When I was a girl we lived across from a parking lot. On the other side of the lot was a candy store, and just beyond that, the neighborhood pool. The parking lot was where boys my age spent their days playing softball, stickball and handball. At night, the older boys came out leaning against the white painted brick of the candy store, smoking Marlboro reds and drinking Budweiser, waiting for the tough girls with stick straight hair and heavy eyeliner to come by. When they did, the boys would feed them beers and talk them into skinny dipping in the pool after the rest of town had gone to bed.
I’d grow up wanting to be one of those tough girls, wanting straight hair, slim hips and a bad attitude. I’d grow up wanting to be the kind of girl wanted by boys in tight black jeans and Beatle boots, boys with Marlboros hanging from curled lips, boys who, when they finally got some money, would drive fast cars with metallic paint jobs. I’d grow up wanting to be the girl who every mother tsk-tsked about, whose neighbors whispered “easy” and “trouble” when she walked by, and who all the boys wanted. It’s not as easy as you think, being easy; to be sexy, tough, a girl and still command respect. I’d spend years trying to walk that razor’s edge; it was like juggling chopped meat, bloody and messy.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I remember, I couldn’t have been more than 6 or 8 years old, sitting on the curb in front of our house, in my little cotton shorts watching the daytime boys play in that parking lot. I sat there, holding the yellow soft plastic cup from my bathroom, filled with cold water. I sat and watched, clutching the cup in one hand, my faded pink washcloth with the rose border in the other.
And I waited. Day after day after day.
I waited for one of them to fall, to slide into home on the asphalt, to come up with gravel, bits of black top or glass embedded in a knee, jeans torn, elbow scraped. Waited for them to get into a fist fight, for a nose to be bloodied, or eye to be blacked.
I waited for blood and torn skin.
I waited for them to hurt themselves, or more accurately, I waited for them to be hurt. Then, I could rush in with my cup of cool water and soft cloth and tend to their wounds. Then, they would see me. Appreciate me. Be eternally indebted to me for my kindness, my care, my tenderness. Because if they were hurt, and I tended to them, they could love me, would love me.
When they were whole, I was invisible, even to myself.
Fast forward forty years later. I’m still drawn to the hurt ones, the broken things. I fight not to disappear in front of the whole, not to cripple the healthy.
An old boyfriend I’ve never quite gotten over is recovering in ICU following heart surgery. I bring homemade food, and fresh fruit. I offer my home as a half-way house after he’s released from the hospital. I offer to drive his daughter home from college to visit him. He’s happy to see me and he introduces me to the current girlfriend. Who brings coffee and McDonalds apple pies, and keeps forgetting on which street the hospital is located.
A heard someone say once, that he made himself useful, needed, indispensable and called that love. The habits you learn as a child are hard to break. I believed that Useful equaled Lovable for a very long time. And I’m just now unlearning that lesson….