bearded lady (an excerpt)
Chapter One: 1985
Don’t expect to understand my family. You’ll have better luck comprehending the history of the Middle East, or a Rubik’s cube. The answers there may not be formal or finite, but they at least exist. When it comes to my family, there are few answers.
We live in northern San Diego County, a casually affluent burn zone decorated by waves of red tile roofs. Here people think they can beat the inevitable by waving magic wands: money, image, charm. Sometimes it works. Sometimes they wind up with their homes reduced to ashes.
My parents have charm. They use it as a strategy, a way to beat back the flames. A grin can flash into something darker or remain in sunshine. You never know.
My mother is Joan, but I occasionally call her Nails. She has talons the shade of blood and hair the color of rust. She is prone to crying fits and lengthy explanations. These ride on one premise: Once she had dreams, then she had kids.
She regrets moving here from the East Coast. She claims my father forced her into it so he could pursue his perversions. “He wants to do threesomes,” my mother says, speaking in italics. “Wife-swapping. I tell him he can play a nice game of Hide and Go Fuck Yourself.”
My father is Steve, but I often think of him as The Rooster. His combover flaps in the wind. In the outside world he is cordial and at home he can be every bit as aggressive as the barnyard animal. His eyes are black as midnight. When he yells they turn almost violet. Violet and violent.
Somehow these two came together to form my brothers and me. I am twelve. Adam is eleven. Jonathan is a year old. He is the accident, or if you’d rather be more tactful, the surprise. When he pisses me off I call him the Birth Control Poster Child. It doesn’t seem to faze him.
Adam and I go to public school, but in the county’s best district. In school, the teacher asks: What does your father do? My classmates answer: doctor, plumber, pro football player. Then it is my turn.
“He drinks beer,” I say, “and watches Hill Street Blues.”
Later my mother explains: “Your father is an engineer.” When I ask what that means, she shrugs. It’s not as if she doesn’t know. It’s more like she doesn’t care. I imagine him at a desk doing something called paperwork, just as he does in his den for hours with the door shut and locked. Engineers must take home a lot of work. It must be important, just as our homework is important to us.
I know why work is important: It makes you money. Money means a lot to Nails and Rooster. It’s how we have our house, and our house is serious business. It’s a style my mother calls French Country Castle. She has a name for it: Jostaladjo. Joan-Steve-Allison-Adam-Jonathan. The house has a persona all its own. It is haughty in a laughable way, too big for its own britches. It is high on its own square footage. It prides itself on its prestige.
But inside it’s a warren of small rooms with locks to close ourselves off from one another. The carpet is stained and sad, the victim of Rooster’s dirty soles. When my mother complains he says, “What do you want from my life?” Then he slams into the den and does paperwork.
Our entryway is the biggest room. It’s the size of some studio apartments and gives way to a dining room with no carpet. It flooded a week after we moved in and they never bothered to replace the flooring. Bare nails jut from the concrete floor. My parents closed it off and forbade Jonathan from crawling across the room.
By night my mother retreats to her own hiding spot far from that cold entryway and dangerous dining room, all the things she and Rooster have created but cannot maintain. She locks herself in my bathroom. There she smokes, tapping her ashes into an empty yogurt cup. She writes in her journal, filling pages with her classic longhand. After the last cigarette is smoked and the room vacated, I slip into the bathroom to read her written confessions. It’s a different Nails than I know during the day, my tough-talking chain-smoker of a mother. This is a tender Nails, a rueful one. It’s a Nails that makes me ache and want to read more.
I too write in a journal. It’s nothing more than a spiral notebook, a series of blank lined pages. I use a ballpoint pen, pressing so hard that the imprint of my words can be found on the paper that lies beneath. Writing makes me feel safer than locking my door. It makes me feel freer than when Rooster is on a business trip. It makes me want to write more. I chronicle the events of the day – the credit-card bill arrived and my parents fought – along with my goals. I want to meet Lucille Ball, be a cheerleader, have a boyfriend. I want to play first base on my softball team. I want to go roller-skating on Saturday.
