When I sat down in the recliner, my brother looked at me and said, “Something came in the mail today.” He looked at the ground for a minute. “It was really…frustrating.” He seemed to weigh each word as he spoke them. His voice sounded like a doctor delivering someone a bad diagnosis. I should have known this would somehow involve my grandmother and my father. Josh gestured to the package on the dining room table, saying, “You can read it, but you won’t like it. It’s just going to upset you.”

“I don’t care anymore,” I lied. “I’m angry all the time anyway.” That part was actually pretty accurate. True to my self-destructive nature, I waited for him to bring me the package, pretending I only wanted to see it for amusement, and not to torture myself for the next several days.  He hesitated before bringing  it to me. I tried to slow my pulse, taking deep breaths to counter my fear.  The hate mail, packaged tightly in an ordinary envelope and marked with 70 cent postage, was heavy in my hands.  I began to pull out each piece. How can I explain why I did it? I just know that when I hear an emotional train wreck coming, I follow the sound. And like a maniac, I jump right in front of the tracks. It’s hard to believe, but I actually do this shit to myself.

That’s why I’m approaching this story carefully. I know cognitively that adults don’t blame other adults for their decisions and emotions. I know I’ll eventually learn not to blame my family for my struggles—a word that doesn’t even begin to describe what’s going on in my head and heart. But that’s difficult when a few of them in particular seem always to be in my face, pointing fingers and scolding me for mistakes I didn’t actually make. Even as I write this, I think of my grandmother sitting in her own recliner with the fan blasting in her face. I imagine that as she dabs at the sweat on her brow,  she shakes her head at me, an embarrassment , her only granddaughter, once a successful Christian girl–now a giant, rebellious disappointment. To her, I’m the newest bruise on the family’s fair exterior. These thoughts are negative, I know. But they come from somewhere,  from outside myself. These are learned patterns of thought and behavior. I’ll tell you that as I raise a cigarette to my lips. I’ll tell you that as the memories come rushing back.

I remember going to my mailbox at IWU once last semester, hoping I’d find some extra cash or a kind note, only to discover she sent me numerous Kokomo Tribune articles about student debt and a letter informing me that I’d be “dirt poor” the rest of my life because I chose to go to IWU.  With that on my mind, I always recoil a little when I see I’ve gotten a letter from her. I expect her to say things like that to me. But my brother? I didn’t see that coming. Maybe because he hides his hurts better than I do.

My brother left me alone to read the contents of the package she had sent him. I watched him walk into the kitchen to cook dinner.  Inside she’d attached a “Dear Abbey” column and the letter my brother sent out to friends and family four years ago when he was raising funds to go on a mission trip to Guatemala. She underlined the part of the letter where he had said he would send out notes after the trip to give everyone an update on his experiences. Then, in the margin she wrote, “It was very important for you to keep your word on this. It’s never too late to do the right thing.” She’d also underlined portions of the “Dear Abbey” column related to thank-you note etiquette. I laughed because it was ridiculous. My brother didn’t say a word. That’s how he copes. I’m sure he has his own set of memories.

We lived next door to my grandparents for 21 years. As I remember it, they received something better than a letter from him after the Guatemala trip. Josh visited them and told them in person about his experiences. I know because I went with him on that visit. I walked barefooted across the yard with him on a warm day in June. So, one divorce and two estranged grandchildren later and I have to wonder why she would want to bring up something so petty—something  so distant. That was such a long time ago. I was a senior in high school.  Josh was 16. Couldn’t she just be proud that he  had raised those funds and gone to Guatemala to drink contaminated water and do manual labor for 14 days? The further I read in the letter, the more anger bubbled up inside me. As I read, I heard the sizzle of chicken tenders cooking in the skillet. “It gets a lot worse, Jessica,” Josh warned from the kitchen.” I kept reading anyway.

After devoting a few paragraphs to her disappointment about Josh not writing them an update letter, Grandma wanted to talk about the divorce. And the lack of relationship Josh and my dad have. And all the usual bullshit about how she would have never spoken to her father the way we have. We’ve made him gray and defeated, she said. There’s still a chance at reconciliation if we’ll stop siding with our mother and accept that he’s married to someone else now. To finish it all off, she added the Biblical mandate for mother and children to respect the father and husband as the God-ordained head of the household. I thought it couldn’t get worse, but my grandmother is a smart lady. There’s something to be said for the economy of her words. They grab my mind and throw it back to places I don’t like to revisit.

