She had a strange relationship with her skin. Of course, as a teenager, she’d reviled it but not due to blemishes. Of those there were a few, but not a great many, and she was artful enough with concealer to keep that at bay. But there was nothing she could buy in a grocery store make up section that would help with her stretch marks. She learned from a magazine that they were like split ends, once they were there, they were there, and stretch marks couldn’t be cut. She would’ve tried it.
She’ll be honest, at thirty there’s two sets of them. Her adolescent body grew too much too quickly, it would seem her hips and breasts and both inner and outer thighs were the worst offenders. These were the stretch marks of youth. They came about probably the seventh or eighth grade, coinciding pretty well with the onset of menstruation. She remembered the friends – just like the friends most teenage girls have, they were the kind who were dying to point out her flaws to her – pointing to the ones on her hips when she dared to wear a shorter shirt. Then, this skin-crawling affair:
She was wearing a short enough tank top to expose her hips. She was in the kitchen in her family home. It was freshman year in high school, when life was miserable anyway. Her horrid father – who she refers to as W because he doesn’t deserve the emotionally-infused pronouns of dad or father or anything like it – W jabs a finger against her hip, against a stretch mark. Always needing to make some sort of physical contact.
“What’s that?” He asked. Had he caught a Benny Hinn special on warning signs of teen cutting?
“A stretch mark,” She was at the sink doing dishes, W had stepped into the kitchen to get more chewing tobacco between commercial breaks. He didn’t always watch televangelists, but he did always watch something cringe-worthy. She hasn’t seen him in four years now, but she’s sure he still watches Fox News every morning.
“A scratch mark?” W was notoriously hard of hearing…unless he was eavesdropping. She couldn’t figure that one out.
“A stretch mark!” She turned to look at him.
He takes a moment to regard her, disgustedly, “Aren’t those from when you get pregnant and get big?” Was he was trying to imply she, at fourteen, was hiding a pregnancy, or just that she was getting fat like her mother? W was always reminding her mother of this fact, out of love, and telling her and her brother to do likewise.
“Lots of people have them.” It was true, a decent number of friends her age had them. The other fat girls. Only she wasn’t fat, especially, she just wasn’t tiny. In high school she was a size eight or ten, at 5’9”.
W didn’t respond, as he wanted to get back to watching television, which is one of the two things he does with his days, these days. But he was probably pleased to have inflicted a minor emotional wound as he was in a foul mood for having to get up. His reaction to having to answer the phone because she was in the basement doing the family’s laundry – at fourteen – was to glare at her from the top of the stairs like she was the scum of the earth, holding the phone out at arm’s length, as if he might drop it. Breaking things to drive home a lesson was among one of his favorite tactics. One time as a young girl, she dropped the phone while talking on it, and the plastic back and the battery popped out, just due to the way it hit the floor. She was young enough to be afraid she broke it. She tearfully took it to him, because she was too afraid to lie or hide it. Because he had to put the battery back in, he told her she was never allowed to use the phone to talk to friends again. This was when she was still young enough to believe W’s threats. As she aged, when her brother pointed it out to her, she realized he was far too lazy and narcissistic to see a punishment through. That takes caring dedication, if you think about it. As much as he loved lecturing and sermonizing and pontificating to every member of the household, that was usually only when he was high. He was a mean goddamn drunk. Then he was a very dramatic recovery patient. Or whatever he calls his on again off again sobriety. W told her on separate occasions when she was in the second grade that he was divorcing her mom, and then that he was dying. He didn’t mean either, probably, deep down, but W loves drama, and he has to make it where he can. And who better than his somehow to blame family?
Then she has a second set of stretch marks. These ones are on her calves, near the varicose veins she’s had since high school, and the back of her arms, and her stomach. At twenty-eight she officially had them everywhere a person can get them – without any offspring to show for it, she sometimes reminded herself. But, she was nothing if not able to see the workability of any situation. High-waisted everything became a lasting trend, so that worked for her. And, despite the unbelievable, unfair tendency for stretch marks, her skin was quite lovely otherwise. She was just glad the ones on her breasts faded, for those were an excellent attribute otherwise. She was eternally grateful that her perfect nipples were the same deep pink as her lips. Yes, both sets. She’d been asked what lipstick she wore when she wasn’t wearing any before. Which was nice because she would never be asked if her eyelashes were falsies, like some of her friends from her college days – not that they were in college – her eyelashes were short and the same light brown as her hair. She made up for it by having black, winged eyeliner tattooed on herself for her twenty-ninth birthday, because hey lets make that one memorable for some reason, right? She’d heard from many people throughout her life that they were surprised by how soft her skin and hair was. A few even told her skin “just looked soft” which she tried to take as a compliment and not…well, what everyone thinks of.
