Read Loud in the House of Myself Online

Authors: Stacy Pershall

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

Loud in the House of Myself (5 page)

BOOK: Loud in the House of Myself
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“Hi Erin,” I said, trying not to look directly at her.

She blinked. Her bangs made a quick movement back and forth.

“Ya wanna go for a walk?” I said.

She perked up. There was a slight shrug of her shoulders and one corner of her mouth pulled upward. She stood up from her bed, tucked her book under her arm, and followed me to the door, where I instinctively looked both ways for cool people before heading down a trail that led away from the cabins.

My heart was pounding. I wanted Erin to get to know Jesus, but I didn’t want to be seen talking to her. In my imaginary version of the sky, Andy Warhol flew by in a Lear jet. He watched me through the lens of a Polaroid camera as I walked with this half-person half-mouse toward the gazebo, where she was to secure her place in Jesus’ heart and my place in Michael’s. Andy thought Bogg Springs was a very unsophisticated place to be, but to me it was the place where I might kiss Michael, so I ignored him.

“Erin,” I said as we sat down, “there’s something I’ve been wanting to talk to you about.”

“Okay,” she said, but it sounded like
okeeeee,
like a kazoo caught deep in her chest.

“I’ve noticed that you’ve been coming to church for a few months now, but you haven’t gotten saved.”

“Right.”
Reeeeet
.

“Can I ask you why?”

She shrugged.

“Do you believe in God?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said, and it shocked me, because here was Erin admitting she might be an atheist and knowing full well that if she was and she died and she was wrong she would go to hell.

“I am here to tell you today that Jesus is real,” I said. Brother Brad used that line a lot, and it seemed a fittingly dramatic response to the gravity of the situation.

“You think so?” Erin asked.

The question shot into the middle of me and did a little dance. Of course I thought so, because to think otherwise was simply too scary. I believed in Jesus. Christianity was a talisman against all the things I was afraid of, and I often invoked Jesus’ name in the mantras I chanted to slow my thoughts:
IaskthesethingsinJesus’ nameamenIaskthesething sinJesus’nameamen
was a particular favorite. And here was Erin, who needed mantras more than anyone as far as I could tell, who must surely have words that rattled in her head to get her through the day, and she was telling me she didn’t believe in Jesus, and she wasn’t afraid.

“Yes,” I said, “yes of course, I know so.”

She nodded. “Okay.”

I despised her with a white heat in that moment, hated her for being braver than I was, and yet here she sat telling me that, okay, sure, she’d get saved. I knew she was doing it to be cool with me, just like I was saving her to be cool with Michael. And yet I cried big Christian crocodile tears, pretending I was sincerely happy I’d won a soul for Jesus, even though I had a sneaking suspicion it was all bullshit.

Erin took my hand.

“We should probably pray now, right?”

She nodded in encouragement, scratching her armpit.

We prayed. I knew the prayer. I could say it by heart, but it felt so broken and silly now, and the voices coming out of my mouth belonged to Michael and my mother and Andy Warhol but not to me. “Dear God,” I croaked, “I am, uh, here today with your child Erin, who recognizes that she has not lived her life for You up until now. She has been living for herself and that is wrong. She needs You in her life. She believes that Your Son Jesus Christ gave His life for her on the cross at Calvary, and she wishes to receive the forgiveness he made freely available to us through this sacrifice. Come into her life now, Lord. Take up residence in her heart and be her Savior, O Lord. From this day forward, she will no longer be controlled by sin, but will follow You all the days of her life. WeaskthesethingsinJeeziznameamen.”

She brushed her bangs away from one eye, smiled, and pulled me to my feet. Then she started skipping, that is to say galumphing, like a horse, back toward the cabins. As she did, she launched into a loud chorus of “We’re Off to See the Wizard,” except she sang, “We’re off to see the
Lo-ord,
the wonderful Lord of Heaven.”

That night she sat with Michael for a long time and discussed the plans for her baptism when she got back to Prairie Grove. I sat three pews behind them in the chapel long after Brother Brad had finished his aerobic preaching and everyone else was singing around the campfire. I burned with jealousy as Michael’s beautiful golden head touched Erin’s greasy one, as he laid his hand across her back while they prayed. But I was also hopelessly proud of myself for having been the catalyst for this. If I couldn’t be the girl he was touching, at least I had set him up with her. I couldn’t get saved over and over, couldn’t keep his hands on me all the time, but I could keep bringing greasy, pimply sheep into his fold.

