May is the harshest month of the year, and not because there isn’t anything particularly remarkable about May to begin with, or that spring becomes so fleeting it hurts and mundane things like putting the milk away or laying sheets out to dry don’t seem to matter as much anymore, or that with May comes a certain sort of unbearable pressure to love the land and everything that comes from it — even when love for self has always been the most arduous task. But May is the harshest month of the year because I was born in May, and every May I ask my mother why she had not made it so that I was granted the grace of more time or made it so that I was born in October or November or the end of January instead. Because every May, I have found myself still never feeling like enough of a woman. And to forever subsist half removed from womanhood is to lead a grating and convoluted existence, to live with two left feet, to belong to neither here nor there, to be always full or never full enough, to be perpetually hot or cold, and eternally stuck on a Wednesday — the cruelest day of the week — because Saturday and Sunday are at a more painful distance from Wednesday than they ever were from Monday.
I was bullied often growing up. Nicole from English class read my birth chart once and told me that my Scorpio ascendant paired with Pluto in the first house was a volatile placement, rare and transformative, and it made people reckon with themselves when they were around me and sometimes they didn’t entirely like what they saw. The boys I went to school with would liken me to a dog or an animal of sorts, call me a “MAN” in all capital letters and tell me that I couldn’t claim ownership over love or softness or the raw and unfiltered innocence that comes with womanhood; sometimes they’d yell things like “UGLY” and “DIRTY” and “NOT A REAL GIRL” in my face. I was asked out on dates as a joke frequently, oftentimes in front of an audience, and in the special sort of way that could only belong to a boy that believed being with a woman like me was so repulsive it became funny. And in a particularly mean spirited move one year, a friend told a boy I had a big, giant, pink construction paper, Kevin McCallister-giddy-on-Christmas-day crush on him, and when he found out about it he cried and cried until it looked like he couldn’t come up for air anymore and went home sick for the day. I often recount that story in the kind of nonchalant way. Like telling people you parked your car on South Main Street and got a parking ticket, or that you forgot to return a copy of “The Bell Jar” to the public library for two years straight and racked up a thousand dollar fine except you really didn’t forget but honestly truly couldn’t bear to let the book go because Esther Greenwood understood what it was like to feel like you never really took up space. But it broke me. And I stopped liking the boys I went to school with after that. And when they couldn’t come after my body anymore they came after my mind instead, so that I couldn’t just be a hired writer for The Michigan Daily, or someone with anything to give, reduced me to a barbaric uncivilized derivation of a woman who knew no God or country against my will. Masculinized, demonized and vilified me to the highest degree so that I was BIG MOUTH, PROBLEMATIC, OUTSPOKEN, FEISTY SARAH, even though I’ve spent an entire lifetime apologizing too much, and sometimes Anamika says my words make her feel something and Gabrijela says the sweetest things about the sentences I write and Claire once said a piece I wrote made her cry, and I stopped by shift on a Tuesday and they told me my work was filled to the brim with love, and a woman named Lynette from the Bay Area sent me a letter and said I write just like the man who wrote “In Search of Lost Time.” To only recognize me by my work, by the most vulnerable extension of myself, to grant it dignity and care, is to grant me humanity. And I have never been treated like a human being, much less a woman.
For a very long time, I told anyone who would listen how I felt, that I felt like less than a woman because I was treated with an indifferent sort of indignation. Because my womanhood was robbed from me and flayed open for all the world to see. Because I was never afforded the decency of being heard and eternally convinced of my undesirability and unworthiness. Because I had to consistently prove my use, and fight so much for the Taylor-Swift-Evermore-Phoebe-Bridgers-Gracie-Abrams sort of femininity other women were so easily given that it became exhausting. I was so loud for so long that once after school, the mother of a boy who told me I was so ugly no one would ever love me, she cornered me and dug her fingers into my arm so hard she drew blood, told me that her son didn’t mean any harm, that it was important that I understood he was quite the little jokester with a penchant for outrageous pranks and that she’d FedEx me a tin of gingersnaps for my troubles. Except the gingersnaps never came, and her son never stopped giving me trouble. And I have found that it’s sometimes easier to slip into what people want you to be, to let them see you as what you seem rather than what you truly are. It’s easier to be BIG, BLOCKY, ROUGH-AROUND-THE-EDGES SARAH that doesn’t know love or loss or what it means to feel so much, so things become so mucky and muddy and invariably tangled and no one truly knows what’s mine or yours or his or hers.
