by Marion Smith
[p.88]We’re at an all-night truck stop on the edge of Las Vegas having coffee and doughnuts. The air is stale from cigarettes and hamburger grease. Duncan looks half-dead. He drove all the way from Palm Springs so Jeanne would be rested for her ride home. We talk discreetly, softly. We feel like strangers. The lights are too bright and they haven’t wiped the formica table clean. I’m so tired. I take some Advil hoping to slow down the headache I feel coming. I wish Duncan could make everything go away.
“You’ve got to let me drive now,” I tell Duncan. “I can’t sleep anyway and you’re going to be dead at the wheel if you go on.” Surprisingly he nods in agreement. ‘Just for a little while. To rest my back. Promise you’ll wake me if you get too sleepy.”
“Sleepy—that sounds so benign.”
“You don’t feel too benign right now?” He manages a weak grin. “Funny. This is where we came on our honeymoon.”
“Would you do it again—for better or worse?”
“I would. You’re the one I don’t know about.” He looks straight into me. “You look awful. Did it work all right?”
“Just like a script. You thought of everything. It still isn’t real. I’m numb. How about you?”
“Jeanne was great. I managed to drop a package getting off the rental car bus. I think the driver would remember me. It’s been pretty bad driving here to meet you … not knowing …”
[p.89]“Where was Jeanne? At the airport?”
“With the checked bags. That makes sense—that I would’ve left you with the bags. The biggest problem I can see is the mileage on this car.”
“We say we went to Joshua Tree National Monument. How far is that? And to the L.A. County art exhibit. Good thing we actually saw it last month. Isn’t that almost enough?”
“No, we still have about 300 miles to account for. Anyhow, we can’t drive it much this week in Palm Springs.”
“I don’t think that’ll be any great loss. I don’t exactly feel up to playing in the Bob Hope Classic.”
“Glad you can laugh.”
How can we be having this small talk? Is he okay? Will he feel differently about me—that I have done this and put all of us at such risk? He’s scratching the back of his neck like he always does when he’s upset.
“Did you look at him?”
“A little. I couldn’t help it. It was like you said.”
“Nothing. No Feeling. It’s too early. Except I keep wondering if I should turn myself in, or live a lie for the rest of my life. And make you, too.”
“That’s not an option. I draw the line there. I never would’ve agreed. Besides, Jeanne and Chris would probably be incriminated. “
“I don’t see why. We’d figure out something. I could say I’d hidden a car up that quarry exit road. But that still incriminates you. Don’t worry. I’m not going to call the police. How can we ever have a life?”
“It’s something I won’t even talk about. Ever. We agreed. This time you can’t change the rules. Just take one moment at a time …”
[p.90]“Okay, let’s get out of here.”
It’s cold walking to the car. I’m shaking.
Put on a tape. Not over sixty-five; you promised him. Make haste slowly, I tell myself. He’s quiet. Finish thinking how you got here. Finish it tonight. Make sense of all the pieces. The tape is Berlioz’ Requiem. It’s too loud and might wake Duncan. I take it out.
I hate it when people have a dog in an open truck like the one I just passed. It was a German shepherd.
The night Hilda died, we were alone, Jasmine and I. Jasmine must have been seven or eight. There was a puddle of blood by the stairs to the garage. Jasmine made the decision. She said Hilda shouldn’t suffer. She was brave.
I took Hilda to the vet. Jasmine didn’t want to come. I think it was the first time I’d left her alone in the house at night. I worried. Lying on the table at the vet’s, Hilda looked at me as I held her trembling head. She quivered for less than a minute, for only a breath.
When Jasmine was a toddler, she’d poke her fingers in Hilda’s eyes and ears. Hilda would lick her face all over. Jasmine drank her bottle lying on Hilda’s brown and gold fur.
Hilda was Katherine’s dog. Katherine gave her to Jasmine when she married.
I can’t breathe. I’ll never be able to breathe again.
