Portrait of the Writer as a Young Girl

— Gayle Brandeis

You write your first poem when you are four years old:

Blow, little wind,
Blow the trees, little wind,
Blow the seas, little wind,
Blow me until I am free, little wind.

Somehow, even at that young age, you know that writing can be a wind that blows through you, makes you more spacious inside, more free. You feel it from the very start. You will still feel it, decades later.

Your favorite writing surface is the cardboard tucked into your dad’s dress shirts when they come back from the cleaners. Some of the folded, cellophane-wrapped shirts are stacked inside the bone-colored armoire in your parents’ room; others are stacked in the top shelf of the closet where your winter coats hang over your rubber boots. You slice the wrappers open with your finger and slide the pieces of cardboard out.

One side of the cardboard is slick and white and smells a little bit sour, like paste; the other side is brown and rough, nubby like oatmeal, and smells more like sawdust. You lie on your stomach on the living room rug and list titles of stories you want to write. Your crayon scuds across the white side, leaving waxy shreds in its wake; on the rough side, the crayon leaves a deeper, thicker tread. You feel your breath push into the carpet as your words push their way onto the stiff page, the ghosts of your father’s shirtsleeves wrapped around it like a hug.

You are a shy girl—you make your sister order for you at Arby’s, rarely ever raise your hand in class—but when you write, you are brave. You create a neighborhood newspaper and interview neighbors and sell subscriptions door to door. Writing is your super power, the caped heart inside your mild-mannered skin.

You see your mom write “poison pen” letters when she is upset about something. You watch the letter writing campaigns she spearheads change things: a traffic light installed at a dangerous intersection near your school; guns and ammunition out of your local K-Mart after some local violence. You start to write your own letters—letters to the editor railing at the teenage boys who throw rocks at ducks at the beach, people who throw trash out the windows of their cars. You write to President Carter to ask how you can stop pollution and receive a “Keep America Clean” pack in return. You take the bright orange garbage bags, printed with Woodsy Owl—“Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute”—to the beach and pick up pop-top tabs and stray wrappers, knowing you have a presidential mandate to do so. You send a letter in solidarity to Amy Carter after she gets in trouble for reading at a state dinner, and she writes back. You tack her letter, with a picture of her you’ve torn from a magazine, over your bed.

Lake Michigan churns just across the street from your apartment building. You can’t see the end of the lake; it makes you feel boundless inside. You often clamber on the white boulders that line the shore; they jut from the earth like chipped vertebrae, or maybe half a toothy jaw—a mouth open, brimming with water. You find reject tombstones hidden amongst the other rocks, half carved— half a name, half a date, etched into the stone; you’ll see places where the stonecarver’s tool slipped, places where the metal edge skritched out of control. You can touch these stones and wonder who they were meant for, wonder what their lives were like. Stories start to form in your head—the man who fell on the train tracks; the woman who died in childbirth. You write in your head until you can get back to your apartment, find something to write with, write on.

Your mom’s Uncle Jimmy, who looks like W.C. Fields and lives in a men’s hotel in Cleveland and always pulls silver dollars out of your ears, tells your mom he is looking for someone to write his life story. You immediately offer, sure you can tackle the biography of a 76 year old man who was raised in an orphanage and fed your mom bear meat when she was a girl. Jimmy writes back to let your mom know a child could never write his story; he wants his book to focus on women who performed unusual sexual acts. You have very little understanding of what even usual sexual acts entail, but you are intrigued. You wonder if that’s what people write about when they are grown.

When you touch yourself, you swirl words into the place between your legs, whatever words spring to mind—peanut, bird, Zamboni. You don’t know this is about sex—these feelings are just a sweet gift from your body. Words and pleasure become intertwined, become the same thing. You are introduced to shame when your mom catches you and tells you you’re too old to be doing such a thing; body and mind start to split then, body and word. It will be quite a while before they’re reunited. You later wonder what a transcript of all those words you ground into yourself would say if you could somehow unspool it from your body, that list of words written on your most tender skin.

You like to write about what is hidden. The caped heart inside the mild mannered girl. Your series of stories, “The Elves and I”, is about the creatures who live in the drain pipe in front of your building. Your first “novel”, The Secret World, is a 20 page thinly veiled knock-off of your favorite book, The Secret Garden. Your teacher has it laminated and spiral bound and put in the school library; it gets its own card in the card catalog, your name in the same wooden drawer as Judy Blume’s. Your first taste of being a published author.

You fill a plaid-covered “Anything Book” with short stories. In “School Daze”, a teacher has plastic surgery and turns psychotic. In “Never Say Diet”, a woman with anorexia makes her whole family eat a diet of grapefruit and rice before she’s rushed to the hospital. In “Ottowatama”, a strange sickness decimates most of a Native American community. In “Rocky”, a girl tries to cope with going blind, aided by her trusty horse. You don’t know yet that you will write about these same themes—mental and physical illness and the mysteries of the body—the rest of your life.

You stand at your bedroom window in your pink babydoll nightgown, a wisp of cotton candy nylon. The Humpty Dumpty lamp on your dresser is on; you know people can see into your fifth floor window if they choose to glance up, see this 10 year old girl who feels both younger inside and, somehow, much, much older.

The building next to yours looks like a castle from the front—red brick, turrets, a sunken garden courtyard that you like to sneak into—but from the side, it looks unfinished, a paler brick, exposed beams, stark concrete steps.

You touch the yellow and white gingham drape that hangs by your side, the one that matches your bedspread, your puffy rocking chair, the yellow and white faux bamboo bedroom set. You know you must glow in this window. You might even look sexy, whatever that means. Your sister has a matching babydoll nightgown, in seafoam green.

You want to understand the backs of things, the unfinished sides of things, the place where the castle ends and real life begins. You shift your head so you can see Lake Michigan undulate across the street in the dusk, a pewter gray mirror. You want someone to look up and see you. You want to be seen, not just the front of you, the frothy pink, the princess, but behind that: the inside of your notebook, your tender caped heart, the parts you thought you could never show.

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