The littlest bit of sad creeps in and squeezes, not just your heart but your lungs and stomach too and soon you expel that last bit of air and hunger and let yourself be suffocated into a smaller and smaller nothing at all. Get off the grid, it says, let me take over. But I won’t do that–I’ll just go to Walden until it passes. Let me be.
I used to take online personality quizzes (Quizilla, anyone?) every day after school in the 7th grade. There wasn’t an impetus for this, not beyond reading books and having characters described to as ‘inquisitive’ or ‘passionate’ or ‘irritable’. Was I brilliant or gregarious or courageous? Was I anything if someone else didn’t tell that I was it? gurl.com paper doll personalities were my favorite–I could be creative (was I that, though?) and make a collection of pixels intended to represent me represent something else entirely, like how successful I will probably be in ten years or what kind of shy I am.
Are we love compatible? Do I have antisocial tendencies? Am I this or that or those fictional characters? Am I more–
I took the results and clutched those definitions closer to me than a bible. I was this kind of girl, and I knew it, because the internet told me so. I had other interests, to be sure, but those were always aberrations from the real me (and I never strayed too far to begin with.) Listening to Iggy Pop was okay, but I couldn’t become Punk Music Girl, because I was a sensitive and ethereal Pisces, you know. Taking ballet was fine, but don’t keep doing it past age 14 because then you’ll have to become a ballerina or something, and wouldn’t that be a waste of your immense potential (per quiz How Successful Will You Be?) Read this, not that. Love this, not that. Etc. Etc. Etc. I spent so much of being a teenager not trying to fit in, but being afraid to dig in my heels to one thing and having it apply to me. I didn’t want to fit in too well. I was more concerned with being called something than being something. I was so scared it would be the wrong something, so only having a definition applied to me would allow me some plausible deniability. “What, I’m not really into east coast hip hop. Why would you think that? It’s just that one song.” “Skinny jeans, are you kidding me? That’s just a mindless trendoid thing to wear. My mom got these for me.” “What does that word mean? See, I’m not that smart.”
It’s taken me so long to be okay with thinking my own point of view is just fine, and to just like something without thinking about the baggage attached. I don’t have to understand all of your cultural references and you don’t have to understand mine. There’s no mold for me to fit into. I can be into things that the world doesn’t count as a thing. Define yourself in your own terms etc etc. I like superficial pop music and forgotten Motown artists and the saddest surf girl rock ‘n’ roll and a Ghost World//glittery Artemisian aesthetic and entertaining the notion that I’m doing something revolutionary by existing in this paradigm. I don’t have to identify with you to know that I’m intelligent enough and self-aware to the point of exclusion. “I am what I am,” I said, before collapsing into a small pool of canned spinach.
I’m going to like and be all these disparate things and they are still legitimate, even if a lifestyle writer from fucking Buzzfeed or Thought Catalog or any number of the blogs I read with thousands of people participating in their comment section don’t count what I like as a real category of Things That Are Likable And Zeitgeisty. I don’t have to like sweeping period movies just because my mom says that’s what real movies are and I don’t have to not like the idea of wealth because upward mobility is just so overrated, right? I am not so easily defined anymore and I do what I want, okay, okay.
There is physical memory, knowing how something feels long after your fingers have stopped brushing the surface, going mindlessly through the same motions. It’s like riding a bike—exactly like that, riding a bike. It’s putting your hands on the handlebars and feet on the pedals, pushing down and sitting up and feeling the wind and dirt blow in your face. That memory is the unforgettable, quintessential piece of childhood, a moment of independence from a guiding hand, the sensation of pulling away instead of being pushed toward.
However, if we’re being completely honest that memory is too fleeting to truly be considered representative of the act of childhood. So much of your early life is spent as a tangent to someone else—your parents, your siblings, your unlucky neighborhood babysitter. Perhaps, then, a more accurate view of the standard model of infancy is how it looks from something like the backseat of a car. Lying down back there, zooming down tree-lined highways in rural backwoods counties, sandwiched between throw pillows and forgotten out-of-season jackets: all are very physical impressions, so it is still a physical memory, but much more specific to the sense of being small and almost forgotten, fitting yourself awkwardly into the detritus of a late model family size sedan with premium safety features.
It is useless trying to get comfortable—the seatbelt makes sure of that. No amount of floral-printed, formerly decorative blankets and pillows, tossed into the backseat in case of such a need, can make the actual act of lying down comfortable. The small metal implement digging into the spleen or pancreas or similarly placed vital organ is like a small metal implement digging into the brain, not letting it sleep or forget the tingling sensation near the kidney. The speaker placement is horribly misdirected, allowing the treacle of inoffensive adult contemporary to waft around the calves of anyone sitting in the back, translating to a head pounding with Celine Dion for any unfortunate souls caught trying to lie across the backseat.
