Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

Being Bad

BY AMANDA LAABS

My high school best friend and I were desperate to transcend the staleness of our Midwestern landscape. Iggy, already an expert in badness, had once gotten so high on cough syrup with her nineteen-year-old boyfriend that she threw up at a bowling alley and I, at 16, was looking to push boundaries in similarly scintillating ways. Sophomore year, she introduced me to weed and I fell in love with it: loved the lightheaded detachment it gave me from everyday life, the expansive feeling it created in my head. We spent an entire summer leaning outside the window of her apartment’s bathroom and taking hits off a water bottle pipe before going to her complex’s deserted pool, where we danced around and smoked cigarettes, staying so late the sun streaked the sky pink and white. We smoked and went to restaurants downtown, smoked and went to parties in neighboring suburbs. We flattened dimebags in between our mattress and box spring, shoved glass pipes in our underwear to get them past concert security. We became the girls who smoked weed, at our school and outside of it. “Do you guys just like, smoke and do things?” a friend asked me, slightly baffled, during our junior year. “Pretty much,” I replied, happy with the description. I even won an award for it, pictured in my senior yearbook arm-in-arm with our school’s beloved pot dealers (the teachers, finally wise to the “Pilot” award, abolished it a year later.)

Smoking weed became an animating force for me. I liked the people it introduced me to and the things it suggested about who I was. My senior year of high school, I lost my virginity to a twenty-year-old who was friends with Iggy’s dealer. He was in college downtown, and I spent the summer after graduation driving the leafy-green streets of the east side of Milwaukee, on my way to party with his skateboarding, beer-drinking friends. I was in love with him, and when, inevitably, he broke my heart, Iggy was the first person there, bowl in hand. “I wish I had never introduced you to him,” she said earnestly, eyes still wet from crying. She exhaled and passed the pipe to me.

*

I had grown up good at a time when girls were very, very bad. The millennium had turned nearly a decade earlier and brought nothing with it but more adolescent girl crisis: Britney Spears in a satin bra on the cover of Rolling Stone, Elizabeth Smart kidnapped by knifepoint from her bedroom in Salt Lake City, the New York Times bestseller Odd Girl Out (later turned into a popular Lifetime movie) which I devoured in a few days while curled up in my family’s sunny living room. At 13, I learned that girls had the capacity for tremendous cruelty, and that, in its banality and seeming unproductivity, this type of cruelty was deeply troubling. At the pond down the street, I had seen neighborhood boys tear the legs off frogs before nonchalantly tossing their wriggling bodies back onto the grass. My older brother had been my near-constant bully: in those days, he was prone to cornering me in the kitchen as I clutched the broom and pinching or spitting on me until he got bored. And more than once, I had witnessed my mother speak to my father with shocking cruelty, her words the gleaming edge of a piece of glass. Cruelty, it seemed to me, had very little to do with gender, and much more to do with a willingness to project one’s problems outward in times of crisis—to fling them around the room. Insecurity, maybe. Coping: certainly.

I turned inward when I felt threatened. I would rather beat myself to smithereens than let anyone else suffer because of what I felt. Consequently, I was a nice girl. A good girl. My only middle-school foray into badness involved an unspoken best-friend competition in which I, desperate to win, resorted to composing a list of one hundred things I hated about my rival. I was too terrified to show it to anyone and it probably would have disappeared in some landfill had my father not found it under my pillow. He was livid. Terrified that I might be turning into one of those reckless, uncaring girls of the new millennium he was (also) watching on Lifetime, he delivered the punishment personally instead of sending it through my mother. This made it very serious.

This is one thing that happens when you teach girls their tendencies toward cruelty—or sexuality, violence, recklessness; badness in general—are inert moral failings. It’s not that these tendencies go away. Girls are not made pure by yearning, especially not our cultural yearning for them (particularly those of us who are white) to collectively dispel the moral failing of the nation. Instead, girls point these tendencies inward. Always to be felt, never to be seen. They cut like little knives.

