Iím driving fast on Lake Shore with the radio blasting, dancing in my seat, shouting at the top of my voice, and spitting in a very unladylike fashion when hair lands in my mouth. A Lincoln Town Car in front of me taps his brakes as we round an "S" curve. I gun the engine, downshift, and whip around him, pressing the accelerator with gusto. The song ends, I raise my hands off the steering wheel to take my bows from the lake and the high rising towers, my silent, standing audience.
I started singing when I was six years old. Between visits to my grandfatherís church, show choir, and community theater, I sang for dozens of groups in hundreds of performances, always feeling that twinge of delight when the applause came at the end of each performance. When I began college, I stopped. It was a slow withdrawal, one I hardly noticed until I realized I hadnít sung in years, even when I was alone. Then the other day, listening to a favorite CD, I found myself humming along and realized that I had missed singing, missed the comfort it offered me.
I hear Peter Gabrielís Solsbury Hill begin. The lyrics tell a haunting and uplifting story, one where Gabriel is both seeker and seer. As I lift my head and prepare to serenade the Chicago skyline, I wonder why I stopped singing, why I had abandoned something that gave me so much pleasure. And then I start to remember.
We are the roses in the garden, beauty with thorns among our leaves.
My motherís shoulders were stiff and unmoving, a clear indication she was trying not to cry.
"How do you tell the police that your husband, who has a key to your apartment, broke into your home and raped you?"
I waited to see if she would elaborate. "You'd better hurry up and get ready or you'll miss the bus. I have to go to the police station, I can't take you to school."
"Okay," I said, and headed to the bathroom. Behind the temporary solace of the locked door, I glanced at my reflection: I looked tired. It was April, two months before graduation, and four months before I would leave for college. I wondered if I would make it to June.
My mother had married Jack five years earlier, just a few months after meeting him. Iíd stood next to her at the wedding in a blue chiffon dress, pretending that I was marrying him too. Standing in the receiving line between my mother and stepfather, hearing all the congratulations, Iíd thought that this was our new beginning, the beginning of a life filled with approval and good wishes. I was wrong.
Sometime in the first year after that, mother had discovered that Jack had been seeing another woman. Heíd left the house in a great rage when she confronted him about it. When he came home, heíd grabbed her and thrown her against the living room wall, her feet hanging uselessly under her.
"You stay out of my personal business or youíll be sorry."
Jack had gone out regularly after that. He would come home drunk, crashing the car into the garage, tearing the screen door from its hinges, driving us into our rooms with just his voice. After I went to bed, the shouting and crying would go on for hours.
One morning, mother had woken me with an urgent shake.
"You need to get up now," sheíd said.
I turned toward her, squinting. Headlights danced across the ceilingóJack was pulling out of the driveway, on his way to work. I looked at the bedside clock: 5:45 a.m.
"Find some boxes or grocery bags and pack your clothes. Weíre moving."
In an instant, I felt the sick, familiar pins and needles as her hand landed squarely on my face.
"Get up, get dressed, and get moving." She had grabbed the blankets and flung them off my bed. "Now."
While I packed, mother called movers, trying to get us out of the house before Jack returned. Somehow, she found a crew. They loaded up our things and drove away in mid-afternoon, my mother and I following behind in her hatchback. She never said what had happened that night and I never asked.
Hey little girl, would you like some candy?
Ten days later, we were at my aunt Debiís house in Florida, 1200 miles away. Within a week, mother was on the phone to Jack. By the end of the month, she told him where we were. He flew down from Cleveland the next weekend, and they reconciled. Mother packed her belongings in my auntís borrowed suitcases and left, saying sheíd come for me at the end of the school year. I couldnít face returning to school and living with Jack.
Debi and I had always been close, and I wanted to stay with her and Russell. He was her second husband, and two years her junior, at 24.
Russell was an electrician, with tanned skin and blue jeans that rode on his hips in a way that fascinated me. He was mature and manly to my 13-year-old eyes, and I developed an instant crush on him. One day, about a month after mother left, I saw Russell alone in the back yard. I went out to be with him. As I walked out the back door, I felt my stomach clutch.
"Hey," Russell said simply. He was watering houseplants, and the patio had an inviting, loamy smell. I watched as he sprayed each hanging basket, delicately pruning leaves and flowers while he wetted the soil. I had never seen a man care for plants before. Jack had always said that plants were stupid.
