A Purple Pretty in Her Hair

I didn’t know the name for the tree, so many years ago, the ones with the purple blossoms, and round ear-shaped leaves. They are orchid trees; they are not orchids, and there used to grow a large one outside the drama room of my old high school. I do not know how it fared during the hurricane some years ago, but it would bloom in the Florida version of spring, just as the days started to feel like summer again, just as we began to expect the daily rains.

We didn’t have the name for the tree or its flowers, she and I, my friend from high school. I didn’t know a lot of things then– how to write a college academic paper, how to forge a knife, how to help when I suspected something was wrong in someone’s family, or how to recognize abuse from a boyfriend. He was smarmy. And I should have seen it. But I didn’t know what to do… especially when he could be so sweet on the surface. He could be sweet on the surface.

I don’t know if it was a rainy day. I don’t remember if she had told me that day what had passed between him and her, or if it was another. She and I were picking up the fallen flowers, trying to scoop up some of them before they were stepped on by students hurrying class to class. “Pretty purple,” I pronounced, mimicking a childlike tone.

With a smile, she named them: “Purple pretty.”

So they became purple pretties for me, before they were ever orchid tree blossoms. All that time since high school, all this time I’ve not known what’s happened to her, I hope the years have treated her more kindly than he did. I hope her dreams (and body and sense of self and soul and personhood and endeavors) haven’t been trampled like the orchid tree flowers lying in the grass next to the drama room. And it’s because of her that every year I wear purple pretties in my hair– it’s what I can do now, now that contact has been lost and I don’t even know if I’d be a welcome face. It is an act of hope.

Glancing Over My Shoulder

I put in my notice at work. I’ve three more weeks before I leave, and it astounds me what I notice now that I never caught in my four years here as a student. One more glance around the room before I go.

The flowers of orchid trees have a scent. They are only so slightly perfumed that you must bury your nose in the blossom to smell it at all–but it is sweet for all its delicacy.

I’ve never had a day to play out on the bay at low tide and ramble at my leisure. I’ve always been hurried on the days I catch the water peeling back to reveal bare naked sand, and I’ve never had the time to just listen and feel the muck sucking at my shoes, or watch the tiny crabs scuttling over the silt.

There is a tree, not a jacaranda, that has just exploded purple next to the Pei dormitories. I have never noticed it before, but the wind sets the petals swirling down in a shower of violet-pink. They will be all gone before the week is out.

The ospreys are nesting again, having saved the upright status of a dead slash pine behind the café. It was marked for removal, but unlike its brethren, it was able to attract an occupant. The nest is a scraggly knot of palm and moss and pine branches, and the osprey (vain bird) shrieks only when no one is paying attention.

A strange flock of birds followed me across the campus today; ground-bound behind the Palmer buildings, they lifted as one at my approach, a thunderous roar of many wings flapping at a single beat so that I could feel the rush of it. They arced and wheeled with one mind, crossed US 41, and took up in the trees outside of my office. Their song was the cacophonous frenzy of recorded microphone feedback played over itself, out of sync, again and again.

All these things I notice in my leaving. I’ll stow them away, little treasures I’ve found, in a building set for demolish the next day. No one has to know I took them. No one has to know that I will wear them close to my heart.

Voices and Power

There are times when I feel tiny and vulnerable… it’s amazing what can make a person feel this way. For me, it’s often because I think I don’t know what I’m doing with hardware and lumber and power tools. It’s that for so long, I actually didn’t know how to build anything. And I used to feel like an idiot. Like I’m somehow ugly and dainty and pink because of this. But I know how to cook. Yes, I can cook like a real fucking woman. Because you have to have a penis to use tools, didn’t you know?

I felt dirty going to the hardware store that day with my boyfriend and having to ask him questions about the paint. They weren’t very simple questions, and they weren’t very stupid questions. It was the fact that I had to ask at all. I felt worse when he asked me “Do you know what hardware you need to hang the light in your bedroom?” Because there were male employees nearby, I puffed up, and responded with “What do you think, I’m a girl or something? Of course I know what to look for.” Because girls don’t play with tools, you know, or so I’ve learned through repetition: advertisements, sitcoms, kids at school so long ago. If I am to do anything for myself, then I can’t not know what I’m doing in a place like that. You see, even if I don’t know, I have to fake it, or they’ll tell me to go home and play with my dolls or bake them a pie, just not in those words. When I walk into a hardware store alone, I feel them looking at me like I’ve transgressed some kind of insurmountable boundary by just being there, like I’m suddenly a criminal… or a unicorn. If I’m with a male, I become a dainty accessory. When they talk down to me, I want either to cry or disembowel them on the spot.

