I’m looking at a photo in a magazine. It’s part of a four-page photo essay called “How We Were.” The kid in the photo could be me in 1963. The clothes this kid is wearing are the clothes I had: the striped t-shirt, the baggy pants, the Keds shoes. And her short brown hair is pinned on one side with a hair clip, exactly how I used to pin my hair back.
All the kids in this photo—there are nine of us—are standing in a circle in a parking lot; we’re all holding bikes. We are about seven years old. The circle is perfect and we are looking at a tall teenager standing in the middle of it. She’s in shorts, a white shirt, white knee socks and white running shoes. She looks like a camp counsellor.
My first thought on seeing this photo is strange. It’s not, Oh look, I remember that bike, or, I loved that t-shirt, or, Plastic streamers on the handle bars, I remember those—and playing cards pegged to the wheel spokes. No. My first thought is this: Why am I standing there in that circle like a trained circus pony, waiting to be told what to do?
But now that I think of it, I spent a lot of time as a kid going round in circles, or waiting to be told to go round in circles. Either it was circles in gym class when we were running or swimming, or it was horseback riding in circles. Campfire circles or singing circles or reading circles or drama circles or circles at birthday parties. Sitting in circles, standing in circles, perched on a fat pony going round in circles. I was always going round in circles, or waiting to be told to go round in circles, now that I think of it.
If my mind could go back in time and inhabit the body of my seven-year-old self, I would get on my bike, get out of that circle and ride the wrong way down a six-lane highway or straight into a wall, jumping off at the last second. Or maybe, I would set fire to the bike, and the plastic streamers and playing cards would spew out a dense, black storm of smoke.
It occurs to me now that everything I did as a kid was an act of radical obedience in some way or other, whether I was playing with other kids or learning how to print in class, reciting the Lord’s Prayer or watching Lassie on TV in living colour, eating Lucky Charms or just sitting alone, thinking. Somebody always told me what to do and what to think, and I always did it, I always thought it. I never knew any other option. It never occurred to me not to comply. I always found my place in the circle and stayed there, waiting to follow the instructions of whomever was standing in the middle of it.
And as I got older, it was no different. The circles got bigger and looked a little ragged and lopsided sometimes, but they were all concentric, and the person at the centre was never me. All those years, it was really just the same circle, the circle I never stepped out of.
Dancing in Barcelona by Heather Drysdale
Now here I am, I have a job as a legal secretary, I have a husband and a two-storey house and a small blue car, and I am still in this circle. Instead of looking at the camp counsellor waiting to be told what to do, I am looking at my husband, waiting, or the cashier, waiting, or the yoga instructor, waiting, or my boss, who is always ready to tell me what I should be doing, and sometimes I look at the cat in that same way, waiting.
In this moment, as I look at this photo, I see it all—all my life as one single prolonged act of obedience, as deep-rooted as prayer—and I want like blazes to go back and change everything. And the first step would not be riding the bike down a six-lane highway. No, I would just wheel it over to the camp counsellor and say to her:
“Here. Take this junk heap. I don’t need it.”
And I would drop it, just let go of it, and it would clatter to the ground in a satisfying way. Then I would stand right in front of her and look straight at her and say:
“Who do you think you are, telling me what to do? Go fuck off and take all of these poor suckers with you. I’m moving to Barcelona or maybe Berlin. And if you so much as breathe a word of this to my parents, you’ll be swimming with the fishes with a cement block tied to your neck. I know someone who can take care of that, so keep your trap shut. Understand?”
Then I would march off towards the train station. At which point, someone would probably find me and grab me and put me in some kind of detention centre or boot camp for delinquents where I would trash and smash everything—all the furniture, television sets, pastel pictures on the walls, magazines with photo essays in them, and even those stupid books like Nancy Drew and the Famous Five—until maybe I’d end up in solitary confinement, and I’d trash the walls in there too, with anything I could get my hands on, a plastic spoon or fork, or even my own blood if I had to use that. There would be no end to speaking my indignation for as long as I lived, even if I had to slam my head against walls to do it. Then and only then would I know that every moment was mine—in living anger—every moment my own blood-red insurgency.
There I am in that circle, just standing there waiting. And here I am, years later, in the same circle, sitting here waiting. But now it’s different. It might look like I’m waiting for my husband to come home. But I’m not. I’m waiting for the right moment.