Wednesday, August 5, 2009

You’re not the boss of Me

Just because I was a chubby kid doesn’t mean I wasn’t a picky kid. I only liked food that tasted like sugar. Which meant that my mother had to force me to eat anything even the slightest shade of green. I would fight her by crying, whining, and stomping my feet. This only made things worse, she’d threaten to ground me or spank me and I’d immediately give in. Still, I held a grudge. (I was especially sensitive to any parenting methods that involved control or the bending my will. You’re not the boss of me, I would frequently scream).
I spent most of my childhood looking for a solution to this forced-fed dilemma. At the age of eight, I found one: My father was sick of the little kids falling off of their chairs, so he re-designed our dining room and built a wooden bench around the table. The bench was nailed to the wall and built like a box so that you couldn’t see underneath it. This bench was my answer. Anytime my mother forced me to eat anything healthy, I’d wait for her to turn her back, spit my food into my hand and drop it down the crack between the bench and the wall. The food would collect there, unnoticed. Genius.
Only, I have this terrible tendency, once I figure out how to get away with something naughty, I immediately abuse it. After an entire summer of hiding food under the new bench, I started to get sloppy. My mom would serve us mashed potatoes, I’d scoop mine up with one hand and shove it down the crack nonchalantly. It was not long before our dining room area started to smell. No amount of Clorox, scrubbing or deodorizer could fix the scent of my rotting food.
And then it was September and the beginning of a new school year. For me, the first day of school is a big deal. The night before, I’d set my clothes out in the shape of a body next to my bed and packed my Lisa Frank backpack with fresh notebooks, neatly sharpened pencils, and a brand-new scrunchie. Third grade is going to be different, I said optimistically, this year I’m going to be cool.
Unfortunately, third grade got off on a rocky start. My mother made us scrambled eggs for breakfast, I hate scrambled eggs. Without even checking to see if the coast was clear, I picked up my plate of eggs and tilted it down the crack. I looked up, my mother was staring in disbelief.
“What did you just do?” she fumed. The situation only got worse, she got a crowbar from the garage and detached the bench from the wall. Months of food, shriveled broccoli, tiny carrots, dried pasta shells--the entire a food pyramid minus the dessert layer, was there. Not to mention the smell.
After yelling for ten minutes, my punishment was two fold: I had to clean it up and I had to eat the rest of the scrambled eggs left on each of my siblings plates. To ensure that this happened, my mother compiled all their servings into one large serving, a heaping plate of scrambled eggs just for me.
“But it’s the first day of school,” I whined, “ I’ll be late.”
My mother didn’t care, “I will drive you to school once you finish cleaning. And don’t think your father won’t be hearing about this later,” she stalked off, still fuming.
While Tina and Julia boarded the school bus, I scrubbed the floor. Cinderella, Cinderella, I lamented, (it was a mistake letting me watch this cartoon, I referenced it every time I did the slightest bit of housework.) By the time I was finished cleaning up my mess I was over an hour late and my new school outfit was greasy and stained.
This only fueled my resentment. As soon as I finished, I marched into my mother’s room. She was busy nursing my baby brother Britain and looked up to see me with my hands on my hips.
“I’m done cleaning,” I said.
“Good. Did you finish your eggs?”
I’d forgotten the second part of my punishment. “No,” I glared at her. “I’m allergic.” (I used this line all the time in school, to great effect. It never quite worked on my mother.)
“Eat your scrambled eggs and I will drive you to school.”
“Noooooooooooo,” I wailed. The hour of kneeling and scrubbing had caught up to me emotionally, I forgot the fact that I was the culprit and had a total meltdown. Tears streamed down my face and I started saying things I’d later regret like you’re a terrible mother, and this is child abuse.
My mother, still breast-feeding, stood up, grabbed me by the wrist and dragged me into my bedroom.
“You’re not coming out of this room until you eat your eggs,” she yelled.
“How am I supposed to do that?” I sassed her, “There aren’t any eggs in here.”
When my mother gets angry her eyes turn a particular shade of blue, glass blue. She stared me down, ice eyes, and then she turned and huffed out of the room. A moment later she was back, a plate of eggs in one hand and Britain in the other, still sucking on her breast.
“Enjoy,” she set the plate of eggs on the floor, and walked out of my bedroom, my door slammed behind her.
“You’re not the boss of me,” I called after her.
Unfortunately, she was. I spent the next half hour staring at the yellow eggs and playing the game oh woe is me. This game consisted of me listing each grievance my mother had caused me during the course of my 8 year existence, I played it all of the time.
There was the laundry incident: I used to throw my dirty laundry under my bed. My mother warned me not to do this. When I didn’t listen, she decided to teach me a lesson by publicly humiliating me. I came home from school one day only to find the trees, branches and bushes in front of our house decorated in splashes of color. As the school bus got closer I realized what it was: my dirty socks and underwear. I’m not talking one or two pieces either, there were dozens of my private undies dangling for all to see. The other kids on the school bus thought it was hilarious, I was mortified. One point for mother, no points for me. I put my laundry in the laundry basket from that day forward.
