I curse. I curse a lot.
I curse like a sailor, like a truck driver, like Tony Soprano.
I could blame my years in the military for my obscenities, but that wouldn’t be fair. I had aggression issues way before I enlisted. I blame that on Catholic school.
Cursing is something I struggled to conceal.
I spent decades ashamed of the trash living inside me, convinced that people could somehow detect it from afar. Convinced that I lacked civility or femininity, that I was too immature or too fractured to be taken seriously by society.
The more insecure I felt, the more I cursed.
These days, as a counterfeit adult with an equally counterfeit job punching the 9-to-5 clock in a cubicle farm, I’ve stopped fighting myself.
Sometimes I succeed in showing some class. But most of the time, as Trent Reznor would put it, my moral standing is lying down.
When I became a mother, though, I was determined to show better restraint around my son.
He was perfect and sacred and deserving of only the best from me. He was also a test.
This was my chance to level-up, to prove that I was good for something in this world.
It was as if the Universe gave me the egg project to see if maybe I could redeem myself: Here’s something precious. Make it a better version of yourself. Don’t fuck this up.
The fuck-up came when Josh was about four years old.
We were driving home from the store late one afternoon. My mind was elsewhere, entertaining a million different competing thoughts.
What do I want for dinner?
Hey, that’s my favorite song!
Why can’t this jackass merge?
I was distracted and didn’t shift the gears correctly. My decrepit Subaru lurched and snarled in annoyance.
“Motherfucking car,” I muttered under my breath. Only it wasn’t low enough to stop my son with sonar ears from hearing me.
“Why is it a mudder fucking car, Mommy?” came the tiny voice from the backseat. “Is the car fucking? Can you make the car stop mudder fucking?”
I slid down in my seat so he wouldn’t see me shake with laughter. What else could I do? I didn’t answer his questions, which only made him repeat them over and over, at one point as a cheerful little ditty. I was both delighted and horrified.
Oh my god. My son is Samuel Jackson.
For a few moments, I was proud. But then I realized why I never made “mom” friends at playdates. Or that I never had playdates.
Those were ladies who liked to host Pampered Chef parties and make mommy scrapbooks. They were active in their churches. They baked fudge, watched Oprah, and always, ALWAYS remembered to send thank-you cards.
They were ladies to whom I felt no connection.
I tried to befriend them, to develop a kinship based on our shared love of motherhood. But we were separated by eight dimensions of pop culture and maturity.
They were stay-at-home moms, perfectly sprung to life from a Good Housekeeping issue. I was a working mom, a full-time student, and a complete slacker on the domestic front.
As they chatted in their cinnamon-spice smelling living rooms about gluten-free quinoa cookies, a dead-inside me sat there, fake smile stretched so tightly on my face that tears began to stream, wondering what on earth I could possibly add to the conversation.
How I flipped off some asshole at the job and told him he could run his own goddamned PowerPoint slides? Or perhaps my thoughts on when the new System of a Down album might come out?
My “mom” crowd consisted of guy friends who were just barely older than Josh in terms of emotional IQ.
They were man-children who drank from the carton and who taught Josh to burp the Sponge Bob theme song when they came over to babysit. They were exasperating.
But we had a shared understanding of rock music, monkeys, and cursing.
They were friends who would later hear about the car incident and high-five me with a hearty, “Fuck yeah!”
It would be easy to blame my foul language on a lifetime of institutions.
Between Catholic school and the military, when told “no” so many times, you gravitate to the forbidden, to what you can’t have but desperately want.
For me, though, the attraction came out of necessity.
We spoke only Spanish at home, and my parents never cursed. As an ESL student, I barely knew enough English to complete my assignments, let alone to tell someone to eat shit and die.
Stuck between two languages, I was silent about the world buzzing around me. I watched life through a rapid-fire shutter and unable to say anything.
There were no easy words for my neurotic, self-conscious emotions during these years living in low-income housing with immigrant parents.
No way to voice the anger rising in me about a Catholic school that condemned me to hell because I listened to Duran Duran.
I was voiceless.
My first memory of wanting to curse was in the second grade.
Our teacher, Mrs. Tieg, had told us to line up by the chalkboard and shut the hell up.
