Memoirville

EXCERPT from RED: The Next Generation of American Writers—Teenage Girls—On What Fires Up Their Lives Today

Saturday, December 15th, 2007

By Larry Smith

RED: The Next Generation of American Writers–Teenage Girls–On What Fires Up Their Lives Today is a remarkable collection of essays. The stories, 58 in all, are a bold and brassy ride across the seemingly unmappable territory that is the mind of the female teen. When I had the pleasure to hear six of these girls read their essays at a high school in Brooklyn, I was blown away by the courage and confidence of the words, whether the topic was dealing with body image or living the good life in the Hamptons.

That evening, Emma Considine read from her essay Bloody Red Heart. “The separated family is a seemingly taboo topic, morally wrong,” she revealed to a roomful of people, including her father. “But look around, everyone’s doing it, it’s a fucking fad! Take my family for instance. It is the reason for lost earrings, homework assignments left unfinished because the textbook is at Dad’s, and aching legs due to walking from one cramped house to another five times a day. My separated family wouldn’t function without 20 phone calls a day, concerning Geico, school tuition, and what Emma wants for Christmas. It smells like stress and is the reason for my unhappy elementary school years.”

“It’s a brave thing they’re doing, writing their bloody red hearts out,” offers RED editor Amy Goldwasser in the book’s introduction. Although a pedigreed magazine editor and writer who’s worked at the likes of The New Yorker, Outside, New York, as well as teen-girl Bible Seventeen, these young, unpublished writers were a revelation for Goldwasser.

“As opposed to professional adult writers,” she said via email, “they really had no interest in pleasing me–which made for the very best, purest kind of editing. I never rewrote a word, I just got to ask a lot of questions then eagerly await (and cut-and-paste) their answers. These girls don’t follow conventions. Their writing is a lot more pure, honest, real.”

With that, we give you three stories from the real girls of RED. —Larry Smith

“The Jewish Hair” by Jane Horowitz, 16
“The Jewish Hair makes the boys who they are and the girls who they would never want to be.”

Red It takes a lot more effort than you might think.

Look closer.

I can only brush my hair right after the shower, when it’s still wet. Make sure it isn’t behind my ears, or there will be a crease. Pulling the Jewish Hair back is out of the question unless it’s completely dry. I can only use those thick bands on my hair, my big hair, my frizzy hair, my curly hair, my wild hair, my sometimes-sexy hair, my long hair, my dark hair. It does everything in its power to make me mad—to turn me into the hot-tempered Jew I am by nature.

For a not-so-limited time, the Jewish Hair comes with the following: a light blue wide-tooth comb, Matrix Vavoom calming gel, anti-frizz serum, split ends, an umbrella, my father’s baseball cap, my mother’s silk scarf, a ceramic steam straightening iron, a lace kipa. Full curls, messy curls, no curls at all. John Frieda smoothing shampoo and conditioner. A bad attitude.

The Jewish Hair is composed of DNA, poof, and tzuris, the Yiddish word for annoyance. The longer it is, the more time it takes. It can be found on men and women, and is also known as the Jewfro. In Orthodox households it is the custom for women to shave it all off and wear a wig. Its sole purpose, it seems, is to get in the way.

When I was thirteen years old, I stood before my family and friends and spoke Hebrew. I chanted ancient prayers and read from the scrolls of the Torah. The bat mitzvah is a nerve-wracking occasion, especially when it comes to the Jewish Hair. Usually one goes to a salon. Usually it takes a team of professionals to tame her monster. All different kinds of up-dos and crazy hair-sprayed experiments can be seen on this special day. Lecheim, everybody.

The Jewish Hair has two styles: up and down. There are slight variations—buns, twists, half-ponytails, low ponytails—but in the end it’s one or the other, up or down. You may use certain styling products, but be careful not to use too much, or you will make your hair crunchy. Don’t get carried away with the straightening iron—you do not have smooth silky-shiny blond hair, and you never will. Don’t try the sexy finger run-through to impress; you’ll just get stuck. And please, please, PLEASE, never attempt bangs.

