originally published in Crab Fat Magazine, March 2018
I knew from a young age what kind of woman I was supposed to be. Stick with me, this isn’t going somewhere you expect.
I had a mother who was the mom that other kids envied – warm, nurturing, and with a fridge perpetually stocked with frozen pizzas to complement the cookies and quick breads she had made over the weekend. She was also pretty, with a very girl-next-door kind of beauty and an inviting manner. Perhaps predictably, it wasn’t her example I wanted to follow. The stereotypes of “wife and mother” had never entered my future plans. It was evident in the way I played. My Barbies shacked up with Ken and then abandoned him to go fight the Evil Queen. I didn’t play house unless other friends insisted. My brothers and I would fight with broom handles in the backyard; they the evil warlock ninjas, I the daring knight princess.
Raised on a combination of 80’s sci-fi, fantasy novels, Warner Brothers cartoons, and classic films, I had a very firm understanding of my older, sexier future. I was going to be the leading lady, the blonde bombshell, the vamp that left a trail of lesser men in her wake. Granted, at 8 or 9 I had no idea why all these men had been left in my wake, nor did I know what a wake was, but they would be there! I also had no plans for how this would come about, it would just manifest as my destiny demanded. I would know when to flirt and when to be coy. I would always look just so, my hair and makeup a mix of cutting edge and vintage, not unlike Madonna (though without the black roots). And like Ginger Rogers, I would be able to keep up with the most seasoned dancer while wearing heels. My every movement would exhibit an exquisite grace.
Puberty came on swift wings to the women in my family, and so it was at the tender age of 11 that gentle revisions and expansions began to work their way into this image of who I needed to be. By 13 I had devised the logical next phase of my plan for womanhood. Clearly, I would be the most skilled lover anyone had ever known. I would memorize the Kama Sutra, seek out the amorous secrets of the ages, learn how to make every inch of the body respond in ecstasy. My acumen at selecting lovers would earn me praise and envy from other women. My skills would garner me quite the reputation – not the kind whispered harshly from smirking lips but spoken in hushed, awed tones. None of my love affairs would ever end poorly. My lovers would always adore me, even years later.
It really should surprise no one that none of these plans panned out for me.
Things first started to go off track physically. As I grew older, my hair darkened and also thinned. Blonde turned out to be a poor color choice for me. To add to my dismay, I was often informed that redheads were better anyway. My eyes were not large and luminescent like Marilyn Monroe or Michelle Pfeiffer. Darker than preferred, the blue mixed with grey, and suffering from what my sister dubbed “The Family Squint,” they scrunched up so much when I smiled that I look like my eyes are closed in half the pictures taken of me prior to age 15. The icing on this disappointment cake was weight that started packing on in 7th grade that didn’t level out until my sophomore year. Sure, I was full figured, but I also had stretch marks on my thighs and felt more like a dayglass than an hourglass. At least I had managed “graceful”. Nine years of ballet had seen to that.
It wasn’t just my appearance that didn’t meet my expectations. My mannerisms also deviated rather egregiously from the proposed path. I spent my high school years reading books in the library instead of learning how to use eyeliner to make my narrow eyes look bigger or do interesting things with my darker, non-red hair. You could use neither cutting edge nor vintage to describe my look, and certainly not the two together. My fashion sense steered me towards jeans, graphic tees, and a lot of black. My parents’ divorce had left me bitter, and I tended to take it out on all things male. My tongue was sharp, not honeyed. My cutting wit and tendency to be acerbic won me friends, but not lovers. My future as the next Mae West continued to slip further from my grasp, but I still held onto hope that I might reach it if I could just refocus and try again. Lose 10 pounds. Buy that eyeliner. Wear a dress for once. Something.
And then, my hormones caught up with the figure that puberty had gifted me.
