The word “BLAME" shoots across the projection screen like a banner, gold letters edged in black, each letter larger than a woman’s torso. I can’t concentrate on the speaker, the Director of the Rape Victims Advocate Program at St. Luke’s, so I look around the auditorium and try to guess who is a victim. Most of the women are dressed in Christmas colors, but I stand all in black, everything skin tight and begging for a touch, because I already know it doesn’t matter how you dress, so you might as well live it up! It doesn’t matter if you swallow your virtue like a flower and vomit it out petal and stem in a puddle on the sidewalk.
When we go around the room to explain why we want to become rape victims' advocates, only one other woman out of forty identifies herself as a “survivor." The rest of them apparently know nothing, or admit nothing. The last woman in the last row says some shit about wanting to be supportive even though she hasn’t been through it, and about trying to heal the rift between men and women. She is fiftyish and sweet-eyed and her hair is threaded with hopes of silver and gold. She reminds me of my mother. I try to carve out that sliver of myself that wishes on her a fate worse than mine, that wishes on her a stranger with a knife in one hand and her hair in the other, pulled up and back in a high bun of submission as he rips the hope from her head. She’s staring right at me like she knows what I want for her. I am gagging but I force myself to smile. She smiles back, tucking a wisp behind her ear, and I make the man drop the knife.
Last day of the three-weekend advocate training, and I have my conference with the director. She compliments me on my role-playing work with the victims; the evaluators found me compassionate, nurturing, and incredibly protective.
A she-lion, I say.
Yes, she agrees, but that may be the problem. The team didn’t find you very effective in your interactions with those other than the victims: the doctors, the police, even the families.
I advocated for the victims like crazy, I tell her. Did you see me?
She says that I appeared particularly hostile to female authority figures.
Like you? I ask.
She rejects me for an unpaid volunteer position. Try again next year, dear, after you work some things through and regroup.
I cry hysterically, but I can’t say I’m surprised. I wait for her to pat my hand, my back, anything, to mother me just a little. She doesn’t.
TO FIND A POSITION, ANY POSITION, I have to step backward, all the way back to my mother’s mother, the source. Nannie was tall, beautiful and imperious, but Momma, the only girl out of four children, is barely over five feet, and Nannie always tells her that even her fingers are stumpy. By fourteen, Momma was already humped over to one side, her spine curved with scoliosis at a forty-five degree angle. She got Daddy, though, and according to all my girlfriends—and yes, even me—he’s a catch. I think Momma has the most beautiful, wide, smiling mouth, made for lipstick and kissing, and the loveliest, bounciest hair.
The births of two children further bowed her spine, and a year after my brother was born, her left lung collapsed. A flawed backbone, so they tried to give her a new one: the surgery required the severing of her spinal column and the permanent insertion of steel rods.
But out of all Nannie’s children, even the three sons she always referred to as “thrilling looking," it was Momma who gave her her favorite grandchild. Nannie was in heaven when I became a beauty queen for a split second--first runner-up in Little Miss Fredricksburg when I was nine--but she was aggrieved to the bone, as was I, when puberty smacked me good: glasses, braces, and acne on even the apples of my cheeks. When I was twelve, we moved back down to Daddy’s hometown of five thousand, in the southwestern tip of Virginia, and then came the topper: I was diagnosed with Momma’s scoliosis and wore a back brace for two years. Momma had long predicted, “You’re so vain something’s bound to happen to you," and so it would. But I was still Nannie’s favorite, and boy, did Momma know it.
My back brace—which I’d outgrown by fifteen—stands like a partial suit of armor against the wall of my closet, the me I’ve outgrown by fifteen.. My spine, though not perfect, is relatively straight, and most important, I’m finally rendered touchable, even datable. Tam’s my best friend now, Tam with red hair star-streaked with blonde, Tam who’s already lost her cherry. She’s six months older and has her license. Her mother lets us ride around the county by ourselves in their bronze T-bird, and my mother lets me go, but always with a sigh resigned to our impending doom, because that Tammy Salyers is up to no good, she says, and at least half a ramp (Appalachian for the worst white trash), from her daddy’s side.
