from the memoir Fresh Cut
Wat do you think of when you think of flowers?
Not me. I think of sex. Sex and death.
Flowers are ephemeral examples of pure loveliness. They’re also sex organs. Think about it: cut flowers are the severed sex organs of plants, plopped in a vase of water and slowly rotting. It’s disgusting. What about the beauty, though, the grandeur of the fragile last bloom opening its petals to the sun and sky before falling into ruin? Isn’t this flicker of suspended perfection nature’s immaculate little miracle caught at its fullest moment? Isn’t this worth the inevitable demise? It is, if you take the time to notice it. Everything deserves to be noticed before it dies.
Working with flowers day in and day out instills an acute sense of mortality. We’re fighting the inevitable, and it’s maddening. And that is just one of the many, many reasons why florists are unremittingly crazy.
Everyone says that about their job, true, but most don’t expect it from florists. It’s the loveliest job in the world, right? Full of lovely people making lovely things? In short, no. I was a florist for almost a decade so I can say this with certainty. Trust me, no one in their right mind would want to be a florist.
You may be getting the impression that I truly hate the floral industry. Perhaps I do. Here’s why: I love plants, and the floral industry kills them. It’s a perversion of nature, this slaughter of thousands of innocent blooms, stealing them away from the open air and sunshine into a brief and unnatural zombie life.
People see flowers and plants all the time, every day, but do they ever really notice them? Look, here’s a tiny yellow flower that managed to push itself up through a crack in the concrete, continuing to grow and bloom, despite being spat on, stepped on, and pissed on. It’s a miracle, plain and simple. When was the last time you worked that hard to create beauty in your life?
Sometimes I think I prefer plants to people. They’re strong, undaunted, and resilient. They don’t waver, or become filled with self-doubt; they just go on about the business of growing and surviving, and they do it with beauty and grace. I’d like to be like that. That’s right; I aspire to be like a plant. There are worse things to which one could aspire. That being said, I like to think my story might have meaning not just for florists or plant lovers; I hope it will have meaning for anyone who’s been their own worst enemy and found refuge where they least expected it.
Of course I’ve changed all the names here, but you can call me Eve. After all, it’s a fitting name for an exile from the garden. But where did it all go wrong? Life started out well: I grew up in a farmhouse in New England, in a small town where white people from the same twenty families have been living on the same properties for the last two hundred years. Not that I want to give you the impression that New Englanders are judgmental or prejudiced. Far from it. New Englanders don’t care who you are or what you look like as long as you generally leave them alone.
So how does this humble beginning set the roots of a budding florist? Well, I was grubbing around in the dirt, planting and growing things from about the time I could walk. My mother taught me how to seed, and plant, and water, and take care of a garden, just as her mother had taught her, and every plant that grew there was a miracle to me. How did that tiny seed contain the recipe for a whole plant? How did they know how big to grow, or what kind of blossom to make?
The back of our garden behind the corn was all sunflowers, many times taller than miniature Eve. Sunflowers, despite how much they are romanticized, are big, ugly graceless flowers; yet something about them is unfailingly cheerful and protective. Like the overbearing, fat aunt that you are perpetually embarrassed by but secretly can’t help loving. (Incidentally, sunflower perfume is utterly bogus; the flowers have virtually no scent at all.) But I loved the sweet, earthy smell of the big stems, and the feel of the enormous scratchy leaves brushing up against my face. I wanted to know all about them. I would crack open the seeds with my teeth or pick them apart with my fingernails, shred the stems apart by peeling out their long, celery-like fibers, or borrow my dad’s knife to chop up the great, green columns of the stems to see the secret honeycomb-like water chambers hidden inside.
Did I mention knives? Ah, knives… How I love knives. Ever since I can remember, I have been enthralled with a sharp object. Its power to cut, to destroy, to disassemble–and also to create, to splice, to make a useful object where there was a useless one before. My favorite part of childhood was playing with sharp objects and mutilating plants. You know what they say about kids who mutilate plants, right? Eventually they’ll move up to grains and become a cereal killer. (Yes, I really did just make that joke―sorry.)
I love the way I grew up: my brother and I spent our childhood playing with knives, car parts, broken pottery, and rusty farm equipment, and running through fields and woods, exploring whatever we wanted to explore and learning about everything. Kids need to be allowed to get out on their own, stub their toes, scrape their knees―they need to be allowed to mess up every once in a while. How else are they going to learn their limits, and find their strength? My parents and I may have had some rocky times over the years, but I will tell you flat out that I credit them with my ability to survive. Their child-rearing philosophy was one of confidence and trust; they knew that telling us not to do or touch something was a sure way to get it done or touched, so instead of being overprotective, they educated us. Instead of saying, “Don’t play with knives, knives are dangerous,” they would say, “Knives are dangerous, so if you’re going to play with them, you’d damn well better know how to use them.”
