I fumbled with the button of my turquoise blouse and stared past the face of the older man sitting on the bed. My heart beat came fast and I couldn’t breath.
“Let me get a drink,” he said. I was grateful for the pause. The night’s events played over in my mind. My daughter’s voice echoed in my ear:
“Mommy, why is it dark?” she’d asked. The answer was the one thing I had promised myself I wouldn’t let happen. Our lights had been turned off. Less than six months out on my own and the lights were off. I’d asked her father to pick her up so she wouldn’t have to sleep in the dark apartment, which I’d rather do than go to my mom’s back on the South side of town where my brothers and their friends had all but overrun the home. Her father had refused.
I was an 18-year-old college student on scholarship with delayed funds. My options were limited. A friend put me in touch with a new acquaintance who had expressed interest in me. I had spoken to him once but immediately determined he wasn’t my type. I swallowed my pride, made the call and asked him to loan me $130 until the end of the week.
“I don’t loan out money, doll,” He’d said in a smooth, good-natured voice.
“Oh, okay—I understand,” I replied. My face burning. I sat, back against the wall with my feet touching the opposite wall in front of me, my knees making an upside down ‘V’. The phone was cradled against face as I leaned my head on my own left shoulder and covered the other side of my face with my right hand.
“I mean, I got a way you can make it though, then you ain’t gotta worry about paying me back,” the man said. “Ain’t no need in y’all being in the dark when there’s money too be made, baby. I ain’t gone let nobody do nothing to you. Pretty dark girl like you, you’ll make that money in no time.”
Tears had burned my face. I wasn’t going to let my child grow up in the dark because I couldn’t get it together. We weren’t going to live the way I had a child. I decided that had to do what I had to do. I accepted his offer. Now, standing there with the “client”, a negotiated price of $50 for two songs, I was to strip dance for him.
I did not drink but I accepted his offer of something to relax me. The alcohol burned my throat but I did not react to its bitter, beyond description taste. I had trained myself about reflex control a young girl. It struck me that this was the type of situation to use such training.
I take my time dreading the moment I will have to remove intimate articles of clothing. He grows impatient and reaches for me. My hands are faster than his drunkened movements. I let my shirt fall into his fingers to distract him. Hoping the movement seemed intentional. I smile, revolted at the thought that those fingers might touch my skin, terrified that the door was too far away if he decided he wanted more than a dance.
“It’s time,” the man says, pulling at the neck of his black shirt and adjusting the white collar peeking through. Suddenly, I feel like I am a little girl again. Thirteen, twelve, eleven, five.
I was five-years-old when I learned about ‘good touches’ and ‘bad touches’ from my father. I lay quietly on the yellow overstuffed couch that occupied the space right next to the front door of my parent’s 3-bedroom apartment. My brown face, framed by thick, black, nappy hair, was the only part of my miniature body that was visible above a shabby, brownish-yellow, woolen blanket. My eyes were opened slightly as I awakened from a nap during a lazy, Mississippi Spring day. My father had napped with me on the couch, and my stirring woke him.
“Did daddy’s little girl have a good nap?” He asked.
“Yes Sir,” I replied. I stretched my arms above my head, yawned, and settled against my father’s chest.
“Daddy, I get to go to the big school, don’t I?” I asked.
“Yep, you sure do,” her father replied. “Just as soon as August gets here, you’ll be on the school bus with your brother, going to the big school.” My father smiled at the wide grin that stretched my lips, showing two rows of perfect, tiny, white teeth.
“What if nobody wants to play with me?”
“Don’t worry about that. There will be a lot of kids there and I betcha you’ll have friends on the first day,” my father said. There was silence and I felt myself drifting back to sleep when my father spoke again.
“Did you know you are very smart?” He asked.
“Yes,” I said with another grin.
“And how do you know that?”
“Because you said I was smart yesterday when I tied my shoes.”
“I did, didn’t I? Well, do you know what to do if somebody tries to make you do something you don’t want to do?”
“Tell them no, and run. Then tell my mama and daddy when I get home.”
“What if somebody touches you, like this?”
My daddy’s hands slid beneath the blanket and under the elastic of my shorts. I felt his hands on the part of me that my mother had said was “private”. His strong hands that had lifted me high above his head on my birthday and that had spun me wildly on the merry-go-round making ne dizzy with happiness but catching me when I thought that I could hold on no longer. Those strong hands eased into the part of me that I had giggled about touching and I felt a distant tingle that I did not understand.
My father was 24 and my mom was 22 when I was born. Since I have now passed that age, I see them as different than I did when I was growing up. They should’ve had it together, I used to think. Now, looking at them as young people barely able to purchase alcohol legally at lot of things start to make sense. Let me back up. My father’s mother was an alcoholic who gave him up to be raised by his grandparents. My mother tells me that my grandmother, though beautiful died at a young age due to alcoholism.
