After school, you play with Mindy. She lives two houses away and has a big brother. He’s tall and lanky and if you knew the word you’d say he was dorky. What does it matter? No one is as weird as you are—as awkward, dumb, or ugly.
Eddie doesn’t think so. He’s even older than your oldest brother, who’s so mean you wish you were an orphan. But you’re not, you’re the only girl and your brothers hate you and your father is always drunk or raving. You’ve never actually talked to him, he just grunts when he sees you and sometimes grabs you and shakes you and yells in your face or worse. Your mother works at her job or cooks or lies on the couch and cries, one arm over her face and the other dangling limply by her side. It looks so scary and vulnerable, that arm, and you kneel and stroke it and try to place it back in her lap so you can hug her but she just pushes you away.
So you go to Mindy’s house where you and she and Christine who lives on the next block play on the swing set. You smile and laugh and pump your feet hard, trying to hurl your swing into the sky, throw it and your body into the wide open blue, land in a fluffy white cloud, fly like Superman or the Green Lantern or Underdog, save the world, save yourself.
Of course you can’t, so you swing and laugh and pretend to be happy when Eddie smiles at you. His mouth is open and his big horsey teeth look disgusting but you’re lapping up the attention. It feels so wrong and so good and your insides are burning and you’re excited and you’re laughing way too hard.
The swing slows down and you let it. “Let’s play tag,” Eddie says and lurches at you, and you’re off the swing and running. You’re still thinking about flying and you want your legs to work better, to lift you off the ground and forward, faster, faster, like you’re light as air, air itself, just a bunch of free floating particles moving through space, invisible, unreachable.
But you are reachable. Your legs are not nimble or spry, with every step they feel slower and heavier and you hate them, you hate your legs and your feet and your arms and your back and your face, you hate everything about you and for the infinity time you wish you weren’t you, you wish you weren’t the person trying to run away from Eddie whose steps are closing in, who’s whooping as his hand grabs onto your shirt and stops you cold.
You writhe in his grip but you’re still pretending the game is fun even though your heart is pumping like an out of control jackhammer and your stomach feels hollow and sick. Eddie is laughing so hard and Mindy and Christine are laughing, too, they’ve finally caught up with you and they’re jumping up and down, pointing and howling like the sight of Eddie dragging you into the garage is the most entertaining thing they’ve ever seen.
“Stay here,” he warns them and closes the door. He has you around the waist now, you’re kicking and trying to scream through his hand that’s covering your mouth. The hand is clammy and hot and smells like Ivory soap mixed with grass. Between that and the arm squeezing your belly you’re gagging and you panic, you can’t breathe.
You stop fighting. You need to calm down, figure out how to get oxygen, how not to die. Eddie’s grip on your waist loosens and you suck in air, stench of motor oil and old rubber, but you’re happy, he’s let you go, it’s all going to be okay. You’re quite wrong, though you’re glad to have felt that feeling for a nanosecond, it’s a feeling you need to have whenever and wherever you can so you can grow up and get the fuck away from everything.
Eddie’s hands are on your shoulders, spinning you around and slamming you against the wall. You don’t know how but he’s lifted you so your feet are off the ground, dangling like your helpless, hopeless mother’s arm, and when he presses his face into yours and shoves his tongue into your mouth that’s all you can think about, your mother, Mommy, help me Mommy, but as soon as the thoughts come you stop them because you know your mother is nowhere near and even if she were, you could never tell her that Eddie is kissing you, that he tastes like rancid peanut butter, that his big teeth are crashing into your tiny ones, that his saliva is smeared around your mouth, that his body is pressed against yours and his hands are touching your skin, making you tremble.
Your fault, all your fault. You laughed and smiled and all this time you knew what he wanted but you liked it, you liked that he chose you, you liked the feel of someone wanting you, of being touched, the sweet transcendence of skin on skin, of being held, even against your will.
Mindy and Christine are banging on the door, making a ruckus. Eddie drops you so fast you twist your ankle when your feet hit the dirt floor, making clouds of iridescent dust. Eddie swings open the door. The sunlight floods in and hurts your eyes.
“What the hell is going on?” Eddie’s father looks at him. His eyes, narrowed in suspicion, relax as he turns and takes in the sight of you. Suddenly you feel the wetness that Eddie has left on your face. You wipe it away with your arm, three swipes back and forth until it’s gone. Eddie’s father smirks and you are tiny, so tiny, you are nothing, really, nothing but a vessel for shame and rage.
You go home, lock yourself in the bathroom and rinse your mouth and cheeks with water until you can’t taste Eddie anymore, then stare at your face in the mirror, trying to see yourself. You look into your eyes, not knowing what the hell you’re looking for, or where to find it.
