To anyone whom has ever shared their infertility, debt, miscarriage, abortion, firing, disease, depression, sexual assault, mental illness, eating disorder, grief, social anxiety, addiction… — thank you. You have helped someone.
I had these hideous lavender blinds in my childhood bedroom which I adored even though we got them, per usual, used. A result of Mom trying to provide me with opportunities to make my room mine. She was protective of my privacy and space at the sacrifice of her own sanctuary. If I asked, I’m sure she’d have a “I was wronged” story or seven about how her parents didn’t extend that same hand to her. Thus the bedroom in our one-bedroom apartment was mine.
She slept in the living room on a bed she made — wood slabs nailed together a few feet off the ground with a futon atop. To make the bed creation “fun,” she had us paint the 6×4 board and thus for sixteen years slept on yellow, green, and blue splatters and squiggles. The living room/bedroom was also her office with its centerpiece dark walnut secretary’s desk that then appeared worn and tired but now is one of the only pieces of furniture of hers I still have, centrally-located in our fireplace nook, worn and West Elm’ish. Mom sawed and stained a half-circle extension to the desk that hung flush against its side when not in use, that she raised when clients were over or when a project spilled-over, a not uncommon occurrence as her light brown typewriter gobbled most of the surface area.
One of the traits Mom passed on to me was a love of unencumbered and open windows. I have never seen her raise or lower, pull or push a window-treatment of any kind. We enjoy waking up via the sun dancing on our eyelids. This is one of Best Friend and I’s battles, especially in hotel rooms. The uncertainty of what time it is when blackout curtains are utilized unsettle and discombobulate me, and the swift, unforgiving transition from pitch black to pulsating light jarring. I have forever been a fader and a dimmer, fading out music playlists at dinner parties and dimming overheads as I begin a Powerpoint — I appreciate easing in and out.
Fresh air is also something for which we Hillman woman strive. Still to this day, the first two things I do when I get home I owe Mom — I open the windows and turn on the radio. Growing up, the dial was perpetually set to WGN720 — the Girlfriends, Kathy & Judy, or the Cubs, Steve Stone and Thom Brennaman. I wonder if they were her “friends.” She must’ve been lonely as she rarely went out and had friendships but not friendships.
In warm weather, all the windows were always all the way open. In cold weather, it was not uncommon for them to be cracked an inch or two. The radiator rendered the apartment “stuffy” which is near the top of Mom’s “Environments I Can’t Tolerate” list. She hated sleeping at Grandma’s because the thermostat read 80, the 21st floor windows only slightly opened and when open would allow in Downtown Chicago honks and screeches, and if you kept the blinds up, because of the unabating sparkling skyscrapers, it was as if you slept with the lights on. Mom never slept well at Grandma’s. Grandma’s was stuffy.
My one exception for unencumbered windows is when I’m changing clothes. The day that exception was created occurred in middle-school.
My growth spurt had begun, both up and out. On the puberty scale, I was neutral; starter-breasts, nothing outlandish. Instead of twelve, I looked maybe fourteen. I don’t know why on this day I was naked for as long as I was. At this point in my life, naked was middle-ground. I didn’t hate it or love it; I didn’t think about it. It was that intermediate time between clothes on and clothes off. Not a phase from which I rushed to get in or out. But on this day, the clothes remained off as I lived my twelve year old life in my twelve year old bedroom, lavender blinds up.
Background noise that had been in the background for a bit of time inched its way to the foreground because of its unfamiliarity. It was yelling but different than the usual neighborhood yelling of merry-go-round kids and baseball teams. More directed. More jeering. It brought me out of my twelve year old world and made me look out the window.