As it happened, Erin was the only soul I ever saved. I wonder sometimes now if that means my bases are covered with the Christian God, if the insurance policy I bought myself through baptism, the one onto which I added Erin in the summer of 1984, might still through some loophole be in effect. In the long insomniac nights now, which still occasionally come, when I’m anxious and slightly manic and getting flash-backs from the episode of
Little House on the Prairie
where Albert’s girlfriend gets raped by a clown or the Elizabeth-has-a-poltergeist episode of
The Waltons,
where her Raggedy Ann doll walks by itself, I wonder whether Jesus is somehow still with me. Never mind the sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll that have ensued, the cursing and kicking and punching in walls. Despite the years when I was a whirling dervish driven by my own deviant chemistry, maybe Jesus still has my back, still looks down on me and says, with an Arkansas accent,
It doesn’t matter, I died for her sins, and when she was thirteen, she believed it for just long enough
.

4

IT ALWAYS AMAZES
me what people see in tattoos. I’ve been asked if the atoms on my arm are basketballs, if Dr. Caligari is Jerry Garcia, if Cesare the somnambulist is John Lennon. Denise has a heart pierced by a knife tattooed on each side of her chest, and although it’s pretty obvious what they are, a woman walked up to her at a party one night and asked, “Are those balloons?”

“No,” said Denise. “Those are my breasts.”

 

If Michael was the first man I desired, Owen was the first I craved with the intensity that makes you want to kick somebody or eat them or invent a new language to describe what they do to you. He lived across the street from my cousin Kendra, Linda’s daughter, and they were friends. The summer following church camp, which is to say a few months before I entered high school, Kendra turned sixteen and began to run with the wilder side of the popular crowd; she was always riding around in some football player’s Camaro or Cutlass and telling me about what happened late at night at the end of that summer when I still spent the night at her house. Although Owen wasn’t a football player, he was the wildest of the wild, with a short rainbow Mohawk, and Kendra told me that he often got “licks” at school, meaning that even though he was a senior, he was still regularly paddled.

“What for?” I asked, mesmerized.

“Oh, you know. Skipping. Smoking. Blasting his music. He likes to sit in his car in the parking lot at lunchtime and play punk real loud.”

Punk! Car! Cigarettes! Mohawk! Despite my devotion to Jesus, I developed my first of many fervent crushes on rebellious bad boys. I built up a mythology around him that involved the two of us blowing Prairie Grove in his Mazda RX-7, his drawing table sticking out of the hatchback (Kendra had told me he planned to study graphic design in college) and me in the passenger seat wearing stylish round sunglasses and clutching a scholarship to Oxford. In reality, I spent those summer days lying in a sticky full-length lawn chair in my aunt’s front yard, slathered in baby oil up to the leg bands of my one-piece, too insecure and pious to show my stomach, and waiting for Owen to drive up in his little brown car with the too-loud muffler.

Sometimes, when he saw us outside, he would stroll over to chat with Kendra about various parties on Eastwood Drive, the neighborhood where the richest and most popular kids lived. I tried at such moments to keep my mind on Jesus and his plan for me, the one Michael talked about on Sunday and Wednesday nights. I was hoping to be at least a little more popular that fall at school, which would give me the chance to witness to more people. I had recently taken a small leap in social status: I had won the Miss Clothespin pageant. I was excited about how my position as the princess of the Clothesline Fair would give me more of a platform to spread the word of God. I looked forward to the great honor of strolling through the booths of crafts and homemade candy wearing my tiara, my Aunt Pat’s pink bridesmaid’s dress from my Aunt Tessa’s wedding, and, most of all, the satin ribbon sash that said
Miss Clothespin
in cursive letters made with gold glitter and Elmer’s glue.

My mother had been thrilled that I wanted to compete. I was finally out of my room, not kneeling in front of the TV watching
The 700 Club
and praying for somebody’s kidney. She took me to Hi-Lines, the nicest store in Fayetteville, and we bought a dress on sale. We got white pumps and pantyhose and L’Oréal ice-pink lipstick and nail polish at Montgomery Ward, and when I got home and tried it all on I felt like I could actually be pretty, maybe, if I just kept working at it. The Cyndi Lauper haircut was growing out and I had achieved a symmetrical chin-length bob.

