mother and daughter: a death wish

“Dear Mummy, I hate you for multiple reasons, the most recent one being because you went on and on about my teeth at Easter in front of all your gross friends. You want me to be like your perfect junior league girl, and grow up to do charity balls and be the concubine for some banker, like you. But the truth of it is I am addicted to you like chocolate. I always want to be around you. I’m some like stupid little puppy and you keep like kicking my teeth in with your words and your tone. Sometimes, I wish you were dead.” –Tori to her mother in Lost and Delirious

A death wish: the walls that contain the misery are brought down: the moment of revolution is a new form of reproduction, a reproduction of another kind of life form.[1] A death wish: she sits alone with her mother’s headstone. It’s monsoon season and the afternoon skies are thick with rain clouds cast across the Greater Phoenix Valley. Streaks of sun light beam through like God herself reaching down onto the deforested Sonoran desert.

No one else is at the graveyard. She sits alone. She wants her mother to know everything.

She sits alone with her mother’s headstone. She tries to breathe, recalling words like freak, like recluse, or, to be more precise—freak of nature, recluse with a thick curled “r” looping upside down into the phonetic lull of the “l” like a beachside rollercoaster ride: recluse. She still hears her mother screaming these words from the hallway, through the precariously locked bedroom door. Simply a bobby pin would pick it open, but she locks it anyway.

What does a mother do with such a daughter? Unusual yet disarming. Queer might work. Recluse, solitude: the daughter holds a love for quietness with words and thoughts alongside her hand-me-down Acer laptop and pocketsize rhyming dictionary. What does a mother do when her daughter spends money on books, not shoes? This might seem simplistic, cliché almost. But this was her reality. A troublemaker for reading books and writing poems and feeding her ravenous imagination. She refuses to be placed. Everyday her mother keeps kicking her teeth in with her words and her tone. Freak. Recluse. Blood curdling spews against the cacophony of an amusement park landscape parading in her head. A circus, a freak show. Come one, come all! Bear witness before your very eyes to that which you are not. There is so much that her own mother can’t recognize about her. She cannot recognize her own daughter even when she’s standing right there begging her to stop saying those words in that way. Begging, on her knees, she says please mother please, leave me alone. There’s blood on her knees and the tears they feel good on her cheeks. Please, mother, please.

She wants her mother to recognize her. She wants it but she can never have it in this life-world. A death wish: she writes a poem for her mother, it’s a never-ending story in medias res and in it she creates a fantastical, complicated, beautifully twisted life-world where they both co-reside, co-exist and recognize all that is so defamiliarized: a mother seeing her own daughter for the first time.

Oh and back in real-life there’s tattoos and things, body piercings, In-N-Out milkshakes and other devilish wastings.

Her mother sobbed through the gulps of wine. She had never seen her drink like that. She stood right there, showing her mother the tattoo, and her mother couldn’t see it right in front of her face. Do you do this just to be different? To make a point? As the deviant who attempts to expose the conditions that make her a supposed deviant to her own mother in the first place, this very attempt to expose is used against her by her mother and thus the daughter becomes the origin of emotional and social violence, the cause of unhappiness—rather than acknowledging the historical systematic origins of violence that make her appear deviant in such a way; the daughter being the cause of unhappiness stops any recognition of her daughter’s weirdness as a misperceived production—which prevents the possibility of alternative possibility from seeming possible at all. Possibilities have to be recognized as possibilities to become possible. And yet the disbelief in the possibility of a different world can function as a psychic defense against suffering. The daughter knows of her mother’s suffering, for she inherits it.

Her mother would say: summer is coming up and you are going to have to start wearing shorts, soon. Why don’t you wear shorts anymore, daughter? Is it because you don’t fit into them anymore? Are your legs too fat? How much do you weigh these days?

She would tell her mother to leave her alone. She told her mother over and over again: leave me alone.

Her mother would say: don’t you have any respect for yourself? Don’t you care what other people think? This is where it starts. You gain five pounds this year, ten pounds the next year, and before you know it you are obese and have no self-confidence. Don’t you have any self-confidence? You are barely fitting into the size fives anymore. You are bulging out of your pants. What did you have to eat today for lunch? Any fruits and vegetables? Whatever happened to that cute shirt I bought you? I have never seen you wear it. That’s it, I am sick of doing nice things for you and constantly buying you things. The world doesn’t revolve around you, daughter.

The world doesn’t revolve around you, daughter. The world doesn’t revolve around you.

She tried to tell her mother, to tell her, but she never listened.

Her mother would say: you are so unappreciative and selfish. Those long hippie skirts you buy are like circus tents, trying to hide your fat self underneath them. I never see girls your age wearing those.

Her mother nagged and picked and prodded. She hated her for it. She started to learn to ignore her. The mother’s voice abuzz in the background cackling amidst kitchen sounds while the daughter stares down the hallway, at the front door, wondering when she would, when she could, leave.