However, on not those days, when the radio is set to ambient levels, lying down lets the music wash over you, like warm syrup melting a cold pat of butter. All of it can totally occupy your existence for three and a half minutes each, trickling down from the vibrations at the top of your head all the way to the toes, squished with the bottom half of the legs into the fetal position and jammed against the opposite door. All of it contributes to some macro part of your reality that realizes how little you are and big it is. You’re never clear on what all of it is, though. It is just a vague inflated thought. Physically, nothing is vague—it’s all bent knees and elbows poking cushions and the air conditioner blowing on the one spot at the small of your back, sending shivers up your spine.
Everything happening like this gives your mind license to wander on to the most inconsequential things. The impeccable stitching of the leather seat backs is wasted, really; who would notice the careful crosshatching but a small child with no regard for true craftsmanship? Is this the forward thinking of mid-1990s Motor City? And why is the carpeting so soft if only the soles of shoes are going to be touching it (or, more accurately, roughing it up?) And the color—the specific gray of car interiors can range from a hoary taupe to a disappointingly flat drabness, and, yet, they all seem to be titled ‘luxury steel’ in manufacturer brochures, or something that could double for a superhero name or robot variety.
So, remember that sense. The memories of inconsequence that are still stuck to the sticky car leather, insistent on holding you hostage in the impossible heat, are the ones that stick the most in the mind. You can recall a feeling, to be sure, but the physical remains even long after you are able to slowly disengage and sit up straight, and rearrange the throw pillows and maneuver out of the cold and dark interior in to the real world. It sticks to you and leaves a mark somewhere, like the impression of the seatbelt on your pancreas or liver, long after you’ve left the car. It is useful, in some ways, to have a memory like that, but it also leaves you vulnerable to the worst kind of remembering, of a past that isn’t coming back: the little textures unique to the elementary school set, or the intimacy of long-gone friends and lovers. You can suppress an emotion, as all good American yuppies do, but it is much harder to suppress a former reality. It felt so real, didn’t it? The memory, that is.
It starts with the cravings. You just have to have it.
There is pudding to be bought at three in the morning, watermelons to be harvested from the giant boxes in the middle of the supermarket aisle while out of season, candy to be hoarded from post-Halloween sales. You, that little parasite, demand it, absorbing all the fun without consequence, causing back pain and swollen extremities for its carrier with no regard for reciprocation. You, it, just takes and takes and takes and there really isn’t any opportunity for giving back at this juncture in its life, while you are still an ‘it’. The It remains a burden on selfless maternal instinct, because there is still the glimmer of promise of personhood ahead.
So, to be honest, it isn’t really selflessness driving forward the willingness to carry the little person inside; it’s all about delayed gratification: one day, this little parasite swimming around in the standing amniotic fluid will be feeding you more pudding on her own dime. For now, however, you’ll enjoy floating in the personal hot tub (quite person-al) until the cruel mistress of time and biology forces you out and onto solids. Drink in the peace of mind for now, though. It’s all so easy for the time being. No effort necessary.
“She’s just so cute and round!”
And then it is the outside world that envelops you, as opposed to the literal insides of someone or something else. You are dragged out like an unwilling pony and displayed for the first few precious moments and then it is back to suckling and crying and bottles and sleeping and the other basic bodily functions. Your brain is still a little marshmallow. Your body will shortly match that, becoming round and squishy. This is probably the last time strangers will positively compare you to something gelatinous and oversized. It is cute, now. She is cute, now.
Trot out the camera now to create the impossibly perfect memories. There should be a ruffled pink dress there, and the tiniest white mary janes with frilly little socks that scream a very specific kind of restraint. But a little spit-up comes up: the marshmallow has gone rogue. This is your small rebellion for the moment and it isn’t even conscious. Soon, though. Soon they’ll get bigger with your portion size. And you won’t be able to do anything about it. “She’s just so cute and round!” is a phrase bandied about, but only for the time being.
“Do you think I’m fat?”
Most of the marshmallow has disappeared, leaving a string bean in its wake. Not quite so literally green, however; but the sentiment remains. You are entirely elbows and knees and other pointy joints, and the occasional strand of hair. Nothing is soft. The most common refrain you hear is that you are “too skinny”—but at least you aren’t too fat, your mother reminds you.
