I was fast asleep, dreaming the dreams of the innocent. I was 13 years old.
But something interrupted my dream. I awoke when I felt a cold metal object being shoved with some urgency into my temple.
It was a gun.
I have always been an extremely light sleeper. With even the slightest unwelcome sound, I can go from a dream state to completely alert in a flash. A simple sigh in the corner of my room can startle me. So feeling icy steel press against my temple awoke me with a start.
I had never seen a gun, much less felt one, but somehow I knew for certain that it was a gun being pressed against my head. I was utterly frozen with fear. I laid there with my eyes closed, my breathing was shallow. I tried not to swallow; I tried not to make a sound.
I heard the gun being cocked. I recognized the sound from television; that horrid lifeless click that readies the gun for release.
I opened my eye into an imperceptible slit, and I could see a man’s pinky finger hanging languidly next to my cheek. It was adorned with a bright gold ring that sported a jewel of some sort; possibly a diamond. It was a man’s hand, of that I was sure. I had never seen such a fancy ring on a man’s hand before. His other fingers were curled around a metal handle. I could see a finger on the trigger.
The steel was shoved harder into my temple. I could feel my heart beating in my throat; I was certain that my pulsing veins were visible. I prepared myself for death, or even worse; torture. I waited.
I had always been a weary child; I was terrified that one day I would be kidnapped, tortured, and murdered. I would run from a car if I saw a man driving it; and black cars especially terrified me, because that was the color of the car of a kidnapper who took a child in my neighborhood, when I was five. Black cars and strange men spoke to me of unspeakable horrors; and I vowed to do what ever I needed to do to never get caught in a predator’s web. Each day when I came home from school, I would check the entire house thoroughly; I would check behind the shower curtain, in every closet, and in every possible hiding place for an intruder. It was a ritual I did every day before I could settle down in my own home. It was as if I had always known a terrible time was coming, and here it was.
Suddenly the man bellowed with laughter. I sprung upright and leapt from my bed in an instant, and saw my sister’s boyfriend standing in my dark bedroom, a revolver in his hand. The gleam of the silver pistol looked luminous in the moonlight and only that and his teeth showed up in the dark. “What are you doing?” I choked. While I felt relieved that I knew my midnight intruder, I hardly felt safe. I didn’t trust this man, not even a little bit. He laughed again.
“Do you like my gun?” he asked me.
“No,” was all I said. I was shaking like a leaf.
He flicked on my bedroom light. “Check it out baby. It’s a Ruger Redhawk, cocked and ready. Pretty cool, huh?”
“No. You scared me.”
“And check out my new ring baby!” he said, wiggling his pinky in my direction. It was the same finger I had seen dangling near my cheek when he held the gun to my head. “That diamond must be a carat at least. Ever seen anything like it?”
“No. Where did you get it?”
“Get up! Get up!” he screamed excitedly, “You’ll want to see this.” And in a moment he was hollering and shouting and turning on all the lights in the house. He was bellowing for my sister to wake up; she was still fast asleep. Unlike me, my sister slept like the dead. He entered her room and started shaking her, while singing a Rolling Stones song as loud as he could. Finally I heard her sleepy voice, asking him what he was doing. He could hardly contain himself; he sounded like a little boy on Christmas morning, anxious for us to share in his bounty from Santa Claus.
It was only my sister and I in the house; there was no adult supervision. When I was close to being a teenager, my Dad decided he couldn’t tolerate living with two girls in their teens. “I know what goes on with girls your age,” he would often tell us, and frankly I didn’t know what he was talking about. It felt as though he was accusing me of doing something I wasn’t doing; it was as though we were suddenly bad girls, and he could no longer tolerate us. My father decided to build a new house for the family, but this time he built two houses; one for my mother and him, and the other for my sister and me. They were completely separate units, with a courtyard in the middle.
