I don’t know about you, but I’m in a much different place than I was last year when we did the first virtual FGP holiday party. But I’m still down for a come-as-you-are party at home because life without silliness is a life only partially lived.
Big hugs to all of you. And without further ado, get your laugh on:
Sue Granzella: I was taught by nuns from Ireland, and they were EXTREMELY competitive about winning the “School Spirit” competition at the town’s yearly basketball tournament. Our poor cheerleaders had to do strange routines to music. (E.g., instead of dancing to music, they spun umbrellas in unison [umbrellas decorated with blue and gold shamrocks for our team name]). I provided the musical accompaniment, playing pop songs on my accordion, with lyrics rewritten by the nuns to fit with the basketball team theme. (I played “Raindrops Are Falling on My Head” while the student body screamed the lyrics “Shamrocks are always out ahead!”)
Kristin Wagner: I applied for our town’s pageant (you got a sponsor so your prom dress was paid for—hell yeah, I’m in) and my application was returned to me for revisions because it was “too militant.” I may have said something about our town being clueless about helping poor people because we were richer than other suburbs. Ended up 2nd runner-up, still got to wave from a float in our town parade. I believe I sang a song from Chicago for my talent and dressed as a pool sharp for my sportswear.
Sunanda Vaidheesh: My best friend and I have attended the world’s largest Harry Potter convention. Twice.
Amy Robillard: I lived in Alaska for a year and worked as a legal secretary full time while I wrote for the weekly alternative newspaper part time. I was the play reviewer despite knowing next-to-nothing about reviewing plays.
Naomi Shulman: I have never liked popcorn. Something about the texture, I think. When I was a kid this always got lots of questions and incredulous responses, and many people would try to get me to try some of their popcorn to see if I liked it the way they made it, so I eventually started telling people I was allergic. For many years my friends accepted I was allergic to popcorn, but not to any other corn products.
Sarah Buttenwieser: I may seem pretty nice. If you want to see my less kind side, wait until I’m tired. I get much cattier then and some of my friends prefer this tired version better. [I’ve met Sarah in person—I’d be delighted to see this side of her. —ed.]
Reyna Eisenstark: The summer when I was 19 I worked as a costumer/dresser on a production of La Cage Aux Folles at the Bucks County Playhouse, which involved ironing 22 men’s shirts every morning and zipping and unzipping gorgeous men out of evening dresses every night.
Carol Paik: I was once a hand model. The technology depicted here will give a clue to how long ago.
Janet Skeslien Charles: My first job out of college was teaching English at a high school in Odessa, Ukraine. I loved it even though I worked full-time and only earned $25 per month.
Ona Gritz: When I was 16, I met Evil Knievel at a casino during a family trip to Las Vegas. He was very chatty and insisted on getting my mailing address. After I got home, he sent me a signed poster.
Katie Rose Guest Pryal: I used to knit, design knitting patterns, dye wool, and spin my own yarn. I was a veritable cottage industry in my little NC cottage. You can still see my knit patterns online. But once I had kids, I somehow didn’t have the time any more.
McKel Jensen: I met Jude Law once while standing in line at an aquarium. He was with his kid who had beautiful curly hair. After I told myself to “play cool” and talk to him, the only word that came out of my mouth was “curls.”
Deesha Philyaw: I was a Congressional page (U.S. House of Representatives) during the first half of my junior year in high school. I lived in the page dorm 2 blocks away from the Capitol and went to school from 6 am to 9 am every morning in the attic of one of the Library of Congress buildings. In the course of my tenure on Capitol Hill, I met Johnny Depp (then a 21 Jump Street hearththrob shooting a PSA at the Department of Health and Human Services) and attended Reagan’s last State of the Union address. He really did wear rouge.
Gina Easley [our amazing staff photographer]: I have a rare phobia: leguminophobia—fear of beans. Like most people with leguminophobia, the sight of beans makes feel like I’m going to be sick and I try to avoid seeing or being near them as much as I’m able. Most people think this is weird and hilarious, and it is! But also very real.
Jennifer Munro: I once split my pants open while bowling. Brown corduroys. In college. This tells you a lot about me.
Jennifer Niesslein: I haven’t had business cards in many years. I once offered my contact information to the acclaimed cartoonist Roz Chast on the back of an old grocery list in my purse that almost certainly read something like, “Bananas, Beer, Tampons.”
And we’re out for 2016! Please leave your own in the comments—we could all use some levity.
I nose the rented mini-van onto the side of the narrow road, and Gram and I get out. It’s a lovely little grassy patch that slopes down to a sun-dappled creek. Or crick, as we call it.
“She had one arm raised above her head,” Gram says, “like someone dragged her there.”
When I think of western Pennsylvania fondly, it’s summer that I’m remembering: the greens of the trees and grass, the bursts of neon yellow from lightning bugs, the red tomatoes from the garden up on the window sill. But PA in the winter is, frankly, depressing—the grim black-and-white tableau—with the black mountains, the stark white snow, the clumps of gray frozenness along the turnpike. It’s a place where the coal mines have made their mark, and slate piles still stand.
When she died, on January 22, 1932, it was cold and the forecast had called for rain. It’s likely her body was found soaked, her long skirts muddied and bloodied. I imagine the creek’s waters rising toward that arm.
She’s my Gram’s grandmother, my great-great-grandmother. Growing up, I only knew three things about her: The legend was that her husband, a coal-miner like so many Polish immigrants, was in “frail health,” and as a result, she took up bootlegging—and was successful enough at it to own three houses. Her fourth child, her youngest, was rumored to be of mixed race. And she was murdered.
How could I resist mythologizing her? On these barest of bones, I pressed on flesh that reflected the fantasy of who I’d be if my back were to the wall. A bad-ass! A proto-feminist! An outlaw! A woman who landed on her feet when times got tough! Myths, of course, always represent the imagination of the myth-maker. I didn’t even know her first name or what she looked like, but I was eager to find a woman in my lineage who didn’t play by the sometimes arbitrary rules.
Mom told me that Gram didn’t like to talk about her, so when I was a kid, I didn’t dare broach the subject. She was a warm grandmother and doted on us, asking my sisters and me to sing songs on their breezy porch, teaching us Scrabble and Boggle, and rewarding us with small gifts. But there were unspoken rules to be followed, enforced by the time-honored code of passive aggression. We—especially as girls—were to appear “neat” (for some reason, that was and is a massive compliment in Gram’s eyes), not bicker, attend church regularly, and excel in school. Gram didn’t smoke or drink or swear. The most outrageous thing she did on a regular basis was to wiggle out of her bra while driving, twirl it on her index finger, then fling it onto the backseat of her Cadillac.
Sometime in my twenties, Gram and I became friends. She’d somewhat loosened up by then; she’d occasionally have a glass of pink wine when her son-in-law encouraged her, and she let my boyfriend and me sleep in the same bed when we visited. When I became a mother, we grew closer, swapping tales of motherhood, then and now. (If only for the accessibility of washing machines, now is better.) In recalling the hard times, Gram reverts to the second person.
In my thirties, I felt close enough to Gram the person to ask directly about her grandmother. What happened? We talked, and over the course of several years, I pieced together the memories and legends with possibly the only person alive who actually knew her.
I told Gram I’d do some research. “Be careful,” she warned me. “There are some people in the family you don’t want to talk to.”
This was code. Not every relative had become respectable.
When someone is a myth, it’s easy to forget that she was also a person.
Her name was Anna Dec Fisher. She and my great-great grandfather John emigrated from Poland. Her first name was sometimes “Annie” and their last name wasn’t really Fisher. According to census records, their true last name might have been Ezoeske, Jezorski, or Yozarski. They spoke Polish, and a few fragments of their language still run in my family. “Zamknij się” means “Shut your mouth.” “Jest zimno” means “It’s cold.” We, the descendants, have bastardized the foreign phrases to accommodate our American tongues.
Annie and John immigrated in 1901, a time when the United States was still figuring out how to sort the new waves of immigrants into the racial categories it had constructed. Poles were technically white, placing them above some races, but not the right kind of white. Or maybe the right kind for certain interests. Bluntly put, Poles were considered by mainstream America as strong and hard-working—the perfect fit for manual labor—but stupid. Ralph Waldo Emerson, approvingly, wrote in 1852, “Our idea, certainly, of Poles & Hungarians is little better than of horses recently humanized.” (Oh, Ralphie, go shoot your eye out.) A U.S. Steel Corporation want ad from 1909 read, in part, “Syrians, Poles, and Romanians preferred.”