The Jewish Hair gets ripped off at fashion shows. Tall, slender figures parade under big frizzy balls of teased and sprayed extensions as if in costume. The models can try our look on for however long it takes to walk down the runway, without having to experience the true wonders and trials of actually living with the Jewish Hair. It has been known to resemble a hairy animal. It’s very good at scaring small children.

But, when flipped in a certain way, the Jewish Hair can, believe it or not, be attractive. When there isn’t any moisture in the air, it can be styled just so, resulting in a smile-provoking look. It can actually aid in making a person look pretty and draw in the opposite sex. Occasionally.

The Jewish Hair makes the boys who they are and the girls who they would never want to be. A Jewish girl spends hours at a time in front of her bathroom mirror, shaking and twisting, twirling and pulling. A Jewish boy, however, rolls out of bed in the morning, glances into a mirror, and heads off to school. His giant hair adds to his personality. He is witty and cute, original and friendly.

Funny how that works.

“The Jewish Hair” by Jane Horowitz from RED, edited by Amy Goldwasser. Copyright (c) Amy Goldwasser 2007. Used by arrangement with HudsonStreet Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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“Pots and Pans” by Zulay Regalado, 18
“I was comfortable being the teenage girl with the loud Spanish-speaking, angel-collecting, too proudly Levi’swearing family, and the pot and pan drum set.”

A family gathering at House L in Hialeah, Florida—at least twenty loud, festive Cubans and a drum set consisting of pots and pans—can be quite the scene for any normal person to endure. Normal, of course, meaning anyone who’s not my relative. I imagine it’s a little like the anxiety you’d feel if you were trapped in a steam chamber with no air vent and a strong scent of rice seasoning.

I often skip family dinners like this. I can’t help picturing certain kids in my class watching and judging, and the whole thing can remind me of the most shameful day of my childhood life: sitting with my mother on a park bench at my father’s company picnic, the only Hispanics present. My mother spoke only Spanish and wasn’t able to communicate with the other mothers. She urged me to play with the blue-eyed children, whose parents all knew each other, but they stared at me from the laps of their pinch-nosed mothers. I simply bowed my head and continued to pick at my melting cherry snow cone. They made me feel ashamed to be different, something I thought I could never overcome.

But on the night of July 30th last year, my mother’s birthday, something sparked within me that I would never have believed. I’d decided to join my family, who were wrapped around a long table in the Florida room. Yes, we call it that, even though we live in Florida. The room is adorned with angel statuettes—some giant and glittered, others smaller and at least relatively subtle—in every possible space, because my mother spends most, if not all, of her time and money collecting these figurines.

We had assumed our usual seating arrangements: The elder man of the house, my father, was at the foot of the table. Like nearly every immigrant member of my family, he was dressed in American-brand clothing, loyal to his chosen country. The line of his bifocals was visible in the bright light. My mother was scurrying around, her blue oven mitts in hand, hauling aluminum platters of steaming-hot rice and chicken into the room, followed by a heap of yuca and several bowls of platanos maduros. Her blonde hair, tied in a soft ponytail at the back of her head, gently swayed as she slipped through the bundle of people. She’s a petite five foot one and can do this easily.

Naturally, the men of the family dove into the food first—there’s nothing more mind-boggling to me than the stomach capacity of a Regalado male, which, to my knowledge, has yet to be tested to its limit.

At the far end of the table, my mother and godmother discussed life in Cuba versus life in the U.S. I always choose to look the other way when I feel a they-don’t-know-how-easy-they-have-it speech coming on, so I never really know just how easy I have it. Or how hard they did. “La juventud de estos dias no saben lo que hemos pasado,” my mother told my aunt, who nodded her head as she listened to the routine rant. We American-born children know nothing of hard labor and sacrifice.

