WOULD BE A SHAME by Mary Dittrich Orth

WOULD BE A SHAME by Mary Dittrich Orth

My lifelong pattern of presurrender first emerged in first grade, at recess, halfway between the swings and the slide, halfway between cheeks ruddy with baby chub and gargantuan new teeth cutting into innocence, when, poof, I let it all go, uncurled my dimpled fingers from the tender chrysalis of realized self and handed it over, without resistance, to the first person who asked for it; on the playground no less, a playground monitored by a trio of folksy 70s recess-ladies in macrame and fringe, where physical boundaries felt free-range fluid, rules fuzzy, unless and until you broke one, which is all that matters when you’re seven years old, and the world is a choice between naughty and nice, sugar and spice—and, lest you forget, it’s your job to know the difference—a marker laid down, repeated every Sunday by the surly priest spewing from the altar, pews of grownup, downcast heads bobbing in unison, breathing in the same incensed air, the same stale prayers, laden with contrition, condemnation, conundrum, if my mind meandered or the what-about questions banged around too loudly in my head, the pinchiness of stiff patent leather shoes and itchiness of too-small tights snapped me back in line, a line I knew I’d crossed on the playground that day: girls like us shouldn’t look at magazines like this; I mean, it was one thing last Saturday at Kimmy’s slumber party, sneaking out of our sleeping bags, exploring the mysteries of her newly divorced dad’s condo with its shared walls and exotic symmetry, Kimmy’s dad, nothing like my dad, driving an El Camino, sporting a gold chain, tight curls from a new perm, serving us pizza and Tab at his countertop where we twirled to Donna Summer on high barstools, spinning me miles away from my tidy two-parent family, tidy dead-end subdivision; under cover of midnight, bare tiptoes squishing into plush mossy green carpet, slinking behind Kimmy up the spiral staircase to a bottom drawer crammed with pages of ladies who looked nothing like ladies I’d ever seen: confident, imposing, all gloss and skin and folds and nipples, gawking, giggling, gasping at the strange tingling engulfing my insides, my friends showing zero concern for what was surely a mortal sin, so I guess I could indulge too, maybe, I think … now in the cold light of Monday morning recess, the weight of our indiscretion so concrete, inescapable, we never even noticed a voyeur, Shana—a girl new to the school, friendless and odd—hiding behind the monkey bars, spying as Kimmy pulled a contraband magazine from her parka, this interloper would soon prove to be a prophet of sorts, sensing my crystallizing shame from across the icy blacktop, scooping it up, brandishing it against me like a pistol, Kimmy and the gang shrugged her off with a first-grade-fuck-you-side-eye, scattering to the swings, I froze, alone, in the long shadow of this first arbiter of my good-girlness, ladylike veneer cracking under the weight of Shana’s raised eyebrow and knowing smirk, no amount of Hail Marys would set me free, my penance, my allegiance: sit with Shana at circle time, at lunch, encircle her for the rest of the year, tithe her my peanut butter sandwich, crusts off, homemade jam from raspberries picked last summer until my fingers bled … or else … or else she would expose the unsightly truth of me … or else she would lay bare my badness for all to see … or else …


Mary Dittrich Orth's first personal essay recently appeared in Halfway Down the Stairs. Originally from Alaska, she and her husband Stephen have identical twin sons and live in Seattle with their dog Moose.

Art by Jaime Goh

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