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Free Fall

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Amateur

Plenty of students take a year off from school, either after high school or between undergraduate and graduate schools. Some use it to work and save money; some use it to work and gain experience; some travel because they know they won’t be able to later; some volunteer to better themselves, the world, and their resumes; and some have nervous breakdowns because they suddenly realize they’ve been preparing all their life for something they no longer care about, and now they don’t know what the hell they’re doing with their life.

I was the last sort of student.

I come from a family of very bright, very capable and successful people. People who value hard work and perseverance, focus and determination, and achievement above all other things. My parents are geniuses, and I mean that in a literal, documented sense, not just because I love them. They’re both doctors, each very gifted and renowned in their chosen fields, and highly respected and admired by everyone who works with them. Amongst neurosurgeons, my dad is actually quite famous.

I have two brothers who are cut from the same cloth. They were naturally gifted students before they were even in school, born with a genuine love of learning and a strong drive to excel, each top of their class in every grade, graduating with highest honors and each with a clear idea of what they wanted to do with their gifts and talents.

I’m no slouch myself, as my collection of academic awards and competitive trophies will attest. I’d always been told I would strive high and achieve greatly, so I did, but I lacked one thing my brothers had. The same thing my parents had, the same thing my friends, and fellow students seemed to all have, the thing that keeps a person focused and engaged and madly in love with whatever they’re doing: passion. My grades had always been perfect, my work exemplary, but after a few years of college, I began to realize how little I cared for those achievements.

I’d more or less gotten past the nervous breakdown stage by the time I moved in with my grandparents in their central New York home, but I was left with a terrible ennui, an overwhelming lack of interest in anything, but especially in the things I was supposed to love. I was depressed, to put it simply. As someone who had grown up wanting for nothing, grown up loved and cheered on and believed in, someone who had always been told she could do anything she set her mind to (and had), it was just embarrassing. So, when my grandmother said she’d found me the perfect summer job, I was equal parts excited and relieved. I needed a distraction but I also needed to feel like I was doing something productive, even if in reality I was just killing time until I had to make the next big decision about my future.

My breakdown started in the middle of my junior year of college at Christmas. I was home, in Connecticut, at the local Starbucks with JD and Tabitha, my two best friends. I had been enjoying that sense of belonging I always got when we were together. It felt like coming home. It literally was home, but in the company of these two friends, home could be anywhere. We’d been friends since second grade, and despite the different directions our interests and personalities took us, we had remained as close as ever. I’d made good friends in college, but those friends barely knew me compared to JD and Tabitha.

It felt good to be with them again, but there was something else, as we discussed college life, relationships, and our plans for grad school, something unsettling at the edges of my awareness, something I couldn’t put my finger on right away. At first, I didn’t recognize it as the same something I’d been trying not to see since the start of the semester: doubt about my chosen career path.

JD and Tabitha were both doing well. They were in serious relationships with partners they loved who loved and supported them in turn, and they already had a clear idea of where school would take them next.

JD was the creative one in our trio. Art was in his blood, and there had never been any doubt he’d end up using his talents to make beautiful and interesting things. It had taken him until college to find his medium, but now that he had, he was in heaven. It warmed my heart to see his face light up as he described a project he was working on. It was exactly the same enthusiasm he’d always had, and it was so much a part of what made JD a great person.

Tabitha’s major was history, but she’d developed an interest in government and law and was considering law school a little further down the road. She was a natural leader and had a strong sense of moral justice. Even as a little kid she couldn’t tolerate injustice. Once, she put a playground bully two grades above us in his place just using her words. There was no doubt she’d end up in a position of power some day; she was born to lead.

As for me, becoming a doctor had been my dream for as long as I could remember, but as I got closer to the reality of medical school, bahis firmaları that dream seemed less and less appealing. I was still looking at med schools like I’d always planned, but my interest was waning. Without that dream, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life.

