Ariel Gore: Red Letter Days (Or How I Became a Feminist)

I was vomiting outside the soup kitchen when it came to me like a revelation, like oh, of course, like duh: It had been my sexuality all along making me fall apart. And not just my queer sexuality or my straight sexuality or the birth control pills or the cells dividing and implanting inside me but the whole of it—now all mixed up with the drugs and the whisky.

qtm1

Red Letter Days
(Or How I Became a Feminist)

by Ariel Gore

1.

I’d been falling apart for a long time already; birth control pills made me anxious and afraid like the whole soiled earth was perpetually ending. So when I found a book written by a guy who claimed he’d seen ancient secret pyramids in central China, I thought maybe ancient secret pyramids could make me sane, so I gathered up found courage and flew away from my suburban California high school in search. And maybe the search did keep me sane for a couple of years—China and Tibet and Europe now—but I’d been falling apart again. LSD and weed and whisky made me crazy in a way ancient secret pyramids couldn’t fix.

And my black eye bloomed.
It was a tulip.

And there was no running water in our apartment squat outside Valencia.
No electricity.
And this was where I lived.
With my girlfriend.
And my boyfriend.

(The springtime of my bisexuality had gone very badly).

And what with the black eye now and the warrant out for my boyfriend’s arrest, and me being pregnant,

Well,

My girlfriend was leaving.
She had a train ticket to Pamplona.
(The running of the bulls would be safer than this shit.)
Potato-picking season was over, anyway. There wouldn’t be work again until the fall.
So we stood outside in the dusty plaza.
Not kissing.
A church of the black Madonna and a Disney knock-off toy store behind her.
And if you ask my girlfriend, she’ll probably tell you she invited me to go with her—begged me to go with her—but I don’t remember that part.

What I remember is her uneven gait as she walked away. Doc Marten boots on cobblestones.

What I remember is my boyfriend’s smug grin as I inched back through our apartment doorway, one hand on my still-flat belly. Sunlight on Saltillo tiles.

Sure, in the beginning it had been easy for the three of us to mistake ourselves for each other. But it turned out literature was maybe the only thing we had in common.
And wanting to be writers.
And no money.

My boyfriend thought of himself as a Hemmingway, but he was always more diligent about the drinking than he was about the ink on paper. (I know you’ll write “cliché” in the margin here but some people are that.)

My girlfriend saw herself more in the lineage of Kathy Acker—underground, punk rock, and sexually humiliated.

I wasn’t sure I wanted a likeness to create myself into, but I worried that not having one might make me less of a real writer. I had a sense of art in the everyday. And I wanted to stay sane. My biological father was long-since crazy. Crazy scared me.

I knew this writing thing might make me crazy. Sometimes the work of it felt like skinning myself alive, and I was afraid to admit that I liked that feeling, craved it sometimes.

Was that craving a precursor to crazy?

My girlfriend. Walking away. I remember thinking I didn’t care what happened to me anymore after that, but pushing the thought out of my mind. There was a tiny cluster of foreign cells dividing inside of me, after all—dividing and implanting on my unworthy uterine wall—and I thought I care what happens to them and I knew I had to make my blood something closer to pure and maybe the cells dividing inside me could be my new ancient secret pyramids
Dividing
And implanting
Taking root all over my body
Becoming human
Making me more human
A girl-human, I was already sure
She was an oak tree
And I wanted my blood to be good soil.

I was vomiting outside the soup kitchen when it came to me like a revelation, like oh, of course, like duh: It had been my sexuality all along making me fall apart. And not just my queer sexuality or my straight sexuality or the birth control pills or the cells dividing and implanting inside me but the whole of it—now all mixed up with the drugs and the whisky.

Hadn’t I once been a flat-chested kid, knobby skinned knees and safe in my body? My skin streaked with blood and mud, I collected tadpoles in a mason jar at the creek’s edge.

I felt very far from that girl now.

I was traveling with four books:

The I Ching, a regal yellow hardcover I’d always traveled with, always asked advice from, always thrown three coins for and trusted, but now the oracle had started to turn on me, advising me to be yielding and receptive when I asked if I should leave my boyfriend now, if I could leave now, if I could please leave now.

Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo by Ntozake Shange, I read it over and over again by candlelight because it made me feel like maybe that girl catching tadpoles in her mason jar at the creek’s edge had a magic to her. Maybe I was still magic somehow. And maybe one day I could know my magic and I wouldn’t feel so far away from myself.

The Heart of a Woman by Maya Angelou, which I’d failed to return to the Kennsington and Chelsea Libraries in London and which promised me I could be a writer even if I was also going to be a teenage mother.

Jambalaya by Luisa Teish, in which I found a plan that seemed as reasonable as any: I’d sip whiskey with my boyfriend that night, nod and smile and let him talk and I’d wait until he was good and passed out and then I’d light a fire in a ceramic bowl out on the apartment balcony and I’d draw myself a mask with colored pencils and I’d imbue the mask with all my depression, all my anxieties, all my addictions and fears, and I’d put the mask on the back of my head and yell out my negativity and terror and then I’d take the mask off and throw it in the fire and I’d watch it burn and in doing so I’d purify myself just enough to have this baby.

Should I name her Cypress or Maya?

In the morning, I called my stepfather from the payphone at the Gypsy bar on the corner, asked him to tell my mother for me.

“You know you have a choice, right?” he said.

And I said, “Yes, of course.”

“All right,” he said. “I support you.”

“I’m in Spain,” I told him, “but I’m going to Rome. Send mail to the post office in Rome.”

“All right,” my stepfather said. “Call again soon.”

But I did not call again soon.

I followed my boyfriend onto a train we didn’t have tickets for, carried our Siamese cat in my leather jacket.

We were always getting onto trains without tickets, getting kicked off trains, getting on the next train. We could usually get a few stops before they kicked us off. We weren’t in a hurry. We had nine months.

We rounded the belly of the Mediterranean in a slow summer week, slept in stone doorways. My boyfriend was sweet in the mornings and mean-drunk at night.

To Rome.

To Rome my mother sent The Scarlett Letter, like maybe I should name the baby Pearl.

A girl I’d been in love with back in California before the ancient secret pyramids sent Zami: A New Spelling of My Name and I thought, well, if I name the baby after Maya, maybe I should spell it Maia, a name all her own not after anyone.

“Yes,” my boyfriend said—sweet, because it was morning. “And if we’re going to give her a last name it shouldn’t be after my father or your father. It should be a name all her own.” He opened a bottle of whisky, started singing that David Bowie song, “Kooks,” from Hunky Dory, and maybe the cells would keep dividing and implanting and taking a chance on us. My boyfriend danced a little now as he sang in the piazza and the Romans rushed past, looking down their Roman noses at him, and he kept singing and the baby kept implanting.

My boyfriend knelt in front of me and smiled, offered me his bottle of whisky.

I said, “I probably shouldn’t.” And I rolled myself a cigarette instead.

 

2.

qtmI don’t like those people who tell kids that adolescence is the best years of our lives.
That’s a lie.

That’s the kind of lie that can really kill you. The kind of lie that makes you feel alone in your depression. The kind of lie that can scare you for a long time.

There were other lies like that.

“I think I want to be a writer,” I told the career counselor at the California junior college where I was about to sign up for classes.

I sat across from her in her little grey office. She wore a well-ironed grey suit. A poster behind her pictured the Everest summit: Aim High.

“Aim high,” I mouthed to myself, tasting the irony of it all. I didn’t tell the counselor that I’d crossed the Himalayas by myself on foot when I was 17 years old. Before the baby. “You know, write?” I said, “Creative writing?”

The career counselor shook her head and her exhale held this silent, bitter laugh and she let the corners of her mouth turn up as she said, “Good luck.”

I just sat there. I didn’t say anything. I glanced over at baby Maia asleep in her blue polka-dot stroller.

The counselor leaned back in her grey chair and adjusted her grey jacket and tilted her grey head to the side like she was maybe trying to pop a vertebrae in her neck and she said, “Miss Gore.” And she looked down at the piece of paper on the desk in front of her, like maybe she was trying to remember my first name, she said, “Ariel.” She said, “Miss Gore, you have a child to take care of now.” She said, “You really ought to make an attempt to come down to earth and think about that. You need to think about your child and ask yourself how you’re going to make a living.”

