Friday, April 10, 2009

The Survivor's Tale, Part Two

“I want you to understand something,” Sophie said. “This now, it has nothing to do with the past. You’ve built the past all up into something so … I don’t know. Such a romance. But those times were horrible. I hated those times. I hate the person I was then.”

“Well, I loved her.”

“She was good at making people love her. That was her specialty.”

“Well, I still love her. I love you.”

“You don’t even know me.”

“But I want to. That has to count for something.”

“I guess. But you don’t really want to know me. I don’t think you’d like what you found. You’re much better off with your image of me. I prefer it myself.”

I repeated mulishly: “I want to know you.”

“Well you can’t. I’m different than I was and you didn’t even know me then.”

“You make it sound so hopeless.”

“Not hopeless – pointless.”

“Why don’t you let me decide that?”

“I’m fifteen years older, Steven.”

“You seem younger.”

“I have wrinkles.”

“You’re beautiful.”

“I was never beautiful.”

I reached across my chest to touch her cheek. “My favorite face.”

She flinched, released my hand, started walking faster.

I jogged a little to catch up.“Sophie?”

“My Dad used to say that. I never told you about my Dad.”

“Tell me now.”

“No thanks.”

“He has good taste in faces, anyway.”

“It’s so eerie, you saying that exact thing. It’s like he’s stalking me – long-distance stalking. He’s so good at it, he doesn’t even have to be there. I’m almost forty years old. Why can’t I just be finished with this shit. Most people manage that. Don’t they?”

“The lucky ones.”

“I didn’t have much shit to deal with. My parents didn’t hurt me. I had it easy.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I know your Dad hurt you somehow. You and Claudia. I eavesdropped outside the door when they came to Hampshire. I heard everything you said.”

“I’m sure you remember it much better than I do.”

“You told them where Claudia was. Later you called her, but they had gotten to her first. She went home with them. She was pregnant. Did she have the baby?”

“She gave it up for adoption. About five years ago that started to bother her, so she went looking for him. It was a boy.”

“Did she ever find him?”

Sophie crossed her arms, watched her feet on the pavement. “He didn’t want anything to do with her. Given our family history, he might have the right idea.”

“And he might change his mind.”

“He might.”

“The other night I was doing the dishes, and I was singing When You Wish Upon a Star and Caroline jumped in with her own lyric. I sang, ‘When you wish upon a star’ and she finished it, ‘Nothing happens – at least so far.”

She laughed. “That’s perfect. It’s so much better than the original.”

“I know. It’s realistic, but still innocent, somehow.”

We walked along.

“I remember now,” she said. “You helped me make that call. And the money.”

“I was a trust fund kid. Back then.”

“Claudia could never understand why you did all that for her. I wondered about it, myself. I guess love made us suspicious.”

“Some things don’t change.”

She took my hand again. “So, did I yell at them? Did I recite all their crimes? Did you get to hear all the juicy details?”

“No. You didn’t say anything specific. I just remember how freaked out and angry you were.”

“I’m still angry.”

“What happened?”

“You do want the juicy details.”

“That’s not fair.”

“You’re right. So let’s drop it.”

“Then I’ll never know you.”

“Jesus, you never quit.”

“So tell me.”

“It hurts, Steven. It’s ugly and dirty and sick and talking about it just makes it worse. That’s what I’ve learned in twenty years of therapy -- talking doesn’t help.”

“Maybe I could help.” I felt foolish even as I said it.

“Right – the kiss that awakens the sleeping princess. Well, let me give you a newsflash, Prince Charming. This Princess is a comatose slut with herpes. Forget about her.”

“I tried that already. It didn’t work.”

“Can we please change the subject?”

“Not for long.”

She didn’t answer. We both adjusted to this new stalemate in silence. We walked down Bartlett Road, across Surfside Road and beside the High School to the football field. The last time I had been there, the Whalers had won a game in sudden death overtime against the hated Martha’s Vineyard team. It had seemed like the whole town was there, under the glaring lights, the autumn night alive with shouts and cheers and the smoke from the barbecue fires. Tonight it was deserted, the scoreboard blank, the grass brown, the skeletal stands rising above the lumpy piles of unmelted snow.

We climbed up and sat on the hard benches. She sat up straight for a few minutes, holding her hair off her face against the wind. Then she seemed to slump a little, as if she was giving up. But there was an edge of challenge in her voice when she finally spoke again.