So, to sum up what we’ve got so far: an affinity for knives, a curiosity about the natural world, no compunctions about mangling flowers…I was a Natural Born Florist. Plus, it was in the genes. There are four other florists in my family. (I think it’s a genetic aberration, like hemophilia.) My mother’s mother was a horticulturalist, and she had a flower shop in Canada. It was called “Mini-Flowers” and its specialty was, yes, miniature flower arrangements. And I mean seriously miniscule―two-inch-high, bizarre, fussy little things! People loved them. Every time I came to visit I would be put to work making, for example, two hundred boutonnieres for the Royal Canadian Horticultural Society, or some such nonsense. (Note: ‘Boutonniere’ is a commonly misspelled French word meaning “chopped-off flower head wrapped in gummy green tape with bits of wire poking out and a wickedly long pin designed to go all the way through the lapel deep into the flesh of any unfortunate moron duped into wearing this most ridiculous invention”.)
There I would sit with my two aunts who had also been drafted into the business at a young age, and that’s where I first learned to identify the flower shop smell. And don’t get all smug thinking “They smell like flowers, obviously.” No, they don’t. For one thing most flowers don’t smell at all. The genes for fragrance and the genes for longevity are generally opposite, so the smell has been bred out of many cut flowers that you might buy.
Now there’s something that will send a florist into a conniption: watching people on film, TV, or photos smelling flowers that have no smell. Like daisies. Everyone thinks it looks so cool to have some waifish model holding a big, happy daisy up to her nose. Have you ever tried to smell a daisy? The large South African ones have no scent whatsoever, but they often get moldy in the middle; now there’s a treat to stick your nose in! The more traditional daisies are of the chrysanthemum family, and they smell like…boy, it’s hard to describe. Sometimes it’s tolerable, and sometimes it’s a sort of mélange of Windex, sour milk, and nice, fresh doggie-doo.
No, flower shops smell only faintly of flowers, and mostly of…other things. Fake perfumes. Chemicals. Mold. There is a type of spray paint made specifically for flowers; it has a heady, powdery smell, with undertones of formaldehyde. Layer this over the soporific, medicinal smell of Lavender oil (used for god-knows-what but seemingly present in all shops) then mix in the maddening, musty undertone of dried and decaying plant matter.
Maybe it is this ever-present chemical/organic fog, this hint of death, decay, and artificial preservation that hovers just at the edge of conscious detection, which drives people crazy. The employees are all crazy and often the customers too. My aunt was actually held up at knifepoint in my grandmother’s shop, but not for money―for roses. The guy grabbed her around the neck with one arm, with a knife pressed to her throat, using the other arm to open the cooler and sweep up big bundles of long stem roses, and then he just ran out the door. I’m surprised nobody offered him a complimentary note card to go with his theft. Multiply a crazy with a crazy and they cancel each other out.
But I always knew florists were crazy, because I was surrounded by them. My grandmother is the kind of demented workaholic whose achievements, however formidable, will never satisfy her. Here is an excerpt from an actual conversation with her:
“How are you, Grandma?”
“Oh, I’m miserable. I couldn’t get all my rosebushes planted today.”
“Oh, why not?”
“Broke my arm on Tuesday.” (Sigh.) “Had to go around with it in a sling all week. So I only got about twelve Hybrid Teas in the ground.” (For those of you who are wondering: “What the hell is a Hybrid Tea, and can I get one at Starbucks?” Please see below).
Notes on Roses
What more perfect flower is there than the rose? Long used to represent womanhood and perfection, roses are fascinating, fickle, temperamental… I don’t know what this says about the modern woman, but the modern rosebush is a sort of mutated genetic freak tortured into existence by centuries of hybridization, splicing, slicing, inbreeding and cloning. It comes in several varieties:
Hybrid Tea: Which will get bugs and fungus and disease and die one to three days after you plant it, possibly giving one overlarge, misshapen blossom before its demise.
Grandiflora: Which will get bugs and fungus and disease and die three to six days after you plant it, while potentially managing one to three large but generally boring blooms.
Floribunda: This will produce many smaller, pretty flowers on one stem for up to one week, before getting bugs and fungus and disease and dying.
Giganto-Monster Climbing Hedge Roses: Ever seen “Little Shop of Horrors?” about the man-eating plant from space? How about “Day of the Triffids,” with the enormous walking vine-creatures that strangle and poison people? These roses will take over your house and eat your children. They should all be shot back into space where they came from.
One major problem of growing up in a family of florists is that I learned flower snobbery, flower segregation, and flower class-warfare at a very tender age. This, combined with the fact that I was a weird kid anyway, did nothing for my social interactions. When I was about ten, I had a little friend come to visit me. Her name―I kid you not―was Sky Cleare. (Okay, it really wasn’t, but it was something equally ridiculous.) By this time we had rented out our farmhouse and moved to the Big City, which was actually a cute village with brick sidewalks. My folks were courting financial disaster trying to put my brother and I through a private school that was peopled primarily by the offspring of rich ex-hippies, hence names like Sky Cleare.
