Joe isn’t done with me yet. He and Laura have been best friends for years, and they decide it will be good for me to talk with him on the phone regularly. I don’t know what his girlfriend thinks about this, but she apparently doesn’t get a vote. Neither do I. My stomach clenches every time a boy’s voice on the line says, “Hey! It’s Joe.”
It never occurs to me to tell Laura what he did because it never occurs to me that she will believe me or, if she does, that she will see it as a problem. I imagine what she would say. So what? He was just having fun.
They are big into fun, these two. They think I should be having more fun. They tell me that of course the calls with Joe are fun, so my phone rings for weeks, maybe a month or two.
“See,” Joe says brightly on the line while snow falls outside. “Isn’t this fun?”
It is not. I clench my knees to my chest. I am not allowed to say no to men. Not to the men at church or at school and most especially, not to my father. Saying no to an 18-year-old boy is not something I could conceive of, let alone do. So I smile and say, “Sure.”
“See,” he says. “It’s fun.”
I don’t know what he’s talking about. He asks questions. I answer them. His questions are trivial. Superficial. At their most sinister, they are rhetorical. He asks me questions not to learn about me, not to find out what I think. But to make me complicit. To get me to agree to my own stalking and to give him permission for it.
“You’re having fun, aren’t you?”
“And it’s good practice, right? For when you get a boyfriend.”
“Sure,” I say, knowing that if that ever happens, any boyfriend of mine will be nothing like him. At school, I have already asked one guy on a date. He said no, but one of these days, someone will say yes. And it won’t be like this. It will be nothing like this. I’ll make sure of it.
* * *
Every morning now when I leave for the school bus, my father is waiting in the living room. Manspreading, as we call it now, on the couch. Sometimes he is reading the paper. Sometimes he is going through his briefcase. But often, he just sits there, staring at me. I put on my coat and shoes, and I don’t look at him. I always hope if I ignore him, he will let me pass uncommented upon. I want to know what it feels like to go to school and face my peers, just once, without being reminded of how worthless I am.
But this never happens. He inspects me from head to toe. And he always finds fault.
“Your hair is oily,” he says. “What’s wrong with your skin? Your collar isn’t straight. Those jeans don’t fit you. That coat makes you look awful.”
When he fails to find anything specific, he falls back on generalities. “You look messy.”
I always counter, although I know there’s no point. Worse, I think he enjoys it when I fight back. But I do it anyway. I know, with absolute certainty, that the only way out of this house intact is to never, ever let his abuse pass for normal. To never accept it as my due.
No, it isn’t. Nothing. No, it’s not. Yes, they do. Well you bought it for me. I do not.
As much as I know the whole purpose is to humiliate me, sometimes his arrows do hit home. How could they not? I’m an anxious, insecure teenager.
So I start to wonder. To doubt. I look in the mirror to check. There is no grease in my hair. Not a wrinkle in my collar. So I look harder. Surely, there must be some flaw, some reason for him to shred my confidence every morning, leaving it in tatters on the foyer tiles before I can even open the door.
But, seeing this approach is working, he leans into it for the mind-fuck. Every time I look in the mirror now, to check if I have a pimple, if my teeth need extra flossing, he criticizes that, too. “You’re so vain,” he says. “Always looking in the mirror. So shallow and self-absorbed, you should be ashamed of yourself.”
Through all his criticism, I hear what he is really saying.
No one will ever want you.
* * *
I am invited to a sweet 16 birthday dance for a girl at church. I don’t want to go. But I am never invited to socialize with the girls from church, and my mother is not missing this chance. She does my hair, as she does every day before school, and drives me to the church.
In the gymnasium, I find dim lights and a row of aluminum chairs set against one wall. Teenagers stand around in clumps chatting with friends. Most of them, when I have said hello at school, have cold-shouldered me. So I stay on the perimeter, drifting down the end line and eyeing the row of chairs. I have never been to a church dance before, but these chairs, I know, are for the girls. We are supposed to sit in them, quietly and patiently, until a boy asks us to dance.
