Jill Talbot | Marcia Aldrich | Longreads | October 2018 | 15 minutes (4,207 words)
We met at gas stations. At the water tower. Under a street lamp in a new subdivision off Cartwright Road called Indian Trails, its curved streets and empty lots, its darkness and our darings. We met at Brian Walker’s house. Or Denise Simpson’s. But most of the time at Lisa Harrison’s, because her father always poured his fourth highball early enough to be out by nine. We met at the playground behind Shaw Elementary. The banks of Lake Ray Hubbard. One night, we met in the police station parking lot and waited for Bobby Ryan to walk out, holding our breath ’til he did. We were 16, 17, searching. Back then our town was a dry city, so we’d drive the 10 miles to Buckeye Liquor off Dolphin Road, the first liquor store inside the Dallas city limits. And we waited in our cars for the blonde, big-smiled Michael Nelson to emerge with our wine coolers (Matilda Bay), our cases of beer (Bud Light), and our smokes (Camel Unfiltereds). Michael wasn’t older than any of us, just cocky enough to walk into a liquor store in a shaky part of town wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a purple lei, for a reason I don’t remember. On school day mornings, we met on the marble steps of Mesquite High, planning our next party and laughing about the last close call.
I was known for two things: being the drunkest at every party and having the earliest curfew, 11:30. My father liked to remind me that nothing good happened after midnight, so my after-midnight had to come early. I’d drink two to everyone’s one and wander off to backseats, to backrooms, to the back of a pickup with one boy or another, worried I’d run out of time to be ready enough to call it a night.
We were 16, 17, searching.
I found trouble early. Maybe it began with the beer I drank in my closet one morning before 8th grade English, a lukewarm Bud Karen Miller stole from her dad’s stash in the crisper of their refrigerator. Maybe it was earlier, second grade, when I snuck off to tow-headed Bobby Rich’s house, the one with his father’s Harley parked out front. Bobby and I would kiss on his back porch until we’d hear his father’s coughs through the screen door, and I’d hop on my bike and pedal back home. Or maybe it was those years of parking lots and pickup trucks and that one night when I learned what trouble my trouble could call forth. And how I ran toward it still.
It happened early, still it is a story I would tell if I was dying. I’d tell it because that’s when I learned there’s what happens and then there’s the aftermath. What happened took maybe five minutes, I don’t know exactly, but the aftermath, well, it’s still with me. I learned that trouble happens, and I can’t tell my mother about it. How did I know that?
It was a normal day in the fall of second grade at Union Terrace. I was walking home with Mike after school. Often, we went to his house after school, up the block from my house on 22nd Street. A stone house with a Great Dane. His older brother and sister were usually out of the house. His mother was often lying down in her room and wasn’t to be disturbed. My mother preferred that I went elsewhere after school and only cared that I showed up for dinner. Neither of our mothers paid much attention to what we did.
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On that day Mike and I went into the basement and listened to West Side Story. We sometimes listened to Broadway musicals and sang and danced along with the songs. On this day his older brother was in the house. As if timed, Mike went upstairs to see his mother, and his older brother dragged me into the basement bathroom where he made me touch his penis. Did I rub it, did he put into my mouth, did he masturbate? I’m not sure. I know he showed me a small black and white photo of a nude woman with large breasts and pubic hair which frightened me. I remember that. When he was done with me, he unlocked the door and pushed me out, spinning me back into the basement. And he laughed.
I learned that trouble happens, and I can’t tell my mother about it. How did I know that?
Did I tell Mike? No, I did not, though I wondered later if he planned his absence with his brother. I didn’t go upstairs into his mother’s darkened room where she was lying down and tell her. I did go home. But I didn’t tell my mother. I came home and sat down to whatever dinner we were having, probably some overcooked piece of meat, boiled vegetables, and hard rolls, and I picked at the food on my plate, stared at the tall glass of milk, and then excused myself and went to my room where I lay on my bed and turned my face to the wall.
Everything changed that day and yet I told no one, said not a word. My mother did not share cautionary tales or give advice about dangers I might encounter. I don’t think her silence was born out of a trust she felt in the world. It was her fatalism, not her faith that explained why she didn’t even try to protect me.
I wondered what my mother would have thought of his laugh as he pushed me out the door. She would have known what it meant, that he laughed because he knew I wouldn’t tell anyone about what happened, that he would get away with what he had done. Which he did. His laugh: I hear it still.
