Love Me?

I remember there was a character on the later seasons of “Buffy”-Andrew, I think? That used to go about in a tshirt that said “Love Me?” Around the same time, Robb Thomas of Matchbox-20 wore the same t-shirt in the video for their single “Unwell”. Those t-shirts, like “Jesus is My Homeboy” and “Vote For Pedro” had their moment.  I can’t imagine anyone wearing such a baldly honest sentiment quite literally on their chest. It is sad but humbling to think that maybe those cries for love have become displays of anger, and that the people who seem the most hateful towards us are those who asked for our love in a way that didn’t make sense to us. We didn’t pick up on a tone of voice, a regional custom, a quirk of personality, or a look in their eyes meant only for us. This is how some grudges are born,maybe, those moments when we didn’t give enough love, when we didn’t see an olive branch or a cry for help. Naturally, people who express their hurt feelings with aggression have a little growing up to do. But what can I do to alleviate people’s pain and not cause any more than necessary? There is certainly enough cruelty in this world. I don’t want to add any, but I don’t feel that being quiet, being honest when I do speak, or being educated should hurt anyone.

I want to try to listen harder to those cries for love before they turn into enmity.  But at the same time, I don’t want to fall into placating a narcissist that thrives on seeing me do contortions of personality and mood according to their harassment. I have failed and offended so many people just by being myself, and that hurts on many levels. However, all I can do now is look deeper and longer into people’s eyes, listen closer to them when they talk, give a kind word even to a comment I am a little confused or disinterested by, and at the end of the day know that if I have done those things then no matter what happens I have not failed anyone.

 

 

Advertisements

Women, Infants, and Children

I am twenty six years old, unmarried, and I don’t have kids. That means something different in a big city than in a small town. Or rather, it means something different in a real life small town in 2016 than it did on all the sitcoms about single gals I watched with my mom in the 90’s. Where’s my cast of best friends sipping cocktails while bemusedly shaking their heads at me and asking, “When are you going to settle down and find Mr. Right?” I, of course, would shrug adorably and continue to date around while wearing Manolo Blahniks.  If the press, both online and traditional print magazines, is to be believed, we that fall in the Millenial bracket are just drowning in casual sex procured via Instagram DMs and swiping right on Tinder, and once these virtual dates  are procured we retire to ‘Netflix and chill’.

I don’t have a Tinder, Netflix, or Instagram account, although I once tried Ok! Cupid and

A) Stumbled upon the profile of a high school classmate, in full Ancient Egyptian vampire goth regalia, claiming that she lived in Maryland although she still lived in the house up the street from mine, and

B) Was rejected by a guy who didn’t approve of my answer to the question, ‘Who’s your favorite character in ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’. I guess his is not Basil Hallward.

Anyway, where I live there is no glamorous Carrie Bradshaw scene, and of virtual hookups, as I said,   I can’t say. Most people around my age are married, or living as they are, with children.  I am quite the old maid around here, although I’d be a young, sexy single anywhere else. I can’t help but notice and over the years have been unable to avoid the messy dynamics between single, childless women and married mothers. I have shied away from writing about this topic because I don’t want to tar everyone with the same brush.Not everyone with children acts like this, just enough people that I have encountered to warrant classifying it a species of pet peeve.  Motherhood is beautiful, and I have every hope that I will be a mother  someday. It is just weird for my neighborhood that I didn’t become one at about 19 or so.

The biggest thing I have had to deal with is the condescending notion that I have nothing going on in my life since my schedule is not full of elementary school events, I am not spending my earnings on feeding and clothing a child, and I don’t have the needs and foibles of a husband to emotionally navigate. I do have a life-writing, college, yoga, my job, and being a sister, daughter, and friend take up 24 hours and then some just like anyone else’s day. I am just as busy, just with different things, and just as emotionally invested in my mother, brother, sister, and great-grandmother, my closest relatives, as anyone else would be with their child and husband. Family is family, and I don’t appreciate the implication that my love for them doesn’t compare to the love of a wife and mother. I will be both of those things one day, no doubt-and I have given and received rich love and experiences with the people and pursuits of my life that such love will make me a warm, thoughtful, and gentle mother. I look at the family you were born into as the laboratory for what kind of parent you are going to be, and I value those relationships because when I do have a child, they are going to love him/her as much as I do.

