Illustration by Jose Santana Firpo

Long Story Short: Flat Ashley

For the second time (and the final time) I have three children in high school all at once: a senior, a junior and a freshman. “What does that look like?” you may wonder, a bit in awe at the cluster of children so close in age. “How does that feel?” I’ll tell you exactly what that looks like, tastes like, feels like, smells like and sounds like. Close your eyes. Breathe deeply. Be aware of your breath. Listen to the world around you. Feel your limbs relax. Exhale. Now imagine what all your senses may experience at once as you are standing alone on a freeway, and you are hit by a bus.

At the very least, it tastes like asphalt.

When my now teenagers were in elementary school, there was this fun project that every third-grade teacher loved called Flat Stanley. After reading the children’s book Flat Stanley, where Stanley gets smashed by a falling bulletin board then rolled up by his parents and mailed to a friend in California, these children were given a black-and-white cutout Stanley of their own and asked to color him and create a story about him. It’s just precious. Then, these third-grade kids (average age: nine) were asked to mail—in envelopes with stamps—three Flat Stanleys to children or adults in other cities and get them to take Flat Stanley around, photograph him in different locales, write about his adventures, and mail them back. As you can imagine, the 9-year-olds had absolutely nothing to do with the multi-week project once they put the Burnt Sienna crayon down after coloring Stanley’s hair. 

As a mom at that time, I wanted to be leveled by a bulletin board and mailed to a friend in California. Now? Same.

Instead of being ground-shipped to the Golden State, however, I’m peeled up off the freeway (after being hit by buses, big rigs, and sometimes a slow-moving tractor), and I’m recolored, propped up and made to stand for photos. Sometimes a new storyline is fabricated to keep me going. And boy, do I travel! I’ve spent weekends at tournaments, weeknights at track meets, and countless days upon days shopping for party attire, attending school functions, carpooling, sitting in bleachers, sitting in lawn chairs and sitting in my car. And let’s not even discuss the emotional toil it takes on a person to guide, encourage, pray and prod a half-baked teen into becoming a functioning young adult. It flattens you out.

I once was an altogether different person before the bus hit me, I swear! I had opinions that weren’t mocked, habits that weren’t questioned, hours that weren’t filled, and skin that didn’t sag. I didn’t have to look both ways before crossing the street. I could easily anticipate the traffic. Now, just as I’m enjoying a moment of vehicle-free roads, a high-speed train levels me and leaves me for the postman.

But flattening out all at once has its advantages: You no longer expect to regain the 3D version of yourself during this season of life. And you can survive a season. Plus, the more flattened you are, the less you are bothered by the minor mopeds and bicycles that come your way. A full person might be mowed down by a motorcycle, but not Flat Ashley! She knows that it’s nothing compared to the bus that’s just around the corner. “What, that?” she mocks to the newbies entering the freeway. “That barely leaves a tire mark. Let me show you the deep treads on my forehead left by the tractor-trailer.” The newbies seem relieved. They aren’t alone. It’s only a flesh wound … so far.

But it still tastes like asphalt.