where the writers are
What I Called: The Sick

By the time I entered junior high, I had become so nervous a kid that each morning I began dry heaving the instant my feet hit the icy blue linoleum on my bedroom floor. I would purposely set the alarm clock a half hour early to allow me some privacy before my brothers awakened, ready to cause a rumpus. I didn’t want anyone to hear me while, kneeling in the bathroom, I retched my guts out into the toilet bowl. Feeling as though my ribs would snap. Not only was I embarrassed at making such horrible sounds, but I was also scared. Scared there was something terribly wrong with me, and if my parents found out, then most likely there would be doctors, maybe even the hospital or God knew what else.

At that early hour, of course, there was not a morsel remaining in my stomach from dinner the night before. I’ve wondered over the years if this could have been a case of bulimia or anorexia, but I don’t really think that was the case. Yet, had I been born decades later, most likely that would have been the diagnosis. There was much to make me anxious during the days of my small, isolated adolescence within our perfect little pink house. By keeping my fears inside, I believe I had made myself chronically sick.

My mother continued to rant whenever my father went traveling, and my relatives, having gotten older, where not always the dependable buffers and protectors I had relied on as a child. My favorite aunt was now dead, and yet so much felt unfinished that I began living a split life. My focus was half in the past, and half in the future. Dread wrapped around me like an invisible shawl, as well as the anticipation of more bad things to come, for me, and those I loved.

When I gazed in the mirror, I saw a pathetically thin child, no visible signs of a budding teenager at all. If I was toting hormones, they had not yet secreted from my endocrine glands. At 12, I was the only girl I knew that had not yet menstruated. In school, I hid in the locker room shower stall while I changed. I lied to my gym teacher saying I had my period and awful cramps. She must have lost track because I did this every other week. Whenever the gymnastic equipment was out on the floor, I practically ran to the nurse’s office because I was terrified of the buck and parallel bars. Because I was small, Miss Klapkin, a sadist who happened to be my gym teacher, often used me to demonstrate. Didn’t she see I was shaking from head to toe, my pee about to trinkle down and stain my bobby sox?

Most of the time, I felt like a freak of nature, and yet, the subject of my physical immaturity never once came up at home. Not once. When I went for my end of the summer check-up, before the new school year, not one person asked if I’d gotten my period, not even our doctor. I couldn’t bring myself to talk about it to a soul, though it was always on my mind, like a scratchy record stuck in a groove. I looked inside my panties at least ten times a day, confusing the sensation of wetness and perspiration for what I prayed would be the prune-colored stain to announce to the world: I was a woman.

Still, I was afraid to probe, and while I desperately wished to look like the other girls, I was aware of the distinct advantage of being small-boned and petite, lithe, and waifish. Lots of boys teased me but would later, much later, confess to having secretly loved me. Tough girls protected me from the back stabbers that tried leaving me out and the bullies who pushed me around.

My Campbell’s variety of teachers crooked their necks and smiled, demonstrating patience with me. I was the youngest, the most timid, and definitely the flattest, who slowly evolved into the funniest, because finally I discovered something I could do and do well. I could make the others laugh. I could use my insecurities to my advantage by mocking myself and exaggerating my fears.

Although my mother never found me funny except when I directed short little skits in our house and performed them in front of my parents’ bed. Their favorite act was when I gave each of them flashlights to point and jiggle up and down at Markey, Ricky and me, so that we resembled a Charlie Chaplain routine. I could see my mother deliberately holding back laughter sometimes in the same way she held back complimenting me whenever I looked pretty.

Performance was what my parents respected and rewarded. After every dance recital, they would hand me a big bouquet of flowers, followed by a family trip to Jahns, the popular ice cream parlor 20 minutes away, that served this ridiculous mountainous sundae called: The Kitchen Sink. It was so huge and deep that if I fell into the bowl, I might have disappeared.

Whenever any of us children succeeded at anything, my mother was quick to spread the word to all our extended family and friends. I still remember that unique sound of pride in her voice, kind of sing-songy. She told the others of my and the boys’ achievements, followed by a precise description, as if she had performed that tap dance number, “the boogie woogie,” or sang that solo in the special assembly, or hit that home-run, bases-loaded, on the dusty field behind Lakeside School on a cool May evening.

It was always those days and hours afterwards that confused me. Sparse with affection, my parents were even sparser with words of praise meant directly to us. There were few, very few, “hey, good job kiddo!” or “we are both so proud of you!” Though the truth was they were proud. I had witnessed that pride on their faces, and could hear it in their voices when they telegraphed our achievements to the outside world. But because they came from a place of shush shush, you’ll fill their heads, I think they believed it was better for us to know there was always the need for improvement.

Mornings, and the anticipation of anything required of me, caused my entire body to cease its normal functioning. First came the awful wave of nausea, followed by a cold sweat that began at my forehead and worked its way down to my neck. Sometimes the room began to spin under my feet, the cold blue floor moving like a choppy sea as I made my way to the bathroom. I wanted so badly to tell them, but I knew it would do no good.

They might look at me and not notice my red-rimmed eyes, or blotchy skin, beginning to pale into shades of putrid green. Alone, in my bedroom, surrounded by so much pink, I taught myself how to relieve that nausea. Crouched over the bowl, I’d stick two fingers far back against my tongue and gag, until the fluid made mostly of my own bile pushed its way up and out of me, restoring me to that empty and reliable place without worry or fear. A place where nothing was expected of me.

Excerpt from Memoir in Progress c.2013