“I don’t want to go to school today!”
My 3-year-old affixes herself to my leg, all wide eyes and downturned mouth, the hair at the back of her head snarled from sleep. My husband stands nearby, wet comb at the ready.
“Don’t you want to see your friends?” I ask her, my hand cupping her head close to me, smoothing the hair along her scalp. I run a thumb along her cheek.
“NO,” she says firmly. “I don’t want them to bother me.”
My chest constricts. Suddenly, I am 8 years old again, cross-legged beneath the big maple behind my elementary school, a book in my lap, riveted to the page despite the sproing! of a kickball as it is sent in an arc across the pavement, the thump of rubber-soled shoes skipping their way through hopscotch and jump rope, the shrieks.
And I am 11, my homeroom teacher leaning over my desk, saying—low, so only I can hear—”You should read less and socialize more.” My stomach hurts and my cheeks and forehead are hot and I am lightheaded and when I nod and say, “uh huh,” it sounds as if my voice is coming from somewhere else.
And I am 13, the wires from my braces digging furrows into the soft, wet insides of my cheeks so that I am always pressing the tip of my tongue there, desperate for relief. I am 13 and I have just started menstruating and my skin is covered in zits that I pop and pick at mercilessly and a girl from my class—someone I barely know—corners me at one end of the gymnasium and tells me she doesn’t like me. “And that thing you do with your tongue,” she says, almost as an afterthought, squinting at me. “What is that?”
And I am 16, speaking with the teacher’s assistant at the front of the classroom, my back to the group of girls who have made it their mission to destroy me. The teacher’s assistant leans into me. She whispers. “Um, I think your underwear might be showing.” Without looking, I reach behind me, feel my skirt tucked into my pantyhose. I pull it out slowly, like a magician pulling a string of silk handkerchiefs out of a sleeve, except it’s not a trick. It’s a joke. I’m the joke. I float my skirt out behind me to make sure it’s covering my cotton underpants. The backs of my thighs. I hitch in a breath, trying to stifle a sob, and inhale the T.A.’s delicate, floral perfume.
Now, I am 37. I still sometimes have panic attacks when I’m in a crowd. I hide in dark corners. My daughter is 3. More than anything else, I am scared she is like me. How will I be able to help her? How can I protect her? How can I teach her to be strong when I have never been strong myself?
When I pick her up from preschool, I lean into the school director, ask her, “Is my daughter—?” But I am interrupted by the galloping of feet, my daughter with a smile as wide as her face, running to me hand-in-hand with another little girl.
“Emily had a very good day today,” says the director. “Her and Gracie had so much fun.”
My shoulders drop down as tension I didn’t even realize I was carrying schloomps out of me. I help Emily shrug her backpack on. I take her hand and walk her out the door and down the walkway to the street, to our car. Gracie and her mom are ahead of us, have crossed the street, are at their car.
“EMILY!” shouts Gracie as we walk past. She waves her arms in the air. “EMILY! GOODBYE! EMILY! YOU’RE MY BEST FRIEND!”
When we get to my car, I unlock it, lift Emily into her car seat, buckle her in. I lean over her to reach the seatbelt buckle, smelling playtime sweat and goldfish crackers and the slightest whiff of paint. I press my lips to her forehead as I extract myself from the car, smooth her hair along her scalp.
I walk around to the driver’s side and slide into the front seat, limp with relief. Before I turn the key in the ignition and drive the both of us home, I look into the rearview mirror. She beams back at me.
Steph Auteri is a journalist who typically writes about female sexuality for such publications as the Washington Post, Pacific Standard, and VICE. Her first book, A DIRTY WORD, is due out from Cleis Press in October 2018. Learn more at stephauteri.com. Tweets at @stephauteri.