Saturday, November 29, 2008

Young Girl

My earliest memory is of perching on a swing set in the front yard of a Long Beach, California, duplex. My thoughts were contemplative: Why was I so very good, and my sister--one year older--so very bad? When our mom called us in from playing, why did my sister refuse to cooperate, risking a spanking or--much worse--our mom's very temporary withdrawal of affection? What could be worse, really, than loving someone who didn't love you back?

For the most part, I was awash in love. Both mother and father adored me, and took in stride my rather marked emotional tenderness. I was a soft child, both physically and temperamentally. I was a good little learner, though, reading early and well, excelling academically from the start.

Two memories from kindergarten linger. Mrs. Wilson was tall, gaunt, and unpleasantly old and sour, with a rather imposing and unfriendly bosom. I'm quite certain my charms were lost on her. One day we were going to watch a movie in class, and a massive projector atop a massive wheeled stand was positioned in the center of the room. A cord snaked across the room to an electric outlet, and we were admonished to not trip on the cord. Perhaps I forgot, perhaps the room was dark and I couldn't see the cord, but I tripped on it, and both projector and girl went tumbling. Mrs. Wilson was furious, menacing, unconcerned with my possible injuries. I cowered before her, knowing she wanted to grab me and shake me. She shouted, "I told you to be careful!"

And even though I cried easily, and occasionally wet my pants, I was a logical child and a keen observer, and I knew she was wrong to scold me so harshly for a simple misstep. Forty-five years later, a voice in my head says, "It was an accident, you old cunt! I wish the projector had fallen on you! I wish you'd died slowly of a sucking chest wound while 30 five-year-olds--sitting cross-legged in an orderly half-circle--had watched. Might have been more interesting than a hygiene film or a Cold War propaganda film."

The second incident was more disturbing. A boy named Adam misbehaved and was taken by Mrs. Wilson into a restroom and paddled. I suspect that Adam's crime didn't involve hitting or biting, but was of the coloring-outside-the-lines variety. Whatever the case, I was horrified, traumatized, indignant. Even at age five, I knew that a teacher or a principal paddling a child was perverse. And I knew that for all the talk of bullies, the most egregious bullies were the grownups.

Life got better when my family moved to another Long Beach neighborhood, and I began first grade at a new school. Miss Barbie--my teacher and my first love--adored me; she favored me. Because I'd been reading since age four, I was sent to the school library during classroom reading instruction, where I was able to indulge my love of books unfettered by even a librarian's supervision. I sat on the floor in front of the bookshelves, reading book after book, relishing the solitude, relishing the pleasure of special privilege, of being The Smart Girl.

The years passed. We ducked-and-covered, we mourned the loss of JFK. I was madly in love with boys and men: classmates, neighbors, the Monkees, "The Rifleman." When I wasn't attending summer school for gifted students, or giving perfectly memorized talks in Sunday School, or putting on plays in our kid-friendly backyard, or writing affectionate and newsy letters to my Utah relatives, I was indulging in more private past times such as spinning sexual fantasies about the cast of "Hogan's Heroes," picking my nose to the point of bleeding, and smuggling food from kitchen to bathroom where I could binge in blissful privacy.

I still cried easily, and still took everything personally. I can recall every time my mom scolded me or swatted me, and every time my dad was stern with me. In third grade, my teacher--at her wit's end--said something like, "I'm fed up with all of you today!" and in response I sobbed quietly at my desk. She called my mom that night and apologized, offering that I was the only one who cried, and the only one who didn't deserve the scolding. I never really toughened up, and, in my twenties and thirties, a disapproving word from an employer or policeman or gynecologist could reduce me to tears.

Puberty hit hard: bras, sanitary pads, crappy romance novels, bad haircuts, unflattering glasses, short skirts, brightly colored fishnets attached to garter belts (in elementary school!). Wisely, my mom refused to buy me white go-go boots, or I'd have that to add to my list of sartorial regrets. I was the tallest kid in school, chubby, awkward, self-conscious, and almost obnoxious in my ability to outshine others scholastically.

Junior high school represents a low point. While our house was in a decent neighborhood, the school was not. My sister and I took a city bus, catching it early enough to avoid the most dangerous kids, but arriving at school before any adults. It was 1969, racial tensions were running high, and one predawn morning found us surrounded by a large group of hostile black girls accusing us of some invented slight. They'd been stealing my lunch money and lip gloss for months, ridiculing me in gym class, and I stood before them that morning, cowed, exhausted, vanquished. A couple of months later, my parents moved us to rural Utah, where most children had been taught to "be nice" at all costs, and schoolyard intimidation was much more subtle, and I stumbled upon a system in which I could work and thrive.

We were Mormons, and that offered a modicum of social currency once we lived in Utah. I was lucky enough to have a girl cousin in attendance at the same junior high school, and her friends became my friends. I began to shed my pariah status, and eventually scored "Best Personality" and "Best Grades" in an issue of the school newspaper. Between church, school, and extracurricular activities, I was managing to fit in, to enjoy a certain level of respect.

High school suited me. The boys were taller, the classes were more demanding, and the opportunities to excel were vast. I donned skirt, sweater, tights, and chunky shoes (to this day, my favorite outfit) and set out to own that school. Between acting, debating, public speaking, creative writing, before-school religious study, student government, and straight A's, I was busy. I had a new circle of friends and an occasional date. As I entered my junior year, I was a considerably slimmer version of myself, and walked the halls with new confidence. I was never going to be popular, but that was okay: I could already see that power--and fun--can often be found at the fringes.

In retrospect, BYU was a huge mistake, but I refused to consider other options. After one miserable semester, I scurried home. And when a close friend said that she was considering leaving the Mormon church ("You can do that?!?"), I promptly did, without fanfare, acrimony, or regret. And I was surprised and delighted to find that "men" are really quite different from "Mormon men." (Later, I would notice some crossover, but at nineteen there was a bright line.)

Due to a chain of events for which I will be forever grateful, my mom scored a job at the officers' club of a military post near our home. Timing is everything: I was in my early twenties (and as cute as I was ever going to be), The Pill was easily available but AIDS was relatively unheard of, and the country was mercifully between wars. Every summer, hundreds of soldiers (all men, mostly Special Forces) would train here for weeks at a time, and--evenings and weekends--nothing could keep me away. Adorable, affectionate, and agreeable, I took full advantage of the rare opportunity. Endless pleasure, endless pain.

Between summers, I visited soldiers at their base camps, answered personal ads in magazines, tried to revive high school romances, and hung out with my brother's buddies. Mostly, though, those were dry and lonely times. I lived alone in a charming and much-loved apartment in Provo and worked for an oral surgeon. I had neither friends nor pets. I corresponded feverishly with soldiers, sat cross-legged on the floor playing "Abide With Me" over and over again on an acoustic guitar, and went for burgers and Cokes with my mom. She would die several years later, and I would rephrase the question of my girlhood: What could be worse, really, than loving someone who isn't there to love you back?


Peggy said...

This made me cry.

sally said...

This was really good and tells so much of a time that we spent together and yet see so differently. Interesting from your prospective. I did fine until the part about mom dying and then I cried. I miss her so much and need her so much, quite often, and I'm not even sure she would have the answers.
It has always intrigued me how different we are, yet we were raised so closely. Wonderful memories in what you wrote. I guess in some ways I am still like that little girl. And I still get hurt for what I do.
Keep writing. Love, Sally