Fea

My sister turned seventeen today. I cannot imagine this girl, nine years my junior, reaching an age of such autonomy. I remember the days I was able to hold her in my weak 11-year-old arms. I remember taking her on ice cream dates when I got my first job. And as we grew, those intimate days faded into ones of distance, heartache, and angst. And now we exist on opposite sides of the state and I don’t call enough. I am wary of the intricacies and pitfalls that exist in our family dynamic and from Boston I wonder, “Have I taught her enough?”

I have been back from Israel for six months. I have settled down, as much as I am capable, in an apartment, in a job, and with a boy whom I love. Behind the scenes, the consequences of outing the Route 9 Diner have continued to play out. For the first time in years, I feel satisfied and sure.

But something happened last week:

I had been saying for months that I disliked the leer of one of the cooks at my new job.

“He’s harmless,” my manager told me.

“He’s lecherous,” I always readily responded.

And for months my manager was right. Or at least, we were both right.

In the last month, he stopped eyeing me and began speaking to me.

Fea,” he’d say as I dropped off dishes out back.

“Fea,” as I collected silverware to be polished.

“Fea,” as I exited the restroom.

Fea, Fea, Fea, Fea.

As much as I disliked these unsolicited comments on my appearance, I accepted them as harmless and allowed him the liberty to continue making this joke although it was at my expense. I told him he was rude, he laughed, I left the kitchen. For weeks this persisted as background noise. But last week, the tone changed:

“Fea, you have Facebook?”

“Yup,” I prayed he wouldn’t send me a friend request.

“I see your Facebook,” he tells me.

“Yeah, you saw pictures of me and my novio?” A warning.

“You novio es feo!” he spat before offering his reassurance, “but you look good.”

At first I didn’t realize that he openly admitted to snooping through my Facebook photos in his spare time. And the truth is that I may have missed this entirely, had I not had a second encounter with him that day.

“Fea, get me a coca,” he told me after coming into the dining room at the end of his shift.

Unbothered, I acquiesced and bent down to reach into the fridge for his soda.

As I handed it to him he sauntered towards me and gently swatted the back of my thigh with the rag in his hand. “Estoy mirando,” he said quietly, “you’re beautiful.”

Taken aback, I mumbled a quick thank you, hoping he would leave.

I stood in stunned silence, angry and ashamed. For a moment I had been brought back to working at the Diner and felt powerless to the cook’s blatant harassment. I contemplated brushing off the moment and ignoring my discomfort.  I considered the repercussions that would be dealt to me in retaliation.  I feared reporting it to my managers and being brushed off; what if my habit of being so outspoken about matters of sexual harassment has backfired and I am not taken seriously because of my willingness to cite any instance?

I have spent the last six months calling on women to speak openly of their experiences with sexual harassment and assault. I have advocated for an end to silence, yet I still find myself gagged with the fear of the consequences of my voice. Someone is bound to notice I’m the common denominator in all these instances, I tell myself. But this is not true: the common denominator is this pervasive culture that this sort of behavior is not only tolerated, but acceptable. This is why we must break our silence.

Have I taught my sister enough? I don’t know. Even I fall victim to my own apprehensions and reticence. But we are in this together.

Keep speaking.

Keep listening.

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Kitchen Culture: Why I won’t stop talking about the Route 9 Diner.

It seems like I hit a nerve.

In the months that have followed my publishing of Tales from the Diner, I’ve received more attention than I ever anticipated. As a writer, I feel satisfied; I got my 15 minutes of fame and all of the views and shares I could hope for. As a writer, I am proud and I am content. But this is not about me as a writer; this is about me as a victim of sexual harassment and assault. This is about the many women who have shared this experience, which is one that is unfortunately not limited to the Route 9 Diner.

There were three main responses to my post:

The first was one of gratefulness. I cannot begin to count the number of responses I received, not only from readers local to the Hadley area, but internationally, who thanked me for sharing my experience. I was contacted by many young women who worked at the diner after I had moved to Boston, retelling their own stories and thanking me for sharing mine. I have heard more accounts of restaurant sexual harassment from women around the country than I know how to stomach. Both men and women have thanked me for pulling back the curtain on the severity of what goes on behind kitchen doors at their favorite cafes, diners, and late-night burger spots. Their gratefulness is matched by my own; knowing that people are unaware and eager to hear our experiences and to make choices based on the information relieves me and encourages me to keep speaking. The stories we have to tell are important. We cannot be silent.

The second response was one of anger and resentment. For the most part, this reaction came to us from current employees, many of whom we witnessed enduring incidents on par with our own. Out of the 13 accounts that were written, three were taken down or left unpublished due to the current staff’s aggressive response. I had screenshots of my facebook account posted with commentary and I was slandered in a variety of places by staff members I’ve never met nor interacted with. My friends received harassing texts and facebook messages in response to their own accounts. Some of our former co-workers were bullied into dissociating with us.  We were told that we asked for the harassment and assaults and that the men who did it were only acting like our older brothers. The weeks that followed my coming out about the horrendous environment of sexual harassment and misogyny at the Route 9 Diner were difficult, but the truth is that the rabidity of these responses only solidified my stance that it was time to talk about what happened to us. There was no more room for silence.

