“One thing you who had secure or happy childhoods should understand about those of us who did not. We who control our feelings, who avoid conflicts at all costs, or seem to seek them. Who are hypersensitive, self-critical, compulsive, workaholic, and above all survivors. We are not that way from perversity, and we cannot just relax and let it go. We’ve learned to cope in ways you never had to.” – Piers Anthony
Something I have never told anyone: I have a cassette that I recorded when I was five or six years old on my mother’s portable tape-deck. It starts off very sweetly with a terrible, warbling little song I was obviously making up on the spot about how completely, blisteringly great it would be to live in an edible country, where I could eat any time I wanted. I haven’t listened to it in a very long time, but I seem to remember that the ground was made of chocolate, butterflies were made of fried chicken, and all my imaginary trees grew both fruit and candy. Honestly, the song is freakishly adorable. You can practically hear how ash blonde and wide-eyed I was, even if maybe I was a bit too hungry. Then the shouting begins. It’s my delusional father in the background, obviously just in the next room, loud, cruel, and toxic. It gets louder and louder as the recording continues. And I don’t even seem to notice. I wonder, listening as an adult, if the door between the rooms was even closed. Memory says it probably wasn’t. My twee little song continues. Eventually the shouting leads to sounds of violence. I treat it like wallpaper. Something smashes, then, worse, the violence gets quieter, a lot more personal. My father is still loud, but my mother barely makes any sound at all. They might as well be birds singing. I still pay no attention. In fact, I don’t acknowledge them at all until the very end of the recording, which I can barely get to anymore, when I say, cheerful as anything, “Sorry, Me! I have to go. My mommy’s hurt. I hope you like this later! Bye bye!”
[…]I hung up the phone feeling like my sternum had cracked open. Before I could even take a breath, in walked the girl whose mother’s boyfriend repeatedly almost drowned her with the garden hose in the back yard. She sat down in the chair near my desk where all the girls sat narrating their horrible stories and she told me another horrible story and I told her something different this time.
I told her it was not okay, that it was unacceptable, that it was illegal and that I would call and report this latest, horrible thing. But I did not tell her it would stop. I did not promise that anyone would intervene. I told her it would likely go on and she’d have to survive it. That she’d have to find a way within herself to not only escape the shit, but to transcend it, and if she wasn’t able to do that, then her whole life would be shit, forever and ever and ever. I told her that escaping the shit would be hard, but that if she wanted to not make her mother’s life her destiny, she had to be the one to make it happen. She had to do more than hold on. She had to reach. She had to want it more than she’d ever wanted anything. She had to grab like a drowning girl for every good thing that came her way and she had to swim like fuck away from every bad thing. She had to count the years and let them roll by, to grow up and then run as far as she could in the direction of her best and happiest dreams across the bridge that was built by her own desire to heal. […]
I would have done a lot better had I this article when I was a child, growing up the way I did, isolated yet surrounded by violence, multiply assaulted by people I trusted, a victim marked with “survivor”, a word that sometimes is almost as awful as “deserve”. I hate almost everything about my life, that it’s a string of disasters, tragedies, and death, with very little to show, except that, in the words of one particularly useless ex, it’s amazing I didn’t turn out worse. (Thanks, O. You were awesome, the way I came home to find someone else in our bed the week I was moving in with you, the day I was fired because my boss had a husband that thought I was pretty. Right on. Way to go.) Even as an adult, my friends ditched when Heart of the World imploded, my family swings from religious right-wing alcoholics to unreliable leftists who think folk music will save the world, and 90% of my relationships have ended with being betrayed. My only defense is what good I can find, new art, new experiences, new people, new stories, collecting what I can to bolster my thin belief that there is better out there, that not everyone lives like I’ve lived, and to make sure they don’t, sacrificing my own life when required, because it has to be done, doesn’t it, and you’re not doing it, so I have to. It’s to the point where I’m known for it, (even though I hate that too, to be trusted but with no one to trust), a habit so deeply ingrained in my flesh it’s become my second skin, the thing that keeps the bitterness that flows through my blood from dissolving me completely, the acid in my heart from burning it altogether black. I am glad for this woman, for being able to articulate so clearly what I so desperately needed when I was a girl, what I still have to remind myself weekly is true, not that it will get better, it bloody well hasn’t and it damned well won’t, but that reaching is important, even when you’re alone, especially when you’re alone, even if you perpetually, perpetually fail.
