‘The victim who is able to articulate the situation of the victim has ceased to be a victim: he, or she, has become a threat.’ – James Baldwin
She had buck teeth but a lithe body, smooth skin, and I know, from the one glorious time she took her bra off in front of me, breasts as upright and curved as two new bowls. Never did I want to touch something more. She was fourteen and I was twelve. Her hair was the color of a field mouse, cut at her shoulders, shiny and straight, and flipped up naturally at the ends. We lived in the Beaver Ridge Run apartment complex, in a lower-middle-class suburb built in the sixties, before the General Motors plant closed, before the National Cash Register Corporation left.
Sara and I both had younger siblings to watch while our parents worked, both of us responsible daughters. Her parents worked at the factories near our town: a tin factory, a paint factory, then a cannery. Always working and away, it seemed, except on Friday evenings, when they had a large dinner with all the children and a family friend or two. That was the only time I saw her mother, Bernadette, smile, at Richard, her friend, who teased Sara’s youngest sibling, still in diapers, and swooped him in his arms. Richard was thirty-six and worked at a barbershop in town. His wife was only twenty-one, and together they had two daughters, three-year-old twins. When I met them, they were both wearing immaculate white sundresses. Richard winked to the children, who loved him, or at least loved the attention. He had found himself a perfect family.
My own mother worked twelve-hour shifts as a respiratory therapist in the neonatal intensive-care unit. She was newly divorced from my stepfather. My father lived on the other side of town, a beauty salesman with a budding clandestine side business of which I knew very little, except that he worked nights. Family friends were not part of our meals.
When we were not at the park with our siblings, we were at Sara’s house, with its menagerie of animals and children, which gave the house its particular smell of cat, gerbil and toddler shit. On Sunday mornings Sara would put two quarters in the newspaper dispenser at the 7-Eleven and take all the papers but one, to change the gerbil’s cages.
Why leave one? I asked.
So it doesn’t look suspicious.
No one ever needed to remind her to do anything, such as chores around the house. She mothered while her mother worked. Both of our mothers would be grandmothers by forty.
We played all day during the winter break and weekends and summer, and then we went straight home and called. In our nearly identical homes – same Formica, same dull carpet, same beige walls – I could imagine her, phone cord looping from the bar in the kitchen and back to the bedroom she shared with her sister. I took the phone to my bedroom and we spoke the inconsequential conversation of girls until one of our mothers called for us to get off the phone. Someone important could be trying to call, they would say. We only pushed the limits when we were certain we would not be caught. We were good, responsible daughters. Until that year.
Richard asked Sara to babysit his twin daughters. After she put the girls to bed, Sara always called me.
But one night, she didn’t.
What happened? I asked the next day, as we walked our siblings to the park, shouting their names, telling them to stop at the end of the sidewalk.
When he dropped me off . . .
Richard returned her to the apartment complex, but he parked a block away. He cut the lights. He talked to her, told her how much he cared for her. He took her hand. He kissed it. He asked her if she liked it. She smiled. Then he kissed her on the lips. She was fourteen years old.
I listened to her confession, to what kissing felt like, how he could dream in color, how he could make his dreams go where he wanted them to. How she promised she would not tell anyone about them. He’d been in jail in Kentucky, Sara told me, but she did not know why, or didn’t want to tell me. He had been married before.
Sara walked with the lightness of a girl in love.
He’s married, I said.
But she opposed me so adamantly – as if I did not understand love, as if I were a child – that I knew if I continued criticizing him I would lose her.
We love one another, she said, and I sort of believed her.
With each week’s progress, Sara moved further away from me. As Richard inched into Sara’s life and body I shrunk to the size of the sixth-grader I was.
At the beginning of the summer, Sara’s parents moved out of the apartment complex and into a vinyl-sided house on the corner of the main street leading into east Dayton. The streets were narrow and potholed. The schools were ranked low.
I asked to visit her. Both of my parents, separately, said no. It was the only decision I recall that they had agreed on since their separation ten years prior.
I finished elementary school with an honor-roll ribbon and a yearbook with multiple entries of ‘Keep smiling’ or ‘Smile more’. In the fall I would begin seventh grade, choosing between two junior high schools: the junior high on the wealthier west side of town, or the middle school, where parents worked the assembly lines, maintenance and food service.
I kept asking to visit Sara in Dayton. After many nos and much complaining on my part, my parents finally let me go. My mother dropped me off. I wore cut-off jeans and a T-shirt as Sara and I walked the neighborhood. I wasn’t wearing anything revealing, but trucks honked at us, men whistled from their porches, and at the post office, men turned in line to look us up and down. The attention was striking. Men stared directly, gawked.