I didn’t get along with girls, as a general rule. They all seemed to be in on some secret that I was painfully unaware of. Their giggling, whispering, twisting-lock-of-hair-around-one-finger cuteness inspired a deep mistrust and jealousy in me. But finally, just this once, I thought I’d try it, so I invited this girl to my house. Naturally, we wound up in the front garden of my apartment building, which was planted with a variety of uninspiring shrubberies and small flowering plants of the grocery-store variety. Getting quickly bored with the bland selection, I began my usual routine: dissection. I had brought along one of my favorite toys, which was a staple remover named “Jaws” (I thought staple removers were so cute, with their four big, pointed metal teeth; they looked just like little, staple-munching robots to me). So I set Jaws to work pulling apart the flower heads of some ugly, rust-colored chrysanthemums, and soon he was in a flower feeding frenzy, ripping and tearing and flinging about great drifts of orange petals, as I chanted, “I’m making salad! I’m making salad!” (Ok, so my witty repartee needed some work. What do you want? I was ten.)
Next thing I knew, little Sky Cleare was weeping at me “Oh, please stop, please don’t hurt the pretty flowers!” as she reached out a lily-white hand to pat their little pom-pom heads. I froze. There it was again! That secret female language that constantly eluded me. What had I missed? Was this not how one was supposed to play with flowers? I mean sure, some flowers are pretty, but these little suckers? Ugly, ugly, and so boring. Plus, it’s not like there weren’t plenty to go around. Plus―duh! Flowers don’t feel pain, hello! It’s a plant! Nonetheless, there I was, caught with my dirty little flower-abusing secret, and I suddenly felt like a monstrous, clumsy ogre in the presence of the delicate sensibilities of Sky Cleare.
Needless to say, our garden-play ended soon after. Sky had gently plucked two nodding yellow and white daisy heads (another blatantly low-class flower) and tucked them behind our ears, and we retired inside to play with dolls like good little girls. Ten minutes later, I looked up to find Skye staring in horror at the top of my head, stammering, “Sp-sp-Spider!” My hand slapped reflexively at my hair, where there was a sudden, awful squish, resulting in a handful of yellow guts and twisted spider legs. And that’s what comes of trying to play “girl”. Sky Cleare never came to my house again.
You might say I was a maladjusted child. Perhaps. Maybe that’s another reason I found a home in the floral industry: floristry is a perversion of plant sexuality, and most of my life has been a perversion of human sexuality. *Note to readers: This story will cycle between flowers, sex, death and destruction, sex, flowers… we are now coming up to a sex segment. I know, I know, nobody wants to hear about childhood sexual abuse. “Oh, it’s such a cliché,” they say. News flash: a cliché becomes a cliché because it’s so common. So, for the sake of the (insert unspecified percentage of population here) of us who have been through something like this, I’m not going to skip this part. Go ahead: call it a cliché, make a joke of it, blow it off and be annoyed by it. Then let me know how you feel if it happens to your kid.
I got my “girl training” started off good and early. When I was six my friend’s older brother tried to have sex with me. He succeeded in having sex with me, I suppose, as much as a twelve-year-old can, and also with his sister. I was lucky that the actual physical damage wasn’t that bad―more of a collection of unpleasant sensations than anything, but the fear was bad, and the constriction and helplessness, and the teasing and sneering and ridicule. He must have had a very good teacher, because he knew all the right abuse terminology: he made sure that I understood that the whole thing was my fault, that I was the one who had wanted it, and that if I told anyone, especially my parents, they would hate me and never speak to me again. These were the same parents who took away the plastic carrot that I used to play with in the bathtub, simply because I insisted on trying to see how many orifices it could fit into, so I reasoned that he was probably right. My parents were very sensitive about “those areas”, and were very big on telling me how I must always be “proper” and “appropriate,” and that “those areas” should never be talked about and preferably ignored altogether. How would they react to something like this, which was clearly very dirty and naughty? And obviously my fault, since, according to this well-informed fellow, I was the one who had started it all?
So I pushed down all the fear, and horror, and pain about what had just happened, and I did the only sensible thing: I forgot about it. Or tried to. I always knew there was something there, even when I couldn’t actually remember it. I remember some parts now, but I don’t have a really good sense of how many times this went on, how bad it was…I know there are parts I am still blocking out, and that’s fine by me. I don’t care to delve.
I do remember telling one friend about it, though, right after it happened―my best friend Susie. Her reaction was not quite what I had expected. She said: “Can we try that?” So, in a moment straight out of the Feminist Empowerment Manual, we hid in my closet, stripped down, and crab-walked our legs over each other until our most delicate, sensitive parts brushed against each other then collapsed in flushed, breathless giggles. I guess every cloud has a silver lining.
