Last week when I got back into town from camping, it was late afternoon and the sky was the muted cobalt blue that is an elemental part of the autumn. It is this time of year when the sun starts to hang closer to the horizon and even if it is still deceptively warm like it has been in recent weeks, you can feel the seasonal change in the air. The sky gives it away. I dropped the dog off at home to sleep off her timber hangover and set about running some errands. Two days of vacation still hovered over me, daring me to be productive or otherwise find some genuine reason why it was okay for me to bail on what promised to be a fantastic trip. I was starting to look a little like Frida Kahlo or Bert from Sesame Street so it seemed like a good time to get my eyebrows threaded. Waxing has never been my thing, and when I pluck my own eyebrows I tend to become overzealous and get in way over my head and the next thing you know I have a delicate, precarious line of one single hair following another. One wrong move and I could rip out the remaining few hairs and suddenly I would look like I had a skin condition. When I was about seventeen, I started plucking my eyebrows super thin and wearing giant hoop earrings. Paired with tanning-bed bronze skin and heavy-handed makeup application, plus a dash of belly shirts that also showed off the cleavage from the boobs I’d recently grown, I was a trailer park princess.
Obtaining curves later in life can be a bit tricky because there is not quite the same stigma for a seventeen or eighteen year old as there is for a girl just emerging from prepubescence. No one was around to gently nudge me and let me know that while I did have boobs and they were lovely and everything and maybe the whole world did want to see them, that did not necessarily mean I had to share them. My mom tried once or twice, but she was a couple of states away and had lost her parental grip on me at this point. I believe her attempts were met with a very mature diatribe about how my body and my boobs were my business and she oughta back up off me about it. When I first sprouted knockers, I was about sixteen and they sort of just showed up. By the time I was twelve, I was approximately 5’9″ and weighed somewhere in the ballpark of eighty-eight pounds. My front buck teeth accounted for eight of those pounds. Not until I was in my twenties did I break one-twenty. As a teenager, I was nothing but spindly arms and legs, looking like they’d been grown in a tube, and giant feet and frizzy hair. Once when I was sixteen and still somewhat uncertain about my new bewbs, I was sitting on the steps at my boyfriend’s parents’ house. His mother and I had never had a great relationship, and certainly not the kind of rapport where we spoke freely to one another about much of anything beyond small talk. She was talking to boyfriend and me about something innocuous when out of nowhere she blurted, Your boobs have gotten HUGE. I did what any sixteen year old girl might do in that moment: my eyes became the size of saucers and I stammered thank you because in our culture such an observation is tantamount to a compliment. I think I then melted into an embarrassed puddle and drained into the curb that fed into the Mississippi and floated away to the ocean.
By the time I was nineteen, I had traded my skanky wardrobe for a pair of brown skate shoes and equally monochromatic clothes. At least four days a week I wore cargo pants. It was around this time that I discovered that I enjoyed piercings. Like I did with most things, and as is typical of young people, I went nuts at first.
Let’s do ALL of the piercings!
And I did. I barely had enough money to even feed myself – I would beg leftover food that was going to be thrown away at the restaurant where I worked, and otherwise I subsisted on canned soup and Ramen noodles and boxed meals from Aldi. To this day, I’m not sure I could stomach chicken and rice from a box or Bennigan’s Baked Potato Soup. Although I could barely feed myself and I was semi-homeless, I scraped together the money to allow strangers to stab holes into my ears. My life was not happy in this era, my circumstances were less than kind. My family had all gone away in one capacity or another by the time I was 17 (hello, abandonment issues! We’ll talk about you later!), so I was mostly adrift by this age. With no high school education, no parents to help me get on my feet, no support other than a fiance* who was over the moon about me, and an as-yet-undiagnosed proclivity for severe depression, I sought control in whatever unlikely place I could find it.
Sometimes depressed people engage in an activity called “cutting”. It is especially common among adolescent girls. The idea is that by physically cutting oneself, somehow the emotional pain will be lessened, if only for a moment. As a much younger person I tried this a handful of times. But I was a wuss. And I didn’t like it. Mostly I still felt terrible emotionally and then I had a sore wound to boot. But piercings? The pain of someone stabbing me with a needle? I couldn’t get enough. I stretched my ear lobes because the feeling of modifying my body, the pain, the knowledge that I was in control of this – it was intoxicating. It was a high of sorts. My love affair with piercings didn’t last long. The last time I stretched my ears or got something new pierced was right before I turned twenty-one. After that I got a couple of very large tattoos, but never another piercing. In fact, I took out two of the piercings in my ears a few years ago for a job, and was always a little sad about it.
When I was out running errands the other day, I suddenly decided I should get my nose pierced. One of my sisters had recently done so, which made it seem like a good idea. This is typical of me: doing something because one of my sisters did it and tested the waters for me. Most of what I have learned in life has been a direct result of watching my siblings learn it first. They step on the ice and make sure it won’t crack, and then I feel safe stepping on it too.
A cute little stud in my nose seemed like a great idea, as did re-piercing the tragus piercings that I’d removed for a corporate retail job a few years ago. We started with the tragus piercings and they were awful. The notion that I ever enjoyed this was suddenly absurd. She struggled to get the jewelry in, she struggled to finish the piercing, she shook and used clamps and had a hard time. She’d come highly recommended, so I was a bit taken aback when she was so bad at what she was doing. My ears bled. I shook uncontrollably. The pain and the difficulty was so pronounced that I almost backed out on the nose piercing. And then it kicked in. It was that feeling that I’m certain washes over the severely depressed, the grieving, the broken, when they slice open their flesh with something sharp. When you are in so much pain, what’s a little more? Something happens when you are broken like that. Your periphery blacks out, and all you can see is what’s right in front of you. People often tell me how strong I am. In some ways it’s flattering, and I appreciate the compliment, and I understand that people perceive me this way. But what is it to be strong? It is simply to not give up. It is simply to recognize the circumstances in front of you, and know that you have no choice but to shut down whatever is in the way of you surviving those circumstances. Close it off. Box it up. Keep moving forward until the pain has lessened and until you can see the sun shine again. So I let her stick a needle in my nose and shove a shiny stud in the hole and I survived it, much like I will undoubtedly survive whatever else comes my way. Because what choice do we have in this life?
*Said fiance is not the same boyfriend whose mother shamelessly pointed out my dirty pillows. We also never got married. We were on the “marry me someday, here is a ring, it’s more serious than a promise ring but we’re super poor so we can’t actually plan a wedding at this point” plan. He is also not the same person to whom I was engaged who ultimately died. I have been engaged twice: once at eighteen, and again at twenty-three. I hope to maybe be married by the time I’m thirty-one. I’d say thirty, but that’s in seven months, which seems unlikely unless it becomes legal to marry one’s dog.