"Hi," I said, "Can I tell you something?"
"Sure," he said."
"I am in love," I began. Russell stopped his watering and looked at me.
"Oh," he said, "And who would be the lucky guy?"
I felt my skin prickle. I studied the grass fiercely, unable to speak or look up.
Russell sat down next to me. After a moment, he reached his hand out and squeezed my arm.
"Itís me, isnít it?" he asked.
Two days later, we were twisted up together over the console of his hatchback in the cul-de-sac. While I clung to the gearshift, his callused hands groped greedily inside my shorts as his tobacco-coated tongue probed my mouth aggressively. We didnít have sex, but the experience left me with a sticky, prickled sense of confusion and terror and a certainty that my confession had caused this. The path his dirty fingers drew on my seventh-grade psyche paved the way for others to play upon my budding adolescent libido.
After school ended that year, I moved back with my mother and Jack.
Thereís a warmth in my heart, it haunts me when youíre gone.
Freshman year in high school, I met Jeff. After two months of teasing and flirting, we found ourselves alone one night and he kissed me. His teeth pushed through my lips and his braces cut my gums, but I hardly noticed.
A few months after we started dating, we drove to a park and kissed for an hour. It became our ritual; he would pick me up at my house, we would talk loudly about going for pizza or to see a movie, and then weíd drive straight to the park to make out. One night, Jeff put his hand on my breast. I felt my skin surge with a tingle that felt vaguely familiar, dangerous and exciting, good and bad. I kissed him enthusiastically, pulling him toward me, urging the warmth of his hand into my body.
Jeff and I both believed strongly that premarital sex was a sin. Though we had some moments where the temptation to go further was strong, together we agreed to save intercourse for marriage, each promising weíd be the otherís first partner.
Later that summer, Jeff was at our house at one of Jackís overdone picnics. We flirted with each other all day, kissing whenever we thought no one was looking. I worried about being so affectionate with him in front of my parents, but as neither mother nor Jack gave me any dirty looks during the day, I melted gladly into his warm embrace and adolescent affections. After dinner, I ran upstairs to my bedroom to watch him drive away. I leaped onto my bed and pulled back the curtain to watch his truck back out into the street.
With Jeffís truck still in my craning vision, mother threw my bedroom door open, startling me. Her face was blank except for her eyes, which were dark and cold. She hissed at me through clenched teeth.
"You are never to see Jeff again and you are grounded indefinitely. I canít believe you turned out to be such a whore." She turned and marched out of the room. I sat on my bed in stunned silence.
A few minutes later, the telephone rang. I heard mother walk to the landing and call up the stairs.
"Jeff is on the phone," she reported.
"Could I call him later?" I asked. I didnít want to cry in front of my mother.
"Get down here," she demanded.
I started down the stairs, defeated. As I passed my mother, she struck the back of my head with the heel of her hand, sending me stumbling off the landing.
"Hurry up," she ordered.
I reached for the phone and turned toward the wall. As soon as I said hello, I started to cry.
"What is it, baby? Tell me whatís wrong," Jeff pleaded.
"We canít see each other anymore." My stomach cramped. Waves of pain throbbed through me. I knocked my head against the telephone receiver, tapping the earpiece against my forehead. Jeff was my solace, the peace I ran to when the fighting between mother and Jack got unbearable. Now my shelter was gone.
I froze, a sick chill crawling up my back. Mother was on the phone. She's listening, I thought to myself, she's gloating.
"That's it, Jeff. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
Jeff was silent on the line. We sat together, crying softly to one another. I love you, I told him silently. I love you, please don't disappear; don't leave me here alone.
The smell, the taste, the touch is so brand new.
The following spring, Jack lost his job. He made a few attempts to open his own business, but eventually gave up and stayed at home during the day, drinking and threatening to kill mother if she tried to leave him. When I came home from school, she would detail the abuse dryly, as if she were dictating a grocery list. I reacted to the news as she seemed to prefer, by looking directly at her and remaining silent.
In June, mother and I returned to her hometown in rural Ohio. I joined the show choir and had a part in the fall play. Soon I was out of the house three or four nights a week and some weekends. I was glad to be gone, since mother had begun talking with Jack again. By Labor Day, he was coming around on the weekends. Before Halloween, he was talking about moving there.
