Here’s a little excerpt from one of the stories in my book. Even though the scenario I describe took place in middle school, the message—even today, some 45 years later—is, unfortunately, one that I need to constantly review. Maybe we all do.
Two very close friends of mine were grievously hurt last week by the unkind (unnecessary? untrue?) words of others. We can do better, y’all. Let’s try.
I did something in the bathroom that I’m really ashamed of. And it wasn’t even my bathroom.
This stuff is very hard to write about. But it’s time to come clean, even though I wasn’t the one in the shower. I was there in the bathroom; I’ll admit to that. Still, if I had known then, at 12 and a half, what I know now, I wouldn’t have gone over to Lorna’s at all. I should have known something was up when I saw Cameron and Claudia making out in the middle of the road in front of her house. But I was too excited. I was hanging out at Lorna’s. And she was the most popular mean girl in school.
I’d had a crush on Cameron for almost a whole week, and Lorna knew it. Katherine had told her. Katherine was my best friend. Claudia was Lorna’s best friend. Lorna had put Claudia up to it, just to see the look on my face when I saw them there in the middle of Shoreline, sweaty limbs all tangled up, devouring each other’s faces. I had never seen anyone making out before in real life. Just on TV, like Andy smooching with Helen Krump in the back of Barney’s squad car. But this looked way more slobbery than that. I pretended not to care.
Lorna had witchy straight black hair that she usually wore in a stark part down the middle of her scalp. She was pale and freckled and mean as a snake. She was darkly popular, a middle school dynamic that I have yet to understand. She was scary. And everybody wanted to be her friend.
I was shocked when she invited me to her house. She had shown up for school one day with those thick back locks pulled back in a tight French braid. I had complimented her. A couple of days later she offered to teach me.
My friend Katherine had been hanging out with her some lately; they lived on the same street. That connection emboldened me a little, though I was still pretty nervous as I tapped on the door, using the hair elastic I had brought—the kind with the little acrylic balls attached—as a knocker. Lorna ushered me in and hollered to Claudia, still there in the road with Cameron, to come on.
I walked into the dim foyer and was led directly to the hallway bathroom. It was brighter in there, decorated with yellow and orange towels and a flower power shower curtain. Smelled like Jean Nate and urine.
They sat me down on a stool in front of the sink, and I watched in the mirror, hardly believing my good fortune, as Lorna pulled a sturdy brush through my slick blonde hair. Unreal. I thought. I’m at Lorna Parker’s house, and she is brushing my hair! This is unreal. If only I’d known then how truly unreal this whole adventure was, how totally false it was from the start, I’d have taken my balls—on my new elastic hair tie—and gone home.
I would like to think I was clueless back then. I was so small and innocent. But looking back, I can see that I was “clue avoidant” if anything. Didn’t want to see the writing on the wall—or on the shower curtain, as it were.
Claudia sat on the edge of the tub behind me as Lorna began weaving my hair.
“Can you believe what Amanda was wearing today? She is just so groady. And she smells like feet.”
Lorna laughed and gave a little tug on my hair so I’d laugh too.
Amanda was the poorest girl in school, and though we had been in the same fifth grade room the year before, I had never heard her utter a word. Not a syllable. Even Mrs. Williamson ignored her, never once calling on her in class. Amanda sat across from me all year—our desks were arranged in a big horse-shoe—and she was directly opposite me. Still, I do not remember anything about her face, except the early acne. Her hair fell in greasy, tangled clumps over her desk, and she rarely looked up. She did smell bad, and I felt sad for her.
(I thought of her as the years passed. At my fifteen year high-school reunion I remember fantasizing that Amanda might show up, dazzlingly beautiful—slim and tan, with a handsome husband and a career in broadcast journalism. She would have two perfect children and a silver BMW. Lorna would be in a crack house in Compton.)
“And Katherine,” Claudia went on, “What’s with those stupid pigtails she wears every day? What is she, seven?”