Most of all, I want to be pretty. Pretty means a small waist like Scarlett O’Hara, and I love Gone With the Wind. Pretty means good hair like Madonna. Pretty means a nice smile with straight teeth, which I don’t have because Rooster decided not to spend money on the braces my orthodontist recommended. I frown into the bathroom mirror, flanked by nicotine-stained walls. I resemble nothing so much as a human chipmunk, complete with fat cheeks and wide eyebrows that meet in the middle. My crooked teeth point in all directions. My eyes are small, my nose wide, my hair something out of Return of the Jedi. Jabba the Hutt, not Princess Leia.
Pretty means thin. Beauty is slim and angular, long and lissome. Everything about my body is curved and convex, rounded and generous. My breasts are already larger than those of most girls my age. So are my belly and behind. In the bathroom I run my hands along the arc of my hips, the swell of my thighs. My shoulders are wide like a linebacker. My upper arms bulge. Even my forehead is large, a pale fleshy expanse. How will I do the things I want to do if I’m fat? Lucy won’t want to meet a butterball. I wouldn’t even be able to fit into a cheer uniform. And no boy will love a big girl. Even I know that.
I often vow to lose weight. The matter seems simple: Take in fewer calories than you burn. We learned that in Health class. Losing weight is an issue of numbers, but I’m no good at math. When my parents fight, I fake a headache and skip dinner. Then I go downstairs after the table is cleared and consume: chips, cookies, handfuls of cornmeal. I slather pieces of white bread with margarine and shove them into my mouth. I pour bowls of cereal and eat them dry. I belch and I smile. Sometimes I laugh. The cheeks of my face and butt are dimpled because eating makes me fat, but the food feels good. It feels familiar, like a grandparent. It also hurts, like nails going down my throat. Scratchy. Bloodletting.
While I eat and evaluate myself, my brothers find their own hiding places. Adam tucks himself in his room and watches pro wrestling, taking mental notes should he need to bust out a half-nelson on the bully next door. Jonathan, just a baby, chews on teddy bears in his crib. Outside the sun grows shy and the sky dark, wrapping us in nighttime as we dwell in our separate spaces.
I am in seventh grade. I sit on the floor of the Black Mountain Middle School assembly room, the hard linoleum stinging my butt. The place smells like hairspray and pre-adolescent sweat. Laughter and catcalls ping off hard surfaces, making it hard to hear even the person next to me. Maybe this is what they mean when they talk about being alone in a crowded room.
A voice behind me says: “A werewolf!”
A second voice: “Where? Lemme see.”
Werewolf? That’s way more interesting than the German rock band that’s about to perform for us. The show’s meant as a history lesson, an idea that appeals more to school administrators than to us. I want to see the werewolf too.
“There,” First Voice says.
I feel the finger being pointed.
Laughter gathers, blooms and spreads. I start to join in – and then I feel that flush. It starts in my cheeks, climbs up to my forehead, and drops back down to my chin. It makes my skin feel hot and prickly, itchy. Dummy, it says, don’t you know?
I’m wearing a Wonder Woman t-shirt. It’s pulled up and out of my jeans, exposing my lower back. I can feel eyes looking at that space. I reach back to pull my shirt down – and there’s hair. On my back. It feels soft, but soft in this case doesn’t feel good. It feels like a razor blade, actually. Tears sting my eyes, but I don’t cry. Instead I bite my lip and feel my heart slam against my ribs. I can hear its drumbeat in my ears, feel it in the pulse at my wrists. It sounds like a warning.
On the bus ride home I glance down at my arms, exposed by my short-sleeve Wonder Woman shirt: Hairy. Were they this hairy all along? I edge up the leg of my jeans: Hair there too. Already my body feels different, a trap rather than a tool. An object of shame rather than a point of pride.
Werewolf. Something that changes into something else. I think of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” music video, his eyes going wide and dull, his features shifting from human to zombie. I’d wanted change, but not like this. I wanted to be beautiful. This isn’t beautiful.
