Monday, April 27, 2015

"Just Another Number" Feedback from a Role Model

I've been asked quite a bit what instilled my headstrong feministic beliefs. They came from a lack of strong female role models. Although the majority of my family was comprised of women, the selected few who demonstrated any dominant personality traits were labeled as "bitchy" and "crazy." As a teenager, any remnants of defense towards attacks from my stepfather, "Carl" were responded with various shades of degradation and resentment.
When you abuse an animal, they respond two different ways: they either become timid and cowardly, or aggressive. Children react the same way.
It's taken nearly 25 years for me to figure out how to preserve my strength while allowing myself let people in and fully embody emotions. It's still a work in progress.

I'm from the south, hailing from a culture of secrets, facades, and unspoken, but strict rules for what one should say and how one should act. Those customs and expectations were shackles that imprisoned an overwhelming about of pain and wrongdoing. When I broke free from that world with my book, Just Another Number, I vowed to live my life publicly and openly because I truly believe that publicity is the deadliest weapon against corruption. That is why I am being very open about my relationship with my family.

Although I will always love my mother unconditionally, I had to develop my own source of strength and self esteem. Just as she wishes she had a daughter far less controversial and outspoken, I wish I had a mother much more vocal, bold, and opinionated.
The woman who wrote the message below was a quick friend I met on a whim. She is about my mother's age and relates to me on a level that I could never reach with my own kin. She maintains the balance of strength and affection that I am learning to obtain. A strong source of support from the beginning of our friendship, the memories of her words and the perspective of myself she gave me are is the only thing that makes me feel safe when it occurs to me how much I am risking with this exploitative book.

Anyway, I wanted to share her feedback on Just Another Number because it truly meant a lot to me.

I finished it and loved it!  I did experience some PTSD, though, because these experiences (while very personal to you) REALLY resonated with me.  You've created a taxonomy of guys that I know and understand.  Sadly, although you were waaaaaay younger than I was when I encountered most of these guys, I had the same reaction to them.  We all (heteronormative women who have spent our lives being trained to think that our sexual attractiveness is our reason for being) have been conditioned to think that love and attention is the pinnacle of our lives.  But it isn't.  It is a challenge, though, to get our physical and emotional needs met with men who respect us.  I enjoyed your adventures, though.  My headline about you is that you go all out: whether it's challenging the system, or athletic training, or trying to get into Berkeley, you gave it ever fiber of your being.  That is a weird gift/blessing of being an anorexic/bulimic that I've observed (about myself and others); our powers can be a force for good or evil.  But I hate it when you describe yourself as chubby: I haven't seen you for your entire life, but I'm pretty sure that you were always beautiful, smart and funny on the inside and out. You don't give yourself enough credit, but that will come in time.  Once you love yourself, and have a solid group of champions surrounding you, you'll be so much better off and content.  Trust me: it only took 53 years to figure it out.  But you are very far ahead of the game, as an artist and human.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Boarding the USS Higgins

