I am not an ideal, couldn’t be one if I tried. And I have. Many times.
People like me better with my hair in pigtails. Women smile at me, men perform double-takes as I pass them on the street. They never do this with my hair around my shoulders. People don’t want to meet another young woman. They’d much rather watch a girl run across the street. Summer shorts, pigtails. We love young girls more than anything. Think of this one’s potential as you watch her move. Pure and sweet and limitless. I could do so much with that little girl– she would look pretty in a prom dress, she would look pretty wearing nothing but pigtails, tiny torso wrapped in motel bed sheets– but I don’t because I won’t. I am a good citizen. I can be satiated with a wink, just this double-take for me.
I avert my eyes passing catholic schoolgirls climbing up the long narrow roads of Laurel Canyon. You can trust me. I don’t look because I don’t want them to know how visible they are. Girlhood screams. I drive with eyes everywhere but on these girls, as they burrow deeper into my old neighborhood, and I drive farther away from them, and they push further into the trees, and I feel the distance between who I was and who I will be. I pass the torch to the girls by ignoring them. They need to learn they must work to be seen. I also want them to get home safe and eat dinner. I pass myself passing these girls. Though I looked for not even one full Mississippi, I saw their long skinniness and rolled-up uniform skirts. I hate them because I know them: their skipped meals, their wish to be loved, their urge to define. The starving days are never far behind. They will make the same mistakes I did, and one day will drive the roads of their childhood where they will pass shimmering schoolgirls risking everything by walking on the street. I am passing girls, willing myself to love them, they are simply girls, and we are the most frayed creatures of all.
My best friend has brown eyes and long black hair. She has the body of the ideal woman and is funny in the right way. Her longest relationship lasted a month. I consider her a perfect person. I was the first to translate her into art. As we have grown, she has become a beauty worthy of being paid for her looks. In other words, she acts and models. I say this without opinion. People find purpose in all sorts of places and none of them are what we’d expect. Last year, a successful photographer found my best friend’s Instagram. I remember her voice fluttery on the phone telling me about her rising follower count and how this man had messaged her. She said he lives in London and takes photos of celebrities, and now he wants to know her. She couldn’t believe he chose her as someone to know. I knew my best friend when she was young and convinced of her ugliness. I think she couldn’t believe he saw her and thought “beauty.”
Last month the photographer moved to Los Angeles, bringing with him black skinny jeans and Saint Laurent. He taught my best friend about high fashion. I walked into her apartment most days to the sight of her sallow and saintly on her couch, watching Runway. She began studying how models walk. They walk with their shoulders back. Last Saturday the photographer took us to the Los Angeles Forest and had us put on pretty dresses and play along mossy logs for his camera. I felt far away from everyone. I watched my best friend’s hair catch the sunlight while she sat on a large rock in the middle of a stream. She was drunk, which is not unusual for her, but her empty stomach made me anxious. I worry about her, but if I’m being honest, which I can be, I am jealous of her, and maybe a part of me misses when her beauty was mine alone to capture.
The photographer fed my best friend Bloody Mary after Bloody Mary and said “aw” when she posed especially unknowing. The sun disappeared behind the mountain. My best friend was nearly black-out and shivering, a slip of a girl in a mesh Betsy Johnson dress. She drunkenly declared she was going to go swimming in the watering hole within the blackberry brambles. The photographer stopped taking my photo around midafternoon. I think once people see past my hair and eyes, they realize I am odd looking, masculine. With the sun on its way out, I was ready to leave, fed up with being ignored. My looks will never make me money. I pickled myself with this thought as I tore off the skin around my right thumb and sucked at the blood that surfaced. My best friend jumped into the freezing water, barely missing the rocks and thorns edging the hole. The wind blew hard, and I shivered, wrapped in nothing. The photographer crawled after my best friend on all four of his paws and all I could hear of the Los Angeles Forest was the chattering of her teeth and the click of his camera. As she dried off, slurring idiotic thoughts next to me, she gasped at her legs. Rivets of bright red covered them. Everything my best friend does is worth photographing. Everything she is pays tribute to the beauty of existence. The photographer ordered her to sit still. He shot five film photos of her bleeding thighs. Satisfied, the photographer told her she could wash up.
On the drive home he bought us peppermint tea, as apology or thank you, and I sat in the back seat with the window down, high and lonely, watching the photographer cradle my best friend’s cold hand. I wanted her to eat dinner. I wanted to be warm in her home. I wished my photo was worth taking. I remembered what it was like to be loved.
A few days later, the photographer would transgress boundaries at an art crowd party. A strange event encased in cement walls dusted with cocaine. I will tell my best friend I knew he was bad news when he let her bleed. I will say he fetishized her beauty and pain, which made him a pervert. My tongue will feel thick saying these things, the thick tongue of a hypocrite, the thick tongue of a girl afraid of being less beautiful than the girl beside her.
