again.
And next life, when you wake up in the middle of the night crying because you think your daddy is going to die, give him the poem you write to say thank you instead of shoving it into a drawer. This life, you will read it at his funeral, and he will hear, but still, it won’t be the same. Next life, trust yourself. You know things.
Next life, love yourself, baby. Next life, never settle for anything less than pure, blissful, glorious love. Next life, don’t give your heart to monsters. Next life, carry this, the weight and truth of my love for you, in your bones. Maybe you already do. Maybe last life, I wrote you this letter too, and maybe you got it that day in that bedroom, and maybe that was the iron in your bones that gave you the strength to get up and get dressed.
Your daddy was right about many things, baby, the biggest one being love is the most powerful thing there is.
And after all of this, all of the advice and the remonstrations and the affirmations, I find I only have one thing to say. Beautiful girl with milky white skin (skip the tanning, for God’s sake) and glorious, rich, resplendent curves, queen-in-the-making with a mind sharper than knives and a heart made of rainbows, never forget this, no matter what happens.
I love you.