SELF-PORTRAIT AS DAUGHTER, LEARNING

Editor’s Choice Award


BY SHELBY LYNNE

 

One week before my twenty-third birthday, I move out of my parents’ house. I don’t have a job and have just spent most of my money on a used car that, over the course of the next year, will require nearly two thousand dollars in maintenance and repairs. I scrape by on savings and part-time positions for eighteen months before landing a full-time job. I do not ask my parents for money.

I grow up in a strict fundamentalist household. My parents love me deeply and enforce rules that prove their love. Their strictness manifests in the usual ways—no tank tops, no short shorts, no dating, no R-rated movies, no books with sex, no music with cursing, only the tamest TV shows—but my mother’s rigidity spreads into other domains. I cannot eat outside the kitchen, cannot fold my clothes a certain way, cannot sleep without a top sheet perfectly tucked around my feet.

Food, more than anything, is strictly policed. She knows the number of jars in the pantry, cans of coffee in the cabinet, cups of soup in the stockpot meant to feed us for three days. After raising four children on savings and shoestrings while my dad works his way through school, my mother’s rationing is understandable. Even though he’s been out for ten years by the time I move away, forced frugality rarely leaves the brain so soon.

After I come out to my parents, it takes an entire year to cut them off. During this time, I receive Christmas presents, postcards, and half a dozen care packages. I open letters that say they are praying; they are concerned; they are certain the devil is tempting me and has successfully led me astray. They tell me it is not too late to turn back, to repent, to deny myself and take up my cross, to leave this lifestyle behind. They still love me, they say; they still want me; I am still welcome in their home.

During my lean months, when I am earning $150 a week shelving books at the library and spending $450 a month just on rent, I train my body to be permanently hungry. I tell myself an aching belly is a sign of independence and turn eating a peach into an Event. I eat more rice and beans than I think is possible, then eat still more rice and still more beans. It is summer and watermelon is cheap so I eat as much as possible, so much that I urinate for literal days. When I am too hungry to think and want to vomit at the sight of more fruit, I pick the bowl up bodily and cart it into my room. There I sit on my bed, topless, without a top sheet, and force the fruit into my mouth with numbed and sticky hands.

On Friday, June 22, ten months after I come out, I receive an email from my father announcing I am not allowed to visit my sister while she is at camp forty-five minutes away. My father says I am welcome to see my sister if he and my mother are present, but alone, I cannot be trusted. My sister is impressionable, you see, and she thinks my words are God’s truth. They cannot let me turn her into a lesbian or an asexual or a biromantic liberal spouting words they don’t understand, words which she has learned from me, the black sheep, the problem child, the angel turned thorn in their side.

Two weeks later, one day before my twenty-fourth birthday, I agree to meet my parents for lunch. I do this because my sister will be there, and because I fear the things they’ll say to her if I don’t agree to come.

I am late when I duck into the restaurant, limbs shaking, fingers raking through my long and tangled hair. I am wearing jeans and a T-shirt, a rainbow bracelet, a silver ring around my thumb. They look at me like they expected a stranger, a shaved head or dyed hair. They hug me tightly, giddily. I pull free and sit in a chair. Conversation is sparse. The restaurant buzzes, but our table is so silent I can hear our eyes meet. The sound is dull, like marbles, followed by rebound.

After an hour, my mother gets up to pay the check and my father heads for the restroom. I turn, look at my sister, lock eyes with her for the first time all year. She is quiet, lanky, blonde; she is impossibly seventeen. I love you, I whisper. I miss you.

She smiles. Nudges my shoulder. Whispers, I think it’s cool that you’re gay.

One day after I turn twenty-four—eleven months and twenty-five days after I come out—I stop speaking to my parents. I do it without warning, without ceremony. I simply stop replying to their texts. Their letters I stash in an old manila envelope, crumpled and shoved inside a closet. Their pictures I tuck into notebooks I only open once a year. I create a filter for my inbox so I don’t have to see their emails. I name the folder “Parents,” and then, because it still shows in the sidebar, I make another and another and another, until the first is only visible after a long, determined scroll.

At work, I talk about my family constantly, casually, as if we speak every day. Someone mentions ABBA and I talk about dance parties with my dad. A patron returns a stack of Christian romance novels and I start rambling about my mom. My coworker finds out I like Star Trek and we talk for hours about favorite characters and best episodes, compare notes on when our dads introduced us to the franchise and which of the six is their favorite show. Only later, once I’m home, do I realize I used the present tense: oh yeah, my dad and I, we’re always watching that show.

After Christmas, it’s easier to let everyone think I went home. They ask about my holiday and I talk about my uncle’s cake. They ask about traditions, and I mention The X-Files and my mom’s spiced tea. We talk about gifts, and I mention sweatpants and ankle socks, a box of tea bags, two novels. They don’t need to know that the clothes came from my roommate, that my best friend bestowed the novels, that I spiced the tea myself and watched “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas” alone. The ones I call my aunt and uncle are professors from my old college, but it’s easier to let people think we’re related than explain how a handful of letters, shared meals, and movie nights grafted me into their lives so perfectly I am their niece.

Months pass. I cry a lot, then not at all. I do not know how to be a daughter in my purposely parentless world. I learn to save myself through small acts of self-compassion—a deep breath during yoga or my chin tipped to the light. I read books and write essays. I cook brunch with friends. I say words like lesbian and desire and test the weight of dyke and queer.

Summer blossoms. I discover farmers markets and have a love affair with zephyr squash. I learn the names of heirloom vegetables and grow tomatoes in plastic pots. I splurge on figs and binge on peach flesh; I cook cherries and onions and press eggs onto pan-fried toast. I shed my shirts and cook in sports bras; I cock my hips in pose after pose.

I have a body, I say, I am a body. I revel in this newfound flesh.

Thirteen months after I stop talking to my parents, I meet my sister for lunch. She is eighteen now, a freshman in college, tall enough to bowl me over when we bear-hug in the parking lot. All day, I reach to touch her, wrist to hand and arm to elbow, to convince myself she’s there. What are you doing? she asks, stopping my hand from poking her toe. I need to know you’re solid, I say, that you’re something more than hope. She laughs and threads her arms through mine. That’s dumb, she says. Stop poking. I love you. I’m really here.


Shelby Lynne is a queer writer living in Arkansas. Her influences include Lucille Clifton, Annie Dillard, and the fundamentalist upbringing she’s worked so hard to escape. Her work has appeared in collaboration with HU Queer Press 2.0, and you can find her on Twitter here: @nsearchofwhimsy.

Image Credit: “Evacuation Plan” by Patricia Callan
Read by Kenzie Wolfe

 

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