A Memoir Excerpt
I commit to lying on my first day of high school. I'm standing on a basketball court, wearing baggy shorts and a frayed shirt. There are thirty of us in this physical education class. I'm guessing about twenty-eight of them can dunk a better free throw — or whatever you do in basketball — better than I can. And that other kid? He's probably on crutches.
Our teacher is Ms. Sarver. Sharp of nose and rough of voice, she plays the part down to the whistle around her neck. She's a cross between an Olympic gymnast and Hitler. I like her. I like her honesty and her directness. I like how she doesn't play favorites. Most of all, I like how she's not like the other girls in this class, full of giggles and falseness.
What I don't like is how tough she is. When Ms. Sarver teaches P.E., you're exercising. There's no getting out of it. First she has us do sit-ups — fifty, then catch your breath, then fifty again. Then come pushups — and not girl-pushups either, the kind that allow us to rest on our knees. To Ms. Sarver, a pushup is a pushup, whether you're a boy or a girl, and there's no half-stepping it.
Then we run laps around the court. Running is my enemy. I am the anti-runner. If a physical activity was a person and I could kill it, running would be dead in the corner. Instead I wheeze around the curves, wishing some sort of natural disaster would strike and save me. Fire? Earthquake? Hell, I'd take a good rainstorm, which counts as a natural disaster in San Diego County. Anything.
She comes out of what seems like nowhere. She's got teased hair and a viper's smile. She is blonde and blue and thin and all those things that everyone like me wants to be. She grabs me by the shoulder and we both stop running.
"Do you shave?" she asks.
For some reason I remember her name is Brandy. I'm not quite sure why that matters, but it does. Brandy will forever be a skinny-girl name, the name of someone who wanted to know something I didn't want to tell.
"No," I say.
I know that I'll need to be consistent with whatever I say. Saying yes would mean more explanations than I'm prepared to give. Saying no — well, they may not believe me, but what can they do about it? They can take my word or not, but I'm not going to give these people any more ammunition. So yes, the answer is no.
She smirks at me. My toes curl inside my Reeboks. A drop of sweat rolls down my back. My heart feels like a gun firing, rat-tat-tat. This was not the natural disaster I'd wanted.
"You two!" It's Ms. Sarver, blowing into her whistle from across the court. "Move it."
Brandy doesn't move, doesn't say anything, doesn't change her expression. Each second that ticks by is an accusation: I am a liar. And I'm not about to change my story.
"Girls! Are you deaf?"
Ms. Sarver's howling isn't affecting me the way a teacher usually would. All my good-girl instincts have been transferred. I feel that Brandy needs to give me permission to move on. She has to tell me it's okay to move.
But there's just her smile, and her smile is a trap. She's wearing lipstick the shade of a scar, a bruised pink. She doesn't show her teeth, but I picture them anyway: sharp little bits, something that could provide worse than a simple sting.
Her smile says tell me the truth.
"No," I say again. "I don't."
"Okay," she says, and starts jogging again. I watch her go. She wears red sneakers and they kick up dirt with each stride. I feel those clouds entering my lungs, choking me. My knees are shaking and my teeth feel soft. I'm not sure what hurts worse: Brandy asking me the question or my giving her a lie for an answer. Lying feels like a block of concrete in my chest. It is stone, unreasoning. It is wrong.
But what am I supposed to do? Admit that I shave like a man? Not in a million.
I wait for her to gain a good lead, and then I begin to run too. Actually, it's less run and more shuffle. My shoes are white, not red, and I doubt I'm disturbing the dirt. I want to feel free, in the midst of flight. Instead I just feel like I'm choking.
Once I've completed the lap I stop and pant. Why can't I run like the rest of them? "Allison," Ms. Sarver says, "come here for a minute."
Up close her nose is less sharp and her smile is soft. She puts a hand on my shoulder. "You okay?" she asks.
I'm not sure anyone's ever asked me that before. I don't know how to answer. Instead I focus on her shirt. It says NIKE and has that swoosh symbol. The cloth looks comfortable, loose. I wonder what flaws it covers.
"Sure," I say. Lying to her is easier than lying to Brandy. Maybe I'm getting used to it. Maybe it'll continue to get less painful.
