Read Loud in the House of Myself Online

Authors: Stacy Pershall

Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Personal Memoirs, #Psychology, #Personality

Loud in the House of Myself (3 page)

BOOK: Loud in the House of Myself
8.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Because I needed someone else to help me, another set of hands on the assembly line, I couldn’t wait for the baby to come. We talked about names. One late-summer night, while she scrubbed my back in our pink bathtub, she told me I could pick the middle name if the baby was a girl. I tried to choose between Jane and Nancy. She said the first name would be Natalie, so Jane was better. Unlike many children who are jealous when a sibling comes along, I loved sharing my mother with the person growing in her belly. The world was full of possibilities. My sister. White petals fell from the dogwoods outside our expectant home.

Natalie Jane died on Christmas. She was never born; she died while she was still inside my mother’s womb. While we were opening our presents, my mother started bleeding. The next day my dad took me to see her in the hospital. I made her a green construction-paper tree with cotton balls glued on for snow, and she fed me lemon Jell-O from her avocado-green dinner tray. I tried not to think about the fact that my sister had, according to my father, “something too wrong with her to be born.” I tried not to imagine what her face might have looked like.

When my mother came home, she stared out the kitchen window and cried a lot. She still took me places and did things with me, but a part of her was gone. I tried hard to be very good and entertaining so she wouldn’t miss Natalie Jane. So that I wouldn’t bother her or see her cry, I hid in my room, picking out fantasy mothers from the JCPenney catalog. I spent hours naming the people on every page: first name, last name, middle name sometimes too. Then I faked their signatures, because that made them seem more real, more like people I actually knew. The arrival of the Penney’s catalog each Christmas may have excited other kids because they couldn’t wait to start making lists of the things they wanted, but it excited me because there were more people to name, more mothers and sisters to make up. I created entire JCPenney families, sometimes folding back the pages of women’s wear to touch children’s wear so I could assign smiling besweatered mothers to offspring in cozy quilted pajamas. I asked my grandma if I could have her catalogs when she was done with them; that way, I could name the same people all over again. I became obsessed with classification, as if by making enough lists and putting everything in exactly the right order and calling everything by exactly the right name, I could save both my mother and myself. I began “collecting friends” when we went shopping: in the mall, I walked up to random women with a pen and a paper bag from the Hallmark store. If they agreed to be my friends, I asked them to sign their names on the bag. I kept the bag under my mattress, pulling it out and meticulously copying the signatures next to my JCPenney mothers.

My mom told me she was pregnant again a year later. I prayed she would carry this baby all the way, and—I was convinced this was due solely to my asking Jesus enough times—she did. My brother Cameron Jeryl came into the world on a cold March day in 1978, a few months after we moved into our new yellow house. My father picked me up from school, telling me there was someone at the house who wanted to meet me, and that day I held a baby for the first time. He had thick black hair and small pursed lips, and his milky blue eyes were closed like a kitten’s. I loved him instantly, and liked to set his carrier next to me on the piano bench while I played. I told him the names of the songs. I explained to him why Bach was better than Mozart (the fingering was harder) and why Beethoven was better than both of them (he was deaf but still wrote music). Cameron slept and gurgled and eventually cried, and my mother swept him into her arms like she used to do with me.

Now that my mother had a baby, she was hypervigilant about his safety. Once, after he’d started to climb, he pulled himself up on a chair, then lost his balance; the chair tipped over and he fell to the floor. My mother’s back had been turned, and now Cameron had a concussion. I’m not sure she ever forgave herself. She began to slip away into an obsession with protecting him. When he got sick two months later and ended up in the hospital with a high fever and aching joints, she spent every minute with him while I stayed with Aunt Linda and my cousins Kendra and Jason. I rattled about in their big house, twice the size of ours, wondering if I would ever see my mom or my brother again.

One night, I heard the unmistakable sound of my mother crying in Linda’s living room. I crept out of bed and sat on the landing above the stairs, twisting the multicolored shag carpet in my fingers, straining to hear the conversation downstairs. I heard my mother say Cameron had to have a spinal tap. They thought he had meningitis. I imagined a tap like the one I’d read about in
Little House on the Prairie,
the kind Pa stuck into trees to get the maple syrup that Laura and Mary froze in the snow to make candy. Were they going to drain my brother’s spine? What kind of syrup was inside a spine?

My mother said, “They told me it would hurt him a lot.”

Linda said, “But it’s the only way they can find out what’s wrong.”

My mother said, “I know,” and cried.

I lay on my side, buried one ear in the carpet, and covered the other one with my hand. I started tapping my foot. It calmed me to count the taps. I fell asleep there, wishing my mother would come and tell me she remembered me. I thought of the rabbit and how she’d once held my hair. I wished I were sick so I could have her back.

Cameron came home from the hospital a week later, healthy as ever. He didn’t have meningitis. He looked the same as he had before he left, but my mother looked different. Her face was pale and she wasn’t smiling. That night my dad told me he was moving me to the bedroom down the hall and putting Cameron in the room across the hall from his and my mother’s. They could hear him better that way.