An Excerpt from Just Another Number- Number 4  

“Don’t fuck any of the guys on the ship,” one of the girls on the USS Higgins warned me. “You’ll regret it. You think nobody will know, but everyone will find out. They’ll talk shit. From then on, you’ll be considered a slut. You’ll probably do it anyway, but don’t say that nobody warned you.”
           It was a bit much for my first day aboard, but there was absolute truth in every precaution I was advised to take. Every girl eventually slept with at least one of her shipmates. For me, it only took a month.
Every hint of melancholy from leaving Number 3 diminished the second my plane landed in San Diego. As the sailors from the RSO drove me to my ship, I stared out the window wide eyed at the stunning city. The air was clear and the sun was luminous. Since I was a little girl, I had always loved palm trees. Whenever I saw them, I got excited because it indicated that I was close to the beach. Nearly every single street was lined with them. I loved the green shrub hills that looked lush, but were made for the arid conditions and needed little water. I loved the prickly red and pink flowers that bloomed at their tips.
San Diego was different from Tennessee in every way. Even the Hispanic-influenced architecture clashed with my norm.  I noticed that even most of the street names were of Mexican descent. Instead of small cities with names like Soddy Daisy, Jasper, and Whitwell, there was Chula Vista, Escondido, and Rancho Cucamonga.
           “This place is amazing!” I said aloud, thrilled by my vibrant new home.
           “Welcome to San Diego,” the sailor said with a smile.
I could tell my awe was a common reaction.
           My ship was stationed on the 32nd Street Naval Base, located a few minutes from downtown and in the middle of a low-income suburb. But I was too dazzled by southern California to notice the neon colored homes packed with poverty stricken Mexican families. We were only about ten minutes from the Tijuana border. We approached the tall fenced gate that surrounded the base and I spotted several massive grey ships in the distance. The fact that the base looked like the outskirts of a prison didn’t bother me, nor did it occur to me that my life on the ship would feel like one.
           My heart was fluttering as I scurried down the pier towards my ship. I wore the official Navy dress white uniform required to check into my new command. Like all of our uniforms, it flattened my ass and concealed any hint of femininity. I hated the way the uniform looked on me, but I was too used to my frumpy, military-issued, birth control getups to be embarrassed. I clutched a package in my hand that held my service and medical record. I looked at my ship. It was what the Navy called “haze grey” with white lettering that read DDG on the left and right side. “DDG” stood for “destroyer.” I saw several guns and other contraptions set up around the decks. There were windows at the top from where the ship was operated, with several satellite-like instruments above. There was an American flag on the top of the ship as well as in the aft (back) section of the ship. I reached the ladder that took me from the pier to the ship.
           “Now, don’t forget this part,” I remembered Petty Officer Hunter instructing us in boot camp. “Your arrival to your command is the first impression you’ll make. I cannot stress enough how important that is. Don’t fuck it up.
           She glared at us as if we already had.   
           “When you reach your command, the first area you will step onto is called the quarterdeck. There will be an Officer of the Deck on watch. But before you can come aboard the quarterdeck, you must turn to the flag at the back. You will salute the flag. Hold your salute and ask ‘Permission to come aboard?’ Then turn to the Officer of the Deck. The OOD will say ‘Permission granted.’ Then and only then is when you can drop your salute and walk aboard.”
           We practiced this procedure several times in basic training.

