Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Another Casualty

This past week I re-visited the oceanside vacation house where I spent one of the most miserable weeks of my life, two years ago. This house has the most glorious views, particularly in the morning, as the sun shines on the water and the beach is empty. There is nothing like sitting in the living room with a cup of coffee, and being able to see a nearly 120 degree view of the beach. The ocean breeze on the porch is heaven, and listening to the crashing of the waves while you fall asleep at night can't be beat. Most unfortunately, that house is also home to the lingering ghosts of that horrible summer, and as much as fought against them, those memories still intruded on my enjoyment of that house.

As my friends and I hung up the party lights that we always bring with us on vacations, the sight of the broken palm tree on one string brought me right back to the confused rage I felt when I accidentally pulled the string down from around the door. My friend Lydia was with me, and was behaving in a controlling and irrational manner that was at once frightening me out of my wits, and making me furious from the manipulative head games she was playing. I was frustrated beyond my capacity for rational thought, so I left the room in a huge hurry, and the palm tree was an accidental casualty.

When I realized that I was thinking about that incident, instead of getting excited about the wonderful week ahead of us, I tried staring at the lights and thinking of happy things they had witnessed instead. But the glowing green fronds frowned at me, remembering the anger and the swiftness with which they had been severed from their trunk.

The next day, while walking down the outside staircase, I had a twinge of panic, and I remembered the panic attack I had suffered on those stairs two years before. I had been intending to leaving the house to run an errand that Lydia was angry about. I knew that upon my return, I would be heartily punished for going against her wishes, yet I also knew that if I didn't go, I would be sending the message that I was a willing captive to the control monster upstairs. Torn between Scylla and Charybdis, I completely broke down on the stairs, shaking and crying. I felt so helpless and frightened, I just crumbled on the stairs and sat there for a long time, until I composed myself, and made the defeated trek back up the stairs, the loser of that battle.

After recalling that moment, each trip up and down the stairs reminded me of that day, even though the recollection grew fainter as the week wore on, and eventually I didn't think of it much at all. Still, there were plenty of other hotspots in the house to summon memories of unpleasantries past, and I constantly struggled to put them out of my mind or ignore them.

The first year back was much worse, because the wounds were fresher, and I was much more angry about the stupidity and meaninglessness of the bitter end of our friendship. My reasons for being there last summer were unhealthy too, since it was more about my insistance on claiming that territory as my own, and on refusing to relinquish my lease on the house, rather than being about looking forward to a lovely week at the beach. This year, my motivation was more about replacing old, decidedly unhappy memories with fun and upbeat ones. I was only halfway successful.

The piercing ugly memories, like those above, still came washing over me unexpectedly, but more often than the anger and pain, I felt sadness and mourning for a friendship gone horribly wrong. As much as I tend toward nesting, and wanted to hold onto a place that I considered "mine", it became clear this year that the time has come to move forward, and leave the ghosts of that horrible summer behind in that house.

Tuesday, September 09, 2003

The Pants Less Chosen

As the bright orange-vested school crossing guards resumed their posts on seemingly every street corner between my home and work, I found myself suddenly remembering that back-to-school clothes smell. Mine were full of Hackensack, N.J. Sears & Roebuck smell, plus that September chill in the air and morning dew on the grass smell, and the general nervousness about finding your classes and who the new teacher is going to be smell. Dad took me to Sears at the end of every August for the first few years of school, and even back then I was struck by the absurdity of trying on jumpers and sweaters in the sweltering heat of August, with Dad trying in vain to figure out how much I might be going to grow over the next few months.

My main concerns back then were whether I liked the colors of the clothes, and making sure that they were not scratchy. Wool is a little slice of hell for me, and yet some perverse arbiter of taste decided one year that every item for fall and winter must have a little bit of wool in it, if it's going to be worth buying. I didn't exactly shoot up like a weed, so most items of any durability whatsoever were probably going to get a good wearing for a year or two, except those with a molecule of wool. There was a special ritual for the wearing of those items: Scratch, scratch, scratch, whine, pull off and throw in corner. Put back on, and be a big girl about it. Sulk.

In later years, my concerns were less about wool and more about finding clothes that didn't look, (you'll kindly excuse the expression, my friends of the rainbow banner and inverted pink triangle) "faggy". Looking faggy was an ill-defined adjective, but once you had crossed the imaginary line into looking so, you'd wish your great grandmother had been sterile so you wouldn't be there to see the day. Kids are vicious in their torments, and sometimes one unfortunate fashion statement could alter your social standing for years.

Exhibit A: The year of the most misfortunate back-to-school shopping choices, titled, "The path less chosen, and oh, how I wish I could've gone back and chosen the well-trodden one instead." I attended suburban middle school during the crucial year between the almost still acceptable wearing of flared pants, and the abrupt change to straight-legged jeans. Unfortunately, during our August back-to-school shopping trip, my father and I, the fashion-impaired duo, were unaware of this crucial shift. When given the choice between choosing all of my back to school pants in either pastel pink plaid bell-bottoms and corduroy bell-bottoms, or straight-legged jeans and straight-legged corduroys, well, you have already figured out which ones we picked.

Yes, in the year punk broke out, I was wearing bell-bottomed white, pink and lavender open plaid jeans to school, probably with a matching scratchy wool-blend pink or lavender top. Are you feeling my pain yet? Thank God they weren't short enough to be called "floods" too, or I'd have thrown myself off of a mountain in shame. I have to make note, though, that after a few months my father, who did feel my pain, shelled out a considerable sum to a local seamstress, and she altered the bell-bottomed sources of my school tormentations into slightly more acceptable, straight-legged versions. At that moment, in my mind, my father was 30 feet tall and beams of light shone brightly out of his bottom, for being my hero and saving me from further torture. At last, my pants were acceptable enough that some other poor soul in my grade would inherit the crown as the one with the most "faggy" clothes. No one was ever more happy to abdicate her thrown.

Some other time, remind me to tell you about the year your pants' hems had to drag on the floor, so as to be certain that NO ONE could accuse you of wearing the aforementioned dreaded "floods", which of course led to many tripping up or down stairs incidents. Which must've been infinitely preferable in our peer-pressured lemming minds to being called names if you wore your pants hems at a reasonable and safe length. Oh, or the year that I got my first, not-quite-yet needed, mortifying training bra, which also happened to be the year that all clothing manufacturers decided that all shirt material should be sheer, for maximum mortification. And the scratchy wool-blend sweaters I wore over the shirts, for modesty sake, which drove me nearly insane. Or the year I discovered sanctuary in Indian "hippy" clothes, only to find out later that my new sartorial choices drove my homeroom teacher and guidance counselor to think that I was taking drugs.

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