I don’t remember a time when I felt free to be who I really am. Does anyone? I was three years old, fearless and egoless, when I realized that my mother didn’t love me. I must have known before then. I must have had some idea that I was on my own.
I remember being caught in the act of defiance around that age. The scene, captured in a photograph, shows me smiling with one hand on my doll carriage, the other behind my back, as if bracing myself for the terror I surely faced. (Snap!) My brother’s chubby body plopped inside my doll carriage. (Snap!) My mother lifted my pink nightgown, slapping me on the bare ass with her palm. (Snap!) I flinched when my mother took that picture because I shuddered every time she walked inside the house, and because I had been warned never to put my baby brother inside my doll carriage again. But I wanted to take care of him, love him like I knew he needed.
I wanted to push him away, somewhere away from my mother’s punitive palm and the riveting screams, swelling and bursting, like fiery lava spewing from a volcano, clutching my heart until I was thirteen and learned how to move through the panic, embrace my secret Tough Girl persona conceived from the coalescence of fear and sheer tenacity, instinctual behavior provoked by the realization that I was on my own, had always been on my own, would always be the only one looking out for me.
By the age of five, I had already developed a thin, malleable coating, a layer of invisible protection that became an extension of my skin moving with me wherever I moved, its nerve endings much more sensitive than my own. I started to sense motion and mood, scent and tone, color and texture with my primal instincts, as if I had whiskers or an extra fold of skin attached to my jaws to help me instantly process the subtle elements of my environment, the danger of it all. This layer armed me with powers of survival, but because I acquired animalistic qualities, I also sacrificed my urge to speak.
I did not speak naturally until the age of three. Even then, I spoke very little, mostly language that no one could understand, except for my imaginary teacher, Miss Missy. I can’t imagine what Miss Missy taught me, but I assume that she encouraged me to find a voice that wasn’t audible, to accept silence as the ultimate tool of survival.
My thoughts were broad. My imagination was unrelenting, even at five years old, as I consoled my three year old brother, when my mother left through the front door screaming, “I don’t love you! I’m never coming back!” I remember imagining the canvas material she must’ve climbed onto inside the black van that she sped away in with a tall man who had long blond curly hair, a man who could’ve been my father, except I guessed that he wasn’t.
I imagined her naked back laid on the Velcro-like flooring of the van, the tall man on top of her, naked and sweaty, like I had seen her with other men. I imagined that she’d never come back to us, not when the tall man had a black van and my mother had a ravenous desire for male attention. I imagined that they drove away into the blackness with lust in their hearts, chasing a happy dream of riding unicorns and slipping down the sides of rainbows, all the imaginary things of my own dreams. On the other side of the black night, they’d be happy and alone, while we would be crying at the front door, praying for her return, slipping on the yellow linoleum of our childhoods.
The next five year old day of my life, my sheath of armor, still translucent and thin, would begin to move along my body, like an ocean wave in constant flow, collapsing onto the beach of my bare abdomen and tickling my armpits and knees. Our real father would come to pick my brother up for their weekend visit. They would go to zoos and parks and ride roller coasters, maybe, eat ice cream with clowns and sing songs with Mickey Mouse by campfire, I imagined, but couldn’t know for sure, since my brother never told me what they did, and my inventive stories gave me all the answers that I required.
My aunt, who doted on me, like I assumed mothers do, would comb my long light-brown hair with streaks of blond into a bun, wrap my legs in pink tights, and trot me off to ballet class, where I would gaze into the mirror, as if I was the only one in the room. I’d take my place at the barre, hold my right arm above my head, my fingers like feathers, slightly curved inward toward emptiness.
