The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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In the 1960s and ’70s, my parents rebelled against middle-class culture. We lived in a log cabin in the woods with no phone, no car, no electricity, and no running water. The four of us shared one small bedroom. In the kitchen, my mother put soybeans in everything, even cookies. I arrived in first grade not knowing how to flush a toilet.
“You’re so lucky,” our parents’ friends would tell us. While they admired our voluntary poverty, my brother and I coveted their suburban existence. In our spare time, the two of us would pretend to be “normal kids” living in a warm, well-lit house, eating meatloaf and ice cream, talking on the telephone, and watching The Brady Bunch.
How we yearned to be like everybody else.
I did not respect my father, a former Marine. I saw him as someone who had sold out to the system, a person more concerned with his house and his car than with the greater social good. I hated him and all that he stood for.
In the summer of 1971, my parents went away for vacation, leaving me to care for the house. I was working as a lifeguard but spent most of my time organizing workers at the local steel mill for the Progressive Labor Party and attending Students for a Democratic Society meetings on campus.
One day, my rundown old Rambler died, and some of my comrades came over and helped me take it apart in the garage. Perhaps we could replace the head gasket and resurrect this fine “tool of the party.”
In the midst of our repairs, we were summoned to a demonstration in Washington, D.C., where we were tear-gassed and arrested. It was great. We even made the evening news.
While I was gone, my parents returned to an empty house and a garage littered with engine parts. When I arrived home, triumphant and exhausted, my father flew into one of his rages and began hitting me. Instead of passively taking the beating, as I had always done in the past, I surprised him with a punch to the jaw. I left that house in anger, vowing never to come back. My last image of my father was of the blood running from his mouth.
Now, saddled with a mortgage and family responsibilities, and with a teenage son’s broken-down car in my garage, I see my father in a different light. If I could have one wish, it would be to take back that punch and give him a kiss in its place.
David N. West
When I married in 1956, I was determined to be a good wife. In those days, that meant saying, “Yes, dear,” a lot. As I became increasingly subservient, my husband — young, uncertain, and burdened with too much responsibility too soon — grew into a tyrant. One day, after twenty years, I rebelled. Instead of saying, “Yes, dear,” I said, “Hell, no!” I made it clear that I wanted the respect I felt I deserved. If he’d give it to me, he was welcome to stick around; if not, I’d help him pack.
My defiance came as a nasty shock to my husband, and accepting it took him a long time. The only thing that kept me from leaving him was the knowledge that I’d helped create the situation.
Among my husband’s great virtues was fair-mindedness: if you could make him see that he was being unfair, he’d stop instantly. And eventually, he did see how unfair he’d been, and he did stop. Unfortunately, his stopping wasn’t enough for me. I still needed to air twenty years’ resentment. That was the hardest part, for both of us.
Gradually, his fears dissipated, and he was able to relax. Free of his control, I became more self-assured and regained my independence. And our marriage returned to its foundation of mutual trust, affection, and respect.
By the time melanoma took my husband from me a few years ago, the old resentments were gone, and all that was left between us was love.
When I taught a college course on women in religion, I gave my students the same instructions at the start of each semester: for the duration of the class, we were going to refer to God as “she” and “Mother” instead of “he” and “Father.” It was no more ridiculous to call God “she,” I told them, than it was to call God “he.” And since our Judeo, Christian culture had been calling God “he” for the last four thousand years, perhaps one semester of using “she” would help to balance things a bit.
Every semester, some students voiced loud objections. One young woman said angrily, “I could never call on a mother God if I really needed help. She wouldn’t have the power to do anything.” Another student told about a time she went out to eat with her parents: While she was telling them about having to call God “Mother” in class, a waitress hovered behind them, listening. When they got up to leave, the waitress came over to my student and said, “Honey, you better quit calling God ‘Mother’ because if you don’t, you’re going straight to hell.”
I usually keep my efforts to promote a feminine image of God confined to the classroom, but not always: Several years ago, I was invited to speak to a women’s group at a small country church. When I arrived, my hosts were unprepared. While they got organized, I wandered into a Sunday-school classroom. The low tables were covered with crayons, blunt scissors, and scraps of colored paper. On a bulletin board, I saw a crayon drawing of a man with wings, a halo, a long brown beard, and a serious expression. Underneath, in large capital letters, it said, “GOD.”