*

Iggy and I separated for college. At my famously cloistered university just outside Chicago, it took me a full three months to find a single person who smoked weed. This was deeply disconcerting, and I hated my first year. I spent my second year stomping around campus in combat boots, hair dyed black from a box, smoking cigarettes and listening to the Notorious B.I.G. Eventually, I found a few people who smoked weed, and they introduced me to a boy who smoked more weed than anyone I’d ever met. T hit the bong morning, afternoon, and night; before his Mathematics classes, before his chess lessons, before he walked to corner spot to buy fried chicken and waffle fries. Soon we were sleeping together, and the sex, bookended by generous hits off his bong, was incredible. He had a car—rare at our university—with windows tinted so dark you couldn’t see inside. We drove into Chicago for a restaurant or museum and parked around the corner to hotbox and fuck in the backseat, the occasional lower half of a passerby always bringing me a particular thrill.

I couldn’t believe I was getting away with these things—me, the girl who had spent her summers reading books in bed, who was so nervous during her first kiss that she shook violently. I couldn’t believe this was the person I had become. And it was in moments like these, moments that felt dramatically different from both the circumstances of my childhood and the child I had been, that I stepped cleanly outside of my body to hover somewhere nearby, watching T grip my ass, black hair cascading down my back, basking in the glow of what I saw.

*

My rebellions were minor, and not nearly as dangerous as I hoped they might be. But they defined me in many ways—they were how I separated myself from the flatness of my Midwestern landscape, and, as soon as they became how I was seen by others, they became how I saw myself. And this, for the most part, was how I wanted to be seen: I wanted to be the cool girl, the rebellious girl, the girl who drinks, smokes, and fucks. Certainly, this desire was born in part from the run-of-the-mill rebelliousness that infects all of suburban teenagedom, wafting across its football fields like a portending fog. But it was also more than that. Caring about whether or not I was measuring up to expectations of goodness felt like constantly having to keep my body within the confines of a tiny checkbox—reaching down here and there to pull in an errant leg or arm when it began to dangle. For a while, I was willing to do the work. I read teen magazines and slathered mushed-up banana and honey on my pre-pubescent face because I wanted a stake in this equation: this if-you-do-everything-right-you’ll-get-everything-you-want dream we sell to young girls. Of course, it’s impossible to do everything right. Trying to be smart and beautiful and fashionable and sophisticated and fit and nice and sexy but not-too-sexy and selfless and unassuming and constantly wondering where you fit on the essential grid of these things that society is forever triangulating for you guarantees nothing but a lot of wasted time. It took me a while to realize that could be the point.

*

T and I didn’t have much to talk about. Most mornings, I awoke before him and stared at the leaves fluttering outside his bedroom window, feeling a strange sense of vacancy. Smoking and sex fulfilled me enough to carry on with the rest of the day, and then the cycle repeated that night. One morning, glasses smudged, hair a mess of dark curls, he turned to me and started talking about the beginning of our relationship. “I knew you were the girl for me when you suggested we smoke a bowl after the first time we had sex,” he said, smirking. He lit the slide of his bong and inhaled. The comment, intended as compliment, felt like one, and I beamed. It was what I’d been working for: the culmination of the rebellious white girl image I had been actively co-opting, and I was thrilled that my guise had been successful. Yet the comment also unsettled me, and, a few months later, I worked out the feeling in my notebook: The thing is, I only said that because I knew you wanted to hear it. Because I knew that was the kind of girl you wanted. A few pages later, a poem about being bound helplessly / in his cool spring sheets.

*

Around the same time, I was also reading John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. The book is deeply preoccupied with questions of sight and power in society; the entire third chapter—which literally took my breath away when I first read it—analyzes how these things have done their particular work on women through a survey of depictions of women in Western European art. It is worth mentioning that the depictions studied are all white; a treatise involving women of any other color would have yielded different and more urgent results. As it is, Berger’s survey comes to a number of fascinating insights about what placing women in certain visual contexts and postures for hundreds of years has done to them, both socially and psychologically. He writes: “[A woman] has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another.”

