When I was a teenager, I spent a lot of after-school and summer time at a non-profit arts organization-type place called MECA. I took dance and voice lessons there, performed in their performances, ate whatever free food they had lying around, etc. As you may imagine, MECA attracted all sorts of adult teachers, volunteers, and artists. There was a photographer working on his MFA who liked to hang around, use the students and backdrops for interesting compositions and, in exchange, provide photos for use in MECA’s marketing and development. He was a cool guy. I swear he wasn’t a child molester or anything – that’s not where this story is going. He was a cool dude and he liked to take artsy (not pervy) pictures of us, and he’d take a lot of pictures of me because I was pretty when I was young and I had the patience/lack of vanity needed to pose in artsy ways. As some of y’all may know, taking artsy photos means waiting for perfect light. Posing for artsy photos, back in the ‘80s, meant waiting for lens changes. So this young man and I would talk a lot. We had a lot of interesting conversations.
One day Ray (that was his name) noted that I was having a tragic childhood. He wasn’t being mean—it was obvious. Everyone at the non-profit organization could see that I was poverty-stricken, angsty, and vitamin-deficient. It wasn’t a secret and a lot of my childhood neighbors could be described the same way. So Ray noted my “bad” childhood, said it would likely lead to a bad young adulthood, and then I’d be destined to have a good second half to my life.
I laughed. How did he figure that?
It was a theory he’d developed. He’d observed that people who had inordinately bad childhoods usually went on to have very good lives later. And the reverse was true, as well, he said. He gave me examples. Most were successful people who’d grown up poor and child actors gone wrong. He listed James Dean. I pointed out that James Dean had died young. He said that was the ultimate example: good half was fame and fortune, bad half was being dead.
I thought his theory was silly. I didn’t say so but he could tell, and he kept reassuring me that it was true, especially in my case. He invoked his ethnicity. He was some kind of American Indian—I forget which tribe—and he had a special feeling (which, as a Chicana, I had to respect), therefore his words were actually a premonition. He saw my future by looking into my eyes. Click!
I’m not a dumb-dumb. Even then I knew he was trying to be nice. Cheer up the girl and get her to smile. Guys tended to do that, some more creatively than others. His method fed into my secret hopes and made for a better photograph.
When the ‘80s ended, I embarked on an unhappy young adulthood. Of course I did—with the life I’d lived until then, it was practically my destiny.
But now I’m happy. (Like the Russian man said, every happy family is happy in the same way, so you can imagine it without details.) Everything around me is different, to the point that people who meet me now have a hard time imagining the hungry, sad child I tell them I used to be.
Problems arise in my life, yes. But they aren’t part of an unlucky existence—that unstoppable series of unfortunate events, one after another—like they used to be. They’re only temporary obstacles. Like plots on a sitcom, they’re resolved with happy endings, week after week.
I know, rationally, that my life changed because I’ve gained experience, worked hard, gone to therapy, and aligned myself with trustworthy people. But I think about Ray’s theory more and more lately, and it gives me extra confidence. Even though it’s silly, I find myself thinking, “Remember, this is the good half of my life.” That means problems are temporary. That means it’ll all work out in the end.
It’s a comforting mantra, like shorthand for everything I’ve learned. Basically, it was the modeling fee Ray paid me for my smile. #can’tstayseriousforonewholepage
Poetry Book as Personality Test?
Read my latest book, Falling in Love with Fellow Prisoners and tell me what you think of it, and you’ll be telling me something about yourself.
Someone said it’s all about sex and women striving to dominate men.
Someone said it’s about hope and being a mom.
A lot of Houstonians said it’s about urban loneliness.
College students are my favorite readers because they bravely tell me their interpretations and demand that I confirm or deny. Some students thought the poem “Girlfriend” was about a girl lamenting to a boy. Some thought it was a boy having his heart broken by a girl. All the students in the class knew “Eula in the Bathroom Stall” was about feeling vulnerable and uncomfortable… but why? Because the speaker was defecating? Masturbating? Having a really bad day at school?
A young woman asked if the catcaller’s words in “Omega Wolf” were things that had actually been said to me. I told them the actual comments that had inspired it—way less graphic but every bit as invasive—and they were shocked. Could easily imagine the fear/loathing/fascination I felt and then tried to convey in the piece.
Someone thought the poem about a spinal headache was about miscarriage. His mistake made me imagine his fears.
I hate opaque poetry and I try to keep mine plain and comprehensible. But I love hearing people’s interpretations, even when they’re totally different from my intent. All I want is to make you feel what I felt, or let you know that I feel what you felt, so we’ll feel less alone.