What Do You Do If You Swallow Poison?

When I was 15, I was, like many a teen girl in the ‘80s, a babysitter. My regulars included a family who lived down the street, the D— family, whose children were John, Stevie and Diana, ranging from 8 to 3 years old. This essay is about the night John, the older boy, almost died.

They were good kids: nice, friendly, smart, and generally pretty well-behaved. Generally. Because watching three kids at once is… a tougher job than most 15-year-olds should handle. On the night in question, I’d shoveled them all into footie pajamas, gotten teeth brushed, and herded them into bed on schedule, then settled myself on the living room couch to do homework and wait for their parents to come home. I was probably struggling over some math or other, probably something with triangles or exponents, though I have no memory of it. I had probably poured myself a glass of contraband Diet Coke or Tab and curled my socked feet underneath me and snuggled back into the cushions. Not twenty minutes passed, however, before the night collapsed into chaos.

John came thundering down the stairs and asked me, clearly trying to sound casual, what you do if you swallow poison.

Now, let me tell you, no babysitter wants to hear that question (it’s right up there with where do babies come from?). Though the kid insisted he had simply had a bad dream, it was immediately clear that it was a question motivated by some poison-swallowing event. To my credit, I only freaked out on him for a second before calling the poison control hotline (thank goodness the family had a magnet on the fridge with the phone number). While on hold, I managed to get him to admit the story: he’d had what he thought was a toothache and had snuck out of bed and gone rooting under the sink in his mother’s bathroom for a cure and had come up with her smelling salts, which were wrapped in gauze, leading him to believe they were some sort of dentist-related treatment, since the dentist seemed fond of gauze, and John had put one in his mouth and bitten down, thinking this would treat his toothache. (In case you have never been near smelling salts, they are usually made of ammonia, the strong smell of which is designed to jolt someone back to consciousness and, in this case, were in gauze-wrapped capsules to be snapped open for use, which does NOT involve putting them in one’s mouth, but simply holding the ammonia-leaking capsule under the woozy person’s nose.) When he bit down, he cracked open the capsule and tasted something caustic (ammonia, one assumes) and panicked.

By this time, the Poison People had answered the phone, and helped me determine that the smelling salts were probably old enough that the ammonia had sufficiently weakened so as to be smelly but relatively harmless. Had they been fresher, he could have gotten chemical burns in his mouth and throat, the Poison People said seriously.

So, the aftermath: I told the parents everything when they got home, and they continued to hire me for babysitting even after this. Not much, in other words, changed. I remained the industrious teen with a paltry social life, a high GPA and a savings account of earnings earmarked for college who went to art school on the weekends and played, very seriously, classical violin in a state symphony (this is all to say: NERD). But thirty years later, I’m still remembering John and his terrifying question: what do you do if you swallow poison?

I was the daughter of an American farmgirl and an immigrant Greek man, both of whom had gone through lots of higher education and worked their butts off enough to land us in a middle-class neighborhood with two malls and a conspiracy of racially-gerrymandering real estate agents past which my swarthy and heavily-accented father managed somehow to slip. This was probably not the best place for anyone, but surely not a fat, only-half-white-American, not-so-rich, smart queer girl. There was nobody, in the early 80s in gerrymandered middle-class Ohio, with whom I could commiserate. Or, at least, nobody who wanted to commiserate with me. (Oh, dear, the day I wore the skirt my dad’s sister sent from Greece, the one with the traditional embroidery and fringe, I endured SO MUCH fun-making from the Whitebread Racist Dicklords of that school… how did I not see that coming? How was I such a persistent nerd with an allergy to fitting in?)

My solution was to be a Good Girl: favorite student of every teacher, the Good Listener among my friends, and a parents’ well-behaved and well-closeted dream. It was the 80s, and it was Ohio. I really didn’t know there were other choices. I just wanted to survive high school and go somewhere better if I could find it.

Now, sitting happily in my own sunny little farmhouse home just north of NYC, still fat, still bookish, still queer (ish… I mean, I married my wife when it got legal, and that seems less queer, but still lesbian, I guess), still an immigrant’s daughter. Still, for all intents and purposes, a nerd, but proud, now, of the ways in which I’d not fit easily into that Whitebread middle-class Ohio Jerk-Factory neighborhood (I can boast the same great taste, now with 100% more walking cane). Still, I don’t have that fantasy some people have of going back, knowing what I know now, and showing them all (though Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion remains one of my all-time favorite films). I’m just glad I got out of there before the cruelty and ugliness of that place overwhelmed me.

It took me many, many years to understand myself outside the context in which I was raised, to be proud of my family’s ethnic difference, to call myself queer, to be brave enough not to need the validation of a husband and 2.5 kids and an SUV and a middle management job at Borden if I didn’t want it, to be okay with eating food in public instead of skipping meals (because that’s what Good Fat Girls do). I tried super-achieving, tried bulemia, tried therapy, tried activism, tried self-medicating, tried legally-prescribed medication. In the end, I think it was just a matter of time.

(It was a matter of aging into a phase in which nobody pays me much mind at all. This is the paradoxical freedom of being an American woman over 40: you’re no longer sexually objectifiable to the majority of straight culture, so almost nobody even sees you anymore and you gain the kind of freedom from surveillance that some people enjoy from birth. Of course, once almost nobody sees you anymore, then people look past you as if you’re not even there. It’s a choice, for many of us, between being too constantly visible or invisible.*)

(* This is the paradox with which I struggled a bit in Olympia Knife, my second novel. The two queer women at its center face this problem: Olympia, whenever she feels strong emotion, has bouts of invisibility, and Diamond, once she ages into love with a woman, loses gravity and starts floating away. Still, their relationship can happen in nearly total freedom because nobody really sees them when they are together.)

It took a lot of years, in other words, to detox from the American Dream in which I was raised and all the hateful messages I swallowed as a young, fat, queer, first-gen smart girl as a consequence. It took a lot of thought, therapy, distance, and work.

I know all of this storytelling fits together somehow, but I’m not sure how, exactly. I’m torn between thinking of little John’s smelling salts as a metaphor for something to wake me up, or the caustic thing that could have killed me. Either way, I think it’s his panicked question that rings relevant for me: What do you do if you swallow poison?

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