Mama says mad freezes your face, so little girls with feelings be careful. Anger shows ugly over time, lines between your brows or pulling down the corners of your mouth. Girls should smile, say sorry. They should hug their mad until it disappears.
Mad tastes like salt and lead, like the blood-seep of steak, rust at the bottom of the playground slide. Mad feels like gum on the bottom of your sandal, a knot in your Barbie’s hair, an ant crawling up your leg, sting and swollen afterward. Sometimes mad is really bad, which girls can’t be. But usually it is sad, which you feel but no one sees.
You are mad at the boy who crushes a frog with a rock at school, at your brother for eating the last of dinner when you are still hungry, at the way no one believes you when you say that lying in bed in the dark made you feel like you would disappear. You are mad at science because you don’t want to cut open a baby pig, mad at the history teacher who keeps picking you up even though he only calls on the boys in class, mad at the way you jump at the recess bell like fear is familiar. You are mad at the gym teacher telling you that basketball is for tall girls like you, mad at the math teacher saying girls can’t do equations when you know that sometimes 1 + 1 isn’t 2 because it’s something more complicated. You are mad at your name on the bad board because a boy won’t stop tickling you and the laugh is really a cry coming up out of your throat before you can catch it, swallow it silent.
Mama says mad is not a flag we wave. Hate and scared are not for sharing. When you balk, she says cross will mark your face. You think of her careful stiches, stabbing needle and thread through cloth to pierce out a picture. When you pull a needle through the top layer of your skin, you never bleed. You are alive and numb all at once.
Hug your mad, Mama singsongs, and it will go away. But her mad never does, no matter how she sings or sinks into a drink or the floor. Maybe that’s why her face is lined.
You hug your mad when you correct your uncle in public, tell him a brontosaurus doesn’t eat meat and he says you’re wrong and talkback isn’t for girls too scared to walk in the dark hallway, too small to watch Jurassic Park. You walk into his embrace like a velociraptor, the smell of his too close breath too sharp.
You hug your mad when Daddy spanks you for something you didn’t do, like leave the tv remote in the crack of his chair or not laugh enough at his jokes. You fetch the belt with the buckle and the cracked leather like a knuckle, wait for the crack that signals your hurt is deserved. You know hitting is wrong, but after, you hug your mad which is really sad he thinks is bad. You cry into his shoulder.
You hug your mad when your uncles drink too much and yell when you wake them on the couch for dinner. Sorry, you say, passing the butter and another beer. You hug your mad when your uncle goes to jail for running over his ex-wife and everyone says he didn’t do it but if he did it was because she asked for it. You think of her creased face under his tires and your cousin watching her gasp, and how maybe you too are bad, too breathless and sad for someone to save.
You stomp your bad like a puddle, spray mud spatter. You blow your mad into a balloon then pop the shape, like listen or stop. You make your sad into a companion, a lonely shadow to follow you around.
You’re good at keeping secrets—like how the babysitter makes your tummy feel funny and you don’t tell, or Daddy’s friend reads the back of your sweatpants real slow and says you need a boyfriend, his cigarette smoke following you down the hallway, or a stranger in the parking lot yells little bitch.
You hug your mad but it will not disappear, like the memory of your older cousin pining you down like butterfly Barbie, limbs splayed, face frozen. Or the way he tickles you until you can’t breathe, his hands everywhere and wrong, and when you kick and cry, escape and say you want to leave, everyone says you are bad, makes you go into his room again to apologize. Hug your mad, they say, and he is waiting with his arms open to accept your sorry. He tells you to smile, locks the door behind you once more.
You freeze like a doll because you don’t want feelings forever on your face like your Mama and hers, women who pretend mad doesn’t happen except when you hear them scream or they can’t catch their breath for no reason.
You hug your mad to make it disappear, but really it is you, alive and numb all at once, a body closing in on itself, gasping for any kind of air.