The voices became louder as they attempted to overspeak Willie Chirino thumping through the stereo. Some of the children let out shrilly giggles, revealing brilliant holes where their baby teeth once were. As I sat at the packed table, the only teenager in the family, I absorbed the deep laughs and the distinctly Cuban slurring of s’s.

“Ay, que dia mas bonito hemos pasado,” my father contently declared as his eyes twinkled over the many bodies seated around him, all of whom were sporting wide grins and mouths packed with food. My cousins and sisters passed around trays of arroz con pollo and puerco asado. As a tray reached me, my sister looked at me with her big brown eyes and whispered in English, “I’m glad you finally sat down with us tonight. It means a lot to Mom.” I mouthed a quick thank-you to her and began to dig in.

For the first time in eighteen years, instead of wishing myself to be anywhere but the dinner table or the company picnic at the park, I was comfortable with who I am. I was comfortable being the teenage girl with the loud Spanish-speaking, angel-collecting, too proudly Levi’s-wearing family, and the pot and pan drum set. I got up to take my plate to the kitchen with an ease I’d never felt before in the company of so many Regalados. I reached into the freezer, grabbed a cherry popsicle, and returned to sit by my mother, who was laughing and telling childhood tales to the full and happy people at the table. I ate my sticky red American treat in the best company.

“Pots and Pans” by Zulay Regalado from RED, edited by Amy Goldwasser. Copyright (c) Amy Goldwasser 2007. Used by arrangement with HudsonStreet Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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“Mascara Wands Are Instruments of War” by Jordyn Turney, 17
“We’re already so entrenched in the war that it stops being about mascara and jewelry at all. Now it’s about us. And that’s scary.”

Mother-daughter relationships are famous for one thing, really: conflict. It’s like war, except personal. Too personal sometimes. Because moms and daughters know each other so well (or think they do), they often don’t realize when they’ve crossed the line from the argument so familiar they could quote both sides of it into something else. You know the drill. The two of you start arguing over that worn-out jacket you just will not get rid of. It’s the same discussion you’ve been having for a year, with her calling you a pack rat and you slamming the door in her face. But then she says something else, something like, “You need to let go of it, honey.”

And then? Boom. Does she really think you’re holding on too tightly? Does she think you’re living your whole life in the past tense? This is not a fight anymore, because fights come and go, and the in-between time is fine. It’s a war. And in between each battle it nags at you, maybe just a little bit, but a little bit too much.

That my mother and I fight is no exception, but it isn’t the sort you think of as oh-so-typical with teenagers and their mothers. Instead of her insisting that “It’s what’s on the inside that counts” and telling me I focus too much on my appearance, with us it’s the opposite. As in, I don’t focus enough on my appearance. I inherited my mother’s brown eyes, brown hair (even if mine’s nearly black), and her skinny gene. But my typical beauty routine consists of lip gloss, a brushed-but-frizzed-out head of hair, cover-up for my, uh, blemishes, and blush when I remember. I don’t mess with my hair and makeup as much as my mom would like (“Experiment!” she encourages), and clothes are almost the last thing on my mind.

But her? She actually wears makeup—foundation, blush, eye shadow, the whole shebang. Her hair, as much as she claims otherwise, is always done. Then there are the bracelets and handbags that perfectly complement the clothes she loves to shop for, unlike some people.

The thing about it is, at least for me, we’re already so entrenched in the war that it stops being about mascara and jewelry at all. Now it’s about us. And that’s scary. Sure, she’s just telling me how great I’d look if I “opened up” my eyes a bit, but to me it’s more than that. I’m starting to worry that maybe that’s all she sees when she looks at me: a girl with no mascara. That’s not fair to her, of course, but that’s not the point. When it’s all I’m thinking, it may as well be true.

