A floral-patterned undershirt in eighth grade; a C-cup in ninth. Besides the obvious changes in appearance and attention, my breasts were not the only thing filling my bra: nestled among them was a developing sense of cruelty. The kind of cruelty that only a girl with a new woman’s body could receive, or worse, inflict.
My sister may protest this statement, but I was not a mean child. I had my moments but I was not calculatingly mean. Beginning with my birth when I popped out wearing a hernia and a crossed eye to the time I was seven and an operation corrected tonsils, adenoids and a devastating hearing loss, I was simply a sickly child. In fact, I cannot remember a day in my life without physical pain. Quite dramatic, I know, but I really can’t remember a time when my body did not ache, when it did not rebel. Feeling good just means hurting less than the day before.
Sickly, needy, whiny: I wasn’t the most gregarious little girl. Sure, I had friends here and there but I preferred books and make-believe. I became the poster child for bullying. Usually, it was name calling by girls and once, it was violence by an older boy who slammed my head into the bus window. But after my operation and regaining my hearing, I began to come into my own a bit more. Still not popular, still more at home in the library or with adults, I did try. And I did have fun. Until my parents’ divorce when I became small once again. Manna to bullies.
Two seventh grade girls made the last five minutes of gym class a living hell. I was a year older but I had shrunk so far into my body to protect myself at home that it didn’t matter I was actually taller, bigger and older than the pair of them. They were hyenas snapping at flesh, tearing off pieces, shoving each other aside for a larger bite. After too many tears, I learned to never make eye contact, never to respond. Finally, they became bored and moved onto to someone else. A minor victory but as a result, I dreaded high school. It would be more of the same: I’d want to study and learn and engage with my teachers and the work but some girl would decide I needed to be ground down lower.
The summer in between the grades brought the boobs. Contact lenses and better clothes came, too. No, it wasn’t like a teen movie in which the ugliest ducking suddenly blossoms into the Homecoming Queen, but I did get noticed more. To finally be seen filled the balloon of my ego and insecurity with stale air. I finally had something in common with the other girls.
And those friends came and went. One stopped talking to me when I reported her to a teacher for threatening suicide. One I stopped talking to because she smacked me when I spent the night at her house…we were fourteen years old! A cross-country teammate who I considered a friend would run beside me during a meet and talk trash: You’re out of breath! Your timing is off. You’re not that fast. A fourth friend’s sexuality and openness about how many boys she slept with was more womanhood than for what I was prepared.
But in eleventh grade, I met again a girl named Presley (name changed). Once, when we were little I spent the night at her house. We drew pictures of monsters (mine was a giant mosquito carrying a Bucket O’Blood) and her mother introduced me to apricot nectar and gourmet jellybeans. I really had a great time but we never hung out again. Her home life had begun to implode then. She went from being the privileged little girl of an executive father to living in subsidized housing and working full time through high school. Whether nine or sixteen, Presley was my first real good friend. She was fun, exuberant, a feminist but not an in-your-face type, a hard worker, a bit wiser and resigned. Most importantly, she truly rejoiced in other’s blessings: I don’t remember a moment when she was jealous or catty. Like me, she thought deeply about the world, the people in it and their feelings but unlike me, she seemed more put together. To have suffered loss yet maintain her sweetness and hope; Presley was someone I aspired to be like.
After graduation, we saw each other only a few times. She moved out of the state and we talked less often. Both of us abandoned by our fathers found ourselves in toxic relationships. The boyfriend who moved with her smacked her around; mine was a nightmare mix of insecurity and hateful words. Neither of us was in a position to lift each other up.
When I was twenty-one, I needed an operation. The day before my surgery, I called Presley, just in case something happened to me. I wanted to reach out to a friendly voice. Besides, my boyfriend had broken up with me four months before; she had finally ditched hers. We were stronger. We should have rejoiced.
But then I remembered how to be cruel.
Presley was now having an affair with a man thirty years older than she. His wife stayed out of the country for months at a time. When the wife left, Presley moved in. When the wife returned; she moved back to her place.
I was shocked: how did a feminist end up in this situation? That was my superficial reaction. I think I was much angrier by the fact that she would willingly move in and out of this married man’s life at his convenience; not hers. Like a Playboy hidden under a teenage boy’s bed, she was taken out and played with when no one else was at home.
In dealing with her past, her sense of rejection and in making mistakes similar to my own, my beautiful friend was hurting. Being so lost, she easily justified her situation as something she wanted. She was happy, she said, though her voice sounded tremulous and ancient. Underneath the defensiveness I heard the truth: This is as good as it’s going to get. This is all I deserve.
I wanted to hug her and tell her I understood. That I got it intimately: that no matter how strong a woman may seem, if she was discarded by her father at an early age, until she is right within, she is vulnerable when it comes to men.
But I didn’t do that. I did not understand then the way I do now. Instead, I kept quiet with an unnatural silence that reveals more by what is not being said: I judge you. I am disappointed in you. You are found wanting.
That was the last time we talked.
I think of Presley often. Out of all the girls who passed through my life, she was the one girl who was lovely as a child and even lovelier as an adolescent. While I had once aspired to be just like her, in the end when she needed me the most, I was like all of the other girls. I was cruel. So cruel. Despite the woman’s body that I wore, I was nothing more than a stupid, inconsiderate girl.
Now I understand. Finally, I am a Woman.
And Presley, if you’re out there, please forgive me and please forgive me if I revealed too much of your story. It was not to exploit only to explain. Thank you for always accepting me; I’m sorry I did not do the same for you.
With love and regret,