One day in early December, someone at the school lunch table mentioned a meeting that night for anyone interested in the spring musical.
"Are you going to the meeting?" a voice asked me.
I looked up, straight into Jamie Stevensí inquiring eyes. Jamie was cute; black hair and amber eyes with an ultra-fit body. I had seen him in choir, and we had made eye contact during concerts and rehearsals. I really wanted to do the musical, but I hated asking for motherís car. Still, it was Thursday night, which meant Jack might be coming down for an early start to the weekend. I hesitated, trying to decide what to do.
Jamie smiled and spoke again. "Iíll pick you up. Youíre on the way."
Six hours later, I watched Jamie pull into the driveway. He looked fantastic in a cotton button-down shirt, dark pants, and dress boots. I kicked off my loafers and yanked the faded jeans from my hips. I grabbed my black skirt off the bedpost and scanned my dresser for my good earrings. When I heard the doorbell, I cursed. I raced down the stairs, nearly tripping over my discarded loafers. Mother was in a precarious state over things with Jack, and she was apt to talk about the affair with whoever was at hand.
"Hi," Jamie said as I appeared.
I descended the last steps smiling and flipped my coat off its peg as I raced past mother.
"Letís go," I said.
When we arrived at the directorís house, Jamie took my coat. As I scanned the room of half-familiar faces, I couldnít stop thinking about Jeff. He was in college now. We were writing back and forth, but all the months apart were beginning to wear on our thin, teen patience. I found a spot on the sofa and sat down.
Jamie was nice, and cute, and local. He was standing inches away, talking to the director. As I watched him, I thought maybe it wouldnít be so bad to date someone else. I hooked my finger into the crease of his pantís pocket and tugged lightly, indicating a spot on the sofa next to me. He grinned broadly and settled in beside me, his arm pressing against the back of my shoulder. A moment later, I felt him curve his arm across my back and hold my waist. I relaxed, closing my eyes against the waves of pleasure. For me, the rest of the meeting consisted of exactly two things: my head against Jamieís chest and his arm around my waist.
On the ride back, I could still feel Jamieís arm on my waist, even though both of his hands were now holding the steering wheel.
"Thereís a place near here Iíd like you to see." Jamie said as we drove. "Would you like to go?" he asked.
I smiled back broadly, "Yes, I would," I said.
Jamie pulled into the park entrance and swung the car sharply to the left. Over the hood of the car, I could see a lake through thick clumps of trees. The moon was rising, and filtered light created a white-gray across the branches. Jamie put the car in park and I heard the soft click of his seatbelt unfastening. I reached over and opened my seatbelt too, watching it retreat into its holder.
Jamie slid across the seat and kissed me. I kissed him back, yanking my arms out from between us to wrap around him. His mouth felt so good. He pressed down on me, his belt buckle digging into my leg. As I pulled at the buttons on his shirt, he moaned softly, turning toward my ear and whispering "Are you on the pill?"
I made my way to the front door as Jamie drove away. I pulled my coat tightly around me, and forced my feet to march toward the house. I couldnít go inside, I thought in cold panic, mother will know immediately. But I had to go inóI had to pretend that I was not someone other than the girl who had left here earlier tonight, even though I was.
I had done it. I had Had Sex. Jeff was still pure, and I wasnít. I was experienced and he wasnít. No matter what our future, I would always have had sex with someone else, someone not him. Biting the inside of my cheek to keep from crying, I propped the screen door open with my hip and opened the door.
Mother was sitting at the kitchen table watching television.
"Did you have a good time?" she asked. I peered over my shoulder, pretending to fuss with my coat zipper. She wasnít looking at me.
"Yes," I said. I couldnít trust myself to say more.
"Your boss called. He needs you at 3 oíclock tomorrow, so youíll have to take the bus to work after school."
I nodded, mumbled a Ďthank youí and went upstairs, closing the bedroom door behind me. I collapsed on my bed and stuffed the quilt into my mouth to muffle my screams. I curled into a ball, pulling the quilt tightly between my arms and rocking myself. I cried soundlessly between the bands of fabric, grinding my teeth and digging half-moon pits into the palms of my hands with my fingernails. In the cold of my upstairs bedroom, I thought about Jamie, thought about what had happened. I remembered that the first sound I had heard afterward while I was half-pressed, half-curled against the passenger side door of Jamieís car was a chuckling sigh of relief from him that the condom hadnít broken. He had been so casual. He had smiled and sighed, relieved. Thereís nothing to worry about he had said. I shook my head fiercely against the tears. I donít know about that, I thought. I donít know about that at all.