We’re hotted up for Friday night. A carload of boys are coming from St. Paul, the next town down the mountain, with pot. We stop for gas at the Texaco at the base of the mountain, and Tam asks the guy filling up at the next island if he’ll buy us cherry vodka from the package store across the street—vodka because it doesn’t smell and cherry because that’s all we can stand. We make a show of scrounging in our purses for the money and he says it’s on him if he can come along. He gestures toward the back seat of his Chevy, piled high with boxes. I sell Bibles, he says, all shapes and sizes. Door to door. We whisper on that—he is cute, tall with slick black Elvis hair, but too old at twentysomething for Tam’s mom to let him in the house without the surety of the Bibles. So Tam says, sure, if you’ll give a Bible to my momma.
Alrighty. How ‘bout a pocket New Testament with its own velvet bookmark? He buys our vodka from the package store and then follows us in his car up the steep, zigzag curves of Sandy Ridge, canopied by turning leaves.
The boys from St. Paul. They pull up in Tam’s yard on Sandy Ridge just five minutes after we get arranged in our poses on the porch. A big blonde boy unpacks himself from the driver’s side of the St. Paul car. That’s one long, cool drink of water, as my Nannie would say. I can’t really see that well, to tell the truth—I put my glasses in my purse—but I call dibs on that one, the big one, I tell Tam and her sister, Jen, who’s just thirteen, but already has bigger boobs than I do. Only if he calls you too, Tam sidemouths, as we take in his brown, distressed leather jacket and the scuffed boots. The other three boys step out and stretch and check us out.
The one I want nods. “Y’all look alright." We giggle, and shift our weight, swaying forward. Even though it’s October, we’re all wearing high dressy sandals with our jeans—an outfit that I have to sneak out of my house in a bookbag, but that Tam and Jen get to wear even to school. I can tell that right about now Tam’s regretting sorely that she let me borrow her pink fuzzy sweater for today—she’s pretty enough to sometimes err on the side of overconfidence—because it is one universally acknowledged Titty Top extraordinaire.
“I told you they was worth a ride over," says Scott, the one who scheduled this meet-up after he met Tam last week at the Minute Mart. We get introduced all round, except for the Bible salesman, who stands alone sulking under a crabapple tree, drinking our cherry vodka from the pint bottle. Mine’s named Dill King, and he offers us all cigarettes, but only Tam takes one. I’ve embarrassed myself trying to smoke before, and if I’m bound to do it again, it’s gonna be for some major effect—the point precisely, I’m told, of the pot these guys brought.
Y’all go round back to the apple orchard, Tammy tells them. Even Daddy can’t see that far. (It’s not an apple orchard; it’s nothing but a scraggly spread of crabapple trees--they must see that.) She pokes Scott: And get out that reefer!
We lean against the trees in the near dark, and Dill King, the one I want, says better let me shotgun her first, since she’s never smoked. I close my eyes and open my mouth and allow his smoke to fill me. Smooth. I don’t even choke. Next time the joint circles around, I put it to my lips and pull. Dill pats my back when I go down coughing, and then slips his leather jacket over my shoulders. I’m excited by the touch of it, the rough and soft together.
I tell Dill I was a cheerleader last year—did he maybe see me when we played St. Paul?
I don’t know I’m high til Tammy breaks out the Doritos and I push more in my mouth than I can chew. They hoot—it’s old hat to them, even little Jen. Scott’s whispering to Tammy now, and the short boy’s eyeing Jen. We’re going in the basement, Tammy announces, and the Bible salesman, seeing the lay of the land, throws the vodka bottle on the ground and hunches off. There’s still two extra boys, but it’s Dill’s car, so they just to have to tough it.
Tam leads the way. Sssh, quiet now, I don’t want Momma coming down here. She flips on the laundry room light, just enough so we can see where to get comfortable in the rec room. Dill takes back his leather jacket and then positions me in the floor against the base of the vinyl Lazy-boy and gets directly to it, his tongue like a drill. Just six months out of my brace, I’ve only ever kissed three boys, not counting party games, but in five minutes, we go farther than I’ve gone in my life. His hands are squeezing my new Sears bra padded with an inch of foam rubber—thank God I didn’t wear two, one over top of the other, like Tam and I did for The Pentecostal Fall Festival. He tries jerking both cups up hard, his other hand snaking down the front of my jeans. Uh-unhh, I breathe, as he fiddles with my zipper. I push his hand away and try tongue-flicking his neck in consolation, the way I saw in a movie. We tussle around a little—he doesn’t even try sweet-talking like other boys—but finally I raise my voice and that gets people looking over.
