A flat, in theatre terms, is a set of two-by-fours in the shape of a rectangle, 8 or 10 feet tall, with one side covered in plywood or muslin. They’re painted over and over again, fitted together on a stage in configurations necessary to give the impression of the walls of a house, or the sky behind a barn, or whatever else it is that’s needed to convey to the audience that what’s in the background is a real thing and not a bunch of plywood and paint. The back of a flat is basically an unfinished frame, the edges of boards sticking out. One of these was lying flat side down on the floor backstage during a rehearsal for The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940, at Southeastern Illinois College, in the early spring of 2002. I played a cross-dressing murderous maid in the play, and wore a terrible, thousand-year-old dirty blonde wig with the appearance and the texture of a really old scrubby sponge. I was pulling it onto my head, running from one side of the stage to the other, in the pitch black behind the little false sitting room, made of flats painted pink, that made up the set. I barely felt something hit my toe, then I was going down hard, flying forward to meet the ground, and landed smack dab in the middle of the flat on the floor. The edge of the two-by-four in the center of the flat collided with my right thigh muscle. For weeks, I had a dark bruise the size of my wide open hand, running sideways across my thigh.
I complained about it a whole lot, surely. It hurt! Also you could totally see it under my dark black tights I had to wear for the entirety of the play. It was unmistakable: a big raised black/blue area, which eventually turned to purple, then faded to green, then yellow, and finally went away. The thing is, it’s still there, I see it every time I’m in a yoga class and I go into downward dog. I’m face to face with my thighs in tight pants and I can see the depression, the area of my leg that looks like a bit’s been scooped out with a ladle. Oh, hello, Imperfection! There you are. And look at that: you’ve positioned yourself right above the stubby little scar left behind from the time I attempted to make Barbie a t-shirt with an old sweatshirt and my mother’s sharpest sewing scissors and ended up stabbing myself in the leg, then running around in circles making the stab hole bigger! Then getting stitched up by some half-drunk dope in the shittiest small-town emergency room in the world, ending up with a scar that looks like a puffy, sick caterpillar!
(The doctor used some kind of thick, hooked needle to stab seven or eight tiny holes in my leg around the cut, then connected the holes together. As the cut healed, a little chasm formed between the two sides, a chasm that filled with scar tissue and became a scar the size and thickness of my pinky finger. There are even scar marks where the stitches went in, so incompetent was this guy. If a kid suffered this injury today, and went to an emergency room that was better prepared for injuries of this type, she’d get more than a few stitches to hold the wound all the way closed, and end up with a smaller scar. They told me, when I asked about scarring, already concerned in second grade about marks that don’t go away, that the scar would get smaller and smaller, and eventually move up my leg as I grew, as if the skin on my legs would stretch like leggings, until the scar would disappear into my crotch. That didn’t happen. It stayed right where it was.)
When the flat, uh, flattened my leg, I felt the same panic I felt when I’d cut that leg open years before. There was something about these injuries that scared and disappointed me. I was cartwheeling through life, destroying my body, screwing it up. It wouldn’t be the same anymore. These things were happening to it and leaving evidence that they’d happened. I wouldn’t look right anymore. I was damaged and you could tell just by looking at me. This is why I hated getting fillings at the dentist: some of your tooth, your tooth, that was there when you were born, is now just gone, dust floating away in thin air. You watch it go through the orange plastic over the drill, you smell it burning. It’s gone like it was never there. They don’t save it for you in a little jar, you’ve just lost some part of you forever. Then they fill the hole it left behind, the place where there used to be stuff that was made of you, with some kind of goop that’s going to crack and need to be replaced in a few years. You leave and there’s something in your mouth that doesn’t belong to you. I’m terrified of that concept. Isn’t everyone else? Shouldn’t we be?
The other day, I surprised myself by how mean I could be. I looked in the mirror and wiped a bit of excess eyeliner away with my fingertip. I stood back and looked at the body in front of me, which I described to myself as huge. I examined the face, which I called pasty and pale and worthless. These things come to me so easily, it’s like someone else is sitting next to me saying them. They happen before I have time to fully form them as thoughts in my head. They’re my voice, but meaner. After all of these mean things, they said
You should really apologize to people for having to look at you.
