Middle school is tough on everyone. Middle school in Arizona is especially tough on a chubby fundamentalist girl who wears long skirts every day and can, at first glance, be mistaken for a teacher.
In eighth grade, John D. asked me if I cursed. I let him know that I did not. Still suspicious that the fundy girl was that innocent he pressed, “Do you curse in your head?” I couldn’t (or shouldn’t) lie any more than I should cuss, so I conceded that yes, I did curse in my head.
My friend, Nicole, a fellow fundamentalist, had the perfect solution, fake cursing (slightly more hardcore than Mormon cursing), and she was more than happy to show me the ropes. “Don’t be such a bench!” “Funk you!” There was even lifting your ring finger as a faux bird. It was the height of rebellion.
Summers in Arizona are about as close as one can get to hell. There are jokes about how hot it is: “go to hell” someone says, “I’m already there” you reply; and you get to tell your friends and family in other states that you live in hell adjacent, just north of hell or in a little suburb of hell called Arizona.
The one that never gets old is, “Hot enough for you?”
Laughing it off shows how tough you are at surviving inhumane temperatures while silently agreeing and pondering your location choices. It can easily be 110 degrees in the shade and yet you’ll walk an extra fifty feet just to park in it. It may be a dry heat, but dry heat doesn’t prevent second degree burns when poolside.
Arizona and its climate provide a great opportunity for doomsday pastors to remind their congregations every Sunday, “If you think this heat is bad, just think about how hot eternal damnation is.” To this day, that statement pops into my head whenever I burn my hands on the steering wheel or scald my fingers on the seat belt buckle: only hell is hotter.
It was on one of those exceedingly hot days that I was in the backyard feeding the semi-feral, neighborhood cat that had adopted us. While standing on the patio, I spotted a creature that terrifies me to this day: a black carpenter bee. Research tells me they are one inch long and do not sting unless molested. I disagree. They are six inches long and armed to kill from ten feet away. When I saw this supposed gentle giant of the bee world, a phrase came out of my mouth that was shocking even though I was alone. It was, “Oh, my gosh.”
I was nine and had just said my first curse word. Disappointment followed shock; how could I have let the Lord down? I immediately asked for forgiveness, there in the blasting heat, a bag of cat food in my hand. “Jesus, I am so sorry, please forgive me. I’ll never say another bad word again.” Appeased, I went inside where the air conditioning and bee-free environment soothed my guilt-ridden soul.
I’m pretty sure I stayed true to my word through the rest of elementary school. Third through sixth grade wasn’t especially taxing and growing up in a majority Mormon area, rough language wasn’t even on my radar. Not that it wasn’t there, but the company I kept was interested more in friendship bracelets and Big Stuf Oreos.
In high school I came into my own. Seeking sophistication and hoping to sound like an adult, the word that would define my freshman year was bastard. Everyone was such a bastard, I would say as I flipped my uncut waist-length hair over my shoulder. I felt safe enough to use it around my friend Amber (also a fundamentalist, but open to scoring cool points). She said it wasn’t that bad of a word, but that I shouldn’t use it in front of my mother.
My mother was (and still is), without exaggeration, the judge and jury of the language court. “Awesome” is only meant for God’s creations. “Butt” is a no-no. “Gosh” is obviously a hair short of taking the Lord’s name in vain, as are “gee” and “golly.” A proper and acceptable exclamation would be, “Well,” prefaced with a tsk of the tongue and then dragged out for a few syllables, “Weeeellll.”
When I was little, I remembered her saying “rats” fairly often, as in “Oh, rats, I forgot to get bananas at the store.” Later she felt such a strong conviction about proper language she even repudiated rats; too close to meaning shit, I guess. In an emotional and heated exchange with my mother I once let her know something was such crap. She demanded to know when I had started cussing.
During high school, my parent’s marriage fell apart. No one thing was to blame for it. Perhaps it was the small church congregation they pastored growing smaller every Sunday, taking their much needed tithes with them. Maybe it was that my parents married too young and grew apart. It could have been my mother’s lack of sympathy or understanding for my father’s lifelong struggle with depression; her commands for him to just get up out of bed only added to his paranoia and anxiety. More than likely it was his extramarital affairs.
At home, my father wandered around the house muttering to himself, having imaginary exchanges with my mother, cursing her up one side and down the other, laying into her for years of frustration and disappointment. I would invariably walk by the bathroom and see him, in a cloud of citrus scented room spray, surrounded by the gold foil shell wallpaper, leaning over the shell-shaped sink, glaring at himself pointing in the mirror. Those mutterings didn’t have much clarity, so most of what I would hear were the staccato pulses of “uck and unt.” The words sounded mean and dirty but his secret mutters kept me safely in the innocuous curse word territory.
My home now a place of tension and silence, I invited myself to dinner with any friend that would have me. On an especially emotional day of general teenager-ness and family upheaval, I shared a dinner of McDonald’s cheeseburgers with my two best friends. They stared at me in bewilderment while I ate and then asked about my recent commitment to be a vegetarian. “Fuck it,” I said taking another bite, though it probably came out sounding like “fughgit.” I didn’t hang my head in shame and I didn’t have that nagging feeling in my chest the way I had when I was younger. I said the granddaddy of all cuss words and I was okay with it.
From there my confidence grew. Things were shitty. People were motherfuckers, assholes, asshats, shit-for-brains and total dicks. A month after I graduated from high school, my parents finally divorced; they had promised each other to be miserable until then. My mother and I moved out of our house and into a third floor apartment where she became an emotionally distant roommate that I saw in passing. I spoke to my father as little as possible. Life was totally fucked up. “Vulgar” words gave me an emotional outlet. It was a way to reach in and give my feelings the words I hadn’t figured out how to give them. I was depressed goddammit, confused and heartbroken that my family was no longer together.
More than two decades have passed, and in that time I have grown and matured. I’m not a foul-mouthed adult who can’t identify and express emotions; most of my cursing now comes after insult or injury, primarily the latter, and I’m just as likely to use a more creative turn of phrase. Unfortunately, my father isn’t around to read the latest research that shows cursing is actually a sign of high intelligence and dropping an “F bomb” really can relieve pain and stress. My mother remains uptight and ever careful to never offend the Lord. She probably thinks evil scientists are doing the devil’s work by encouraging cursing. I just wish I could have participated in the study. My cursing was modified after becoming a mother and the “F word” became flibbertigibbet or fluffernutter or whatever nonsense word eased the pain or frustration of the moment. My daughter is a teenager now; I don’t need to sensor myself anymore. She hears me and rolls her eyes when someone cuts me off in rush hour traffic, “Fuck you and your piece of shit car, asshole.” Science backs up what I’ve felt to be true for a long time, now: a little cussing can be good for the soul.
Bethany Hunter is a recovered fundamentalist who adheres to the old adage that writing is cheaper than therapy. She writes for and about the girl who needed to know she wasn’t that weird and that even if she was, she’d have good stories to tell later. Her first essay, “Barbie’s Going to Hell,” was published by The Furious Gazelle and “Behind the Pulpit” is upcoming this spring in The Other Journal.