She came about this second barrage of even worse stretch marks because of a weight gain that came about due to two big reasons. One was the transition to an office job, from working at a place where sitting only occurred during her breaks and she was constantly walking around and lifting and carrying. She might have known she couldn’t maintain the same physique when she started sitting for ten hours. And, also playing its part, was her intense drinking. Because when she was twenty-seven she came by this office job, and finished her Masters – she was tireless, like she was trying to prove who she wasn’t, one might think – and started sleeping with an attractive, alcoholic human train wreck (she likes to refer to him as R) she knew from graduate school.
It wasn’t even an affair, her husband knew the whole time. She still tolerated W so she could see her mother a few times a year at that age, but her situation with R coincided almost perfectly when her severing of that tie once and for all. She was walking into a restaurant with her husband to celebrate the first day of her office job, she saw it was W calling. When he called, one, you will answer, and two, you will have a conversation for as long as he was thinking the conversation should last. When W was high, that was a long time, no matter what the person the other line said they were doing. Short of cutting him off and hanging up before he could say another word, there was no real way to end a conversation with him.
She didn’t answer his call then, because she wanted to enjoy going out to dinner with her husband, not listen to W ask her questions about her job that were awkward to ask. He would likely use the details to angrily shame her brother for being such a loser, as he was wont to do.
W left a pissed voicemail that started with, “Oh, I see you’re not speaking to me.”
In an email the next day, as she primarily communicated with her mother via this medium, as her email is at her job and therefore W can in no way monitor it, as he would with anything he might find in his perusals of her things, her mother would write “Well, he is out of pills right now, so that probably had something to do with it.” And we wonder why she registers only bitter disgust when people “make excuses” to her, as she calls it.
She would grow up to realize that other fathers didn’t go through their mother’s cell phones without her knowledge, only to point out and question the numbers he didn’t recognize. Her mother was as likely to have an affair as the sky is to be on fire. Her over-romantic teenage mind, so in-love with the idea of lovers who adored and couldn’t be with each other for a myriad of reasons, wished the woman had had that sort of bent to her, because a father other than W would have been a blessing. But no, she wasn’t in denial there. She had his exact boring-colored eyes, if little else. They even had the same expressions, at times. She did not like being reminded of that. Her husband learned. When he’d wanted to hurt her most – when they were drinking so much all they did was fight – he told her she was his father’s daughter. The last time he’d said that was on their wedding night, when he was shit-faced and so angry and just blackout gone, out of it, and she was alone with him and it made her chest hurt trying to think about what to do. Really, all she’d wanted to do in that moment was beat the shit out of him. If she didn’t already know he could get violent with her when he was this drunk, she might have tried to. But her idiot ass, who’d just married this drunk fool, who had legions of her own demons that, at the time, she liked dragging about on short leashes, every ready for war, she just put up with it. She’d put up with so much for so long and tolerated such absurdity that filled her with humiliation at the mere thought of speaking of it to anyone “outside the family”. He really tried to teach his children that anyone outside the four of them in that house was an untrustworthy enemy….yet he delighted only in causing misery to one or all of them. It was hard to say which one he hates more, her mother or her brother. It might have changed in the past four years, as she now refuses to have anything to do with him.
She warned her husband that he was to never speak those words to her again. And he hadn’t. Not yet. It’d been four years since they married, and after her horrid affair with R messily ended, they began their best years together. They were still ongoing, at thirty as she told this story. They’d had about…three major fights since then. Which for them was a decrease, but there were still times when she couldn’t understand why he took everything she said and did as a direct, personal attack, but he did.