She sits alone with her mother’s headstone. She wants her mother to know everything. She hopes it’s not too late.

The grass is yellow and hard and is irritating her skin. But she has nowhere else to sit— besides, the pre-monsoon sky comforts her and she is finally relaxed, she can finally breathe, and she feels like her mother is finally listening to her. She breathes. She lets the moist desert oxygen wallow in her alveoli. She reduces speed: direction over time. Her eyes roll up into the back of her skull and she sees her own thoughts. And she lets the pounding, screaming thoughts breathe. Just lets them breathe and lets the neurons rest and maybe cry a little bit because she can feel those tears coming on through the face. They are boiling and breaking and baking and deep-frying and steaming beneath the surface begging to get out. So she is going to let them out and let the storm free free free.

She throws away her old pants. They don’t fit her anymore, her mother would be proud. She almost squeezes into a size two now. She burns them. The pants. She burns them in the desert. It is a huge fire. She jumps into that fire. She rolls out the side into the dirt and stares at the flames that are ignited on her shirt and she watches it go through the cotton onto her skin. She feels the burning against her body and she smells the rancid smell of burning flesh. Finally she puts out the fire on her arm. The doctors say it will scar forever. It is beautiful and the new layer of skin starting to grow over it is chunky and pink.

Her mom is gone. She dedicates the scar to her. A reminder, maniacal memories: freak, fatty, recluse, disappointment. Her mother’s voice buzzes and the words blend together and she slams her door against the boils of her rage, her unhappiness. But the buzzes they crawl through the opening at the bottom of her bedroom door and she could still hear her mother. She could always hear her mother. It didn’t matter how hard she tried not to she could always hear her.

Her mother would say: obviously he doesn’t want you as a girlfriend because you barely even take care of yourself! Why would he want a girlfriend like that? Maybe if you put on some mascara and eye shadow once in awhile he would notice you in a different way! Maybe if you didn’t tip the goddam scale! Then he would want you and want to show you off to the world. But look at you!

She tries so hard to un-remember, to un-hear all that is living and ever-present.

She shouts back: shut the fuck up! She yells back at her through her locked bedroom door. She is hiding in the corner on the other side of her bed ripping out the carpet with her fingers. She digs her fingers into the carpet with her chewed nails—she rips so hard at the carpet her damaged fingernails start to bleed. Stain the carpet. She continues to rip at the carpet. She says, leave me alone. Leave me alone.

She sees red. She snaps in a fury screaming at her mother: why would you say that? Why! H o w  c o u l d  y o u ? She hates her and she can’t stop yelling and pulling out the carpet. The screams they turn into desperate cries and light up the house and she barely hears herself screaming because her ears go numb from the verbal abuse. She hated her mother for making her snap, for making her say irrational, horrible things to her own mother. She hates her for it. What does not get noticed is the violence that makes her act in the way she does, as the violence of provocation hovers in the background.[2] She hates her mother for it because she feels like her anger has nowhere to go. She can only direct so much of the anger at her mother because not all of it is for her. The violence of provocation that hovers in the background is the production of her mother’s misery, the mother’s long childhood history of fatness and being bullied. How can she blame her mother when she knows of such pain and suffering?

She sits alone with her mother’s headstone. She wants her to know everything. She hopes it isn’t too late. She says, I’m sorry. She says, Mom, I don’t think I can stop.

She holds her breath and picks at a hangnail, pulling a piece of skin down her finger alongside it. Her mother: consisting of bones, varicose veins, and sagging skin. Her entire body, withered and gauntly. She still hears her mother at night, vomiting into the toilet. There are bloodied bile stains on the tile, the stench so vile with chunks of crackers and frosted cookies.  She wants to wipe them away but she can’t. She could smell her mother’s looming end. She could smell it. It’s everywhere. She wanted her mother to stop but she never listened to her. She loves her so much and she is so sorry that she never told her enough. She is so sorry that she never told her mother that she is lovely, she is kind. She is sorry that she never told her mother that she knew she sacrificed it all to raise her daughters. She knows she sacrificed it all: dreams of art-making, designing, creative ventures. Her mother’s house, like a museum of hints at that which she could have had. Hand crafted ornaments, homemade sofa pillows, decorated picture frames, painted strokes of gold and red and purple covering the shelves she created and installed herself. She hopes it’s not too late.