Jasmine asks us now, “How could you have gone to Europe that summer and left them to tend me? How could you not have known something was wrong with Clint?” She says her abandonment is deeper than anger; there are no words for it. Only incomprehension and sadness.
I have no words for her. No answers. Of course, she knows we’d never have done anything to hurt her; that we never [p.91]comprehended or even considered that Clint might be a menace. But we did know something was wrong with Clint. And nothing we can say or do or think will ever change that. It’s as though you were driving and a child ran into the street and you killed her. Certainly there’s no intent, but nothing will bring her back and you feel responsible. If only you’d braked sooner or been going slower. But you’ll never know for sure. That’s the worst part—you’ll never know.
Duncan says no one else back in the 1970s would’ve reacted any differently than we did. He says we have to wait for time to help Jasmine and just try to give her whatever she needs from us. But I’ve already waited decades! She’s in graduate school now, but time and Clint have stolen half her life!
When I think of her teenage years consumed by bulimia, I want to die … or kill Clint. That’s the line I’ve said over and over in my mind. Now I’ve crossed it.
I can’t see. Maybe I should let Duncan drive.
There’s the exit for the highway to Reno and Donner Lake. How old was I that night I stayed at Donner Lake with Mother and Dad? A junior in high school. Sixteen, I guess.
I’m sitting with Mother and Dad at a small round table in the cafe. The window is almost too grimy to reveal the black porcupine-like quill needles thick on every branch brushing the glass. Behind the trees somewhere the water is juggling a slender silver moon like an elongated pyramid. It’s cold on the pebbly beach; the air smells like a forest with rotting log earth.
Dad says to the waitress, “Miss, tell the cook I can’t cut this. I said medium rare. Did you get the order wrong?”
Mother, fussing because her green beans have been cooked in oil, doesn’t send them back, but keeps complaining, now about the salad dressing, then about the lukewarm coffee. “What this kitchen must look like!”
[p.92]The dark forest outside the window is possessing me. I have to get out from behind this plastic table and away from the cash register ringing louder than the jukebox in the corner.
Out at the lake, scrunching on a granite boulder dabbling my toes in the shivering black, I can hardly bear to look, it’s so beautiful. I close my eyes to shut it away—it’s too much beauty to believe or endure. I hug myself to keep away the chill. Joy catches in my throat. Solitude curls around my shoulders. Will there ever be someone I’d want to be with, here? Someone beside me so I won’t burst with loneliness at the wonder of the moon behind the pines against the water? Even back then my mind stepped back and said, “This is what it’s like to be sixteen.”
Did Jasmine feel that way at sixteen? Or was she too alone to see the moon at all?
She was hospitalized first at seventeen, a year after the grandchildren talked and Katherine had divorced Clint. I tried to tell Jasmine’s therapists she might have been sexually abused by Clint. They agreed, but said it would take time before she was ready to remember. Even then, in 1988, the relationship of eating disorders to child sexual abuse wasn’t widely known. Now they say the correlation is around 80 percent. Now they say no therapist should be treating one condition without knowing the treatment for the other. Having control over your body and not wanting to grow up or face sexuality is a huge part of anorexia or bulimia. Eventually, your chemical balance goes berserk.
That night in high school, when Jasmine was at a crisis stage, was as bad as this. As terrifying. She took a hundred laxative tablets. By 2:00 a.m. she was screaming and writhing in pain. In the emergency room I finally knew how serious her condition was. The doctors told her how easy it is to die from phosphate depletion and salts imbalance. They scolded her. I listened and could say nothing. I’ve never felt so helpless. People say they [p.93]understand, but they don’t get the helplessness. I was terribly angry at her. Once again I tried to talk her into finding a hospital program. No psychiatrist she’d seen had been much help. I knew then there was nothing I could do and that she would have to do it for herself. I had to pull back and watch. I almost wished that night she’d die and get it over with. Nothing of the turbulence and self-destructiveness of her behavior made sense to any of us. She was beautiful and bright, had many friends, had no conflicts we knew of, on and on.