She asks, “How are you going to do your hair?” but what I hear is: You’re not good enough the way you are. You’re not pretty enough. By then the words in translation have sunk deeper and become
more powerful than every time she’s told me that I’m wonderful or beautiful.

But I can’t tell her that. It’s not something I could mention oh-so-casually as we’re in the car listening to NPR (her station, not mine): “Oh, by the way, you have this knack for making me feel ugly and worthless. I know you don’t mean to, but you do.” At least not without risking something huge—the unspoken balance we have. It’s my it-hurts-me-but-I-won’t-let-you-know-just-how-bad policy.

The fact is, she just doesn’t realize that so often the things she thinks are normal, the little things that make girls feel pretty, I just don’t care all that much about. And it’s not because I don’t think I’m worth it or that I have so much self-esteem that it doesn’t even matter. It’s just that sometimes those girl-treat things make me feel more flawed, more self-conscious. Other times, to be perfectly honest, it’s as simple as I really just don’t care. And that’s the part she doesn’t seem to get—when there’s no reason I don’t want to mess with the curling iron. I just don’t.

Still, I’m not so wrapped up in myself to think she’s the only guilty one in this war. I’m sure I hurt her, too, though she doesn’t show it either. Maybe it’s the way I bug her when she takes so long to get ready. Maybe it’s the way I walk out on her when she’s trying her very best to fix my hair (which I messed up, somehow). Maybe when I say I don’t feel like wearing makeup she’s hearing something like, I don’t want to be anything like you. Who knows?

The reality of it is that my mother, cliché as it may be, is the most beautiful woman (on the outside and the inside) I know. When I look at her and think, she’s so beautiful, it’s partly because, well, she is. But it’s mostly because she’s someone who gets excited about watching chick flicks or black-and-white movies on TCM with me. She’s the sort of mom who buys me chocolate when I have my period. The sort of mom who, when I’m in a funk, drives me absolutely crazy wanting to help, even though there’s nothing she can do. As much as I want to be like her in so many ways, she’s impossible to live up to.

And that’s why the simplest comments can hit me at my core. Because she’s my mom, for crying out loud, and I’m her over-analytical daughter who has problems taking her words at face value. A typical exchange (or fight, if you want to put it that way):

“Why don’t you put your hair up?” That’s her, and we’re standing in her bathroom in front of that huge mirror.

“I don’t know,” I’ll say, shrugging. “I didn’t think about it. Should I?”

“Yeah, I think it would look better.” She says this as she reflexively curls the stray hairs that won’t stay curled.

“Does it look bad?” I look at myself in the mirror and realize that, yes, my hair does look frizzy and flat and . . . weird.

“Not bad, just . . . it could look better.” My mother is a sugar-coater.

“OK, so you’re saying it looks bad?”

“It would look so cute if you used one of those big clips I have in that drawer.” She points with her toes because she’s still holding the curling iron up above her head.

So I’ll take the big clip—even though I feel like crying, which, admittedly, is pretty pathetic—and I’ll try to do something with my hair. Something that looks halfway decent. It never works, of course, and I end up taking it down, wearing it frizzy and falling around my shoulders. While her hair (and my little sister’s) looks perfectly perfect. I hate feeling like a disappointment, even though I know our conversation has been about hair and I’m taking it the wrong way.

That’s why I wrote this essay. Because I was mad and because I had to let it all out. But then my mom read it, and there were tears. I hated to see her cry. Hated it. Especially since it was all my fault. If I’d chosen to write about almost anything but her, she’d have been fine with it. Except that we’d still fight, and we’d still fight over the same things we do. We always will. Last week she came in my room, gave me a hug, and made a point of telling me I was beautiful on the inside and the outside. I believed her. I thanked her. Then she brushed a stray hair out of my face.

“Mascara Wands Are Instruments of War” by Jordyn Turney from RED,edited by Amy Goldwasser. Copyright (c) Amy Goldwasser 2007. Used by arrangement with HudsonStreet Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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