You didn’t know me when

I don’t know where I’m going with this, but it’s here so I should examine it.

Cynicism isn’t really my strong suit. I don’t enjoy women who say men are trash. I don’t engage in conversations about how there’s no one good out there and modern dating is awful. I have proof that life is otherwise. I’ve met really great men. Men I cherish.

What I don’t enjoy is being a conquest. An object. A confidant even. I’ve had men try to pigeon hole me as an accessory. Midge to their Barbie. But I wasn’t packaged by Mattel.

I’m rewatching the first season of Mad Men. In the first episode, Don goes to his mistress, a painter, to work out ideas and find confidence within himself. He happens to find confidence in the arms of a woman. And he tells her that he’d like to marry her. Peggy is dismissed and hunted like game in that first season. Joan tells her that she might live in the city one day, instead of Brooklyn, but if she’s really lucky she’ll be living in the country and not working at all.

Like Joan, I was raised to be admired. Not for the thoughts in my head or the yearnings in my soul or the ambition in my belly, but for grace and charm. Everything remotely vulgar, from that ambition to sex in general, was considered taboo. Mine was not to dream of accomplishments, but to submit to a man. That was the accomplishment. But at the same time, I was given contradictory instructions. My mom wanted me to act like a lady and win like a boy. She dressed me up in princess-sleeved dresses but also in navy and white stripes.

I didn’t want to be a princess in a tower. Or a bride. A princess is only valuable to her kingdom and her prince. A bride to her groom. They are not core identities. They are in relation to the men who choose them. I rejected that way of thinking even before I was confronted with the choice and even before I had words to express it.

I wanted to be an astronaut and a race car driver. I wanted to study chimpanzees in the wild. I wanted to follow whales out in the ocean. I dreamed of the great speeches I’d give and my eventual interview on 60 Minutes when I’d won the Nobel Prize for whatever it was that I was going to win it for.

I saw boys as my conquests. If they challenged me or dismissed me, I was going to make them pay.

I went to a week long conference in D.C. my senior year of high school. We were divided into groups of ten and given roles. I was the group lobbyist. We were assigned legislative agendas to pass at the mock Congress at the end of the week. The overarching theme was immigration, and we were Republicans who were supposed to be anti-immigration. I wasn’t going to put up with it and I convinced my whole group to subvert the agenda because the things we were supposed to be supporting were repugnant to me personally.

And then I had to go out and lobby all the other 19 groups.

One day, in the lunch line, there was a cute boy in front of me. I started talking to him. My strategy back then was to show boys that I really was smarter than them. I thought dazzling them with my intellect would win them over. I don’t know what I expected, maybe that they would submit to me. He did not. Instead, this boy laughed in my face and made me feel ridiculous. I knew one thing in that red-cheeked shame. I would make him pay.

I spent the week making friends. All these white girls from around the country started following me around like I was the queen bee. It was very odd for a girl who no one really liked back home. They thought I was glamorous and daring, I guess. I haven’t been able to shake those sycophant types this many years later. But it was nice to explore that part of my identity in a disposable environment. What I did was use that popularity to my advantage. I’d need foot soldiers to help me on my mission to sink a boy’s ego and take out his whole team with him.

The day of the mock Congress, I wore a red suit my mother had purchased for me at The Limited and a pair of Mary Jane black patent leather heels. If you didn’t know me then, you would be surprised to know what a knock out I could be in shoulder pads. Think Vivien Leigh in Gone With The Wind. That scene where Rhett forces Scarlett to go to the party in a red dress.

Vivien_Leigh_Gone_Wind_Restored

If hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, I would rain destruction from on high, Samuel L. Jackson style. Well, as much destruction as one 17-year old girl could rain on a mock Congress.

I sat in a row that day, with girls to my left and to my right, in front of me and behind me, all poised to back me. I had my army. I was their general. They were in lock step. I felt like Malcolm X. I was so dramatic then.

The format of the mock Congress was that legislation would go up, there’d be one speaker for the agenda, chosen from the group supporting it, and one speaker from the crowd to oppose it. Each had two minutes. I watched the room. They were giving into the pressure to vote down any immigration reform and to support anti-immigration sentiment. I saw the landscape of the battle ahead and I fortified myself to charge into it. I didn’t have anything prepared. My best material has always been extemporaneous and inspired by the feel of the audience.

The speeches were amateurish and pedantic. It was kind of boring. I had to keep a hold my chair to keep from jumping up at the chance to volunteer to fight all of the hatred these entitled kids were spewing. I only had one shot to go up there. And then the boy’s group had their chance. They sent someone up to speak. When the Speaker of the House called for someone to debate the legislation, five hands around me shot up, all to nominate me. I walked up to the podium and took a couple of deep breaths. Whoever this girl was who’d been sent to speak on behalf of legislation to give Border Patrol the right to profile people and arrest them without probable cause gave facts and figures. She finished her two minutes spiel and stood down to silence.

I stood at the podium, knowing I was timed, and just soaked it in. I gave myself a beat to be watched. And then, apparently, I gave a sermon on the evils of Jim Crow segregation and the shame everyone in that room should have felt for turning back the clock on justice. I couldn’t tell you what I said. This is just a tribute. But by the time I was done, three-quarters of the room were standing and cheering. The other quarter had their arms folded and their faces askew.

The anti-immigrant agenda failed that day. I’d turned the tide for good. And I’d broken the boy who’d dismissed me.

When the mock Congress adjourned, the most bizarre thing happened. The crowd parted as I walked from that conference room to my bus. People high fived me. People cheered. They patted me on the back. I got applause as I boarded the yellow school bus. I’d been the hero of the day to these near strangers. For someone who is motivated by vanity and power, it was as intoxicating as any drug could ever be. I stared out the window on the ride home, afraid that everyone would see the fire in my eyes as I burned with self-satisfaction.

And the boy? Well, I never talked to him after that. Not at the dance that night. Nor the next day as everyone prepared to leave. But I’d made enemies. While I waited for a bus to the airport on the curb,  next to my suitcase, three girls behind me spoke conspicuously to get my attention. In mocking, sarcastic tones, they called themselves racists and started fanning themselves as if they really were plantation-era debutantes.  I’d sunk them and they were sore enough to try and hurt me. In that moment, none of the previous day’s victory was with me. I was alone and they were three and I’d known this dynamic too intimately to not feel threatened. I’d brought this misery upon myself, just as I had every time before. Me and my mouth.

How many speeches have I given that erupted in applause and whistles and cheers? Enough that I can ascribe those reactions to the powerhouse that I am with the spoken word. My words have moved people and mountains. And yet, one cannot live on an ego-fed diet. The power I felt in those moments stays with me, but at the end of the day it isolates me from what I really want, which is not to be exalted but to be touched and to touch in return. To be something to someone. A relational identity. And I’m struggling with how to be that and how to be me at the same time. How to be strong and tender.

Maybe all this sounds ridiculous. It might sound like I’m making it up. But baby, you didn’t know me when.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: