APRIL 2006 – NO. 5
What I Cannot Replace
On childhood, no do-overs.
Children often make me cry. I would be walking my dogs in the park, when maybe there would be a little girl holding her mom's hand, walking along aimlessly as if wherever she ended up was just fine with her. Maybe there would be a little boy, sullenly dragging his feet while his mother would tell him gently, "No, you cannot pet the nice lady's dogs." Tears would form annoyingly in the corners of my discerning eyes; I was embarrassed at this sign of stereotypical female behavior I was portraying. All those years of women's suffrage, and you would think I could keep it together.
The friends said to me simply, "It happens; your hormones are changing, it's all just a normal part of life." Yeah, your life, I thought. Not this girl. My redemption came to me the last time I was presented with children — at my sister's house. One nephew, age three, and one niece, age eight. No tears, no sudden urges to procreate: just an urge to go home and be alone. Then my niece was talking about her dance classes and her Girl Scout retreats and I looked sideways at my parents, listening to her exclaim about the joys and simplicities of life via ballet.
"I always wanted to take ballet but I didn't get to," I whined. My mom looked back at me with guilt in her eyes, which spoke to me through the golden flecks near the left sides of her irises; "Your dad lost his job and I had to go back to work at a factory. We had no money for those things and it still hurts."
I spoke up again, "You are so lucky that you have grandparents." My grandparents had all died by the time I was two. My niece looked at me as if I had just told her that Hillary Duff was a prostitute. She did not understand what kind of adult agenda I had. She went back to her story, glancing at me like, "What do you want me to say? I'm only eight." Then it hit me in the face so furiously I felt whip-lashed: I was jealous of these children. Somewhere deep inside me, I missed that innocence, that ability to truly believe that no matter what had happened to me, the next day would be better. Children have the magic to move from one moment to the next, as if time never exists or failures and disappointments don't count. And me? I am 29 years old and I am still the 15 year-old girl who ripped her own heart out and ate it.
Children have faith; they hear the words "brand new day" and believe it; happiness is possibly just 24 hours away. Adults, on the other hand, can look to tomorrow and still dread that the brand new day will bring a brand new problem. I do not remember the happiness that I see on the faces of kids in the subways and kids in the park. I remember being 15 years old on a May day, sitting in my room as I rocked myself back and forth, wishing I had the guts to have some pride and kill myself already.
I had lost the major marker of female innocence approximately one year back from that day in my bedroom. I was 14. The lucky guy behind bedroom door number one was some guy I had known since I was three. He was a bad-boy jock who would end up an underachiever. He challenged me, the 100-something pound me, to a game of arm wrestling.
"You win, I fuck you, I win, you fuck me." He dared. I agreed. It looked like I was fucked. I wanted to get rid of my badge of childhood and claim the power that womanhood would give me. I was desperate for strength and I did not believe at the time that using my body for power was a big no-no. Where were you then, Gloria Steinhem? Or my parents?
I was point zero-zero-zero-one a-priori-positive un-innocent one year later. That beautiful May day in New Jersey, where summer was in full sight but the humidity was not, I was kicked out of high school for making a pornographic movie. If it hadn't already, my childhood officially left the building when the principal addressing me said, "You are too emotionally unstable for this school." That magical world of never-ending possibilities of change and growth had just shut down for the slow season. My world really was over, and if it wasn't over now, it was going to be when my parents came home.
I was not the kind of girl they wanted at their school, their quality public school that pushed people out of their senior years with no comprehension of Shakespeare or geometry. We cheated on our Driver's Ed tests. This was not a Montessori academy; this was a high school where we had weekly meetings to try to keep the white kids from acting like racists by taunting the few minorities; the pseudo-gangs from acting as if they lived in Compton when where I lived housed sheep and horses, not drive by shootings; and the town Nazis from hanging the token Jews. I would sit at the meetings with my Black Male Friend, and people looked at me like, "Not only does she have jungle fever, but she's a Jew."