It’s been a year since I spoke to my father in person. He walked over uninvited when Josh and I were visiting with my grandparents on their front porch just a few weeks before I was planning to leave for Ireland.  I remember how he walked, each of his sandals clicking against the sole of his feet like an angry metronome. He wore sunglasses, but I could feel his eyes on me anyway, hating me, resenting my power to not invite him in the first place.  He sat there in silence for several minutes, tugging with agitation at the collar of his shirt. I don’t remember exactly what we said to each other, but neither of us was nice.  I do remember my grandma saying, “Now Mark, don’t start a fight. We’re just visiting.” But Mark did start a fight. And I willingly joined in. Eventually, Grandma did too.

After Ireland and well into the fall semester at IWU, I found I was unable to resist fighting with my dad when he text me.  When he learned that I’d gotten piercings, he called me while I was in Grand Rapids visiting friends. His voicemail was accusatory and irrational. To be honest, I was too. For the first time in months, I called him and started right in. “I don’t owe you a goddamn explanation for any decision I make,” I screamed into the phone. “I’m an adult. You stay the fuck out of my life.” The call ended when his phone died. I threw my phone on the counter, doubled over, and wept quietly so my friends wouldn’t hear.

I changed my phone a few weeks later, after my dad and his wife continually ignored my request for space.  I had been threatening to block him for a long time. Those conversations were hard. I always said things I regretted. And my dad would tell my grandma. She would call and scold me for using words like “fuck” and “shit.” I remember the first time I yelled at her. “I’m an adult,” my voice roared into the phone. “When will you recognize that I’m not a little girl anymore?” I heard her crying just before she hung up.

I never gave my grandparents the new number because I know they would give it to my father. I stand by that decision. They have all lost significant power over me. And they know it. Without my calls and letters, they depend on my brother to get information about me, and he’s stopped playing that game. Two weeks ago, my dad text my brother and said he had seen pictures of me and was worried about me, that I had a “distant look” in my eyes. He said I needed his fatherly wisdom. He wanted my brother to explain “what is up” with me.  I asked my brother to politely decline my father’s request for information about me. So Josh said something to the effect of, “I appreciate your concern for her, but Jessica has asked you to give her space, so I’m not going to give you information that she’s asked me not to share.” And, as he usually is in the face of clear logic, my dad became furious. He’s almost fifty years old, but he still has temper tantrums in front of his parents. And my grandma always takes his side. I wonder how she decided that her son’s ego  is more valuable than her grandchildren’s  feelings.

In her letter, Grandma scolded Josh for not answering my dad’s questions about me. “I know your dad loves you and is proud of you in many ways. Of course, he feels the same love for Jessica, “ she wrote. “She doesn’t seem to be fairing so well. It is obvious with the piercings and weight gain and not finishing her school work on time that everything is not well with her. Why would you be upset with your dad for worrying about her?” I felt the blood rush to my face in embarrassment.

As I’d read the earlier parts of the letter, I’d been laughing, calling out to my brother as he cooked dinner in the other room, “What the fuck is she talking about? This is ridiculous!” But this part of the letter hurt. My eyes burned with tears as I closed it and reached in the fridge for the month-old bottle of margarita mix.

My father and I have a lot in common; in addition to our use of alcohol to numb feelings, we both like to talk to our moms when we’re upset. After receiving one very angry text, Mom called me from her night shift  in North Carolina and said my dad had contacted her early last week through his wife’s phone. She wasn’t surprised that we were having trouble on our end, too. She also said my father had called my maternal grandparents to rant about me.  Even though I blocked him on facebook several months ago, he’d been using someone else’s facebook to read my posts and my blog. He read the letter I wrote to my mom and was furious. I was horrified, embarrassed, angry. The pain and fear I felt was truly beyond what I can express with words. I spent the next day blocking his wife and lots of their friends and family on facebook. I changed all my privacy settings. And then I sat down in Starbucks and drafted a letter to my grandmother. I’ll never show her what I wrote. I sounded like a monster. I sounded just like my father. My entire body shook with rage as I closed my notebook, packed up my things, and drove home. That kind of bitterness can kill a person. So Josh asked me to help him garden. We planted good things that grow.