I had prepared obsessively for the talent segment of the competition. I wrote a semiautobiographical story about my adventures with my cousin which I hoped the judges would see as an in-joke, since Kendra had held the title the year before. I memorized the story, illustrated it with Magic Markers on big pieces of Wal-Mart poster board, and delivered it as a monologue. I even spent the money I had earned that summer helping Kym Rutherford’s family bale hay to buy a different outfit for the talent performance. I wore a yellow polo shirt, khaki shorts, and a matching green sweater vest and argyle socks. This was the same outfit the illustrated me wore in the posterboard drawings. I was proud of my attention to detail.

As I stood backstage breathlessly waiting to go on, clutching my posters to my chest, I had prayed to God:
Please let me win, if it be Thy will, inJesus’nameamen.

Onstage, I was a natural, hamming it up for my piano teacher, the basketball coach’s wife, and the other judges from the Junior Civic League. It was the first time since I was a little girl inventing things in the backyard that I felt truly engaged, truly in my element, like I was doing what I had been put on earth to do.

And when I was announced the winner, it was one of the few times I have known something was about to go right for me. Kendra stood on the side of the stage holding the shining tiara, and when they called my name I laughed wildly as she placed it on my head.
Thank you, Jesus,
I said silently, hugging my cousin.
Thank you for finally making everything all right.

I wanted to believe it was all right, because visions of normal still danced in my head, and I still felt that, given my immediate environment, compulsive prayer was the best option I had for relief of any sort. So I stood that fall at the homecoming football game trying to be normal, wearing my glittery sash and a mum-and-pipe-cleaner corsage so big it had to be tethered to my sweater with four large straight pins. Miss Clothespin was required to wear the crown and banner at all major Prairie Grove events. My hair was long enough to be held back with black-and-gold barrettes, the same style as the girl on the cover of Beverly Cleary’s book
Fifteen
. I tried to smile and look approachable for Jesus. Most of all, I tried to look like a teenager—
a real teenager,
not someone just on the verge of high school.

And approached I was, by the dreamy punk boy with a rainbow Mohawk, a boy with Clash patches pinned to his torn jean jacket, a boy who said, “Hey, Miss Clothespin.”

Oh my god Owen
. My heart raced, but I tried to remain casual as I leaned against the railing of the bleachers.

“Hey,” I replied.

“So, you’re Kendra’s cousin, huh?” Owen asked, staring right at me, grinning a little with one side of his face, which was infinitely cooler than a full smile.

I nodded.

“I talked to her at school today,” he said.

“Oh,” I said, “really?”

“Yeah.” He stared out at the football field, shifted his weight, looked back at me. “So do you want to go out sometime?”

I couldn’t believe it. Owen was a
senior
. I was
fourteen
.

“Sure,” I said. “You bet.”

“Cool,” he said, “Miss Clothespin.”

And he took my hand, to shake it, to close the deal, but he lingered just a moment, and deliberately brushed his finger across my wrist. It felt so good, so lovely, so unlike anything I had ever felt before. It was better than singing the tampon song around the fire. It was
erotic,
I thought, the flash of the word through my head turning my face a bright crimson.

I wasn’t sure what Jesus would think of Owen, so, later that night, I asked Him.

Lord,
I said,
if it be Thy will, please let my parents let me go on a date.

My mother was okay with it until she learned how old Owen was. But when I told her we were going to the Baptist church with his parents, who sang in the choir, and we were just friends, and I met him through Kendra, she consented. To this day I am amazed at that fact, but it happened.

Of course, we never went inside the church. We sat in Owen’s car in the parking lot for a long time, talking about school, and Prairie Grove, and what it was like to live there after Little Rock, where he lived until tenth grade. He told me about a place called the Purple Cow where you could get purple milk-shakes, and how much he missed them. I tried to burn the moment into my brain. We were sitting so close together. His new-car-smell air freshener was so grown-up and sexy.

Finally, he stopped talking, and he looked at me, and I looked at him, and he began that same slow lean forward I had seen so many times in the movies. With his lips millimeters from mine, I panicked.

“I don’t know how to do this,” I said, but he swallowed my words, and I closed my eyes and fell head over heels in love.

We continued to see each other throughout that fall. We made out a lot, but it was very chaste, mostly heavy kissing in various parking lots. For Christmas he bought me black-and-blue-checkered Zena jeans from the Jean Joint at the Northwest Arkansas Mall. I have a picture of myself wearing them at my grandma’s house, opening presents, a bow from a package stuck to my head. I am smiling wildly. Both sides of my hair are the same length. I look like a happy girl.