This is how my mother came to belong profoundly and definitively to my brother. Many years later my dad would tell me she did the same thing to him when I was born—she stopped being his and started being mine. For some reason, she could only belong to one of us at a time.

I watched as she attended with obsessive devotion to Cameron’s health. He turned three years old, then four. My mother continued to treat him delicately and fearfully, as if his life depended on her every decision. He parlayed her sympathy into a diet of frozen pizza (meaning he ate it uncooked) and chicken nuggets (cooked), eating almost nothing but these two items for the next several years. He crunched the ice off his pepperoni and my mother hovered over him making sure pieces of frozen meat didn’t get stuck in his throat.

I grew separate from my family. At ten years old I went somewhere else. I started to focus on how I looked through the eyes of others, as if their critical gazes could help me fine-tune my image and one day be recognized by my mother for all my talents, intelligence, and compassion. I wanted her love, but I convinced myself I didn’t need it. I spent most of my time ensconced in one of the many fantasy worlds I created—Hospital, Mad Science Lab, and a reality I called “Baroney,” in which I was an orphan girl who wore a square-dance cancan and lived among the weeds and wildflowers in the empty field behind our house. In Hospital, I lay on my dad’s workbench in the garage reenacting the latest disease-of-the-week movie—the bench was my deathbed and I had cystic fibrosis, or multiple sclerosis, or muscular dystrophy. I flipped through my identities like a card catalog, selecting the one that fit that day, that hour, that minute. I learned how to disappear. This is how it started.


I got was for the first girl I loved. She had blue glitter eyes and I loved the way her skull felt through her face. In her room in the summer of 1994 we kicked aside the chicken-wire armatures for her papier-mâché sculptures and fell giggling into bed, whacking our heads against her ballet barre on the way down. She smoked Marlboros while she did pliés to the guitar practice of her ever-changing roommates. She pierced her own nipple in the mirror, and, with things thus put into perspective, I got a tattoo. It was that simple: something needed to be commemorated, marked. I had to do something so permanent I would no longer be allowed to break my promises. It all started with a tiny woman symbol, black, about an inch tall.

It wasn’t just family life that made me retreat. It was also school. If you are an intelligent, overly sensitive, arguably mentally ill child, and you are bullied, you get sicker. Because I preferred reading to recess and drawing to sports, because I made the mistake of telling someone I was going home after school one day to play Mad Science (and that I had a special pair of Inventing Pants with Inventing Suspenders I wore to do so), the popular girls at my school relentlessly teased me. Although I now look at old photographs of myself and see a cute little blond girl, not disfigured or hideous in any way, I believed by age eleven that I was horribly ugly and undeserving of human companionship. I will never understand why schoolgirls need to choose one among them to be the outcast, but that was the role I was given, and it was so excruciating that I broke a cardinal preteen taboo and cried and let them see me cry, often in class. I couldn’t keep my emotions inside.

At night I lay in bed unable to sleep, and thoughts of the day’s torment filled me up like thick black honey. They stuck to my innards and my brain, they gagged me. The only way to combat them was with the secret rituals I developed. I rubbed my toes frantically in figure eights on my sheets, flexing and releasing my calf muscles in time, and chanted in a whisper to calm the pounding and howling.

My brain turned against me. I felt so undeserving of companionship that if I found ways to soothe myself, I needed an imaginary enemy to dole out an equal and opposite punishment. For some reason, the real enemies weren’t enough. I had to be even meaner to myself than they were—the old “nobody can hurt me as much as I can hurt myself.” This is how the Bad Dog came to live inside me.

It spent a decade forming, gaining power. It made me fly into rages and cry hysterically at school. It ran through the threads of my nervous system. I was contaminated by it. Girls were not supposed to get as angry as I did.

My fear of the Bad Dog, as well as my terror of being bullied, led me to invent as many excuses as I could to miss school. I wrapped myself up like a burrito in Downy-scented sheets on the couch and settled in for a day of game show reruns and ginger ale. The Bad Dog receded on those days, but I didn’t trust the respite: I knew it would come back, because it always did. It would make me do things I didn’t want to do, and then I’d have to punish myself. The punishments involved things like sitting outside in my dog’s little red plywood house or drinking from a bowl on my hands and knees. It was terribly degrading, but if I degraded myself, then I could soothe myself again. After I performed my penance, I would sit and stroke my hair, pretending I was secretly petting her ears. She and I were in this together. I whispered comforting things to her, like
I kind of want to take care of you.

One day, back at school after another of my many absences, I sat at my desk trying to concentrate on geography rather than the notes Kyra and Jessica were passing behind me. I heard them whisper “Paranoid Mouse” and giggle. I had stupidly said something in class one day about being afraid of mice, and Jessica, who lived on a farm, gleefully began bringing dead mice to school, securing her acceptance into the popular clique by tormenting me with them. She chased me around the playground with a dead mouse one day, flinging it into the weeds when it looked like the teacher on duty was catching on, running off squealing the gleeful squeals of the newly accepted bully. When I begged to know what I had done and why they were being mean, they said, “We don’t hate you. You’re just paranoid.” If I started crying in class, one of the popular girls would inevitably whisper, “Paranoid Mouse,” and I would plug my ears and cry harder.

