Even here–in a city allegedly known for its undying love of practical sportswear–a trip to the grocery store requires makeup application. A somewhat snazzy outfit. Clean teeth. I really never know who I will encounter in aisle 11 among the bulk foods and nutritional bars. Co-workers, semi-rock stars, or maybe just someone with particularly fetching tousled hair.
My mom always tells me that it is hard to meet new people as one grows older. This is her standing excuse for maintaining friendships with unsavory characters. I would argue that it is incredibly easy to make new friends here: get a job at the right spot, spend your evenings drinking and reading at a quasi-dive bar, or even just walk down the street in a brightly colored dress. Strangers greet me with smiles. The person ahead of me in line at the coffee shop always turns around to say “hi.” Lifelong friendships are born on the Belmont bus.
And so, I have many friends here. Or at the very least, a multitude of acquaintances. But in this new chapter of my life, far away from the previous pages and paragraphs, no one really knows anything about me. Oh, sure…my friends could tell you that I
have a tendency towards greeting strange cats every where I go (and usually photographing them, too). I wear a lot of dresses and I prefer whiskey to all other liquors. I am always smiling and laughing, as if everything in my life has been a great big bowl of champagne punch. Many suspect that I am not very smart.
All of my stories–the real ones, the facts that truly matter–are kept filed away in a lead box, under the tightest security. Seismically sound. Rustproof. Invincible in the face of bullets and bombs. I hold the only key to the lock…but frequently I hide it even from myself. I’m not always a trustworthy guardian.
I have found myself recently wishing that I addicted to something, like gambling or alcohol or casual sex. Then I could join a support group, an instant audience for the stories archived inside me. All would be sworn to secrecy and everyone would be required to listen. In these situations, the most traumatic stories are the most appreciated. Throw in some sex, violence, and/or humiliation…and the crowd is easily won over.
I sometimes rehearse these tales–some as long as novellas, others mere vignettes–while riding my bike or taking a shower. A library filled with stacks and stacks is developing. When the time comes, when I encounter the right ear, I will be ready to let it all loose.
My first story is simple:
There was a little girl who lived in the suburbs of a minor, minor city. She lived with her mother and her grandparents. She had no playmates her own age, making do with the grouchy old poodle and brawny black cat that had once been her mother’s childhood pets. JoJo and Morris.
But life was good!
There was a pool in the backyard, a refrigerator stocked with pudding cups, and several televisions for viewing the “Captain Chesapeake Cartoon Showcase.” When her mother was at work, she could count on her grandma for endless affection and nutritious, well-balanced meals. She watched the 6 o’clock news on her grandfather’s lap, even though she understood very little.
She took a bubble bath every night!
Once a week, her grandma took her through the automatic car wash, followed by a trip to the Rutter’s restaurant for ice cream sundaes. The little girl was fairly certain that her grandma was her most favorite person in the world.
In the spring, her mother went away for the weekend. Grandma took the little girl to Kiddie Town and let her pick out anything she wanted. She chose a Barbie with a pink faux fur cape. So glamorous!
Sunday night rolled around, and she was anxious for her mother’s return. When she heard a car in the driveway, she ran out, waving the Barbie for her mother to see.
But her mother was not alone. She was accompanied by a tall, dark-haired man. He had a mustache. This was unusual. Well, the facial hair was not unusual. But the presence of the stranger was.
“This is your new dad,” her mother explained.
“Oh, that’s okay. I am just fine.” Did she need a dad? Was this something she should have been missing?
It turned out, one couldn’t decide whether or not someone was their dad. Or at least, 4 year-olds did not make this decision.
And so, the little girl and her mom moved to a house in the middle of a huge field at the end of a dirt lane. Her grandma’s house was far away, a seemingly endless drive (though it was probably only an hour or two in the car).
At first, everything was different, but not bad. She had two pet rabbits named Gingersnap and Herbie. Her grandmother had a swing set delivered. Raspberries grew in the woods, a short walk away. Her mom planted a garden of peas and tomatoes. Some kids her age lived at the other end of the lane. When the little girl really thought about it, she had to admit that she was happy.
But then everything changed.
Her mother began working at night. At the same time, kindergarten started. The little girl went to school every afternoon. Her new dad picked her up at the end of the day. This was not a terrible thing, because neither of them was particularly talkative or social. Usually she spent the rest of the evening in her bedroom playing Barbies, taking a break only for some sort of instant dinner (macaroni and cheese or canned spaghetti), followed by a bath.
One night, the new dad walked into her room.
“What do you do in here all night,” he asked as he surveyed the dolls and clothes strewn across the floor.
She was not sure what to say. So she just ignored him.
He picked her up by the shirt. He pushed her against the wall.
“Don’t you know you are supposed to answer me when I talk to you?”
