gabriela denise frank
"The G N' R Plan"
"I've got something I been building up inside—for so fucking long."
—Guns N' Roses
I turned thirteen in July 1987, the same month that Guns N' Roses released the album, Appetite for Destruction. With that record, that gateway birthday, the naive, affectionate child I had been—a working-class suburban girl who did not even know the slang definition of the number 69—was destroyed. That summer, I junked my good nature along with my love of wholesome, upbeat pop stars in favor of the raucous, piercing vibrato of W. Axl Rose.
I had never been so pissed off—irrationally, inexplicably furious. By the time eighth grade began, most of my basic rights had been rescinded thanks to my newfound backtalk. Telephone and TV, playdates with friends, back-to-school dances; one by one, these small liberties were abolished. With each stricture, I retaliated, vitriol rolling, lava-like, from my lips, provoking my father's short temper until his pronouncements of censure reached weeks into the future. It was me against him as much as a faceless storm of distemper that fell, purple and thundering, atop my once-sunny mood.
And, no, I didn't want to talk about it—except when I felt like screaming.
* * *
Diary, it was yet another night of Dad yelling at me non-stop. When I asked about money for a geometry book he goes, "Oh sure, when you want something, you act civil." Oh yes, I'm really begging for a geometry book. Can't you see me on my hands and knees for a fucking math book? (Journal entry, 1987)
* * *
Puberty demonstrates how young people feel out of control of their body. Negative attitude, passive and active resistance and testing limits are hallmarks of early adolescent change. (Carl E Pickhardt, PhD)
* * *
Thirteen was an amped-up, tripped-out prison with no sense of order or right.
Childhood was over. So over. The onset of unpredictable, debilitating headaches and menstrual cramps and the embarrassing gush of my first periods were a warning of the multi-dimensional teenage hell-realm that loomed before me. Thirteen was an amped-up, tripped-out prison with no sense of order or right. Only Axl's angry words and Slash's acrobatic licks kept me sane. Fused by the hypnotic bass riffs, screaming guitar and the dark, penetrating drumbeats of Duff McKagan, Izzy Stradlin and Steven Adler, Guns N' Roses spoke with a vocabulary I hungered to learn. In Appetite For Destruction I discovered a language that our culture didn't allow girls to speak. When they screamed about people out to get them, or when Axl threw violent on-stage tantrums and beer bottles at fans—and got away with it—they embodied my unspeakable rage. Hell, they sang my rage when I was reduced to silently mouthing along.
That fall, thirteen surged across my body, swollen and seething. I aimed my hair-trigger on family, friends and classmates—everyone I once loved. I couldn't make sense of my changing biology or the dump of chemicals that boiled my cells. Reason was gutted and stuffed in the same flaming dumpster where I trashed my skirts and dresses, Trixie Belden books and Trudie Darlene, my Cabbage Patch Kid.
In Glendale, Arizona, land of scorching heat, searing gravel, spiny cactus, glaring sunshine and few places that I was permitted to go unaccompanied, I was left to sulk in my white-walled bedroom, staring out between the slats of the sunscreen screwed to my window. I was never an athletic girl—my sport, if I had one, was marching band—but I needed a physical outlet for this exothermic reaction, or I was going to explode. I longed to hit, throw and punch. Watching videos of Axl swinging his microphone stand, I channeled his testosterone, pumping imagined energy through my pipe-cleaner-thin arms. I needed someone else, a man, to play out the physical exertion and the acts of violence that my teenage brain craved.
Each day on the walk home from junior high, I pulled on headphones and pressed PLAY on my Walkman, my clothes sticky with perspiration beneath the relentless mid-afternoon sun. I aspirated dust and grit left in the wake of whooshing vehicle traffic on my meander home, walking spellbound through our masterplanned subdivision, a bland curvilinear faux-utopia of tract houses in linked cul-de-sacs. There, Axl Rose shrieked into my tender ears about brawls with police, rough sex, car crashes and drug abuse—the kind of danger I longed for.
* * *
A psychologist friend once told me there was something about the teenage girl that was just too much—seductive and repulsive all at once. They were beyond the understanding of medical science, as if their angst defied the laws of physics and chemistry. (Jessica Pishko)
* * *
In 1987, there was no Internet, no YouTube, no Vimeo. No CDs or iTunes. There was no Google search, no Spotify, no Pandora. Nothing was delivered on demand. I was in constant wait and prayer for my favorite songs to play on the radio or MTV; perpetual repeat wouldn't have been enough. Limited by my earning potential, I hoarded meager pay from babysitting and chores to buy cassettes so that I could listen whenever I wanted.
Though we were glad to use this technology, we didn't consider it with the imagined nostalgia of today's youth; it was restrictive and frustrating. Finding a particular song out of order involved hitting fast-forward, play, stop, then fast-forward, play, stop, and then rewind and fast-forward several times amidst the chalkboard squelch of magnetic audio tape. Failure was embodied in the garbled tangle of a tape twisting and jamming inside the tiny reels. Once disentangled, you prayed that you could wind back the crinkled tape using your finger, although a jam often meant warping and heralded the album's ultimate demise. Standard play, let alone overplay, was a roulette game that cost a precious $12 per spin.