            It was nearly dusk when I reached the Higgins. The ship appeared deserted and had a quiet and peaceful aura.
           “Permission to come aboard?” I asked, turning my stiff salute towards the flag that hung on the ship’s tail.
           I mentally pleaded that I was showing enough military bearing. Little did I know that the boys on watch were chuckling at my efforts. The Navy newbies were easy to spot. Fresh out of basic, we reeked of posttraumatic boot camp timidity. For the first week or so, ‘booters’ looked like mice in a python cage.
           “Permission granted,” said a chubby black man in his light blue utility shirt.
The Higgins had just returned from a six-month deployment on the Persian Gulf, so my crew had just spent three months in sweltering heat with few port visits, followed by brief stops in Sydney, Fiji, and Hawaii.
My crew had just begun boarding females. During deployment, there were only five enlisted women. A handful more had boarded days before me.            
I was eighteen, fresh out of Tennessee, and the thirteenth female on a ship of over three hundred males.
I looked to my right at a small shack under a flight of stairs that led to an upper level of that ship. A blonde, skinny boy with a gun around his shoulder and a bulletproof vest stood with an intercom in his hand.
           “WILL THE DUTY BOATSWAINS MATE PLEASE REPORT TO THE QUARTERDECK?” he announced, his voice echoing.
           A few minutes later, a door opened near the shack. Out came a white male who looked like he was in his late thirties. He had light brown hair, glasses, and several creases in his forehead. He had a beer gut protruding over his black belt. His blue utility shirt read “Wayne,” his last name. Our last names were all labeled on our shirts and coveralls.
           “Seaman Young,” he greeted me with the name I’d get used to responding to.
           My arrival was expected. Wayne did not smile, but his face was not cold or unwelcoming. Greeting new sailors was routine.
           “Welcome aboard,” he said.
           His voice seemed to project through his nose.
           “I’ll show you around.”
           Wayne took me all over the ship, leading me through passageways that I was certain I would get lost in. Every door was a hatch that had to be pulled open with a handle and then closed behind me. The doors were heavy and I feared getting my finger smashed in one of them. I found myself constantly taking steps through the ship’s hallways (or p-ways as they were called in the Navy.) Several hatches that I had to step through were open throughout the ship, but were closed during drills or security emergencies.
The ship had a stench that reminded me of a musty basement.
           “You’ll get used to all this,” Wayne assured me when he saw me nearly trip over one of the hatch steps. “After awhile, you won’t even smell the ship anymore.”
           The ship was cold. Every surface was rock hard. There were tons of spouts, buttons, and contraptions along the walls and ceiling. I had no idea what any of them did and hoped I wouldn’t have to memorize all of their functions.
The worst part about the ship was the stairways. The ship had several levels. To get to the different levels, we had to climb a nearly vertical ladder well. I was petrified of climbing any of them straight down.
           “Go down backwards and grip the railings,” Wayne advised me.
           After going down a few ladder wells, we entered a tiny room with a desk. I realized that everything on the ship was compact. Sea duty required a mass amount of people to function in very close proximity. The office Wayne took me to was labeled “Aft Workshop.”
           Wayne sat down in a chair while I stood. I noticed that he had an old Coke bottle full of tobacco and saliva on top of some scattered paperwork. He picked up some of the papers under the chew bottle.
           “Young,” he said in a low tone, seemingly speaking to himself.
           He looked up at me.
           “You’re in duty section two. During your duty days, you will remain on board the ship all day and all night. We normally have six duty sections, but the ship is on stand down now since we just got back from deployment. So the way it normally goes is that you work on weekdays and then on your duty days, you stay over night, stand watch, and do whatever drills the duty station is doing.”
           I remembered standing watch in boot camp. Someone had to stay awake for two hours at a time and guard our barracks.
           “But the way it’s going now,” Wayne continued, “Is that you’ll have a duty day, a half day, and an off day. Today would be your duty day. Tomorrow is a half day and the next day you have off.”
           “What kind of work will I be doing?” I asked. “Don’t I get to try out different jobs? I’m in the Seaman Apprenticeship program.”
           Wayne busted out with laughter.
           “Oh no, they got you with that shit, did they?” Wayne asked, looking cynically amused.
“That’s just some shit they pull to get you to enter the Navy undesignated. That just throws you in deck. No, no, you’re a deck Seaman. You do topside preservation. You’ll chip, prime, and paint - that’s your new life. You’ve officially been fucked over by the Navy. Get used to it.”
           I felt a pang of betrayal and regret, but still, I did not let that get me down. I escaped from Number 3 and The Box. I had four years in the Navy. I was going to get through them without making myself miserable.
           “Now, once advancement testing comes,” Wayne told me. “There are some rates that you can test for. If you score high enough, that can get you out of deck. It’s called striking out.”
           My eyes brightened. There was hope. Until then, at least I was chipping paint in San Diego.