Our unit had no kitchen, but most everything else we might want. We each had our own room, and shared a living room and bathroom. It was the early 70’s, and the room had a water bed that served as a couch, a black and white television, and a good stereo. The rug was a thick white shag carpet; a popular look in the day, and we had a hanging wicker chair, and multitudes of hanging plants in macramé plant holders.
I never felt safe there. While I was only in 8th grade, my sister was a senior in High School, and once her friends caught wind that we had our own place, it became the hang out for seemingly every young person in a ten mile radius. Since we never locked our doors, the kids would gather there even if we weren’t home; and I would often come home from school to a living room filled with older kids, smoking marijuana and drinking beer. There were days I would long to come home to an empty house; perhaps turn on the television and have some cookies and milk. But instead I was faced daily by a rowdy scene; raucous music, drinking games, and unruly behavior.
One of their favorite things to do was to torture our pet rat. They began by blowing pot smoke into his cage, until he went insane; he would no longer stay in his cage and would roam the house looking for marijuana. If he found a bag, he’d eat right through the plastic baggy, seemingly addicted to the stuff. They also liked putting him in the freezer and leaving him in there almost too long, or putting him in a hanging plant, and twisting the macramé around and around until it was wound up tight, then releasing it and laughing as the rat went for a dizzying ride. I hated it. Even more, I hated that we had no parents present to stop some of the behavior, especially when it seemed dangerous to me. And it often did. But I never let on how afraid I was, and began partying with the older kids, which was much too soon.
My sister’s boyfriend had begun to have his fun with me on a daily basis. His favorite game was to lie in wait for me in the bathroom. Everyone knew that I got up several times in the night to use the bathroom, and he would hide in the shadows; usually behind the shower curtain. And when I’d come in sleepy with my eyes half shut, he would pounce on top of me, and would do everything he could to feel me up. His hands would be everywhere; down my pajama pants and up my shirt. If I were to complain, he’d shove me up against the wall and put his hand over my mouth. Then he’d whisper deep into my ear, and the sound would make me cringe. “You don’t want your sister to hear us, do you? Don’t you think it would hurt her feelings if she knew how much I wanted you?” He would hold me there until I nodded, and then he’d release me. Then he’d laugh silently and allow me return to my bed.
This became a nightly ritual. I was very developed for my age, and I began to wear bras and panties to bed, underneath my pajamas. I would do anything to create one more barrier between his wandering hands and me. But that didn’t stop him. Eventually I began to go into the back yard to go to the bathroom. But he was a light sleeper too, and the minute he heard movement in my bedroom, he’d find me. My sister, on the other hand, slept through anything.
One night I was sneaking out to go the bathroom. I opened the front door as quietly as I could, and I dashed into the night. I hovered in the darkness, looking for a corner of the yard in the shadows, when I felt his arm grab me by the neck. His breath was in my ear; it smelled of beer. “I love you, don’t you realize that yet?”
“Please, please, please leave me alone.”
“I can’t. You’re all I think about, night and day. I want you so bad. But you can’t tell your sister. You don’t want to hurt her, do you?”
“No. Please let me go back to bed. I won’t say anything. Please.”
He let me go.
He terrified me. So on the night he held a gun to my head, I really couldn’t be sure of what his intentions might be. And even by the time my sister finally awoke and crawled out of bed, my heart was still thumping loudly in my chest. I had never seen him as erratic as he was that night, turning on every light in the house, and yelling excitedly, as he began to move a large array of items through our front door. I walked into the living room and watched him; he had radios, stereos, jewelry, records; I can’t remember all that he had, but he began piling it into the center of the room, all the while talking excitedly.
“Look at this stereo, baby!” he said to me, patting its sides. “Is this a beautiful machine or what? Huh?”
My sister emerged from her bedroom, rubbing her eyes and hardly conscious. It always took her forever to wake up and I could tell she wasn’t really registering what was going on. She finally asked, “What is all of this stuff?”
“We ripped off a house, baby, we ripped off a house! And we scored BIG time. Look at this ring; that’s a diamond. Check it out! Man, it was a rush. What a night! We cleaned those suckers OUT!”