The last kind of response I read was one of acceptance and complacency. For me, this is more disturbing than the blatant aggression of the Route 9 Diner staff. More than once I read a comment on a blog post or a news article citing “kitchen culture” as the reason for the abuse; “that’s just the restaurant industry.” Even now, as I tell my new employers the horror stories of the walk-in cooler, they nod gravely and remain grim but unsurprised. It’s easy to pass off the anger of my former coworkers as misguided or deluded, but the widespread acceptance of rampant sexual harassment and assault of female restaurant workers is egregiously problematic and inexcusable. It is this acceptance, this unspoken green-light, this established and unquestioned kitchen culture that is most disturbing to me. This is why I will keep speaking. This is why I will not be silent. This is a conversation that we need to have.

Speak. We are listening.

Tales from the Diner

I have a secret. I have kept it for years. It is the kind of secret that you don’t dare tell, if not for fear of the possible consequences, for fear that no one will listen. Both outcomes are unwelcome and damaging in their own right.

My friends and I have shared this secret and all its grisly details over eager sips of coffee after long overnight shifts, our voices heightened in our rage and our exhaustion. I had hurriedly whispered conversations with my coworkers during hasty smoke breaks and bathroom trips. These were girls with whom I had nothing in common – save our employment and our secret. Sometimes we exploded. Sometimes we wept.

It is not that I am weary from this business of silence; I have not broken. But I realize now that I have no reason to let my anger lie dormant. The injustice has become unpalatable.

For five years I worked at a popular all-night diner in Hadley, Massachusetts. For five years I was sexually harassed on a near-daily basis.

My introduction to this behavior was almost immediate. Within my first month, I found myself being yanked to the back room of the kitchen, towards the walk-in cooler. After a week of my soft-spoken refusals, Emilio, a cook nearly twice my 18 years, intensified his efforts. Like a predator, he waited until the midpoint of my overnight shift, when everybody else had gone home and my manager’s attention was held rapt by the late night tv reruns.

He strode out from behind the line, blocking the narrow path between the dishwasher and the refrigerator, “C’mon, baby. Let me give you a kiss.” It was not a suggestion.

His hand, which he had reached out in some semblance of an invitation, closed around my wrist. His grip tightened with every step I dragged my feet. His fingers were snakes: coiled and unyielding. I tried hurriedly to regain my strength and my voice as we neared the walk-in cooler.

Finally, with the space between me and the cooler reduced to only two feet, I found myself: “Fuck off!” I pulled away and raced out the backdoor of the kitchen where I was met with the few lingering tables in the dining room. I searched their faces, wondering if they had heard my shout. Their expressions remained unconcerned as they giggled drunkenly over their milkshakes. I am not sure if I was relieved.

I crossed the dining room towards the front of the restaurant, my hands still shaking behind my back. I found my manager’s body draped across the counter, her unwavering stare focused on the years-old show that filled the unpopular 3 am television slot. Her laughter came out in harsh cigarette-stained breaths.

“Emilio’s such an asshole,” I tried to sound casual, “he just dragged me to the walk-in to try to kiss me.”

“What a pig,”  Jessi scowled before turning her attention back to the tv.

I was relieved to find that the incident was passed on to the senior manager, Nikos. When I came into work the next evening he sat me down in the furthest booth and asked me to recount what happened. His brown eyes wandered as I repeated my story. When I was finished, he looked back to me and said, “Well, I really do apologize for that.” It was the same practiced line he used with unhappy customers. Still, I was grateful for the acknowledgement.

The owners never spoke to me regarding this, although I presume they witnessed everything when they checked the cameras’ footage from that night. Emilio continued working his shifts.

The truth is that there was such consistent harassment from the cooks that in the next few months it became background noise. I grew accustomed to being greeted by a chorus of “mmmmmmmmm” when I entered the kitchen, complete with licked lips and hungry stares. There were days that it was more bothersome than others. Some days the cooks would be angry and tell me, “no tienes tetas,” when I asked for my tables’ food. My days were so commonly punctuated by stares and sexual comments that I wrote it off as part of my job; it was just another bad tip or difficult customer. I spent shifts coaching a coworker on the many reasons she should leave her abusive boyfriend. I told her to stand up for herself and that there was no reason for her to endure the things she had. Then I walked over to the window to pick up my food, narrowly avoiding having my hand licked. There wasn’t so much as a flicker of awareness of my hypocrisy.

After a year of working there, I found myself in another precarious situation. I had graduated to daytime shifts and worked with many of the diner’s veterans. Carlos, who was at least 40, had taken an instant liking to me. “Hey precious…” he cooed when I arrived in the morning. “For you? Oh yes, anything!” he simpered when I asked him a question. I told myself that if I regarded his flirting as being harmless, it could only be harmless. I was too new to the shift to realize that he was purposely doing this in front of the waitress he was sleeping with.

One day, Carlos followed me into the walk-in cooler and set his gaze firmly on my lips as he approached me. I could hear the prep cooks snickering outside as they turned the lights off.