The little girl rarely cried. This was really a point of pride to her. Even at the doctor, in the midst of the scariest, biggest shot, she remained stoic. This always impressed her mother and earned extra stickers from the nurse. She felt that this was a moment to be brave, like facing a monster. Monsters were not moved by tears. It was best to stare them down.
He smacked her in the face. Her ears were ringing and her head was hurting. The corners of her eyes were moist. “Be tough,” she commanded herself.
He threw her into the corner. Her head hit the ceramic Strawberry Shortcake bank with her name painted on it, a gift from Grandma.
“You will learn to respect me,” he shouted, throwing one of her brown shoes at her. “I am your father now!”
And with that, he stormed out.
Her forehead was wet. When she tentatively reached into her hair to survey the damage, she realized that she had a cut on her head. It was bleeding. She mopped it up with a doll dress. She hid this under her bed. No need to upset her mother.
She decided to skip dinner that night. None was offered, anyway. She gave herself a bath, wishing she understood how to lock the door.
Another day at school. On the way home, her new dad made an announcement. “Since you are bad and disrespectful, you will have a new punishment. You will stand in the corner when you get home, until it is time to go to bed. We’ll do this until you become good.”
And so it was. Bathroom breaks were not permitted. There was no dinner. Her toys gathered dust. A permanent ache invaded her legs.
Sometimes he would hit her with his belt or a piece of plywood or even once, a brown photo album. Generally this was attributed to his assumption that she was thinking evil thoughts in the corner.
She could have told her mother about this, but she decided it was probably best to keep it a secret. After all, so far her mom seemed to think that she was pretty good. What if her mom started to think she was bad, too? Then she would be truly alone.
Spending hours standing and staring at the wall is never fun, especially when one is hungry and has to pee. She passed the time thinking about ice cream sundaes (always mint chocolate chip with hot fudge), cartoons she had once seen, and toys that might exist in the future (dolls that could fly). She imagined exactly what her grandparents might be doing, down to the finest detail. What kind of milk were they drinking? Oh, definitely skim. And how cold was it? Oh, icy cold and so refreshing. Her grandmother was drinking it from a green-tinted glass.
Her mother began to work Saturday afternoons. The little girl was excited by this idea, because maybe she would be able to spend the weekend at her grandparents’ house. No such luck. Some days she would be dropped off at the new dad’s mother’s house. It was not so far away, in a the nearest small town.
This was no treat. The little girl was aware that she was an outsider in that house. At Christmas, while all of the other “real” grandchildren were unwrapping doll houses and bicycles, she was given a plastic horse with a broken leg. On Saturday afternoons she was expected to sit quietly in the living room, perusing the volume of children’s bible stories left on the coffee table. Occasionally she was given a ratty old dollar-store coloring book, with the direction that she should color only one page.
One particular Saturday, her mother announced that the little girl and her new dad would be staying home that day. The new dad was going to work on the roof.
“You can play with your friends today,” her mother said. “Come home by 4 o’clock.”
Hooray! She donned her favorite hat–orange with the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup logo–and ran up the lane. That day, she and her friends played a long, complicated game of “Animal Hospital,” wherein stuffed animals were injured in elaborate accidents. Time flew! Well, actually the little girl did not know that time was flying, because she couldn’t tell time. In fact, the words “four o’clock” meant nothing to her.
The sky grew dark and rain begain to fall.
“Maybe this is 4 o’clock,” she thought. She ran home.
It was 5 o’clock. She learned this, not by looking at a clock, but by the way her new dad greeted her. He picked her up and threw her against the kitchen cabinets. Her hat flew under the table.
She ran into her room, thinking she might be able to hide under the bed. He followed after her, grabbing her by her hair. She spun around just as he hit her in the face. And then again. This time she realized that while his mouth was moving, she could hear nothing he was saying. He shook her and then tossed her against the wall. A ceramic doll, another gift from her grandmother, fell off a shelf above her head. “My mom is going to be sad,” she thought, just as the doll’s placid face hit her own.
Suddenly she was in the hospital. Everyone was there: her grandma, her mom, even her Uncle Jeremy. Periodically someone would say something to her, but she could not hear their words. Her head and neck hurt. Nurses appeared with thermometers and pills, but this did not stop the silence. She saw in the bathroom mirror that her forehead was covered with a bandage and her ears were stuffed with cotton. Her face was black, blue, and yellow.
She realized that even though she could not hear her voice, others could.
Her eardrums were broken. Her skull was cracked. She would not know this for years, until she heard her great-grandmother casually discussing it with an aunt. “Oh, yes…we never thought she would hear again. There was talk about her having some brain surgery, but she didn’t need it in the end.” The little girl–now slightly less little–pretended that she did not hear the conversation, feigning interest in a fruit-themed word search. “He told everyone she fell off the swing set. He left her lying on the bedroom floor until her mother got home from work. Well, anyway, that was the end of that marriage.”