She chews on her fingernails alone next to her mother’s headstone down to the bone down to the crescent of the moon. The nail biting is compulsory, automatic, obsessive. She digs into her fingernails, ripping away skin and cuticles and flesh and nail. She becomes vicious in her pursuit: nails and flesh locked against teeth and jaw. And she sobs. Her hands are preoccupied, clenched against teeth, and she tastes the salty salty tears that pour into her open mouth like sweet raindrops. The tears stream down her hot cheeks and slide over her lips, curving into her slightly open mouth. Salty and sweet. Red-hot cheeks moist and shiny in the bittersweetness; forehead and eyebrows braced in distorted expressions. Freak. Recluse. Do you do this just to be different? To make a point? Soon she tastes blood as well. She tastes the sweet, salty tears and the odd taste that is blood. She wants her to know everything. She doesn’t think she can stop. She destroys her nails and cuticles enough to the point that blood is oozing and seeping through the tips of her fingers. She rips one last cuticle out from the side of her middle fingernail. The pain is so sharp the pain is so deep the pain is so excruciating from ripping out a thick, rooted cuticle and a long piece of skin that for a brief moment her sobs pause and she breathes calmly through her mouth as she watches the fresh hot blood throb in fiery pain where her cuticle and skin were just attached. Enthralled, she tears back pieces of skin surrounding the wound to make the crevice wider and deeper.

She wipes her tear-stained face with her tender swollen fingers. She sits alone next to her mother’s headstone often. She is quiet and she sits there and watches the sun as it sets. She says, the sunsets are incredible here mom, even with the monsoon clouds—they’re all the more brilliant. Bright orange, pink, fuchsia.

She pushes herself off of the ground and shuffles down the small hillside. A death wish: the walls that contain suffering are brought down, and she might be recognizable to her through all that is defamiliarized. Her mother is alive and ever-present.


[1] Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness.

[2] Ahmed.

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An Open Letter of Inquiry to the Craftspeople of Thomas Fetterman Incorporated on Behalf of The Alisha Maria Vasquez Crutch-Queen Chip-In Fund

Hello Thomas Fetterman Inc.,

My name is Brooke Willock and I am writing on behalf of my best friend Alisha Maria Vasquez in regards to your handmade custom design crutches.  Alisha has been disabled since birth.  She was born with a short left leg, and had about twenty surgeries between the ages 5 and 15 in her life to lengthen her leg six inches, to be only 3 inches shorter than her right leg (had she not had the surgeries, it was predicted that her left leg would be 12 inches smaller than her right).  Alisha has been on Supplemental Security Income (SSI) since childhood to help pay for health insurance.  For most her life she’s used hospital-grade run of the mill crutches whose tips always break and are so squeaky I always know when she’s coming home from school I can hear her three city blocks away it seems.  She’s starting to hunch over more and is in chronic neck/back/hips/knee pain nearly everyday, and she’s had callouses forming on her palms for years and year.  She jokes that she has callouses forming on her callouses.  We learned about your company in an advertisement in New Mobility: Life on Wheels magazine, and to be honest did not expect to find such beautiful, durable, and serious crutches.  I truly believe that Alisha deserves a pair of crutches just like the ones you all craft.  If she needs these adaptive devices on a daily basis–it’s like a part of her embodiment–shouldn’t she have some of the best kind out there?  She just turned 27 in November 2011 and has a long life ahead of her.  I think these crutches would be great for her.

All that said, I would like to inquire about two things in particular regarding this investment.  If the crutches are custom-made and non-adjustable, then what happens when she wants to wear some high heals and she’s suddenly grown 3-4 inches?  We’re also concerned about any insurance package in the possible instance of such lusty crutches being stolen, like when Alisha goes out dancing and leaves her crutches leaning against the wall near the corner unattended.

Thank you very much for your time and consideration, it is greatly appreciated.  We look forward to hearing form you.

In gratitude,

Brooke Willock

Above:

Custom Wooden Underarm Crutches by Ed Openshaw

Wood underarm crutches are steam bent and locked in the forms for several weeks to keep the elegant shape.  Ed Openshaw then uses a drawknife to hand form the taper of the crutch.

These crutches come complete with your choice of my Slim-Line or Rubber Underarm Pads.  Be sure to state your choice when ordering.

Poron Crutch Hand Grips have a tough PVC vinyl shell covering a shock absorbing polyurethane closed cell sponge center giving you a comfortable hand grip that is easy to clean and prevents skin sheer.  Your choice of my patented Tornado and Performance gel tips have Absorbalite™ gel polymer inside. Absorbalite™ gel has the ability to eat shock by transforming it into heat energy instead of transmitting it up the crutch shaft into our upper bodies.  Reducing these negative ground impact forces will help mitigate overuse syndrome keeping us vertical into the future.

Ed crafts this classic style wood crutch from hand selected Rosewood, Oak or Rock Maple.”

Above:

Aluminum Underarm Crutches

LiteStix Aluminum custom Underarm crutches are shock-absorbing, durable, silent and strong.