Then, there is the way some women I have known wish to revert to some kind of youthful, carefree, teenage like state when talking with a woman they know is single. They even encourage you to date and go out more, like a recovering alcoholic who abstains but likes to see their friends pop bottles, vicariously turning up.  I have gotten better treatment when I have a boyfriend then when I was on my own by my co-workers, and on the other hand I have been given the cold shoulder once it is revealed that I spend most of my time reading, doing yoga, and taking long walks and therefore am no one’s font of twenty-something sexcapade stories.

There is the idea that because I don’t have anything to contribute to conversations about childrearing and kids that I am being standoffish and rejecting an olive branch of friendship somehow.  Look, honey-let’s talk about “Game of Thrones”, let’s talk about fashion week, let’s talk about crystal healing or dogs or making candles out of mason jars. I can do that. But I don’t have kids-I will listen, I will laugh, and I can vividly remember my childhood and my siblings’ so I can provide a relevant story about being a kid. But I just don’t have kids to talk about. It’s not a diss, and people who take it as one should either find other moms to talk to since they take non-childcare related topics as offensive or loosen up around a woman who doesn’t have kids and talk about the Kardashians or something. Just let go! And if I bring up any of those topics, I am not talking down to anyone about books they haven’t had time to read or tv shows they haven’t had time to watch, flaunting all that free time to be spiteful. I am just talking about the things I like, because what else does anyone talk about?

Then, there are the empty nesters, who see that I am in age range of their children who are out of state at college. Just because I am young doesn’t mean I’m automatically looking for guidance from someone older. I have a mom, and I’m not looking to replace her. And anyway, what’s guidance and what’s meddling? Answering for me when someone asks me a question, nudging me and hissing at me to ask out guys I don’t find attractive, inviting me to events and getting angry when I can’t schedule the day off to make it or are not interested, and scolding me as if I am a child are not guidance. That is transference, anger at the child that has flown the coop that I am replacing for those satisfying few moments where there is someone between the ages of 18-34 to yell at. But I don’t think that’s appropriate between two adults, and not having kids or being married doesn’t make me some kind of woman-child.

I have no doubt that if I stay in the area where I am currently living, I will continue to get this infuriating treatment until the day someone sees a tell-tale bump under my maxi dress and then I will suddenly be the most interesting person alive. All my jokes will be funnier, I will suddenly be nicer, and people who used to glare at me will advise me on stretch mark creams and ask which doctor I am seeing. Or maybe not, because people who can’t respect another person’s validity and personhood because their life looks a little different than their own are not the kind of people I want to raise kids around.

 

 

 

Work in Progress

Lately, I’ve been reading interviews with or blog posts by some of my favorite authors. My favorite authors list falls into two categories: trusted favorites I have been reading for years, like Anne Rice and Neil Gaiman. I know which words they use most often, the names they have accidentally assigned to more than one minor character in different unrelated books, which settings and events are based on events and locations they have a personal connection with. Then, there are writers I feel a different kind of connection with. These are people who have written one novel so far, a debut novel of stunning originality, that straddles the borders between the fantastical and reality in a way that makes it appealing to those who don’t always read fantasy.

I think good ideas must be exhausting. I think that these people managed to do what I haven’t so far, to devote themselves to realizing an idea that is so good, it left them needing an energy drink and a vacation. Yet, they did manage to not only complete a manuscript, but get published. I’m not the sort to follow anyone else’s formula to the letter-we all have our own personal destiny, and the tools to accomplish it are going to find us if we are really looking and paying attention. That being said, I was curious about these people and what led them to write such amazing novels as The Night Circus, The Golem and the Jinni, and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Reading interviews with and blog posts about these writers, the similarities struck me.

I have, like them, tried NaNoWriMo. I, like them, have gone to college for writing, but also taken educational paths that had nothing to do with writing. I take inspiration from stories that have been with me since childhood, and find magical elements in my cultural background that could easily be a magical realist novel one day. History equally inspires me, of my own country and other countries too. I get easily distracted while writing , turning to reading other books, or food. For all the articles giving advice on completing a first novel, I still think there is no formula. I am inspired, however, to know that I am not the only one who gets distracted and needs a little time to get focused again. I really think I will finish a book.

