I know the stare of someone sleeping with their eyes open. My therapist has struggled to remain focused in my last few sessions. She’s always saying, That must have been very hard for you. And then that stare, that warm, out-of-focus stare. But this last time I had moved on from the dissection of parents and religion to the fact that I had finally had the conversation I’d been meaning to have with my girlfriend and it had gone well. I was feeling good. Open. Ready for past, present and future to align, on their way.
So, this is how it starts: a Playboy magazine in my father’s drawer. Of all the pictures I must have seen these two I remember: a woman in a hospital bed, in a fresh body cast, her long lean leg the only piece of flesh exposed, stretched high above her head; in the other, a woman sits on a hay bale, muscles tense, slick, gleaming from oil, sweat, her deeply tan legs spread, a hand, her own, parting warm, smooth lips. But here’s where I’m wrong. Apparently, Playboy doesn’t show “spread-shots,” never did, though I was under the misapprehension all my life until I mentioned this to a more versed consumer of pornography. After all, I was only five when I first found them—until ten when we finally got caught. The we being me, my older sister and the two older girls down the road—Shea and Becky who had been with boys and each other for as long as I can remember.
The getting caught is even less clear. Shea and Becky on our lawn, climbing onto their bikes in the quiet of my parents standing by the porch door, waiting for them to leave. Once gone, no more talking.
Three separate stories branch out here. Every person has a story with another person. So, I had a story with my sister, I had a story with Shea (the closest in age to me) and I had a story with Becky. But really there are more, aren’t there? The self with a group is different than the self with an individual. How many ways do you cut it, a group of four, not too many, but then why did it feel like too many selves for me to keep track of?
My sister and I were never lovers. This much remains clear. We were, however, exceptionally close and kissed—only once—on the lips. Adrienne was sitting on her twin bed, right alongside mine. I was coming out of the bathroom to go down to the dinner table when she called me into our room.
I want to try something, she said, and pressed her lips onto mine. Physicality is physicality. Newness is newness. Surely it would not be the same today.
Once more, instead of her usual bedtime stories Adrienne recited a portion of a romance novel one of her friends had brought to school. She had memorized it and she knew she had a captive audience (I, in my pajamas, scrubbed and brushed). I knew what it was to be nonchalant, a word I knew the sound of, its approximation, and I tried to put the word into action. I have to pee, I said. No, she said, what you are is horny. Horny, she repeated, and I clamped my legs together, No no, I really have to go. And I did. Sat on the toilet, sputtered, sat for a few moments more, wiped what was not there and flushed, washed, producing all the necessary noises for that word not to be true.
Their family lived down the hill from us. It is just both sets of parents now. I drive by when I go home to visit. I look for them there, out in their yard, moving around on the gravel pathways behind their house. I have to look quickly to see the number of cars, wondering whose they are.
Each of our families had one boy and two girls, and every Sunday after early Mass we would go to one of our two houses for breakfast. We’d have pancakes, scrambled eggs, fruit salad. And the parents would drink coffee and they’d try to keep us away from it, but at the end, if we ate what we were supposed to and if we hadn’t acted out in church or at the table, they gave us our allotted candy bar for the week and we’d all slink off upstairs—if it was our house—to the playroom or if we were at their house, we would go outside into the old hog shed the girls had converted into a playhouse, which in the winter was warmed by a wood burning stove (stupidly, wastefully, my father complained about his failure of a farmer for a neighbor, but a friend nonetheless).
Becky and Shea’s brother Bill and our brother Delwin were roughly the same age, so it was easy for them to keep to themselves. They were the oldest, but Delwin still tried to impress Becky and Shea when we all had to be together—at the breakfast or dinner table, on the Fourth of July where we all sat in lawn chairs out on their front lawn (we usually held it at their house because our dog, a sensitive Border Collie, tremored under our porch, soiled himself)—while Bill remained oblivious to Adrienne and me. I was much too young—it would have been considered criminal—though I was in love with him. But I was in love with all of them then.
And when we hid from our parents after the fireworks, I found Bill in the trees once and believed if my mother had not found us, the darkness and the scratch of the evergreens would have forgotten our age. There was a second time when I was small enough to require a chaperone for hide n’ seek and he was mine. We were in the basement behind some discarded furniture when he kissed me and then laughed at me for being shocked. I don’t know how he made me feel, it didn’t matter, but later that night after everyone was found, I wondered if it had even happened.
Most of what I tell here has been like that. I suppose that’s why I write it down.
These things are not the things I need to tell my girlfriend. I’ve told them all or as much as I could remember when we first became friends. That is the kind of friendship we built our lives upon. The immediate expulsion of our histories, often shared and easily understood. We all have such memories. The terms we place on sexual awakening/not-quite-losing our innocence. Most of what I recall, I remember as if I’d like to go to Becky or Shea some evening and ask them what they thought of me then. If they thought I was beautiful or if I just came with the territory of Adrienne. Or if I was just their little mascot.
