Sometime in the early-mid-nineties when I was about ten, my oldest sister and I were spending the summer with our dad and step-mom in a sleepy Midwestern town with a population of less than a thousand. They both worked all day, and our step-brother and step-sister were usually away at their dad’s house or at some camp or sports practice, or they were otherwise occupied in neighboring towns with friends or extended family. My oldest sister was a teenager by then, and technically my dad was usually floating around town somewhere and in a town of eight hundred people there is not a lot of trouble to be had, so it didn’t matter much that there were rarely adults around to police us. Our other sister had chosen not to come to Illinois that summer, wanting to stay behind in Georgia with her friends and to play softball.
Nep and I made the ten hour trek in the back of the suburban with our dad behind the wheel straight through until we reached the trailer where my dad and step-mom lived together with her son and daughter during the school year. When we came to spend the summers, I slept in the living room on a trundle bed that had belonged to my parents when they were first married, a springy and dangerous metal contraption that barely contained my lanky little-girl limbs. I couldn’t imagine two grown adults trying to share it. Always a heavy sleeper, I was seldom roused by the morning routines of my dad and step-mom, and they were considerately quiet as they shared breakfast, he with his coffee and she with her tea. Usually by the time I awoke and turned on the television to watch reruns of Three’s Company and I Love Lucy while I let the sleepy fog dissipate from my brain, it was late enough in the morning that little patches of light streamed in through the west-facing windows of the room, scattered by the leaves of the huge oak tree outside.
Whether at home with my mom or visiting my dad, I spent most of my time alone outdoors as a child, exploring the woods or playing in the yard or looking for critters to befriend. At home I had a dog named Sugar and our days were consumed with building teepees at the edge of the woods behind the house on the highway, or catching tadpoles in the pond and running through the pasture behind the house on Denton Road. There was considerably less forest to explore in Central Illinois than there was in Northwest Georgia, so I spent the summers with my dad wandering around the quiet town, which was laid out in a grid of little more than three quarters of a square mile.
My step-brother had an orange and black bicycle that he let me use when he was not around, which was most of the time. Probably it bothered him somewhat in that egotistical and possessive way that sharing bothers most children, but he was a laid back soul, even as a boy five months younger than I. So it became my bicycle for all intents and purposes and I rode it relentlessly, constantly. Having freedom to ride a bicycle totally unsupervised was a thrilling anomaly. At the time, our house in Georgia sat on a busy highway, just around the bend from a treacherous curve that was the site of numerous automobile accidents. It was a highway that claimed the lives of dozens of pets belonging to us or our neighbors up the hill. There were no sidewalks, and our driveway was made of dust and gravel, and was not very long anyway. Even if we had lived in town, my mother’s nervous fear that all of her daughters would be plucked away from her in some tragic and awful way would have prohibited any meaningful bike-riding for me. Although I missed my dog and the familiarity of pine trees and kudzu, it was exhilarating to roam the streets autonomously, stopping at the cheap pop machine outside the meat locker plant or buying useless tchotchkes at the hardware store and charging them to my dad’s account. Sometimes I would go to the Casey’s General Store half a dozen times a day, buying candy and gum and junk food to my heart’s content, limited only by how much money I could get out of my dad. After he and my mom divorced and we girls moved to Georgia with her, he only saw us during these summers and for a week near Christmas. He was in no way rich, but he managed to get by, and he was usually good for five or ten bucks a few times a week.
As an introverted youngster, I enjoyed taking long baths. I loved being by myself, luxuriating in almost-too-hot water until it went tepid, at which point I would empty some of it and refill the tub to the highest temperature I could tolerate. I was a gluttonous reader and I would linger in the tub sometimes for the entirety of whatever book I was reading at the time. The water would be filthy and scummy by the time I got out, even after having been partially changed numerous times, because I was typically covered in a thick layer of grime when I climbed into it.