Our Town

I don’t exactly live in a small town. It’s a big county where seas of trees occasionally give way to small towns. And when I say small town, I mean ‘there’s a post office, a convenience store, and some county garbage cans’ small. Long rural roads traverse these towns, like Amazonian snakes uncoiled and laid across creeks, rivers, and railroad tracks, until finally a grocery store or an exit ramp appears like an oasis signalling hope for the thirsty in the desert. There are no main streets. If we run into each other, it is out of town. However, reputations do stick. They not only stick, they carry over into these out of town places where we all work, buy our groceries, and idle the weekends away in the humble, tacky shopping mall or the sports park, if someone has something to celebrate. It is the anxiety of diaspora, running into someone from your tribe and being both thrilled that they speak your language and unnerved to hear them speak to you in it, without saying a word at all.

I won’t go into why I was widely disliked in high school, because so many of the modes of behavior and dress that were in style at that time could only happen in a rural community where pop culture is a rumor handed down late, and badly translated. There were a few months in my Theater class where a corps of the coolest girls wore crochet skull caps, claimed to be Buddhists, and listened to Sublime and 311, thinking that this was a ska-punk thing to do. Then it was very punk rock for girls to wear suspenders, or clothes with CareBears on them. The latter might have been a psychedelic thing, but I’ll really never know. I could just never keep up, and deliberately swam against the grain, really, because I was just worldly enough to suspect that there was more to being a Buddhist than refusing to kill bugs and eating only the salad off of the hamburgers in the cafeteria, and that ska-punk did not begin and end with “Santeria”,the only Sublime song everyone knew because that is the one the modern rock station broadcast in the state capitol had on rotation. And Carebears were cute, but  I had a Spin magazine subscription and a more chic idea of rebellion.

When every one else was a Hot Topic punk I was a goth, or some kind of neo-grunge Beatnik, wearing as much black as I could scrounge from my wardrobe, dresses I had added black lace touches to, fuzzy sweaters and ripped jeans, carrying Sylvia Plath poetry and Anne Rice novels around, writing constantly. I wasn’t a total navel gazer-I wrote soapy “Harry Potter” fanfictions with lurid twists to make my friends laugh, or catty poems about teachers we didn’t like. I traded the first Twilight novel and paperback romance novels about yet more vampires with my little posse. I had friends, I had fun, but there was something undesirable about me and everyone knew it. No one could quite put a finger on it, not even the people who ridiculed, excluded, rejected, and slandered me. Even teachers treated me as if I were a lump of coal in their stocking. I was given the same treatment as people who were considered fat, poor ugly, homosexual, promiscuous or had some kind of family scandal, but none of those applied in my case, really. All of those labels got flung at me at one time or another between 8th grade and 12th grade, but nothing stuck except the universally acknowledged fact that unless you already had nothing to lose socially, I was to be avoided and openly despised for one’s own reputation’s sake.

I am 25 now, and for some of my former classmates, not much has changed. I still encounter people who seem to be looking over their shoulder at an invisible group of friends that has long  dispersed, confirming, “Oh, we hate her, right?” and pointedly ignoring me or glaring at me because once, ten years ago when we were all children, I had the audacity to not  wear a skull cap and call myself a Rastafari-Buddhist, while listening to a reggae band from Long Beach, California. In the kingdom of the blind, one might say…..

I ignore it, I let it go, I spin wryly humorous comments out of it to my sister, but today I just couldn’t ignore being ignored any longer. The girl in question, let’s call her Sidney, is a fairly frequent customer at my new job. She graduated a few classes below me, but was tangentially apart of this group of misguided music fans/eastern mystics without a compass. The first time she saw me she looked over at me with an, “Oh, shit, it’s her”expression, then looked away, and has since made her invisible friends proud by ignoring me on two other occasions. Today I waited on her and her mother. I just couldn’t take the bullshit anymore. What am I being ostracized for, exactly? Taking out more books than anyone else at the library? Raising my hand in class and having the right answers? Listening to 80’s New Wave and 90’s alternative instead of bad frat boy reggae? Is this really worth being pointedly cruel to someone? It wasn’t when we were kids, but kids are kids. Why, ten years on, am I still the pariah?

“Hi Sidney,,” I said out loud. Inside, I said, “To Hell with it.”

“Hi,how are you?” she said.

“I’m fine, and I’ve been fine the last couple of times you came in here, ” I said. She could tell my manager if she wanted. I really didn’t care. I had to stand up for myself.

After grimacing in shock, she recovered and said, “I apologize for not speaking to you.” She turned to her mom-who seemed to be in her cups, or at least acting spacy to seem young and carefree-and said, “I’m just rude. Doesn’t everyone say I’m rude like that, Mom?”

