Where the Light Is Different: A Duet on Girlhood

Peter Marlow/Magnum Photos

Yellowstone National Park, Montana, 1992

Melissa: Her skin was pale and soft, dewy, covered in thin blond baby hairs. She had small pointed breasts that I wanted to touch and kiss and push against, but more than that I wanted them to be mine. I thought they contributed to her ease—her freedom. I thought they were part of why she could step off a chair standing up and not miss a beat, an exact replica of Janet Jackson’s silhouette in the Pleasure Principle video. I thought that’s why her mom smoked cigarettes and made airbrush paintings while my mom’s tits had her out dancing with strange men, and writing bad checks, and desperate in love on third dates—why she had to do all the shimmy-shimmy glitter stuff to her clothes and her body. Jessie had perfect little titties and Jessie was bossy. I was a hormonal blob, chubby and hairy, and I was to be bossed.


Debbie: At Crystal’s house, we spent all summer sun-tanning. This was before anyone’s mother knew to tell you to stop. The water in the pool was Kool-aid blue, too bright to look at directly. We flipped like hamburgers on our towels and listened to TLC and Usher. Neighbor boys would peek over the fence, because Crystal was especially beautiful—tall and model-like, and comfortable in a two-piece. I felt like I’d dropped out of the sky—frizzy-haired, underdeveloped, shy—onto a foreign planet of backyard pools and cases of cold pop in the extra fridge. The social hierarchy of school dominated our collective consciousness. We all understood that if you did not climb it, it would annihilate you. And because the way to climb it was to go bad, we stole underwear from the mall and met boys at Kings Island Amusement Park, forty-five minutes away, behind the Dippin’ Dots stand. We wrote notes to one another in code. We lied to our parents.


[M] We lived in apartments. Jessie’s was in Westwood by the Shell Gas Station and Vendome Liquor Mart, mine in Palms. She lived in the bottom floor of a quadplex, their unit was all big square windows with tons of sunlight, the trees cast shadows across her kitchen in the afternoon. Our apartment, upstairs in a big building beside the 405N, was always stale and dark. Jessie and I would walk to the mall from her place, scrounge for change, and buy Snickers bars or toasted egg bagels. When she announced we were on a diet, we’d eat Chinese chicken salads from Feast From The East.

This was the late Eighties, we could walk unaccompanied, and music videos were our obsession. We thought milk did a body good. Jessie’s mom worked at Lorimar Productions, making Gumby and Pokey cartoons, and my mom was an accountant at a private Catholic girls’ college. I strongly felt that I would much have preferred her mom, who let us sip Manischewitz wine on New Year’s Eve, for my mom. Her mom took us camping at Kern River, where we’d catch wild trout and play the spoons with bikers. The campground was covered in willow and cottonwoods, with big brown bats circling up above, the light golden.


[D] I came from the nice part of town. Ticky-tacky houses lined the suburban streets that unrolled neatly like yarn. Our cul-de-sac in southwestern Ohio always smelled of new mulch and cut grass. The neighbor kids and I rode our bikes in circles, doing tricks. We could stand on the seat, we could hold our arms out like Nancy Kerrigan, we could do the biking version of an arabesque. Once, I broke the pogo-stick Guinness World Record, but there were no witnesses, so it didn’t count. When Cool Runnings came out, we fashioned bobsleds out of our Radio Flyer wagons and pushed each other down the hill.

Before Ohio, we lived in Missouri, and that time is a fuzzy little-girl memory: stick-on earrings, gymnastics class, minivans, and a fat baby brother. When the levee broke, the backyard of our house collapsed like a sinkhole. The roots of downed trees flipped up like exposed teeth. Before the recording device of my memory clicked on, we lived in a white farmhouse in Alabama. Arrowheads would surface in the neighbor’s field after plowing or rain.


[M] Jessie had a cat named Dickens and a black Chow named Duchess, while animals seemed like an absolute impossibility for me and my mom—just more proof that her mother was more flexible than mine. More fun. Her mom drove a VW bug and my mom drove a Toyota. Her mom was a Democrat, mine was a die-hard Republican. Operation Desert Storm was underway, and my mom taught me phrases in Arabic as if I would need them. She was always teaching me how to negotiate my safety. Jessie’s mom smoked pot. Mine kept a bottle of Captain Morgan Rum in the top cupboard and only used two fingers once a year to make rum balls for the holidays.


