The scars are real; they still partly define me, highlighting my insecurities and self-doubt. Yet, when I think back on my darkest of dark ages, I can see that my childhood was not simply good vs. evil.
The ones who bullied me have scars of their own, perhaps still buried deep in their closets with self-loathing and abuse.
And just because I was frequently the target does not mean I was beyond reproach.
With great shame I recall hiding in the backseat, tying my shoes for an eternity, so no one would know I had arrived with the fat girl.
I was the youngest of four in a house with a cat and a dog, plus the occasional hamster, hermit crab, and a series of chameleons who would disappear and mysteriously wind up in the dryer. Despite this, my mother tried valiantly to keep tabs on me. At nine, when I was caught trying to read Sybil and Go Ask Alice, she repeatedly warned against inappropriate reading material.
Instead, I filched my sister’s copy of The Shining. I propped my social studies textbook on end and hid it inside, reading voraciously while Mrs. Denevan tended to the more flamboyant rulebreakers.
Sasha, we called her, not knowing it was usually the name of a Russian man.
Now the name has broadened for me. There are poets and Presidential daughters and even a pop star alter ego who bear the name. But as a child, the only Sasha in my world was our very bad dog.
My teenaged sister had endlessly begged for her, and sworn to train and care for her every need. Big surprise: I only recall seeing her once or twice with an empty milk carton and the ‘pooper scooper’ in hand.
Sasha was (of course) adorable as an incontinent mutt puppy. Puppies are charming. As she grew, however–unfettered by discipline and authority–she hardened my heart toward nearly every drooling crotch sniffer I would meet for the next couple of decades.
Sasha scratched our back door until the bottom right corner was worn thin, and flapped loudly with every paw nudge: her own relentless doorbell.
And if the door opened for any reason, that dog shot out like Usain Bolt after a case of Red Bull. The next 30 minutes were spent trying to find in which neighbor’s yard she was digging or defecating.
Since my sister was busy dating boys my mother disapproved of, I was often saddled with the job of dog walking. Sasha had a choke collar and what seemed at the time to be a twenty-pound chain. I would occasionally wrap it around my hand in an attempt to maintain grip on the wild beast, forgetting that this was the quickest way to crush my hand into a temporarily useless hunk of flesh. Sasha would lurch from the house, dragging me past a couple of houses before leaving me behind to nurse my fingers and hope she turned up shortly.
She had many other talents:
Stealing fresh-baked items from the dining room table. Sometimes whole cakes. Especially during parties, while people were distracted.
Lying in motor oil.
Getting unsightly mats in her fur from rolling in trash and dirt.
Hearing scissors open from 100 yards away–even when sleeping.
Due to the combined result of the last two, she once had a soup can lid stuck to her belly for a couple of weeks.
I have heard worse. I have heard of a dog that–during a time out in the garage–broke the car window and chewed through the dashboard to get to half a Power Bar in the glove compartment. Shenanigans like that are way out of Sasha’s league. To be honest, she did have some sweet moments now and then, and her shortcomings were the fault of her owners. Sasha was a part of my childhood and a member of our family, and it was a sad day when she succumbed to liver failure.
When I was in high school, the Rocky Horror Picture Show came to my Midwest hometown for a screening or two. Since there was nowhere to go and nothing to do for persons of a certain age, hundreds of teenagers erupted into the theater, ready for anything.
Keep in mind that this was before the Internet had made such cultural phenomena ubiquitous. There was no shared cyber understanding of what Rocky Horror might mean or require. We just knew Rocky Horror was a Thing. We knew you were supposed to bring stuff and do stuff.
So people brought whatever they found lying around.
People dressed up, too–wearing next to nothing, or robes, or goth-wear, or ripped jeans with chains made out of safety pins. A bawdy girl from the Catholic high school was savagely drunk and dressed as a nun. “I’m here, bitches!” She barreled down the aisle as the movie started, laughing maniacally.
It took my breath away. I’d never seen anyone but a nun sport a habit.
The movie began.
Audience members didn’t know what to yell or do or throw, so they yelled and did and threw whatever occurred to them.
As toilet paper comets launched across the room, and raw eggs and soda dripped from the screen, I saw the theater manager start pacing and muttering, “What to do? What to do?”