Annie wasn’t stupid. She was just new. It’s unclear if she and John landed in U.S. together, but they came from different parts of what was Poland. (Poland didn’t technically exist as a country in 1901.) John was from Galacia, the poorest region of Europe at the time, then in Austria-Poland. Annie claimed Russia-Poland. They started off their new lives together in Ohio, where their first child, Mary, was born, followed by Helen (my great-grandmother, Gram’s mom), and Walter. By 1910, they were in Walkertown, a small town in West Pike Run Township, Pennsylvania. John worked as a coal miner. It’s where their last child, Adam, would be born.
The first time I saw of picture of Annie was in an old photo that my distant cousin Nicole shared with me. (She’s Walter’s granddaughter.) It’s a family photo from before Adam was born. Annie is standing, one hand on her hip, the other holding Helen’s hand. Her hair’s styled in one of those froufy buns popular around the turn of the century. She wears a bow-tie in her puffy white shirt with a full-length skirt.
By the April 1920 census, they already owned their own home, free of a mortgage. In January that year, the government had enacted the eighteenth amendment, also known as Prohibition. At some point, Annie and John started breaking the new law.
I started finding more artifacts, and the myth of Annie started breaking down. A different picture of her emerged from the bath of historical documents and the context of her life. And that picture of Annie’s life and how she spent it would haunt my family all the way down to my own upraising.
“My dad said everyone did it,” Mom told me, referring to the Prohibition-era law.
“Yes,” I said. “But not everyone went to jail for it.”
Walkertown was small, and people talked. Adam was born in 1916 and was not yet five at the time of the 1920 census. The census-taker seemed to be confused. In the column for race, a Mu for mulatto is marked, then written over more strongly with a W for white.
It wasn’t just the census taker. There seemed to have been a non-governmental consensus that John wasn’t Adam’s father. Gram told me that when she was a kid, sometimes she’d go to the movie theater where Adam worked. He’d let her in for free. But neither would get too close because, you know, the rumors. Later, Adam would leave Walkertown, marry a white redhead, and join the military. Outside of Walkertown, as far as I know, no one questioned his whiteness.
Nicole is also the one who first showed me pictures of Adam. He was a handsome guy, although slightly darker than the other Fisher siblings. This doesn’t mean a lot to me; I have an uncle with a darker skin tone than his siblings, too. Genes pop up in the most peculiar ways.
This interracial brouhaha is so unremarkable now that I feel ridiculous bringing it up, but then I remember that sometimes my grandparents would explain their youths to me in ways that could only be seen as racist. Dating an Italian was almost as bad as dating a black. Meaning, in the poor white community, you lost status. You lost your advantage, which was the measure of respect that your skin color afforded you. The only thing that kept you from being at the very bottom of the American pecking order. Even the rumor of blackness was enough to awaken the racism of Walkertown.
I wonder sometimes if the people of Walkertown would have even questioned Adam’s race had there not been a man, labeled by the census as mulatto, living next door to Annie and John. Short of finding Adam’s descendants and convincing them to give me a quarter teaspoonful of their spit to send to an online DNA profiler, I’m not going to know. I don’t need to know; we’re judged on how we present, not who we are, anyway. Annie could well have had an affair with the guy next door. But she just as easily—more easily, actually—been friendly to her next-door neighbor. Or, easier still, she could have done nothing at all.
All the rumors mean is that Annie was the kind of woman that her white peers thought capable of crossing the line between proper and improper. Whether Adam was John’s son or not, they were right. Annie was woman who crossed lines.
By the summer of 1929, if Annie hadn’t earned respect through piety and birthright, she was grabbing it in the real American way: money.
Two of Annie’s children had married and had had children of their own. According to the family, Annie owned three houses by then. Her oldest, Mary, lived with her family in one. Helen lived with her family in the multi-unit house next to Annie, John, Walter, and Adam.
Annie was bootlegging. She was good at it. I believe she was the brains of the couple, able to read and write while John couldn’t. Gram remembers the yard filled with cars. She was young, just five when her grandmother died, too young to understand that these were probably the cars of paying customers visiting her grandparents.
On July 29, 1929, police raided Annie and John’s house. According to police reports, Helen yelled, “Beat it! The law is coming!”
I imagine customers scrambled into those parked cars and beat it with a quickness.
Next, Helen dumped out a pitcher of liquor that was on the back porch and told the cops, “Go ahead and search. The evidence is gone.”
The evidence wasn’t gone. They found sixteen quarts of beer, two barrels of wine, and a quarter gallon of moonshine in a gallon jug.
Annie, John, and Helen were arrested.
I questioned the documents that I received from Washington County. Did the woman I knew as Grandma Crawford, the permed lady with the puffy pink toilet seat and yappy dog named Duchess, really call out, “Beat it!”?
But then I remember how notoriously blunt and mouthy she was. When I was a kid, she accused me of cheating at 500 Rum and made me cry. When her daughter-in-law and her son-in-law left her children for each other, her remark was, “Why would he leave one fat one”—her daughter—“for another fat one?” When my parents separated, she cut to the chase—no I’m sorry, honey—and offered Mom money if she could live with us. (We didn’t have anywhere to put her.)
And looking at photos of her when she was a teenager, with her bobbed hair and defiant face, I could believe it.
But I also believe that the arrest changed something in Helen.
The next morning, John was charged with manufacturing and possession. Annie and Helen were charged with sale and possession. The bail was $1000 for Annie, and $500 each for John and Helen. None of them could make bail, so they sat in the Washington County jail.
They sat there for a while.
(This was news to Gram. When I told her, she immediately asked, “Where was I?”
She would have been not quite three years old when the arrest happened. My breath caught, realizing that this isn’t some historical curiosity, that I can’t stand on my middle-class perch and think that my research doesn’t have real-life ramifications, just as current-day journalism doesn’t have ramifications for the subjects, especially ones whose names show up in the crime section, not the society section, of the newspaper. My voice softened. “Your dad’s mom Amanda lived with you then, Gram. I bet she took good care of you.”)
On August 21, 1929, the testimonies of the law enforcement officers were entered into the record. On September 9, 1929, John, Annie, and Helen went before a judge. John and Annie pled guilty at some point—perhaps that day—but Helen did not. On October 1, 1929, the district attorney filed a motion with the court for a nolle prosequi (meaning that the state acknowledges it doesn’t have enough evidence against the defendant to prosecute) for Helen. He noted that Helen’s parents were now serving their sentences. I don’t know what those sentences were, but they’ve become irrelevant in the story of my family. I spoke to a friend with a legal degree, and she suspected that Annie and John’s plea deal included the stipulation that Helen go home. She’d already been in jail for over two months.
Helen had missed Gram’s third birthday during her time there; her son was five years old, her second daughter, just an infant. Her breasts must have ached terribly, lumpy and swollen with milk. I think of her there, now a twenty-three-year-old married mother, in an iron and steel facility once called “a modern day Bastille.” I can’t imagine the shame that must have plagued her, the dignity robbed. I can imagine, though, that the experience strengthened her already-entrenched resolve: Become respectable.
I was well into adulthood before I heard of respectability politics, and I only learned of them in the context of African-American history. In a nutshell, it means when a group outside of the mainstream tries to assimilate in order to become accepted. The opposite is when a group outside of the mainstream fights against what the mainstream insists is The Right Way of Living.
In terms of race, only white people can win the respectability game because we don’t carry any visible markers that we’re different. We can dress like the respected people; we can adopt their mannerisms, their biases, their way of speaking.
We can, but not all of us do. The people who don’t are the people who Gram spoke of, the ones I shouldn’t want to know, like the relatives who came to my grandfather’s viewing and were caught rifling through the pockets of the mourners’ coats. As now-respectable white people, we don’t know what to do with them, even as we know their personal histories and how much they’d have to overcome to have a shot at mainstream lives. They’re not the rebels we mythologize. They’re problems to be avoided because they’ve proven they will fuck us over in real time.
