TPQ 1.0

Ok, so, mattilda brought it to my attention that I hadn’t posted this piece. The first 1/3 or so of it is after the jump. I haven’t finished it yet, but here’s part of it… it’s still not academic in any sense of the word, but isn’t there something academically relevant about lived experience?

Trailer Park Queer

**DRAFT 1.0**

I grew up in a trailer in rural North Carolina. My “hometown,” if it can be called that, is 20 minutes outside of a growing city and 40 minutes outside of a large metropolis. Still, my “hometown” is small and rural. People often crack jokes about their school being surrounded by a cow pasture, but mine truly was. In fact, I walked to school – we lived so close – down a dirt road through our across-the-street neighbor’s farm – complete with two cows, tractors, sheds, and a barn. The term “trailer park” is also problematic, as my proud mother always called it a “development” because the lots were at least a quarter acre. Most people picture a My Name is Earl style trailer park – homes stacked like sleeves of saltine crackers ready for sardines, but we had a yard to mow and space to throw a baseball in the front yard. I don’t remember us playing in the backyard much.

“Hometown” is questionable for me, too, because we always lived in the rural outskirts of the same growing metropolitan center, but I never felt like we lived anywhere but the country. Oh, and I should mention that for one year we did not live in a trailer. We rented an almost-dilapidated farmhouse down a three-quarter-mile dirt road for $100 a month. Our water came from a spring and we heated with a wood stove. And there was a ghost in the shed out back – his name was Frank. But I suppose Frank is not relevant to this story – though he is an interesting aside. I went to two different elementary schools, two different middle schools, and finally landed in one high school for the duration of that torture. But I was not an out queer in high school – people suspected I was a “lesbian,” rumors circulated to that effect, and so I dispelled them by attending my senior prom with a female date. A date, I might add, who went to another school and had to be approved by the faculty in charge of advising the prom committee – namely, the art teacher. I reckon I shook them up, but no one blinked.

My mom is a proud woman. She did everything she could for us. She has three children (myself, and my two brothers), and for about seven years, her boyfriend and the father of my baby brother lived with us, and brought along a daughter the same age as my middle brother. She loves us all, I’m quite sure equally, but she never pushed us to be anything we didn’t want to be. This is in direct contrast to my friends – other trailer park kids – who were dragged to church against their will, taught to be just like their fathers if they were boys, or their mothers if they were girls. I think my mom tried to push for a while, but at some point, I think it all caught up with her, and the weight of working to keep us fed and sheltered made her re-prioritize. After all, if she could keep us housed, nourished, and safe, then we would all turn out alright. Her new parenting theory seems to have worked.

For years, my mom worked third shift in a hosiery mill until she got heel spurs so bad she couldn’t walk all night, or even stand on her feet by morning. My younger brothers and I all have different fathers, and we all have different lines that we follow, thanks to Mom’s commitment to letting us forge our own paths. I loved school from the first time I smelled Mrs. Browder’s classroom – in the basement of my grandparents’ church when I was three. Trent, who is two years younger than me, turned everything round and plastic into a steering wheel and learned to make car noises long before he could speak. Cliff is five years younger than me, and when he was two professed his desire to be a fire truck.

Years later, I’m in graduate school, Trent is a long-haul truck driver, and Cliff has finally realized that human bodies cannot transform themselves into automobiles, despite what cartoons told us growing up. I was born in 1982, in case you were wondering. We are all in different places in our lives, yet we all began in my mother’s desire for one or another of many alcoholic men who were not cut from parenting cloth.

I remember a smell emanating from under my mother’s bedroom door, which I learned to call “pot.” I also learned that this was somehow illegal, though my definition of right and wrong may seem somehow warped to others. My mom started smoking pot in college, and hasn’t taken a day off since she was 19. Though she cuts back from time to time. She claims it cured her morning sickness, allowing her to work up until the day she had each of us, and caused me to turn out “smart.” She might just be right. And she’s not the only poor woman to ever turn to self-medication to keep herself sane and emotionally stable – or even just to take the edge off after a hard week of caring for three or four argumentative children. We were all very forthright, and neither of us held anything back. And I find myself still impressed at her ability to roll a joint in two seconds flat – with one hand, no less.

My mom’s boyfriends weren’t all stellar, either, though she did not have never-ending streams of them. In fact, I don’t remember Trent’s father at all, until he died and we went to the funeral. Trent met him once at a park when he was a toddler, and after that all we heard from him was his mandatory child support check. Then came Cliff’s father, the one who brought with him his daughter, Chasity, and that lasted for nine years. When we finally left him it was under cloak of darkness for fear of the retaliation we had faced for leaving him before. I remember two distinct incidents that included 12-gauge shotguns.

Once, we had fled down the path to our neighbor’s house – where my childhood best friends lived – and he crawled under their trailer and shot through the floor. Mom says the shooting part is my imagination, but I remember crouching scared in a bathtub with my brothers and my mom, and part of that memory is gunshots. But, memories are elastic, not perfect, so she may be right.

The other I remember very clearly, and can confirm it, though my mother never knew about it until later. She had gone out with a friend one night and had promised to be home by 11. At 11:01, he sat me on the edge of their bed, loaded and cocked his shotgun and held it to my head. “You better pray your momma walks through that door in the next five minutes, or else,” he said. That phrase still rings in my ears with the smell of cheap Thunderbird wine emanating from his pores when I think about or tell that story. I’m suddenly a paralyzed seven-year-old who doesn’t quite know what to do. I was also lucky that my mom walked through the door because I have no doubt he would have done it. If I could count the bruises I’ve had because of him, I would run out of skin cells – not just digits.

