They warned us during that first week of college, ushering us into the musty auditorium for the public safety assembly, my new roommates and I sitting four in a row in the scratchy red upholstered theater seats. They said, Be safe; look out for one another; don’t drink too much; don’t cozy up to strange boys at parties. They said, look around the room. We looked. They said, based on current statistics, one in four of you young women will be the victim of a sexual assault.
But it didn’t happen. Not to us. Not to me, not to any of my roommates. Not while we were in college and not during the five ensuing years in which each of us went our separate ways, to separate cities, to places where there were lots of strange boys (and men, and women, and drugs)—at parties, on the street, in our apartment buildings. We were lucky. We passed what our freshman counselors had clearly determined to be the most dangerous years, the ripe, dumb, delicious years, and we came out the other end as women. We emerged unscathed.
But others didn’t. Like my mother. My mother became a statistic when she was just about my age, the age I am right now as I sit typing this, alone in my apartment by the beach, unafraid, with the windows open and the door unlocked and the soft sea breeze wafting in over the smell of dinner cooking, of incense burning. She was twenty-seven. Now I’m twenty-seven.
I didn’t learn the story until she was sixty.
It is a Wednesday. I am visiting my mother at her house in Chino, a heavily agricultural, heavily Latino town on the southeastern outskirts of Los Angeles. It is mid-morning, and I’m sitting at her new computer, helping her fill out a personal health history form so she can see a nutritionist about her chronic listlessness, perpetual indigestion, low moods, and crying jags. I’m hoping against hope that this will be a solution, that it will finally achieve for her what I cannot, couldn’t ever: a reversal of her lifelong depression, her alcoholism, her battle with tummy bulge…and her self-destructive despair over my father’s decision to move out last autumn and never come back.
“What is your current weight?” I ask, reading off the intake form.
“One sixty-five,” Mom says, as she stands at the kitchen counter spooning tahini out of a squat metal jar and onto a rice cake. Her brown hair, still whorled from sleep, catches the light from the window over the sink, light that reveals whitish gray roots moving in under the honey-chestnut dye job she repeats every couple of months at an expensive salon in Laguna Beach.
“And your weight six months ago?” I ask, punching the numbers into the fresh-out-of-the-box Apple keyboard. This is my mother’s first computer, and she has outdone herself. It is gorgeous, streamlined, gleaming.
“One sixty,” she says, diving into her rice cake with a satisfying crunch.
“Okay, great. And now,” I say, scrolling down and squinting at the PDF file for the next set of questions, “now there’s some personal background stuff.”
“Fire away,” Mom says. She is making a Bloody Mary.
“I went ahead and filled out the answers for ‘Relationship Status’ and ‘Children,’” I say.
She interjects. “Did you say that I’m divorced?”
“Separated,” I say, hearing an unbidden firmness sneak into my voice. “You’re not divorced yet.” Mom pours about a quarter cup of vodka into a pint glass, then adds V8, Worcestershire, lemon. No ice.
She pauses for a moment. “Homemaker,” she says, taking a big bite of celery and dropping the rest of the spear into her drink with a flourish.
“Please list your main health concerns.” I read the instructions aloud, my fingers poised and ready to punch in her answers, my mind already filling in the blanks.
“Lack of energy.” It was eleven in the morning and she was already drinking, which wasn’t unusual. If a Bloody Mary or a glass of white Zinfandel was her idea of a morning pick-me-up, it was no wonder she had been crashing by five in the afternoon, passing out on the couch with a bowl of Ramen and bottle of wine, the end of some old Fellini film flickering in the darkness.
“Let’s see…” she continues. “Indigestion. Depression. Tired all the time. Apathy.” She stops, takes another swig. “How old is this girl, do you think? The nutritionist? Is she really going to want to hear all this stuff about some old lady?” My mom always calls herself an “old lady,” and refers to every woman under the age of fifty-five as a “girl.” I ignore the question.