Then on.

Then off.

Carlos stood between me and the door. “Can I bite your dimples? I love your dimples, Maria.

I declined nervously, his pockmarked face only inches from me.

I didn’t tell anybody immediately. Part of my assimilation into life at the diner had been realizing and accepting that things like being trapped in the walk-in sometimes just happen. When I mentioned it to Jessi and Nikos they seemed unfazed. At the moment it seemed that anything regarding Carlos was deemed as part of his relationship drama, of which I had unwittingly become a part. Days later I was asked, “If you don’t like Carlos, why did you grab his dick?” I had no idea where that rumor started. No one was interested in what happened to me. Carlos was not punished.

Eventually in my tenure I became less complacent.

On my 21st birthday I reluctantly agreed to work the 6am shift for Yael, the head waitress and my neighbor. I was greeted warmly by Marcos, Yael’s husband, who was cooking that morning. He congratulated me as his arm found its way around my shoulder, pulling me in for a hug. I reciprocated unenthusiastically. As I tried to release the embrace he pulled me closer. He relinquished his hold only when his lips had found my neck, leaving a trace of saliva that I could not unfeel.

“Elias, can I talk to you?”

The owner looked up from his paperwork expectantly.

“It’s about Marcos.”

He furrowed his brow as he agreed to speak to me in the office – a rare occurrence for the waitresses.

After listening to what had happened, he sighed. “This isn’t the first complaint I’ve had about him.”

“I know.”

“What do you want me to do?”

I stared at him, dumbfounded. “Elias, that’s Yael’s husband. They have three children. Yael is my friend. Don’t ask me to make the decision about what happens to her family.”

He nodded gravely and agreed.

Nothing changed. Nothing, unless you count the small addition to the lightswitch by the walk-in cooler, that now prevented the light from being turned off. But when had anybody at the diner ever been afraid to harass us outside of the dark?

It has been nearly two years since I left that job, and there is hardly a week that has gone by that I did not consider writing this. As I became more serious in the endeavour, I began to consult friends and other former coworkers. Together, we unearthed a mountain of experiences that were both horrendous and routine:

“One time Nikos made a joke about raping me.”

“One time Carlos oinked at me for an entire eight hours.”

“The other manager, Bobby, used to constantly text me, ‘show me your tits.’ He even wrote it on my facebook wall. When I told him to stop he told me I probably had gross elephantitis tits.”

“The cooks used to refuse to give me my food unless I showed them my tongue.”

“Marcos used to massage Emma even though she told him to stop multiple times and one time he bit her neck.”

“Carlos kissed my neck.”

“One of the cooks cornered me in the walk-in and when Bobby found out he told me to get over it.”

“Both the owners, Elias and Andreas, used to laugh at the comments the cooks would make about the waitresses’ bodies after they left the kitchen.”

I have always known that this behavior was unacceptable. I have understood that it’s unfair that it happened and I have wished that something had been done about it. However, I was also a young adult with no support from my family, and I prided myself on my grit. I was grateful for my reasonably-lucrative job, where I had become a shift staple, in a difficult economy. I naively accepted the entire package.

Recently, though, I’ve realized that I don’t actually owe my previous employers anything. After five years of good, full time work, they were not doing me a favor by continuing to employ me; it was only a natural business relationship. I believed that because they liked me, I must not betray them. But now I ask myself: how much could they have really liked me if they allowed their staff to repeatedly sexually assault me?

I can aver that the environment at the diner is no different today than it was when I left. My silence will achieve nothing except to protect and perpetuate the things that are allowed to happen there. I refuse to participate any longer.

Some days I am ashamed that I did not stand up for myself. It is difficult to forgive that weakness. But I am doing my best to make up for it. I am shouting now that I have the strength to shout. I am encouraging everyone else to share their stories. I have a beautiful, impressionable 16 year old sister. And for god’s sake, the lesson I teach her is not going to be one of silence.

Note: all names have been changed as a super nice favor, but if you’re interested, I’d be happy to disclose the information privately.

UPDATE 10/29: My amazing friend Jaime Young has written an account of her own experiences, which I highly recommend you read. Check it out. This girl is my sounding board and plays a very central role in encouraging others to find their voice.

UPDATE 10/30: Another waitress has bravely shared her story.  Also, I find this one particularly hard-hitting, as she explores not only the sexual harassment, but the really awful way the owners treated the waitresses. Oh, and yet another waitress has spoken out.

UPDATE 10/31: Another account has come to light, this one also exploring the verbal abuse and poor food safety. 

UPDATE 11/1: For everybody following these updates, this is a must-read account by a former manager. And this one is an account of a waitress who started working there in 2007. This is not a new issue.

UPDATE 11/2: The accounts of the terrible working conditions just keep coming.

UPDATE 11/3: And yet one more  former coworker has added her voice.

UPDATE 11/4: After an article in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, another waitress has stepped forward.

UPDATE 11/6: Another former waitress has written her account, trying hard to emphasize that nothing ever changed.

Thank you to everyone for the support. It is so appreciated.

Stop saying I shouldn’t get raped because I’m somebody’s daughter.

