Fierce


Frida’s hair stood up and out and matted, revealing swirls on her scalp, a wispy, twisty cloud. She usually had some tasty thing mashed into her red-rubbed cheeks, jam or icing or the orange paste from Kraft Dinner. She wore one sock or a dress over pants or her dead father’s t-shirt with swim shorts. I don’t care! She would yell, ferocious, precocious, wild.

She asked where she came from and her mother placed her palm over the zipper of her jeans, which Frida thought ridiculous and instead decided she came from the earth when she felt dark, or the sea when she felt happy.

I didn’t come from jeans. She rolled her eyes and pinched up her face, picturing that long zipper opening tooth by tooth to reveal a beady, squiggling baby, wailing to the world.

Frida told neighborhood children what to play and how to play it. She pointed her sticky finger this way and that and the other. Sometimes small rebellions arose—we don’t like this game, you always win, we’re bored—and Frida would lean in, place hands on shoulders, bend her tangled head and invent a new game. An even better one, she would whisper. Better than before, you’ll see. Exhilaration. Triumph.

Frida needed glasses and it was time to start school.

I’m not worried about Frida, she’ll mark her place, her mother said to the neighbor, and the neighbor laughed and said, Oh yes she will. If there’s one thing I know!

Some moments were thrilling—recess when she led the pack in games, gym when they were allowed to throw things, art when the world got messy. But mostly they sat and shared and were told what to do.

I hate school, Frida said and her mother’s face opened in shock.

Why?

I just hate it. It’s dumb.

She curled inward and picked at her toes and wanted to burrow back into the earth where she came from.

Frida is bright but has a difficult time listening like a leopard and focusing like a fish. She has had some trouble getting along with others and should practice sharing like a shark.

Fish don’t focus! Frida yelled and stamped her foot, once, to mark her place. They swim all over!

Frida grew indignant.

When did people stop doing what she said? Well, she figured sometime around second grade. Those kids suddenly thought they had better ideas, but also she threw up in class and fought a boy, both of which made her a little gross and scary. She had her reasons—a stomach bug and the boy calling her names. Four-eyed Frida, why are you so bossy?

She stopped wearing her dead father’s shirt to school in fourth grade, but still wore bright colors, tying her shirt in a side knot even though no one else did.

It looks better, she said to Navpreet, a quiet mouse and the last listening, straggling friend.

By seventh grade Navpreet had moved because her parents divorced and by then Frida’s glasses were so thick her eyes goggled. Farsighted like a focused fish. The boys smirked when she passed, stretching their eyes wide with their fingers. The girls ignored her.

She cut holes in her jeans and wrote on them in ballpoint pen. She dipped her hair in peroxide until the dull brown was bleached to a dull yellow, the edges fried into crispy, frazzly feathers.

Worth it, she said, when a girl in Science told her she ruined her hair.

Her mother meant well but sent tuna in her lunch with hemp seed crackers. So. Obviously. She became Fishy Frida. You stink, nice jeans, what’s up with your hair.

Frida grew self-conscious.

Why did you name me FRIDA!!

You know why. We love Frida. Her mother gestured wide to their small living room and beyond. Their walls were covered in Frida Kahlo prints, a flashing comet of a woman, an explosion of brilliant, shimmery confetti.

Did it ever occur to you that I might not like Frida Kahlo?

Don’t you? her mother asked.

No! Everything horrible starts with F!

Since when do you care about stuff like that? Frida. Be reasonable. Be strong.

For her eighth-grade assignment on Saturn, she wrote: It has rings and we will all die before we get to see it. The end. She got an F and didn’t show her mother.

In ninth-grade, a boy in tenth grade asked her to a movie. He smelled like stale smoke and came from a house with a Playboy bunny sheet hung at the window instead of a curtain. He stuck his tongue in her ear and squeezed at her breasts till she shoved him away, elbowed him in the chest and marched out of the theatre and all the way home.

Frigid Frida. It was written on her locker. So what! She wrote over the top in larger, bolder letters.

Frida grew angry.

She wore hiking boots and stormed through hallways, marking her place. Her hair billowed and blew, powerful beginnings of hurricanes with each step. Boys called her butch, because what else was she? Girls rolled their eyes.

By tenth-grade, two blue Walmart vests hung in the closet, polished thick-soled shoes placed underneath. Frida had the weekend morning shifts and her mother took evenings, her second job since Frida could remember, all her money absorbed by rent, Frida Kahlo prints and a college fund for Frida.

Plan for college, Frida. Mark your place, her mother said. But Frida knew better. The place marks you. She fought and hollered and dyed her hair with Kool-Aid in protest of something vague, and instead of brilliant lime green it turned sickly sea green, a swooshy, fluffy swath of dirty river moss. But she didn’t care. She skipped classes and hung out behind the school with cigarettes and her mom’s old magazines.

Frida grew bored.

During the morning Walmart cheer she chose her own words: Give me a W—weiner! Give me an A—asshole! Give me an L—lezbo! And so on. Frida was given a warning and then fired when it was discovered she was the one hiding condoms in the snack aisle with notes attached—Fun bags! Fill with candy for snacks on the go!

She barely graduated and accepted her diploma with a loud, stretched out yawn. Only her mother clapped, vigorous and hooting and tear stained. You’ve got something in your teeth, Frida said to the principle as he shook her hand. The rest of the ceremony he ran his tongue around his mouth like he was frenching himself.

Go to college Frida. Mark your place, her mom said and Frida pretended she didn’t hear. But in moments of quiet reflection she wished her mother had a daughter that joined school committees and received scholarships for outstanding grades and go-getter personalities. She bought her mother flowers and told her she wasn’t cut out for the whole schooling enterprise.

Sometime after she barely graduated, Frida noticed her mother staring into the fridge at nothing for far too long. She spotted the silvery strands in her loose ponytail and the bleach stain on the hip of her truly unflattering work slacks. Her mother was tired. Her mother was good.

Fine, Frida said, throwing her hands in the air. I’ll go. But I’ll have to make up some of my classes first, and I’m going to hate it. And her mother danced, a spinny, jazz-handed celebration. She gave Frida a kiss and went to work.

At college everyone was new and some were odd or shy or funny or political or theatrical or nothing special at all.

Frida relaxed.

She took classes that examined worlds in books, on screen, in theatre. And then she wrote a story. No one would publish it, but its creation felt like flying, like plummeting and living and dying gloriously. She wanted nothing more than to do it again. She filled her notebooks with words and her words with strange and colorful people. She told them what to do and when to do it, pointing her newly grown up, hangnailed finger this way and that. Sometimes they obeyed and when they didn’t she would slow down, lean in and suggest a different way. When her first story was published she sent it to her mother, who cried and showed the neighbors and then pasted the pages to the wall in and amongst the Frida Kahlo prints, along with the author photo—a young woman with a poof of wild hair and large glasses, the slightest lift of one eyebrow as she stared out at her readers. Honest, triumphant. Fierce.

Famous Frida! her mother called out from the open front door as Frida got out of her car, home for a weekend visit.

Frida grinned and bowed elaborately, marking her place.  

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