White Girl – John Pistelli
September 6, 2019
My father was a cop. That’s why I had to shoot him. He wasn’t a bad cop or anything— not like some of them I’ve met in my life, those that were his friends and those I’ve known since I’ve been in here. I never heard of him planting drugs or taking home confiscated money or beating a confession out of anybody. He never even fired his gun, that I knew of. He never called anyone the N-word, and I think he was genuinely sad about the poverty and bad homes that led people into crime. He always talked about retiring from “the force” to open either a restaurant or a flower shop. He liked to cook and garden—to cook what he gardened. When he picked me up on weekends, he would let me help him all day in the garden. He showed me how to weed and plant, how to prune and graft. Sometimes he would throw a worm on me for a joke, but he wasn’t a bad dad. I don’t think he ever hit me, and he barely ever raised his voice. Though he never seemed to trust me in the kitchen with his knives and special tools—so that was problematic. But otherwise a good dad and a good cop. Even in the divorce, mum left him and not the other way around. She had a boyfriend. You have to get this straight, because you won’t understand anything if you don’t understand that I didn’t shoot him because he was bad but because of what he was. That’s what we’re accountable for, ultimately: not what we think or even what we do, but what we are.
You want to know what got me here. You’ll say, “Well, it was teenage love, it was for this, it was for that,” you’ll make it personal so you don’t have to hear what I’m telling you about how the world is. But it isn’t personal, because what she showed me was the truth. It took a person to show me, but it was there the whole time, through my whole happy life. And fuck no, I won’t tell you where she is now.
I was born in the suburbs, like a lot of people, too many. All of my childhood memories that aren’t cartoons are cut grass and yellow sunlight. Toys. Horses in the grass—I would put my head right down on the lawn, it would tickle my ear, and march the plastic horse through the blades. If you squinted, it was like a real horse in a real field. I guess there was a lot of stress around my childhood, because I was born the summer before the terrorist attacks. There must have been a lot of irrational fear—I see it as irrational now, for the suburbs to fear anything—and discussion about war when I was learning to walk and talk. But I had my cartoons and my yard and my mummy and daddy. I can’t emphasize enough that nothing bad has ever happened to me. I was playing horsey in the grass and then getting sent to expensive private pre-schools with a lot of “self-directed activity” when my country was pounding ten thousand rounds of depleted uranium into Iraq and allowing its treasure—patriarchal, but whatever for now—to be looted, destroying the state and infecting the people, profiteering from genocide, ensuring it would never be a country again, making it easy to control, just like Hitler.
But I didn’t know any of that then. I didn’t know anything then—I was happy. Even the divorce, when I was ten, wasn’t so bad. Mum told my stepdad he wasn’t allowed to discipline me. He would pretend to play with my dolls. And if dad had girlfriends—I guess he must have— he kept them secret. No, divorce wasn’t bad—it meant double the presents, Christmas, birthday, Easter, and everything. Dad bought me a puppy. A little beagle. He said, “It will never get too big for you.”
So here’s what you want to know. I met Carly a month into ninth grade, when she transferred from the public school. In Catholic school it’s harder to tell the difference between people because we all have to dress alike, which is maybe a good thing, I think now, though I didn’t think it then. But she even wore her gray skirt and her pink blouse in a way that made you know something was wrong. The waistband of her skirt always seemed twisted somehow, the blouse buttoned wrong, like she had skipped buttonholes to make it tighter. She looked restrained, immobilized somehow. Now you have to understand that I didn’t go with the popular girls, but I wasn’t with the outcasts either. I guess I was “smart-popular,” because I studied a lot and was involved in more academic-type extracurriculars, like speech and debate and stage crew. My point is, I had good friends and good grades. When Carly came, she was immediately slotted in with the outcasts. The popular girls didn’t even try to hide the way their lips twisted like her skirt at the sight of her. The boys said vile things. Even the outcasts themselves had a hard time making space for her—by high school, the outcast girls coped by taking the religion side of it all a lot more seriously. They would silently say the rosary in geometry and pray before lunch, crossing themselves really obviously, to tell all of us what heathens we were. Carly had no interest in any of that. They tried to get her into it once, and she told them that religion was “an instrument of social control.”
