There was no internet. The only video game was that “Pong” one. You were who you were unless you had a book—and if you were a girl in the 70s, you read Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.
If you grew up a boy in the 1970s, you probably didn’t. In the 80s, not many read Margaret. The Reagan administration tried to ban it. Every year. Thus, a thumbnail of Margaret’s plot seems justified: just shy of twelve years old and lacking discernable mammary tissue, Margaret Simon tries to fit in. The story takes on puberty with a frankness that was “totally awesome”—to borrow an expression from that critical time. Margaret sniffs her underarms, she stuffs her bra; she practices with sanitary napkins for her first period, which she is sure she will get after everyone else. She confesses that she doesn’t feel much for God in churches, yet throughout, talks to God—about religious confusion, about wanting her period, wanting breasts. The girl asks God for breasts.
Margaret’s conversations with God launch with the titular phrase. As my friends whispered during lunch period about boobs and bleeding and stuff, Feather Meade expressed her customary befuddlement.
“Why are the words all slanty ‘n stuff when she talks to God?”
I explained that italics conveyed internal dialogue, even intimacy. ‘N stuff.
Kellie Hallahan said, “Duh, Feather,” and sipped her Pepsi Light.
We were the popular girls of the fifth grade. By “we,” I mean a giggly gaggle of us, but when I get to where I chronicle the junior high part of this experience, a slew of blonde, sporty types interlope, and it is distracting to have seventeen characters traipsing about as wrestle with my avatar. For the sake of clarity, I am collapsing the we-girls of the fifth grade into two: Kellie Hallahan and Feather Meade. This device will allow me to assign them qualities that, in the fifth grade, I could feel on my tongue but did not have the grace to trust.
Kellie was the most popular because her older sister was a total fox and Kellie looked just like her. Defying stereotype, Kellie was truly sweet. In fourth grade, before the year-end talent show, I watched Kellie take considerable care to write in my memory book, “I hope your singing solo goes oright.”
Feather was marginally less blonde than Kellie, marginally better at sports. At that point in our friendship, I was baffled by the constant explanations about seeming obvious things that my friendship with Feather required, but—and here is another from the tasting menu of future knowledge: I was not blonde. I flopped at every athletic endeavor I undertook. I was mouthy, and generally right, qualities that did not endear girls to boys. So clear was my comprehension of what girls were supposed to be—them—that I had no definition of myself beyond “not them.”
Here was another from the future beamed back: if you want to be cool but weren’t pretty enough, it helps to hang out with popular girls. Which made me manipulative.
Such was an issue Margaret would have taken up with God. I tried. Not out of spiritual need. I was rehearsing for my starring role in the movie.
Are you there, God?
And that is where it ended. In the fifth grade, I had nothing to say to God.
Here we go: I never know how to “drop” incest into the conversation. To reveal it threatens to make it the focus, which it is not, at this moment (to the degree that as a survivor, incest ever is not). But to avoid incest as it shaped my burgeoning puberty—well; duh.
I am going to do here what I did then: stuff it under the rug. Easier to fathom than a God who allowed incest were the “We must, we must, we must increase our bust” exercises that, in the book, Margaret learns from a friend: make fists, bend elbows, move arms back and forth, 35 times a day. The girls in Margaret we were so brave, publicly doing things related to their bodies. I would never; I practiced at home. In my bathroom, because I shared a room with my sister. I had to listen to my father rape her, too.
“We must, we must, we must increase our bust.”
I didn’t chant along. Perhaps that is why the magic didn’t happen.
Do you see how I did that? All that pain I brought up about my sister went right under the rug.
Kellie showed me one that was supposed to conjure. By fifth grade, Kellie had cumquat-sized bumps, so I paid attention. Heels of palms together, fingers pointing in opposite directions. Press and hold. For hours. I remained flat. In my bathroom, I poked marbles under my t-shirt. Just to see what it normal would look like. The marbles slid. In fifth grade P.E., when the class took a break from basketball, Josh Jacobs was blunt in his utterly unsolicited assessment of my social frailty.
“You got no tits.”
Who else, then, was destined to pull my name from the literal hat Mrs. Hennessy had us all drop slips of paper into, an exercise in the sex class we all loved dreading. Boys in one hat, girls in the other. Before we drew, everyone heard Josh not bother to whisper, “Watch me get Hall.”
Josh Jacobs wasn’t his real name, by the way. I’ve decided to change them all. Make ‘em up. Smear details. The truth is the truth, but we were children. It is wrong to write meanly about children. Also, what if Kellie or Feather or what’s-her-face, the time-consuming one that ran the scoreboard? She’s not in this piece. But what if she reads it? She could tweet about me.