For the first time in my life, I started to make all the connections consciously. The nicknames, the occasional harassing phone calls, and I knew it was time to face up to my status in this town. People did not like Jews; as a child, I could use the magic of dreidls and menorahs to bridge the gap between my Catholic neighbors and I, but now I saw that all that bridge-making was bullshit. The "let there be peace on earth" theme was way over with in my head. So when the fat and lazy principal of my school had given me my diagnosis of "emotionally unstable," I shrugged. Who fucking cares asshole, I thought. My time at that hellhole was done for the moment. I grabbed my blatant sexuality, and high-tailed it out of one of the many higher institutions that would just fuck me in the back.
In my room at home, I occupied myself with Pink Floyd's The Wall. No matter his or her generation, any angry human being can understand Roger Water's masterpiece of an album. I sat on my floor playing with a Bic razor, caressing the pink plastic in my hand as if it were a lipstick, figuring out just how to apply it, while I waited for my parents to come home.
They knew about the porn. When I had sat in the vice principal's office, he told me he was going to call my parents, right after he called the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) and the cops. DYFS was just one brilliant fucking idea; I mean sure my parents had problems, but calling DYFS to tell them some 15 year-old girl had fucked a much older guy in her parents' home when no one was around certainly wasn't going to turn any heads. Those people had incest cases and domestic violence to deal with; they didn't need my neurotic need for attention to interrupt their day.
The cops' was a more normal approach, I guess, considering that the guy starring beside me in the porn was older and I was still a minor, but those guys could care less as well. They had their own little television commercials on local cable, where they pretty much out-and-out stated "We like arresting drunk drivers, so if you drive drunk we will humiliate you fuckers." They were known in New Jersey for being tough guys, so a porn made by a 15 year-old was only going to get them hard, not concerned.
With the album playing "Hey you," my phone started to ring, breaking my devotion to my depression (depression was what I worshipped; it was the most honest thing I knew) and I stared at it. Who would be on the other line? A savior? A friend? Not that I had any more; all of them had pretty much slunk into the night after the porn was seen by the whole school. So much for the golden rule, "Be a friend, have a friend." Those were just childish notions of hope, when really people were bound to hate you anyway. Even my friends who had wanted to participate in the making of the next Traci Lords had suddenly disappeared off the face of the earth, no longer showing up at my house to smoke cigarettes, listen to music, and talk about dropping acid. I was interesting to them when I could tantalize their sexual desires but once I had become the girl everyone was going to talk about for the next decade — the high school slut — they were off to find some other way to get themselves off. The phone kept ringing, barking at me like an anxious little dog, tempting me to pick it up, begging for attention. I gave in and answered.
"Is this Laura Lifshitz?"
"Yes, it's Laura. Who is —"
"Porn queen. Slut. I bet you have STDs."
Before I could make some snide comment bordering on stupidity (because teenagers rarely have good one-liners, unless they're in a John Hughes movie), the person hung up. This had been happening to me for the past few months; people reached out to see who the porn slut really was, but then when they got me on the phone they hung up, dulled by my voice. Why she just sounds like an average girl, they though to themselves; she's not so crazy.
The phone calls came often. These mystery callers were invading my room, the one place that was actually supposed to be mine, my haven from my parents, from people, and from life. But they penetrated me with their hang-up calls. What happens when nowhere is safe? I fiddle with the Bic razor and drag it lightly across my arms, not quite marking them up but tempting fate anyway. In my head I hear my mother's voice — "Tomorrow is another day" — but that doesn't placate me. Another day cannot soothe me like a coloring book hushes a crying child; there is no comfort in my shame.
"See, God, see what I'm doing? This will take care of everything since nothing or no one takes care of me." I called out to God, but there was no answer. As a girl who came from two different religious backgrounds, being raised what I call "Jew Lite," God was always a questionable force. We had holidays but no reasons to celebrate them. I knew that with Hanukkah, the oil had lasted eight days, but God knows what the hell the oil lasted for. My mom was raised Catholic and Protestant and then converted to Judaism to prevent us from running around to different churches and temples, but my father became a part-time Jew, being Jewish when he felt like it, hence the religiously-orphaned me. God was not going to help me through this, because he or she didn't even know who the hell I was; I mean my parents didn't even remember my Hebrew name. God as my savior was another concept for children. Tell me father, who do the adults worship?
