Riptide
by Marion Smith

Chapter 20

[p.175]I want to call Jasmine and tell her what I’ve done. She deserves to know. She’s threatened to kill him often enough herself. Maybe Jeanne’s already told her. It would be stupid to call her. I won’t.

Jasmine worries about Clint’s present kids. When she and Jeanne sued Clint, his wife phoned Jasmine. “Our little girls are terrified of you and your sister!” she screamed into Jasmine’s ear. “They have nightmares you’re coming to put us out of our house!”

Jasmine was devastated. She loves children. When she was eighteen, she volunteered for three months at a leprosy hospital run by Catholic sisters in India. In Dahnbad. From Delhi, she had to take trains and busses. I went with her so I could know she got there.

Jasmine’s room was like a prison cell. No sink, but a tap with cold water, a dangling light bulb, a wooden string bed with a mattress full of lice. I bought new bedding and towels for her and gave her my health lecture for the last time. She stood waving from the dirt yard as I rattled off in the taxi. The driver cried when he saw me leave her. That’s India: taxi drivers cry for you. He wouldn’t let me pay him, although it was obvious he was very poor. “She’s doing God’s work,” he said in broken English, and cried again.

She dressed wounds, fed patients, read and talked to them, helped in the kitchen and in the fields. The children adored her. [p.176]Jasmine taught them English. She brought them lipsticks and small toys, balls, pencils, and gum. But she didn’t need to bring gifts. Children follow her like baby ducks trailing after their mother. Little girls, now six years older, still write to her from Dahnbad. It’s always that way—children cluster around her. But not Clint’s new children. Now she’ll probably try to help them.

Oh dear. Duncan just accidently honked the horn. I’m jumpy. I remember jumping and knocking a tray when I was lying on Jasmine’s hospital bed in Washington. The visitor buzzer sounded like this car horn; strangest buzzer I ever heard.

I was with Jasmine at a treatment center for abuse survivors. Her psychiatrist there suggested that I come to one of her initial sessions. There was a blizzard when we arrived. Almost everything was closed. We were lucky to get a cab to the hospital. Jasmine wrote later that from her window she watched me plodding through the snow down Wisconsin Avenue to a 7-Eleven to buy her a carton of Diet Coke. She wrote me later that I looked small in the snow, my Keds wading in icy slush to my calves; small but determined. Defiant, she said, shaking my fist at the gods like a monument to human endurance. That’s not true, but I like that she thinks it.

The havoc Clint caused so many people is like that blizzard; it’s like volcanoes erupting or forest fires, earthquakes or floods.

We were in Kauai two weeks after hurricane Iniki. The island had been blasted and was writhing. Hundreds of homes were obliterated, electric lines lay everywhere like twisted spaghetti, there was no power, no phones, no drinking water or sewage pumps. The lush mountains looked fire-stormed. Everywhere bushes and trees were stripped bare, their limbs thrown across streets and roofs. I asked a meteorologist if any good comes from hurricanes. He answered slowly, “Nothing immediate or helpful [p.177]in a human sense. The main after-effect is redistribution of the sand. The beaches shift.”

Shifting sand. Is that a benefit? The residents of Kauai don’t think so.

Is that how abuse changed us? Changed our family and our personal contours as clearly as Kauai’s beaches? I can see good coming from old molds being broken. Duncan can’t. I know what Katherine or Jared would say. I know they like themselves better now, but they’d never choose the price their children paid. Jasmine used to say she had to turn the abuse into some good, find some greater understanding or strength in herself because of it. Now she says that’s bull. She says nothing is worth her loss of self when she was little. Now she sees herself as a moth beating singed wings against the glass of a hurricane candle. Her friends find her beautiful and love her extravagantly, but she usually feels lonely. I think of Yeats: “Ah only god, my dear, will love you for yourself alone, and not your yellow hair.”

Jeanne would say the abuse forced her at a young age to know false from true in people, to trust her own instincts, and not to compromise herself for others’ needs. But she’d never choose to endure it for the sake of any lesson she’s learned. She’d say to hell with shifting sands. You can’t justify the torture of a child by sugarcoating it with the strengths gained from the torment. You might as well say hurrah for the Holocaust, it made us consider the plight of Jews. Hurrah for AIDS and infant malnutrition, they’ll cut population growth in Africa. Hurrah for Armageddon, the Messiah will come sooner. Hurrah for Hiroshima, American lives were saved. Hurrah for the Gulf War, our oil and prestige were preserved.