I see our family’s striving for respectability in an artifact. There’s a photo of John and two friends, the Novak brothers*, in my grandmother’s box of old photos. Written on the photo is, “The Drunks.” I recognize the handwriting. I’ve seen it once a year for half of my life on birthday cards that arrived with a five-dollar bill tucked inside and signed “Love, Great Grandma Crawford.”
Actually, I don’t know for sure if the Novaks were Annie and John’s friends. They seemed to have been, although God knows I’ve taken drunken photos with people who were little more than acquaintances.
On the year Annie would turn fifty-two years old, though, she went over to help Pete and Agnes Novak render lard from a recently slaughtered pig. One version of the story has her doing it out of the goodness of her heart and maybe some portion of the lard. Another version has her working as hired help. In any case, by that time, John wasn’t working; his lungs were severely compromised due to his time in the mines.
Annie didn’t come home the night of January 22, 1932. Her body was found by the creek the next morning.
I came to the story of Annie originally believing that I could Nancy Drew this sucker open and find out what really happened. Was she murdered? Was it some sort of cover-up? Were the Novaks ever implicated?
What I found out was that I’m so far removed from the underclass—by my own foremothers’ design—that I took for granted that her suspicious death would warrant the kind of investigation that mine would.
On January 25, 1932, Annie made the news in a non-criminal way for the first time. The Charleroi Mail (a newspaper from a town not far away) reported the headline, “Find Lifeless Body of Woman on Road; Heart Attack Victim”:
The lifeless body of Mrs. Anna Fisher, 52, of Walkertown, was discovered yesterday morning by John Hans, lying beside the road between Walkertown and Daisytown, near California [Pennsylvania].
Deputy Coroner J.F. Timko, of California, stated that the woman had been dead about twelve hours when discovered. Mrs. Fisher had left the home of Pete [Novak] for her own home shortly after dark Friday evening. Members of her family were not alarmed over her absence because her husband was away from home. Death was due to a heart attack.
She leaves her husband John Fisher, and four children: Walker and Andrew Fisher, at home, and Mrs. Helen Crawford and Mrs. Mary Smolley, both of Walkertown.
This wasn’t journalism’s finest moment. They got the date wrong, the spot wrong, and Walter’s and Adam’s names wrong. They probably even got her cause of death wrong.
Her death certificate lists her cause of death as “acute gastritis and enteritis” and states her death occurred around eleven at night.
Believing that the Novaks were her friends, I formed a story in my head in which Annie, who was likely a pretty hearty drinker, went to help the Novaks with the pig. While she was there, she died of natural causes. The Novaks—who didn’t have such a clean record with law enforcement themselves, both with arrest records on alcohol-related charges—panicked and put her body by the creek.
I messaged Nicole about it, and she wasn’t buying it.
“Did they do an autopsy?” she asked me.
I looked at the paper in front of me. “It’s blank. So I guess not.”
“Then how do they know?”
Later, with the help of a friend with medical knowledge, I looked into whether one can die of gastritis and enteritis. Turns out, people have actually died of it—but the real cause of death is dehydration as a result of prolonged vomiting and diarrhea. It certainly doesn’t seem like something that would cause you to keel over while walking home after rendering lard.
Nicole was right. We’re never going to know.
When Gram and I visited, all of Annie’s houses were still standing, although the movie theater wasn’t there anymore and the general store was boarded up. Gram’s knees were bothering her, but I held her hand—so much like mine, long-fingered and slim—and we made our way to Mary’s former house where a picture of Gram was taken so many years ago. That solemn, round face, those straight bangs and pageboy haircut. We knocked, but no one answered.
Annie’s house was now painted a mustard yellow. Gram’s childhood home was still white. As we stood there, a woman came out of one of its units. She didn’t know any of the history, and besides, she was on her way to second shift.
After Annie died, the story goes that Mary didn’t pay the taxes on the houses (why she was the one in charge, I have no idea), and that they were taken by the government. Helen’s family wound up in Daisytown, around the bend, in company housing.
We stopped there, too, but we didn’t get out. I have no poker face, and I didn’t cover how appalled I was fast enough. I think my expression showed the gulf between my life and hers. The houses were exactly as Gram had described them: one room that was the kitchen and everything else, two smaller rooms that served as bedrooms, no matter how many children your family had. The reality—the poverty—of it didn’t hit me until then. People still lived there. “That one was ours,” Gram said. “At least we had an end one.”
“I used to visit my grandfather when I was a kid,” she said later. “We’d walk from Daisytown to Walkertown.” I told her that the census reported that he didn’t speak English, only Polish. She laughed. “He spoke English. I remember him as kind. He was gentle with us. He and Adam lived in a house that was half-burned down, but he loved when we visited him.”
With Annie transformed from a myth into a woman, I’ve had to face the myths that I built about myself.
When I was a kid, my family went though a serious rough patch, and it made a mark on me. Even before the steel industry imploded, we weren’t financially stable, but once my dad got laid off, we were forced, for a time, to go on food stamps. I ate government cheese. We relocated to a different state and eventually gave our Pennsylvania home back to the bank. Those aren’t the things that made the mark. It was the knowledge, even then, of the difference between someone’s compassion for us and someone’s pity—which is somehow worse than scorn. You can meet scorn with scorn; you can only meet pity with shame.
It’s been more than three decades since I’ve been in that place, but I still think of myself as the underdog. I’m not. My own descendants—including my son, who (despite my fears) did not become an entitled little shit—will find that I’m a relatively rich woman, and any problems I’ve had with respectability are only visible if you know what to look for. But I’ve clung to the underdog myth because part of me believes that I’d be incapable of showing compassion—not condescending pity, not scorn—to marginalized people if I hadn’t, on some level, experienced it myself. I still grapple with the idea that compassion springs from who you are, not who you come from.
Try as I might, I can’t let go of my own myth. Go ahead and search. The evidence isn’t gone. It’s just trace amounts at this point.
JENNIFER NIESSLEIN is the founder and editor of Full Grown People. She’s changed the “Novak” family’s name out of respect for their descendants.
You are, of course, supposed to give a fuck about important things like voting and the environment and healthcare and your kids. But the thing, now, is that you’re simultaneously not supposed to give a fuck about lots of other things. Giving fucks takes a lot out of a person. You can’t afford to give them away pell mell or there’s no you left. We get this aspirational message:
Be the person who only gives fucks about the things you give fucks about.
Let your fucks tell the story of who you are.
Choose your fucks wisely.
Don’t be everyfuck.
Basically, adulthood is figuring out which fucks to give.
It’s just not always that simple. I don’t give a fuck about chaperoning school trips, cellulite, celebrities, cars, the wrinkles on my forehead, or people who judge my handbag and shoes. I do not even buy the seeds that would let me plant fucks on those topics. So those things never grow into fucks I might give.
I do have a bag of fuck seeds involving my hair, though. And when you have the seeds, no matter how ambivalently they came into your possession, you find yourself planting them, and then they sprout, and there you are, at harvest time, giving a fuck.
Maybe you have an opinion about whether hair is a worthy thing to give fucks about. Maybe you’re picturing gray hair. Or thin hair. Or too curly, or not curly enough. Or, if you know that I had cancer, you are, perhaps, thinking that women who’ve had chemotherapy can be sensitive about losing their hair. But nah, it’s not any of that. I’m not even talking about head hair. I’m talking about body hair.
Specifically the hair on my left breast.
Fortunately, my husband was down with my hairy breast right away, because mammary depilation was the last thing I could deal with when it sprouted. He is good about hair in general, meaning not that he tolerates the fact that I am a hirsute gal, but rather he digs it, enjoys evidence of my mammal-hood, thinks it’s awesome that I am a beast. He occasionally pets my forearm hair for comfort.
I like that about him. I recommend picking a partner who’s into whatever kind of animal you are.
Let me clarify that he was also cool with my original hairy breast which, back in the day, meant that from time to time one or two stray hairs would appear around the areola, and they were brunette, like me, and since I am really farsighted, I couldn’t see them, so sometimes they didn’t get plucked instantly.
But that kind of hairy breast is nothing. It is the pee-wee T-ball league and I ended up in the World Series.