           Wayne led me back up the ladder well, down a few p-ways, and to the top of a hatch that rested on the floor, or the “deck.” There was a white sheet of paper taped onto a pipe beside the hatch with bold black lettering typed “female berthing.”
           “Here’s where you’ll stay tonight,” Wayne told me. “Get a female to take you to breakfast on the mess decks in the morning. I’ll meet you there and we’ll get you fully checked in. Good night.”
           The racks on the ship made the racks at boot camp look like s plush bed of clouds. They were piled vertically in three, with about a foot of space in between them. There was no possible way for one to sit up in them. The beds were called “coffin racks” because they lifted up like a coffin into a storage area. This and one small locker were the only places I had to store my possessions.
           I got stuck with a top rack, which required me to climb in between two middle racks across from each other in an isle. That pissed off the middle rack occupants because my foot nearly smashed their arms. Being able to organize my things inside my rack was a struggle and climbing into bed felt like an obstacle course. The lids were heavy and were held up by a small, metal bar in the middle. If the bar was knocked back, fingers and skulls could be crushed. The worst part was trying to jump down onto the cold hard deck when I was groggy in the morning. Having to get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom was something I did my best to avoid.
I quickly fell into the routine of ship life. Each morning I met, or “mustered,” with my division. Our chief, the head of deck division, was a large black man from Oakland who loved to scream.
           “GET TO WORK, SHIT BAGS!” he’d bark.
           I was constantly on edge when he was around.
           Our jobs were remedial busy work that could have been tackled by any breathing primate. We would scrub rust in one area with sandpaper or prime another space. The work left my nails filthy and my coveralls smothered in paint.            
            I talked with a few girls on the ship, though my only solid buddy was a girl named Sally. On my off time, I had the adventures I’d been missing from college life. I flirted with boys, got shitfaced, and often woke up on random couches and beds. One night, I ended up falling down on the sidewalk and scraping my knee. The next morning I entered the ship hung over in a skirt that revealed the large gash. I was dubbed a train wreck right then and there. I’d later learn that morning watches were the best times to get an eyeful of the most entertaining walks of shame.
            The crew did not fit the stereotype of the Navy sailors that I expected. The media always presented Navy men as being GI Joe’s in white. But a good sum of them were in their thirties and forties. Very few sported less than two chins, let alone the six-pack of a warrior. While standing at attention, I saw a slew of potbellies jiggling atop Navy belt buckles. I saw bald spots, acne, retro porn mustaches, and wrinkles, but to my utter disappointment, no eye candy.
I was also surprised by the racial diversity in the crew. Being from The South, I thought of Americans as primarily black and white. But there were several Mexicans and even more Filipinos in the fleet. I learned that it was common for Filipinos to join the Navy. The lifestyle suited them quite well. They didn’t have to be American citizens to enlist. They hailed from poverty, which instilled strong work ethics and gratitude for modest military living. They could happily serve twenty years, return to their homeland, and live off their retirement pay. Though it wasn’t enough for comfort in the United States, it made them quite wealthy in a Filipino economy. They were known throughout the fleet as the Filipino mafia. They often established decent rank in the military and held a camaraderie and favoritism among their people.
           I never got involved with any of the recruits from boot camp. With the strict rules, busy schedule, and little opportunity for social interaction, I didn’t see how it was possible. Boot camp romances actually blossomed all the time. It wasn’t uncommon for two recruits to lock eyes during church or the ten minutes they had to raise the flag together for colors. Drenched with the basic training blues, they clung to any relationship they could develop. Recruits often married at the base chapel during their first day of liberty. The marriages usually ended as quickly as they started. Once they left the sheltered world of basic training, dealing with their spouse under normal circumstances butchered the primarily fictitious love connection.
           Though it never happened to me, I understood it. The combination of repressed sexual desires and intimacy deprivation was treacherous. About a month into boot camp, I found my standards dropping and eyes wandering.
           Nothing about Number 4 stood out to me when I first saw him on the USS Higgins topside. I had seen him on our duty days mustering in the mornings. He was always surrounded by a couple of guys, chatting and carrying on small talk. He seemed pretty popular.
           The majority of the crew was married with children. Although nearly every sailor fucked either hookers or ship women, they hardly paid attention to the new ladies on board. They were coming home to their families and their lives outside of the Navy. The shenanigans had temporarily ceased. The men did not feel compelled to befriend the new eighteen-year-old with her boot camp chopped blonde hair.
           But Number 4 looked at me on occasion, with a subtle, slightly crooked grin.
           “He’s probably just trying to be nice,” I figured.
          He was twenty-six, with ash blonde hair that was cut short but was too long for Navy regulations, with his bangs shaggy over his forehead. His blue utility shirt was wrinkled. To any civilian, such details go unnoticed, but by Navy standards, they were signs of rebellion.

