I was a painfully different kid. There were many things, both inside and out, that set me starkly apart from the kids around me. Or maybe it was more like the outside differences were such that I believed concretely that my insides must be terribly weird and corroded and nothing at all like the insides of my classmates. We were poor in a very wealthy community. We were members of a minority religious group that required us to abstain from normal kid things in very overt ways – birthday cupcakes, the Pledge of Allegiance, those blobby alien-looking turkeys you make out of handprints for Thanksgiving, Christmas as a whole, etc. I was an unattractive child with orange hair the color of traffic cones that jutted out at odd angles, big giant gaps in my teeth and sticky-outy ears about which my mother delighted in commenting that when I was born she didn’t know if I would walk or fly. But probably the most toxic difference was that instead of the safety and stability I saw in the homes of my peers, my home was rocked by violence, addiction and mental illness that twisted us all into terrifying unnatural shapes, shapes we hid from the rest of the world.
I remember watching the beautiful blonde girls, those precious porcelain creatures with their clean nails and their pearl-drop teeth, like a hungry urchin with my face pressed up against the glass of the finest bakery. They were like a different species, fairies to my scurrying, scaly goblin-self. Their hair fell in soft waves around their faces and their fingers were never chewed and bloody and their clothes were all brand name and their dolls stayed pristine and glamorous. Their rooms were pink and frilly and not shared by necessity with an older sister who appeared to hate them.
There were these twins, just absolutely the most lovely little long-eyelashed, full-lipped little girls you ever saw, who wore exclusively pink or lavender so that people could tell them apart. Early on in grade school, before the lines really got drawn and the children started to get cruel, when I was still being invited to sleepovers at the homes of the beautiful girls, I went to one at the twins’ house. I think they each had their own playroom, although I could be remembering that wrong in the overwhelming haze of loveliness and luxury and sickly pink-or-lavender-tinted envy that seized me like a vice grip. I clearly recall the multitude of table-top Ataris, and that I played Frogger timidly in a corner until somebody ripped it out of my hands. They had a Christmas tree that reached up to the sky-lit open-beam rafters of their two story living room. Their parents were young and lovely and playful, lenient and sober. Safe. I was so disoriented that I faked a stomach ache and had my mother come pick me up after the girls went to bed. She took me home to our fear and poverty and insanity and cramped apartment airlessness, which were all blessedly familiar and normal.
For many years of my childhood I put myself to sleep every night with a careful inventory of all the things that were wrong about me. From my toes all the way up to the top of my head I would count them out – 1) Weird bunyony feet. 2) Knock-kneed. 3) Bow-legged. 4) Fat stomach. 5) Little white-head acne all over my arms that I compulsively picked at. 6) Ugly. 7) Gapped teeth. 8) Big nose. 9) Giant ears. 10) Scary orange hair. They were my rosary beads, my litany, my way of understanding and explaining a world that consistently rejected me. It must be these things that make other kids torture me, that make my stepfather punch holes through doors and leave bruises on us, that make my mother disappear into fluid melancholy or rage. That made sense. It was compassable, I could get my chewed-fingered little hands around it. They were also proof of the terribly shameful thing that cringed and quivered inside of me, this difference, this wrongness. This me.
I’ve been thinking about this stuff for the past few days, as I’ve waited to learn whether or not the heroic amount of time, money and ovary-mutilating effort we expended this month will result in a pregnancy. I’ve thought about it as I watch women all around me, bearing and rearing babies that they have somehow managed to conceive and carry to term. I’ve wondered how many of those beautiful porcelain girls have children now, how many got pregnant without difficulty, exactly when they wanted, or maybe even accidentally – although never at a bad time. I’ve pictured them looking into the faces of children who look like them, beautiful and finely carved like ivory figurines, pictured them seeing there the reflection and culmination of all their loveliness and rightness and safety. I’ve pondered the diabolical fucking mystery of why all these women can do this thing, this elusive, ubiquitous, fact-of-life thing that I can’t seem to do to save my life. And I cannot figure it out.
This afternoon we found out that I am not pregnant.
The urge to collapse into all my old understandings is tremendous. I am infertile because I am not good enough. I am infertile because I am overweight. I am infertile because we waited too long because I was flaky and took 12 years to get through school and couldn’t find paid work after and am terrible with money and irresponsible about everything and just generally an awful, useless person. I am infertile because this wrongness, this shamefully terrible, cringing, quivering thing that inhabits my deepest places is so toxic that no life can take hold there. I am infertile because I am me.
Don’t bother telling me that this is irrational, because I know perfectly well that it is. I am a fucking therapist, for pete’s sake. I work almost exclusively with children who believe that their insides are rotten and unlovable because of trauma, and I am encyclopedically aware of the theory. But this is what comes up when month after month, year after year I fail to conceive. What comes up is ugly and brittle and impervious to grownup reason. What comes up is old and barbed like prison wire. In the face of the perfectly deadly logic of self-hatred, all I can do is write it out and try to move forward.
Just to clarify, although I believed that my sister hated me when we were kids, we are incredibly close as adults. I’m pretty sure she doesn’t hate me now. She is very supportive and hasn’t tried to flush my head in the toilet in a really long time. Years, even.