In this extract from Samantha Irby’s collection Meaty (Curbside Splendor Publishing, 2013), she recalls her abusive father and the redemptive power of a teenage kiss.
There was a cast iron skillet on the stovetop. Oily, black, and unwieldy, it was the kind you use for hot water cornbread on a Sunday morning, the kind you have to season with bacon grease and a warm oven several times to get it just right, the kind that once nearly broke my toe as it slipped from my grasp on our way to the sink. Once a piece of cast iron cookware has been properly cured you should never wash it with harsh chemical detergents; you soak the stuck-on bits with lemon juice before attempting to peel them away with your fingertips or you ease them off with a dab of vegetable oil and the worn-out sponge curled up in the soap dish. I knew better; but I was tired, and feeling lazy, and feeling like he’d made up these stupid rules just to torment me. They were a test, a test that he knew I would fail. I would fail these tests every single time because even though I knew these land mines were waiting for me I was always half a second too slow to outsmart them. And he set those traps anyway, even though I knew what he was doing, even though I never whistled in the house or wore pants to the dinner table or broke any other of his stupid rules. He did it because he was rigid and stoic and an asshole hellbent on proving a point; hardened to steel by years of dedicated military service. And I am made of all the things he hated most: feelings and tears and weakness. I was my mother’s coddled child: spoiled and soft, quick to lose myself in a daydream, a lazy sensualist who preferred reading in pajamas all day to the outdoor, character-building activities that were my father’s preference.
I knew my dad was home, puttering around in the dining room grumbling to himself as was his way, organizing towering stacks of losing lottery tickets and ironing the uniform he would wear later that evening to drive some wealthy North Shore businessman to the airport in his rented Lincoln Town Car. But I didn’t care about any of that, because I had a crush on a kid named Michael Williams. He was a senior, a popular football standout (as much of a standout as one can be on a mediocre suburban team), and the star of the highlight reel culled from my otherwise unremarkable junior year of high school. Michael was bright and loud and charming and energetic but most of all HE WAS GORGEOUS, and that was absolutely terrifying to me. I knew that his ever becoming more than a casual acquaintance in my life was a Not Possible Thing, but he was so fucking nice to me, and not in the patronizing way of some of my crushes past. I had a skirt picked out for if I was ever lucky enough for him to ask me out on a date.
No one ever wanted to be the object of my affections. I had learned this the hard way several years prior, in the seventh grade. I was always falling in precocious child love with the most inappropriate people, but always the people you’d least expect: the grown up (probably homeless) man who smoked cigarettes all day in the park near our apartment, the uncoordinated boy with the unfortunate skin who sat across from me in the band, the social studies teacher. It has always been my tendency to swoon over the safest available target, the one least likely to draw the affections of anyone else. My favorite New Kid on the Block was Jonathan, for fuck’s sake. I knew in my heart that I would never in life have a shot with the smooth, adorable frontman who got all the solos, that a Jordan or a Joey would never be within my reach, so I focused my attentions on the shy one who danced and sang in the background. I’m a fan of low-hanging ambiguously gay fruit.
It’s not really that, though. I don’t know how to explain it, but you know. Come on, YOU KNOW. You know, within the social hierarchy of your average middle school, who gets to have a crush on whom. I knew that I wasn’t allowed to be smitten with the unattainable popular bros with their new Eddie Bauer backpacks and fresh Adidas three-stripes. I also wasn’t supposed to develop anything other than a distant admiration for the thugs in their brand new Air Jordans (WITH THE TAGS STILL ON THEM, very important) and brightly-colored Starter jackets. I had no problem aiming low, setting my sights on the freaks and the nerds and the loners. I wasn’t going to talk to any of them anyway, because I prefer my fantasies be somewhat realistic. I don’t enjoy being rejected in my daydreams.
The new boy at school was named John, and from what I could tell he was probably mean and possibly boring. And from the moment I laid eyes on him I knew that I wanted to be his more than friend. Not that I expected anything to come of it, I just liked playing with the idea of this heartthrob in my head, manufacturing conversations we’d have about Jane Eyre, imagining the two of us winning the geography bee. He was very polite and very charming, with clear skin and brown hair and a slight overbite. We didn’t have any classes together, so I didn’t know much about him other than what I could glean from hallway chatter and speculation. The best thing about him, at least in my selfish estimation, was that he was new. I’d known pretty much everyone else at Nichols Middle School since birth. They’d all witnessed my disabled mother pushing her walker through the gym during choir concerts, they already knew that I was regularly yanked out of class to talk to the social worker. There was no rewriting some mysterious backstory with this crowd. My only hope for a slice of pre-teen romance was for some transplant to fall head over Chuck Taylors in love with me before he had the chance to find out that my mom and I shared a room we rented from my grandmother and that my Nikes had been $7 from the Salvation Army.