I say Hairy Breast v.1.0 was “nothing,” but looking back, it totally wasn’t nothing, which is why I plucked those fuckers when I did spot them. For American, white, cis, hetero women, hair that’s not on your head or in a perfectly arched brow or eyelash, is taboo. In my day job, as a lactation consultant, I examine breasts, and unlike the ones in magazines and movies, they come in all shapes and sizes and, yes, hairstyles. I have worked with mothers with more chest hair than my husband has. And yet, once, a colleague stated publicly that seeing one client’s hairy areola made her feel like vomiting, and another colleague agreed. I was floored by this squeamishness—these are otherwise body-positive clinicians. I had never heard any of them criticize any other aspect of a client’s body—yet hair got a big reaction. That’s what a taboo is.
Mammals grow hair. It facilitates thermoregulation; without it, we wouldn’t be able to cope with living in a range of weather conditions. The weather doesn’t affect only our scalp. Hair isn’t gross.
And yet, even writing this, I feel the urge to pluck out references to my own hair, and write, instead, a smooth commentary on American squeamishness that doesn’t portray me as ugly. I change “my” to “the” in the sentence above about stray hairs appearing around the areola. My areola. It’s a challenge not to give a fuck about a hair on your areola. It’s a challenge not to give a fuck that you just told the world about it.
I didn’t need to be taught to rid myself of the hair we consider unbeautiful; the message was part of my culture, something I had memorized before I was even aware of it, like the lyrics to every Eagles song. Did Brooke Shields have hairy legs and pits when she got busy in the Blue Lagoon? No. She took care of that shit on the QT and didn’t make anyone look at it.
My mother got me a razor when I was nine. Other girls were open about shaving their legs. A girl named Jeannie authoritatively set forth the rules: “shaving,” first of all, meant calves and pits. Taking a razor to any other part of your body would cause you to become sown with the darkest, blackest, fastest growing, and embarrassing hair, instantly. Moreover, you were not to shave more than once a day, or the hair would start growing faster, and it would come in thick and black. “Like an ape,” she said. A girl named Amy concurred, intoning that even if you shaved 23 hours and 59 minutes later, it was dangerous. I absorbed this wisdom without question.
Knee hair was not mentioned, though I was dying to know how all the older girls’ knees were smooth.
It was also, by college, acceptable to mention depilation of your “bikini area” (which, then, meant removing hair that encroached out of bathing suit and into thigh crease, but leaving the triangle intact; Brazilian wasn’t a thing yet), but few dared mention the appearance and grooming methods for pesky hairs that grew on the big toe, side burn, or, god forbid, chin. I was forty before friends openly discussed facial hair removal.
Oh, I was aware of who had what. One friend had a blond beard that extended almost to her eye sockets. Another had nipple hair she obviously shaved, based on the thorny way it grew in. This one had butt hair. That one bleached her mustache, and it practically glowed. People were silently giving fucks, but none of it was discussed.
I grew a stripe of hair that marched downwards from my navel, and, boy, did I give a fuck about that. Those mofos needed to be dealt with on the regular; as soon as I shaved them, they were returning. The Stripe showed if my t-shirt rode up. Worse, although I’d heard of “leg wax” and “bikini wax,” who even had hair on their belly? What even was that? And it was not a stray, like I’d occasionally get on nipple or toe, but a parade of coarse hair, marching down to my privates.
I thought about it, first, whenever I thought I might get sexy with someone. When low-rise pants became a thing, my first ten thoughts were, “Will The Stripe show?” Each of these thoughts bloomed full flower, in the field of fucks I was cultivating.
Somewhere in the midst of learning to groom and prune, and to not discuss it, I also learned to be meta and loathe the hair-hating regime because it was misogynist and racist and generally problematic.
Some friends stopped shaving to protest The Patriarchy. They tended to be people whose ancestors came from Scandinavia. I hated hearing female hair described as disgusting, but I was in no-man’s-land: though I quietly admired the audacity of all those exuberant follicles, I was too hirsute to be normy. Yet, for removing hair regularly, I was not a good enough feminist.
I envied blond, smooth friends whose waxes lasted all summer. I envied “statement” hair that amounted to a soulful wisp of curled armpit fronds. One friend got everyone’s attention by outrageously leaving some stray, blond, pubes visible out her bathing suit, causing a collective frisson among every single one of our friends. But you had to be sharing a beach towel with her to see it. My unwaxed pubes would have been visible from the beach parking lot. They are voluminous enough that you could shoot me in the vulva and the bullet would probably bounce off. And it would be cool as fuck if I were a badass who pranced the beach in a red bikini and more upper thigh hair than your husband has, but that would not simply be making a feminist, mammalist statement. It would make my public persona about hair. Leaving it au natch—on my face, on my legs, under my arms—would be choosing to make my life about this issue in spoken and unspoken interactions. In job interviews, at parties, with strangers, at the grocery store, everywhere.
Could I do it? Could I stop giving fucks entirely about this and be the face, literally, of a different kind of beauty and sexuality than western white folks normally see? Could I push people through their discomfort to appreciate that mammals are hairy, and it’s hot?
Is it wrong to choose to pass when you can?
I don’t know.
But I didn’t choose to make my life a statement on this issue. I did the less brave thing: I keep some of the hair, enough to make a tame statement perhaps, but remove lots. In summary, I give fucks about normy body hair rules.
But I stopped being young, and with age comes a phenomenon known as The Law of Conservation of Fucks. This means that when you have a marriage and a career and kids and, as Zorba said, the “full catastrophe” of adult life, many things compete to be the fucks you give, and inevitably some fucks get neglected. I found, in time, that I spent less precious energy tending the hair-fuck-seeds. Hairs grew in unseemly locations and I made them go away, but often I didn’t give a full 100% of a fuck about it. Sometimes I barely gave half a fuck, and this was great progress.
I got breast cancer when I was forty-three.
I needed a mastectomy and learned there were a few ways to do a reconstruction. After much debate, I selected a procedure called the “stacked DIEP flap” where they transplant a fat pad from your belly to make a new boob. It isn’t at all a matter of vacuuming out belly fat and blowing it in upstairs like insulation in the attic; they actually remove a four by ten inch segment of your belly – the skin and, beneath it, the entire pad of fat with blood vessels. Then, using a microscope, they attach the veins and arteries to those in your chest wall and somehow fold it into a breast-ish shape and then sew it all into the place where they removed the breast. It’s a transplant, and the new breast is alive. It doesn’t have the everlasting-perkiness of the more common implant reconstruction, but it’s warm, and has some sensation. And, since it’s jiggly with fat, it looks more like the uncancerous breast to its right, which, at forty-three, did not look anything like a silicone boob job.
A week after the surgery, my sister asked to see the new breast, so I unveiled the thing. It was a thrilling piece of medical technology but not a beaut: swollen, nipple-less, and punctured in multiple places with surgical drains, covered by a four inch circular scar, and what looked like plastic-wrap sealing the wound. Across my abdomen, hip to hip, a twelve inch scar marked where the material had been harvested; my abdomen now stretched so tight it hurt to stand up straight. A new belly button had been “made,” higher than the original one.
My sister exclaimed at the talent of the surgeon and the miracle of modern surgery. They can make a belly button. They can make a breast. Shit is impressive.
Then she leaned in. “Um?” She said, tentatively, examining the new breast, “I think that’s some hair growing on it!”
I squinted down but even with glasses, my own breast is too close for my farsighted eye to see. I took a selfie. A breast-selfie. A brelfie.
I enlarged the photo and saw what she could see with her naked eye: a few short, wispy, black hairs, beginning to form a line across the breast.
The Stripe was coming back. Transplanted to my boob.
Welcome to Hairy Breast v.2.0.
How had I not realized this would happen? I knew where the new breast material was coming from. I had shaved my legs and The Stripe the morning of the surgery. I simply hadn’t thought about it.
Additionally, the surgeon must have sewn the belly flap on sideways. The Stripe now pointed east to west. A path to paradise, destination: armpit.
“Fuck,” I said.
My sister pointed out that this was an excellent sign that the transplant was successful. If my body was growing hair, the new breast was truly alive.
What an excellent, supportive, scientific comment.
“Fuck,” I said again.
Because no matter how far you’ve come, a hair stripe across a boob is fucking Miracle-Gro for your unnecessary fuck-seed garden.
A month passed and the hair grew in, lush and dark and strong, just like before.
A hair stripe. Across my nipple-less boob. On top of cancer.
And I look terrible in horizontal stripes.