If there was no God, there was karma: in the sex class, Josh did indeed pluck my name. We had to look directly into our partner’s eyes and say something we liked about them. He stared with sullen dismissal up and to the corner.
“You’re nice. I guess.”
It was all my fault. All of it.
In the book, the equally flat Margaret is unhampered by incest’s numbing responsibility. She wants to play “Two Minutes in The Closet” with Philip Leroy, the walking sex of the suburban sixth grade. That Philip turns out to be callow and a weak contributor to group projects did not surprise me. And then there is Nancy, Margaret’s pal of “must increase our bust” fame. I smelled a big fake long before Margaret, in the book, discovers that Nancy lies about getting her period. I didn’t know precisely when Kellie and Feather first got their periods, but during the seventh and eighth grades, Kellie’s cumquats morphed into oranges. Feather grew willowy. There were days she wouldn’t go swimming. I was so out of the loop, I didn’t get it until Kellie explained, pssst pssst whisper whisper.
Kellie knew when Feather had it.
I didn’t because I hadn’t.
Junior high was troubling in other ways. Increasingly, my avatar gravitated toward the afore-mentioned blonde, sporty girls who had gone to the other elementary schools. All spelled their names with variant “y” endings— Kellie Kelly; Kristie, Kristy; Kathy, Kathi. All clearly got their periods. Dumped like milk from different cows into the bovine products facility that was our town’s junior high, the Y Endings clotted like cream. Kellie had them “over”—after school, Doritos. Sometimes, Kellie’s sister kindly shared holy older knowledge before her boyfriend called.
I was invited. Once. The discussion revolved around why they, the blonde, the athletic, were not the most popular, an honor bestowed on the bitchy girls who sneaked off campus during lunch to smoke out, etcetera, with the popular eight-grade boys. Kellie attacked the injustice of the situation with an analytic ferocity that I reserved for my homework. She plotted how to get these sexually active stoners—hereafter referred to, as they were in that conversation, as Those Bitches—“out.” She missed entirely what her foxy sister was trying to tell us, that in two years, we would be in high school. Those Bitches would be knocked up or in the alternative program. Kellie didn’t have to do anything. Popularity was her destiny.
I chewed a Dorito. Probably several. Said nothing. If Feather—sporty and stacked, yet indefinably second tier—was out of place in this hot-blooded dismemberment of junior-high celebrity, I was not pretty enough and did not yet get my period.
It would be more than a decade before the full rage at my powerlessness over incest had me pelting the back fence with ceramic cups and pounding unopened cans of soda against brick walls until they exploded. As a captive pubescent, my fury went into bulimia—the frenetic stuffing followed by the eruption; a sparkling dramatization of everything I could not control yet would not accept. I had the wrong parents and the wrong body, right down to the wrong hair color. In their column, those Y Endings had blessed inevitability. Their very real worries about social status did not take into account my additional terror of being used in adult ways before I was ready, without my consent.
There is a reason that incest survivors start screwing anything with legs. Or shut down, sexually. And/or drink, do drugs, starve, binge and purge, shop compulsively, or construct around ourselves the myth of perfection. It is because we grow up. Like normal girls, as soon as we read Margaret, we begin waiting. Like normal girls, we eventually get our periods and our boobs, but the important thing never gets addressed. That is left for us to strive for, but it is impossible to remedy as a minor in the care of and financially dependent on those abusing you.
The 80s debuted. I was not unpopular in high school. Our unpopular were standard for high school unpopular: the unfortunately unattractive, the truly socially awkward, the anti-establishment for no reason anyone could figure out, and Those Bitches. Freshman year, Kellie and the Y Endings arrived. Similarly, I found providence with the self-proclaimed drama weirdoes and dance fags. (I don’t remember the boys in choir being tortured as much as those in drama and dance. We might want to ask them.)
The truth about most of the boys in the arts was, they were gay. I could stay as sexually shut down as I needed to.
Kellie remained friendly throughout her ascendance to Homecoming Court our senior year, and as genuinely enthusiastic about my artistic undertakings as she was in fourth grade when she misspelled “alright.” She was the first person I told when the list went up for the musical and my name, my name was on that list; and the only freshman, somehow confirming everything my high school self could hope but could not really know, that there was a God, that you didn’t need to find Her in church, that life was going to work out. Our drift was well underway, so you decide if it was just luck that I ran into Kellie on my victory lap to third period.
It was certainly not pure fortune that Kellie was among the handful of freshmen girls asked to prom, but—totally weird; that shortlist also included me.