That morning when I went to school, I had put my emotional armor on, pulling up the sleeves, zippering myself shut so when the comments came at me, I'd be able to deflect them. Two days earlier, as I went outside to sneak a smoke, a boy I'll call Skinny Curly-Haired Boy had tried to stop me. He had something important to say to me, apparently, and these days I had gotten used to people interrupting my daily activities to give me their opinion of me.
"Hey, can I fuck you?" Skinny Curly-Haired Boy was scrawny with curly hair and the traditional burnout uniform — read: flannel shirt, jeans, and cigarette behind one ear. He had asked me as if he was just asking me for the time of day, like right there and then I was going to unzip my pants, pull them to my ankles, and proceed to the wall to bend over and get fucked from behind. I didn't know him well but he thought he knew me because he saw me naked on a TV screen, as he and some hundred other people watched me fuck the co-star of my porn in a dirty video.
I started to empathize with stars, actors — people in the public eye. We think we know stars personally because they come to life in front of us on our television screens or in the movies, but we don't. I wanted stardom but I didn't want people to know all of this private information about me. That from my breasts growing big so fast I had some stretch marks veining their way down the sides. If the child in me could not be alive inside my heart, it was present in some places of my body. As skinny as I was, I had some small amounts of baby fat that spandex had managed to suck in. Now with the daily costumes of life off, people could see inside me. My body did not belong to me anymore.
Skinny Curly-Haired Boy was better than one girl who I like to call Coke Head Butch Barbie. That bitch; at 29 I can still recall her face, recall her brassy blonde hair like dirty copper, and her dark eyes, eye-lined in coke. She had grabbed me from the office one day so she could use me for show and tell.
"Come to class with me; I want to show my teacher who the porn queen is." Coke Head Butch Barbie was much bigger than I was (she was Gulliver and I was a Lilliputian) and brawnier. Saying "no" was not an option, unless I wanted to end up looking like her. I followed her down the hallway like an orphaned child who just found a foster home and from the looks of things, it wasn't going to be much better than the orphanage.
"Look Teach, here is the slut that made the video."
I remember nothing more but the humiliation. I was stripped of my clothes in front of my peers, and the people that were supposed to protect me from these peers — my teachers — had failed me. To them, I was probably just another failure who would fall away from the school system's graces like Cain falling away from God's.
I never wanted anyone to see this video; a guy I'll call Crazy Elf, the video director, and Not Worth a Name, co-star and burn out, had promised me they wouldn't show the video to anyone.
"We taped ourselves throwing pennies at a Hassidic Jew and we taped it on this tape so just in case we get in trouble, we'd never show this tape. You're safe with us." They hated Jews. Didn't they know that meant they hated me, too? I caressed the pink plastic razor like a torn lover, sliding it down my arm a little harder than the first time. "You need to learn your lesson," I told myself. I thought to myself that if I were worthy, God would have sent some sign that my life was going to get better. I mean, he did that shit on Little House on the Prairie all the time when I was little. But all I knew was TV God, the God my Catholic friends had told me about. I looked at the clock and there was one hour to go before my parents were home.
The vice principal had tried to be gentle that day. I was called down and when I heard my voice over the paging system I knew it was done. "Laura Lifshitz to the main office; Laura Lifshitz." I had handled the harassment for about a month and even the teachers' eyes would follow my gaze in the classroom. Their eyes did the talking: "Missy, you're a worthless piece of garbage and don't you forget it." The vice principal sat me down in his office and just asked me if the rumors had been true. I held my breath in for centuries, then let out "Yes, I did it." It was not Professor Plum in the green room with the candlestick. It was me. Childhood games were over with now.