What else could I do? I found a piece of construction paper, and, with a crayon, I drew a picture of a woman with a broad smile, curly gray hair, and big breasts. I gave her wings and a halo and wrote in big letters at the bottom, “GOD.”
Spartanburg, South Carolina
The day before the Gulf War began would have been my first day on the job as an audio intern for a small news-gathering outfit in Washington, D.C., but I had heard on the radio that an antiwar demonstration was scheduled for later that morning in Lafayette Park. I had been wearing a peace sign and a NO BLOOD FOR OIL button on my coat since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait back in August. I considered myself a true dissident. Here was my chance to prove it.
I called my boss from a pay phone and, affecting a hoarse whisper, asked if I could start my internship the next day. He told me that would be fine. “I wouldn’t be able to show you shit today, anyhow,” he said. “I’ve got a goddamn war going on.”
Within the hour, I was sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk in front of the White House, blocking the flow of pedestrian traffic and singing “Give Peace a Chance” with a throng of junior-high-school kids who’d been given the day off by their teacher. It was cold and raining, but I was warmed by the fires of righteousness. Across the street in Lafayette Park, the well-behaved demonstrators listened to rousing speeches, but we were engaged in civil disobedience. We were breaking the law. There could be no sacrifice too great.
Just then, I was tapped on the shoulder by a city cop in full riot gear.
“Move it,” he said, “or you’ll be arrested.”
I stood up, walked down the street, and defiantly sat back down between a homeless man and a teenage girl who wore a faded NOW T-shirt and held a tattered cardboard sign that read, HEY, GEORGE, STAY OUT OF MY BUSH! She was soon cuffed and dragged away, and I felt another tap at my shoulder.
“You don’t really want to be taken in,” the officer said. “Do you?”
I could hear one of the junior-high students shouting, “Hell, no, we won’t go!” as he was carried, kicking and screaming, to a police wagon already teeming with his classmates. He couldn’t have been more than fifteen. No doubt he’d be taken to the station, his mother would pay a small fine, and he would be released.
I, on the other hand, was twenty. If I resisted, I would be arrested, beaten severely about the face and neck with a phonebook, and tossed into a cell. My mother was in Pennsylvania. I had no money with which to pay a fine. And I had a job to start the next day.
I now have in my possession a video tape that I stole from the news organization where I worked. It contains stock protest footage intended for use as filler in a story that was never produced. At the 6:42 mark on the tape, one can see a young man in horn-rimmed glasses and an old army jacket stepping gingerly away from a D.C. police officer and dashing between the stopped cars on Pennsylvania Avenue, to disappear into the crowd in Lafayette Park. My finest hour became my greatest shame.
Daniel R. DeBlasio
Estes Park, Colorado
As she studied her makeup in her compact mirror, my best friend’s mother told me that the only thing sadder than an aging woman was an aging gay man. I was twelve then and too young to relate her statement to my own life. Now, at the age of thirty-two, I remember her words and think of the countless young gay men — some of them my friends, one of them my lover — whose deaths proved to me that there are many things sadder than an aging gay man.
At the age of twenty-one, my life still untouched by the AIDS epidemic, I discovered another thing that was sadder. I was just the right age to be a “bar boy”: old enough to drink and young enough to bed the best-looking guys in the club. I let my peers convince me that I was too young to be tied down to just one man. There would be time enough for that, they assured me, and I believed them, until I met George.
He came into the club one Sunday afternoon, a balding man in his sixties, and took the stool next to mine at the bar. Most older men who came in there just sat around and gawked at boys, but I sensed that George was different.
For some reason — perhaps the gentle way he spoke — I found myself hanging on his every word. I could not take my eyes from the deep lines of his face or the white down on his head. He made me laugh, genuinely, as I had not laughed in a long time. He didn’t come on to me, didn’t cast his eyes up and down my body the way boys my own age did when we met on the dance floor. Instead, he asked me about my family, my dreams, my fears.
After more than two hours of conversation, George got up to leave. The music was growing louder, and the male strippers were beginning to parade their shaved and oiled bodies atop the bar. As George shook my hand and said good night, it suddenly occurred to me that I was attracted to him, but not just in a physical way.