“You want to know me? Fine. I’m an incest survivor. That’s the new term for it. My father started touching me when I was ten years old.” She let out a long breath, staring away at the shadowed goal-posts. “At first I really didn’t mind. He was usually so cold and demanding and sort of … absent. He’s critique my homework and call me stupid. He was a brilliant man, kind of a genius in his field. But very impatient, very intolerant. When he was touching me he was different. He was nice. He was warm. And it gave me power. I could get what I wanted. But I got older and it didn’t stop. It just got worse. I hardly ate for a year. I started flunking at school. I was scared of him. He warned me not to tell mom, but I finally did. And this wasn’t some hokey ‘recovered memory’ – this was stuff that happened yesterday.. But she didn’t get it, she didn’t believe me. She was furious. She didn’t talk to me for weeks. About a month later she caught us. I was wearing nothing but one of his t-shirts and he had his hand between my legs. She still didn’t believe it. She said we were ‘rough-housing’.

She rubbed her cheekbones, dug cold finger-tips under her eyes, breathing in and out. The vapor steamed away from her face. I didn’t speak. I didn’t touch her. I just waited. A cop car tore south along Surfside road, flashers on but no siren: just a glittering carnival light urgency, charging toward the crime scene. Then it was gone.

“The worst part,” she said at last, “was afterward. He’d be colder than ever, as if I was some stray his wife had adopted against his will. Any little thing I did that was particular to me, any thought I expressed, any enthusiasm I showed, any opinion …he’d go into a rage. So I had to sort of not be there. That was the trick – to disappear, to become this sort of – this generic person.”

“Strange. That’s exactly how I felt during most of my marriage. It was prison and I could to easy time or hard time. Easy time meant keeping everything hidden. I didn’t see ajny alternative. I thought I was a lifer.”

“So did I, Steven. The fact that I’d be grown up in about a million years wasn’t much comfort.”

“Why didn’t you run away from home?”

“I did. Why didn’t you?”

“Maybe for the same reason your mother didn’t.”

She turned to face me. “Go on.”

“Well, it isn’t any one thing. Love is part of it, but most of it is fear. Fear of being alone, fear of the unknown, fear of rejection. I can tell you, the actual freedom you might find feels very abstract compared to the real immediate crap you’re going to have to go through to get there. In her case there was probably physical fear, too. Did he hit her?”

Sophie nodded.

I pushed on.“She probably didn’t think she could make it on her own. She was angry and couldn’t express it. That’s tiring. She was busy pretending this stuff wasn’t happening. That has to be exhausting. A couple of years doing that and you can barely get up in the morning. Being a hero is out of the question.”

“So she’s the victim?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. One of the victims.”

There was a long pause, full of the things she wasn’t saying, or so it seemed to me. Finally she settled on this: “You understand weakness so well.”

I nodded. “I’ve had lots of opportunity to study it.”

“How about strength? Do you know anything about strength?”

I shrugged. “Not much.”

“Well, my mother wasn’t a victim. She was a criminal. There’s a legal term for it – accessory after the fact. It’s a felony. You go to jail for it. Your partner can commit the crimes. All you have to do is not try to stop him.”

“I’m sorry.”

“You have children. Would you let that happen to your children?”


“Then don’t apologize for her. She should have killed him.”

“Sophie -- ”

“I should have killed him but I ran away instead. I ran away a lot. The first time I went to a friend’s house. That didn’t work – they just called my Dad. He went nuts. He tried to beat me when we got home --”


“Mom stopped him. She tackled him and knocked him and down and he --” She caught the look on my face. “No, no. No way. Forget it. I know what you’re thinking. But this was way too little, way too late.”

“Still – it was something, sometime.”

Sophie didn’t answer directly. She just went back to her story. “The next time I ran away I took Claudia with me. She was twelve. I was sixteen. We went to our Uncle Arturo’s house. Claudia didn’t want to go there but I figured – you can trust your family. What an idiot. Claudia wouldn’t go withy me after that. A couple of weeks later, my mom caught me at the Greyhound bus station. I had a ticket for Chicago. We made a deal right there: they’d send me away to school, I’d never have to come home again and dad would go into counseling.”

“She got him to agree to that?”

“Yeah. And she believed it would make a difference.”

“So did you … I mean – you left. You went away to school. You must have thought Claudia would be okay.”

Her voice was stiff and remote. “That’s right. I thought Claudia would be okay.”

“They told you it would stop.”

“They were scared. I could have wrecked their lives. Just the accusation would have ruined him. So yeah, I believed them. I had to. I had to get out of there. You can understand that, can’t you? You’re so smart about weakness.”

“I understand.”

“They made it so easy.”

“You did the right thing, Sophie. There was no way you could have protected Claudia. You had to get away and you did it. You got away.”

“But I didn’t” she said quietly. “No one got away. That’s the point.”

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