My mother always wanted a little girl. One who would wear frilly pink dresses and bows and barrettes in her hair and would play with dolls and have tea parties with china and have perfect manners and would take ballet and would grow up to marry a fine young gentleman and then have some more lovely children.
But she got me.
At first, when it was announced that I was a girl, she cried with joy. She fitted me with lacy baby dresses and gave me all the dolls a girl would hope for and adorned me with hair accessories. But her happiness didn’t last long. I absolutely detested dresses, and I threw a humongous fit when I was forced to wear them. I yanked bows out of my hair and threw them across the room. Once I even swallowed a barrette. By the time we had gotten to the emergency room, it had already ended up in my dirty diaper.
When she gave me dolls to play with, I pulled off their heads and stomped on them. When she tried to put the pink booties that Grandma had sent me on my feet, I screamed and tried to chew on them. More than ponies with manes that I could braid, I enjoyed my older brother’s action figures. I would pretend they were invading the dolls’ planet and taking it over. That was one of my favorite games.
As I grew up, I didn’t become any less stubborn. My mother wanted to grow out my long brown hair so that she could put it in a French braid, but I hated it because it got in my eyes and interfered with sports, and it tangled easily. When my mother refused to let me cut it, I became angry, so I took a pair of flimsy stationery scissors and snipped it off myself. It was jagged and cut close to the neck, and I knew it looked awful, but I liked it because it was much more manageable. When my mother saw it she clutched her heart and whispered, “Oh, Angel, what have you done?”
And that’s another thing that I hate: when my mother calls me Angel. My real name is Angelica, but I think that sounds terrible. If my mother had known what I would really be like when I was born, she would have named me something much more practical, but she didn’t know. So now I’m stuck with a name like Angelica. Whenever anyone asks what my name is, I tell them that I’m Angie. It’s not great, but heck knows it’s better than Angelica or Angel.
On the day before school picture day, my mother went out and bought me a skirt without telling me. It was knee-length and billowed out when you spun around. It was made of brown fabric with pink roses all over it, and it had a little lace bow on the waist. I hated it upon sight, and I refused to wear it. My mother became very upset. When she’s mad, worried, or stressed, she straightens her dress over and over and over and fixes her bun again and again, even when there’s not a strand out of line. She did this when I wouldn’t wear the skirt.
“But Angel, it looks so dear on you,” she said, hopelessly trying to explain to me why I should wear it. “And what’s so wrong with it? I think it’s perfectly charming.” She reached out to stroke my pixie cut, but I ducked away.
“It’s ugly,” I told her. “I won’t wear it. And don’t call me Angel!”
“Don’t be unreasonable,” my mother said. “You will wear it and that is that.”
I knew enough not to argue with her, but I wasn’t going to be seen in school with that on either. So I went to school early on school picture day and slipped into the school. In the girls’ locker room, I changed into my gym clothes, something I knew my mother would never approve of. Sure enough, when the pictures arrived and she saw me dressed in sports shorts and a T-shirt, she totally freaked. She gave me a lecture on responsibility, though I have no idea what that has to do with changing clothes, and then sent me to my room. She always sends photos to Grandma and my aunts and uncles, but she couldn’t do it with those photos. So she arranged a photo shoot with a real photographer and made sure that this time I couldn’t weasel out of it. But I pretended to come down with a fever, and we had to postpone. My mother never got around to rescheduling the shoot.
* * *
Now it was an hour before my first middle-school dance, and I was picking out what to wear. Of course, my mother was by my side, criticizing my choices.
I pulled out a pair of light capris from my dresser and held them up for inspection. My mother shook her head and said, “Oh, Angel, you really can’t think of wearing that, can you?”
“Why not?” I asked flatly, not really wanting an answer.
“Girls should look nice at dances,” my mother argued, taking a flowery, lacy skirt from the very darkest depths of my drawer where I kept all the clothes I swore never to wear. She smiled and shoved it into my arms. “This will look just lovely with your thin complexion.”
Stung at the comment about my complexion, though I knew she was oblivious to its harm, and even more disgusted with her choice of clothes, I shoved it back. “No thanks, I’d rather have something more practical.” I put the capris on top of my dresser and then started looking for a shirt. After some browsing, I chose a dark green T-shirt with a picture of a palm tree on it.
“But dear, surely you don’t want to be seen with such dull clothes on at the dance? What will all the other girls think?” My mother tried to tuck my outfit back into my dresser, but I firmly pulled it away from her. She furrowed her brow and straightened her dress.
“They won’t care,” I said. “They know what I’m like. And besides, it’s a casual occasion, not the high-school prom. Everyone will be wearing this.” I started putting on the capris.
“It’s just awful, what this world has come to!” my mother exclaimed, staring longingly at the skirt I had rejected. “When I was a girl, I adored dressing up, at least when I could. I don’t know how you turned out so opposite of me.”
I didn’t say anything, but secretly inside I was glad I wasn’t like my mother. I couldn’t imagine wearing anything remotely fancy to the school dance. I finished changing, ignoring my mother’s suggestions about putting a bow in my hair or putting on a pink dress. I glanced at myself in the mirror; I thought I looked all right. And honestly, what was wrong with my complexion? It looked just fine to me. High cheekbones, light skin, dark eyes, downward-angled eyebrows. How could my mother always find something wrong with me?
