Monday, August 10, 2009

What You Can Get Into

I grew up making my bed every morning, thinking you had to. I guess it started in boarding school, 9 years old. The nuns woke us up in the dormitories, small rooms at the top of the grey stone building that had once been a rich person’s mansion. The rooms way up on the third floor – some with slanted ceilings – held different numbers of beds. Some rooms had three or five, a big one had about 11. They woke you up and before going down to Mass or to breakfast, depending on what day it was, you had to turn down your bed – pull down the top sheet and your eiderdown – your quilt. Each girl brought her own eiderdown from home. It was something you could choose, something that did not have to match everyone else. I picked the prettiest one I saw in the store, a delicate pink floral pattern.

Pulling back your covers “aired” your bed while you ate breakfast, something I had never of before, words my mother never used, and then when you came back to your room – we moved in packs – to chapel all together, to the dining room, then back upstairs – you made your bed and brushed your teeth at the sink that each dormitory had.

We washed in that sink every morning from the waist up– baths were scheduled two or three times a week in the evenings, each girl remembering when her shift was. The bathtubs were scattered about the third floor and given numbers so you knew which one to use, tubs set alone in small rooms. Once after I’d gone to bed I was awakened. An older girl, scheduled to have a bath after me in the same tub, had registered a complaint that I had not left the tub clean enough. I was returned to the scene of the crime and went through the motions of cleaning – maybe for the first time that night, maybe for the second – cleaning didn’t register for me yet. I didn’t know what dirt looked like.

There were many moments of sharp shame during the three boarding school years though shame was not a word I used for myself yet. I walked in blindly, nine years old, like a puppy, going where I was led. We had just moved to England in June and in September I began school. I changed schools every year or two so that part did not surprise me. But it still never felt good to walk into a new one. It was a short walk through fire you had to do by yourself.

It made it much worse this time that my school uniform had not arrived and I had to wear my regular clothes when every other girl was in uniform. That was bad. But I did not say anything. That was one thing my mother couldn’t stand – my father either but he was not around much. My mother did not like it when I said I didn’t like something. It made her angry. Her voice got loud and harsh.

Sometimes her hand whipped out and smacked you. It felt mean and scary and I did my best to see her anger coming and get out of the way somehow or other.

So I didn’t say anything about the clothes and was relieved when the right ones finally came and I could match everyone else in my brown tunic, my beige cotton button-down shirt, the striped tie I learned to knot.

I slept in a row of three girls in the corner. You were allowed to bring trinkets to place on a bureau top – I brought my two kissing-alligators – Mr. and Mrs. Florida that Leslie Rider had brought for me in second grade – and the head of Abraham Lincoln that looked like it was made of sugar. I told my new friends it was made of sugar. I lied sometimes – I always had – to increase my street cred. I was on TV I told a kid once, figuring there was no way she could find me out. It sounded so good I could not resist.

“Go upstairs and wash between your legs,” the nun had called me up to the front of the class as we sat doing homework. She murmured this to me, letting me know that I smelled bad. I swallowed it down, went right upstairs to one of the tubs on the third floor and did as I was told, hoping to scrub away all offense. These things could come at you from any direction. You’re swinging along, blithe, and then someone informs you that you’ve made a very big mistake.

When it happened at the end, when my friends turned on me – the friends I had had so much fun with for years, the ones to whom I wrote deliciously long letters during school breaks when we were apart for four long weeks, the ones who sent me back fat envelopes with long handwritten missives in return – the friends with whom I got into trouble beautifully, like an art form – getting detentions for sneaking into forbidden territory, getting marks in the nuns’ little books carried in their hidden pockets – friends with whom I rode a wonderful wave of play and then the rising tide of sexual information. When one day they would not speak to me because I had chosen the wrong roommates – I asked not to return the following year. I asked my mother, scared and embarrassed to want something that much.

1 comment:

Alice said...

Your images and description of being "led like a puppy" made me feel as though I was standing next to this nine year old girl - feeling like a child - scared and eager to please. You really brought to life the feeling of being that young and in such an intense situation. I want more. I want to know what happens to the this little girl. I like her!