Then there was the incident with the piano lessons: My mother played the piano in church every Sunday and believed it was a necessary talent, “Every congregation needs a pianist.” I was forced to take lessons twice a week. I had absolutely no interest in learning how to play—it was our first real battle. I would do everything in my power to make us late for my lesson. When this didn’t work, I would forget my sheet music and say that I was unable to practice. My mother, with four kids to deal with, would drive us back to the rehearsal space and pick up the music. She was unbreakable. Mr. Meisner, on the other hand, my teacher (an Austrian immigrant and concert pianist) did not fare as well. When I realized my mother wouldn’t fold, I started working on him. Day by day I’d destroy his love of music with whiny faces, rolling eyes, and heavy fingers. And to kill time, I’d insist that I practice each song in the air before putting my fingers on the keys. This above all else, drove him crazy.
“This child cannot be taught,” he told my mother. When she tried to persuade him to keep trying he put his hands in the air and said, rather dramatically, “because of her, I will never touch a piano again.”
These are just two examples, but every day with my mother was a battle of wills. Don’t have seconds, clean your room, take a bath, go to sleep, don’t watch tv, read a book, be nice to your sister. Her demands were unceasing. And now, on an important day, my first day of third grade she wanted me to eat an entire plate of scrambled eggs, eggs which had once belonged to my dirty fingered, slobbery mouthed siblings. Every child has a breaking point, this was mine. I’m running away from home, I decided, I can’t live like this.
It wasn’t all that hard to do, with the house to clean and Britain to take care of, my mother was out of the way. She won’t even notice I’m missing, the thought disturbed me. I got a piece of paper and wrote a note just in case it was true. It said something to the effect of: I’m running away from home, I can’t live like this. I set the note next to my eggs, re-packed my Lisa Frank backpack with clothes and my teddy bear. Fortunately my bedroom was on the first floor, I opened my window, kicked out the screen and climbed outside.
Walking across the yard and over to the gravel street, I secretly hoped my mother would look out the window and spot me. I pictured her calling my name, Elna, Come back, we need you in this family. This didn’t happen. I made it all the way down the hill and to the paved street without anyone so much as noticing.
When I got to my school bus stop I stopped. It was the farthest I’d ever been on my own. To my left was the main road, to my right, Second Street, a back road that consisted primarily of hills. You can do this, I coached myself, don’t look back. I held my Lisa Frank backpack tight and headed up Second Street. I was Columbus setting sail, venturing into unchartered territory. Uphill, downhill, uphill, downhill. After what seemed like an eternity, but what was probably more like 20 minutes, the road dead-ended on a forest. I peered inside, it looked scary, blackberry bushes, tall evergreen trees, and darker lighting than the street. But I wasn’t about to let this deter me. Running away from home meant facing my fears. And so I raised my head high and walked into the trees. I was brave, but also worried about getting lost, and so after walking for a few feet I sat down on a stump and took a break.
It was quiet in the woods. Sure there was rustling, the occasional bird, and a grasshopper that hopped by, but for the most part, everything was still. I don’t do well with stillness. The minute I’m still, everything catches up to me: my actions, my conscience, my ability to reason. All that, plus I could hear my stomach grumbling.
I’m hungry, I looked in my back-pack for something to eat, nothing. Oh no, I kind of have to pee. I’m incapable of squatting, I’ll only urinate with dignity.
The list went on from here: What if I have to go number two? And where exactly am I going to sleep? And how am I going to watch TV? Running away had seemed like a good idea at the time but now there were all these details. Who’s going to wake me up in time for school? What happens when it’s Sunday? For the first time in my life I was “the boss of me.” There were so many things I’d never considered.
On top of that, I missed my family. It’d only been an hour and already I wanted company. Being alone is boring, I thought, What will it be like if I’m alone forever? Sure my parents were embarrassing (my dad had a beard and my Mom was always the pregnant lady), but we got into water fights, and they told scary stories and let us play pranks on their friends, so it broke even. And, if I thought about it for a long enough period, my mother wasn’t really all that bad.
Hoot, hoot, I heard a loud noise, it was coming from behind a tree. Ahhhhh, I didn’t have time to figure out what it was, I ran, arms flailing, back to the street. Downhill, uphill, downhill, uphill, downhill, uphill, home. I made it past the cherry trees, through the gravel and over to the garage, when I heard my mother calling my name.
“Elna,” she screamed, “El-naaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.”
There was panic in her voice. I ducked behind a garbage can. She walked into the garage, she was standing a foot from me, only she didn’t know it.
“Elna,” she called my name again.
I thought about everything I’d learned in my hour and a half as a runaway. I wanted to tell her I was sorry, admit I needed her, say I loved her, say I missed my family, only that’s not what happened.
I stuck my head out from behind the garbage can, “I’m right here,” I said, “Stupid.”