            He was tall with broad shoulders that hung heavy over his slim build. His eyes were his most intriguing physical feature. They were an intense, hazel that seemed to burn into my face like lasers. His voice had the laid back twang of an old hippie. His walk was loose and relaxed, but his eyes revealed an immense intelligence that clashed with his demeanor.

Dads and Dating

An excerpt from Just Another Number 
Number 22

As a little girl, I assumed that dating was in my future. The thought of my earliest courting sessions both excited me and frightened me with the anticipation of how Carl would handle it. Whether it was in television, movies, friends, or relatives, everything I knew about the way fathers handed their daughters off to the care of another man was an embarrassing process of the dad evaluating, interrogating, and subtly threatening new suitors.
            “What’s yer name, son?” I imagined Dad asking, throwing a scrutinizing glare in the face of an awkward teenage boy who was fighting an internal battle of hiding his skittishness behind good manners and a firm handshake.
            “How old are ya?” Dad would continue. “Do ya have a job? What’s yer family do? What are yer plans for yer future? What are yer plans with ma daughter?”
            After ordering the boy to have his precious little girl home by 10 pm sharp, Dad would grudgingly release him, then spend the evening pacing by the front window and looking at his watch every twenty minutes until his daughter’s safe return.
            In southern society, a father was nauseated and infuriated at the idea of his daughter being sexually appealing to any man. A father resented her boyfriends until they earned his respect. A father’s daughter was a princess who deserved nothing less than a prince. It was socially acceptable for a southern father to spend his daughter’s prom night on his front porch with his rifle. But Carl never adopted that behavior.
            Shortly after my first dramatic anorexia weight drop at age twelve, men started telling me that I was pretty. I was 4’10”, seventy pounds from starvation, wearing a kids size ten denim shorts. I was blonde and tan from a summer of boating with Carl when I started to sense the mild flirtation and lingering eyes from his red, country-accented, forty-something marina companions after a few shots of Jack and a six-pack of Bud Light.
            “Ah, fur one, don’t care if ya go out with sum guy,” Carl told me when I asked him if I could go out on my first date at age fifteen. “But yer mother’s oudda town, so have ‘em come in and shake ma hand real quick, just so she don’t give me shit when she finds out.”
            Mom established dating rules. I had to be sixteen to have a boyfriend and I was not allowed in my room alone with him unless my door was wide open. But when she was gone, I had free rein. Although I loved my vacations from adolescence, a part of me was always waiting for the dad to come out of Carl. But when Carl encountered my statutory courtship with Number 1, he passed him a joint. When police called my parents after finding Number 3 and I drugged out and camped in his Blazer by the highway, he bitched about getting woken up in the middle of the night and later joked about meeting my boyfriend in Hamilton County handcuffs. And when my parents drunk dialed me in California, Carl chuckled along when his best friend slurred that he’d always wanted to “fuck me sideways.”