As for us smart-popular girls, we invited her to our lunch table, but it didn’t go right.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“I want to tell the truth.”
“Like a reporter?”
“Like Jesus H. fucking Christ.”
“So, uh, you’re very religious?”
“The opposite of religious. Like Jesus H.”
“What are your interests? Do you do any extracurriculars?”
She was shifting weirdly in her chair through the whole conversation. She had pulled her skirt front to back and stretched out the elastic so she could read the tag, which wasn’t too hard for her, since she was painfully skinny, it made your bones hurt to look at her. She managed to show the whole table her underwear in the process, and suddenly the faces of the smart-popular girls, who had gone into this so wide-eyed and sympathetic and wanting to help, were impossible to tell from the faces of the plain-old popular girls.
“Made in Indonesia. Probably in a hot tin barracks by twelve-year-old girls who aren’t allowed a pee break and feel obligated to work harder and harder every day to support their families. Everybody’s depending on them, so they can’t even refuse when the boss says, ‘Blow me.’”
“Smart popular” generally meant not a lot of bad language or dirty topics, except every so often and with a lot of giggling, to cushion it in wholesome innocence. We weren’t innocent, because we knew, but we seemed innocent, because we giggled. And though Carly did sound outraged at the conditions of the girls who’d sewn our skirts, there wasn’t any pity or softness in her tone. It was all anger and knowing more than we did. The girls at the table looked down into the ketchup smears on their food trays or fiddled with their phones, which we were allowed to have at lunchtime.
“Oh Christ, don’t even talk to me about these fucking things,” Carly said. She was sitting next to me, so she picked up my phone from the table. She swiped to unlock the screen—we weren’t allowed to have passwords at school. She started tapping something onto the glass, her long ragged unpainted fingernail clacking. Sort of absent-mindedly, she said, “Search ‘coltan,’ search ‘rape in the Congo,’ search ‘fistula.’” If there is such a thing as a furious smile, that’s what she had. I wanted to search for these things immediately, just to know what she was talking about, just to keep up with her. How could she know so much more than I did? How could my friends dismiss all this knowledge, all this fury? She tossed the phone down in front of me with a clatter and said, “These fuckers ought to have blood sweating out of the screens.”
A passing lunch-lady, a volunteer from the parish, somebody’s grandmother, said, without slowing her pace or looking down, “Language, ladies, language.”
“Language,” Carly said, “is the least of our problems.”
Nobody said anything to her. All my friends were talking in a mostly fake way to each other, occasionally casting nervous eyes in her direction, as if she were a wild dog inexplicably in the room. But I wasn’t talking to anybody else—I was watching her as she slumped in the orange lunchroom chair, like she was weighed down by her knowledge and anger. There were scars on her arms.
“How do you know all that stuff?” I asked her.
“Nobody’s hiding it from you. They’re just counting on you not being interested.”
Then she got up so fast, her chair tipped over and landed with a big crash. The boys in the cafeteria clapped and cheered, and all the girls laughed, even smart-popular girls. She whipped her head back and forth like she was cornered, then she laughed and clapped too, clapped for herself, longer and louder than anybody, her hyena laugh so loud it shut everybody up. She went to a table by herself. I picked my phone up to see what she had done with it. She had left her phone number in my contacts. From the table where she now sat alone, she looked at me, smiling sardonically. She taught me that word, “sardonic.” She taught me a lot of words.
She had so much knowledge that other people lacked, including me. But it isolated her somehow, made her less powerful, more vulnerable, at the world’s mercy. She squared her arms on the lunch table and put her head down between them, straight on, face to the cold Formica. I was afraid of her, I wanted to protect her. I picked up my tray and my books, very quietly, and walked over and sat down next to her. I ate my chicken tenders without saying a word. The smart-popular girls pretended not to notice that I had gone away. Carly didn’t say anything either, but she turned her face up to me from out of the nest of her long scarred arms.
No sex, no drugs. Despite what people were saying online. Well, okay, not none, but it wasn’t what it was all about.