This limited communion with my idols transformed the music industry—and my dissatisfied generation's hunger for it—into a drug trade. Hearing "Sweet Child O' Mine" or "Paradise City" on the radio was a taste. Watching the music video was a fleeting glory-hole glance at my heroes dressed in tight black leather pants, bandanas, studded belts and wife-beaters. Bad. Ass. They were muscular. Strong. Powerful. In charge. Out of control.
* * *
The teenager is inextricably tied to the twin evils of sexuality and capitalism. In particular, teenage girls occupy a special place, because they are both uniquely vulnerable and uniquely dangerous. (Jessica Pishko)
* * *
Girls may imitate a male role model because he has greater status and privilege in our culture. ("Child Psychology: A Contemporary View Point")
* * *
With the release of Appetite, Guns N' Roses stabbed their lawless party reverb directly into the aorta of Generation X, a label that wouldn't gain popularity until I entered college. When I was in eighth grade, the social theory of Gen X was still being devised, as was our name. Demographer Neil Howe noted how intrinsic this delay was to our nature. "Over 30 years after their birthday, they didn't have a name. I think that's germane."
We had no words to describe our angst at the time, only a deeply cynical, dystopian sense of disappointment in common. Sarcasm and doubt formed the lens through which we viewed the world; a crust of bitter distrust was inseparable from, and intrinsic to, my lived experience. The twist: each of us felt this, yet believed it was our solitary fate.
A newly minted teen and young woman, I couldn't see how misanthropy was key to the scattering of my own voice and sense of self. This was before Beyoncé, Gwen Stefani, Missy Elliott. Fellowship, particularly amongst women, was based on the alienation of others. We excelled at nurturing and picking at our own pain. We side-eyed each other with a secret, conflicting yearn for both renown and acceptance that could never be acknowledged in the way that we hoped. Once rejected, we turned our backs, went home and slammed the door, justified in our skepticism of a world we couldn't conquer or improve. Oh well. Whatever. Never mind.
These five powerful men presented the unrepentant, fugitive lifestyle that I hungered for.
For me, a bespectacled straight A-student, a goody-goody, Miss Perfect With Her Nose in the Air, with the popular girls sneering behind my back, there was no way to reconcile my desire to both drop out from and excel in society—to conquer the world and make it love me while giving it the finger. That is, until Guns N' Roses. Fuck you, world! I can do whatever I want. Violence, alcohol, drugs, life on the streets, raunchy sex, boozy clashes with police, sold-out arena shows around the world, and screaming, crazed fans. These five powerful men presented the unrepentant, fugitive lifestyle that I hungered for.
* * *
In focus group interviews, women told us they felt that their anger was disabling. They felt ashamed of feeling angry and tried to control it, hide it and apologize for it. Societal expectations cause women to camouflage or ignore their anger. (Deborah Cox, PhD)
* * *
Naturally, I had to hide Appetite for Destruction from my parents, who would confiscate it if they heard the lyrics. Truth was, I was hypnotized. Their songs were keys to a larger mystery of empowerment that I knew could unlock if I followed it to the end, so I replayed the album over and over.
Another brick in my wall of isolation, I listened to Appetite within the cocoon of my headphones in the car and at family gatherings. It saved me from hearing my father's ongoing critique, particularly of women. Somehow, its misogyny was lost on me. Spellbound, I mouthed foul, abusive scenarios—ones that shadowed my father's pedantic sexism even as I believed I was rebelling against him—from the back seat of our maroon 1979 Grand Prix. The potent toxicity of G N' R's burnout cool made this former Care Bear-hugging girl into a hard-edged wanna-be groupie. Not that I had a clue what groupies really were. Or did.
* * *
Women who openly express anger—"angry women"—are suspect. They turn everyone off. Unlike our male heroes, who fight and die for what they believe in, the direct expression of anger, especially at men, makes us unladylike, unfeminine and sexually unattractive. (Harriet Lerner, PhD)
* * *
Smokey and indulgent, the Valhalla of my idols was more tantalizing for being distant and unattainable. At night, I lay in bed, missing its frilly canopy which I had removed, and stared up at the gritty rockstar posters covering the walls. I fantasized how to gain admittance to their world. I imagined Axl picking me out of the audience at a concert. The spotlight would turn on me and I would stare into his eyes without blinking as he sang, "Think About You." Sometimes, I pretended that I was with the band, the arms of thousands of fans outstretched as I sang the lyrics. The spotlight, white-hot and intense, coaxed rivulets of sweat down my skin as I ran from one side of the stage to the other with limitless energy. To a sparking backdrop of pyrotechnics, I leaped off of an amp, landing with a solid thud of both feet.
It's not that I was singing with Axl—I was Axl.
I studied the tiny promotional photos of the band in the album insert for hours, the grainy dots slightly out of key. I imagined wearing their clothes. Their hair. Their skin. I replaced my fleshy white thighs and freckled shoulders with their sinewy arms roped with veins. My mousy strawberry-brown hair became a ratted, blonde bouffant. I donned their bulky silver skull rings over my knuckles, raw with imagined cuts and bruises from fist fights. The exquisite bee-sting pain of their tattoos inked my taut, wiry rocker body as I performed Axl's sidewinding snake dance in front of the bathroom mirror with a hairbrush for a microphone.