But she was not so happy at twenty-six, married and miserable and feeling really stupid for marrying him – she told her best friend exactly that when she went to visit her alone the summer after her wedding. Of course, R happened. She didn’t like blaming her actions on other people, because she will freely admit that she made these choices, that this was all her decisions and she knew what she was fucking doing. It’s the same self-destructive impulse that makes one want to jump off a high ledge, or touch a poison-dart frog – it made her keep doing it. Because R was unemployed and lived for free in his single father’s nice, if not enormous, lake house, he was always available. She would spent many nights in that house. Her misadventures and mishandlings with R are their own story. But, about a year after it began, in the May right after her twenty-eighth birthday, she ghosted R as hard as she had her parents. Just believe her when she tells you he had it coming.
Well, she was always in communication with her mother, via email. But she no longer saw her, because she wouldn’t speak to W and that obviously meant she couldn’t step foot in their house or call or text her mother. But, they speak every day that her mother works, so she maintains that they’re closer than a lot of mother-daughters even though they don’t get to see each other. Of course it breaks a little piece of her heart each time she thinks about how, when her mom is gone, all these years they didn’t get to spend any time together are going to eat away at her, along with so much else. People who run for their lives leaving others behind, despite their actions, they really do feel guilt. They just wanted to live bad enough, they’re willing to live under that.
For a year she spent up to three nights a week at R’s father’s house. She felt guilty, every time, but not enough to stop her, so does that count? But, an incident would come about the summer when she was twenty-nine long after it was over that made her tell her husband – among many very hurtful things she felt he deserved to hear right then – that she was glad she’d done that to him. That was their most recent low point to date, well that and a few days following when he finally had his reaction to what she’d said, and to dealing with the guilt of what he’d done and that she found out through means he’d attempted to control from reaching her. A doctor’s bill in the mail for an appointment she hadn’t known he’d had. He turned so pale when she asked him about it, she knew something bad was about to happen. She didn’t like that feeling. It was one of W’s favorites. She did not react well. She broke many things.
Her second set of stretch marks will always make her think of R, because they coincided with him, which coincided with removing her parents entirely from her life. She didn’t want to blame her baggage, her demons, her ruined wedding night – after her family behaved themselves through the whole day, W even gave a moving speech and prayer, because the man likes attention and showmanship like any good narcissist, her family keeps it together…and then her new husband is the one to let her down….she misplaced her suspicions for what would go wrong that day – for what she was doing, but there’s something that numbs the brain, that makes it capable of the same level of terrible that happened to it. At least that’s how she always felt. And lets face it, she got off on having this like secret second life no one who knew her in regular adult life would ever guess at. Doesn’t every little kid want to be the super hero? The interesting literary character with a big secret setting off every “third act reveal” alarm there is?
Now, when she thinks about R, all she does is hate herself for tolerating him and wasting so much time with him. She wasn’t writing at all then, even though she finally had her M.A. She started a blog a few weeks after she ended things with R when she and her husband tried swinging a few times. It wasn’t that fun. What she remembered most were the hangovers. She thought it would be a fun thing to blog about, and she was right. Then she just kept blogging. Then she finally possessed enough self awareness to write her first non-fiction piece about herself.
She knew, from the hint of the experience she had from her now enormous blog – in content, not followers – that she wanted to tell people about everything one day. She was being brutally honest, because she felt that was the only way honesty could possibly work. Because isn’t the truth always horrible?
She knew she needed to write about her skin. What a perfect metaphor for her spirit her biggest organ was. It was lovely, and was as soft as it looked, surprisingly, but the few who bothered, or dared, to get close to her, the ones to see the parts experience taught her to keep hidden, were going to find a scarred, scarred individual. There was so much more, but her skin was the start. And how fitting, to have just finished Silence of the Lambs, and to think to write this passage, for once telling the total truth about her life. With her decades-long sundry endeavors in fiction, she hadn’t thought to try for non-fiction until just then, as she endeavored through the second draft of what she fervently believed to be her first novel. She was transcribing it from scratch to catch typos and monitor pacing, whatever that means. But she was deep in her process one day, and smoked so much weed she was finally able to explain to herself why her skin was the odd mix of good and bad that is was. So like her, so like her life.