The neighbor girl used to say “Go like this” and then bare her teeth at me, her lips peeled back so I could see both shiny rows, top and bottom. Sometimes I said I didn’t want to, but usually I gave in on the first command to get it over with. I’d do it, and she and whichever of her friends she had invited over for an afternoon of swimming in her bean-shaped pool on the other side of the fence would step forward and peer into my mouth. They’d stare in horror at the crooked little teeth, struggling for a place in the front, pushing each other out of the way. They’d be especially interested in one particular tooth in the bottom center, the one that had a little brown spot on it, right in the middle. They’d stare with their hands on their hips, as I mouth-breathed into their faces, and when they got to the little brown tooth, they would all fake a shudder and say “Ugh!”, rubbing their hands together as if they needed to go wash off somewhere to avoid becoming like me. And because children are marvelously blunt, I got to field all kinds of questions and comments about my mouth.
“Your teeth are so ugly. Why are they so ugly?”
“Why don’t you get them fixed?”
“Don’t you brush your teeth?”
“You should get braces.”
This stuff is all minor-league. I mean, all of us were plopped down suddenly one day into a world where all of our imperfections were pointed out to us, and all of everyone else’s imperfections started to become really, really obvious. Then everyone started to separate into groups based on this information. So it goes, right? You’re a little bit weird and there’s something on your tooth. You can’t come over and swim, and you can’t have crushes on any of these seven boys, okay? That’s how it works! We’ll come by when we want to see a freak show.
Sometimes I’m still nervous to talk to or around kids. For years and years after being subjected to repeated torture by the neighbor girl, forced oral examinations, taunting, and general exclusion based on the fact of my terrible mouth, I’d say something around a kid and they’d say, “You know you have something on your teeth?” I’d have to explain that it was always there. “Why? Can’t you get it off? Can’t you brush your teeth? Can’t you get rid of it?” They were like little radars finding that one lone signal in the grid that shouldn’t have been there, trying to destroy it with shame. People usually shushed their kids after a few protestations, but the same situation happened again and again. That fucking brown spot on my teeth was like a magnet for questions. And sometimes adults would point it out to me! Some of them meant well, I’m sure, in an “oh, you have a piece of something in your bottom teeth” kind of way. But some grew defiant when I’d say, “Oh, no–that’s a part of my tooth, it’s always like that.” They’d puff up a little bit, embarrassed, and shoot back something to the tune of “Well why don’t you get it fixed?!”
Is there anything worse than an adult who can’t deal with their feelings?
My stepfather’s teeth were terrible. They were a crowded mess, top and bottom. They were all different shades of yellow, black, and dark gray. They were actively rotting away in his jaw, as was the mucus constantly pooling in his sinuses, which made his temper worse and his snivelly voice all the more nasal and piercing. The smell of his face was nauseating: if you were in trouble, he’d breathe his rot-stench breath down on you, as close to your face as he could get. I think of it now as an animal’s spit-shiny teeth in your face, strings of saliva trickling down out of the corners of the cracked lips. I can still smell the rotten teeth and sinuses, the beer breath, the Speed Stick. Those were his smells, those are the smells of my terror.
He’d hold my head. With one arm under my chin, bicep smashed against my right ear, he’d hold me in a headlock in front of the sink. I was too small to see the mirror without standing on my toes, so I stared at my forehead and gripped the edge of the sink. With his other arm, he furiously scrubbed my bottom row of teeth. He held my head tight so it was still as he scrubbed. He scrubbed until I bled, and then some. He scrubbed until he got too angry to continue, or too bored. He went down to the basement and came back up with a wire shop brush, Next time I’m using this, waving it in my face. I never knew when he would brush my teeth for me: it came out of nowhere. I’d be sitting there talking, laughing, telling someone a story, and the next thing you know, he’d be exploding in anger at me, screaming about that fucking spot and how disgusting and lazy I was for never brushing my teeth. He’d drag me off to the bathroom and there we’d stand for what seemed like hours: him scrubbing the skin away from my gums, determined to get that spot out. Me inhaling the stench from his rotten mouth and waiting for it to end.
