by Karen Rizzo
I blame Mary Lou fucking Retton. I blame her for raising the bar for teenage girls, for singlehandedly altering the consciousness of an entire generation of women and effectively ending any chance I had of becoming someone my own daughter would like.
Like me, you couldn’t have been sixteen the summer of 1984 and, having witnessed that imperturbably ecstatic, muscle-bound sparkplug beat out her competition with inhuman ease, been happy selling “Greet the Tall Ships” t-shirts on a hot Long Island beach boardwalk. Watching Mary Lou on TV those nights confirmed the existence of God, life on Mars, and the possibility for happiness. Mary Lou. Me. Mary Lou and me. She was the darling of the 1984 Olympics, the winningest American female gymnast in the history of those games. And I . . . I was the Jones Beach concession-stand cashier with the most pathetic sales that summer. Piled beside me was my tower of small to extra-large white t-shirts announcing the coming of the Tall Ships, sailing from every port in the world to New York’s East River in celebration of America’s independence. At the far west end of the beach I sat, the keeper of those silk-screened beauties. Come, celebrate, greet the Tall Ships! Those tall fucking ships. I wore one of those shirts every single day and scribbled down my personal sixteen-year-old suburban-girl angst in the diary that I carried everywhere that summer—a tiny felt journal with a faux fur tiger on the cover. I had no choice but to scribble—if I’d had a choice I would have been Mary Lou Retton. Or Missy Cataldo—my best friend Missy, with the Playboy Bunny breasts, steel-reinforced thighs, and impossibly thick mane of hair pulled back in a ponytail that was bleached green from daily swim-team practice.
Among the junior lifeguards at Jones Beach that summer, Missy held the distinction of spotting the most drowners—those beachgoers who insisted upon dog-paddling too far out into the cold ocean waves, only to cramp up and sink. Behind her killer stack and Chlorine Barbie looks, Missy was a brain, and the only other kid in Mr. Harris’s tenth-grade English class, aside from me, who knew that “four legs good, two legs bad” referred to a need for unity in the face of oppression and not a wrecked gate-leg table. She had a dumb-smart Judy Holliday kind of laugh that she perfected by watching “Born Yesterday” over and over, and I was the girl who actually knew who Judy Holliday was.
Connie was the third member of our group, although we weren’t really a group, just three beach-weary compatriots and veterans of the same disbanded Camp Fire Girls troop. Connie was working her third summer at the concession stand down the boardwalk from me. She was already looking forward to attending some Ivy League college that was known to have the worst winters and most freshmen suicides of any school on the northeastern seaboard. That summer, Connie already couldn’t wait for it to be next summer, when she’d be seventeen and able to quit her “stupid beach existence,” as she called it, and intern in an air-conditioned office somewhere in midtown Manhattan, where she imagined wearing support pantyhose and taking cigarette breaks at the water cooler. She was anxious to start down the road she was convinced would lead to her becoming the first female governor of New York. But that summer, she was stuck working the East End concession stand. She sat on a stool inside one of the cool, cavernous beach buildings, beside one of a half-dozen ancient manual cash registers with the drawer wide open, ringing up purchases while following the principle of “one for them, one for me.” Connie kept track of all those one for me’s inside her own electronic cash-register brain. She’d smile winningly at the concession managers, the mothers in skirted swimsuits, and the kids with third-degree sunburns, and then ring up one for them and one for me, another one for them and another one for me.
“You’re crazy—how do you do it?” I asked her in the echoing din of sandy, shuffling feet and screaming children.
“It’s easy,” she shouted back. Reaching into the freezer, she grabbed two ice cream push-ups and tossed them in front of me. Then she rang up one for forty-five cents and, smiling brightly at me instead of ringing up the second one, said, “Ninety cents, please.” Since the forty-five cent total was hidden on the broken display, and Connie’s smile was so bright and genuine, the customer usually handed her the ninety cents without a second thought. All the managers trusted her, because she was the smartest cashier they’d had in many summers, and the line at her register was always moving. Her supervisor wanted to promote her to manager, but Connie demurred. “Oh, no,” she said, “I’d much rather work on the floor, interacting with all the fascinating people.” Her career in politics was already well underway. At the end of the day, Connie would treat us all to chocolate egg creams and BLTs at the Palms Deli, courtesy of her daily graft.
“Such a generous friend,” my mother often said. “You’re lucky to have her, and that Missy—such a lovely girl.”
But Connie and Missy struck me as the lucky ones: They were perfectly happy being themselves. I was the one who wanted to be Mary Lou Retton.
