The town where I grew up is shaped like a woman. I rolled back and forth across the valley that lies between her bust and her hips, from crest to trough, as my family could not stop moving and fidgeting between neighborhoods after my parent’s divorce. In the winter, she is wrapped up by the tight wool of home knitted scarves and finds comfort in the hearths that pump smoke out from her belly, making her look swollen and pregnant despite how hollow and lifeless she feels. In the summer she is beautiful. Her hair is long and sways at her waist as she shimmies into the gently lapping waves of the reservoir and her forehead is sun kissed. Her meadows and small mountain peaks flourish in soft green and fifteen-year-olds stumble up them in search of a prettier view. But she is never so beautiful that she is free. Only lovely, only for three months. Even in this bliss, she remembers the things and people that make her up and she bites her lips and remains unheard, as to not upset the pleasantries that parade along her surfaces.
She is a good woman. Her streets are controlled by stiff men in blue uniforms who tell drunk high schoolers to scatter and pull over anyone exceeding six miles per hour over the speed limit of twenty-five. The men in the middle-class homes along her spine demand her complacency too. They mow their lawns religiously on Sunday mornings, drink too many beers before dinner, and yell when their wives nag them. These habits seem built into them, inherent like the familiarity of the letters of their surname. Their lazy aggression comes out easy and settles into the fine cracks of concrete that line the floor of the half-finished basements where they watch football and feel comfortably alone. She is a good woman. She stays quiet. The husbands and business men that live inside of her still don’t think it’s enough. They wish for younger days when they were not burdened by marriage or mortgage, when their stomachs were less portly, when they felt free beneath the sky above them, not smothered beneath the delicate weight of the mundane locale where they settled down.
She does not flinch when the cold men who dictate her breath teach their sons to do the same. She knows that she will teach all the young girls how to manage their volume and desire beneath the tension of pressing thumbs. She teaches girls to submit to giggling fits under the sour teasing of young boy’s crushes, and like it, no matter how mean they could be. She teaches girls in middle school to pinch the skin of their midsection and stop eating lunch- it’s pretty to keep yourself small, unnoticeable, almost invisible. She teaches high school girls to relish in the catharsis of full-volume music, blasting through the speakers of their cars— to enjoy it contained and alone. She teaches high school girls to glitter— high GPA’s, honors societies, great sister, beloved daughter— like the cast-in-stone shine of a freshly carved epitaph. These girls are palatable and easy to swallow- she tells them it feels beautiful to dissolve in the stomach acid of boys. She teaches them to float there, bask in the attention of young men who will soon become cruel, while they are still young and curious— too curious to punish the pretty objects that garner their attention. Curious enough to collect these shiny things like crows and treasure them for a while.
Maybe she did not know what to do with me when I first came along, teetering on fresh, skinny legs, afraid to move. I was a lot like her already; used to the friction of anger in men’s voices and the feeling of curse words crashing and shattering along my cheekbones. Already used to the feeling of lack. Small Town taught me the most once I began to want to feel free— the sandpaper burn of my angry man moved away and only echoed in my ears every other weekend. I had a hard time learning. Little boys’ mean remarks prompted meaner ones from my mouth. I hated the way I could not finish meals, wishing to eat full plates until my bones gained more cushion and I took up more space.
It was easier to learn in high school. I played my music from large speakers in strangers’ basements and boys disconnected the Bluetooth to bump the dull, heavy bass of their preferred monotone rap songs instead. The volume of my car speakers would get so loud as I drove around at night that I could not hear myself sing along. I began to shine too; all the tumble of emotions and moodiness and unsavory woman was buried beneath my new, pearlescent skin. I tried hard to submit myself to the digestion of boys, but no one told me how much it would scald or how bad singed hair smelled. I did not want to become a misplaced earring in the beak of a big, black bird, a collectable outlet for inquisition. But over and over again, she told me her lessons and soon it was hard to notice the discomfort of craving something that always felt wrong. I wrote poetry about boys. I kissed them. I talked to my friends about what sex must be like and taught myself to want it. The glitter was becoming itchy and I wished I could cut it off. On those late night drives punctuated by blaring music and tear-stained discontentment, I parked at the reservoir and imagined myself sunk to the very bottom, held there by cinder blocks on each ankle, disintegrating into the small town that bred me. Falling asleep at the bottom of the reservoir didn’t seem so bad. People fell asleep everywhere just to escape the feeling of drowning that choked us all the time— in study hall, after two bars of Xanax at a party, as they lost their virginity, during the Homecoming dance, as they filled out college applications to schools in driving distance. Small Town worked better than melatonin, better than tryptophan, better than any lullaby or bedtime story in getting teenagers to fall asleep. I think that most of them never woke up.
Looking back, I wonder if my angry man felt discontent too, unwilling to become another calloused palm holding too tight to Small Town’s wrists. Maybe that’s why he left. Maybe I have him to thank for making me free to leave too. I ran away to a city plump with humidity and bashful joy that did not feel anything like from where I had come. For a year I let myself incubate and let the impressions of the grasp of Small Town fade from my muscles. Some habits were hard to extract; they were sunk into my veins like thick sap and it was hard to distinguish where they ended, and my own blood began. I remembered that it only takes twenty seven days for your skin to shed itself. I realized I was no longer what anyone expected me to be. I let myself bend and break over the rims of wine bottles, dance for the first time in my life, use my teeth to crack open nights full of learning myself better. I stopped apologizing. I fell in love with a woman. For the first time in the entirety of my life, despite the humid heaviness of New Orleans’ atmosphere, there is no more weight pressing into the pores of my sapling skin. The dank moisture in the Southern air pushed open the cracks in my body and showed me the fossils of who I was. This time it was not a learning, it was a remembering; it was a reminder that I was not drowning, I was not misplaced jewelry, I was not alone. The pearlescent skin I once gleamed in now fits me like a poorly tailored prom dress. I am glad to leave it on the side of the road in a Good Will collection container, for another girl to shimmy into and then outgrow. I hope she rips the taffeta, spills liquor on its skirt, and leaves burn marks along its edges. I hope one day it is so out-worn and tired that no one ever tries it on again.
Published in Edition 4 of The Dilettante.