From that moment forward, I retreated into the world of books. I found anything and everything I could read where children were safe because I wanted to escape. My mom took her share of blows, as well. He was smart about it, too, like most abusers are. He beat her in the head or in her stomach so the bruises would never show. Later, someone else would beat her until she went blind for three days.

I know I said earlier that my mom worked hard to keep us safe. But definitions of safe can vary, depending on the situation. Sometimes, keeping a second income in the house (even if half of it gets spent on booze and smokes) equates more to safety than being a single mother of three young children with nowhere to call home. Besides, the beatings didn’t come as often as the bills. And when they came, we would sneak out in the middle of the night. That is, of course, if he hadn’t already ripped the spark plugs out of the engine of the triad of Gran Torinos my mother drove back then. I am quite sure only redneck men from trailer parks like for “their women” to drive 10-year-old muscle cars. We would spend a few days at my [great]grandma’s house until he’d come around having cut his long stringy hair, and brushed his teeth so the smell of cheap wine wasn’t so strong on his breath.

He would apologize, and we would pack up the sparse things we had gathered from the trailer before skidding off, and we would return home. Speaking of skidding off, I remember that once he jumped on the hood of the car as it was moving, and my mother slammed on the brakes so that he fell off. We were in the backseat yelling “run over him,” but my mother thought not going to jail was better.

The few times he had ripped out the spark plugs, one of us would call the cops – but only if it got to that point. I can’t define what that point is, but I think it’s when my mom thought he might kill her so that she wouldn’t be there to protect us. The cops would come, make sure he put the spark plugs back in the car, and then we would drive off with their cavalcade escorting us out. Not quite the image middle-class families want to give the neighbors – but a last resort for our family. Of course, the Department of Social Services would show up a few days later, and we learned early how to lie well. There was no way we were leavin’ our momma – she was our only protector, and we needed her. I still need her.

Eventually, Mom got word that an old boyfriend had gotten a divorce, and she snuck off to meet him while we were in school and the asshole was at work. He offered to help us out, and let us move into that farmhouse I talked about earlier. So, we loaded the Gran Torino station wagon with as much stuff as we could stash, dropped Chasity off at the bottom of the hill, though it broke my mother’s heart to leave her behind. Mom taught her how to feed herself and wash her own laundry so that she could get by if we ever left. Mom taught all of us to be self-sufficient, but she spent extra time on Chasity, knowing that when we left, she could not come with us.

We sped out of there with strict orders not to let anyone know where we were going. Hell, we didn’t know where we were going, but we hoped it would be vastly different from whence we came. We were sorely disappointed. The nail in the coffin? She got scared she would turn 40 and be un-married, so she married the bastard. I was 15 and headstrong (much like my present self) and refused to go to the wedding. I think I gave some excuse about my work schedule and not being able to take off to go to the beach.

I had started working at age 14 – as soon as it was legal. It wasn’t a necessity, I suppose, but it meant Mom didn’t have to spend money on clothes and shoes and such for me. She did, however, have to drive me to work until I was 16. I remember being given keys to the drug store where I worked and thinking I’m not old enough for this. I was 15. And I also remember that when I needed something I couldn’t afford, I would simply stick it in my bag on my way out the door because I was the last one out and no one would see. The line between right and wrong has always been quite gray for me.

I spent high school socially miserable yet academically content. I was the quintessential nerd, and spent most of my time in after-school activities, but only the academic kind. My high school’s Envirothon team took first in the state two years in a row and placed in the top ten at the national level. Our Science Olympiad team was also high-ranking, and I spent lots of time studying up – escaping into a different world from the one in my favorite fiction books. Our Quiz Bowl team never really placed in any competition, but we spent many hours playing trivial pursuit and cracking jokes.

My mom and my grandparents helped me buy my first car (though I never finished paying my grandparents for it – which would happen again when I was in college), a 1973 Super Beetle, because I had fantasies of being a reincarnated hippie. It was bright yellow and I painted daisies all over it. My first tattoo was a monument to that car – an almost-exact replica of those daisies. The car eventually became my first pop-art masterpiece. I would blast Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead from its half-busted speakers and decades-old tape deck. A time I really felt free.

At some point, my drive to get out of the trailer park cemented my dreams of going to college, so I racked up college prep and honors courses, and eventually AP courses, so at least some of my college credits wouldn’t cost so much in the future. This would be the only time I planned well for my future. I left for my freshman year at UNC Asheville in the fall of 2000, fresh out of high school and with no idea how to handle college. I had no idea what a credit hour was, how to plan my schedule, and I had rarely been on the internet. We never had internet access at home, and we only once had illegal cable television. I was far behind on pop culture, and that wasn’t entirely a bad thing.

Eventually, I found a home in Asheville, which I thought was a gigantic city – a bustling metropolis, actually. It feels kind of small now, but I still feel at home here, and I still love it.

I had never given myself much time to explore my identity in high school. As I already told you, rumors had been circulating about my lesbian orientation by senior year, even though my one and only high school date was with a boy. I sang in the church choir, babysat all the time for extra cash, worked a job after school, and had so many academic extracurricular activities I could barely keep up with my schedule, let alone think about who I might be. I remember one friend calling me the “hippie-raver-punk-goth-christian chick,” in reference to my random sampling of different subcultures. I didn’t have one I liked best, so I integrated them somehow – I’m sure it looked quite patchy to some, but to me, it worked.

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