MAYA'S MONTHLY COLUMN: HOLD ON TO THE HABITS THAT MAKE YOU
“You shake your butt when you walk!”
All the cool boys in second grade loved to tease Gracie Andrews. She had the front two pieces of her hair bleached platinum blonde and always wore the coolest clothes. Gracie was like my favorite Bratz doll in that way. She wasn’t very nice to me in the long run, but honestly if the Bratz were real people they probably wouldn’t be very nice to me either.
More than Gracie’s general demeanor, her cool hairdresser mom who made sure untouched roots weren’t a concept we could use against her daughter, and her wicked spin move when jumping off the swing, she was a target – and she was a target because she was beautiful and ostensibly femininely “cool.” She had a swing of her own, in her hips. Gracie had a lot of things of her own – she had her own dark-colored nail polish, her own iPod Shuffle like me, her own arm warmers from Limited Too. More than anything, Gracie had herself, and she knew it. Everyone did, really – you could see it the way she walked. Proudly, she had a friendly strut; one that didn’t say “I’m better than you,” but rather “I’ve got this.” Maybe that’s why I was scared of her even though she was being nice to me.
“My mom let me watch America’s Next Top Model last night, watch this.”
At morning recess, Gracie led April Boone and me in modeling exercises which we proceeded to develop into our own gawky six-year-old moves. We galloped past the portable in the yard, trying our best to negotiate what we didn’t know was a lack of fine motor skills that could only be honed with age as we pretended to walk in high heels, one foot in front of the other, like we imagined big girls would do. As the bell rang, the three of us high fived and agreed to pick up practice at lunch.
“She has to walk like that because she hasn’t lost her baby fat yet, stupid.”
Cassie was throwing carrots at the boys as they taunted Gracie. Jake and George, the ringleaders of the cool gang, got up and began to exaggeratedly shimmy their butts as they imagined Gracie did as what was once her confident walk melted into a tear-filled sprint to the bathroom. I did not follow her.
Sat on the little outdoor bench one table away from the gang, I let the gentle desert-autumn breeze bring an air of uncertainty. I tried to be unseen by the gang, biting into my turkey-on- sourdough and pretending to mind my business. Did they see us earlier? Did they know I knew how to walk like Gracie?
“See, Maya’s the same way.”
I froze mid-chew as Cassie pointed at me. I forced the mechanics of my mouth to move, actively fighting the sudden strain in my jaw that felt like someone just poured sand in my mandible. Swallowing, I wiped some stray mayo off my lips and sat up straighter.
George pointed at me with what I figured out in high school was the crazed stare of a deeply disturbed child of a messy divorce.
Not knowing what to do, I felt my knees jerk me to standing – almost tipping the bench over with force.
“Maya how do you walk?”
Cassie was waving Austin away by throwing more carrots at him. She looked directly at me in asking what she thought was a question and what I felt was a challenge. A test.
“I dunno, I just walk.”
My body took over as it tends to do in interpersonal times like this, and I got up and walked down the little dirt pathway between the rows of benches in the yard – convincing myself I didn’t care if I passed her test or not. Everything felt normal, one foot in front of the other, moving as I usually did.
“Yeah, see? She hasn’t lost her baby fat either.”
Cassie dramatically stepped in front of me and waved her arms all around to make her point. That’s what I was doing – performing Cassidy Farber’s righteousness for the cool kids. Everyone laughed, Cassie laughed, George laughed, and as she put her arm around me I laughed too even though I felt like joining Gracie in the bathroom.
I don’t remember what actually happened next, and according to Vivian Gornick, I can take all the creative liberties I want as this is a work of creative non-fiction. As I type, I think of options – Cassie could have invited me to sit at her table, I could have further exiled myself at my own. I could have walked my child-self to the bathroom to talk with Gracie. None of these things actually happened, and even if they did, I can’t remember. No one’s name is real in this story. While the crux of this story is the truth, there are certain liberties that I take, sat before my computer, to fill the gaps of memory with entertainment value – to situate myself in the story, and to tell a story of a situation.
I never thought twice about how Gracie walked. Looking at her, I felt that she was a creature of habit – someone to admire for their self rather than what that self represented. And she was self-represented, and that’s why everyone felt like they needed to cut her down a notch. How to be was never an outwardly felt question about Gracie until she faced a public challenge, until her ways of existing were called out and gaslit by children who didn’t know better. I still think about what this could mean.
When I was eleven I learned to stabilize my walk and I wish I didn’t – I created a creature of habit where said habit was based on fears of looking and being looked at. I wanted to be Lunchables and kiwi-strawberry Capri Sun, I wanted to walk without my subcutaneous fat telling on me. As a 20-year-old about to graduate college, I want to hold little Gracie in my arms and tell her habits are okay – and that changing herself for the eyes violating her confidence is even more okay. The older we get, I feel the more we realize that to be alive is to adapt both for the right and wrong reasons, and that’s just the world we live in.
Main Image: @salemmitchell