By the time I entered 8th grade, I had already attended six schools. My family had just moved back to small town Virginia and I was back at the private school I’d started Kindergarten in. It was January when I came back, I was fat, and my parents were getting a divorce. It was 1998. I was 12.
One Sunday, among the boxes in the unfinished basement, I found my grandmother’s yellow and black lace tea-length tulle skirted party dress from the 1960s. I thought about Grease, Sandy and her flaxen hair and bright eyes. I saw myself wearing the dress to a prom, twirling around the dance floor with a cute boy. In this vision, I did not have my heavy black unibrow, the dark shadows under my eyes, the puke-green hued skin-tone (olive, some say, when being generous). In this vision, I did not have a mentally disabled brother or live in a home that was about to be foreclosed on. I fingered the soft lace, the scratchy tulle, and took the dress up to my room. The compromise the dress made with my body: you can put me on, but you can’t zip me up. So I wore it to school the next day as a skirt with a baggy t-shirt over top to hide the bared teeth of the unfastened zipper. Picture Ace Ventura, Pet Detective when he hides among the loonies in the loony bin by wearing a tutu and a plaid shirt and combat boots.
I couldn’t be like the other girls in my small class of 25 because they were pretty WASPs who rode horses and had moms who made their lunches at 6 am each day. My own mother would disappear for weeks at a time after fights with my dad—she’d lock them both in the bedroom as us kids would listen to the shouts and crashing frames and shattering vases from within. When she was gone though, I’d sneak into her walk-in closet and carefully sift through the hatboxes full of silk scarves and brooches, sashay among the glamorous hanging dresses I recognized from pictures taken in the south of France, try on the few things that somehow fit both a 37-year-old size 4 waist and a pre-teen whose belly stuck out farther than her boobs. No, I was not like the other girls in my class. No, I was not like the woman whose body I sprung from. And since I could not be beautiful or thin or stylish, I would be weird. Because weird was better than normal and normal was worse than nothing.
I collected Pez dispensers which I lined up neatly at the top of a bookshelf. I didn’t even like the Pez candy, but it satisfied me to stand each dispenser up next to another, each spaced exactly the same distance apart, each a bright color—vibrant and fun, but uniform. One day I found a long shoelace in my box of trash treasures and decided to string the Pez dispensers along the shoelace to see how many I could fit. It was 30 or so, and it was heavy and clunky and perfectly odd. I added it to my weekly outfit rotation, and soon my Pez necklace was famous, which meant I was famous too. “You’re so creative,” the girls at school would say, and I’d wear that as proudly as I wore my Pez necklace. I wasn’t dumb; I knew boys didn’t kiss girls with Pez necklaces, but there was no chance of that happening, necklace or no, so I hungrily took what I was given. It nourished me, just enough.
I didn’t own jeans, I didn’t own pleather Mary Janes, I didn’t own plaid pleated skirts like the ones Cher wears in Clueless. When you opened my closet doors—next to the Barbies I was too embarrassed to admit I still played with, all of whom would strut clothes-less in front of the only Ken I had—here’s what you’d find: multi-colored bowling shoes, oversized men’s button down shirts embroidered with sailboat insignia, corduroy floral overalls, a mesh neon hoodie, patterned tights I’d cut up into shirts (cut the feet off = sleeves, cut a hole in the crotch = the neckline), a bonnet from Colonial Williamsburg, plastic beads for my wrists ankles neck head, Hanes t-shirts doctored up with quotes from my favorite movies written in Sharpie in my sloppy handwriting (my favorite was “I saved Latin” from Rushmore), arts and craft wiring to braid into my hair, a pastel kimono, a pastel sleep jacket I found at Goodwill, a pastel knit sweater I found in a dumpster. A prized 60s prom dress.
I was young for my grade. Most of my friends were 13 but I wouldn’t cross into teenagehood until a month into my freshman year of high school. I was acutely aware of the changing bodies around me and while mine was changing—growing, growing, endlessly—it was not in the ways I wanted. My arms were the size of some of the girls’ thighs, my waist was lumpy and squishy, and you could see the lines and folds of my fat rolls in anything smaller than an XL shirt. I never showed skin, I never wore shorts, you’d sooner find me dead than in spaghetti straps. But my room was safe and light, and there my rules were relaxed. I’d read on the carpet in boxer shorts and a tank top, or rearrange my furniture every other week wearing a loose, flouncy dress.
One evening, after my dad moved out, I sat on my bed painting polka dots on my toenails with white-out. There was a knock on my door—we were a family of bargers—and I tentatively told the mystery guest to come in. It was a man with dark gray hair, a man I’d seen once before. He walked over to my bed and sat down, accidentally on my leg. I pulled it out from under him and huddled my knees into my chest to cover my braless nipples. He said some things to me, but I only remember one: “I’m going to take care of your mother.” I think he meant it sweet. He touched my knee and smiled and left. I put on a bra as soon as I heard his footsteps down the hall. I slept on my beanbag chair that night. I did not wear a tank top again for years, not when it was 100 degrees outside, not after I lost a bunch of weight, not even in my room at night when everything was quiet.
