For years, I didn’t think I was particularly athletic. I went to a school that turned out Olympic athletes. Granted, I was co-captain of a well-ranked and regarded tennis team, but this never struck as me being sporty, particularly in the context of growing up in the midst of gold medalists.
At some point, in my sporty-but-not-sporty days, I inherited a bright orange backpack. Well, that would be an understatement. I forcibly removed from my father’s possession a bright orange backpack. It was the mid-1990s, and I think he’d purchased it with American Express points (in our family, we love American Express points — ask me about the time I went to South America for 10 days on American Express points and $30). He loved it, but couldn’t figure out why he was getting such attention carrying the damned thing around San Francisco.
That was when I intervened. And appropriated it. I’ve had it ever since.
My orange backpack — which I nicknamed “The Beacon” — is one of my prized possessions. I’ve carried it on my travels throughout six continents. I use it for everything. It has traveled to the top of Mt Whitney; it has been through the African bush. It saw the Northern Lights in Iceland, and the Southern Lights in Chile. I carried it during my university days; through law school; while I was in grad school. It served as my pillow on trains and in airports.
Over time, The Beacon became a part of me. It was the sack in which I could stash my stuff in the event a quick escape would be necessary. It became a part of my identity, even. Who was I? Who am I? I am a woman with a stuffed monkey named Chachie and a bright orange backpack. If I know nothing else about myself, I know those two things are true.
And every man I’ve ever been with has tried to take it from me when we’ve broken up.
Maybe that’s commentary on a bigger theme — that they all wanted to keep some souvenir; maybe that’s a statement about the type of men I’ve been with — that they wanted to take pieces of my identity.
I may strike you as the designer bags type. Indeed, I have those. I have a fancy suitcase with my initials embossed on it. I have totes and carry-ons; shoulder bags and clutches. But I think I feel most at home in sports clothes and a backpack.
Strangely, it has been a long road to admitting that I am most comfortable in running clothes and an orange backpack. For most of my life, I longed to be One of Those Girls — the kind who had the designer clothes and bags; who could swim with the sharks. I didn’t want to be the scruffy tomboy who didn’t have the right accoutrements. I wasn’t sporty enough, but somehow, I was too sporty to be One of Those Girls.
Who was I? Who am I?
A few years before I came into possession of The Beacon, my best friend Jade and I were standing on the lawn in front of her house, making up some kind of dance. Except because we were peculiar and artsy, and not “cool,” we weren’t rocking out to pop music, we were making up a dance to…Simon & Garfunkel. At the end of the dance, there was this bit where she leapt into my arms. At the time, we were roughly the same size, except I was arguably the more athletic of the two of us so it made sense.
Over the years, however, I’ve remained approximately the same size as I was then, and she has developed breasts and has grown at least eight inches taller.
But when we perform this silly dance now, she still leaps into my arms at the end, and, remarkably, I’m still pretty sporty, and I can still hold her up. If you know the two of us, you can only imagine how ridiculous this looks.
We last performed this dance at her wedding, four years ago. And her husband smiled graciously, and everyone sort-of laughed, because even though the song we dance to is upbeat, the lyrics are sad.
Years earlier, my ex-husband had come unglued when we’d announced our intention of performing it at one of our premarital events. It’s a sad song! he’d protested. But it was a part of me, and a part of my life, and it was something that was so dear — such a display of solidarity and strength — that I’d wanted it to be a part of my life together with Andrew, just like the pictures of our relatives on their wedding days.
He said no. And when things fell apart between us, he tried to take my backpack. But I kept the backpack, survived the divorce, and lived to dance another day.
I suppose I’m trying to say this: I don’t think I ever understood how much I could bear until I had to hold up something dear to me. And I don’t think I knew how strong I was until someone tried to take what was rightfully mine.