In February 2020, I sit at the Harkness table in 242T, legs crossed and shaking, and I write a poem on a sticky note I am hiding in the bottom right corner of my laptop screen. I am tired and trying to drink the coffee in my reusable tumbler but it tastes like rust so I decide to make a home for myself on this border between slow blink and fast heart rate. My poem does not rhyme or repeat or do backflips or conform to patriarchal beauty standards but it does concern my friend when I show it to her that afternoon. Not in the sense of any violence or danger but in the sense that my thoughts grew too wide for a moment, and she wondered where I’d placed my blinders.
I don’t know if I believe in parallel universes but I do believe in genetics, and that evening, I sit on the bus and write another poem about the version of me that lives in another quadrant of the Punnett square. The me with blue eyes and blond hair and a concave nose and a line of sight about four inches higher. In ninth grade, I got an A in biology.
I think the A in anxiety stands for the grades it produces, and for a moment it holds me hostage. Stockholm syndrome, maybe.
In September, my college counselor tells me my supplements look good, but I should omit the a-word because it’s a red flag. I laugh underneath my surgical mask as I imagine my admissions officer imagining that I have never felt anxious.
What does it mean to roll seventeen years and four months into a ball like Marvel’s crumpled earth, to extend it as an offering, to wait for this referendum on my high school years during an election and a global pandemic?
Later that day, I sit on the field and eat sushi and discuss the educational industrial complex with four of my friends. Discuss how we go to Bill Barr’s alma mater and half of our teachers have PhDs and many of us have tutors and most of us take tests twice and some of us have legacy and some of us own buildings and spicy tuna rolls are provided for free every day at a food truck on our campus in Riverdale and college will not change our lives in the way it could someone else’s and at least we have our health and at the end of the day none of it matters and the gold standard is over so money isn’t real and every day we wake up and decide to continue pretending and if we so chose we as a society could simply abandon cash and barter with paperclips or handshakes or hugs and maybe when we graduate we’ll move to a farm and live off the land and call ourselves a monastery for the purpose of tax evasion.
Later in September, I sit in my bed in my jeans and breathe in and out in four-second intervals. I do not have a disorder that I know of, nor is anxiety a primary personality trait of mine, but I wonder what I’d be like in his absence. Much of my anxiety is caused by men, so I give him masculine pronouns. I think the answer is I’d sleep more, maybe have fewer friends. I’d wear more crop tops and turn my homework in late sometimes.
I’d also show my college essays to my father and welcome his critiques. Sometimes, especially now, I feel like the sole adult in my household. I feel like my parents live in a fairytale, minus the talking animals and the magic, on the corner of the page. I think they’re too present for me to be a princess, and I’d choose not to be anyway. I’d refuse to face punishment for my curiosity. I’d jump off the page and hope to land on the desk of some girl in her English class who sees me as herself.
I am beginning to think that I’m no less “little girl” than the ones in the stories. I’m Little Red Riding Hood, and my freshman dorm is my grandmother’s house, and my anxiety is my wolf. But anxiety is also the bread in the basket my mother sends me off with, unaware of the dangers I’m about to face. I know that in real life, there is more than one path. I know that if I don’t get into my first-choice school, I can turn the page and go to my second or third or tenth, and live on as a curious young girl in a new setting, a new house. I can walk past my grandmother’s house to the nearby pond, and sit on a rock and eat my bread and write a poem. And that way I might be safe from the wolf.
In all honesty, I still sometimes wonder whether the report cards are worth the panic attacks. I pray they’re separable. I pray that my drive and empathy and sarcasm are all fundamental parts of me, not just perks of my anxiety. In some of my worse moments, I’ve imagined anxiety as a manipulative husband who makes me feel terrible but also financially supports me. In this hypothetical, I’ve never had a job and I think I could make my own money but I have no way of finding out unless I leave him. And in my better moments, I realize this analogy is both weak and telling of my expectations for romantic relationships. In all of my moments, I pray that I can take full ownership of the parts of me that I love, that they do not belong to my struggles.
What I’m realizing more and more is that Red had the correct approach to her journey that day. She stopped to smell the roses, didn’t let herself focus too hard on the destination. In the journey of the college process, curiosity is the grandmother, the motivation behind my quest for education. If I’m honest, I’m also motivated by the expectations of my immigrant parents and any relic of the American Dream I still believe in and my desire to earn a living wage. But curiosity is one of the only forces in my story that propels me along my march toward grandmother without later trying to eat me alive. Though maybe it will and I just haven’t gotten to that page yet. And maybe the wolf is also a metaphor for the rat race; once you finally achieve your goal, it’s already been replaced by something insidious.
Mostly, though, I don’t see why I should be punished for picking flowers.
The plot device of my anxiety exists for my character development, and I can throw it out if I wish. Medically, this may not be so simple, but this is my fairytale. Maybe tomorrow I’ll wake up and shoot the wolf with a rifle bigger than me, or summon some strange man to cut me and my grandmother out of his stomach. Maybe I’ll outwit the wolf before he can get to grandmother. Maybe a year from now I’ll live in my grandmother’s house, and she’ll be safe and healthy, and we’ll have redecorated the place with a modern touch and a rose-cream color scheme, and the wolf will be receiving the help he clearly needs. Maybe ten years from now he’ll get a brief acknowledgement in my first published book.
All I am certain of right now is that while I am stuck in this forest of the college process, I plan to pick all the flowers I can. And maybe even talk to strangers. And perhaps sit on the ground in the middle of the path and write a poem or two, and then submit them as English assignments. And I’ll skip around and blast indie music for the forest creatures and offer the wolf a piece of bread and a hug. And next fall, when I finally arrive at a house - and I’ll be glad to arrive at any house - I’ll have brought an entire suitcase full of flowers, which I’ll keep in a vase on my bedside table.
Right now, I am sitting in my bed, one foot dangling off the page of my little girl story, and I still kind of hope I don’t fall. I’m scared to say goodbye to my curiosity and stubbornness and innocence, and I’m hovering over my adult future, and it’s only a matter of time before I lose balance.
I hope I get to rip this page off and take it with me.
Yana Gitelman is a high school senior at the Horace Mann School in New York City. In her free time she enjoys dancing, reading (largely poetry and fairytales), and feeling angry about politics. She started writing poems and calling it "free therapy" around September 2019, and she now has a Google Doc of over eighty poems. "The Flowers are Mine to Pick" began as a poem and transitioned into a prose essay for her English elective on fabulist literature. The piece deals with themes of girlhood, anxiety, and pressure to succeed, connecting her adolescent experience to that of Little Red Riding Hood, another young girl who just wanted to explore her surroundings and enjoy her journey.