Fine, he hisses then, and ducks his head and bites down on a fake titty, pulling back and shaking his head like a pitbull, twisting the cup between his teeth. Tam throws a pillow at his head. They’re all laughing. Dill jumps to his feet and then he’s out the back door, not a look back. The couples untangle, and the boys go out to work on Dill.
Whew! Tam waves a finger at me: you’ve done it now. My mouth’s too dry to speak. Tam flips on the light and checks out Jen. I’m not letting anything go, Jen tells her.
I’m squeezing my bra, trying to reshape that cup—it’s all dented with toothmarks—when Scott comes to the laundry room door.
It’s Dill’s car, Scott shrugs, and he’s raring to lay tracks this second. Unless you want to drive us two back over to St. Paul later.
I can’t, Tam says, going to him for a last big kiss. Momma’d kill me.
Scott looks over at me: Dill’s so mad he’s ‘bout to spit. The horn honks and doesn’t stop. The boys scoot out and we hear the car hawking gravel, the porch light’s on and Tam’s mom is hollering down.
You still high? Tam asks, finger-combing her hair.
I shrug. I’m thinking about Dill King. He’s got a mean, sulky streak a mile long, but I miss him already.
After we’ve passed her mom’s inspection, we lay out in sleeping bags spinning every detail of the night. Tam claims she’s hotter because she let Scott go further, but Jen sides with me that I win because I made a man so mad.
But Scott touched my poon! Tam says.
On the outside. Which hardly counts. There’s nothing to it but to play the ice game to settle this so we can go to sleep. Tam and I spread some newspaper down while Jen slinks upstairs for a glass of ice. She comes down and we all reach into the glass.
Tam holds up her cube, squinting: Are they all the same size? Jen says she made sure. We’re old hands at this contest; I invented it at my thirteenth birthday slumber party to break a tie in the centerfold posing contest. I’m proud that my game literally measures hotness, and I’ve won nearly every time, virgin or no.
We stand like sumo wrestlers and hold up our nightshirts with one hand and one, two, three, the ice cubes go in. Those two yelp like puppies but I make a point of not shuddering. I just squeeze up tight and concentrate. In under a minute, the water starts a steady dribble down our thighs and drips onto the papers. Tam looks at me sideways. It feels pretty good, right? I barely nod; I need optimum concentration. Okay, check ‘em, I say after a couple of minutes, and we squat forward and push them out. Ha! Mine’s the smallest so far. Jen throws hers back in the glass and wipes herself dry with the tail of her nightshirt, and Tam and I push back in. I am the first one to stop dripping. YES! From the vantage point of her sleeping bag, Jen verifies my win, and Tam expels her last sliver of ice with a sigh.
No one in the room, in the county, in the US of A, in the whole world, can dispute my hotness. I melt ice and men! I lie in my sleeping bag and take again the temperatures of this night with my fingers.
Tam and Jen ride over to St. Paul without me the next weekend, but Tam calls as soon as they get back to report they ran into Scott and Dill and some other boys. Did either one of you get with Dill? I demand.
No, she says, but he sure mentioned you. He said you’re the biggest pricktease he’s ever met.
I am not. You know that.
The line is silent. I’m about to cry.
Okay, you’re not, she finally allows. Not really. But you better watch it with guys like that if you’re not gonna give it up.
I’m not like Tam. I don’t plan on going all the way until my heart pushes so hard I can’t help it. I sure do like to think about it, though.
And then another boy from St. Paul: Jimmy Tanner, son of my parents’ friends from their old church. We meet at the Christmas Eve service and he calls to invite me to a New Year’s Eve party that no one’s invited Tam to. He’s a little cherubic for me, white-blonde curls and china doll eyes, but we smoked pot in his parents’ garage Christmas Eve, so he might be worthwhile (I’m already rating boys on the inverse of my parents’ scale). Neither of us has our license yet, just our learners, so Mom has to drive me over to his house and his dad takes us on to the party at Laura Ellis’s. Her mom’s there when we arrive, but leaves to go to a New Year’s service, and the partying begins in earnest.
