Roz. For me, the name evokes images of a past-prime babe. The girl who peaked in her teens. Now hanging out at a bar. Boozy, desperate. Trying to recapture the glory of her youth. Not yet old, but getting there, and definitely worn out. That’s the image I see, anyway. We all have name biases. You hear a name, and you make assumptions. A sincere apology to any reader named Roz. I don’t know anyone named Roz right now, but I knew one in high school. She was a babe; part of the beautiful crowd. I have no idea when she peaked, but the last time I saw her, she was drunk, very drunk. Maybe that’s where this all comes from.
The only Roz in my life now is our cat. Roz isn’t a name I would choose for a cat. Too abrupt, too short. It’s hard to call for a pet with a one syllable name. It always turns into two syllables and then it sounds stupid. Raah-aahz. It’s the name she was given at the shelter. Susan, suggested changing it to Oola. That’s a random word from the Clash’s “Revolution Rock, ” a household favorite. My son, Eli, and I loved that as a name, but my Sophie, pitched a fit. So much disruption in Roz’s life. Rescued from the streets in the dead of winter. Her two kittens didn’t survive. Months in a shelter. The least we could do was let her keep her name. A good argument. Roz it is. “Raah-aahz, come inside, we’re going to bed.”
* * *
When I think of myself in high school, I cringe. Scrawny, obnoxious, unserious. Bullied because I deserved it. A class clown, sort of, but not actually funny. Sarcastic, with a quick, biting wit. It’s best kept in check. My sarcasm can be tempered and used in fun, but I didn’t learn that until I was an adult. As a runty, pot-smoking teen, mouthing off to everyone didn’t play well. I was young for my grade, immature. An October birthday, a year behind most of the other kids. I spent my entire grade-school years playing academic catch-up. Never figuring out what was going on until everyone else moved on to the next topic. By high school, I’d settled in with a like-minded group of counter-culture burnouts. We quoted Monty Python, discussed Lord of the Rings, and talked about how uncool the popular kids were. We got stoned every afternoon.
I’m a bright guy, not brilliant, but somewhat smart, and certainly capable. But this wasn’t obvious in high school. My friends, even the stoners, were all near the top of the class. Me? Much closer to the bottom. My grades were mostly C’s, with a few B’s in the classes I liked. My homework was uninspired. I did as little work as I could. It’s remarkable that I went to college. A below-average student, mediocre SAT scores, zero initiative. Ironically, that lack of initiative is what got me to college. Since all of my friends applied, I did too. My parents expected me to go, so I went. I applied to the same five schools as my brother. He did the research; I tagged along.
When I look back, I’d have to call myself a loser. I once mentioned this to my therapist, and she jumped all over me. “Why so much judgment? Why so hard on yourself?”
I say: “Well, why not?” I’ve spent my adult life trying to become someone different from the high school me. Like a snake, I continually shed my skin, my past, seeking to become the person I want to be. I’m not there, but I’m getting closer.
I see a clear distinction between self-improvement and remaking oneself. A remake seems contrived. The original person is still there, and the new persona is a mask, an act. And while I understand the difference, I can’t be sure which category is mine. Am I actually becoming a better person, or is this just a sham?
Roz, the person, was not part of my high school crowd. She was a cheerleader. Pretty and popular. Part of the crew my friends and I tore down. She probably wouldn’t even have known who I was if we hadn’t both been classified as remedial readers. Ten of us assigned to a special education class three days a week for reading instruction. Special Education, abbreviated as Sp. Ed., and further shortened by kids everywhere into the insult Sped – my class was popularly known as “Sped Reading.” I find it hard to believe that out of 900 students, I was tagged as one of the ten worst readers in the school. Reading was my hobby. I read daily for fun. My comprehension was outstanding. I can still remember passages from books I read as a teen. Probably I was slow. Perhaps I was savoring, actually enjoying the prose – I don’t remember. But Roz and I spent a year crammed in a tiny room with eight other Speds, reading short essays as quickly as we could and then taking comprehension tests.
It was stigmatizing, being a Sped, but I enjoyed the class anyway. Fifty minutes of reading three days a week. Sure, there were tests, tests every day, but there weren’t grades. This class was based on effort, not achievement. And having Roz in the room removed much of the stigma. No one considered her a loser, or a Sped. She brought the whole class up a notch.
There’s a Gandhi quote about self-improvement. Sort of a road map to becoming a better person:
Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.
This is one of Susan’s favorite quotes. It’s how she lives her life. I would like to say the same is true for me, but I pick up the process in the middle: at “Your words become your actions.” My thoughts are left behind. Struggling to catch up with the image I present to the world. In myself, I still see that obnoxious, sarcastic loser. The Sped. I worry that my self-improvement is unreal, a disguise. Susan tells me that others don’t see these traits in me. My therapist tells me that everyone feels the same way I do. But I’m certain these lingering thoughts hold me back. Keep me from peace.
A few weeks after graduating from high school, my friends and I went to see the Fourth of July fireworks in nearby Washington, D.C. A million people sprawled over miles of federal property. We made a day of it, watching bands, drinking beer, hanging out. Just before the fireworks started, Roz stumbled by with her cheerleader friends. They were wasted, trashed. Typically, they wouldn’t have bothered to acknowledged our presence, would have walked right by us. But school was out, we were on neutral ground, and Roz and I had just spent a year together. Something was now different. The fireworks started and Roz sat down in my lap. And she stayed there for the duration of the fireworks.
I found it awkward – and uncomfortable. Tall and thin, Roz was somewhat boney. It kind of hurt. She couldn’t have been comfortable either. The two of us sat there and endured a silent discomfort together for twenty or thirty minutes. After the fireworks ended, Roz and her friends got up and left. Barely said a word to us. Just stumbled away. My last encounter with Roz the person. Sort of sweet, sort of weird.
That Gandhi quote – I’m doing well with most of it. My beliefs, my actions, and my values seem to be on track. My habits – my knee-jerk reactions to stimuli – they need work. Lots of work. I’m quick to anger, and defensive when criticized. My destiny? Who can say? It’s too big to consider. I believe the sentences in the quote are out of order. Beliefs are easy, habits are hard. And thoughts – they’re uncontrollable. My thoughts and habits are why I’m in therapy. These derail me. Transport me back to high school. The stoner, the Sped, obnoxious clown, still judgmental – of others and myself.
And Roz the cat? She been with us for a few years. I’m unsatisfied with that relationship. She seems to like me, but she doesn’t trust me. At times she’s almost loving, sitting a few feet away on our couch. Just out of reach, but relaxed and at peace. But usually she’s wary of me. She keeps her distance. I suspect she was once bullied by someone who reminds her of me. Before she was a homeless stray. Bullied in the life she fled. The past I want her to forget.
This story is published in Fragments, a memoir
Photo by Dimitri Bong on Unsplash