Riptide
by Marion Smith

Chapter 16

[p.132]There’s no reality beyond the space inside this car. My arms weigh a thousand pounds. Cars I pass are unreal toys. Everything’s floating. I pinch my cheeks to stay awake, curl my toes, tighten my stomach muscles, bounce a little in my seat. I need caffeine.

“You know,” a voice comes from Duncan. “If the court had granted child visitation to Clint, I would’ve walked into his office and blown his brains out and saved you the trouble.”

“I didn’t know you were awake. Tickle my back down in the middle? Thanks. A little to the right.”

“Remember the day I took my gun to the safety deposit box? I was pretty bad that day.”

“You said, ‘I don’t want to cop out on you.’ I was so scared.”

“I thought I was the last person on earth who would consider suicide. Self-destructive behaviors are so irrational. Then I was there … continually obsessing about my gun.”

“Your depression …”

“A black, bottomless hole. Too deep for rage. I can’t go there again, no matter what.” Duncan almost groans.

“It seemed like a dense fog around you. I felt it the minute I walked in the house. It was physical. I felt helpless in the face of it. Like I did with Jasmine’s bulimia.”

“How many months do you think I was like that?”

“At least six. No. You were on Prozac close to a year. It [p.133]seemed like your depression started to get better when you finally talked about it.”

“Maybe. I don’t know.”

“I was scared for you again when Jeanne told us what she was remembering—that he’d abused her, too.”

“Me too. I couldn’t let it happen—the depression. I blocked most of what she told us for a couple of months.”

“Like shock.”

“It’s odd. I still can’t remember any signs of abuse when they were little,” he says.

“There had to be some. But I can’t find many either.”

Duncan’s asleep again. I wish I had an ice cube to chew. Instead I pick up a potato chip from the mini-sack Duncan bought at the last Chevron station. The salt is addictive. My tongue remembers salt on Grandmother’s tomatoes fresh from her garden; it circles the rim of a Margarita glass, seeks the smooth inner curve of a salt-saturated pistachio nut, licks ocean salt from sunburned lips. Clint will never taste salt again.

There were signs of abuse when Jeanne and Jasmine were little, but the signs were subtle. The same is true for the grandchildren. Melinda and Autumn had a lot of urinary tract infections.

Rachel’s pediatrician told her to stop putting soap in their baths. Then there was the way Shawn talked. His sentences were measured as though he were selecting every word. He seemed to be consciously choosing big adult words. No spontaneity. Like trying to say, “Look how smart I am.” I thought he’d had too much attention—his parents hanging on his every word. Within six months of his disclosure, his speech patterns changed totally. They were normal, full of slang and half-sentences. How terrible he had to censor himself, and that he never knew why.

There was the picnic up Millcreek Canyon with Jared and Rachel and Melinda and Autumn. We were sitting around the [p.134]campfire eating hotdogs when Autumn picked up a raw hotdog and stuck it in Melinda’s face. “Put it in your mouth and it’ll make wee wee,” Autumn teased. Melinda burst into tears and Rachael comforted her. When the conversation shifted, Melinda stopped crying. I forgot the incident until the children talked about having pee in their mouths. Then it flashed before me like a movie and I remembered something hadn’t seemed quite right that night.

There was the time when Duncan was videotaping Shawn and Elizabeth running through the sprinklers in our back yard. “Do you want us to take our swimming suits off?” Shawn had asked. I remember thinking that he must be hot. How many other tiny moments, words, gestures have I forgotten? Moments that vanish before you see or hear them, yet they’re all filed away or stuffed in messy cupboards in your brain, waiting to be opened.

Melinda wouldn’t make eye contact, Alisha hated having her diaper changed, and Autumn’s imaginary friend was with her constantly, but who’d suspect anything from those clues?

After the disclosure, Katherine’s cleaning lady told me of an earlier incident when Alisha had seen her holding the potted plant soil sensor with its long sharp point. Alisha had cried, “Are you going to hurt my bottom with that?”

