A Letter to the Editor
by KARA VANDERBIJL
Womanhood is an exception to every rule, much like irregular verbs in French. I was always taught that to master these grammatical anomalies, one must first learn the rule and then how to break it expertly, and never the other way around. “After all,” my teacher said, “we learned to fly by keeping our feet on the ground.” The only catch to being a constant exception is that the exception then becomes a rule in itself. French verbs can only be so irregular; after a while, they have to follow some kind of structure. A man couldn’t bleed for a week every month and live, but a woman can.
If the stories are true, woman has been an alarming exception from the very beginning. Eve bloomed from Adam’s rib and never forgot it — why else would she have listened to the serpent, who told her she could again be transformed, and this time into the likeness of the divine? Adam was cursed because he did not live up to his manhood, but Eve was cursed for trying to be God — the ultimate exception. The curse changed her ability to create into a painful endeavor, something that to a woman is a deep and disquieting irregularity. Since then, to be a woman means to be painfully and abnormally conjugated, and to bleed for it.
The day it happened to me, I wasn’t prepared and it took me a while to come to terms. I emerged into the world finally with a sort of half-resignation and disdain, and was shocked when I found chocolate cake and gifts waiting on the kitchen table for me. My mother hung up the phone as I slid into a chair and smiled at me like we were in on some sort of cosmic secret, just the two of us.
"Your aunt says, ‘Congratulations’," she beamed.
"Thanks," I said, but I wasn’t sure if that was the right word.
She looked at me for a moment, almost indulgently, and then stepped over and kissed my forehead in blessing. "Now you're a woman."
That cosmic secret only goes to show that sometimes our bodies are much further ahead than the rest of us. I was twelve and felt no more like a woman than I had before the blood. Yet when it happened, it was somehow much more than a simple biological transformation enabling me to carry children. It was the ticket to a new period of life, one in which I would potentially be allowed to attend sleepovers, wear makeup, and flock to the restroom with other females. And I found, secretly, that I was proud of it — proud not only of its symbolism, but also of the pure physical fact. I was proud to be the exception to a rule, proud that I could lose something so essential to life and yet somehow create life with it. This form of hubris, I believe, all women inherited from the beginning, if only to cope with the fact that they will never be divine.
A sort of shy self-awareness followed, as new curves found their shape as gently as fine penmanship. First shaky and then smooth, they were the outward expression of this lovely and hidden thing, like a beautifully written letter. I learned to use them like I learned to use new words: syllable by syllable, meaning by meaning. At first I was as concerned about my femininity as I was concerned about my writing — worried that it all promised a unique and engaging story that I would never be able to tell. I perfected my handwriting, spending long hours copying my notes from class, giving the proper attention to spelling and grammar. Je suis, j’ai, je suis, j’ai, je suis, j’ai…
My mother warned me about the stories I should never tell, namely that I should never look a man in the eye on the subway and that I should never respond when they called from doorways or alleys. I learned to look through people on the street as if they were windowpanes, to pretend that they didn’t exist except as modifiers in time’s sentence. Once a man put his hand on my knee in the train and I whispered fiercely, "Don’t touch me!" I was terrified of being a direct object and even more terrified of becoming an indirect object, one that men followed or whistled to on the streets. I learned to keep my face impassive and to tell stories only to those who would listen, behavior that was later reinterpreted as aloofness.
For a few years, I had to commute a great distance to get to school and left home early in the morning, long before the sun came up. The streets were empty and I was lonely in the way a woman is lonely when caught in the tension between what is and what should be, stretched and parsed both descriptively and prescriptively. I was younger and taller than most of the men I took the bus with, and I wondered what they thought of me standing there with them before seven o’clock. I imagined the stories that my clothes told them, the stories I would have told if I thought they would listen.
It was during those morning commutes that I began to feel as if I were being followed. I remembered what my mother had said and refused to look back over my shoulder, keeping the story to myself in defiance. Yet I was fascinated by the thought of someone knowing me by another name than I knew myself, calling me elle instead of je — "she” instead of "I" — conjugating me in a tense I had never known since I could not step out of my own skin. I flirted with this idea and punctuated it by taking a different route to the train; after all, I had always been told to avoid the predictable when being followed, just as I had been taught that all good stories start with beginnings that taste like champagne. The follower, a strange conglomeration of parental authority and romantic ideals, slashed a red pen through my charade and reminded me that I had to play by his rules. I began to wonder if he thought my scarf was askance, that I used too many semi-colons.
Loneliness in a woman is a bitter thing, bitter because Adam’s loneliness was solved and hers was not. It is lonely to be the subject of every sentence you write, no matter how long they are or how many modifiers you find it in you to use. Loneliness, too, is a form of hubris — a blatant refusal to acknowledge the shame in being an exception, which is a crime worse than simply refusing to follow the rules. For a long while I let the Editor prescribe my goings and doings, and loved when my day came back free of red ink. I found the irony in the French term les règles and decided that to be a woman was of no greater significance than the difference between a dash and a hyphen.
I worried that my perfume was too sweet, that I had forgotten to check for split infinitives.
When I turned twenty, somebody asked me to tell them about a time I was the only one not dancing in a nightclub in Barcelona and I found myself wondering why they wanted to hear it. Since it was no longer possible to see people as windowpanes, I used everything I had learned about tone and told stories as if they were for the people I was telling them to. It was with surprise, then, and disappointment that I ultimately realized I had preferred being considered a direct object than being considered a subject. As a result, I unwittingly uncovered the difference between the way men interact with women in America and the way they interact in France.
When I moved to Chicago, I found that men would come and talk to me if I had a book in my hands and a cup of tea on the table. None of them would sit down, though; they were content to ask me what I thought of the book, if I liked it or not, while standing awkwardly with their hands in their pockets. The Editor wrote notes in the margin on how they would think I was one of those people if they caught me reading Stieg Larsson, and a hipster if they caught me reading Ayn Rand, and how I should just stick with the tea and remain aloof. Besides, I was reminded, in all likelihood none of them had read Pascal.
Loneliness, however, is a more brutal editor than self. I continued to bring books to coffee shops, and I found the men to be kinder critics; unable to tell the difference between a dash and a hyphen, they would only see curves like gentle penmanship, writing all the words they loved and understood best.
"Burden of Tomorrow" - The Tallest Man On Earth (mp3)
"The Drying of the Lawns" - The Tallest Man On Earth (mp3)
"Love Is All" - The Tallest Man On Earth (mp3)