You are in your room reading “James and the Giant Peach.” The librarian picked it out for you. You love books, you could read them all day and night, and you try, but the spell always wears off. Eventually, you have to remember who you are.
You hear the back door open, the rustling sounds of the unpacking of a grocery bag. Your mother will only be home for a little while before she goes back to work so you put down your book and head for the kitchen. “Hi, Mommy,” you say to her back. She’s standing at the counter, opening a package of chicken legs, dropping them into a metal pan.
She doesn’t answer. You can hear her sigh as she pours oil and vinegar and salt and pepper on the meat. You sidle forward and wrap your arms around her hips. The starched cotton of her uniform feels harsh and smells like bleach. “Leave me alone,” she says. She pushes you away and puts the pan of chicken into the oven.
You’ve never been inside Mindy’s house but she invites you over on Friday night and you go. You want to see where she lives and no one has invited you anywhere before.
At seven o’clock you head out. You’re afraid of the dark but it’s not dark yet. You know it will be when you go home but you try not to think about that. Instead you wonder what Mindy’s room looks like, if she has Barbie or Dawn dolls. You are doing something so normal, walking to a friend’s house to play. With every step you tell yourself you’re a normal girl doing a normal thing and it feels good, and you memorize the feeling so you can find it and remember it later.
When you get there Mindy answers the door. The curtains are drawn. The furniture is brown and the rugs are brown and it’s darker in the house than it is outside. It smells like a combination of old shoes and Mr. Clean. There are fake flowers on the coffee table, dull orange and dusty. You think about leaving but Eddie is there, towering above you. His jeans hang low on his hips, his black shirt tucked inside them. He looks different, and you realize he’s combed his hair.
You listen for sounds in the house but there are none and you wonder where Mindy’s parents are. You turn to her and ask if you can see her toys. Before she can answer Eddie says he wants to play tag again. Mindy shrieks and runs away and you follow her through the living room, up the narrow, chipped stairs, down the hallway into a room.
The bed is large and carefully made, the pillows tucked neatly inside a spread of dark red velvet. You know this is not Mindy’s room, or Eddie’s. There are no toys, just a dresser, an open closet with a terry cloth robe hanging from a hook, a night table covered with a lamp, a newspaper, an ashtray full of gray powder and lipstick stained butts.
Eddie tries to put his hands up your shirt. You shriek and giggle and writhe, creating as much noise and energy as you can because it might get you out of this, and for a minute you think it will because Eddie’s hands stop pawing at you. He turns to Mindy and his hands cover her chest, rubbing in circles, and suddenly Mindy looks as small as you are.
“See, Mindy lets me do it.” Eddie’s voice sounds echoey and strange, like a distant bell. He sends Mindy away. You watch her leave and you’re filled with a longing to go with her. You remember the feeling you had on the walk over, and while Eddie’s hands slide under your shirt and touch your breast buds you pretend you’re going with Mindy to her room and she’s showing you her toys.
Eddie leads you to the bed and it’s high, so high. As you lie on the crushed velvet coverlet you pretend you’re on the swing set outside and you’re flying, you’re careening through space, and you don’t feel anything, you’re not even there.
You’re outside and it’s dark and you’re running and even though it’s only two houses away it takes forever and you’re so, so scared but you make it home and you get inside the kitchen and close the door behind you and you’re so happy to be there. You stop and rest your hands on the counter and look at the pot of spaghetti on the stove and know that something just happened but you have no idea what.
That night you wake up and you’re in the middle of the road. It’s still and black but it’s peaceful and you’re not afraid. There is your house, its yellow bulk hovering over you, and you know you just need to get inside it, because it is after all your home and there’s a bed and a mother in there and you need them.
How did I get here? You ask yourself the question but you don’t know the answer. You stand up because you don’t want your mother to find you out here in the middle of the night and because you really want to get back into your house. The air is cool on your skin, you can feel it blowing under your nightgown, caressing you. You stroll across your front lawn, the grass moist and the dirt scratchy under your bare feet. You step along the sidewalk next to your house, pass the mailbox, the side door, your mother’s tomato and pepper plants. You’re walking, you’re not even inclined to run. The moon is so bright, so beautiful, and you wish you always felt like this instead of being so terrified of the dark, of everything, really.
Up the back stairs, a step at a time, one, two, three, the splintery wood tickling your toes. Your hand touches the brass door knob, smooth like someone’s skin but you don’t know whose, yours maybe. It feels precious and good and you turn your wrist gently, carefully, and the door opens and there you are in the kitchen and it feels warm and smells like your mother’s fresh baked bread and you stop and rest your hands on the counter close your eyes, trying to think how you ended up outside and alone in the night in the middle of the road.
You open your eyes and you’re in your bed and everything is wet and the darkness rushes in and you cry out for help. Your mother comes in and your small self stands there and weeps while she changes the sheets.