*

Soon, I was unhappy. I kept seeing T, and every time we saw each other, he would expect sex, and the more sex we had, the more I would want to be around him. I didn’t know how to stop any of it. Eventually, he broke up with me on our way to dinner one night. We spent the meal in halting silence, and I was humiliated. I had been writing in my notebook for weeks about how much I wanted to stop seeing him, but had been unable to work up the nerve to break it off. Why hadn’t I been able to get rid of someone I didn’t even like? There was the sex of course—and when my junior year Econ professor mentioned oxytocin in a lecture, spurring me to look it up, my attitudes about casual sex changed. But losing him meant more than just losing the sex or the drugs. It meant losing an image—one that I had worked to construct. It meant losing a reputation that paid in dividends; not only do fucking in a public bathroom and smoking weed on the street seem cool—they’re not very dangerous when you’re white.

Of course, I didn’t know any of that then. I just knew that I was hurt. I drank too much and smoked too many cigarettes and somehow dragged myself up in the morning to go to class. “For to confess that their social charms are the product of secret work might make them less valuable,” I read in a Women’s Studies textbook around that time, “just as the sexual revolution has made sexual contact less ‘valuable’ by lowering its bargaining power without promoting the advance of women into higher-paying jobs.” I double-underlined the last part, but didn’t stop to re-read the first. I couldn’t have admitted that my rebellious white girl persona was the result of anything intentional. I thought it was who I was.

*

Not long after, I spent the summer in San Francisco, where Cali weed was so cheap and accessible that I could afford to smoke joints out the window of my eighth-floor hostel room every night. I was mildly bored and painfully lonely, the buzz of the weed a low-dose salve that left me staring out into the fog of the city, wondering what life was like in everyone else’s little light-up box. I was smoking more weed than I ever had, in both frequency and ounce, and I was smoking it alone, a habit that I hadn’t done this unabashedly until now, in an effort to eject from a life that, far less glamorous and more painful than I had imagined, I no longer wanted to look at. But in San Francisco, I woke each morning and sat up to face myself in a mirror. What was I doing here again? I found myself wondering. Why was I dyeing my hair black? Who was I looking at? Why was I pretending that I wasn’t hurt by something that had hurt me? I spent the summer in a fog, trying to trick myself into believing I was the callous and uncaring girl I had been trying to be. I didn’t want a relationship, I told myself, I wasn’t interested in companionship; you were welcome to ghost me—I might even give less of a shit about it than you. I had learned that boys liked these types of girls better because they were low-maintenance and unresponsive to even the most major indignities. For example, T felt comfortable in the months after we had broken up texting me anytime he was drunk, bored, or horny, and I, wanting to be that girl, texted back. We fucked in his bathtub at 3 a.m., we fucked on the eggplant sateen bed sheets I had bought to get over him, and we fucked (for old times sake) in his car. We fucked all the way up until one damp and humid spring night, when I wandered over to a gathering at his friend’s house and found a new girl sitting next to him.

Berger writes: “That part of the women’s self which is the surveyor treats the part which is the surveyed so as to demonstrate to others how her whole self would like to treated. And this exemplary treatment of herself by herself constitutes a presence…Every one of her actions—whatever its direct purpose or motivation—is also read as an indication of how she would like to be treated.”

*

Unlearning seeing yourself through the eyes of others manifests itself as a sort of blindness. It is like growing accustomed double or triple vision and then suddenly having your vision snapped back to 20/20. It is the singleness—the that’s all there is?—that shocks you. This effect follows logically from Berger’s premises. If women learn to see themselves as an “…object…and most particularly an object of vision: a sight,” then a removal of that sight—a snatching away of that object—would throw seeing into chaos. To that end, being bad was no more liberating than being good, however much it felt that way at the time. I learned to see myself through others; I became the thing others wanted me to be. All of it involved the same dull, tedious work of self-maintenance that inched me, further and further, into a sort of blindness that announced itself each morning I awoke in San Francisco. Try it yourself. Sit up each morning to see yourself in a mirror. Take a good, long look. Ask yourself: Is this all there is? Ask yourself: Is this all I see?



Amanda Laabs is a writer and teacher living in Salt Lake City. She is currently an MFA candidate at the University of Utah.