Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Awful Woman Next Door

There’s an awful woman next door. She doesn’t live there; I think she’s visiting her grandmother, a kindly but slightly demented old lady who insists on feeding a herd of feral cats, which we have neutered, one by one, when we can get charity funding to do so. But this awful woman, she has the voice of a fishwife. She’s always shrieking at someone to do something.

There’s a man she shouts at, and a little girl, and a dog. You can always tell when she’s leaving her grandmother’s. Her voice, piercing, harsh, and loud, jars you out of whatever peace your evening might have had to offer. Usually she’s screeching for someone or something to get in the car.

If she yells at the man, he responds in a voice too low to hear. If she yells at the girl, the girl cries, but she can’t match her mother’s volume. If she yells at the dog, it goes on and on. The dog, gifted with a simple intelligence that tells him to run from that deadening noise, sets off all the other dogs in the neighborhood, but never gives away his position by barking himself.

I feel sorriest for the girl. The man committed to his path by choice, and the dog, at least, gets a nice run out of it, and a moment of the freedom. The girl lacks the agency to choose or to run, but must suffer her mother’s shrill imperatives with nothing but a tiny version of that voice with which to retaliate. Still, it’s disconcerting. There’s a clear view of their driveway from our front door. The woman isn’t physically abusing the girl, at least not in our sight. It just sounds like she is.

Eventually, she stuffs the man, the girl, and the dog into the car and drives off, leaving echoes of angry and canine wails in her wake.

Monday, November 2, 2009


Her little sister possessed something that she lacked. The girl couldn’t say, quite, what that thing was, but obviously, her sister was more acceptable. Her sister didn’t mind wearing dresses. Her sister didn’t prefer playing with boys.

Her sister did the things their parents expected her to do.

The girl didn’t do certain things because she didn’t like them. She hated how dresses looked, she hated how they felt compared to jeans, and more to the point, she hated being told to act like a lady. Wearing dresses meant you weren’t to run, jump, shout, fidget, or climb trees. Why would anyone choose to wear a dress, given the attendant restrictions? The little girl accepted the limitation of being a girl; that didn’t mean she must become a lady. It didn’t indicate any compulsory girliness. She was a case in point. If she had been meant to be a certain way—for instance, feminine—wouldn’t she just naturally feel, behave, embrace that label? And not being feminine, didn’t that mean that she wasn’t all the other things they thought she should be, and shouldn’t try to fake it?

Why would they force her to pretend to be something she so clearly wasn’t? They told her lying was wrong, and then they told her to lie to them.

When her sister came home from first grade insisting that she needed pierced ears, the girl wasn’t surprised. Of course her sister would want pierced ears. They were ladylike.

Her little sister got her ears pierced and proclaimed herself pleased with the results. Their parents asked the girl several times if she didn’t want her ears pierced too. The girl was emphatic that she didn’t. It didn’t even have anything to do with not feeling like a girl. Primarily, she despised needles in any form. So she really couldn’t see the point of having instruments of torture applied to her head in order to become more of something she wasn’t in the first place.

Her little sister had her pierced ears for a few months, long enough that she could take out the gold piercing earrings and wear whatever kind of earrings that she wanted. Their parents kept asking the girl if she didn’t really want pierced ears. The girl kept telling her parents she really didn’t want pierced ears. She didn’t care for jewelry, and she didn’t need one more thing to clean. She was, overall, scared of the process. She was not interested in suffering for beauty.

Her parents decided she would get her ears pierced.

She resisted, argued, complained, screamed. She tried logic and she tried volume. They took her to the mall anyway. She fought them all the way to the booth where they pierced ears. She cried.

Her parents said, “Don’t be a baby.” They compared her, unfavorably, to her little sister. They said even a first-grader could do it; there was nothing for her to fear. The girl repeated her objections: she didn’t want pierced ears, she didn’t like needles. Her parents reiterated their argument: she was a big girl and she needed to act like one.

They pierced her ears.

Coda: When the girl got to be a teenager, she horrified her parents by adding six more piercings, five on the left ear and one on the right, using the post of the piercing earring that had inflicted the original insult. She spaced them out over a period of years, snickering to herself as their horror mounted with each new hole.