[I read the following piece on August 27, 2018 at This One Woman, a comedy and variety show inspired by the life of a different famous woman every month. If you find yourself in the Chicagoland area on the last day of the month and you want some storytelling along with a delicious beer, I highly recommend checking it out!]
We stared down from the top of the hill, feeling the weight of the biggest of double-dog dares ever. I could feel the cushiness of the banana seat on my beloved pink Strawberry Shortcake cruiser under me. My best neighborhood friend Michelle stood next to me over her sparkly blue Rainbow Brite bike on that hot summer day.
“It’s now or never” we both thought.
It was a dangerous proposition. The traffic of New Braunfels Avenue sped periodically below us at the bottom of the hill. I wanted to close my eyes instead; my heart felt like it was going to beat out of my chest, my palms sweaty, and my legs quivered over the pedals. This moment felt like one of those I’d remember forever. If I made it.
We started at the count of three and before I knew it, I was whooshing down that hill, eyes wide open, with the wind in my hair, the thrill of unknown danger below me, my entire body consumed with a lust for life and a love for my friend beside me. We both made it and triumphant we attempted the hill the rest of summer until eventually, we bored of it.
I have an adventurous streak, seeking out things that flirt with the edge of death or disaster. I was the youngest of a small gang of kids, the “hey wait up guys” kid, the “I wanna play, too” kid; the baby who needed to stop being such a baby. It was often the boys that pushed the envelope of fun disguised as danger. I may have been little or immature, but I was certainly “feisty”. I wanted to be as fun as the boys and as cool as the boys. Unfortunately, my place–like other girls–included a lot of watching from the sidelines. Sometimes, I was put in pretty dresses that I was admonished not to destroy. The echo of my mother’s favorite phrase, “Be Careful” still haunts my life’s decisions. The stakes seemed higher for me and my responsibilities numerous.
Boys could continue to play while the girls had to clean up after; we were fine as long as we were “nice” about it. Even when given free reign to explore the neighborhood from sunrise to sunset, we could still be limited by what was considered appropriate.
With my female friends, I could explore other depths of life as we anticipated becoming women: playing with dolls as practice for compulsory motherhood, commanding a room as the boss lady or teacher to get others to do our bidding, keeping things organized as the secretary for our many made-up clubs, willingly being the participant of make-up tutorials or bra-stuffing seminars, or partnering in secret crushes, curiosity about sex, and prank calls that gave us the exhilaration of randomly contacting other humans.
Right around this time, when I was too young to understand it or be able to look at it, Madonna published her book Sex. It seemed like a wild romp through an exploration of sexuality that I could only guess at its titillation. Madonna understood fun disguised as possible danger and she knew how to command attention on her terms, both things I craved.
We listened to Madonna at slumber parties, singing loudly and dancing around in our pajamas or at the roller rink during countless birthday parties or in the privacy of our bedrooms surrounded by the posters of our idols. In the early 1980’s, her style was exactly what some of us wanted: too many jelly bracelets to count, permed hair with streaks of blonde, black tutus, and super cool motorcycle boots. She was a rule breaker, too. Being raised Catholic, I know that she upset many of my relatives by wearing rosaries as jewelry and yet, I found that electrifying about her.
As my body grew lightning-fast into puberty, I quickly learned about unwanted attention like the kind that sometimes intrigued me or made me sick to my stomach or the kind that had potential to ruin female friendships with jealousy.
It wasn’t from boys my age, who were were still confused or grossed out by girls; we got in the way of the real fun they could be having. Grown men started to treat me differently, they wanted to give me things, they wanted things from me, they wanted to be nearer to me, and they wanted to talk to me on the phone even when they had called the wrong number (true story). Men reached into my disappearing childhood to pull me forward in ways that I didn’t comprehend at the time.
Around this time, San Antonioians were deeply shaken by the disappearance of girl close to my age named Heidi. For weeks, her picture had been plastered everywhere on telephone poles, in the supermarket, and on the nightly news. She wore a toothy grin, girlish bangs, and a white-collared shirt. There was a massive search effort for her across the city, affecting all neighborhoods. It ended in all-too-familiar tragedy like a true crime cliche. After what seemed like months, someone found her body, 60 miles away, wrapped in garbage bags along a country road, sexually violated, strangled, and abandoned.
Those combined images still haunt me today. They shattered the innocence of a city and its inhabitants. Heidi had disappeared while walking home from a slumber party, a party where she probably also sang and danced along to her pop idols, traded multi-colored jelly bracelets, put her friends’ bras in the freezer, or played the game Girl Talk and whispered about sex. Her picture could have easily been of one of my friends. Every time I see a black garbage bag on the side of a road, I always wonder if it contains a body and I always think of Heidi. Perhaps knowing about this at a young age fueled my interest in true crime like so many of the women I currently befriend. Over twenty-five years later, Heidi’s kidnapper and killer has yet to be found like so many cases all over the world.
Childhood is seen as a time of innocence; we are ignorant of so many things, like the dangers that could befall us through accidental death or murder or rape or abduction. Sometimes, our innocence gets chipped away little by little by small words and actions and other times it can be sloughed away from us in one fell swoop. As an adult, I try to mitigate the balance of knowing and not wanting to know. I feel a fierce protectiveness for my nieces and friends. I catch myself wondering about the horrors people visit on others and I turn away when it becomes too much. I still seek out the thrill of a bike ride with friends. I still dress up in costumes and fantasy, and sing and dance like no one is watching. All of the good things in life light up my path like a trail of brightness on a dark road.