My relationships with women have always been complex and difficult, probably because of my intense attraction to them. I think it is likely that I was born a good forty percent lesbian, unless my whole idea of gender roles got screwed up from my premature sexual awakening. Whatever the reason, relationships with men have always seemed so much easier and more comfortable. Women are strange, beautiful, seductive, mysterious, completely unattainable, utterly incomprehensible creatures. As I said, I was a weird kid: smart, imaginative, psychologically scarred, and not exactly the picture of social grace. I would latch on to one female friend at a time, become intensely attached to her, and utterly terrified of rejection. In grade school it was Becky. Becky was perfect; I mean textbook, blond, All-American, junior-gymnastics champion perfect. Come to think of it, what the hell was she doing hanging out with me? But she did seem to like me, and we spent practically all our available time together. I remember once, after sixth grade dance class, having another of those weird memory flashes.
“Becky, do you know what a virgin is?” I asked.
“I think so,” she replied.
“Well, I don’t think I am one,” I said. Her eyes grew big and wide.
“What do you mean?” she asked, and the undertone of revulsion in her voice shut my mouth instantly.
“Nothing,” I said.
Then one day when I was over at her house we went into her six-year-old sister’s room and found Barbie spread-eagled and naked with Ken perched awkwardly between her legs. We both laughed about it. “I always do that with my Barbies too,” Becky said. Later that night I decided to teach her a couple of the tricks I’d discovered, like sliding down the banister on the stairway, causing a deep tingling to spread from hips to thighs to stomach, which was actually the least of the tricks I had discovered by that age. I had explored my own body thoroughly and knew every part of it.
I had read my mother’s romance novels – they always seemed to start with the woman being flung onto her back, with thrusting, and blood, and pain, and I determined that no one was ever going to hurt me or make me bleed like that. But I found other things to do that would cause intense pleasure, and I was thrilled to have someone to share them with. Becky was nervous and reluctant at first, but then seemed to get into the spirit of it. I don’t think I felt remotely embarrassed or awkward the next day, and life went along just fine.
Sometime later, my parents called me down from my room to talk to me. Becky’s parents had called them, apparently to give them the “We don’t want your daughter hanging around our daughter anymore” speech. I’m not sure if they discussed exactly why, but they certainly hinted. Curiously enough, my parents seemed more outraged on my behalf than anything. They knew it had to do with some kind of sex-play, but they didn’t seem at all angry with me. If anything, they seemed to think that Becky’s parents were acting like complete idiots. Nonetheless, the pain of losing my best friend, and the shame of knowing why, felt like another nail in my coffin. So I tried to push down the thought of those little pleasure-games, and the murky memories that lay just underneath them.
I didn’t actually, fully, consciously remember those events of six-years-old until later in life, but they were with me for my entire childhood, in varying levels of awareness. I felt with unshakeable certainty that on some deep level I was different than everyone else, somehow flawed and weird and dirty. I knew I had a secret, but I couldn’t quite figure out what it was―I just knew that if anyone found out, I would be pushed out and left alone forever.
And yet sometimes it came back to me in moments of frightening clarity, before being repressed again: I remember standing on the edge of the woods, hoping that a Unicorn would come. I was obsessed with Unicorns, like all ten-year-old girls should be. But then I realized, staring into the empty woods and listening for the rustle of hooves, that a Unicorn would never come for me. They only came for virgins―all the books I had read were very clear on that point―and I wasn’t one. So I made myself forget again.
Have you even had a repressed memory come to the surface? I don’t recommend it. It makes you feel like you’re going crazy. I think I know what brought it all back, though. I hit puberty, and fell in love: powerful, potent, bittersweet first love. I was thirteen; Jay was seventeen―so, not entirely appropriate, plus he was from the wrong side of the tracks. (Quite literally, actually; there were a lot of trains where I grew up, and where you lived in relation to them was of the utmost importance.) But he treated me like a princess, and by the time I was fourteen I wanted nothing more urgently than to make love to him…but he wouldn’t.
He was terrified that it would screw everything up, like everything else in his life was screwed up. I don’t think he had any notion of how truly and deeply a fourteen-year-old girl can love. I still remember the smell of his skin and the feel of the cigarette-burn-scar on his hand, and to this day my heart still skips a beat every time I drive down the street in my hometown where we first kissed.
My parents must have been able to smell the teenage pheromones flying around, because they forbade me to see him. They were thrilled when it was time to go back to school in the city, and get me away from my embarrassing infatuation with a good-for-nothing-redneck.
So I started school. And I started to go crazy. I saw flashes of terrible things in that drifting time between sleeping and waking, things that filled me with fear and confusion and shame.