These were things he said:
You’re a quitter. You’ll never finish anything
Food would last a lot longer around here if you didn’t glut so much, Miss Piggy
You’re a psychopath
You’re a disgusting pig
You’re an embarrassment
And on and on. It didn’t always start with me opening my mouth, with him catching sight of my teeth. It could be something as small as not getting a dish clean enough. It could be for making too much noise. For eating to much. For having a radio on loud enough for him to hear when he was standing with his ear pressed to my bedroom door. There was no telling when or how much anger I’d inspire in him, or for what. When you were the target, everyone else would just sit around, pretending to pay attention to the TV or read a newspaper. We were a family of ghosts, navigating the house quietly, invisible to each other, trying to steer clear of this screaming, angry man and his torments.
There was one time, one time when I decided I was too old (at fourteen) to be threatened like this. He’d been trying to help me with my math homework, and both of us were frustrated with it. He, of course, began screaming about how I wasn’t trying hard enough. He said if I didn’t do it, “it” being some kind of function related to the math homework, he’d beat my ass.
“I’ll beat your ass,” he said.
“No you won’t,” I said.
“Oh yes I will,” he said.
Then I was on the floor. He’d grabbed both of my ankles and yanked me off the couch. I’d tried to turn and grab the cushion and ended up on my stomach, my cheek scraping the carpet. He wrenched one arm behind my back in some kind of wrestling choke hold and sat on it. It felt like being stabbed in the shoulder. It felt like someone was trying to tear my arm off. We stayed there like that for a long time, him punching, punching, punching into my back. In my struggle, I had flipped up the corner of the fabric at the bottom of the couch and I could see its broken leg, the one he had steadied with a small stack of books. I kept thinking of myself as being punched down to be as flat as Flat Stanley, small enough to climb into an envelope, to hide between the pages of a book.
But I must have been screaming. I must have been screaming because I looked up and my brother was running down the stairs. I saw the light from the windows behind his head. I saw his shoes where he stood inches from my head, speechless, absorbing the scene. Eventually, my mother came down the stairs and screamed for him to stop. I packed my things and moved in with my grandparents, my mother’s parents.
After the divorce, during the custody hearings, my brother denied having seen the beating. I insisted to the judge that it had happened. He replied, “I don’t think he meant it that way, I don’t think he’ll do it again.” My grandmother and my aunt, my mother’s sister, the ones I had run to after that final beating, showed up to court and sat on the side of my abuser. Everyone thought it best that I forgave him. Everyone thought it best that I moved on. The state of Illinois thought it best that I visit him three nights a week. “If you don’t get your ass out here,” he said over the phone, “I’ll have your mother put in jail.”
Sometimes, the truth just gets overtaken in a wave of bullshit, of good intentions, of bad ones, of the way people wish things were, instead of how they actually are. Sometimes Jedi mind tricks really work in the way that someone can wave their hand and say “that didn’t really happen, and anyway, even if it did, I’m sure he’s sorry, even if he hasn’t said so, and he’s never done anything like that to me, or in front of me, so how can I be sure it’s even true?” I guarantee you that there is a whole mountain of evil out there hiding behind a forest of people who just don’t want to believe it could happen. I guarantee you that the balance of power is all someone needs to do awful things to you and never be called up to question for it.
My brother still doesn’t speak to me. Neither does my younger sister. Both of them have said “She’s crazy.” I don’t blame them. He is their father. He is the mountain.
Now tell me how it is I’m supposed to go through life opening my mouth and talking to people? Tell me how it is I’m supposed to trust that they won’t look into my mouth, down my throat, and tell me all the things that are wrong with me? Sometimes I am so afraid to be in the world, I can barely look at a bus driver or stand to have someone sit near me in the doctor’s office. Sometimes my head swims so fast with all the things I should say to sound like a normal person, I end up squeaking like a rusty door and making no sense, answering questions backwards and upside-down, coming off like a completely insane person. There’s not enough time to think, not enough time to generate the right answer, the one that will keep me safe from whatever harm this other person might be ready to inflict on me.