The house is packed. Kids spill out onto the porch in front and the deck in back, hollering. We find a spot in the living room, and there’s Dill King, making a beeline, brown leather shoulders pushing through the crowd. Damn if he doesn’t have a good six inches on Jimmy.
Jimbo, what’s up? Dill says and Jimmy introduces us. Dill doesn’t bat an eye, acts like we’ve never met—so I do too. His smile slides sideways: So what do you want?
Jimmy: beer. Me: vodka with anything.
Dill returns with a can and a big plastic booster cup in St. Paul’s colors, purple and gold. He clinks his bottle against the can and my cup. Happy New Year. Early. And then he’s off to talk to a cheerleader in a glittery black mini. I look down at my outfit: red corduroy gaucho pants and a matching vest with a demure, creamy blouse underneath. I’d had on a slinky top and skirt, but Momma took one look and said oh no, you don’t, not to go over to the Tanners we know from church, you don’t. I slug hard from the booster cup and unbutton two more buttons of my blouse. We drink and try to dance.
Jimmy gives up: You can’t dance to REO Speedwagon, he yells over the music.
And that’s the last thing I remember of that year.
MOMMA’S SHAKING MY SHOULDER. Where’s that dog?
Where’s that dog that died in your mouth? Get up. We’ve got to be at Nanny’s for New Year’s lunch. I let you sleep.
I can barely walk to the bathroom. In my six months of lightweight drinking, I figure I must never have had a real hangover til now, and it’s ten times worse than Tammy ever let on. My lips are cracked and my head goes down between my knees when I sit on the toilet. Where are my panties? When I reach down to wipe, I feel a string. Dizzy, I try to look between my legs and end up puking in my lap. I pull on the wet string—it hurts deep—and then there’s a pop and I’m holding a blood-soaked tampon. I had my period two weeks ago; how the hell did a tampon get in there? I’m not even allowed to use tampons; I have to sneak them in the house and hide the evidence. There’s blood on my inner thighs smeared over what I see are bruises, but then I bruise like a peach, always have and always will. I can’t think now—it’s all I can do to clean up the mess. Even my white nightgown boasts tiny flowers of blood. I don’t see Momma in the hall and I make it back to bed with a clean pair of panties, blankets pulled up tight. Everything I’ve got hurts, but down there the most; for the first time, I experience that interior space as three-dimensional: the entrance burns, the walls throb and the roof thrums dully.
What in the world? Momma stands over the bed, hands on hips. Mmm-hmm, she says in that slow and almost musical way that means she’s got things all figured out.
For once, I almost hope she does, because I sure don’t.
Rang in the New Year with liquor, did you? You were talking nonsense on the car ride back. I had to make you hush so your Daddy could drive.
What’d I say? Suddenly I feel desperate to know everything.
Oh, bunch of nonsense. Fiddle-faddle.
It was the first time I drank, I tell her, and I’m sorry.
I’ll bet you are.
They’re barely out the door when the phone rings. It’s Jimmy.
Are you okay? His voice is both tight and sweet.
What happened? Did you. . .
Me? I didn’t even kiss you good night. I couldn’t get in; they were holding the door.
They were holding the door for Dill.
What happened to Dill?
You don't remember anything? Dill . . . Look, it was what you think it was, okay?
I don’t know what it was. I don’t own a word for what I think it was. What I am is melting.
I got the crap beat out of me trying to get back in that room. I knew I shouldn’t have left you alone when you passed out. They didn’t let me in ‘til they let everybody in.
I imagine all my carefully applied makeup smeared, the padded bra pushed up to show what I haven’t got, what a little tease I am. I realize my ring is missing, the star sapphire Nannie gave me for my birthday.
It’s not your fault, Jimmy says, and he starts crying too. Somebody said they thought he slipped you something . . .
Oh. I’d forgotten he was still talking. I think to ask if he’s hurt, picture his angel face with two black eyes.
A busted lip, a few bruises is all.
Can you get somebody to drive you over here?