I trouped downstairs and out to the car, merely rolling my eyes when my brother gave me a thumbs-up and flashed me a grin. Outside, my dad was waiting in the Matrix, the engine already running. I hopped in shotgun and buckled my seat belt, and the car rolled out of the driveway. My mother hated the fact that I rode in the front seat; she thought I was going to injure myself. But I was tall for my age, and I knew I could handle it. My father didn’t mind anything I did, but whenever my mother was around he sided with her. If she freaked out when I tried to ride shotgun, my dad said, “Sorry, kiddo, it’s back seat for now.” The only thing he never expressed any opinion about was my choice of boyishness and clothes. He was completely silent on the matter, though sometimes I think he secretly wanted me to defy my mother in the girl-or-boy argument.
My dad pulled the Matrix into the parking lot around the back of the school, and I hopped out. He rolled down the window.
“You all set, kiddo?” he asked.
“OK. Mom’ll pick you up at eight-thirty.” With that, he revved the engine and drove away into the fading light.
I turned and ran down to the school. A mob of middle-schoolers was crowded around the doors, pushing and shoving to be the first into the gym. When it was my turn, I handed the lady behind the foldout table my five dollars and entered the gymnasium.
Multicolored lights were spinning and twirling all around the floor, walls, and ceiling. Besides that, it was dark. Groups of kids were dancing and laughing together, and loud music blared from two huge speakers. It pulsed in my ears and I could feel it throbbing all throughout my body. I stepped into a circle of purple light and scanned the room to see what people were wearing. Just as I had suspected, most kids had dressed in casual T-shirts, shorts, capris, and some miniskirts here and there. I grinned. Just wait until my mother got a load of this.
After the dance ended, a mass exodus of students streamed out the door and into the dark night. I departed from the scene, making my way around back to the parking lot, where my mother was waiting for me, looking anxious. I opened the side door and started to climb in.
“Not in the front seat, Angel, you scare me to death, the way you do that,” my mother told me firmly. I let out an annoyed sigh, slammed the door, and proceeded into the back. I buckled my seat belt and then said, a bit smugly, “Nobody was dressed up.”
“I’m sure someone was,” my mother said, glancing at me through the rearview mirror. “Not all girls would go to the dance in something like that.” By “that,” I knew she meant my T-shirt and capris.
“You’d be surprised,” I muttered, slouching down in my seat, but I knew it was no use arguing with her.
* * *
Later that night, while my parents thought I was sleeping, I arose from my bed and tiptoed into the hallway to get a drink of water. Shadows splayed across the floor, and silvery moonlight filtered through the window. No sound or light came from my brother’s room, but a faint yellow glow showed under the door to my parents’ bedroom. I wondered what they were doing up this late. Usually they were in bed and asleep before either my brother or me. Curious, I pressed my ear to the door.
I could hear voices, and the sound of feet pacing across the floor. I strained my hearing, and finally my mother’s worried voice became clear.
“I just don’t understand,” she was saying, sounding concerned. I could imagine her smoothing her nightgown and patting her bun.
“Don’t worry, Grace. She’s a growing girl. She’s bound to be somewhat rebellious.” Now it was my father’s voice that I heard.
I drew back instinctively. Were they talking about me? I didn’t know anyone else who could be stuck with the label “rebellious.” I guess it did describe me perfectly, but I never thought about my parents actually calling me that. But why were they speaking about me with such concern? I couldn’t help it. I put my ear back to the door.
“She has opportunities that I never had as a girl,” my mother said, sounding sad, “and she chooses to just throw them away. I don’t know what is going on in her head; I just can’t get through to her. I try to help her and she turns me away. What is going on?”
I was surprised to hear that my mother sounded defeated. Did she really think of me like that? Was she not just being a nuisance to me, was she trying to let me be who I wanted to be while still attempting to make me the girl that she never was? It didn’t make much sense, but it seemed like the truth.
I had never given much thought to my mother’s childhood. I had always just supposed that she had grown up in frilly pink dresses having tea parties with her dolls. But was that really the case? I thought back. I remembered her saying that her father was away at his job a lot and didn’t spend much time engaging with her. Her mother, if I recalled correctly, had spent most of the day in her bed with a migraine, not paying much attention to her daughter except to have her get her a glass of water and a wet washcloth for her forehead. Having three older brothers, she was shunned from activities with her siblings and didn’t get many opportunities. And her family hadn’t had much money, either.
Suddenly an image of my mother as a young girl in a secondhand dress on the street, staring into a shop window, admiring a beautiful ball gown she would never get to wear, flashed through my head. And that’s when I realized what was really happening. My mother was just trying to protect me from the neglect that she had felt as a child, and give me what she had never gotten. All I saw was a pushy woman forcing me to do what I strongly objected to, but on the inside she had good intentions.
I couldn’t help it. Even though it was the middle of the night and I wasn’t supposed to be eavesdropping, I burst through the bedroom door and ran into my mother’s arms, crying hysterically. For a moment my mother looked surprised and baffled, but then she embraced me as I made her nightgown soggy with tears.
“I’m so, so sorry,” I sobbed, wrapping my arms around her waist. “I really am.”
“No, I’m sorry,” my mother said. “I should have just let you be what you wanted to be. But I accept your apology as well.”
I had never felt so secure as I did in my mother’s arms. And that’s when I knew that, no matter what happened, I would always be my mother’s little girl.