My high school psychology teacher spent 25 years teaching about people like Freud and Jung and big messy things like the human condition. She once told me that I didn’t give a flying DAMN about what anyone thought and that I had a big, fat, strong, thick backbone and a smart mouth and I was strong and forceful and independent — heavy emphasis on the “i” and “t” — and even she couldn’t manage to understand me for what I was. The people I chose to surround myself with, my friends in a past life, habitually invalidated me, failed to truly know me, minimized my feelings so that they became dilute, paper-thin recollections of what they were; while simultaneously inviting the boys who had torn everything about me to shreds out to lunch and dinner and said things like, Come sit next to ME, this seat is open,” and made it seem like I felt too much yet not enough all in one breath. My friends watched my fall from grace, and none of them ever understood honor or tact or mercy, or what it meant to have love for self, or neighbor, or this land or the next.
Last year no one could ever understand why it was so important that I apply to historically women’s colleges. When I got into Barnard College I cried because Jhumpa Lahiri went to Barnard, but mostly because it meant that I was a woman, and enough of one. Because with not being able to indulge in the pursuit of womanhood, to love and learn and grow the way that other women have, comes a retired sort of loss, like when the neighborhood cat visits for the last Thursday of the season, or the moon no longer follows you home, and sometimes the spine becomes snapped into six different halves and the world seems tenfold darker because what was yours was taken before you ever realized it was gone. Their admissions officer told me my essay made her see the world differently and sent me an entire flurry of postcards and stickers and “SARAH YOU ARE A BARNARD WOMAN WE HOPE TO SEE YOU SOON.” I love Barnard and I forever will. But I had to turn Barnard down. It was far too expensive and my father hated New York City and threatened not to visit and my mother told me that I simply was not ready to leave home yet. One friend called it a knock-off Columbia University and another was absolutely mortified at the prospect of college with no boys. And the same sort of friend that cannot and will never understand the inherent sanctity of a school like Barnard or Wellesley College, Bryn Mawr College or Smith College is the same sort of friend that tells me I look better with my hair down and straightened and that they didn’t ever expect to see me at a makeup store and other kinds of tiny little things that were delivered to bite and sting a million times worse than they were ever intended to, simply because they came from a woman. I have just begun to see myself as a roaming, complex, effervescent woman. Enough of a woman. I love “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” because I am Francie Nolan, and I love Jhumpa Lahiri because I have never seen myself more profoundly in someone else. I love “The Godfather” because I knew Michael Corleone in another life and I love Ira Glass and Diane Rehm and Audie Cornish and so does my father. I love when my friend Siri, whom I’ve known since I was 11 years old, tells me that I am a THOUGHTFUL writer, and Duaa, who always gives grace to everything I write, and my friend Atiya, who has helped me find clarity. I love my cat named Aziz and also Max who moved away and my friend Gaya who always listened to me even when no one else would, and every person who has ever edited my work, including Copy and the editor at The Washington Post who spent an entire day giving my story dignity, and everyone in Audience Engagement who share my pieces with the world. I love my grandmother and mother and father and brother and the poem “Puerto Rican Obituary” that Lucy gave me. I love The Los Angeles Times because they taught me how to read and no one ever checks out something at the public library like The Los Angeles Times in the Midwest and when I was 14 they were the only newspaper to tell me they were so very sorry to turn down my work but that they sincerely hoped to see me again. I love the color green and Edward Hopper and Edgar Degas and all of his ballerinas and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay on self-reliance and Gabrijela’s poem entitled “Love of Self and Revolution” because for a woman like me to finally be able to love herself, and to claim the month of May before anyone else, is a form of revolution in its own right.
MiC Columnist Sarah Akaaboune can be contacted at email@example.com.