Nonfiction by Carmel Breathnach
“If you could change anything about your face, what would you change?” my cousin, Crystal, asks me.
She’s peering into the full-length mirror of her mahogany wardrobe, pulling at her cheeks with long, athletic fingers.
“I don’t know.” I shrug.
I’ve never considered this question.
“Come on, think of something,” Crystal says. “I would change my eyes.”
“You shouldn’t change anything,” I say, tossing the peach-covered Sweet Valley High book I’ve been devouring on to the bed and strolling over to stand by my cousin.
I look into the mirror and gnaw on my lip pensively.
My cousin, younger than me by two years, is gorgeous. Only ten years old and already the boys at school are sending her Valentine’s Day cards. Since her family’s trip to Portugal six months ago, Crystal’s unblemished skin has kept its tan and again I notice how pale mine is in comparison.
“I would like a tan like yours and those California Valley girls I’ve been reading about,” I say, gesturing towards the book behind me.
“No, not a tan, Carm,” she says. “Something you would change?”
Crystal’s fun-loving, wild-natured spirit attracts many friends and I wonder why she would want to change anything about her appearance. She’s talented, funny, and everyone loves her. And she’s waiting for my answer as I lean into the mirror to ponder my face, turning this way and that.
“You know people’s noses continue to grow forever,” Crystal says, laughing.
As the years pass, although a boyfriend tells me I’ve a sexy nose, it will be the facial feature of mine that I dislike the most. Standing in the room with my cousin, at twelve years of age, I have no issue with my nose.
“My lips,” I say, finally, drawing my bottom lip down with my index finger. “Yeah, I could halve the size of this bottom lip. It’s too big.”
I take a seat at my desk beside Em, a girl I’ve gotten to know this year. Both of us tend to be outspoken, me more than Em, but we admire that in each other. The teachers, on the other hand, do not admire us. I’m flipping through my Irish book, waiting for our teacher to offer directions, when I notice Em smiling at me.
“What are you staring at?” I ask.
Em smiles and raises her eyebrows before blurting out, “Word around town is you’ve got blow job lips!”
“What?” I ask in astonishment.
I’m fourteen and I’ve only recently become aware of the term blow job.
“Yeah,” Em says, laughing. “I was at the running track on Sunday and your lips were all the boys could talk about. And Brody Benson said you had the best ass, said it was the kind of ass that jumps out and says hello to everyone.”
Em is smiling widely and I suppose these are compliments, so I laugh and wave it off, shocked to hear I was—or at least parts of my body were—the topic of conversation, at the running track where the in-crowd congregates.
When I was eleven, my mother died. She got sick when I was five and spent several years going in and out of the hospital for chemotherapy and other treatments. I watched as my mother’s healthy body changed before my eyes. Her stomach expanded with fluid, giving the appearance of being pregnant, and her love of fashion was put on hold. I saw my mother hooked up to drips, veins bruised from invasive needles, and watched as Mam’s cheeks lost their robust glow. I witnessed early on in life what could happen to a perfect, tender, warm body, a cherished, nurturing mother’s body.
My father was a teacher at a boy’s school in town. His students were between the ages of twelve and eighteen, and as a child, I wanted to attend the school as my brother did. But when I turned twelve, it was the girl’s school I attended, cycling past my father’s school in the morning and evenings. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the jeering and taunting voices I heard on my route were aimed at me and I grew anxious about passing the school on a daily basis. The lads knew I was one of their teacher’s daughters and they enjoyed having a target upon which to brandish their manliness. Their incessant jibes hacked away at my self-esteem and I often wished I could disappear.
On days I cycled to school with Tia, the boys didn’t yell obscenities. Tia and I played Barbies in each other’s houses when we were younger and went swimming together on weekends. We had too many sleepovers to count. I considered her one of my best friends until one day, cycling home from school, she told me a red-haired guy named Don said I was a stupid idiot. Offended and embarrassed, I attempted to conceal my hurt feelings, reminding Tia how Don had never spoken to me in his life.
“He doesn’t know anything about me!” I said.
“Well, he said you seemed like a stupid idiot.”
I wondered why she wanted me to know this and why she continued to talk to him after his cruel remark. Tia stopped biking with me and started cycling home with Don after that.