In the aftermath of their disclosures, almost every hour the grandchildren made poignant references. Shawn told Duncan he wanted to ask Heavenly Father why did Mommy think she should marry Daddy. After a lesson on Daniel and the lion’s den, Shawn told his Sunday school teacher that it wasn’t true that children’s prayers were answered. “I asked Heavenly Father every night to make bad things stop, but he never did.”

Elizabeth was watching Mr. Rogers s Neighborhood on TV one morning. “If people saw us in the videos,” she said, “they’d know we weren’t lying.” She called Clint “poo-poo brain” and “liar.” She [p.135]said, “I want to tell him how angry I am he tricked us. Then I want to go somewhere fun with him.”

Alisha wanted to know if Daddy’s sickness was catching. She kept saying, “Heavenly Father wants me killed for telling.” When Katherine’s baby tender tried to take off Alisha’s wet clothes one time, she went crazy, screaming uncontrollably, “Don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me!” Alisha told me, “Daddy doesn’t live at home anymore ’cause he’s mad at Mommy for giving me baby bottles. He wants me to be a big girl.” Alisha didn’t understand that Clint wasn’t coming home.

Autumn told Rachel, “It felt worst when it felt good. It’s all mixed up.” She wondered if she’d have a baby right away. She asked if it was wrong for her to still love Clint. She said they wanted to see how far up her an ice pick could go before she bled. She prayed to Heavenly Father every night to make it stop, while thinking she was bad to ask.

Melinda told me, “They made us kick each other sometimes … finger nails hurt … sometimes it’s soft and tickley … Other children don’t make it hurt … if I cried, sometimes they’d stop.” She painted an alligator on an elephant’s back. “It’s going to look for the bad people. The alligator has sharp teeth to get them. The alligator is all hurt inside—inside and outside. Now they’re going to the doctor. He makes the alligator all better.” She drew spiders trying to eat bad people. In all of her stories, the children became better and the bad people were bitten or she scribbled them out.

After a couple of months, Elizabeth talked to me about Daddy and Heavenly Father. “I wish Daddy had never been born. I wish he was up in Heaven. It’s all his fault things are bad at home and Mommy’s so breakable. Why did Heavenly Father have him born? I want to cut his penis off. Can Grandpa baptize me again and make me clean?”

All of the grandchildren had nightmares every night. They [p.136]were either mean at school or withdrawn. Their teachers worried. Their school work suffered. They fought with each other all the time. Shawn wanted a baby bottle; Elizabeth sucked her thumb constantly; Alisha would only sleep with Katherine; Autumn spent long periods staring at nothing. Melinda cried constantly and wanted to sleep in a crib again. Yet every one of these children had appeared happy and normal while the abuse was going on.

There were signs with our own children as well—Jeanne and Jasmine. Jeanne was very sad in junior high for no reason we knew of. Jasmine didn’t want to grow up. Jeanne and some of our other kids hated Clint. They tried to tell us. We didn’t hear them. Until Jasmine’s bulimia, there was no apparent problem.

When the grandchildren talked, Jeanne was in Mexico on student exchange. We couldn’t bring ourselves to tell her about the children over the phone. Duncan and I took Jasmine with us to Cuernavaca to tell her in person.

Right off, we had asked Jeanne if Clint had ever touched her. Jeanne said “no” and sat on our hotel bed and cried for hours. She seemed to feel worse than any of us. Her therapist now thinks Jeanne couldn’t let herself remember until she was in a safe place and knew that Duncan and I would be all right.

Jasmine mostly spaced out. The grandchildren’s abuse was no more real to her than my near-death experience had been. Dissociation. Repression. Denial. Marvelous abilities our brains use to protect us. Jasmine used them all.

She’s seven. Clint’s trained her by now. He has dropped by our house to find Katherine on his way home from the university. Katherine isn’t here. He says he’ll watch Jasmine while I run to the store. I tell him I’ll be back in half an hour.

“How’re you doing with your skateboard?” he asks Jasmine after I leave. He’s wearing brown cords and a navy sweatshirt. He’s sitting on the family room sofa. [p.137]“Not very good. I got my knee bloody.” Jasmine’s on the rug brushing Hilda. She doesn’t look at Clint.