Two boys carried me to the car after the concert because I was too drunk to walk, not even 16. I remember I wasn’t 16 because I was always getting rides to school with friends or friends’ older brothers and for about a week, a strawberry-blonde boy who pulled up to my house, always a few minutes before the bell. He bounced on his toes when he walked through the hallways, laughing. And he had an alliterative name, two hard Gs, first name and last. Everyone called him by both, whether he knew them or not. On Friday nights, he ran into the end zone more than anyone else. Number 40, a favorite, a star. And in Texas, that means more than it should. He was only two years older, but he seemed to me like a grown man, devastatingly boyish and dangerously developed.
My father was his football coach. That is to say, my father was the football coach at my high school, so I was known to everyone, that is to say, visible, whether I wanted to be or not, which is why, I’m sure, I eventually leaned fast and far toward edges of nothing good so that I could let go for a few hours of who I was to everyone in that town. To forget. It was never rebellion as much as it was escape.
On Friday nights, he ran into the end zone more than anyone else. Number 40, a favorite, a star. And in Texas, that means more than it should.
I remember he drove a long car, something old that would have been uncool had anyone else been driving it. I remember he drove so fast I stared at the needle of the odometer, willing it to roll back to the left. My body tense, one clenched fist around the door handle. Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days” so loud the windows shook. I only rode with him a few days — the threat of being in the car with him stronger than my silent desire.
A few months later, that desire still shook through me like those car windows when I ended up standing next to him at a sold-out concert in Dallas. I remember he ran down to the concessions and came back with two beers. And I remember being more confused at how he got the beer than anything else, but I drank it. And then another and another and I don’t remember how many anothers. I don’t even remember the concert, but there’s this flash, a brief scene of him asking a guy from school, the guy who sat in front of me in English, to help carry me to his car.
And then, he was pulling into the school parking lot for some reason and it was dark and he was on me and then in me and then driving me home. Hazy street lights overhead. I was suddenly alert and awake in a way I had never been, as if I had learned something about the world and my life and myself, and I had. When I asked him why he did it, he laughed before saying this: “I had to do something to sober you up.”
And I did what I did for years, I walked up the long sidewalk to the front door of my house and shimmied the key into the lock as quietly as I could and I tiptoed to my parents’ door and whispered “I’m home.”
Then I went to the bathroom, where I remember being afraid of all the blood. I can still see it.
Then I went to the bathroom, where I remember being afraid of all the blood. I can still see it.
Would anything have prepared me, would anything my mother could have said made a difference in what happened? I ask myself this now, so many years later. So many years later I think I have inherited my mother’s fatalism, the belief that no matter what I did, no matter what she did or didn’t do, trouble would find me. I did not rush toward trouble but when it came, when it arrived, it seemed as if there was no other destination possible, as if my mother had given me up, promised me at birth to trouble incarnate.
Even at the age of sixteen, an age when many no longer assume the child’s pose, I was innocent, innocent the way some animals never learn to growl or bite. Plenty had happened to me that should have made me wary, stand-offish. That came later but at this time I was remarkably open-hearted.
It’s funny what I remember. I remember that I was wearing my mother’s cast-off heavy-woven, long green skirt, that fell to my ankles. I wore tights underneath and boots, the long dangling earrings my mother had brought back from Mexico for me, and her old buckskin coat with the fringe on the arms. An outlandish outfit furnished from her castaways. It was a Saturday night in March during spring break and I was going to a party with a friend from school. I didn’t know any details. I’m sure I lied to my parents about where I was going and what I was doing. My friend’s older brother was driving us to the party. He would pick us up later to bring us home.
About this older brother. He was famous around town, thought to be the most handsome guy anyone had ever seen, a gifted tennis player, smart, attending an ivy league college, and trouble, complete and utter trouble. A guy who could get any girl he wanted but who just as easily dumped them when he was done. I had watched him from afar, listened to his sister talk about his misadventures with a long list of girls. In the fall of our senior year, he had seen my senior photo, you know the small versions we give to all our friends. He saw the little black and white photo of me standing by one of the heritage trees on campus and he became obsessed with me, well, not me so much as the girl in the photo. I knew this because his sister told me. He even asked me out to a party on New Year’s Eve. What I remember about that evening was that he was indeed handsome, but he was also dull. He relied on his looks so thoroughly that he neglected anything else or maybe there was some justice in the world and he didn’t get everything when the gods were divvying out the prizes. It was a boring night. I was the youngest, a stranger among the older crowd and I remember feeling his friends were baffled by my inclusion. After that, we didn’t see each other until he drove his sister and I to this party. During the drive he acted as if he didn’t know me and that was ok with me.
