Friday, January 20, 2012
She smashed her fist into the coffee bean sized nob of bone protruding just below the bridge of his nose. Index and middle finger leading slightly, she muttered a silent prayer. She knew she had a 45% chance of breaking a finger from this angle. She didn’t really care. Small price to pay. Drawing back she snapped her right fist again and again, as her left hand locked around his esophagus. Pulling him slightly forward, she used her body weight to dip his chin making her sharp thrusts more powerful and effective.
Time seemed to pass slowly. Her hand ached, her fingers had stiffened and a muscle in her left palm was twitching. She wanted to stop. She couldn’t. There was a rhythm and momentum driving her and under the tempo, a need. She needed to see blood. “I just need to see you bleed. God damn, mother fucker why don’t you just bleed?” She roared at him. Unable to speak, he rolled his eyes towards her, searching her face. He had been trying to pry her fingers open, but she countered this by punching the hollow in his throat just below her grip. He attempted to punch her but she angled sideways, left, then right, just out of his reach and by that time he was having trouble breathing through the torn cartilage in his throat. He decided to focus on breathing. Air. And blood. He willed himself to bleed. Imagined it gushing. Imagined drops flowing freely down the pulpy mess of his nose.
She silently wondered why he wasn’t bleeding. As her attention turned to the noticeable absence of blood, she became aware of a quietness, a stillness and slow motion-ness. A strange, erie and ethereal quality to what was happening. “Fuck! I am dreaming!” She yelled. “It’s a god damn dream.” And, because this was a dream, despite realizing that she was dreaming, she remained inside her dream.
The man in her dream looked like she imagined her abuser would look like 30 years later. And, because this was a dream, he also looked exactly the same as he did when he was big and she was small. Bam! She punched him in the face again when she realized this. She had wanted him to bleed but having realized this was a dream, she no longer did. The lack of blood, the silence, the slowness, they let her enact revenge without continuing the generational legacy of abuse. That felt important to her.
She gave his throat a final squeeze and shoved him backwards. He stumbled into a black abyss, the white soles of his giant Reeboks were the last thing she saw. She slumped down and stretched her fingers. She slowed her breath and looked around. There was nothing to indicate the carnage that had just occurred. That felt familiar to her. The lack of visible evidence. You couldn’t tell anything happened by looking at her. As she stood she looked down at her feet and saw a single drop of blood shimmering in the blackness, smeared by his fingers as he fell. It looked like how her insides felt the first time his fingers colonized her body. She leaned down, smiled and flicked the drop into the abyss.
“...how much blood was there?” she asks my sister. My sister turns to me, puts her hand over the phone receiver and says, “She wants to know if there was any blood.” My mind fizzles. Actually, crackles and pops. For a few beats, I am deafened by the cacophony.
Why the fuck does she think it matters if there was blood? Because if there was no blood there was no damage? No lasting consequences other than night terrors, self esteem issues, a lifetime of shame to contend with, a love of things that numb that shame, unidentifiable somatic problems, chronic pain, fear of intimacy, blinding rage at ill timed moments and an ongoing social awkwardness that does not recede with seemingly endless march towards maturity? That kind of no damage?
At the time I didn’t entirely understand why she asked if there was any blood or what dark secrets were embedded in that horrible question flung at my sister when she finally summoned the courage to speak the unspeakable truth that everyone knew but no one was brave enough to hold. This allegiance to silence not only left my sister and I vulnerable, it made the next generation an easy target. I didn’t think knowing how much blood there was, mattered.
“Tell her it doesn’t matter.” I said. I don’t remember the rest of the conversation. It was short. I crawled into a corner inside myself. My sister crawled into bed. I went home the next day and quietly shut down. Then, imploded. The story had been told. Again. It wasn’t news. No one would talk about it but we all knew what happened. At least everyone knew exactly what happened that one summer. I had made sure of it.