I admitted my uncertainty and fear to my friends. It was the first time I’d said anything about it out loud, though if I was honest with myself, the doubt had been nagging at the back of my mind for more than a year already. We’d known each other so long, and I had no doubt they knew me better than anyone in my life. I’d expected wisdom from them, but they were just as baffled as I was.

“Aww Zoe, that sucks.” JD’s expression was pure sympathy. “But maybe it’s just fear of the unknown. Med school is intense, maybe you’re just feeling anxious about that.”

“But you know I don’t get nervous, JD. I’ve always kind of thrived on stressful situations.”

“So maybe you’re just burnt out,” offered Tabitha. I could tell I’d really surprised her. “I mean, you’re doing a double major, Z. Maybe you just need a little break from school to get your energy back.”

“I definitely need a break, but I don’t think that’s all I need. I think I need…well, I don’t actually know what I need. Something different.”

I sighed and twirled my empty latte cup on the table absently. I felt miserable, even with my two best friends by my side, in the Starbucks where we’d spent countless hours after high school, in the town where I’d grown up. It was home, but I didn’t feel like me.

“I feel like I’m missing something,” I admitted. “Inside me, I mean. When I look back at this fantasy I’ve always had, it feels fake. Like I was just following a script, someone else’s script for me. I mean, I believed it at the time. I believed I wanted to be a doctor, but now…I don’t know.

“I know I could do it. I could handle the pressure and the pace, and all the competition and demands. I feel like that’s just part of me genetically. I’d rise to the challenge, you know? It’s the O’Reilly way. But I wouldn’t love it.” I looked at my friends across the glass-topped table. They knew everything about me. I trusted them.

“What do I like doing? What do I love?” I didn’t even try to hide the desperation in my voice. “If not medicine, then what?”

They were at a loss to answer.

It had always been science, always been medicine, there had never been another goal but becoming a doctor. I was well and truly lost if they couldn’t help me. I didn’t know what I loved, but it felt more and more true that I didn’t love the idea of going into medicine. The one path I’d been following had come to a dead end. So where exactly did that leave me? Freaking out, that’s where.

I made it through that year, but only barely, and spent my summer in denial, cagily avoiding med school conversations with my parents while going through the motions of preparing the applications. I ignored the dread in my stomach when I thought of going back for my senior year of college, but when no better plan formed in my head, I told myself it would all work out. I’d get it together, it was just a challenge, I’d push through. I wasn’t raised to be a quitter; I’d beat this uncertainty.

By Thanksgiving break, none of my internal pep talks had managed to change my attitude, and I knew I was sunk. I couldn’t imagine going to school the following year. I could barely imagine finishing the rest of the semester. I knew I would, but the next six months looked like the longest uphill battle of my life.

My depression was so bad I couldn’t sleep. I buried myself in studying, trying to find a spark of interest inside me for the subjects I’d always loved, but nothing came. Without enough sleep, I became emotional. I cried all the time, for reasons I couldn’t even name. By the time I arrived at my grandparents’ house for Thanksgiving, I was a sleep-deprived mess of a girl.

My parents had always been supportive and encouraging in all areas of education and personal achievement. They were good, loving, attentive parents, but they were less comfortable in the arena of emotion. When I came to them toward the end of the break, in tears, almost inconsolable, they were so shocked, at first they just stared, mouths open, trying to find words.

I’d rehearsed what I wanted to say to them. I’d even written it out, just to get my thoughts in order. I’d been careful and analytical in my reasoning and arguments, and was especially careful to detail alternate plans, to reassure them I wasn’t just giving up. I just needed a break to figure some things out. I wanted a year to think about it seriously, after which I fully expected I’d be back on track. There was serious doubt in my heart about that part, but I knew my parents would need to hear it. And, I desperately wanted to believe it could happen.

What I blurted out, half in sobs, to my dear, speechless parents was far less articulate than I’d been in my practice kaçak iddaa speech. I babbled and whined and contradicted myself. And I cried, a lot. It had to be shocking for them, especially coming from their always practical daughter who’d never given them a moment’s difficulty or reason for concern. I really challenged their parenting skills that weekend.

