Where I Come From

by Betsy Finesilver Haberl

Where I come from, there is a river that is brown with sediment from the paper mills and green with algae blooms from fertilizer runoff, but sometimes the sky’s reflection plays a trick to make it look clean and cool like the glacier that carved it long ago.

Where I come from, there is a small downtown with old brick buildings and a Main Street and everything looks quaint, even though most of the storefronts are empty and dusty now.

Where I come from, there are suburban neighborhoods with vinyl-sided homes and rec rooms in half-finished basements, and the swing sets in the yards rust before the children outgrow them.

Where I come from, there are corn fields and dairy farms stretching for miles, and the smell of manure and compost stretches even farther than that.

Where I come from, county roads slice between the farms with an occasional church, and their steeples are a reminder to feel guilty about all you’ve done out there at night.

Where I come from, also on the county roads are a handful of roadside bars, and they are far enough away that you cannot get home any way except by driving. 

Where I come from, people sometimes die in their cars and the alcohol on their breath fades before the ambulances come screaming down the dark county roads.

Where I come from, Homecoming has the standard lackluster parade, football game, and a marching band in itchy wool uniforms. But where I come from, homecoming also means that groups of boys prowl the suburban neighborhoods, the cul-de-sacs, the sidewalks, the grassy yards, until they find a girl, bind her to a tree with duct tape, cover her mouth, rub Nair in her hair, then walk away feeling gratified with the town and its traditions.

Where I come from, boys will be boys, and the people just slowly shake their heads while they say it.

Where I come from, the girl from the tree came to school and clumps of her hair fell out on my desk, and when I cringed, she grabbed the hair and hissed It could have been you, you know.

Where I come from, it could have been me and it could have been worse, and sometimes it was worse. Sometimes we were lucky, and sometimes we weren’t, because the boy were just boys.

But also where I come from, girls will be girls.

Where I come from, there is one mall with one Victoria’s Secret and a manufactured floral smell so strong it hangs in the air all the way down at the food court. We were drawn in by the siren scent and marveled at all the lace trim and thin straps, imagining ourselves with bodies like the mannequins. But we used our babysitting money to buy cheap, oily lipstick with color names like Randy Sandy and Carpet Burn.

Where I come from, I put on the lipstick in the food court, pursed lips in a handheld mirror, and asked Why’s it called Carpet Burn? And another girl said You don’t get it? while eyeing the boys at the next table over, who were leaning back on their chairs and trying to knock each other over, because even eating greasy pizza had to have some threat of violence. And I said Oh, yeah, I do, but I didn’t understand at all, not yet.

Where I come from, a girl slept with a teacher and everyone hated her for it because he was young and popular, although now that I think about it so was she before everyone found out. They showed up at the Pizza Hut where she worked, glared at her, and knocked those brown plastic soda cups on the floor so she’d have to clean it up.

Where I come from, they tried to make up for things at school. Well, they sort of tried, and they brought in someone to teach self-defense to the girls during gym class. But the only thing I remember is the man telling us to not wear bikinis while we rode bikes to the pool, so we stopped doing that, even though it didn’t change anything.

Where I come from, girls are teases or sluts or virgins or whores and sometimes dykes but nothing in between, no matter if they have boyfriends or no boyfriends or if they took their shirt off in the backseat of a car on a dark county road or they didn’t.

Where I come from, boys and girls drink stolen shitty beer around bonfires on farmland. But one night there was wind and the fire spread through the dry corn field to a barn and there were animals in there, and I still think about the sheep and pigs who couldn’t escape. I wonder if they were calm about their deaths because they knew there was no way out or if they kicked and screamed and whined until the very end. I wish I could say we stopped the fires and drinking then but of course where I come from, we didn’t.

Where I come from, those of us that stay get married to others that stay, usually when we’re young and before we even feel like adults.

Where I come from, those of us that stay and get married, buy houses, replace the vinyl siding, add a bigger TV to the rec room, and have babies that grow up in the same place where I come from, and those babies do the same things, too.

But also where I come from, there are some of us who leave and never come back, sort of like the sheep and pigs in the barn, who in the end actually did find a way out, a real way out, when you really think about it, because nothing burns unless someone starts the fire, and sometimes the fire is big enough that all the dirty river water in town cannot put it out.

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Betsy Finesilver Haberl’s recent fiction has appeared in Jet Fuel Review, Barnstorm Journal, and Hypertext Review. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Northwestern University. She is also a curator for Sunday Salon Chicago, one of the city’s longest-running literary reading series. She lives in Evanston, Illinois, with her family.

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