By then, my bar buddies had arrived. One by one, I had felt their disapproving glances as they’d entered the room. I could imagine what they were saying about me, a young boy in faded Levi’s and a tight T-shirt, drinking and laughing with an old man in a pair of wool trousers and a cardigan. I knew that, if I left with George, I would be finished in that crowd. They’d probably assume I was tricking for drug money or trying to become a kept boy.
As much to my own surprise as to anyone else’s, I went home with George that night. We had little in common. He had been married; I had not. He had made love to only three men in his life; I had made love to rather a few more than that. He was naive; I was worldly. We were not meant to be together, but we were together, for one night.
I never went back to that bar. Within a few years, I found love with a man my own age. But I will never forget the lesson George taught me that night: that there are sadder things than being an aging gay man, and one of them is being a lonely, young gay man caught up in the self-imposed restrictions of his peer group.
Greensboro, North Carolina
As a young man, I rebelled against the mundane existence presented to us as the American Dream. The white house with a picket fence, a wife, two kids, a dog, and a minivan in the driveway was my idea of hell. If I ever had a house in the suburbs, I thought, I would paint it black and surround it with garish colored lights at night.
Whenever I found myself on a well-worn path in life, I would hop off and try to blaze my own trail, often getting lost in the process. I rationalized the fact that I was getting nowhere by telling myself that I was pursuing my own brand of happiness. Most people who cared about me gave up on me in order to preserve their own sanity.
My attitude and behavior eventually landed me in prison with a lengthy sentence. I am still a rebel, but now I rebel against the conformity, hatred, and oppression of prison life through small, unsolicited acts of kindness. And after a decade of living in a six-by-nine foot cage, the idea of a cozy white house, with or without picket fence, seems like heaven to me.
John H. Worthington
As a fiercely determined young woman in the early sixties, I was sure that compromise amounted to surrender, and surrender was something I would never do. I fought against anything that seemed too restricting or confining, never stopping to consider that I might be wrong, and never admitting that some situations called for diplomacy instead of force.
Thanks to my blind defiance, I got pregnant shortly after my sixteenth birthday. I was so busy trying to prove that I was grown-up and free, I didn’t stop to think how a sixteen-year-old girl and her seventeen-year-old, high-school-dropout husband were going to support a baby.
I left the hospital carrying a new baby into the season’s first blizzard. That winter was cold, lonely, and endless. My husband never changed a diaper or got up for the baby’s nightly feedings. My friends were all getting ready for high-school graduation. So I stayed inside with my daughter and prayed for spring. (I also prayed for my eighteenth birthday to arrive, so I could go to bars.)
I hated the looks I got from older women when I walked down the street in my short skirts and see-through blouses, pushing a stroller with a howling infant inside. “Old bitches,” I muttered as I strutted along. I didn’t care what people thought of me; I was not wrong.
Before long, my husband became abusive, and I realized I had to leave before I was badly hurt or killed. I needed a grown man with enough money to support my daughter. It wasn’t too long before I found one. He worked in the corporate world and had sophisticated friends who loved to drink and have a good time. Perfect.
But husband number two was much older than I and soon grew tired of the parties and the drinking. As he began to want a more sedate life, I became restless. I could have slowed down, but that wasn’t my style. So I left him.
I went back to school and became a career woman. Although I went to work for a large company, I had no intention of being a corporate clone. Knowing I couldn’t openly defy my supervisors, I engaged in more subtle forms of rebellion. If the expected attire was conservative suits and dress shoes, I wore a silk suit and sandals. I refused to learn to play golf. I had the occasional affair with a coworker. I avoided meetings and conferences whenever possible.
Despite my little acts of nonconformity, I advanced into management. And I married again. My life was busy and exhausting. I was often resentful of all the responsibility, but shedding some would have meant admitting that I couldn’t do everything.
As my fiftieth birthday approached, things began to fall apart. No one could do anything to please me. The party girl was long gone, replaced by a shrew. (I was actually known around the office as “the bitch.”) My friends dropped away one by one. My subordinates obviously dreaded hearing my voice on the phone. My husband tried to avoid or ignore me. My daughter stopped visiting.
Oddly enough, downsizing came to my rescue. After a merger, all managers had to reinterview for the positions they already held. During my interview, I answered, “I don’t know,” to several easy questions and projected an attitude that said, And I don’t care either.