“I can probably make the wheels go slower. Where is it?”

“In my room.” She tells him.

“Let’s go fix it.”

“You go. I’m doing Hilda.” Her voice betrays nothing. She hides her face in Hilda’s fur.

“Jasmine. What did I tell you about minding? If I’m nice enough to fix your skateboard, the least you can do is help me. I might even have a piece of bubble gum.”

He’s very big. He takes her little hand as they climb the stairs. He tells her he’ll help her learn how to manage her skateboard, but his voice is whispery, in the scary way. He’s hurrying and pulls her.

He closes the door to her room.

“We don’t have much time if I’m going to fix your skateboard. How’s my little sweetheart?”

He unbuttons her pants. He picks her up and puts her on the bed. Her body is limp. She doesn’t say anything.

She looks at the yellow flowers on her wallpaper. Soon, if she looks hard enough, they’ll start to come out from the wallpaper. Then it’ll be all right. She stares so hard her eyes tear. The yellow flowers are bright and big as the sun. She blinks.

She looks down at the little girl on the bed. She’s older and bigger than the little girl on the bed, from up in the corner by the ceiling. She doesn’t care what happens to the little girl. The little girl looks like a cut-out wooden doll a few inches thick glued tight to the yellow bedspread. The little girl isn’t moving. The little girl has a light blue painted T-shirt with a printed face of a child with blond pony tails. The mouth is smiling widely. Underneath the face big letters say “Daddy’s Girl.” She can read the letters from the corner of the ceiling because she knows what they say. Below [p.138]the painted T-shirt are two bare brown legs glued to the bed in an upside-down V. On one of the knees is a bloody scab.

Long white fingers are tickling the little girl’s tummy under her T-shirt. The little girl giggles.

She hates the little girl. The little girl is stupid. She’s ugly too. She’s bad and dumb.

A voice is saying, “Such a pretty little girl. My little princess. Nobody else knows how pretty you are.”

She knows he’s lying. The little girl is ugly. Everybody thinks so. The little girl likes him to tell her she’s pretty. She’s so dumb she’d believe anything.

The voice says, “I’ll bet you play our game real good today.”

The little girl’s crying. “Cry baby,” she thinks. “Why don’t you kick him? Why do you just lie there? I hate you.”

She imagines taking Daddy’s long silver firestarter and touching it to the little girl. She wonders if she would go up in ashes like a newspaper crumpled in the fireplace.

She can see his face even though she’s looking down from the ceiling. His face is big and red. There are hairs in little tiny holes on his chin. His eyes go back from his face into big circles. A red pimple by his nose has yellow on it. A drip of water is running down from the corner of his open mouth. She knows that the little girl thinks he smells like sour milk in cereal that’s been sitting on the counter too long.

If she were on the bed, she’d kick him. She’d get the big kitchen knife from the middle drawer and stick it in him. She’d make his heart be all bleedy. She’d make his mouth close so he could never make the sounds again.

“See, that didn’t hurt.” He’s panting like he’d been playing tag at recess.

The little girl hasn’t moved. She’s still nailed down. Tears [p.139]run down her cheeks but she doesn’t make a noise. He shakes her if she makes any noise.

He’s going out of the door of her bedroom. He has the skateboard. He’ll make the wheels go slower.

“Heavenly Father’s proud of how you’re learning the lessons,” he says as he closes the door.

She knows how to stay on the ceiling longer than she used to. She can stay there until the little girl doesn’t hurt so badly. She knows the little girl hurts worse on the inside than on the outside.

She feels sorry for her now. She feels like crying. She wants to tell the little girl she can cry if she wants to. She wants to hand the little girl the big green bunny on the floor. The bunny’s almost as big as the little girl. Daddy gave it to her last Easter.

She wants to tell the little girl to be brave and tell him she doesn’t want to play the games. But the little girl can’t see or hear her. She can’t do anything else now so she disappears; the little girl lies quietly on her bed alone.

And Clint—after he closes her door?

He tries not to think what he’s done. He’s intent on the wheels of the skateboard. He looks at the wheels and says to himself, “I’ve got to make this go slower. I promised Jasmine I’d fix them. Can’t break promises to children.”

