I See Myself at Fifteen
I see myself at fifteen, white oxford cloth shirt, gray wool
skirt hanging past my knees, white bobby socks,
saddle shoes, so shy and uncomfortable in my own skin
that I am invisible. My sister with her Marilyn Monroe body
couldn’t walk through a room without men staring.
I could have been a ghost for all the gazes that followed me,
my body pencil-thin, my behind non-existent. That was
an era when women were supposed to have figures.
One of the girls in my class got pads for her hips in addition
to her padded bra. Today my granddaughter starves herself
so she is one, long, slender bone. I was ashamed of my body
or lack of it as I walked the halls of Eastside High School
in Paterson, New Jersey, those halls that terrified me
with their clumps of popular kids, loud boys and giggling girls,
all in on a secret I didn’t know. I learned to hide, to keep my eyes
downcast, to choose the seat in the back corner hoping
no one would notice me. Even today, though I’ve read my poems
to thousands of people in Italy and Yugoslavia, read in amphitheaters,
in Macedonia on a bridge covered with white bunting where ten thousand
people lined both sides of the river, at a party, I still choose a seat
in a corner and I don’t move. I wait for people to come to me.
I pretend to be composed and satisfied. A few weeks ago I was too shy
to get up from the sofa and go into the dining room to help myself to food
so I sat there through the whole party, as hungry and uncomfortable
as I was when I was fifteen and I opened the waxed paper wrapped
around my spinach and oil sandwich on homemade bread, the aroma
of garlic rising around me at those worn wooden tables in the cafeteria
at Eastside, my head bent as everyone turned to stare. It is that girl,
so introverted she cannot speak, who has followed me my whole
life, that girl, who hides behind my bluster and courage,
my facade of power that deserts me the moment I am at a party
or in rooms crowded with people I don’t know.
by Maria Mazziotti Gillan, from The Place I Call Home
Maria Mazziotti Gillan's most recent books are the poetry and photography collection, Paterson Light and Shadow and the poetry collection, What Blooms in Winter. Her collection of poems paired with some of her paintings is The Girls in the Chartreuse Jackets. Her new artist website is at MariaMazziottiGillan.com. Maria's poetry website is MariaGillan.com.