At last Jasmine did go into a hospital program. She worked hard and all of us benefitted, but none of it made sense until six years later when Jeanne and Jasmine both started to remember their sexual abuse by Clint. I think Jasmine’s bulimia is why I hate him most.
I thought Duncan was asleep, but he’s sitting up fussing with the tape deck. This could almost be a normal car trip.
“I don’t like these American cars. No quality,” he says.
“Not very comfortable?”
“Remember Laurel, that yellow Fiat convertible we rented in Hawaii? That first great trip … when was it, almost thirty years ago?”
“That was a great trip. One of the few times I was thin, between babies. I had a yellow strapless sundress and lavender shorts with a halter. Flowers in my hair every night. They put baby orchids on our pillows.”
“Maybe I’ll get a convertible.”
“Sounds good. They used to say that’s what men got when they couldn’t afford a mistress, remember?”
“Makes sense … I oughta get a fun toy before I die.”
“He who dies with the most toys wins. Your t-shirt.”
“Jared gave me that shirt.”
“Jared quit chasing toys for good after the abuse came out.”
[p.94]“The abuse changed everything for Jared and Rachel. Do you think a day goes by they don’t think of it?”
“I don’t know. They’re both as near to being model parents as anyone.” That’s one good thing that came out of this, I think. Jared and Rachel’s priorities. Not that they didn’t always put the children first. “Even with the abuse, I think Melinda and Autumn are lucky children—to have the parents they have, even if they’re overprotective. “
“They’re lucky,” Duncan concurs.
Beautiful, bright, talented, in good schools, lot’s of activities. Nice kids, nice family. Lucky children.
Except that Autumn is obsessed with space. She wants to get off the planet more than anything. At twelve, she’s a walking encyclopedia of astrophysics. Star Trek scenarios and space probes. That’s where she was during the abuse. My guess is she dissociated more than any of the grandchildren.
How can people doubt the mind’s ability to block events? Boring lecture … Pain at the dentist’s … Something awful happens … go through the motions, say the words, but go somewhere else in your head. Why wouldn’t our minds leave our bodies during trauma? Why wouldn’t we “forget” it? I’m glad you could space-out, Autumn.
Clint played to Autumn. He threatened and manipulated others, but he played to Autumn. She says even now that a part of her loves him. She still says he can’t be all bad. I remember when she was six, the pictures she drew after she told. Pink hearts in “good” people with suns shining over them and flowers with faces in a row under their feet; then she drew black hearts in “bad” people with scowls on their faces and dogs with big teeth trying to bite them. Black skies instead of suns. In a picture of Clint she drew a heart half pink and half black. “He’s cut in two,” she told [p.95]us. “The good Clint and the bad Clint.” Two jagged hearts, black and pink.
Now both Clints are gone. One bullet for two people.
“Do you remember how tiny Melinda was, Duncan? How she couldn’t talk right or look in your eyes until a year after the abuse came out?”
“Yes,” Duncan nods. He bends toward the steering wheel to check the speedometer. “Never saw a sweeter, more loving child. She was adorable. Her eyes filled half her face, like huge blue saucers.”
“She was so tiny. Then she had that growth spurt as soon as she’d told; now she’s taller than her classmates.”
“Do you think a doctor would say that was the reason?” Duncan asks.
“I have no idea. But I know what Rachel thinks.” I hesitate to ask, but finally I do. “Do you let yourself have images of Melinda’s abuse? Scenes of what happened to her or any of the others?”
“No. What’s the point? Why torment yourself?”
“Like Mt. Everest, I guess. Because it’s there. I have to know.”
Duncan shakes his head dismissively. “Melinda would be the worst one to think about. She was so little … of course Alisha was even younger, barely three.”
