Perspective, one cupful at a time.
One of my favorite things about Story Story Night (and there are many) is the way it conjures up memories I’ve forgotten were ever alive. Somewhere deep within the dusty aisles of my recollection are some raw moments that I shoved as far back as possible. There they rest stifled by darkness, forgetfulness and often times blatant embarrassment. Only when I hear other storytellers recap their most vulnerable, their most brilliant, or in this case their most awkward moments do those memories find their way toward illumination. You can imagine that being a person who used to stick my purse in urinals, I have a multitude of “Awkward: Cringe-Worthy” stories. Which is true. This one, however, makes me cringe for many reasons beyond the sheer humiliation associated with it.
Years before I was a nice librarian with a respectable reputation, some lovely friends and two sassy daughters, I was a volleyball player. I was many things, of course, as we all are but none of them configured the cadences of my life as much as that role. I started playing when I was 12 and continued until I was in my 20’s. It was a sport I dedicated much of my life to and in turn it was a culmination of experiences that have shaped my personality, my work ethic, and my steadfast dedication. I am so grateful for the sport. Although I wouldn’t change a thing about my decision to play volleyball in college, it wasn’t always a healthy outlet for me. For a young woman struggling with body image issues ,the competition, the fixation on weight, and the public display of your body can send a crevice of insecurity spiraling into a cavern of despair.
Much of the trepidation I had at that time came as a result of the outfits we willingly paraded around in. Volleyball is traditionally played in semi-revealing clothing (in our case spandex) but when you add the element of female competition, pack mentality, and young women desperate for attention and affirmation, you suddenly go from revealing uniforms to show girl getups in 5 seconds flat. It was never enough that we were wearing skin tight shorts in front of rooms full of strangers. We would take those uniforms and find ways to make them even more shocking. We would roll our spandex up at the waist to make them as physically short as possible without them being underwear. We had an entire other type of game that was played on the court that had nothing to do with athletics and had everything to do with seeking attention. Sadly, I played that game better than I ever played volleyball. I remember squinting in dingy locker room mirrors to apply fake eye lashes before games. I remember purposefully hitting my ball into the bleachers when there were cute boys in the stands. I remember spending far more time obsessing over how I looked before each game than I actually spent worrying about how I was going to play. It was a sickness and I didn’t care to find a cure.
The desperate attempts for attention didn’t stop on the court either. I was a small town girl away at college for the first time. I was competing in and out of the gym with a group of twenty beautiful girls. We lived together, played together, and spent almost all of our free time in each others’ company. My own body image struggles mixed with this explosive dynamic led me to seek recognition in any way I could get it when we were together as a group. Often times welcoming what should have been considered harassment from male spectators. Anything that would set me apart felt like a success, even if that was a cat call when I was walking into a gym.
When I was 19 years old I went with several teammates to a large, multi-act, three day hip-hop concert at the Gorge in Washington called “Summer Jam”. I had never felt more small town, more out of place, or more invisible in my life. There were more people in the parking lot of the campground when we pulled in then live in my entire hometown. Signs being waived in the air openly announced who had drugs as if police officers didn’t in fact know how to read. Loud music blared from every car and the only thing louder than my nervous heart beating was the sound of bass thumping to 200 different songs. The effect sent waves of percussion straight through me.It was so much chaos and vibrancy that it felt wrong to even blink and miss a second of it.
The girls at Summer Jam made the spandex we were accustomed to wearing five days a week look like long underwear. It was an all out contest for who could show the most skin and there were bonus points for creativity. You can walk half naked through a campground in stilettos? Bonus for you. You can weave 13 different colors of fake hair into your braids? Bonus for you. Your fake nails have playboy bunnies painted on them and have diamonds in them? Bonus for you. It became clear very early on that it wasn’t going to be easy to get attention with this competition, but that didn’t make me any less determined.
Aside from being an alien in this unfamiliar land, I was also only 19 and not even able to legally drink. Legality didn’t often stop me from doing things and it certainly wouldn’t in this case. We had gone all out for the trip and we didn’t get our standard generic vodka that could be choked down with OJ. Instead we got a fancy kind of Bacardi called “Bacardi Limon” and we used every opportunity we could to announce it. “We don’t need a drink. We brought Bicardi Limon” or “You’re cold? Don’t put more clothes on, just have a shot of Bicardi Limon”. The citrus infused rum was the only thing producing ease in this charged collision of desperation. So I applied it liberally. Several drinks in and my heart started to calm while my head started to heat up. I didn’t like that I couldn’t get attention among a sea of scantily clad comrades, so I decided to join them.
I stripped down to nothing but a swimsuit and proceeded to prance around a campground, swirling my Bicardi Limon in my glass, pretending it was completely normal to be wearing a bikini when the wind was chilling us to the bone and we were miles away from water. I beamed with success when I felt heads turn and I found excuses to walk back to the car so I could sashay my cute self through the crowd just one more time.