A nine year old girl in Peru won a television station contest where she got to star in a remake of her favourite music video. Unsurprisingly, she chose a Britney Spears video, Toxic.
Once you get past the initial shock, as polarizing as stumbling upon a beauty pageants for kids, I think it’s a powerful statement, however unintentional on her part or that of her parents or the people who helped put it together. (Consider how many people must have been involved. Location, make-up, the teeny tiny wardrobe, cameras, post, etc. It’s more than just a few.) A significant number of comments criticize the video and her parents shouting child abuse, exploitation, and paedophilia, but very few have asked why this video appealed to her in the first place, why it’s normal now for children to be worshiping hyper sexualized pop tarts, a much deeper, dirtier manipulation, shameful yet largely ignored. The questions that should be asked are nastier, “since when did we start marketing Sex Sells to those under twelve? Why are teenagers our sex symbols and prostitots now just a matter of course?” Bratz dolls, the Spice Girls.. Remember when little girls in stripper-wear lip syncing to songs about sex was still weird?
William Strawn put it most concisely, over on my Facebook where I posted it last night, “Is this really sick? Or a reflection of all the little girls who imagine themselves in Britney’s position? Or even just an idea that we have a very vague line in our society where it starts being okay to exploit women, putting them in highly sexuallized roles. Britney was 17 when she started, look how well that all turned out for her.”
“It came in this little cardboard box. I mean, I’m saying small. It was probably the size of a shoebox, except it was higher. It had a little chicken wire screen window in it. There was a cut out. All you could see if you looked in there was his face. I brought it home, and I actually snuck it into the basement of the house.
No instructions [were included]. He had this waist belt on, a collar, if you will, on his waist, with an unattached leash inside the box. So I opened the box up inside the cage, the monkey jumped out, I withdrew the box and found the leash. I have no idea where it came from; I assumed it came from Florida. I figured, well, it’s probably near dehydration, so I opened up the cage to put some water in it. It leapt out of the cage when I opened it up the second time! I mean, it was eyeing the pipes that I was unaware of. As soon as I opened the cage, it leapt up and grabbed onto the plumbing up on the ceiling and started using them like monkey bars, and he was just shooting along in the basement, chirping pretty loud. It was heading towards the finished side of the basement, where there was a drop ceiling, and if it got into those channels, I never would have got it. It would have been days to get this thing out of there. I grabbed it by its tail, and it came down on, starting literally up by my shoulder, like a drill press it landed on my arm, and every bite was breaking flesh. It was literally like an unsewing machine. It was literally unsewing my arm coming down, and I was pouring blood. I grabbed it by its neck with both my wrists, threw it back in the cage. It’s screaming like a scalded cat. I’m pouring blood. My friend’s laughing uncontrollably, and my father finally comes in the basement door and goes, ‘Jeffery! What are you doing to that rabbit?’ And I go, ‘It’s not a rabbit, it’s a monkey, and it just bit the hell out of me.’ ‘A monkey? Bring it up here!’ I’m pouring, I wrapped a t-shirt around my arm to stave off the bleeding, carried the cage upstairs, and I don’t know why I bothered sneaking it in, because they fell in love with it, and it was like, there was no problem at all. They took me to the emergency room and I got 28 stitches on my arm. “
I remember traveling with my parents as a kid, looking through the back of the vintage comics, Conan, and Heavy Metal my dad bought for me, wishing with all my being that I might have an address someday so I could send away for my very own pet monkey. (Conan was my colouring book). This got so bad, especially after my parents took me to a market where some guy was actually selling them, that when they bought me a fluffy stuffed white monkey I promptly named it Monkmonk and carried with me absolutely everywhere. In fact, this desire was so powerful that I still have it, sitting on a shelf, much weathered, still wearing the flowered pink dress my step-sister Brianna wore back from the hospital when she was born.