Everyone else is running another lap. Some are looking at me: Why did she get out of it? I worry that they'll label me the apple-polisher, the teacher's pet. That's not what I want. I want to be the troublemaker, actually, the one who lives in detention. Those girls have style. They have flair. I'm not exactly sure what flair means, but I want it.
"Yeah?" The difference between her and Brandy is that Ms. Sarver is smart. She doesn't just take the easy answer and jog away. She sticks around and lifts the heavy weights.
Here's where I'm stuck. I could lie to her again and have her question me again, and we could continue in this loop for the rest of the year. Or I could tell her the truth.
I hate the truth.
A shrill ring. It's a cliché for sure, but I'm saved by the bell.
Missy meets me at my locker, wearing sunglasses and a snarl. It's so unlike her that I want to laugh. Instead I ask her what's going on. "Mr. Wendt," she says, referring to her algebra teacher. "What a douche. He can't even spell."
"He teaches math. No one said anything about spelling."
"Whatever. He started yelling at us and told us that the way we were acting was a farce. Then he wrote it up on the board and spelled it out: F-A-R-S, farce." She shakes her head and her long straight hair swings around her cheeks. "I can't believe these are the kind of teachers we have."
"It's kind of funny, isn't it?"
She looks at me for a minute. I feel good. I feel like I just saw the lighter side of the world. I like pointing out the humor in situations. If you look closely enough, you'll always find it.
We take our lunch bags and head for the quad, finding a shady spot under a tree. Around us students mill around, eat, laugh. Are they really as at ease as they seem?
"So," she says, "that's the highlight of my day. How about yours?"
There is no way in hell that I'm telling her about what happened during P.E. Hopefully she's learned that I won't talk. She could threaten me with knives, guns, any weapon you care to pull out of your pocket. Take me prisoner, hold me hostage, starve and beat me. I'm not speaking about it.
Instead I tell her about my English class, which is taught by something called Mrs. Love. It's tall and deep-voiced and looks like Julia Child. It is unlike any other person I've met. "That's why it's an it," I say, and immediately feel dirty when Missy laughs. Who am I to be calling other people It? Even if it feels good. Even if the joke's on someone else for a change.
The English class isn't like any other class I've attended. Mrs. Love had us pull our chairs in a circle. This is going to be a discussion, she said, not a dictatorship. We shifted and kind of laughed. I wondered how many people in that room even knew what a dictatorship was.
"Then she gave us our reading list," I say. The list had some of the screwiest titles I'd ever seen. Flowers for Algernon. Slaughterhouse Five. And a short story called "Yentl," based on the movie. I didn't remember much about it except it had Barbra Streisand, who I always found annoying down to her sharp Jewish nose.
"Oh yeah," Missy says. "The one where she disguises herself as a boy."
Who would ever want to do that? Why would anyone want to deliberately put themselves up to be mistaken as a guy?
"She does it so she can study," Missy says. "They wouldn't allow girls into religious training."
"How do you know all this? You're not even Jewish."
"I watch HBO," she says, and I could swear there's a note of pride to that.
The Poway High School quad feels massive, trans-continental, like if you walked to the other side you'd better speak Russian and wear a muff to keep your hands warm. It's a series of alternating strips: concrete, grass, then concrete again. There are planters, trees, picnic benches where kids flick french fries at one another. Far off in Siberia is the Drama Wall, where theater people congregate and emote. Nearby is the Filipino Wall, and catty-corner from that is the Jock Corner. How do I know all this on my first day? One word: observation.
"My parents had a fight last night," I say. I'd had no intention of letting those words leave my mouth. What let them loose?
"Yeah?" Missy asks. She unwraps a foil-covered peanut butter sandwich, grimaces, and takes a bite. She doesn't like what her mother packs her for lunch, but she's too lazy to make her own. I can respect that.
"Yeah," I say. I don't want to go any further. Right now I feel like I'd rather talk about "Yentl" and all its implications than go into everything to do with my parents. It's just too much. I don't understand all of it, and I wish I didn't understand what I do.
"They talking to each other?"
"No," I say. After the fight they populated their own corners of the house, much like the separate cliques here are doing today and more than likely do every day. Nails has the bathroom. Rooster, the bedroom. Us, wherever we can hide.