All my life, the stories of what alcohol would do to us if we tried it were told like bedtime fables. In the back of my mind, wicked witches were replaced by bottles of E&J. Fitting as these were also my father’s initials.
From the time that I was five years old until I was thirteen, I endured sexual abuse regularly from my father on a daily basis. By the time I was thirteen, I had protected myself from being raped by him twice—when I was eleven I’d had to fight for my virginity.
My parents divorced when I was thirteen, changing the environment of my abuse, but by no means ending its far reaching affects. I lost my virginity before age 12 to a close relative who my father had shown how to touch me. When I was fourteen I began to date. In eighth grade my boyfriend was a junior in high school.
When I was fifteen, I began dating the man who fathered my daughter at the age of 16. He was 20 when she was born.
See, there’s something to the self-fulfilling prophecy rule. Don’t be like your daddy. I’m not. I’m not going to be an alcoholic and if I drink I’m going to know when to stop. Alcohol won’t beat me. I will beat it. I’m sure he must’ve thought the same things.
It is more than a mind’s eye experience. I see the texture of my father’s hair, the crooked gap between his two front teeth. I see the length of his ears and the wanting of his eyes. I know he is planning to come for me at his first opportunity. A laugh erupts from him that seems to erupt from his midsection as it jiggles just slightly. I read somewhere that an enlarged stomach was a sign of heavy drinking – a sign of alcoholism. I did not have to know that to know that my slender framed father was an alcoholic.
What I struggled to understand was how he gazed at me from across the room with sober eyes, holding my eyes with his when I could no longer pretend that he was staring. I wanted to just walk out of the room—disappear. But I always felt frozen. One day, daddy called us all in—my 2 brothers, sister and me. We didn’t know what we’d done wrong, but we knew he would have found something—some transgression that one of us had done for which we all would be punished or something that we all had conspired to
There is a moment when the image of a shadow takes shape in the recesses of my mind. The present becomes intertwined with the past—a demon emerges silently and the nine-year old in my twenty nine-year-old body tenses with the familiarity of fear. In this moment I cling to me for a protection I cannot provide. At 29, I have never learned how. Anxiety rises and overflows into the center of my chest before spilling into my lungs where my breath catches.
The feeling of his hand has not left my memory. The coolness of the palms, the hard tip of his fingernail the softness of the caress. It is indelibly printed in my mind. I have tried to wash it away, scrubbing incessantly, hot water burning my skin. This heat soothes me, makes me feel clean. I feel his hands, again, when the water stops. It is as if he is here doing it again, touching me again. I look around to find no one is there. I am alone yet I am never alone. He is always here, his hand always against my skin.
By going to college, I was trying to be different–to hold myself accountable for existing and for acknowledging the existence of survivors by sharing my testimony—my journey to a path of accepting God into my life in a walk of faith littered with obstacles and lavished with self-directed steps into mistakes. After enduring childhood abuse at the hands of my very religious and very strict father, I stopped going to Bible study and to any worship services with my family.
My father was often holed in their bedroom watching television from bed, or he was asleep or his was drunk. On his drunk days, my mother begin to attend her meetings less and less. She became quiet in my memory. The lights were disconnected. We went to a hotel. Hooray! We were free.
The Cabot Lodge looked like the Taj Mahal to me. Its cream colored fat round columns appeared golden in the haze of yellow light that shown just outside double doors, illuminating the path to the entrance. It was a cold night. The star filled sky added to the lights along the busy intersection near the highway. Lights were on in the Shoney’s Restaurant next door. The traffic lights played peek-a-boo and cars whizzed by preparing to bypass the I-10 on ramp or take it to their destinations. The busyness of the night was exhilarating to my young senses. The change of scenery was a welcome disruption from the norm.
Inside the hotel room, my eyes took in the luxury of the huge queen sized bed facing a color television that my brother had already turned on and was changing from boring adult show to another. I wished I thought to bring a book as I looked around the dimly lit room. The carpet was light and the air was clean. The walls were with mirrors and lamps secured in places that made sense. You could see the television, turn off the light, use the phone and see yourself in the mirror all from the bed. Beneath the mirror a dresser was lined across from the bed side by side with the television. I began to unpack the bags.
“Leave that stuff alone, girl.” Mama said. I went and laid on the bed, suddenly exhausted by the days activities.
“I was gone get our clothes for bed,” I explained.