At the party I drank with abandon. I took tequila shots with some guy while playing darts. I remember having a wonderful time, laughing my head off, without a care in the world. Not a trace of caution or concern. I remember this because the feeling sometimes comes back to me along with the realization that I’ll never feel quite that way again. I felt safe and happy, completely in the moment. I didn’t think about my parents or older brothers or what might happen to me. And then my friend’s older brother arrived to take us home and suddenly I was so drunk I couldn’t make it down the stairs. The guy I was playing darts with and my friend’s older brother had to carry me down both flights and put me in the car. I don’t remember whether they put me in the back seat or the front seat, but I do remember the hostile look exchanged between the older brother and the guy who I played darts with. I think the dart guy was a good guy and he didn’t like the way the older brother took possession of me. I have no idea what happened to my friend from school.
I was taken to yet another house, whose I don’t know, and the older brother took me into a bedroom and placed me on the bed. I was in and out of consciousness, mostly out, with brief spells when I opened my eyes. I opened my eyes when the older brother pulled down my tights and got on top of me. I have no idea how long he was on me, whether I opened my eyes repeatedly or only when he was finishing, and his groans woke me.
At some point he hauled me to my feet and got me back in the car and drove me to my house. I don’t remember any words between us. He didn’t get out of the car and help me to the door. He leaned across me, opened the car door and looked at me as if to say get out. Which I did. Somehow. And I walked up the flagstone path to the back porch, stumbled around looking for the key, and finally opened the door. It was way past my curfew and my father had been listening for my return. I can’t remember if he saw me or just spoke to me from behind his bedroom door. It’s hard to believe he could have set eyes on me and not known something wrong had happened.
And it’s hard to fathom what he made of my running a bath at 2:30 in the morning. But that’s what I did.
My mother never stirred.
The next morning my father told me my grandmother, his mother, had died last night. A massive heart attack. He never asked why I was so late that night.
I’m going back for a moment to Before. Before all the trouble and distrust, before my eyes darted across rooms with concern.
My father had a rule: When a boy walked me to the door at the end of the night, I was not to go beyond the door frame. I was not to linger at the boy’s car or on the walkway or in the shadows of the porch. But the boys did. Nights, they’d knock quietly on my bedroom window, huddle under the street light out front, or call me on the phone and ask me to meet them outside in 10 minutes. The lust in their voices, husky tremors, made me nervous. I ignored them. I hung up. I kept the blinds closed. Once, Brian Walker passed me in the hallway at school, a nervous laugh: “Your dad sure is fast.” The night before, my father had caught five or six of them on the side of the house outside my bedroom window. He chased them for blocks, barefoot, nearly catching them before they hopped the fence to Randy Becker’s house. My father never said a word.
But for all his rules and curfews and threats shouted on dark streets to boys, he couldn’t protect me, not then, and not years later, once I stepped beyond that door frame.
So much of my trouble happened in hotel rooms. Here’s one: A hotel suite in Dallas my junior year, a haze of bodies aglow (blue shadows) in the glare from the TV in the next room. A boy beside me in bed. I’d only had two beers, so he must have slipped me something. My body heavy, boulder-like. I struggled against his hands, the ones that pressed my wrists above my head while he kneed my legs apart. I had never been with a boy (this months before the concert, the truck, the parking lot), so I fought to close my body, my legs, to cover myself as much as I could. After a while, he hopped up from the bed, laughing: “You’re strong.” I watched his shadow blend into the blue shapes beyond the door, and I got home, but I don’t remember how. My parents were out of town that weekend, and when they came home the next morning, they found me sleeping on the couch, my mauve comforter pulled around me. After that, they never left me alone at home, and I will always wonder if they saw the panic in my face, the kind that comes after scrambling back from a ledge.
Thinking back on all this, I can’t remember my mother ever reacting or warning or being aware. Of course I always had cover stories, reasons and explanations I came up with on the drive home, and if she didn’t believe them, she never said.
Years later, in my late 20s, I sat in my apartment living room late into a night, drinking and talking with two other women, friends. After enough wine, we began alternating stories of hotel rooms, of backseats, of back bedrooms. One of the women, tall and tough, described the hours she hid under her bed to avoid a half-brother’s repeated attempts and advances. But we all had something more in common, a siren-like sexual aggression, a craving for conquests, a need for nights to end with a man in our bed, in our mouths, in us.
There’s a difference between being out of control and not being in control, and that night, through our shared histories, our adopted proclivities, we realized we had chosen, somewhere along the way, to be predatory and promiscuous so that no man could ever have the advantage again.
The winter of my senior year of high school, my parents shipped me off to board at Moravian Seminary for Girls, the school I had been attending since 9th grade as a day student. They had come to the end of dealing with me after a tumultuous fall. My mother especially was done with me, she said. Done with the trouble I was, the trouble I had always been. She wanted me locked up far away from boys.
I was installed on the top floor of Main, on one of its narrow corridors that held four small rooms and a set of back stairs. The corridor was known as the Lost Corridor because the girls living there had been sent away by their parents and were no longer wanted at home. Maybe they were never wanted. This is where I landed that winter.
