After seven years a widow, Mom dared re-up and love again, moving Stevie and me to the neighboring city where Bill lived. He seemed nice and acted kind towards us, but I didn’t want another school away from everything I knew. I begged her not to move, but we did, leaving the house I had been raised in. Four older brothers had already moved out. The other two stayed behind fending for themselves, Paul with a cousin, and Chet with a friend. At first we had a small apartment, but later moved to the lake house.
Chet, unfortunately, found his way to us at the house on the lake by the glen. He’d been in a tussle with the English teacher and she refused to allow him to make up assignments he had not done, so he wouldn’t be able to graduate if he stayed at that high school.
Mom put the phone down, “Chet won’t be able to graduate because the English teacher will fail him. So he’s finishing here,” she chirped.
Though feigning brightness, I noticed the tension on her brow and the forced smile. She would need to make calls and arrangements, but her idea of an ideal arrangement would be a house without kids. She couldn’t wait until everybody left, along with their dirty habits and everything else teenagers do that can cause one’s hair to prematurely grey.
I habitually studied her face, every line, every nuance, and every change, even if imperceptible to anyone else. I had to. She drank after Dad died and hadn’t discovered AA yet. When the bottle came out after she came home from work, I retreated to my room, usually safe from emotional outbursts about her bitter life with “all us kids,” thick, slurred words uttered in despair that defeated me in their darkness.
As if a zombie, I shuffled from the sunlit kitchen to the living room, sitting statuesque in front of the gloomy marble-trimmed fireplace. I stared at it as if flames flickered, but it was stone cold, like me. Everything which had brightened by Chet’s absence darkened. The large drafty house with too many rooms for three, suddenly felt haunted and scary, the beauty surrounding it dropping in grandeur as if a grey film, like a bad cataract had just covered it. Play-acting automatically kicked in, the pretense of loving him on display while terror simmered out of sight—even my own. I may have loved him, but I feared him more.
I had managed fairly well with everything so new: new friends, new school, all the insecurities that a thirteen-year-old struggles with. My French teacher introduced the language in a way that made me feel excited to learn it. I loved listening to his voice while he talked French, and his vigor helped ease the fear of speaking French back to him while the entire class listened. The choral teacher was much the same, teaching us diaphragmatic breathing and pulling out the best in each of us.
Oh, the usual angst occurred that teenagers might suffer; being on the outs of the ‘in’ crowd, trying to fit in with the popular kids when my real friends were not popular, boys—all the normal stuff. I discovered a huge waterfall in the glen behind our house only a short hike away. When I needed respite from teenage troubles, comfort came from the hypnotic rush of water and splashing noises as it hit the rocks below. I’d sit at the top and just stare at it, hypnotized.
The fast-moving creek at its base gushed past the side of the house, under the road through the culvert to the lake on the other side. That spring, fishermen in thigh-high rubber boots netted smelt from the creek, and their lanterns swaying over the water lit the dark nights and early mornings. A friend I met on the bus owned a fast zippy boat, a Boston Whaler, sleek and speedy. She invited me for rides on the lake, our hair flying backwards as the bow bounced over the choppy waters and left a white rush of waves behind us.
Then Chet came. He sauntered in, larger than life with a lopsided grin.
“Hi,” he said to Stevie and me while Mom brought in more of his things from the car.
He went upstairs to pick out one of the empty rooms. The rest of the year passed in a blur. He adjusted to the new school as if he’d always been there, even landing the lead in the school play, “The Rainmaker.” My claim to fame was trying to be invisible, walking the halls with my head down so I wouldn’t be noticed, or I wouldn’t see how much I wasn’t noticed. Although I made friends after moving, I felt afraid of everyone else. Mom made an effort to go to the play and took us—a rare occurrence; she seldom attended anything. He was great, really amazing, even receiving a standing ovation. The girls especially loved him. He seemed to have a flock of them, and notably juggled two serious relationships without either one know about the other, at least for a while.
With intense relief, we moved back to the town I grew up in. Maybe Mom noticed my unhappiness after leaving friends to start high school elsewhere. More likely it was because Bill died. Mom had talked of marrying Bill and moving in with him. Stevie and I would move with her too. But Bill ended up in the hospital and when she thought he’d be coming home, he suddenly passed away. With no reason to stay in the new city anymore, we moved. I could go back to my real friends, close throughout childhood. I don’t know how Mom managed her grief, not many years after losing Dad, the love of her life, but she never got that close to another man again.