A video of me getting waxed. I’m in a sterile white room on a doctor’s bed. I lie on my back, gazing at the flatscreen mounted to the wall playing music videos from the 2010s. My hair is long, brown, and seawater washed. It flows above my head and dangles off the bed. I hug my knees to my chest as a Brazilian girl coats my pussy in warm honey. Her clean head dips between my legs. She breathes in delicately. I worry I smell. She pulls me closer and sprays me with soap, wiping me clean. She instructs me to turn on my side and lift my legs for better access. Hot honey, then the sting of it being ripped away. Warmth, then the sting of absence. My breathing is slow and long, and nothing exists beyond the heat and pain. When she is finished, she removes her hands and turns her back to me. I stand lightheaded and pull up my underwear with my vision full of jumping, black spots. My underwear will be blood-stained by the time I’m home. I pay and tip her well. I thank her for being gentle with me, but I’m not sure she hears me over the sound of Usher.
Let me tell you what it’s like to have sex with me. I need it a little dirty, want him a touch disrespectful. No longer wettest in his passenger seat, I’m wet thinking he doesn’t know me. How he desires what he doesn’t know. Sex is better if it’s depriving me of something. Lately, I’ve been sleeping with a respectful boy. I like his brown eyes, but I’m never present. While in bed with him, I imagine a man ten years his senior beneath me. This older man fetishizes me. It’s so much better when the older man fingers me. I crave being caught off-guard, a little resentful of the situation I put myself in. I cum thinking he is a fucked-up old man that can’t help but want me, I cum thinking this is bad for me, I cum thinking I can do better. My moans are beautiful. A symphony of smallness. I play the game, we both get off, I cry on the drive home. Sex like this makes me feel pure like a fetish. Sex like this is exhausting. I lie to you because I think you lie to me. I want to be remembered like an American Apparel Girl. Turn the flash on, bright. Make me look washed out and playful. I am perfection in modest underwear, telling you I’m not going to have sex with you. Perfect leaning in for a kiss, saying I don’t trust you.
Driving freeways to see him. Crossing lanes, blurring distinctions with a turn signal. Clouds of vapor leaving my mouth. I keep myself empty, so I can walk up and into his arms ready to fuck. Oh, to be the sunshine girl. Maps app a bright beacon as the boys smoke cigarettes in the truck next to me. I smile at them and sway. Taylor Swift, Lorde, Lana. I am so young. My windows stay down, even on the freeway. In standstill traffic like this, everyone gets a front-row seat to my pregame rituals. An hour and half away, I wonder how he prepares for me. When I kiss him in the driveway he tastes like smoke. I don’t think you’re dirty but you’re not very clean. The light kaleidoscopes on the illegally tinted windows in front of me. I take selfies on freeways, or pictures of my legs. I keep them bare and smooth so that when he touches me, he thinks “soft.” My hand dangles lifelessly out the driver’s side. It looks like the driver of my car has fallen asleep, or died, despite her French manicure. I yank my hand back from the edge. I place my phone out of reach. Pop music pumping on the 110, dancing in the driver’s seat going nowhere fast.
coming off Adderall into his arms.
coming off shrooms into his arms.
coming off acid into his arms.
coming up sober to an empty bed.
The pills he left in my car make my brain fuzzy. My thoughts pass me; I watch them from the backseat. This is easy, coping with inconsistency when I’m not the one driving. I’m sitting in the back asking for snacks and for the music to be turned up. I’m wearing my favorite sweater. My head rests against the window. My skull vibrates, clunks, bangs into the glass. I feel sick from reading in the car, But the book is good, and the ride is long, and the driver doesn’t pay attention to me or what I say. I live diluted, the other half of me underwater. Water heals. I hope it’s healing me. I quell nausea with another pill: the kind that sinks you deep into backseat cushions. Time forges on in this constant race against being unwell. And the starving days are never far behind.
I thought I was pregnant so I asked the girls if they would take me to get an abortion. My roommates sleep as I drench a white pregnancy test with urine. I stare at it. I feel like I am juggling knives. I decide to brush my teeth. To the sound of sludging bristles, I watch a single pink line approach from out of the fog. The line darkens until it is clear my life will not be irrevocably changing. I take a selfie with the negative test. Kissing it, winking at the camera.