A senior from Choir asked me. He gave me a flower and said he’d had a crush on me since the fall, poor fellow. He and prom went right under the rug until the Thursday prior, when I mentioned to Mom that my weekend plans did not include the standard nothing, but: prom. Not understanding the mystique and pleasure imbuing prom—not even getting that I perhaps might need a dress—didn’t truly sadden me until the first draft of this essay, when it dawned with the pain of slow comprehension I experienced the day that Kellie and Feather knew when the other got her period while I was still waiting.
At the end of high school, the tail end, graduation, the adults in charge were switched on enough to accept that on Grad Night, we would all drink ourselves silly. Years prior to my Grad Night, they established the Senor All-Night Party.
The operating principle behind the Senior All-Night Party opposed directly that governing The Eagles’ “Hotel California,” where you could check in any time you wanted, but you could never leave. For the Senior All-Night Party, you had to check in two hours—one hundred and twenty minutes—after graduation, or you wouldn’t be allowed in. If you left campus before the 5A.M. whistle, you couldn’t re-enter. Theory: there was a limited amount of mischief even a wasted grad could get into on campus, surrounded by parent chaperones and teachers dutifully dressed according to theme—Barbary Coast, Mardis Gras, like that. If a graduate wished to float acidicly to the gym where some all-white cover band took their best stab at “Beat It,” there was no detention, no Monday morning in the principal’s office. The sole goal was to present us still breathing and not pregnant at five the next morning.
Most of the Senior All-Night Party took place on the lunch patio, called The Patio, as if the school’s other patio, the music patio, haven to artistically gifted, sexually disinclined individuals such as myself, did not exist. On the normative patio, action was plotted during the last half of the average school week (“Dude, Carver’s parents are skiing this weekend.” “Party at Carver’s!” “Invite Feather Meade!”), and then gossiped over during the first part of the next (“Did you hear that Feather Meade … ”). I had spent no significant time on the lunch patio since abandoning all forms of social mobility early my freshman year. I could only gape at The Y Endings with their cute boyfriends, high school versions of Philip Leroy, the good-looking fellow from Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Even the super-thin one who never got asked out had a boyfriend. I had Celia.
I wonder, now, what happened to Meg. Celia and Meg were best friends. I was their other best friend. The summer after graduation, Meg eschewed our art-house-movie-then-Denny’s routine. Several years later, Meg apologized for blowing us off after graduating; as in one hundred and twenty minutes after graduating, for I do not remember Meg at the Senior All-Night Party. Just Celia, to my right, and perfect Kellie with her Philip Leroy beau and her shiny friends.
Then Feather Meade accosted me in a pleasant, drunken state, waving a little flag that vaguely reflected the evening’s theme. I was confused as to why she would talk to me after I had so crassly rejected her friendship, but mostly, I was numb.
If I could reach through time and peel back that numbness, I might discover thoughts about Nancy, Margaret’s “we must we must” so-called friend who lies about getting her period. I might have been imagining that, throughout high school, Nancy goes down on guys in order to retain both popularity and virginity. Fast-forwarding, the Nancy of my bitter imagination gives it up in collage by convincing herself that he is the guy she is going to marry. He dumps her. She flirts with her best friends’ boyfriends. Not out of attraction. Out of a Scarlett O’Hara-like need to prove that men desire her more than they do their partners, even if their partners are Nancy’s dear friends. Nancy watches from the cheap seats as, one by one, those friends marry. Nancy claims she prefers the sexual freedom of singlehood, yet thinks, “This is it!” on each first date. She sleeps with them right away, plies the hapless beaus with questions about ideal numbers of children, and then ponders why every last one drops her. Hitting her upper 30s, Nancy marries for money and fossilizes in a McMansion.
I have no doubt that life has been harder on those shiny girls then it appeared, then. I wish for them the joys I remember from bright afternoons in elementary school, before we read Margaret, before we realized that the exciting changes soon to come would change everything.
On the patio at the All-Night Party, Celia stood. Perhaps Celia intuited that within three months, she would lose her best friend to men in bars, her second-best friend to a better school than she got into, and would go on to become the sole woman in the management-training program at a men’s clothing chain. Perhaps Celia was beginning to sense, then, what I only began to understand twenty years later, watching my young son; the only way to grow up is to break away. Margaret, in the book, is right. You don’t feel God most keenly in churches. I felt mostly numb, but I think Celia was more there for herself, for she would order Apple Pie a la Mode and a Decaf, and depending if I were binging or starving (I can’t remember which it was, that night), I would order the same or nothing—but for that to happen, Celia had to say, “Let’s blow this pop stand,” and we did the unthinkable. We left Grad-Night. We went to Denny’s.
image: Tim States