I’d quietly ask God for mercy, to take me away, to place me in the filament of autumn corn with the Corn Dolly from my fairy-tale book. I’d imagine making friends with Corn Dolly. We’d be plucked from the maize together, cupped inside the safety of the farmer’s palm, placed on the arm of his sitting chair in front of the fire, and we’d live happily ever after, until the Frog Prince came on his Gingerbread Horse. We’d ride, the three of us, on the back of the bucking horse through the clouds. We’d fly until we found ourselves eating gum drops and ribbons of candy, safe and sound inside the walls of the King’s castle. And my mother would never know I was gone, since she was stuck underneath a sweaty man inside a van going nowhere.
She did not leave for good. When I heard the key hit the lock, all the way from my second story bedroom in a converted attic, I experienced a momentary transitional period that existed in the liminal, somewhere between innocence and depravity, angels and monsters. If she had not returned, I may have been able to smile without forcing myself into the expression, as if on cue. I may have had a childhood directed by pure creativity and passion for knowledge and art. If she just would’ve stayed away, maybe I could’ve escaped the black, sinewy shadow cast over my memoir, the cruelty and brutality would’ve floated away like fairy dust on the wings of gorgeous angels of mercy.
At the door, I was begging for a mother like Cinderella’s real mother, someone who would take care of me, like Bambi’s mother wanted to take care of him, protect me and cherish me, shower me with affection and encouragement, but my mother came back breathing fire, her thick, green and black striped dragon’s tail high in the air, obscuring my light, my hopeful visions of having a normal childhood dissipating by the second .
That night, my tears evaporated into the cold air between me and my Grendel-like mother, who’s bruise-colored aura leered on the edges of my long stares into glints of light, refracting hope from my doll’s glass eyes. Something enigmatic happened to me when she came home. Something that modified my composition forever. As if a falling chunk of the sun finally reached earth’s atmosphere, disintegrating into nothing on impact, I stopped crying for my mother’s love, and began adjusting to my fear of her.
I gained some strange, strong inner-composure, as if all my questions about life had been answered, freeing me to begin surviving her, inside her darkness, since I knew that escape was not an option. Quickly, I learned what love was not, because I developed an acute sense of fear emanating from her punishing presence. Sometime in the darkness, where I quietly mediated in my day bed, the one my grandmother bought for me when I saw it in one of her “wish books,” love and fear converged so that I recognized the difference. Seeing them clearly, I could confidently begin to manage my life around feelings.
All at once, I knew who I was and who I could never become, because the truth is, I was the dreamer of dreams that lifted me from hours of terror inside my brother’s bedroom, waiting for my mother to decide to beat us for losing her hairbrush again, while my mother was the dreamer of dreams that took her further into black and white nightmares. I could never be my mother because I dreamed in full color, imagined riding on the back of a rainbow unicorn into the limitless blue sky.
Unlike my mother, I didn’t want to zoom off in a black van on a silvery fogged night with a man I barely knew while my children hung on the locked front doorknob begging for my return. I wasn’t imbued by lust and emboldened by the pain I could cause those who depended on me. I only wanted the peace and harmony that existed in my fairy-tale books.
While I learned to read on my own, my heart hung on every shallow breath that dangled a lyrical word read by my grandma. The assonance and consonance, the alliteration and rhyme, words like moon-pie and otter-eater, phrases, like “we’re small and made of straw” and exhilarating announcements, like “At last! Everyone sees me as I really am!” excited my heart, seized my mind and body, gripped my imagination, popping it like a bubble, releasing my spirit. And during those moments of absolute ecstasy, my casing let the world filter through.
I could breathe without being afraid that someone would notice I was in the room. I could move without feeling tethered to my conscience. And living was as easy as resting on a soft white cloud where all life is mist and bliss, just me and my fairy tale friends, my book opened on my lap and a rainbow kite floating above my head.
Sometimes, my mother would read to us from the book of fairy-tales, but I sensed that she read for her own pleasure. If my brother and I hadn’t been under either arm on the pink sofa at my grandparent’s house while she read, she wouldn’t have the faintest clue that we existed, which did not matter much to me. All I wanted were the stories, to jump inside them, become the Corn Dolly or Raggedy Ann. Even if just for a moment, I desperately needed to suspend reality, no matter who was reading to me.