“Girl, you better stop talking back to me. I’ll get that stuff. I said leave it alone,” Mama snapped. “Go run the bath water.” I did as she said. Walking across the carpet onto the bright white marble floor of the bathroom. The faucets were bigger than any I had seen. I touched the towels, my fingers slipping into their softness. Just like Miss Amy’s towels. I smiled, wondering if mama would touch them and remember the way her towels felt back at home in Mississippi.
“I don’t hear no water running,” mama’s voice wafted faster than the speed of sound, beating the simultaneous squeak of the faucet and the rush of water into the bottom of the empty off white tub. I puffed and rolled my eyes adding a foot stamp to round out my disrespect—an invisible response to my mother’s unyielding corrections.
I was too young to understand the stress of her life that pressed her to give distracted answers that I interpreted as annoyance with me. I stretched to gain her attention by being helpful. Inevitably she would give me some job to do, like when she’d had my younger siblings and I became her little helper. Sometimes my help was presumptuous and mama had to undo my efforts. In those times I was a child getting into stuff I didn’t have any business bothering and I was disciplined as such. Other times, mama called on me to initiate the very same activity. I made too many bottles or wasted too much formula. I burned the eggs. Over the years she reluctantly came to rely on my ability to assist with taking care of the house.
Years later when the first of my teenaged friends gave birth, it was like a cloud descended, burst open and small fragments of the moment lodged in the coils of our brains. Each of us was affected though only one of us (the one giving birth) seemed physically so. But we were all crossing over into what seemed like a predestination for girls like us–who used to have fathers and were now in a perpetual state of looking for his figure.
At sixteen, I watched my best friend give birth knowing I would be in her position. The sorrow I felt for her I could not feel for myself. I had known the consequences. I never felt real the way I heard or saw others move through time and space. Sitting in a chair I would look at the parts of my body touching the material: metal, wood, cloth. Look at the skin to see if it had left an imprint. The slickened skin on the back of my thighs pressed flat from heat between the chair and the weight of my body pressing against the seat was evidence that I was real. I always questioned whether people could see me and I started to practice the art of invisibility.
Becoming invisible starts with reflexes—the seemingly most uncontrollable part of the mind and body, I practiced constantly on opposing my instincts. When I wanted to laugh, I remained quiet. I practiced stopping mid-laugh and steeling myself to tickles. I pretended to laugh when things were not funny to me but others seemed amused. I began to be amused by very little. The skill of abstaining from laughter is like abstaining from alcohol while others drank.
Laughter is intoxicating, loosening the tension, reducing inhibitions. In laughter a touch or remark loses its offense, sting or literal meaning. The laughter of the abused is a mask to their torture. As freeing as the luxury of play and smiling are to the pained, too are they like the mirrors of a carnival distorting reality causing one to overlook suffering mistaken for a “well-adjusted” or “quiet and bright”. I didn’t want anyone mistaking me for a happy child. The last time that happened my almost-rapist wasn’t arrested. The police said, “maybe it was a misunderstanding, she seems fine laughing and playing now.” Didn’t they know I was playing because I believed they were going to rescue me? No. Never again, will I let a smile say I’m not hurting. I will never smile again.
When I was in fifth grade, my brother and I challenged each other to see who could take being tickled the longest without laughing. At the age of eleven, I stopped being ticklish. If I could stop that initial response, I could control the ripples of laughter that followed. I held my breath. I held my stomach. I set my jaw and made a fist. None of this worked. Eventually, I found that breathing was the answer. Slow, controlled shallow sips, thin exhales. When I focused on breathing, the fingers tickling were like scratches against the wrong area of an itching back—ineffective. The feigned laughter I shared seemed natural. The absence of it became recognized as my quiet shyness.
Do adults misdiagnose according to their desire to dwell in delusion? Or is it a true inability to see fear cloaked in silence. Maybe it’s easier not to see, admit, acknowledge because of the witness it turns us into. Witnesses must tell something, must do something only if they admit to having seen the thing – first to themselves.
When I stopped laughing and started observing, I looked at them looking at me. Seeing but not seeing me. They saw something I didn’t, so I must not be who I thought I was. Skinny, dark, big lipped with a deep voice. Kids picked on me, adults paid close attention: so mature, women mused. “Pretty little girl,” men remarked. Maturity meant I was reserved and did not make noises out of turn. I did not run in stores and was likely not to speak out of turn, quarrel or laugh out loud. I was poised and alert asking questions about origins. I was fascinated with how people came to be in the places they were. I assigned everyone a space, tragedy and trauma, assuming that like me, everyone had lost something, seen something, been hurt, caused a loss a hurt or had a misdeed witnessed.
Most of all I wondered how people left places they didn’t want to be and ended up somewhere different and happy at the same time. Perhaps that has been the greatest pursuit of my life: to be somewhere different, happy and at the same time visible.