The next April, mother and I moved into a small apartment directly across the hall from Jackís new place. We lived there less than a month when he let himself into our apartment and raped my mother at gunpoint. Later that day, after my mother had filed a report, the police arrested him. They found him sitting on the living room floor in his underwear, holding a whiskey bottle and cradling his gun.
Mother borrowed money from her parents to fund the divorce, and refused to speak to Jack except through her attorney. One day about a month later, I noticed Jackís car was gone from the parking lot. Mom told me he had driven off before dawn, quietly and without fanfare.
Over the next seven years, I finished college, started my career, met friends and took lovers, all the while asking one question like an obsessive mantra: is this what a normal person would do?
In the fall of 1990, I met Michael at the gym. Though we began intensely, I quickly became restless, and a month after our first date, I told him I wanted to see other people. When he balked, I went out, got drunk, and had sex with one of my co-workers. Michael went looking for me, and when he couldnít find me he became insanely jealous. The next night, he invited me over to his apartment, then began throwing things around his kitchen, breaking plates and ripping his shirt off. At first, I had laughed at his possessiveness. When he threatened to stab himself in front of me if I ever cheated on him again, I felt the cold grip of loneliness seize my stomach, and I agreed not to date anyone else. The next weekend we eloped to Niagara Falls.
Shortly after we returned from our honeymoon, we had our first fight. When I refused to back off my position, Michael struck me so hard that my head bounced against the front door. Standing in our front hall, feeling the pins and needles sensation and bracing myself for balance, I wanted to kill him.
The next day, I opened a private savings account. A few months later, when I was promoted to a commissioned sales position at work, I kept quiet. By the beginning of the summer, I had saved enough money for a security deposit on a new apartment, and a few months expenses to cover me while I looked for work. When Michael left on a Thursday morning just before July 4th, I packed my clothes and three cats into my tiny car and drove away.
I moved to St. Louis, found a job, and filed for divorce. Michael found me as soon as I filed, as I had to state my address in the papers. Almost immediately, he quit his job in Cleveland and moved into an apartment across the street from mine. He smashed my car windows, showed up at my new job, and called my house all through the night, growling threats into the receiver. Thinking it might calm him down, I agreed to let him come to my apartment to talk. As soon as he arrived, he began walking around from room to room, opening drawers and cupboards at random.
"What are you doing?" I asked him. I was standing a few feet away from him as he rifled through my desk papers. He didnít reply.
"What are you looking for?" I asked again, feeling the hot taste of powerless anger in my throat.
He responded dryly, never looking up. "I donít have to tell you anything. Iím your husband and Iím entitled to do whatever I want."
"This is my private home," I said, edging myself out of his reach.
He smirked, "If you donít have anything to hide, you shouldnít have a problem with me looking."
"Get out," I ordered him. He did not respond.
"Get out!" I screamed at him. I picked up a coffee cup from the kitchen counter and hurled it at him.
The cup landed squarely against his mouth, chipping a tooth. I backed away from him, but kept my voice hostile. I grabbed a steak knife from the block on the counter and held it aggressively in my hand.
"Still want to kill yourself? Go ahead. I want you to do it!" I screamed.
Michael looked me in the eye, raised his fists over his head and roared. His fists flew wildly, pounding down on my desk until the whole apartment shook. He struck it again and again, kicking and punching until I thought it would crack under the force. Then abruptly, he stopped. He flexed his hands, shook his head, and walked past me out the door without a word. I never saw him again.
In 1994, I decided to take a break from relationships. I had just left my live-in boyfriend and his three school-aged daughters, claiming that I needed more space than life with them could provide. This man, who took ballroom dancing classes with me, a man fifteen years my senior, had cried when Iíd dumped him. He had said I didnít have anything inside me to give to a family. I cursed him vehemently, storming out of the house in a dramatic huff. But two weeks later, alone with my thoughts and picking out breadcrumbs at the Shop-N-Save, I thought about what heíd said. Nothing inside me to give to a family. Was that true?
