The Time Before, Now, After

Tugging at a straw in a cup of bitter cold brew on a brisk fall day, a simmer pot gently humming in the background—this is the last place I would’ve expected to see myself at the peak of 21. A well-maintained trail reaches an end, with a cloudy tightrope ahead. Yet, I have choices—I have alternate realities. 

When I think back to dark Massachusetts suburbia, peering up at the looming pine trees, zooming through windy roads, intrusive thoughts come to mind. The ability—the power–I held in being able to go off course. I could veer right into that boulder, or down a road less traveled. 

Do you remember the time before? Traveling on endless train tracks, looking for meaning, for purpose? Do you remember the time before? When even the thought of tomorrow seemed unattainable? 

I think I was a happy kid. Sometimes, you go back in time to figure out when you became an actual sensible human being, rather than a cute-looking blob, dependent on your parents for everything. Bapi and Mamoni say I was always quiet—maybe in a creepy way, a contrast with my sister Mumu’s boisterous mannerisms. 

In my baby photos, I’m usually smiling with no teeth, or stoic, but frequently attached to my grandma Nanu’s hip. In the grainy images of our family trip to Europe, there I am in Versailles, all bones and no meat, fast asleep in my stroller. Again, in the Louvre. Unbothered by these great feats of architecture and structural design, or the fact my parents had saved up enough money to take all of us and my Nanu on an overseas extravaganza. 

Nowadays, Bapi mentions how Mumu’s journey towards buying her first house at 30 years old, a beautiful Victorian mansion in a bustling suburb of Massachusetts, contrasts with my parents’ own journey. Uprooted from their apartment in Cambridge to the flat lands of Cincinnati, Mamoni and Bapi had to include all of their major appliances in their home loan, because most of their savings had gone into the down payment. Bapi’s eyes sparkle with mischief reflecting even further back in his youth, to coming to the United States with $200 and a scholarship to the University of Maine. 

When I talk to my parents about these moments, huddled over a crowded dining table, I know that these are landmarks in their lives. Turning points that, if they had ignored, or gone another way, I may not have been born. Sometimes, I fantasize about if my dad had taken that job at the University of California, Los Angeles. I would’ve grown up with an entirely different accent and probably as a peppy contrast to my brooding New Englander. I would’ve preferred the sea spray at the beach over the musky smell of the woods. But how different would I really have been?

I was a happy kid, but I think something changed along the way. The time after childhood, yet before adulthood. Now, I think, this is the time before. 

Times of trauma in my immigrant family were met with the all-too-common reactions: zipped lips and solemn expressions, words exchanged through glances and a hand on the shoulder. Bapi and Mamoni always said I was too sensitive as a child. I’m not that different today, but I think the characterization of too sensitive undermines the power behind vulnerability. And when I think about placing that heart in trauma throughout adolescence, that memory of the happy kid becomes a distant memory. I morphed into a blurry, indistinct being during those years.

I’ve always sought comfort in the time before as I’ve known it, full of vivid memories of an idealistic childhood. But now the time before has shifted. As I grow into adulthood and the time after, I can taste the bitter, thrilling fear of independence, and I can no longer romanticize through tangible snapshots.

The time before begins with trauma; not with the seemingly peaceful childhood, or before that, with my parents’ story. The time before is littered with memories of the usual teenage angst and One Direction fanfiction on Wattpad. But it’s also full of hospitals that leave permanent goosebumps, silent screams into a pillow in the moonlight—the time before has left scars on my body and in my being. The time before made me question my purpose, in a frightening way that differs from my ongoing existential crisis today. It is defined by rough edges, nothing that Mamoni’s hands can successfully smooth over with wrapping paper, then gather and tie together with a velvet bow. 

The equation makes sense in my mathematical brain, one I’ve trained myself to understand. The time before is a recipe—not one written in Mamoni’s gentle cursive in old lined notebooks, but one reserved in my head. The recipe is messy, complicated, and cluttered with suicidal ideation. Moments from the time before are like dominos that ricochet in the empty corners of my mind. 

I omit things because I’m scared of misremembering—or maybe, I just didn’t experience that at all. I’m told by therapists that this is a common side effect of what happened during the time before, although I’m not sure that makes me feel any better. I’m also told by therapists that this is the reason, perhaps, I overcompensate by pushing my intellectual limits in trying to remember it all now in the present moment—the time now. Just in case. 

The time before is the time of great shift—my transitional period into understanding myself and the world. And while I try to document this part of my life, I find myself walking in circles in fear of misremembering. The time before is the most important for me to recall, to draw upon, as I attempt to transition into the long awaited phase of the time after. Yet, the time before exists in a liminal space—there, I continue to grapple with reality. 

In the time before, I was lost, more so than I am now. The intrusive thoughts come and go more gracefully, but now they sit in my soul for a while, no longer like a heavy stone on my chest, but one I would rather take a pickaxe and gently pry at. 

I’ve begun to understand the time before in relative perspective to the time now. But the time after is a blank canvas, unable to be rooted in reality of the past or the present, because it is simply an imagination. 

The time after, I hope, is full of tangible memories. I’ve lived longer in these bones than me of the time before could have imagined. The time after should be full of laughter, happy tears, encompassed in the woods of the Catskills. The time after is the simmer pot I care for meticulously on the stove, full of tart orange rinds, sweet hand picked apples, strong cinnamon sticks, and bitter cloves.