But somehow, through her grief, and commuting back and forth to her secretarial job, she found a house in our hometown. I was ecstatic, but not for long. Chet came too and Paul soon followed. And for a while, Marty, a son of Mom’s friend, would live with us too; also an abuser during those years Chet used me as his sexual plaything. Chet had invited Marty and another acquaintance of the family, Lenny Nielson, to molest me too, all three of them. That somehow added to Chet’s fun, horrendous for me at only ten, adding more shame to my already overburdened load. So the day Marty moved in only a few years later, terror ratcheted up, if that were possible.
Older, bigger, I still felt very small, the shocks of childhood arresting my development for a very long time. My emotional age did not grow with my physical body. I stayed in the pre-adolescent phase well into the adult years, on the far cusp of middle age. Growth came slowly, and only with hard work. I genuinely had to “act” my age. And since it was an act, I failed often, my reactions immature and overly emotional, lacking wisdom or insight, more like a kneejerk reaction to daily interactions rather than thoughtful responses. The real pairing of my emotional age with my physical age came as all parts healed, a continual journey. I attribute that process to meditation; the quiet, peace, and space allowing an internal atmosphere ripe for joining, coming together…for wholeness.
Though I’d become accustomed to terror, wearing it in my being as if flesh, a new terror arose like a third skin sloughing off in waves of fear. Living with the horrors of my childhood, masquerading in bodies that looked human, that would be harder to live with. Suppressing those fears would take unparalleled strength, but my subconscious, brilliant at survival, found a way.
You are born to one family. It’s your only family. There are unwritten, unspoken rules: loud, deafening, but clear even if never voiced, seared into skin as if branded. If you want to remain in your family, you abide by them.
The small grey house sat sunken in a hollow piece of land. Half of it looked underground, adding to my feelings of captivity. I felt locked into a home jailed with hardened criminals posing as family. Rock and a hard place—love them, love them, love them, but they are bigger than me, and I am afraid with no one to tell it to, no one to save me, no one to keep me safe. Mom’s grief chased her away nights. My terror spiraled out of control. I buzzed with anxiety so intense breathing took effort.
The kitchen was perhaps the largest room, though my bedroom was also roomy with a little alcove where I set up my record player. There were stairs in my room leading to the claustrophobic attic where Stevie’s room would be. Mom’s room was off the kitchen, and by the tiny living room was one more bedroom where Paul and Chet would stay. Marty slept on the couch. Heat came out of floor- to-ceiling space heaters in both the kitchen and living room. A fire erupted in the attic once when Stevie lit a ping pong ball because he heard it caused a neat glow. Mom rushed us outside quickly, then went up there on her own and put it out. Between that and the space heaters, it’s a wonder we didn’t all burn up.
One bathroom accommodated everyone, which meant long waits with so many teenagers. I was afraid to use it after Marty arrived because of Mom’s comment.
“Marty has crabs,” Mom said matter-of-factly.
I already knew what that was, but Marty had a prescription in the bathroom medicine cabinet. My cure had come from DDT, a poison not meant for humans. I looked at Marty’s bottle, with his name and the doctor’s name, and again felt not good enough, shamed, feelings that followed me so long they became me. Terror reigned at the house on Howell, a nameless terror that needed to be named. But I couldn’t let on it was from the real monsters living with us: Chet, Paul, and Marty. I couldn’t let on even within myself; we were a regular family, or pretended to be. The nameless terror, the anxiety and adrenaline coursing through me from the constant fear of being boxed in with my abusers, found expression and became the man in the attic. I was in tenth grade and feared—no, was terrorized—by the man in the attic.
I truly believed a wandering man had taken residence in our attic, in the tiny crawl space adjacent to Stevie’s room through a small cut-out door in the paneling. I had to believe it; my survival depended on it. Without somehow naming the dread, giving it a place to land, I might not have made it. Can people explode? Implode? I would have.
I saw his footprints in the snow, or believed I did after comparing and measuring prints to everyone else who lived there. I heard him, noises in the dark attic space above me, and creaking on the attic stairs. Surely he was coming for me.