Carly thought that everything that could be experienced was part of evil, but she also thought that inexperience was a kind of sin, a way of saying you were better than everybody else. She made me smoke a joint—I don’t know where she got it—out in the woods behind my dad’s house while she told me about how the money she had spent on it would go to the big cartels who subverted democracy and exploited, even brutally raped and murdered, the girls of the maquiladoras. Not to mention my embodied privilege: “Sweet little white girl, you’ll never be sent away for one little joint.”
She looked up in silence, and then seemed to think of something else to say. She did that a lot: she would seem to have the final word—on everything—and then one more fact or observation would come to her that made her mad all over again.
She said, “That’s what people don’t get. It’s not what you think, it’s not even what you do. It’s who you are in the system. If you are on the oppressive side in the system, then you oppress just by being what you are. Since the system makes you what you are, you can’t be anything else unless the system is destroyed. For the system to be destroyed, what is must be destroyed.”
She didn’t take the last step, but I thought I heard it, in my head, in her voice, though her lips weren’t moving, in her weird language made of all she’d read mixed together: “Therefore, white girl, you oppress by being and must be no more.”
She always called me “white girl,” though she was paler than me.
I lay back in the roots and leaves and looked up through the treetops at the white October sky. I thought the pieces of the sky I could see through the branches were solid things that would fall down on me. I wanted them to cover me up like snow, I wanted to stay in the woods forever, stop existing, so I could stop oppressing.
She said her mother put cigarettes out on her back, she said her dad’s friends made use of her. She said her dad was a judge, so there was nothing to be done. What the judge does, what the judge allows, can’t be against the law. I asked her if all that really happened. She looked like I had slapped her in the face. She said, so slowly I could have walked through the words, “They fucking happened. They’re happening. They happen every fucking day.” She said that’s why she set fire to the bathroom in the public high school.
She taught me how to French kiss. “Just so you know,” she said. But that was how far she was willing to go, no further. “There are no non-exploitative relations of bodies in the system,” she said. She showed me clips on my phone—she wasn’t allowed one by her parents—of big dogs doing it. “He takes her from behind and fucks her, whether she likes it or not. It’s the right of the stronger. The judge is the law.”
She walked around my room and told me how all the things in it got there. The forests felled, the animals blinded, the children forced to labor, the women raped in resource wars, the men wasted on suicidal resistance. She misted some perfume into the air. “If it smelled like what it was, this room would reek like an abattoir.”
I stopped seeing my friends and they stopped seeing me after I tried to explain to them some of what Carly had told me. My friend Lisa cornered me in the school bathroom and grabbed me hard by the elbow, digging her nails right down through my pink sweater, and said, “Listen, the way things are is the way things are. It’s not your job to change it. Who the fuck do you think you are? Why would you ruin your life?” She whispered “fuck,” even though we were alone.
Carly explained the consequences of my friends’ parents’ jobs. Lawyer—maintaining the law’s pretense to justice. Doctor—constructing the body according to capitalist and reproductively heteronormative standards. Psychiatrist—pacifying resistance by normalizing subjectivity in line with atomistic individualism and other oppressive ideologies. College professor—upholding the class hierarchy by granting or withholding credentials largely on the basis of established privilege, as well as transmitting the codes of the ruling class in the guise of “tradition.” My dad had the least classy job among my friends’ parents, but I knew it was maybe the worst, the one that allowed all the others to go on. I never asked Carly about it. She was nice enough not to bring it up.
She said not to say “he” and “she” because gender was a construct that enabled the exploitation of the class gendered female and the oppression of races without access to normative femininity. She said not to say “they” for a single person, even though I also shouldn’t say “he” and “she,” because “they” would falsely imply a transcendence of gender and the individual that no one had achieved and that a privileged person like me could categorically never achieve. She said not to make up pronouns because people like me had made up enough already. So what should we say? “It would be better,” she said, “if you were just silent.”
I’m sure it all sounds miserable to you, but really we spent most of our time together laughing. Our world was something other than what it told itself it was, which made it funny. Our world, our middle-class suburbs, was a blindfolded woman who didn’t know she was walking on a tightrope over an abyss. The men who had blindfolded her and sent her out on that rope were standing silently on the edge, keeping their secret. This was Carly’s metaphor. All our thoughts were hers—she made me understand that I had never thought before in my life.
