Love Me One More Time by Laura Burton
“Next up is a woman who has it all; the beach house in Long Island, the six-figure income, and the front cover feature on Estelle! It can only be… Zoe Walsh!”
The stadium erupts in cheers and applause. I swallow against the lump in my throat, toss back my wiry curls, and march into the spotlight with my shoulders squared.
I give a big jovial wave, using my entire arm, and plant a stage smile on my face. Here we go.
I’ve been introduced to a crowd more times than I can count, but it never feels like they’re talking about me.
Sure, I have money and a beach house, but that’s not all there is to me.
I’m clumsy; tripped on an imaginary step more than once.
My happiest moments are when I’m in water, and I almost sent my house up in flames that one time with the hair straighteners…
All of those things and moments are who I am.
But the me everyone sees instead is some kind of TV personality; a me that’s always happy and has never ever messed up.
That’s only one of the reasons why giving a motivational speech is my least favorite thing to do. There’s just something about only putting your best foot forward that feels desperately unoriginal.
Plus, the routine never changes.
I show up to the venue ––today, it’s a high school football field, but sometimes, it’s a University, or a conference center; once, I presented in a theatre, that was pretty cool.
Then the announcer introduces me like I’m some kind of flying unicorn; super shiny, super successful––and don’t forget the most enviable quality––super happy.
After the cringe-worthy introduction, I march on, crack a couple of jokes to loosen up the crowd, and finally deliver the speech.
The vomit-inducing speech I know like the back of my hand. I could probably deliver it in my sleep.
It’s all about manifesting wealth, good health, success, and happiness.
And how the only person standing in the way of your good fortune is you.
But today, as I look out at all the young, hopeful faces of these high school students about to graduate, I find myself struggling.
Maybe my blood sugar is low, or I didn’t get enough sleep last night… or maybe I’ve just delivered this speech one too many times. The cherry on top is it’s my thirtieth birthday, and I’m crazy emotional about birthdays.
I should have probably called in sick.
Because it’s suddenly all too much, and right then, on that stage, I feel something inside of me snap.
Then, I open my big mouth and I do a terrible, unthinkable, unforgivable thing…
I go off script.
“Thank you for the very flattering welcome, Jerry.” I point at the school principal and shoot him a wink.
Offense number one: addressing the school principal by his first name.
I run my tongue over my teeth in a bid to stop them sticking to the back of my lips. “Hello, students of Croftwood Academy.”
Offense number two: bowing to the students, like I’m presenting my case for world peace at Buckingham Palace or something.
To be fair, Croftwood Academy is the most expensive school within five hundred miles.
The kids wear blazers––even in searing heat––and there are probably more Teslas in the parking lot than in the nearest dealership.
These kids will have access to opportunities that ninety-nine percent of the kids in New York can only dream of. Nepotism lives on.
When I think about the way I dragged myself to the top, using nothing but my own blood, sweat, and tears, I feel a little sick inside.
“Your parents sent you here to give you the very best in education...” I nod to the principal, and his chest swells with pride. Then I turn back to the kids. Every eye is on me, and I get the sense they’re waiting for me to tell them the foolproof secret to permanent success.
“World class tutoring, exotic school trips, and the most exquisite cafeteria food.” I wink at the principal again. “Nothing but silver spoons for these kids, am I right?”
The principal’s smile fades, and I see him twitch, but he doesn’t move. And that is his first mistake. I’m wildly off script, and my filter is gone now. I’m about to obliterate whatever sense of entitlement these kids had when they filed into this stadium.
“Jerry is right; I do have a big beautiful beach house in Long Island.” I see some faces in the audience light up. “I have six bedrooms, a home gym, a theatre room...” murmurs of appreciation ripple through the stadium, “I run on the beach at sunrise, and I do yoga on my balcony at sunset. I’ve coached most of the big A-listers you’ve heard of.” I rattle off a list of names, breaking several clauses in my non-disclosure contracts. “And I was on the cover of Forbes magazine this year as the youngest self-made millionaire from New Jersey.”