An excerpt from Just Another Number 
Number 1

           My relationship with my stepfather, Carl, had always been complicated. He came into my life when I was six years old. My mother met and married him in four months, igniting my temper tantrums at the news of their engagement. Despite going through the motions of legal adoption, Carl never developed the “I’ll kill you if you lay a hand on my princess,” protectiveness stereotyped in southern daddies. When my mom wasn’t watching, Carl didn’t flinch on the nights I stumbled into our front door slurring my speech and practically drooling out the corners of my lips.
My teenage sex talk was as simple as, “Yer sixteen. If yer not fuckin’ now, you will be soon. Let’s getcha on tha pill.” In Mom’s absence, Carl played good cop, making it easy to for me to sneak gulps of Grey Goose from his garage liquor cabinet while he lounged on our large back deck and entertained his belligerent buddies with his vibrating, ten-thousand-dollar stereo system. However, in Mom’s presence, Carl was the domineering, temperamental disciplinary who barked orders, sentenced groundings, and demanded the title, “Sir.”
            “This is nuthin’ compared to what ma parents woulda done,” was his go-to justification for every outburst of belittlement. “Yer just lucky I haven’t beat tha tar outta ya like ma old man.”
            Carl constantly told horror stories of cursing and beatings from his father and the twenty-four-hour blackout screaming of his alcoholic, pill-popping mother. He used his trauma like a caution sign for what he could do if I didn’t silence my backtalk.
            As a child, I ate up the image Carl strived to portray: An inspirational rags-to-riches tale of a go-getter emerging the hell of his sulfur-scented, Podunk Texas upbringing. With a community college dropout education, Carl managed to reach six figures as a mobile home lot manager when the trailer park industry boomed in the early nineties. He decorated his accomplishments with a large house, yachts, and weekly morale shindigs for his salesmen bursting with open bars and filet mignon. However, my mother was by far his prettiest accessory. When they met, she was the prized, sparkly-eyed-twenty-six-year-old, platinum blonde daughter of the wealthy chiropractor who owned the land his lot stood on.
Even into middle age, Annie emulated the innocence of a six-year-old girl because she never had to face responsibilities beyond that maturity level. As a child, her four siblings would be elbow deep in yard work beneath a layer of grimy sweat within the scorching South Carolina summers while Annie lollygagged in the bathroom, claiming that she could not so much as touch a pine cone until her golden locks were curled to perfection. However, Annie was far too adorable to be scolded for laziness. She grew up without discipline or even obligations to hold humbling service jobs as a roller skate waitress or greasy fast food cashier. Although my grandparents lived like the depression babies they were and almost relished faking poverty, their bank accounts were mysteriously bottomless. Annie was cheery, charming, and universally likeable. Her interests were too cluttered with beauty products, baking, and cute, fluffy animals to allow room for controversy. The first true crack in her yellow brick road was my out-of-wedlock birth. Even though it was considered one of the greatest sins within my staunchly religious family, my conception was shrugged off as a brief slip from a girl swept away with her first love.
            “I would have followed him to the end of the world,” Annie always said of my biological father.
            My mother’s true appeal went beyond the clash of the beautiful trust fund darling as the arm candy of an overweight trailer salesman. Carl grew up in harsh, chaotic poverty. His escape was the alcoholism that was conceived during puberty and flourished throughout adulthood. His initial career was a diesel mechanic wearing faded coveralls with oil up his nails and sweat on his brow. His earliest homes were the dingy trailers he would later profit from. His first marriage was doused with benders, acid trips, and sex crazed parties packed with orgies with a first wife who’d lost track of number of dicks shoved down her throat in the midst of intoxication. I don’t know what sparked his revelation, but at some point, Carl decided to fiercely pursue the world he envied. He wanted a life of starched, white shirts, ties, SUVs, and picket fences. He ached for the scent of steaks grilling on his sunny patio. He dreamed of white-collar southern beauty and my mother, in all her naïve innocence, was the loveliest possession he could ever obtain.
            Once Carl charmed my grandparents, I stood as his only obstacle. Six-year-olds just aren’t old enough to be swayed by sales tactics.
After his honeymoon, Carl was welcomed home with mail fraud accusations. The three of us moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee, which was four hours away from my grandparents. That’s when my problems began.
One would have thought that my grandparents resented me for the negative attention my conception drew around their religious Easley Baha’i community. Although gossip and backbiting is considered the Baha’i Faith’s most detrimental sin, southerners have mastered picking, choosing, and rationalizing religious texts to fit their social agenda better than their own mother’s fried chicken recipe.
