Orientation, Personal History


He pulled me into his arms, smoothly, coolly, as if he had done it a hundred times before. He was somebody’s cousin from South Carolina, visiting for the holidays. We weren’t a dancing crowd, this group of friends from high school, now far flung to college, and first he had us pushing back the furniture and playing records, and then we were in cars driving to the Hilton near Busch Gardens, the only place we could think of with a dance floor.

I had a feeling the music would be all wrong. I could hear it when I went with my William and Mary friends to play Donkey Kong in the hallway outside the bar.

Somebody’s cousin loved to dance, and he was good, and he shared his goodness with all the young women, one after the other. I did not expect to be favored. It was the Christmas vacation after a break-up, and I expected nothing. But he stepped toward me, and he smiled, and I went with him to the little dance floor with the godawful disco ball hanging up above and tried to get my breath, because I wasn’t sure if I could do what he did.

It was my dream, you see, to dance with some preppy boy who actually knew how to dance. I was drunk on the fumes of The Preppy Handbook, which pictured a world of categories (where all the boys taped their Topsiders and the girls wore pearls and knew the rule, “get completely dressed for a party, then take off one piece of jewelry) that felt safe and explicable.

He pulled me into his arms, and there I stayed because the song started slow, and I really didn’t want to be that close in his arms for the length of a song, I realized that quickly.

“Someone read the letter you wrote me on the radio…”

My breath was short. Before I could grown too uncomfortable, you’ll know this because you’re hearing the song in your head, before I could wish it was really over, the beat increased and I was flown out and pulled back, shagging to disco.

I liked the attention, but when it was over, I didn’t want more.

Depression, Mothering, Personal History

They have that luxury

I don’t remember that Mother’s Day specifically. The spring of 1996 is a blur. I had been in the hospital for almost a week in early April, diagnosed with a major depression, probably a lingering postpartum depression. I do remember that everything felt painful, and my desire to be alive was still a fragile thing.

When you’ve spent three months quietly thinking about driving off the road instead of going home, the thoughts don’t go away easily.

Here is what I remember. I remember the doctors and nurses wooing the information out of me and explaining to me, gently, that thinking about driving the car off the road *while you are in the car* is not suicidal ideation; it’s a plan.

I only knew I didn’t want to go back there, to be one of the people who went to the hospital over and over again, but life on the outside had not changed and the state of my brain chemistry did not improve markedly in that short time. April was excruciating and May even worse as it became clear that there was no help for my marriage and I was going to have to figure out how to take care of my children by myself at a time I could barely get out of bed in the morning.

I wonder if anyone in my life understood how near I stood to the edge of the abyss?

I put on a pretty good show when I thought it counted, but I also remember sitting in marriage counseling with an affect so flat I could not show any expression about an incident I cannot recount today without breaking into a laugh.

I don’t remember what happened on that Mother’s Day, the last one when I was still married to my children’s father. I do wonder if he had any idea how close he came to having three children for whom Mother’s Day would be a wound for the rest of their lives.

There is one reason I didn’t kill myself. Somewhere inside me, some part of me less broken than the rest spent a long dark ride back from Boston giving me two reasons why driving the car off the road would be a bad idea. The first was I might not actually die, and that couldn’t possibly be good for anyone. You see, I felt by then that my worth was so small, my value to minimal that no one would miss me, that my absence would be better for everyone concerned. The second was that I needed to look at the insurance policy and see if my death would be covered should it be ruled a suicide. I drove the rest of the way home, where I discovered that I would need to be insured for another six months, and then came the terrible realization that my death wouldn’t necessarily solve anything. I didn’t feel good about this; in fact my despair grew because there seemed to be no escape and by that weekend, I had checked into the hospital.

There is one reason I got better. Because I was clear that I was only a risk to myself, the staff suggested my husband bring my children to see me in the hospital. First they all came, the boys shy and cautious and sweet, Baby LP beautiful and unknowing. Then another day it was just the baby. She was nine months old and cruising, that time when little children can’t walk yet, but will stand up and move from one person to another holding on to a leg or the furniture. She stood against my legs, looking up at me, and then she pulled the pacifier out of her mouth and popped it into mine. And in that moment I pledged to her that I would live and be her mother and not expect her to take care of me.

That was sixteen years ago. Sometimes my children remember Mother’s Day with a phone call or a card, and sometimes they don’t.

They have that luxury.

Orientation, Personal History


Pressed, not pushed, but pressed enough to feel he meant it, pressed up against the locker in the three minutes between classes that felt like an eternity, I let him kiss me.

The school was divided into three parts, each section with a different color theme, and I remember we were near the green lockers, not where my locker was.

He had to open mine for me because I could not remember how to do the combination.

How is it that I forgot the combination so often? I remember turning it as if dialing an old-fashioned phone in a dream — do you have those? I dream that I cannot turn the dial all the way, that it slips, is too heavy for my finger, that the wrong number is dialed because I failed to make the connection properly, because the pressure of my finger was not enough.

Over on the other side of the building, where the lockers were yellow, he did not kiss me, because his mother worked at the high school, and her office was too close by. He never kissed me in the red section, where the library was, the hub of the building, because we never seemed to stop there anyway.

But in the green section, he pressed me against the locker and kissed me.

We were, not surprisingly, observed. Being away from the yellow section was not enough protection, and the green wing of the building provided no camouflage for our use of the precious three minutes, the three minutes in which he assured me of his affection by paying attention to me.

(Hear the refrain, it was still in my head, adjusted only slightly: “He must love me, he wouldn’t do this if he didn’t love me. It’s good to have a boy love me.”)

The biology teacher, I think, told his mother, and she called my mother, and he got a lecture about Public Display of Affection and, I think, a manly wink from his dad as if to say “You’ve got to please your mother, son, and not embarrass her, or it’s trouble for both of us.”

I got a dressing-down about being unvirtuous. My mother pressed home her point. It was the girl’s responsibility to keep things under control, not to let things go too far.

Sometimes, some people seek negative attention because it’s the only attention they can get. Some people would say, “You should be glad your mother cared about you.” Some people would say, “You were acting out to get her attention.” But that’s not how I remember it. I remember thinking I had been doing what she taught me to do — getting a boy’s attention, proving I was alive and valued — and I remember being shocked by the way it exploded in my face.

Pressed against the locker, receptive, I was trying to be the girl I thought she wanted me to be. Oh, I know, and I suppose I knew, that kissing in the hall was foolish and not “nice.” But to win the boy’s attention — wasn’t that what a girl was supposed to do? Wasn’t that what she wanted me to do?

It turned out that “too far” had two meanings, one private and one public. Pressed, I came to understand the difference.

(Part the second. Read the first one here.)