My mother loved writing. She thought herself a writer, but when I could finally read, I knew that my mother was dumb. I don’t mean that in a broad, colloquial sense. I mean that her intellect was impaired. She misspelled the simplest words. Her commas were randomly scattered, placed only in accordance with her breathing patterns. There were times when I felt sorry for her because I knew how much shame I felt when my teacher corrected my grade school grammar, but I mostly felt ashamed of her, since she didn’t take the time to educate herself, and she dismissed the basic elements of craft as if they were meaningless.
I didn’t know much, but I knew that she was wrong for mistreating language the way she did, thinking that she did not have to follow the rules or learn anything about writing in order to produce quality work. It was her egotism, her superciliousness, her false sense of entitlement, her mistaken belief that she was better than she was, or that her talent was somehow being overlooked because of stupid, needless rules that offended me, not her ignorance.
She also had a fascination with writing about American Indians, though she knew absolutely nothing about them, and she couldn’t possibly perform the proper research it would take to write a book, let alone write and organize a book with any sophistication that any literate person could comprehend. To develop ideas and share writing, she’d have meetings with a married man with whom, I’d later discover, she was secretly having an affair.
Occasionally, from behind a closed kitchen door at his family home, I’d listen in on their discussions, all of which seemed nothing to do with American Indians, except for spurts of speculative discourse. I don’t remember what was said, but there were no books in hand, and I never saw my mother read a single novel or biography. Her fascination with Native Americans, I presume, had more to do with the way she empathized with their oppression, and possibly, because my grandfather claimed that he was part Shawnee Indian.
He was always tan, even in winter, but other than that, there was no proof of such cultural or ethnic ancestry in our family, and I was not a witness to my mother displaying any real knowledge of Native American history, not even Shawnee history. For all I knew, my mother’s attraction to writing about Native Americans was completely arbitrary, just something to make her feel more special than she really was, something to give her a false sense of intelligence, talent, or importance.
Years later, I learned that she attempted to morph into the character of a Native American woman, growing her hair long, dying it black, and tanning incessantly. Who could trust a person with such flimsy integrity and dignity?
I couldn’t trust her words, even as a small, impressionable child. The only words of truth from her mouth were “fuck” and “shit” and “motherfucker,” always in ample supply, because that’s who she really was, angry, frustrated, careless, domineering, and dumb. Whatever she wrote was meaningless to me until the age of ten, when I found a loose-leaf diary entry in the built-in bookcase behind my grandpa’s spittoon chair.
She must’ve thought herself clever, hiding this paper inside the dingy pages of my aunt’s old dental hygiene school book. She must’ve forgotten it was there, and never even noticed that she was leaving her most intimate works of art inside the hiding places of my fantasy world, the place where my thoughts incubated, where my feelings found words to express themselves, the exact location that I had claimed for my imagination’s home base, a place where it was safe to discover myself on my own terms.
Inside medical books were not only secrets of the human body, like kinaesthesia proprioception, but also secrets to my success story. I could find the truth of things I shouldn’t have known at such a youthful age. I could learn new words, use them in my memoirs, or when I wrote stories about talking animals. I used them as resources for my fantasies, imagining one day that I’d be a brilliant author of story books that depicted a young girl who overcame her tragic childhood by teaching herself the practice of medicine, becoming the original female Doogie Howser.
If my mother had known anything about who I really was, she wouldn’t have left her diary inside a college textbook. She was probably too preoccupied with her fantasies comprising herself as the savant, someday an author of a best-selling book about the Shawnee.
My mother’s makeshift diary, though heavily misspelled, clearly stated: “Adam’s father is not Andrea’s,” and though I knew that my mother couldn’t be trusted, I trusted in the power of words. Anything that was written inside a book was as true as my eyes that read them, as true as the leather belt she used to beat me with, or the tennis shoe she’d throw at my head, the broken skin on my forearm that would certainly be there after she embedded her nails into me, punishment for discovering the secret truth in that long forgotten book in the darkness behind my grandpa’s chair.