I can look back and I know exactly, exactly what started this feeling of fear and awe toward craftspersonly pursuits. I wasn’t allowed to touch any of my dad’s tools when I was a kid, neither hand nor power, wasn’t even allowed into the garage or basement when he was working on something– but I’d sneak to a window, the cellar stairs, curl up in a corner, anyway– anything just to watch something take shape under his hands. He’d get very angry with me if I came near the drill press or the table saw, even when they were off, even when no one was using them and they were unplugged. I’d get near them anyway. When he wasn’t there, I’d touch them, I’d inspect the buttons and switches (and the depth stop, the huge wheel on the side of the drill press that lowered the chuck down to whatever you were working on– its three handles protruded like some kind of star) and I’d unplug the machines myself so nothing would happen while I ran my fingers over them. Looking back, it was almost sexual, it was almost like love.

Do you know when I’ve felt most powerful? It’s when I could make something else, when I’ve been in control of something beyond myself, outside of my own body. It’s the only time I’ve felt competent. When I modify my own bondage equipment, painting my loft and getting the extra nuts and washers so the eyebolts wouldn’t twist when cuffs were attached, when I chose the eyebolts because I knew they were stronger than screw eyes, when I chose the lumber myself for straightness, back when I worked on things in shop class, back when I fixed the cabinet doors for my mother, when I fix my own bicycle, when I play with fire learning to forge weld, when I made a chef’s knife for a friend’s brother. Hells, even the simple task of making my wand, cutting it to length, whittling away the bark and sanding down the rest through different grades of paper then steel wool until it was polished shiny and smooth–these times have been my most powerful times. And it isn’t just a sense of power… it’s the only time I really feel whole. When I write, it’s like drinking fire; when I make, it’s like all the pieces fall back into place and there I am, a whole being, myself, deciding, shaping, modifying, taking something and giving it a new form.

When my grandfather died of cancer, I didn’t know how to deal with any of my feelings. I certainly knew I wasn’t allowed to talk about it. My parents wouldn’t speak to me of it, or if I cried, they told me I was being over dramatic. After all, my father had suffered the worst of us; it was his father who had died. Instead, I asked to go down into my grandfather’s workshop in the basement of my grandparents’ house. I took out all the tools I knew, asked permission of my grandmother to use the wood I found there. My grandmother was the only one who had authority over this stuff now; it was my grandfather’s, and so now hers. I knew she wouldn’t tell me no. If she had, I think I would have broken. I never mentioned it to any other adult male for fear they’d stop me, tell me no, tell me I’d hurt myself. It was my mother, grandmother, and aunt at the table when I asked. I remember. It was like a conspiracy.

It was a thin board. The only saw was a coping saw, though I had no curves to cut (I didn’t break the blade, oh Gods, I didn’t break the blade; if I had, it would have been a mortal sin). There was a ratchet brace. I didn’t have a ruler or pencil. It was so uneven when I was done; I couldn’t find any sandpaper, none. I made a hornbook. I even got a ball point pen from my grandmother and put the alphabet and Lord’s Prayer on a sheet of paper which I glued down with wood glue, because there was nothing else. It was so misshapen. But I was powerful as I made it; it was all-consuming under my hands, while taking shape. I could have cried at how it came out. I was both ecstatic and horrified. It looked terrible, lopsided, deformed, and I wish I had never showed it to anyone. My mother and aunt were kind enough to say good things about it; I think they knew that if they didn’t, I’d crumble. I wish I had smashed the thing, broken the uneven handle right off. But I couldn’t. I ended up throwing it out. It hurt to look at it, so inept and fumbling an attempt. At the same time, I had felt like a god while cutting it out, the wood held fast by the jaws of the vise. I was whole again, while I made it. But only while I made it.

How stupid does it all sound? How dumb? So when those voices say, “Go back, little girl, go play with your dolls and bake a fucking pie. Leave the tools to the real men,” I answer, “Never.”