For weeks, I dialed and redialed call-in radio contests with our push-button phone, hoping to win tickets to the G N' R show at The Mason Jar that September, not that my parents would let me go. Still, there was no alternative but to see G N' R live. I would've died to make it happen, and in this compulsion, I was not alone. My best friend, Jackie, shared my obsession.
We couldn't have been more unspoiled in the virginal sense—lovely, young and wanting. We ached to shed this girly goodness. Our bond cemented on Halloween night, 1987, when she slept over at my house. After my parents went to sleep, we planned to sneak out to wreak havoc which, to us, meant toilet papering houses, writing profanity in chalk and skulking around my subdivision in the dark. Neither of us had ever dared such a thing. We felt radical for the first time in our lives as we unscrewed the metal sunscreen over my bedroom window, our hearts wild with excitement and anxiety.
* * *
Diary, for the first time this week I actually had fun! Jackie and I were talking like total metal heads. Lately, I've been listening to Guns N' Roses and totally liking it; pretty scary. If someone said G N'R, Mötley Crüe, Metallica, Skid Row, Warrant or Winger to me last year, I might have THROWN UP but now, I love these groups. Isn't it amazing how a person can change so much? Oh, self, you headbanger you. Ha ha. (Journal entry, 1987)
* * *
Until Halloween, running away from home to see Guns N' Roses was merely a rebellious wish that arose whenever my father punished me. Mom was too exhausted from work and running to doctor appointments to give full audience my mania that hair-pinned between sweet-talk and tantrums. My favorite aunt, who would have understood—who possibly warned my mother—lived in Los Angeles, a whole state away. My grandmother wouldn't stand for such nonsense, so she was of no help. There was no one in my corner except Jackie. Clearly, we were on our own.
Between classes at Desert Sky Junior High, Jackie and I schemed our escape. To score tickets, we'd have to save up—and pray that G N' R would return to Phoenix for a show. We'd have to figure out how to get to the concert, since we were too young to drive. We'd have to stay somewhere overnight, a hotel where we could wash off the smell of smoke and pot, although they didn't rent hotel rooms to minors. Maybe we could bribe someone to reserve a room for us, but that meant more money.
If we made it to the concert, we'd have to be cautious of the tripped-out mosh pit stoners who thrashed in the music videos. I suggested that we could use small cans of Aqua Net as mace if someone attacked us. Our clothes were a major problem, though. We'd need camouflage to blend in—black shirts, black ripped jeans, boots. Weird belts. The kinds of things our parents would never buy, let alone permit us to wear.
It was the most god-damned scary and exciting feat we could imagine: two advanced-placement goody-goodies faking out their parents to sneak off to a hard rock concert in the city. We needed money. We needed a cover story. We needed a plan.
* * *
Diary, today was totally MENSTRUAL!! The only real thing I did was watch TV and listen to music. Jackie spent the night on Saturday and we made plans for G N' F' R. We're getting out of this fucking hellhole and we're TOTALLY going to do it. (Journal entry, 1987)
* * *
As children get older, girls are protected more and allowed less autonomy than boys. ("Child Psychology: A Contemporary View Point")
* * *
While my hormones prevented me from clear thinking beyond my obsession, I was still a resourceful, goal-driven young woman. In addition to fury and fixation, thirteen was also the birth of calculating schemes to get what I wanted—which, I realized, would be easier if I wasn't behaving like a rabid bitch. Though I struggled to sheath my venom, I was occasionally able to smile and swallow the ropy, burning apoplexy in order to get what I wanted. Given the will, I could create the illusion of a reasonable human being. A rational, lovable daughter who deserved to have her friend sleep over because she had been very, very good for a week.
This might mean being silent at meals until my father gave me permission to speak. It might mean not complaining that I didn't like the food on my plate. It might mean doing homework and chores without being asked, or going to my room after dinner instead of hanging out in the living room, which irritated my father. It might mean taking punishment for small infractions without protest. It might mean bending over when he said so and not covering my butt with my hands to defray his open-palm slaps. It might mean not objecting when he threatened to grab the belt. It might mean not channeling Axl's voice and yelling, "Fuck off!" like I ached to when he growled, Children should be seen and not heard, for the millionth time.
I hated this female body of mine that could be pushed around so easily, the same as my mother, but being controlled by others seemed my gendered fate. I wanted to be anything besides what I was—short, weak, feminine, sensitive, bookish, brunette. Donning the sweet-girl mask was equivalent to pulling on the sides of my mouth with my fingers to make a ghastly, sarcastic mockery of myself. Wondering where your good girl went? I jeered inside. She's long gone, and now you're stuck with me!
I wanted to be anything besides what I was—short, weak, feminine, sensitive, bookish, brunette.
I was embarrassed by my breasts as they grew, a further testament to my vulnerable caste—the caste of good girls, which everyone reminded me I should try to be. A good girl accepts what she is told about how to conduct herself and her body. Before thirteen, she is trained to cross her legs; after thirteen, she is told to shave them. Honey, I've noticed that you're growing some hair on your legs. I'll buy you razors the next time we're at the store. Even when the mercury topped 115° F, I hated wearing shorts because they revealed my need to shave. Good girls are hairless and obedient. They aim to please.
