… The mall where I grew up was mostly space. I guess all malls are kind of like that – a big cube that houses other cubes where people can walk in and buy things that will clutter up the cubes they live in. The food court was my favorite part of the mall. The restaurant in the corner that all the other redneck kids avoided was my first experience with Chinese food – orange, syrupy chicken that taught me sweet with savory made just as much sense as my mom’s typical baked chicken. It was also the only place I’d ever been that had a giant sky light. There were tall, indoor plants, fake trees, that broke up a sea of tables, each of which held 2-4 mall people. The light from the hole in the ceiling shined on top the trees and created a rainforest canopy effect – exotic and fun to me at that age and not at all tacky. None of the clothes at the mall ever fit. It’ll be years before I hear of Torrid, one of the only plus-size stores that cater to my age group even now. Back then, I made due with hoodies from PacSun that covered my muffin top – a condition that was aggravated by chronically “low-rise” jeans from the Gap, which only carried up to a size 16 when I really needed an 18. I remember jumping up and down in the dressing room, yanking the denim over the widest part of my hips. Buttoning required a tedious, persistent concentration that left my index fingers stinging and indented. The mall always smelled like Claire’s – cheap perfume worn by little girls in big amounts – mixed with the Dunkin Donuts coffee kiosk directly outside their entrance. Many cubes down was the JC Penny where I wasted most of my youth standing and waiting for Mom to find a dress for whoever’s funeral – someone was always dying and Mom always needed a dress; I guess she thought all her friends suddenly became picky about fashion in the afterlife. I remember the sound of her getting flustered by her own weight issues behind the white slates that made up each dressing room. Hangers clanged against the mirror followed by the cracking sound of a fabric tear as she jerked an ill-fitting top back over her head, then snapped her spandex undergarments in frustration. She had a credit card there that she insisted on paying in person once every month …
…My first shitty apartment was a third-floor walk-up in a house that didn’t really have a third floor – like if your grandma rented out her attic. The ceilings were so low that I spent the three months I lived there permanently crouched. The bedroom had no closets, but was the size of one itself. There was already a futon when I moved in, but I quickly became convinced the damp polyester housed bed bugs and refused to sleep on it. Instead, I put an air mattress in the kitchen since it was the only decently sized room in the whole place and slept there. It was so hot that summer, and heat rises, so the damp, dirty apartment became a steam room for bacteria. I acquired a portable air conditioner, a floor unit where the accordion hose hangs out the window. It often took on too much humidity and overflowed multiple times a day, causing large, discolored watermarks to form all across the dark green “carpet” in the living room. I covered these stains with baking soda because that’s what Pinterest or Google said to do. When that resulted in nothing more than a thick paste, I became more proactive and re-purposed a lid from a large container to set underneath the unit and catch the water. This formed a moat that had to be emptied into the tub twice a day. On the way, I’d easily spill half of the contents of the rubber, wobbly lid across the carpet, so I put down yet more baking soda. I remember being embarrassed when a friend came to visit and burst out laughing at the disaster that was my living situation. “What the hell is that?” he said, cackling and pointing to the pasty white stains that snaked across my floor. To feel better, I told him to leave and then a few days later, adopted a kitten. This cat was the last kitten left in a litter at the shelter down the street because, as the lady at the shop warned me, “He’s the devil. He attacks everyone. Even his siblings hid from him.” I decided this was the perfect cat for me and brought him home in my jacket. He thanked me by peeing on my couch and refusing to recognize the litter box as belonging to him. Instead, he left cat shit all around my toilet like a picket line I had to cross every morning. I got no sleep after he moved in. I would try to bed down on the air mattress but could never fully relax because he was always climbing to the highest spot he could find which was usually the mountain of dishes I left piled in the sink. Perched at the top, he would flick his tail and watch me, waiting for me to enter that lucid yet dreamy state between wake and sleep – at that point, he would launch himself off the tower of pots and pans causing them to fall and clang noisily as he landed feet first, claws out, on my chest…
One summer when I was 13, my brother-in-law, Randy, saw a baby raccoon sitting along the side of the road next to a mother who had been hit by a car. I was known as the animal lover of the family – my nickname was Elly May after the teenage girl on the Beverly Hillbillies who, like me, was happiest with a menagerie crawling around her neck – so Randy covered his hands in a thick pair of protective gloves, grabbed the hissing ball of fur, and threw her into the bed of his truck. He then drove straight to my mother’s house where he presented her to me as an exotic pet.
I was devastated that she’d lost her mother, but, selfishly, thrilled to have a new pet. I retrieved an old pet taxi from the shed and, using Randy’s gloves, transplanted the sopping wet, angry creature into her new home. She seemed to hate me. She stayed huddled at the back of the pet carrier, glaring at me with yellow eyes and growling in an attempt to convince me she could bite my face off through these bars if she really wanted to. But I could smell her fear – there’s a scent that animals give off when they’re in danger or agitated, and this little baby raccoon was throwing a stink my way that undermined her nonverbal threats of ripping out my eyeballs with her teeth.