Tell me how it is I’m supposed to look in the mirror and say nice things to myself?
The last time I saw him, he was in a bookstore with his wife, a squat little woman with a frown that appeared to be carved into her face. Her arms were crossed, she scowled at me from across a row of books. That nasally, rotten voice said “Hi.” I returned his casual greeting as if it didn’t mean anything to me, as if he hadn’t terrorized me for the first half of my life. I wondered later if he could see, from where he was standing, inside my mouth, if he could see the clean white tooth in the middle of the bottom row, where the dentist had drilled out the brown and replaced it with some kind of white tooth spackle.
I wanted to tell him she’d done this, how I’d been ashamed to see a dentist for years, and when I finally had gone, I’d shown her that spot and told her I hadn’t brushed enough when I was a child. “No,” she’d said, “that’s a deformity. You’ve got one in a back molar, too. You had an illness or a fever when these teeth were growing in your jaw that’s caused this. You didn’t do anything wrong, it’s anatomy.” IT’S ANATOMY, I wanted to scream at him. I DIDN’T DO ANYTHING WRONG.
“You will need a skin graft here, though,” the dentist had continued. “Did you do really hard brushing or something on these bottom teeth when you were little? Because the gums are just completely worn away.”
“No,” I said. I didn’t do it. But someone did. I told her about the forced brushings I endured in a headlock and she winced. She patted my shoulder and shook her head.
Apart from the day in the bookstore, I have avoided any further contact with time and distance. Before my little sister gave up on speaking to me, she sat down one day and told me that she thought he was really sorry “for everything that had happened,” and really missed me, and did I know? Did I know he had a picture of me as a baby on his dresser?
“If he’s sorry,” I said, “why hasn’t he ever apologized to me? Why are you doing it for him?” That was one of the last times she spoke to me. Because I am crazy.
Another time, a few years ago, Facebook notified me that my name had been used in a post on my abuser’s wall. “Happy Birthday,” it said, “wherever you are.”
I threw my head back and laughed like an actual crazy person. Wherever you are. IT’S FUCKING FACEBOOK, I screamed. I AM ON IT. YOU JUST TAGGED ME. YOU KNOW EXACTLY WHERE I AM AND EXACTLY HOW TO FIND ME. Then I started crying because there’s really nothing like your name being used in a passive-aggressive call for pity from someone who works harder to convince the world he’s a good person than the people he’s hurt. On your birthday.
But sometimes I’m not sad about it at all. Sometimes I’m so angry I could burn up, smash things, run screaming through the streets. I hate that I was a child and he could do these things to me. I hate that he had the power, that other people gave it to him time and again. I hate whatever happened to him when he was a child that made him such an awful man, that made him go to battle over the smallest things with little children. I really hate that nobody spoke up for me until they absolutely had to in a court of law, and I hate that even then, the odds were in his favor, based on the ideals of forgiveness, love, family. I hate that it opened the door right back up for him. I hate that I still have to deal with the mess he made.
Sometimes I stand there and stare at myself in the mirror and I can’t believe how old I am. I can’t believe I’ve got a life apart from his, I can’t believe I’ve managed to get away from all of it and be a whole person. I can’t believe that someone saying terrible things about you doesn’t make them true. Then I start to wonder about him. I wonder what would happen if he tried to pull any of that shit today. I’ve surrounded myself with people who would protect me. Even if all of them fell, I’ve armored myself. I wish he would come at me now, where I have the power, and just try it all again. Come out of the dark, from behind the trees. Come and see who I am now.
My doctor looked at my leg in an x-ray. “The muscle took a hit,” she said, “but the bone is strong.”
The dentist tapped at my bottom teeth with her metal tool. “The gum is worn away,” she said, “but the teeth are sound.”
I’m bigger now than I was when I was two, eight, fourteen. My bones are strong, my teeth are sharp.
Come and see.