I climb off the bus and walk down the driveway toward my house. It is a steep, sloping driveway marked by twin posts. It curves and dips and finally reaches its destination. In front is a basketball hoop and patches of dead grass. When my mother asks my father when we’re getting a professional gardener, he counters, “When are you getting a job?”
I hesitate before going in. I stand in front of my house and think what an impressive mess it is, how the external can be so deceiving. Inside I am not a werewolf. Inside I am a smoothly manicured girl who fits into small-sized Guess jeans. Inside I laugh at girls who look like me.
The key turns with a single smooth motion. The door works, why can’t my body? I step into our massive expanse of an entryway. It is meant to impress and intimidate. Enter this house. I dare you. My Keds make a strange sucking sound on the marble floor. “Mom?” I yell. I wonder how she’d react if I called her Joan or, God forbid, Nails. She doesn’t believe in corporal punishment, but my ass wouldn’t stop stinging for a week.
I find my mother in the kitchen, smoking and working a crossword. “What’s with you?” she asks. I turn my back toward her and slowly roll up my shirt.
Two days later we’re headed down Interstate 15 South on the way to the doctor. My mother has a Benson & Hedges in her left hand and the radio dial in her right. She drives with her knees. “No reason to tell Him,” she says. In our house, there is only one Him, and it isn’t God.
“You’re not supposed to be sick. That’s why.”
Am I sick? That would be excellent. That would mean I could take one of the antibiotics that makes me throw up and get a rash all over my body – and the hair would fall out. If it’s as easy as that, I’m happy.
Dr. Frye has white hair and an unlined face. He steeples his long, narrow fingers under his pointed chin. “She’s hirsute,” he says. I don’t know the term, but I can guess. It has something to do with the fuzz on my back. And arms and legs. And, as it turns out, on my breasts, buttocks and face.
Dummy, didn’t you know?
But I didn’t. When you see something every day, you don’t really see it. Sometimes it takes an alarm, a call.
My mother puts a hand on my knee. Her grasp feels steady and almost too comforting. I want to tell her that the diagnosis itself doesn’t scare me. It makes me feel warm at the temples, the pit of my throat, in my heart as it pounds. This doctor is going to help. He’s going to fix me.
“We’ll want to look into this,” Dr. Frye said. “If she were my daughter, I’d get it taken care of as soon as possible.”
No, the diagnosis doesn’t scare me. What I’m worried about is the swing into action. My parents can’t even remember to water the lawn.
“We’ll run tests,” the doctor says. He marks a small sheet of paper with his physician’s scribble and hands it to my mother. She grasps it with her long red claws, wrinkling the center.
But instead of heading to the lab in the downstairs basement, we leave the office and walk to the car. My mother’s posture is rigid, her mouth determined. She holds her purse as a soldier might hold his weapon. The sun shines on my hairy face and gorilla arms. It’s peach fuzz now, but what will happen in the future? “What about the blood work?” I ask. I sound like a classroom goody-goody, a wanna-be perfect girl. I was once called “the mother of the class.” I’m still trying to figure that one out.
My mother hands me her purse. “Get my keys out,” she says. She’s always asking me to do these small things – get my keys, bring me a drink of water, hand me a cigarette, the pack’s over there – and I never say no. The keys are jangly and jagged in my hand. I run my finger along the ragged edge of the key that opens the door to our house. I do it hard enough that it hurts.
“Stop fucking around,” my mother says, and snatches the keys out of my hand. She can curse, but I can’t. When I ask why, her answer is the same as when I ask why she can smoke and I shouldn’t. “Because I’m stupid,” she says.
“I’m not fu-, I mean, messing around.”
“Neither am I. Get in the car.”
She unlocks her door.
“Are you mad at me?” I ask.
“Mad? Why would I be mad?”
“I don’t know. You seem mad.”
“I’m always mad,” she says. “I’m a mother.”
She pulls her purse out of my hands and tosses it in the back seat. A bit of paper escapes and flutters to the floor. She settles herself in the driver’s seat and beckons toward the passenger-side door. “Get in,” she says.