Jennifer’s hair is white-blonde and her skin is so dark, like a sun-dyed Malibu Barbie. The day Jennifer sits next to you at lunchtime is a Big Day, then. Everyone loves her (specifically her hair and her skin, you assume, given you love them so much) and then maybe today is the day everyone will love your hair and your skin (much darker and much lighter, respectively). Today she interrupts the message that Michael Across the Table is giving you, something about how you would probably blow away in the wind if it were hard enough and he laughs and waves around the pickle he’s eating in his left hand, juice pouch in his right, and you feel a little bad but aren’t sure why.
Jennifer smiles at you—maybe you can call her Jenny soon. She takes a breath to say something—there’s a little braid in her hair, she’ll probably teach you how to make it later. She pauses and looks at your ankles, then at her wrist, full of handmade friendship bracelets and you think about soon you’ll be leaving your mark there too.
“Do you think I’m fat?”
That’s the first sentence she’s ever said to you in its completion, you think. You look to Michael Across the Table for the answer but he’s still waving the pickle around, talking to someone else. You look really hard at her friendship bracelets. She is so pretty, with her tie-dyed t-shirt setting off the swirly blue of her eyes. Your mother taught you honesty, though (or rather, that lying wouldn’t get you any friends). She’s not skinny, so she must be the opposite. Never have vocabulary games failed you more.
“Well, a little bit.”
No one ever taught you tact. As soon as you say it you see a little something drop from the swirly blue of her eyes, so now they’re not quite so swirly. She adjusts the friendship bracelets on her arm, and even now you are aware that you will not live among those lucky enough to sit on her rubenesque little wrist. You thought the qualifier of ‘little’ would have signaled her to know that you don’t think she’s fat fat. Then again, you look at her plate of French fries and reconsider the guilt.
Your mind is a repository of misguided honesty. It’s a real shame. Jennifer doesn’t talk to you anymore. Blonde hair is overrated anyway.
“Can you even fit into that?”
Middle school is either the point when your metabolism is fast enough to run away from Mean Girls or slow enough that they can pounce. You can eat the same thing as your peers every day for nine months and be vastly different sizes; that’s just the way of an American upbringing. The smart ones learn to slip unnoticed past the gaggles of hormone-driven pre-teens; the less-so are stalked like and compared to the wild rhinoceroses in starved savannahs. Words cut into flesh much more than the promise of weight loss.
“Can you even fit into that?”
And everyone looks up, the sea of sweaty locker room faces resting on the exchange between Her (name long forgotten, but something with syllables that rise like a horrible storm in mall clothes, like Tiffany) and Her (name long remembered, but better to not be). She, spry and in the tiniest gym shorts, looking at Her, struggling to pull on sweatpants over her thighs, the color of moonlight. She, newly out of the training bra and walking around half-naked to prove it, circles Her, finally managing to pull on her pants when the drawstring is loosened and now struggling to cover up the rest of her, a big task if you’re being honest.
“It looks too small for you.”
She says that with so little emotion, too, like that particular human quality doesn’t fit into her already extra small clothes. She, having found a sweater and hugging it tight to her midriff after pulling it on, says nothing. Neither does the crowd of everyone else, until the slam of a locker snaps everyone out of their reverie. But the two of them remain, one slinging words and the other picking them up, quietly retreating. You look left to right, waiting for the tennis match to end. It does when they both back away, after making eye contact once. After, you look at Her (it doesn’t matter which, now) and that small bit of understanding falls into place in your mind.
“Am I too big?”
Clothes shopping is a Big Task now. Your mother makes sure of that by looking at every price tag of every sweater picked up, every size label, and every fabric care instruction tag. There is no such thing as a t-shirt now—it is a $25 washable sack with holes. Size continuity doesn’t exist, so a three here is a five is an eight there. Time passes and the numbers you can pick up increase, inching towards the double digits, killing your self-esteem with every size nine waistband that doesn’t fit around your hips. You save yourself in dressing rooms by always picking up three different sizes – comically small, comically large, and wishful thinking. You usually end up walking away with the wishful thinking, stuffing it into the bottom drawer of your dresser and hoping your mother never notices that you never wear that nice pair of denim jeans she bought you at that nice department store.
Getting to this point, however, involved a three year period of not even buying new clothes. The nice sales ladies were never nice, just menacing presences waiting to ring up the hangers in your arms for commission anyway, so no big loss. By the time new clothes were necessary it was like waking out of a coma. What is this material? Why is it so smooth? Why is it so expensive? Your mother was just happy enough to get you to stop wearing ‘those old rags’, as she told you.
“Am I too big?”