Lorna caught my eye in the mirror and waited, eyes narrowed, for my response. I had been nearly mute since I walked in. Now I was expected to weigh in. Katherine was my best friend. Surely I’d have something to say about those stupid pigtails.
But I loved those stupid pigtails. In fact, I loved everything about Katherine. She was the most interesting person I had ever met. She was the second oldest of nine kids in her family. She taught me to recite all of their names in order. Their house was huge and rambling and cluttered and noisy and kind of smelly. I used to take an empty Dove soap box with me on sleep-overs to press to my face at night when the smell of wet diapers was too much.
They went through lots and lots of diapers, and Katherine, as the oldest girl could change a diaper without even looking up from her book. She always had a book. Always. And her imagination was always revved and ready to race. We were still young enough to love H.R. Pufnstuf (though I never would have admitted this to Lorna and Claudia) but teen-agey enough to be “in love with” the Beatles; Katherine with Paul specifically, me with George. We had crazy adventures in the sand dunes next to my Aunt Lorraine’s house, making up elaborate scenarios involving not only Paul, George, and H.R. Pufnstuf, but also Jack Wild, Davy Jones and sometimes, Marcia, from the Brady Bunch.
So what about those stupid pigtails?
I don’t remember the specifics of what came next. I’ve blocked it out from shame, so it had to have been pretty bad. I think we badmouthed Katherine for at least ten minutes, with each affront crueler than the last.
Finally, the girls exchanged mean and meaningful glances in the mirror, Lorna nodded, and Claudia, with a dramatic flourish of her scrawny arm, whisked back the pretty shower curtain behind her, and there stood Katherine in the tub, fully clothed, stupid pigtails and all, motionless and bewildered.
And this is where this memory crashed. It was so long ago, but it baffles me that I can remember the daisies on the shower curtain, the ammonia and lemon stench of the cramped bathroom, the metallic scrape and jangle of the curtain rings on the rod, but not the look on my best friend’s face. I don’t remember what I did next, or what Katherine did next or what the mean girls did next. I don’t remember leaving.
It is an awful memory that has served me well. I got to learn, at twelve, what it feels like to be a real shit. There was no way around it. I was a mean girl. If only for those few moments, I was one of them. And I hated myself for it.
I’m still working on redemption, 45 years later. And the imagery of that shower curtain being swept away to reveal my friend has stayed with me, and I conjure it up intentionally anytime I find myself pulled into a conversation that I have no business having. There is a real person behind the curtain, one who deserves my respect and loyalty.
I can’t even count the number of times, just in the last week, that I have found myself, metaphorically, in that cramped bathroom with girls, now grown women, who really do know better but just can’t resist. And still, I often let myself be dragged into the discussion. It’s rarely as flagrant as Lorna and Claudia’s invitation to gossip and demean. Oh, no, we’ve gotten much cleverer since middle school. The conversation might start with something like—You know, I just adore Brenda, don’t get me wrong, but… Or—I’m just a little worried about Annette. Did you hear?.. Or (and this is the down home, southern girl prelude) Bless her heart, she just…
I cannot pretend that I do not know where these conversations are heading. I hear the “metallic scrape and jangle.” There’s a person behind the curtain, a friend or family member possibly. Or even a stranger, someone I’ve yet to meet. These are members of my community.
I’m getting just a little better at quietly backing away or even boldly defending, but I still struggle. Why is gossip so compelling? I think it is so often a misguided attempt to elevate ourselves, to promote ourselves by tacit comparison. Just a couple of days ago, a friend started to tell me how poorly someone had aged since she last saw her. Why say this? Why? I’m reminded of the words, attributed to the Persian poet, Rumi:
Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates:
At the first gate, ask yourself, “Is it true?”
At the second, ask, “Is it necessary?”
At the third gate ask, “Is it kind?”
Was her comment true? I don’t know. It seems to be strictly a matter of opinion. Was it necessary? Absolutely not. Was it kind? Oh, my, no!
I closed my eyes, I heard the scrape. I felt ashamed of myself even though I hadn’t been the one to utter the words. I changed the subject. I saw the girl.
Stupid pigtails and all.