Where were Sara’s parents? Gone. Who knows. It is violent here, I thought, hearing the car alarms, imagining all the robberies that must be taking place, not realizing how easy it was for an alarm to be triggered.
In the street, wondering which car got robbed, I met a neighbor boy, Jason. He was sweet, but I took my cues about how to talk to members of the opposite sex from what was around me: my mother’s self-help books, like Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, and the men on the morning talk show on Z-93, who paid a woman five hundred dollars to drive to work topless. I saw a picture of her later in the news from the shoulders up.
I asked Jason about the size of his dick. I had never asked anyone this before, but I was in a new city, and trying out boldness.
But how many inches is it?
He demurred. I pressed, I pressed.
His mother’s calls for him grew louder and more urgent.
I really have to go, he said.
Back inside, he called me on the phone.
Soft or hard? he whispered.
I didn’t know what he meant so I covered the receiver and said to Sara, He said, ‘Soft or hard?’
Sara just shook her head.
That night at her house, we slept in her twin-sized bed, but I did not sleep. I do not think we spoke of Richard, not because they were no longer involved, but rather because they were so involved that her alliances had shifted. She was keeping the secret she initially promised she would keep.
I had not been kissed or touched, with one exception. My stepfather had a swastika tattoo on his right arm and a nose broken so many times that it swooped to the right side when looked at straight on. He used his belt on my toddler brothers’ backsides, and once broke the skin until it bled. When I was nine I kissed him goodbye and slipped my tongue into his mouth like I had seen my mom do. He stiffened, pulled back, and said, We don’t do that, Sissy. This can be our special kiss, and instead rubbed my nose to his. He nearly drowned my mother once in a river in Kentucky, but he did not want my tongue in his mouth. Sometimes what men did not do was more startling than what they did. When my mother found out she said, Who taught you that? Who? Tell me, the way a mother does when she herself has been molested. But what my mother could not keep me from was my own stubborn wish to have something for myself, my curiosity for knowledge in all forms, for taking whatever was offered.
I turned thirteen in late July. My mother got call waiting. Sara and I spoke less and less frequently. I turned to other friends from the complex, swam at the pool, watched television. But when my mother worked I was not allowed to leave the house, though my brothers, diagnosed as hyperactive, could play outside. My mother was terrified something would happen to me, an unchaperoned girl wearing her first bra.
One afternoon while my brothers were outside and my mother was still at work, I reached Sara on the phone.
What are you doing? I asked.
She said it like a secret.
What is that? And why?
I’m babysitting tonight.
She said Richard had a plan to leave Joy out and come back home early. I told her it was unsafe to use her mother’s douche. You could get an infection. I did not have actual knowledge of this as a fact, it just seemed like it could be true and something in her voice scared me.
In her silence, I saw a shrug, and began to worry about Sara.
A few weeks later, Sara was babysitting again. She asked me to call at 8.30 p.m. But this time, Richard answered the phone.
I hung up.
Then my own phone rang.
Hello? I said, scared and thrilled.
Who is this? Richard asked. His voice so deep.
I paused. He asked again. I told him I was Sara’s friend.
Is Sara there? I asked.
She is home already. And what are you doing calling my house?
I apologized. I told him sometimes we talked after the girls went to bed.
So when I’m paying her to play with my children she’s talking on the phone to you?
I paused and apologized again and said it wasn’t like that.
Is anyone at your house? he asked.
Asleep. My mother had to wake at 5 a.m. to have enough time to shower, get the boys ready for day care, drop them off, and drive into Dayton to be at the hospital by the start of her 7 a.m. shift.
So, what do Sara and I do together? he asked me.
Oh, how I knew, how I knew, I thought, everything. And how I had been sworn to complete secrecy.
She’s your babysitter? I said.
The uptick in my voice, the question, gave him a chuckle.
Hang on a minute, he said, and I heard a screen door creak open. He was stepping outside. He wanted to talk to me.
He would call me at ten, after everyone had gone to bed. Since we now had call waiting, I called Time and Temperature at 9.59 p.m. and stayed on the phone, listening to the weather and the time, the forecast and the time, again and again until the phone beeped. Then I settled into my bed and talked about my day. I complained about my mother, my nosy brothers, my homework, my friends. Because he was outside my family and not someone who would gossip about me at school I told him everything I hated and longed for. I told him so much, unconscious of how he would use that information: absent mother, absent father, lonely thirteen-year-old girl who can’t leave the house because of her mother’s fear. I was looking for wisdom. He was assessing how much of a risk I was, how likely I was to tell people what we might do, how easily I could become a victim.
After a few evening calls, our conversations veered into all of the things he would like to do to me. In response to his questions, I lied and said yes, I was touching my body.
One night he asked, Could you sneak out?
Yeah, I said, trying on a casual voice.
Meet me next to the building behind yours.