This handsome underarm crutch is made by TiSport and will provide you with state of the art comfort, function and good looks. It is custom made to fit the measurements you supply. Like all our custom crutches they never make a sound because there are no adjustment holes to egg-out and rattle. They are built-to-last and to make you last. The underarm piece is hand fashioned from 1″ aluminum tubing.

Even the handles are welded. They are a generous 4-1/2” wide rather than the standard 4″. The handgrips are my new durable Saddle Grips made with black natural cowhide leather wrapped over a shock-absorbing cellular urethane pad.

My patented Tornado GT or Performance GT gel tips have Absorbalite™ gel polymer inside. Absorbalite™ gel has the ability to “eat shock” by transforming it into heat energy instead of transmitting it up the crutch shaft into our upper bodies. Reducing these negative ground impact forces will help mitigate overuse syndrome keeping us vertical into the future. LiteStix Aluminum Underarm Crutches come complete with your choice of my new Slim-Line or Rubber Underarm Pads.”

Freaks and Weirdos: On Walking Straight, Walking ‘Normal’

“Walk straight!” my mother commands.  I’m only eight years old, trudging through the shopping mall with my six-year-old sister in tow.  I catch my breath at my mother’s disciplining, let out a soft sigh and roll my eyes.  “Brooke, did you hear me?” she complains.  I keep walking, and for a minute I straighten out my feet, spine, and shoulders into what I have been told is a proper posture, a “normal” way of walking.  Just for a minute, to appease my nagging mother.

My dad tells me a different story.  People who are pigeon-toed are fast runners, and fierce athletes.  I embrace this narrative as an eight-year-old, and take the initiative to out-run any boy at school.  Girls rule and boys drool.  Even my neon-green t-shirt says so.  I play tag-football at recess, and I relish during the elementary-school-wide Field Day.  When I run, I let my legs be as pigeon-toed as ever.  And I even earn a first-place ribbon for it in the fifty-yard dash.

Do I ever trip over my own feet?  Sometimes, yes.  But as a kid, whose dad says it’s cool to be pigeon-toed, I take pride in tripping over my own feet.  I learn to laugh at myself.  Let the self-tripping commence!  I’d rather trip over my feet with an audience than waste my concentration and discomfort on walking straight.

“Walk normal!” my mother shouts.  She switches between saying, “walk straight” and “walk normal.”  According to her and the use of their seeming interchangeability, the phrases are synonymous: walking straight means walking normal.  And walking “normal” is apparently the desirable gait.  “Brooke, I said walk normal,” she reinforces her demand.  This time we are at the grocery store, and I am feeling disobedient.  I keep moving along, pretending like I can’t hear her, and collecting coupons as we stroll down the aisles.  “Did you hear me?” she repeats.  “Come on, you walk like a slob.  Pay attention.”

My dad signs me up for soccer and softball.  I build strong quadriceps and hamstrings.  I go to a summer soccer camp the year I turn nine, and the professional trainer immediately notices the uniqueness of my stride.  I stand out in the group, literally and figuratively.  She teaches me to use my pigeon-toedness to an advantage.  I train hard for a quick, skilled touch to the ball.  I have a mean outward cut, thanks to my pigeon feet—perfect for fake-outs.  And best of all, I learn to kick the ball with the outside of my foot.  Imagine a penalty kick, in front of the goal: the keeper notices I am right-footed and expects me to sweep it across into the left corner.  But my pigeon-toed outside-of-the-foot kick curves it unsuspectingly into the opposite right corner.  Solid shot, like a line drive, slightly curved.  Goal keeper left stunned.  Ever heard of “bend it like Beckham”?  That’s me.

Third and fourth grade pass by, and I’m the class tomboy.  I only wear boy clothes, even boys shoes.  My mom thinks “it’s just a phase.”  If that’s what’ll keep her off my back, then let her think what she wants.  I run amok on the playground each day happy to be picked in the first few by my fellow male team-captains for our kickball pick-up game.  Most of the girls frolic on the swing-set, perform cartwheels through the dry, yellow Sonoran desert grass, or play jump-rope.  Cartwheels and jump-rope set me apart from the other girls—I was never very good at gymnastics or dance, my legs could never plié.  In fact, my legs are capable of quite the opposite.  The few who knew about my amazing inward-turning feet talents would run up to me on occasion, dragging their new friends along.

“Show Sarah how your feet turn in!” Jamie requests excitedly.

“Okay,” I act in accordance: and inward my legs go, my feet nearly facing backward.

“You’re a freak of nature!” Sarah exclaims.

“Yep,” I agree.  And I get back to playing kickball while they scurry off in giggles.

I am ten years old, in the fifth grade.  The drive to the orthopedic surgeon’s office in downtown Phoenix is far from the North Phoenix suburban neighborhood my mom takes pride in raising me in.  Born and raised in a working class Jewish neighborhood in Chicago, she’ll do whatever she must to provide her daughters the socioeconomic privileges of middle class status.  The drive is daunting: my neurotic mother schleps me along, as I am resistant to go.