At thirteen, my parents began describing my body in hushed tones using the embarrassing word budding, conversations that heralded a shopping trip with Mom for bras. Training bras, they were called; could anything else be worse? Even my breasts were second-class citizens. Between the confusing choices of awkward kiddie brassieres, and strap adjustments by a big-hipped stranger whose name tag claimed that Sarah was a specialist at this sort of thing (gross), the experience was excruciating—worse because it was made in the name of my indecency. Go put something on, Dad barked that night—he couldn't quite say the word bra even as he demanded to know why I wasn't wearing what Mom took me shopping for. Faced with my girlish breasts and nipples, his irritation ran hot. We need to maintain some standards of decency around here, he grumbled in disgust and left the room. The more evident my female biology became, the more pressure I felt from everyone to make it disappear. My leg hair was to be shaven off, my chest covered by layers of padded cotton, and my heavy, bloody periods whispered about in the bathroom (Not in front of your father) with Mom, who tucked sanitary napkins into the secret compartment of my backpack "just in case."
It was time to escape this bullshit. What if there were no rules? What if we could do whatever we wanted? What if we did say, "Fuck you!" to our families, teachers, curfews? To shaving. Bras. Periods. To being girls. To being kept and vulnerable. "Let's go!" Jackie whispered, staring into the inky desert night. Then we crawled out my window.
* * *
Whereas a man on the road might be seen as potentially dangerous, adventurous, or hapless, in all cases the discourse is one of potential. When a man steps onto the road, his journey begins. When a woman steps onto that same road, hers ends. (Vanessa Veselka)
* * *
In response to trauma, coping skills for children and adolescents such as running away can be viewed as functional, yet place the individual in risky, potentially re-victimizing situations. (Public Safety Canada)
* * *
Past midnight on Halloween, Jackie and I strutted down Grovers Avenue, our vandalism supplies depleted and spirits high. For hours, we had toilet papered the front yards of boys we liked and wrote cryptic, hostile messages on the driveways of girls who terrorized us at school. We slunk into pools of shadow and navigated the labyrinthine alleys that connected the looping cul-de-sacs to each other and to the golf courses that ran in between. In the witching hour, the masterplanned development of Bellair transformed into a wonderland of eerie misadventure. With glee, we proclaimed ourselves the new rulers.
It was chilly and clear as Halloween typically is in the desert. We were clad in head-to-toe black, laughing and spinning circles in the streets. No parents to scold us or to reign in our crimes. We were free—and getting away with it. We didn't think we were breaking any laws, save those of our parents, by running around in the dark, which is why we didn't bolt when a car slowed next to us.
The old Crown Victoria, bronze in the downcast of sulphur street light, rolled to a stop next to the vacant stretch of dirt past the elementary school. Its headlights, weak yellow-white eyes, cycled on and off with the car's idling engine. "Good evening, girls," said the man in the passenger seat, waving us over through his open window. "It's a little late to be walking around by yourselves, isn't it?"
It was impossible to make out his features; I could only see the red coals of the driver's cigarette seething as he dragged. Jackie and I backed up a step towards the chain link fence that separated Bellair Elementary, my former school, from the sidewalk. "Do your parents know you're out so late?" he said, hinting disapproval. We shook our heads soberly. "We're police officers and you could be in real trouble for being out past curfew."
Curfew. We hadn't thought of that. Dad would flip if I was brought home by the police. I'd be grounded for life."C'mere for a second. It's okay," he said, his hand outreached.
A tremor vibrated through my gut. Why weren't they driving a police car? Or wearing uniforms? Why did they remain in the car instead of stepping out to talk with us? We didn't move closer, but we didn't run, either. After all, we were good girls and these men, whoever they were, were adults. Adults were in charge.
Sensing our apprehension, he said, "We're working undercover." Our noses twitched at this possibly true information that explained everything. "Say, how old are you two?" he asked, changing tack.
"I'm thirteen," I said obediently.
"Thirteen." He mouthed it in two words—thir-teen—slow and thick.
* * *
The teen girl body is our media ideal: unmarked hands, veinless legs, smooth flat stomachs. As a society, we have a lot of practice in assuming that beauty is seduction. We talk about girls tempting men, men who can't help themselves. (Jessica Pishko)
* * *
Women often use non-verbals, especially the smile, to soften the blunt force of a conflict. She cannot jeopardize her femininity. She feels the need to get over her anger like she has the flu. Women are not supposed to rock the boat. (Audrey Nelson, PhD)
* * *
"What about you?" the driver nodded at Jackie when she still hadn't answered.
"I… I'm twelve, " she stammered. "But I'll be thirteen in two weeks. I promise." Then she smiled. I did, too, without knowing why. The man chuckled. I figured he was surprised because Jackie was five inches taller than me; everyone assumed she was older.
"Where do you live?" he said. "You want a ride home? We can drop you off."
I pictured them coming to the door, ringing the bell. "Um, no, thanks," I said, backing up. Jackie or no Jackie, Dad would give me the belt for sure, not caring if she heard. But it wasn't solely my fear of punishment that gave me pause. Something told me not to get near the car.
"You sure? There are people out here who might want to hurt you," he warned. "You'd be safer with us, wouldn't you?"
In thin, shaky voices we mumbled, No, thank you. We're fine, and started walking east on Grovers, hoping not to arouse a chase. Neither of us said it, but we knew we'd be safer if we could move past the empty dirt lot and the black copse of trees at the edge of the school property and closer to the houses. As we slunk on, the crush of tires over errant road grit sounded; the Crown Vic rolled along with us. "Hey girls, come on. Why don't you get in?" the man called. "If you're going home, we can get you there faster."
