an excerpt from my memoir, OPEN ROAD: a life worth waiting for
It's five o’clock on Monday morning. The sun has yet to rise and the house is shrouded in silence. I stand in front of the bathroom mirror, studying my twelve-year-old reflection with bitter judgment. My hair is too bushy, my make-up is too dark, and glasses hide most of my face behind a thick layer of plastic.
“You are ugly,” I say out loud. “You are fat and ugly and I hate you.”
My reflection does nothing but stare back at me with the same venomous look on her face.
I step on the scale and find that I have gained four pounds since last week, no thanks to the hours I've spent running or doing aerobics. My clothes are tight and uncomfortable, but I have to wear them anyway. I have no choice.
Closing my eyes, I wait until the dark abyss fills my awareness, and then I say to myself, “I’m not me…I’m not me…I’m not me” until the feeling of dread passes. I say it over and over and over again until I have distanced myself from reality...until I feel as though I am no longer standing there. My anger folds in on itself and begins to retreat to the back of my mind.
Once again, I am in control.
“I’m not me…I’m not me…I’m not me,” I continue chanting.
A year passes.
Now I'm thirteen and my Aunt Karen has come to visit. It's summertime and she and my cousins will stay for nearly a week. Mom's youngest sister lives hours away, so we only see her family a couple of times a year. It's a treat when all the cousins can hang out together. We sleep in the basement and stay up late watching TV or listening to "Another One Bites the Dust," changing the lyrics to "Another One Bites Your Butt," an allusion to all the mosquitoes swarming our backyard this season.
This year I've lost all the baby fat from grade school and now wear a size seven, something I'm simultaneously very proud of, but also hide from my mother. She thinks I'm too thin, but I think I'm just right. I weigh myself every day on the pink scale in the bathroom and if the needle hovers any higher than 103 pounds, I make sure to cut back on my food and walk an extra lap around the neighborhood. It took a long time to drop all that weight. I won't ever put it back on and have to endure Patricia's teasing again. She even had the gall to tell me that one of the little girls down the street didn't want me to baby-sit her because I was too fat. Patricia, of course, is skinny and can eat whatever she wants.
I had to wear a bra in fourth grade which totally embarrassed me, especially when Adam Chandler would run his finger down my back every day. I wanted to tell the teacher but was too afraid. I got my first period at camp in sixth grade while riding a horse of all things, and, likewise, was too afraid to tell the teachers as well. I pinned handkerchiefs inside my underpants, then buried the soiled ones in the garbage can when no one was looking.
Now I don't get my period anymore and I'm glad. One less thing for Patricia to bother me about. She's fourteen and still hasn't gotten hers.
Aunt Karen is staying in my room and I love watching her get ready to go out. We're heading to the mall to visit Olde Towne and get our pictures taken. They'll look like old fashioned photos from the early 1900's and I can't wait. Aunt Karen teases her platinum blonde hair, then spritzes it lightly with spray. My room smells like Shalimar and White Rain. She's wearing dark blue jeans with wide back pockets. Her blouse is colorful and gauzy. I think she looks like a beautiful gypsy…or Marilyn Monroe. I can’t decide which one.
Standing in front of the dresser mirror, she pulls a long, black cylinder from her make-up bag and uncaps the lipstick. It doesn't look like my mother's short, thick tubes of Estee Lauder and it certainly doesn't smell like waxy chemicals. Aunt Karen smoothes it on her lips, then turns to me. "Here, Katie...want to try it on?"
I take the thin, black lipstick and look at the name written in tiny gold letters on the side: toasted topaz. I enjoy the alliteration. I learned about that in seventh grade and love to say the words aloud. "Toasted topaz would look terrific on my toes," I smile at Aunt Karen. I walk the short distance to the mirror and study my face. My cheekbones are prominent as are my brow bones, but I'm proud of the effort I've put into looking this way. It's as if I can see my real face for the first time, not the fat-faced Hippo of my childhood.
The lipstick looks really nice against my olive skin now toasted tan in the summer. I cap the stick and hand it back to Aunt Karen. She slides the slender black tube into her back pocket as if it were a gun slipping into a tiny holster. I wonder, How does it keep from melting when she sits down?
I've never seen my mother carry a lipstick in her back pocket and it intrigues me.
My aunt is a maverick, and in that moment, I want to be one, too.
My mother often said she would never want to return to her teenage years. When I was thirteen, I thought she was crazy. Who would deny themselves the ability to go back in time in order to relive a period where there were minimal responsibilities, lots of fun things to occupy her time, and endless hours to listen to music and watch television? It wasn't until I reached my early twenties that I began to understand what Mom had meant.
Being a teenager was hellacious.
The summer before my eighth grade year, I vowed to make some serious changes in my life. Tired of being called “fat” or “chubby” by my sister, Patricia, (who was genetically predisposed to be ultra-thin), I started riding my bike and taking long walks at the park. I stopped eating cookies, bread, and ice cream. When I begged my mother to buy me only skim milk and yogurt, she balked, but did it anyway.