“Maybe the doctor can fix your feet,” she says from behind the wheel.

I shrug my shoulders, say nothing, and continue staring out the front passenger window of the SUV.  I am truly at a loss for words.  The ambivalence is too stark—one thought process feels a sense of relief at the notion of being “fixed.”  The other thought process, the feeling in my gut, wrenches at the idea.  My mom keeps talking.

“You know, your sister was born pigeon-toed, too.  By then the doctors had come up with corrective baby feet braces.  She wore them the first two years of her life.  They didn’t have anything like that for you, though,” she explains.  I already knew the story; she’s recited it to me countless times.  I even know where she keeps the baby-feet-brace mementos: in the special storage box high in the downstairs closet.  I often sneak down there, climb up into the box, and look at the little braces.  I hold them in the palms of my hands and wonder why science had failed me at birth.

“I know,” I respond to her recitation.  My words to my mother are often short and abrupt.  We pull into the parking lot; the office building is stacked with dark red bricks and has a fountain flowing in the entrance.  No matter the desert drought we’re experiencing.  I pass through the automatic doors, and a whoosh of icy air conditioning slides across my neck.

X-rays—we need x-rays!  The official science technology will authorize the pathologization of my pigeon-toedness.  Was there Latin terminology to name my pending diagnosis?  Certainly there is!  According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health (very authoritative and all-knowing, omniscient institutions of knowledge production), Metatarsus adductus (MTA) is a foot deformity: the bones in the front half of the foot bend or turn in toward the body.  Deformity? According to my dear friend Merriam-Webster, deformity means: imperfection, blemish: as A) a physical blemish or distortion: disfigurement, and/or B) a moral or aesthetic flaw or defect.  The language at hand reflects how the medical model negatively classifies nonnormative bodies as unfit, defective, or abnormal.  Bodily variations that do not meet standard ableist criteria are viewed as having something intrinsically wrong them that need to be cured.  And yet, the transparent knowledge of x-rays will report my MTA to be more “severe” than this standardized definition suggests.

The nurse practitioner leads me through the maze of hallways to what appears like a series of dressing rooms in a department store.  She slides a curtain open and invites me to step inside.  Her instructions: strip naked, put your clothes in the cubby, and wrap the gown around your body.  Am I complicit in the medicalization of my beloved pigeon-toed legs?  At age ten, I’m only doing what my mother says is best, and what the nurses officially know how to do.  Besides, seeing my own bones against the bright x-ray screen is fascinating and surreal.

Diagnosis: pigeon-toed from the hip down.  Whereas MTA is commonly in the feet and ankles, my legs are entirely turned inward from top to bottom.  First opinion: corrective surgery at the ankles.  This should fix the appearance of walking “normal.”

“So my legs would be turned inward but my feet would be turned outward?” I ask, slightly panicked.

“Yes,” the surgeon replies in his German accent.  “It would be far easier, quicker, and less painful of a procedure.”  Or, you mean, more economically profitable within your capitalist cost-benefit analysis?  Less risky under the choke-hold of private insurance companies?

“But what about sports?  Would this change how fast I run?”

“It’s hard to say,” he says coldly.  “I’ll let you two think about this for a moment while I step out of the room.”

I feel like ducking for cover.  How can I get out of this?  “I don’t want to do this,” I blurt out as my mom reads some pamphlets.  She is startled by my claim.

“Brooke,” she says sternly.  “What about when you’re walking down the aisle?  You don’t want to look like a slob at your wedding, do you?”

My mom excuses me today from my fifth grade summer school program.  She herself has even taken off work.  Second opinion: another orthopedic surgeon’s office somewhere in the sweltering mirage-inducing black asphalt of downtown Phoenix.  X-rays and proper documents are in my mother’s possession.  Our seemingly smooth access to specialized opinions and medicine exemplifies our white socioeconomic privilege, healthcare coverage since birth—my dad a hardworking business man with salary and benefits.  He’d rather be a radio sports broadcaster, he tells me later in my life, it’s his dream job—and believe me, he’d be great.  But sacrifices must be made to sustain the nuclear heteronormative family.  My mother, too, gave up the life of art and design for full-time hourly wage in order to raise her two daughters.  She and I stroll up to the building, and I squint at the brightness of the white walls, inside and out.  Sterile; and the high-ceiling lobby with granite tile echoes our every shuffling sound.  Fake plants hover in the corners.  Wait a second, I recognize this building.  It’s where I go to be tested for my scoliosis.

