Here’s what’s going to happen: On this kick return, homecoming game of senior year, the other team is going to try to take off your leg. They’ll come really close and there will be times later in your life when you wish they had. A prosthetic leg would, in some ways, be easier than the nerve damaged and muscle atrophied stump you’ll see through surgery, only to have let go from beneath you for a year. Maybe longer.
But here’s the thing, the hit will be good for you, possibly the best. You’ve lived pretty close to the edge as is. Have woken up countless times wondering where you were and how you got there. Until that one night, when your friend Bryan forced you to talk to your girlfriend, in spite of your haze and indifference. Really, that night he begged her not to give up on you.
Because of him, she’ll be with you as you live the amazing cliché of homecoming-court-member-injured-during-the-game. She’ll be there during the surgery, and after, when you lose a host of friends, because partying with a gimp isn’t much fun. And she’ll be at your side, when, incredibly, still on crutches, you’ll suggest that you were stupid when you said, “I plan on being single when I go to college.” In fact, you’ll suggest that this relationship should last longer, like… forever. And the next day you’ll think this through and you won’t cringe.
And by the end of senior year, when your world, like your leg, has been whittled away, there will be a clutch of friends still standing with you. Somehow they’ll be around much longer than you could have ever imagined. It’ll be like a Friends episode, except without the money and living in the city and being beautiful.
But right now, you’re not thinking about that. You’re thinking about what it takes to be a man. How hard you’re going to have to hit the other team. Much later, probably when you have two daughters, you’ll understand what it truly means to “man up”, but for now you’re a testosterone-filled psycho. Except you’re not. You write poetry and rock your English classes and have a disdain for self-centeredness, especially in yourself. Those traits, including being a rage-fueled boy, will serve you well. Because you are going to leave a piece of yourself here, on this field, and you will forever be tied to the tumultuous wave of adolescence, because you will refuse to let go. In many ways you will never grow up. And in extraordinary ways you will.
Writing will be an outlet. Purely emotional at first, so don’t be embarrassed by what emerges. Talking to yourself on paper is better than talking to no one at all. That conversation will eventually turn and you will hone a voice for telling these stories–not just yours, but of the teens like you. Because there are more than you can imagine, and they will be thankful that you don’t pull punches and that you speak with honesty. Trust me, this isn’t “popular”, but when have you ever cared about that?
And so, that hit that’s coming, you’re prepared for it, as if you’ve trained for the moment, as if the past five years battling diabetes has shored up your defenses. You are strong and you are weak, and you’re about to find out how to live with that contradiction.
The referee blows the whistle and the kicker lines up. You stand near the end zone, taking in the crowd, your girlfriend with the rest of the homecoming court, and October of your senior year feels glorious.
The football slices the air, to your teammate. You prepare to block for him. This is you, right before it falls apart. This fragile self you’ve bound in muscle, about to learn, again, just how delicate we all are.
The opposing team streams your way. You see light and your teammate at your back. You sprint and block until they dive, one on each side, your left leg their aiming point.
Your scream reverberates off the concrete of the nearby building. The game halts. Your attackers slap hands, congratulating each other on a job well done.
And it is. Because only when you lose yourself can you then find yourself, and you’re already slipping, with the grass at your back and the bright sky above. And pain, so much pain.
Embrace it. Your former life is over. From here you will build, and you have everything you need to succeed.
You at 35.
Eric Devine is the author of author of TAP OUT, a 2013 YALSA Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers, about a teen struggling with poverty, abuse, a gang and meth, who hopes Mixed Martial Arts might afford him a way out. His first novel is the highly praised THIS SIDE OF NORMAL, a novel about a teen struggling with diabetes and life in general.
The girlfriend mentioned in the letter is now his wife of 11 years, Carrie, and together they live and raise their two daughters in Upstate New York. Eric’s next novel, DARE ME, will be released October 8, 2013, and has been described by Kirkus Reviews as “Astute and riveting.” It is a story of teens searching for fame via YouTube-posted stunts, who find much more than they bargained for on the other side of the lens. Learn more at ericdevine.org, or find him on Twitter and Facebook.