You say that after your first venture into a fitting room, clothes you thought were at least somewhat large enough slung over your shoulder, your self-esteem trailing behind.
“What size am I?”
It’s not a question seeking an answer, just pleading for sympathy. You’re the small girl. These are small. They should go together. You think about the junk food you ate today and shame slowly creeps in. You feel the sodium and saturated fats slowly filling out your waistline and the pores on your face enlarge and fill with oil. Everything is sticking to you: shirt, socks, and hair. Your mother never answers your questions, but the silence gives you all the answer you need. Too big, too much space taken up. That’s you.
That’s all your mother says. Never a reassurance, or a chastisement. You are just fine (not perfect, so don’t get your hopes up) but fine. Fine. Fine. It sounds like that other word, one syllable, F. You swear it off for the time being.
Avoiding It is the key now.
It is, you know. It. The heart’s purpose of living—or rather, the stomach’s. Don’t think about it and don’t worry about it. It’s not necessary anymore. Attempt to keep it out of your mind and feel the emptiness encroaching on your organs. You’d give a lot for a pudding cup now—
That is neither here nor there at this point. Absorbing amniotic fluid is no longer an option. You can, however, absorb a nice, long look at the pantry, or refrigerator. You can think longingly about those watermelons that come in the large bins in the middle of supermarket aisles, and about gorging yourself on post-Halloween candy.
But then remember the friendship bracelets lost and waistbands stretched out over the course of twenty years, and the non-reassurance from Your Female Role Model. You look at it, taking up room in the fridge but not in your stomach. You see it, and note the feeling in the pit of your intestines or whatever organ is near that. Feel the cravings and move on.
No, I don’t like writing about real things that name real people or places or things, because I’m not a journalist and keeping everything abstract lets me seem mysterious and out of it and she could be talking about something else, couldn’t she? But now I am tired, tired of working that hard to feel far removed from everything else.
So I am now telling you that I am tired of a lot of things, like trying to ignore where I come from and keeping a lot of deep-seated shame underneath the veneer of upward mobility. Here I am trying to carve out a little existence beyond the dank cave of my childhood, something substantial and full of the promise my third grade teacher said I was brimming with and then money and racial hegemony and the patriarchy all insist on bringing me back down because I’m just a little girl on the brink of poverty obsessed with the color of her skin, and there’s no real place for that. Not here. No time in between the party and bullshit lifestyle.
That is an extravagantly harsh way of putting it, but words are the only extravagance I have. But remember that I have thoughts and so does everyone else, and we all think we’re the deepest rivers of existence, bar none. But I’m a selfish young adult so what could I possibly know about my own feelings? It’s all a phase, I’m sure, like wearing my hair with a middle part or refusing to wear pants. Bad feelings fade like scars, and good things stay, right? My mother told me that once, but that never made sense to me because customers only ever complain to the manager, never praise, and I thought my mother of all people would understand that, given that she worked at Applebee’s.
It is a perfect, gaudy old crucifix necklace: purchased in 1999 from a catalog’s ‘Jackie O’ collection, this cross is at least two inches long, an inch wide, and studded with un-precious gems and rough etchings meant, I’m sure, to evoke to the richness and luxury of Ms. Onassis’s life but really just look a little like a scratching post.
My mother bought this necklace when I was seven years old, and when it arrived, encased in a velvety blue box disproportionately large, I was sure that I was in the presence of greatness. It was so big, and heavy, and powerful. When my mother went to work, I would sneak into her jewelry cabinet and look at it—just look.
She only wore it on fancy occasions—dance recitals, nights at the Chinese buffet, trips to the mall in the tony part of town. Slowly, though, fancy occasions trickled down into special events, into nice days, into whenever she wore the sweater with the faux fur collar. The magic of resistance to an everyday nature disappeared, and now the only luster of the cross was the reflection off the fluorescent overhead lighting at Wal-Mart.
I have a fast heart. Literally, and not in the colloquial sense of the term: my pulse is above average, enough so that a doctor told me to measure my beats per minute at least three times a day and asked me about my family history of thyroid conditions. Poetically too, of course, because isn’t this a condition that Neruda would wax on about, the beating of the heart and the bumBUM that bums faster and faster and fastest into oblivion and–
Stops. Not my heart, no, don’t be ridiculous, because then I would be dead and obviously I am here, thinking. I stop measuring, though, because life passes you by when you’re just counting et cetera et cetera until life crushes you under the weight of thousands of platitudes piled up onto your lungs and it doesn’t matter if your heart is beating anymore because your lungs aren’t functional anyway. Proverbs are very weighty, figuratively.