The more I was beaten and told that I wasn’t good enough at anything I tried to do, the stronger my casing became, which is the reason that I kept my writing a secret, held onto it carefully, like one of my hand-made porcelain dolls. I guarded my writing. I did not share my essays that detailed my ruminations about the the hours my grandfather spent rounding the corners of the back field on his yellow riding lawn mower.
I sensed that mowing the lawn seemed to give him a reason to feel accomplished, feel alive, brought him out of his daily prayers for a quick death and his sullen demeanor, living a slow and lonely life sitting at the kitchen table while listening to the Reds game on the radio, and mumbling to himself over a can of sardines and a glass of Colt 45.
I kept my stories about a colony of homeless people, who lived under bridges and behind abandoned buildings, to myself. I had no firsthand knowledge of homeless people, but I wanted to know them, and no one would understand that about me. I sensed danger in telling others about my proclivities.
The poems that I wrote about the neighbor’s lonely, neglected Cocker Spaniel, who I would sometimes feed, were for me and my future audiences, whenever I made it out from under my mother’s shadow. No one in my world, at that time, would ever care about the way the dog looked at me with such despair and agony, and the way I’d whisper, “I know, baby. I know that pain, too.” And if my mother ever knew that I was passionate about writing, I was sure she would’ve cut off both my hands just to keep me from my joy. I had to keep some things about myself hidden. Most things.
My protective membrane grew harder, a soft shade of brown, brittle like the last layer of candy coating on a Blow Pop, except as sensitive as a live wire. Each sense enhanced to maximum performance levels, but no one knew it was even there. They couldn’t know it was there, or they’d find out that I was really the product of an evil monster, therefore evil, too, or that I was vulnerable, scared, tender-hearted, and foolish for having dreams about becoming a professional writer. I was just a dumb abused girl, a bastard child from the poor end of town raised by hillbilly grandparents.
If anyone saw who I really was, I’d have to admit that I could only be described using the word “victim,” and victims, I thought, are weak. Surges of painful embarrassment would come over me when I thought someone had found out that I was not as smart or strong or funny as I appeared to be, a girl that all the kids wanted to be friends with, a student that all kids should be.
So that I could be the person I should be in each situation, play the correct role for each setting, I became super-responsive to subtle changes in the moods and personalities of every person that I came into contact with. Like Virginia Woolf’s head-hopping narration in Mrs. Dalloway, I was able to complete smooth transitions from one perspective to the next, depending upon every other character’s mood, demeanor, or countenance, and the circumstances.
My extrasensory skills were so well-developed that I often felt as if I was a member of my own audience, observing myself while I delivered performances with perfect skill and seamless execution. I directed the scenes, managed the lighting, and choreographed the steps for each act, every show, every season; and if adjustments had to be made, because one of the other characters was having a bad day or received unexpected news, I was able to instantly morph into another version of myself far in advance of the curtain going up.
My character transformations occurred as I walked to the bus stop, but before I greeted other kids, walked through the front door at home, just in time to greet my grandparents, wrapped my pointe shoe ribbons around my ankles, just before the other girls stepped foot inside the dressing room, or woke up early on Sundays for mass with my conservative and devout Catholic aunt.
Since I wasn’t really the person I was acting like, I could jump in and out of character flawlessly. Watching myself transform into four different characters on a daily basis became an ability for which I developed intense pride. I labored over the costumes, and I carefully calculated the duration of scenes. I observed the other characters with the focus and objectivity of an artist or anthropologist, and I often immortalized the characters, including my own, inside my diaries.
My little brother represented my adaptation of the uncoordinated and unpolished Pinocchio. I interpreted my mother to be my personal version of Cinderella’s wicked step-mother, Lady Tremaine, or Lady and the Tramp’s Cruella DeVille. I loved writing about the daily activities of my affable, yet shy, friend, Cristie. My teachers and dance instructors were my versions of Glinda, good witches of the schools, and my grandparents were the equivalent of my Fairy Godmother and the Cowardly Lion.