I’m still standing by the driver’s side. I don’t want to get in. Getting in means driving away. Driving away means no lab tests. No lab tests mean The Werewolf is still alive.
“Get,” she repeats, “in.”
“No,” I say.
I’m not the kind of kid who says no. Until this moment, I wasn’t sure I even knew how to do it. It feels good. It tastes like triumph.
And like all sweetness, it doesn’t last.
“I’m going to give you until the count of three,” she says. “And at two and a half, you’re getting your ass smacked.”
I don’t move, but already I know it’s over.
“One,” she says.
Why is she so insistent? Is there a reason I shouldn’t take care of what’s wrong with me?
Maybe she wants me to be The Werewolf.
“Two and a -”
“Okay,” I say.
She leans over and unlocks the door. I walk around the car and fit my fingers around the handle. In my mouth is the taste of rust, the sting of defeat.
“Don’t worry,” she says.
We eat lunch at Hob Nob Hill, surrounded by wood walls and cosseted by leather seats. My mother has the corned beef. I choose the fish fillet. I’ve decided to lose weight.
“You know,” Nails says, “we can take care of this ourselves.”
I nibble on a French fry. Losing weight can be a gradual process.
“You’re not a freak,” she says.
I look up and meet her eyes. Until this moment, I’d never given thought to that idea. A freak. Something out of a circus. Is she sure?
“You’re my daughter,” she says. “I love you.”
Nails doesn’t bust out those words lightly. She’s not what you would call gushy. “Thanks,” I say.
When we come home the house is quiet and oddly peaceful. Adam is in school. Jonathan is at a babysitter’s. My father is at his Point Loma office doing paperwork.
“Come,” my mother says.
She takes me into my bathroom, her sanctuary. She retrieves a yogurt cup from underneath the sink and a cigarette from her pack. She flicks a lighter and inhales. “Let me look at you,” she says. “I’m not going to bite.”
“I might,” I say.
“You’ve got an awfully big mouth for someone so little.”
“I’m not that little.”
“You’re not that big either. Come here.”
It’s three o’clock in the afternoon. Ronald Reagan is in the White House. WrestleMania is in Madison Square Garden. My mother opens a cabinet and retrieves a disposable razor, then takes a can of shaving cream from the tub. I focus on the can’s red and white stripes until they seem to pulse in waves.
“You might have to do it every day,” Nails says, “or every other day. You’ll figure it out. It takes time, but you will.”
Is she going to shave my back? My legs? My arms?
“We’ll start with the face,” she says.
Of course. You can cover up everything else. It makes sense.
“First I’ll do it,” she says, “then you go on your own. It’s pretty easy once you get the hang of it.”
Then her mouth crumples. She sits on the toilet and lights a cigarette. It hangs from her crimson lips and smoke rises to frame her face. Eventually she puts it out in the cup.
“Sometimes I just realize how much I hate your father,” she says.
I put my hand on her shoulder.
“Mom,” I say, “don’t cry.”
She stands up, rips a piece of toilet paper from its roll and blows her nose. The sound is coarse, a call to action. “Okay,” she says.
She turns a mint-colored tap and water cascades into the sink. Steam rises and spreads. “Here,” she says. She hands me a towel. It’s warm and wet. I press it to my face.
“Perfect,” she says. “The water softens it.”
I think of Rock, Paper, Scissors. If the water can defeat the hair, what can the hair defeat?
Nails pops the plastic cover from a disposable razor. She runs it under the steaming waterfall, then snaps off the tap. “All right,” she says.
She starts with my sideburns. They’re bushy and generous. They run the length of my face from ears to jawbone. I’ve noticed them, but I always thought they were normal, like eyebrows or the hair that springs from my father’s knuckles. I have hair there, too.
“It’s okay,” she says. “You’re not an ape.”
“Or a freak?”
“Where did you get that word?”
“You said it. At lunch.”
“No, baby,” she says. “You’re not a freak.”
