Scene: It’s 2006. 19-year-old me behind the register at a local pharmacy. My summer job until I return to school for my sophomore year. A woman comes into the store and starts perusing the aisles in a peculiar, suspicious manner. My supervisor — a petite, blonde girl, who is maybe a year older than me, at best — has me follow her. Standard retail procedure: pretend to clean the aisle, to put things away, yet all the while a presence around a potential shoplifter.
The woman doesn’t purchase anything, but she also doesn’t steal anything. She just leaves.
“Thank you so much for doing that,” my supervisor said. “I would’ve done it myself, but you’re so much more intimidating. I’m too tiny — I wouldn’t scare anything.”
I smirk self-consciously. Me? Intimidating? I’m 5’11”, but the idea of me holding any weight or space is foreign to me.
“You don’t really look people in the eyes when you talk.”
I smile sheepishly. I don’t deny it: when I talk, I look to the ground, to the wall, at my lap. I almost never look people directly in the eyes.
“It’s not like it’s a bad thing,” she continues on. “But it can be seen as a sign of weakness.”
“You definitely have to be careful with that,” says another friend. “As someone with a psycho ex, trust me on this one. That’s what sociopaths look for. They look for the meek ones and swoop in.”
I nod in agreement. I already know what that’s like, to attract that type of people, those who sniff out the timid. Those who can easily detect what your body language means and know that you won’t confront, won’t stand your ground, won’t put up a fight. They might not be sociopaths, but they are those who don’t exactly wrack themselves with guilt over abusing your mild-mannered nature.
They’re the ones who, at best, will play both sides of the coin to get what they want, knowing full well you won’t slip on your Big Girl Pants and call them out.
And I already know the consequences of having such people around — as well as the consequences of thinking they’ll become kinder, more considerate, less manipulative, on their own. And with each year I become more determined to not let that become a returning guest in my life.
The rest of the night, I force myself to look people more in the eyes.
“See, you already appear more confident,” says the first friend.
It’s almost a magic trick. I can take someone like me and make her the tiniest person in the room.
I’m 5’11” and yet know exactly what to do to become small and unassuming. It’s a terrible parlor trick, and the training for it is not something anyone should go through.
And it’s a trick that I’ve spent the last few years actively fighting.
So small, so unassuming, so acquiescent, that I might even become invisible to the naked eye. David Copperfield has nothing on me. He can trick people into thinking the Statue of Liberty disappeared. I can trick people into forgetting I’m even in the room.
I used to live by the motto, “I’d rather be forgotten than have someone mad at me.” I was timid and scared and went submissive at the first sign of aggression. I started clawing and scratching my way out of such a mindset, and each year I think I pick up just a little more momentum. I find a little more height, a little more space, a little more force.
But even now, the magic trick can start up, and at all the wrong times. All it takes is one confrontational remark and I’m hunched over, moving my drink around, looking to the table. A woman who is Amazonian in height is suddenly on par with the mouse behind the wall.
I told you: it’s a terrible magic trick.
I hate when people ask me if my books are autobiographical. Partly because they’re not, and partly because they are.
The details are fiction. I’ve never worked in a bookstore while having an existential panic at 24. Likewise, I’ve never been a teenaged ballerina on the verge of going pro, or a gay Chicagoan on the verge of losing her father figure, or a widow who realizes how much of a lie her life has been.
But there’s still me in every book. Every single manuscript, I can see me. The same way Stephen King writes about alcoholics and depressives and writers down on their luck.
Details of my life always seem to sneak into the books — a character assumes the personality traits of someone I know; an experience of mine becomes the backdrop in a scene — but the biggest section of my soul found in my books is the underlying theme:
Every. single. one. of my manuscripts tell the tale of a woman becoming.
Whether she is 16 or 24 or 63. Whether she is piecing her life back together or figuring out what to do with her life. Every single one of them follows the same pattern — a woman fractured coming into her own.
And, by the end, each woman walks away with a little more of herself than she did before.
The biggest complaint I got from Chick Lit & Other Formulas for Life — the only one of my manuscripts currently out and published — was that the main character was too painfully passive for much of the book (well, that, and a slow first chapter). I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was writing an indictment against my own passivity, as well as the sheer beauty of finally standing on your own two feet — even if it is a little too late.
“You start getting addicted to not getting enough.”
My best friend and I are talking about something completely unrelated to strength or being big. But the words resonate so deeply that I yelp back, “Yes! That! That’s exactly it!”