Speedily relieved of my management position, I began maneuvering for early retirement. I had no idea what the future would bring; I only knew I had to stop fighting. For the first time in my life, I would admit defeat.
Three years later, I’m beginning to feel whole. My husband and I actually have conversations, and my daughter is coming around to test the waters. A few friends have stopped by, and I’ve been able to apologize to them. My life is slower, quieter, and more introspective. The only fight I’ve picked lately was with the phone company.
Outside my door stands a gnarled old oak that I barely noticed before. I often rest my hand on its rough bark and lay my cheek against its low hanging branches: just a gray-haired, postmenopausal woman dreaming among the trees. Somehow, surrender has set me free.
Every summer when I was growing up, my family made a road trip to Las Vegas. We always drove the minivan, until the year I turned ten. That summer, my father decided to take his new Lexus. It was his first luxury car, and he insisted on driving it.
My dad let me sit in front so that I wouldn’t fight with my sister. Four hours is a long time for a ten-year-old to sit still. After half an hour of staring out the window at the endless panorama of dirt, shrubs, and more dirt, I got bored. I couldn’t move around the way I could in the minivan, and even with the seat reclined, I couldn’t get comfortable enough to fall asleep. The next time we stopped, I decided, I’d move to the back so I could lie down and sleep.
When we came to a rest stop, I jumped out and opened the back door to find my little sister sleeping right where I wanted to be. I woke her up and told her to move. At this, she started to cry hysterically. Dad yelled at me, grabbed me by the arm, and pushed me back into the front seat. I cried and cried, but Dad wouldn’t let me sit in back. To top it all off, he called me a crybaby.
Hurt and intent on revenge, I decided to sabotage my dad’s precious car. That would show him. Slowly, carefully, I scraped my fingernail across the leather-upholstered seat until there was a long scratch down the middle. There. I was satisfied. I had my revenge.
But Dad never noticed the scratch. Nobody did, except me. Now, six years later, I’m driving the Lexus. That scratch bugs the hell out of me.
My parents always told me I was “rebellious.” The word was spoken with disdain, never with affection. How dare I question their religion, racist jokes, political affiliations, classism, and hypocrisy? To them, I was nothing but a little hotshot know-it-all.
Convinced that I must be mentally ill (how else could they explain my oddball behavior to themselves, their neighbors, their country-club crowd?), my parents shopped around for a psychiatrist who would confirm their beliefs. I was poked, probed, interrogated, and analyzed by countless mental health professionals, but none was able to find anything wrong with me, other than a raging inferiority complex. Not satisfied, my mother carted me off to see a psychiatrist recommended by a family friend. At last, to my mother’s tremendous relief, someone was willing to proclaim me officially “sick.”
It didn’t matter to my mother that the drive to the psychiatrist’s office in a neighboring city took four hours round trip, three days a week. She wasn’t interested in hearing that this esteemed man was seducing her fifteen-year-old daughter in his office. All that mattered was that she could now explain away her child’s embarrassing rebellion: “She’s just sick,” she could tell my father and her friends. She reminded me of this “fact” several times a day, as well. “You’re sick, sick, sick,” she would say.
When I’d had enough, I made my getaway. At 2 A.M., in the dead of winter, with snowdrifts nearly four feet deep, my boyfriend met me in his father’s car, and we drove off into the unknown, simultaneously terrified and thrilled to be free.
Being underage, however, and having no money, no resources, and no one to turn to, I was forced to go back home, where I faced an even more strained relationship with my mother. The shrink now called me his “naughty little girl.” My family called me “ugly,” “slow,” “insolent,” “warped,” and “a total failure as a human being.” My rebellion gradually slid into experimentation with drugs and promiscuity in a reckless but futile search for the love and approval I’d never receive at home.
I remained the family scapegoat until two years ago, when I decided to sever the frayed family ties that had bound me all my life. At nearly fifty, I realized that you’re never too old to rebel.
My mother used to beat me, over the littlest things and she always made me go out back and pick my own switch. I don’t know if you have ever been beaten with a switch, but I’m here to tell you it isn’t any fun.
One day, when my punishment seemed particularly unjust, I brought back a tiny little branch — a twig, really — and handed it to my mother. Of course, it wasn’t big enough, and she angrily sent me back to find something that would “really do some damage.”
