november28

How to Tell a True Story

By

Ten years after, I sit in a psychiatrist’s office on the Upper East Side. This is my second time here. The first time, when I first met Dr. J, he asked me about my dreams: “Do you have any nightmares?”

“Oh, yes.”

“Tell me about them.” He lifted his notepad, eager, and the lights went out. Full black. “Oops, sorry about that.” He left, the lights came back on, and he came back in. “Well, that was embarrassing,” he said. “One for my memoir!”

“Not if I write one first,” I thought.

The second time I visited the office, pumped with anti-depressants, he told me it’s time to get over it. “What happened, exactly? I don’t even know.”

I hadn’t said it aloud, ever. Never. And now I was sitting in a fancy shrink room and he wanted me to say what it is.

***

This isn’t coming out right. Not like I expected. What I imagined: after finally writing this, I would be cured. Not only cured, but I would cure other people with my words. I would feel it was the best thing I’d ever written. It would come out vignette-style and poignant. Striking in ways I couldn’t understand, but that my writing group would inform me of. It would just come right out. Almost perfect.

What’s actually happening: I am sitting in an empty classroom in the building where I teach composition. It’s not entirely empty. Even that’s a lie, a lie that I thought would sound better. More literary. There are two women sitting in here with me. One of them is my student. The other I have never seen before. They are discussing a course called Math Anxiety and Statistics. My student has experienced things far more terrifying than me. Her mother killed her father, who almost beat her to death. Which ‘her’ did he almost beat to death? Both of them. And look at her. Angry, yes. But sitting and waiting to talk to an academic advisor about Math Anxiety and Statistics. The two women are talking about wigs.

This isn’t coming out right.

“They say God is good,” my student tells the other student. “God is good.”

***

When I was little, I thought the word was “rake.” I imagined a man standing over a woman, in a pile of leaves. He dragged a rake over her naked body. I imagined it happening in my own back yard. Now, as an adult, I’m not sure that this image is entirely incorrect.

***

How it begins: I am 18. I am 6 hours from home. I am in a relationship with my childhood best friend. I am nervous.

On point of view:  First person point of view is more personal, giving the reader access to the narrator’s thoughts and inviting internalization. Don’t write in first person if you can’t imagine what the protagonist is going through. It allows the reader to know only what the protagonist knows.

Correction: She was 18, and 6 hours from home. She was in a relationship with her childhood best friend. She felt for him things she had never felt before. “I would kill for you,” she had said to him once, standing outside at a middle-aged music festival. What she meant was, “I would die for you,” but that sounded scary when she said it in her head.

She was lucky, as far as luck goes. She was at an Ivy League school, the economy was healthy.

Be specific.

Correction: She is at Brown University. It is 2001. She is wearing a turquoise tank top and black pants. There is a picture to prove this.

Skip the exposition and begin with action. Then backtrack to give us the information we need to know.

Correction: “I think I love him,” she says to her roommate, who she loves.

“Who? Your long-distance boyfriend?”

“No,” I say. “_____,”

The roommate squints. “Really? Why?”

Begin with interesting action, action that will draw the reader in, make them want to keep reading.

He put me on all fours. Took me from behind. “I think he’s rearranging my insides,” I would tell my roommate, the next morning. And, uncharacteristically, I didn’t mean that metaphorically.

“You know you have the perfect body, right?” he’d say, after. He took a magic marker and drew all over my skin. Across my ass: “_____’s Property.”

Places he fingered me: in the freshman dorm hallway, while talking to a group of friends. On the greyhound bus, beside lonely people. At a white kid baseball cap concert.

What he asked me to do, and I did: wear clothes that hid my body—“that’s for me to see.” Drink vodka straight. Not tell his girlfriend. Not tell my boyfriend. Not admit to his parents that I wasn’t Catholic. Meet him by the clock tower and tell no one.

What he asked me to do that I would not do: Stop talking to my ex, and childhood best friend—“you’re mine.” Stop saying “I love you” to my family and girlfriends—“that’s our saying.” Stop holding hands with male dancers while bowing in a line after a performance. Break the skin on my neck, and bleed.

What I did instead: Tried not to partner in dances with men. Let him bite my lips until they bled. Let him bite my neck until I had to wear turtlenecks for weeks.

Worse things that could have happened: He could have hurt me. He could have hurt himself. I could still be with him.