Meanwhile, I loved her already and wanted her to love me just as much. I stole a jar of Mom’s peanut butter from the kitchen and began rubbing handfuls of it across the bars, hoping to entice her closer. My hands became stickier with each dip and smear. After ten minutes, my fingers were nearly webbed together, but it was worth it because the hateful fur-ball could no longer resist the scent of food. She stopped growling, instead chortling like a pigeon as she crept forward on tiny, padded paws. Soon, she’d licked the bars clean and was looking up at me, almost purring. My mother warned that she probably had rabies and swore she’d leave me to die in the basement if I contracted it too. I unlocked the bars anyway and allowed her to crawl into my lap where I continued to feed her peanut butter until she fell asleep in a furry semicircle.
For the rest of the summer, she was my first priority. I called her Baby because she seemed certain I was her mother, following me everywhere and crying noisily if I disappeared behind a door for even a moment during the day. At night, she slept outside on the porch in a bed I’d created from old wood scraps and cloth because Mom remained certain my new pet was an unpredictable, possibly rabid nuisance. Each morning that summer, I woke up and fed her breakfast, a mixture of peanut butter and cheesy-poofs. She would chatter happily, climbing up my jeans over my white US Open 2001 t-shirt which by the end of the summer was stained with orange and brown paw prints. She preferred to sit on my shoulder like a parrot, holding the snack between her paws and taking bites. This was the cutest behavior I’d ever seen, but I worried that she needed training in food scavenging for when she got older; my solution was to hide cheesy-poofs inside tree branches so she would have to climb to reach them. By the end of the summer, I had turned the area outside my house into a raccoon jungle gym – I stashed snacks in garbage bins, buried them in the yard, and dangled them from chains she easily scaled.
Over the next year and a half, she lived with me, but as she grew bigger, she often wandered farther and farther away at night, becoming less my pet during the day and more like a visitor that showed up without calling, instead delighting me with surprise arrivals. “Sherry, your ‘coon’s out here!” Mom sometimes called to me in the evenings from the front porch. I’d come running out to see how much bigger she’d gotten, laughing as Mom cowered against the screen door for fear Baby would mistake her for me and climb up her back. I’d pick her up like old times, petting her and always giving her lots of treats. As the year went on, her visits became less and less frequent until one day after being gone for nearly four months, she showed up with four little raccoons of her own. I tried to give them cheesy-poofs too, but she was fiercely protective, growling and refusing to let me get too close.
I didn’t see her much after that, but I like to think she still lives somewhere in the woods behind my parents’ house, raising generations of raccoons who, to hear Mom tell it, will soon come and dismantle the house piece by piece, starting with the kitchen – Baby knows that’s where the peanut butter lives.
The Burger King Big Toy was the most colorful place I’d ever visited. Three or four times a year, in lieu of a family vacation, my mother would load me and my niece into the car and drive the 45 minutes it took to get from our small town (population: 5,741) to a town with a burger king big enough to have the big toy – an indoor jungle gym where kids could climb around inside colorful plastic tubes after eating half a hamburger, no pickle. When we first arrived, we would stand in line with Mom in between gray ropes linking metal poles that allowed longer lines to form a snake in front of the register. I always wanted to touch the poles, yank down the ropes, or run away with one, but never did. My niece couldn’t help herself though and often ended up getting tangled in the ropes when my mother wasn’t looking. Once we got to the register, I always ordered a chicken sandwich with fries. I then sat at the table wolfing it all down as quickly as possible because the more time spent eating, the less time available for playing. Our tongues sufficiently scalded from eating breaded food that had been in a commercial deep-fryer only seconds earlier, we showed Mom our trays were clean and ran toward the big toy. We removed our shoes and stuck them in the wall of cubes that held all the other children’s shoes. As I got older, it was harder to make my shoes fit, but I refused to take the hint and kept going back well into my days as an overly husky 9-year-old. Barefoot, we’d find the nearest brightly colored pipe entrance and climb into it, crawling either left or right depending on which way looked more fun. I feel claustrophobic now thinking about the diameter of the tunnels in proportion to the diameter of my body, but back then, the terrifying image of being stuck inside the big toy, the walls too close for me to breathe, never visited me. Instead, full of enthusiasm, I dragged myself from one side of the big toy to the other, bottom to top, the soft, colorful padding sliding along the length of my body and making a swishing noise against my clothes. Each of the tunnels emerged into special rooms such as giant pits filled with balls or open areas that looked like mission control for spaceships. In these rooms, there were windows where I could look out and take in the whole room, see my mother sitting quietly on the picnic tables below watching us play or balancing her checkbook. I could hear the shrieks and hollers of toddlers too young to join their older siblings, but wanting to be noticed or somehow participate in the fun anyway.