Fuming, I wandered around the yard until I saw my stepfather’s ax lying right next to my mother’s prized peach tree, which wasn’t much taller than I was. For some reason I never understood, that little tree was very important to her. I’d never liked that tree. Well, I thought, if I’m going to get a beating, it might as well be for a reason. So I chopped down the peach tree and dragged it in the back door to my mother.
The look on her face was worth a hundred beatings. I stared her straight in the eye with a glare that said, If you continue to treat me this way, then things are going to get real bad.
To my surprise, my mother actually looked scared. This was a whole new situation, but one I liked immensely. Just to put the icing on the cake, I let out a bloodcurdling scream, a warrior cry. I couldn’t believe that sound had come out of my mouth. All of a sudden, I felt liberated, powerful.
My mother grabbed her car keys, ran out the front door, and didn’t come back until late that night. We never discussed what had happened, and she never laid another finger on me.
In the spring of 1965, my mother let me buy a pair of black Levi’s. They were the first item of clothing I’d ever owned that made me feel “bad.” At fifteen, I knew I could never truly be bad, but those black Levi’s — when worn with black penny loafers and a navy blue T-shirt — gave me the package, if not the actual product. I loved those pants with the fierceness of an adolescent cursed with bad skin and thin biceps.
My father hated them. “You look like a hood,” he would say when I wore my black Levi’s. His disapproval, of course, only deepened my attachment to them.
That year, I was in the final stages of being kicked out of my prestigious prep school, which was also my father’s alma mater. I’d been caught vandalizing a classroom, and my grades had dropped severely. (On one chemistry final, I’d received a 1 out of a possible 100.)
At breakfast the morning after a parent-teacher conference, of which there were many, my father would sit hunched over his toast and bacon, jaws working mightily. “I am sick and tired of hearing about what a clown you are,” he’d tell me through clenched teeth. I’d shrink in my chair and mumble something defensive.
One Saturday, I could not find my black Levi’s. I asked my mother where they were, but she didn’t know. The next morning, she told me to take out the trash. I lugged the bag from the kitchen down the back steps and yanked the lid off one of the heavy metal cans. There, in the bottom of the dirty can, were my black Levi’s, torn in half down the crotch seam, the zipper ripped in two. I imagined my father, choking with rage, gripping my pants in both hands and tearing them apart with all his strength.
Shaken, I dropped the trash bag into the can and went back inside. I never spoke to my father about what I’d seen.
If I acted up when I was little, my mother would chase me around the dining-room table with a wooden spoon until we laughed or I bumped the curio cabinet. My rebelliousness was cute then.
When I was in eighth grade, I came home from school one day to find a yard-sale sign out front and our neighbors picking through our belongings on the lawn: eight-track tapes, carpet samples from our store, my bedroom furniture. My mother told me that my father had ruined the family business the same way he had ruined her. When we moved to Florida a month later, everything we owned fit neatly into the trunk of our car.
The first thing I noticed at my new school was that everyone smoked Camels. In less than a week, I’d picked up the same habit. Then came pot, and the loss of my virginity two months after my fifteenth birthday — with a seventeen-year-old named Tony. We did it in his father’s tow truck, which had THE ITALIAN STALLIONS emblazoned on its side. Another guy followed, and a miscarriage.
I’d never thought of myself as the rebellious type: I said “gosh” instead of “God.” I called my mother “Mommy” and kissed her good night — before locking my bedroom door and sneaking out my window to get high with my friends.
When I told my mother I was quitting high school, she said, “Why?” and slapped me across the face. Then she answered her own question: “Because you’re loose!” And she slapped me again.
My father lit a cigarette and began to talk with it between his lips: “Freedom,” he said in his heavy Greek accent. “She wants her freedom. Now that we’re down, she’s going to kick us with her freedom.”
My mother was digging her fingers into her abdomen and crying, “We’ve lost her, Vasilli. We’ve lost her” — as if I were dead.
Now I’m thirty-one and still don’t have a high-school diploma. My mother blames my father. My father blames Ronald Reagan. As for me, I don’t know whom I should blame first: maybe my parents, who sold my dog for fifteen dollars the day we moved.