My head was forever in one daydream or another, and I didn’t hear her. I turned to ask the girl behind me where we were going. Before I could finish, I saw a blur out of the corner of my eye.
I was yanked out of line, and with her entire hand over my seven-year-old face like some face-sucking alien, Mrs. Tieg shoved me to the back of the line.
“Didn’t I say to shut up?!” she crowed.
By now, everyone did shut the hell up, trying to play dead. We were marched into the library where there was a Scholastic Book Fair set up. Kids forgot about the incident and darted to the tables full of colorful books.
Except for me. I wandered in a daze, red hand imprint blazoned across my face, too incensed to enjoy my favorite school event.
“Fuck you!” I was unable to say in English or Spanish, my body vibrating with anger. “Fuck you and your orthopedic shoes!”
I was unaware of the power of cursing. I had no idea how to settle the score. I knew angry monkeys flung their feces at people, but as a germaphobe I thought better of it.
I had no bad influences in my life, no way to dream up satisfying acts of vengeance. The most I could do was to make faces behind her back.
By junior high, I was in public school and catching up on all the perversion I’d missed out on.
I’d amassed a large cache of profanity by this point, thanks to all the potheads and 15-year olds still stuck in the 7th grade. But despite memorizing grammar rules and having an uncanny ability to dissect sentences, I still couldn’t figure out how string together my curse words in a way that made sense.
“He is an assshit!” I’d blurt out, referring to our hated homeroom teacher. I’d hoped to get kudos for the extra punch I added.
My friends would shake their heads. “That sounds weird. Just say he’s an ass. Or a piece of shit.”
“He’s a fuck turd! A shit dick who can go… fuck!”
“What? No. Are you having a stroke? That doesn’t make any sense.”
I forged through this early, clumsy version of myself. Though I sounded like Rain Man with sub-psychotic rage, I knew in my gut I was on to something.
Finally! I had found an outlet for my years of muzzled existence. I found a way to reconcile my emotions, my frustration with the world.
It was like working with watercolors when I’d been limited to crayons.
I spent a ridiculous amount of time honing my craft and learning when to use it. I had no plans to walk around this planet raging like Joe Pesci, but it was a good weapon to have in my hip pocket just in case.
Cursing ultimately deepened the space between myself and others.
Not because of the sensibilities of the people around me, but because I was a woman.
Because it was somehow unseemly or unladylike to curse, as if men owned it exclusively.
With shocking frequency, I learned that being a woman who cursed was the social equivalent of having spinach in your teeth. I was less than, a stain on the fabric of decency, and I couldn’t figure out why.
To curse meant I let my guard down and felt comfortable with the situation around me. How is that bad? When others cursed, I sensed we were kin, that we had trust.
Cursing was fun, too. In a world full of social shackles, the release was necessary, perhaps to ensure I didn’t actually punch someone in the throat.
Most of all, I was finally confident enough to express myself. It gave me a voice, albeit crass and vulgar, to react to the world around me. It was the platform I lacked for so many years.
I figured as long as I wasn’t harming anyone, like assaulting 2nd graders at a book fair, cursing was not the worst thing I could do.
I did try to quit cursing once.
Once, during Lent, to be precise.
I’d been a recovering Catholic for decades, but I always feel a little inspired during Lent to fix my defects. I could do so at any other time of the year, but I learned long ago that “mass” in Catholic-speak was not just the church service but also the manner in which we were all miserable.
No chocolate. No meat. No soda. No fellatio on midgets. There are any number of sacrifices to choose from. I decided to give up cursing.
Three weeks into Lent, I was disappointed by my lack of progress. My day wouldn’t be but an hour in before I made the first offense.
Really? I couldn’t go 60 minutes without cursing?
I brought the bar down. Words like “ass” and “damn” didn’t count.
Then I attempted to have one entire day without cursing. It didn’t matter what day, just any day before Lent.
My friends mocked me. They were pooling their money on my lack of will power. I won’t judge, but even I know it’s a little fucked up to wager on a Lent failure.
Success came the day before Easter.
I communicated via text messages that I could censor. I ignored phone calls and limited my face-to-face responses to head nods and thumbs-up signs. I put myself on house arrest.
To not curse for an entire day, I had to become Boo Radley. Somehow it didn’t feel like a win.