The day would have been lovely though. To ride with my girls to Planned Parenthood, listening to DJ music and smoking cigarettes out the window. My best friend’s feet up on the dash, her hand reaching back for mine. Her eyes would search for me in the waiting room like an anxious mother in the school parking lot. Afterwards the two of us would walk lopsided to the car, wrapped in each other’s arms. We would drive to the beach, taking the canyon roads, sharing dark nothings with one another. Together we deny gravity. Maybe a sunset stop at an ice cream parlor, the indelible image of us three staring at the ocean with ice cream cones in hand. Under life-threatening circumstances, we’re allowed girlhood treats. Licking ice cream after aborting my baby. Sucking chocolates delivered to your door after he tore your heart out. Biting down on a big, beautiful birthday cake. We sugar coat the creep towards old age, and our eventual irrelevance. In the company of girls, I have only myself to save. I would make a good mother.
I spend the day with Mom. We order in and watch movies– she always lets me pick. We laugh at commercials; I tell her I love her. An onscreen Casey Affleck kisses his wife’s head– she has cancer– and tells her she is the most beautiful girl he ever saw. That she always will be. I start loud crying and my mom looks back, in between bites of her burger, and I see her eyes are wet, and it’s hard for her to swallow. I pause the TV and ask her, my mother, who has said no to love for the past fifteen years, if she ever misses it, that kind of love. She says this is a movie. I tell her love like that exists; I have been loved like that. “Have you ever been loved like that, Mom?”
“Not when it mattered."
I unpause the movie.
Hugging the family tree
Climbing the family tree
Kicking the family tree
Carving the family tree
Godmother streamlines through the phone as mosquitos bite my hands and feet. She speaks a mile a minute. She asks-
Can I tell you something?
It’s coming from a place of love.
I just...I noticed on social media and, well, I just want to say that you, Riley, are so cool being you. There is no other Riley, and you’re coolest being you.
You don’t need to emulate others.
What makes you say that?
Just some of the pictures you’ve been posting-
Like maybe some of the selfies-
Can you remember which ones?
No and it’s not about any specifics. I’ve been feeling this way for awhile.
And I don’t mean this in any way to make you feel bad. You’re perfectly imperfect.
But you don’t need to photograph your friends. You have a good eye, you don’t need to be their audience all the time. Go out into the world and take photos of what you see.
I’m here. Yeah, I’ve been feeling that way too.
My life has been a pendulum swinging between embodying an ideal and choosing happiness. A voice comes into my head, every day, instructing me to monitor myself so that I may be perfect. Worthy of love. With time, misery gives birth to a second voice. This one nudges the first back into its seat with a single word: “happiness.” “Happiness” quiets the loud in my head that has lived there since age twelve, when I first noticed pretty girls receive the most love. The second voice calms me. I once would have called her stupid. Now I nod along to whatever she says. She says all I should do is live in happiness. I am not an ideal, couldn’t be one if I tried. And I have. Many times. I am grateful for the moments I listen to the second voice, but of course, I don’t always listen.
What I didn’t write in your birthday card: Been worrying about you. Been asking where did my sunshine girl go? Been noticing your dwindling frame. I’ve been there. Been helping you make work you’re proud of. Been noticing how beauty shrinks the more we measure it. Been watching your petals droop when no one else notices the things you create. Been cooking for you, finding meals in the cool air of the unstocked kitchen. Been smiling at you, laughing with you. Been dancing for you. Been feeling safe with you since we were kindergarteners, spinning in ugly dresses.
I know the importance of stories and good storytellers. A good storyteller possesses a raw magnetism that sucks you in and satiates a hunger you never knew you had. And now I know that’s what made me jealous and out of place in her presence, my friend with the stories and confidence to tell them. And I was so frustrated at myself and resentful of her for it. She shares stories of a life worth listening to. And I look at the fragmented nature of my writing, how I’m pausing, wondering if it's even worth sharing, if you’ll think I’m oblivious and boring. I shake my head and put a period where I have more to say. And even now I’m asking myself if I’m a writer worth reading. And the answer is no. Because I’m no different than anyone else. But I keep writing, because as much as I know it will only make things worse and my words hurt the people I love, I crave being read.
I am a surprise. My mother told me I was a surprise pregnancy. That well into her fourth box of cinnamon Pop Tarts, sitting in her car in the parking lot of the Burbank Target, she saw a vision of my face. Something about how the light bounced off the dirt streaking her windshield. With a mouthful of masticated sugar, she smiled. And she recognized me at once.
When she told me the story of my becoming, I felt first power, then disappointment.
If she reads this, what I see from where I stand, will she forgive my point of view?
She never asked for any of this.
I am a little kid running around with mother’s compact, holding a mirror up to the maturing faces above me. When they look down on me I want them to see themselves. I stand small and offer this, but half expect the mirror to be slapped from my hands.
Every photograph is a lesson. I have learned the evils of a photo shot from below. But this is also a part of my writing: capturing unflattering angles.
Do you read in me a lack of restraint? Whiny in my phrasing, sometimes a voice like nails on a chalkboard?
My nails won’t stop growing.
I pray you won’t leave me before you reach this sentence.
And the starving days are never far behind.