She forced herself to remember that day, but she could only see her Reese’s hat and the ceramic doll falling off the shelf. She knew that something scary had happened. Many frightening things had happened before that.
After she was released from the hospital, she and her mother were living with her grandparents again. Everyone assumed that the little girl had forgotten the terrible event, so it was never mentioned again.
The little girl grew more and more each year. Baby teeth were lost, the training wheels were removed from her bike, and she learned to tell time. And she was a good girl; in fact, the best student at school. “A pleasure to have in class.” Straight A’s on every report card. Spelling bee champion. First place at the science fair. Destined for a life of success!
Eventually her mother remarried, to a nice man. There was no talk of him being her “new dad.” They moved to a house in a small town, not too far away from her grandparents. The girl went to junior high and then high school. She was not popular; her grades were just a little too good for that. But she was pretty happy. Her days were filled with endless extracurricular activities and dreams of college in a big city.
And soon the little girl was a young woman. She went away to college in the City, far away from home. She woke up every day thinking, “I am the luckiest girl in the world!” She cut her hair short, dyed it crazy colors, and pierced her nose, She fancied herself an artist, a rebel, a real intellectual world-changer. She acquired a boyfriend, her first ever. He was a scientist, calm and reasonable.
Her phone rang one afternoon. It was her mom.
“I think you should know that Ed is out of jail. I don’t think he will try to contact you, but just in case he does….” Her mother trailed off. “Well, you know sometimes people want to set things right by apologizing, you know. So you could hear from him.”
Ed was the new dad. The nightmare dad. The dad who believed she was bad.
She didn’t eat or sleep for days. Soon she discovered that she could only sleep in the day time. She stopped going to class. She spent her evenings walking around the Lower East Side, taking photos of junkies and abandoned roller skates. When this became to exhausting, she sat in the park all night, feeding squirrels. She tried drinking, hoping for the giddiness alcohol supposedly evoked. No success! Instead she found herself crying and crying.
Somehow she passed her classes. Summer came, and she decided to spend it in another city with her boyfriend. Going home, so close to the past, was not an option.
She spent the first few days pretending to go to work, but instead, riding the subway train for hours. She developed a strategy: she was allowed to think about killing herself for the duration of the walk to and from the subway station. That was it. Once entering the station, she would force herself to consider other things: “Was Pluto really a planet?” or classes next semester or Sophie’s Choice. Anything else.
But on those walks to the subway…well, plans were hatched. Her farewell note was written over and over again. The technique was perfected. All details were considered, from hairstyle to outfit to location. In the apartment? That might upset her boyfriend and his roommates. In the park? Children might be frightened. It was decided, this should happen in the subway. No one notice her for a long time. And the sound of the train would be so soothing to her.
One night, she purchased three boxes of sleeping pills and a bottle of orange juice. She sat on the sidewalk, emptying the blister packs of their contents. 3 boxes times 36 pills equals 108 pills! She began her walk to the train, stuffing the pills into her mouth, washing them down with generous swigs of juice.
This was the happiest moment of her life.
She passed by a hospital. “Maybe I should go there instead,” she thought. After all of that planning!
She walked into the emergency room. At the reception desk, she said, quite politely, “I am sorry but I have accidentally taken 108 Sweet Dreams brand sleeping pills.” Before the receptionist could respond, the once-little-now-big girl vomited a large puddle of orange juice and blue pills.
Her stomach was pumped, charcoal was administered, and a psych consult was ordered The girl found herself “voluntarily” signing herself into the psychiatric ward.
Her boyfriend visited every day, wearing a different costume.
Monday: a newspaper box.
Tuesday: a telephone.
Wednesday: a sofa.
And so on. He spent hours each night with paper mache and tempera paint. A casual survey of the nursing staff and a few of the more coherent patients revealed that his best costume was from day 32, the vacuum cleaner. He spent the allotted hour holding her hand and telling her amusing stories about his friends. He brought her little candies and Polaroids of neighborhood cats. “Are you feeling better yet?”
Her mother visited once, only to ask, “Did you do this because you want to drop out of college?” A confidential discussion with the psychiatrist revealed that she felt “this whole thing was a long time coming. I knew she should have seen a child psychologist after the incident.” She wondered if the doctor would convince her daughter that somehow this was all her mother’s fault. She had seen this happen in more than one television miniseries.
After lots of therapy and an infinite prescription for Xanax, the girl was feeling better. She went back to the City and finished school. The boyfriend moved far away. “The Manhattan of the Midwest! You should come.” Eventually she joined him. But only because she felt she had nowhere else to go. At least she could concede that it was a safe distance from everything bad that had ever happened.