June 7, 2015
And They Were Not Protected
And They Were Not Protected tells of my childhood and teen years up to the point of leaving home and running away. I hope that I got the ages and dates right, but if not, I have my sister, who remembers certain things much better that I do. I wrote it a few years ago, and published it in a blog I used to have. Here it is again.
LETTER FROM M. L. (dated June 6, 2010)
“I was not with you when you were 15 years old…. I wish I were. I remember alot of things. Things that were wrong. Things that should not have happened to younger under age little girls. And they were not protected. They were left alone to fend for themselves. They were left alone to make decisions for themselves. They were left alone to say oh yeah I’ll smoke that [or] yeah, I’ll take that. We were not protected from the world as it was.
So why do you feel guilty? Why do you condemn yourself for what he did? For what all of them did to their children?
It’s not our fault. It’s not your fault. It’s not my fault.
Stand tall. be yourself, be strong!”
When I was around eight-years-old, in 1970, my parents divorced. It was a time of Vietnam, the Moody Blues, drive-in movies and the Kent State shootings. I really don’t remember much about the protesting and shooting at Kent State, or my parent’s divorce, for that matter. My desperately shy existence consisted of books and David Cassidy. I had a mad crush on him, and the music to “I Think I Love You” reverberated in my head every time I looked at his face from the poster hanging on my bedroom wall.
I have very few memories of my days in California between the ages of two and ten-years-old. I remember eating frozen bananas on sticks, dipped in chocolate and rolled in chopped nuts, as we walked on a wooden boardwalk that jutted out over the Pacific. I haven’t had one since, but I can still remember how they taste. And mom taking us grunion hunting in the middle of the night, under a big yellow moon, still in our pajamas, rolled up high so they wouldn’t get wet as we caught the splashing silver fish along the shore with our bare hands. Charles Bukowski must not have seen us when he penned the poem “The Hunt”.
“…and the grunion ran again
through the oily sea
to plant eggs on shore and be caught
by unemployed drunks
with flopping canvas hats
and no woman at all”
I remember my mom, so exotic and beautiful with a smudge of kohl accentuating her sapphire blue eyes, and her long black hair done up in the fashionable bouffant style of the 60’s coming in to kiss us goodnight before she went out, her perfume lingering in the room long after she left.
I remember the smell of alcohol on her boyfriend’s breath when he snuck into my room, leaned in close and slipped his hands under my blanket.
I have vague memories of staying a summer in a trailer park, a type of 60’s California commune. I was supposed to have been with my father that summer, but instead, my little sister and I ended up there, to live with my two older half sisters. I would stay awake at night listening to guitars strumming, and the hippies in the park, with their long hair, the scent of patchouli and cannabis afloat, singing Don McLean’s “Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie”, which remains one of my favorite songs to this day.
It was there that my oldest sister’s boyfriend, recently back from Vietnam, came to my bed at night, just as my mother’s boyfriend had done. Another time, he arranged to take me alone to the deserted cove of a beach. I don’t remember how I came about not having my bathing suit on, maybe I took it off willingly, sparklingly innocent in my nine-year-old nakedness, the only witnesses being the soaring seagulls and the crashing sea. I remember part of what happened there, but not all.
My psychologist once told me once that our minds allow us to remember things when we’re able to deal with them. I’ve considered hypnotherapy, but I think I’ll let it go. Maybe my mind knows better.
I was 10-years-old when we moved back to Florida. We stayed with my grandmother until mom found us a place to live. I loved my grandmother, but living with her wasn’t easy. I don’t think she wanted us there. She was usually angry and not very nice. Now I realize that she was clinically depressed. In those days, people went undiagnosed and somehow lived with it, unlike in my mother’s time. Mom made sure she had plenty of medication for her depression.
One summer day, my little sister Lisa and I were riding our bikes. A man stopped his car to ask us directions to the next town. He left after we told him, but turned around and came back. He asked us lots of questions, how old were we? Did we have any brothers? Where did we live? Lisa became nervous. “Debbie, we have to go. Mom’s calling. Come on.” But I wasn’t falling for it. I knew mom wasn’t calling us. I shot her a withering look. He’d just asked if we wanted to earn $5.00. I couldn’t believe Lisa was being a big baby and was going to ruin our chances of earning some money of our own.