And why wasn’t I? Why, at the very least, didn’t my parents push me to study violin or piano or the French horn at the tender age of three so I could at least become a world-class virtuoso? Why was I stuck on Long Island, peddling a bunch of stupid t-shirts while pimply, sunburned lifeguards made lewd jokes from behind their stupid mirrored aviators? But most importantly, why wasn’t I Mary Lou? So I scribbled some more, and the more I scribbled, the longer my diary became. I scribbled about everything puzzling and disappointing in my life, eventually making it into a story about someone else living in an alternate-universe version of my New York suburb. It was the fictional version of my life—because God forbid I should reveal anyone else’s bloody secrets—and I called it Mary Lou and Me. It was my first novel, and it was number one on the New York Times bestseller list for longer than anyone ever could have imagined.
Mary Lou and Me was about a girl named Anais, who’d been jettisoned into the dangerous, uncharted territory of high school. In the course of three hundred pages, our heroine survived not only her senior year but also the death of her father and her best friend, a near-fatal car accident, and a couple of dozen “humiliating, agonizing—yet, at the same time, oddly hysterical—situations,” all leading her to the ultimate realization that it’s true, you can’t go home again—and maybe you don’t want to in the first place. It’s always seemed to me that the past is kind of pointless, anyway. There’s nothing you can do about it; there’s nothing you can do with it, except carry it around and try to survive it. Given the choice, I’ve always been one of those people who think it’s best to let sleeping dogs lie.
I was twenty when Mary Lou and Me was published—my first and only novel. I had turned my life into a funny and tragic fiction and actually became my own Mary Lou. But a new problem soon presented itself—namely, topping that literary gold-medal equivalent—and I struggled over my second novel for the next seven years, with no success. Along the way, I fell in love with an infuriating man named Justin and married him—and when I found myself pregnant, the solution to my writer’s block became crystal clear: It was simply a matter of taking advantage of my wrecked hormonal state. I soon realized that the angst and paranoia stirred up in the unbalanced chemical cocktail of my imagination made for better reading than any fiction I was capable of inventing. That, along with the birth of my daughter Abbie—my amazing, insightful, perfect child—led to the next big discovery of my writing career: It was easier not to turn any of it into fiction. In fact, I didn’t need fiction! So it went that I fell in love with an infuriating man, and we had a daughter, and our marriage dissolved, and I scribbled about it all and continued my success as a blogger. And my daughter grew up to hate her mother’s scribbling.
That last part—about my daughter hating my work (and, I suppose, by extension, me)—is a bit surprising, because I’ll be the first to admit that Abbie isn’t an embittered person, though she does tend to carry her privacy to a somewhat psychotic degree. It wasn’t as though our lives were separate—but unless you’re a mother, you can’t possibly know how entangled you become in your child’s life. It’s not just the day-to-day tedium, the schlepping, the care and keeping. It’s that your child’s experiences become your own. It isn’t possible to separate your child’s hurt from your own personal, emotional reaction to the bullies at school taunting her. Kids don’t know this because they’re miniature Ayn Rands, deluded into thinking they were born perfectly autonomous creatures.
It was funny in a way—the more I wrote about Abbie, the more her friends wanted me to write about them, offering me their own stories and angst. “Um, Ruth, you wouldn’t believe, the weirdest thing, like, happened to me. And like, while it was happening I kept thinking, ‘No one would believe it was happening, except like, maybe someone who was a writer, and wrote about things that were kind of weird that nobody else would ever believe.’ You know?” Because everyone loves having her stories told—everyone except Abbie. No matter what I wrote about her, I could never manage to redeem myself in her eyes—and the truth is, I couldn’t stop myself from writing about her. I remember, after Abbie’s second day of kindergarten, she asked me if it was possible to love a person so much that your heart could explode in your body.
“Like who?” I asked. “Who could you love that much?”
“You, mom,” she said.
“No, honey, your heart can’t explode,” I lied, as I caught a cry in my throat from escaping. “That could never happen.”
I knew it could happen, but it would happen to me, not Abbie. I already knew that she would grow out of that kind of love for me, but I never would—and that terrified me. Writing about Abbie somehow diminished that terror and helped me deal with it—helped keep me solid, keep me from disintegrating into a vapor and disappearing.
You can never make your child understand what it’s like to be a mother, no matter how hard you try; you can only love her, provide for her, and try to keep her safe from all harm—at the same time trying to keep her existence from completely replacing yours. Just know that none of this precludes the possibility that your child may abruptly leave you one day, taking a large chunk of your heart with her—or perhaps committing a federal offense in retaliation for all your efforts.
Karen Rizzo has spent a number of years writing non-fiction, mostly about her family and friends. The recipient of a MAGGIE Award for Best Essay in a West Coast Magazine, her stories and essays have been appeared on NPR and in the Los Angeles Times, Living Fit, Salon, Beatrice, Fresh Yarn and VIVmag as well as the anthology Life’s A Stitch: The Best of Contemporary Women’s Humor. She’s the author of THINGS TO BRING, SH#!T TO DO… (Abrams/STC), a collection of essays (also featuring family and friends) based on twenty years of personal lists, and a Book Sense/IndieBound pick for Best of The Month. Famous Baby, published by Prospect Park Books, is Karen’s debut novel.