I would not have minded being that for them, they were such beautiful girls. Round and curvy, popular in school, they still acknowledged my kindergarten existence on the playground and my junior-high existence in our seventh-to-twelfth grade high school (though our family gatherings had ceased by that time), but I always wanted more from them than they could have ever given in public. I wondered if they noticed the slightest swell in my breasts. I wanted to hide what little I had from everyone else, but wanted them to search like they knew my body as landscape. Something you inevitably take in (but do not necessarily note) when you grow up in the country and all there is, is slight variation in gradation of slope and hill. Wild grass to domesticated corn to gravel to trees.
Before my mother caught me in the hallway with the Penthouse—yes, it must have been a Penthouse instead of Playboy—and took it away from me and put it in her own drawer, she said nothing to me except the girls’ mother called (the phone did ring) and wanted them home.
This is something I have entirely made up. The memory I have is of standing outside the door of our bedroom and Shea holding the door closed against my desperate attempts to get in and my imagining getting caught and then Becky taunting me with her full-grown cleavage before letting me in.
If we were to have gotten caught with the paraphernalia on our person, it would have been me most likely, since I was the transporter, chosen as the youngest and the quietest. But I do not remember the reprimand, though I have since furthered my spying skills. Treading lightly, I have been known to sneak up on people without even trying. Suspicion could have come from the door locked behind us at all times or else a misplaced order of the magazines and my father having to tell my mother. But there was this one time we felt dangerous and we looked in the open on our parents’ bed. We had only wanted a quick look.
It had most likely been Becky, the greatest risk taker of us all, and I’m sure Adrienne must have been looking down the hallway, listening for the creak of stairs (but what if she wasn’t?), while I, as the youngest, felt protected and did not look to the door.
And although it freed me to look without fear I would not have liked it if I had not been blamed with the rest of the girls, if Adrienne had been eyed suspiciously and taken away from me, making her home in the playroom or the basement (which did not happen), because what did happen was either a denial of its happening or a dismissal of girls just being girls or a talk with Becky and Shea’s parents and their assuring my parents it would never happen again and my parents believing them, eventually forgiving them, hoping the damage had not been done. These last things were the things I especially did not want to be true, Becky and Shea being the bad ones, the ones in need of forgiveness.
My therapeutic time is drawing to a close. I can tell by the way my therapist shifts in her seat, making her way to the edge. For the first time in our session, she appears alert, almost hopeful. Maybe this is the moment when some hidden truth reveals itself, when her patients finally divulge what they’ve been winding around for the last fifty minutes. Or maybe it’s just that’s she can finally pause and synthesize, find a suitable ending to a rambling she cannot control. It is hard work, I acknowledge, endlessly distilling narratives into content, symbols, key moments that have formed the patients who sit before her, asking to be understood, healed.
But stories are not content-based, are they? We are not always looking for the new. This will not wow or shock. I want relation. I want to know more about my therapist. I want to know if she understands, if she judges me, if her experiences are similar. Would we heal better if this were to take place? These are not bad memories, but they make me sad, and I do and do not understand why. What will make me understand the connections? Will someone else? Am I asking too much of the people I tell this story to? Do they wish I would stop asking them? I know they cannot speak back, but I imagine they do, and it comforts me. Is that so wrong?
The next time we saw each other it was the Fourth of July—our families’ most traditional shared holiday. They would not take this away, and in the light of such festivities, a little curiosity seemed harmless. No less harmless than playing swords with sparklers, lighting Black Cats while holding them in our hands, throwing them away from us as soon as we heard the sizzle.
The bugs were so bad we had an indoor picnic. Macaroni and Jell-O salads lined the fully extended dinner table, and we were all asked to use napkins and not to laugh too hard as to spit soda out our mouths or noses. These were things we had been known to do under parental supervision. The constraint was too much for us and every move made us feel as though we were about to lose control over the pure hilarity of: Delwin stupidly balancing a spoon on his nose, his neglect of Barb’s broccoli, his face-making that anywhere else would have been considered childish as used by kids not adults, but because it was defiance, it was funny, and my brother’s mediocre rebellion held him up as a superstar and Becky and Shea laughed at him and Adrienne laughed at him and Bill laughed at him, and I tried to laugh at him but I was just thinking about if I had done the same things he did, no one would find them funny, and what does he have that makes people laugh, what makes him sure enough to do the stupid things no one should laugh at but they do. Any other time, my brother was funny. Just not when he was performing.
We ate fast, all the kids did. Let the parents talk and talk until it was late and dark enough to care it was the Fourth of July. We had to make use of our time.
Bill and Delwin mostly kept to themselves after dinner. Sitting in Bill’s room with the door open looking at baseball cards or looking at car magazines. I was pretty much clueless to their activities. As for the girls, we’d make our way into Becky and Shea’s room where we did things I can’t quite remember. I have two or three memories, so I think that must be what we did.
