I was ten years old and furtively clutching a frosted bottle of Albert Nippon cologne. I'd spent half an hour sniffing each bottle on the small TJ Maxx display, carefully counting and recounting my allowance and fingering the delicate vials.
I was fascinated by and in love with the musky amber-colored liquids. They stirred something strong and mysterious in me that I didn't understand. I was afraid and ashamed of the way my breath caught in my throat when I smelled my perfumed skin. The bottles and the scents symbolized something ambiguous and carnal. Something I did not understand but knew I wanted very badly.
My mother was in the back of the store, picking out pink tights for my seven year old sister. I occasionally darted glances at her from behind the display, praying that she couldn't see me. Carefully, I carried the little bottle to the counter and paid, hunched over my purchase to hide it from others' eyes. The clerk smiled kindly. "A Christmas present for mommy?" I flushed crimson and nodded, too afraid to speak. I shoved my package deeply into my coat and waited for my mother at the front of the store.
I was ten years old and picking carefully at half of a pink grapefruit. USA Today lay spread open in front of me. The purple heading at the top of the front page screamed LIFE. I pretended to read the celebrity gossip while I carefully studied a Calvin Klein advertisment. A man in tight jeans leaned against a woman in a shower. Her dress clung wetly to her body. I could see her knobbly nipples. She straddled his knee, her head thrown back.
My mother smiled at me. "Whatcha know?" she asked.
I looked at her and gravely replied, "Rod Stewart married Rachel Hunter. He is old enough to be her father. He has married lots of girls before."
When mom got up to take care of the baby, I hid the newspaper in my little sister's coloring drawer. After school I cut out the picture, folded it into tiny pieces, and put it in the pink heart-shaped box on my dresser next to the perfume bottle.
I was ten years old and sifting through hatboxes in my grandmother's attic. One of the hatboxes read Sophisticate and I decided that it was the most divine word ever to roll off of human lips. I repeated it, savoring it, and looked it up in her ancient, coverless dictionary. I swore to live and breathe all things sophisticated.
Soon after my mother decided that my bedroom needed rewallpapering, and I was allowed to choose any paper I liked. I paged through dozens of books before I found the most sophisticated design I had ever seen. Crisp gray zigzags marched across a stark white background. Tiny maroon circles nestled in the zigs and the zags.
Androgynous maroon and steel-blue mimes vamped and posed on the companion border. Maroon tears fell from their wide, empty eyes. Thick ruffs circled their necks. They were elegant and cold and perfect. Naturally, my mother protested. Wouldn't I like the fairy design better? Wouldn't the mimes look nicer in purple and green?
After the mimes went on my walls, I hid the cologne and pink box in a drawer under my socks. Late at night I would take them out and write secret things in the zigzags with a number two pencil. My walls became my journal.
Later my father would tell me he was taking us far away from our home. Later there would be blood in my underpants and I would fly into an ugly rage, smashing the perfume bottle and the pink box and pulling out every single one of my eyelashes, trying to scare my mother into letting me live with my mimes. Later I would crouch in my closet, writing letters on the walls to the child who would sleep and dream in my bedroom when I was gone.
But that year, I was ten years old. That year, things were okay. I stood solidly on the balance beam that was my life, unaware that someday I might fall off.