She offers me a Devil Dog and I take it. In my mouth the sweetness tastes like comfort. The wall across from where we're sitting is Peer Counselor Territory. They were the ones who did our orientation this summer. They seemed so comfortable with themselves, so confident and friendly. Maybe if I'm a peer counselor, someday I'll be like that.
"So what was it about?"
I don't want to tell her: It was about me.
When they fought, I just hung out by the top of the stairs and listened. I couldn't help it. It's like I had no choice, and maybe I didn't. He started the fight, which is unusual not because he's such a nice guy but because my mother usually does more of the talking, which typically leads to more of the fight-starting.
He didn't use the word freak, but I knew that's what he meant. What I didn't know was that my mother has the same thing I do. She must not have it as badly since I never noticed anything, but maybe I just wasn't looking hard enough. It happens.
If she fixed herself, he said, I wouldn't be the way I am. But even I know that wasn't true. She could never have prevented those genes from being passed down. I know that. Why doesn't he?
Tina's house is a museum, but an oddly comfortable one. It's got plush carpet, china cabinets and granite countertops on the kitchen's center island. Outside there is a pool, a barbeque and a friendly dog. Anything seems possible in her parents' cushy living room with its expensive audio equipment, heavy bookshelves, and a mini-fridge containing all the Coke we can drink and burp up.
With her I am nothing like what I am with Missy. With Missy, I am considerate and considered, calm and seemingly collected. But Tina is different. She brings out the brass in me, the bitchiness. All my hard edges show around her — and I kind of like it.
We're the only sophomores on the Poway High paper, and somehow that's made us close friends. Tina is a booming Goliath to my short and stumpy David. Her femininity is an aggressive fragrance applied with a heavy hand, her bearing that of someone years older. It wouldn't be that hard to mistake her for 35. Forty, even. And that's my parents' age. Old.
"Do you have confidence," she asks, "or don't you?"
She says it as if it were something you could check off your grocery list. Grapes, pasta, toilet paper — and, oh yeah — Confidence. Something you could take off the shelf and tuck into your cart. An item with a price, payable at the end of a neatly contained shopping trip. A unit of exchange.
"You need to look at people straight on," she says. She leans back in her father's butter-colored recliner and slaps her ample thighs. The sound brings forth the family's standard poodle, the loyal and sweetly stupid Thor. The dog shambles in and nestles his snout in Tina's crotch.
"Come on," she says. "Let's practice."
"Practice what? Me staring into your eyes while your dog eats you out?"
"Don't be a moron." She slaps Thor away. "He's neutered."
I shrug and get up for another Coke.
"Diet Dr. for me," she says.
"I didn't tell you? I got approached at North County Fair."
San Diego can't call a mall a mall. Our shopping centers bear names like North County Fair, Fashion Valley, Horton Plaza, names that herald major architectural achievements when really all that's there are some yogurt shops and the Gap. "He was an agent for a plus-sized modeling agency. I have my first shoot next week."
She's always coming up with drivel like this. "If that twat Tina said the sky was blue," my mother's fond of saying, "I'd check to make sure it hadn't turned purple."
Now I say:
"If it's plus-sized, you should be drinking two Cokes."
"Yeah, actually, you're right."
I come back juggling the three frosty cans.
"So." She taps the top of the can with a perfect acrylic filling. She and my mother go to the same manicurist. "About this confidence thing."
"What about it?"
"Do you have it or not?"
How do you answer that? I've never been asked a question in such a point-blank way. But Tina doesn't waste time with tact. I hate that about her, but in a way I love it too.
"I have as much as you have."
"Well," she says, her eyes surprisingly downcast, "you may need a little help then."
She takes me into her pink-and-gold bathroom. Then she reaches into a cabinet and pulls out a salmon-colored tackle box. "First we'll wash your face," she says. "Give us something fresh to work with."
It's a makeover. The word makes my heart pump and my forehead flush. I don't want anyone deciding what color to paint my eyelids, my cheeks and my lips. I can't take the thought of anyone getting that close.
But how to tell Tina no?
She takes out a facial scrub called Mountain Sea Breeze. It makes no sense, but does any of this?
"I'll do it," I say. I don't want her washing my face. I don't want her touching my skin.
"Okay," she says, and hands me a washcloth.