I couldn’t bear being alone at night and my fear far surpassed my embarrassment at being fourteen and afraid. Mom worked days and went out nights. If Stevie stayed home, I would be all right, but with him out and the others gone, I couldn’t handle it. I heard footsteps on the tiny stairs leading down from the attic into my room. The next time Stevie stayed overnight elsewhere, I went to Mom, pleading with her to stay home. She instead arranged for Paul to stay, but he didn’t, a conundrum anyway because those that were to stay were the ones I really feared.
How much can one be afraid? One night I slept in Chet’s bed because Mom had a friend staying overnight in my room. I awoke in the dark to a shadow bent at the window by my bed, a man’s silhouette. He was jiggling the window trying to get in.
I ran into the kitchen shrieking, “Someone’s trying to get in!”
Mom came from her room, sleepy yet alarmed. At the same time someone began knocking loudly on the kitchen door, banging it. Chet. He’d been out late and rather than bother the friend’s family he’d planned on staying with, came home and tried getting in through the window. Mom hadn’t expected him back that night, so she had locked all the doors. I felt sure I was going to be murdered, but it was only Chet, out having fun, getting too drunk again.
Another added attraction on the pathway to hell included what should have been an innocuous event but turned into another of my scariest memories. Our little close-knit group of friends throughout the early school years and now high school—Cassie, Sherry, Penny and me—had just been to a high school football game. Penny’s parents dropped Cassie and me off at Cassia’s house, then headed home, dropping Sherry off on the way. Cassia’s parents were out for the night, so we had the house to ourselves, which we loved. Cassie put the Jiffy Pop on the stove while I turned on the TV, switching the dials till I found Mission Impossible, one of our favorites.
Then I went into the bathroom, leaving the door open so I could yell out into the kitchen—Cassie had graduated from Kotex pads to tampons and I wanted her expertise while I tried one. Sticking what felt like a pole up that rather mysterious opening caused some trepidation and I needed constant reassurance that I wasn’t tearing through major organs or breaking something. I heard rustling in the chute under the bathroom sink used for tossing laundry down to the washer and dryer in the basement.
I looked at it, wondering if I had heard anything at all, when it happened again—this time closer. With my pants bunched up around my ankles, I straddled to the doorway, hanging on to the edge of it, looking out into the hallway towards the door at the top of the stairs to the basement where the noises were coming from. I became frightened and quickly pulled up my pants as the noises became clearer. Footsteps were coming up the stairway.
“Cassie! Cassie!” I shouted, but she couldn’t hear me over the rattling of the foil pan scraping back and forth across the burner.
I screamed louder, “Cassie!”
She peeked over the side of pan, “What?” she shouted back.
By that time the footsteps had stopped at the top of the stairs and we both heard deafening pounding against the door. I dropped to the floor in a stupor of fright crying. The Jiffy Pop burned, filling the house with a nasty stench. Cassie rushed it to the sink, turning the faucet on to douse it, but the water hitting the grease caused it to burst into flames. The flames licked at the newly hung curtains, engulfing them entirely before spent. The kitchen had just been redecorated.
It took a moment to comprehend the giggling now coming from behind the door to the basement. I still sat in a heap of tears while Cassie put out the fire, looking at me briefly for help, then shaking her head as she threw the last splash of water on the smoky walls, the tattered curtains blackened around the edges. She went to the basement door and unlocked it, unamused.
Sherry and Penny fell from the door in gales of laughter, telling us how especially funny it was to hear me yelling to Cassie for instructions on tampon insertion through the laundry chute. Penny had asked her parents if they could also spend the night with us, so they had turned around and dropped them off leaving out the part that they thought it would be funny to scare us before making their presence known. And they did think it hilarious until they saw the burnt curtains and Cassie’s face, also smoldering.
Somehow I survived two years in that hellhole of a house, half-sunken in dirt. My spirits were kept afloat by a cat, dog, two white fluffy chickens, two fat rabbits, and a shiny red 65cc Yamaha motorcycle Mom allowed me to buy with money I earned as ‘salad girl’ at the Country Chicken restaurant. I had chickens I could pet, though they froze over the winter, and a motorcycle to rip through the fields across the road; not a bad replacement for the horse I had been forced to give up when we moved to the city where Bill lived.
After 11th grade, we moved out of that grey pit of a house to an apartment, just Mom, Stevie and me. Feelings of being somewhat safe again, for a while, helped me to regroup. There I regained the courage and strength needed for my journey to Rhode Island, where I would soon be a freshman in a college by the bay.