Friday, March 25, 2011

Black Lipstick and Chevy Pickups

Growing up bookish in a region where a quarter of the population can't read was defining. It meant getting teased by other kids when they saw me with a book. It meant making other kids defensive and angry when I used words they didn't know. It meant exhausting the public library's collection of children's literature by the time I was eight, and it also meant developing a pretty chronic superiority complex when it came to anybody who wasn't as obsessed with reading as I was.

So I was a nerd. A pasty, stringy homeschooled nerd with an overbite. My clothing came from church rummage sales and the local Seventh-Day Adventist mission. Every week at church I wondered if the dress I was wearing had been one of my classmates' cast-offs the year before.

This was Bible Belt fundamentalism in the 1980s and early 1990s, and the fashion among poor homeschooled Bible Belt fundamentalists was cotton floral prairie dresses. I wore old lady shoes: flats with buckles and bows on the toes. My glasses were thick bifocals in huge plastic frames (my paranoid schizophrenic father was convinced that metal frames would attract mind-altering radio signals). There was one year that involved a perm. It was everything you could imagine from a perm on an eight-year-old Appalachian child in 1991. When I was 10 or so my grandmother took me to the Sears in Chattanooga and bought me my first article of brand-new, never-before-worn outerwear: a denim dress with ribbon flowers on the yoke.

Once my father left we had money. Not "we had money" in the sense that we had a substantial amount of money; just "we had money" in the sense that, after my mother got paid, we still had the money and could spend it on things like the mortgage and groceries.  And now, also on new clothing. I was no longer constrained by what was available at the mission thrift shop. I could develop a style.

Growing up with one parent who was a literature professor meant growing up on Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe, and Emily Bronte. Growing up with one parent who was a raving madman meant growing up bitter and prone to lying awake at night asking questions like "If God loves everybody AND God chooses where we will all be born, what's the deal with my life?"

So, as soon as I had control over my clothing, I started dressing in black. Chains and lace, boots and rhinestones. I spiked my hair and painted my nails black. The morbid sensuality of the Goth trend seemed to sum up existence pretty well: beautiful and grotesque, frilly and aggressive, alive and rotten.

But if there were any other Goths in the whole of Rhea County, I never met them. Certainly none attended Grace. And that was the best part: the way I dressed made people really angry. I got criticized for the way I looked instead of for being a divorced woman's child. I could show up to church covered head-to-toe in black just like a priest or nun, and sit next to a girl who was caked in Mary Kay and wearing a short skirt and flimsy top, and I was the one people would get upset about. Here was the same confusion, anger, and rejection that I got as a small child, but now it was because of something I picked for myself. I was in control of what people disliked me for.

Grace had a youth group that, under the direction of a new, young, charged-up minister, grew to expand beyond the congregation. The meetings moved to a rental space on Market Street. Kids from other churches packed in. It was the place to be on Wednesday nights. And it was rocking. We sang and (the other kids) danced and (the other kids) moshed to songs like "Joshua Kicked Some Booty Down at Jericho." But before the singing and the lesson, there was. . . socializing. Gross.

There was only one public high school in Rhea County. All the kids showed up Wednesday nights pre-cliqued. They mostly talked about their classes and teachers and classmates. And I was awkward and stuck-up, so instead of socializing, I brought a book.

One week we didn't have a lesson from the youth pastor. We watched a video of one of the Columbine survivors talking about social outcasts and how important it is to make them feel valued by including them, and how much it would mean to those kids to have the popular kids pay attention to them.

I didn't think much of that. I was a social outcast, but at least halfway voluntarily. I wasn't sitting in the corner seething with hatred toward the other kids; I was sitting in the corner ignoring the other kids because they were boring and couldn't carry on a conversation half as interesting as the dialogue in "Jane Eyre." The idea that all non-participants in high school society are obsessed with the popular kids and would rather riddle the cliques with bullets than be excluded was funny and offensive. I went back to my book.

But as soon as that video ended and the group started to break up, one person after another approached the sagging corduroy armchair I was sunk into.

"Hi! How are you! We never talk. I always wanted to come over and say hello. Maybe you can come over to my house some time!" said the smiling girls, their eyes wide-- either with feigned interest in me or with terror that I would go psycho on them if they mishandled me; I don't know which. I smiled back and said thank you, that would be great. Then I went back to my book until the next girl came over. My superiority complex grew.

Gosh, it was great to be the alien. I belonged to another world-- a much better one-- and the less that other people could understand or relate to me, the better I felt about myself.

And then I moved to the D.C. Metro, and immediately started finding things not to like. I hate the smog here. I hate the noise, and the lights, and the traffic, and the loud, angry people who are always in a hurry and think that pedestrian crosswalks are some kind of special speeding zone. Everyone is fabulous and everyone drinks martinis and carries designer leather handbags in whatever this year's color is (last year it was orange and this year it's aqua). And they all have the same accent as I do. When I was seven I was told "Yew tawk funny!" by a petulant and grubby peer. I thought my Mid-Atlantic accent was dandy back when it made me different from everybody else. And the first week I wore black lace and combat boots to my new church, my deacon said she loved the outfit and asked me where I got the skirt. That right there sucked most of the fun out of it.

So now, when I'm feeling cranky and want to make the point that I'm not like anybody else, I put on overalls and part my hair into pigtails and whistle along with Dolly Parton on my mp3 player. People don't like it when I do that. I must be some stupid bumpkin from one of those places where people say "y'all." (Properly, in Appalachia the second person plural is "you'uns.") I stomp up and down the city streets, walking past the other people walking past the bright glass buildings. Sometimes I get a funny look from one of the women who try to walk their apartment-sized dogs while wearing high heels. And it's a kind of security and belonging, being able to control just how and why I don't belong.

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