Poor choice of words, my mother cooked eggs every night for a week.

Juror #2

When I turned 25 my parent’s health insurance plan stopped covering me.

“Make sure you get health insurance,” my father advised, “I’ll send you a check to cover the first three months.”

“Of course. Thank you.” But I’d never been sick before. So when the check arrived in the mail I spent it on shoes, dresses, and my phone bill.

The thing is, I should’ve known better. At the time I was working as a temp for the tv show Trading Spaces. My job was to do their data entry. In order to win a free home makeover each applicant would send in three pictures of their home and an essay explaining why they needed the makeover. It was my job to scan these letters into a database. I was supposed to do this impersonally. In fact, I was instructed not to read any of these letters, simply scan and shred. But they were like gold. Each offered a window into someone else’s life. Naturally, I read every single one. And in so doing I discovered something I hadn’t known before: in America, if you don’t have health insurance, you’re totally screwed.

While the letters could’ve been about anyone and anything, almost every single one went as follows: My husband Mark and I purchased this home and planned to make repairs but after his lung cancer/ heart attack/ stroke all of our money goes to paying our hospital bills. Trading Spaces please save us.

When this temp job ended, my concerned father sent me another check for another month’s insurance. I’d told him I was with Blue Cross (your fingers) Blue Shield. Really, I used the money to buy a cute bracelet.

It was around this time that I got a jury summons in the mail. I was thrilled. I get a daily stipend! Unlike the other reluctant citizens, I insured my selection by answering each lawyer’s questions impartially. Unfortunately, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I was selected to be on a jury that deliberated, of all things, medical insurance fraud. And the trial, which dragged on for several weeks, was boring as shit. Shit being the operative word. After three weeks of sitting on a hard jury bench, something started to happen to my butt. To be frank, jury duty gave me hemorrhoids. I was 25, healthy, and completely unfamiliar with this anus related illness. Determined not to pay to go see a doctor, and hoping that whatever it was, would just go away, I decided to ignore the problem. This was a bad idea. It got worse, a lot worse. I felt like I had to go to the bathroom every ten seconds. Only when I got there, I couldn’t get anything to come out. As if this wasn’t bad enough, I was still on jury duty, which meant I had to raise my hand and request the judge’s permission every time I had to go. “Your honor, may I please go to the bathroom?”