My sister stared dumbfounded. Then she woke up. “ARE YOU TELLING ME YOU ROBBED A HOUSE?” She yelled this, and I felt relieved; she was the closest thing to an adult that I had. I needed some guidance; I needed a firm hand. I needed someone to yell.
“Yeah, baby, don’t get all uptight on me now,” he said, and then he went over and languidly kissed her neck.
She pushed him away. Hard. Unlike I could ever do.
“DON’T TOUCH ME,” she screamed. “And I want this stuff out of my house NOW.”
“Hey baby, where am I supposed to take it? My Dad is a COP,” he said laughing, appreciating the irony of the situation. “I have to stash it here for awhile.”
“NO!” my sister screamed, and her voice meant business. “YOU’RE TAKING IT BACK.”
“Taking what back?” he asked.
“YOU’RE TAKING IT BACK TO THE HOUSE WHERE YOU GOT IT FROM,” she said. By now she was fuming.
“But look at this stereo! Is that fine, or what? I was going to give it to you, baby!”
My sister walked over to where the stereo was lying in the middle of the floor. We both stared at it. It was stunningly beautiful; the owner had encased it in a striking wooden case, which had obviously been handcrafted. Each detail was perfect. My sister broke into tears.
“Someone made this!” she sobbed. “Someone made this wood case! Someone spent hours and hours on this! They made this with love! And you just go and STEAL it? YOU MAKE ME SICK. You take it all back or I don’t want to ever see you again!”
“How can I take it back?” he asked. “You want me to break in again? I was lucky I didn’t get caught the first time!”
“Then leave it on the porch. Leave it at the front door. I don’t care, but YOU’RE TAKING IT BACK RIGHT NOW.”
I had never seen him look so sheepish. And he did take it all back. In my life, I have often wondered what it must have been like for those people; to come home to find everything valuable they owned on their front porch.
I was mesmerized by how she handled the situation; she had a force that I did not have. She had a strength that I did not have. And that night after he returned from taking back his loot, I heard them arguing for hours in bed, and he doing everything in his power to charm his way back into her good grace. And eventually he did.
After that night, he seemed to change his tactics with me. While he still told me he loved me daily, he began to treat me more like a big brother might, or even a father; he began to pay an inordinate amount of attention to me. He would always ask me what was going on in my life; he would listen to me drone on and on about all of my problems, and he always seemed interested and willing to help. I never really trusted him, but I began to confide in him little by little, and just like my sister, he began to charm himself back into my good graces.
I was very much in love with a young boy in my class, named Barry. Our relationship was innocent and sweet; and even at that tender age he was romancing me. He brought me a dozen red roses to class one day, and had recently even bought me a gorgeous opal ring. Up until that point, I had never really trusted any man. But I trusted Barry with all of my heart, and although I wasn’t ready for anything too sexual yet, we had begun experimenting a little. My sister’s boyfriend would press me for details, and would warn me all about young boys and their hormones, and what they REALLY wanted. “He loves me,” I’d tell him. “He would never pressure me. Besides, neither of us is even CLOSE to ready.”
“Well, if he does pressure you, you come and tell me, okay? And I’ll put him in his place,” my sister’s boyfriend would say. I began to believe that he really might have my best interests at heart, and since my step-father never spoke to me in a protective way, I began to crave what I believed was love.
It was a few weeks later when we were all at a party a few blocks from home. Our friend Kim didn’t have much adult supervision either, and on this night a rather wild party was going on at her house. I was sitting in the backyard when my sister’s boyfriend came over and began talking to me.
We were joking and laughing, and he was trying to wrestle with me. I never enjoyed when he’d become physical with me; he was a huge boy and on the football team. But on this night, he wouldn’t stop.
Suddenly he picked me up and threw me over his shoulder.