"Keep walking!" I hissed at Jackie, whose long legs threatened to outstep me. We pressed against each other, our arms linked, a tight seam between our bodies.
"Oh, giiiiirls....." the men crowed.
We bolted. I had never fled so hard and fast in my life. Were they actually undercover cops? Were we in trouble? Jackie and I took a sharp right, faking out the car, which sped past us before flashing its brake lights to turn around.
* * *
I wanted to be told that I was vulnerable because I felt that way. I could picture how it felt, to be pinned down and subjected to something you didn't understand. Teenage girls—either despite their sex or because of it—are also intensely dangerous despite all of their capacity to be hurt. (Jessica Pishko)
* * *
Bellair's master builder offered a limited number of one and two-story house plans but it never occurred to me until that Halloween how spooky it was to see hundreds of essentially the same house lined up in infinite repeat. Street after street, the sequence maddeningly identical—one flipped left, one flipped right, like we wouldn't notice—my neighborhood was a suburban nightmare dreamscape.
Jackie and I scrambled down the line of copycat houses on Lindner and into a cul-de-sac, a seeming dead-end, with the grind and whir of the Crown Vic behind us. At the end of the cul-de-sac, a shadowy passageway led between the houses to a tall, locked pedestrian gate—one of many entries to the main golf course. If we could make it over the gate, the men, whoever they were, would have to climb it, too, if they wanted us badly enough. Against that seemingly impossible task—scaling a six-foot-high metal gate to escape potentially the police chasing us—I channeled Axl Rose. I enervated my limbs and threw my short self against it, struggling to pull my body up and over the top of the slippery metal bars. With the sound of men shouting and tires screeching behind us, I tapped into an unknown upper-body dexterity, adrenaline pumping through my little-girl heart.
Then: magic. First Jackie then I vaulted over and landed softly—thud… thud—onto the thick blades of grass. We were outlaws on the run, and everyone was out to get us, but we would never stop, never punk out, never give in. We were thrilled with our newfound super powers, terrified of being caught, and, my god, it was fucking amazing.
* * *
You said you and me was gonna get out of town and for once just really let our hair down. Well, darlin', look out 'cause my hair is coming down! (Thelma, "Thelma and Louise")
* * *
Women outlaws on the American frontier found livelihoods through business ownership, gambling and prostitution. What they all had in common was a need to survive via crime or other "unladylike" ventures in an extremely trying environment. (Hope Racine)
* * *
Despite our sass, Jackie and I knew that we had no agency. Thirteen-year-old girls were not allowed to be curious or roam like Mark Twain; to have adventures meant risking rape, kidnapping, death or injury. Girls were expected to study, listen and speak true—but only when spoken to. Good girls were polite. Nice. They stayed clean. They did not talk back. They came right home after school and did what they were told. Or else… The fate of bad girls was an unfinished threat too horrible to name.
Good girls were polite. Nice. They stayed clean. They did not talk back.
These were the days before Alanis Morissette, Courtney Love and Ani di Franco. Before Venus and Serena Williams. Before Ruth Bader Ginsburg became the Notorious RBG, and too long since Adrienne Rich. Our mothers never spoke of Betty Friedan or quoted Gloria Steinem: "Power can be taken, not given. The process of taking is empowerment in itself." We had Madonna, but she was forever chasing boys, and even Joan Jett, in studded-leather bad-girl outfits, sang more about suffering broken hearts than breaking them.
Girls weren't encouraged to explore or conquer the world; we were taught to fear it. We were urged to blend in, to hide ourselves. Don't go too far, too fast. Don't stray. Don't dally. Don't veer off-course. Don't lollygag. Don't talk to strangers. Don't go near vans or take candy from people you don't know. We were taught to scan our surroundings constantly for anyone who might try to hurt us which, apparently, was everyone.
* * *
The teenage girl can't win. Approaching us, she's a brazen Lolita; walking away, she's innocent and naive, which—in a young female body—is also coded as sexual. We project on her our feelings about lust, beauty, neediness and control. (Jessica Pishko)
* * *
On Halloween night, the golf course was another world. Jackie and I ran until we hit a small thicket of pines, crouching to see if anything moved behind us in the dark. We paused, our breath hard and ragged. To the west, the outline of low gabled roofs stood out against the starry sky. To the east, a string of yellow lamps marked 45th Avenue, the main road that bifurcated Bellair. That was where the Crown Vic would be trolling, if the men hadn't scaled the gate.
We waited, trembling. The sound of automatic sprinklers fired to and fro across the rolling green—ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-CHCHCHCHCH. The snatch of grass we squatted on had already been watered, the smell of chemically-treated moisture hanging in the dry air. On the other side of the solid fence that separated the golf course from the houses stood xeriscaped yards with gravel, mesquite trees and cactus while a lush carpet of green rolled within. We were surrounded by adults, both asleep and awake, who wanted to contain us.
Nothing moved. Our heartbeats slowed to a normal rhythm. We waited and listened.
Only the sprinklers sounded.