I was Dorothy and Cinderella, the loyal, observant Little Red Riding Hood, or the Frog Prince’s princess, and, mostly, I was Snow White, waiting in a deep sleep for a prince to kiss me so that I could instantly escape the oppression of the evil queen. I was whatever my intuition and sensitivities told me that I should be, whenever I needed to be, as long as everyone else played their parts.
I loved writing plays so much that I’d bully my brother and neighborhood friends into become players and starring in my one acts. It just made sense to me that everyone had a role within the archetypes of my imaginative productions. And what I knew of people and principles, morals, vices and virtues was that human behavior was dependent upon setting, social status, religious values, sexuality, nationality, ethnicity, conflict, and any other stereotypical characteristics, all things I felt and absorbed about people at too young an age.
If I had not possessed the ability to observe and comprehend these defining qualities and conditions, I would not have been able to mutate into the acceptable identity. I could not have learned as much as I know of people now, or developed the ability to instantly process the climate of any situation with the expertise that I currently possess. I could not have survived my mother.
Since I wrote the scripts, I had to master each character’s dialect and diction. I became fluent in my grandparents’ language, which was a mixture of English, primarily words up to an eighth grade level, and southern dialect, a cadence that flowed from their mouths like Blue Grass music. Their words, like “ain’t-choo-goin-ta-tha-liberry-taday” and “getcher-britches-own-n-gramma-ell-take-ya-ta-getcha-summintaeat,” were entirely misunderstood by my friends unless I translated for them.
I had to be careful with my words; my speech had to reflect the vernacular governing the environment I was involved in socially because everyone I knew stared at me with a painful look of distaste each time I used new words that I learned from the dictionary.
My ballet instructors, who hovered over me, criticizing and correcting the slightest error in my position or movement, spoke French: “5, 6, 7, 8, plie, tendu, releve, plie, and again, 5, 6, 7, 8…” I was often called to the front of the class to demonstrate positions in my pointe shoes because, as my instructor said, “You have potential. I only watch you so closely because you do. You’re a model for the rest of the class.” And I was a good model. I could predict the sequence of movements without watching my instructor or anyone else. The clues were in the way my instructor walked swiftly or slowly or calmly through the studio doorway, or was pale or flush when she arrived, if she looked tired or amused, or was wearing an old, tattered leotard, my legs tightened and relaxed, my neck straitened or bended according to the mood that I sensed she was in that day.
I pretended that I was happy and relaxed, smarter than I really was, or more socially proper than I was taught to be, whenever I was around my aunt, who always had a look of judgment on her face – her eyes, unblinking, and her tightened forehead and cheeks framing a closed horizontal frown.
Once, at my aunt’s house, I forgot to close the bathroom door. When she passed by and saw me, shorts to the floor and my face red like a rose, she didn’t have to tell me how disappointed she was in me, or that I was “a heathen” just like my mother and brother. I knew by the sound of her footsteps, her perfect up-scale dress shoes clicking, like swift rapping tap shoes on the wooden floors toward the doorway, that I had done something wrong, a mistake I would never make again, if she would just pretend that it didn’t happen, and let me come over again for another visit. I’d show her that I was as perfect as she was, and she’d forget the whole thing, and ask me to put on my pointe shoes, dance for her and her friends. She’d be proud, her eyes wet with happy tears and her frown erased from her face for, at least, as long as I was pleasing her with my sophisticated poses, and impressing her friends with my French .
At school, I monitored every pivot into my desk chair, every pencil marking on my wide-ruled paper, every hand I ever raised, and facial expression when a classmate farted, or made a joke that I really didn’t understand because I wanted to be just like Sarah and Jill, their perfectly pinned long hair, their mischievous giggles in the back of the room where they sat with the rest of the popular, rich boys and girls.
