something I wrote a long, long time ago …
Magnolia, My Magnolia
Then they no longer huddled.
They forgot how to hide.
Tense as they had been,
they were flags, gaudy, chafing in the wind.
There was such abandonment in all that! – Anne Sexton
I was born blue in the face, my own umbilical cord wrapped three times around my neck. The doctors said I was lucky to be alive at all and that certainly there would be brain damage. But I guess good fortune was on my side. The stranglehold was brief and soon my skin turned rosy pink. I’ve always attached symbolic value to little life events. A bit of narrative irony there: the life cord threatening to squelch its own tiny beneficiary.
A little girl’s recurring nightmare: I’m standing in a field of dry grass and all my relatives–Mom, Dad, cousins, aunts, brothers–are being slowly suffocated by boa constrictors. There’s one boa constrictor for each family member and one that is suffocating me, too. I fight the death coil but the snake just keeps wrapping its body tighter and tighter around my legs and arms until I am gasping for breath.
We live at the edge of a wooded area where deer and squirrels are frequent visitors to the backyard. My brother and I long to get close enough to one of these deer to touch it and pet it. When we spot a deer in the woods, we approach it slowly to get near and then when it runs, we give chase. During the summer, it is a test of endurance to track a deer barefooted, over packed clay-earth and blackberry thorns. You have to be able to ignore the pain of your feet pounding on the forest floor if you expect to keep the deer in sight. During the winter, we wear rubber boots because the clay-earth turns cold and slippery when the rains come.
One rainy day, my brother and I begin a trek into the woods. We’re only around the first bend when my boot begins sinking in a clay-mud puddle. I yell to my brother that I am sinking in quick sand and to get our mother before I sink all the way down. By the time Mom arrives, I have recovered my leg, but the boot has disappeared into the muck. We find the boot two summers later, lodged tightly in the dried up clay pots, only the red rubber rim sticking out of the ground. Our own Brea Tar Pits, with the past preserved airtight in the reddish earth.
Mom gave in and bought us the Slip-n-Slide that we’ve been begging for all summer. My brother has it all set up in the backyard, with the long sheet of yellow plastic running the length of the lawn and the hose pouring water out at full throttle to lubricate the slide. I stay shut up in my bedroom reading. My brother has already made a few practice runs and now he comes to bang on my window. I tell him I don’t want to slide right now, even though I begged Mom for the set as much as he did. He cannot figure me out. He slides all afternoon, intermittently calling me out to play. Then he suddenly knows. You’re on your pyramid, you’re on your pyramid, he taunts. And I curse the day I was born a woman and I curse the bulky pad between my legs and I cry and cry and cry. This time the bleeding lasts for two straight weeks and I think it will never end.
Later, in high school, I learn that by losing just a few pounds and running every day I can stop the curse. I stop menstruating for months at a time and know that I have found paradise. Whenever it comes back, I just step up the regimen a bit and within a few months, presto, I’m as good as a boy. Just call me Demeter. You can take away my little girl, but I can control my fertility. You can shut her away in a dark underworld and threaten to never let her see sunlight again, but I will retaliate by willing my body barren.
It’s seventh period and I’m sitting in math class. The guy one row back passes me a note asking for a date. This guy is greasy and lusty and he repulses me. I write back, I don’t think so. He writes another note: one of my friends told me you’re just a prude and you’ll be an old maid until you die. I tear the note into tiny pieces and my eyes well with tears. I think it’s true. I’m sweet sixteen and have never been kissed. I probably never will be kissed. Shame saturates every corner of my being. I am ugly and repulsive and I hide my face in my shoulder length hair.
I am twenty and I’ve been kissed many times. Once in a while I still feel ugly, but I remind myself that it cannot be true because men are still willing to kiss me. Tonight is perfect evidence. Right now I’m riding home with Augustus, who is very good-looking. Dark, strong, but artsy, with two little gold earrings in his left ear. He’s a little drunk, but I’m letting him drive my car anyway. I just met him tonight and we hit it off, but now he’s acting a little weird. He asks why I’m allowing a guy I barely know to drive my car. He says: I could be anyone, I could be dangerous. He is five years older than I am.
I am completely drunk, but not stupid. I know that circumstances and details make people the way they are, not the other way around. He is treading into treacherous territory, and red flags shoot up in my head. He is trying to take control of the situation, and if I allow him to, then, yes, he will be dangerous. But it’s a game, a game I can play well. Measuring my voice carefully, I reply with deliberate confidence: I have good instincts and I trust them; I can tell you’re a good guy.
There. I’ve labelled him and re-taken control. He’s not so dangerous anymore. It is obvious that he has not sensed my quick rush of fear. But my confidence remains fragile. I begin to look more vigilantly for danger signals.
Back at his house, he cracks open another beer but I decline, honestly believing that I will throw up if I drink any more. We go upstairs to his room, where I notice black leather boots and a black leather jacket in his closets. He pulls his T-shirt over his head, revealing two tattoos on his shoulder and upper back. A lump grows in my throat. The combination of these external cues and simply the way he talks about his fraternity brothers from MIT is etching a pattern in my brain. I begin to suspect that Augustus is bisexual, the idea of which spawns two unexpected and frightening thoughts in my head. Number one, his probability of carrying the AIDS virus has probably just hundred-folded. Number two, would he rather be in this room right now with another man instead of me? Am I, just by sake of being a woman, already just a second-best scam? It’s a possibility I’ve never contemplated before. He’s right: I don’t know the first goddamn thing about this man, nor do I have the guts or tactlessness to ask him outright, and yet I’m lying in his bed in this unknown house.
