Friday, June 08, 2007

Trust Me

You are in a dressing room in the little girl’s department at Macy’s in San Francisco and you are crouching and whispering into your 9-year-old daughter’s ear, “trust me,” you say, your arms wrapped around her, your mouth breathing warm into her ear, “honey, trust me, I promise you that I am right here.”

And you are, right here in a large, white dressing room on mother’s day with your two daughters who are shopping for party dresses and shoes to wear to an upcoming bat mitzvah. This is you loving your daughters, this is you shopping with them on a Sunday in the city, a treat, a gesture of connection. This is what mothers do with their daughters.

But now after three frilly dresses that have either cut her off at the waist or been impossible to zip or not gotten over her head, your youngest daughter has started a rapid descent to a place that you have only seen twice before with her, and one that you are not entirely prepared for now. You hadn’t readied yourself, hadn’t seen it coming, didn’t remember the rhythm of the thing, just how dangerous a dressing room can be.

And so if you thought this was going to be a simple shopping trip for party dresses you were wrong. And if you thought it was enough to have the money in the bank to pay for the dresses or even the time to devote to the trip to the city, think again mommy. It’s not even enough to love them you realize now because the damage is deep and what this moment calls for is a turn in the road, a left where you normally take a right. And even though you have no idea how to do this you must because what you see now is too much to bear.

Because everything you tried to avoid by denying yourself food, by suppressing your appetite, by daily trips to the gym, and by hundreds and hundreds of dollars in diet aids is now sitting on a padded, floral bench in her underware and socks clutching a crumpled t.shirt against her chest to hide a tummy that is tumbling over her legs, a tubby little tummy that won’t cooperate, that won’t suck in the way she wants it to, a tummy that announces itself from t.shirts and dresses, that topples over swim suits. A tummy that now has your daughter hyperventilating and whimpering, her eyes scrunched up to cast away tears, a tummy that has her hating you and her older sister because you’re witnessing this and because then she doesn’t have to hate herself and her body which she believes is all wrong because at age 9 she’s a size 12, and because she has a sister who at age 12 is a size 10.

Your cell phone is ringing and from the screen you see it’s your lover calling you to wish you a happy mother’s day.

You don’t answer it, you can’t, not because you’re with your daughters, but because you are in a very different place than the place you meet him in. This is not a happy, I had time to shower and make myself smell good and put on that red underwear you like so much and let’s have a drink first and catch up slow and then make our way to the studio to have the best sex of our lives time. This isn’t that time.

This is you trying to zip up a young girl’s dress and tugging at the fabric hoping you don’t rip it, this is you trying to be chipper as you pick yourself up from the dressing room floor saying, “no problem, I’ll be right back with a better size.” This is you walking out of the dressing room each time and chanting to yourself, “breath, breath, breath.” This is you trying to minimize the problem and pay attention to both sisters, even the older one who doesn’t have anything to cry about, who is having the time of her life because she just found the cutest sandals with gold ribbons that wrap around her slender ankles, who is looking lovely in the new blue halter dress that exposes her delicate bird-like shoulders, and her strong legs, a girl who is beginning to realize that she will turn heads at the bat mitzvah next month, a girl who is now leaning against the dressing room wall, arms crossed over her chest and who has just sneered at her little sister to “lose the attitude Zoe,” something that a friend of hers mother said to her last year in a completely different situation, and which crushed her and now sitting here you are struck by how the very things that hurt us lodge within us and are brought out to hurt others, even if you didn’t mean it, even if you thought you’d sufficiently stuffed the pain away or hardened yourself or gotten over it, even if you thought you’d lost the attitude, you realize that the monster that came after you, and now I’m talking about myself, has been patiently waiting all of these years and has now come home to eat my young.

This is you on a diet from the time you were 14 years old, and the grim business of clothes shopping with you mother who mostly kept her mouth shut because she didn’t know what to say as your own torn and safety pinned clothes from all of your weight gain and distress sat huddled in a pile in the corner. Didn’t know what to say to you as you tugged on pants that were too tight, or tried to zip up dresses that were too small, you opting for big, flowing clothes that might highlight the Rennaissance beauty in you but could never hide your terrible failure for not being a Los Angeles skinny, straight-haired well adjusted girl who could just go shopping with her mother without it exposing every flaw in her orbit. This is you remembering a comment that came from the dressing room alongside of yours on one of those trips where some woman said to her companion, did you see, she spit, how awful that skirt looked on that girl? And you knowing that she was talking about you. This is you not hating that woman, but hating yourself instead for your great failure. This is you remembering the little game your dad sometimes played at dinner, asking you and your sister to stand at the table with your legs together and if there was a space between your thighs you could have dessert. This is you not realizing then that your father was the child with the fat thighs, the child whose parents didn’t think he was beautiful enough or smart enough, but you didn’t know this then and so this is you deciding not long afterwards to hide all of your ugliness, not in extra weight, but in a tight, hard-grip body that was a fucking fort knox, this is you throwing away the key.

