Barely Contained

Barely Contained

Barely Contained 1068 1600 Janelle Bassett

(Content warning)

We were pale, skinny, brunette, and more clever than cute. I think sparks actually flew when Jodie and I made nice—fire cried tears as her braces struck my smiley-face choker, when she slammed her angry, forward-facing vision into my own go-with-contempt momentum. Our brown-haired heads thrummed toward some sort of justice we felt deserved. We didn’t really know about inequity or life-troubles at age twelve, but we knew we deserved an existence less boring and punishing—that we were worthy of a town with a mall, or at least a town with a dollar store that had a better chapstick selection. We deserved fewer hicks in our midst, more torn jeans—to be around people who screamed for artistic expression and not just when their heifer had gotten past the damn fence.

Jodie and I were exiting girlhood together and that’s a deep war-buddy bond right off, except our battles were triangular breast buds, boys who tried to poke their tongues inside us, and getting our radios to pick up the only decent station in southern Missouri so that our pointed sadness could have a fitting score. Draping ourselves sideways on a waterbed didn’t convey the right note of misunderstood, thwarted, horny despair without half of “Glycerine” and a car lot commercial playing right over it.

Sixth grade Jodie was a shrunken SNL cast member with exaggerated arms and at least twenty ridiculous characters inside her, all vying for a chance to come out of her mouth. This made her pretty exciting to stand beside. I offered the droll one-liners and the cruelly accurate lists of everyone else’s limitations and character flaws. We both, when confronted with being mothered, made tiny finger penises in front of our crotches and said “pssssh” to the offending mom. Jodie, being the improviser, also made cordless phone penises, pencil penises, and flashlight keychain penises toward her mother. The key to a proper mom-offending weenie was to tip your head all the way back when you psssshed and to keep your finger perfectly straight and insistent. Take that, how dare you, fuck your input, I’ll never forgive you rearing me here in this desolate wasteland highway town and for raising me in a home with these curtains and, my lord, that lamp. 

Our nights in the trailer were our only real chance at living how we wanted to live, unencumbered, practically adult. Without moms, school hallways and boys-our-age, our future selves were summoned up to perform previews of who we could become someday if we focused. Trailer nights were lovingly hosted by Jodie’s Grandma Verla, whose trailer was parked in Jodie’s yard. These had once been “camper nights” but Grandma Verla had gotten a residence upgrade—goodbye wheels and hello eat-in kitchen.

I’d be home on a Saturday dying of everything and call Jodie from a landline phone to say, “We have to do something.”

“I know. All I’ve done today is eat malt balls and kick at my brother. My stomach and my leg are both sore, I’m serious. We are wasting our lives. It’s a daily tragedy, Michelle. I’ll ask my mom if we can do a spend-the-nighter.”

“Okay,” I’d say. “My mom won’t care. The dicey part will be getting a ride. She’s four hours into a Bette Davis marathon on TCM. All that’s left of her is blue-glued eyes and a pile of cigarette butts.”

“Just go ask. It’s plain gettin’ dusky.”

I’d put down the phone and walk to the end of the hallway to yell, “Mom, can I go to Jodie’s?” I knew better than to enter the room because she’d resent my spell-breaking presence. She liked her children off-stage.

She’d yell, “Yeah, Rick will take you.” I’d let my stepdad Rick know that he’d been drafted. He was good-natured about being short-shifted, plus driving past the edge of town and taking the s-curves too fast did appeal to his sense of leaving-the-house. He’d say, “Gimme five minutes, puddintane.”

Back into the phone I’d tell her, “I’m coming. Start begging your mom to let us stay in the trailer. Tell her we’ll be loud and disruptive in the house because satanic music has corrupted our decent behavior.”

“I’m on it. If she gives me any trouble I’m going to use my brother’s lightsaber as a penis.”

 

***

We’d climb the trailer’s concrete-block steps like weighty, fated royalty—toward opulence, leaving the riff-raff to starve and to go on tussling without us. Our overnight supplies (mostly underwear and hairbrushes) would be packed in Walmart bags which swished loudly from our elbows and banged into our hip bones.

“There they are, and isn’t it nice? My girls are here.” Grandma Verla had the loving presence of any-good-grandma but with an even, knowing gentleness that suggested she was once a deeply rooted tree or some other sort of being that needn’t bother with communication or transportation or mating rituals. Most of all, we loved that she didn’t ask what we were up to. She didn’t want from us or ask of us, she was simply glad to have us running round and round her trunk.