I spent that summer and fall in chemotherapy, a particularly toxic cocktail that causes total body hair loss. I was told I’d be bare as a naked mole rat in twenty-one days. I became an artist of eyebrows. I learned to apply makeup to resemble eyelashes. My pubes dwindled until they looked like the remnant whiskers of a nonagenarian hermit. My lusciously hairy arms were almost bald. I had to remind myself that they were mine.
But not even Red Devil Chemo could defeat Hairy McBoob. The Stripe stayed in place, right across my new breast, through sixteen weeks of chemotherapy. And every single doctor and nurse who examined me commented on it, in case I needed reminders that it’s weird to have what looks like pubes growing in a line across your tata.
Cancer treatment is a bitch. After they cut you apart and sew you together, they poison you for months and you’re still not even done: after chemo I needed radiation. Every day for six weeks I lay down in a giant machine that shot x-rays at my tit and pit to kill any remaining cancer that wasn’t sliced off or poisoned to death. It’s a drag. Fortunately, The Stripe pointed directly at the armpit that had housed the cancerous lymph nodes. I am sure that was very helpful for the radiation oncologist.
The irradiated area develops what looks like a big sunburn, and every hair follicle became red and inflamed, even the ones that didn’t have hair growing. It had been a long year. In place of a lovable and beloved breast, I now had a sunburned, red-polka-dotted, hairy, nipple-less orb.
Cancer treatment fucks with your mind and your body. It makes you ask big questions about life and death, but also the ones about who you are. I’ve been crazy healthy all my life. Was I still me if I was sick? Without a left breast? With chronic arm pain from the surgery? I had always arranged my schedule around exercise but now I could no longer even manage yoga. I was sometimes so mentally foggy that even the adrenaline of working couldn’t keep me focused. Was I still me without even my mind?
What, at base, made me ‘me’? Who was this person with scars and no eyebrows, with bare arms and wispy pubes, with a numb, red, polka-dotted, nipple-less boob and no functional memory?
Weeks passed. I barely thought of normal life. I was often asleep right after dinner. Possibilities receded. I was only the basic shape of me, drained of hue.
And somewhere in there, in the colorless trudge through cancer treatment, day after day of being blitzed by radiation, I found I just didn’t care about The Stripe. I didn’t feel proud of it; I didn’t feel like hiding it. I thought only about finishing my motherfucking radiation and being with my family, and I just didn’t give a single fuck about anything else.
My unnecessary fuck seeds were irradiated into oblivion.
Months passed. Many of the months were terrible. After the primary cancer treatment ended, I was overwhelmed with awareness that what I’d been through had been really hard. Once I held a head of broccoli in the grocery store and thought, “I let them take my breast,” and the truth was so potent and so horrifying that I couldn’t move, and stood, immobile, for several minutes. There were days I cried until I started vomiting.
Eventually, I began to come back to myself. The sunburn subsided. One day, in early spring, I noticed that the hair on my breast was gone. (I confirmed with multiple brelfies.) I don’t know when it happened. The follicles, it seems, were destroyed by the radiation. Even now, long after the rest of my body re-sprouted, the new breast remains as smooth as a cue ball.
I don’t want The Stripe back. But I give a fuck that it’s gone.
MEREDITH FEIN LICHTENBERG lives in New York City where she is a prenatal and parenting educator and a board-certified lactation consultant. Her writing has appeared in Full Grown People’s first anthology, as well as The Washington Post, Brain, Child, Kveller, Paste, and elsewhere, and she can be found online at www.amotherisborn.com.
There are magical days for fishers, unique because they are both rare and mysterious. These days are also accidents, and they don’t fit naturally into the pattern of causes and effects, so they must somehow be turned into stories.
Last August, Richard and I drove up to McCall, Idaho, and decided to fish the Brundage reservoir. This was a trip we both needed. Richard’s wife was dying, though her medical team continued their attempts to stop the growth of cancerous lung tumor, which had doubled in size in a year. Death struggles cannot be contained; they send their tremors in every direction, and Cheryl’s condition made my own marriage seem vulnerable, a feeling I had not expected or had ever felt before. Richard had lived long enough with an ailing partner that the idea of losing her—and of being alone—wasn’t as terrifying to him as it seemed to me. He was an attentive caretaker, and when I proposed that we take a day to fish, he said he would love to. “But let’s see how Cheryl is doing,” he said. She encouraged him to go.
Reservoirs hold the visible memory of the land they flooded. There are the naked stumps of decaying timber, particularly in low water, and the rise and fall of water often scores the shore with impossibly straight ridges, each a few feet apart, which could be steps one might descend to reach the river that once flowed through there.
Idaho was burning last summer—historic fires in both the desert and the mountains—and the air was filled with smoke, even in McCall, which is at around six thousand feet elevation. Here in the West, gaining elevation is the solution to a lot of problems—heat, inversions, and one hoped, smoke. But when the high country burns, the smoke stays where the fires are. Unlike fishers, firefighters hope for smoke because it helps suppress the fires. It was a sunny day, but the haze created a pewter wash over everything, especially the water on the reservoir, and all else was drained of color.
We launched our small kickboats, and in the morning the fishing was pretty good. I trolled small streamers, and I landed and released five or six fish in a few hours. They were pretty fish, many of them rainbow and cutthroat trout hybrids—“cutbows”—with scarlet backs and golden bellies and sides. But after lunch, the fishing slowed. Kickboats are quietly propelled by flippered feet, freeing the hands to hold the rod, and one of the great pleasures of these small boats is the comradery of trolling with a companion. When the fishing goes south, Richard and I often found each other on a lake, kicking along in unison, and talking now and then. In light of everything—Cheryl’s suffering set against the somber and smoky gloom of that day—those moments together, floating high above a lost streambed, seemed especially poignant to me.
When the conditions are right, the aquatic insects that flyfishers imitate with their feather and fur flies erupt in a hatch—a sudden blizzard of bugs that emerge from the water at once. When this one started, I heard the fish first, rising to take the flies, and then trout were all around us, swirling and splashing, hungrily working the surface. I quickly switched over to a dry fly line and put a big bug on—grasshopper-like with rubber legs. Tying knots when fish are rising around you triggers a desperation that makes knots harder to tie. The mind focuses on one thing—getting the fly to the feeding fish. Meanwhile, the hatch intensified.
“Have you looked up at the sky?” Richard said. When I did, I saw a rolling cloud of flies. They were big black bugs with yellow-orange bellies that defied classification—they weren’t mayflies, or stoneflies, or caddis, or any of the usual aquatic insects that flyfishers typically imitate—and yet they seemed to emerge from the water, hovering around us and nowhere else on the reservoir. Soon I was casting to the rising trout, my fly landing on a carpet of floating bugs. The takes varied from violent to lackadaisical, and before long we were tying into nice fish, nearly all fifteen inches or more. These were thick, well-fed trout that rose hungrily from the bottom of the reservoir. The hatch continued around us for more than an hour, and the feeding and catching continued, each of us pulling fish to our boats and quickly unhooking them to begin again. From time to time, Richard and I would turn to each other and comment on the magic of it all—two men alone together in small boats in the middle of an eruption of flies and fish.
When the hatch finally waned, we floated together for a little while, exhausted but still wondering if somehow the magic would continue. For a few minutes, the sun wanly broke through the smoky sky, but the reservoir’s surface went slick, unbroken by rising trout. For that hour, though, Richard had a break from his death watch. It was an hour filled with life—the golden flash of rising fish, the frantic flight of insects, and the steady, back-and-forth beat of our forearms as we hurled our fly lines out and away to where the fish were. Cheryl died a few days later. But when we returned to Boise that night, tired and exuberant, she was waiting for us on the back deck at Richard’s house, lying in the dark on a chaise lounge and wrapped in a white blanket. Cheryl could not get up to greet me, and yet somehow, in my mind, I see her rising, again and again.
BRUCE BALLENGER, a professor of English at Boise State University, is the author of seven books.
I’m reading my way through a romance series. I’m on the fifth installment, and I’ve gotten a feel for the unique quirks of the books as well as for the ways the books heed romance novel conventions—especially the less enticing conventions.
The convention I’m having trouble dealing with most, one of the most common romance novel conventions of all, is this: All of the heroines, no matter what their age, no matter what century they were born in (there’s some time-traveling involved), are virgins when they meet the heroes.