It was supposed to be adorable. They laughed, and I was meant to join in as a form of clemency. They attempted a few more jokes to lighten the mood, and soften me up. I might work part time for $9 an hour but I have enough pride not to laugh with people who would have continued treating me like the scum of the earth if I hadn’t demanded better treatment.

However, today was a lesson to me. No matter how fixed in stone a small town reputation may seem, even if there is no living memory of why people feel a certain way about  you, just a tired script that seems to have no end and the same lines in different scenarios, it is not too late to demand better treatment. And all the progress I have made in loving myself and knowing myself does not desert me the minute one of my old tormentors screws their face up me in a crowd, wondering with contempt, “Where’s her skull cap?”Standing up to Sidney meant little to me. She was just a girl I had known for a brief and inconsequential moment in my life and her’s. I had stood up to her, felt proud of myself and then moved on with my day and my life-that was the prize.

 

 

That’s Entertainment

I just started my literary theory class this week, and it’s not going well. I was savaged by both my professor and another student for my definition of just what, in my opinion, literature is. I am kind of a no-bullshit kind of person. My definition was, “Fiction that is written to entertain, and by entertain I mean divert from reality.” More or less. I said other things, but my professor seized on this the way mean Miss Minchin in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess misunderstood Sarah Crewe when she said she did not need French lessons. She meant that she already knew how to speak it, but the villainous headmistress thought she was seeing a child’s resistance to a distasteful, potentially boring class. My professor made a similar assumption, that I was saying literature is meant to be fun.

I have no resistance to reading classic works of literature, and I understand that writers of different eras have written with social, moral, and personal agendas to be heard for a variety of reasons. However, this is all entertainment. Why is entertainment both a dirty word and a vital necessity in our culture? Entertainment, as I posted in my class’s online forum, simply means that fiction is rubbing your feet, tickling your scalp, giving you so much pleasure you don’t feel the need to ask your spouse how their day at work was, or call your grandmother on the phone, or go to yoga class that evening. Or it can mean that you are so hard at work that you feel no compulsion to change streams until the task of understanding the author’s words is complete. Whether you are trying to demystify Hardy’s themes in Tess of the Durbervilles or biting your nails along to a tense scene in a Stephen King horror novel, whether you are cheering Bella on to choose Jacob or Edward (your choice!), or  reading Dostoyevsky, what does it all have in common? Well, in my opinion it is all the same because it’s not real. We can argue about different literary movements, the influence that the author hoped to have on society at that time, but at the end of the day it’s just not real. And things that are not real distract us from what is.

That’s okay! It’s healthy. We need to escape from who we are sometimes. Sometimes the very ideas we do not hold in real life can be the most fascinating to explore. Or, conversely, they can help us cope with reality in a safe space. My brother, a high school senior ,had to watch “Apocalypse Now” for an English assignment. I was excited to watch it with him and my sister, it was one of my favorite movies in high school. I hadn’t seen it in about ten years or so. As I watched it, I got reacquainted with my teenage self, who was struggling with big questions of faith, identity, and ethics in the post 9/11 Bush era of public lies and constant paranoia. What was true, what was the very limit of evil,and how can good ever sustain itself as a dynamic force in the world? I couldn’t find those answers in my rural Baptist church, from my workaholic mom or abusive stepdad, and not in the body count and terror threat alerts on the nightly news. But I found them in the  music and films, books and art I engaged with. It might seem that I proved myself wrong here. Wasn’t I tuning into life rather than tuning out? Well, I would say no, because  I was turning from a world of lies and chaos to one that was orderly, and said what I wished to hear. That was not life in the early aughts.

Anyway, I broke down, cried, and ran out of the room at the scene in which Laurence Fishburne is shot down as his mother’s recorded message is playing. I saw the bane of my youth, the war that wheeled over our heads like a carrion eater, the stories of boys who’d graduated a couple of years earlier lying in hospitals in Germany with mangled legs, the uncertainty for a while over whether conscription would be an active practice again and the war would last so long my little brother was drafted, being out of work myself after graduation and considering joining the military even though Iraq and Afghanistan were the likely destinations. I sobbed not for Fishburne’s character-who was a cocky shit-but for wasted youth and the shadow of war. Real life had not given me the opportunity to unburden myself-fiction stepped up where reality had not.

How many fictional frights, griefs, orgasms, and friendships do we experience in our lives? And aren’t we happier people for it? I once dated a guy who had grown up in a home so conservative the only television show the family watched was “Star Trek”, occasionally, and he also didn’t read or listen to popular music. For lack of conversational topics, he once described to me the various laws regarding taxes on gasoline in the state of Wisconsin. This is conversation absolutely devoid of the shared anachronisms of fiction ,without the release of fiction.