Jodie would say, “Let’s go change” and we’d head to the back bedroom to select one of Grandma’s nightgowns to don-around for the evening. This costume change set the mood. In terms of ambiance, it was the outfit equivalent of lighting a scented candle. Grandma had at least one-hundred pounds on us, so her nightgowns afforded us a lot of room. The space between our legs and the abundant fabric felt like hallowed halls and we carried ourselves accordingly, tip-toeing and spinning to enjoy the expanse. I think we could have made grasshopper tones under there if we’d rubbed our thighs together in front of an open window.

“I want as many frills as possible tonight, Jodie. Where’s the one with the bodice made of tiny bows? It makes me feel like I’m covered in upscale mosquito bites.”

“It must be dirty. What about this baby blue number?”

“I’m not a sickly newborn named Augustus.”

Jodie would hold up two plain white gowns, frill-free except for the strings waiting to be tied into a bow—a bow that was supposed to sit near the clavicle but on our bodies the bow would be right between our pokey buds (hers nicknamed “The Pointer Sisters” and mine fondly referred to as “Patty and Selma.”) “How about these simple sweethearts?”

“This trailer will barely be able to contain us if we wear those.”

After changing into gowns that made our pokes visible from several angles, we’d go to the pantry to see what kind of boxed desserts Grandma V had nabbed from the discount grocery store. The power of baked sugar can’t be suppressed by dented boxed and expiration dates. We would make the dessert on our own, which felt like the height of maturity even if the whole process was only three steps and one bowl.

With our blondies in the oven we had thirty sweet minutes to fill. I’d ask, “You wanna play Harold and Callie?”

Harold and Callie was one of our choice bits. We pretend to be a dysfunctional, abusive yet spirited married couple. I’d be Harold, the mean bully who belittled and taunted his wife. He followed her around and accused her of trying to run away from him and punishing her with knocks to the face. Jodie would be Callie and she’d play it all hysterical and cowering but somehow also totally comedic. “Good lord Harold, I know I deserve to be hit but could you at least wait until we get out into the parking lot of this grocery store? I’m trying to pick out zucchinis for your supper! Have you ever tried selecting produce with someone bopping your nose?” Or I’d pass her a note in school that said, “I’m watching the hell out of you, Callie. Who’d you tease your hair all up for? Was it for Tim-Tommy? You flagrant hussie, you’d better pray I don’t see you smiling. My fists are hungry today, Callie and you’re my god-given feast.”

“Naw,” Trailer-Jodie would say. “Being Harold and Callie is only entertaining at school. Threats of violence are more fun in public.”

“True, threats of violence at home are totally played out. You want to play Snapshots?”

Like our Harold and Callie game, Snapshots traded in persecution, chasing, shouted rebuttals and quotable threats. In Snapshots, one of us would be a strict, sex-phobic evangelical mother and the other would be her burgeoning, promiscuous teen daughter.

Deemed the daughter, I’d say to Mama-Jodie, “Mama, there’s a big dance coming up at school. The winter formal. May I go? Please? It’s so important to me and I’ll wear as many pairs of underwear as you see fit!”

Jodie would point her finger at me. “We both know perfectly well that you won’t be good and that school dances are nothing but a playground for naughty fingers. When I think of all the germs under those pubescent teen fingernails and where they are being jabbed and rammed it makes me sick to my stomach!”

“But Mama, I’ll wear gloves and I’ll just stand along the brick wall swaying sadly. I won’t even look anyone in the eye. When I go to the punch bowl, I’ll accept my drink while looking off into the distance.”

Mother would eventually relent and we’d hop to the next scene: a mother/daughter gown shopping trip. The climax of this part was when I came out of the closet “dressing room” with my nightgown pulled down off my shoulders, one pokey boob out, and the skirt hiked up to my undies. “How do I look, Mama? Are you proud?”

Incensed, Jodie/Mama would chase me around the trailer trying to both cover me up and slap at me, while shouting, “I didn’t raise you to have a body, young lady! I raised you to be a tablecloth or a bookmark or any respectable object that sits still and waits. Get back here so I can knock the dirty sex right out of you! When you were born and I saw you had genitals I said to your father, ‘We’re in for trouble with this one.’”

(As we ran around yelling out threats and excuses, Grandma would only smile and say, “Oh, you girls.”)

After we exhausted ourselves with the chase sequence, time would skip ahead to the night of the dance. I’d be applying invisible blush in a visible mirror, wearing a respectable full-cover outfit telling Mama how well-behaved I planned to be.

“I know you will, dear. You’ve never given me any reason to trust you, but I feel like tonight is different.”