When I was 18 years old I was sexually assaulted.

In the warm summer months following my high school graduation I basked in the sunshine of my newfound adulthood. I had a car, a steady job, and the freedom to leave town for weeks at a time. I returned home infrequently, and these trips were almost always in the name of social calls. 

On one such occasion, I attended a party with one of my best friends. We drove along the winding dirt roads of Colrain, in search of our friend’s far-off farm where we would not be disrupted or caught drinking underage. The briskness of the night was a welcome break from the oppressive heat of the August daytime and as we sat around a roaring fire, passing around a bottle of vodka we had soon melted into heaps of laughter. We soon found ourselves running through the nearby cornfield, full of joy and stripped of any restraint our soberness provided. Back by the fire, this loss of inhibition manifested itself differently.

Kris, barely my acquaintance, despite sharing my last name and attending the same high school, edged nearer to me on the grass. Wordlessly, his hand found my thigh. Wordlessly, I pushed it away. Five minutes passed. Again, I felt a hand on my thigh, beginning to inch ever inward. “Stop!” I said. He didn’t. I changed seats. Safe. But then, fingers on my inner thigh, tracing the seam on my jeans, up and down. I pushed him away. “Make him stop,” I begged my friend. She scolded him. I moved. He followed. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Eventually, in need of an escape from Kris and an intense and unfamiliar vodka-haze, I escaped to the cab of my friend’s truck to lie down. I breathed deeply, grateful for the solitude and safety. As I drifted off, I was suddenly brought back to consciousness. The door of the truck opened and Kris noiselessly crept in beside me. Immediately, I felt his hands slide up my calves, my thighs, and find their way between my legs. I tried to tell him to stop, bu  my voice and motor skills had been compromised by alcohol, and I passed out thinking, “No, Kris. Stop, Kris.”

My father passed away recently, and in a near-frantic attempt to understand from where and whom it is I come, I have been building my family tree. As it turns out, Kris and I are third cousins. I have always suspected we must be related in some way, though I didn’t imagine it would be so closely. Considering this, I realized that for years I have been looking at what happened at that party an entirely wrong light. The few times I have shared this story, I have presented it as an event where I was groped by someone who had the same last name as me. But truly, the actual story- the actual problem- is that I was sexually assaulted by someone who happened to have the same surname. His actions are not worse because I have learned that we are cousins. His actions are awful because his actions are awful. My relationship to him should not play a role in my worthiness of not being molested. 

When I was 25 years old I was sexually assaulted.

Filled with the spirit of adventure after a particularly difficult breakup, I had made the decision to leave the country and travel the world. A week before I was due to leave, I was frantically finishing up last minute chores and making sure loose ends were tied. I stopped at a self-service car wash, hoping to make my junkpile of a car look at least moderately presentable for my appointment to hand over the title the following day. I had a pleasant exchange with the man cleaning his car next to me, then settled into vacuuming the backseat of my car.

Encouraged by the oncoming summer, I had pulled on my favorite dress before leaving the house. This presented difficulties as I climbed into my car, but I took care against any accidental exposures. As it turned out, my efforts were in vain. As I stood up, I turned to see that the man with whom I’d spoken was barely a yard behind me and had the camera of his phone aimed up my dress. 

“C’mon,” he said, smiling.

“Are you fucking kidding? Get the fuck away from me,” I spat.

“C’mon, it looks good!”

I edged backwards toward my driver’s seat, repeating myself. 

“Well you shouldn’t be flaunting it then,” he growled as he got in his car and sped off. 

Humiliated, heart racing, I hung onto my steering wheel and sobbed. No one else was around.

I spent the evening reciting the incident to my friends. “He probably has daughters,” I told them, “I’m somebody’s daughter!”

 

This line of thinking is a problem.

My worth as a human being is not determined by my relationship to other people (and more to the point: to men.) I am deserving of not getting raped because I am a person; not because I am somebody’s sister and somebody’s daughter and may someday be somebody’s mother. We need to stop acting as though teaching the idea that women should not be harmed because they play these roles in our (specifically: men’s) lives is helpful. Not all women play these roles. Let’s not infer that some women are more worthy than others when it comes to not being harmed.

I understand that this seems like a good tool in getting people to understand women’s issues and the violence that we face. I know that it seems that we’re humanizing victims by reminding people that women who endure harassment and assault are just like the women in our own lives. But listen: if we keep telling men that they shouldn’t rape women because they are somebody’s daughter, we are only perpetuating the idea that women are weak and require men’s protection. 

Stop telling people not to rape me because I’m somebody’s daughter. Stop naming traits I possess that make me more worthy of not being raped. Every time you choose some characteristic of a woman and deem it rape-safe, you are choosing who should not be rape-safe, whether it be based on their clothing, occupation, relationships, or anything else. 

Don’t rape me because don’t fucking rape anyone. Get it together.