I suspect I have landed in a class with people who have a hard time admitting that. Oh, yes, they would say, I enjoyed “Star Wars”, but only the first one because, Han Solo and that Wookie aside, Luke Skywalker’s arc is a perfect example of Campbellian tropes. Oh, I don’t read anything, they would poo-poo, with a love story, vampires, aliens, superheroes, cops, lawyers, kids, pets, or anything that might cause me to smile visibly or laugh out loud on the metro, recommend it to a friend, or reread it. Reading must be an intellectual challenge and chore to them. To be entertained would be common, soft, unprofessional, and immature, so they pick books that will give them no pleasure so as to seem some kind of martyr for the cause of literature.

Literature is fiction. Fiction is not real life. If these people never escape their real lives and do not trust the allure of fiction even when they read, I do wonder if even their dreams bring them any respite.

 

 

Baby Pictures

I like to think that for the first time in my life, my priorities are in order. I am roughly a year away from finishing a four year degree, and hope to extend some other interests of mine, like yoga and herbal medicine and skin care, into business opportunities. My mom isn’t the type to give you big wet kisses and say, “I’m proud of you” out loud, but I can tell that she trusts me in a way she didn’t before. She’ll always be a strong personality who bosses others about just in the interest of getting things done “right”, but there’s a new level of comfort and confidence in how she talks to me. Same with my sister. She is very maternal and nurturing and has always played the big sister even though she is younger than me, but in the last year or so she asks for my advice more, listens when I explain things. It’s a high compliment that for the first time, she seems to be learning from me or at least looking to me to learn something. I’m really content and hopeful that between my degree and my other talents and interests, I can make  a life for myself and of course pay it forward and help my family too.

However, going to work can sometimes be a humbling experience. Both towns I have worked in are small with a distinctly blue collar take on conservative values. I often find myself a rare oddity-a single woman who is not in a relationship, nor has any children, and is pursuing a higher education. I often find myself as the target of work place discrimination I have very little recourse against. In my former job, it was simply understood that one was going to work later shifts, all weekends, and have very little flexibility with days off unless you had a childcare related reason. One of my former co-workers exploited this shockingly, requesting and being granted all day shifts-7 a.m. to 4 p.m, no weekends, on the pretext that her daughter had cheerleading practice. All right,hunky-dory. But when this plum schedule continued past the peewee football season, we all smelled a rat. I, in the meantime, struggled to complete all my classwork on my two days off, and really felt I would have to drop out.

Where I live, a woman my age is expected to have been a mother, in some cases for quite some time. As I mentioned in an earlier post,  most of my relatives, former classmates, and peers became mothers in their late teens and early twenties. It’s uncomfortable for some people that I am 25, unmarried and childless, and I can feel them all but sniffing me and thinking, “Who the Hell does she think she is?” Or just not knowing what to talk to me about since we can’t compare notes on teething, what to cook for dinner when two of your kids like different foods, and the expensive demands of elementary school teachers. Since I go to school online rather than on campus, my life doesn’t have the vicarious exoticism of a swinging single going out partying, either, so not much to talk about there.  They don’t envy me, they don’t hate me, but I am not part of the club so I am treated with a certain coldness. My life is assumed to be a lot easier, in their eyes, unfairly so.

A couple of days ago, a co-worker was venting about dropping her kids off at school before work. We both came in at 9 am. “My day, ” she announced pointedly, “didn’t begin here at 9 o’clock.” As if I was eating Fruit Loops in fleece pajamas until I had to come in to work.  I most certainly wasn’t, but if  I was, so what? I think fitting in a life of quality time with my family, keeping my grades up in school, practicing yoga, and other pursuits is something to be proud of  given all I have been through. Finding contentment is a blessing.

“You know,” I told her, “I think everyone’s life, whether they have children or not, has its own demands before, during, and after work.”

“Oh, of course, of course!” she sputtered, and turned her back. Life is not any easier or more fun when you are single and childless. I have busy, exhausting days that leave me physically and mentally sponge-like. I run out of time and can’t fit in everything I planned to do. I plan to have children one day, I cherish the idea of it. However, I hope I never say or do anything as obnoxious as the women I work and have worked with towards a woman who, like I am now, is investing her time and money in her future and in her talents. That takes dedication and fortitude, thoughtfulness and mindfulness, that I believe will only serve a woman well when and if she does have children. And if she doesn’t end up having or want to have any children, date, or get married, that doesn’t mean she should resign herself to a lifetime of stilted conversations, flippant comments, nosy questions, and unfair assumptions. I don’t know the answer to this one. I just know what I experience, and I know that people would be a lot more sympathetic when I am sick, when I have a busy workload at school,  if I had some baby pictures to show them.