There’s nothing wrong with being a virgin, of course. Lots of people are virgins, even into their mid-twenties (or later), just like the heroines of the novels I’m reading. But lately, the way virginity is used as a trope in romance novels has started to get to me.
With few exceptions (Courtney Milan, I’m looking at you), one can’t read a historical romance novel, or even many that are set in contemporary times, without encountering a virginal heroine. It’s simply that common of a genre convention.
What’s the big deal?
The big deal, for me, is the particular trope of virginity-as-sacred-gift to the hero. The big deal, for me, is the other trope of virginity-as-stand-in-for-honesty, resolve, valor, courage, and an assortment of other qualities that a romance heroine has no other way of proving she possesses except by guarding her hymen.
In a romance novel that uses these tropes, when the moment of truth—that is, cherry-picking—finally comes, and inevitably the reader enters the hero’s point of view for at least a moment, he feels such gratitude that he’s the one to have received the gift of the heroine’s virginity. And in that moment, he truly admires her.
And in that moment, I feel sick and cheated. I feel like a failure. I wonder why I’m reading the book and consider stopping. Every time. But I set aside my bad feelings and keep reading. After all, it’s not the romance novel genre’s fault that I was raped when I was a child and never had a chance to be a virgin at all.
When I was a freshman in college, my best friend was a girl named Bel. She and I were walking through the student union during what turned out to be rape awareness week. I, of course, was so wildly unaware of everything in college that I didn’t know such a week even existed.
A campus activist group had set up a long, white bulletin board—a memorial. It stretched as long as the building itself. When Bel and I found it, the board was covered by a flurry of yellow index cards, so many that the board looked like a field of daffodils. On a nearby table were more cards, pens, and push-pins so you could write a note and stick it on the board.
I’d never told Bel what happened to me as a child, so I was nervous about writing anything on a card. But she strode to the table, picked up a card and wrote a note, and then stabbed it into the board. Her note read, For the girl who never got to be a virgin.
For a moment, I had a strange feeling that Bel had read my mind. She could have written that note about me. She hadn’t, though. I quickly wrote a note for myself, and we walked outside onto the quad. We sat in the spring North Carolina sunshine on a patch of grass by the gothic-inspired chapel and told each other very similar stories.
Then, Bel told me she had a theory. It went like this: Since she never had a chance to choose whom to have sex with the first time, she got to be a virgin forever.
Bel was an eternal virgin.
At first glance, Bel’s theory seemed similar to the advice given by nurse practitioner Carol F. Roye, in her article about the uselessness of our cultural misconceptions about hymens and virginity: “I believe that virginity is what the individual thinks it is. It certainly is for men, who bear no tell-tale signs of lost virginity. The concept of virginity has an emotional connotation. It is more than just the physical disruption of hymenal tissue.”
But in reality, Bel had flipped Roye’s advice on its head. Bel had declared herself a virgin for as long as she wanted to be one.
Roye, however, was not advising a perception of virginity until you felt like you weren’t a virgin any more. On the contrary, she was advising women to take a broader, not narrower, view of virginity loss: “If a young woman has had a sexual relationship with her partner, and she feels that she has lost her virginity, then she has, regardless of what actually happened to her hymen during the encounter. There are ancillary issues that each woman must answer for herself. Is oral sex ‘de-virginizing?’ Anal sex?”
Roye’s article didn’t consider me or Bel at all. How do you think about virginity when yours was gone before you were sexual being in the first place?
Just a few months before my conversation with Bel, I’d had sex for the first time since since I was raped by a grown man when I was in middle school.
My first adult sexual experience was not the most romantic experience in the world. In fact, in retrospect, I don’t think I wanted it to be. I think I wanted to get it over with. I didn’t have a hymen (metaphorical or no) to discard, but I did have plenty of baggage. I chose someone I knew I would never see again—an ex-boyfriend from high school. I selected him carefully for a one-night stand.
Before we went at it, I told Ex-Boyfriend I was raped when I was a child—I’d never told him before. He seemed, weirdly, relieved. “So you’re not a virgin, then.”
What did that question mean? That he was going to do things differently? Would he have done things differently if I’d said nothing? What if I’d had the eternal virgin conversation with Bel sooner and kept my rape a secret from him? What if I’d told him I was a virgin—what would have happened then? Did he think my body was transformed somehow by its less-than-virginal status, his own duty to me therefore lightened?
Sarah Wendell at the romance novel website Smart Bitches, Trashy Books addressed what she called the “Surprise Virgin” trope in romance novels. It goes like this:
The hero figures out the heroine is a virgin because he encounters some resistance (which, don’t even get me started) and she flinches and of course he Is Very Alarmed and tries to stop but she tells him not to so it’s ok for him to get on with it.
Then after they’ve crested and reached peaks of joy and done the dance as old as time, he says something about how if he’d known she was a virgin, he’d have done it all differently, been more gentle or something.
Wendell has all kinds of criticisms of this particularly weak trope: “First, why would you not bring your A game the first time you sleep with a woman you have major lust pants for? If you groin is on fire and it’s not because of Gold Bond, why would you not do your very best scrumpin? What is this ‘I’d have been more gentle and sensitive’ crap?”
Ex-Boyfriend and I had the awkward I-was-raped conversation. Then I, with my non-virginal eighteen-year-old body, and he, with his extremely non-virginal twenty-year-old body, fucked in my friend’s guest room. It hurt like hell. I cried and made sure he didn’t see. Sex felt terrible, and I never wanted to do it again. Maybe that was his A game. Maybe it wasn’t.
My de-baggaging (you really can’t call it deflowering) did not involve peaks of joy.
I was an unusual species of surprise virgin. I’d been deflowered, yes, when I was a child. But in no way was I sexually experienced. Bel was right, in this instance—that night I was an eternal virgin.
But I didn’t understand any of this back then. After my de-baggaging, I was in so much pain that I believed my body was broken. When Ex-Boyfriend asked me what was wrong—he wasn’t so dense that he couldn’t sense that something was off—I insisted I was fine. He fell asleep. I didn’t sleep at all.
I was probably in shock.
The romance novel is a beautiful genre. That’s why, despite these painful virgin tropes, I keep reading them. When they’re written well, books about the struggle to find human connection—emotional and physical—are deeply gratifying.
Some readers criticize the predictability of the genre. But, like it does for most genres, predictability makes romance novels more enjoyable, not less. Romance is predictable as any genre is predictable: as predictable as a Sherlock Holmes story, as predictable as a sonnet.
“Predictable” simply means that the books share genre conventions to which they must conform and use to tell their stories. These conventions can be constraining, like the quatrains and couplets of a sonnet. But they can also create a freedom within that constraint, as any author of metrical poetry will tell you. Readers appreciate an author who can dazzle from within those conventions.
Any acrobat can flip and twirl. The acrobat who flips and twirls on a tightrope is astounding. The tightrope is the genre with its constraints and conventions.
But here’s the other thing about genres: they are allowed to grow and change as the needs of their audiences grow and change.
Wendell and her co-author Candy Tan, in their book on romance novels, Beyond Heaving Bosoms, take on the trope of innocence—usually depicted using virginity—in romance novels of all stripes, not just historicals:
One of the more peculiar constants of most romance novels, from historicals to contemporaries to paranormals to even erotica, is the sexually unawakened state of the heroine. She’s relatively innocent, as proven by her inexperience or her outright virginity. No matter what type she is, she is definitely not the ho-type.
Therein lies the deep, humid, dark, and somewhat curious den that is home to the two sacred mythical beasts beloved to Romancelandia. They’re interconnected, if you know what we mean (and we think you do): the Unawakened Woman and the Heroic Wang of Mighty Lovin’. They are the plague and the backbone of romance.
The virginal heroine and heroic wang are long-entrenched conventions of romance novels. But they need to go. They need to go along with the interminable whiteness of the characters of most romance novels, and other sad holdovers.
Romance writers do push genre boundaries. They stay on the tightrope but retrace the conventions in ways that allow for new ways of thinking about sexuality. For readers like me, for rape survivors, abuse survivors, for those of us whose virginity never was ours to begin with—we are grateful.