Across the street was a three story red brick building. My home from age two to four. Where Mom and I shared a futon on the floor. Where I taught myself to ride a bike, a tiny red, white, and blue two-wheeler that did not have the devil’s tools, training wheels. Mom refused to let me use training wheels or to run alongside me holding the back of my seat eventually letting go, sighting both practices as impedances to independence. One hand on the side of the building and one hand on the handlebars, I would pedal along the wall until I reached the end, turn around and pedal back, over and over as the gaps when I could let go of the wall got longer and longer and eventually I reached the end of the wall and kept pushing to the sidewalk. A three story red brick building where for a week I couldn’t open my eyes due to an intense bout of conjunctivitis. Where I flushed an unwanted carrot down the toilet which resulted in an emergency plumber phone call. Where I set my hair on fire when I reached across the table at my birthday party and became candle prey; Mom rushed me to the bathroom sink and doused me with water as the apartment reeked of burnt hair. Where the downstairs neighbor complained to our landlord more than once about our noise.
We moved across Oak Avenue to a taller three story yellow brick building.
The directed jeers appeared to be coming from my previous home. My eyes scanned the white outlined windows beyond the mammoth leafing trees. All of a sudden two men’s faces in a first-floor apartment registered. They were smiling and staring at me.
“Yeah baby! Looking good!”
“Mmmmmm, shake those things.”
I jumped back from the window as if it had burnt me and hastily and awkwardly pulled the lavender blinds cord while simultaneously trying to hide behind the wall. Finally successful in lowering the left one, I crawled on my bed to the right one so I could pull its cord the opposite direction. I rotated both hanging plastic rods until they wouldn’t rotate any more. I fumbled for clothes and sat on the bed edge. My heart pounded. Sunlight peeked through the sides of the blinds.
“C’mon baby! Where’d you go?”
“Come back out!”
I’m not sure how long I sat there. I went into Mom’s living-room bedroom and lay down on her brightly splattered bed.
I didn’t say anything.
“Hey baby, show us your tits again!” The men yelled for a few more minutes.
Mom got up to look out the window. “Is it them? Where they talking to you?”
I didn’t say anything. Then or ever.
How long had they been watching me silently? That day? Other days? Did they see me leave my building? Did I pass them on the sidewalk? Did they know I was twelve? Why did they give themselves up by yelling at me? How could they be so public about watching me? So congratulatory? Did I do something that signaled to them I wanted them to notice me? Why did something that made me feel so disgusting give them such pleasure? How could something that made me feel so disgusting give them such pleasure? How their voices dripped with invasion and that they didn’t stop advancement when they saw my distress was what most unsettled me, what stays with me today, twenty-eight years later.
I hoped I’d never feel that again. Naive twelve year old Saya. She didn’t realize the impending cascade of catcalls and that grabbing women by the figurative pussy was merely locker-room talk that should be expected, accepted, and brushed off.
The encounters would play out along the lines of —
I’d tighten my lips and look anywhere but his eyes.
The lavender metal slats remained tightly stacked against each other for months. Eventually, occasionally I’d rotate the rods slightly to allow in light. But the blinds remained down for the rest of my time in that apartment — my home — until I journeyed to college five years later.
I am pissed that my preferred way to live was taken from me. I am pissed that I was doused in shame for my body and my being, shame that still exists today. I am pissed that I felt I did something wrong. I am pissed at cavalier actions that forever impact. I am pissed that light, literally, was taken from me.
I’ve learned, slowly, over the years that remaining pissed doesn’t let me live my best life. My pissy’ness will consume my thoughts and become a time and energy suck. Being angry at the world is exhausting.
But I’ve also learned that I don’t want to forget or minimize or gloss over or render invisible. Ick happened. It’s a part of me. And for the most part, I really like me. So how can I transform ick into good?
By sharing the ick. By giving voice to the ick. Because then I strip ick of its power. Even more than that, I push the ick from negative, past neutral, into positive.
I feel better, lighter, stronger.
I have copious material for my posts, my performances, my book.
I get paid to keynote and storytell my ick.
I hear “Me too” and “Thank you” from others who then in turn share and voice their ick who in turn hear “Me too” and “Thank you” from others. A bittersweet cycle.
So while I’m not glad that those two shit-heads stole my light from across Oak Avenue, when I get my next Thank You note, when I jet off to Italy next month, when I’m giggling uncontrollably at Best Friend’s household dances and ditties and feeling utterly and unconditionally wrapped in love every moment of every day in his presence, I will be grateful for the life I lead and for all the experiences of my thirty-nine years.
The shit-heads may have controlled a moment. But I control my life.