Then one day, sitting in my friend’s living room trying not to look at her ugly dog, it was just there: a memory. And I realized that all the other weird feelings and flashes were also memories. Had that really happened to me? Yes, it had. Had I really forgotten about it? Yes, in a way, I did. But it explained so much―I really did have a dirty little secret all this time! But somehow I knew it would be all right…because Jay loved me. And if he loved me, then I must really be okay, right?
You know, had things gone differently at that point in my life, then I think that whole messy experience from childhood would just have been written off in my mind as a bad time, and life would have gone on. However…instead of being made love to by my sweet, flawed, beautiful country-bumpkin, I wound up violated by an abusive, spoiled-brat rich kid. Oh, my parents didn’t see a problem with him, because he was from such a good home. They didn’t know about the pain and embarrassment that occurred in every dark corner of the school, having my arms pinned down, my shirt pulled up, my lips bitten at, every sensitive part of my body viciously groped and grabbed, and bruised.
How did the bastard even get near me? He was trying to date me, but I would have none of it, then one day he came up to me and said, “I’m not going to try and go out with you anymore, I can’t trust you. I’ve heard you have lots of other guys,” (Not true. Not yet, anyway.) And for some inexplicable reason, that worked. The thought that someone felt they couldn’t trust me cut me right to the bone: “If only I could prove myself,” I thought. And then later, “If only I could prove myself, he’ll stop hurting me,” and then later still, “If only I can prove myself, he’ll stop hurting me and saying such awful things about me.” Ah, the sickly-sweet voice of low self-esteem.
So the day I let him into my house when my parents weren’t home, I didn’t fight very hard. When “no”, and “no”, and “no” again didn’t work, I finally gave up. I should have screamed, I should have insisted, but I was so afraid that the more I resisted, the more violent he would become. I should have realized that he was too weak for that, but fear took over. So I bit my lip and swallowed my pride, and let him do what he wanted to do. Then I bit his lip, wishing like hell that I could send him just a tiny taste of the pain and rage coursing through my body. “Wow, that was the most passionate kiss I’ve ever had,” he said earnestly, proving yet again that men have absolutely no clue what women are thinking.
The bitterest defeat of all was when I confronted him the next day.
“What the hell is wrong is with you?” I demanded. “Why did you do that, when you knew I didn’t want to? Did you not hear me saying no?” He just smirked, and responded: “You always say no, but you always give in anyway”.
I think it was then that I began to cut myself.
Sharp objects. Sweet release.
I found the most inventive ways to cut myself. Crack open a safety razor and pull out the blade. Break a mirror, and then break it again, until the pieces fit neatly between thumb and forefinger. I think I even managed to cut myself with a sharp rock once or twice. Thumbtacks worked if enough pressure was applied, and even serrated butter knives, if you sawed back and forth a lot. The problem with razor blades was that they were too sharp―you couldn’t really feel them, so they weren’t as satisfying, and if you cut too deeply, you’d scar too much and give the game away. I usually waited until I’d used the razor for about a week and dulled it down a bit.
Broken glass was my favorite. It was slow, and the drag as the skin parted was like a cold water kiss. The gouges it opened in my skin were wide and shallow, and bled slowly and sweetly. The more I cut, the more my skill increased, until I was able to carve symbols and words: occult-looking line drawings of crosses and four-pointed stars emerged from my forearms, Jay’s name on my bicep. (He had used a hot lighter to burn my name on his, but he got one of the “e”s backwards.) My masterpiece was carving letters upside-down into my thighs, so they could be read by someone standing in front of me: “Fuck” on the left thigh, and “Suck” on the right, with arrows indicating the appropriate place for these commands. Oh, I was good.
I was very, very careful with my artwork, only sharing it with a select few. One guy that I liked actually thought it was cool. He came up to me with a razor blade in the murky basement café of our school building, and said: “Hey, Evie, can I cut your hand?” Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time, so I said, “Sure,” and stuck my hand out. The cut that he opened absolutely gushed, the blood pooling rapidly in the honeycomb hollows of the black rubber matt that covered the stone floor. I can still look down at the thin white scar on the back of my hand fifteen years later as I type this. See what I mean about razors? Too hard to control. The key was to scar, but just enough.
Fortunately, I was in dance classes several times a week, and took to wearing my leotards all the time. Those long spandex sleeves and tights covered my sins in just the right way. As I said, I didn’t want to give the game away…it was the only thing I had. I had stopped talking to my parents, except to scream and break things. I spent most of my time hanging out in the cemetery drinking or getting stoned, or slumming around downtown with the local punks, making fun of passers-by.
My brother thought I was a freak and wanted nothing to do with me, and the kids at school knew I was a freak and wanted nothing to do with me. But when I cut myself, when the flesh parted and the blood began to flow, the moment was completely mine. In that moment I was calm and sane. The pressure inside me would release, and everything in the world would evaporate. There was only complete concentration on the steady, biting pain, and I could have wept for the joy of it.