I watch in the mirror. I think about the men who get professional shaves in barbershops, the careful motions of the blade. My mother is similarly gentle. Her motions are usually sharp with purpose, but this is a special occasion. In a way, I feel lucky.
Dinner is beef and broccoli with a side of television. We serve ourselves and my mother serves my father, who sits in the small dining nook wearing only his underwear. Adam and I are in charge of getting him drinks. He communicates through grunts and hand signals, pounding his chest like an ape for emphasis. Even Jonathan looks disgusted in his high chair.
We take our places at the scarred bleached-wood table. I want to roll around in the wheeled dining-room chair until I vomit, but instead I load up my fork and put it to my lips. Small bites, I’d counseled myself in my journal. Chew well. Trick your stomach into thinking it’s not hungry.
“I took her to Frye’s office today,” my mother says.
Rooster makes a humph noise.
“He said she was -”
“Do you mind?” He doesn’t take his eyes from the screen. “Family Ties is on.”
Forget about slow chewing. I shove my entire forkful into my mouth and swallow it near-whole. Things simmer and blow between my parents, but even when they come to a head it means nothing. There are explosions, but the pressure never dissipates.
My mother bites her lip and contemplates her silverware. The action is not contrite. She is plotting. It makes my stomach churn. I fold my paper napkin in half and tear it along the crease. I curl and flex my toes inside my Keds. I chew my own lip and feel it start to bleed.
“Such intellectual pursuits,” my mother says, “from the man who whacks off to TV Guide.”
I picture whacking off as an athletic activity akin to golf. Ready, aim, whack off.
“Did I tell you to shut up? Shut up.”
“You can’t come up with anything better than that?”
He clears his throat, points to me, then points to his glass. “Speak,” I say. He grunts in response. “That doesn’t mean anything to me,” I add.
“The hell it doesn’t.”
“Okay,” I say. “At least you said something to me.”
“You bet I did. Get me a goddamned glass of soda.”
His look is more complicated than anger. It’s disbelief mixed with just a touch of admiration. What if he’d been at the doctor’s office this afternoon? What would his expression have been then?
“The Breakfast Club,” he says. “A gang-bang. All of you against me.”
On-screen Alex Keaton threatens his youngest sister in a loving tone. If she doesn’t get off the phone, he says, he’ll force-feed her the receiver. The studio audience roars its approval. I don’t want to be Jennifer, a chunky teenager sitting cross-legged on the side table, blonde bangs forming a solid wall across her forehead. I want to be Mallory, her ditzy, cute older sister, the one who knows how to dress, flirt and piss off Alex.
“Hey,” Adam says. He’s fifteen months younger than me. Like Jennifer, he just wants to be normal. “I didn’t say anything.”
“You didn’t have to,” my father says. “I know where you stand.”
“I’m sitting,” Adam says, confused.
I wait for something to blow this moment clear to the sky: a phone call, a puking fit from Jonathan, a meteor. Instead it just bubbles and boils.
What would Rooster say if he knew I was hirsute? If I told him that my mother taught me to shave this afternoon? Perhaps I should crawl into the television, broadcast myself to him. Instead I ask: “Dad?”
“Do you mind?” He forks some broccoli into his mouth and stares beyond me, beyond all of us. “I’m watching this.”
I write in my journal, which for no particular reason I call Anna:
Dear Anna: Well, there’s something wrong with me, that’s for sure. I think the hair is only a part of it. I feel like a freak, but even as I write that, I don’t think that’s the right word. I could say I feel weird, but the feeling is stronger than that. I could say I’m worried – and I know that I am.
But there’s a part of me that feels like maybe it’s not all bad. Fact is I’m not sure I mind being different. I just want to be different on my own terms. You know what I mean, Anna? Somehow I think you do.
allison landa is a Berkeley, California-based fiction and memoir writer who has held residencies at The MacDowell Colony, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, and The Julia and David White Artists’ Colony. Her work has been featured in Salon Magazine, CleanSheets, Word Riot, Pindeldyboz and Defenestration, among other venues. She earned her MFA in creative writing from St. Mary’s College of California. Visit her at allisonlanda.com.