Los Angeles, California
When I lived in Cape Town, South Africa, the Immorality Act outlawed sex across the color line. Yet this only increased my desire for my co-worker Abdul, with his long black hair, coffee-colored skin, and wicked mouth.
Abdul’s house, mosque, and entire neighborhood had been appropriated by the government and turned into a parking lot, silencing the noontime call to prayer so that whites could park closer to downtown.
It was Saturday and the office was officially closed, but I was there catching up on some paperwork. A knock came on my door, and then Abdul was in my office, smiling in a way that made my heart race. He gently closed my door, and I stood up and moved toward him. When he kissed my neck, I could smell his scent of cinnamon, curry, and sweat. I turned around and moved my hips in slow circles against his groin.
I was aroused not only by Abdul, but also by the knowledge that I was committing a crime punishable by indefinite detention — not to mention the fact that my Orthodox Jewish parents would piss blood if they found out.
We left the office separately, since we couldn’t be seen together. I biked to my apartment, barely slowing down for stop signs, while Abdul took the bus. Adrenaline raced through my body, and desire and fear pounded inside my head like a drumbeat.
As I write the mortgage check, I explain to my twenty-month-old daughter: “I’m writing numbers on this piece of paper to send to the bank. I get these numbers by trading my time for more numbers that other people put on pieces of paper and send to me. I do this every month so the bank doesn’t kick us out of this house. It’s called ‘extortion.’ ”
Georgia just nods wisely. We are rebels together.
My mother groomed me to be a rebel by encouraging me to become a writer, which may be the rebel’s natural profession. My writing got me into trouble in college, where peers labeled me a “radical” for submitting essays on the Reagan administration’s connections to cocaine producers.
Later, I went to work for an alternative weekly in Sonoma County, the heart of California’s wine country. In my articles, I exposed land graft and illegal logging practices. The information I uncovered led me to quit my newspaper job in favor of the impoverished but spiritually rich life of an environmental activist. My home was on friends’ couches and 150 feet up in the canopy of ancient redwoods.
Along with some others, I fought to save the last ancient redwoods, which were about to be decimated to satisfy a junk-bond debt connected with the savings-and-loan scandal. Some of the forest survived, but most was destroyed. The company got rich. My colleagues got car-bombed. I was harassed out of the movement.
Now I’m sitting here in wine country wondering what to do about fifty thousand acres of toxic grapes. I continue to rebel, but it’s a quiet and seasoned rebellion befitting a family man of forty. I complain more than I used to: the mark of a caged rebel. I find myself surrounded by systems, machines, and ideologies that I do not support and sometimes find abhorrent — especially when I’m using them. Yet, as the cynicism sets in, my spirit is buoyed by our beautiful daughter, whose cries of rebellion revolve around a dirty diaper or a cup of water when she asked for juice.
Did I mention how thankful I am that she has a roof over her head?
At the age of nineteen, I wasn’t exactly thrilled at the prospect of being a debutante. For one thing, I hated to dress up and wear makeup — still do. But my sister had done it before me, and all my friends were doing it, so, without much thought, I followed suit.
I had to lie to my feminist college friends about what I was doing over Christmas break. A debutante ball is where a young Southern woman “makes her debut” and formally “comes out” to society — which, according to archaic antebellum tradition, means that she is now available for marriage. Before this can happen, she must learn her proper role, all the necessary dance steps, and the value of a good country club. Of course, boys don’t have to make their debut. They are born a part of society. And of course no black or Jewish or poor girl makes her debut.
In a minor act of rebellion, I deliberately missed my appointment with the photographer to have my picture taken for the announcement in the paper. But I went along with the rest of the preparations, borrowing a dress from an older girl. (Some girls bought theirs.) At rehearsals, I practiced curtsying and walking down the steps as my name was called. Our fathers came and held our hands while we curtsied. This was all very important.
I asked my boyfriend at the time to be my “marshal” — the young man on whose arm a debutante walks the narrow, carpeted runway for her actual debut. At the end of the runway, the marshal turns her to show her off to the audience, who then applaud.