Sam sells Samsung as Ted Brown. My favourite part is that he doesn’t know the slightest thing about football, and his instructions were to ad-lib, so when he told the director, the director wrote a batch of post-it notes of football sounding factoids and stuck them to the green screens for him.
I love my friends.
Listening to unreleased Coldplay at work, some follow up thing to the new album, wondering what it’s going to be like traveling across the prairies. I took this trip before, once, a very long time ago, to visit my grandmother in Winnipeg with my father. He bought me a milk carton full of gumballs somewhere half-way through Saskatchewan and made me promise I wouldn’t tell my mother. I bit into them like tiny, hollow, miniature apples in rainbow colours, orange, green, yellow, blue and red. They were white inside and stale, chewy. If I sucked on them, they painted my lips like convenience store make-up. They tasted like childhood, even then, as if I already understood that cheap sugar and heavy dyes are basic ingredients in the manufacture of poor children. Some moments, twenty years later, I can still taste them, the candy flavour echo like sad edges of broken smiles.
I expect this trip to be more memorable, though perhaps in twenty years it too will only survive as one thematic memory, a single ikon that encapsulates the entire six days in transit.
Long nights spit out like toothpaste into an unfamiliar sink. She looks up, enamel, black tile, an older building. Wooden floors. Tall doorways. Stained glass. A dragon in the next room, sitting on the couch, warming his hands on a sweetened cup of bitter tea. White walls. Cold windows.
Her hands float up to her hair, straighten some curls, frame her eye in the mirror. She peers through her hands, brought together in a symbol she found in a photograph on the internet – fingers curled, first knuckles together in a twin arc, thumbs stretched, touching underneath – the childish shape of a heart. Her certainty shakes. She lets it.
He’s wrought of mixed signals, sliding shades of affection and neglect which don’t add up. The smell of his soap. Her heartbeat. An iron-work of conflicting opinions, kissing like he carries a new bastard disease of self-reference, wit, and deflection. Short brown hair. No eye contact. A thousand words in a picture that breaks her framed ideals. Attraction built instead of found. Panic filled breath, though her panties are balled up in her purse already. Feet cold on the tiles. (Uncomfortable echoes of explosive scenarios from younger relationships, feeling exploited). The scalpel of self-examination. Her motivations are an underground factory of facts conveyor-belt punching out hurt confusion. Very little he says matches up with what he does. She doesn’t know why these steps are being taken, but what she lacks in reason, she makes up in loyalty. There is very little new under this son.
They stood at the bus stop, both consciously skipping their friend’s gathering for opposite reasons. One feeling too welcome, another feeling not welcome at all. “I would have thought you were imagining it, but I noticed it too.” “I cornered him at the party, asked him what was wrong. He said there was nothing. In eight years, I think it’s the first time he’s ever lied to me.” Her thoughts embraced her absent friend, (his fingers so deeply entwined in her ribcage she would love him forever), even as she felt like her words were a disappointed betrayal.
As they stood close, defensively, against the suffering neighbourhood, she kept up a monologue, quiet like a gentle run of dirty water. Memories, sad and unpleasant in retrospect. “How did you grow up?” A hungry childhood, social friction, hotel rooms. He nodded, implacable, in a way she found welcome. “I read the bible fourteen times, no one ever steals the things. They just sit there in the otherwise empty drawers, collecting dust and lonely people.” Anecdotes, wry short stories, a battered flow of narrative ornamented with sober, dry laughter, breakdown asides, and serious expressions. Later, sitting, her legs swung unselfconsciously under the seat.