I also learned to hit things, punching wooden fences for the sharp spike of splinters, and rough-poured mortar and concrete that would shred my knuckles and leave beautiful black bruises. People saw, sometimes. But I don’t think it mattered very much to me. I figured everyone pretty much hated me anyway. I was a horrible fashion disaster. I had dyed my fluffy light-brown hair with big blond, black, and red stripes. My typical outfit was a leotard, a denim skirt, bulky shirt, and fedora. Maybe in 1980 this would have been really cool. Unfortunately, this was 1990, and the approved school uniform was ripped jeans and flannels, with a stylish environmentalism overlay and a dash of jaunty social consciousness. So I was really just a dork.
Plus, Mr. Rich Kid Rapist had told the entire school what an incredible slut I was, sharing intimate details of my rabid pleasure at our many passionate fabricated encounters. After a while I gave up trying to convince people otherwise. Why do people always believe the man, I wonder? Maybe it’s just easier. If we admitted that there are men out there who hurt and take advantage of women, then it might engender a responsibility to actually do something about it.
You might wonder, with all this spectacular self-abuse, how I got by? How did I not completely self-destruct, or get caught? I’m not really sure, actually. I’ve always managed, my entire life, to compartmentalize, to temporarily lock away my darkness and madness and rage into a tiny little box, and go on with life. I could stay up nights thinking of new ways to injure myself, but go to school the next day and get straight A’s. This is actually how I learned my acting skills, on this tightrope walk of madness and mundanity.
I discovered that if I could go onstage and lose myself in something, I was all right. My bouts of mutilation became fewer and farther between, only coming out at times of extreme stress. Then I discovered the joy of meaningless sex.
Sex became an intriguing new hobby for me. It was about as intimate as a nice game of tennis, and about as physically pleasurable for me as clipping my toenails, but as a psychological exercise it was fascinating: men can’t hide anything in the throes of passion. If you went in, like I did, as a neutral observer, you could observe the most interesting things. Some men would turn into mindless, rutting animals, sweating and grunting and drooling. Some would go into bouts of swearing that would shame a sailor, some would whimper like little boys crying for their mommies. Many did things that were so silly that I almost lost my porn-star façade. I learned pretty quickly that that some of the best acting I would ever do would be between the sheets. “Oh, baby, I just love it when you put your head between my breasts and shake it back and forth going “B-b-b-b-b--b”, oh baby YES that really turns me on!”
Men were so easy. Women, on the other hand, remained completely inscrutable. My old friend Mary from my hometown was the first girl I ever kissed (other than little Susie); she was a strong-jawed, redheaded Irish fireball. We were about sixteen, and we wound up in a cemetery in the boondocks, with a great mountainous-fat friend of hers: he was twenty-one and had bribed us with a lot of beer. Midnight came, and we started playing dare-you games, which was really just an excuse for Mary and I to make out. Fortunately, the Mountain didn’t try to get in on the action―I think observing was enough for him. I’m sure for that brief time he must have felt like the absolute king of the world (I honored him later by throwing up in the back of his car). I could never figure out how Mary actually felt about that night. Curious, bored, ashamed, intrigued? Women are impossible to read. I think I chased girls a bit more than I chased boys, partly because they were such a challenge, and partly because I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was only one man for me, and I’d missed my chance with him.
Jay and I drifted apart after my parents separated us and everything in my life went downhill. He wound up back in Juvenile Hall. Eventually, he got a girl from my eighth grade class pregnant and his misbegotten sense of honor made him marry her. The viciously bitter irony of it was that she was only a pity-fuck to him; he slept with her because she told him a sob story about having been raped. Meanwhile, in my life…well, you know the rest. We tried to stay in contact as much as we could, but his wife didn’t allow him much breathing room.
Not too long after that, Mary invited me to spend the night, and go to her sophomore prom with her. I had the perfect dress: it crossed in the back like a Greek toga, and I had a vision of the perfect flower for my hair. I was picturing something like the giant red Hibiscus flower that you saw in all the photos of Hawaiian hula-girls. We didn’t have Hibiscus in New England, so the only flower that I could come up with was lily. My mother gallantly called Gavotte’s, the snooty flower shop that my aunt used to work for, and explained that her daughter wanted a red lily hairpiece for the prom. I should have been suspicious when I heard her having to repeat the request several times, as though the person on the other end was doubtful. They quoted her some astronomical sum, and when the day rolled around, my dad ventured out to fetch the piece de resistance. When he got home and placed the plastic flower box in my hands, even he looked a bit skeptical.