Prior to the debutante ball, there was a dance, where an all-black band would play old R & B for the all-white audience. Debutantes and their marshals had to attend. On the day of the dance, my date and I were late getting back from a hike, and, tired of acting older and richer and more proper than I really was, I didn’t bother to dry my hair after I showered. When I arrived at the door of the pre-dance dinner party with my head still damp, the adult chaperones were aghast. They called one another over to look at me and exclaimed about how disrespectful I was being. Even my best friend’s mother said she was disappointed in me. (The incident is still remembered every time I visit home.)
Keep in mind that I didn’t come to the party drunk, or steal liquor from the bar, or make out with my boyfriend on the dance floor. I just neglected to dry my hair.
Now I wish I had flipped my middle finger to the audience as I walked down the steps to be presented to society. Better yet, I wish that I had stayed home or found some biker to drive me around town on his motorcycle, shouting curses. Since then, I have learned to rebel actively and with more flair.
Elizabeth H. Davis
Weaverville, North Carolina
I grew up in a blue-collar Catholic neighborhood where everyone believed that priests and nuns were the direct emissaries of God. It was considered a sin to disobey, or even question, the clergy.
I was a bouncy, energetic first-grader who’d rather run and play than sit crammed into a small desk and wear an itchy school uniform. I quickly learned that my teacher, Sister Mary Joseph, didn’t like it when we were “fidgety” in our seats or forgot to sit up straight. But her eyesight was poor, so passing notes seemed a safe diversion — until she caught me. She called me up to her desk and, in front of the entire class, whacked my bottom with her ruler. How it stung! I refused to cry, but I couldn’t hide the flaming red glow of embarrassment in my face.
That afternoon, my mom noticed my sullen demeanor and pressed me until I burst into tears and told her what had happened at school. I felt certain I was in big trouble for disobeying a nun. To my surprise, though, my mom embraced me, whispered that she loved me, and assured me that everything was going to be all right.
The next morning, my mother escorted my sisters and me to the schoolyard and kissed us as usual, but then, instead of getting in her car and driving away, she walked toward the convent. The convent doors had just opened, and a sea of nuns in long black robes with dangling rosary beads were descending the stairs. My sisters and I watched as our mother approached Sister Mary Joseph. She was going to talk to her!
My mother stood face to face with the sister, apparently not intimidated by the nun’s forbidding black habit. I saw my mother’s red-polished fingernail jerk back and forth mere inches from Sister Mary Joseph’s white cheek. I wondered if my mom was going to poke her in the eye.
When my mom finally stopped talking, the nun’s face was beaming bright red. Then, in her best Greta Garbo imitation, my mother turned up her coat collar and slowly walked down the convent stairs. Sister Mary Joseph suddenly seemed small to me, like a tiny black bird. I was proud of my mother for having the guts to stand up to a nun.
In the years to come, whenever my mother grew irritated with my rebellious nature, I happily reminded her that I was just following her example.
In the back of my eighth-grade home-economics class, while the other girls were cutting out dress patterns, Carmen carved the letter D into the back of my hand with a straight pin. D was some boy’s first initial — I don’t remember whose. Carmen had carved her boyfriend’s entire name in the side of her hand — not as an expression of devotion, but to let the whole world know that she was the toughest girl around.
Carmen had been kicked out of her first junior high school for “inciting a riot.” When pressed for details, she always said with a shrug, “I just went to fight some chick, and half of the school went with me; that’s all.” Then she flipped her long black hair like a mane.
I decided early on that, no matter what happened, I was going to stick with Carmen. She instructed me in survival techniques. “Never wear button-down shirts,” she would say. “They get ripped off in the first round of a fight.” We wore only T-shirts over our dresses (it was 1969, and dresses were mandatory) and tied our hair back so no one could tear it out.
I was the first to make the trip to the abortionist in Tijuana. Carmen told me to “hang tough,” and I did. When it was Carmen’s turn, I told her about the dark room and the blood and the scraping sound and the pain as the blade entered my body. I didn’t tell her that I’d dreamed I saw baby faces on the ceiling. There were just certain things tough girls didn’t tell, like how I’d kissed Mary and Peggy in their walk-in closet and pulled up Peggy’s shirt so that my bare skin would rub against hers; how I’d made her be the boy because she was the biggest.
I knew Carmen would be OK in Tijuana because she was even stronger than me. When she got back, though, something was different. At lunch, she kept her distance, standing against the metal fence and looking oddly small and misplaced.
