A lot of things have happened to me and every now and then, one of them bubbles to the surface and becomes the Worst Thing That Has Ever Happened To Me. Yesterday, it was the moment when I walked past one of those fire hose connection things that sticks up out of the sidewalk next to a building, and it had some kind of screw sticking out of the side, and that screw grabbed and ripped a chunk out of my dress. It wasn’t a special dress, or an expensive dress, or a fancy dress, but I liked the dress! And it had pockets, which did sort of make it a fancy dress and at least a good dress to wear to parties so I could have a place to put my beer while I ate chips with both hands. Anyway, I liked my cheap little striped Target dress that I frequently saw on other women on the same days I wore it, which usually makes me feel bad, but in the case of this dress gave me a kind of feeling of sisterhood, like I should nod in the direction of these women like, “We’re all in it (this dress) together, huh?” And they’d smile and be like, yeah girl. Way to accessorize.
At the moment I felt a yank on my dress and heard the fabric ripping, I thought WHY DID YOU WALK THIS WAY??, instantly blaming the ripped dress on myself and my choices. Like, if you didn’t want your clothes ripped, why did you dress like that?! Also, considering the various other shitty things that have happened on my afternoon walk, on that exact same strip of sidewalk, I felt that maybe I should have known that this was somehow a dangerous area for me and only me and that it was to be avoided. Here are the other things that have happened to me on that street, on my afternoon walks:
- Approximately two blocks north of the dress-ripping screw, I stood at a red light under the Green Line stop. I stood behind and to the left of the little square at the edge of the sidewalk, because some disgusting, smelly liquid was dripping from the machinery beneath the elevated structure. Phew, I thought, I really dodged a bullet. That’s what I was thinking when the half-empty box of Kellogg’s Frosted Mini Wheats hit me in the head, scattering its crusty payload all over my hair and shoulders, having been tossed over the railing above.
- Approximately two blocks south of the dress-ripping screw, I felt a tap on the bridge of my nose. It turned out to be the dribbliest gob of pigeon shit from a pigeon who no doubt ate nothing but jalapenos and the shit of other pigeons. The gob ran down my nose and poured down the front of my white shirt, and I had no choice but to ask my work friend if this was, in fact, bird shit all over my face and shirt. He solemnly confirmed that it was and watched as I yanked off my cardigan and furiously wiped off as much as I could, screaming silently into the bottoms of my lungs as I scraped splattered bird shit out of the corners of my eyes.
I feel like these two bad things are enough bad things to happen to one person on one stretch of sidewalk. Now that there has been a third Bad Thing on this route, I can either stop walking that way every day, or stop walking every day entirely, thereby resigning myself to an extra 30 minutes of soul crushing boredom in the freezing air conditioned office that will become my tomb. Because, clearly, if I go that way again, I’m fuckin’ asking for it, yeah?
I peeled off the ripped-up dress last night and threw it in the kitchen trash can, then sat there in my underwear having a major sad about it. I saw it again this morning when I pressed down on the trash can pedal and the lid flipped up, and I dumped coffee grounds all over it. I gasped because even though the sad little dress was ALREADY IN THE GARBAGE, I somehow felt bad about messing it up even more. I thought about taking it out and laundering it before throwing it away, then I realized that’s crazy and I should forget about it. Maybe if I spent more time forgetting about things than I spent remembering them and wallowing in how awful they are, I’d feel less like a target for all of the universe’s leftover cereal and bird diarrhea and more like a person just moving around in the world.
I tried to think about other wardrobe malfunctions I may have had, to prove to myself that, if I couldn’t remember any moments in which I ruined favorite pieces of clothing, it was possible to forget this one. The problem is that I remembered a different dress, at a different time, a dress that wasn’t ruined but somehow had the stains of a bad memory pressed into its cheap cotton knit fabric.
I was fourteen and I had this Sporty Spice t-shirt dress from Old Navy, from back when everyone was wearing stuff like that: stuff that looked like men’s professional baseball apparel had been stretched and fitted so women could wear it to parties. It was colorblocked in a way that I found very sexy: the back and the t-shirt sleeves were black, as was the front up to the boob area, which came together with a mauve and gray swoop that went across the chest and up to the neckline. The neckline, high and conservative like one of your grandpa’s t-shirts, was ringed in black. There was a fancy cursive Old Navy logo just above where my tiny left boob started. I wore it with my black foam platform sandals from the Deb in the mall and thought I looked pretty fucking rad.
My mom’s friend Laura* was not our aunt, but for some goddamned reason, we had called her Aunt Laura since forever. She was this skinny-as-a-rail, muscular, rootin’ tootin’ cowgirl lady. She sat on our porch swing smoking Camels, tapping her ash into the rolled up pant leg of her work overalls. I always thought she wore a lot of weird perfume but it turns out she was just always drunk as shit. Her skin was always the same color and texture of those brown leather jackets with the silk map-print lining everyone was buying. Her face, though, was shiny and red. I never could tell if she was sunburned or her face was just red from all the booze.
(Aunt Laura had seriously been around forever, forever forever, at least since my little sister was a baby, since I was seven or eight. I knew this because I remembered very clearly one night when I went from Very Asleep to Very Awake because my stepfather stormed into the bedroom I shared with my baby sister under his arm. He stomped up the stairs with her and snapped on the light, screaming and yelling something about how he would take them, he would take them away. The light was so yellow and strong and I was too shocked to move as he yanked back the Ninja Turtle covers and ripped my sleeping brother out of his bed across the room, tucking him under his free arm. The baby started to scream as my mother, just a few steps behind my stepfather, pleaded with him to calm down and hand her the baby and please don’t do this, but he would not relent, and the whole screeching parade left the room and stormed down the stairs: he with his two screaming children under his arms, their heads bobbing with each step, my mother behind him, and my older sister following in tears. I sat in bed with no feelings except a prickly sensation in my mouth that might have been fear but might have been something else, something angry growing tall vines through my chest. I looked at the wall by my bed, illuminated in the light from the brown-yellow bulb overhead, and stared into a tiny crack that led to a little chipped hole. You could see under the layers of chipped-off paint in the hole that the walls used to be blue. I stared into that hole and thought about putting my thumb into it and said out loud to myself “I should go downstairs?” I said it like that, like a question to nobody, to myself, and waited for an answer. The only answer was in that blue dot of forgotten, painted-over wall, and it said in a voice as loud as anything I’ve ever heard:
you will not forget this
and I didn’t.
It was decided by the less hysterical adults who later got involved in that evening’s display of domestic violence that each of the kids would be taken out of the house to spend a night somewhere else, somewhere quieter, where one parent wasn’t threatening to grab up his two biological children and disappear with them. We were asked to choose between our grandparents and Aunt Laura, and I chose Aunt Laura because I was curious about where she lived. All I remember now about her house was going out into her overgrown yard early the next morning and finding the remains of a rotted wooden chicken coop. A rusty handle was attached to the molded wooden slats on top, and when I opened it, there inside was the perfectly preserved skeleton of a chicken, featherless and sun-bleached, the delicate bones of its wings spread out like tiny hands, left forgotten for a century.)
Anyway, Aunt Laura stopped by one day to finish off the six pack of PBR she’d started in her truck on the way over and invite my mom to her fourth or fifth wedding, this time to a fellow drunk she’d known for about an hour. The wedding was going to be in whichever church allowed an all-denim cast of characters, followed by a reception in someone’s house out in the boonies, which would no doubt be a doublewide trailer onto which a structure resembling half of a house had been built, then filled with deer antlers and those tables and clocks made out of a cross section of a tree cut down long ago and shellacked to a high shine.
I don’t know why I was my mother’s date for this occasion, but I was, and I wore my Very Fancy and Grown Up Old Navy knit dress and foam platform sandals. Aunt Laura spruced up a bit and wore a floral sleeveless dress that made her arms look like stringy pieces of fried chicken wings. Her fiance wore jeans and a white button-down shirt, that kind of Fancy Western Go-To-Meetin’ shirt that has shiny metal tip things added to the edges of the shirt collar, and some kind of lanyard with a medallion at the end of it, tightened up to his neck, because that’s what fuckin cowboys wear when they get married, all right?
(This reminds me of one of my friends who married her first college boyfriend, JUNIOR college, at that–and the whole ceremony was Zelda-themed and the bridesmaids wore dresses made from Butterick Halloween princess costume patterns. The dresses had that obnoxious v-shape in the front center of the waistline, like an arrow pointing down to the pussy goods, and each bridesmaid’s dress was so poorly fitted and sewn that each time they exhaled, the little point of fabric flipped up and lay flat against their stomachs, so as the bride flounced down the aisle to the Zelda theme song, there was a little row of backwards pink fabric saluting her over and over again from the stage area as the bridesmaids continuously flipped them back down. The wedding theme was perfect, as far as her father was concerned, because he wasn’t wearing no goddamned suit, goddamn it, because “cowboys don’t dress up like fags,” and he insisted on wearing jeans but since she was his firstborn, he finally relented and wore this weird piece of brown felt she’d cut into the shape of a tunic, which was basically a rectangle of fabric with a hole for his head and a fringe at each end. He wore a belt with a huge shiny cowboy buckle over the tunic, and insisted on strapping a fucking gun to his right leg and carrying a sword he ordered off late-night TV on his left, because that’s what fuckin cowboys wear when their daughters get married, all right?)