The scrub is expensive and feels good against my face. It smells of mint and musk, an odd combination that somehow works. I feel both ancient and refreshed, as if I'm about to become the world's oldest, cutest prostitute.
"Scrub it down deep," Tina says, looking in the mirror and squeezing a blackhead on her nose. "It'll get your skin clean."
"It hasn't worked that well for you, pizza-face."
"Keep scrubbing," she says, "Bitch."
I'm scrubbing and she's popping and at long last, we're both done.
"Okay," she says. "Now, the philosophy."
Tina can't just reach into the tackle box where she keeps her beauty potions. She has to give me the academia behind image.
"There's a reason they say put your best face forward." I hop up on the counter and swing my feet against her bleached-wood cabinets while she expounds. "It's not just a saying. It's what life is."
"Mary Kay? Clairol?"
"Laugh," she says, "but yes, in a way it is."
I imagine the universe as a constellation of products: lipstick, eyeliner, blush. Instead of stars there are mirrors, a sky filled with reflection. In place of the sun is a giant eye. Everything revolves around judgment.
Tina puts on a serious face, which makes me want to laugh even harder. She looks like Miss Piggy when she concentrates — protruding snout, wayward eyes — and in the moment I like her for it.
"Allison," she says, "you've got to pay more attention to your looks."
In a way that's all I do. But how can I tell her that?
"You keep paying attention to my looks," I say, "and I may file a restraining order."
She's busy fishing in the tackle box, pulling out potions that will change my life. "You're a winter," she says.
"Close your eyes," she says, "and shut the fuck up or I'll stab you with an eyebrow pencil."
Fifteen minutes later she says: "Look."
Reflected in her surrounded-by-Hollywood-lights mirror is ... me. But different. Better. My eyes dance with color and mischief. My lips are rosy with promise. She's even combed and teased out my hair, giving it body and bounce.
"See?" she says.
For once I don't see the shadow across my lip and under my chin. For once I see myself as a whole instead of a creature-in-parts, a jigsaw puzzle.
"Gosh," I say. The word has absolutely no power to convey my feelings at this moment. No word does. It's possible for me to be a pretty girl. Beauty is available to me. This opens up an entire new world.
She puts a hand on my shoulder. I turn to her and smile.
"I can help you more," she says.
End of revelation. The world stops spinning on its axis. Fireworks no longer go off. I know what she's getting at. And I don't like it. I can help you more. It's the verbal equivalent of a stare, my daily enemy along the school halls. It makes me want to find a closet, shut the door behind me, and curl up in the cool quiet blessed dark.
"No," I say.
"You don't even know what I'm offering."
"I don't care. I don't need it."
"Allison," she says, "people see. They talk."
My picture of the universe shifts, becomes a series of lips pressed to ears, playing Telephone. You see? She shaves!
Tina reaches into her medicine cabinet. "Bleach," she says. "I bleach my moustache every few weeks."
"I don't want to talk about it."
"It's nothing to be ashamed of."
This is shades of Missy, that apologetic voice on the phone asking what was wrong with me. Except here I can't hang up. I can't even walk out the door. I can't move.
"You don't have to do anything. Just sit there. I'll take care of it."
What do they say?
Do I even want to know?
Tina washes the makeup from my face. "Close your eyes," she says, and I feel her dot every problem area with cream. Then she sets the kitchen timer for fifteen minutes — longer than that and my skin might break out. As my mother might say, I need that like I need a pair of testicles.
To pass the time, we watch her father's tape of Debbie Does Dallas. The women in the movie have bad perms and bushy hair between their legs. The men have instant hard-ons and perma-smiles.
"Okay," she announces after the kitchen timer chimes. "Time to get that stuff off you."
"But the guy hasn't even come yet."
"Use your imagination."
She cleans me up, then leans down to inspect my face.
"Maybe you need a different kind," she says.
I check the mirror. Same five o'clock shadow. I want to ask her to reapply the makeup, but it's clear she's lost interest. I call Nails to pick me up. When she gets there, she asks about my afternoon.
"Fine," I say. "Fine."
Allison Landa is a Berkeley, CA based writer of memoir and fiction and her work has been featured in Salon Magazine, Prick of the Spindle, CherryBleeds, Word Riot and Toasted Cheese, among other venues.