He’s empty, drained. He knows something’s happened, something he should think about, but he might stumble on the stairs if he did. He wonders if Jasmine loves him. She must. He does many nice things for her. Nobody appreciates him! Not Katherine, not Laurel or Duncan. Not his own mother. She always bosses him, even now when he’s twenty-four. The only people he can boss are children. Children are special; they understand him. He can tell them what to do; they know he’s strong and smart and powerful. That was how he used to think of his own mother, still [p.140]does if he’s honest with himself. Her power over him bugs Katherine.

He turns the small wrench on the nuts of the skateboard wheels. Jasmine must love him. He wants her to love him. After all, he loves Jasmine. Children give grownups something no one else can. All children, doesn’t matter which. He likes all children. Katherine thinks that’s one of his best qualities.

There, the skateboard’s fixed. Laurel should be back. He’ll be on his way. Laurel and Duncan bother him sometimes. He wishes they took Katherine’s temple marriage more seriously. It’s only six weeks away. Not that they aren’t pleased about a temple marriage; they want all their kids to be married in the temple. They’re after Jared now to go on a mission. But they don’t appreciate how hard his mission was and how much temple marriage means to him. Laurel will have a glass of wine on rare occasions. Does she tell the bishop? He wonders if she’s worthy to go to the temple. She doesn’t take it as seriously as he does.

He’s upset he didn’t do better on his exam this morning. He prayed very hard to do well. Heavenly Father let him down. People are always letting him down. Sometimes he wouldn’t care if most of the people he knows were dead. Children are better than adults.

“Jasmine,” he calls up the stair. “I’ve fixed it.”

She doesn’t answer. He doesn’t get many thanks in this house. They’re too spoiled.

He hears the garage door going up and a, car motor stopping.

Laurel opens the hall door.

“Thanks so much. I hope I wasn’t too long.”

“That’s okay. I fixed Jasmine’s skateboard for her.”

“Oh Clint, that’s so nice of you. Who knows when Duncan would have gotten around to it.”

[p.141]“That’s okay. Tell Duncan I’ll pick up those new snow tires whenever he wants.”

He goes out the front door into the cold fall air. He wonders why he feels so tired and depressed. He’d like to go home and sleep. Nobody appreciates him.

As he walks to his car, he’s aware that tiny tears are coming from his eyes. He wipes his cheek with the back of his hand. He has no idea why he’s crying. “I need some sleep,” he thinks. “Up too late studying.” He glances at the cold, bare branches of the maple tree by the driveway. “I hate fall,” he thinks despairingly. Before he steps into his car, he kicks a Coke can in the gutter. He bends and picks up a small rock and slings it at the can. It hits dead-on in the middle, but he feels no pride. He shrugs and gets in the car and slowly drives away.

And I, sitting in my car like any tourist driving to Palm Springs. If Clint’s mother had been my mother … who would I be now?

A shudder quivers through my chest and shoulders. Like a tremor from an earthquake aftershock.

What do I really know of the interiors of his mind?

All I know is how skillfully he manipulated each child. With Autumn, gentle seduction and praise. With others, terror alternating with playfulness and flattery. With his own kids, he capitalized on their love for him, on their need for his approval and fear of his rejection, and on the sibling competition. Jasmine, her shame, confusion, guilt: “If you ever tell, Jasmine, everyone will think you’re dirty and bad. They’ll hate you.” And with Jeanne, his big hands encircle her small throat, fingers touching at the back of her neck, thumbs meeting over her Adam’s apple. He presses his thumb into her throat so slightly the pressure from his touch would hardly have made an indent on a piece of soft velvet. Jeanne’s eyes are wide and staring. Little drops of sweat rise on [p.142]her nose. He’s intoxicated with his own power over her life and death. It’s all he can do to release his hold and move his hands to her shoulders where they pin her to the bed. One hand roughly finds the waistband of her shorts. He smiles at the disciplined control of his hands as his fingers enter her panties.

If Clint’s mother had been mine—who would I be now?