No more x-rays needed, instead I proceed through a regime of diagnostic assessment.  This doctor is much nicer and I think he remembers me.  Tests, tricks, games: without trying to correct your stride, walk down this long hallway in a straight line.  Okay, now take off your shoes and socks and walk down the hallway again.  Walk backwards.  Side to side.  Jump.  Skip down the hallway.  Jog, sprint, run down the hallway.  Walk back slowly.  Sit up on this table, and let your feet dangle over the side.  Do they normally turn inward like that?  How does it feel when I turn them out like this?  It’s painful?  Uncomfortable?  Okay.

The proposal for cure: corrective surgery, from the hip down.  Either break both legs at once, re-set them, and be in a wheelchair for six months, or break one leg at a time and be on crutches for a year.  After they heal, physical therapy for one year minimum.  “Oh, the last surgeon said he’d go at you in the ankles?  Bad idea.  It’s the entire leg that’s turned inward, not just at the ankle.  I wouldn’t be comfortable with that,” the doctor muses.

And I think about being in a wheelchair for half a year.  I think about bending it like Beckham, the fifty-yard dash, and my impromptu freak-show performances at recess.  I do not, I do not, think about timelessly gliding down the wedding aisle.

I look up and see my mom picking out a date on the calendar with the surgeon, five weeks from now—making sure I’d have enough time to recuperate before my sixth grade year begins.  The doctor pulls out more paperwork and my mom scribbles in the necessary information to secure my upcoming surgery date.  Both legs at once.

It’s family movie-night: dad, mom, me and Britt peruse the “New Releases” wall around the inside perimeter of Blockbuster from A-Z.  Little signs hang in-between every other section in royal blue and mustard yellow, rhyming “Be Kind, Rewind.”  My hand traces across the VHS case for Now and Then, and I admire to myself Christina Ricci’s classic tomboy character.  My eyes fixate on her casual stature, jeans and t-shirt style, hands in her pockets.  I love her face.  And she even gets to kiss Devon Sawa.  I blush as I recall the scene in my mind.  I could never watch this movie with my parents!  Moving along to the next couple letters in the alphabet with Brittany trailing close behind me, we land on the movie Space Jam, starring Michael Jordan and the Looney Toons squad, and cheer in unison at our selection.  Mom gives in; dad willfully supports our decision and secretly buys us a Kit Kat at the check-out counter away from my mom’s obsessive calorie-counting scrutiny.

Sneaking Britt and I our favorite candy is always an under-cover operation for my dad.  My mom doesn’t stop at the legs: she disciplines her daughters’ bodies from head to toe, and my body in particular.  I’m very protective of my sister, so if and when my mom torments her, I fight back with twice the fire.  At ten years old, I’m restricted to fat-free milk (more like milky water), and low-fat, low-sodium wheat thins (adult food already?).  Everything she gets grocery shopping is some combination of low-fat, non-fat, fat free, sugar free, low sodium, low calorie.  My teeth are another project for my mom.  I’ve already had braces across the top row of teeth (when I was 8 years old)—I’ve had retainers, expanders (to crank my molars into place since apparently they were out of place), and a headgear.  A headgear is that contraption in cartoons the super nerdy kids wear and get beat-up for it at recess.  Thankfully the orthodontist spared me from being socially ostracized and prescribed me to lock it in my jaw and around my head immediately when I got home from school until I woke up the next morning.  That lasted about six months, to fix my “cross-bite.”  It’s no wonder my parents won’t be able to afford to pay for my college tuition.  Looking socially acceptable costs a fortune.

Yet my mother’s obsession with the ideal body is not so simple.  On top of achieving the impossible beauty ideal that western society tells us to achieve, there’s other factors that complicate the story.  Not to down-play the power of discourse, certainly the media floods our psyches with misogynistic portrayals of women that affect how we see and treat ourselves.  Popular media is rampant with images that train our minds to be and think a certain way—attempting to attain certain beauty characteristics such as thinness, hair styled, make up, clothes, and more.  This is ableism.  To idealize a particular body and to comply with subsequent disciplining regimes of self-care is what makes able-bodiedness compulsory: the ideal body seemingly within reach yet perpetually out of sight.  In this sense, my mom is in a weight-loss battle with life.  She was, what she calls, obese in high school.  I’ve known this about my mother since I can remember, as she used her own life story for leverage when threatening us before the long, glorious aisle of cascading chips and cookies on our trips to the grocery store.  She will tell me in my teen years that her obesity, in her eyes, meant no high school proms and no dating.  In college, she confesses to me when I’m older, she went on a crackers and diet soda diet (also known as anorexia).