But enough about you because there’s something more pressing, more dangerous, more frightening at stake here, which is your daughter collapsed on the floral bench in the dressing room, the way she is coiling in on herself, the way she is retreating, the way she has been apprenticing all along, watching you, the way she is making her way to her own fort knox, a place that even you, mommy, won’t be able to find your way into. It’s the way she turned to you in the car a few months ago and out of nowhere asked, “Mommy, are you afraid that I’m going to be fat when I grow up?” even though you’d never mentioned her weight, even though you’d never talked about diets, even though you’d made sure never to say anything bad about your own body in her presence.

It’s what she did see; that you never got anything for yourself at the ice cream shop. That you never eat bread and pasta, and when asked why you shrug it off, saying you don’t like those foods, which is a lie because they are your favorite foods. It’s your obsession with getting to the gym five days a week because it’s the only way you can breath. It’s all the ways you have denied yourself, it’s your secret mantra that the best appetite is no appetite. It’s your deep desire to not need anything from anyone.

It’s the way she turned away from you in the car the other day on the way to speech therapy because you giggled when she emphasized those dastardly R’s that she was practicing, “orange, artichoke, orangutang” and how she thought you were laughing at her but you were only laughing at her sweetness, how much she wanted to get those r’s right. But the power of her turn from you, how she locked you out, her hand on the door of the car like she was going to leap, the same way she is turning now in the dressing room, turning in, turning toward her own orbit of flaws, and how well you know this moment, all the ways you’ve locked yourself out with your hardened grief, which was alright for you, but impossible to watch now in the form of your beautiful nine-year old who you never meant this to happen to, but who has become someone who sneaks food from the kitchen and has perfected the art of chewing without moving her lips, a child who now pulls clothes off of a rack that are meant to hide who she is, big, floppy pieces of fabric, much the same way she began wearing daddy’s t. shirts to school this year because she said she liked them and you wondered whether it was that she liked daddy so much or couldn’t bear herself.

There is a moment here, a chance and you hope it’s not too late, to divert this train wreck that became the cornerstone for your own life, to step in, one tiny movement, one intimate gesture, one chop of your machete to clear a path that in 47 years you have never taken because you needed to keep punishing yourself, because you thought it was your fault, that you were, in your daughter’s own words about herself, “a failure.” There is a moment here, a chance to bring even yourself home, if it’s not too late, and even though you don’t know where this path will lead you or if you can walk it, and even though you don’t know what words come after the ones you think to say now, you open your mouth and you begin in the most loving, most sincere way you can, because you are strong and you love this girl and my god, you love yourself, you do…

“Trust me,” you say, your arms wrapped around her, your mouth breathing warm into her ear, “honey, trust me, I promise you that I am right here and I know what to do.”


stef said...

god, girl...this is beautiful and you are beautiful..

Alison said...

Oh, Laurie...devestating...I was just reading in the Sunday SF Chronicle, about an organization called About Face which teaches young girls to critique ads and helps get them aware of what they're (we're) up against in terms of women's body image in this country. By girls for girls, sounds good.


Dale said...

It's so hard. Even in struggling against the prevailing pathologies we feed them. We try so hard to protect our kids from them, and we can do so little.

Beautiful passionate post. Staggering. So beautiful.

This post shows more clearly than anything I've ever read why it's a moral imperative to understand ourselves. We have to understand ourselves, or unwittingly heap suffering on our children. (And everyone else. But it's clearest with the children.) Thank you.

snowsparkle said...

“honey, trust me, I promise you that I am right here and I know what to do.”

what better words could a daughter wish to hear? the right words at the right time... awesome job, mommy, you are amazingly courageous and loving!

shara said...

The writing is stunning, of course. I read it, felt it, reading with my hand over my mouth, breath held, tears on the verge of spilling out. And inside, my three daughters, myself, all the women I know, and a few brave men, reading with me, thank you.

Judi said...

You are a wonderful writer.
Your posts are very moving.
Thank you.

Kaitlin said...

i was that chubby little self conscious girl.

i read this entire post with tears in my eyes.
you are a wonderful writer