Shedding Skin

I am no stranger to evolution. My life is one that has often left me with no option but to adapt quickly to rapidly changing circumstances. I have twisted, bent, stretched, and squeezed myself into scenarios, places, and people before I was ready or it was comfortable. And I have wiggled, climbed, and torn myself out of these same tight spots when the need grew strong. I learned early that there are many spaces in which I cannot fit. Again and again I watched people wait to ease into some sort of conformity.  I looked on in dismay as they prayed that their very selves would shrink so that they may require less room. I saw them hope that the keyholes they were locked into would grow an inch so that they may breathe more deeply. But I know this for certain: the rocks and metal of this life will never soften and give you more room. If that is the kind of adaptation for which you are holding your breath you will surely suffocate.

Having learned this, I decided to evolve differently. I spent my childhood catching bugs. I watched caterpillar after caterpillar molt, take refuge in itself, and grow into something new. I watched my pet lizard rub against rocks and peel back an old skin for which it no longer had any use. I found snakeskin in the woods by my uncle’s house, discarded for something better-suited. I knew that molting was a requirement for survival. I feared stagnancy and understood well that nature does not tolerate it.

I imagine that as I have grown I have left old skins scattered around the state: on the front steps of my childhood home, on the floor of my ex-boyfriend’s bedroom, and even in the ocean. There are cast-off parts of me on the streets of Tel Aviv and on the beaches of the Mediterranean. Sometimes, people somehow get cemented to our current self and later they get shed too. I imagine that my mother, huddled alone in the den of instability and illness she has dug, is still clutching at my old skins, unable to grasp my core as I sloughed them off.

This molting, this evolution, is an uncomfortable business. More often than not I come out feeling bruised and vulnerable and raw. Still, I am keenly aware of its necessity. I have spent the last month peeling off pieces of dead skin. This has been a difficult round.

Miguel is gone.

There are pieces of him everywhere. Although he has distanced himself by thousands of miles, in his wake he has left an elaborate system of tripwires and landmines. My entire life is booby-trapped. I am only now finding all the splinters he left under my skin that would sting and ache for days on end but of which I could just never seem to find the source. I stopped opening closests because too many times I was surprised by clothes he had left behind. I stumbled upon an old love letter and recoiled as though I had been hit.

After these times I took showers that were too hot and clawed at my body, trying desperately to shed my skin so that I could start anew. Instead I felt like I was choking on it.

I washed my sheets last week. They had sat unwashed in the bottom of my laundry basket for nearly a month, even as I dragged my other clothes down the street to the laundromat. Finally, in an episode of shame and disgust, I loaded them into my friend’s washing machine one night. The relief was immediate. Those sheets, filled with so much sweat and cum and tears, had been heaped in the corner of room tainting my air. I had lain on them for a week after he left, miserable and repulsed, but unable to replace them.

In my friend’s apartment, I stood for a moment and watched them spin around in that soapy water, listening to the mechanical whir that somehow gave me such solace. I exhaled slowly, realizing that in washing Miguel out of my sheets he was being rinsed from my life. Nothing smells like him anymore. I can barely believe his face is real.

I walked to the bathroom and stepped into the shower. I did not cry. When I undressed I left my clothes scattered. And with them, I know I left many old pieces of me lying on that floor.

Bad Body Days

The air has been beautiful lately. Even at my most tired, I have opted to walk to work in the early mornings and soak up the sun’s first rays peering through my neighborhood’s gold and crimson leaves. The air has also been biting on these occasions, but unable to give up the smell of the night’s rain on the pavement, I have pulled my scarves and sweatshirts from the back of my closet, and inhaled the changing seasons.

This particular time of year is usually one I find difficult. This time around isn’t especially different, although I have been taking steps to avoid the annual hibernation and shutdown I have experienced in the past decade. The frost gets in my bones and saps my already-meager supply of energy. I have written about this before: it is debilitating. So far, I am still able to get out of bed at a reasonable hour and I can laugh honestly.

By this time I have generally barricaded myself under my warm covers and turned away from an active social life, save one that exists only electronically. But I find myself participating as actively as I can in this small town where I know only a few people. I have learned the limits of my energy in this past year and in doing so I have begun to manage it as efficiently as I am able. So in this sense, I suppose this year has been different. Of course, that is not to say that my worse days do not make an appearance. This time, it is not the icy air and the falling leaves that has saddened me. Nor is it the early evening onset of a darkness that is so deep it lingers into the morning as I make my way to work, when just a month ago I could breathe in a brightening dawn. Rather, it is as I reach for my woolen coats and see my sweet summer dresses, hardly worn, that I feel a desperation to put off the impending winter.

When I am truthful, I can admit that I spent the whole of this summer in turmoil with how I perceived my body. More often than not, it was my distaste and loathing for my physical appearance that reigned over my practicality. Most days I chose to wear clothes that were ill-suited to the temperature rather than reveal whichever part of my body was causing me shame. My back was spotted with acne that I felt should have cleared up years ago. In my embarrassment, I forewent tank tops and dresses and my shoulders remained pale and unkissed by the sun.