After losing a drastic amount of weight, she joined the frightening world of Greek Life, where she met my father.  I would argue that my mother has chronic anorexia and post-traumatic stress disorder to this day—not to psychopathologize, but I am trying to make a point.  It’s no wonder, her first daughter and oldest child now embarking on the second decade of her fruitful life, that my very presence in the household would be such an inner psychological and embodied struggle for her.  On top of it all, her side of the family (all them Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern European descent) has carried many struggles with obesity, to the point where a handful of cousins and aunts have had their stomachs stapled or undergone gastric bypass surgery.  The legacy of anti-Semitism also embeds itself within our bodies, written on our flesh, passed on from one generation to the next.  Assimilate or die.  Looking “normal,” to my mother, also means decreasing the chances of positioning my body as a target for assault, for violence.  In addition to the painful processes of female subjectification through the discourse of the ideal feminine body, this family genealogy and larger historical context seems to feed and justify my own mother’s chronic self-starvation and traumatic stress, and further justifies projecting her insecurities and psychiatric illnesses onto me through things like abusive corrective surgeries, invasive dental work, and tasteless low-fat wheat thins with a glass of milk water.  At ten years old, I’m hiding a box of double-stuffed Oreos under my bed.  My heart pounds as I eat them furiously alone in my room, listening intently for the sound of footsteps stomping up the stairs.

On the drive home from Blockbuster I consider the implications of my impending surgery.  Will I ever be the same again?  What will Brittany, my kid-sister, think?  What about when you’re walking down the aisle?  Walk straight, walk normal.  Concentrate on walking straight.  Practice.  You look like a slob.  There, that’s better.  Is that so hard to do?  What about your wedding when you’re wearing high heels?  Concentrate.

We pull into the driveway, and the garage door closes behind us.  I can hear Barclay, our family-dog (a brown and white Shih-Tzu), whimpering and scratching the walls in excitement in the laundry room upon our arrival.  I squeeze through after my mother to make sure he does not escape into the dusty, hot, two-car garage stacked with bicycles, storage shelves, and bins full of sports equipment.

“I’ll make the popcorn!” my mother announces.  This gesture excites no one but her, and maybe the dog, because, my dad, Britt and I are butter-lovers, and my mom, well, I’m sure you can guess the way she preps her popcorn: plain.  Plain: no salt, no buttah, nada.  Um, what’s the point?  I might as well snack on leftover cardboard boxes.

The movie begins and we dim the lights around the couches.  Brittany and I move down onto the carpeted floor to sit closer.  Michael Jordan gets sucked, literally, into Looney Toon land and the silly basketball adventures begin.

“Brooke!” my mom shouts in a whisper.  “Don’t sit like that.”

I’m feeling defensive after my inner dialogue on the car ride home.  “Leave me alone!” I spit bitterly back at her, over my shoulder.

Don’t sit like that,” she snarls.  I watch Michael Jordon’s distinct pigeon-toed stride across the court as he approaches Bugs Bunny.  “Sit cross-legged.”

“I can’t!” I shout.  “It doesn’t feel good.  This way is more comfortable.”

“Wendi, leave her alone,” my dad murmurs.

“David!” she exclaims in disbelief, slapping her knee for effect.  “The way she’s sitting just makes it worse.”

“She’s fine,” he says.  “MJ didn’t turn out so bad.”  And he leans over to tickle my mom in the rib.  She tries her hardest not to laugh, not to smile, not to change her ways.

My mom is frantic, getting cold feet, having second guesses, wondering if she should have me go through with the surgery.  She barges into my bedroom, and I’m sitting at my desk reading Nancy Drew.  Scrounging through the disarray of the clearance section, I found a Nancy Drew six-pack of the first six volumes at the bookstore that my dad takes me to, and the books they’re all in shiny hardback bind.  I love the smooth hard cover and the pointy edges protecting the crisp pages inside.  Like fresh dollar bills, the texture almost the same.  I love the sound the crisp, fresh, one-dollar-bill pages make whenever I turn one over.  The beautiful sound of paper felt through my fingertips.

“Brooke,” she says to me, her urgent tone pleads that I place the bookmark in and set the enthralling mystery aside.  “Do you want to have the surgery?” she asks me, for the first time.  For the first time.  She finally asks.  Maybe she wants sympathy, I think she wants this because I can hear it in her voice, that rare tone my mother gives when she’s asking for sympathy, almost asking for forgiveness but not quite articulating that she’s sorry.  No she never says she’s sorry.  I can’t give her sympathy, even though a small part of me wishes that all of me could, and instead I give her anger.  How could she now, just now, finally ask me?  After all this?  She expects to put the burden on me, now?

The skin on my arms it prickles and the hairs they stand up in solidarity, ready to protect me.  Tiny little hairs, fierce, erect, ready to fight, my teeth, they clench and grind and I want to answer her question but I am so shocked and angry that I find myself in silence, I release the strain of molar against molar and find my mouth open, my jaw ajar.

“Do you want to have the surgery?” she asks again, as though maybe I didn’t hear her the first time.

Do I want to have the surgery? Do I want to have the surgery!  I want to shout it, I want to scream it.  To me it’s a crude rhetorical question, an insult, a spat in the goddamn face.  But I can’t even say a word.