I kept it to myself for two whole weeks, which is an eternity in twelve year old girl time. But the problem with a crush is that you have to tell someone you have it, otherwise it feels like it doesn’t count. But who? Who could I trust with my most exciting new secret? Every time I saw him my heart would catch in my throat and my stomach would fall right out of my butt and if I didn’t tell someone about it I WAS TOTALLY GOING TO DIE. Thankfully, the universe sensed my desperation, and during a science lab saw fit to partner me with Marjorie Figaro. She and I were just okay at science but totally amazing at goofing off and not paying attention to Mr. Kaplan, and I took that assignment as a sign that she was the one who should help shoulder my latest crushburden. And by that I mean “track his every move while gossiping about him incessantly.” So I told her. I gave up my big secret. In hushed tones and stifled giggles I confessed everything, all while pretending to set up an experiment to figure out whether or not changing the watering schedules would have an adverse effect on the growth rate of different seeds.
I didn’t think anything of it when she asked the teacher for the bathroom pass halfway through class. I just sat at our lab table, neatly copying graphs and charts into my notebook, completely unaware of the cruel fate that was about to befall me. The bell sounded at the end of the period and I gathered my books and my backpack, ready to swap them out for my next class. I rounded the corner into the main hallway, a spring in my step, light as air after my big revelation, and then I stopped dead in my tracks. There was a small crowd gathered around my locker, heads pressed together, bodies shaking with contained laughter. They parted as I approached, and what they were laughing at became clear: SAMANTHA IRBY LOVES JOHN _______, in permanent marker, scrawled across my fucking locker. No stranger to public humiliation, I blinked back the tears (they win if they see you cry) and turned to walk away, but not before John ______ himself walked over to see what the fuss was all about. This I remember as clear as if it had happened yesterday: I ducked into a nearby classroom, the crowd turned their faces up to him, salivating for a response and, after a few seconds that felt like a few minutes, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “Gross. I hate Samantha Irby.” And after a few errant snickers, that was the end of that. The bell rang and those jerks scattered like roaches, off to their next classes. Mr. Izbicki, the coolest teacher on the planet, watched as the janitor sprayed and scrubbed the locker door, to no avail. “It’s permanent marker,” he called to where we huddled in the doorway, shaking his head. “Won’t fade a bit.” It took three weeks for me to get my locker door replaced. And even then that off-color beige that didn’t quite match up with the ones on either side of it mortified me every single time I went to open it.
I like washing dishes. Of all the chores, dishwashing is the most serene, the most soothing. There’s nothing more calming than being elbow-deep in lukewarm water, the warmth of the kitchen, the clink of glasses and plates. I much prefer it to sorting bland piles of laundry or scouring the bathtub. Anyway, Michael Williams. Tall, skin like a Hershey bar, massive upper body with an easy laugh and a confident carriage: he was everything I was not and I was enchanted. Plus we were friends, like real life friends, friends who really talk about stuff, which I guess is way better than being the kind of friends who kiss each other. I mean, duh. What kind of idiot would enjoy holding hands in public with the cutest kid in school? Earlier that day, during fifth period, I had been eating lunch in Ms. Kelley’s room, because all the cool kids eat their lunches in the fucking math teacher’s room, when he stopped by to say hello. He talked to me for a few minutes about the simulators in drivers ed and then he PICKED UP MY CAN OF SNAPPLE FRUIT PUNCH AND DRANK FROM IT, omg. And then he said, “That was almost like we just kissed,” and I basically blushed down to my toes and refused to make eye contact with him for fear of bursting into flames. Then he kissed me for real. In the tragicomic after school special that was the entirety of my high school existence, this is the part where the lens focus softens and time slows down and the ugly duckling’s glasses just sort of melt into thin air when she turns her now-beautiful face up to his and they have the softest, most perfect kiss anyone has ever seen. But my life is totally fucking stupid, so instead of all that I got an awkward embrace (because I didn’t know what to do with my arms so I held them at this ridiculous angle that made it impossible for him to properly embrace me) and a sloppy, comically loud kiss on the cheek that kind of grazed the corner of my mouth. The kind you reluctantly give your mean aunt while rolling your eyes before she lets you go.
But I didn’t care because HIS LIPS were on MY FACE for approximately 2.2 seconds (not that I was counting or anything) and that was absolutely everything. He left and went to eat his lunch in a normal place while I wrote down every detail of the last five minutes on the back of a piece of graph paper that contained most of the homework I was supposed to turn in seventh period. I didn’t turn it in, because fuck Algebra 2, especially when the most important moment of my romantic life thus far was transcribed on that sheet of paper. Elbow deep in warm, soapy dishwater, I replayed the day’s events in slow motion in my mind. Turning that kiss over and over and over in my brain, lingering over the tender parts, closing my eyes to remember his smell. I am a logical person, and I knew in my heart that it wasn’t anything real; that, at most, it was a very nice gesture to make a lonely girl feel special. But I didn’t care. It had happened, and it was mine.