New Jersey. There’s a slight shift in mood at the name, as there always is from kids in these types of schools. I usually ignore it and move on, but my rules are out the window today. I choose to address it this time.
“Yes, yes. New Jersey!” I stretch my face into a massive grin. “Can you believe it? I’m not from West Village, or the Upper East Side. I’m not even from Manhattan! I grew up in a modest little town right next to Jersey City.”
There’s a gasp. Then two. Then three or four. And the reactions only spur me on.
“Now, let me tell you about my life before.” I start to pace, throwing my arms up in an elaborate display as I give the kids my pitiful backstory.
I give them a brief summary of how I was raised by a single mom, because my dad was already married with his own family. Yes, my mother was the other woman––and it’s taken years of therapy to deal with that.
I tell them about my grandparents, who disowned my mom when they learned of what she’d done.
I was an average student, not particularly interested in getting good grades, or having lots of friends, and somehow the other kids could sense my issues. So, they kept a distance from me at all times.
“In high school, I made it onto the swim team––being the fastest swimmer in the class. I loved the water. The water never judged me, or dragged me down, or whispered snide remarks when I went past. The water doesn’t care about your race, age, or social status.”
The kids shift uneasily in the bleachers, and I’m not sure which word triggered the response.
“A coach watched me swim, and I was offered a scholarship to Wellington University.” I pause, suddenly reflective.
What I don’t say is there, I met Carter Black. Students revered him. Professors respected him. I loved him.
And he loved me.
Our romance lasted until graduation day––my twenty-first birthday. I clear my throat and carry on.
“I went on to compete all over the country. Then, in 2016, I won three gold medals at the Olympics.”
The principal is smiling again. Happy, now that I’m talking about being successful and not throwing shade at his school. The kids chatter to each other for a brief moment. Their excitement is rising.
And this is supposed to be the good part. This is when I talk about all of my successes and tell them how they can have it all as well, if they only believe!
“I graduated with a degree in behavioral psychology, knowing that a strong mindset is key to winning. And when I started to apply that same can-do mindset to other parts of my life, things really started looking up for me.”
I listed the jobs that I’d landed. But I didn’t mention the fact that I was working sixty hour weeks, sacrificing any hope of making friends or having a personal life. I was taking interviews for all the big names, and with all that media attention, I became a sell-out. “I was the face of energy drinks, protein shakes, bathing suits… Everyone wanted to sign me.”
And they still do. I had to hire a publicist to handle the flood of public affairs and sponsors wanting to sign me.
“Then, people started coming to me for advice, and I realized I wanted to be a life coach.
“So I became friends with Tony Robbins and Bob Proctor, went to a couple of their retreats, and took a lot of notes. Getting clients was easy. I was already winning in the world, and I had the degree to back me up.” I no longer hated myself.
“I started to believe that I deserved this success, and when I got to the point where I really believed in myself, I became a human magnet. People wanted to be friends with me. My grandparents suddenly wanted to get to know me. Even my dad got in touch.” I chuckle, a few of the kids chuckle with me, but there’s an air of unease. The kids can sense the sarcasm in my words now.
There’s a bit of vomit in the back of my throat. My grandparents, who let my mom struggle to take care of me all alone, only reached out because their granddaughter was rich and popular… no longer a stain on their good reputation.
And my dad? He got in touch because he’d left his wife and got himself caught up in a ton of debt. He had a gambling addiction and he wanted money.
I set my mom up in a beautiful apartment, no more than ten minutes from my house, and now I send my grandparents a courtesy Christmas card every year.
My good-for-nothing birth dad gets nothing.
My face stretches out into that manic grin again.
“Sounds great, right? It really sounds like I’ve got it all.”
A few of the kids cheer. The principal clears his throat uncertainly.
“But let me tell you a secret,” I hold up a finger, and a hush falls. The principal is staring at me.
“It’s all lies.”
The stadium is so quiet now, you could hear a pin drop. I’m turned slightly away from the principal now, so I can’t see his reaction. But if he’s the kind of man I think he is, he’s probably doing some desperate thinking on the politest way to get me off the field. Should have grabbed the mic when you had the chance.