There’s no good in violence and suffering except in stopping them. That’s the real reverence for life-stopping violence.

But can it be stopped with murder?

[p.178]Duncan asked me once if I know what specific acts were done to Jeanne and Jasmine. I don’t know much. They don’t want to tell it. But I know enough. I know more than enough. I know how Clint told them they were better sexually than Katherine. He told that to Autumn too. He played Jasmine like a hooked fish, told her she was a little princess he would always love and take care of. The same words he used on Elizabeth and Melinda and Autumn. Along with his honeyed words to Jasmine, he convinced Jeanne he’d kill Jasmine if Jeanne ever told—and kill Jeanne too. I know he molested Jasmine in his car while he was driving her to dance lessons, then he’d say, as he opened her car door, “Aren’t you going to thank me for driving you?” And she would. Polite little girl that she was, Jasmine would thank him. Jasmine by six had absorbed the female imperative to please others or be abandoned.

I know what it’s like to watch Jasmine going through a memory too. I watched her re-live one.

She cries, “Help me! Please help me!” She’s sobbing so hard it’s difficult to understand what she’s saying. Then she laughs confusedly and says she doesn’t know where she is until she remembers she’s with him in her yellow bedroom. Her bedroom with the delicate bedspread I tried not to let her eat on. She’s nearly convulsive, throwing back her head and jerking. She says there’s an awful smell; she’s gagging. Then she cries and moans that she wants to die.

One day, six months ago, Jasmine could finally scream at Duncan and me, “I hate you for not protecting me!” Duncan held her head against his chest and stoked her hair. “It’s all right, little mouse,” he whispered.

She cried into his chest, “I want to hear you say you’re sorry.”

Sorry? No, we’d never said it, never known she needed such [p.179]a simple, inadequate summation of our suffering for her. With all her pain, she needed those two meaningless words, “We’re sorry.”

I tell her there are no words. It’s an insult to use words. Like saying, “Sorry, I’m late.” “Sorry, I missed the appointment.” “Sorry, the toast’s burned.” “Sorry, I forgot to pick up the cleaning.”

Still, I know she needs the words. Words can help. My internal gropings are usually words; dialogue from old movie scenes. Sometimes literary passages. “Oh, that this too solid flesh would melt.” “How dreary, stale, flat, and unprofitable.” Shakespeare knew people die for “sorry.” Lear never told Cordelia, Gertrude never apologized sufficiently to Hamlet. Oedipus struck out his eyes with Jocasta’s jewels, blindness for his blindness, but never said, “I’m sorry.”

I try to think of something that will prove I’m “sorry,” instead of words. Duncan said over and over he’d kill in cold blood if he could go back and stop Clint. For Duncan, that’s pretty “sorry.” And now I have. Killed in brain-clogged putrid blood. For you, Jasmine, for all of us, especially for me, but for you too. Youngest child, my “sorry” is a tapeworm gnawing at my entrails. Sometimes it sleeps, but mostly I feel the dull ache of its constant gnawing.

“I’d walk on coals,” I’ve said. Cheap words. Would I? I think so. I think walking on searing coals might feel very good.

Everything I have I’d give for “sorry.” I’d give up all my children, every grandchild—wish them all to another continent and another life—for sorry. I’d give up Duncan and take the years to come alone.

How can I tell you?

I’m sorry.

Take the words for what they’re worth. X-ray my soul and [p.180]find that I am “sorry.” Or have my silence. “What we cannot speak, we must pass over in silence.” Wittgenstein?

What would Jasmine say to my plea? It’s possible she might answer, “Mom, does anyone understand what atonement means?”

We’ve crossed Date Palm Drive. Fifteen minutes more. Then I can crawl in bed and stay there forever.

Jasmine and I must separate. The issues all mothers and daughters have are intensified by her abuse and by her intuitive responses to me. I could list her issues about me: abandonment, nurturance, obligation, independence, dependence, protectiveness, gratitude, approval, control, enmeshment. But what do these terms mean? What do they say of the joy she’s given my life? What do they convey of the understanding we share? If the abuse affects our relationship permanently, our joining and our separating, then I’ll kill him again and again every day for the rest of my life.

Duncan stretches. “You’re gonna make it.”

“Yeah. You should give me a medal for not going over seventy.”

“Maybe you’ve started a new good habit. Still want to go to breakfast?”

“Sure. If I can lie down first and take a shower.”

