Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Something Rare and White and Perfect, Like Snow

So, maybe middle school was the best preparation for the writing life.

Besides the fact that it was the first place I ever read a real short story--Edgar Allan Poe, Guy de Maupassant, Mark Twain--it was also where I learned to carry my own awkwardness around with me. All day. Perpetual uncertainty. It was especially bad in the cafeteria, where it felt like the whole world was watching me to see if I was going to drop my tray. A catastrophe that never actually happened, but one I played through my imagination--my fears--constantly.

It was the late eighties: everything in my life was encrusted with a gritty, sticky layer of hairspray. I was goofy and sad. Sociable and lonely. One day I was pretty, and the next, there was a boy in my homeroom who told me I looked like a frog. I failed my pre-Algebra quizzes. My friend Kary Gerwe taught me how to drink coffee, with gallons of half-and-half.

The rumor was my seventh grade Social Studies teacher, who had a wrinkly, tan face that you could tell had once been very beautiful, used to be a Playboy centerfold. Another teacher--my eighth grade Language Arts teacher--was a closet drinker. Literally. We kids talked about it, how she went into the supply room between classes and drank rum.

I was simultaneously too smart and too dumb. Too skinny, too fat. I daydreamed. I hated P.E.

I had one shining moment when, in the eighth grade, at a Halloween party, a boy I liked chose me over another girl. Do you know, it's been nearly twenty-five years and I can still remember exactly what it sounded like, his voice, the very words: Will you go with me?

The rest of my life was pure rejection. Or, it felt that way.

I was always trying to find the right way to stand, the right thing to say. I had to re-fuel by spending lots of time alone, in my room, looking out the window. I became enamoured with dogwoods, and with trees in general. With quiet things. Easeful things. Things that weren't covered in hairspray. I believe it was then, in that quiet, that I began paying attention to the rhythms of speech. Me, trying to get out from under that terrible awkwardness for a single moment, parsing out my thoughts, searching for meter. For pattern. For something to come along and make everything make sense.

It took me years, too, to discover why I liked the dogwoods so much. When the wind blew, a few blossoms fell. It looked like something sad, like tears, and also, like something pretty wonderful, something rare and white and perfect, like snow.