"Would you like Black Male Friend to come down to help you talk about this?" Black Male Friend was one of my best friends, another who would disappear once I had become the black widow of the town. I had stood by him while all of the other white people belittled him for his blackness, and the fact that he was poor. I nodded yes, but as muscular as he was he couldn't keep me safe.
I was there to hear the phone call to my mother. I cannot remember the conversation. I only remember wishing I was the wicked witch of the west and that a house would fall on me. I was the last of four children. People always said, "They saved the best for last," but how true could that be, when their youngest daughter was kicked out for being a slut? I knew it was the end between my parents and I. I had gone to rehab three months ago; they thought their daughter was cured. All that insurance money and just another failure. My sister, who was a missionary in Japan would be shocked — all her prayers and hard work for me would be down the drain. My lifeline to repentance was blown. She had been the one to fly over from Utah when she had a feeling, correctly of course, that I was doing badly (a feeling she said had come through prayer, and I believed her because I knew that at least she had loved me.) She had been the one to help me tell my mom that I needed help. My words to her had been, "If you don't get me somewhere where I can be away for awhile, in six months I will probably be dead."
Back with Pink Floyd, the pink razor worked hard; I had produced some blood, but no real results. This wasn't about results — this was about a role, a role I played well. "I am hurting, I am fucked up someone better help me." This was the starring role I had played for nine months, and I needed help. This was more than a cry for attention because my parents were too busy; this was a call from pilot to airport. "May day, May day!"
I heard the door open downstairs and I put my razor down. I tried to pray that they would forget that I existed. I mean, if I could do it, they could. I huddled in the corner, waiting for the night to come so I could sleep it all off, but instead they did not forget about me. My dad was the first one to come to my door. To this day, I find it strange that the words that impacted me the most came from my dad, whom I called "Ghost Dad," because I knew he lived with us but yet somehow, I never saw him.
The door opened and he popped his body in the doorway, not wanting to really come in and face his offspring. He looked at me in the face: "Why?" I could not answer that because I did not know the answer then. I sometimes wish he could have saved that question for a future me, the person I am now, but I don't think he would really want that answer anyway. He continues, not looking me quite in the face. I am thankful for that.
"There are so many girls who would love to be you, love to be pretty and blonde with a nice figure like you. You're smart. Why would you do this?"
This was the first question my father had ever asked me and I had to have sex in the public eye in order to get him to make me a priority. I had been trying to coax him for anything for years. I answered him because I aimed to please.
"I hate myself." He hadn't seen the Bic razor by my side, but he had visited me at the hospital. I thought he knew this already. My dad shook his head in despair and left.
My mom came in next, because she's a woman of many words. She wasn't going to let me slide on this. This mother had been two parents for my whole life, had gone to all of my performances besides the glorious first grade dinosaur concert. My mom had loved me fiercely, crying in the lap of the hospital nurse when she had to leave me, her baby girl, at the crazy house.
Mom opens the door and doesn't peek in like dad; she walks in and faces me to confront me, to address the fuck up that came from between her legs.
"How could you do this? What the hell is wrong with you?"
The woman who has loved me like 40 people all at once was not the wondering father. She let me know where I stand, because no Irish woman from Brooklyn is going to keep her shit to herself.
"I hate you. You're a slut, do you hear me? A goddamned slut." And she threw something at me, some random object that floated by me while her words landed right inside my heart.
She shuts the door and I pick up the razor again.
You would think that after 14 years, I would never revisit that place, that the pink razor would be far from my mind — but it isn't. When I see children holding their fathers' hands, I do not cry because I want to have children; I cry for the father I will always want. I long to recreate my world so that everything was easy and right, but there are no do-overs in life. I scream for the 15 year-old girl who has not moved on yet. For the 29 year-old girl who has sat on therapists' couches for 14 years. Who may have been misdiagnosed for ten and who still can barely balance on the beam of self-love. Who when provoked still grabs a pink razor and hopes that a brand new day is on its way, or that time will at least go by fast enough to move her to a better moment. I want to go back to a safer place, where all my vulnerabilities sink into the ground as if they never existed, but we cannot do that. We cannot be five again just because we wish we could be.
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