Eyeless Instinct

There’s another story lurking under the surface of the incident on the subway. It would be kind of unfair to mention it in passing and not tell the tale. Bravery isn’t a knee-jerk reaction, this I believe whole-heartedly. You have to learn to be brave, but I mentioned that I knew I could put aside fear to defend those I loved. I know this to be true because it’s happened. My brain shut itself off, and I watched someone else do this– it wasn’t really me. It was the automaton that took my place, it was the scary thing that lives in the basement of my mind that I thought I had killed years ago.

In the telling of this tale, I will have to use pseudonyms for the names of my dear friends, as they have not given me permission to name them. They have funny pseudonyms, but this is what you get among gamer geeks, and I’m no exception. In my twentieth year, when I first moved to Tampa, Florida, I got my first paid work performing. I wasn’t alone in this– my entire apartment, Lachesis, Stel and I got jobs at this place. We played characters for a theme park’s Halloween event. Lachesis, who always seemed much more imposing for all her shortness, played a zombie, and it suited her– she was terrifying. Stel worked one of the actual haunted houses. I was a living statue in a haunted garden, and it was my job to scare people into peeing themselves with as little movement as possible. At least, that’s how I interpreted it. The other statues would move quickly, strike traditionally gruesome poses as if they had extended claws, etc. etc. I, however, viewed my task more delicately. Any movement from a supposed statue would be terrifying in the context of this garden, especially after the “jump-out-and-scare” tactic again and again and again. I struck classical poses, made eye contact with guests, and followed them with my gaze. In plain view, I cocked my head at a different angle, or–and this coaxed screams, shrieks, and backward jumps–stepped off my pedestal to take two agonizingly slow steps after a park patron. They’d take off running after that.

Bespectacled creature that I am, I knew that wearing my eyes would break the illusion we were trying to create. I was perfectly allowed to wear them. Park management wasn’t stupid when it came to recognizing a safety hazard– a blind little Story, no matter how scary, was still blind. The satisfaction of a good scare was worth the loss of any sharpness in my most relied-upon sense, though, and this I made quite clear. Other safety precautions were taken: though we couldn’t break character, we were handed piercingly shrill whistles to alert security if the park patrons became violent or even in any way threatening. Fear can cause people to do stupid things. Fear and drunkenness. There were a few nights when the sound of wholesome screams were punctuated more sharply than a whip lash with the razory trill of those whistles. You could hear them from the next two zones over.

I was not immune to stupid patrons– one guest drunkenly leapt on me, shouting, “This one’s real!” as I landed on my ass in the bushes behind me. More often, I got young machos showing off to their girlfriends saying, “Next one that jumps out, I’m gonna punch!” The latter would never make good on the bluster. You could tell it in their body language, and I could read that even without my glasses. One night, though, my pseudo-eyelessness nearly cost me an actual one, and it nearly hurt Lachesis too.

I never shied away from patrons touching certain parts of my body. My face and arms and shoulders were okay by me, but not my torso. Being a statue character, I could understand the need to verify through touch after a night of optical illusions and strange things moving in one’s peripheral vision. We, on the other hand, were not allowed to initiate touch with the park guests. I didn’t think anything of it, then, when I saw the blobby blur of color that indicated a hand coming toward me. Lachesis, walking through my zone on her way to a break area, did. Apparently, there was more than just a hand reaching out in that gesture. The hand held a cigarette, and the intent seemed to be to put out its cherry somewhere on my face.

Lachesis broke character and barked at the unknown guy attempting to hurt me. Belligerently, he wheeled on her, towering over her imposing but ultimately much shorter frame. I saw him move as if to strike.

DON’T YOU FUCKING TOUCH HER!” It was my throat that hurt after those words rung clear and low in the air. I was off the pedestal. I was lunging forward. He crumpled. No part of me touched any part of him, and he cowered and crumpled in the face of my charge. The trill cut the air next to my head. Security descended like a murder of crows. Lachesis just stared at me. No blood pounded in my ears. No heart of mine tried to escape my ribcage. I could just think about moving again, and so I did.

I took break early. Lachesis turned to me and said on the way to the break area, “I didn’t think you could do that.” I looked down.

“I wasn’t going to let him do something to you.” It was a calm statement of fact. Inside, though, I answered the question lurking in her statement: I hadn’t thought I could either.