I wasn’t even thinking when I did it. Well, I wasn’t thinking about dishes. I surveyed my handiwork: uniform plates and stacked glasses, still dripping, airing themselves dry on the rack, and then I noticed the skillet on the front burner of the stove. There was egg, or something, congealed inside, and I used a paper towel to pick what I could out of it. Then I thought about the heat of Michael’s face against mine, and the kiss that went with it, and mindlessly I let the pan slip from my fingers gently into the warm wet of the sink. It landed at the bottom with a soft clunk. I love that sound, the swish of water moving back and forth, it provides the perfect soundtrack for swoony daydreams. I had homework to get to, gossipy phone calls to make, but I took my time in the kitchen. I wiped the counters, ran a hot sponge over the stove, then reached for the tangled coil of steel wool to scrape the pan clean.
My father and I were participating in an experiment of sorts. He’d disappeared from my life completely six years prior without a whole lot of fanfare, only to recently return in an attempt to salvage what he could of what was left of my childhood. I knew he was an alcoholic, I knew he had an anger issue, and I hadn’t mourned his absence as much as I thought I would. When I was little I was a total daddy’s girl and he was completely taken with me. This big, tough guy who’d done a tour in Korea and raised attack dogs and fought two dudes bare-knuckled in the street in front of our house that one summer when I was three would come home after work and peel grapes for his baby daughter. But he was fucked up, man. Even as a kid I understood that between his childhood and the war this was not a normal person who knew how to cope with his anger. He’d fly into these intense rages over the slightest of infractions, inexplicably, then ten minutes later would flash a charming smile while tucking ten apology dollars secretly into the palm of my hand. Life with him was one spent tiptoeing around on eggshells, and that is stressful and exhausting.
I was totally blindsided. I didn’t hear him, or see him coming toward me, or even register his presence until I felt the sting of the slap on my lips. I spluttered, tasting copper on my tongue, backing blindly away from the sink. He had zero tolerance for tears, and I blinked mine away while trying to figure out what I’d done wrong. My mind reeled: had I taken the garbage out? Was my room clean? Did I mop the bathroom? I quickly ticked chores off my mental checklist. He hit me again, this time with a closed fist, and I staggered backward. The movies always make that brutal mating dance of fist connecting with face seem almost graceful. Real life is clumsily tripping backward over the stool in the corner to slice open your hand on the edge of a metal trash can. Real life is picking the shards of exploded plastic that used to be your glasses from the oozing flesh wound that is now your disfigured eye. And then I got it: the skillet. Never submerge a cast iron skillet in soapy water, otherwise you risk ruining the finish. I swallowed a mouthful of blood and fished it out, ignoring my own ruined finish, hastily trying to blot it dry on the corner of my blood-splattered shirt. My father lumbered into the other room growling softly to himself under his breath. I dawdled behind, re-washing the dishes with water I couldn’t stop bleeding in as I listened to him get ready for work. He loathed every minute of the humbling condescension he had to suffer at the mouths of those wealthy businessmen, as he was forced to laugh at their dumb jokes while breaking his almost seventy year old back hauling their luggage into and out of his rented trunk. I rode along with him just one time, embarrassed as my strong, proud father had to muzzle his personality and chuckle along at the veiled racist humor blubbering out of the doughy, red-faced men skimming the Wall Street Journal in the backseat because he bought my thrifted school clothes with their tips.
His rituals were the same before every shift: starch his shirt, iron a crease into his slacks, slip a thick wad of bills and a handkerchief into his shirt pocket, slap a liberal splash of Old Spice on each cheek. He hummed along with Nancy Wilson on the radio as I felt my eye begin to swell shut. He would call the attendance office in the morning, tell them I was home sick for however many days it took for my face to return to normal. My fingertips were white and wrinkled like prunes, and I sat on the windowsill, the sun’s setting rays warm on my back, listening for him to leave. The tap of his dress shoes on the hardwood, a jingle of keys, and he was gone. I slid a bag of corn kernels out of the freezer and placed it gingerly against the most painful part of my face, wincing at the burn. I went into our tiny shared bathroom to inspect the damage. My swollen eye was purple, the corner of my lip was split clean open, the front of my white shirt soaked-through with blood. This experiment, grizzled father rescues homeless displaced daughter, wasn’t going to last very long. At least not if I wanted to keep my jaw intact. I fussed with the curling iron to see if I could get my bangs to cover my eye, yanking and curling and scorching my fingertips to no avail. There was a large red bruise in the center of my cheek and I brushed my fingers across it. The exact same place Michael had kissed me. For exactly 2.2 seconds.
Samantha Irby’s Meaty, published by Curbside Splendor Publishing, is available now from Foyles and all good bookstores.