When I was 14, I could tell you where a man's frenulum was, despite having never seen one. I could tell you what to wear to transition smoothly from work to cocktail hour. I knew how to apply winged eyeliner to every possible eye shape, and how to prevent blisters from even the highest of heels. Over the course of a few years, I read every back issue of Cosmopolitan, Glamour, and Elle at the local library. The airbrushed amazons on the front cover smiled at me like old friends every time I visited shelves of them. I could tell you who my favorite cover girl was, and what she had for breakfast to kick-start her morning workout.
What I could not tell you was where I fit into my family. After my father's affair, my mother dipped into a depression and out of parenting. My father, for his part, rarely noticed where I was or what I was doing. He avoided me the same way he had been avoiding my mother for years. Mom's usual dumping ground for me was the library. Several times a week, I would be unceremoniously deposited there, and told that she would be back in three hours or so.
For a bookish, unfriendly, friendless young woman, this wasn't such a bad deal. And Mom losing interest in me wasn't as jarring as it sounds -- she and Dad had worked 60-hour weeks for my entire life. The only real difference was that her distance from me became a choice rather than an unfortunate necessity.
It could have been my fault that I was being advised and entertained by women's magazines. After all, I was the one who told Mom about Dad's affair. I didn't have to. I could have placed his phone back on the charger and tiptoed back to bed, holding the text messages in some damp corner of my mind's basement. We could have kept going on weeklong beach vacations and watching the news together after dinner. I didn't have to do that. My mother started taking weeklong vacations every few months to that beach we used to go to, to the American Southwest, to visit her own mother. None of us were invited, and we were sharply reprimanded if we complained.
Eventually, I stopped complaining, or reaching out, or butting in. I did not get makeup lessons from Mom, or advice on how to navigate my first relationship. She did not tell me how to dress my boxy figure to simulate the appearance of a waist, or how to find a bra that fit.
Women's magazines may sound like an odd choice for a self-proclaimed bookworm. After all, I am the same girl who was scolded for skipping class to read Tennessee Williams beneath the school stairwell. But nine hours a week at the local library was a lot, and I wanted to learn how to be a woman. So the glossy magazines instructed me while I was at the library, then they stayed there. The Ernest Hemingway volumes came home with me to read before bed. I feared that, should I check out back issues of Cosmo or Allure, I would be made to stop going to the library or hunting for advice.
Eventually, I grew taller and better-dressed and less afraid of what the world would do to a lonely, quiet, overprepared foal like me. Throughout those quiet, glossy years, my relationship with my parents healed -- so much so that my mother eventually took me with her to run errands, and told me that I did not have many friends because I didn't let people get to know me. My father stopped giving me stale looks when I passed through the kitchen, and he toured colleges with me.
I stopped getting dumped at the library, and my mother started cooking dinner for us to eat as a family again. I was not treated like a foreign spy, or like I carried some disease that threatened our herd. My self-study of womanhood equipped me just as well as I like to imagine my mother would have, had I not discovered a landmine by treading on it.