“So who are we?” I asked her.
“I’m down in the pit,” she said, “and you’re standing on the edge, and we’re both laughing as hard as we can, to warn the blindfolded woman and to expose the silent men.”
She did okay in school when it occurred to her to do so. She failed a lot of tests. She said her mother hit her because of it, she said her father watched. I never went to her house. One time I failed a biology test in an attempt at solidarity, even though I knew the answers. She accused me of “slumming” and wouldn’t talk to me for a whole day. I don’t think she kept herself clean. Her hair was all in clumps. She burped and farted in class. She acted like if there was ugliness anywhere, ugliness should be everywhere, until ugliness was nowhere. One guy said something about how she smelled, and I hit him so hard in his balls that he supposedly had to have one of them removed. I didn’t get in trouble, because he never told anybody that a girl had broke his balls, he just said it was a bike jump gone wrong. She never retaliated against anyone who insulted or attacked her. She insisted that I not imitate her or defend her. “There is no solidarity —you are the thing you are until the system that makes you who you are is gone, and then what will you be? You might be nothing at all. You have to prepare yourself to be nothing at all.” Anything else, she told me, is pretense and self-flattery. She did my make-up. She braided my hair. She painted my nails. She read all the fashion magazines, she bought me perfume, she bought me a bracelet. She fastened it on my wrist.
She told me about a boy locked in the basement all his life, his parents renting him out for sex to all their rich friends. She told me about epidemic cancers in Serbia from the American bombing that happened before we were born. She told me about migrant workers stacked in crates like logs and moved across borders, cooking in their filth.
She never cried or anything like that, though I did. She always had an angry and sarcastic tone, even a bitter little smile, like, not only how could they do this but how could I even have to be telling you? Where have you been? Where did you think you were living? I used to practice her smile before I fell asleep at night. I would talk like her into the mirror.
I kept my grades up. I kept up appearances.
Anything I saw or touched cast the shadow of the violence that it brought it to me. She shined the light. The ground cleared so I could live on it, the people dismissed so I could be in their place, the practices that maintained me in my position: vaccines, books, museums, doctors, grocery stores, schools—these were the blocks my parents used to build what was essentially a killing machine. Our suburban houses deal death in every direction. The walls might as well sweat blood.
She sent me links, she bought me books, she took me to the library. Not a thing she said was untrue. No one had ever told me.
I said, “What if I killed myself? Slashed wrists, like a symbol? Here is the blood that was always in this house. Here is the blood that was always on my hands.”
“You don’t have the right,” she said. “When the time comes, let an oppressed person make the decision. Let them have power over you for once. Give up your privilege of deciding for them.”
“But isn’t there anything we can do?”
She tapped a dirty, long nail on her fragile-looking teeth.
“You could always take out somebody more powerful than yourself. Someone with the right of oppression over you. Push one of the silent men off the edge—into the abyss.”
My mum and stepdad went on a cruise over Thanksgiving, so I spent it with my dad, just me and him and the dog. An early snowfall—we heard the fat wet snowflakes beating gently on the windowpanes, we saw them come out of the blue darkness at the window. Dad ran his knife under the turkey skin to make slits, he put halved garlic cloves inside. With his spatula he slathered the bird in mustard, the kind with the hard, rust-colored seeds. By the time the juices were running clear around the buried blade, I was explaining factory farming, antibiotic feed, industrial slaughterhouses, pools of feces, migrant workers choking in ammonia, offal-running ooze amoxicillin pink.
I had talked to Carly about veganism. She strongly rejected it. “You put animals before people? You stop eating animals but keep wearing that shirt”—she pulled the shirt down as far as it would go so that it snapped up in my face when she released it—“that shirt sewn by poor girls of color? Think about what that says.”
Dad listened with a sad smile almost sympathetic. He slowly tore strips of meat apart and fed them to the dog from his greasy fingers.
