Through her childhood ran a deep canyon. On one side were the memories she could be sure were true, ones of birthday parties, which teacher she had for which grade, of her pet rabbit with the floppy ears who lived in a hutch at the edge of the yard. And on the other side, barren and remote, were the memories she could never confirm.
Things might have happened to her when she was a kid. That was as far as she was willing to go. She would phrase it this way, if ever asked outright: “That is a possibility I can’t rule out.” If pushed further with, say, a gun to her head, she’d say it probably really did happen, and it probably started when she was ten or so. But what did it matter now? Her father was dead, jumped off a bridge, splat, and here she was, nearly forty, and no one had ever asked.
If she started thinking about one bad thing, the rest of the bad things followed until she could line the walls with every possible bad thing that may or may not have happened to her, at ten years old, at twelve years old, at fifteen. It was hard to find a way out of that. At fifteen, when she packed her bedroom into boxes, her father stood in the doorway, first indignant, and then outraged.
“You think I did what to you?” He threw his head back and hooted out a laugh. “That’s nice, Laura. Real nice. That’s your mother talking. The two of you working together against me, same as always.”
She’d been an only child, solemn, shy. When her father started doing what he did, she truly thought it was a kind of punishment for some bad thing she’d done forgetting to feed the rabbit, stealing a pencil with a pink heart eraser from another girl’s desk after school. Even when she was fifteen, when everything ended because she and her mother finally moved out, it was easier to think of it all as something she’d deserved. What was the alternative? That he did it for no reason at all?
Her father could never get enough love. He looked like a football player, so tall and wide, but broke down if she ever refused to hug him.
“Your dad’s got a gentle soul,” her mother used to say. When she said “gentle,” she meant “good,” believing him incapable of harm.
Two nights a week her mother worked second shift at the hospital and so on Mondays and Wednesdays her father cooked dinners on cookie sheets. Nuggets, french fries, pot pies, then hot fudge sundaes in bed with Cheers on the TV.
“Let’s practice your wrestling moves,” he said. His chest hair spread over his shoulders and all the way down his back. “Show me what you’ve got.”
She remembered once throwing up all over the pillows, then standing in a dark corner of the kitchen while in the bathroom her father struggled with the washing machine.
She remembered more than once her mother shaking her awake at half-past eleven, whispering, “Laura, you’re too old for this. Go sleep in your own bed.”
She was thirty-five when her father jumped from the bridge. On the day he did it, a letter came in the mail addressed in a shaky hand. Inside, on a piece of torn notebook paper and written in blotchy blue ink WHAT I DID TO YOU WAS THE WORST THING I’VE EVER DONE. I AM SORRY YOU HATE ME BUT I’VE ACCEPTED IT. I HOPE YOU FIND PEACE.
“What I did to you.” No one would admit to it outright. No one would say what had happened, not her father, not her mother, not even Laura. “That stuff from back then” was the closest anyone got.
The whole thing was impossible to talk about. The words to describe it didn’t exist. It was the sort of thing that either happened to everyone and so it wasn’t worth talking about, or it was the sort of thing that happened to no one and so it wasn’t acceptable to talk about. Either way, you kept quiet.
She had taken a psychology class in college and learned all about formative phases, and she remembered the eighties when all those kids had false memories planted in their brains. You had to have evidence to be sure that it had happened, but what kind of evidence was someone supposed to have for something that happened decades ago when no one else was around? She knew what happened to people who accused things that were too long gone and impossible to prove. Besides, now he was dead and all that was left—the nightmares, the child’s voice as soon as she crawled into bed, how she could never let a man’s face anywhere down there—all that was manageable. Even if there had been words to describe it, maybe she still wouldn’t have spoken.
She’d been sober for two years, but every so often she fell off the wagon. It was only when she was perched on a stool next to a woman about her age who had the familiar shifty-eyed look and slumped shoulders did she ever let herself imagine speaking out loud, “My father probably did molest me. I was probably ten years old when it started.” Sometimes she looked over at the woman next to her and opened her mouth as though to speak and the woman might raise her eyebrows to show she was ready to listen, but of course it went no further than that.
She wasn’t going to talk, not in this lifetime, not in the next, but even so, on the sleepy-eyed drive home from the bar, it all played out in her head: the confession, the slumped-shouldered woman instantly understanding because someone had done stuff to her when she was a kid, too. The way the woman would knock over her stool as she rushed to embrace her, the way they’d know each other as soon as they touched, the way their bodies would sway together, almost indistinguishable from each other, the way they wouldn’t bother with words. Maybe it was unsurprising that in the end, this was the only sort of intimacy she could stomach: a fantasy that was silent and chaste, starring versions of only herself.
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