He asked if we knew what a hand job was. It sounded like something to do with fixing the car. I was sure we could learn easily enough. Anyway, if Lisa wasn’t willing to learn, I was. “Just take a look in here, I’ll show you how.” I took a step closer to the car and leaned forward to look in the window, trying to ignore Lisa’s pleads to go home. What I saw was his erect penis clutched in his fist. My mind saw a gigantic purple monster. I sped away, peddling as fast as I could. By the time I got home, I was sobbing hysterically. Lisa, I learned later, followed close behind me, zigzagging the whole way. She thought I’d seen a gun.
When I was thirteen, we moved into the sagging wooden shack on the edge of the road that mom bought. She bought it for the property and said that it would be her retirement one day. After all of her financial struggles, when she turned 60, she sold it for a million dollars, echoing what she’d always told us – you can never go wrong owning land.
Some of the wood on the house had begun to rot, a great deal of the paint had peeled off, and the house itself drooped down like a dying daisy toward the ground. What was left of the original white paint had turned a mottled grey, the color of a rain cloud before a summer storm. It was a small, single story house, which faced the rural road and had a thick pine and palmetto scrub forest as a back yard. In the deepest part of the woods was a lake, which we kids swam in, until we spotted an alligator, its dragon-like ridged back, eyes and snout barely above the surface of the water as it glided silently through the reeds.
To the left from the main living area was a hallway. Mom and Lisa’s bedrooms were at the end of it. There was nothing unusual about those rooms except that my mom’s room was where the three older neighborhood boys took me that time when they broke into the house, after they beat Lisa’s friend up and broke a couple of his ribs.
I didn’t protest and I didn’t fight. I went willingly. I didn’t think there was anything I could do.
I don’t remember everything that happened in that room, but I do remember floating above my body.
Afterwards, it was never discussed, which was fine with me. I didn’t want to talk about it. I felt guilty, like it was my fault. I knew if I pushed it far enough out of my mind it would disappear and be gone, as if it never happened. I was good at that. Afterwards, when I saw those boys, they were mean and said that they wouldn’t touch me with a ten foot pole. However, I know what they did.
And they know what they did.
At the beginning of the hallway was my bedroom. In my room at night, I could hear the palmetto bugs and roaches scurrying, and I remember the sound they make when they fly – a whir, then a click when they landed on something – the wall, the floor, please God, not my blanket. I was sure I would die if one were to land on me or crawl on me, so even though the nights were Florida hot I would make sure not an inch of space was open between the light blanket and me.
It was under those blankets in the sweltering sticky heat that I dreamed of another place, a place far away, a whole other life. I wasn’t sure where, but I thought if only I could get away, I’d be safe and happy. Safe from the roaches, safe from the older neighborhood boys, safe from the thoughts in my head, and my sharp self-criticism. By this time I’d picked up where my father left off. I no longer needed him to tell me I was good for nothing. My own thoughts answered his words, like an echo in my head.
Almost directly across the hallway from my room was the bathroom. It was your typical bathroom, except for the fact that there was a hole in the floor near the toilet where you could see the ground. Other than that, it was fine and functional, with an old tub, toilet and sink.
One winter my mom couldn’t afford to buy another water heater when the one we had had broken, and we had to boil water for our baths. That was okay, we had a bath time routine at night and got used to it.
Then there was Uncle Billy and the Cracker Jack Rodeo.
Usually Uncle Billy would pick up the kids in his van and take us. He wasn’t really our uncle, but all of us called him Uncle Billy. His van was made especially for him, with complicated hand gears and something in the back with which to lift his wheelchair out. He liked it when we came along, especially the girls, and would let us smoke cigarettes and weed around him.