I am unsure if the troubles I have with my physical appearance are a symptom of my emotional difficulties, but somehow they have become intertwined so tightly that sometimes it is challenging for me to decipher the feelings I am having in relation to my body. This post has been brewing in my mind for some time now. In fact, the first paragraphs have sat on pages in my notebook for weeks, but every time I attempt to continue, I stare blankly at the paper and instead flip aimlessly through my phone. Sometimes I am apt to believe that I have trouble expressing this because the feelings themselves have passed and become irrelevant. Other days I am painfully aware that the relief of these feelings is only temporary and at those times I find the things I want to write so personal and humiliating that I have no desire to do so.

Maybe also, in some small part, is the principal that has been drilled into my head: talking about one’s body is essentially forbidden. I am acutely aware of what women are supposed to look like, and like everyone else in the population, I know exactly where I do and don’t measure up. This creates its own problems; I have learned to feel ashamed about the physical parts of me that do not adhere to the model. At the same time I have been taught a distaste for vanity and whatever pride I could potentially take in my body has been smothered. In a single breath I have inhaled these ideals and as a result I have been blinded to the parts of me that may remain attractive to the popular standard. Worse yet, as much as I’d like to subvert this, I catch myself considering this The Standard. Society dictates that I am only allowed to look a certain way, but that I must never, ever take pride in the parts of me that are deemed acceptable. It is a vicious and detrimental combination.

I suppose that I can imagine I’m basically attractive. But this thought has taken years of work to say and believe, and on many days it still does not ring entirely true. I asked Miguel the once, “How long have you known you were hot?” I can tell that my questions are strange to him. I know that he doesn’t experience a physical self-loathing in the same manner I do. I watch him strut around the house completely undressed and I am stunned by and envious of the confidence that seems to come so naturally to him.

“Have you always walked around like this?” I ask, “It’s just so foreign to me.”

He looks puzzled. “But you’re naked all the time,” he says. It’s lost on him that learning to be nude in his presence has been a difficult and painful process for me. Even now, over a year after he first saw me bare and vulnerable, I always avoid his steady gaze.

“Stop staring,” I tell him.

“I’m just looking.”

“You’re inspecting.”

“I like your body; I want to learn every line.”

I know Miguel means it sincerely. Even so, I tense up. I can feel a spotlight on each imperfection. As I lie there rigidly, I recall every stretch mark, spider vein, clogged pore, and every hair. I can never stand this for as much as ten seconds before I push him away.

I wonder if he knows how much these insecurities have affected our sex life. I can think of numerous times that the moment was heavy and our sexual tension was high but I could not bear the sight of my body. As much as I wanted him, my anxiety took over. There have been times I begged for him to turn the lights out even though it was disruptive and somewhat killed the mood. There have been times I have wriggled away from him, humiliated at the thought of him seeing the blemishes on my back. Time after time I have kept my shirt on under the guise that I was cold.

Some days I sit in front of my full-length mirror and stare at myself hatefully. I have begun to carry weight on my small frame and my hips spill over the top of my jeans.  My upper arms jiggle and new stretch marks crawl down my inner thighs and up my sides. I am angry to watch my size 4 body acts as though it is a size 14. I see so many girls who are both considerably larger and more radiant. They carry themselves and own their pudge in a way that I am just not capable. I am bitter that I am fortunate enough to be a size that is supposedly attractive and somehow I still feel morbid and disgusting. I stare at the mirror and I cannot unsee the small hairs on my upper lip, the too-big pores, and the acne scars.

On these days I opt out of social activities. “I’m having a bad body day,” I tell Miguel. He doesn’t understand; he thinks I mean I’m sick and offers to make me soup. There have been times that I have felt this way but kept silent and that he has told me I look good. When this has happened I have been certain that he can see how terrible I look that day and that he is trying to make me feel better. Only later do I realize that he may have actually meant it.

That is another part of the problem: I am not able to take compliments at face value. I generally have such a poor opinion of my body that I assume compliments are in someway insincere. Most times, I feel as though I am being mocked. When I can see that the attention is genuine, I conclude that the person must be some sort of creep. I have difficulties believing that “normal” people would find me attractive, and so I determine any admirer must in some way be predatory.  I have posted nude pictures online on multiple occasions when I have felt inadequate. And in a more artistic move, I have modeled nude for a photographer friend. Always, the feedback is overwhelmingly positive. Still, I pinch my belly in the mirror and look on with scorn.

I am practicing. I have given up on the hope that my breasts will ever grow and I have found positive aspects of their size. I am trying hard to look at the jagged purple marks on my legs and hips and to say, “yes, those are my stretch marks. Those are my stripes.” I want to glance at the little blue veins popping up on the back of my knees and thighs and feel unphased by them. I am trying to accept that I am aging physically and to think of all the weathered women I have known and how glorious they were in all of their experiences and laugh lines.  Certainly there are things that I could try to reverse some of my flaws. But generally they are expensive and ineffective. It has become more important to me at this point to ease out of attempting to attain physical perfection: instead, I want to look at my body with a forgiving eye, and then a loving one. None of this comes easily to me, but I am grateful to know that Miguel is a safe place for me to struggle through these lessons. Our bodies are so much a part of our identity and it is cruel to be unaccepting of them. For me, it is a big first step to be outing my struggle in this way. But sometimes when things are said out loud they lose some of their hold on you. And now, I am going to go easy on myself.