It’s a terrible cycle. When you revert to being small & unassuming, you get used to becoming someone’s doormat.
That’s the other problem: when you’re small, you get unconsciously attached to being treated like you’re small. You go back to things that prove how insignificant you think you are. You become addicted to being fed scraps, to never getting enough, to being mistreated and taken advantage of and taken for granted.
I’ve written this as a poem, I’ve written is as a line in a few notes for my memoir, and now I’m writing it here: until you can confront your demons, you’ll forever attract people who confirm them.
“You had to be small. It was a survival instinct.”
My husband, my therapist, my best friend — shit, any friend of mine who grew up in a similar household and shared their battle scars with me — has said this.
You learn to be small. When the world around you is volatile and unstable, being tiny means slipping through the cracks — and that means escaping the area. Being big means competing for space with the elephant in the room. And you’ll always get smashed in the stampede.
But I don’t want to be Alice in Wonderland anymore. I don’t want to touch the cake that says Eat Me and become small enough to slip through the cracks. I’m tired of reverting to minuscule when the response is to grow larger.
It’s a behavior pattern that can become impossible to break. It’s an easy-out as ingrained as learning to walk & talk. Whenever there is any heat, or confrontation, or discomfort, or anger: get small. Get really small. Show your belly and maybe the alpha dogs won’t attack.
But it’s a behavior pattern I’m breaking. I started with the body — feeling at home and strong and capable in my own, literal skin. Through martial arts and yoga and running and hiking. I build up physical strength in hopes that it would transfer over to my mind.
I know it’s a multi-pronged approach. It’s more than just getting big and hoping for the best. And I still back down too quickly. I avoid conflict to the point of madness.
But there are still moments — these precious, fleeting moments — when I use that strength to prop the rest of me up. When I remember I’m 5’11” and broad-shouldered and muscular as all get-out. When I hold my shoulders back and my head up high and go:
“You have no idea who I am. Allow me to introduce myself.”
“Now give me your victorious pose!”
Whenever my husband takes my picture, he says that. It’s my cue to flex.
And in that, my smile gets easier — like I can better own the space because I’m reminded of my own strength. The context of the picture is not enough — it’s not enough that I’ve scaled a gigantic mountain, or found a breath-taking waterfall, or stumbled upon something wonderful, something worthy of posing next to. But it is enough to flex, to remind myself of my own strength — to have my husband remind me to remind myself of that.
Scene: It’s 2006. I’m a month or two away from my 20th birthday and standing in front of a bus stop bench in Cambridge. In front of me, my now-husband, then-newish-boyfriend, sits and laces up his shoes. Behind him, one of Cambridge’s treasured pizza shops, the light from the pizzeria spilling out from the large windows onto the sidewalk and onto the bench.
I’m dancing. It’s not much of a dance — little arm circles and head bobs and hip swivels — but I’m dancing along to the music in my head before my boyfriend finishes tying his shoes and goes into the pizza shop. I’m still outside, but I can see from my spot the guy behind the counter — a middle-aged man with grey hair and olive skin — pantomiming my dance with a smile.
My boyfriend comes out with the Gatorades he purchased.
“What did he say?” I asked.
“Dancing girl!” he replied, mimicking the man’s thick Mediterranean accent. “She dances for you!”
I smile sheepishly.
Scene: It’s 2017. The power is out in our neighborhood, so we opt to drive out and grab Mexican food just off the main street in the city.
Selena’s “Si Una Vez” is playing on the radio and I’m bobbing along as we wait for food.
“Dancing girl,” my husband says in the same thick accent, a quote that’s been repeated for the past decade. “She dances for you!”
“I dance for you!” I repeat back with my own terrible accident.
I stop and cock my head to the side. I go silent. I look towards the table.
“I can’t believe that was ever me,” I say after a moment. “She doesn’t feel real.”
“She was a lot smaller,” said my husband. “She hadn’t yet realized what potential she had.”
I think about that version of me. I’d probably intimidate her, even if I attempted to be small & unassuming, speaking to the floor and the wall and the ceiling but never looking her in the eye.
Or maybe I wouldn’t. Or maybe I wouldn’t try to be unassuming around her.
Maybe I would just draw her in for a hug.
“There’s no use warning you about what the next decade will bring,” I would say to her. “But you will be amazed at how strong you will become.”