When our legs finally stopped trembling, we stood and made our way south along the fence toward Bell Road. We would have to slink along the fence and hope to find another exit gate near my house on Annette Circle. We tiptoed carefully. We hadn't brought flash lights—we didn't think we'd be doing this, breaking the subdivision's rules by trespassing on the golf courses at night. "You ready to go back?" I said. Jackie nodded, sweeping her honey-brown hair behind her ears, her forehead slick with sweat.
We stepped quietly in the direction of home, calming our nerves by whispering about Chris, who liked her, and Scott, who I had been crushing on for months. At least Jackie had a chance; Scott totally ignored me. He only dated popular girls.
Then, something snapped behind us—a branch, a foot sliding on a sand trap—who knows. We gasped, clasped hands and ran, pulling each other over the rolling landscape. When I looked over, Jackie's eyes bugged out in fear. Was it a coyote? A late-night groundskeeper? Had the men hopped the fence to prove that we couldn't defy them?
Tears threatened to breach my eyes until Jackie grinned, tapping into whatever coolness she could muster as we fled, hearts racing and alive. "It's so easy, easy, when everybody's tryin' to please me," she sneered at her own fear. I laughed and joined in, desperate to find the swagger. Danger, excitement and life of the streets—it was fucking ours, baby! We were relieved to find an exit gate whose bars were bent wide enough to slip through. Past two a.m., we snuck into my room through the open window and screwed the screen back in place.
* * *
Quest is elemental to the human experience. But there is no female counterpart in our culture to Ishmael or Huck Finn. There is no Dean Moriarty, Sal, or even a Fuckhead. A man with a quest, internal or external, makes the choice at every stage about whether to endure the consequences or turn back, and that choice is imbued with heroism. Women, however, are restricted to a single tragic or fatal choice. (Vanessa Veselka)
* * *
My heroes were men for a reason: no baggage, no periods, no breasts. Not just any men—untouchable, indestructible rock stars. Men who broke things without considering consequences or fearing shame or punishment. No guilt. No apologies. Part of me wanted to break things, too; another part wanted to be broken. I wanted to hurt. I wanted the rights of men. I wanted to smash everything—to ruin and be ruined. Strap me into the god-damned gas chair like Axl in the video for "Welcome to the Jungle."
I began sneaking discarded cigarette butts from public ashtrays and smoking them outside when my parents were away, breathing the carbon monoxide deep into my lungs like Axl and Slash, enjoying the light-headed suffocation. Fuck cancer—bring it on. Why couldn't I have war, aggression, destruction, blood, pain, scabs, scars—the impolite courage to spit at the doctors who failed my mother instead of thanking them for doing nothing, as we did. Mom was sick; with what, we didn't know. It was likely peri-menopause, her doctor guessed. No one had the answer.
Meanwhile, my father's screws tightened against my rebellious onslaught and my mother accepted bodily discomfort as her fate. Everyone, including her, shrugged, This is just what happens to women. I learned more about compliance from her actions than her constant instructions of how to behave and look like a proper young lady.
I confided in Jackie, but she was just as helpless and perplexed; she loved my mother, too, and hated to see her suffer. If anything, seeing her struggle galvanized our will. Each time Jackie and I slept over at each other's houses, we did two things: sneak out to explore the neighborhood, and work on our G N' R plan.
* * *
Scholars have found a link between the way daughters deal with stress as adults and the relationships they had with their dads during childhood. Those without good father relationships had lower than normal cortisol levels, resulting in overly sensitive reactions to stress. Low-cortisol daughters were more likely to describe their relationships with men in stressful terms of rejection, unpredictability or coercion. (Louis Weiss, PhD)
* * *
You know where you are? You're in the fucking jungle, baby. You're gonna die!
Screaming these words made me feel powerful in the face of constant admonition: Raise your hand. Don't interrupt. Speak when spoken to. Be polite. Be quiet. Fuck the shame of not fitting in, of being too smart but never thin or pretty enough—the sense of a soft and vulnerable cow with ponderous breasts that everyone else had rights to, simply for gazing at them.
Words were my lone weapon and, man, did I enjoy getting under my father's easily piqued skin. "Little girl, I control everything you do!" he said, slamming the dinner table in exasperation one night. "I control who you see. When you come and go. What you do. What you eat. What you THINK. You don't do anything unless I say so."
I ran to my room, slamming my door, which rattled in the frame. Each day, I hated him more yet I remained in that house. My mind was ingrained with my parents' fears and the memory of being chased on Halloween. The streets were fun for a night, but could I really run away? The more I bucked his control, the more my father stepped up his punishments. He grabbed and shook me one night, fingers digging into my biceps, turning me eye to eye, the flesh of his neck, patchy and enflamed, wet spittle flying from his lips onto mine. Look, little girl, he growled. His panicked, blistering temper a sign of loss of control (I win!) masked by iron-fisted domination.
* * *
Well, little journal, my favorite utility (and yours!) was *poof!* taken out of my room today. Yes, everyone... it's the TELEPHONE! Wonderful invention, Alexander (Graham Bell.) It's even better when a person can actually use it! And now for Double Jeopardy: let's guess how long it's going to be gone! The answer is (quote): "Until I improve my attitude and pick up after myself." Yeah, right. That oughta be, like, tomorrow. (Journal entry, 1987)
* * *
Typically, men see the expression of anger as exerting dominance, whereas women view it as a loss of control. (National Center for Biotechnology Information)
* * *
In the best of times, my father was rough; in the worst, intimidating and violent. For every time my mother attempted to calm and assuage him, I judged her, too. Not with the hatred that I felt for my father, but akin to the loathing I would feel for myself years later when I had hitched my heart to yet another flailing man who I'd eventually have to escape.