He’s breathing hard. I don’t think that’s a good idea.
But I need to see you. And find out everything.
I don’t know everything, he tells me. Who you need to talk to is Laura or her cousin. They cleaned things up.
Things means me, I’m thinking, and clean: not hardly. But at least the tampon mystery is solved.
And maybe. . . maybe Dill. Hold on. He gives me three phone numbers—sounds like he had them ready—and then he says he has to go.
Of course. Of course Jimmy has to go. I can’t believe Jimmy has to go.
Take care, he says carefully.
We never speak again. Take care. Take it.
TAM IS HERE IN HALF AN HOUR. Jen, too. I show them what’s going on down there.
I think you need to go the doctor, Jen says, looks away.
Tam bends down. It didn’t look nothing like that when I did it with Andrew. What’s your mom say?
What’s Jimmy say?
Dill King, she says, for the tenth time, and shakes her head.
THE PHONE IS SO SLIPPERY with cold sweat I can barely hold it. Slippery as truth. As love. It hadn’t occurred to me that Dill King has a mother too, but here she is, her voice sweet: Oh, just a sec, honey. I’ll get him.
I can’t speak.
YEAH? Who is this?
Name it. I squeeze and finally expel it: K.D.
You know. From the party. I hate that my voice is shaking, all little-girly.
Oh, he says. Long oh with half a laugh in it. He’s smoking a cigarette. Wow—his mother lets him smoke in the house.
What did you do?
Look, he says, and his whisper is soft and hard: You can think whatever you want, just don’t call here again.
Do you have my ring?
The line is empty as a tunnel.
I SIT IN THE TUB with my wrists held under the stream of water, palms open. The acrid stench rises with the steam: rusty, a little eggy, completely familiar. Hard water’s bad enough, dense with calcium and magnesium salts—the whole county has hard water—but living five miles out of town, we had to dig a well, so ours is iron water to boot, laced with ferrous oxide from the bedrock beneath the soil. By the time it hits the surface, it’s become all the things the source of life is not supposed to be: rough and filmy on your skin and clothes, actually fighting against the soap; barely fit to drink; and the worst: instead of dissolving stains, it leaves its own, reddish-brown as dried blood. My parents are used to it; they were both raised on hard times and hard water—Momma in the coal creeks of Hazard, Kentucky, and then in Pound, another mining town just over the Virginia line—and Daddy not a mile from this tub. But for me, bathing until I was twelve in the soft, relatively uncontaminated water of northern Virginia, the foulness of the iron water was a shock.
I have my own bathroom, and Momma makes me clean it every Saturday, but the rusty taint is always there. Elbow grease, she says when she checks it, shaking her head, not enough elbow grease, but even in my parent’s bathroom, with all her elbow grease, the iron water wins. When they built this house, they let me choose the bathroom fixtures myself. The tub and shower unit is all of a piece, with blue molded walls and a frosted sliding door. The best part is the built-in seat shaped like a daisy, where I can sit and shave my legs. Today I’m still in the tub when they get home, my skin wrinkled and scrubbed raw, the hot water long gone, my wrists under a steady, cold stream.
She beats on the door until I get up and open it. She looks in the mirror instead of at me.
I pull the towel tight and ask if I can talk to her.
There’s nothing to talk about, she says, flat.
I need you to look. Something happened.
I’m trying to stare a hole through her.
Still not looking, she says fine.
Momma puts a towel down in the bathroom floor for me to lie on, and a baby pillow under my hips to lift them so she can examine me. I keep my eyes closed for a long time, feeling the coolness of the tiles through the towel, and when I finally open my eyes, I see that my mother’s eyes are squeezed shut, kneeling there on the floor with her hand still high up on the inside of my thigh, but I hope she’s kept them open long enough to take a good look, to form an opinion, to give me an answer, to make a plan.
She opens her eyes. Maybe it wasn’t a boy, she says. Maybe it was a broom or something.
She stands. Either way, we’re not telling your Daddy. Or anybody else, for that matter. And don’t you go mealymouthing to Tammy Salyers unless you want yourself spread all over this county.
What if I’m pregnant? I ask.
