One of the things that I remember most about being a kid is that at times my mouth felt big. Really big. Not in the figurative sense. In the literal sense. It felt physically big. I thought it was really wide and if I didn’t look in a mirror, I imagined that it stretched across my face from ear to ear and that my little baby lips would blow up until all anyone could see when they looked at me was my gigantic mouth.
Insanely curious and maybe a little too outspoken, as some kids are, I was chided by adults for talking too much or being too loud. I was too boisterous, too much of a tomboy, they said. I should sit nicely like nice young ladies do. To my young mind, that translated to a sense that grown ups didn’t like me or didn’t want me around. As an adult, I realize it’s slightly narcissistic to be a child and think that adults with real problems like bills and Presidents on the evening news would take time from these lofty exploits to dislike a scrawny little yellow chicken with chinky eyes and puffy braids who didn’t ever seem to shut up. But as a narcissistic five year old, well…that was my cross to bear. Or maybe it was true. Maybe I was just a douchebag of a kid. Maybe nobody liked the loud, opinionated blowhard five year old who was so tiny, her clothes, already sized for a toddler, had to be tied to her little body with string. Yet had the nerve to always be in someone’s face telling someone what she knew.
Maybe that’s why I always had an overwhelming sense of not being liked by grown ups or even other kids for that matter. It would rear up periodically and sometimes stop me in my tracks mid-sentence. To make matters worse, any ridiculously small slight justified that sense and proved I was right. There is nothing more dangerous than me when I am right. For example, the day my parents told me that I was going to be a big sister. Even at five years old, I knew what they were really trying to say. That I was not enough. That even my own parents disliked me so much that they were going to try again. They were actually growing another child in hopes of creating one that they could like. From that point on, everything became about the baby – the baby this, the baby that. I was right about something so wrong and it hurt so good.
When my dad retired from the army, we moved from the base housing in Fort Dix into an apartment complex in nearby Mount Holly, NJ, while my dad finished up his last year at Trenton State College. The apartment was on the second floor so we had to walk up a flight of steps to get to it. That is my most vivid memory of my first impression of that apartment. The stairs. And that there were white people. I’m not exactly sure why I started to notice white people at this time. I’m sure there had to be white people on the base but I don’t recall any. At our new apartment complex, there were two girls around my age, Cindy and Wendy. The two girls lived with their parents in the end unit of Building A while my family occupied the end unit at the other end of the same building. One of the sisters, Wendy, was in my kindergarten class at school. She was the mousy older sister to the fiery red-haired, Cindy. Fiery describes her personality, not just her hair. People always referred to them as a set like salt and pepper but Cindy was always the salt. She came first. They were never Wendy and Cindy even though Wendy was older. Even way back then, the younger Cindy was a boss bitch and was, frankly, bad as hell. Keep in mind that I was five when we moved so Cindy was just three, maybe an early four so I wouldn’t be surprised today if she was somewhere serving time for armed robbery.
One day the girls and I were playing outside on the lawn between our two apartments while their mother and another neighbor chatted nearby. As we set about the serious business of organizing our game of whatever, Cindy pulled on my arm pretending that she was going to whisper something in my ear but instead she blew into it. Hard. Spit flew out of her mouth and hit the side of my face. I let out a yell that was certainly too loud for little girls playing in the courtyard of Building A. At the end of my yell, I heard Cindy and Wendy’s mom tell the other adult disapprovingly, “That girl has such a big mouth!” Just then, I could feel the weight of my mouth. My lips felt too large and it felt like they were spreading across my face. I remember the shame I felt that others could see my growing mouth. It wasn’t just my imagination. Even though I could never catch it in the mirror, I knew it was really happening.
I tried to act like I didn’t hear what Cindy and Wendy’s mom said. I tried to keep playing but eventually the weight of my mouth and the shame of it all got the better of me. I ran across the courtyard and up the stairs to our apartment and stood in front of my parents, gasping for air with my hands on my hips. I stared at them willing them to look up and see my mouth. I panted even harder to get my dad to look up from studying or my mom to look up from cooking dinner. Neither one did. I announced breathlessly that I needed water. My mom handed me a glass and gave me a once over. Saying nothing, she returned to washing the rice. I waited for her to say something about my mouth but…nothing. I gulped the water loudly and released a long, loud “aaaaahhhhh!” Still nothing. I slammed the cup on the counter and announced, “Finished!” As I turned to leave the kitchen, my mother called out,
Finally! I turned quickly so that she could see the gravity of what was happening to my mouth.
“…put the cup in the sink!”
I faced her squarely now, gleefully anticipating her panicked reaction to my huge mouth.
Sulking, I went to the room I shared with my older sister and waited. Eventually my mouth returned to it’s normal size so I moved on with my life. I lived with the syndrome, though, of the big, heavy mouth throughout most of my childhood. People constantly saying I had a big mouth and the feeling of heat and heaviness as my mouth stretched across my face. Even though everyone pretended they didn’t see anything unusual on my face, I often retreated to a private place, perhaps the bathroom or even inside my head trying hard to become invisible until I could feel my mouth return to it’s normal size. By five years old, I already knew that my mouth could become too big to bear and that I should retreat until it returned to something manageable.