“At what point in your life did you feel best?” This is the next query on the form, and unlike so many of the others, I don’t have a mental wager on my mother’s answer. It occurs to me that this is a question about the parts of her that I don’t know: about the parts from the time before me, before my dad—before the term “homemaker” had ever applied to anything in Mom’s life beyond her own mother’s daily dithering around the house waiting for my grandpa to come home from work, drink five martinis, eat a chocolate bar, and fall asleep in his chair.
Her reply startles me with its quick assurance, its certainty. “When I was twenty-seven,” she says. “I felt my best when I was twenty-seven.”
At this, I turn away from the screen to face her, but she isn’t really looking at me so much as off to the side and up to the right. I watch my mom’s face, her eyes. I picture the images she might be calling forth from her self, her life back then—young, slim, with a killer rack and a bohemian style that I had always envied, deep blue eyes and trim waist and long wavy brown hair, living in Los Angeles, living large. I wonder, as these pictures move through my mind, just how close they are to reality, how different the life she lived might be compared to the imaginings I’ve made over the years, an amalgam of old photographs and anecdotes that keep changing as I get older, getting racier and more complex, like wine with age.
“What happened when you were twenty-seven?” I ask. I am twenty-seven—twenty-seven and a half, to be precise. I want to see our lives held up side by side, to see if we were alike in her mind. I wonder briefly if we would have been friends.
She shrugs, as if her answer shouldn’t require an explanation, as if I should already know. In that shrug, that look, that flash of an instant, I feel almost certain that she isn’t thinking of me so much as my father. She does that sometimes. I’ve always hated it. But this time it only lasts for a few seconds, and then she is back in the room with me. “It was just before I started working at the Nurt,” she says. The Nurt, short for The Nurtury, was a progressive preschool where my mom had been a teacher during her graduate studies in psychology. “I was in great shape, I felt pretty, I loved my job, and I had friends.” Something about the simplicity of her answers gets stuck in my throat, like the first sign of oncoming tears. It all sounds so lovely, so ideal. I smile.
“Who were you dating back then?” I ask.
“Roger,” she says, rolling her eyes. “The sock man.” I chuckle. It seems like all her ex-boyfriends have some distinguishing quirk, some oddity that bookmarks them in her memory. There is the first Roger, a conscientious objector who asked her to elope to Canada during Vietnam; Steve, a carpenter with long red hair worn in a thick braid down to his butt; Andrew, the Morris Dancer from England; and the second Roger, an intellectual effete with a penchant for wearing socks during sex. I’ve heard so much about these men that I now associate most epochs in my mother’s life with at least one of them, forgetting about the single patches in between—the times when she wasn’t in love, wasn’t waiting to be loved back.
“He was a weirdo, but…I was happy,” she continues. “And it was…well, it was a wonderful time.” She wrings the pint glass in her ringless left hand and looks out the window to the avocado trees in the yard. I hear a caustic edge slip into her voice, see a shadow cross her brow, but it is too late to change course, to avoid whatever is coming next. So I wait.
“Of course, all that changed after the rape.”
I am silent, stunned. The word falls sharp between us, slicing the air, pushing us across the room from one another.
She doesn’t look at me. Instead, she drains her drink, then drops the heavy glass into the sink with a thud.
When I was about six, playing hide and seek with my friends, I climbed through the ivy that clung to the far wall of our brown stucco duplex and scuttled into a hiding spot in the bushes between our street, Hawthorne Lane, and the adjacent court on Myrtle Drive. It was a daring move: most of the kids stuck to the confines of our yards, sneaking behind cars and shimmying up trees. As a result, no one thought to search where I was hiding, and I rode it out, hugging myself with glee and the electric delight of victory as I waited and waited until I won. It never occurred to me that my mother would worry, that when the neighbor kids gave up their search, they would scamper up to our door and tell her I was missing.