As long as I ate something, Mom left me to my own devices until the following spring when I wore a bathing suit for the first time since the previous August. By then I had lost nearly thirty pounds and my ribs showed through my skin and the sharp angles of my collarbones stood out beneath the straps of the suit. I was barely surviving on bananas and Vitamin C tablets. Eating at the dinner table became a game of “hide the food in my napkin” or “dump it in the trashcan when no one is looking.”
When I admitted my periods had stopped, Mom was frantic and took me to the doctor who weighed and measured me. “One hundred and five...she’s a little on the slender side for her height,” Dr. Woodley said, tucking a pencil in the bun of hair twisted near her nape. She gave me a soft smile. “No more losing, Katie,” she gently admonished. “And I want to see you in six months if your periods don’t start up again.”
I nodded, but silently vowed to lose just two more pounds. By then I had dropped three clothes sizes and could easily fit into most of Patricia’s outfits. I could even wear some of the shorts and tops left over from my grade school days. Fearful of gaining, I decided that maintaining 103 pounds on my five foot, five inch frame was acceptable and so I continued to vigilantly watch what I ate.
Nothing crossed my lips until I had carefully calculated how many calories it contained, and how many laps around the neighborhood I would have to complete in order to burn it off. I had even rationed my Easter candy in a white shoebox I kept in my closet, tightly sealing the M&M’s, jellybeans, and chocolate eggs in Ziploc bags. If I allowed myself one slip up, one extra goodie, I was certain I would lose control and end up where I started: fat and ugly and no boys would want me…ever. At least that's what Patricia always told me.
Boys followed her everywhere. Even when we were on vacation at the beach, she was sure to have at least two boys chatting her up by the pool or on the beach. Patricia flirted carelessly with them and I often saw her as a Midwestern Scarlett O’Hara in the opening scenes of “Gone with the Wind,” effortlessly entertaining the Tarrleton twins while anticipating the arrival of her one, true love.
On the other hand, I was labeled “Hippo” by my father, and often asked by my mother, “Why don’t you try harder, Kate? I’m sure there are nice boys out there looking for nice girls like you.”
But there were no nice boys in my circle. There were boys who pretended to like a girl, but if someone better came along, off they went to chase another skirt. There were boys who smoked pot. Boys who only wanted to get to second base or even further if allowed. (I had no idea what that meant until I was a senior in high school). There were dorky boys who kept their noses pressed in books and jocks who either snapped my bra or pinched my behind on the school bus, just to get a rise out of me. And then there were boys who liked my sister and sidled up to me, only pretending to be my friend so that they could get closer to her.
No, there were no nice boys out there. So why bother?
But I did anyway.
I bothered to make myself as thin as possible, to lacquer my hair, to wear make-up and paint my nails. I bothered to wear nylons to church, despite that fact that I loathed panty hose. I even bothered to try out for the eighth grade musical because a boy I had a crush on was rumored to have the lead. He did and I made the cut, but he never noticed me at all, choosing to take another chorus girl to the cast party. I bothered to attend youth group and Sunday School partly because Steven Napp would be there. No matter that he liked my older sister. What else was new?
As I lost weight, I thought I would be more attractive to boys. I could wear skinny jeans and halter tops, sleeveless dresses and more grown up bathing suits. I lined my eyes with Maybelline, glossed my mouth with Lip Smacker, and spritzed Love’s Baby Soft on my shoulders and wrists. I tried to be like the pure girls who resembled that fresh pile of grapes...clean, untouched, and yet on full display.
It did no good.
There always seemed to be an invisible barbed wire fence around me with a sign secured firmly to my heart that read: “KEEP OUT."
I always loved to watch Aunt Karen do her hair and put on makeup. She had an attitude that was vastly different than mine. Sure, I was only thirteen and barely able to apply mascara without poking myself in the eye, but Aunt Karen knew her strengths and played to them by using the endless goodies in her cosmetics drawer. She had the bluest eyes and lined them meticulously. Her blonde hair was short, stylishly cut, and accentuated her features. And when she pulled that lipstick from her back pocket to reapply a gorgeous shade of red or pink, I was mesmerized. As she blotted the excess, then puckered her lips, it was as if she was saying to the world, “Stand back…I’m comin’ atcha!”
All my thirteen-year-old self could muster at the time was a silent, “Am I good enough?”
Aunt Karen is still a maverick, although she told me recently that she now keeps her lipstick in her bra. “That way I don’t have to reach as far since I’m older,” she laughed. My incredible aunt inspires me to tell the truth, be who I am, and never settle for less than what is right for me even though it often means making many choices on my own. We aren't rebels, my aunt and I. We don't need to be defiant to feel unique or genuine.
We simply feel the need to go our own way.
It was Aunt Karen who inherently showed me that I didn't have to fade away to feel myself more fully. I was a silent, yet captivated witness to the self confidence I would eventually embody in my thirties and forties.
But it's better late than never.
Better to be authentic than fake it for someone else's comfort.
Better to be happily at home within myself than trying to balance precariously on the razor's edge of someone else’s expectations.