“Let me tell you about my day,” I say. “It runs like clockwork. I wake up at four in the morning, fill out my bullet journal, look in the mirror and say affirmations to myself. Then at sunrise, I run alone along the coast outside my gorgeous beach house.” I take a deep breath.
“I go to work, meet clients, jump from a photoshoot, to a client’s house. I post on social media, talk to my PA about my fully booked schedule, drink a shake instead of eating a meal, then work on my book for several hours in the evenings.” I’m talking fast, and the kids are staring at me with wide eyes now.
“I do yoga on my balcony, watch the families sitting on the beach, and wonder when I’m ever going to get one. Or find the time to have one––my PA says the best time for a relationship is maybe in the autumn of 2023. I can fit in a few dates.” I chuckle again. The sound booms across the field ominously. The principal must be wringing his hands at this point. “In the late evening, I punch away my stress and tension at the gym. Alone. Then I end my day with a mug of herbal tea, watching the shopping channel and trying my best to ignore the Carter-shaped hole in my life. He’s the one that got away. My biggest regret.”
Alarm bells are now ringing in my head. Now that I’m pacing toward him, I can see the principal shifting his weight from side to side. But then I turn to the kids again, resigned to the fact that somebody needs to tell them the truth. “You want to know the secret? Well, here it is,” I raise my hand and lower my voice to a cold murmur. “Success has a price. And the price is… wait for it…” No one moves. I hold the pause till it feels like even the air is standing still.
The principal walks away into the crowd of people, and something tells me he’s heading for the sound system. He’ll probably pull the plug any second. I clutch the mic and start to speak into it at a rapid pace.
“I’m miserable. I’m lonely. And I’m tired all the time. They tell you a meaningful life is about finding wealth and happiness, but it’s all a joke. I didn’t get to where I am through affirmations, or a can-do attitude. I didn’t get this body by loving it and being body positive. I’m angry. All. The. Time. I work out for more hours a day than anyone should, and I work harder than anyone I know. That’s how I got here. That’s how you can get here. Do you really want to be like me?”
I see a few kids on the edge of their seats.
“It’s my birthday today. I’m thirty. Three zero.” I hold up fingers.
The words land on the stadium like a thunderclap.
A pair of security guards appear at one edge of the field and come striding toward me, their faces sour.
A rush of adrenaline courses through my body. I have to finish my speech. “You want my advice? Do whatever makes you happy. Always find time to spend with the people you care about. And never ever sell yourself out. Or you’ll end up like me, thirty years old and alone.”
The microphone goes off with a squeal and the word alone echoes around the stadium like a final word of caution.
The guards reach me and each one takes an arm to drag me away. It’s only when we’ve reached the edge of the field and I’m closer to some of the kids that I notice a lot of them are holding smartphones aimed at me.
This is why I had a script.
I reckon I’ve got roughly two hours before my entire career goes down the drain.
The guards throw me off the school premises with a threat to call the cops if I try to get back inside. I straighten my shirt with the last of my dignity and tell them, in no uncertain terms, that I’d rather nail my tongue to a toilet seat than walk back into that school.
Then I get in my car, grip the steering wheel, and hold my breath.
Happy Birthday, Zoe.
Normal people celebrate a milestone like this with a big party, surrounded by their friends and family. I celebrate the day by crushing little kids’ hopes and dreams, and destroying the career I worked so hard for.
The odd thing is, I don’t think I care.
I pick up my phone, dial a number, and listen to it ring. When it connects, I put on my brightest voice. “Hey, Mom! I know I said I couldn’t come over until this evening, but my afternoon just opened up. Mind if I come over early?”
My mom doesn’t answer for a second, probably waiting to see if I’m going to follow up with a “Just kidding!” But when I don’t, she finally speaks.
“Well, sure, honey. That’s great. But is everything all right?”
“Everything’s fine. Better than fine. I just need to pick up some things and I’ll be right over.” I end the call and turn on the ignition.
Today is my birthday. And I won’t have a party. I don’t have friends.
But I do have a big bank balance and I can buy anything I want.
So I’m getting me some cake.