I didn’t want to make a fuss, so I laughingly asked him to put me down. But he didn’t. He headed out of the back yard and started walking down the dimly lit street. I kicked and screamed, still laughing, but as he continued his march down the street into the darkness, I became afraid. “Put me down,” I said sternly. “I mean it.” But my commentary was only met with silence, which filled me with dread.
“PUT ME DOWN, LET ME GO!” I wailed. But he was like an android, marching every forward, without ever acknowledging me at all.
The beach was only a block and a half away, and soon I could hear the crashing waves and feel the salt on my lips. He climbed over some rocks that blocked our entrance, all the while holding me in a tight grip, and not saying a word. When he reached the sand, he threw me down and climbed on top of me. I began to sob. “GET OFF ME; LET ME GO BACK TO THE PARTY.”
Still he said nothing. He put one beefy arm across my neck to hold me in place, and with the other hand ripped off my jeans with such force that he broke the zipper. I had borrowed the jeans from my sister that night, after much begging. “I don’t want you to wreck them,” she had told me.
“I won’t wreck them! Please!”
And this is the only thing that was going through my head as he began to rip at the rest of my clothes. I screamed as loud as I could, and he took his hand and covered my mouth. Then he raped me.
I don’t remember much that happened the rest of that evening. All I remember is going home, and going into my parents unit. My father wasn’t home, and my sister was in bed with my mother crying. And I got into bed with them and started crying too. I had assumed that somehow my sister knew; and it was too painful to talk about. But she really didn’t know. We never spoke about it again; not at least, for many years.
Then I went into my room and grabbed a pen and paper. Grabbing a pen and paper was something I did almost on a daily basis in those days; as I was constantly writing poetry. But as I stared at the blank sheet of paper, no poetry came. Only one sentence came to my mind, which I scribbled down. I wrote, “I am still a virgin.” I stared at it, and the words helped me somehow. This didn’t count, it couldn’t count. I wrote the words again. “I am still a virgin.” And then as tears streamed down my cheeks, I wrote it again and again and again. And soon enough I needed a second piece of paper, which I filled up with the same sentence, written ad nauseam.
I broke up with my boyfriend Barry the following morning. We had been whispering sweet nothings in each others ears for so long; we had decided we would lose our virginity together, sometime later down the road, and eventually we’d marry. That dream was now dead, and I couldn’t face him. I broke his heart.
My sister’s boyfriend continued to prey on me after that, always threatening to tell my sister if I ever told. I had decided it was my lot in life to do what he said, and to carry that shame. When I was 15, I fell in love and once my new boyfriend caught wind of it, he told him in no uncertain terms that if he ever laid a hand on me again, that he’d kill him. The abuse, finally, stopped. But it took me years to realize that none of it had been my fault. And even more years to realize that the gun he held at my head that night was symbolic of my entire relationship with him.
I was an adult before I connected to my sexuality again. To me, it was something you did like an actress on a stage, because that’s all it had ever been for me; a game of pretend. Instead of learning how to fight back, I learned instead how to take it. Men could hit me, men could lie to me, men could rape me; but they could never touch my soul. And whenever a man treated me badly, I’d rise above it, and I would say to myself, “go ahead and give it to me. This doesn’t hurt me. You can’t touch me. The only person this hurts is you.”
Of course that’s not true. It’s a defense mechanism we learn in order to cope. And I suppose I’ve developed many of those in my journey through life.
But the secret of shame is always stamped upon your soul; a faint, indelible watermark. My child will always be face down on the floor; a little unstrung puppet, kicking to disappear, her face red with panic, her tiny fists bloody from pounding on a cement wall. The sheets still grow heavy with the thought of a lecher’s kiss; and the sin, the sin, flicks on and off like a nauseating fluorescent light, outside of the dive bar of my mind. There will always be a permanent smell.
I know life deals us blows. But I know that every morning when I wake up, I’m still singing. I’m still laughing. I’m still dancing. There is a place inside of each of us that is untouchable. It is where the angels swim, and the stars swim too. And sadly, where indifference swims as well.
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