I am so lucky my grandmother was there when it happened. She and I shared a special closeness, a bond even closer than the one I had with my friends. I’d been told I was a lot like her, and I’d always hoped it was true because I thought she was the smartest, most beautiful, most compassionate person in the world. And I’d always suspected she understood me—really understood me—so when she stepped in to help my parents figure out what was happening, I knew I would somehow be OK.

We talked for hours, the four of us. Hours. And as horrible as it was, seeing my unprepared parents struggling to comprehend this news, I felt relieved just to have it out in the open. I was exhausted from lack of sleep and from my intense crying session. I hadn’t even realized how much my depression and anxiety had been tied up in telling my parents how I felt, how I’d dreaded disappointing them. Having finally admitted it, I felt so much better.

Before we left at the end of that weekend, we made some plans. I’d finish my last year, go to graduation, and then move in with my grandparents for a year. I agreed to revisit the grad school conversation in the spring, and my parents agreed to let me have until then to not talk about it. It was a fair plan, though I could tell it was causing my parents real anxiety. I think knowing I’d be staying with my grandparents gave them some sense of ease, though.

I was very close to both my grandparents, and had spent many happy summers at their big house when I was a kid. They were the kindest, most generous and patient people I’d ever known, and I hoped sincerely—as did my parents—they could help me figure myself out again. Turns out, they did, indirectly, though they had no idea they were doing it.

//

“I found you a summer job,” my grandmother said, the morning after I arrived. I joined her at the big butcher block table with a cup of coffee. She was already dressed, her white shoulder-length hair shining bright in the morning sun. “If you still want one. I know you said you might look at the hospital for something, but if you want something in the meantime…”

“I do. What kind of job?”

“Childcare. Four days a week. Three kids, 8 and under. Might be a nice break from academics, something fun.”

“God, yes,” I said. “Sounds great. It it someone from the church?”

My grandmother wasn’t religious, but she was involved with her local Unitarian church and did a lot of volunteer work and community outreach through it. She knew everyone in town, it seemed, and was usually up to date on anything going on of interest. She was also the kind of person everyone liked. She was generous and unassuming, and genuinely interested in people and their stories. People tended to trust her, and so she came by personal information without having to resort to gossip, which she never would no matter how curious she might be.

“No, actually. One of the young men who’s tearing up our backyard right now.” She nodded in the direction of the back door. I’d heard voices out there when I was still in bed, but hadn’t peeked out the window to see who it was. “He’s looking for daytime childcare for his daughter and his two nephews.”

“Well, sure. Sounds perfect. I’d love that.”

“I don’t know the family, but Nico is a dear. Such manners. I’ll introduce you once you get dressed and you can ask him about it. They might have found someone already, it was a few days ago he mentioned it.”

“Well, we can ask and see.”

We chatted for a few minutes about the plans for the backyard, the weather so far that month, the things going on at the community center—safe topics that had nothing to do with me or my current emotional state. I knew she was concerned about me, and I was grateful to her for trying to help me get out of my funk. I was also grateful to her for not trying to talk to me about it yet. There would be plenty of time for that in the next year, but I really just wanted a break.

“I’ll go change,” I said after I’d finished my coffee.

If I’d known the man I was about to meet would be the one I’d end up wanting more than anyone I’d ever met before, I would have given more than ten seconds thought to what I put on. I hadn’t fully unpacked, so I grabbed the first things I saw from the pile of clothes in my suitcase: a light blue Yale t-shirt and a pair of white shorts. Probably not the best outfit to showcase my pale, freckled legs and arms, but I didn’t give it much thought. I brushed my red hair and put it up in a ponytail, brushed my teeth, and headed back downstairs.

I followed my grandmother out to the porch and took in the scene. A kaçak bahis couple of men were digging up the back flower bed and another was spray painting lines on the grass, marking the borders of another bed. Closer to us, the biggest man I had ever seen in my life not standing outside a nightclub checking ID’s was making quick work of the cement sidewalk with a massive sledgehammer.