The trailer my dad and step-mom lived in had two bathrooms – one at the back, near the kids’ bedrooms and one that was attached to their master bedroom. Normally I used the bathroom at the back of the trailer, just as all of us kids did. Anyone who grew up with two bathrooms understands the reverence of Their Parents’ Bathroom, a sacred place where adults get ready with grown-up toiletries, a space devoid of toys, bubblegum flavored toothpaste, and tearfree shampoo. One evening I was particularly filthy when I returned home just before dusk. My sister was using the shower at the back of the trailer, dawdling and preening. I was ordered to bathe in the master bath so I would not be a mud-and-blood-crusted reeking mess for dinner.
The bathtub was smallish with a yellow all-plastic surround. Everything in that trailer was some shade of yellow or brown, or some combination thereof. The sink basins, the cut and loop carpet in the living room, the linoleum of the bathrooms, the flat carpet in the kitchen, the appliances, the countertops. Even the couch was some earthy combination of browns and golds. Little has changed; though he wears mostly black, all that my dad owns tend to lie on a brown-to-yellow continuum. A variety of smells, places, and sights conjure memories of and nostalgia for my dad. This spectrum of color will always be one of the most prominent memory triggers I have of him, blankets and decor drenched in sepia tones.
Just south of the trailer was an auto body shop that belonged to my great uncle, a place where my dad did mechanical work on cars and where my Uncle Oz did body work and where they sometimes helped each other with both kinds of work. As much as it was a place of business, it was also a social gathering place, a watering hole where ice cold cans of Natural Ice and Busch were never in short supply. The front porch of the trailer faced the north end of the shop, and often cars would pull up alongside the shop or the trailer and people would stand near the porch talking about the weather or the crops or did you hear about old so-and-so? Can you believe that? What a shame. Some folks stayed in their car and just hollered out the window to my dad and uncle who hollered back. As I submerged my bedraggled body into the smallish yellow tub on this evening, I could hear friends and family outside through the open bay window in the bedroom my dad and step-mom shared, the fading light of the day casting more yellow on all the yellow.
My limbs were browned from the sun, my legs covered in bruises and scrapes, mosquito bites dotting my arms, legs, and torso. I surveyed the different surroundings of the adult bathroom. There was a well worn jade green bar of Zest, a civilized upgrade from the soap-on-a-rope my dad had used not so long before when he and I lived in a farmhouse just the two of us and he showered in a makeshift stall in the dank cellar. There was a bottle of Head & Shoulders for him, and fruit-scented VO5 for her. And there, on a built-in ledge of the tub, was a white-and-yellow one-blade Bic razor. My step-mom was a pragmatic woman, she and my dad both utilitarians. Few frills, just whatever is necessary to get the job done.
My mom had specific rules for her daughters concerning makeup and shaving. We were not allowed to shave until we were eleven, and we could not wear a stitch of makeup until we turned fourteen. She wanted us to be mature enough to navigate complex womanly activities like settling into a shaving and makeup routine. She would take the time to show each of us how to carefully shave our legs to avoid cuts, how to apply lotion after the bath to moisturize the skin over which we’d just dragged a sharp blade. She would meticulously pluck our eyebrows for us for the first time when we were old enough, and she would teach us how to apply just the right amount of makeup with precision and care. My oldest sister had gone through each of these rituals with our mother, gleaning the skills of femininity that could be carried into adulthood. Our mother wanted to be the one to share these things with us, and she also wanted to shield us from growing up too quickly. These are emotionally complex issues that I understand as an adult, even if I do not yet have children of my own. As a girl, the youngest of my sisters, I had no such understanding. Instead, I resented my mom for not letting me do what I wanted, short-sighted and self-centered the way children tend to be.
I was not an especially hairy youngster, even as puberty loomed nigh. Nearly all of my physical characteristics come from my dad. We have similar pallid coloring, and hair that is a nondescript yet unmistakable brownredorange. Such coloring did not produce the course black leg hair that my oldest sister inherited from our mother, and yet the two-inch flaxen hairs that floated in my grimy nearly tepid bathwater taunted me. The hair gently swayed under the surface like bleached kelp, daring me to do something about it. As I turned the Bic razor over and over in my hands, my eyes flashed to my woolly legs, and I reasoned that there wasn’t much my mom could do to me if I went ahead and shaved them right now since she was about six hundred miles away. My dad had no idea when it was appropriate for a young girl to shave her legs, and it was unlikely he knew what rules my mom had to govern our girl bodies. My step-mom was a force to be reckoned with when it came to the big issues – safety or respect – but I was not fearful of her in this regard. She was a pragmatist and I could argue that the hair bothered me so I got rid of it. My step sister was allowed to shave, had been allowed for some time, and she was not much older than I.