One grey November day, I was in town with my best friend, Tara, strolling past the bakery and contemplating the purchase of a cream doughnut, when a teenager with short dark hair shoved me out of the way and teased me for being his teacher’s daughter. This lad often harassed me in public, but I didn’t know his name. As he ambled off up the street, slapping his thigh in satisfaction, my rage broke loose and I chased after him. Grabbing his shoulder, I pushed him up against the beige wall of a hotel situated in the epicenter of our town. The guy’s acne-crusted jaw hung slack with shock and his grey eyes held mine. Pressing him to the wall, I screamed in his face.
“Don’t you ever call me names again, you fucking asshole. Ever. How fucking dare you. Who the fuck do you think you are?”
The teenager dropped his eyes to the ground, mumbled an apology, and struggled to get away. I moved aside, my heart thumping, my head pounding, and as he hurried away, I caught sight of a few pedestrians snickering as they passed. One older man winked at me and a woman nodded. Tara was beaming, her cheeks red with pride.
“You did it, Carmel, you did it!”
I saw the lad around town after that, but he never teased me again. I wasn’t only protecting myself that day, I was protecting my father. He was all my brother and I had, and he was the kindest human I knew.
“You’ve got model lips,” Lorna says to me during school lunch. “Girls would kill for your lips.”
I laugh, almost choking on my ham sandwich.
“I’m serious,” she says. “It’s true.”
I rarely sit with Lorna at lunch and her words surprise me, but her compliment instantly changes something. I recall standing in front of Crystal’s mirror thinking my lips were too large.
I felt differently about my lips after that day. My friend offered me a new perspective.
As a girl growing up in Ireland in the eighties and nineties, it was commonplace to have random, strange men smack your bottom in public and get away with it. I had a few outspoken friends who, like me, didn’t condone this behavior, but at times, even we let it go. Because nobody was doing anything about it, we understood this conduct to be normal, and if we liked the guy in question, we didn’t want to come across as prudes. But the older I got, the angrier this unsolicited behavior made me.
One Christmas in Ireland, a few friends invited me out to a local bar. I had only stepped inside the door of the establishment when a man’s hand was on my butt, lingering much too long for its placement to have been an accident. I swung around and found myself face-to-face with an older man. He had black curly hair and a boorish grin.
“Well hello!” he said with a smirk. He raised his arm in an attempt to draw me towards him.
Sternly I told him to stay away and not to touch me again. The man, shocked by my assertiveness, advised me to shut up and calm down, so I strolled over to the bouncer perched on a high stool by the entrance and told him what happened. I’d called out guys for this kind of conduct before and was laughed at by the men working these venues, so I didn’t expect a result. But to my surprise the bouncer hopped from his stool and beelined for the man, grabbing him firmly by the arm and showing him to the door. The ousted man yelled obscenities as his two friends dragged him off down the street.
“Thank you,” I said to the bouncer, who nodded and hastily turned the other way.
My mother aimed to protect me in so many ways when I was young. She warned me not to talk to strangers, showed me basic self-defense tips when I was a child, taught me to have respect for myself and my body, and encouraged me to speak up for myself. I often wonder how life was for her, as a young girl and woman growing up in Ireland. Sometimes on seeing a photo of Mam, I recognize myself in her face. I share her bright smile and we have similar lines around the eyes. I have my dad’s lips and eyebrows. People say I’m like my mother, while others say I’m like my dad. It’s fascinating how a person can resemble both parents when neither parent resembles the other.
Devoted to one another and kind in their actions and words, my parents modeled beautifully what love meant in a family. I grew up encased by love. When my mother got sick and after she died, my brother and I were cared for by our father. I knew good men existed and I was not about to settle for anything less.
Four years into a loving relationship, I made the tough decision to move to a different country. I needed to live on my own terms, to spread my wings and fly. If things didn’t work out, I would return, and he was going to wait for me. I didn’t return and he moved on and what followed were six glorious years of singledom. On occasion, I dated for fun, but content traveling solo, hanging out with girlfriends, writing my memoir, attending yoga classes, and never compromising at mealtimes, I wasn’t about to settle for anything less than the best.
Then I met a sweet man who was gentle, kind, and trustworthy. We enjoyed the same music and we traveled well together. Not the jealous type and one of the most patient people I have ever met, I was drawn to him as I hadn’t been to another human in years. We were born to be together. He’s the love of my life.
I was in Lake Oswego, a small city in Oregon, having just left a bridal store after a wedding gown fitting. The experience had been enjoyable, though the mother-daughter duos reminded me of what I was missing. My mother, were she alive, would love shopping with me and I missed her terribly as I sat outdoors at a picnic table in the sunshine. The waitress delivered my lunch of gluten-free avocado toast with a side of kalamata olives, and as I reached for a napkin, my phone beeped. It was Em, my old classmate from home.