Still, I thought that the main thing that separated Jessie and me was the child support. Both our moms worked, but she had nicer groceries than we did. Her mom bought wheat germ and honey that she spread over health cereals with a perfect wooden drizzler. My mom and I always had arguments at the checkout of the Food King, while sometimes her bounced check, pasted up by the register, stared back at us. Sometimes my mom and I were hungry. Mostly we ate boring food that she’d almost always bought with food stamps. My mom always insisted it was because my dad didn’t pay child support. Jessie also got brand-name clothing. She had cable TV and Dr. Martens. I had off-label Payless shoes. To me, child support was the difference between a good life and the one I had.


[D] Ohio girls are nice girls, polite girls, salt-of-the-earth girls. We are raised to say please and thank you and would you like some help with that? We learn that nice girls should say yes and yes and yes again—should not cause trouble with a no.

Our house was brick, with stencils along the kitchen walls and cornflower blue shutters; later, to keep up with the times, we sponge-painted over the stencils and painted the shutters forest green. We had the highest driveway on the street—the best for sledding, but the worst to learn how to park a stick-shift car. My two nice parents were the nicest on the block, and they always did the right thing. The good thing.

I started to go bad at fifteen. My friend’s college-age brother would buy us cases of Milwaukee’s Best and wine coolers that tasted like Jolly Ranchers. That same friend had parents who slept all day and let her drive without a license, so we rode around for hours, the plush blue backseat piled with laundry and backpacks and cigarette cartons. With a car, we could get ourselves to the mall. We could visit our friend who worked at Arby’s and go through the Hardee’s drive-thru for breakfast cinnamon rolls three times a day. We could cruise Beechmont Avenue, which seemed never to end—miles of strip malls and Blockbusters, neon signs and fast food joints. But if we drove far enough, we found long stretches of farm fields blinking with fireflies.


[M] During the summer, I’d stay with my lola in Seaside, California, a place known for Steinbeck, grapes, a sardine cannery, an army base, and that glorious aquarium. Alaskan ocean currents cooled the air. East of the Salinas Valley, the town buttressed in coastal saltmarsh, dandelions, sagewort, and bricklebush. Come Fourth of July, we’d climb to Scribble Hill—where people etched messages in the big sand dune with ice plant succulents: Welcome home! Year of ’86! Will you marry me?—and we’d light fireworks. When I brought Jessie along once, we made missiles out of our bodies, arms flat by our sides, and rolled down the hill without fear.

Sometime later, Clint Eastwood would become mayor of Carmel, and Lola would move to a nursing home—and she’d come to feel that all that time spent watching Westerns on TV had paid off. But those summers, when she still lived in a small mint green house on Harcourt Avenue across the street from the library, my lola taught me to be an American, which to her meant Shirley Temple and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. She took her comb with the thin pointed tip and her hot rollers and gave me perfect ringlets. I learned to say May I please be excused? and to shuffle-ball-change at parties, and to curtsey when I met people, and no elbows on the table, and to walk poised, balancing a book on my head—the stuff of supermodels. Don’t question anything. Always nod and say yes. This is around the time when I learned that to be an American girl is to be compliant.


[D] We once threw a party at someone’s grandmother’s house while she was out of town. She collected little porcelain birds. Before the party, I made a map of where the birds had been: the northern cardinal on the bookshelf, the pileated woodpecker in the center of the coffee table. In the morning, we cleaned the house, bagged the beer cans, and I moved the birds back. Even while going bad, I guess I couldn’t completely let go of being the good girl.


One spring break, we hung out with some kids on the bank of the Little Miami River—not far from the bridge where people sometimes jumped, hitting the water like stones. The mud stunk; our shoes disappeared into the stuff. We drove a friend’s mom’s station wagon through the woods beneath the overpass. Tree branches scraped the sides, leaving pinstripes that we would have to explain later.

The river kids had found a pit bull puppy and named her Beretta, after the car. Against the gray of dusk and the fog rolling in above the water, they lounged in makeshift tents, drank 40s, smoked menthols and pot. We were all stoned and Beretta nipped incessantly at our fingers. One boy zipped her small body inside his jacket, and her velvet head seemed to bloom from his chest. “Beretta, you’re a warm motherfucker,” he said, and we all laughed hysterically. The sky darkened, and the river became a black sheet lapping at the rocks.