I cycled past my father’s apartment last week. He has a giant poster in the window, an image he’s sent to me. I almost went and knocked on the door. I stopped, looked, put one foot on the ground. I don’t know why I stopped the same way I don’t know why I kept going. Instinct, impulse. Either or. He lives much closer to me than I thought. Near enough that no matter what, we’re on the same bus-routes, we share the same corner store.
“There was a woman named Ha there who showed me Samurai movies and fed me Korean fried chicken as I sat on a stool in the hotel kitchen. I ate all they had, the hotel had to buy more the next day, and I ate all of that too. I was a starving little thing, so bright and blonde and tiny you’d barely think I could walk, but I was always hungry. I remember my parents would go without sometimes so that I could have food. I lay in bed next to my mother and heard her belly grumble, five years old, listening and knowing that I had a sandwich and she had not. It’s made me a little neurotic about food. (Hell, I’m an adult now and I’m still so poor I’m starving to death.) I don’t like eating alone or cooking only for myself. And I can’t eat in front of someone without offering them any. In fact, I’ll put it off, go hungry for hours, rather than eat in front of someone who won’t have anything themselves, because it was greedy to eat alone, it meant you were depriving someone else.”
While cleaning out a jewellery box today, I came across a flat jade heart from my childhood. It’s Asiatic, about an inch wide, and doesn’t fit with anything else here. I’ve never worn it, though it has a hole for a slim chain. It’s from Grade three.
It was lying dusty in the gravel of the school field at recess and I felt clever for having found it, such a small thing in that wide place. I held it in my pocket all morning, an odd treasure, I didn’t even like it, and wondered where it came from. I don’t remember the girl who accused me of stealing it, only that she had black hair.
When she claimed it was from her father, I immediately decided she had to have it back. Fathers were large chaotic things to me then, disastrous and violent, to be wary of, not to be ignored. People at school didn’t know what my home life was like, they only saw a very small, awkward girl who read too much and never knew what was cool, (you try talking about Boney M or the Talking Heads to New Kids on the Block worshippers). She didn’t understand my sudden distress. She took it for denial and began to hurl insults at me, accusing me of stealing it from envy. Her words were like bile. I’d never been falsely charged with fault before. She reversed my decision immediately, which is why I still have it, though I don’t care for it and never have.
Into the Free Box little thing. Into the Free Box and away.
I have found my laughter from where it was hiding. This time, for the very first time, it’s allowed out of the closet with tears still in its eyes. When I grew up, I grew up in a strange canadian cultural vacuum. I would stare out the window of the truck at all the houses gliding past and wonder what real people had inside thier houses. What was on the other side of so many doors? I lived in hotel rooms and on some basic level, they’re all the same. Clinical transiency. Fake flowers, soulless bedspreads that match the thick ugly curtains, television remotes that you either find next to the miniature fridge or bolted to the table. Cable is an option, but there’s always an ice machine that clunks in the middle of the night. I used to pad out into hallways and sit against them sometimes, because it was a light I could read by. Anonymous. The trick is that they’re always anonymous. The furniture is not your furniture, the life you live within those walls belongs to no one. I grew up being not real people.
My body jerked me across my bed when I woke up this morning. An unfamiliar hand had touched me on the shoulder. Left over reflexes I really should work on controlling a little better. I was up late, reading, unable to think about my tomorrow. Too many things. I have a livingroom picnic this afternoon with Brian. We’re putting down a blanket and making sandwiches. If I was a better person, I would suggest we pretend we’re on a beach somewhere, but I’m not. So I won’t. Breakfast today with precious friends led into a pleasant walk up the drive and some actual grocery shopping. It’s like my world spun around. A smile has been affixed to my face. Someone I don’t know stopped me on the street on my way home with my bags, “I see you all the time on the drive, but I’ve never talked to you, but today I felt I had to say something. You’re really pretty when you’re happy”. He was my height, with dark brown hair and a slightly crooked baseball hat. I wouldn’t recognize him again.