I don’t want to. I am not an apple in the produce section to be picked over and inspected. My father’s morning ritual is quite enough, thank you.
Instead, I mill around by the punch bowl. I am so painfully shy that I don’t even remember if I worked up the nerve to say hello to the birthday girl.
But then the music begins, and one of the adults chaperoning the party herds me to the chairs. She sits me down and stands in front of me, planting her kitten heels on the sideline and smiling in that particular Mormon way. The way that looks all sweet and sunny, but if you’re from the culture, you know it’s Mormon for: Don’t mess with me, bitch.
I tell her why look, what a shame, I’ve finished my punch. Time for more.
As I rise to my feet, she smiles more broadly and takes my cup from me and goes to refill my punch for me. You’re not going anywhere, little missy.
I slump back into my seat and sulk.
And this is how I spend most of the party.
Until, as we are winding down for the final 20 minutes, one of the boys from my Sunday School class, the gentlest one—Bryce—steps up to my chair and asks me to dance.
I don’t respond at first. I’m sure he didn’t ask me. If he did, then I’m sure he didn’t mean it. I look up at him skeptically, searching his face for pity. But I only see kindness.
It isn’t until he starts to glance towards the doors, rubbing his hands nervously over his trouser pockets like he’s feeling for his keys, that I realize he’s sincere.
“Oh, yes. Sure. Of course,” I say, embarrassed and apologetic now.
His hand is dry, a little ashy, but warm, and we walk to the dance floor. As far as partner dances go, Cornish trained me in the polka and the waltz as well as numerous folk dances. Important for the big set pieces in nearly every ballet. What he’s doing isn’t any of those. I try to follow along. But really, it just seems like waddling. Who thinks this is dancing? I almost giggle.
And then he slides a hand around to the small of my back.
I panic. I almost shove him away. It takes every ounce of self-control to keep breathing, to not black out like I do on the bus every morning when someone sits next to me. I’m still hyperventilating. I stiffen. I don’t want him to touch me. But he’s being kind. He is truly gentle. I’m supposed to enjoy this.
Bryce isn’t doing anything wrong.
But I don’t want to be here anymore.
I wait until the song finishes. I thank him as sincerely as I can, he smiles, and we drop each other’s hands at the same moment. We part ways quickly, with mutual relief.
I don’t know what I am feeling. I only know that I can’t figure it out here, with chaperones and slow dances. So I dash out of the gym, the door swinging behind me. It is too early for my mother to be in the parking lot, so I head down the hallway. I glance behind me. No one is following. I turn down another hallway, a dark one, and step into a classroom. One door. No windows. I wait for the door to drift closed, and then I press my back against its cool surface. The familiar smell of Mormon church buildings: warm photocopy machines, chalk, and pencil shavings.
I don’t switch on the light. It is the first time I know the relief of total darkness. The anonymity. The body dissolving into nothingness. I lift my hand and cannot see it. I take deeper breaths.
I don’t know what has just happened. I don’t yet know that PTSD exists. I search my feelings, trying to find where the panic had come from. Had I just fallen in love with Bryce? No, that wasn’t it. Did I want to cry? Sort of, but not really. Was I scared?
This was closer, but it still wasn’t right. I only had an image. A primordial fly, trapped in amber, but when it’s still soft like wax. When it’s not yet fully hardened and you are still alive inside it, unable to move, but thinking maybe, maybe there’s still a way out. Your eyeballs bouncing back and forth. Maybe, maybe, you are still thinking, even as you are dying a slow death. Maybe there’s still a chance.
But there isn’t.
I wait in the darkness for the party to end, flipping the light switch now and then to check the clock on the wall.
Time passes slowly. It oozes. Time, the very amber that is encasing me, growing solid. Standing still. Memory, the illusion of a past. That was then and now and always.
It is the closest I come to understanding post-traumatic stress for a long, long time.