September 5, 2011: The Return
Tonight at writer’s group, a comment was made about someone’s piece that jolted me from the present to a different coffee shop, one I was sitting in almost 13 years ago, in what feels like a completely different life. The comment that was made is irrelevant, but it told me everything I needed to know about the person who said it. In one sentence, she defined everything about herself. Everything. More so than any other interaction I we’d had over the past few months, this sentence explained all of my confusion about her personality. So, in that moment, I was taken back to my own past, when something similar was thought and said about me.
I was nineteen, maybe twenty. Young, idealistic in all of the twenty year old ways. Totally broke, I was supporting myself working as a VISTA for United Cerebral Palsy in Austin, Texas. My job was to connect people with disabilities to volunteers in the community and in doing so, provide access to society for the people who needed it most. This particular person used art as therapy for their mental illness and I was lucky enough to stumble across an artist in the community who wanted to do volunteer work. We set up the initial meeting at a coffee shop. I still remember the wooden tables that were in need of some serious sanding and windows that looked out onto a side street.
Settling at the table with these two women, I sat back and let them get to know each other. For as outspoken as I was at the time, there were moments when my Utah upbringing got the better of me. The artist pulled out some small prints of paintings she had done. They were florals, but not in the “Still life” fashion. Instead, they were vivid representations of sexuality – orchids and roses up close, petals opening, buds reaching for warmth. One still haunts me, a red rose that circled in on itself to a deep tunnel of darkness. It’s title, The Return.
I took one look and knew what it meant. Even without the title, I could see legs opening and the birth canal as a place of refuge. I saw the labia, the clitoris. I understood what she meant with this piece, the ideas of home and sexuality being one and the same, that we can return to ourselves within the acceptance of that.
Being stuid and young, I said only, “That’s really pretty.”
The two older women looked at me, smirked, and one said, “Honey, you just said everything we need to know about you in that one statement.”
I got it. I got that they assumed I was virginal, I was afraid of sex and sexuality. I got that they thought I didn’t get it. But I did. I did get it. And I wanted to scream and tell them I understood, but it was too late. I’d already passed myself off as the dumb Utah girl who didn’t know anything about womanhood. Shamed, I sat there while they connected, and when the meeting was over, I walked home with my head to the ground. In one statement, I had told them everything they needed to know. Even if I did understand the nature of the piece, I had passed myself off as a fake, as someone not worth their time. I’d never been happier that a job was almost done, that I wouldn’t have to see them again, to face up to something that had been false.
I’ve never told that story to anyone until tonight. Safe in the confines of my car, I spoke the words to my girlfriend as I tried to understand the nature of this woman whom I cannot possibly connect to. I can’t help but wonder if she is covering, is trying to be the good woman, trying not to show that she thinks more than she does. But I do not know. And if she is being herself, which I want to believe, if she is speaking her truest heart, then I am glad that I learned the lesson I learned when I was only twenty.
It isn’t worth it to not just speak up. It’s okay to look like a fool. It’s not okay to act like one.
This woman and I will never, ever see eye-to-eye. From writing to life’s lessons, we have walked entirely different paths. She is shaped by a religion I do not understand and choices I will never have to make. But sitting there tonight, realizing that in one sentence I had learned all I ever needed to know about her, I was grateful that at least I knew what that painting meant, even if I did not voice it.