But my father had another side, too, didn't he? Moments where he could be tender? He might say he was proud of me for getting straight A's. He might allow me to linger in the garage where he tinkered on Sundays if he was in a good mood. He might treat Mom and me to Baskin-Robbins or make fluffy buttermilk pancakes for Saturday night dinner before she and I went to church. It's difficult to put aside my cynical appraisals of his kindnesses. The Gen X me, the teenage me, my father's daughter—the girl I had been bred to be couldn't ignore the dark side. Beneath his praise, I remembered him saying that anything less than A's were unacceptable, or how he ignored me and went about repairs, listening to the oldies station as if I wasn't there. He bought ice cream because it was hot and he wanted a treat too. He made pancakes because my mother didn't make them as well as he did.
At thirteen, I so wanted to be loved and accepted by this man I couldn't trust. By his hand, I had learned to expect a reversal when I least saw it coming, and from this concluded it was impossible to trust any one good moment because it would be book-ended with his anger.
At thirteen, I so wanted to be loved and accepted by this man I couldn't trust.
Before I turned seven, my mother had attempted to leave him—twice—but stayed each time. At home, he would tap her on the rump or roughly cup her voluptuous breasts. To him, this was not indecent behavior, though it embarrassed both of us. When she pulled away, he snapped at her, insisting that he was trying to show affection. Maybe he was.
The same was true when he pursued me in play, knocking me to the carpet and pinning me, helpless, a writhing insect, to the floor. That same sensation flooded through me when Jackie and I ran from the men on Halloween; a thrill of fear—what would come next?—and the titillation of being hunted, desired. The anticipation of pleasure and pain at another's hands. Beneath the fear, I felt an urge to tease and tempt—You can't get me!—with the promise of physical exhaustion and release, whether painful or pleasurable. Just get it over with.
As much as men seemed to get high on my fear and my body, I got off on them, too, however they came—covetous, loving, tender, controlling, needy or ugly. The model man I knew was all of those things.
* * *
What is surprising is not that fathers have such an impact on their daughters' relationships with men, but that they generally have more impact than mothers do. (Linda Nielsen)
* * *
A father's presence (or lack of presence) in his daughter's life will affect how she will relate to all men who come after him and can impact her view of herself and psychological well-being. (Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW)
* * *
Diary, Mom came home with news about her breast. They are going to do a biopsy to see if the tissue is cancerous or not. If so, they'll have to take all of the tissue out and then do a skin graft from her leg.
Diary, Mom went to the hospital for the biopsy. She has cancer. They are putting her on kemotherapy for a while, then they're going to do a masectomy. Why does God let this happen?
Diary, the cancer is in her breast and lymph nodes. I don't know if she's going to live or die. Sometimes, I want to die. Sometimes I feel angry or upset but I don't know who or what I'm MAD at. Just fucking die and that's it. Like a big light and then everything goes dark and I don't have to worry about anything or have dad scream at me or go to school. Dear, stupid fucking diary... aren't you supposed to help me figure this out? (Journal entries, 1987)
* * *
At thirteen, life kept reminding me how dangerous it was to be a woman. On the way to school one morning, a notorious mean kid chased me on his bike and began hitting my back tire with his front tire. I tried to outride him, but with an extra thirty pounds of muscle, he outgunned me. The terror of Halloween returned as I pumped the pedals of my Schwinn ten-speed as hard as I could. With a final record-scratch of impact, my back tire stopped but the front kept going. I sailed over the handlebars and slid, face-down, across the asphalt.
He recoiled at my bloody face, arms and knees, which were full of road grit that remains today, and blubbered regrets. "I'm sorry. I didn't know this would happen!" he whimpered. I wish I could have watched myself, an eighth-grade Carrie, covered in blood yet strangely calm—I was in shock—sneer, "Really? And what did you hope was going to happen?"
My teenage girl body tempted him to chase, damage and destroy it. It held the same call for my father, who slapped, hit and chased it, dragged it across carpeting, rolled it over, pinned it to the ground, straddled and suffocated it with his weight. His public appraisals of women's bodies, including my mother's sensuous form, which he saw as the gold standard, made me conscious at all times how I looked. A woman should be fastidious in the care and dressing of her body for the sake of decency, taste and pleasure—not her own but a man's.
That November, after Jackie's thirteenth birthday (I'll be thirteen in two weeks. I promise!) we learned that my mother had stage three breast cancer. The possibility of her death terrified me on many levels, not the least of which was that she might leave me alone with my father. Her cancer had gone undiagnosed and untreated because she feared defying her doctor by getting a second opinion. "If you need another opinion, then I shouldn't be your doctor," he said. So she stayed too long with yet another man whose thin-skinned ego ruined her life.
After she revealed her diagnosis, I couldn't decide which was a greater cause for fear: what a man's choices might do to my body, or what my body might do to itself. I realized that I wasn't so much trapped at home but in a female form that was as much a prison as a bomb.
