by Sylvia Math
I didn’t have very much to do with boys my own age, when I was 14-16, before I left home, but there were two. Both very nice. Nice Boy #1 was also sexy. He was tall and he had just the right slouch. There was absolutely nothing rebellious about anything he ever said or did. But you could feel it simmering. When I saw him again later when we were both in different colleges, of course he had green hair, eyeliner and a Flipper tee shirt (the one with the x’s on the fish’s eyes.) It was dull to hang out with him when we were 15 though.
It wasn’t me he was into, it was me acting out what he couldn’t act out yet, and maybe my family. The Suburban Tanenbaums qualities; that we did not care, as a unit. We didn’t even know how. Everyone in my family, including me, was both weird and kinda distracted about it—mostly introversion but with an extrovert convulsion here and there. Like when my dad exploded from from the garage to race his go- karts around the neighborhood in a fabulous furry freak brothers tee shirt, after months of barely talking to anyone/working on endless photo negative projects in the garage.
Or when my brother and his friend conceived of an elaborate harassment art project of everyone they could find in the white pages with the same name as a fictional character they had invented, and made a comic book out of it that they put in all the mailboxes in the neighborhood. We were tolerated because we were “smart” and because mostly we were quiet; absorbed in our own messes. When we irritated people it wasn’t on purpose it was just oblivious. Although occasionally we got flak, like when I was kicked out of high school and when my brother was kicked out of Boy Scouts.
I think nice boy #1 first became aware of us (and hence of me) when my brother got kicked out of the Boy Scouts. Nice Boy #1 was an Eagle Scout. (I always have an erotic response to learning any guy was an Eagle Scout. That I don’t completely understand. I mean they can tie knots, but I’m not into rope bondage…)
Anyway, we lived in the same suburban neighborhood, a few blocks apart, but had gone to different middle schools. He was still in high school; I had dropped out. (Stayed out after they kicked me out.) My dad went with my brother on a father/son Boy Scout camping thing, that included the Eagle Scouts, and he refused to sleep in a tent like everyone else. He slept in his car, where he could smoke weed and play music until late at night, in peace. Or so he thought. It was not very peaceful when the troop leader dad guy smelled the weed, and we were infamous even beyond the neighborhood after that.
Nice Boy #1 secretly admired my dad because of this. He wanted to be around us. Sacramento is a conservative town, especially the upper middle class whitey neighborhoods of Carmichael/Arden Park. I found it hard to believe no one else’s parents smoked weed, but maybe they didn’t. What the other parents did was drink.
One day when I was riding my bike to the library, I passed by nice boy #1’s house. His mom was in a half-undone bathrobe, very obviously wasted drunk, and throwing what appeared to be the entire contents of the living room onto the front lawn. I didn’t have the emotional intelligence or sophistication to talk about this to Nice Boy #1, but I understood perfectly why he was attracted to me & my house after that. We were certainly not going to judge him.
My mom was the most normal one, but of course she was weird too. The weirdest thing she did—the one most talked about—was the move. She always wanted to move. She displaced all of her unhappiness onto whatever house we lived in. The house was the problem, and if we moved, everything would be better. She couldn’t really justify moving out of our neighborhood at a certain point, since we were rooted in schools, friends, activities—my brother and I had some semblance of our own lives. So she convinced my dad (wore him down, actually) that the house on the corner—which was for sale—was better than the house we lived in, in the middle of the block on the same street. After the move, you could sit on the front steps of the new house and SEE the old house. This infuriated me. I was satisfied finally that other people noticed and disapproved. All the PTA moms looked askance at my mom. The houses were THE SAME. She finally revealed herself, the pathology & pointlessness of all her house moving. There was no real estate justification and this was visible. There was some other fucked up reason, and now the neighbors knew too.
All the normal mother/daughter hostility was amplified by the fact that I was openly & aggressively not what she wanted me to be. She clearly communicated her expectations in fact. I was supposed to be smart but not too smart, pretty, & sociable. (She wanted to relive her prom queen/ only girl on student council days through me. That’s the part she didn’t say.) She also sat me down for a serious talk when I was 14 and told me she was concerned that I wasn’t dating. And I wasn’t doing enough normal girly things. She wanted me to know the one thing I couldn’t do was be a lesbian. I was, at the time, involved with a man twice my age and keeping this from her. I continued to keep this from her. Also I really hated her guts after that. Since I thought she was a louse, I didn’t feel bound by a shred of obligation to pretend to be civil. Whatever control she had over me up to the age of 14 was gone. For the years 14-16, I had nothing to say to her except ITS NOT THE HOUSE YOU STUPID BITCH or GET OUT OF MY ROOM. There was no statement she could make to me that was innocent or innocuous enough. Even “some mail came for you” was met with GET OUT OF MY ROOM.