A guy in the front row clutched a ginormous box from Mr. Donut in his lap for no apparent reason. “Do you want a jelly donut?” he offered the distraught young man.
The manager grabbed it, chewing, while continuing to pace and mutter, his agitated shadow head joining Tim Curry and the rest of the cast on screen.
Even today, when I think about Rocky Horror, this is what I see: a donut-wielding twenty-something-year-old, poised to lose his job, a blob of grape goo in the corner of his mouth. There he was–the victim of our ignorance.
At one point, as the Brad and Janet characters were driving through a rainstorm, hundreds of people started throwing water around the theater. Squirt guns, bottles, cups, spit, whatever they had.
A drunken woman in her thirties lurched to her feet in front of me.
“What are you guys? A bunch of amateurs?” she yelled, completely hysterical. “They’re still in the car, fools. THEY CAN’T GET WET YET.”
I may be the world’s worst interviewee. This is not false modesty. I have always gotten good grades, good evaluations, and organized an attractive little resume. On paper I look pretty decent.
I manage to shower and dress professionally, too, but the moment I open my mouth, one would indeed be lucky to discover a point buried beneath my anxious blathering.
The single most detrimental piece of interviewing advice I ever received–unfortunately delivered on the eve of an interview for a ridiculously prestigious scholarship–was “just be yourself.”
Little did they know who I might be in the hot seat. Characteristics that might be beneficial or noteworthy in other circumstances–honesty, for example–are definitely a detriment for people like me during interviews.
The next day I heard myself confessing all kinds of unnecessary information, such as “I know I mentioned Pierre Bourdieu’s work in my essays, but I won’t pretend that I understood it–or even finished the book.” And, “I have no idea what I would do in your hypothetical scenario; I’ll just hope that situation never arises.” When I returned home from that train wreck, I must have cried on and off for a couple of weeks.
Despite the time that has elapsed since, other interview bombs continue to haunt, as well. “If your name were in the dictionary, what would the definition be?” I was asked once. I repressed most of what followed, but I’m pretty sure I kicked off my five minute answer with “occasionally loses things.” Honest people should never, ever answer a question like that. Take note, I now believe that interviewers should never, ever ask stupid questions like that, either.
Today, for the very first time, the tables were turned. I was so excited! There I was, asking the questions and evaluating the responses. I thought it would feel so empowering.
Nope. The woman was so eloquent and self-assured, so on-point and clear-headed, I found myself wondering how in the world I ever landed a job.
Before having kids, I enjoyed scary movies. Not gory ones, just suspenseful, edge-of-your-seat thrillers.
Now the small people in my house terrify me for real on a regular basis. Kids must be genetically wired to reenact every scene from the worst-case scenario handbook. Every action is a dare, a question, like hey, what happens if I–
dodge into traffic without looking?
do a flip on the concrete?
run downhill with my hands in my pockets?
lean over the gas flame with my long hair?
stick my arm through the glass window?
Despite the fact that the majority of those questions have been resolved without a trip to ER, I no longer crave any sort of contrived thrill. If I have a moment to unwind, I just want a glass of wine and a mindless comedy.
But…once upon a time, I was fired up to see the Blair Witch Project.
My venti latte-drinking friends needed to sit close to the aisle, so I plowed ahead into a crowded row of seats, leaning over to say to the unknown guy next to me, “I should apologize in advance; I’m kind of a screamer.” He stared at me and said–rather tersely, I thought– “Whatever you do, don’t grab me.” I shrugged and settled in to watch 81 minutes filled with twenty-year-olds freaking out, lost in the woods.
I didn’t scream at all. Frankly, I was disappointed after all of the hype. Blair Witch was unsettling maybe, but it certainly wasn’t TERRIFYING.
Now…around the same time, I was frequently traveling to New Mexico for work. I spent my days in lunchrooms and libraries, teaching elementary school teachers about best practices and school-wide reform. In an effort to spice up endless stints at rural Best Westerns, I tried to squeeze a little sightseeing and Southwestern adventure into my downtime. So one night, in between two all-day presentations, I decided to sleep in a cave. Wouldn’t that be cool?
