Kelley Timmons: Twenty (memoir)

Southern Legitimacy Statement: My husband, a fellow aspiring writer, and I married in May and live a quit life in a single-wide in the woods. I was born and raised in a small Arkansas community, without a Dollar General or Sonic to be considered a town. I’ve always lived 20 minutes from anywhere and have had the life-long, cherished bereavement of having everyone I passed in the nearest town’s grocery store know me and all my business.


I was only twenty. That’s what everyone said when they heard the news. No one could believe it, it was so unlike me, so uncharacteristic of my typical personality. Wasn’t I the one who always had my life together? Wasn’t I the responsible one? Wasn’t I supposed to be level-headed and trustworthy? Where were my parents, had they not taught me any different? But she’s only twenty; she can’t’ve known much better. 

My mother had only cried and shaken her head. My father all but quit talking to me. My sister tried to assess if I’d really been a born-again Christian all along because surely not with my behavior. Why would you do this; you’re only twenty.  

I was twenty when I married him; he was my high school sweetheart, my first date, my first kiss, my first love. We’d been together far too long to think of any decent reasons not to get married; he had a good job, after all, and shouldn’t we know by now if we wanted to be together or not? We had a pretty wedding and I wore a pretty dress and we ate a pretty white cake and took a bunch of pretty pictures and then we were married. I was only twenty.

So we were married and happy, or he was happy, and I was married. I cooked and I cleaned and I ironed and I washed and I ate and I fucked and I slept and I repeated; I was married and I was doing everything I was supposed to do, when I was supposed to do it. I was tired. My house was clean, my supper was cooked, my bills were all paid, but my head was weary, my heart was lonely, my soul was achy, and I was only twenty.

I thought it would get better. I thought I would fix him and make him into everything I wanted. I thought every anxious and uneasy and cautious feeling I’d had in the months leading to our marriage were only pre-wedding jitters and nerves. I thought we were perfect and happy and meant-to-be and comfortable and okay. I thought I knew everything; I was only twenty.

My life was a series of what-to-do-next’s and how-does-this-look? because when you’re sad and alone and empty and confused, you have to make sure that no one else knows. I’ll cook that perfect Pinterest meal and post it on FaceBook; I’ll take some silly pictures of us for all our friends to envy; I’ll talk about how well-established and well-rounded I am and all the meals I can cook with the ladies at work so they’ll know I’m a good wife at only age twenty.

I went through the motions and fulfilled all my duties and said all the things I knew I needed to say: school, work, supper, clean, how was your day?, sure lets watch some tv, of course I’m fine, why wouldn’t I be? and repeat and repeat and repeat until my head spun and my eyes stung and my insides felt numb. I was lonely and dejected, only twenty and too young for my mess.

I tried to be a good wife; I tried to keep it together. I tried to love him. I tried to remember why I had ever loved him in the first place; there had to be some reason, something that made his stupid laugh and ignorant dronings bearable. There didn’t seem to be one. I’d only been married less than a year and already I’d given up. Love, or the feeble remnants of it, weren’t enough to keep me whole and satiated. After all, I was just twenty.

We’d always been so comfortable and untroubled; no real emotions, no feelings of love or passion or craving or affection nor even hate or contempt. We were complacent and making do; there was never a reason to rock the boat. But the emotionless complacency kept my heart stifled. I couldn’t keep still; my affections wouldn’t allow it. My soul bucked at the cold restraints of a loveless, pleasant union.  I didn’t want comfortable; I couldn’t stand the moderate happiness, the pleasantries of a roommate relationship that couldn’t substitute for a marriage any longer. I was too damn old for the life I’d been living and I was only twenty.

I rebelled, I acted out, I began to embody the complete contradiction of the perfect housewife I’d worked for months to become. I loathed his smell, his touch, his breath. I waited till he slept to take showers so I could avoid his brutish stares; I stayed at my parents until after dinner so I wouldn’t have to talk to him; I befriended new people so I could stay away on the weekends. I lashed out, I called him names, I frantically pushed back at the weak, tepid attempts he made for reconciliation. I wanted no more part in a union that left me bitter and lifeless. I asked for a divorce at twenty.

I quit eating. I lost weight. I was angry and confused and untrusting and stressed.  I knew what I wanted, I knew what I needed but still I panicked at the thought of making a bigger mistake. I warred with myself about what to do; I stayed on the defense, bristled at any outside attempts to advise me. But you’re only twenty; you can’t know what you want. You’re only twenty; do you know how this will look? You’re only twenty; no good Christian man will want you now. Twenty twenty twenty.