We’re past Frank Sinatra Drive with all the palm trees and fountains. I wish I had an ice cube.

I couldn’t reach Jasmine now anyway. Like Jeanne, she’s in class. Maybe she’ll suddenly know. The professor will pause to pass out papers and she’ll want to blurt out, “My mother blew his brains out!”

“What do we do after breakfast?”

“Make it up as we go along, I guess.” Duncan smiles. “Like everything else.”

[p.181]I remember flying home from a workshop in Texas, looking down at the land stretching bleak and flat near Austin. Fields incised with geometric human-made shapes: squares, triangles, diagonals, perfect circles that must have been the cylinder tops of water tanks or storage bins. Everything well-ordered. All browns, tans, and beiges, with a little green along some edges. Nothing in the landscape was natural. No jagged lakes or mountains to break the imposed pattern. It was suffocating to look at even from the air, and I was glad I wasn’t down there in the 110 degree heat. This is our accomplishment, I thought, this taming of the land. If I were strong enough to hike the Himalayas, I’d escape the dominion of humans to a place without edges, precision, or definition.

Funny how well I remember that view. If I were flying above southern California right now, I could watch our tiny car crawl on a straight-ribbon freeway. I could say, “There goes a toy car through an endless desert, outside the checkerboard of squares and perfect circles.” Nature never manifests as straight or ordered. In nature everything’s contextual and relative. Murder isn’t straight. It’s a fractal of wobbles and tentative diffused half-patterns conjoining for one brief millisecond: the time it takes to squeeze a trigger, to stop a breath.

At the workshop in Texas we did some visualizations. In one I was holding a ball of energy. As I imagined it, it became a small planet. Our planet. First, it felt like one of those soft red sponge balls children play with. Then it changed into something fragile and tenuous, almost as vulnerable as a soap bubble except it wouldn’t burst. I could feel it resting on my palms, my finger tips barely sensing it. It was like a silver Christmas tree ornament, delicate and exquisite. The leader told us to play with whatever we were holding. I couldn’t. It seemed too precious. Tears were running into my mouth, but I didn’t care. I wanted to go on [p.182]holding my precious planet. From nowhere, an old Beatles’ song flashed through my mind, “Once as I was floating by, a lovely planet caught my eye.”

Later we did a meditation exercise. I didn’t think I could do it; I’d only tried meditation once before. I don’t know if it was true meditation but it worked for me. First, we worked on relaxation and breathing. Then the leader asked us to concentrate on a point in our chests and to send love to someone from that point. At first, I couldn’t do it. I wanted to send love to Jasmine, but all I could get were pictures of her: at her present age kneeling with her face burrowed into her dog’s furry side. Then a picture of her at six in her blue Mary dress for the Christmas pageant. Next I felt her as an infant in my arms, felt her soft head, and saw her scrunched-up eyes and tiny perfect fingers with transparent. fingernails: Last, I saw her in college wearing a cashmere cardigan reading her term paper to her class.

The images left, and I felt her in my body. I felt her in my throat as tears and a choking lump. I felt my arms protecting her, holding her hands, stroking her hair. My fingertips barely brushing her face, healing her. All of her entering me and my love going out to her. My love was all around her, first as pale violet feathers so soft she was unaware of them, then as pink and violet clouds. Then it changed to the lightest mist on her face, arms, and body. I felt my love enveloping all of her across space and time in a flow of soft pastel mist that was the best of me, that was not self-seeking in any way at all. I felt my tears falling and my chest opening and my throat crying. Slow tears so gentle, gentle. Finally the tears changed the clouds of mist to rainbow colors, then to golden light. Showers of golden-white light in individual particles arching through a dark sky and falling on her face and all around her like white fireworks. The strongest and best of me was falling all [p.183]around her; not my pain or guilt reaching out but golden-white sprays arching and falling forever.

I wanted this image never to end, but it had to. I couldn’t sustain my love in that kind of pureness and intensity.

We’re turning off the freeway onto the Palm Desert exit. It’s getting hot. Duncan switches the air conditioner on for these last few blocks.

“I’ve been trying to remember if a scripture is in the Old or New Testament,” he tells me.

“Which scripture?”

“Vengeance is mine. ‘Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord.’”

I can’t answer, can’t speak. Vengeance is yours? I scream silently. Then why, why didn’t you take it? Why do you leave it to us?

My body feels like a clenched fist, frozen permanently. I’m so glad we’re finally here.