Josh and I were pulling up weeds when I said, “I wrote this really mean letter to Grandma today…”  I was going to explain that it was just a draft and that I wasn’t going to actually send it. But he stood up quickly and looked at me hard, saying, “You’re not going to be mean to them, are you?”  His face was very serious. “Whatever. Just forget it,” I snapped.  I was about to walk away when he said, “Jessica, why do you always get so upset when I ask you questions like that?” I couldn’t speak.

If I could have, I would have told him he had guessed correctly. I wasn’t going to send that exact letter, but I had planned on sending my grandma something derivative of that initial burst of anger and pain. But I didn’t tell my brother any of that. I threw down the weeds I’d been strangling in my hands and dug my toe deep into the soil.

I’ve spent the last two days thinking about all this. It’s the only thing I can write about. I keep looking at my to-do list, but that fades when my grandmother’s handwriting scrawls across the back of my eyelids: Jessica can’t finish her work on time. Jessica needs her father. Jessica has gained weight. Jessica is crying out for help.

To me, my grandmother and my father aren’t worth the hours I’ve spent thinking about them. They aren’t worth explanations for my decisions and beliefs. They aren’t even worth the verbal revenge I imagine as I’m driving or showering or petting the cat. If I sent them a mean letter like I’d planned (and since decided against), I’d worry about my grandmother dying from my hatred toward her. That is, if it wouldn’t  kill something inside me first.

On the last page, my grandmother said her letter was intended to try to make peace and that “God knows [she has] tried.” I didn’t feel any peace.

But what I feel now, as strange as it might sound, is power.  The terrible words I wrote to her in my notebook give me hope that something inside me is alive. I feel pain, but I don’t feel passive.  What I had intended to be a cathartic string of abusive, “I blame you for everything” statements became something of a personal manifesto. “I reject your ‘love,’” I wrote. “I reject your god and your religion.”

I responded to her misuse of Paul’s words in Ephesians. “I am the head of my life—not you, not [my father], not your stupid ‘Dear Abbey’ columns and Bible verses.” My grandma never needs to read those words. In some deep part of her heart, she already knows them. My father does too.  I’m still learning to comprehend the gravity of such a statement. Self-assertion comes at a price. It means I won’t have a relationship with my father unless he begins to accept me for who I am. It means my relationship with my grandma can exist only if we limit our conversation to memories of the sunshiny days gone by. And that’s something we both refuse to do.

So while my grandma writes abusive letters, I’ll be trying hard to live a life of freedom and forgiveness and peace—the kind of stuff you can’t package with 70 cent postage.


On Female Masculinity

I walked to the back of the dressing room, hoping no one recognized me as the frazzled twenty something from the day before who carried a package of Hane’s boxers around Kohls for an hour before finally building up the courage to purchase them. What had begun as an even-tempered shopping spree for a wedding outfit had turned into a full-fledged lingerie crisis. Even with that out of the way, I still didn’t know what I’d be wearing over the underthings. That’s why I found myself back at Kohls the next day, pacing awkwardly back and forth between the mysterious men’s button-ups and the much more familiar ladies’ blouses. The anxiety was real.

What scared me wasn’t so much that I was thinking about buying men’s clothing. Honestly, I’ve thought about that since I was a kid. But society has a way of conditioning people like me into conformity, usually sometime before middle school. And it hasn’t always been a bad thing. For example, I looked hot in my prom dress. Really hot. Sometimes I looked decent for orchestra concerts and other formal occasions. But that doesn’t take away the general discomfort and pressure I’ve felt to shop for clothes that don’t make sense to my body or the way I want to express my gender. I’m very much a girl—inside and out. I just don’t want anyone telling me I need to “look like a girl.”

I guess now that I’m more educated on things like “female masculinity,” “soft butch,” “gender nonconforming,” and “gender presentation,” I’m ready to stop being passive about my physical appearance. I’m not writing this to educate my (mostly) conservative readers about LGBT vocabulary. I’m writing this to tell a story. Because that’s what everyone’s gender and sexual expression is. We’re all a bunch of story tellers who dress up, dress down, fuck each other, and try to understand why we’re here. That’s the meaning of life, kids. Or something a lot like that.

So back to Kohls. I closed the dressing room door and hung up my eclectic assortment of tops and accessories. I had women’s dress pants, suspenders and a bow tie, a men’s button-up top, and a pink neck tie. The cubicles on either side of me were empty, but I could hear an older lady not too far away muttering to herself about “oh man, it’s so hot in here” as she grunted her way in and out of clothes. I held back a laugh and looked at myself in the mirror for a few moments.

