I’m the hyper, nauseatingly precocious kid in all the snaps, wearing an evening gown at the breakfast table, correcting my mother’s grammar in a Grover t-shirt. A good Catholic girl who still idolizes her father because he works 70 hours a week and never says anything to her.
Those are the years before I understand loneliness as more than an abstraction, when “I’m lonely” means “don’t ignore me” like “ouch” means “don’t touch me.”
My father has a photographic memory so they like him at work. That seems to be where he is really living his life. Wiped out from the long shifts redolent of eau de mill, he is a mysterious monolith half-unconscious on the couch. My mother is ebullient and constantly bakes cakes shaped like things. One day, I ask for a brontosaurus, and she looks it up in one of my dinosaur books tracing the shape of its long neck with one finger in the air, squinting her nose while she divines how much batter she will need, the cake arriving almost automatically within the hour. My parents are perfectionists. My brother and my sisters are perfect children, hard-working, pious, obedient, punctual, polite. Even I am yet to become the middle child with “so much potential,” “the lazy one.”
My parents first know there is something wrong with me when my mom is called in for a teacher’s conference. I am 12 and know I will surely be killed. Mrs. H has confiscated my greatest achievement of my life so far, a real work of literary ingenuity, “Beneath the Rocks of Castaway Cove,” a dramatic piece that is a bizarre mixture of murder mystery, erotica, and sci fi carefully scribed into 2 full manuscript notebooks and distributed among the entire sixth grade population and most of seventh as a wildly successful single-copy 2-volume edition. I have become popular as a result and then unfortunately subsequently vulnerable to the administration. My mom recoils at the terrible news: I’m subversive and dishonest, but worst of all — I’m curious about sex. They decide that writing is a potentially unhealthy outlet for me and forbid me from writing about awful, offensive, or obscene subjects. I nod and go about my business. Later my deception is discovered when my mother comes upon a cache of poems I had written questioning the existence of God. When confronting me, she calls me “devil spawn” and grounds me for 2 weeks. This is the point I start writing in cipher. My mom, seeing my room festooned with sheets of numbers, is pleased that I’ve taken a renewed interest in my math homework.
In high school, my mother and I begin to address each other as if we are the person we each want the other to be. When I strut around in a funky vintage sweater, she asks me, “Are you trying to look poor?” and I retaliate by misquoting Marx. At least my sisters have the decency to act out at home. I just make her look like a bad mother. Am I so ungrateful for all they’ve done for me? I know she’s onto something but sass her anyway, snap that anyone worth knowing will make the distinction between her and me. She throws my keyboard down the stairs. It lies there gap-toothed, missing the low “C” key. I storm out of the house, jump in my car, and drive away before there’s violence.
Whenever my best friend’s mother opens the door and finds me standing there with rudiments of luggage, she knows what’s happened. I don’t even have to explain. Inevitably, my mother will call to let us know that she’d rather I not come home. My friend’s mother looks pained delivering the news to us. I pull out what money I have. Tell her mom I’ll pay for my own food. Even sleep in the basement. She tells me not to worry. We go through this every time. When she leaves for her boyfriend’s house for the night, my friend pulls out 2 Virginia Slims she’s stolen from her, and we smoke in the back yard complaining about how misunderstood we are, one of our favorite hobbies, reeling in the bliss of stolen cigarettes. I stay there for two weeks. When I finally come home, my mom and I act like nothing has happened.
In the pictures from my first try at college, I’m the one who never sleeps, lies about where she’s been. You can tell because I won’t look directly into the lens. You might be able to read it out of my eyes. I take the occasional break from writing a film noir novella to throw back a handful of pills. I think I look glamorous, but really I’m just bony. This stranger is my great grandmother with wilder hair, a bit lewd but fierce.
I’m up for anything, the life of the party. My skin is turning gray. In the two-bedroom apartment we share, all six of us roommates pass out on the living room floor together. Days disappear from me. Months. I feel like I emit an aura of mystery and that I’m radiant, a natural. I probably just stink. My much older boyfriend teaches me what cocktail of vitamins to take so I can function the mornings after and hold down my gig as a maid. It’s a code. Do what you want, but don’t become a cartoon junkie. I think he’s a terrific catch because he dropped acid with Ken Kesey and has an encyclopedic knowledge of contraband horticulture. I still won’t look at the camera.
My new family shrinks and grows, shrinks and grows, an accordian complete with raves, homeless stints, busts, and the occasional assault. This is not my mother’s polka.
The girl with so much to give, destined for greatness, is strung out, oozing irony.
In the midst of disintegrating, I’m brought back to my first family paranoid, weak, and exhausted and confused about who I am, where I am, or how I got there. My parents still make as little sense to me as they did before, but nursed back to health by this alien species, I learn their customs, perform their rituals. When my boyfriend calls looking for me, my mother tells him to go away, that I’m not here, that I may never be here again, that he’s killed her daughter, I’m a shell now, isn’t he satisfied? I’m there for the whole thing, hear her yelling into the receiver, but it takes me years to understand.
It’s been almost a decade since then. I’m a different person than the girl in the pictures, though my DNA would match hers. I’m a law-abiding citizen, happily married, and hold down a good job. Most people I meet think I’m a prude until they get to know me. Sometimes I even clean my house.
January 3, 2009: The younger sister of a friend of mine, just barely an adult, sits with me on my porch. She makes me promise not to tell her brother (I won’t) and confesses to me that she hates her body, hates her life, looks up to me (I tell her not to), and knows I won’t judge her. Says she’s smoking weed and purging. I’m not her, but she reminds me of a younger version except she is beautiful to a degree I will never achieve, modelesque and fiery with an incredible intellect.
I muster as much austerity as I can manage and tell her I understand what she’s going through as much as anyone can understand what anyone else is going through. I tell her I kind of understand. I tell her to cut her losses, go see a therapist, get out before something terrible happens. I tell her how beautiful she is on the outside and then tell her that she is 10 times more beautiful on the inside (not to simply console her but because it is true and strikingly obvious). I tell her, “I almost died,” but as the words leave my mouth, her eyes flicker a mere millisecond after the word “almost,” like I’ve promised her immortality, that she’s fixated on an impossible expectation, and it’s then that I realize I’ve made a terrible mistake.