Done with the trouble I was, the trouble I had always been. She wanted me locked up far away from boys.
On this corridor, three doors down, at the very end lived Linna. Linna was tall and willowy, with thin brown hair that she wore parted in the middle and fanned both sides of her face in peek-a-boo fashion. She outlined her eyes with black kohl, top lids and bottoms which made her look paler than she already was. I liked this Linna. She moved quietly with long strides and she often smiled at me when our paths crossed. I didn’t know her story though I was sure she had one. We all did. No one came to live on The Lost Corridor without a story. Her chosen quote for the year book was playfully dark from Richard Farina: “Call me inert and featureless but Beware, I am the shadow, free to cloud men’s minds.” Mine was painfully sincere, from Theodore Roethke: “Leaves, leaves, turn and tell me what I am.”
Sometime that spring when I thought nothing more could happen to me, I had a dream. One thing I knew about Linna was that like me she had spent her youth with horses. In the dream Linna and I taught little girls how to ride. We led the horses out of their stalls to the mounting block where we hoisted the girls into the saddle, putting their feet in the stirrups, tightening girths. Then they walked their horses to the riding ring. We both stood in the middle of the ring like my first riding teacher Miss Reba. I faced one side, and Linna faced the other. We were teaching them the voice that horses listen to, the touch that horses feel. I used to wonder if Miss Reba knew which girls would learn and which would not. Linna and I had our hunches. Then we got on our own horses and led our charges down to the water. We told them they were to follow us, to hold on and let their horses swim. Hold on but not too tightly, we said. Don’t be scared. But, of course, some of the little girls held on too tightly and their horses bucked them into the water. Linna and I pulled the fallen girls out of the water and carried them in the saddle before us. We told the girls who didn’t fall off that they had passed the test, a test they didn’t know they were taking, and as a prize they could keep their horses. The last image of the dream was a line of horses with their small riders walking into the woods.
When I woke, I wondered which Linna and I were. Were we the girls who held on too tightly and had to be pulled from the water or did we learn the voice that horses listen to and take our horses into the woods?
I think women look at each other and think what we see either resembles our own reflections or something we’d rather not know in ourselves. I know I do this. It’s been 30 years, and every time I put on mascara, I think of Denise Simpson, the way she put on coat after coat of thick black, the way she put mine on when we’d get ready together in her room, the way I couldn’t (still can’t) get my lashes as pronounced as hers. A silly example, but I think it may be a metaphor, like your dream.
One night, a few months into my senior year, I took my father’s car across town without permission to borrow some of Denise’s clothes and forgot to put the seat back. I see myself perched on the fireplace hearth while my father paces the middle of the living room, yelling, “When you leave this house, you’re going to go wild. Wild!” At that crescendo of his second wild, he raises his arms in frustration and fury, and for a split second, I see it: the flash of futility in his attempts to get me safely across the churning waters, to keep me from running as fast as I can toward my own woods.
I already had wildness. I didn’t need to leave home to find it, but wildness begs another trouble, an expectation that the paths we’ve tread will be the ones we take again.
We had all gone to different colleges in Texas and we met at Brian Walker’s house over winter break that first year and we played some drinking game at a table in the garage and Brian brought his roommate home with him, and the roommate had heard enough stories about me that he had a plan, to get me drunk enough for them all to watch. More shadows in the doorframe, more struggling, this time futile.
That night became a different kind of door frame, a different kind of chasing away, one that kept me voiceless in my dorm room for the most of that year. I remember volunteering to repaint the hallway that spring — a mosaic that ran the walls in different directions, a pattern that took patience and my attention for months. Each shape and sharp edge a re-mapping, and I wondered with each brushstroke if I would like this new hallway. I did for a while.
But eventually, I left those walls.
I transferred to a different school.
And I found the woods again.
Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren’t: A Memoir and Loaded: Women and Addiction, the co-editor of The Art of Friction: Where (Non)Fictions Come Together, and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction. Her writing has been named Notable in Best American Essays for the past four years in a row and has appeared in journals such as AGNI, Brevity, Colorado Review, DIAGRAM, Ecotone, Fourth Genre, The Normal School, The Paris Review Daily, The Rumpus, and Slice Magazine. She teaches in the creative writing program at University of North Texas.
Marcia Aldrich is the author of the free memoir Girl Rearing, published by W.W. Norton. She has been the editor of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. Companion to an Untold Story won the AWP Award in Creative Nonfiction. She is the editor of Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays by Women published by The University of Georgia Press. Waveformessays.wordpress.com. Her email is email@example.com.
Editor: Krista Stevens