I looked into my own eyes, down at my teeth and my lips, imagining myself as a stranger someone else might pass in the cereal aisle at Meijer. It’s one thing to look at your reflection when you’re getting ready or taking a picture. You can control, to some extent, how others might perceive you. You can even control how you perceive yourself. But it’s another thing to look at yourself as you are and accept that this is your body and that you live inside it. Somehow, mysteriously, you’re in there. And so is your gender. This is you. The person I saw was bloated, sweaty, and real. And beautiful and handsome and awesome and confused and hopeful and funny. I was all kinds of adjectives that don’t, of themselves, have a gender. I like that idea a lot.

I ran my fingers through my hair and watched the little wrinkles pop up when I furrowed my brow. I cupped my breasts and ran my hands down along the curves of my hips and my ass. Lifting off my shirt reluctantly, I stared hard at the stretch marks jutting out along my waistline like pink ribbons.  I may never have children or kiss a boy or wear another prom dress. But I am a woman. And I’m happy that way. I just need to find clothes to put on my woman body. Because clothes are clothes. And like the adjectives I’d use to describe myself, the clothes I put on my body don’t have genders either. When I stared at myself in the mirror, my breasts and hips and vagina didn’t demand a dress or blouse. They just demanded something to cover them. Society offers all kinds of suggestions. My heart and brain offer different suggestions. The question is how to reconcile my identity as a woman with the ideals and preconceived notions of a highly gendered society.

I heard the grunting woman a few cubicles down gather her things and shuffle out the door. I was tempted to do the same. Instead, I kicked off my jeans and stared at myself in the boxers I had purchased the day before. I held the pink neck tie in my hand. It was smooth and beautiful and mysterious, and I had no intention of buying it. I just wanted to try it on. I imagined my cats chasing it like a toy, swatting at it and chewing it to pieces like the straw wrappers I bring home in fast food packages. I imagined my grandmother frowning at the tie, tugging at it with concern and disappointment. As my heart raced, I accepted two things in that moment. 1) I don’t know how to tie a tie and 2) I am a woman in boxers who thinks about kissing girls and wearing ties. And it’s okay. Those are parts of what it means for me to be a woman. Every woman will look at herself in her own mirror with her own lingerie and find her own definition of femininity. These are definitions we have to live out, even when it’s scary. These are definitions we learn as we go. These are definitions we can’t always define with the boring language of “feminine” and “masculine”.

Completely alone in the dressing room, I kept looking over my shoulders and under the adjacent stalls to check for watching eyes. Because this is the Midwest. The last thing anyone wants to see is a curvaceous lesbian wearing boxers and a neck tie in front of a full length mirror. Kokomo, Indiana, is the City of Firsts, but we’re not that open-minded. The general population knows little or nothing about life outside the gender binary. They also don’t know that gender and sexuality are two different things.

So maybe  I can clear things up.  Wearing a tie doesn’t make me a lesbian. Wearing a tie means I’m a woman who would feel sexy wearing…you guessed it… a tie. Being a lesbian, on the other hand, makes me a lesbian. It’s weird how that works. Wearing a tie also doesn’t make me transgender. Because I don’t want to become a man. I want to be a woman—a woman who has hair and clothes and romantic partners who make her comfortable. That’s what every woman wants. I just happen to be a woman who, on occasion, defies the rules of the gender binary. If the lip piercing didn’t clue you in, I like to live dangerously like that.

If “gender binary” sounds like a scary or confusing term, just remember it is a concept which is deeply engrained in society. In fact, most of us probably had a pretty firm grasp of the gender binary long before we had any grasp of our sexualities or personalities. The idea that there are two distinct genders dictates almost every part of daily life. That’s why there’s a men’s restroom and a women’s restroom with those stupid pictures of the men in pants and the women in a dress. That’s why, as we used to say in grade school, “boys go to Jupiter to get more stupider and girls go to college to get more knowledge.” That’s why women aren’t supposed to wear ties or have short haircuts for fear that they might not, in fact, be a woman. And just remember, somewhere there’s a male writing his own story about this, about how he wants to wear heels or headbands and carry a handbag. There are men who identify as men and enjoy experimenting with and expressing femininity just like there are women, like me, who are fascinated by masculinity. It’s a big, big world out there. Too big for the binary, but definitely not too big for boxers. Embrace your gender people. Society’s rules can suck it while you try on your tie or your heels or, hell, maybe even some self-confidence.