***

“Why are you so ashamed?” My psychiatrist asks me, 10 years after. He looks uncharacteristically, genuinely, bewildered. “Just say it. Come on, just say what happened.”

“I was…. I guess, I mean…”

“Come on! Is there evidence? Videos?”

“Pictures.” I hadn’t thought of these in years.

“Okay. And tell me details. Come on. Nothing you could say right now would even make me flinch, the things I hear in this business.”

“I know.” What right do I have to be upset at all?

I am lucky. I am married. I can have an orgasm (finally). I am sexually active (usually). I am not dependent on drugs (except antidepressants). I don’t have any scars (physically).

***

Create a vivid setting.

I am searching iTunes for songs I listened to at age 18. I am hoping it will bring me back there. Then I will remember what it felt like, and I’ll be able to write it well. It will all come out just right. Almost perfect.

***

Usually, after nights like last night, I have strange dreams. In last night’s dream, I was back in high school, before any of it happened. I was wearing roller skates. I was on the ground, and trying to get up, but it was so hard. My foot would slip out from under me. And then the other foot. And then suddenly I was up and rolling, flying past people I wanted to talk to and past things I wanted to see. I didn’t know how to stop myself. When I woke this morning, I wasn’t sure if this dream was funny or sad.

It is winter and people are beginning to shovel their tiny Brooklyn yards. A little girl wields a tool far taller than her. She giggles as she scrapes the sidewalk. The snow goes here, not here. Here, not there. Clear the path for others to walk.

Let me be clear. It doesn’t always affect you when you think it should. I’ve been known to read a book about it, and laugh. Hear a first-hand account of it and go on to eat a four course meal. I’ve been known to get more than a little turned on by some rough foreplay.

It’s not as predictable as that.

It happens when it shouldn’t, when it’s just not fair. When you look at a picture of yourself on your wedding day, ten years later, and you pause on one picture…

When you’re looking this over, and thinking: Write it or don’t write it?

Write or don’t write?

“You have to forgive him,” my psychiatrist says. “Here, practice.”

It comes up at inconvenient times, like last night. After a romantic day at a museum, my husband and I are watching a movie, and one of the characters has _____’s name. (Unfortunately, it is not an unusual name. Fortunately, it is so usual that many screenwriters wouldn’t consider using it.)

This morning, I Google search his name. Both first and last. I do this every few months, usually after a night like last night, which happens every few months. (Un)fortunately, his over-usual name yields many results (16,500) and I’m pretty sure none of them pertain to him. This is what I tell myself. He’s not worthy of Google. And then I think: I am so easy to Google search. My parents didn’t think of this when naming me.

While training to be a yoga teacher, I learned to be careful about hip opening poses. “People store memories in their hips,” my teacher said. “Especially women. Trauma. Be gentle, and don’t be surprised if some students start crying.”

Three years ago, a few months before I met my husband, I thought I saw him. _____. I was visiting a friend uptown, and on the platform for the 1 train, I saw his profile. I froze like a rabbit. Like a botched computer screen, and something metallic shot up into my mouth. My tongue tasted like a gun.

I consider myself lucky. I know his name! I could identify him in a lineup! I was 18 and not 8! But these are exactly the things that make it more difficult, sometimes. I know his name. I could identify him in a lineup. I was 18.

But then there are nights like last night. When just hearing his name in a movie, or smelling a certain whiskey on my husband’s breath, or tasting a certain Chinese dish, brings it up. And to say “brings it up” is not quite right. “Up” implies levity, and action. What I really mean is Shuts it Down. Everything. When I describe this feeling to my therapist, I make a motion with my hand. I slide my open hand over my eyes, like I’m playing peek-a-boo, except I never raise the hand again and smile. My body detaches from me. All that therapy, all that yoga, all those saintly patient boyfriends go to shit. And there he is, above me. And I am on my back. And I can’t feel a thing.

“I’m sorry I’m so weird,” I often tell my husband on nights like last night. I whisper this, and grow small, the front of my body collapsing in on itself. I bring my knees into my chest, and regress to infant mode. “Stretch out,” he says when this happens. “Don’t curl up. Get big. You’re big.” And then, when I don’t: “It’s okay.”

My man. My guy.