I checked my hair and clothes. There was nothing to be done. I put a stick of gum in my mouth. I climbed on my bed, slid the window open, and walked out into the warm summer air. Crickets, cicadas, the joy of real air, not sterile air conditioning. I turned the corner and there he was, the man I’d been talking to in secret for weeks, reaching over into the passenger side of a beat-up blue Honda, opening the door for me. While my mother was asleep and my father was across town arranging business deals, I was in a Honda Civic kissing a man older than my father.
Richard took my hand. He told me how nice it was to see me, to talk in person. Ten minutes passed this way. He put his lips to mine.
Then he looked over at me with a serious expression and said, Don’t do this with anyone else.
You could get really hurt. There are bad people out there.
I interpreted this as proof that he was someone who could get jealous, proof that he cared for me. I did not ask him about Sara, but he spoke of her a few times. He felt, I think, a fondness for her that he thought of as love. I hoped she was not still babysitting for him, that she had moved on. When we last spoke she had told me of a new man ten years older than her, who I just had to meet. I did meet him, the one time I skipped school. He took us to the Air Force Museum and fingered her in the stars and planets exhibit. She was kind enough to tell me what fingering was without making it seem like I did not know.
I snuck back into my bedroom. I was freer than before, I thought. I had something that was mine. The luminous idea of a secret.
That night when he got home, he called.
I had such a nice time with you. I hope I dream of you, he said.
I fell asleep replaying the sensations his touches gave me.
A week later, and newly thirteen, I started junior high at the west-side, wealthier school. My mother left the house in the dark and dropped my brothers off at day care.
I told Richard to look out for her red Buick with the my child is an honor student at beaver ridge elementary school bumper sticker on it. I told him where she parked, her assigned parking spot in front of our house. If her car was gone, so was she. I was doing the one thing my mother had tried to warn me about.
Early on a Friday morning, my first week in seventh grade, Richard knocked on my door, so lightly I thought I might have imagined it. I felt a tingling throughout my body.
I opened the door.
He whispered, Is anyone here?
He asked if I was sure. He asked with real fear, as if he had been caught before. I registered this as paranoia and laughed.
He stared hard at me.
I answered loudly, No. Of course not, come in.
Lock the door, he said.
No one is going to come in.
He stared at me.
I locked the door.
He raised his eyebrows at the top lock.
I locked the deadbolt, too.
He was short, eye-level with me. With the doors locked twice, he kissed me. I smelled coffee, the cheap kind that comes in a can.
He kissed my neck, then ran his tongue along it, up to my earlobe, breathing warm air and soft kisses into my ear. I wanted to match his skill, but this was my first real kiss. How should my lips be, my mouth? Where should my hands go? They hung down at my side.
See what you do to me, he said, and moved my right hand down past his belt, to the zipper of his soft Dickies work pants. I felt a hard bump.
See what you do to me, he said again.
There was allure, confusion and fear. I was an irresistible temptation.
But I pulled my hand away. He had crow’s feet and a weathered face, which made me feel superior.
Do you know what this is? he asked and put my hand back to his cock. It’s how much you excite me.
He kissed me urgently again and led me toward the couch, then asked, Where is your bedroom?
I walked backwards, kissing him, leading him to my bedroom. Gone was the brass daybed my mother bought me one summer when I was six and we lived in Florida. On my last birthday, I got a full-size mattress and box spring on the floor, and on it was my first bedspread. It was reversible – one side was navy, one side was white with navy stripes.
He moved his hands up my shirt and with one motion, unhooked my first bra. He asked, afterwards, if this was okay. I nodded.
He said, Say it.
I said, This is okay.
We kissed and he cupped my breasts and I touched the outside of his pants until seven fifteen.
At seven fifteen he drove me to school in a rusted ivory pickup. He parked a block away. We must have looked like father and child. Then he drove himself to the barbershop where he worked, three blocks from the school.
He was twenty-four years older than me.
By day, Richard cut hair. In the evening, he drove his rusted truck to a wooden house in south Dayton. In the morning, before work, he came to my apartment.
He told me about his disgust at the women who walked by the barbershop in heels and wearing lipstick on their way to the bagel shop.
What’s wrong with heels? I asked.
That clackety-clack-clack, he said. In winter it was not practical. I did not like it when he spoke of adult women this way, even though I liked that he didn’t admire them. But what would he think of me when I had grown up?
I changed the subject and asked what his favorite music was.
Traditional country, he said, like Lee Greenwood, so I ordered Lee Greenwood’s greatest hits from the BMG Music Club.
On his second visit, he put his finger in my vagina. I held my breath and stiffened, preparing for more pain.
Is this okay? he said, and put my hand on his cock. See what you do to me.