I read all about it in my guidebook. This cave was luxe. It had a generator. A hot tub. A comfy bed. A VCR. A space heater. And–with the door open–a view from the cliffs of northern New Mexico into the Four Corners, a glorious panorama. But…it was a cave.
Also, I was alone. This should have given me pause.
The proprietor lady was ridiculously overbearing and motherly on the phone. “It’s complicated to follow directions to the place. Just meet me in town for the keys and I’ll escort you there.” I rolled my eyes while agreeing politely. Why wouldn’t she just give me written directions–you know, with street names and such? I figured it was because I was young and female and flying solo.
“I recommend bringing your dinner along, too, so you don’t have to go out after dark,” she advised. This was ridiculous. I pretended to agree. Whatever.
Thankfully, she was less patronizing in person; perhaps my posture and suit had inspired a little confidence. I lied and said I had food in my car, and she smiled and handed me the key and a walkie-talkie. Not the toy type–the awesome hard-core grown up kind. “I want to describe the terrain so you can find your way to and from the place,” she said. I saw her glancing at my rental car, sizing it up.
Wait. What? For the first time, a fleeting doubt crossed my mind.
I followed her giant yellow Jeep forever, which is well past city limits. I didn’t see anything around but a bunch of trees. Where was this place anyway?
We turned off the road.
There was no road.
The walkie talkie suddenly crackled to life, making me swerve a little. “Do you see that tree?” the proprietor asked, as I resumed breathing once again. “The one with two branches that sort of lean to the right?” Sure, sure. “That’s how you know where to make the first turn,” she informed me.
No problem, I thought. I can still see the road from here.
We continued into the thick of it, though, past a multitude of her “landmarks:” a stump, a slim tree that pointed up, three trees sort of clumped together. Each time, we took a little turn this way or that, once or twice veering sharply. The road was long gone.
Still, I was excited to see the place, and I focused on that.
When she finally stopped, I noticed that the trees appeared to end abruptly, and once through them, I could see for miles.
I could also see straight down.
We set out on foot down the side of the cliff until we arrived at some kind of door-ish thing with a padlock. My palms got a little sweaty as I wrestled with the key and the Proprietor coached me through the funky maneuver necessary to open the thing.
I had known it was going to be a cave, obviously; that’s what attracted me to the place. But I hadn’t reckoned it would be so cave-like. I ducked my head and let my eyes adjust as I headed inside.
Mrs. Proprietor never stopped chatting amiably; she pointed out the generator, and a long list of other things that I could no longer absorb in the midst of my growing unease. I realized I needed her to shut up so I could make a mad dash back to town and get some food. I would never find my way back to this place after dark.
It wasn’t hard to negotiate out of the woods for dinner, but service at the pub was painfully slow. I checked my watch about a hundred times, nursing my beer and gazing toward the kitchen. And though I shoveled my dinner at an alarming rate, twilight had descended by the time I was heading back to my hole in the ground.
Leadfooting it to the highway, I tried to distract myself by roaming fruitlessly through the radio dial.
I turned off the road, relieved to see the tree with two branches pointing left. No problem. But where was the stump? The clump of three? Do I turn left or right at the tree pointing up? Don’t all trees point up? Where the hell was my cave?
The woods swallowed my rental car whole. Maybe I should wend my way back to the road, and start again. Where was that tree? All the trees looked the same.
I no longer knew if I was headed toward the road. Was that break in the trees the highway? Or was that the edge of the cliff? Would they find me in a day or two, miles below, squashed and bloody amongst binders of overhead slides and informational pamphlets? Am I alone out here? I wondered–which was scary enough–or, much worse, do I have company?
Though it was a cold, clear February night, I was sweating, sweating, sweating, and realizing that I didn’t have much gas left. Maybe I should just stop and try to sleep in the car. No way in hell was I going to hop out and wander around on foot. If I lost the cave AND the car, I would really be screwed.
The whole, horrid debacle probably only last half an hour, but it was the longest 30 minutes I had ever endured. If that sounds improbably, remember that it occurred before I’d given birth.
When I finally found the small dirt patch to park the car, I cursed myself for neglecting to carry in my belongings earlier. I couldn’t very well drag my behemoth of a suitcase down the cliff in the dark, so I stuck it in the car and used the dome light to find my toothbrush, underwear, pajamas, and a fresh outfit for the morning.