Courtney Milan, in her historical romance novel Unclaimed, features a virginal leading man, Sir Mark Turner, and a courtesan, Jessica Farleigh, hired to seduce him and destroy his reputation. The book is sexy, conventional (genre-wise), and wound up tight. And yet it flips the virginal heroine trope on its head. That Milan could do all of this and remain on the tightrope only makes her writerly acrobatics more amazing. Milan avoided the plague and maintained the backbone. And with the rest of her novels, she does it over and over. Other writers manage to avoid the plague as well. (Hello there, Alisha Rai.) But they are rare, still.
I know that having sex for the first time is not usually like it is in a romance novel. Even friends who aren’t rape survivors have told me that their first time was similar to my de-baggaging. Terrible—painful, with insensitive partners who are snoring before you know it’s over.
But usually a girl or woman gets to choose whom she’s with when she loses her virginity. I never got to choose. Bel never got to choose. But more than that, we never got to be virgins. From the moment I was aware of my sexuality, I was already not-a-virgin. The first person to press his lips to mine was the first person to stick his dick in me. I didn’t know what a condom was, and, no, he didn’t use one.
I lost so much that day. Not just my virginity.
It’s curious that we say “lose” when we talk about virginity. The language of “lose,” of “loss,” implies that virginity is something that can be found again. After all, few things are lost forever. The old-fashioned term “ruined” seems far more accurate. Thomas Hardy, ever interested in ruination, wrote a poem called “The Ruined Maid,” taking on Victorian notions of virginity and its close bedfellow (heh), ruination.
“O ’Melia, my dear, this does everything crown! Who could have supposed I should meet you in Town? And whence such fair garments, such pros-per-ity?”— “O didn’t you know I’d been ruined?” said she.
— “You left us in tatters, without shoes or socks, Tired of digging potatoes, and spudding up docks; And now you’ve gay bracelets and bright feathers three!” — “Yes: that’s how we dress when we’re ruined,” said she.
And on it goes, the poor country girl amazed by the dazzling jewels, dress, and speech of her former counterpart, now “ruined,” the reader supposes, by a coincidence of her sexual actions and the rigid moral dictates of society.
What’s not mentioned in the poem is that the ruined woman must be well provided for in her new role as a rich man’s mistress. Ruination in Victorian society did not immediately mean wealth and education, after all, but it could. And, by the end, it appears that both women—the poor working woman, aged early by her hard life, and the rich man’s mistress—are ruined after a fashion. The double meaning of the word “ruined” makes the poem work.
Nevertheless, the line of demarcation is clear. The overworked country girl and the socially ruined mistress are not the same.
A girl does not come back from being ruined. What’s lost cannot be found. You just have to pick up the ruined stuff of yourself, and move on.
KATIE ROSE GUEST PRYAL is a novelist, freelance journalist, and erstwhile law professor living in Chapel Hill, NC. She is the author of the Hollywood Lights Series, which includes Entanglement, Love and Entropy, and Chasing Chaos, all from Velvet Morning Press. As a journalist, Katie contributes regularly to Quartz, The Chronicle Of Higher Education, The (late, lamented) Toast, Dame Magazine, and more. She earned her master’s degree in creative writing from the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins, where she attended on a fellowship. When not writing, she teaches creative writing and works as freelance editor. Find her on Twitter: @krgpryal.
The new Executive Director’s father is dying. Her name is Angela; she moved here from northern Virginia and has brought him with her. She holds his elbow, and together they learn this small town in North Carolina. They walk carefully over the cobblestones in the parts of downtown still cobbled. They examine the construction, having never seen the slender strip of grass that used to be where these cement blocks and this mound of dirt now sit. In a year or so the block extending east from the obelisk will be a bigger expanse of grass, a real park: with benches, one of those water spouts for kids in summer.
Her father is old and has dementia. She wears what she can of his condition inside her own body and it shows. She worries, calls her new rental house from the office throughout the day to make sure he answers. When he doesn’t, she drives home and back, reports that he was asleep. This is how she learns her way around.
The Asheville Citizen-Times and the free weekly run articles announcing her hiring. I watch her try to fix her hair for the photos: she stands in the gallery next to a banner I’ve never seen, retrieved from the basement. It has our logo on it. Asheville Area Arts Council: AAAC. Our town is glad she’s here. We shake her hand with both our hands. Sometimes we clasp her forearm. We nod our heads, tell each other Oh, her father. We say to ourselves, It’s so sad. We say, She has so much on her plate. So much to do. We’re a town of artists and college students and retirees, and we have been waiting for her. We radiate excitement to watch her try to live. We love seeing her walk her dad across the street from the office to get ice cream.
In Florida, in the ’90s, families that we knew and did not know were buying tarps and specialty fencing and in other ways trying to prevent this thing that took over like a wave, like an accidental fad. It was the thing that kept happening: people’s children were drowning in their own pools. My dad, a pediatrician, was interviewed on the local news and my sister and I felt famous by extension.
One family we knew bought a pool fence to prevent this exact thing from happening, but their baby followed a cat through the crack between the latch and the rest of the nylon fencing. A grandparent was babysitting and had fallen asleep.
And another: my third grade classmate’s baby brother, a fat toddler who accompanied us on school trips when his parents chaperoned. He was famous for this wiggly dance, probably the product of just having learned to stand upright, that was like the chicken dance only shorter and unplanned. The memory I have, that I return to every few years, is of this baby wobbling around in a diaper outside the Arlington Street pool. We had gone on a field trip. My friend’s brother did his dance and our whole class stood around him, and his dad was there and we laughed.
These things did not happen in public pools, though, only in the carefully planned backyards of the people who loved their babies. And so, weeks or months later, my friend’s father fell asleep while his baby was awake and curious. It was the first funeral I ever attended. I sat with another classmate, and I don’t remember if my parents were even there. The baby’s dad stood at a podium and sobbed. He said he would miss that little dance so much. He held tight to the podium and we watched the rest of his body try to collapse and he shook. His hands were the only still parts.
Four days after Ryane’s dad dies I email all of our friends. “I wanted to let you know that Ryane’s dad died on Monday morning. If you have a chance and are inclined to send her a note, I know she would appreciate it. We don’t yet have email at the house, but the physical address is…”
He died three weeks after his fifty-first birthday. Ryane was twenty-five. Three of our friends respond to my email, telling me to tell Ryane they are sorry. One person delivers Tupperware ravioli while we’re in Indiana for the funeral. One sends a note in the mail saying she wishes she could give Ryane a hug.
At funerals, the idea is to look around: to see the group you’re given to grieve with. A temporary family, or an actual family. A room full of people with similar, complicated feelings.
The idea is once you walk out of that room, away from those people who understand what you feel because they also feel some version of it, subsequent acquaintances are less likely to understand. They might not understand at all.
A friend drops off a Tupperware of ravioli while you’re out, never to mention your loss again.
A friend asks, within months, why it’s still a topic of discussion.
People extend birthday party invitations, or they don’t extend them at all. Both situations feel the same.
No one mentions it.
Or a few people mention it, asking, How are you? when there is no answer. Thinking about you, xo.
I study the grief around me to understand my own, which technically hasn’t happened yet. I grieve a family that still exists, parents I can call on the phone today, who were always just themselves instead of the people I needed them to be.
Waiting to actually lose someone can become confused for actually having lost them, after a while. We humans float around each other in so many ways.
Angela has moved her father back into his house in Florida. At first he manages with the help of nurses whom she pays to stop by. But he falls, forgets who they are, becomes upset when they unlock his front door one by one and enter as though it were their house. He calls her at work, and through the drywall separating her office from mine, I hear her whisper insistent Spanish into the receiver. Mira, Papi.
She has him transferred to an assisted living facility somewhere east of Orlando where he has limited telephone privileges but nurses sometimes call with updates. Every six weeks or so she flies on Allegiant air—tiny planes to tiny airports, something like $86 round-trip—to Sanford, rents a car and drives to visit him. She flies back frazzled, calls from the car on the way back from the airport, asks questions the answers to which she does not hear and says she’ll be in the office later.
“Thanks for coming,” Dad says to us at our gate, before we board. My sister and I are in the Montgomery airport. Because Mom and Dad flew up early, we’re on separate flights and they don’t leave until tomorrow. When he says, “Thanks for coming,” he refers to our attendance of his mother’s funeral. Breast cancer. “Thanks for coming”: we hadn’t thought it was optional. We board our plane and return to high school. Our friends say, “Sorry about your grandma,” and we say things like, “Thanks,” and “She was old,” because we don’t know how else to respond.