One memory is of Becky and Shea putting makeup on me, commenting on how I should be plucking my eyebrows (I was nine, they were fourteen and fifteen), but marveling at my long eyelashes, my baby soft skin (were they not aware of my age?). Another is of them cloaking my hair with strategically sprayed layers of Aqua Net, and a hair curler, the sizzle and smell sickening and tantalizing in its biohazardous metal aerosol can. The third for sure memory was this night.
What this is, I guess, is my childhood. A story cannot simply be about a person’s childhood though, can it? Everyone has that story, and no one cares, or is it everyone cares? I could care less what the man sitting next to me on the subway did that day or any other day in his miserable adult life, but I would like to know where he grew up, if he had siblings, if his parents were mean, and noting my assumption, hesitating, Did you have parents?, I mean did you live with your parents?, Was there a grandparent or the state, a foster home with kids you loved or did not relate to?
When we went to Becky and Shea’s room as usual to do whatever kind of primping things we normally did mixed with whatever extravagances we attached to that, a change had taken place. It was no longer a shared room. Shea shut the door behind us. It was just hers now. Adrienne and I thought we’d never get our own room (when we had asked), and we were right, all the way until she graduated college and left me alone with our single beds.
Becky: Your parents must have said something to our parents.
Adrienne: They never said anything to us.
Shea: Neither did our parents, but it’s different now.
Me: They were just magazines.
Becky, Adrienne, Shea staring at me.
Becky: It was not just magazines.
Adrienne: If our parents had said something, we would have told them that was it.
Internal Me: That wasn’t it? (Fear)
External Me: That wasn’t it? (Innocence)
Adrienne looked at me. I wasn’t always in the room. They often kept me locked out, giggling wildly while I was left holding the evidence. Accepting this because it was my way into the room. It is now that I realize that I didn’t know what happened there. I was not an equal, I was not let in, not enough.
We asked to see Becky’s new room. There was video camera equipment in it. Their father’s stored in what was the guest bedroom, which was now her bedroom, had not been moved. And now, full of clothes on the floor, makeup at her desk, music from the radio, it became a world without parents outside of it. Fear did not pervade. I don’t know how we kept it out. Children learn to do many things in secret behind locked doors knowing they have bought themselves the time to readjust, hide whatever there was to hide, pretend to do whatever else they had prepared as an excuse. A book by the bed. Homework sprawled on the floor.
Sometimes I double lock my own apartment when I don’t know when to expect my girlfriend home. Her absence is too much for me and there are things I would not want to be caught in the middle of doing.
We began taking our clothes off in front of the mirror. First under the pretext of trying on Barb’s old clothes stored in Becky’s closet. We were excited because this provided the perfect excuse if our parents were to come knocking. But soon it was trying things on in order to take them off. I watched their moves. They chided me about my lack of bra. But there had been nothing there, not really.
I loved to eat. Lots of food. I had a puffed out chest, the cavity not the emergence of breasts, and my butt was high and girlish. I was a girl. I did not mature until long after Becky and Shea had gone off to college.
At some point, Becky began to tape us from behind the camera. And we each took our turn dancing. My sister was embarrassed but became flamboyant in her unease, arms slicing clothing through the air. I cocked my hips from side to side, fully aware that they were not interested in my lack of bounce. I thought this was what it was like to be sexy, to gyrate, to move body parts for people to see them, that it didn’t matter if I was desired, as long as I felt my own body moving.
When everyone had gone except for Becky, Shea took the camera for Becky’s turn. This is what I mostly remember, Becky’s face, another level of knowing. Always another level of knowing. I wanting that. Never fearing it, because it was not expected of me. But it was of Adrienne, so close in age to Becky but with no experience outside of this room, always trying to learn from Becky. Shea the prodigy, carrying out her sister’s wishes precisely, exceeding them even.
What I’ve been meaning to tell my girlfriend is that sometimes when we are together, it reminds me of things I did with them. But nothing about her face conjures them (other girls, maybe, but not Becky or Shea). Not my sister.
Instead it is strangers, people I work with, clients I treat. A coworker, Melissa, who I sometimes work closely with. I don’t say closely as in distance. As in, standing near each other in our office, looking over each other’s notes. She asks me about you, and I tell her you are wonderful, amazing. Generic adjectives I hope she finds room for herself in. There is desire to move toward her, to see how she feels. If her hair is stiff as straw like I remember Becky’s being, as trim in the waist as Shea. Just like her, Melissa curves down to a low full butt and I want to see the slope.
But to you, my girlfriend, as I look at Melissa, I say you are the only one. These are just thoughts and I want them to pass. That is why I do this. Selfishly, I ask you to accept my humanness, my history, what will be my history, what I decide, how I react, if I am the kind of person who stays or goes. I don’t want to be the person who leaves. I do not want to be left. It is in me every day.
Later that night when Shea confided in me on our way into the trees that she had her first French kiss with a boy, she left me visibly hurt on the swing set, calling after me to hurry up. I did not move. I could not join her.
I just found out Becky is about to get married. She’s backed out of it twice. I did not go to Shea’s years ago. It was an elaborate event, I guess, her husband wealthy and eager to please. She had always been slyly demanding.
Photo by Sara Fuller