There was a small stack of brochures on that grey desk that invited: Become a Certified Electrician.

I nodded a few times too many.

I stood up slow, hunched over like I was looking at the baby when in fact I just didn’t want to look at the counselor.

Her words made my heart contract, but I still wanted to be polite. “Thank you,” I said before I grabbed the handles of the polka-dot stroller.

I opened the door to get out of that airless office, held it open with my hip as I maneuvered the stroller out.

The career counselor didn’t rise to help me.

“Thank you,” I said again, and I let the door slam shut behind me.

Why did you say thank you, Ariel? You’re an idiot, Ariel. Shut up, only crazy people talk to themselves, Ariel. I pushed the stroller, my pace quickening. My mother’s words rattled in my head, too. You chose this life, Ariel. You’re on your own. Like I’m 19 and I’ve already lost, no unlosing now.

Have baby.

No more ancient secret pyramids.

No one would believe your Himalayan memories now.

The cement path led past cement pillars, past square gardens, toward a green expanse. “Aim high,” I whispered under my breath. “That fucking bitch.” My walk morphed into a run. It seemed like my walk was always morphing into a run. Mud and blood. Tears streamed down my face. I pushed the stroller. Maia slept. She kept on sleeping. I felt like a sucker for telling that counselor woman what I wanted, what I wanted to be. I felt like a fool for wanting something I had no right to want anymore. For thinking anyone would ever mistake me for themselves again.

Maybe that counselor was right, anyway. Maybe I didn’t know how to live. I didn’t know how to make a living.

Writer. What a joke.

But becoming an electrician scared me. Electrocution scared me. I’d been falling apart too long, I should have told her, to be trusted with live wires.

 

3.

qtm5I was back living with my mother and stepfather, back in the stucco house I’d run away from, trying to pretend I didn’t notice the sour stench of my own humiliation.

I got a chain letter in the mail.

I sent $10 to the name at the top of the list.

I added my name to the bottom of the list and sent it off to 10 unsuspecting members of my stepfather’s church congregation.

Surely if I waited, I would receive $10,000 in $10 increments—small white envelopes in the mail.

College was a distant plan B. It was a some-day thing. A not-now thing.

My mother made Maia fresh zucchini and peach baby food from her garden, but she grabbed at the air around me as I passed her in the hallway, her strange dance of jealousy I didn’t understand.

She was beautiful, my mother. She could sculpt a perfect human form out of clay, cast it in bronze. She had a light-filled Spanish house in an elm-shaded town where nothing ever happened.

She had her own art studio, for godssake.

How could she be jealous of me—unworthy and falling apart still, as always.

She painted my childhood bedroom pink, held the baby in her manicured hands, said we could stay as long as we needed to.

But hadn’t she also said the opposite?

“Everyone,” she whispered, “is very embarrassed for you, Ariel.”

Who was everyone?

“Teenage mother,” she breathed as if she were only talking to herself now. “It’s unthinkable.” She shook her head. “Oh, let’s just have tea.”

Her best friend, Lynn, appeared in the entryway, her long hair braided into a rope.

Let’s just have tea with Lynn.

So I stood in the tiled kitchen, baby on my hip, waiting for the water to boil and arranging boxes of Celestial Seasonings tea, trying not to think too hard.

“You have to get out of here,” Lynn hissed at me under the whistle of the kettle.

My mother had just stepped out the French doors to pick a lemon from her tree.

“Out,” Lynn hissed.

“Why? It’s beautiful here. And elm-shaded.” I didn’t tell Lynn I was waiting for my thousand tens in little white envelopes.

“Out.” She glared at me with round opossum eyes. “Jealousy is dangerous, Ariel,” she said. “Your mother is dangerous.”

I knew Lynn was right.

Pink paint couldn’t quite cover the angry thing.

So that night as the baby slept, I put on my leather jacket over my sleeping sweats, laced up my Doc Martens, and packed our things in the back compartment of Maia’s polka-dot stroller.