I conceived a better me, a more likeable me, a girl that could fit in with the crowd without her lower-class hillbilly grandparents’ language misrepresenting who she really was, or steel-wool factory working mother’s filthy mouth and wicked tantrums getting in the way. I was a good, good girl, perfect in all ways, in any situation, in-style with the trends and fluent in inside-jokes, well on my way to dancing with the older professional dancers for the Dayton Ballet. My confessional prayers were memorized weeks in advance of Penance like my aunt would expect, and my grandparents were aloof to who I was outside of their small home drenched in Kentucky Blue Grass dialect. The only thing about me, the only persona that I felt was truly me, was safely hidden inside my diaries behind grandpa’s chair.
“All the world’s a stage,” my dance instructor bellowed out during the first act of our company performance. Though I wouldn’t become familiar with that reference until undergraduate school, I understood what Shakespeare meant because I embodied the concept, I represented the metaphorical term like no one else. I was the most dedicated actress both on and off stage, and by the age of ten, I understood that life was constructed of experiences that occurred inside stages of life, all which accumulated into mini-stories and poems and scenes from one grand performance on stage.
(Snap!) I had to play the part of an innocent, fun-loving, affable little girl, tap dancing in the background while the older kids performed scenes from West Side Story, (Snap!) rush backstage to slip on my pointe shoes for a dramatic and elegant performance of The Nutcracker, (Snap!) leap through stage left to change into a boy’s ball cap and street clothing to deliver a provocative and serious performance, become the character of a little boy who fell through the window and plummeted to his demise.
My life was not so different from my stage performances. I was a superior actress, instantly playing the part I sensed others wanted me to play, careful to transition in and out of character without anyone noticing my frequent backstage make-up and costume changes. I was hiding many people underneath my camouflage canvas, which wasn’t there all the time, not when I was reading Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume, or writing down the lyrics of “Send in the Clowns” on Barbara Streisand’s 1985 album, The Broadway Album, or letting the words to Tracy Chapman’s folk songs empower me to believe that someday I’ll be able to say to the person that will rescue me: “You got a fast car. Is it fast enough so we can fly away? We gotta make a decision. Leave tonight or live and die this way” (Tracy Chapman, Self-titled Album, 1988 ).
My fifth grade classmates would call me weird and laugh at me when I brought in those cassette tapes for guided writing in English class. I had not noticed before then, but the newest Pop bands, NKOTB and Guns-n-Roses, were what the cool kids were listening to, not Beethoven, Mozart, moving poetic music by Chapman, or theatrical performances by Streisand. But I pretended not to notice my oddness pointed out by their rejections, as I sunk back inside my shell, turning my head downward to focus on writing in vivid detail about homeless people and Martin Luther King, Jr., and about how life would be so much better if my mother wasn’t my mother and I wasn’t me and we lived on the rich side of town instead of the lower class side, and I was smart enough to write song lyrics for Tracy and Barbara so that they would praise me and take me with them to see the clowns in a fast car. And whoever my father was didn’t matter much to me, though that tall man, who later broke my mother’s heart, which my brother and I were punished for, could’ve been my father, probably was my father .
I couldn’t know for sure. There was no truth in my mother’s angry and unintelligible explanations, so I took my questions to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the dictionary, the Bible, and my fairy-tale books, my oracles. I read freely my grandmother’s pulp fiction novels, realizing that my mother may actually be a femme fatale. She was sinister, sneaky, and at times, very alluring and beautiful. Her sharp chin buoyed out from the shadows of her long dark brown hair making her appear mysterious and deviant, yet super-elusive. The whores that I read about in the verses of the Bible, the jezebels and their loose legs, paid for their sins. They would never go to heaven, and I wondered if my mother would.