But I got my divorce. I told him to leave; he made no objections. I was poor and alone yet unbridled and relaxed; my head was still confused but my heart knew I had chosen what was best. I was constantly told how I was supposed to feel: you should hate him; you should forgive him; you should try to go to counseling; you should keep moving on; you’re not angry enough; you’re moving on too quickly. I felt it swirl all around me and engulf me in contradictions but I knew for myself that my answer was clear: My soul is calmer in this tempestuous state and I finally feel youthful and twenty. 

I’d been the perfect student, the perfect daughter, the always-has-it-all-together sweet, church-going, responsible, nice girl; the girl that never called much attention to herself. But I embraced my delayed teenage rebellion with a delicate bloom and welcomed my new status. I became what I’d always mocked, what I’d gossiped and tisked my tongue about. I became my new title in my overzealous cow town. Divorced. At twenty.

Before I’d been too prideful, too judgmental, too self-righteous. I’d turned my nose up at any girl that had been so apparently fickle as I was now appearing to be. My life, my persona, my relationship had seemed so perfect and easy and sweet but it was broken and dismal and fake. Divorce knocked me down a peg and opened my eyes to the fallacies I’d been feeding myself on what was the happy life. My shame brought me down to the same women I’d once adjudicated. I learned I didn’t know it all because I was only twenty.

I was a Rahab, a Jezebel, a Bathsheba, a Mary Magdalene. A fallen woman. The source of small town gossip until a homecoming queen got pregnant. I learned not to care; I’d rather everyone whisper and stare when I walked in the room than to again be one of the hypocrites staring. It was easier, despite my embarrassment and chagrin, to embody the role of the divorcée; the standards were easier to meet and the expectations low. My sins were now more public than everyone else’s but my nature was meek and my inhibitions were set free; I could finally live as I pleased without the consent of anyone else, and merely at twenty.

My humble new character felt the disoriented split of an old weathered soul and  a newly resurrected spirit. I was too tired, too solitary, too seasoned to enjoy what my youth, my age, my ego wanted to escape to and embrace. I wanted to be young but I didn’t know how. I’d fucked up my youth and I was only twenty.

Broke and unsure, vulnerable and hardened I decided I’d be alone and subdued and detached until I was certain of how I should act. I was regaining my life and reshaping my future but open to whatever opportunities lingered my way. I wanted simply to welcome the subtle revisions that enveloped my new life. I was a blank canvas waiting to be painted yet patient in understanding that my repainting might be delayed. I sucked in my breath and told myself that I could well be waiting long: you’ve got a lot of life ahead. Remember, you’re only twenty. 

I quietly pursued my life, still too uneasy to risk rocking the boat of my newfound restfulness. I was looking for nothing in particular; I only had vague notions of what I wanted to find. I thought I would keep my head down and finish everything I’d started and begin a life someplace new and push through my situation until I was no longer twenty.

But while my head was bowed in my pursuit of hammering through my right now I glanced up and found a serendipitous intimation of pure, holy newness; a rebirth and reflection of what I was reshaping my soul to be; a literal manifestation of the genuine and good qualities I’d prayed I could personify. I found actual, palpable, human-embodied, spiritual love, the discovery of which was “part two” of my saga but “part one” of the rest of my life. It was a love that made me understand why I’d been ripped apart and crumbled up and thrown back down; why I’d been tempest-tossed and war-torn and overwhelmed. A love that picked my tired, sagging pieces up and carried them to self-acceptance and forgiveness and rest. A love that got me through the worst of my guilt and shame and held up a mirror to the good and honest things that emanated from my broken but healing spirit.  A love I never believed I could find at just twenty.

Married. Divorced. Fallen. Ashamed. Renewed. Forgiven. Accepted. Truly, unconditionally, emotionally loved. My newly refreshed, re-painted life bears the remnants of a glum but necessary past. My title displays an embarrassing but essential realization, an uncomfortable but indispensable lesson. My hard and ugly layers were peeled away by my own self-consciousness and my revelation of unfiltered love. It was all imperative, all important, all crucial to forming me into the human and essence and soul I was supposed to be. I learned my most valuable and treasured lesson at the age of twenty.

I had to be humbled, I had to be broken, I had to be embarrassed and knocked down and defeated and scorned in order to be revived and made vibrant and blooming and whole. I was stripped of the unnecessary bullshit and monotony of a life without  organic emotions and thrust into an effervescent kaleidoscope of joy and peace and  perpetual newness. I was given an early midlife crisis, a complete re-do, an expiration  to an “unsatisfactory life” thirty day trial. I’d hit a pause but not an end. I found myself, I found what I needed, I found tangible love and inner solitude and an understanding that circumstances and outward opinions contribute little to the private knowledge of one’s individual soul. Now my house is always dirty, I rarely cook supper, I worry about paying my bills, but my life is full and my heart is grateful. I found what’s most beautiful and precious and vital in life, and thank God, I’m still only twenty.