I had the Earth’s Best disposable diapers and wipes my mother had bought at the new Whole Foods Market in town. I had a few pairs of jeans and T-shirts, the handmade baby sundresses and matching quilt a high school friend had sewn for us. I had my fear, and black cowboy boots. I had good conditioner, stolen from my mother, and Clinique make-up, also stolen.

And I had some books:
The I-Ching
For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide
by Ntozake Shange
Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde
The Book of Sand by Jorge Luis Borges
Silences by Tillie Olsen.
Tell Me a Riddle, also by Tillie Olsen.

Tell me another one.

Aim at the horizon, Ariel. That’ll be good enough. Sea level. Dirt level. Plan B is the answer, Ariel. They have financial aid at the hippie college up North.

The baby whimpered in the cool night wind as we ambled toward the park where I knew there was a comfortable bench. “It’s California in August,” I whispered into her soft baby ear. “I love you, but stop whining.”

And that was that. Maia puckered her soft baby lips and never whined again.

I curled up on the wooden park bench, held the baby close at my chest, the way I used to sleep with my backpack and passport cradled against thieves, and I closed my eyes and I fell into an easy, safe-feeling sleep.

Maybe that night on the park bench, like Borges, I dreamed my grown self sitting next to me. Maybe I half-woke and she told me all the wondrous and terrifying things that would come, so that when I woke fully with only a fleeting memory of my dream self but with a basic faith I could carry in me always that answered the questions:
Will we survive?
Will we be all right?
Can I be a mother and an artist?
Can I be a daughter and an artist?

With an unpanicked yes. Yes, of course. Follow me.

In the light of morning, I let the conscious memory of that dream fade, nursed the baby, then tucked her into her stroller and headed downtown.

Outside the art house movie theater where I’d worked before I dropped out of high school, I recognized my old boss’ Ford Farlane and I knocked on the locked glass door.

My old boss poured me a cup of coffee, set it out on the concessions counter, said “that baby’s pretty cute.” She let me use the phone to call my Gammie and my step dad—I figured I just needed to scare up $600 or $700 to rent an apartment in that college town up north.

My step dad offered me $250.

“I’ll pay you back as soon as I get some student loan money,” I promised.

“All right, dear,” he said.

My Gammie sighed, agreed to send $400.

“I’ll pay you back as soon as I get some student loan money,” I told her.

And she said, “Oh don’t worry, darling. Just make sure I have good Vodka when I’m too old to drive to the market.”

“The best vodka,” I promised.

 

4.

qtm4“You are magnificent,” my women’s literature professor said. She looked like Susan Sontag, only hotter, and I wanted to gnaw my arm off.

Surely knowing that this is transference will protect me.

No, it does not protect me.

Please don’t tell me I’m magnificent. Tell me I chose this life, tell me Pamplona is safer, tell me to aim for the electrical wires. Anything but magnificent.

“No,” she said, and she laughed, threw her head back in the laughing, “I don’t say that to just everyone, Ariel. You’re absolutely magnificent.”

I felt panicky in her presence but I would not miss class.
I was magnificent.

“You’ll have to be a feminist,” my Susan Sontag professor said, and she pushed her hair away from her eyes and smiled at me.

Did she wink?
Did she wear glasses?
She must not have winked.
She must have worn glasses.

I shifted the baby from my left tit to my right. “Why would I be a feminist? Feminists just get abortions.” I grabbed a cloth diaper from the back pocket of the polka-dot stroller, draped it over my shoulder, repositioned the baby to burp her.

My professor shook her head, glanced down at the syllabus in front of her. “Feminists do what they want,” she said. She picked up her mug of coffee and brought it to her dark lips. Her nails were painted an easy cream color. She lifted her gaze, and looked out her office window at the giant oak tree that shaded the expanse. “Be a feminist,” she said. “Do whatever you want.”

Out past the oak tree, the September hill sloped to a creek
And I knelt at the edge of the water, a flat-chested kid
Safe in my body
Blood and mud, even as I sat here, too
The baby on my tit
In my professor’s office

And maybe it’s true that I was looking at the particular curve of her neck when I said, “Okay.”

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on “Ariel Gore: Red Letter Days (Or How I Became a Feminist)
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