When my boyfriend discovers the first paper cut on my lips, I am reminded of my friend Mandy, whose husband detected a malignant tumor the size of a housefly in her left breast one night when they were trafficking in the business of caresses.
He studies it under a magnifying glass I use to help me take apart my skin when everything alive in the house has gone to bed. When he pulls the glass away from my mouth to report on his findings, it lands on the spot directly in front of his right eye, which undergoes an immediate distortion, rendering him an exact likeness of Mrs. Manger, my seventh grade geometry teacher. Mrs. Manger, who was legally blinded in a hunting accident, wore glasses which were thicker than my brother, Jeremy’s, hands the day he tried to break apart the hornet’s nest we’d found underneath the hood of our father’s straw-colored Chrysler station wagon with the seats that looked like spilled wine. I’d collected six dollars and fifty cents by the time the principal, Mr. Larkin, showed up at the booth, comprised of broken down boxes, I’d set up during recess on the outskirts of the kickball field. Timmy, my brother, was tied with neat Girl Scout knots to a chair I’d carried from my classroom, his mouth stuffed with his own sweat-stained shirt. I swore on my dead grandmother’s life I had no idea how he had gotten that way, but the sign hanging on the front of the booth, the “i’s” dotted with little hearts, which read “Timmy the ‘Balloon Boy’ – Admission Fifty Cents” seemed to indicate to Mr. Larkin that I was his man.
To this day, why my parents would have sent Timmy to school the morning after he’d hit the animal kingdom lottery, his hands still swollen like baseball mitts, confounds me. Perhaps this is one example of how a sense of guilt and propriety are mixed up in me surrounding my youth. Had my parents not sent a swollen Timmy to school that day, I would not have made a spectacle of him. Had I not made a spectacle of him, perhaps he would not have sought comfort in the form of Maryann Sloat, the girl in the back of his fifth grade classroom with the webbed hands or, as their teacher, Mrs. Kempf used to say, “faulty appendages.” According to Timmy, other parts of Maryann were “remarkable” as well, but love had rendered Timmy impervious to my torture chair, and he would not reveal where they fell on the map of her strange body.
This would be the year Timmy adorned the refrigerator with ornate inventories of our modest family’s shortcomings. Under the heading “Mother,” he wrote, in fat, colorful letters: tedious to the point of distraction, obsessed with the wear and tear of every minute. My reply, which continues to win me extra credit in the present tense, was written in oversized black letters: “look up ‘brother’ in the dictionary, and there you will find a boy devoted to her own decline, his redundant mouth wrapping around the kitchen so that we can neither breathe nor sing in that small space.” My mother, an expert in the art of tie-die and home delivery men, added her own anonymous remarks, under the heading “Father/Husband”: unfortunate bedmate, the general disappointment of inadequate men. To which my father posted his reply: “Wife”: legs like a “v” night after night until she was pinned into matrimony and became the woman who mistook her marriage for a date.
I was shocked at how quickly we had become rude, how we had gone from an ordinary suburban family to the inhabitants of some reckless nation with its four citizens in their second-hand clothes and pile of leftover food decaying in the backyard. Sometime during the “Year of the Refrigerator”, as it became known, I began to spend the night at my friend Lena’s, whose name meant “worthy of love” while my own name, Deidre, meant means “melancholy or sorrow” but which I told everyone meant “contented or joyful”. Which presented a problem the spring Thalia Rubestein moved to our town, whose name was exotic and Greek and really did mean “joyful”. I walked around school for a week and a half with a post-it note that read “Hi, my name is Melancholy” attached to my favorite shirt because, in those days, I refused to wear anything else.
Liam Schwartz, whose name meant protector and the only Jewish boy in our class, picked me up out of my despair where I landed, a few recalcitrant weeks later, square in the middle of his Ralph-Lauren-covered bed. From then on I would go through school known as the girl who gave herself to God as we, the seventh-graders of Cedar County, Missouri, understood I had done by sacrificing my young, Christian body to the Jewish religion. The day I Liam and I broke up, we learned in history class that a war had erupted in some small fictional country, as all countries I had not heard of in my thirteenth year were fictional. As Teddy Neanderthal, which was his real name, and Missy Stokes stood at the front of the class that day with their “state of the state” report, I learned that the world is the size of what you find inside a grapefruit after what is white and bitter has been taken away. I couldn’t focus on Missy’s mouth moving the words, not even when she said we might be affected, that her mother’s best friend, Helen Flit, had told called that morning to say the price of gas was expected to soar and Mrs. Stokes should consider sending Missy to her music lessons via public transportation, which consisted of a beat up old van driven by Mr. Tierney, the town drunk, with the number 88 spray painted on the front.
The paper cuts are from licking envelopes to send out my art. I don’t send it anywhere in particular, just address the envelopes to various post offices throughout the United States. I’ve sent photographs to Whynot, Mississippi, paintings to Santa Claus, Indiana, and poems to Stinking Creek, Tennessee. Some of the photographs were actually of paper cuts. Sometimes at night, lying in bed, I make up names of towns I want to live in. Towns like Abundant, Texas, Acceptance, Arkansas, and Lucky, Las Vegas. The sad part about the day Liam and I broke up, besides the fact that innocent people died and gas prices did shoot up like addicts, is that was the last day I felt loved. Sometimes I feel as if I am still wearing that post-it note on my favorite shirt, stretched across my chest, that emblem of adulthood. As if all that mattered in the world, that declining fruit, was my misery. I watch the square screen with its wars, listen to my mother and my friend Emily, the lawyer, with their newspapers for mouths. But what I am saying, inside my head while their words move toward me like balloons, is that the minute of anyone having loved me is past, that my lucky youth, like that ill-fated town no one bothered to name, does not belong on the map of this small century.
invitation to a suburban girlhood