I am nine years old at a new grade school where I do not know any of the kids. I spend my morning and lunch breaks inside the classroom making up word games and puzzles and reading books. My teacher worries that I am not social enough.
Amy Bennett gives me an invitation to her slumber party and though she’s not popular, I am happy enough to go. Her parents are not home, so we have free reign of the house. We gather at eight o’clock and make chocolate chip cookies before beginning the party games. We play a few old hat ones, and then I inexplicably suggest a renegade new game. I’ll run and you girls try to tear off my clothes. But I’ll try to fight you off and we’ll see if I can get away. (This is one blessed year before I gain knowledge of the defects of my body. I am not embarrassed to be seen naked.) So we play this game, and I think I can win, but there are six or seven of them chasing me around the living room, and I end up with rug burns, screaming naked on the carpet.
I am thirteen years old and a goody-good. My family spends August in the backcountry, in a rustic cabin beside a huge green lake complete with plate-glass surface that mirrors the forested mountains with their blue and snowy caps. Every year we reunite with relatives at this backcountry resort. This year my girl cousins, who are two years older, have given up bike riding for lipsticks and hairspray. We meet some like-minded boys down by the lakeside and trek to the woods for an impromptu game of Spin-the-Bottle. I refuse to play. I watch with guarded jealousy as my cousins take turns slipping into an abandoned ranger house to make out with the partner randomly chosen for them by the bottle. I desperately want to join in, but I don’t know how to kiss and cannot overcome my fear of playing the fool.
That night a beautiful electric storm smashes the placid aura of the rustic resort. With the lights turned out in our cabin we watch the sky as it cracks along tiny hairline fractures of light and re-sutures itself. A massive rainfall pounds the dirt outside and puddles are beginning to form. I slip out of the cabin without my raincoat and run giddily through the rain until hair licks my cheeks and my sopping t-shirt clings to my torso. I run to the lakeside in an adrenal rush of well-being. The storm is so close now that the thunderclaps are almost simultaneous with the flashes of light. Against the sky above the forested mountains there are glowing pinks spots where lightning fires have started. The night is eerily, violently perfect.
Augustus lies beside me, bare-chested. He says he is exhausted. I ask for nothing. I lie quietly on my stomach, motionless, my drunken body indifferent to any desire. I am infinitely flexible. I demand nothing. Since there is no action, I begin to drift off to sleep.
Suddenly Augustus grasps me. His hands are calloused and rough, which makes his caresses wonderfully brusque. I long to feel his hands all over my body. Then, he reaches for my buttocks, and again, I realize that he is feeling through me, to something else. I am in his presence but not in his mind. Powerlessness overwhelms as I realize there is nothing I can do to make this man feel me. Am I not beautiful enough? Am I not coy enough? Am I not? His hands are suddenly heavy on my flesh and I push them away. He is jarred, but not awakened. He asks: what’s wrong? Do you want me to seduce you or do you want me to stop? I want you to stop, I reply. I want you to stop. He stops. He says: I’m sorry, I didn’t understand.
I am five years old and my family moves into a small neighborhood in a suburb of San Francisco. The first day we pull into the driveway, two older kids, a sister and brother, are turning cartwheels on the lawn of our new house. This year is the first of what will be many years of drought, and watering our lawn is strictly forbidden. So is flushing the toilets. Our new backyard is overgrown with long, dry grasses topped grain-like heads that Dad calls foxtails. We play hide-and-seek in the yard, using the waist-length grass as camoflauge. On our side lot there are rows of leafy bushes with pretty pink flowers. Dad says they are oleanders, and poisonous. He says never eat the leaves of those plants.
Once a week the ice cream man drives down our street, playing his magical tune. We run out of the house with quarters and nickels begged off Mom to buy popsicles and chocolate-covered ice cream bars. Then we sit in the side lot by the oleanders with the neighbor kids and try to eat the melting treats before they dribble all the way down our arms.
I am five years old. One day my parents are not home and the neighbor boy comes over to our house. He is the same one who was turning cartwheels on the front lawn that first day we moved in. He is five years older than I am. We are playing in our glassed-in patio, when he sends my brother, who is three, away to play with a green balloon. The neighbor boy and I lie down on the bristly carpet and he pulls down my pants. I am not frightened. He climbs on top of me and moves up and down. He is inside me, but I will not remember what it feels like; I will not remember the boy’s name. I will not remember where my parents were. I will not remember who initiated it. All I will remember is that I did not fight off this boy or tell him to stop. It is a game, a game, a game.
Now I am twenty years old. Augustus has fallen asleep, but I lie awake, staring out the window at the sky that is just beginning to lighten. The air in the bedroom is hot and stale and hard to breathe. I look over at the distant man sleeping beside me, his voluptuous lips completely relaxed, the black stubble beginning to darken his face. Silently, I dress and find my shoes. I leave his bedroom without waking him, without leaving a note or a phone number. He doesn’t even know my last name. My car is parked in the driveway, between two blooming magnolia trees. The cool night air feels pleasant on my burning skin. As I turn the key in the ignition, the poem about fallen magnolia blossoms is re-writing itself in my brain:
After that I walked to my car awkwardly
over the painful bare remains on the brick sidewalk,
knowing that someone had, in one night,
passed roughly through,
and before it was time. – Anne Sexton