Throughout the rest of high school and all through college, I didn’t attract any more fairy godmothers. By the time I moved across the country for graduate school, I was long overdue for a visit.
One night early in the first semester, a cohort of mine and I were leaving our GA assignments. We were already discussing our insecurities and disappointments about our lackluster prospects in academia. Although he was more insecure about his aptitude for scholarship, he defended the scholar–teacher role.
I divested myself of all defenses when I admitted what no literature major ever should. I am why every college humor Web site earns thousands of hits, and I knew it, and it slipped out: I wanted to write. Still delusional and warily optimistic, I argued that literature programs should value creativity in writing more than they champion dry jousting matches between worn-out historicists and whatever new literary theorem that would-be professors were inventing to stay relevant.
We agreed and argued unnecessarily, exposing our fears of never becoming our idols until he spit it out:
“Well, not everyone can be a Virginia Woolf.”
I admitted defeat there. Standing at the bike rack, holding the crossbar in one hand, I waited but did not expect the force of the next blow. He took me down another step, eyeing the black motorcycle jacket I was wearing,
“Don’t you think you’re trying just a little hard?”
Trying too hard—the words hit me. At 23, I was being called a poser for wanting more and for wearing something that seemed too edgy for a conservative Texas environment.
For weeks, I wore the jacket in rebellion against my fears of letting the venom of his comment sink in. I varied my wardrobe as much as possible to expand the scope of my protest and feigned confidence whenever showing up to mixers and lectures.
When I wasn’t pocketing food and rubbing elbows at department functions, I entertained myself with weekly visits to the grocery store. The trips presented me the opportunity of satisfying my desire for a modest yet private adventure where I could gather observations about Texas produce. I drew my chief excitement from selecting exotic tubers or wild fruit to prepare and eat.
Going to the grocery store also encouraged my wardrobe exercises because I could peruse aisles of foreign foods anonymously while wearing brightly colored semi-formal wear without unwelcome judgment.
One afternoon not too far removed from the aforementioned incident of jacket shaming, I ventured to the H.E.B. in a party dress—a faded black A-line littered with cherries and graying tulle. To match, I paired it with red shoes with more glitter than Dorothy’s ruby red slippers.
It was that outfit, exactly, that brought her to me.
No longer alone in the grocery store, I met my second fairy godmother. I was inspecting some cucumbers when I heard,
“Hey! Girl! You, in the dress!”
I turned around. She was petite and carrying a sack of tomatoes on the vine.
“I saw you from over there, and I was like, ‘I have got to tell her. I got to.’ Girl, you are working that dress. Um-hm. With those shoes, too!”
Shocked to receive such loud affirmation in the vegetable aisle of the H.E.B., I could feel myself turning my toes together.
The woman grabbed the attention of another shopper passing by.
“Isn’t that dress cute?”
The arrested customer concurred and I volunteered that I’d had it almost a decade at that point, and that I thought that the black was fading. I didn’t tell her that it had been a dress I bought for a homecoming dance that I was never asked to attend, or that I’d worn it out the night of that forfeited dance to meet my future step family at Bob Evans in Medina, Ohio, just so I could get some use of it. It was, in effect, another attempt at repurposing my disappointment.
That was forgotten that day, because she told me that I was lucky to look so good in something I bought 10 years ago.
I thanked her again for her spontaneous, enthusiastic compliment and walked away stunned so senseless that I found myself dazed in front of a wall of noodles.
An aisle over, a girl on a ladder stocking soups stopped me.
“I love your dress!”
It must be a catching disease, I thought. All of a sudden on my way to the car, I was slinking like my cat used to after we’d shave all the burrs from his fur. I felt naked and stupid for standing out. This grocery store was haunted with an eerie amount of goodwill and I wished I could escape before being accosted again. Despite feeling awkward for drawing so much unexpected attention, it was better to know that being myself wasn’t considered “trying too hard” by everyone.
In front of the cucumbers and to the side of the tomatillos, I wasn’t trying anything. I was working it. Whatever it was, I do not know, but it was enough for me that day to forget that I might not be able to make it as a serious writer or an academic.
A few months later when I was chatting with another colleague, the two of us were recalling our first impressions of each other. She mentioned seeing me at orientation and listed what I’d been wearing: big, yellow hoop earrings, a bright orange halter sundress, and my voluminous red hair pinned high on my head and off my neck in an updo.
“You just came right up to me and were so friendly that I thought, ‘God, there it is. Now, that’s a native Texan.’”
Not being a Texan, I understood the implication: to her, the emblem of my joie de vivre had placed me lower on the intellectual totem poll. I was offended by the suggestion of obnoxious exuberance in my personality and style.
I almost defended myself, having ready at least 5 examples of why I am nothing like the kind of Texas woman she was stereotyping, but I refrained from doing so. Instead, I smiled at her, thinking, “Well, at least I work it.”