Last night, I wore a new nightgown and fancy underwear. We decided to spend the night in, watching a movie, which was all a front for Whoopie Time. It had been a while (this sometimes happens, too). But then I heard _____’s name in the movie. And there was my husband, so hopeful and patient, rubbing my back. So I did what I’ve learned to do, with his help: push through it with a good clean fuck.

And after, I was cracked open, hugging my man. My guy. Crying.

Some nights, like last night, he doesn’t even notice.

But there is a thought I come back to: I finally finish my novel, or this story. My novel or this story that has nothing, and everything, to do with him. I am far from home. Far from my husband, from my therapist and my psychiatrist. With only my storage bin hips and my metal tongue. My unloaded guns. What if he sees my name, my picture? What if he finds me?

It brings up a question: should I write? And then an answer: maybe not. And then another question: is this just another excuse not to write?

Make your characters believable. Make them human.

***

He was a virgin. I know this now. But then, he told me he had been with many women. He told me he drag raced in LA. He blew up chickens with his friends. He was an underground street boxer. His ancestor was a conquistador in Mexico. I’m not sure if any of this is true, now, but I’m pretty sure the conquistador bit is.

He was fun. He was the life of the party. He was daring, and spontaneous, and sexy. “In the right kind of light,” my mom said after meeting him, “He’s quite beautiful.”

Once, we decided to hitchhike. He decided, but it was early on so things still felt like We. We flagged down a car near campus and told the driver we wanted to go to the mall. The driver, fortunately, was a nice old woman. Unfortunately, she was a nice old woman. We ended up on the highway, driving in the wrong direction, right into oncoming traffic. I was in the front seat, watching cars speed toward us and then swerve away, barely in time. I started laughing uncontrollably, hysterically, which is what I would do a few months later, when he was trying to break down my door. “You never know how you will react in crisis,” I’d read somewhere. Now I know. I laugh.

But he was sane enough to ask the old woman to pull over. Nicely at first, and then yelling for her to do so. She eventually did, and pulled over to a corner, and let us out. We were a few blocks from the mall, and I just fell onto the ground. Fell down right there, laughing hysterically. I hugged him, and laughed until I almost peed my pants. He saved my life! What a joy—I was still alive.

There are other moments, too, like when he took me out to a very fancy dinner downtown. I wore my prom dress, the one from Paris. I came back to rose petals on the bed. Not my style, no, but it was thoughtful. He flew me out to LA. He took me to a Lakers game. He took me to a magician’s club. He took Neuroscience and Intro to Critical Reasoning with me. None of it was my style, but it was thoughtful.

I don’t remember all the moments that make this worth telling. I don’t remember the first time it happened, or exactly how it felt, or my logic for letting it continue. What I do remember: that my best girlfriend was visiting me from NYU (where I would eventually attend graduate school), when he first threatened me. She was living in a fancy new dorm (on a street where I would eventually walk to shop for groceries with my husband). I can’t remember how it started, but I remember sitting in Introduction to Critical Reasoning after it happened, and not knowing if I was about to be killed. Let me repeat myself, and save you from reading that sentence again. I thought he was going to kill me. Why? Because he told me so. His words, exactly: “If you don’t stop talking to him, something very bad is going to happen.” This was the first level of the threat. And I felt calm.

You never know how you will react in crisis. Now I know. I will be calm.

Who is Him? Does it matter? Can’t you guess from my previous clues?

And I remember the room where we had mandatory counseling after it happened. I remember staying late at dance rehearsal so I wouldn’t have to go back to my room. I remember crying when he kissed another girl. I remember meeting him at the clock tower, and not knowing if he was going to bring a knife. Let me repeat that. I thought he was going to bring a knife, and I went.

“I don’t get it,” my husband says. I can tell him this part, about my being afraid I would be killed. That’s the easy part to tell. “Why would you go if you thought he was going to kill you?” But that’s the least confusing part to me. That’s the most obvious thing that happened. Of course I showed up. I said I would.

***

Today, I am teaching my college students about active language. It is subtle, I explain, but it has to do with control. A cologne bottle was stuck between her legs. That is passive. Correction: He stuck a cologne bottle between her legs. Or: She stuck his cologne bottle between her legs.

Which is true?

***

Fiction: 3. Something feigned, invented, or imagined.

Fact: 2. Something known to exist or to have happened.

Which is this?