Third opinion: doctor’s office not quite an office, but more like a den, a study den, with a lower ceiling and rustic wooden furniture.  A dark, burgundy wood that invites me to sit and ponder thoughts, deep thoughts, surrounded by lots of books in a dark burgundy wooden bookshelf full of lots of crisp, beautiful-sounding pages.  The doctor—an older white man with white hair and a white facial beard with eyewear like my poppy, the kind with large lenses and thin bronzed wire frames—asks me to sit up on the patient’s table.  He squints at the x-rays illuminated behind my head.  He squints at them for a brief second, glances at my chart, then looks over at me.  My mother, she stands next to the patient’s table, waiting anxiously for any word that might drop out of the doctor’s mouth.  I know she needs the reassurance, I know she needs a doctor to tell her that I don’t need surgery.  I couldn’t bring myself to say no to her.  Maybe he will, I know she’s hoping he will.

“So tell me why you’re here,” the doctor says, to me.  To me!

“Um, I’m pigeon-toed,” I answer.

He looks squarely at me and pauses, then remarks, “I see,” with a certain curiosity, like we’re in a Nancy Drew mystery—detectives putting the clues together one by one.

“And is there something wrong with your pigeon-feet?”

I shrug my shoulders.  “I can run fast at school!” I proclaim, my eyes open-wide from the thrill of speaking my pigeon-toed pride aloud.  “And I’m good at soccer.”

“Mhm,” he recites like a line from Sherlock Holmes.  “Do you ever trip over your feet?”

“Well, yeah, sometimes I guess.  But not very often at all.”

“Do kids make fun of you at school?”

I never really thought about it like that before.  “I don’t think so.”  The doctor, talking to me, asking me questions, is a different experience for me than with the other orthopedic surgeons.  The other doctors, they so readily diagnosed me, so readily assessed and prescribed corrective surgery.  All it took was one visit per doctor—and they’re ready to cut.  To turn me into a cyborg—I’m both disturbed and fascinated by the thought, not quite sure what it all really means.  Both surgeries, either at the ankles or the hips, would require hardware screwed into my bones.  Would I beep through security at the airport?  Would I have scars in my hips, in my ankles, forever marking the authoritative hand of medicine on my flesh?  Where is the line drawn between corrective surgery for ‘pathological deviance,’ and plastic surgery for cosmetic purposes?  Where would my corrective surgery fall between such distinctions?  Did I really have something wrong with me that anesthesia, sharp blades, bolts and screws, lots of blood, lots of stitches, lots of scars, and lots of post-op pain could “fix”?

First opinion.  Second opinion.  Now third opinion.  My mom, she hardly speaks this go around.  The doctor hardly asks her a thing.  This changes my experience with and approach to medicine and doctors entirely.  This doctor wants to know how I experience my body.  He does not want to know what others’ perceptions are of me, per se, like that of my own worried mother, but rather, how I experience others’ perceptions.  For instance, do kids at school make fun of me?  It depends.  In some ways yes, in some ways no, but kids are mean to each other regardless since we’re engrained from such an early age that there are indeed freaks and weirdos: like nerds, like booger-eating slimy outsiders, like chubby dweebs, like Jews, like the one Black kid in the whole fifth grade, like brown-skinned non-native English speakers, like the masturbating child, like the kid who is left-handed, like the kid with a lazy eye, with a speech impediment, with a stutter, with a runny nose, with too much spit, with a big nose, with big ears, with dyslexia, with duck feet, or, with pigeon-feet.  All us freaks and weirdos: being stared at, regulated, disciplined, feared, loathed, despised, pushed into isolation—all for being who we are perceived to be, not for being who we say we are.  So here I am, saying who I am, and I demand that you listen, listen hard, and rip out those presuppositions, discard your fear, and re-perceive the idea of me and my freakery and all those other weird kids who sit or stand beside me, next to me, and with my pigeon-feet.

“Okay,” he ponders as he reads over my chart a second time.  “Does being pigeon-toed hurt?  As in, physically, does it give you any physical pain?”

I think for a moment.  “Only when I’m sitting criss-cross-Apple-sauce on the floor,” I respond.  “It’s the way it turns my legs, it makes them sore.”

And then, the question is asked.  He asks, “do you want to have surgery?”  His question provokes much deliberation in my head, the context so different from when my mom asked, and I deliberate as I attempt to speak it out loud, as my mother chimes in, as the doctor listens hard, as I try to figure out how to say what I want to say, as I realize that the doctor has not suggested once that my legs need to be fixed, and this realization gives me the confidence to say, No.  No I do not want the surgery.

The doctor listens and responds to my spoken thoughts, “Alright then.  I do not recommend any surgery.  You are fine just the way you are.”

Left - kid sis; right - pigeon-feet.