Difficult Truths


Leigh Curran

My father taught in a boys’ boarding school.  I grew up in an apartment at the end of the freshman dorm.  The door that connected our home to the world of boys loomed large.  My little brother passed through it freely when my father made his nightly rounds but, because I was a girl, I had to wait until summer when snapping towels, arm wrestling and knuckle sandwiches gave way to a rich, thick silence – like church.

The prefect’s room was my sanctuary – the perfect place to marry two tomcats I’d trapped in the closet.

 I emptied a can of dog food into a dish and, while sculpting it into a tiered wedding cake, took stock of my eight years on earth and seriously wondered what was so special about boys that I couldn’t be in the dorm when they were?

I pulled the bridal veil off a doll, tied it around the neck of the docile tomcat and decided my mission to get into the dorm would be best accomplished if I learned to flip wet towels and give knuckle sandwiches.  I’d practice on my brother.

I held the tomcats firmly on their hind legs – quickly pronounced them man and wife suddenly embarrassed at the thought of being caught doing something so girly.

That fall, I threw myself into wrestling with the boys and building body pyramids on the front lawn.  I was this close to crossing the threshold when my mother told me my breasts were budding and all rough housing had to stop!

 “That’s not fair!  Edie doesn’t have breasts and she’s older,” I wailed.

“Your body’s growing faster.”

“But I’m their mascot.”

“I’m sure you are,” said my mother in her un-amused voice.

My father put his arm around my shoulders.

“You’re becoming a young woman,”

I had no idea what it meant to be a woman – young or otherwise – I was still struggling with being a girl – but because my father was my world, I acquiesced.

In 1954 when I was ten, my father’s failing heart failed leaving me with my mother – a bona-fide man magnet who saw men as fundamental to her survival and saw me, as I headed into my teens, as her competition.

I slammed my bedroom door with flare and grabbed my journal.

March, 1957

Dear Papa Wherever You Are,

Mummy said my head’s too small for my body.  Said it to her French tennis player.  I told her to go fuck herself.  She laughed her wild laugh and apologized for her “hopeless” daughter.  That’s when I slammed my door – five times.

PS: Do you think if I cared about boys we’d get along?

With that question in mind, the next time my mother took off for a weekend tryst in Las Vegas, I lost my oral virginity to a nineteen-year-old bad-boy whose family owned the island of Maui.  Lost it in his car at a drive-in movie when he stuck his pointy tongue in my mouth without even so much as: You want a box of popcorn?

‘Wow,’ I thought arriving home all tingly, ‘That was scary.  Maybe that’s what comes with being a woman.’

My mother returned from Las Vegas in a good mood because she’d beat a slot machine and other things I was too young to know.  I climbed in bed beside her – told her I’d had my first kiss.  We giggled about boys.  I put my head on her shoulder.  She fiddled with my hair and said dreamily:

‘”The most important thing to remember about men is they need to believe they’re right – even when they’re not.”

I sat up sharply.


“Their egos are fragile.”

“So I shouldn’t say what I think?”

“It’s called compromise.”

I headed into the hallway past a photo of my grandmother, a slight woman with a fierce mind who’d spent her life fighting for women’s rights.  She and my mother loved each other but didn’t get along – was that compromise?  When John kissed me before popcorn was that?

Dear Papa,

Mummy says I can’t be a woman and be myself because men like compromise.  I don’t think I’m going to make a very good grown up.  Plus, I walk like a cowboy – Mummy said so to her dentist-friend.  I was there.  Do you think she’s right?  Or trying to make me mad so I’ll leave the room?

I closed my journal and opened Photoplay Magazine.  Shortly after being told wrestling with boys was off limits, I’d read my first issue – fell into Robert Taylor’s perfect face and stopped sucking my thumb cold turkey because I was going to marry a movie star.

Now I stood at a crossroads.  Boys were idiots but when they turned into men they became … well, intriguing in an unnerving sort of way.  It was time to find out what the fuss was all about so the next time my mother invited Anson, a “family friend,” for a drink – I fluffed my hair so my head wouldn’t look too small for my body, adjusted what there was in my bra, sucked in my cheeks and walked into the living room like a runway model – albeit a slightly horsey one.  Anson, who’d known me since birth, stammered:

“You’ve gotten so … tall.”

And despite another worn-out observation about my height, I laughed wildly like my mother, tossed my fluffed-up hair and plopped my great big self into his lap.  His face reddened as he patted my back like … well, an uncle.  And suddenly I was closer to the smell of tweed than I’d been since my father died and didn’t know what to do with the uncontrollable longing crashing in my chest.

My mother handed Anson a vodka on the rocks and glared at me.

“Aren’t you a little big for that?” she asked sweetly.

I threw one leg in the air and leaned back into Anson’s arm.

“I’m not leaving if that’s what you mean,” I said just as sweetly.

“Anson and I need to talk,” said my mother boiling me in oil.

“It’s alright,” he said as I slid off his lap, “Let her stay.”

I slumped in a chair as my mother sat beside Anson looking like she’d won something.  They drank and gossiped about people I didn’t know.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about compromise,” I said to dispel my boredom, “and how men don’t like it when women become themselves and I’m wondering if you agree.”

My mother threw up her hands, spilling the dregs of her drink.

“Some men don’t like it,” said Anson wiping vodka off his jacket.

“So there are exceptions?” I asked eagerly.

“Your father was an exception.”

A dark cloud settled in my bones.  I glared at my mother.

“I wish you had let Stephen and me go to Papa’s funeral.”

My mother replenished her vodka.

“I didn’t want your last memory to be of a corpse.”

“Yeah?  Well, guess what: I know he didn’t die.  He ran away because you’re so hateful.”

“Watch your step.”

“And I don’t blame him!”

And with that I got up, went to my room, fell on my bed and had a good cry.

After Anson left, my mother stood in my doorway – prickly as a prickly pear.

“I hate you!”  I sobbed into my pillow. “I wish Ingrid Bergman was my mother!”

My mother cleared her throat of the temptation to remind me Ingrid had deserted her oldest daughter.

“I. am. trying. to. help.”

“You told that dentist I walk like a cowboy – how’s that helping?”

My mother picked at a sweater ball so I wouldn’t notice she was approaching my bed – reaching for my hand.  Uch!  I pulled away.  Waited for her apology.  Nothing.

I shoved Bluey, my ratty, stuffed dog, out of my bed – onto the floor.

“Men are stupid,” I said wiping my eyes.

“It’s a game,” said my mother, “That’s all.”

“I don’t like games!”

My mother picked up Bluey – flopped him onto her lap.

“You will – when you understand their value,” she said retying Bluey’s neck ribbon with a forceful, upward jerk.

We sat stubbornly in our differences – Bluey’s tongue hanging out of his mouth.

“I’m sorry I said you walk like a cowboy.”

“But I do!”

My mother handed me Bluey.

“I miss Papa, too.  But he’d want us to be strong.”

I loosened Bluey’s neck ribbon.

“I’m sorry I was hateful.”

“You’re human.”

“I don’t want to be human.  I want to be you.”

And right at that moment, my brother, who’d been in his room cramming as much air into his lungs as he could swallow, let fly a long, slow belch.  My mother and I rolled our eyes and said:


Later that night after TV dinners in the breakfast nook and The Steve Allen Show in black and white – we said goodnight and went to our rooms – my mother to her vodka on the rocks, my brother to improve his belching skills and me to:

Dear Papa,

Mummy says I’m human.  Does that mean I don’t have to become a woman?

PS In case you’re wondering, I know you’re dead.

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