The Funnies, Justine Newman

My family moved this week. This morning, my mom told me she was going to come “check my room” at some point, which means to evaluate whether my unpacking and cleaning is satisfactory. As usual, her need to verify my competence to complete menial tasks irks me, despite the fact that I’ve been here for a week and have only opened one box. Before sifting through the scattered mounds of clothes on my floor, I cover the essentials.

I remove the rainbow striped dress from its concealed home in the ukulele case I’d used to carry it in from the car. Rainbow is misleading, the dress is a hand-me-down from J.Crew and is decidedly not a part of their Pride collection; it would be better described as multicolored. But I’m not taking my chances. My new closet has less storage space than the last one— fewer hiding places. I roll the dress up and place it beneath a salmon footstool against the back wall. I run through a mental checklist to ensure that I don’t miss any similar items: my navy shirt with rainbow stripes remains at the bottom of the third drawer of my dresser, my “Girl Power” top, which is okay to wear but not worth my parents’ eye rolls, is nestled in next to it. The two pairs of jeans with subtle rainbow detailing on the back pockets are somewhere in the mess surrounding my feet. I’ll be sure to place them at the bottom of the pants stack. 

I think about last summer, when my family traveled to Alaska to celebrate my sister, Catherine, at the finish line of her 4,000-mile bike ride. She’d been gone for 70 days and we hadn’t talked since the night before she left. In the days leading up to the ride, my parents told my brother and I about how dangerous it was, reminding us that we needed to pray, saying that Texas 4000 was the only established cross-country bike ride during which no one had died. Their voices lingered on “died,” leaving the inevitable “yet” unspoken. 

I called Catherine the night before her trip for an untimely confessional. I explained that I’d lied six months before when she confronted me on Christmas Eve. I asked how she’d known, and she said it had clicked when I called Noah Centineo “objectively cute” after watching To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before. She cried because she was afraid that I was going to “leave the family.” She said she’d only asked because our mom had asked her. I cried too. 

The day before Catherine was to arrive at the finish line, we went into a few souvenir shops in downtown Anchorage while we waited for our table at Snow City Cafe. I couldn’t tell what color the walls were from behind the hundreds of t-shirts on display, most of them tacky. My mom offered to buy me one, and I pointed to a shirt with the outline of a mountain—Denali— and a sunset behind it. The shirt was gray, the mountain white, the sunset comprised of three disjointed stripes: red, yellow, and blue. 

“Wow, you really love rainbow clothes recently.” 

She glanced over to gauge my reaction, at once daring me to say something and pleading with me not to. I’d like to think that I looked calm, but that seems unlikely. I escaped with the first excuse I could conjure: “I don’t really think that’s rainbow, but okay. I’m gonna go to the bathroom, you can choose a different one, I’m good with whatever!” 

After confirming that suggestive items are hidden from my mom’s thorough gaze, I organize the three racks around the perimeter of my closet. I move my new yellow shirt to the lowest rack. I call it yellow; my mom calls it putrid. Catherine’s boyfriend said it reminded him of bile, but that’s because he thought that I didn’t like it. I purchased the shirt this summer because my mom kept asking me to buy clothes that would “accentuate my womanly curves.” Then she told me she didn’t like it because the color was incompatible with my skin tone, but she told Catherine she didn’t like it because it was too tight. I am now seeking clothes that accentuate my womanly curves but are also shapeless and are not multicolored but are also not the wrong shade of a singular color. 

I keep a sweatshirt in my car for the days that I leave the house in something that clings to my chest in an attempt to please her. I tend to slip it on at the first stop sign I hit, and I take it of before I go back inside. The tight shirt smothers the girl I want to be, the sweatshirt swallows the girl my mom wants me to be. Two versions of myself, neither complete, mere reciprocals of each other. 

I have another tight yellow shirt, closer to the color of mustard than stomach acid. I wore it to my first college party, October of freshman year. October was the month that my mom and I didn’t speak even once over the phone—I know because she came to see me perform in a dance show on September 28th and we didn’t talk again until the day after Halloween. The party was fine, but not an experience I was eager to repeat. My night ended with a friendly Beta pledge leading me back to my friends after finding me alone on the back porch, sitting on the ground with my knees pulled into my chest and my head resting on my forearms. I think I might’ve been napping. I never told my mom about that party. Partially because I thought she’d be mad I went, and partially because I didn’t want to admit that she was right; I don’t like parties. 

I’m afraid for my mom to see my rainbow clothes, to realize that I’m not the person she wants me to be. I’m afraid for her to hear of my disdain for parties, to realize that I am the person she wants me to be. But when I’m away at school, I still don’t wear the rainbow clothes. I go to parties even though I don’t enjoy them, or I make up elaborate excuses to avoid the truth: “I just don’t want to go tonight.” Sometimes I like the way I look in tight shirts and feel like a fraud.

There’s a bag of returns that I haven’t yet made on the floor. In it, three pairs of denim shorts from my obsessive summer pursuit to find some that fit. I failed, as shorts that fit my waist can hardly be pulled over my thighs, but shorts that fit my thighs have three extra inches in the waist. There’s also an orange dress that I thought would be casual but turned out to fit like a bodycon clubbing outfit, and a corduroy fanny pack which I bought in some sort of episode where I tricked myself into thinking I would use a fanny pack. I know my mom will be mad that I’ve let these items sit here since mid-July, going to the effort of packing them for the move instead of returning them. I stick them in the attic next to my room, hiding the evidence of my irresponsibility. 

To their right in the attic is a bag of Catherine’s old t-shirts, the ones she saves for a quilt that I know she’ll never make. I think of my favorite t-shirt of hers, light pink with fuchsia lettering that reads “empower women.” It’s baggy enough to hang over my disproportionately large butt without having “short” sleeves that droop down to my elbows: a treasured rarity. I wore it on November 3rd with black Adidas shorts and a gingham mask. When I walked into my polling place, a blonde woman pointed toward a teenage boy sitting behind a table in the far-right corner. 

“The empowered young man over there will help you get set up!” she said. 

I couldn’t tell if she was being sarcastic or not. 

As I walked back from the elementary school where I voted, I saw my mom watering the plants in front of our house. She stopped me as I approached the front door, and I knew by the way her sternum sunk into her chest that she was going to say something I didn’t want to hear. 

“I don’t think it’s a bad thing for women to be empowered! I’m empowered! But why do we have to say it?” She sounded genuine. She asked me to take the shirt of before her friend Carolyn came to help pick out new chairs for our breakfast nook, or to stay upstairs while she was over. 

Later, I heard Carolyn ring the doorbell, and the sound of her raspy laugh that followed felt intrusive in my bedroom. I wanted to go downstairs and try whatever gooey baked good I knew she’d brought, but I didn’t. Instead, I sat wrapped in my favorite grey blanket, Catherine’s “empower women” T-shirt crumpled on the ground beside me.

About the Author

Lauren Bramlett · Chapman University

Lauren Bramlett is currently a junior at Chapman University, where she’s pursuing a double major in English Literature and Dance Performance. She’s partial to nonfiction and personal narrative, and when not writing can be found taking long walks or making playlists. “Unpacking” first appeared in Calliope.

About the Artist

Justine Newman · Northeastern University

Justine Newman is a health science major at Northeastern Univeristy on the pre-med track. She currently works at  the Chester County Coroner’s Office in West Chester, PA. In her free time, Justine runs her own photography business, specializing in natural light portraiture. “The Funnies” first appeared in Spectrum. This piece was first featured in plain china in 2018.

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