I was around 7 years old. I was sitting outside the bedroom door. It was summer. We were visiting family in desert country and my sister, cousin and I practically lived in our bathing suits. I wore a blue two piece suit that night with cut offs. As I sat outside the door, I played with my cousin’s six million dollar man action figures. It was late. I didn’t know what time it was but I knew that my vigil would last much later. My sister sometimes wasn’t allowed out of the room until after sunrise. There were noises coming from behind the door. Bad noises. The same kind of noises I made when it was my turn to be inside the room, rather than sitting outside the closed door willing my sister and I to be beamed to another planet like on Star Trek. There were other sounds as well, thumps from being thrown. I don’t remember being thrown, myself, but I understood the sound.
What I didn’t understand was why the other adults were letting this happen. I knew why I wasn’t storming in to stop him. He was big. He was mean. He scared me. At the time, my vigil was the only choice I had to try to interrupt things that were more powerful than me. We had a few more weeks until the end of summer and I was trying to believe we would survive. I made Steve Austin and Jamie Summers take alternate leaps over my calf as I hummed the theme song. By that time, I learned to stay awake all night. Learned to wait for sunrise and then sleep on my Love Boat beach towel next to the pool in the apartment complex courtyard.
We both survived.
We are in the backseat, making the long drive home and he is hissing, “Don’t say a word. Do you understand? Don’t say a word.” Over and over. My sister and I don’t say a word the entire drive home. What is there to say? We sit silently. Clumps of hair missing. Bruises you can see and many more you couldn’t. It is a very long, hot car ride home.
We pulled into our wide driveway, my mom standing at the end smiling and waving. Her black hair bouncing around her shoulders in the slight breeze. I get out of the car before it has completely stopped and run towards her. She takes me in her arms and holds me tight. I am wrapped like a small jewel held close to her. I smell the familiar, dry California air sweet with the scent of pine and eucalyptus; my mother’s Chanel No 5 perfume; the sharp smell of tomatoes and Jergen’s lotion on her hands. Closing my eyes, I inhale and I whisper in her ear. Tell her I love her. Tell her what happened. I share secrets about dark, long, nights with vigils and prayers; about little bodies flying and the sounds their impact made on the thin bedroom walls. I don’t tell her about what happened to me. I had no words for that. No language. But, I could speak as a witness. It was the only thing, in that moment, that I could do. I couldn’t stop him, but I could hold vigils. I could expose him. His power came from silence. I could, for a moment, annihilate that power.
And when my mom, big and strong and invincible like Jamie Summers, let me fall from her arms and began screaming, he was, in that instant, powerless. She yelled and flung her fists in a flurry. She shoved him backwards again and again until he scrambled in the car and backed slowly down the driveway without saying a word.
My mom had became superhuman. Her rage, her willingness to shatter silence, inspired me. I felt bigger, stronger and a little bionic, by proxy. I believed her indomitable.
It was inevitable that we would discover her own personal cryptonyte, buried in the shallow genealogy of muteness that shames survivors and witnesses, as well as the stories they try to tell back into the silent dark. Once the story is supplanted, all witnesses subdued, or otherwise gagged and tied, the old order is restored and you get back to the business of surviving.
We all knew how to survive and we did it quite well for a few months. The silent gathering of daughters into a safety net of retreat required a modicum of normalcy. There were brunches and back to school shopping on Sundays, cookie making and watching Gilligan’s Island on the couch in the living room together on Tuesdays. There was homework and weekend bike rides, arguments over who fed the dog, who was going to take out the garbage and when to get off the phone. My sister and I went to school, cleaned our rooms, played with our rabbits and made forts in the downstairs closet. We fought over who picked the last tv show, threw tantrums, and stormed like the little girls we were dramatically into our separate rooms when we felt like we weren’t being listened to. Then, as the safety net of retreat frayed dangerously at the edges, we faced my mother’s cryptonyte: the family gathering.
The three of us were taking a road trip--my mother, sister and I. The electrical sensation radiating in my chest and arms affirmed all my fears when we pulled up to the cabin and my aunt clamored down the steps to greet us. My sister and I stiffened in unison. We both knew he was inside. We were ushered inside where adults sat around raising highball glasses and endless cigarettes to their lips while playing Yahtzee. He was talking about getting addicted to cigarettes because, at 25 cents a pack, they were cheaper than food. We sat on the couch. I was trying to make sure my sister and I sat next to each other. Everyone smiled and talked about the weather and how nice it was to see one another again. When my mom told us to go to bed, my sister and I silently picked up our bags and walked to my mom’s room.