“I always think of Melinda when anyone talks about threatening children. Melinda was the one who first told how they strangled a kitten and buried it in their back yard. They said that’s just how they’d kill her if she or Autumn told. Bury her right next to the kitten.”
“Remember how the police wouldn’t investigate it; or even check to find the buried kitten?” His voice is quiet and bitter. “Melinda got hysterical telling about the kitten, remember?”
“I remember Rachel saying that at least the kitty they killed [p.96]was one the children didn’t know. That was awful when Rachel said that. Jared was going to dig up the whole yard until they decided it wouldn’t matter anyway.”
“The police had already made up their minds to wiggle out of an investigation. They were glad we wouldn’t let the children testify.”
“You’re probably right. That’s what happened.” I fiddle with the lever for the angle of my seat. I see Melinda’s face. I look at Duncan. He seems vulnerable, but something makes me say it anyway. “For me, the most poignant moment with Melinda was when she talked about that monstrous woman Sister Kearns being really nice because she put Melinda in the sink and washed the blood off her legs with warm water. I hope she burns in hell.”
“She will.” He smiles a little.
“Do you think I will?”
“No. I don’t care anyway. If that’s the afterlife, they can stuff it.”
“You won’t burn. If you do, we all will.”
“Very consoling. What would I do without you?” I place my right hand lightly on the back of his neck, then rub his back a little.
“Boy that feels good.”
“Get pretty achy? Go back to sleep. Have we forgotten anything?”
“We’re okay. Try the radio again.”
I don’t turn it on. I don’t want to hear it.
Duncan closes his eyes.
I think how ashamed Melinda was at three. “I never touched anybody,” she kept saying. I think of Jasmine’s shame. I’ve tried to understand or relate to her irrational shame. I’ve asked myself, [p.97]did I know shame? Shame like that? Even mildly? If I’m on public trial, will I feel that kind of shame? No. Something else.
Shame is body-based, usually sexual. It’s secret, hidden humiliation. And it’s almost always disproportionate to the cause. Like the time you wet your pants in second grade or found blood on your skirt in seventh—you can never quite let it go.
I don’t think I suffered much child-shame. Anger, guilt, but not much shame. Nothing to help me get in touch with Jasmine’s. She nearly drowned in hers.
There was the time when I was eight and walked in on Daddy when he was standing nude in the bathtub drying. He didn’t seem to care; didn’t hurry to cover himself; offered no apology. Perhaps he was amused by my mortified expression and speedy exit. I thought I’d done something really bad.
Whenever I thought about it afterwards, I shuddered at the sight of his body. Months later, in the summer, when we all slept in the basement to keep cool, I’d hear him in the night going to the bathroom. He didn’t flush the toilet because he thought it would wake us. I’d stuff my fingers in my ears, but I still felt revulsion. I was too embarrassed to look at him at breakfast. I never said a word.
As a girl, I had such a strong reaction to these simple, innocent events. Was it a normal part of breaking away from my dad? My feeling of “shame” at seeing my father’s genitals is nothing compared to what Jasmine or Jeanne endured. A microcosm of their humiliation. Jasmine and Jeanne should pierce me with arrows for making such naive comparisons. I can’t bear that they should have to live with such undeserved and overwhelming shame for their childhoods.
Who are the destroyers of children? How can they go on living? Why doesn’t guilt annihilate them? Then people like me wouldn’t have to.
[p.98]One night after Jasmine had overdosed on laxatives at seventeen, there was a cry outside. It was like Cathy at the window in Wuthering Heights. It lightning pierced me as I ran to the back door, then to the front window. Nothing. Still it screamed. I thought I had gone mad.
It was a young elk trapped under our metal gate in deep snow. It lay without struggle or movement. Quiet, then crying. Like a child in the darkness. Like Cathy at the window, trying to come in. Like a child whose terror, pain, and shame I can never understand. A child who must scream alone in the cold night.