“seen, not heard” — a chapter from feminist memoir “whitegirrrl”

Children should be seen and not heard.

This was a rule that ran through your family.   Later it morphs into something else for you.

White girls should be seen and not heard.

That’s how he thought he was going to get away with it.

What goes around comes around, you think to yourself.

Sifting time is what you will do when you reach mid-life.  There are whole caverns full of memory where doors open into rooms.  Rooms that had to stay sealed-shut for years.

“I can’t go there,” your best friend says.  And you know why don’t you?

You are twenty two.  You have extricated yourself from that first relationship.  You’re working in fashion as an assistant buyer and you think to yourself, “I want to go to school.”  You wanted to because all the girls who were working part time in the Jr. Department were.  It was your mother’s idea that you should follow in her footsteps.  You extricated yourself because he didn’t want you to drive.  He followed your every move in his navy Cadillac.  He followed you to that department store in Santa Monica where you got the job.  He took your trust fund money, just like your mother did.  Bandits.  You’ve known many.

Cheryl works in cosmetics.  All she wants to do is get married and she’s ten years older than you and her best friend works for Ashby.  She’s some kind of secretary for him, driving around all Chippendales in that lipstick red Alfa.  On weekends the three of you meet friends and go dancing at all the clubs in Los Angeles.  They were too old for you, and so were the men who were staring at you.  It was always like that.  All your life.  You hated it.  You hated the catcalls when you walked down the street.  You hated their eyes, and you hated his camera.  There was no shield in those years.

“I’m going as a witch,” she says.  “What are you going to be?”

“A gypsy.”

“We’re all meeting at Brandy’s.”

Everybody has to wait while Cheryl finishes her make-up.  She’s turned herself all green and she has the best costume.  Brandy’s is their favorite place to dance and you tag along minding all the coats and purses.  Mostly you say no to the stream of men who arrive at the table where you are all sipping white wine.  Chivas is what you know so far, from your uncle and your first boyfriend.  Chivas on the rocks.  It seems so grown up to finally be able to order one.  Like Cheryl’s Brandy Alexanders.

Your grandfather bought you an Audi.  You can drive.  You become free in that car, speed racer passing everything on freeways, humming around the curves.  He teaches you how again, after years when no one would let you touch their cars.  Like he taught you at thirteen, going 90 and laughing.  Even Pacific Coast Highway doesn’t scare you, anymore.  Like the day it did when your boyfriend who was so controlling said, “Drive,” in that car he bought you from his best friend knowing you’d be too scared to.  You went back to him in Hollywood because you thought you were in love, even though he had tossed you into that wall like a broken little doll.

In your twenty second year you lived on Barrington with your mother again.  Maybe she followed you to Los Angeles because she was worried.  You became her child again for a time.  Everything was broken after your uncle passed away, anyway.  He was the father you never had.  And the year you turned nineteen he was gone.

They have moved you from Designer Sportswear to the Junior Department.  Your co-workers go to UCLA.  You are going to have to do it all by yourself if you want to go to school, because that money set up for your education is gone, like all the money you ever made is gone because somebody else always needed it.  She drained you.  Your grandfather is who you like the best.  He is always at the head of the table in the restaurants, handling everything.  You felt even then that your mother was draining him too and so you couldn’t ask  for even one thing, except that car.  He is your role model.  You will be like him, providing all the money from now on.  You’re a working girl.

You can be seen, but not heard.

That night you spin back and forth on the dance floor in your gypsy costume.  For once you decide to dance on Halloween and you ask Cheryl if she’ll watch your purse.  Off you spin in scarves.  But she didn’t watch your purse did she?  She didn’t like the fact that all of a sudden you were dancing that night instead of watching the coats.  You looked better.  Your dance card was full.  You had driven her to Brandy’s and you didn’t know much yet about life or about women and the things they do to each other if they aren’t really friends.

“Where’s my purse?” you asked her.

“I left it over there,” she points.


You search frantically for your purse and your money and your driver’s license and the things that legitimize you in a nightclub in Santa Monica in your first years of real freedom, of real flying, of being twenty two and working in fashion with all the most beautiful clothes in the world just like your mother’s.

“You left my purse?”

The bartender has it.  It’s been ransacked but your keys are there and your license is there and you are trembling at the betrayal that just happened and you are beginning to understand women and what they can do to each other.

“It was found in the men’s room,” he says, handing you your little black silk clutch.

Cheryl takes a cab home.  She left you there, searching.

You’re shaking from the shock of what she did.

You don’t even know what to say to her on Monday when you go back in to work, do you?

They’re draping you in clothes because you model for the ads the department store runs in the local paper.  The artist is sketching you in the stockroom, draped in flowing wraparounds.  She’s staring as she moves the charcoal on the paper and you’re living out your mother’s ideas and they weren’t even yours at all.  You make a decision about going to school after that night at Brandy’s.  You will never be like Cheryl, because that wasn’t your world.


“seen, not heard” — copyright 2011 — all rights reserved

*author note on music:

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