Aunt Laura’s teenage son Brad** was the only person in the wedding who wore a black suit with a shirt and tie, and I thought that was hot. Maybe he just stood out in a sea of shitty Wal-Mart button-downs and Lee carpenter jeans, or maybe he actually was good looking. Either way, there’s nothing better than a hot dude who doesn’t go to your school, because nobody can tell him about all the times when you were weird. The group of pretty cheerleaders who harass you every day can’t walk up to both of you at recess and ask him really loud why he’s talking to you, making him question his choice in girls and deciding never to talk to you again (WHICH HAPPENED TO ME BECAUSE JUNIOR HIGH IS A FLAMING HELL HOLE OF FEELINGS AND WILL EITHER KILL YOU OR MAKE YOU AWFUL).
At the reception, in said half-trailer, half-house surrounded by gravel and cheesy lawn signs about how you’ll get shot with a gun if you piss anybody off, Brad, who was seventeen, was allowed to take part in the drinking, which began almost immediately. He proceeded to slam PBRs and gravitate toward me, and I’M SURE it had nothing to do with the fact that I was staring at him from the corner and I looked really cute in my Old Navy dress. Anyway, Brad asked me if I wanted to go for a walk, and of fucking course I did, even though everything within a 2 mile radius around the house had been covered with gravel, on top of which I had to sort of scoot in my platforms, kicking bits of rock out from where they were embedded into the bottom of my shoe with every step.
So we walked along the gravel and chatted, and I don’t remember a word he said to me except one weird question, which I must have thought was weird at the time or I wouldn’t have remembered it, but after about ten minutes of beating around the bush (HA!), Brad came right the fuck out and asked me if I was a virgin.
I was fourteen.
So yes, I said, of course I was. Because it was the truth, and if I knew anything about relationships from Seventeen magazine, I knew that they shouldn’t start with a lie. I also knew that good dudes would respect your virginity and bad dudes would resent it because, to them, it was nothing but an obstacle to that sweet teenage poon they walked around thinking about 98% of the day. I also knew, somehow, deep down in my bones, that if you wanted to get a boyfriend you had to play the motherfuckin game. So yes, I said, of course I was, but that status was negotiable, and anyway, it was only because none of the other teenage boys in my town appreciated how cool and hot I was. So even though I was a full on chicken shit (and should have been, I think, at fourfuckingteen) and this fact was definitely not negotiable, I dragged that shit out because I was going to force this dude to get to know me and take me to at least one single school dance before inevitably dumping me when I refused to take off my Fashion Bug underpants.
I was surprised when the walk ended suddenly after the Big Reveal, but I chalked this up to the fact that he’d made up his mind to date me and the interview was just naturally over. We’d exchanged phone numbers and emails earlier, and since I was going to play this shit until I had a boyfriend, I started calling his bedroom phone and emailing his Hotmail account like there was no tomorrow. I checked my email every five minutes for about ten weeks.
His responses to this assault were lukewarm at best. “Oh, heyyy” he’d say, then cover the phone with his hand until I finished telling him every little thing about my day, when he’d say “Welp, I’m gonna hit the hay.” He responded to 2-paragraph flirty emails with one or two totally blah, completely misspelled sentences. Sometimes he just answered “yeah.” He once invited me to a county fair to hear his band play (they were called CELOTEX, he said, a clever name he and his bandmates had come up with, which also happened to be the brand name of the insulation covering the walls of the drafty garage where they practiced, but that had nothing to do with anything). I went, and all I remember about it was waving to him as he set up his drum kit, and he looked kind of scared and sort of half-waved back and then didn’t look at me again for the rest of the night, which was all very My So-Called Life of him to do, thank you very much, I will now sit here and enjoy this Buffalo Tom soundtrack to my life, now that I have been Buffalo Tommed.
Once, I called him while his best friend was over. They were in his room playing video games, he said. I told him about the football game I’d gone to that day (which was something that I did so I could eat popcorn and Airheads). I mentioned that I’d sat with a girl I knew from school. I pretended that she and I were great friends, not letting on that this girl really just tolerated me because she was too nice to avoid me like her mean girl friends urged her to. I said her name and Brad repeated it. “I know her,” he said. Off to the side, he asked his friend if he also knew this girl. “Is that Dr. Chrisman’s*** daughter?” the friend asked. I confirmed that it was. “She’s hot,” the friend said. Then they both had to go because they were gonna hit the hay or whatever.
