Writer Jami Attenberg once wondered if her life would have been different if she’d had any confidence in her appearance as a younger woman. Instead she says, she revelled in her brain, and all the places it could take her …
American fiction writer and essayist Jami Attenberg is the author of five novels and a short story collection. Her essays have been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Vogue, Elle and The Gloss. A new book of essays, I Came All This Way to Meet You (Profile), from which this extract is taken, is out now.
Once I fell on the ice.
When I was younger, I broke a lot of bones, had a lot of wounds, did all different kinds of damage to myself. I broke my wrist three times before the age of seven. Left wrist twice, right wrist once. For a time I was ambidextrous, and I wish I could have held on to that skill, if only so it would have made me special in some physical way, instead of merely cerebral. I didn’t like pain or the healing process, but I saw how there could be a story to come from all of it. A story to tell.
I fell on the ice when I was in third grade. It was the accident that would most form me in my life, the scar which I still linger upon occasionally, prodding it, longing nearly, for what I do not know. Possibly the alternate timeline where it did not happen to me, and for that period of my life I did not look the way I did because of it.
It happened one winter, at school, where we were all made to memorise Kilmer’s most famous work, which begins: “I think that I shall never see / a poem lovely as a tree”. I enjoyed memorising it. Give my brain, then a brand-new sponge, something to do. I particularly loved the line “Poems are made by fools like me”. Give this fool a task. Give her a poem to know.
During recess all of my classmates would slip and slide on the frozen ground that stretched across the sunken basketball court while I stood wistfully nearby on the edge of the snow-covered grassy slope that surrounded it, watching everyone scream and laugh and fall. I had learned not to take physical risks by then. I was weak-boned, I was clumsy, I was overweight, I was uncoordinated. All these things I had intuited, by the way my gym teachers spoke to me, and various family members, too, or other classmates’ observations of me, meant to be cruel or not, or even just by watching how other children moved differently than I did, freely, without hesitance, running and laughing and embracing the world. I did not want to hurt myself. And was there anything wrong with watching anyway? Observing their play. The way they chattered and laughed and teased each other, these girls and boys, still only just that. A lifetime of the observing of others awaited me, and perhaps I already knew that, I was so comfortable with the behaviour, even if part of me knew it would be nice to have that kind of fun, too.
Who knows what my life would have been like if I’d had any confidence in my appearance as a youth. Instead, I revelled in my brain, and all the places it could take me.
So I stood and watched.
At my desk, in this moment, I can still see the kids slipping in front of me – right before the moment of impact. Another girl – a little heavier, a little more awkward perhaps, but unwilling to give up the joy of her physicality for safety – fell off the ice and onto me. I was caught off guard; my defence mechanisms failed me. As I fell, I bit forcefully through my lip. I screamed. A teacher ran to me and hurried me away from the crowd gathering around me. There was blood everywhere, on the ice, on the snow, on my yellow puffy winter jacket with the faux-fur trim; I saw it on my sleeve. I was rushed to the nurse’s office while the principal’s assistant searched through a filing cabinet for contact info for my parents. Everyone was shaky. The nurse told me to wash off my face, and I stood at the sink and looked in the mirror, my torn lip and blood-smattered face, and screamed again, and kept screaming, unable to stop looking – always I am unable to stop looking when I should know better, as if I am willing myself to be affected – until finally the nurse came in and pulled me away, directed me to a single bed in the corner, covered with the scratchy army-issue blanket, a place for children to rest for a moment but not to linger.
In a few hours, I was on an operating table. The surgeon was cheerful and chatty as he sewed up my lip from the inside. I trust he did his best. It would take two weeks to heal and I would be disfigured for the time being, a portion of my top lip hanging down over the lower lip. I was still growing, so there could be no plastic surgery yet. Not for another four years, in fact. I would be chubby, smart, and weird-looking for a while.
I always laugh at this part of the story when I tell it to someone out loud. It’s not funny, it wasn’t funny at the time. It’s just that there was such an attrition of badness, social maladies heaped upon me. I would be unhappy for so long, but, now, finally, it’s funny. The excess of it all! If you wait long enough, everything gets funny.
Who knows what my life would have been like if I’d had any confidence in my appearance as a youth. Instead, I revelled in my brain, and all the places it could take me. I was as fearless as I liked in my imagination. I would not trade my relationship with my brain for anything – it has always served me best; it is truthful, reliable, powerful; it solves problems; it makes art; it helps me to be of service in the universe. It is my reason for being. And I was not destined to be a great beauty regardless, nothing more than pleasant-looking, brown-haired, brown-eyed, a woman with a nice smile, a not-small nose, big breasts, big ass, a comforting body, rather than any kind of challenge. I am a comfort in my appearance. I am familiar. I am frequently told I look like someone’s cousin, or college roommate or the like, and it seems a fond enough comparison. Still, I wonder what it would have been like to feel pretty in those formative years, or pretty enough, or simply not a freak.
On a Zoom session in April 2020, I’m talking to a few friends and I tell them I’m writing about this part of my life. We talk every two weeks. We drink. We miss each other. We try not to be scared. My friend Emily, always pragmatic, scoffs at the question of how my life would have been different, tells me it doesn’t matter, being pretty. My friend Alice, who writes speculative fiction, lights up at the idea of it, the fictional alternate path, which I agree could be an interesting exercise, although I do not know if imagining it would be necessarily helpful. I’m of the same mind as Emily: What does it matter? Here we are.
“If you were pretty, you would have gotten a lot more slow back rubs from local community theatre directors,” says Emily, sage and wise. And pretty.
Being a smart girl is always better. This I know and can promise. Being a smart girl means you can always take care of yourself. Being a smart girl means you can figure shit out. Being a smart girl means your self-worth does not alter with time.
I invest heavily in being a smart girl for a long time after that fall. I still do.
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