She’d been sick for a while, in and out of the hospital, and when my dad wasn’t addressing her by her first name in exasperated tones over the phone he was arguing with my mom about the money he was sending to his brother to care for her. This serves as a reminder to us that it is always possible to walk around something too vast, to fight about something like money instead.
We’ve just moved into a new house and are sleeping on the floor, on a mattress exhumed from the pullout couch. It is seven-thirty in the morning and Ryane is dreaming that her father has died. In the dream, she’s misheard someone. At first she thinks her grandmother is dead. Then she realizes her grandmother is alive, that her father has died instead. She asks again to make sure. Yes, he’s dead, someone tells her. In the dream she cries and cries and cries, and when she wakes up she thinks she’s been crying in real life but hasn’t been. She wakes up because my cell phone is ringing. The light outside is lazy. Did we set an alarm? The phone is plugged in, ringing next to the bed on the floor. I look at the area code. It’s Bloomington, Indiana. I hand the little phone to her and know.
“Hello?” It’s her grandfather. Her phone is dead and he’s been calling it for hours. I watch her start to cry and I hold onto her shoulder. “This morning?” she asks into the phone.
When she hangs up she says, “I dreamed that he died!” She is wearing a white men’s undershirt and she sits upright in the bed, hunched over like another broken thing.
There are the religious concepts. Let us confess the faith of our baptism as we say I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
They do not help. Rather, I do not know whom they help. Rather, they do not help me.
At the funeral of a man who had waited for his wife and children to leave for work and school, walked to the shed, grabbed a shotgun and sat down under a tree in his backyard to shoot himself in the face, hundreds of us pour into a Western North Carolina hillside chapel to hear the minister say, If God is for us, who is against us?
This was when I dated Zoe. The dead man was her coworker. I had never met him or his wife or his children. The day before, after the body was removed and the grass under the tree was cleaned and the shotgun destroyed and the widow and her children had gone to her parents’, Zoe and her coworkers and I drove to the widow’s house with boxes and duct tape and markers. Into the boxes we put his clothes, their photo albums, framed images taken from the walls and coffee tables of their wedding, vacations. We took the sheets off the bed. We collected anything that seemed like his and wrote things on the full boxes like “clothes,” “photos.” Half the house went into storage for when she was ready to come back. She would look through the “clothes” and “photos” when she was ready.
That was over a decade years ago and I wonder how long it took her to be ready. Has she retrieved those boxes yet? Has she sold the house? Did she even ask for us to do that? All I remember is being invited to join.
If God is for us, who is against us? The packing day and the funeral day: one felt like prayer, the other just something to be done.
After we found out Ryane’s dad had died, there were logistics. We needed to drive to Virginia to pick up her mom and youngest brother, and from there go to Indiana where her dad’s body and Ryane’s grandparents and middle brother were. But first I had to do two things.
When I called Angela to say I wouldn’t be coming to work for a few days she said, Oh my God I’m so sorry and Can you drop those prints at the framer’s before you leave? Ryane and I had been moving from the house on Arbutus to the one on Larchmont, and were supposed to finish cleaning out Arbutus that weekend. Instead we were driving to Indiana. After hanging up with Angela I called the Arbutus landlord and told him we needed more time. He said he had renters moving in on Thursday and couldn’t give us any. I told Ryane I had to run errands before we could leave and she said that was fine even though I knew it wasn’t. She sat very still in the deep-cushioned yellow chair I’d gotten at Goodwill the year before. “I’ll pack a bag,” she said, but she didn’t move.
During the drive to the framer’s I held two thoughts in my head: I’m doing the wrong thing by running this errand and This absolutely has to get done right now. The Arts Council had contracted with a new Hyatt to provide art for the walls, and it was a disaster. The artists were being underpaid for their work and asked to sign away rights of ownership. Because Asheville is a town of struggling artists, they all said yes but hated us for suggesting they do it. For the last week I’d been taking call after call from frustrated painters, trying to calm them and failing. And the framer, who’d agreed to take on the project at a significantly reduced rate, had been waiting for Angela to bring the prints all week. On Friday Angela had finally just stuffed them all in my car and told me to do it Monday morning.
“I have other customers, you know,” the framer said when I got there.
“Michelle, I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t know why Angela didn’t drop these off.” I suspected she’d just forgotten. Sometimes grief takes over before the person you’re grieving has gone.
Afterward at Arbutus I stuffed everything I could from that house into my car. In the years that followed, every once in a while Ryane and I would realize something else left behind in that basement.
On my last trip to the car I stopped in the front yard. We’d planted sunflowers along the fencing and walkway that spring, and few had bloomed. The soil wasn’t very deep and elms shaded our corner of the neighborhood. But next to the mailbox a mammoth sunflower had been growing up and up. When we’d last left Arbutus, Ryane’s dad was alive and the mammoth’s face had appeared but not opened and Ryane was wondering whether she should go up to Indiana for a while to be with him. I stuffed some loose kitchen utensils in the trunk of the car and stood there. Ryane’s dad was dead. We would never live in east Asheville again. Peter was dead. Later I would see his body. I would need to know the correct things to do and say this whole week. I would need to say the soothing things and first I would need to think of what those things could be. And I would need to say goodbye to someone who had started to become a parent to me.
The sunflower had opened overnight. Half of its fingery petals extended from its face, and the other half still held to the big center circle. It was an eclipse. I convinced myself our one sunflower had opened part way because Peter had died. I texted Ryane a photo and left to pick her up for our drive to him.
At a gallery opening Angela has one glass of red wine and yet appears to be deeply intoxicated.
“Have you seen The L Word?” she asks me, because I am a lesbian and the show is about lesbians and because she is newly brave and apparently has been waiting for the moment to ask. She leans across the sales counter behind which I stand. Patrons mingle around us. Here we are, the only two staff members left. Everyone else has quit.
“Yes,” I say. “But it’s not a very good show.” She agrees and then switches topics.
“Have I told you I have fibromyalgia?” she offers.
“No,” I say.
“For ten years. I’ve been to many doctors.”
What I know about fibromyalgia is that it’s contentious, that some doctors don’t even believe it to be an actual medical ailment, that rather some believe it to be a psychosomatic manifestation of emotional problems: physical repercussions to psychic issues. I know that it presents as a series of seemingly unrelated pains, sometimes diagnosed as rheumatoid arthritis, other times as the flu, other times as fibromyalgia, other times as depression. Fibromyalgia has no cure or known cause.
What I now know about Angela, as I stand at the sales counter watching the minglers adjacent to her slack body, is that she takes painkillers and occasionally mixes them with alcohol. What I know about Angela is that certain chemical reactions are happening in her bloodstream in possible parallel to the bodily emotional stress of preemptive grief. I know she is suffering in a number of ways.
Of course it’s hard to know how to close the gaps between us. We spend the most trivial moments together: at work, in classrooms, splayed on couches talking on the phone, and when the inevitable happens we look each other in the face and don’t know what to say. We are suddenly strangers and this is how we lose each other in little bits. When my grandmother died, I wrote letters to my mother and her three siblings saying how sorry I was, that I couldn’t imagine their grief at losing their only mother, and none of them responded. I assumed writing the letters had been the wrong thing to do. When Peter died, our friends waited quietly at the edges of Ryane’s grief for her to return to real life. But the place she was in was also real life. Our friends were so patient with their furrowed brows and genuine concern, waiting. Eventually everyone forgot they were waiting. Eventually everyone but Ryane forgot that her father was dead. Inside our little house on the steep hill on Larchmont Road, inside her grief, Ryane and I talked about how what they were doing was the wrong thing.
But how do we do this?
What is supposed to help?
What is the right thing to do?
“Tell me how you’re feeling,” I say to Ryane as she sits upright in bed sometime later, after everything has been moved into the new house. She has tears on her face, but new ones have stopped coming. “You can just feel however you feel about this,” I say, because granting permission for the things I can’t control seems like a possibility somehow. She hears me, and doesn’t respond. She sits propped against two pillows, her shoulders tilted inward, and I rub her back as she looks out from opaque blue eyes toward nothing.
SARAH MEYER is a writer and illustrator who lives in Chicago. Her writing has appeared in VICE Magazine, Paper Darts, and The Manifest-Station.