“Again?” The judge would call a recess and the entire courtroom would wait while I sat on a toilet and prayed for poop. Ironically, whenever this happened the judge would use my official title, “Recess requested for Juror Number Two.”

By the second week of actively avoiding the issue, something horrible happened: while trying to use the bathroom during a recess, my hemorrhoid burst. I’d given myself an anal fissure (or as my brother and sister still like to refer to it, the fisherman that lives in Elna’s ass). In severe anal pain, I left the trial and took a cab to the nearest emergency room.

Laying on the hospital bed with my gown wide open and my bottom bare for all to see, a doctor, assisted by two nurses, began a colonoscopy. It was intended to diagnose the problem.

“This may feel a little uncomfortable,” he began. While nothing can prepare you for a camera being shoved up your ass, “a little uncomfortable” was an understatement. Just as the tube was inserted, my cell phone, which was in my purse on the other side of the room, started to ring. Da na na na na na na, my ring at the time was a Cindy Lauper song, Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.

Incapable of getting up to turn it off, my only option was to lie there and pretend it wasn’t happening. They just wanna, they just wan-na-a-a. The doctor continued to push the tube in, and the nurses avoided making eye contact with each other as we all listened to five full rings play out.

Oh girls, they wanna have fu-un. Regretfully uninsured, a $5000 hospital bill pending and a tube snaking its way up your anus, I thought, Yes, they certainly do.

Thursday, June 25, 2009


We were out celebrating my father’s fiftieth birthday when my older sister Tina turned to me and said,
“Elna, do you remember nerd day?”
I stared at her blankly, Nerd day, Nerd day, I thought, trying to place it. Oh my goodness, I began. I had heard of people repressing memories, but I’d never realized… I was one of them.


In order to understand nerd day, you have to first understand this: as a child, I led a double life. At home I was loud, funny and boisterous, at school I was a painfully self-conscious. I’d think about running across the playground, and immediately my mind would counter, you’ll fall on your face, your skirt will flip up, your underwear will have a stain. And so, to avoid potential humiliations, I decided to be invisible.
There was only one thing that interfered with this: my father—an exuberant, hot-blooded Latino. He could get me excited over just about anything.
I’d come home with a homework assignment, intent on doing just the bare minimum, when my dad would get involved. He’d think of an idea, and then I’d think of an idea, and the assignment would get bigger and more exciting. Before I knew it I was turning in creative projects. This meant: attention. There were gold-starred Elna assignments hung on the wall at my classroom. To my horror, I was being used as the class example. By the time I reached second grade I decided I’d had enough. It happened when I was given an assignment to bring in an object to demonstrate how a pulley worked. It was just the kind of project my father loved—it gave him an excuse to use power tools. He started to brainstorm. “What’s the coolest thing you can think of that has a pulley?”