Someone told me that Carmen wished she’d kept the baby. I didn’t know why she couldn’t tell me herself. Then I remembered there were some things that tough girls didn’t tell.
Not long after, Carmen got kicked out of school for smoking weed in the girls’ bathroom. The smoke had billowed over the top of the stall just as Miss Leslie pushed through the door on her rounds. It wasn’t like Carmen to be so careless. I never saw her again.
The whirring sound of the sewing machines in home economics seemed eerie and hollow with Carmen gone. I touched the ridge of the D on my hand while Miss Hay critiqued the crooked hem on my A-line skirt. She said something about following instructions, and something else about acting like a lady.
As the sewing machine buzzed, I watched one dark stitch interlocking with another, moving in a line down the beige cloth between my fingers. The harder I pressed the pedal to the floor, the faster the machine would go. Miss Hay chirped that dark thread was “a poor choice for light material” because it showed all of your mistakes. I didn’t look up. I just kept pressing the pedal, imagining I was traveling faster and faster down that fabric highway, away from there.
San Francisco, California
When I was growing up in Nepal in the 1950s, people told me over and over again I’d been born in the year of the revolution. I took this as a sign that I would do things differently from others.
One day when I was eight, I helped serve lunch to my older sister and her friends under the mango tree in our courtyard. While everyone else was eating the rice and curried potatoes with her right hand, I got myself a fork, the only one we owned at the time. The others all laughed because I held it too close to the tines, but my sister’s friend Bhuwan said, “Leave the girl alone. Can’t you see she’s going to be different when she grows up? She will carry a purse on her shoulder and wear dark glasses — just like a movie star.”
At the age of nineteen, I started going out with K., who belonged to a lower caste. So what, I told myself. He is the only one who understands me and loves me. When I ran into my cousins, they would cross the street to avoid talking to me. Friends smirked. But nothing was going to stop me from marrying this man. I had to marry him, just to prove that I was different.
When, twelve years into that excruciating union, I wanted out, my family and friends tried to stop me from leaving K. I had done the forbidden once by marrying a man from a lower caste, they said; now I had to stay in that marriage, no matter how unhappy I was. After all, he was the father of my children. If I left him, they warned, I’d be ostracized by friends and family. I protested that just because I’d made a mistake twelve years earlier didn’t mean I had to go on making it for the rest of my life.
Two days before my thirty-second birthday, while K. was away on business, I packed all my things and moved into an apartment of my own. As promised, my family and friends slammed their doors in my face and told me I wasn’t welcome in their homes without my husband. I was a “fallen woman.”
I finally got my divorce and got married for the second time just before my forty-fifth birthday. I now live in the United States, where I’m free to do as I please.
Mountain View, California
My husband, Don, ignores homeless people, believing that handouts only “enable” them. I have mixed feelings. One winter day, I walked past a young man lying in the bushes outside a church. He looked up and asked if I could help him. I said no and kept walking. But, later, I packed a box of sandwiches, sodas, chips, and candy bars to bring to him. At the last minute, I decided to throw in one of my husband’s old coats. When I returned to the church, the young man was asleep where he lay, so I set the box down and left. The next day I saw him wearing the coat. He smiled and waved to me. I waved back, hoping Don wouldn’t recognize the jacket if he ever saw the young man around town.
Another time, Don had packed a brown-bag lunch for our twelve-year-old son Jimmy, who was playing tennis. We left early to pick Jimmy up so that, beforehand, we could go for our daily walk. Because it was too hot to leave Jimmy’s lunch inside the car, I ended up carrying it on our walk.
At one point, Don and I came to a corner and disagreed on which way to turn. I suggested we walk separately and meet up back at the car. Not long after we separated, I passed a homeless man.
“Say, ma’am,” he said, “can you help a fellow out?”
“Sorry,” I said, “I haven’t got any money with me.”
“How about something to eat?” he said, eyeing the brown bag. I opened it to show him the contents, and his face lit up. “Oh, yes!” he cried. I handed the bag to him and walked away smiling, but my smile soon faded. How would I justify to Don giving our son’s lunch to a homeless man? Maybe I could lie. No, better to tell the truth and face the music. After all, I had done the Christian thing. Then I looked up and saw my husband walking toward me.
“What happened to Jimmy’s food?” he asked.
“I was hungry,” I said, “so I ate it.”