I don’t remember the first time I smoked pot, but by that time, when I was 13, we’d discovered how to get nickel bags from the dicey areas of Wabasso, a few miles up the road. We’d have an older friend drive us and go to the places where young men hung out in groups, their skin glistening in the stifling heat, outside informal, old wooden stores or bars. All we’d have to do is produce the $5.00 and we’d come away with a baggie.
We used to go to the roller skating rink in those days. It was the best. Especially the time we went after that party, the one at the hotel room in Fort Pierce, where they were all smoking pot and snorting coke. I took a hit of acid that someone handed me, then we all decided to go down the road to skate. The lights blared and pulsed and the music reverberated. I skated round and round to Frankie Valli’s “My Eyes Adored You” and Elton John’s “Philadelphia Freedom”, and felt alone with the music.
The next town south of us, Fort Pierce, was a frequent destination. Many times, we’d end up partying in a run down hotel room with people we didn’t really know. Once, at a party, I talked most of the night to someone and found out the next day that he was stabbed to death after I left.
Some summer days I’d go over to Bonnie’s place, which was just down the road from us in a small house near Curtis’s farm. I’d walk in my bare feet, jumping from the sizzling asphalt to the sandy edge and back again, always careful of sand stickers. Bonnie was an older woman with a raspy voice and a hacking cough. She would share her cigarettes, both of us blowing smoke rings, and talk to me as if I was an adult, sitting there at her stained Formica kitchen table, even though I was only fourteen. Sometimes she’d impart her wisdom about sex. “Once a girl loses her virginity she always wants ‘it’”, she casually said one day. I never asked her about her life, why her children never visited, for instance, or why she lived alone.
It was the summer that Elvis Presley died; the summer that New York City brunettes like myself could finally relax after being terrorized by the serial killer David Berkowitz, also known as the Son of Sam. I had recently turned fifteen and this was the summer that would change my life forever…
I rolled over on my towel and pulled at the edges of my bathing suit bottom, making sure all was covered that was supposed to be covered, and rested my head on my arm. The day was perfectly hot. The sun baked my oil-slick body. I wriggled my arms a bit to make an indentation in the sand, until the hollow was just right. I closed my eyes and listened. My breath became rhythmical like the gentle waves that broke, then sucked away. The sounds of the sea birds echoed in my mind, the distant sound of people talking became soft static.
With my head turned to the side, still resting on my arm, I barely opened my eyes and squinted through the blazing sunlight. There was an older couple, sitting on beach chairs reading novels. From their deeply wrinkled bronze bodies, it was obvious that they spent too many hours in the sun. I heard the protest of a child and saw a mom, sitting on a toy-strewn blanket, put on the bathing suit of her small son for the third time – he kept taking it off and running to the water’s edge.
And sitting on the top landing of the wooden boardwalk, a young man stared out into the ocean. I quietly watched him. He had wavy dark long hair. His jeans were worn and soft. I found it odd that he wore jeans on the beach in this heat. One thing I knew, he wasn’t from here. No local would think of wearing jeans on the beach. Well, at least his feet were bare. As he gazed out, I found myself wondering what he was thinking. Maybe about his girlfriend far away in a cold climate.
As it turned out, he was as charming, at least in the beginning, as he was good-looking.
Two months later, I left the wooden house by the road for the last time with the young man I’d met on the beach. I left a note for mom, telling her I’d gone to Bonnie’s for the afternoon, and very simply, at fifteen-years-old, walked away and left home.
I didn’t carry many things with me. A few clothes, and, as a second thought, just before leaving, I grabbed a picture of Lisa, mom, and me. The feelings I remember were of excitement – excitement at the prospect of travel and the feeling of stepping out into the unknown future, which I thought must be better than the existence in which I currently lived. I hated my life and I hated myself.
If I had known, and was able to see the future, I would have hugged Lisa tight, and told her I loved her. Mom, too. But, I don’t have the gift of foresight, and in my youthful ignorance, I never could have guessed what was to happen, and how my life would be altered forever.
Once on the highway, I jutted out my thumb to the passing traffic, and finally left, just as I always knew I would.