by Victoria Barrett
It started in high school.
Instead of buying decent folders or notebooks or whatever it was that succeeded the Trapper Keeper, I would buy the cheapest shit I could find and plaster magazine ads all over it. Mostly the black and white Guess Jeans ads with Claudia Schiffer and Anna Nicole Smith doing improbable activities like riding horses topless on a beach in high winds while wearing impossibly tight jeans and eyeliner that, for a 15-year-old who still (God, why me?) wasn't permitted to wear makeup, could only be described as aspirational.
Never mind that the two pairs of Guess jeans I owned were both third-hand; one was torn in all the right places for 1991, and besides, Chris Raymond* told the whole basketball team I had a fine ass within earshot the first time I wore them to school, so you better believe I wore them until the threads ran in only one direction. We all tight-rolled and stacked our socks anyway, so it was fine that, by junior year, they were several inches too short. Fine.
Anyway, the folders: Sometimes I used an X-Acto knife to shave perfectly clean edges and glue-sticked Claudia and Anna Nicole to the folders with precision; sometimes I left them ragged and let the tape show at the edges, which seemed just a little more punk rock to me. It wasn't so much that I wanted to be cool or even liked Guess jeans all that much. It was that I didn't want to be the kid with the shitty, boring, cheap folders that didn't even have glossy finishes (which sucks for glue sticks anyway). I didn't think particularly much about what the display of these images did make me, though I ended up a conflicted mix of proud and pissed off when the same ads started showing up taped to the folders of younger girls.
Fast forward five years. I'm on hiatus from my only hope, college, working two jobs and living in my mother's dreadful apartment through some kind of arrangement where our relationship can't be pinned down. (She threatens and hits me not when I stay too long, but when I suggest I might leave.) I landed here after breaking down slowly, in fits and starts, a semester of all Bs on my grade report followed by a semester of nothing at all. Probation, reinstatement, probation again. The fraternity boys I'd made friends with in the dorm would show up to serenade me with "Hooked on a Feeling" or "More Than Words" and I would be embarrassed and thrilled. The better parts of me would wake and rise and feel alive, and I might even go to class for once. I would look around at the well-adjusted people from kind and supportive families and think: Who am I? What am I doing here?
Like so many first-generation college kids — we were everywhere in the 90s — I couldn't name an answer. I couldn't sustain any progress, either.
So at 21, I had already tried college, flunked out, moved home, and discovered right-quick that "home" was a concept that did not apply to me in the way it applied to those nice kids from nice families. In a hail of my mother's sputtering rage, swinging fists, and projectiles, I packed what I had to have into my old beater Chevy and drove 40 miles north to my new apartment in the townie section of my college town. The apartment had 10-foot ceilings and enormous windows and was old and decrepit and beautiful in its own way, by which I mean no one had ever done a thing to improve its appearance or function. This was fine with me. I'd never had much elegance anyway.
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Once my mother's rage dissipated I found that she hadn't, as promised, thrown my stuff in a pile in the parking lot and set it afire. I moved a handed-down king-size waterbed, one small bookshelf, and a lot of boxes of junk. A single milk crate of pots and plates. A lot of weird, sloppy, hacked-up sewing supplies and cheap, ill-fitting clothing and books. The posters I'd bought for my dorm room. No place to sit but the bed. Every scrap of everything once the property of someone else. Nothing of my own.
But it had started in high school, this habit of using someone else's images and ideas and objects to speak my heart. I scavenged foul-smelling pallets and orange crates from the tiny mercado across the street. I bought a used desk for $25 and a damaged antique parlor seat for $40. I bought a papasan chair from Pier 1 but made my own cushion. I refashioned the pallets and orange crates into a tabletop and bench. I made legs for the table from stacks of used terra cotta pots affixed with hot glue. I pulled the scraps from a chipboard TV stand left at the curb and covered them with many layers of glue and photos and magazine ads and stickers from vending machines, and gave them flowerpot legs, too, and voila: coffee table. End table. The clippings weren't beautiful semi-nude women by then; they were mostly text shilling cars and athletic shoes, sans images of either, instead bearing mini-manifestos:
MACHINE WASH. TUMBLE DRY.
WHY BE PERFECT AT ONE THING WHEN YOU CAN BE PRETTY DAMN GOOD AT EVERYTHING?
LOVE NEVER DIES.
To be clear, I had no heroes, no perfection, no real love. Was I pretending to be the person these jumbled words and images described? Or was I simply on the cusp of becoming, in that beautiful wreck of an apartment, finally, terrifyingly, on my own? When we look into the world — into the pages of a magazine or into another person's face — and recognize ourselves looking back, we are made real by what we see there, by what is reflected back. An old love, visiting the apartment for the first and only time, told me, "This is like being inside your head." Considering the ramshackleness, the mess, I don't think it was supposed to be a compliment. But in that moment I felt, for one of the first times in my adult life, that I'd been really seen. That the person I wanted to be had begun to manifest, right before our eyes, made real by the cobbling together with glue and string of cast-off materials nobody else could use.
Last summer I found one of the decoupaged "tabletops" in our flooded basement. It all still seemed true to me, this patched-together person it was trying to describe. But the corners were soggy and the back had acquired a colony of mold, so it had to go. I will have to remind myself of who I'm supposed to be on my own.
*name changed to protect myself, mostly
Victoria Barrett's fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Glimmer Train, Salon, PANK, and other outlets. She lives and writes in a house full of men and boys (even the pets) and tries not to feel too bad about it.