Of course, you’ll have an abortion, she tells me, and that is the most shocking thing of all out of my mother’s mouth. She’s taught me all my life that abortion is a sin, but now she's telling me why it's the lesser of two evils in this case. If anything happens and your Daddy finds out, if he gets hurt or in trouble or has a heart attack, I will blame you for the rest of your life.
I lie in the floor for over an hour, naked, waiting for her to come back, sure she’ll come back and hold me.
(THE BATHROOM SCENE YOU JUST READ—I wrote it up and gave it to my mother to read when I was home at Christmas. We were sitting on the sofa watching “Law Order" when I handed her the pages.
Read this, I said.
I sat as close to her as I could. She read quickly.
She handed back the pages and I waited for her to break down, to wash my feet with heaving, gut-wrenching gales of tears. Or at least to say something. What she said was “Huh," and then went back to staring fixedly at the television. For several minutes, I too sat frozen, studying the side of her face not a foot from mine for a sign, any sign—a blink, a twitch, a wince, anything—trying to force her just to look at me. I couldn’t figure out what to say, and say without crying, that might milk from her any comfort, anything I could use.
That was it. Over twenty years to prepare, and that’s the breathtakingly original line I come up with.
Momma. I touched her hand, barely.
She looked straight ahead. You do what you have to do, she said.
Now that’s a good line.)
THE BLEEDING HASN’T STOPPED. All that water and nothing’s changed; nevertheless, I’m in the tub, stinky as it is, every chance I get until Momma makes a house rule that everybody gets to bathe before I do so I don’t run out all the hot water.
I’m ninety percent water, as we all are, and fifty percent my mother. Which is to say that anything I tell you about my mother, consider the source.
Oh, come on, what did I want, anyway, a plot out of Joyce Carol Oates' “We Were the Fucking Mulvaneys" or some Lifetime movie, replete with blistering vengeance and hysterical breast-beating, where the whole family blows apart because of what happened to the poor, dear daughter? Maybe. Yeah. I wanted Momma to play fierce Demeter to my Persephone, to lay the world to waste, to save me. But maybe she thought she was fierce in protecting her family from scandal, her husband from harm. And me--she probably thought I no longer needed protecting—it was done. I almost understand, and I love her; she is a good mother to me now. I think I forgive her. But the Furies, you know, didn’t only avenge crimes against people committed by their own kin; they also pursued those who did not avenge the crimes against their kin, and drove them insane.
When my grounding was up, Tam drove me over to St. Paul and we cruised its two main streets up and down, up and down, in the T-bird, blasting Van Halen—two Furies on the hunt for Dill King, not knowing what we’d do if we found him; on the hunt for Laura, who’d cleaned me up but wouldn’t take my calls; on the hunt for anybody or anything in that town that might give me some peace.
And then at school, a month later, I scored a little peace from JoJo Gibson, the pot dealer. JoJo leaned into my locker and sang, shoulders shaking: You shoulda seen that Elkins cherry pop/The bed turn red but The King don’t stop/That girl was gone, that girl was out/But you know she knows what’s it all about.
Aw, come one. It’s like a joke.
I asked JoJo where he heard that song, and he told me that Dill King and some other boys come up to Riverview every couple of weeks to buy pot. At least there was no broom in that verse. JoJo tries to be nice: You ain’t gonna have a baby, right? Alright then. A cherry ain’t nothing but a thang, right?
Right. More and more I think maybe he was right. Though I didn’t even think the word “rape”, much less name it (and neither did anyone else—not Momma, not friends, and I’m sure, most of all, not him) until I was in college and the concept of “date rape" was introduced, I honestly don’t believe it’s done me much good to classify myself as a victim. I sometimes wish I could be one of those pragmatists who could reshape the soiled truth and show a clean face to the world. That’s what the world wants. I have known women who have rationalized far worse scenes down to a flip “whatever."
I don’t think I’ve become a better person in my victimhood. While I have become more compassionate to some, I know that I am probably less compassionate to a great many others: most men; women who haven’t been assaulted, and of course, my mother. What’s the point of any of it if I can’t harness my compassion and my experience for the good?
I am my mother’s daughter, iron water, weak backbone and all. Mmm-hmm, I say in that slow and musical way that means I might have some things figured out.