That afternoon, I found a dead mouse in my lunch box. Torturing me was currency; I began to think my only worth was as a catalyst by which others could become popular. Letting the teachers see the mouse would have made things even worse, so when the bell rang for after-lunch recess, I quickly dumped my food and the stiff mouse into the trash and ran at breakneck speed to the farthest corner of the playground. I wanted to get a head start, to get as far away from the popular girls as I could. I sat on the grass and watched for them, but they never came outside.

Where were they? What were they doing? What were they plotting? I ran back to the building, made some excuse to the teacher guarding the doors about needing to see the nurse, and tiptoed down the empty hall.

I heard them singing.

Their voices came from Mrs. Dunlap’s room and sucked me down the hallway. Everyone knew Mrs. Dunlap was the fifth-grade teacher of choice, seeing as how her daughter Sheila had just made the junior high cheerleading team and was thus at the top of the Prairie Grove social hierarchy. Anything you were able to do to gain Mrs. Dunlap’s attention made you special, made the other girls envious of you. It meant you might be a cheerleader when you grew up.

I knew as I touched the door handle of the classroom that I was about to do something embarrassing and wrong, but the Bad Dog was in charge.
You’ll need me,
it said.
I gotcha covered

I opened the door.

The singing stopped when I walked in. They all turned and stared at me, Bonne-Bell-Orange-Crush-glossed mouths hanging open, looking at me with the same horror and excitement they’d exhibit if I had just walked into the room naked. I stood there frozen, hyperaware of my scruffiness, my shirt untucked and one ponytail higher than the other. The Bad Dog turned me in on myself like a vortex, gleefully saying,
Look, look. There they are, here you are. Separate. You do not belong.

“Stacy,” said Kyra, “we’re practicing.”

“For what?” I creaked, mouth dry, their eyes on my skin.

“For Parents’ Night. Mrs. Dunlap picked us yesterday when you were absent.” Behind her, Jessica snickered. Mrs. Dunlap clapped her hands to bring them back to order, and they all began singing again, their backs to me, oblivious to my presence, blocking me out. Their hair gleamed in the sun. Their polo shirts were a field of unsoiled pastel.

I tried to speak but couldn’t. I was wailing—or, rather, the Bad Dog was wailing. Ten minutes later, back in class, I tried to hide my reddened face behind my science book, but tears fell onto the pages.

That night, I crept out to the backyard and crawled into the doghouse with a loaf of Wonder Bread I’d stolen from the kitchen. It was late spring and the back door was open, the kitchen light casting the checkered shadow of the screen door across the patio. I could see my brother sitting at the table, waiting for my mom to serve him his frozen pizza.

I thought that perhaps if I could cram myself into a small enough space, my brain would also be contained. Often, when I came home from school in the afternoons, I would drag my quilt from the bed to the closet, spread it over my shoes, and tuck myself into it in a fetal position. I felt I deserved to be poked by shoes and toys and whatever else I’d shoved in there by way of cleaning my room. In the middle of the night, terror-stricken by recurrent nightmares, I folded my quilt around me and went flying down the hall toward my parents’ room, bat wings of blanket billowing behind me, and crawled as stealthily as possible into the foot of space between their bed and the wall. Although I woke up with a stiff neck and tingling limbs, I slept better there than I ever did in my own bed. My father’s snores soothed me.

There were no shrinks in Prairie Grove, but there was a church on every corner, with their oft-misspelled signs out front promising happiness and salvation. Like every other kid I knew, I had logged my share of hours in Sunday school, making Bibles out of bars of Ivory soap wrapped in a black velvet cover cut with pinking shears, the crosses on the front made of sequins and straight pins. My mother had several vases made of A.1. steak sauce bottles covered with masking tape and brown shoe polish, a popular church crafts activity, though I was never quite sure what those had to do with Jesus. I had even once gotten, as a prize for memorizing the most New Testament verses, to take home the class mascot, a weird cardboard puppet named Mr. Bible Beaver. I liked singing in the Christmas pageants and going to the various Vacation Bible Schools every summer (in which the Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches all had the same watery Kool-Aid and Hydrox cookies instead of Oreos). But that year I became a true religious fanatic. While other kids were out riding their bikes and playing, I was in my bedroom watching
The 700 Club
and praying for people’s livers. Although I suspected there were better things for mentally disturbed thirteen-year-old girls to do than log so many hours kneeling in prayer that they got rugburn, for the first time my brain was filled with something other than my own misery. Fervent prayer was perfect for me; I already loved repetition and chants. I was more than happy to pray for the innards of strangers in Iowa.

My childhood was a time in which a slow and thorough plow went trawling through my heart, digging irrevocable trenches. I filled them the only way I knew how: with Jesus.

BOOK: Loud in the House of Myself
8.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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