Some time around the second grade, I can’t remember quite when because everything that has happened to me since seems like a waking dream, my mother’s boyfriend came to me where I slept on the couch in our roach-infested apartment on the borderland between Southold and Greenport.
His underpants were around his knees by the time he squeezed in beside me. By the time he left half an hour later, the skin on my wrist was bruised from the squeezed impression of his fingers as he looked me in the eye and made me promise not to tell what happened there. It would have been nice to believe, as I am sure it is nice for many of my relatives to believe, that the events that so thoroughly shaped my life began and ended that night.
But that’s not what happened.
David kept coming back to my bed, or pulling me into my mother’s room when he was watching us after we got off the bus after school. It happened so routinely, and for so many years, that I can’t begin to tell you how often or for how long this went on. My best guess is about two years, but they are two years that are as much a part of my life today as they were then.
When the physicists announced last week that gravitational waves are real and that relativity is even more true than we had ever believed, they set the stage for all of humanity to grasp the idea that all moments in time are all happening right now.
But people who have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder have known this for years.
My mother claims that I began to be a difficult child at about the age of 18 months, when my younger sister was born, and this is the narrative my family has chosen to believe. I don’t really remember anything much about the time before David except my parents fighting, and their divorce. I remember not liking the divorce at all. Who likes a divorce?
I remember thinking both my little sisters were pretty cool. We jumped around together and ate lots of sugar and made messes of our rooms and tried to make each other laugh when we were drinking milk so that it would come out of our noses. I can’t remember ever resenting them or disliking them when we were small children. But everyone tells me that I was always difficult and I always resented them, so I guess that narrative is the winning narrative.
History is written by the winners, and when David took me for his slave, I became the biggest loser of all.
My few and vague memories of those years: being afraid to touch the walls or toilet seats at school, afraid I’d contaminate them. Of always thinking I smelled horrible, when all I smelled like was the Joy dish soap I used to wash off David’s smell. In the end, the smell of Joy is now the smell I remember of him, not his smell at all. I can’t smell that dish soap without feeling terrified and distraught for hours.
I remember being afraid to be called on in school, and even worse, being afraid to be teased for being quiet. When my father once picked me up from school as a surprise, the teacher made me stand at the front of the class the next day and lectured me in front of the snickering kids about how we’d just been told to never talk to strangers.
It never occurred to me to be afraid of my mild-mannered, amazing dad. I thought he was Clark Kent. If I’d had the courage to tell him what was happening to me, he might have become Superman. But when other responsible adults found out, no one bothered to tell my dad. In fact, something got so twisted in the North Fork rumor mill once word got out that there are still people walking around who think my father was the one who hurt me. The worst thing he ever did was pick me up from school as a surprise. I think he took me out for ice cream. It was a great afternoon. It’s one of the few nice things I can remember.
My fear of school got so bad after that lecture about not talking to strangers that I just refused to go. And when David got wind of that, well, he volunteered to check in on me while I stayed at home afraid of the world. And that’s where my memory just goes straight down a black hole, and pops up here, in the present day, with all kinds of swiss cheese holes in it that terrify anyone who tries to get too close to me. Some people tell me I should find the cheese that is supposed to fill those holes, but they’re like air, just big bubbles of air, that were never filled with anything and can probably never be filled with anything. And I have to learn to live with that and move on.
The truth is that I hate myself so much for what has defined my life that there are many days when it’s all I can do to drag myself out of bed in the morning and face the world. I managed to get up and do it for about 18 years because I had a child to support and I had to make it work because I had no other option.
I met my son Isaac’s father when I was allegedly homeschooling myself, though I was really just hiding at home because I was terrified of high school. Suffolk County Community College took me in and let me get my high school equivalency through college credit, and that place saved my life.
I moved in with my son’s father not long after starting college, but my youthful enthusiasm was no match for his rage, and by the time Isaac was two weeks old, I ran out of that house with my son in my arms and blood pouring out of a growing lump in my forehead after his father lobbed a tape recorder at my head. He missed his baby’s face by just inches. I’ve been running away from that moment ever since.
Isaac and I never had it easy, and I guess there are a lot of people out there who know how difficult things were for us. Some people have been nice, but many have not been very nice at all. It’s not until these past couple years, with the help of this silly Ivy League graduate degree hanging on my wall, that I’ve been able to believe I was worth anything at all.
Mostly I just worked my butt off, usually at at least two or three jobs at a time. And the truth is that the entire time I was raising my son it never occurred to me that anywhere I worked paid me poorly and didn’t take me seriously because I was a woman or because I was desperate or because I was young, even though all those things were probably true. But they really took advantage of me because they could tell just by looking at me that I felt like I was worthless.
Since my son graduated from high school and moved out a couple years ago, all I have left here is the void created by a man who thoroughly ruined me when I was a child, a man who can’t be prosecuted because the statute of limitations has run out (I’ve checked with the PD), a man who went on to drive a Suffolk County bus for many years after my little vulnerable family turned in on itself and refused to acknowledge what has happened to me — to themselves, to the authorities or to my face. And no one knows or seems to care where he is today, not even the police officers I’ve recently talked to about this.
There are a lot of people running around the East End afraid that homeless sex offenders are going to harm their children. The truth is that the people who may harm your children are people who have probably already gained your trust. And if you are unfortunate enough to be faced with such a person, it will be very difficult for you to weigh their word against the word of a child. I pray every day that this fate will not ever befall anyone I know. It is worse than death.
I spend a lot of time wondering if it is worth it to continue living, when I feel like everyone around me has created convenient excuses for why I am the way I am, excuses that have nothing to do with what happened to me. I want to be happy, and I want to have friends that I can laugh with and do silly things with, but the truth is that I’m just terrified of everything.
I still don’t want my son to think badly of me, and I guess that’s what keeps me hanging on.
And another thing just hit me very hard last month. There was a time when I was six months pregnant and in a very rare spell where I must have been high on the hormones of motherhood. Everything just seemed wonderful and beautiful and the world was as perfect as my little baby’s hand would turn out to be.
I used to be a saxophone player back in those days, and I used to sit in the little one-room apartment I rented for Isaac and his father, playing along to David Bowie’s “Young Americans,” which is weird because it is a song that is both very upbeat and terribly cynical:
“He kissed her then and there
She took his ring, took his babies
It took him minutes, took her nowhere
Heaven knows, she’d have taken anything, but….”
Then I saw one of the most perfect and beautiful ways in which a human being could ever have controlled the narrative of their life. There have been thousands of things said in the past month about the way David Bowie left this earth, and I don’t really have anything to add to any of those things except to say that I realized, on watching his final works of art, that the only way to beat the horrible unjust things that happen to us all as human beings is to own your own narrative.
History doesn’t have to be written by the winners. It has to be the truth.