I would kiss her cheek and go off into the night. Night was held in the trailer’s back bedroom where we kept the lights off. Here I did my best off-stage acting: yelling, laughing and chain smoking Q-tip cigarettes. Then I’d pull my nightgown over my head, dive onto the bed and yell out, “Oh yes, Douglas you make me feel so good and my Mama makes me feel so bad.”

Jodie would storm in with a camera, taking photos of my debauchery to shame me with later. She’d click click click while I yelled “No Mama, no” and tried to cover my body, hide my lovers and put out my many cigarettes.

“I’ve got you now, little girl. I’ve got these snapshots to prove to the world that you’re lowly scum. I’m going to tape them to our front door! The mailman will be scandalized. I hope you can live without your magazine subscriptions.”

I’d start to defend myself by saying something poetic about the grittiness of real life and true desires, but then the oven would beep and we’d immediately stop being nudist, sexpot teen and damning, camera-carrying mama and run down the hall like two little girls hurrying toward a panful treats.

***

After a night of such energy expenditure, of high-level cathartic expression, of eating every crumb of that pan of blondies, of scooping our baby-tits back under the fabric they had poked past… we would be finally spent. Jodie and I would make a pallet and fall asleep on the floor in front of Conan—our ultimate boyfriend, our late-night patron saint of shakey, self-deprecating hypothetical idiocy. We loved him even though we knew he —even our Conan—would choose to love someone more beautiful than we’d planned on becoming.

***

Those nights with Jodie felt like a sampling of what was to come, like our adult selves would often be mock-chased or scantily clad—or at least living sharply and taking risks while being either lauded or condemned for all of it, preferably in print. We assumed that when we were grown we’d laugh even more and even deeper and have this kind of zany connection with many many people, not just with each other. These nights were to be a starting-shot bang from which the rest of our adventures and displays of inevitable talents would expand outward. The effect could be mapped, the bang a point and the expanse a series of straight lines going out and forward so that the map was shaped like a handheld fan—a fan that would be a delightful prop for Snapshots, perhaps used to hide a mouthful of Q-tip cigs while mumbling “Nothing’s going on, Mama” as my underwear dangled from my toe.

But the map we supposed was all wrong. It turns out that twelve year olds are stupid when it comes to map-making and future-summoning. Those nights were not the beginning of a winning trajectory or the start of a big finish—they were the pinnacle of our spirits, the peak brightness of our light-shining hearts. Those nights were our moon steps, our Super Bowl victory, our televised acceptance speech, the medals placed around our necks. We won those nights by creating them from nothing, from empty hours and unopened, dented boxes. The prize we won was living through them together until we fell asleep, our lights plain dusky from such use.

Our real adult lives are not all that different than the lives we mocked and scorned and waved our index finger peenies at. We aren’t immune, nor special. We too are ho-hum, false-starting, care-taking, clock-watching, death-approachers and god, how it goes on and on.

But maybe when it’s all over, we will see that the map was a full circle, that there’s a bang we can get back to. Jodie and I could end up old women together, inside metal walls, wearing too little and being too much—but this time we’d know it was our truest, highest living and before we fell asleep on the floor we’d raise up our four fists and say, “We did it.”

Header photograph © Mane Hovhannisyan.

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  • Avatar
    Alison Bullock 03/01/2021 at 6:59 pm

    Poignant and powerful story that jettisoned me back to being twelve. I felt like I was right there in that trailer with these characters. Full of vivid images and dripping with truth. Loved the improvisational games they played…so funny and so real that I found myself wondering if these were games you’d played yourself as a tween. If so, I wish you’d been my friend growing up. This story will stay with me.

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    Fannie H Gray 02/25/2021 at 9:24 am

    Wow. I have read stories here before. I came today because recently I had received another rejection – from Barren. I thought, “Well, let’s see what I am up against”. Holy hell. Not only is the piece piercing and visceral, it took me back. I grew up in Lexington, VA. A lot of my friends are in Sally Mann’s haunting, groundbreaking collection At Twelve. My mother did not consent for me to be photographed. This work is like a Mann – you see all the promise and ferocity in these young girls. In short, high praise. This is a tremendous work.

  • This story bowled me over. Two young rebels, who share an affirming flame, dream big about how to wield themselves—their intellect, confidence, humour, and sexuality—so they might bend their lives towards some version of free expression most of us take for granted. That shouldn’t feel impossible but here it does. That’s why there’s a deep, unbending sadness in this story. It’s incredible.

    And the descriptions of the grandmother, like an ancient tree whose roots run deep, with children playing at its foot? Man, I’m still thinking about how beautiful that is. I’ve never heard of Janelle Bassett, but I’ve got to read more of her stuff.

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