It was a molehill, but I was doing something to him, so I focused there instead, on my ability to create excitement in him rather than the monotonous in and out of his finger.
You are so tight, he said, and I apologized.
He smiled and kissed me more urgently.
We heard a sound from the apartment upstairs. He stopped, shifted, looked toward the door.
What was that? he asked.
I told him it was the neighbor. I told him to relax. I reminded him it was a garden-level apartment, easy to climb out of if my mother came home.
Had someone else invited me to sneak out of my house and meet them, had they been vetted by a friend, as Sara had vetted Richard, I would have met them, too. I had a boyfriend now, a sweet boy who was in eighth grade, nicknamed Oregano Joe because he once tried to sell oregano as marijuana. I spoke to him on the phone briefly most evenings, but inwardly I groaned each time he called – how unwise and infantile peer conversations seemed. Twice we had gone to the movies. His affable stepfather picked me up in a conversion van with airbrushed beach scenes on the side panels, and drove us, as we held hands secretly in the back seat, to the Dollar Movie Theater. I mentioned the boyfriend to Richard, hoping he would be jealous. He said it was good for me to be with boys my age, which made me feel like a baby.
When, on the next visit, Richard slipped a second finger into my vagina I thought, I do not like this. I thought, This is what he did with her, and felt closer to my friend, Sara, in one way, and then further away from her than ever.
The clitoris was a discovery I had already made. Richard moved one finger, and then two, in and out of my vagina as if his fingers were a toilet brush. In the background, Lee Greenwood sang how proud he was to be American.
Richard would have been a better pedophile had he known how to warm a female body up.
And yet, I was lured by my desire for knowledge. What were the bounds of physical sensation? What could another person do to me? I had a school boyfriend, but I knew that I could not explore these things with a school boyfriend. A school boyfriend would tell people. Going beyond kissing with a school boyfriend would get you labeled a slut.
One morning when Richard was over, the phone rang. We were in my bedroom. Richard made for the window.
Just wait, I said, coolly.
What’s wrong with you? my mother said.
Nothing, I said, trying to readjust my voice.
Richard moved in to me and kissed my neck. So close to my mother’s voice. I pushed him away.
She reminded me to unload the dishwasher and turn down the Crockpot before I left for school.
I said okay. She was my mother then. Perhaps sensing something was off, that afternoon she surprised me by coming home early. I was drinking hot chocolate and doing homework when she came in with my brothers.
On his next visit, he led me back to my bedroom and lay me down on the striped side of my reversible bedspread. We kissed until the sun made a harsh morning light that showed his wrinkles and his buck teeth. Richard pulled down his pants. He pulled down his white underwear. I saw his scarred, crooked, thick penis, the first one I had ever seen. He pulled the skin back to appear larger, but came across instead as insecure.
Look what you do to me.
I smiled. This was supposed to be empowerment. But empowerment was telling him no again and again, empowerment – as I thought of it then, though I did not know the word – was the books I read and the movies I watched: Maya Angelou’s ‘Phenomenal Woman’ read by Janet Jackson in Poetic Justice. Empowerment was a man looking at you – every curve – and you declining.
He approached my face with his cock.
I turned my head away.
Let me lay it next to you, he said.
He put his upright cock against my cotton panties, the tip lying on my stomach, and looked at me as if I would not be able to resist this alluring thing so close to my body.
He asked me to take off my panties.
I just want to lay it next to you, he said.
I squeaked out a no.
Instead, he slid his cock through the leg hole of my panties. I could feel it up my leg and between the lips of my vagina. Our bodies were constricted by my underwear. He moved in a bobbing motion, the shaft of his penis rubbing against my skin.
He leaned in and kissed me with his stubbly face. His body held no allure. The only desire he offered was being desired.
He slid his cock out of my panties and climbed off me, his pants around his ankles. He got on his knees and pulled me to him. My bra was askance. One breast flopped out and the other was beneath the thinly padded lace and polyester.
Just kiss it, he said, and moved my shoulders downward.
I turned my mouth away.
No, thank you, I said, as if he were a friend’s grandmother offering candies.
Don’t you want to? he said. And then that refrain, See what you do to me?
Yes, I thought, this attracts you. Now tease me to the point of extreme anticipation, give my body warmth and tingling, show me what it feels like with another person. But he never did.
Come here, he said.
When I did, he pushed my head downward.
Try it, he said, the most forceful he had been. He shoved my mouth onto his cock.
His cock was in my mouth and because of his force, I gagged. I lifted my head up.
He apologized, but with happiness.
I sat away from him and fixed my bra.
Have you had your period yet?
I had, two years prior, at Sara’s house. She had shown me how to insert a tampon. I confirmed I had started my period, but left out the other details.
He frowned. Then he sighed.
We should get you to school, he said.