* * *
Teen bodies aren't cute; they are sexy. They hover menacingly between child and adult, too close to either for comfort. (Jessica Pishko)
* * *
Antagonistic or abusive men prefer passive partners who are malleable and whom they can easily manipulate, even dominate. The adult survivor may unconsciously, and repeatedly, seek out partners who share those same destructive qualities with "Daddy"—partners they are always trying to please, who may physically or emotionally abuse them, sexually or financially exploit them, and whom they can never really trust. (Out of the FOG)
* * *
Four years later, after my mother died of metastatic brain cancer, Jackie and I saw Gun N' Roses at Compton Terrace, a grassy amphitheater outside Chandler, a one-road-in-one-road-out traffic nightmare. We scoped out a spot on the sloped lawn long before Soundgarden would open the show at nine. We had waited four years to sate our hunger; what were another few hours?
The orange-red sun fell behind the hazy mountains; our gaze remained guarded but curious. We observed with shrugging notice the druggies and weirdos all around. We had feared these people when we were thirteen, thrilled as much by their strangeness as the promise of danger they symbolized. On the knife-edge of eighteen, everything looked different. The unknown future of our soon-to-be adult lives had the appeal of a horror movie: we sheltered our gaze with open fingers but couldn't turn away.
Within an hour, we fell in with three long-haired rough-necks sitting nearby in the grass; when a large man got stoned and fell over, nearly crushing us, they pulled us to safety. After the show, we tailgated with them in their black van, not a thought of stranger danger, until the parking lot cleared out. They had brought bags of junk food and soda pop, which we helped them devour; we flirted and traded phone numbers before parting. The boys—a few years older than us with unwashed hair, ripped jeans, black T-shirts from Metallica and Megadeath, shoes full of holes—were stoners, straight-up, legit, the kind we had both feared and desired. What scared us at thirteen had become pedestrian; what loomed ahead was much more exhilarating.
After ten p.m. on January 31, 1992, Gun N' Roses rocked Compton Terrace for a cocaine-high two and a half hours, starting with "It's So Easy." We were in heaven. Thousands of fans pressed body-to-body, forming jamb-tight throngs and mini mosh pits across the lawn, a mesh of limbs and bodies and voices squealing, screaming, screeching and writhing beneath the muddled sound system and the sloppy, adrenaline-fueled performance. "I'm gonna dedicate this song to the people who think that I think my shit don't stink," Axl slurred early in the show after shooing overeager fans from the stage. "This is Paul McCartney, Live and Let Die," he shouted to waves of fans crowing, Woo-hooooo! and I love you, Axl! over the din. It was everything we had dreamed about: flashing colors and strobes, black leather, naked chests, guitar and drum solos, thudding powerhouse grandeur and our favorite songs laced with extra profanity that we screamed along with like scripture. G N' F' N R!!
After we left the boys, I edged my mom's Grand Prix over 90 miles an hour on I-5, weaving in and out of traffic, my cells electrified. Despite our ringing ears and hoarse voices, Jackie and I rolled down the windows and blasted my worn cassette of Appetite for Destruction, shouting: "They're out ta get me! They won't catch me! I'm fucking innocent! They won't break me!"
We hadn't figured it out yet—how to be part of the world yet exceptional.
In the end, there was no research and no plan, no squirreling away of loose change, no bribing people to ignore our femininity or youth. We hadn't figured it out yet—how to be part of the world yet exceptional, to live outside the rules yet not be punished for breaking their homogeneity, to be daring and original yet part of the crowd who we secretly hoped would bless us with acceptance. We were far too young back then to know that mastering both iconoclasm and invisibility is a trick reserved for women of middle age.
Our seventeen-year-old selves were potent prime-time characters. We used earnings from our part-time jobs to buy the tickets and souvenir T-shirts. We conducted no library research, nor did we fear being corrupted into sex or drugs. We did not sport weird belts or carry AquaNet or wear all black. In fact, the only element of the original G N' R plan to remain in place was that Jackie and I stayed together overnight. Instead of a hotel, though, she came home with me. My house was closer to Compton Terrace than hers, and it was empty. Gone were the nights of sneaking in and out through my window because my father slept over at his girlfriend's house most evenings. To prove how alone we were, I slammed the front door behind us, hard, before locking it. There was no longer anyone at home who cared about protecting my body or my good-girl heart; without my mother to tend it, had grown cynical, rash and weedy. I was left alone to navigate my relationship with the world, good and bad, men and women, love and sex, power and control—sense of self and my body—on my own.
Then as now, my body struggled to understand itself, one day thick and doughy, the next wiry and potent, arms strong as steel, legs mighty as wooden planks. I dare you to test me, it seethed. My woman body has stamina, the weight and curve of water—my swerving iliac crests, my swelling breasts, my thighs whose split brings both pleasure and pain, my arching calves, my little jelly belly, my ivory bones and my ruddy, wagging tongue. And don't forget: my untamed, undisciplined, unfeminine, unapologetic lady brain.
My seventeen-year-old self felt confused and unsure of the future, but my thirteen-year-old self was thrilled—so stoked—to finally be free.
A native of Detroit, Michigan, Gabriela Denise Frank is the author of CivitaVeritas: An Italian Fellowship Journey. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in True Story, Lunch Ticket, Crab Creek Review, The Rumpus, Front Porch Journal, and the blogs of Brevity and Submittable. www.gabrieladenisefrank.com