Letters to Colin (4)

Part 4:

In eighth grade I got depressed. Hardcore in-your-face depressed. I specifically remember that it was in March, right before I turned 14 that the heaviness started to hit me hard. I remember because this was at the time that we went to war with Iraq and I was furious. It was the first time I really paid any attention to politics and although I wasn’t particularly well-versed, I knew that I was unhappy with what was going on. I remember nonchalantly mentioning something to my mom about how stupid I though George Bush was and being horrified to learn that my thoughts and opinions had veered off the path of my family’s. It’s not that I ever considered changing my opinions, but at a time when I was feeling pretty disillusioned already, it was a hard lesson to realize that you are a black sheep in your family, even more than you initially thought. The entire experience was very distressing to me, and although now I know it wasn’t the real problem, I kept telling everybody, “It’s the war. The war is making me depressed.”

I found solace in a friend I met in a Lord of the Rings chatroom, back when chatrooms were still a thing. His name was Seth and he was 32. It’s weird for me to think about that now, because Miguel is nearly 30. I’m not sure what I would think if he was conversing daily with a 13 or 14 year old online, and truthfully I don’t know what was going on in Seth’s head, but he was a great source of comfort to me. He lived in New York and had been depressed basically his whole life. He told me I needed to “learn to embrace the things [you] cannot control,” and told me I was wise beyond my years. I felt like, for maybe the first time, someone was really seeing me. My friendship with him felt profound. He gave me music recommendations. I printed out most of our conversations and reread them when I was feeling on edge. I was once having a conversation with my mom and how miserable I was feeling. I don’t think I ever told her I was depressed. I didn’t trust her. I don’t remember the specifics of our conversations about it, but I do remember that they were jerky. There were no connections; no understanding or empathy. She could see my angst as clearly as the day, but she did little to help it. I was barely allowed to see my friends outside of school and although I was 14 my bedtime was still 8 or 8:30. One time I tried to wear pajama pants to school and my mother grounded me for three full weeks. I spent most of my eighth grade year not allowed to use the phone or leave the house. I don’t think my mom had any real interests and hardly had friends anymore, so I was also condemned to her house-bound lifestyle. Anyway, we were once talking about how “angry” I was or something and I quoted something that Seth had said to me. “Where are you getting all of these quotes?” And then she forbade me from speaking to him anymore. It was devastating.

Sometime during this, I developed a pretty hardcore anxiety disorder. A compulsion, really. This isn’t something that I’ve ever really told anybody, but it’s very important to the story. Miguel doesn’t even know this (yet). Do you know what trichotillomania is? It’s basically compulsive hair-pulling, especially in situations of extreme stress. At some point during this terrible year I noticed that some of my hair is a very different texture then the rest of it and began pulling it out. I don’t know why. It was just a thing. But it got really, really bad. I had a really huge bald spot on the top of my head and another behind each of my ears. I didn’t even notice that I was pulling so much hair until much later. By then there was really nothing I could do about it. I always wore my hair up, but as the hair began to grow back it would poke through in these weird clumps of short hair. It was so humiliating and terrible that even now (a full decade later) when I wear my hair down I check the mirror before leaving to make sure I don’t have a bald spot.

This is incredibly important for a couple of reasons:

1. This is one example of how damaging my experience was at the time, even though the effect was mostly superficial.

2. When my hair was growing back my mother would make super mean comments about it. She never asked me if I was okay or what happened or what was going on with me so that that had happened. Instead, if my hair would part because of the regrowth she would sneer, “Oh, I see you have your SPIKES OUT tonight.”

3. Soon, my mother also had a bald spot. For a little while I wasn’t sure if she was just sick and so her hair was thinning, but I’m pretty certain that she also started pulling her hair. This was the first real evidence of my mother’s mental illness, although I have never said this out loud. I really, really believe that she saw there was something wrong with me and that she mimicked my behavior. She’s supposed to be the sick one, you know. More on that later.

As the last few months of the school year went on my disposition grew progressively worse. I was close friends with Delilah at the time and she was in a similar state of angst. Admittedly, I think we worked off of each other. At first we thought it was funny to wear all black because we were essentially becoming the people our families had warned us about. We already felt so detached that it seemed like a good fit to just go for that. We were unhappy and pale and wrote angsty poetry. We questioned the concept of normalcy and listened to Rammstein. I threatened to shave my head or dye my hair pink and my mom told me she’d kick me out.

Towards the end of the year I had my eye on a cute boy named Will. Delilah had the same idea. She moved faster than I did and they “dated” for about three weeks. I was jealous and felt betrayed but said nothing. I still remember the note that she wrote when she broke up with him. It said, “I do know that I don’t love you. How can I love you when I don’t even love myself?” I don’t know what he said.

Around the same time I had to stop speaking to Seth, I began to seek solace in my Uncle Adam, my mother’s brother. There was no particular thing that happened to lead me to this, but he was amused by my 13 year old self tromping around in combat boots and we somehow we connected. My uncle was perhaps also the black sheep of the family, and although we never discussed it outright, I gathered that we aligned ourselves politically. I met Adam’s girlfriend, Emily, and her three children. She lived in the white house right next to the elementary school, where my childhood friend had lived when we were much younger. Emily also took a liking to me and from time to time I would babysit her kids, all of whom were witty and interesting. Emily also introduced me to her friend Alena, who lived on Conway Street on the Buckland side, right next to that old reservoir and down the road from Cricket Field. But now I’m getting ahead of myself.