Psst! Don’t sit on the toilet seats,” Grandmother would hiss to her children before entering the Baha’i gathering at the home of Osie Jones. “Her daughter, Rhonda has herpes.”
I can only imagine what they said about my mother. Parenting had never been Grandmother Adele Young’s forte. At seventeen, Adele boarded a bus from her dusty, cotton factory farm town, Thomaston, Georgia, to Palmer Chiropractic College in Davenport, Iowa. She socially and academically fought her way through chiropractic school as one of just two or three women in her graduating class. I don’t know if my granddaddy put her in her place, or that she just gave up, but Adele surrendered her path as a female medical pioneer for the life of a privileged housewife. Far too intellectual for her role, she busied herself with spa retreats, pottery camps, pilot school, and acquiring college art degrees she would never use. To this day, her children claim she was both physically and emotionally absent, suspecting she popped out five of them out of pure boredom.
But by the time I came around, Grandmother softened into her fifties and her maternal instincts finally developed. My mother and I lived under my grandparents’ roof. They funded each and every one of Mom’s flighty, short-lived goals towards incomplete college educations, beauty school, and finally pet grooming. While Annie played mommy here and there, Grandmother handled the grunt work, getting me into Greenville’s most prestigious Montessori preschool and flaunting me around the southeast for Baha’i retreats like her beloved doll. To my grandparents, I was much more than a granddaughter. I was their do-it-right-this-time prize they finally had the maturity to mold into their pristine human being.
“You weren’t an accident,” Grandmother repeatedly told me. “God put you on this earth for a reason. You, Miss Maggie, are destined to change the world.”
            It wasn’t really a loud-mouthed, hyperactive little pig-tailed blonde that made Carl cringe. It was what I represented. While his upbringing was battered humiliation, I was spoiled, doted on, and spoon-fed by the world. I don’t think he was even aware of his intentions to reduce that child to his own state of self-loathing, but he was truly brilliant at it. Carl never crossed the line of abuse. He just crept up to it and lingered there. He never hit me. He never touched me. He only played subtle, but potent mind games as fluid as the air he breathed.
My mother, forever a child herself, remained at her back seat parenting. She just watched, numb and empty headed. At seven years old, Carl felt that I wasn’t eating enough vegetables. He spent hours forcing me to swallow the chalky, adult-sized pills that were too big for my throat. I wailed like a prisoner unaware of the crime I committed. I thought I would die right there in the kitchen chair I was confined to, choking to death. Then I figured I could chew that pill to freedom. I remember breaking open the gel cap between my baby teeth and feeling the bitter, dirt paste seep into my mouth. I struggled to collect enough saliva in the crevice of my gums to wash away the taste until my stomach jolted uncontrollably. My throat felt like floodgates pried open by a tsunami as vomit exploded out of my mouth. I was so embarrassed. I just cried as Carl demanded I clean my mess, rolled his eyes, and stormed away.
I quit sleeping when we moved to Tennessee. I didn’t understand the cause of my insomnia. I only knew that sleep meant surrendering control of my body. That terrified me.
            It wasn’t that every day was hell with Carl. Before we moved away, he was actually an attentive new stepdad. I ate up the masculine activities he introduced to me, like fishing and camping. Since Carl wasn’t a Baha’i, he brought the Christmas rituals I’d been deprived of. We ventured into the woods and chopped down a flimsy, malnourished pine tree to layer with plastic red and green balls and Wal-Mart candy canes. He loaded my stockings with toys and even bought the massive, Pepto-Bismol pink Barbie Dream House I’d been drooling over. I can only imagine how endearing he seemed to my mother as he knelt over to drill his Mega Pro screwdriver into the glitter sunroom. In his earliest daddy days, he sat through Disney movies, fastened hair bows, and gracefully accepted F’s when we played school. That’s why I spent my childhood in denial of the relief I felt when he was gone.
When I was nine, our patio talks began. Carl would lean back on a cushioned deck chair, his gut toppling over his belt. He held a teal, plastic liter mug filled with iced Jack and Coke in his right hand and a cigarette in his left. We would banter back and forth about society, human nature, and life goals. To an outsider, the interaction between the middle-aged southern salesman and a child may have seemed bizarre, but it provided a philosophical outlet Carl couldn’t find with my mom. Annie lived to please others. She was raised by Granddaddy at the height of his male domineering ferocity. She grew up around Granddaddy’s frustrated scowls at my retaliating Grandmother, Adele, questioned him. She challenged him. She outwitted him. She was the better chiropractor and the tougher fighter. Time and time again, he kicked her out of his office, knocked her up, and restricted her chiropractic adjustments to kitchen tables and living room floors. In the end, he preferred a bubbly housewife who knew when to marinate her pot roast and shut her trap.