 

 

 

I Hope This Echo Never Dies

“…It was the first time I had ever really used the place I knew and the things I felt in a piece of fiction, and there was a kind of dreadful exhilaration in seeing things that had troubled me for years come out in a form over which I had imposed control.”

-Stephen King, The Body

 

If you have ever been touched by Stephen King’s novella The Body, it is probably in the form of the Rob Reiner film “Stand By Me,”, and if you know that movie I don’t have to say anything more, except maybe, “I don’t shut up, I grow up, and when I look at you, I throw up.”You get it.  But for the uninitiated, four boys-Wil Wheaton, Corey Feldman, Jerry O’Connell, and River Phoenix- take an impromptu hiking trip to see a dead body. Two of them don’t really get much impact out of the excursion, but the other two confront their future and decide to make their lives matter. One becomes a writer, and from the vantage of middle age he is the one telling the story via flashbacks. I am reading the novella for the first time. Although I didn’t get much out of Stephen King’s (in)famous, On Writing when I read it last year for a Creative Writing class, this is the most realistic sentence about writing I have ever encountered in a story where the protagonist is a writer. I had an experience like that last week.

The scene I was writing was nothing I had experienced. My protagonist was having a fight with her boyfriend, and it was veering ugly. It was hard to write, because her boyfriend is normally so sweet. He’s considerate, attentive, with the keen eye for the details of another person’s comfort that come from being an older sibling-but he also suffers doggedly from PTSD, and this quiet but palpable disappointment with life that I have seen up close on young vets from working in a military town for seven years. But, for storyline dictated reasons he was not very happy with her, and was accusing her of sleeping with her boss. I do yoga, and this was not, to put it in fitness terms, the ‘peak’. It was merely supposed to establish why my main character is upset enough for a major event later on to take place. But when it was time for my girl to defend herself, what came out surprised me. She shouted as loud as she could, “I am not a whore,” and hung up the phone. I went to bed feeling very proud of what I wrote, and woke up feeling charged with this new exhilaration that suffused everything I did. It still hasn’t gone away, and I don’t think it ever will. I pray it won’t. Because as my characters were talking to each other, I was talking to my mother, my grandmother, and the boys that sexually assaulted me when I was 12.

Every time I tell this story I feel like I have done it a million times, and am sick of it, when in reality I have only told the details of the affair to my sister, and my best friend at the time-but, spoiler alert, the latter didn’t go so well. Well, here goes. My mother worked at a series of department stores after her divorce from my stepfather. My favourite was the Hecht’s at the mall in the nearest big town. She was a manager, and every once in a while after school I would mount the escalator to her department and help she and her associates hang clothes. She didn’t pay me, and the piles of power suits and mother of the bride dresses were so heavy they hurt my arm. My reward was to hang out with one of her employee’s teenage daughter. We would walk to Coffee Beanery, not buy anything and turn around, complaining about school the whole way. It was a ritual that made me feel indescribably cool. We couldn’t afford to shop at Hecht’s though. Most of my clothes from this period came from Wal-Mart, and you can bet the popular kids didn’t let me forget it either.

Next, there was the Sear’s at mall in the suburbs of the state capital, about two hours from our little town. I barely saw her, and when I did she was bringing home ugly clothes that didn’t fit me. Sear’s was affordable, so all my clothes came from there between 7th and 9th grade, in big plastic white bags and my mother’s passive aggressive pleas to try them on. I did the best I could, but she didn’t know my size too well and some things were too tight, too short. Her solution was that I wasn’t allowed to wear the short and tight stuff, and if I did I was a slut. That was it, basically. Accusations about being a slut, about boys, dogged me through these years. If I stood on the porch or under a tree, she and my grandmother said I was trying to get men to honk their horns at me as they drove by. If my pants stealthily started to slide down my skinny butt and I pulled them up, I was accused of trying to create a camel toe v effect to, once again, attract men’s attention. If I came home crying, it wasn’t because of challenging classwork or bullies-my mother and grandmother whispered in a huddle outside of my room about how it must be a secret boyfriend.