The Wal-Mart was what everyone called the new superstore that opened up in our small town when I was 10. When you first walked through the automated glass doors, there was a cardboard box full of drooping, I-forgot-our-anniversary flowers on the right – single, moist roses enclosed in dewy, stiff plastic that crackled, the noise almost as loud as the neon yellow packaging. To the left was the produce section, and it smelled like a humid refrigerator. The air was cool but not cool enough, and moist, tasting like your lawn after a fresh mow followed by rain. The next aisle down was my favorite: Bread. And Little Debbie Cakes. If I could’ve made a living out of eating Little Debbie Cakes, my family wouldn’t have been poor enough to need to buy them in the first place. My favorite were the Fancy Cakes, white icing and some kind of cream inside them derived from ambrosia and the gene that causes diabetes. Across from the bread aisle was the fat lady section whose condescending signs claimed they were “just my size;” they weren’t. Their jeans never fit me properly, usually stalling out as I tried to yank them over my ample hips, or bunching up at the top or bottom in an unflattering way that made me appear as a flood survivor who stashed muffins around her waist. Behind the ill-fitting women’s pants and blouses were the ill-fitting bras that bisected my large breasts into chunks that resembled children’s pizzas, cut into four pieces for easier consumption. This was also where they kept the swimsuits, all different colors but no variation in sizes. When I was 15, I attempted to have sex with my boyfriend in the women’s dressing room while trying on swimsuits. I probably just got the idea from a Judd Apatow film because I don’t remember being particularly aroused, and the experience only went downhill from there: Cramped. Noisy. Dry.
When I was a little girl, I got a purple Huffy for my ninth birthday – shiny with long, violet tassels hanging off each handlebar. On the back, there were training wheels. At 9 years old, two wheels didn’t seem like enough to me, and wouldn’t until well after my 12th birthday. One afternoon, my brother Shawn convinced me it was time to remove them with the compelling argument, “You’re 12 and almost as tall as I am. It’s weird.” After a few days under his tutelage, I was sure he had been right and wondered what had taken me so long; I got brave. My childhood home was built on top of a steep, grassy hill which overlooked a one-lane paved road that eventually turned into gravel. The gravel abruptly turned into lake. We were literally “the last house on the left” and if you went further, you and your vehicle would end up underwater. One evening, the brave evening, I decided the best thing to do would be to get on my bike which had no handbrake and ride down the steep one-lane road. I walked the bike from my front porch to the gravel driveway and mounted it, wondering even then why bike seats were designed to encourage hemorrhoids. I skidded and slid down the bumpy driveway as the gravel shifted under my tires, re-gaining control just in time to jerk the handlebars to the left, steering out of my driveway onto the pavement. Within seconds, I was cruising. I could feel the wind whipping across my face, and it just kept picking up, now so fast that when I tried to breathe, I gasped, unable to exhale. I’d never gone this fast before! I didn’t realize that bicycles could go this fast! Too fast, I realized suddenly as I registered the sight of pavement turning into gravel in front of me. I’d never survive the bumpy transition at this speed – I was going to wipe out. Either that or keep right on going and drown – I didn’t know how to swim either. I could almost feel the bits of rock hitting my face, my front tooth getting knocked out by a stray piece of gravel, the water rushing in to fill my lungs so that they burned, begged for air. I started shrieking, so loud it echoed across the holler and probably woke up all manner of nocturnal wildlife. I tried to use the foot brake, pedaling backwards, but the bike had too much momentum – each time I slowed the bike, I’d take my foot off the brake to jump off and find that the bike would have already begun to pick up speed again. Away I went, hurtling toward the gravel. In my periphery, I saw a flash of a person – a black hoodie. Then I heard Shawn’s voice yelling from behind me, “Turn your handlebars into the ditch! Steer into the ditch!” I wouldn’t realize until afterward that my brother had leapt off the steep hill in front of our house, rolling to the bottom in hopes of intercepting me, only to have me fly by, feet outstretched, screaming and crying, “EEEE!!!!” Back in the moment, I followed his instruction, jerking the handlebars sharply to the right so that I steered into a ditch full of brush and mud. My palms ran red with blood, scraped and burned raw from being outstretched during a head-first landing, but at least I still had all my teeth.
I like to go to the bar and talk to an old lady. I like to ask her about the time she met Janis Joplin and her relationship with her mother and how those two things came to be related. I want to confess to her that yes, I’m here with that large bearded man, and yes, I do love him and isn’t it scary!? I want to tell her that, and then I want to add, ”But I didn’t get along with my mother either. See, even though I’m here with him, I could just as easily be here with you. My mother didn’t want to hear that about me though, so she whipped me, yelled at me, named me a pervert. And so I took it back.”