Turn down the lights, turn down the bed; turn down these voices inside my head.
Five years later, I was in Chicago. I started my own business and landed a contract with a consulting firm downtown. Shortly after I arrived, I met David. He was also on contract, and our offices were next to each other. With a slim frame and expensive tastes, he was vain, and I was happy to accommodate his need to know he looked attractive. I ogled him freely within the boundaries of our friendship.
Over the course of a year, David and his wife separated, reconciled, took a second honeymoon, and then separated again. She finally moved out of their house and he struggled to put a life together for himself and the children. One night near Christmas, just after she had moved out, David called me from his car. He was bored and was coming downtown to my apartment.
When he rang the bell and I opened my door, I prepared to send some silly comment down the steps, our ritual greeting. When he came into view that night though, my heart nearly melted. David was dressed more or less the way he always was; expensive tailored shirt and wool pants. He was brushing the snow from the lapels of his opened overcoat as his boot-clad feet stomped up the stairs toward my door. Perhaps it was the lighting, for I had rarely seen David at night; in that moment he wasnít my friend, but some hot man who was about to take his coat off in my living room.
"How ya doiní Ame-ster?" he greeted me in his usual way.
"Ugh, David," I sighed dramatically, "I havenít had sex in so long, I swear Iím going to do it with the next person who asks me."
"Why donít we have sex?"
I sat in silence for a moment, not quite believing what I heard. I shouldnít have been surprised: we had been talking about sex for hours. In fact, David and I had talked about sex for ages, though never in a setting that made it possible. For David, and for me when I was with him, sex-talk consisted of bad jokes, bragging, and the occasional dirty poem. I looked over at him again. His legs were stretched out, crossed casually at the ankles, and his right hand was resting against his thigh. I sighed again. David had been the object of my desire for so long, and my feelings were so intense, that sometimes Iíd had to limit my exposure to him for days or weeks at a time. It was odd, too; he was nothing at all like the Ďtypeí I thought I liked. I went for dark-haired men; David was blonde. I liked athletic men; David kept in shape, but mostly as an excuse for drinking with his buddies. I liked men who are pedantic and scholarly; David read menís magazines and believed women could have regular vaginal orgasms, if they would only try harder. Get out, my mind warned, donít get involved in this conversation. I ignored the voice. What did I know, anyway? David shifted on the couch, and I looked directly at him.
"Have you thought about having sex with me?" he asked.
"Yes," I told him, "Iíve thought about it."
"What have you thought about?" he asked, edging closer toward me.
"Nothing specific," I lied. I crunched my eyes closed at the idea of him discovering he was the key player in my sex fantasies.
It was nearly 2 a.m., and I needed a break. I went to the kitchen and brought back two glasses of water. While I was gone, David moved over to my side of the couch. His shirt rested on his shoulders, suggesting the lines of his torso. When I sat down next to him on the couch, I took his hand. David let me touch him, but his voice was tense.
"Are you sure? Are you sure?" he asked.
"No, Iím not sure," I told him. I opened his hand, touching his palm and tracing lines up and down his fingers.
Davidís skin was clean and fresh smelling, tense and strong. I kissed each of his knuckles, letting my lips linger over his flesh as I inhaled his scent. He rose, and I looked up at the blur of his body coming toward me. I released his hand and leaned back, grasping his shoulders. His lips were soft and his mouth was hot: I could scarcely contain my urge to devour him whole.
I studied philosophy in college. I remember only one of the papers I had to write. It was to answer the question: If you had to choose, would you lose your sight or your hearing? I struggled for days, complaining to my roommate in exasperation there was no way to decide. She had told me sheíd lose her sight, without question.
"Blindness cuts you off from things but deafness cuts you off from people," sheíd said.
Years later, I remember her words. I realize now why I stopped singing. I tried to protect myself from my motherís cruelty with my voice. When it didnít work, I abandoned it, trapping my voice beneath fear and anger as surely as my mother had trapped me. I was afraid of what I might find if I let myself express, explore, and try to find happiness.
Iím not over what happened to me. I suspect Iíll always have this dysfunction, though now that Iíve recognized it, I hope I can manage it and find normalcy. That normalcy may be valid only for me, but I believe I will find it. To accompany me on my journey, Iíve released my voice and let it go free. Iím no longer afraid to see where it will take me.
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