I was the most unlikely candidate for this behavior, and they must have known it-I wasn’t allowed to join after school clubs, go to friends’ houses, or do any activity outside of the house. I listened to the radio, talked to my best friends on the phone, and played with my little brother and sister. I was no sexpot at school either-too bookish and fat, with clothes that were never quite in style-because they all came from Sear’s,-to draw anything but scorn from the boys. Even those who were my friends because we all liked rock music and manga made jokes about how they would never date me, and confided to me about their crushes on my “prettier” friends.

Once, a friend gave a boy in our class my phone number so that he could ask for the number of another girl we knew. “A boy called the house!!!!” my mother shrieked, darting her eyes around like Beatrix Kiddo looking for more Crazy 88s to kill. She demanded of my grandmother, “Stop me! Stop me from killing her!!!!!” and proceeded to chase me around the house. I ended up cornered, standing on the cushions of the couch, the wall behind me.  I am alive today, so my grandmother must have gotten through to her long enough for me to explain I didn’t have a boyfriend, I barely knew this boy. Needless to say, I wasn’t happy with this friend when I got to school the next day.

Looking back, I know what their goal was. My grandmother, who is my great grandmother, was a promising high school student when she had to drop out due to pregnancy. My mother’s biological mother had her when she was in middle school. My mother made it dazzlingly far for coming out of such circumstances, but still dropped out of college when she was pregnant with me. They saw how smart I was and made it their mission that I wouldn’t choose sex over books, which seemed to be the family curse. They wanted me to be terrified of boys. But I was most afraid of the two of them, and of myself. I despised my breasts, my period, I felt fat, ugly and undesirable because that’s what the boys at school called me, but convinced I must be this secret slut underneath because that’s how my mom and grandmother treated me. I felt like they could see under my skin, and under my skin I was dirty, even things I thought were normal were dirty. I never knew when the accusations were coming. I approached my mother to show her that I thought some skin lightening cream we had been using was giving me an acne break out. She curled her lip at me in disgust, and said that the bumps on my face came from thinking about sex. She shot me one last nauseated look, and said to my grandmother, “No child of mine should look like that.”

So, by the time It Happened I didn’t know what to feel. I was wearing a Rugby shirt that was all black, with a jersey bodice and sleeves and a satin collar, with a black satin skirt fringed with black lace. I had Goth leanings, so for once I felt pretty. The cafeteria was a separate outbuilding from the school, a covered walkway between them. I had ended up in this solitary bubble, a crowd behind me and in front of me, but I was alone. At least, I was until three boys cornered me and began pushing me back and forth between the three of them.  I guess they groped me, and put their hands under my skirt. All I really remember is them laughing. I had seen enough soap operas, made for tv movies, and talk show interviews to know that a certain kind of predatory laughter is usually apart of these things, so it was one of those eerie moments when you are living the tv cliché and it’s like, “Oh, okay, that’s real.”

Or maybe I just focused on their voices so I wouldn’t think about their hands. I didn’t really want to know what parts of me they had touched.  They were the parts of me I was already ashamed of anyway. I was a savvy, smart little cookie. I knew that this denial even as it was happening would, in the words of a tv lawyer, make me an unreliable witness. The fact that these were popular boys and I was the weird fat girl only made my case less compelling. So, I knew even as it was happening that I would have to live with this. Sit near or beside these boys in class for the rest of the year, the next five years, and just not say anything about this. It was over pretty quickly, they let me go and I actually didn’t fall. I remember being grateful that I was still on my feet. That gave me the strength I needed to walk the rest of the way back to the school building, and finish the day.

I still had a kernel of hope that my best friend would be on my side. When I told her about the incident, I mentioned one of the boys by name and she said, “Yeah right. He was just over at my house. He wouldn’t do that to you.” The implication was that I wasn’t pretty enough to warrant such attentions. I mean, who would touch the fat girl in Sear’s clothes? So I went with Plan A: keep my mouth shut, for about twelve years. I see one of the boys who did this fairly frequently, because now my mother is basically retired and I am the one who works retail in the nicer towns a few miles away from our’s, and especially in my old job I see everybody from our county doing their shopping.  Irony alert, he has a daughter. I have told my sister, but I really can’t remember if I have told my mom. Memory is a problem with me. I changed after that, I now realize. I had a huge fight with my best friend, and we didn’t speak again until late into the next school year. It wasn’t about what she had said. It wasn’t about anything really, she just did something random in homeroom and I got furious at her all through first period, and I almost smacked her with a textbook in the hallway.  I became even more of a Goth and started listening to the NuMetal rock that was so popular at the time-this was when parents actually got hysterical if their kids listened to Marilyn Manson. Before that I was repulsed by his religion-baiting shock rock, and had decided for moral reasons never to listen to that kind of music. I kind of said “f#@k it” after that, and felt that he had written the song “Coma Girl” just for me. I don’t know if my mom really noticed much of a change in me, because we were already fighting a lot about clothes and rock music and horror movies, and she had just eloped so we were fighting about that too.