“Ben Franklin,” he said. “Ben Franklin was a vegetarian when he was your age. He had begun his profession when he was your age too, but let’s leave that aside. He was a vegetarian, but then he was on a ship, heading to or from Philadelphia, I don’t remember, and his shipmates started to fry up the fish they had caught. Ben found it very enticing. But he wanted to hold on to his principles as much as he wanted to eat the fish. Then he remembered that when they were cutting up the fish, they cut open its stomach and saw a lot of little fish inside. And Ben thought, ‘Well, what’s good enough for fish is good enough for a man.’”
He totally missed the point, like he wasn’t even listening to me.
“It’s more than that, dad. It’s all of it. People being raped in prison, governments conspiring to start wars, queer people being forced into conversion therapy, Palestinians with their water shut off and garbage dumped in their streets, the racism of the criminal justice system…”
“Okay,” he said, “but who are you? Who are you to save the world? I know you can’t know this yet, I’m sorry, you just don’t have enough experience, but there is no saving it. There’s helping it. Maybe. Sometimes. But things are really fragile and imperfect. I focus on the people I love. That’s your best bet, start with the people you love, start close to home, start at home. Start with this dinner. That’s the only relationship you can have with the world.”
“Do you love me more than the people you arrest?”
“Sweetie, there’s no comparison. I don’t even love them at all. Maybe if somebody had ever loved them I wouldn’t have to arrest them. They still have to be taken off the street.”
She forbade suicide. Just one more decision you want to make on behalf of the oppressed, selfish girl. One more choice you want to take away from them. Let them decide for once. Stop thinking of your life as your own.
I was dreaming at night of the brown girls who’d sewn my sheets. I found it hard to sleep at all, Carly whispering over me. Everything I touch is a creature screeching in pain, so high-pitched only some can hear. I can hear. I could cut my wrists in my sleep, let my blood soak the sheets and stand in for theirs, for the blood they spilled in making them. But no. That would be just another arrogation, just another appropriation, all about you, white girl, you, you, you, you. Who are you?
“But what am I supposed to do? Nothing?”
“Make some space. Give somebody else a chance.”
“Make some space?”
You have to understand, I wanted to die. I would sneak out on weekends and take the bus to bad neighborhoods. I walked around and around, past houses with their front porches falling off and car bodies that the grass had grown into, weeds entwined with axles. I looked the oppressed in the eye right there on the cracked sidewalk, like, “Here I am, see me, see my privilege, do something. Will you for fuck’s sake do something please.”
“Hey,” she said, “isn’t your dad a cop?”
One Saturday my dad went out—on a date?—without his gun. I went up and found it in his bedroom. Glock 19. I carried it in my coat to the woods and fired it once into a tree. I imagined that the neighbors in the sleepy, safe suburb were scared of something real for once, until they talked themselves out of it. A car backfiring. Innocent kids with firecrackers. Couldn’t be violence. Not here. The recoil made me stagger back. My ears weirdly whistled. Did dad count his bullets? My dad was a good cop.
After Thanksgiving dinner the dog went out, the little dog who would never get too big for me. Dad didn’t want to leave her out in the snow, but she got away and didn’t come back for a long time. He went out and stood in the bluish snow, stood in the patch of yard where his garden had been, now covered up. Unseasonable, winter already. He whistled, his sucked his tongue against his teeth rapidly, over and over. “Here, girl,” he called. “Fucking dog,” he whispered.
I went upstairs. I came back down. I went out in the snow in my pink socks. “It’s okay,” he said, smiling, “I’ll get her. Hey, you don’t have shoes—”
I brought the gun into the open between us, the snow drifting calmly down around it. The dog must have triggered a neighbor’s motion-detector, because a bright light came on with the shot, illuminating the red flower that opened in daddy’s eye.
The gun flung me back. I think we both hit the ground at the same time. The snow looked thicker than it was. It made the ground seem soft, like something you could sink into and get covered up in. But really it was hard as fucking bone.
There you go, officers. I won’t tell you where she is. I don’t care if you never find her. I don’t care if you say I made her up. And no, I won’t sign it. I renounce my name. I won’t sign it, because who am I?