My grandmother explained what the plans were, where the path was going to be, how far out the patio would go, what stones they’d chosen, what perennials were planned for the flower beds, but I barely heard her. I could not take my eyes off the man with the hammer. I had no idea how heavy that hammer was, but I bet I wouldn’t be able to even lift it. He, however, was swinging it with practiced ease, making it look as light as a toy. When he’d broken up the cement slab he’d been pulverizing, he tossed the chunks into a waiting wheelbarrow and then straightened up and saw us watching.

He leaned the sledgehammer against the wheelbarrow and headed toward us, wiping his hands on a cloth he’d pulled from his back pocket. He wore dirty jeans, a pair of brown battered work boots, and a dark blue t-shirt that had a small bloom of sweat right in the center of his ample chest. Somehow, it wasn’t an unattractive look on him.

He pulled off the well worn baseball cap he’d been wearing as he approached us. It seemed like a very old fashioned gesture, removing his hat like that to talk to us, and I guessed that was part of why my grandmother liked him so much; she was a sucker for old-fashioned courtesy. The hair that sprang out once his hat was removed was dark brown and made up of the most beautiful curls I’d ever seen on a man.

“How are you, Mrs. O’Reilly?” he said by way of greeting to my grandmother. His voice was soft and low.

“Hello, Nico. You’re doing well today?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said.

“The forecast said it would get up to 88 this afternoon. It’s already so hot out here. Too hot for me.”

“Ah, it’s not so bad.” He smiled again and it was obvious to me that he really liked my grandmother, which made me like him, too. “I don’t mind it.”

“You’re made of tougher stuff than me,” she said. He managed to look a little shy. “Must be your Greek blood. Well, make sure you get out of the sun if you need to. You know you can always take a break up here on the porch where it’s cooler.”

“I do. Thank you, ma’am.”

She turned to me then and said, “I wanted to introduce you to my granddaughter, Zoe.”

He stepped forward and put out a hand the size of a spade. He gave me a big smile. It was a very nice smile, generous and warm, the kind of smile that makes you smile back automatically. “Nice to meet you,” he said. I let him take my hand, expecting him to crush it in his strong grip. He pumped it twice in a rough palm, with a firm but gentle pressure.

“Nice to meet you too, Nico. Gran said you might be looking for childcare for the summer?”

He nodded. “We need someone during the day, from about 9:00 to 3:00, though we need someone flexible, someone who can stay later without much notice if one of us gets stuck at work. It’s only through August, until school starts again.”

“Well, I’m definitely flexible this summer,” I said.

“That’s great. Let me give you Rose’s number, she’s home right now, maybe you can set up a time to meet.”

My grandmother had already ducked back into the house and produced a notepad and pencil, which she handed to Nico. I watched him write, fascinated by the muscles that moved in his arm. When he lifted his head and handed me the pad and pencil, he leaned into the light for a second and I took in his features while we finished our conversation. His eyes were deep brown, even with the sun in them they were dark. I noticed there were grey hairs all through his curls. Not many, but they showed up bright silver in the sunlight. My grandmother had called him a ‘young man’, and I’d expected someone my age, but Nico was clearly older than that.

He had a very pleasant face, square, with big, soft features that made his broad shoulders and big arms less intimidating. His smile was easy and generous. It spread across his tanned face and creased the corners of his eyes. I observed all this without really examining how it made me feel. He was at least 15 years older than me, married, a dad, and not the kind of guy who normally turned my head anyway, so I certainly wasn’t checking him out as a potential boyfriend, just admiring a very attractive man.

I phoned the number Nico gave me right away and made plans to come by their house at noon. Over the phone Rose seemed very friendly, and excited I’d called. I found myself looking forward to meeting her. Nico had been so warm and comfortable when I met him, I imagined his wife would be just the same.

I drove to the house and pulled into the driveway. It was a small house in a nice, tree-lined neighborhood. The yard had kids’ toys scattered around it, and modest but pretty flower beds planted along the front of the house. I could hear the kids’ voices when I got out of the car and walked around the house to the back where Rose had told me to meet her.

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