The wild accusations continued throughout high school, mostly coming from my grandmother. When I developed migraine headaches, she called them “nature pains” and said they were from (you guessed it!) thinking about sex. I had been Coma Girl for quite a while at this point. I didn’t expect anyone to fight for me. I sure wasn’t fighting. I was sneaking sips of wine from my mom and stepfather’s room and taking any cold medicine or sleep aid with diphenhydramine in it just to stay numb and sleepy so I couldn’t get into any fights with my grandmother or stepfather, who were home more than my mother. Don’t ask me about the second season of “Heroes”, I was asleep by 8:15 every night. Then I couldn’t sleep the night, of course, so I would prowl around watching music videos and writing in my journal until I kind of dropped, woke up again at 3 when my stepfather left for work, slept a couple of hours and woke up again around six for school.

Strangely enough, I don’t regret those years. I have some fond memories of the art, music, books, and films I discovered in this period, and having only each other to hang out with on weekends has made me, my brother and sister, as close as anyone can be, not just siblings but best friends. I am a pretty nostalgic person. I’m always telling “back in the day” stories, making them wry anecdotes about how bad fashion, music, and hairstyles were in the Bush years. Even my mother laughs. Me and my sister are the only twentysomething girls in our family who don’t have babies, and I am finishing up my Bachelor’s degree, so I guess my mother and grandmother got the results they threatened, accused, belittled, and shamed me for. I appreciate that they cared so much. I certainly don’t find it an attractive prospect to be a young single mother, as my mother was, so I am glad I had two people moving heaven and earth to keep me from the fate I see my relatives, co-workers, customers, and former friends living out. There wasn’t much chance of keeping up with my school friends because those that didn’t move away became pregnant literally right after graduation. I am 25 now. They have elementary school aged children and I have never even owned a dog of my own- half the time I don’t know whether to feel like the lucky one or an old maid. When I take a long hot shower just to smell lavender scented Dr Bronner’s in the steam, or pick up a new hobby like candle-making , or have a really great conversation with my sister, I realize this is the kind of thing I wouldn’t be doing if I had been a mother since the age of 18, 19, or younger, and it definitely veers toward “lucky one”.

However, the scars of their method to keep me on the straight and narrow stayed with me a long time. I dress pretty modestly, always afraid to show too much boob or leg and be “That Kind of Girl”. I am very outgoing and talkative, and get on great with guys but my love life has been very slow. I get so wary of men, I just can’t talk to a guy I am interested in and/or who I know is interested in me because I feel like my mom and great-grandmother are over my shoulder, and I would be proving them right, I am that secret whore just waiting for my chance. They are like Macbeth’s three witches, chanting, “Hot in the seat of her pants” instead of “double, double, toil and trouble” -and there’s only two of them. It is only recently that it seems to have clicked with them that I am a 25 year -old virgin who has only had one serious boyfriend and only been to a night club once, not some vixen.

When my main character screamed those words to her boyfriend, I felt them echo and throb through my head, too. I could feel that echo until the words faded and all I was left with was the hum of reverberating sound. That hum carried me through a Kundalini yoga workout, some preliminary notes for a couple of novels I am working on, a few shifts of my day job, some great days with my family, and a fanfiction submission for the fanzine I am writing for. That echo is in the smell of nag champa I just discovered, it is in the mint and lavender I just planted in my garden. It is in the renewed confidence in my voice when I tell someone ‘no’ to something I don’t want to do or give them a compliment they didn’t expect. It allowed me to hold my peace when my mom’s depression flared up and she tried to pick a fight with me, and to enjoy seeing “Batman vs. Superman” with my brother and sister instead.  I hope this echo never dies, but its waves travel to someone else through every word I write from here on out and say, “It was not your fault. I don’t care what you were wearing that day, or how many boys you have kissed, made love to, or just dreamed about. You are not a whore, no matter who says so-even your own mother.”