I think it's safe to say that I spent my formative years wondering what it was about me that scared the crap out of people. During one memorable recess in sixth grade, I carved a circle in the mulch around Erin and Megan and a few other bitches whose names I can't recall. They were going on and on, whispering so I couldn't hear, and there I was pushing mulch with my foot to form my circle of protection. Later that day, I thought about lasering them inside that circle. The thought evaporated when I looked in front of me and saw lice crawling around in Lisa's hair. She was a fellow fringe member with a brother who liked to punch people. I wanted to claw my skin off even at that tender age.
What I'm getting to is a series of events coming to a head. Such is the way of world history. At the age of sixteen, I fell in love with a boy who worked with me at a cinnamon roll place at the mall. My memory of him is forever tied up with the smell of mop water. This was a soul-swallower of a love affair. One sided in the worst witching hour kind of way. We smoked cigarettes in the mall trash hallway and he would sometimes call me late at night to tell me that he was sitting in his parent's basement playing Super Mario. I had to use my uncanny phone clairvoyance to pick the thing up before it rang because my parents had strict rules vis-à-vis communication with the outside world.
One night after work, I was sitting on the barstools in my parents' basement with my feet up and my pants reeking of food. I was complaining to him about not going to prom even though I was in one of those fringe groups at school that had ideas like holding a flapper party instead.
"Get a dress," he said, between bleeps and bloops from his game.
"Get a dress. I'll take you."
"What about your bitch girlfriend?" I said.
"Karen doesn't have to know," he said.
Karen left hickeys that looked like she had nicked his carotid with her teeth.
So I went upstairs to tell my parents and I'm breathless like all the girls I hate. My parents were skeptical because the guy was Brazilian and went to another high school. I went to Nordstrom with my mother because I wasn't allowed to be in the mall with people on the weekend and I picked out this purple satin thing with spaghetti straps. It felt okay and it made my tits look big. I could see what I was going to do with my hair.
I liken my early years to being on one side of an enormous chain link fence while everyone else was on the other. Some grownup, a teacher maybe, is encouraging me to climb over but I can't get my feet in those tiny squares and I was never one for upper body strength. In elementary school, the kids would let me have all the answers, which I appreciated since I raised my hand so hard I thought my arm would pop out of the socket. I thought that's what people did. The teacher asked a question and you knew the answer so you raised your hand. I smoked them at the Reading Wagon Train and won the pink stuffed crab. I didn't pick up on the subtleties of classroom politics where you weren't allowed to know everything.
The rules changed in middle school. I sat next to a confused kid named Mike who used to drape his arm across the back of my chair and then laugh about it with some blond boy with loose pants who sat behind us. Are you wearing a bra today? he used to ask me. He would pull on my shirt to snap my bra. Instead he found the undershirt that I had cut off at the chest and decorated with shoelaces. My own special design. I had short hair at the time and wore gym clothes with oxford shoes. That must have thrown poor Mike for a loop.
I had my prom dress, the lilac sensation, altered at the dry cleaning place that my mother used and then it went in the closet in the back room, the one with the blue pleather accordion door. I worked every weekend. My prom date and I went to a playground near a construction site for new townhouses and we watched the cars go by while swinging sticks at one another. It was gray and windy and we were on a hill above a street that my dad drove every day on his way to pick us up from school. I wanted my dad to drive by so I could point and share something with this guy but one loud Toyota sedan is much like another and I missed him.
During this time, I had an assignment for art class that required us to paint a full length portrait of someone else. Of course I asked my prom date because I thought it would be a sexy thing to do. I was young then but I already knew about the mystique of women artists. I could ask him to take his shirt off and show me his hairless Brazilian chest without all the awkwardness. Take it off. It's for art.
I went over to his parent's house and his stepmother gave me the once over at the door. I was carrying a six foot Masonite board and a box of art supplies and had just stumbled off public transportation so I understood how that could look weird. He lived in the basement and his room smelled like furnace and sewer mixed together. The sheets on his bed were limp with dirt and sweat. I didn't want to sit on it but he was up there lounging in his white tee shirt so I climbed up the wooden steps and sat stiff backed on the edge. Always keep your feet on the floor, my mother had told me once. It was apropos of nothing of course because like I said, I scared the crap out of people.
He was lying behind me propped up on one elbow and we talked about work. Taped to the wall above the window was a postcard I had sent him from an arts camp in Indiana. We talked about how he wanted a new car because his Honda was on its last legs. He had tried to teach me stick shift driving in that Honda but I flew through the mall parking garage at forty miles per hour with him screaming like a girl. That's another story.
I painted him for two hours and it was grotesque. I could never do noses or perspective and every face I did back in those days was brooding and looking off to the right. After two hours, he wandered upstairs shirtless to escort me back to the curb to wait for the bus. I went home and lay across my bed to process the whole ordeal. I gathered the comforter underneath me and masturbated thinking about the usual things. Lots of people doing stuff to one another at the same time. I was a sex communist because of the progressive literature I was into at the time.
When I tell people about my upbringing, they have this knee jerk reaction to protect me and it just isn't necessary. Yes, I knew people were being raised differently but I knew shit that they didn't and life is a trade off. I spent hours working and painting and on Saturday night after work I could be found lying in my bed with my arms crossed over my chest like Dracula, listening to the dance hits show on the local radio station. At that time, my bed was two box springs and two mattresses and I really had to leap to make it.
The long and short of it is that my prom date didn't call and didn't call. I had my mother's pessimism about everything so I knew something was, to use her expression, coming down the pike. One night, he hung outside the door of my new job at the pizza place and my heart plummeted neatly into my big toe. We leaned over the railing and stared at the people on the lower level of the mall.
"What?" I said.
"I can't take you. Karen found out."
"I thought you didn't give a shit about her."
We stared at the people milling around below us.
"How long have you known?" I said, as if it were some disease he had.
"I got kicked out of school," he said. "I'm going to jail."
As you can see, I had a lot of things stacked against me. Karen. The school system. Jail. My mother came to pick me up and I sat in the passenger seat wailing because I was an outsider and no one was ever going to have sex with me. As usual, the thing at hand was hiding the deeper issue. At home, my mother told my father that she couldn't believe she had paid good money for the dress. We took it back the next day and she bullshitted up the customer service lady saying that she lost the tags and heavens no, there were no alterations. I told my father that I owed people at school for the limo and he told me that they could go fuck themselves.
That's where it ended. I turned that guy's portrait into an acclaimed picture of a skeleton on a light table. I earned a place in the first room of a juried art show and I hung it up there with a name like Light on Light No. 2. I liked shit like that back then. A few prom rejects in my fringe group were going to have a hot tub party at some girl's house but her father was gay and the combination of hot tubs and high school girls and gay people was enough to chew a hole through my father's stomach.
I stayed home that night and did things like imagine my classmates climbing into the plush womb of limos. Winning mini televisions. Having sex in the stairwell. I called my failed date but no one answered. He is getting arraigned I said to myself. He isn't sitting by the phone.