Towards the end of my eighth grade year, Delilah and I took a turn for the worse. I don’t know if that’s fair to say. We took a significant turn. One night Delilah smashed a bottle and dragged the jagged pieces against her forearm. We had never done this before. Hearing about it chilled me. I decided to follow suit and began scratching my wrists with safety pins. I wore long-sleeved shirts in the hot June air and was constantly terrified my mother would see. I was uncomfortable with the whole experience, really. It was fun to listen to angry music and be bitter and wear all black, but self-injury was a new line to cross. Finally, I decided to talk to Delilah’s sibling, Aubrey, about it. I called them up and confessed what I knew. They were receptive and concerned and I spent the rest of the night feeling sick to my stomach.

To my relief, Delilah quickly forgave me and life continued as normal. I felt like I had talked her off a cliff and although there was maybe a little residual tension, it was negligible. My cuts healed up, as did Delilah’s. On the last day of school we and a bunch of other friends piled into a van and rode to the house of our friend Jeanne to celebrate the start of vacation. Halfway through the afternoon Delilah took her leave and sat outside in the yard. When I went to her, she refused to speak to me. She barely spoke a sentence to me the rest of the party and soon it was time to go home. Hurt and confused, I left. For weeks and weeks she screened my calls and returned none of them. I was utterly devastated.

My already-shaky mood plummeted. My mother met some guy named Jeff and we spent most days at his house somewhere near Barton’s Cove. He was a fairly standard redneck from what I remember; exactly my mom’s type. He had a son just a little older than my sister, who would have been only four at that point. I resented the time we spent there, but truthfully I would have resented time spent anywhere. I was miserable. I don’t know how aware my mother ever was of this. I think she was so interested in Jeff that she didn’t notice. Or maybe she was just too unequipped to really deal with it or even understand the depth my of unhappiness. I remember that we were on the way to Jeff’s house once and she asked me if I was okay. Or what was wrong. Or something that only barely touched the tip of my iceberg. I’m sure I brushed off her question, unable to properly express myself and also certain she would not understand. I wasn’t so far off: she never asked again. By the end of the summer her relationship had fizzled. He told her they were better off as just friends and she was pretty heartbroken. Although I’m well aware of my mother’s own dysfunction, I wonder how much of a damper it was to their relationship to have an angry teenager around all the time. I actually feel really sad for my mother about this one. I remember that she had this cattail thing we found on a walk that she had carved “Jeff #1” into one day. It’s really painful to have to throw stupid little things like that away and in hindsight I really do feel for her. She stayed in bed for a couple days after they broke up. I think my grandmother may have come to the house and sternly told her to get herself together. I feel for her.

I spent most of my time sitting in a tree and listening to music. I had discovered Nirvana and Tool and Stabbing Westward and the melodies and lyrics spoke to me like nothing I had ever experienced. I wrote endlessly: mostly lyrics to the songs I had fallen in love with, but also a few terrible songs of my own. I also kept a journal on the family computer and I wrote in that pretty avidly. My friends had grown weary of my constant lamenting and one or two of them also began to detach from me. I had little social life at all, save for one friend who lived down the street from my grandparents. We shared poetry we had written and talked about books. One time, in a fitful need to speak to someone who would understand me, I emailed Seth. I had no time to write a proper email, as I was fearful my mother would catch me. Instead, I attached the word document that held all my journal entries from the summer. I spent the next three days in a heightened state of anxiety, terrified my mother would somehow find out I was writing to Seth and using my email, which had also been forbidden. What happened instead was at least as bad.

One day towards the end of summer I got the call I had been wishing for, for months. A missed call from Delilah flashed on my grandparents’ caller ID. I was elated. Hurriedly, I called her up. My heart pounded. “Hey, what’s up?” I was tentative, afraid of exposing my excitement. It became clear that this was not a social call. Her voice was hard; steely. I asked her if she was angry with me, annoyed, furious. In reply: “I hate you.” Her words hit me in the gut. They sat with me and sank me. She told me to check my email and hung up. Frantically, I got on the computer when I got home. I was anxious in all directions: afraid of what the email would say, afraid of getting caught, afraid of learning what I had done to deserve this hatred. In truth, I don’t remember what the email said. I don’t think it answered any questions. Certainly, it didn’t justify the sudden disposal of our friendship. I recall only that Delilah had decided randomly to check my email and saw that I had recently corresponded with Seth. She read my entire journal. She knew everything. She knew my pain and still loathed me for a reason I could not find. What’s worse was that she knew I was going against my mother’s word by speaking to Seth and I spent the rest of the summer paralyzed by the fear that she would sell me out. I was so blinded by my hurt and fear that I hardly even noticed how invasive and terrible it was for her to log into my email. But then, we never notice these things until much later, do we?