Now a nice dip in a jacuzzi might soothe one’s nerves under ordinary circumstances, but I hadn’t turned on the heat earlier, and it was going to take about two hours for the water to heat. I would have to be up and showered by 6 am in order to pick up a few things for breakfast and lunch, drive 50 miles to the next school, and set up for the 8:30 am workshop.
Horribly shaken, I was also exhausted, so I crumpled into bed and willed myself to sleep. Surprisingly, I dozed off, only to wake and FREAK OUT that I was in a cave. The space heater buzzed and glowered red at me, and flickering ominously on the ceiling. Being a cave, that was only a few feet from my face. Claustrophobic and scared out of my mind, I wondered what had possessed me to do this. Didn’t Farmington have a Howard Johnson’s or something? What had I been thinking?
As a special bonus winter surprise, it was still dark when I had to leave the next day. Remember my trip in the previous night? It was just as hard to get out in the morning. I stopped and let my head drop onto the steering wheel, gasping and sweating through my crisp white shirt and well into my suit jacket. What to do? How to get out? Very little gas. No cell service. No map of the terrain. No food. No idea how to get out.
I did get out, though, and made it to the school two minutes before I was supposed to begin. Folks were already seated in the library, and the Principal raised an eyebrow. “We were concerned. We’ve been here since seven so you could bring in your materials and get set up.”
I couldn’t even begin to explain.
“I’m so sorry,” I squeaked at last, eyes welling.
I have no idea what came out of my mouth that day, no idea what questions were asked, or whether I covered the appropriate material in a coherent sequence. All I remember is a constant awareness of my continued, feverish sweating, and a single moment during the lunch break.
I sat at a long, sticky table in the lunchroom, staring mutely at gelatinous mound of mac n’ cheese with little chunks of hot dog. School lunch couldn’t scare me. I was the sort of person who slept in a cave.
Long, long ago, I lived in a great flophouse of friends. It was a shabby, mouse-infested flat, poorly heated by one tiny gas unit in the living room. To keep warm, we often huddled on our “found” couch and watched whatever non-cable subscribers were offered: Melrose Place, Models, Inc., and the like–the kind of shows that go better with an adult beverage and lots of heckling. I was deliriously happy there.
For reasons I will leave unexplored, one person brought a ceramic walrus to the equation, and a game sprouted organically around it. One person would hide it in someone’s bed…all sneaky-like. The recipient would pass it along the next night. The walrus game occasionally got out of hand, escalating until someone had, say, a couple of chairs “hidden” under their comforter. I can vividly recall the joyous surge of anticipation before yanking the covers back each night, and then, twenty-four hours later, the pregnant, gleeful pause when someone else headed to bed.
The game occasionally went awry. Once I found the plunger nestled in my clean sheets. Not appreciated. The plunger was followed shortly thereafter by a plastic egg full of m&ms which I did not find until the next morning, by which time there were quite a few chocolate skid marks to permanently remind me of the occasion. Such a plethora of brown stains is a conversation stopper at laundromats–as well as during a variety of other unfortunate moments which I will leave to your imagination.
I did so love the walrus game, however, and I recently told my two kids about it. These days, they don’t give much indication that they have heard or appreciated anything, so I was pleasantly surprised to find the following items hiding in my bed over the past 9 days:
It is a little hard to explain why this makes me feel loved. It just does. Even the fake poop. I pull back the covers and think, “they love me.”
But there was one last item, lodged firmly under my mattress pad–something we affectionately call the Norwegian Briefcase. The problem: the briefcase had mysteriously disappeared before I got to return the favor, which makes me nervous. Here’s hoping it doesn’t get tucked into my teaching bag. That could be hard to explain to the photo students of America.
My oldest brother built a tree house nestled in the power lines, about twenty-five feet off the ground. It had glass windows, plus who knows what other amenities; I never went up there to see. By the time I was old enough to climb trees, his fort wasn’t in the best of shape anymore. Also, I was kind of a chicken.
But I would gaze up at it, and wonder how in the world our mother could watch her boy shimmy up that tree with hands full of nails and saws and glass. There he was, teetering outside her authority, outside her ability to keep him safe.
“How did you know he would be OK?” I asked her once, long before having kids of my own.