Here’s the thing: there really is no such thing as a red lily. But instead of explaining this to us they florist had decided to punish our ignorance by gluing a single inch-long pinkish-orange, roughly lily-shaped alstromeria blossom to an enormous green leaf, and charged us fifteen bucks for it. You could still see the strings of glue that the glue gun had left behind. They hadn’t even bothered with a cheap bow to cover up the stem. I cried, and wound up with a red carnation-and-baby’s breath hairpiece from McIntyre’s, the cheapest flower shop in town. Still, my mother insisted I was a vision of loveliness.
“Look at you!” she said, her eyes wide as I came down the stairs. “You look like a cherub! An angel! A Greek goddess!” She looked at me, eyes glowing with pride. “Do Taxi Driver!”
“Mom!” I said, “this is hardly the time. Or the outfit.”
“That’s why it’s so perfect! C’mon, you must!”
I sighed and launched into my best De Niro: “Are you talkin’ to me? There’s nobody else here, you must be fuckin’ talkin’ to me.” My mom clapped her hands in delight.
Half an hour into the dance, I completely forgot the humiliation of my cheap hair decoration when I saw Jay walking across the dance floor toward me. It may have been a set-up―I think Mary called him and told him I would be there. At any rate, Jay and I were out of there like a flash, and parked on the pier where we had first met. We talked, and looked out at the water and the boats drifting against each other in the dim light, and then he sang to me, “Amazing Grace, how sweet it is…” It was his favorite song, and his voice was so sweet that it made me ache, because we both knew that he was not lost-and-now-found, but lost-and-now-more-lost.
We kissed and kissed, as though breathing each other’s air was the only way to stay alive, and finally we took off to a dark country road and had desperate, panting sex there in the front seat. When we knew it was time to leave, he began to weep silently, trying to turn away so I wouldn’t see. I couldn’t think of anything to say that would make him feel better. When I got back to Mary’s house, her mother had waited up for me, her kind, square face filled with concern and reproach. I didn’t know what to say to her either.
Months later Jay called me, and this time he couldn’t hide the fact that he was crying. “I don’t know what to do,” he choked out the words. “I don’t love her. I don’t even like her!”
I couldn’t say what I really wanted to say, which was, “For God’s sake, leave her, come back to me, save me, take me away, I need you more than she does.” But he had made his decision, and my selfishness would only have made things worse. So instead I said: “Well, what about the baby? You’re going to like the baby, aren’t you? You always wanted kids, and you’re going to be a great dad. And maybe, someday, after the baby is born, you’ll learn to like her too.”
“Do you really think so?” he asked.
“Well…sure. It must happen all the time, right? People wind up together, they didn’t really expect to…but they learn to like each other. Maybe even love each other. And the important thing is to focus on the baby.”
“It’s a girl then?” I asked quietly.
“Yes, her name’s going to be Alissa.”
I had to catch my breath and swallow the lump in my throat for a moment. I had wanted a daughter―his daughter. But I hid my disappointment and tried to sound encouraging. “You’re going to love Alissa,” I said. “Just keep thinking about that, and you’ll be okay.”
That was the last time I ever heard from him. But I hear he has two daughters now.
All I had was sex. And acting. I was only one-and-a-half credits away from an early graduation, so I took my two senior classes and spent the rest of the time bumming around the local theatre companies, doing acting, stage management, costuming and blow jobs―whatever was needed. I was seventeen, but looked twenty-five, and had a sad, wistful face straight out of a sixteenth century Italian painting. I was cast in Shakespeare plays and other classical theatre productions.
Oh, those wacky theatre-geek Renaissance-fair types: we got into all sorts of trouble. While doing costumes for Hamlet, I started dating a dashing bearded fellow named Justin, who was playing Messenger Number One, but Kevin, who was playing Messenger Number Three, apparently also had a crush on me, and he eventually convinced me to meet his girlfriend, Siobhan, who was another Irish redhead; I fell instantly in love with her, and she thought Justin was quite cute too. It was getting very confusing, so we did the only sensible thing, and all jumped into bed together. I tried to court Siobhan, but she broke my heart by announcing that she didn’t think she was all that interested in girls anymore, and was going to go back to being “hetero” for a while and just date Messenger Number Three. I survived, but I didn’t sleep with another woman for a long time. (Interesting side note: ten years later, and thirty five hundred miles away, Siobhan found my brother’s name on some mailing list. Recognizing the last name, she e-mailed him to find out if he was related to me. I e-mailed her, but nothing ever came of it. Still…I think that’s a win.)
