my America is not a genre
Christine Thomas Alderman
“I’m having trouble inside my skin” –Slipped, The National
rural noir. it’s not noir. just our lives. a nice category. probably sells. and everything must. even if it is just a more than we could ever imagine amount of money, made by an industry stitching together the heartache and hard work and terrible birth luck and plucky stories that make you cringe because you laugh, and something about that feels mean. it is. we are mean, too. in the sense of the worn out. not cruel.
but read it. read it hard. let your gaze settle and don’t look away. be brave. we are. even when our bravery looks like capitulation. don’t sexualize and glamourize, that we are only women of the night, creatures of mystery. we would like to shop full price, to have something else to fill our mouths but cigarettes, to have a dream that would be larger than our trailer, to live a life where who we don’t want won’t sneak in our window to take what they want. we dream of sneaking out that same window and never coming back. the things we have are the things we can have, not the things we need, or the things we want. we haven’t even been shown what we could want.
there is always the girl, the one who is too good for here, the one who gets away, who never looks back, because looking back is leaving all over again, because your heart is tied to those who brought you up, even if they brought you up by holding you down, the tallest piece of grass is the first to get cut or at least trampled down by a boot caked in mud by a man who is working harder than you ever could imagine at a dangerous job no one else wants, when yours is just tedious and leaves you with bone spurs from standing too long, but you at least you don’t have to wear a monitor around your neck for lethal gases. he comes home angry or checked out, and you are already there, slowly smoldering with shame and an itching worse than your cheap polyester clothes to shed your cracked skin. a combustible combination, ending in throwing things that have little value to the world, but are all you have. when you have so little you hang on to each other in need, or toss each other aside like the disposable plates you stick into plastic holders so your casserole won’t bleed through after you microwave it. never sure what you want. but you know you don’t have it.
i am that girl. i am those pieces of past and present and trying like hell to not be noticed walking around next to you. sometimes you won’t recognize me. i can try to look like you. i try to hide. but one slip and you see me. real me. chafing in my birthright skin of shame and struggle. or if you meet my family. who love me and i love even though their name makes me less than because aren’t we aren’t a capital F family. don’t noir me. don’t make it sexy. it’s hard. don’t make it somehow mysterious. it’s poverty. grinding. exhausting. paralyzing.
and the abuse. always the abuse. the abuse happens everywhere. but here it is different. it is taking something from someone who has so little. someone whose world is so small. someone who doesn’t know what a counselor is. counselors are court-appointed for drugs not chosen for comfort. talking gets people in trouble. counselors are an arm of the state. the state that has forgotten you. relegated you to a status of people with few thoughts and less teeth. instead of people with lots of thoughts and who ache for better health care and possibilities. we think. we dream. we hurt. we scream. we are just too far removed to be heard. and when we are heard, when someone comes to listen, they just see the gaps and buckles in our mouths instead of the words coming out, the cheap pull of our jeans lets them brush us aside, the stretch of our shirts over bellies trying to be full of something to reach our hearts makes us lazy, and therefore we deserve it. so we are just an oddity. not even to be pitied. we must have chosen this. a sideshow tent that you feel slightly dirty for slipping in. but pay you few cents to look anyway. it doesn’t cost much. for you.
i didn’t know i came from this. i thought the books on the shelves in my home were walls to keep me from this life. i didn’t know that i was this. that i would always be the other. enough to be around, but not enough to show to family. a dalliance, a moment of bad judgement before going back to people who don’t think that white bread is a side for dinner. the girls in Harley shirts at college looked at me when i said i liked their outfits. i didn’t know they were dressed up like me. as a joke. they were having a theme party. i learned my place quickly. a theme. a joke. white trash.
but i am not a joke. i am a punchline that falls flat. because there is nothing funny about it. I am America. even if you wish i wasn’t.