Time passed. I crawled back into the familiar corner deep inside myself and tried to focus on things I could count. Three red tiles then two blue ones on the bathroom floor. 6 sides of the Yahtzee dice. Fifty threads per square on the living room carpet. Five taps with my pointer finger, then five more with my middle. Switch sides then another set of five. Seven bubbles in my morning pancakes, 3 squeezes of syrup.12 steps to the front porch. I could count anything.
“Come on Cristien, we’re going.” My aunt smiled at me as she leaned in and tried to catch my eye. Six blinks before she said, “Come on, no more excuses.” I was out of excuses. They had made it clear earlier that morning. No more stomach aches, no more bladder “trouble,” no more headaches. My mom and aunt and I were going shopping that afternoon and that was that. My sister would not be joining us. He was staying home too. I don’t remember the reason. It really didn’t matter what they said. I knew we were leaving my sister as a silent peace offering. The old order had risen from the ashes of immolated memories. My mother, once a super-sonic bad ass who had used the power of her rage, bionic vocal cords, and matriarchal roar to silence him and send far away, had been put back in her place. My mother stood, a fuzzy outline in the background, as my aunt handed me my coat and opened the front door. I knew no one would step in to help us ever again. The women had all retreated back into whatever space they had created for themselves and there was no room for me or my sister in those spaces.
I folded myself over and over, an origami girl, all sharp edges and paper cuts. I survived. Cut myself. Cut other people. Until the gradual unfolding of corners allowed room for things beyond just surviving. Years later my sister and I would compare details about hiding places, survival strategies, and our similar somatic ghosts. This was done with few words. We had never talked about what happened with anyone. Even after jumping out of the car that searing summer day to spill secrets to my mother, no one said anything to me. No one asked questions. No one acknowledged anything at all. But, I knew that everyone knew. Silence can protect some people, but it cannot undo a story once it has been told.
That was why, so many years later, when my sister decided to say what happened in her own words, the response, “Well, how much blood was there?” was a clear and bloody line in the sand. My sister and I had tried to draw a protective circle around the boys and girls growing up in the bruised and battered silhouettes of our family members by breaking the silence. Again. But blood is powerful and often people who have been indoctrinated through their own pain and the desperate need to not see what is right in front of them, believe that if there was little or no blood, there was little or no damage. And, if there was little or no damage, the individual stories could remain buried, alongside the safety and well being of future generations. If there was no blood and therefore no damage, then the children he was currently allowed to be around were not in danger and it was not necessary to do or say anything. My sister and I were expected to sacrifice the next generation of children to an endless silent plea to not speak the unspeakable. I suppose offering sacrifices can become habitual and blood, in the contorted legacies of exploitation and survival, continues to draw lines in the sand. Blood quantifies. Blood signals. Assigns blame and responsibility. Blood is given the power to define who is a willing participant, who is an accomplice, who is a real victim and who is a lying whore.
Understanding why the presence or amount of blood was so important doesn’t change anything. I still grind my teeth. I still have inappropriate implosions of shame. I am over or under emotional in response to a now nonexistent danger. I continue to be socially awkward. The map of my body is still contested terrain under constant construction. I still have nightmares. Less often and less intense, they change and re-configure as I do but they are simply a regular feature on both my waking and dream-scape. That’s just what comes with this kind of shit. You don’t get used to it, but you figure out how to live during the day and throughout the night. And that matters. Over time you begin to imagine, you start to feel and then gradually embody the women in your dreams who dares to hold steady. She is barefoot and small, gorgeous and giant. She punches like a piston and reminds you very simply, very sharply, very clearly and precisely, of your own humanity and grace.
*When I read my works, people often ask me if something or other is "true" or “real.” I never know how to answer this. Yes. No. What would be different for you if you discovered what was “real”? What complex factors compel one to ask? While this story is based on “real” experiences, I am not trying to offer a detailed account of “facts” or writing a memoir. I am sharing my experiences.