[M] The air stank of sea animals, and in those summers the light was bright as Sparkletts water. When Jessie came with me the one time, it was confounding. I felt as if I was living in that hyphen between American and Filipino. The one who bossed me, the one who defied all rules, pent up in a small home built on rules? Lola worshipped at the temple of America—and to her that meant clean. It meant white. There was my lola with her VO-5 and hot rollers, and my Jessie with her Aqua Net and crimping iron. Lola with her dentures resting beside her in a glass on the table, and all her crocheted doilies. Lola sucking on bones. Jessie was going to know, I realized with something like terror, that my people burp, and hock loogies, and rinse our asses with the tabo bowl, or even a Big Gulp slurpee cup, after we shit. That we say the rosary every night and talk about dead people like they’re here in the room with us. Lola was her usual strict self, informing us of the consequences for all the ways we defied her—including our imminent deaths and our return as cockroaches.

One morning I caught my lola shooing Morris, the mutt we’d rescued, out the front door. I could make out the silhouette of her giant underwear beneath her orange mumu, her wiry hair a mess, her knee-high stockings scrunched around her ankles. Then I felt it. Jessie’s breath on my cheek. She was seeing it, too. That this perfect American beauty was witnessing my grandmother and all her foreignness—this fact of me—filled me with panic and dread. I shouldn’t have been surprised that Jessie hated it there. She cried and begged to return home early.


[D] A new girl moved in one neighborhood over, and we agreed to meet in the field behind a church, at the base of a particular climbing tree. The new girl would bring the cigarettes, Virginia Slims she planned to swipe from her mother’s purse. To get to the field, I had to cross the yard of a dark house set back in the woods. Weeds grew across the driveway, and ivy scaled the sides of the garage. I had heard that the house was home to a mean old man famous for chasing off kids with a shotgun. I crouched at the tree-line and then made a break for it, and even though I was always the fastest girl in my class, the running mixed with fear felt like a balloon about to pop in my chest. A dog barked, but there was no old man, and there was no shotgun.

The following year, there was a gun—one that my friend Bree held to her head as she called me crying on the phone. This was the year of the notes, pages and pages in her bad handwriting, folded intricately, and slipped through the slats in my locker door. They were not-quite love letters and not-quite suicide notes. She wrote that she wanted to kill herself; that a man in a white car was stalking her; that the same man got her pregnant; that she had a coat-hanger abortion; that her parents locked her up during the day; that nobody loved her except for me; that she only wrote to me.

I hung up the phone and raced through the woods to Bree’s house as fast as I could. She sat in the stairwell, shifting the gun from one hand to the other. For a while it lay in her lap like a cat. Light shone through the glass pane in the door, the dust like glitter in the air. I heard myself say stupid things from the doorway, my voice sounding hollow, like tin.

Maybe we talked for five minutes. Maybe it was an hour. After I convinced her to put the gun down, she handed me a single bullet—a promise that she would not pull the trigger. “Not today anyways,” she said. I ran home through the woods, tree leaves rustling around me, the bullet a heavy secret in my pocket.


[M] Lola’s small house in Seaside is a place I will return to again and again. It’s the place where I learned to dream about becoming a woman. Albeit a woman of my grandmother’s imagination, with a different color skin than we had and a different kind of hair than we had. Still, it was where I read Forever, by Judy Blume, where I stuffed Lola’s back-scratcher down the front of my pants, bucking into the little plastic palm. It was where I rented The Beastie Boys License to Ill album from the library, and where my uncle taught me how to catch garter snakes, California king snakes, and thin-striped racer snakes.

This was the house where I constructed fairytales, where one day a man—much older than me, I hoped, by at least by ten years—an officer in a uniform, military or police, or doctor, would come and save me from all the bills I knew would come. This was the house where Jessie and I, and later my cousin Karla, visiting from the Philippines, would play boyfriend/girlfriend, a game where we practiced the fairytale. We’d get in a fight, usually because whoever was playing girlfriend would get jealous. Then we’d come home and yell at each other and then we had to kiss and “make up”—which meant humping.

This was the house where, earlier, I’d burn ants with a magnifying glass. One day, a pigeon flew in from the chimney. I caught the pigeon and taped its beak shut so it didn’t peck at me, and put it in a cage. Later, I discovered that the ants had devoured it, and it was in that moment that I had the deepest understanding of my mother. I wanted more than anything to love that bird, regardless of whether or not I was capable and regardless of whether or not that bird wanted to let me love it. Which was similar to Jessie. With Jessie, she wanted to love me and I allowed her to, even when her love was bossy or even when her love was the opposite of freedom. The mistake we made, the mistake we all made, was that between us, we didn’t allow room to let the light in.