“I just wanted my dad to like me,” Mom often told me.
Although I’ve known Mom my entire life, she’s a stranger to me because she is a stranger to herself. She had nothing to teach me beyond scouting discount facials and manicures. There was no denying that Mom dumbed herself down to please the men in her life, but I still can’t figure out whether it has been an act all this time or permanent damage. I just know that she blossomed from the perfect daddy’s girl to the ideal wife. She cooked Carl’s chicken fried steak, laughed at his jokes, and adopted his opinions. When they argued, she pouted, but never defied him. Although she was the puppet he cherished far more than the rest of his toys, the oblivion that made their marriage work was also its void. Carl saw me as a little girl precocious enough to entertain him, but naïve enough to nourish his ego. I could spout feedback to keep the banter alive, but he would always be the father of all knowledge. Carl saw the immediate impacts of our talks, like nods, grins, and arguments but the premonitions stopped there. Our chats occurred during my construction. A child is like a soft lump of clay. Carl was my artist. My life views on sex, men, dating, and self-worth were sculpted by the unfiltered ramblings of a drunken misogynist.
“The last thing ya wanna do is get fat,” Carl mentioned.
I was eleven and on the brink of a prepubescent chubby phase.
“Now yer not bad now. Only bout fav’ er ten pounds overweight. But you don’t wanna lose control. The worlda’ treat ya differently. You’ll have less opportunities and it’ll be harder ta landa man with a good payin’ job.”
Starvation was the first indication of my self-discipline. I was devoted to anorexia. I went the distance of memorizing the calorie content within every bite of food while calculating the exact amount of exercise I needed to burn double my consumption. I was luckily young enough to mask my excessive exercise with juvenile hyperactivity. Nobody thought twice about the fact that I was constantly rollerblading, biking, and running for hours in stifling summer humidity. I learned to cut my food into tiny bites and move it around my plate. I read that standing burned more calories than sitting, so I refused to watch television without doing crunches, leg lifts, or at least walking in place. When socially forced to soldier through a movie, I tapped my foot in desperation to knock out about seventy-five extra calories. From age eleven to twelve, I dropped forty pounds and halted the one period I’d had.
“I’m proud of ya. You look great!” Carl told me.
But I couldn’t let my guard down. I knew that Carl’s eye was watchful because my puberty progression was a constant conversation topic. Carl liked to talk about the female form. Once I lost weight, he elevated my status above my cousins because they were getting chubby into puberty. He praised my genetic lottery by telling me, “You look exactly like your mother,” he told me when I was about twelve. “Cept’ you got tha ass. I have no idea what tha hell happened to hers.”
Carl often spat out advice for my future dating life. He never described the type of man I should go for beyond one that makes a good bit of cash. He never taught me to seek intelligence, education, or respect. He never cautioned me to look for chivalry, door openings, dinner payments, or flowers on the right occasions. It wasn’t about how he would earn me, but how I would earn him.
            “Every man wants sex and nuthin’ more,” Carl told me. “So, if ya give ‘em what he wants right away, he’ll think you’re a whore, stick his dick in ya, and move on. String ‘em along for ‘bout a month. Get ‘em investin’ his time. Play hard to get. Give ‘em blue balls.”
“But once ya get ‘em,” he told me one night when I was about fourteen. His face was bloated and flushed from his third liter of Jack and Coke. “Don’t be a prude lak your muther.”
            Carl discreetly turned his head to the left and then the right to make sure Mom wasn’t within hearing range.
“I tried to stick it in er ass once and she didn’t speak to me for a week,” he nearly whispered before belting out a slur of loose chuckles. “And gettin’ ‘er to do ya on top? Forget about it!”
In ways, I morphed into Carl’s description of the ideal woman. Like Mom, physical beauty was my ultimate priority. I spent hours on end stripped naked, posing in front of my full length bedroom mirror at every angle so that each wrinkle, roll, and pinch of fat could receive sharp scrutiny before I strived for complete self annihilation. I made it a habit of studying every Teen magazine model and the skinniest cheerleaders in my middle school yearbook. I observed their arms, legs, and hips. I held their images against mine with a goal for my bones to protrude further and calves spread further apart when standing straight. However, I saw the way Carl bent his head down and lowered his voice when he spoke about Mom, as if it was our job to keep a feisty, barking puppy believing that it was our guard dog.
“Ure mom can’t help she got half ure I-Q,” Carl would chuckle.

I took pride in our superiority. I made valiant efforts to be Mom’s opposite. I rebelled against her smiley, likeable character. I grew into a confrontational, brooding teenager. I learned to push buttons and to make snide, inappropriate remarks in front of their friends. While Mom was a blonde ball of sunshine, I wore despair like a fashionable cloak. Bulimia was flattering apparel.