She thought for a while before answering.
“Being a parent is hard,” she said finally.
This was my first glimpse into the gray area of parenting, but it was years before I figured out that most of parenting is spent meandering around in the unknown.
There is a game called “Why is Baby Crying?” which consists of a set of dice printed with phrases like “dirty diaper” “sleepy,” and “hungry.” I didn’t understand the premise at all–let alone the humor of it–until I was holding my own wailing newborn, wondering what in the world was wrong.
“Why is she crying?” I asked my mother, since I had tried everything I could think to soothe her. My mom had had four kids, after all, and we were alive and well. She must know something.
“I don’t know,” she said.
Maybe the dice should have said “I don’t know” on every side, or offered suggestions that frazzled, sleep-deprived parents might neglect to try. You know, such as: “put baby down and take a deep breath,” or “have a glass of wine,” or, even better, “find a friend to watch the tiny tyrant for an hour.” There is no secret path around the gray area, just a few tools to clutch while you fumble through there.
Now that my kids are eight and ten, I’ve learned to tolerate some of the gray area with a little less anxiety. However, if I had the chance to sit someone down who KNEW ALL OF THE ANSWERS–someone like Dr. Spock was supposed to be–I would have a few questions.
Here are a few that have crossed my mind lately–feel free to add yours in the comments section.
*How do you know when to head to the emergency room, and when to say “walk it off?”
*How do you balance everyone’s needs so that your kids feel safe and loved, and you don’t lose your cool, identity, relationship, or mind?
*How do you quickly restore domestic harmony when your spouse gives your child three or four times the recommended dosage of Milk of Magnesia?
*What’s the nicest possible way to explain to your child that her favorite jacket and uncombed hair make her look like a homeless person?
*How do you guide your kids to make better decisions without them noticing and becoming resentful?
*What’s the best way to survive a child’s birthday party with a hangover?
*How do you keep your sense of humor when you get a flat tire, the brakes go out, the hot water heater spontaneously combusts, and you get a parking ticket all in the same weekend?
*How can you warn your kids about the dangers of the world without terrifying them or–worse–getting them excited to flirt with disaster?
And, last but not least:
*If child #1 has a fever of 104, has been crying and moaning for hours, but finally gets to sleep, and then her older sister leans over and vomits all over her bed, do you wake her up and change the sheets, or wait until morning?
Before the avocado linoleum was replaced, our kitchen table sprang from it on one hefty leg, like a flattened tree. We gathered round in our designated seats, though I can’t recall how or when they had been assigned. My mother sat closest to the fridge for handy mid-meal retrievals, with my sister and me to her left. Next was my father, followed by my two brothers, their backs to the window, completing the circle. I didn’t envy them; it was often chilly on that side, and accompanied by a view of the sink and the dirty pots on the stove. From my position, I could watch the flakes fall, or the morning glories creep up the strings that dangled over the window–our homegrown awning.
In the absence of some or all of the others, the seating plan still applied. My mother and I often leaned our elbows on the creaky oak to talk about books or logistics or ideas, one eye scanning the backyard.
Mid-conversation, it was not unusual for her to yelp and leap from her chair, grab pots and lids, and run outside, clanging like crazy.
After a minute or so, she would return to her seat, contrite and subdued, but the moment was gone, our thoughts dispersed.
I learned not to take this personally.
Her beef was not with me, but the squirrels who continually ransacked the bird feeder, leaving the cardinals, sparrows, and chickadees to forage elsewhere. No one pitied the greedy blue jays, at whom my mother clucked disapprovingly. They got any scraps the rodents left behind.
My mother greased the pole of the feeder, then sprinkled birdseed on the ground, either as a peace offering or to make the squirrels too fat and lazy to attempt the slippery pole. Nevertheless, the fuzzy little gluttons somehow always managed to shimmy up to the feeder.
Now that I am grown, I have a feeder out for the hummingbirds, but it hangs near the house, pole-less, in just the right spot to torment the cat. The squirrels and I co-exist quite amiably.
And yet, I see myself behaving like my mother, minus the pots and pans.
Half-listening to my girls, I am hyperaware of any unusual activity just past the membrane of our home-space. I’m there, but not fully; I’m coiled to spring.