I took a bite of my avocado toast and opened the message. Em wanted to let me know that the man who had been our drama teacher when we were children had just been charged of rape. His victim was a seven-year-old girl and it happened in the school we attended, several years after my friends and I had moved on. Sickened and shaking, I pushed my food aside and gulped down some water. I placed my phone on the table and focused on breathing. Tears came fast. My mind swirled with memories of the man entering our dressing room as we girls changed costumes on practice nights. We were to continue getting ready, he instructed, he was just there to give us another pep talk. Once I told my mother about it as she lay in bed, sick with her illness.
“Tell him to get out next time,” she said, angry at the man for what she deemed completely inappropriate behavior.
But I wasn’t brave enough to tell him, and nobody in our drama class said anything. The women who assisted us and applied our makeup remained silent. We all did. One day, a week after my mother died, my drama teacher kept me back after class to ask how I was feeling. I didn’t want to be in the room alone with him and I answered his questions hastily before edging towards the door and racing across the schoolyard to my father’s car. Although I loved drama, and I liked our teacher because he made us all into stars, there was something about him that gave me an uneasy feeling.
From a young age I felt the need to speak out, frequently getting into trouble at school for not staying quiet, for complaining too much or asking too many questions, for talking and laughing and wanting to express myself. But when puberty arrived, I grew more anxious and self-conscious. I questioned who I was and who I could become.
The year I moved to America I met a guy called Jacob on Craigslist when I posted an ad looking for a car mechanic. Jacob fell in love with me, and though I had absolutely no attraction towards him, he made several attempts to woo me. My loyalty was with my boyfriend in Ireland as we were giving our long-distance relationship a one-year trial. I was glad to have a solid reason to remind Jacob to back off. He wanted to be friends, so we hung out regularly, listening to rock music and grabbing lunch. Over time, Jacob’s incessant pursuing bothered me and I was relieved when he moved to LA a year later. We stayed in touch, but I didn’t see him again until a brief trip to California several months after he left Portland. A frequent solo traveler familiar with Los Angeles, I had no intention of visiting Jacob until he insisted on picking me up at the airport. Out to impress me as usual, he sped along the highway unnecessarily and simultaneously changed lanes and stations on the car radio. I clung to my purse and prayed silently for our safety, but when the car in front of us stopped suddenly, we rear-ended it at about seventy-five miles per hour. My chiropractor told me afterwards I was lucky to be alive. Following several hours in the hospital, X-rays, and lots of painkillers, Jacob presented me with his car insurance number. Sweat dripped from his swollen, red face onto the paper as he scribbled something down with shaking fingers.
“Is this really the number?” I asked, concerned.
Jacob swore he had insurance and promised to take care of things in whatever way he could. The bill for my ambulance ride came to one thousand dollars, and it turned out that Jacob’s car insurance had long expired. I spent two years attending physical therapists, chiropractors, a massage therapist, and doctors for severe whiplash, and over a decade later, the injuries to my neck and wrist still impact my life. My last contact with Jacob was over the phone when he promised to take care of everything. After that call he was unreachable.
Jacob insisted on meeting my father when he visited me in Portland a few months before leaving for LA saying, “I want to meet the man who is responsible for you.” After lunch when it was just the two of us, I told Dad how determinedly Jacob was pursuing me. My father asked if I would want to marry Jacob. I responded with “I’d rather be dead.”
Down through the years, my articulation directed towards offensive men threatened masculine power. I have not always been agreeable. Those men who tried to break me were afraid of my power, afraid of how much I didn’t need them. Women are expected to be nice even as men give us countless reasons to distrust them. Taught to distrust other women, we are made to believe we are in competition with each other, when in fact we have the power to lift each other up in ways unconnected to a man’s approval. A long time ago, deep inside of myself, I discovered a strength. I listened to my inner voice and honored my self-worth. I heard a voice inside say I trust myself as witness to my own life and I believed her.
Carmel Breathnach is a freelance writer, born in Ireland and living in Portland, Oregon. She holds a BA degree in English literature and Irish language studies from NUI Maynooth and a diploma in Education from St. Patrick’s College, Dublin. Carmel writes regularly on the themes of bereavement, childhood grief, and mother loss. Her work has appeared in The Irish Times, Huffington Post, Upworthy, Scary Mommy, VoiceCatcher, and Modern Loss, as well as in the anthology Hidden Lights, published by Golden Dragonfly Press. Carmel is currently working on a memoir about early mother loss titled Briefly I Knew My Mother.