When I was six or seven, I spent the summer in Lombardy. My extended family assembled in a large, crumbling country house. We called it “the castle,” and I think the nickname warped my memories — I recall vaulted ceilings, a cobbled floor, an owl perched on a ledge. I saw centipedes in the bathtub. My sister found scorpions and froze them in ice cube trays. One night, as everyone drank and chatted on the patio, I clambered up the stony stairs to where my parents slept. The room was big, with a balcony and a view of the lake beyond. I walked through the French windows, put my hands on the railing, and shouted to my relatives below. They looked up, their bodies like ants — then I pulled down my pants and I mooned the whole crowd. They tell me I shouted, “The moon is out tonight.”
Back then, I threw tantrums in shopping malls. I called my dad a “dumb girl.” I was afraid of the dark. Of course, the tics and bad habits shifted with age — I turned anger to angst, fear to anxiety — and exhibitionism, too, changed and then hardened. I found in its stead a taste for the vulnerable. Vulnerability was a tool, a performance, a skill. I used Chatroulette in high school. I couldn’t keep secrets. And I never closed the blinds. My old room, on the ground floor, had a huge window that looked out onto the street. At night, I caught sight of neighbors and families and they looked my way too — the light warm and bright in the dark — but I didn’t close the blinds.
As I grew conscious of the male gaze, I used vulnerability to push against ideals I couldn’t embody. Womanhood is a trick of the light. Blanche DuBois needs paper lanterns and silky robes. As she powders her nose and curls her hair, she sings, “It’s only a paper moon,” and when a train trundles by, shining light into her room, she cries out. She turns away. Blanche terrifies me — I don’t turn away. I don’t turn away from trains and bright lights or neighbors and families. I cherish exhibitionism, inappropriate honesty, trivial confessions. When I was 12 or 13, I heard the word “unladylike” as an implicit rebuke, and I started to swear. I’m almost 20, and I still love to say “Fuck.” I love the weight of it, the brevity. I love that my mom still reacts. Washing dishes one-handed as we talk on the phone, she’ll pause, and the splashes will stop. I don’t think she understands: Her father calls every woman he meets a “classy lady,” and the words make me sick.
I don’t mean to accuse or instruct. Artifice is inevitable, sure. Civilization is dissimulation. But I don’t want to age gracefully or tastefully. I don’t want to hide. I’m afraid the veils and powders and tinctures of femininity will cover my moles and my pores. I am a girl so introverted I practice pathological honesty. I don’t talk in class and I don’t make new friends — when I do speak, I puke confessions and secrets. (I met a person last year who asked, “Are you always this honest?” I said, “Yes, mostly.”) Sometimes, I imagine a Classy Lady Convention, and all the world’s Classy Ladies milling about a high school gym — they’re wearing cream-colored pantsuits and long strings of pearls. They have bouffants so blonde they’re a dazzling white. I want you to know: I don’t own a pearl necklace. My hair is messy and dark. I have crooked teeth, ashy knees, and I shave my big toes.
I don’t think my honesty is any more authentic than Blanche’s powders and paper moons. The Self is dynamic and fickle, a stage upon which perceptions dance and flit. I have no essence, no transcendental ego. Philip Roth got it right: Human interaction is “an astonishing farce of misperception.” Still, I pine for people who get me in some crazy, perfect way, who really understand. I document every emotional and intellectual twitch — because how else will I find my freaky, lonely soulmates? The first boy I loved described me as “shy.” Nothing more. I asked for a word, and the asshole chose “shy.” At 16, I thought I’d never recover. I did. And then I told a new boy the whole story.