My dad did absolutely nothing to defend her from my wrath (he laughed actually) and so mostly she avoided me. My ferocity completely intimidated her. This silence looked like some sort of peace on the outside because things rarely happened, but it was a cold Cold War that would never ever be cold enough and the big weapons were gonna come out one day, we all knew it. Whereas before I was a fully fledged teenager, we did things together as a family sometimes, not anymore. Very strained dinners once in a while. We didn’t take any vacations together, didn’t even watch tv together. We were a band taking too long to make our breakup album. We would have been so far apart on our album cover photo it would have been folded like an accordion; ten pages to get a picture with all four of us.
A few weeks after I left for Berkeley, my mom filed for divorce. I left and whatever I was leaving blew up on the road behind me as I was leaving. You can’t go home again…not in a nostalgic reverie, but because your house finally exploded after a protracted volatility so intense the delay was the only unexpected part. My brother later said he felt like all the tension in Ordinary People described the vibe at our house, but there was more to it. It was weirder because we were weirder, with more suppressed violence because we were suppressing more violence. My brother has written some about this, and it’s always bizarre to me not to read what he has to say, but what book reviewers say. “his family completely disintegrated when his mother divorced his father and his sister moved out of the house at the same time.” Or: “hippie parents who established few boundaries but also declined to make the world less mysterious.” Or: “One of the repeated themes of the book is how his young mind was unable to fully process and understand the chaos occurring around him, leading him to the the family “nothing” (in the words of his sister).”
The family “nothing.” I had completely forgotten I ever said that. It’s unreal when book reviewers remember your adolescence better than you do. Also upsetting. Like thanks for the insight pal, but how is that any of your business. Anyway, while the family “nothing” held no appeal for us, the family, Nice Boy #1 still found it a hearth of sorts. Even when I was eventually too bored with nice boy #1, when I broke up with him, I told him he should feel free to come hang out at my house when he felt like it. He did and that was fine.
The thing with Nice Boy #2 was even briefer. I invited him to a poetry reading. Diane di Prima, in downtown Sacramento. We sat primly on folding chairs; all the stale conventions of a poetry reading were in effect. I had only read Revolutionary Letters, so that’s what I was expecting. Instead, she read from Loba, which I had not read. She spoke in an intentionally tendentious “this is a poetry reading and i am a poet reading a poem to my civilized audience” voice. For the first part of the line. Which was something like “and often as I have gazed upon the image of Aphrodite, of Venus on a half shell, I have wanted to say…” then she pulled out the stops with a dramatic pause of exactly the right length for effect, and finished the line with the word “CUNT.”
I had never actually heard anyone say that word out loud before, and certainly not in a clear, loud, intentional voice. And definitely not at a poetry reading. I smiled and perked up in my seat and looked over at Nice Boy #2 with a conspiratorial glance like she is fucking awesome, right.
I was alone in that conspiracy, and Nice Boy #2 looked like I had just suffocated his beloved hamster and then threw a party to celebrate its violent demise. It was a very awkward drive home, worse even than when you are the babysitter and the kids’ dad has to drive you home for 30 minutes at midnight from one part of suburbia to the other and you can tell all he can think about is what you look like naked, and he knows you know that’s what he’s thinking, and it goes on long enough that he starts to resent you, and feel like it’s your fault even though it’s not.
Only I didn’t feel like whatever was making nice boy #2 feel awkward about the fact that I took him to a poetry reading where the female poet said the word CUNT really loud was my fault. I just felt like a dumbass for having anything to do with 16 year old nice boys in suburbia, so I stopped having anything to do with any of them ever again. The camaraderie kids have with each other about the fun of transgression, of saying words you’re not supposed to say, was not a pure uncomplicated silly joy with the word CUNT involved, so I needed some less nice boyfriends to figure it out.
Sylvia Math fled California for NYC. She has work in X-Ray and Vol1Brooklyn, excerpts from memoir in progress, Looks Bad on Paper.
Image source: Oleksandr Gamaniuk/Unsplash