I set the razor on the side of the tub. I grabbed the clammy bar of Zest and worked a solid lather into my hands. My heart quickened as I heard the familiar voices of my step-mom’s sisters and mother, my Uncle Rick, others coming and going. Every time someone would laugh loudly or the screen door to the front porch would make a noise, I would jump, trying to hold the razor steady as I held it by the yellow handle and dragged the white head across my legs. I was unsteady. I had seen plenty of women shave their legs and I tried to mimic what I had seen of the women in my life, but the razor felt awkward and I pressed down way too hard. The razor sliced through the skin on my shin bone and peeled back a long layer of flesh from my mid-shin almost to my knee. Immediately the Zest burned the cut. I sucked the air in between my teeth at the bright pain, and stopped for a second, listening. My egocentric child brain was sure someone must have heard me wince, concluded that I was shaving my legs when I was not supposed to be, and they would burst through the door at any moment. Nobody came. Undeterred, I assessed my wound, took some deep breaths, and dunked the razor into the water to rinse off the blood so I could finish the job.
My hope had been that I could shave my legs and maybe my dad and step-mom simply wouldn’t notice. Maybe they would assume that my legs had always been clean shaven, maybe they did not pay close attention. But when I stood on the white and yellow linoleum after the bath, I could not get the long and narrow wound on my shin bone to stop bleeding. I stuck toilet paper to it the way I had seen men on television do when they shaved their faces. The toilet paper immediately became saturated and the bleeding continued. Not wanting to ruin them, I didn’t use a real towel or wash cloth. Eventually, after frantically trying to problem solve without adult intervention, I slunk to the living room to ask for a bandaid. There was no one there – everyone was outside on or near the porch, talking and laughing. Embarrassed, I tried to call for my step-mom without anyone hearing.
Being discreet is not an honored practice in the Pantsless Clan.
What’s that? WHAT? Did you say something embarrassing and appalling? HERE, LEMME REPEAT IT AGAIN LOUDLY SO EVERYONE CAN HEAR AND WE CAN ALL GIVE YOU A HARD TIME ABOUT IT.
Teasing is the primary method of communication in my family. As long as no one is seriously injured, nothing is sacred and there is no such thing as one-on-one. Everything is a group effort, and embracing self-deprecation is a virtue.
Though I attempted to be nonchalant about asking for a band-aid, I can only imagine that my ten-year-old self looked and sounded not unlike the cat that ate the canary. My step-mom, a woman whose career required that she be highly trained in detecting the lies of children, responded through the screen, yeeeeahhh… why do you need one?
My confidence faltered. I… well, because I cut myself.
Being that hers was an adult brain, one that specialized in the untruths of children who thought they were being clever, she likely immediately deduced that I had shaved my legs. Whether she realized the implications of the act was unclear, but she was definitely on to me. And even if she had not come on her own to the conclusion that I was not supposed to be shaving my legs, my acting like a weirdo doubtlessly tipped her off.
Why don’t you come out here and let me see it? She asked. That way I can tell you which size band-aid to use.
I hobbled onto the porch, the cool evening air of the summer inciting white hot pain where a two inch vertical section of my flesh had been peeled away along my shin bone. I decided to change my approach. I would show her the wound, but remain nonchalant as if shaving was a normal part of my routine and I had just accidentally gotten careless. I showed her my leg and quickly dove into an explanation that it was really fine, and I just needed a band-aid so it wouldn’t bleed too much and could she please just tell me where to get one?
Instead of telling me where to find a band-aid, she dressed my wound for me. Eventually. But not until after she flipped on the front porch light so that my dad and uncles and whoever else happened to be present could see my battle wound and marvel at it and click their tongues and embellish and talk hyperbolically about the perils of shaving.
Though I do not remember precisely, I can only assume someone offered to cut off my entire leg, as that remains a common, if overblown, go-to solution for any ailment in my family.