I came home at last, flushed with pride. My mother raised her hand as if to slap me, then clenched it into a fist and fought the yank of gravity to keep from making contact, to keep from striking. Instead she yelled, and then she cried, and then she sent me to my room. I sat in my little plastic time-out chair, shell-shocked, unable to comprehend how I could have hurt my mother so. But as I grew older, I understood. I watched her and I learned to be afraid, to be wary. I learned to think that strangers could do terrible things: that it was best to stay close, to steer clear. I learned that if I wanted to go anywhere alone, or with my girlfriends, I would have to face the gauntlet of my mother’s fears—fears I could neither see nor understand, only feel deep in my roots like a dark bloom of unspoken knowing.
“Mom?” I ask. In the bright summer sunlight pouring in through the kitchen window, every second feels like an hour.
She doesn’t answer, just keeps gazing toward the avocado tree heavy with ripe fruit, a quiver fighting the staunch fortress of her lips.
I get up from the desk and walk over to where she is standing against the kitchen counter. Just as I reach her she begins to cry. I wrap my arms around her and rest my head on the crown of hers. She is five and a half feet tall; I’m pushing six.
“I didn’t know,” I say. “I’m so sorry.” She hugs me back, leaving a wet patch on my shoulder, then shuffles into the living room to lie down on the couch. The temperature is nearly 100 degrees outside, but in here it is dark and cool. She keeps the air conditioner blasting and the blinds drawn, and while I usually find the atmosphere depressing, I am grateful for it on this particular day.
Mom lies down on the blue couch with her head on a bright pink spangly pillow, the one she purchased immediately after borrowing money from me because she couldn’t afford to pay her bills. I gave her hell when I first saw it, still sporting a price tag, definitely not something she had scavenged from a clearance bin. But now I am simply glad she has a place to rest her head. Her eyes are red, like her nose, and there are dark wet smudges of last night’s eyeliner pooling beneath her lower lashes. I sit at her feet, taking them one by one into my hands and massaging them like I used to do as a little girl when we’d watch TV, bargaining an extra massage in exchange for a later bedtime.
“He came up behind me while I was hanging laundry out back,” she says at last, looking up again as she speaks, remembering. “I had just come home from work. He grabbed my hair, held a knife to my neck.” She lets out an incomprehensible little chuckle. “He said he wanted to be my boyfriend. But then, it turns out he said the same thing to the seven other girls, too.”
I feel sick inside, like a foul mold is filtering in through my nose and throat, infecting my chest. Even though it’s the last thing in the world I want to do, I find myself imagining the scene: the faceless man, my mother, her long brown hair, his rough hands. As she speaks, I keep my gaze down, working her feet wrapped in little pink socks like worry dolls between my hands.
“His hair was like a curved broom,” she continues. “I remember because it was so peculiar, not like an Afro or anything else I had ever seen. Coarse and sleek at the same time.” She shudders. “My dog Kahlua stayed under the bed the whole time, hiding, pissing herself.”
There is a long silence. Mom’s eyes stay closed, mine stay fixed on her feet. “What happened to him?” I ask at last.
“Oh, I did the whole court thing,” she says after a moment. “Testified, I mean. Me and some of the other girls, too.” She sits up a little.
I let out a small puff of air, a breath of relief. “So he was convicted?”
She scoffs. “He got three years.”
It takes me two days to revisit my mother’s story, to acknowledge it to myself. The memory comes to me fresh and fast when she drops me off at my apartment in San Diego, and I squish it down because I don’t want to feel it anymore than I already have, not yet, not right away. I sit at my desk with the windows open and the smell of dinner cooking, and I feel like I should be afraid. I try to be afraid, even, but I’m not.
I am an ungrateful fool.
I am ashamed of my comfort, of my incredible luck.
For two days, I fight the story welling up in me, denying the itch of the burn, the angry redness biting at my skin. And then I wake up the third day and say to myself, “My mom was raped when she was my age. When she was twenty-seven.” Even unspoken, even just in my head, the words are like hot metal on flesh. I hate them. But they forge a sister burn inside me, the cost of knowing. And in its own way, the ugliness of that burn brings relief.
Rumpus original art by Lara Odell.