[D] Let’s begin again: once upon a time, there was a girl who grew up tromping around in creeks. She wandered through water-logged pipes beneath suburban streets. She crawled into drains to rescue kittens, was not afraid of the mud or snakes or even spiders. She bossed all the boys in the cul-de-sac and put them to work constructing the backyard tree fort. She swam in ponds so murky she could barely see her skin beneath the surface. Everything smelled like Fruit Stripe gum baking in the car, and everything sounded like The Beatles.

But the girl also felt like a strange gray mouse in a land of yellow birds. There lived within her the most incredible urge to get out. She reveled in stories about girls who had done the unthinkable, which is to say they had escaped and left their lives spent being good. And so, when she reached a certain age, the girl ran far away from Ohio.

The hills I knew growing up looked like smoke-blue women sleeping on their sides, one round lady after another, their hips leafing out green in the summer—safe, polite, familiar. The woods would burst into a green globe, leaves dripping with afternoon rain, branches splintering the golden sunlight. I could curl up right on the forest floor, on a soft bed of leaves, more animal than girl.

In college, a woman from New Mexico tried to describe the color of the western landscape. “The light is different,” she said, “the mountains are purple.” A year later, when a boyfriend and I road-tripped out West, my little lemon broke down again and again. We criss-crossed the country by mechanic shop, gas station, midnight tow service. Kansas rambled on for days. And then came the dizzying mountains: entire ranges of lilac, heather, amethyst, mauve. Jutting up past the cloud line, they were rugged and towering. They could not be contained.


[M] We rode in my mom’s lemon-yellow Audi from Seaside to Los Angeles. At one point, I’d dropped a sponge, and when my mom leaned down to pick it up, she drove onto the median. At the repair shop, she tried to keep things light, teaching me how to blow bubbles with chewing gum, but the air around us was thick with her exasperation, her hopelessness. I asked myself, again and again: Why did I drop the sponge?

As I got older, it seemed that when my mom was angry, she wanted to see me cry. And eventually, I did. But I resented it. I thought crying ought to be a decision I made for myself, not the result of someone else’s cruelty. Those days were the darkest. My mother shoved me into a lightless closet, locked the door. I chose to take that power back. At fifteen, I ran.


[D] Long after we run, home remains baked into our marrow, lungs, guts. It’s been years since I left the water and the muck, the crawfish, the swimming-pool air of summer in Ohio. And still, it forms the core of me. It lives at the very center of my body.


[M] After I left home, for many years I spent my life carelessly opening up to people who hadn’t earned it, like a sea creature on a chef’s station. I think at first I was searching for someone who would be as reckless with me as my mother had been. Of course, these men were far more reckless because they didn’t see any of themselves in me. I was the ant, they were the magnifying glass.


[D] The Arizona ground sparkles with tiny shards of glass. We call them desert diamonds, but they were once beer bottles, car windshields, TV screens, lightbulbs. Here, ordinary things become exquisite in certain light.


[M] What I loved about being a kid, about the Time Before It All Went Bad, before the power struggle, before being shoved into closets, was how everything changed in summer—the air, our bodies, the light… It seemed to promise, even more than spring, the possibility of something entirely new. In the end I ran, and like with the bird, and the sky above Beretta, and the mutt Morris who was let out into the strange lonely streets, and a loaded gun between kids, there was a sinking, sickening excitement when it was I who made my mother cry, and I who made myself cry, too. The same as my mother had done to Lola—we’d both come to hurt the person who made us and loved us like a possession. Today, I recognize in myself—my own woman—some of her expressions, her curly hair, her shimmy and gravity.


[D] Once, I sank to the base of the most beat-up saguaro cactus I could find—ribs showing through, holes in the flesh, twisted arms growing straight into the rock. I thought it was quite possibly dead. But months later, when I came back, it was blooming.

The damp in my chest has dried out like the highway brittlebush. Over the years, I’ve learned the cactus fruits and the names of weeds, the smell of the desert just before it rains. I’ve learned that the word no is just a poem we make with our mouths—tongue against teeth, the slight curl of lips, a rush of breath.

Out here, dead things bloom, the horizon is a goddamn run-on sentence, and the turquoise sky is not hemmed in by anything.

This story was supported by Community Change.

New York Review + Paris Review covers

Save $168 on an inspired pairing!

Get both The New York Review and The Paris Review at one low price.

Already a subscriber? Sign in