And I was a happy girl; in fact, for about six months, I was deliriously happy. By night I made out with Owen at the top of Mount Sequoyah in Fayetteville, the lovers’ lane overlooking the city where the glow of a bright blue lit-up cross cast watercolored shadows across the face of whoever was leaning in to kiss you. By day I went into the bathroom stall at school, between classes, and prayed that everything would last. It became a ritual: four times a day, I crouched on the toilet seat, bowed my head, and made sure I was still forgiven. After school I went to the video store where Owen worked and we watched horror movies and kissed.

One night we went to the mall and he studied me as I inhaled a cheeseburger and an Orange Julius.

“You always beat me when we’re eating,” he said.

“What?” I asked, mouth full, horrified.

“You always eat faster than I do. You eat as much as a guy. I’ve never seen a girl who eats as much as you.”

“I’m hungry,” I said, my cheeks on fire. I sensed that I had done something very, very wrong. I sensed that something was about to dramatically change.

He didn’t answer. I slowed down. When he finished his fries, I still had some left. He looked at the wrapper and then up at me, and I got up to throw the fries away and he smiled approvingly. I wanted to dive into the trash can after them but I let them go, and was secretly sorry for their loss.

I began to eat at home before we went out so I could look more nonchalant about my food. I would have an apple and a large glass of water as I’d read about in one of my mother’s magazines, which I now scanned for diets. I prayed for help, for guidance:
Please let me know what to do so he’ll really truly like me. Please let me eat slower. Please give me the strength to get skinnier. I’ll do anything if You’ll just let the boy I like like me back.

Anorexia starts as simply as that. Take the oversensitive girl in the “invalidating environment,” as DBT therapists like to call it, and give her a boyfriend who tells her she’s fat but he might love her if she wasn’t, and you’re off to a roaring start. My weight, I discovered, was something I could control, something I could adjust to garner approval from others. When Owen criticized my appearance, I did not get mad or tell him that was bullshit and that he needed to realize how awesome I was or hit the road. I had no idea that was something girls had the right to say. Instead, I panicked and begged.

“All you ever want to do is kiss,” he said one night as we kissed. “I want to do other things sometimes.”

“Like what?” Stricken with fear that he might leave me, I pleaded for him to tell me what was wrong.

“Well, I think you could stand to exercise. Maybe we should go ride our bikes or go for a run or something.”

“I thought you liked to kiss me,” I said.

“I’m kind of bored with just kissing,” he replied.

“I’m not ready to do more than that.”

“How do you know? You’ve never even tried.”

“I just know,” I told him. “It’s wrong.”

“Says who?”

“Says Jesus,” I mumbled weakly. Somehow the argument seemed silly when I said it out loud.

“Jesus doesn’t care,” he said, and proceeded to put his hands up my shirt.

It continued that way for several weeks: he touched me, I protested, and he beat down my resistance until I gave in, tired from fighting and desperate for his love. At night, when I showered, I felt like I couldn’t get clean enough, so I begged Jesus for forgiveness, for strength, and resolved not to let Owen touch me again.

And yet, I always did. It got so that we could no longer kiss without him fondling my breasts, squeezing them until my tiny size A fourteen-year-old nipples throbbed with pain. He kissed me hard when he did this, forcing his tongue into my mouth, something I didn’t like nearly as much as I thought I would. Making out now meant a struggle to keep his hands within accepted boundaries.

Still, he stayed with me, he kept calling, so I knew that even if I wasn’t doing right by Jesus, I was doing right by Owen. I tried writing him letters, long, loving missives detailing my passion for him, promising him that he would be The One, we just had to get married first. He put up with it for a while, but it made him grouchy. He made frequent comments about my weight, pointing out the parts of my body in which he could see its loss and the parts that needed work, and I found that I was frightfully turned on by seeing his large hands on my taut little belly, watching them take up more space day by day. He knew, when he slowed down, how to touch me, how to make me arch and ache and catch my breath, and the more weight I lost, the more deserving of pleasure I felt.

Anorexia takes hold fast. There is nothing more exquisitely painful, and for many years there was nothing that gave me so great a sense of accomplishment. It quickly became my best friend and worst enemy, like the beautiful cheerleader who bullies you but you put up with it because she lets you hang around with her. I was used to being bullied, so I had a particular strength for weakness—I felt comfortable admitting I was a lesser being and shrinking into my own shame. When I sat in front of a plate of French fries or a pizza, anorexia began to hiss at me:
You don’t deserve it, fat pig. No girl eats as much as you.
And I replied, reflexively,
I know, I’m bad,
and I learned to push the plate away and swallow my drool.

BOOK: Loud in the House of Myself
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