And the old woman says, ”Do you talk to her now?” And I say, ”Yeah, but it’s okay. She doesn’t need to know everything about me. She’s too old to change. It doesn’t hurt me anymore.” And the old lady congratulates me on being so mature, telling me, “That’s right! Live and let live!” She assumes I’ve done the work to get there. The lady doesn’t know I’ve just shoved it down, compartmentalized it, labeled it unacceptable to everyone but those clubs that would have me as a member.
She doesn’t know that in two years I won’t be able to shove it down anymore. The old lady just wants to talk about Woodstock and if I wouldn’t mind, could I get her another vodka cranberry while I’m up there? That old lady is why I like to go to the bar.
…High school bummed me out, so I rarely went. When class ended on the Disney channel, a loud, enthusiastic bell would ring. I guess our school couldn’t afford that bell because what sounded like a feeble seat-belt alarm signaled the end of our class periods. Ding. Ding. Ding. And then all the students would come pouring out from every class room into the halls and the sound of meaningless chatter and slammed locker doors would drown out everything else. The halls smelled like kids going through puberty who didn’t shower enough mixed with those who showered three times a day and wore too much Axe. I dreaded every class, one right after the other, so the spaces in between were just the spaces in which I felt the dread. Once I was in the classroom, I would usually become engrossed in whatever the lesson was that day and forget how much I hated being there. On days when that didn’t happen, I’d just sleep on the desk. Science class, where our fundamentalist teacher once fast-forwarded through a segment on the big bang theory, was not a real class to me, so I slept in there almost every day. The desks seated two and three people and had a slick black matte surface. I noticed after I lifted my head that I could always still see the oily residue left from my skin, a greasy smudge that perfectly outlined my nose and forehead. I liked going outside after school. There was a grassy area out front where I loitered with the other goths, waiting for my mother to come pick me up…
…Sometimes I had to ride the bus home from school. The bus stop was at the church about a 15-minute walk from our house – maybe shorter if you hustled. I never hustled, because I hated this walk. It was hot out, muggy to the point that I felt suffocated. I was also bored and resentful of being alone with my own anxious thoughts. On some days, I would take a large piece of gravel from the church parking lot and kick it all the way home as a way to keep my mind occupied. Once in awhile, I’d kick the rock too hard, sending a sharp, thumping pain through the tip of my big toe and down into my foot. I used to play another game that I called “the time game” where I would try to pinpoint exactly what it felt like two seconds earlier when it was two seconds later. There was no marijuana on this walk, but the fact that I had thoughts like that made me wonder if I wasn’t getting some sort of contact high from the elderly hippies I passed about two minutes after leaving the church. The whole holler smelled like exhaust fumes from ATVs driven by boys my brother’s age. My niece was with me on this walk nearly every day during middle school. She was only three years younger than me because I was born late in my mother’s life while she was born early in hers. I vaguely remember us bickering the whole way, thought I can’t remember what about. I bet I was cantankerous, even as an 11-year-old, and she was annoying. It’s strange to think that she and I had such a daily shared experience while now our lives couldn’t be more different. She has two kids and I’m living in Oakland…
I grew up in a holler next to a lake that looked just like a lake but was technically a reservoir since it was man-made. My dad would load 4-year-old me onto his motorcycle between him and the handlebars, and I would try to cram my tiny legs further up my own ass with each of my dad’s warnings about the scalding, exposed tailpipe. Sometimes if Dad didn’t want Mom to know he was leaving, he would get the bike headed downhill without starting the engine. At the end of the driveway, he’d kick-start it, the noise as loud as a weed-eater, but at that point we were far enough away to pretend we didn’t hear Mom yelling at us to get back home from the porch. Once we got to the lake, the road turned into a mud path with large humps as if a flexible mud-being had been cursed solid while doing Pilates. We would zoom up the backs of the humps and then fly over the other side – my stomach went up and down so fast that it felt like it was in my throat one minute and in my feet the next. This was my favorite part of the lake when I was a kid. As I got older, I stopped fitting on the front of my dad’s motorcycle and had to move to the back. The tailpipe burned me multiple times back there, stinging like a wasp for hours afterward. Mom wouldn’t let me go to the lake to swim – she said it had AIDS. Mom thought everyone and everything had AIDS, but the real reason was because her friend Buddy had drowned when Mom was nine. Once I was 18, I moved away from the holler, but always came back for the lake. We would throw parties there, swimming in water as warm as dishwater all day, skinny-dipping at night, my large, pale backside reflecting almost as much light as the moon. Then we’d lay on the bank next to a bonfire and dry off until it was time to go crash at a nearby house…