As traumatic as it is to play an endless game of desperate phone tag with a dude who is never going to like you as much as you like him, it’s about ten times harder to do this for the first time, because you can’t quite put your finger on what that feeling is that’s creeping up through your stomach and making you want to barf all the time. That feeling, of course, is doubt, and the sneaking, scraping suspicion that you maybe, perhaps, look like a fucking idiot. I was already starting to have that feeling, and was getting to a place where it was undeniable and impossible for anyone with even a shred of emotional intelligence to ignore. I couldn’t pretend like this was going well anymore because every day that passed when Brad didn’t pay any attention to me just made it more and more obvious. It finally broke me when about ten days, nine hours, and twelve minutes had passed and I hadn’t gotten a response to an email I’d sent him, so I just sat down on my bed and cried.
My mom came in and patted my shoulder. How I wish we could go back to that moment, and I could lean in from the other side and whisper to my mother just do that, just pat her shoulder, DON’T SAY ANYTHING unless it’s something about how there will be other boys and he’s the dumb one for not realizing how great she is. You know, mom stuff! DO NOT SAY ANYTHING BUT THAT STUFF. If I could, I would pop her right on the mouth a little bit, not hard, just a little tappy tap, like boop boop boop you’re about to fuck up! And then she would not say that thing that would be a fuckup and Future Me would disappear because there wouldn’t be a reason for me to have been there in the first place.
She didn’t say any of the right, non-fuckuppy stuff. She didn’t say anything for a very long time, but finally she did start talking and it was awwwwwful. She shared with me that she and Aunt Laura had been following the teenage romance of myself and Brad since its beginning at the wedding earlier that summer. They had both been really excited and hoped that the two of us would date, because wouldn’t that be so cute, but recently Aunt Laura had called my mother and let her know that Brad was a sexual guy, okay, and that he had confided in Aunt Laura that he really didn’t want to waste any time with a girl he wasn’t going to get to fuck. My mother didn’t say this in these exact words. What she did say was that Aunt Laura told her that Brad told Aunt Laura “that he was interested in young women with whom he could share a sexual relationship.”
IF THOSE ARE NOT THE MOST EMBARRASSING THINGS YOUR MOTHER CAN SAY TO YOU WHEN YOU ARE A FOURTEEN YEAR OLD GIRL THEN I’D LIKE TO KNOW WHAT COULD POSSIBLY BE WORSE.
Here I was, crying over a dude, and my MOM reveals to me the exact reasons why the guy doesn’t want to date me, and they’ve been revealed to her through some fucked-up game of Drunk Telephone, and they’re SEX REASONS that HAVE TO DO WITH SEX and NOW YOUR MOM KNOWS ABOUT YOUR NONEXISTENT SEX LIFE AND SO DOES THE BOY YOU LIKE AND SO DOES HIS MOM AND PLEASE I WANT TO DIE NOW.
This was a Bad Thing. A very, very Bad Thing. But I did not die.
I wore the Old Navy dress several more times. I chased men who wanted nothing to do with me many, many more times.
I saw Brad one time in the parking lot of a Dairy Queen, when I was a junior in high school. He waved to me from a car window and I narrowed my eyes at him and said “What do you want?” Which was, I think, the appropriate response to someone who can’t be straightforward, who has to tell his mom to tell your mom he will only date you if tell him beforehand that he can fuck you.
I’ve heard that Brad has several children with several women, and is just as poor and as drunk as his mom, who divorced Husband #4 and has moved on to 5 and 6, maybe 7, I don’t know, I don’t live there anymore. I do feel sorry for him, in the way that I feel sorry for most men who rejected me or were mean to me when we were teenagers because I was ugly/weird/virginal, and are now meth addicts and drunks working in coal mines and struggling to make child support payments. I don’t like to think of my little teen self being treated like shit, but I also don’t like to think of these boys I dreamed about day and night being miserable old men. I wish there could have been some kind of balance, some kind of even playing field both then and now, and maybe a place where we could have all met in the middle.
I still see Brad’s best friend on social media, because I’m still friends (in that let’s share cake recipes and politely ignore each other’s political views social media type of way) with the Too Nice Girl from the football game. The night after the conversation with Brad and his friend wherein I mentioned her, Brad’s friend went to the next football game in our town and chatted her up. They’re married now and they have two kids. Her wedding dress was white and princessy and glittery and strapless and they did the thing where everybody jumps up in the air and the photographer snaps a picture just as they’re coming back down, all puffs of fabric and blurry limbs. In the background, near a bridesmaid with a blurred face, Brad floats back down to earth, and maybe it’s the suit or maybe it’s the anti-gravity, but he looks almost like the asshole teenage boy I was in love with in the summer of 1996.
*Not her real name
**Not his, either.