I’d pretend that I was an amoeba, one gooey mass sliding in and out of human formation. Though the encyclopedia didn’t tell me whether or not the human body was capable of collapsing into a single-celled organism that could use its pseudopodia projections to slowly, secretly disappear and become reborn to another family, one without grandmothers who threw ceramic plates at their daughter in the middle of the night, screaming so loudly that I awoke from serene dream, all because my mother left her kids alone while she “ran off with a man to some hotel and fucked all night long,” I imagined I was an amoeba anyway.
Behind grandpa’s chair, my casing would break open, releasing thick brown juices that drained down to the floor when I would hold my grandmother’s antique perfume bottles shaped like candlestick telephones and black cats. I’d stare at them with fondness and wonder. I’d often speak into the fake transmitter of the perfume bottle:
“I want to tell you a secret. My name is Andrea, and I love you, Grandma. Thank you for the hand-made porcelain dolls. Thank you for paying for Catholic School. Thank you for bronzing my baby booties and for giving me and my baby brother a place to live. I love you, Grandma, and I want you to know that I don’t love Mommy. I only love you and your warm, round belly, because you hold me there in the middle of the night when I’m scared of ghosts in the attic. I love your snoring because it wraps me in a net of sustained harmony, and I can depend on it to keep me safe throughout night. I love your hands that smell of cornbread and cigarettes because when you touch me, I do not flinch. I love you, Grandma. I don’t love Mommy.”
I was often so consumed with my imaginative play that I’d pretend that someone was on the other end of the line. Maybe, it wasn’t Grandma. Maybe, it wasn’t God or the Corn Dolly or the writers and editors of Time or Life magazines calling to tell me that I was the first ten-year-old published author, and I had won a billion dollars and “pack your Care Bear suitcase cause we’re on our way to pick you up and take you away.” Maybe, it was Sylvia Plath speaking to me from that “black telephone” (Vendler, 20 -23), telling me that she can see me, my poppies blooming in October, too. Maybe, Sylvia was sending me poetry through the rootless cords of psychic connection, telling me that writing would always be the only thing I could trust, the one thing that was capable of keeping me alive.
I possessed a tormenting faith in the impossible belief that someday I’d wake up and suddenly become rescued by my own purity, goodness of heart, brilliant mind. Someone would notice that I was so full of potential and wisdom, therefore I did not deserve to live a childhood full of fear of my mother’s footfalls. Still, the cacophony of a telephone ringing rattles my ribs, shakes me, though no one notices. And I’m still waiting for that rescue through the telephone line.
Who I am now has so much to do with the creations of my past, the dress rehearsals, the first night jitters, the constant writing and revising, not to mention the incalculable costume changes. I created fiction, but all along I was collecting pieces for my memoir, the chapters of what most people would assume was an ordinary life. And no one can create their own animated life without absorbing a few secrets along the way.
Like all artists instinctively collect, I have some titillating secrets, craft tools, of my own. However, the one secret that always seems far too humiliating and vile, at the very least, too personal to reveal to the wider world, has nothing to do with the abortion at the age of twenty-two, the heroin addict boyfriend who I spent five years lusting after even when he was sent to prison for conspiring to transport a large marijuana load across country. Nor is it the period of homelessness when I lived mostly out of my SUV with my two dogs, sometimes sleeping in friends’ cold basements, and gratefully taking toilet paper and deodorant from the homeless shelter where my friend was employed. The secret has nothing to do with the years I spent wearing bright red lipstick and bleach blond hair, barhopping like a “floozy” (as my grandmother would call it), and working as many low-paying jobs as I possibly could in order to avoid stationary moments, pockets of stillness during which devastating memories threatened to unseal themselves from the black box where I stuffed them inside my mind.
My secret is not even about the time I blew off the board of directors celebration event for those undergraduate students awarded the most generous scholarships, or the letter of recommendation for Clark County Leadership Council that I threw away during my Junior year of college. I didn’t have enough time to attend frivolous events because I was working three jobs and struggling to maintain a passing GPA in order to pay for an expensive private university education, while most of my classmates drove BMWs, and could afford to party like lotus-eaters. I’ve learned that each person, like Odysseus, like me, is making the best of their own epic journeys.