“I don’t know, a flag pole?” I answered, trying not to care.
“A flagpole?” My dad gave me a look that said, you’re a creative genius and all you can think of is a flagpole?
He was right; I could do better.
“A bicycle wheel.”
He wasn’t impressed.
“Or a pulley on a bucket that goes down in a wishing well,” I offered.
That’s more like it. My dad’s eyes sparkled and he started rubbing his hands together. I could hear the friction. I loved it when he got this way, totally focused, like a kid with a new toy. I forgot all about playing it cool.
A half-hour later, we were at the junk yard, hauling a large barrel into the back of the van. We stayed up way past my bedtime building an arch above the barrel with 2x4s, and then attaching a rope, a pulley and a bucket.
The next day we rolled our creation through the classroom door. When they saw my father, the kids perked up in their seats. Even Mrs. Fenton, my teacher, who must have seen my dad as a cute 29 year-old guy and not as my father, fawned all over him. “I just love Elna’s work,” she said, like I was a renowned artist.
But the minute he left, the energy changed: everyone (except Mrs. Fenton) hated me. I tried to figure out what I’d done wrong. That’s when I looked at their desks. Every single kid had a pencil with a string tied to it as their pulley demonstration. And I, I had a full-on wishing well. Oh no. I’d inadvertently broken one of the sacred rules of being cool: I was the kid who looked like she really wanted to do her homework.
This was the end of my homework love affair with my father. From that moment on when he asked me if I had any projects, I just said no.
I rigorously maintained this stance for months, keeping all my assignments and school activities to myself. But towards the end the end of the year Mrs. Fenton announced that we would be having school spirit week. She gave us a memo to take home to our parents that explained what we needed to do. I understood that this had all the makings of an Elna-Dad project, so I threw my memo away. Tina, not so smart, walked right up to my dad and handed the memo to him. That weekend, my father gathered Tina and me around him. The first day of school spirit week was Nerd Day.
“What makes a good nerd?” he asked.
I looked down at my sneakers, avoiding the conversation.
“Nerds wear glasses,” Tina suggested.
“Nice,” my dad beamed.
“And nerds tuck in their shirts,” she added.
“And nerds…” she paused, “nerds are nice people, but people tease them, and they shouldn’t.”
I rolled my eyes. Tina was clearly not the right person for the job. “Nerds have slicked back hair,” I blurted out. “They wear pens in their pockets, and they have pimples, and they don’t just wear glasses—they wear broken glasses with tape in the middle.”
“Good,” my dad said, “but you forgot the most important thing: nerds have toilet paper hanging out of their underwear!” For some reason we thought this was hi-larious.
My dad told us to follow him out to the garage, where he unveiled an old trunk. He reached inside and pulled out two old suits from the seventies, one polyester baby-blue and the other pastel orange.
“Try these on.”
We crawled into the suits. The pants had to be tied on with a rope, and the sleeves hung down way past our arms. My father spun us in circles. “Nerds!” he shouted.
“Nerds!” Tina and I cried, with our arms raised high above our heads.
We found two pairs of old safety glasses and taped the bridges. We drew pimples on our faces, we slicked our hair back, and we stuck toilet paper out of the backs of our underpants. We were the best nerds ever.
Monday rolled around. Our nerd outfits were set up on the carpet beside our beds. When our alarm clock went off, Tina and I began the time-consuming process of replicating our “nerd” look. Half an hour later we were ready to go…glasses, check; hair gel, check; pimples, check; toilet paper, check.
My father drove us to school. When he dropped us off in the school parking lot he took one final look at us and called out the window, “Nerds!”
We threw our arms in the air. “Nerds!” we shouted. My father drove off honking the Pee-Wee Herman theme song. We watched the mini-van shrink as he drove further and further away, and we kept waving just in case he looked back.
When Tina and I finally turned around, the entire school—the kindergarten line, the second grade line, the fifth grade line, everyone— was staring. The first thing that I thought was, “Why are they pointing at us?” Followed by, “Why is no one else dressed up?”
As it turned out, it wasn’t Nerd Day. It wasn’t even school spirit week. My father had misread the memo. He had dressed us up as nerds a whole week early. And you know that dream where you show up to school naked and everyone is staring at you? It turns out it’s just as bad to show up to school dressed as a nerd from the 1970’s.
It was a defining moment for me, worse than any hypothetical I could’ve imagined—All I wanted was to be invisible. Instead, I was highlighter orange. I tried to undo it as best as I could. I took off my glasses, wiped my face, wet my hair, and removed the toilet paper. But there was still no way to explain why I chose to wear my father’s old suit to school.
I made it through the first half of the day by ignoring the staring and whispering. But when it came time for lunch, I knew I had to find a place to hide. I figured the less people saw of me, the better; as it stood my reputation would probably take years to recover. So I took my sack lunch and headed for a place behind the gym that I knew would be deserted. I turned the corner. Sitting against the wall, wearing a baby-blue suit, eating her lunch alone, was my older sister.
“Do you remember nerd day?” Tina repeated. I looked across the room and watched my dad attach three birthday hats to his head.
“Yes,” I said, “How could I forget.”