The final excuse had to do with finding a hair thing and I scurried off to the car to search. As I was walking back toward my friends I saw a group of men staring at me and one let out a low whistle. I paused and decided since I was enjoying the attention I should fix my hair in that very spot. An SUV parked nearby served as a mirror so I could glance at my justification for stopping while still keep them in my sights through the reflection. I had nowhere to put my cup of Bacardi Limon. I didn’t want to set it on a stray car and have some irate, much larger woman come chasing after me for scratching her paint job. I didn’t want to set it on the ground and risk losing some of the precious liquid with an inebriated slip of my bedazzled sandal. So instead I opted to clench it in my teeth after having flipped my hair upside down.. All I could think about while staring at the gravel, my hair upside down waiting to be pulled and contorted into a clip, was how the guys behind me were watching me. How they might be thinking that I was pretty, or interesting , or had really nice hair. How it would probably look really amazing if I flipped my head up in a casual arc and sent my hair cascading into the air. The idea of this image alone caused me to temporarily forget that I was standing in a parking lot full of dirt. Forget that I was standing in front of an SUV using a dust encased windshield to fix my hair that didn’t actually need fixing. Forget that due to needing both of my hands for the Vidal Sassoon move I was about to attempt, I was holding my drink with my teeth. With no hesitation whatsoever I flipped my head up sending my hair flying, but not flying nearly as fast as my drink did. In one swift movement I launched the contents of my drink into the air and then to my bewilderment they came crashing down directly into my eyes.
I hit the ground as fast as you can imagine a person would when they just dumped citrus flavored liquor into their eyes. Somewhere in the distance I heard a collective “OHHHHHH!” rise up from the group of gawking men. I clutched my eyes and writhed through gravel and rocks, sobbing citrus scented tears. Unbeknownst to me the men came over to where I was crumpled on the ground and watched in silence completely unaware of what the proper protocol for this situation should be. One of my friends glanced over and saw me flattened on the ground crying and holding my face. She sprinted over to where I was followed closely by the rest our group. I had a moment of clarity and realized how mortifying this moment would someday be. If it weren’t for the heat of my eyes and my inability to see I would have crawled away and kept going until I reached my own bed, the border of Idaho, or a town that had more cows than people. Any of those things would have made me feel that this level of shame could someday subside.
I became cognizant of my friends presence around me. Their arms reaching to support me. The sharp tones of their voices, tinged with concern and confusion. I silently pleaded that they would find a way to blindly lead me back to our tent without another person witnessing my distress. We could play it off as some fun “trust building exercise” we were testing out for our team. Anything to stop the freak show I was publicly starring in. Instead of the quiet exit, the playing it off as a joke, the escape from my humiliation I got this:
“Which one of you did it?” my friend demanded of the small gathering crowd. They silenced, unsure of the question and when she didn’t get a reply she screamed “which one of you hit her?!”. This got the attention not only of the docile crowd, but of my own agonizing self, and every other passerby within earshot. I got a flash shot of what my friend must be seeing. There I was rolling around on the ground, holding my face while a group of guys stood around me laughing to themselves. As more and more heard her inflated accusations and saw my continued tragic display, the crowd began to increase. I knew I had to stop this but the pain was so intense that I couldn’t do anything but squeeze my eyes shut as tight as possible and hope that when they could finally open I would find myself magically removed from the situation. Instead, when I could finally open my eyes I saw quizzical face after quizzical face, broken up only by angry faces who were scanning the onlookers trying to decide who was to blame for this assault.
“Who did this to you?” a voice demanded. I squeezed my eyes back shut and frantically did a mind sweep looking for a way to get myself out of this.What if I said someone did hit me? What would the onlookers do? What about the guys who saw me? They would eventually chime in with the mortifying details. I had wanted attention and here it was. All eyes were on me and their gazes stung way worse than any injuries I’d sustained. Even in that very moment I knew, “this is exactly what I deserve.” And it was. I quietly spoke and simply said “nobody did this to me. I just accidently spilled some Bacardi Limon in my eyes”. It wasn’t the answer they were expecting. It wasn’t the answer they were wanting. Gazes burning deeper, voices growing irate, and then silence. The silence left me longing for the angry chatter or even whispering and muted laughter. Anything but the awkward transition of me raising myself off the ground, dusting bits of gravel off of my blood speckled knees, squinting my stinging eyes in the direction of the sun and limping off while onlookers snickered. I had everyone’s attention now.
The lessons in this story don’t need to be outlined because they’re glaringly obvious and still painfully fresh even 11 years later. I can’t say I immediately changed and instantaneously became a better person after this day, but I do know if affected me. When I felt like I was showing off or seeking attention sometimes I would think back to how quickly that attention can turn. How intrigued eyes can narrow so thinly into glares. How liquid courage can splash into a liquid soaked coward, and the sticky mess you are left to deal with.
I sometimes hear people commenting on the way a girl dresses when she doesn’t wear very much clothing. “She needs to have some self respect!” or “She needs to put some clothes on”. “She needs to learn how to dress!” or “She should never have been allowed out of the house!” I tend to not think so dramatically about these young women and instead I smile to myself and mutter” She just needs a face full of Bacardi Limon”.