My sins and secrets include many surprising details: I am a lesbian, and my earliest sexual experience with a female occurred at ten years old, when I had a secret girlfriend of my own age. I was the dorm bitch at my alma mater, reporting every student’s infractions when they disturbed my peace by pulling the fire alarm as a prank, or woke me up with their noisy partying in the computer lab next door to my room. I was hated so much that one morning I woke up to find the word bitch written in permanent marker on my door. Embarrassed and afraid of associating with me, my roommate avoided me for several days afterward.
After undergraduate school, I attempted to throw a punch at a girl outside of a bar because I thought she was picking on my gay friend. She pushed me onto my car where I hit my head so hard that I developed a concussion. Afterward, I blacked out while parking and hit a parked car, then I puked on my friend’s lap at the next bar, after which I gave a pointed look toward the bartender, telling her: “These green Jello shots suck!”
Once, I spontaneously moved to Ashville, NC with an old beau only to discover that I disliked him. He was a liar and a manipulator, constantly trying to control me. Deceptively invading my private writing world by secretly reading my diary, then angrily confronting me about the contents was a violation of my confidentiality, my sacred self, who no one was privy of knowing, much less exploiting. Punishment for threatening the security of my self-contained world was abandonment, the most severe sentence by my judgment. During the early hours of morning, without notice, I packed everything I could into my SUV, put my dogs on top of boxes and bags, and left everything else behind. I drove eight hours back to Ohio, leaving the guy there to deal with the lease.
All aforementioned experiences are actions for which my aunt and grandparents would’ve gasped in dismay had they known, had I cared for their opinions or trusted them enough to share with them. These are things for which the Catholic faith disapproves, a loving theology, which I continue to fundamentally respect from a peaceful distance, though I disapprove of certain critical tenets that are essentially manifested by sensations of fear. And if I hadn’t discovered and embraced other theological narratives and religious paradigms in ample supply, learned of the divinations of Taoism, the enlightenments of Buddhism, an assortment of metaphysical practices, the healing art of Reiki, Judaism and Islam, I might just think that I’m going to hell on account of my stories. But even if I believed in the parochial doctrines and dogmas of my personal lexicon, dismissed all I know of universal spirituality, spending eternity in purgatory or the fiery depths of hell with Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, Oscar Wilde, John Milton, even Anne Carson’s protagonist, the gay boy character, Geryon, from Autobiography of Red is incentive enough for me to risk it by cherishing and sharing my abominations. I refuse to repent or deny their existence. Who am I without them? Who is everyone else without theirs?
Everyone is bound to experience enslavement by a version of the goddess, Kalypso, suddenly face off with a vicious Cyclops, open up a bag of wind and discover themselves stranded on a nearly deserted island, run into some voluptuous, murderous Sirens, from time to time; out of desperation and humility, all of us seek advice, maybe from the Underworld; and after much contemplation, we finally decide to sacrifice some of our weaker personas to the monsters of the sea. With any luck, some of us might find our troubling, yet triumphant, stories flowing from our mouths at a banquet in our honor on the island of the Phaiakians, kindly, compassionate people who will see fit to accompany us to our personal Ithakas where we will assume the kingship or queenship, as is our destiny. And all of us know an Athene, someone wiser than us, more powerful than us, a chameleon muse who helps us manage the many characters composing the stories and poems and stage acts of our lives.
I may have taken to the sea much earlier than some, but our destinations tend to be the same. We move toward sensations of love despite the fear that torments us along the way, and each of us has collected a persona or two, versions of ourselves that seem too unconventional and unacceptable to reveal as a part of our stories. We do what we have to do in order to survive, make it back to a place that feels like home again. And I can say, without any remorse or loss of breath, none of those secrets that I have listed are as important as my secret that I just may take to my death: (see Part 3)
Andrea Collins, “Tough Girl”