I was 18 before I knew desire as a tangible thing, and it was lava in my veins that kept me up at night and drove me into more than one bed that I should have stayed the hell out of. It was this same desire that led me to escalate a flirtation into a relationship that ended as a full-out, flaming train wreck. Walking away from that wreck, I didn’t slow down, I kept going. I accepted and advertised that I was attracted to both men and women, and a reputation formed, but it was so contrary to everything I had set out to be.
I had envisioned my future self as a talented dancer, or a skilled duelist. One who would know all the steps, with perfect timing, and understand precisely when to feint or when to strike. Yet I had not managed to learn to wield my sexuality with the finesse of a rapier. Instead, it was more like a cartoonishly oversized mallet – blunt, straight-forward, and perhaps a bit over-the-top. I wasn’t coy, I was aggressive. I pissed off friends and alienated acquaintances by flirting with everyone who would flirt back, even though I had no designs on their significant others. Female friends who wanted to “experiment” sought me out, and I was invited into more than one threesome. I got pretty good at making other people happy, but rather than being lauded for my skill, I was usually someone’s dirty secret. People I knew didn’t brag about threesomes or experimenting. They left that out of polite conversations and future relationships.
Reputations are funny things. I had desperately wanted one when I thought I could have any hand in shaping what it would be. Then there I was, 25-years-old and Bi Girl Friday. Asides that had once made me feel trusted now left me feeling used. Female friends moved on and asked me to keep their secrets. In fact, most of my friends were moving on to more long-term relationships. Not me. I was curled up on the couch at 10 p.m. on Saturday night watching action films alone.
I found myself just sort of shutting down at that point. Nothing was right, nothing had gone the way I had planned. My initial response was to dial things back. Way back. I stopped telling new people I met that I was bisexual. I stayed quiet during happy hour when the girls started talking about “that one time.” I stopped playfully flirting with my guy friends, even the single ones. The reputation faded into obscurity, and nothing replaced it. I was still the friend who “knew things”, and most people’s first stop with esoteric questions about sex, but it was knowledge they associated with me not actions. My Saturday nights were still quiet. A little older and wiser, I was forced to admit that the image I had built in my childhood wasn’t going to be. It was a lofty goal for anyone, let alone a plump girl with thin hair, narrow eyes, and borderline tomboy tendencies. My dream was dead, and I didn’t have a new dream to take its place. I was just lost, alone and sitting at home, the mallet gathering dust in the corner.
It was in the quiet of these lonely nights that I started to examine where I was, and how far I had strayed from where I had intended to be. The first step had been to mourn the death of my dream. The second step was to realize that “different” wasn’t “wrong.” Spending time with people who had not known me in high school helped – new friends brought new perspectives. I remember being backstage before a performance when someone described me as “luscious” and said I had “a magnificent ass.” I had stood there for a moment, stupefied, before laughing a little awkwardly and thanking them. It felt like my world had been reset. Sexy was still achievable. It didn’t matter that I had veered off course – there were multiple paths. It was from there that I realized I had to build a new dream.
The future image of my childhood had not been spontaneous, it had been gleaned from years of films and eavesdropping on adult conversations and listening to Prince albums (something that, in retrospect, I’m a little surprised my mother let me do). The barely-clad heroines that posed prettily and always had perfect hair, even in a firefight. The whispered comments about all the weight someone had gained. It had grown in the corners of journals, on pages of diaries, and in the dust settling on issues of Seventeen and YM. Pages of clothes I never really wanted to wear and color tips for make-up and what guys found attractive. It was annotated by everything my older brothers had ever said they liked about their girlfriends, and every compliment my father ever paid another woman. The new dream, the new goal, the new embodiment of all that I was sexually, would have to also be built. There was no thunderclap, no blinding light that revealed all. It would not just show up in the night. This time, though, it needed to be built not from what I thought others needed me to be. This time, it must be what I needed myself to be.
And this dream needs to accommodate a curvy girl with a giant mallet. It needs to make room for a woman who is more badass than princess. It will be black and pink and so strewn with glitter that it’s never coming out of the carpets. It will be plus sized and sassy and vulnerable when necessary. It will be me. It will be glorious.