I got a solo at the Spring Concert that year. I practiced my song, The Rose by Bette Midler, nonstop. The auditorium at school housed a few hundred people and I would be on stage alone. My family would be there; who knew who else might be there—maybe a casting director for a local theater. I thought about what I would wear for weeks, and it was during this time I realized what a fraud I was. A true weirdo would have taken the opportunity to wear her most outlandish outfit. But I wasn’t a true weirdo. I wasn’t a true anything. Because I didn’t even know what the truth was. My dad was living in a motel. My brother didn’t have fine motor skills. Our heat had been turned off half the winter. But that was temporarily ok, because I had the solo.
My friend’s mom took a group of us to the mall an hour away where I sifted through racks of size 12 dresses, tried on slides and sandals, and experimented with tasteful makeup instead of the blue glitter eyeliner I normally wore. I didn’t like what I saw in the mirror—no configuration of fabric could hide my gut—but I finally settled on a black and white block stripe sleeveless dress and black platform sandals.
When the night of concert finally came, I changed into my outfit at school in the girls’ locker room. Backstage was buzzing with excitement as students practiced their songs and mothers helped their daughters with their updos. I sat in front of a mirror and examined each millimeter of my face and body. I looked normal. I looked pretty. In the reflection, I saw my chorus teacher walking toward me trailed by two of my classmates. I turned around as he started talking. “We’ve decided to turn your solo into a trio,” he said brightly, clapping his hands together. I felt my face get hot, and my dress was suddenly too tight, my shoes pinched my toes. I wanted to throw a tantrum, flail around and scream and demand the song remain mine and mine alone. But that’s not what I did. I muttered an ok, and we began to practice our respective parts and harmonies.
Some say love, it is a river, that drowns the tender reed
Some say love, it is a razor, that leaves your soul to bleed
Some say love, it is a hunger, an endless aching need
At the reception after the concert, there was no casting director, no bouquet of roses. My dad hadn’t showed up, and when my mom saw me, she said, “What is this outfit you’re wearing? It doesn’t look good.”
When I was little, my mom—like so many others—put together my Halloween costumes. But my costumes were always comprised of odds and ends in her closet, items that didn’t belong together and constituted no particular character or theme. No princesses or superheroes or ballerinas for me. One year I was a gypsy/peasant hybrid wearing a traditional Iranian skirt and headscarf with tassels and oversized sequins sewn on. The next year I graduated to what I like to call “the old French whore” costume: my mom’s hot pink cocktail dress with the poufy sleeves, a black velvet chapeau tilted at an angle, and enough blush to make me look like I had a fever or had been slapped in the face. Trick-or-treating with my friends was a delicate mix of anxiety, attempt at being ok with my lot, and subtle shame that demonstrated my awareness of my situation: an oddball who obviously had parents who did not put time or thought into the effects of this mismatched, haphazard costume. “What are you?” the little girls in my class would ask. “I don’t know,” was my non-answer, and still was.
The summer after 8th grade, my mom fell into a deep depression and spent most of her time in her room. I was getting ready to go to high school, a small private school where I’d be with many of my middle school classmates. One of the summer reading books was Edith Hamilton’s Mythology: Timeless Tales of Heroes and Gods. I was particularly in awe of Ariadne, who spun the golden thread that led Theseus to the center of a labyrinth of the Minotaur and safely out again after its defeat. Perhaps my spun threads would do the same for me as I navigated the turns of the maze, the maze with walls so high I couldn’t see beyond them.
Two weeks before the semester started, my parents told me they couldn’t afford to send me to the private school and that I’d be going the following Monday to the public high school, which had begun a week-and-a-half prior. Ok, I said. I understand, I said. I ran up the stairs and hid in my closet for an hour, sobbing. My grandmother’s dress was crumpled on the floor in front of me. I put it on and added an armful of bangles, a dozen strands of fake pearls and faux gold chains, and a plastic crown atop my head. The queen of freak island, the heir to the outcast throne.
I walked out of the house and through the cemetery to town. I had nowhere to go but I kept walking up and down the main street, crowded with parked Mercedes and Jaguars and women in jodhpurs fresh from their morning rides through the countryside. I noticed a group of 30-something women walking toward me, they were smiling, their hair shiny, their eyes shining. “You look just like Madonna!” one of them said. “What a great costume,” said another. “Thanks!” I exclaimed. “I’m on my way to a costume party.” It just slipped out of my mouth, but I was relieved that it did. “Can we get a picture with you?” asked another woman. I laughed and said sure and we stood in a row after asking a passerby to take our photo. I smiled hard for the camera, my jaw petrified in place.
After they’d gotten their pictures, I made my way back toward my house, back through the cemetery. Between two burial plots, I took off my grandmother’s dress, laid it against a smooth, worn gravestone, and left it there among the dead.