In the bathtub. The bruises hurt a little, tiny cuts stinging under warm water. My mother, drying me off. Touches a deep purple-blue mark. Why do you make me do this?
I have no answer.
The teacher asked questions. I told the truth. My mother was called. She was closeted with the teacher and the head for a long time while I kicked my heels in the hall, my face still tender and inflamed, smelling chalk and sweat and metal. The halls were empty.
My mother came out, she walked too fast to the car, I trotted to keep up. Inside the car I began to ask her what would happen now, but she slapped me again, hard, on the same side of my face.
If you make trouble like that again, he’ll lose his job. We will all starve. Your sisters will starve.
I stifled the sobs on the silent drive home.
He didn’t hit me in the face again. For a while.
Held down in the hall and punched repeatedly while family photos smiled emptily above. The next day, a different teacher asked questions. I said it was my fault. I had done it to myself. It was all I could think of.
If you tell, I’ll take them away. We’ll all leave you here.
I didn’t tell.
I came home to find my mother sitting at the kitchen table with my diary open in front of her. She ripped pages out and forced me to put them down the garbage disposal, smacking the back of my head repeatedly while I cried. I hid them, but she always found them. This is MY house, you won’t hide in MY house!
I learned to lie even in diaries. Later, a French teacher kept them in a sealed box for me over the summer. I remember being surprised she didn’t slit the tape and read them.
I was fourteen, he was much older. The first time he hit me was after a party. I had talked too long, smiled too much, at another male. Afterwards, he held me, stroked my hair as I sobbed. I just love you so much, he whispered over and over again.
It felt familiar.
verb: dissimulate; 3rd person present: dissimulates; past tense: dissimulated; past participle: dissimulated; gerund or present participle: dissimulating
1. conceal or disguise (one’s thoughts, feelings, or character).
I hid in books. In stories. If it was “just a story” they wouldn’t catch me, wouldn’t hurt me. Still, I took no chances. I had to learn to always carry the notebook with me–Mead 5-star, 5-subject, spiral bound, easily mistaken for schoolwork in a backpack. When I had a driver’s license, I drove to rubbish bins in different places. Public places–parks, malls, streetcorners. I learned to let go. When the notebooks were full I jammed them into the public bins and walked away quickly, hurrying back to the car. Sometimes I would ride a bus, get off at random places, stuff the notebook in a bin, walk to the next stop or the next, wait for the next bus.
It hurt to throw them away. But the stories were safer there.
I learn to hide what it feels like to be held down and punched, to be slapped in the front seat, to sob snotnosed over the purring garbage disposal, between the bars of stories. Terror, pain, never being good enough, the feeling of fingers slipping one by one off the edge as your feet dangle. Lying in bed wide-eyed, hoping not to hear stealthy footsteps. All this, poured into story containers. Playing hide-and-seek, afraid of being caught telling the truth and the inevitable consequences–shame, agony, abandonment.
Sometimes, just on the edge of sleep, I think about all those notebooks in landfills, sleeping under plastic and layers of rubbish, soaked with noisome fluids. Their paper will decay, and if an archaeologist ever digs there to find out what her ancient ancestors ate, thought, believed, threw away, only the plastic covers and the corroded metal of the spiral bindings remain. I wonder how much history is hidden, how many other children through time had to throw away, abandon, hide, without even the small comfort of weaving it into stories to relieve the awful pressure of untold secrets.
I can never get those notebooks back, but in the end I won anyway. I pushed their poison out of me with each scrawled word. My therapist calls it resourceful, tells me I was smart and brave to keep going, to try to keep myself together with those words, and to even throw them away.
I am not so sure. But I know I won. Every word I wrote is burned into me, flesh and blood and breath. By throwing them away, I made them even more mine, something nobody could take away even if they killed me, secrets hidden inside me, in the only places I had left.
Now I write other stories. Between the bars, I catch glimpses of those things. Exorcism is an ongoing process.
They ask why do you write?
Because I must. I have to. Because the stories demand it. Because my own sanity demands it. Because it is the only way to prove I exist, that I am not what they tried to beat into or out of me, that I can be intact. Because it is a way I can prove I am whole.
I get letters, sometimes. Thank you. This gave me the strength to go on. How did you know? This was exactly what I felt. I understand this. It put into words what I felt.
Each notebook in a landfill was a seed. The shock of recognition, when someone else reads what I struggled to say, is the tree.
No longer lonely, isolated, alien, is the fruit. If someone else felt this, saw this, heard this, I am not alone.
This, this is why I write.