I went on to have a lot of fun with Justin. He gave me the first orgasm I had ever experienced (with another person present), and later I got him to share another boy with me. I didn’t completely give up on women: I adored another cute little girl in my class named Lonnie. She was tiny and rounded, with wicked sparkly eyes, dimples, and a short bob of dark red hair (I seem to have somehow imprinted on cute redheads). She broke my heart, of course. We were on a public service trip coordinated by our school, clearing brush out in the woods at a Native American reservation on the border of Canada. Lonnie and I had gone swimming in the wooded lake at the edge of the camp, splashing and spinning around each other, and finally winding up in each other’s arms, lips just inches apart. I summoned all the courage I had been saving and asked her to go out with me. She looked bemused and responded that she didn’t want to go out with girls, she just wanted to make out with girls, and if she was going to do that, it would probably be with her friend Gwen, to whom she was really attracted. Ouch!
I honestly don’t know how straight men do it. Women are awful. Men are so much easier. On another camping trip I seduced an incredible young man that looked just like Keanu Reeves, with strong shoulders and tousled black hair. (I loved those camping trips.) And to think, everybody thought I was into nature studies. Well, it is a nature study of sorts, right?
Between chasing girls, seducing boys, and pursuing acting and dance, I managed to keep myself pretty busy and mostly refrain from self-directed violence. It would have been nice, I suppose, if I could have found professional floristry at a younger age. Perhaps if I could have rediscovered my childhood satisfaction in chopping up flowers, I would have had less desire to mutilate myself. But at the time, it really didn’t seem like a valid career path. In fact, the very idea would have seemed laughable to me. I was going to do great things in the world, not be some kind of (shudder) “craftsperson.” I loved dance, but hated the pretension surrounding it; acting fascinated me, but I thought of it only as a hobby. I had actually decided that I needed to dedicate myself to some kind of social service. I knew that I was all sorts of screwed up, and I thought that maybe, just maybe, I could use my screwed-up perspective to help other people not be so screwed up. It made sense at the time.
I approached one of my teachers to guide me in an independent study of criminal psychology: I studied case after case of child abuse, and saw how it was a crystal clear recipe for creating abusive and violent adults. I wanted to learn the anatomy of a broken psyche: When did it happen? How deep could it go? How bad could it get? Was there any point at which one could turn back? I was determined to look as deeply into the dark side of human nature as I could, so I studied serial killers, reading endless accounts of incomprehensible pain and horror, and the question that echoed through all of these accounts was…why? What could make a person do such a thing?
The disturbing thing was that I thought I understood. I knew that spot within me where pain turns to pleasure. Luckily I only wanted to hurt myself. But what if things had been different? My story was only a mild case of damage compared to some that I read. What if it had been worse? Could I have become a killer too? Or…could I still? Could I still break, or could I turn back the clock and undo some of the damage that had already been done?
If only I had been able to reach out to someone, if only there was a single person that would have listened to my story, understand, and told me that everything was going to be all right and that it was not my fault, that would have been enough for me. Then maybe I could use the pain that I had been through to reach out to others, and listen, and understand.
If I had been a truly noble person I would have started a brilliant career in child psychology, helping abused kids rediscover their innocence and joy and preventing their scarred psyches from blossoming into the abusers and serial killers of the future. Instead I chickened out. I was not, I finally decided, that strong. One horror story too many out of the mouth of a five-year-old and that would be it: their pain would pile on top of my pain and one day I would snap. So instead of reality overload, I chose reality escape. I decided to go to acting school.
My parents didn’t care. They did the whole “whatever makes you happy, dear” thing, because they loved me, and were sick of my antics. Shortly before my high school graduation, as I was running around with nefarious theatre people, getting drunk, getting laid, and generally not giving a damn about anyone except myself, I came home to find a letter shoved underneath my bedroom door. It was from my mother: she was, for all intents and purposes, disowning me. They would put me through school, she said, because they felt that that was a parent’s responsibility, but as far as she was concerned, I was no longer a part of the family. She had spent years dealing with my rages, my mood swings, my completely selfish and unpredictable behavior, and she was done with it. If I were going to keep secrets, and generally not act like part of the family, then I would not be part of the family.
I read her letter several times, hands shaking. Of all the things going through my head, the overwhelming feeling was cold, cold anger. Finally, I sat down and wrote a letter in return. You want to know why I can’t be a part of this family? You want to know why I keep secrets? This is why. And I spilled it. Slapped her right across the face with it. The molestation as a child, the abuse as a young teenager, the rage and anger and depression, all of which I laid squarely at her feet.
She read my letter, and we talked, and I watched the pendulum swing between shame and anger, denial and remorse, blaming me, blaming herself, blaming me, blaming herself…
Emotional confessions to your mother should always be undertaken with care. In fact, you should probably avoid them altogether, if possible. Still, your mother will probably love you no matter what, and taking this terrifying step to repair our relationship before it became irreparable was one of the most important things I ever did. In the end, I think it wound up saving my life. It certainly gave me a blissful respite from the years of hatred and self-torture, and allowed me to feel that I might actually have a chance at a normal life after all.
I left home on my way to acting school with a positive outlook and hope for the future, and having no idea that things were about to get a lot worse.