***

In my English composition class, we are reading “How to Tell a True War Story” from The Things They Carried. “Write about a fuzzy memory,” I tell my students. “Just like Tim O’Brien does here. Write about it again and again until it begins to make sense.”

I didn’t keep a diary, then. It was the only year that I didn’t. This year, too. Not since I got married. The important moments, those important stages, and I’m not recording them. The other day, I searched through my past journals, stored on a shelf in our bedroom above Your Astrological Sex Signs and The Kama Sutra. I have not one but two journals from the summer after, but a quick skim only revealed my obsession with my ex boyfriend (the one before _____), and a few disturbing sentences such as: I talked to _____ for two hours last night. What a great relationship we had.

***

Fuzzy memory 1: lying under his bed, which he had raised up on cinder blocks (all the cool kids were doing it). He had made a den of sorts under there (later, I would pull aside the sheet after a late-night dance rehearsal to see _____ and my roommate spooning in the den. Afterwards, I would blame my roommate, who would wake me in the middle of the night, crying, saying she was sorry. I would never blame _____). There was even a black light, (an unfortunate choice in a lovemaking den) and a fluffy rug. The color I can’t remember. He was very drunk, and I was very sober. He was soft. Come on, he’d say. And I’d lie there.

***

Years later, I would brag: I know I seem shy, but I’m cocky in bed. It’s the one place where I’m confident. I’ve never faked an orgasm. Never. What’s the point? It’s counterproductive.

***

Fuzzy memory 2: Pretend you don’t know me, he whispered, pressing into me from behind. Pretend I am a stranger, a neighbor, and you are scared. Scream.

I did.  We did. And he choked me while he came.

Truth: If I am turned on enough to climax, it was not rape. Therefore, class, either I climaxed, or I was raped.

***

Fuzzy memory 3: Valentine’s Day. He takes me out to a fancy dinner downtown. I wear my senior year prom dress, and he wears a suit. We are a young couple in a mob-run grown-up’s restaurant. We are stared at. We come back to my dorm room, where he has strewn flowers. I have my period, I tell him. That’s okay, he says.  I like that. After, he tries to bite my neck, again, to break the skin. No, I say, or try to say with my shoulder. Then your lip, he says. And he bites it until I bleed. Again.

***

Last weekend, my father visits and brings my notebook from freshman year. Intro to Critical Reasoning. “Where did you find it?” I’m so excited. “In the attic.” He is so proud of his hunting skills. I am convinced the answer is in here. This is the notebook I was writing in when everything happened! This is the class that we took together before, during and after. But so far I have found nothing. Only one doodle (two five-point stars, holding hands, with arrows “you” and “me”), and one note, in my handwriting: these people are so fucking annoying. According to my notebook, everything was fine. We were sparkling partners in crime, us against the world.

***

Rape: a plant, Brassica napus, of the mustard family, whose leaves are used for food for hogs, sheep, etc., and whose seeds yield rape oil. Rape: the residue of grapes, after the juice has been extracted, used as a filter in making vinegar. Etymology: Latin rapere to seize and take away by force.

***

Things that he took away by force: blood from my lip, my love of vodka, my belief that sex is good, my first love relationship, any interest in LA.

***

Fuzzy memory 4: he comes back from a strip club. I am studying for an exam. I can’t remember which one. He is very drunk, and I am very sober. He wants to talk to me. My roommate (the one who woke me crying) has the intelligence of mind to lock the door. He wants to show me something, he repeats. He found something out about me, and he wants to show me something. I have no idea what he’s talking about, but I somehow feel guilty. What did he find? I have done something wrong. He calls our room, repeatedly. We pull the chord out of the wall. He bangs on the door, then tries to break it down. My roommate holds a piece of banister (stolen from a frat house party because we hated frat house parties, but still attended them) over her shoulder. She stands by the door. I laugh hysterically.

***

I am in my psychiatrist’s office. I am 28 years old. “Say it,” he says. “Just say it out loud. And then forgive him.”


Caedra Scott-Flaherty's fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Open City, One Story, Avery: An Anthology of New Fiction, New England Review, and Slice Magazine. She was the recipient of the 2008 RRofihe Trophy Award for Short Fiction and a 2011 Residency at Millay Colony for the Arts. She currently lives in Ferndale, Michigan. More from this author →