Melanie Chartoff



Although good at looking like I belonged, I always felt apart. I didn’t mean to. I tried to be close, but I had a North Pole magnet in me that pushed people away.

My father was always mad. He didn’t like my mother. My mother didn’t like anybody. They were touchproof, Teflon’ed from each other, and from me.

My sister was born in a bad mood and grew some wordless grudge against me. Maybe she somehow knew I didn’t want her, and that I’d touched the forbidden ripe, soft spot at the crown of her baby peach, still hardening head when it was three days old.

I was bad. I liked to touch things. I got spanked. It was a kind of touch. Touch I could feel and see on my skin for a longer time than their love. My needs were too neon for anyone to touch me normal. I was poked and pinched and picked on. I was an invite to abuse. I mutated to call off the monsters, to keep them calm. I had a secret life. I sublimated. I tortured my dolls. I masturbated—with toys, with brooms, on the rocking horse, sliding down the banister, shimmying up the pole in the playground. It was painful . . . and it made me magical.

I could come really young. I was amazing at it. I didn’t know what it meant or the possible repercussions. I thought I might pay a price. I thought I’d get broken. I thought I’d probably be punished if they found out. But I needed to escape right then, and it made me feel good for a moment. It made me feel, even though I felt my feeling so good would prove to be very bad. I awaited my fate.

In a square town, I was an octagon. Nobody in my neighborhood liked me much. I was a little nervous. I was a little Jewish. Everyone found easy reasons to shun me.  I bribed kids with Fig Newtons to walk home from school with me. They took my cookies without thank you’s and ran.

I always felt unknown . . . especially by me. I was a performer before I was a person. I had the best training—I was not allowed to feel what I felt. I could never be sad or mad. I could just pretend to be happy. I could not cry or yell; I could just sing, dance, rhyme and make funny noises. When people found me funny, the pressure eased. I was their tap-dancing decoy for a little while. 

I became an applause-aholic. Without applause I was sure the axe would fall, and I would die. Without applause I was never sure where I stood, except aside.  Standing onstage in the light was the only place I felt safe, significant.  If I got up there, then I had permission to exist, temporarily. They couldn’t kill me up there—if they did there’d be witnesses. And then, although no longer alive, I’d be the next best thing—immortalized.  I’d be a hushed story people told long after I and my body were gone. They might talk about me more than if I were alive. Either way, being up there was best.

As I grew up, I would reject myself before anybody else could.  Someone wanted to get closer? I anticipated foul play. They wanted something—favors, or some weird thing. Maybe they had heard about the banisters or the doll abuse. If they were looking for something more substantial, they wouldn’t find it here. I was a product of their projections. I took my shape from their desires. They’d knock, they’d come in, and there was nobody home. I’d get nuts and self-destruct, committing some anti-social act like over eagerness. Then I’d have control of the end point. Their very presence meant some sort of approval and that countered my disapproval. But, when they looked then left or got driven off by my delight, their disapproval doubled what I already had on my own. Why even bother with closeness.

In college I studied hard to become an actress. I became an actress before I was a woman.  I got good at acting—better than at living. There was no class for that back then. Acting gave me guidance on how to be a human, what to say to other human beings when I got stumped. I was written by the best of playwrights. I took qualities from every great role and concocted a character that became a kind of me.  I aspired to internalize this role.

I became a professional therapy client. I worked hard. I suffered lots. In Jungian analysis, I found fifteen disparate voices inside me fighting for dominance. I was the musical version of SYBIL. Then, over time, the many minds inside me slowly conjoined to comprise one complex person instead of jagged fragments.  As it got quieter inside, being alone Saturday nights lost its sting, traveling solo hearing only my own needs became more Velcro for me.

With others, it took a while for the unrehearsed feelings of real life to become spontaneous.  Over time, I lessened the space between thought and action, but still there were flooded moments as I assessed their possible motives; as I figured out the possible consequences of my reactions; as I assessed a plan of escape.

Then I got caught in a love-trap. I sought escape.  It wanted to marry me. Its motive seemed pure with no ulterior. What was left to exploit? I was no virgin. It had more money. It said it wanted my particular love. There was no way out, nowhere to hide, but I didn’t want to. Then I felt sad, mad that this didn’t happen sooner, but glad it was waiting me out, watching, cornering me at every turn in my mind. It hung heavy questions over my head:  Will I let him love me? Will I love him back for as long as forever lasts? Will I trust that I’m worthy of happiness, of finally belonging?   

He said: We won’t have as much time as younger people, so you’d better hurry up. He said: My feelings will be a big responsibility for you. Do you want them? Do you want me? If you do, I’ll never leave you. I will love you ‘til one of us dies, then it will stop.  Or if you want it to stop now, I will go.

No, I finally said. Stay. And something let up.  I said, I’m not perfect and he said me neither but I’m okay with that. Are you? I said “Yes,” and heard the complexity in my own voice. “Yes.”  I said yes a million times in my life—yes I’ll have more chicken, yes I’ll stay over—but I never heard myself say yes like that before.  So many layers—relief, grief, fear, desperation, determination.  He heard them all. He accepted them all. 

I dove and then noticed something inside me was there to catch me beyond him—a me who felt more credibility and solidity, more unified and dependable. I would be good for him and let him be good for me. I would take the risk to speak and do, without isolation to sort myself out. No rehearsal.  No blur between selves, no headache practicing how to behave, trying to see from the outside how I looked or hear what I said before I took the risk to speak.  

This is how I look. This is how I sound. This is no longer a play or a fiction. I’m no longer Pinocchio. I am a real girl. And now I belong, in a very real life . . . .