Breaking the Codes


I am there, in the bathroom next door to you, giving my boyfriend head. I’m doing it because that isn’t going all the way, so I might not be called a slut at school. I’m not doing it because I like it. This is understood. I’m doing it because he likes it, and what he wants is more important than what I want. I don’t look at it that way though. I just see beige: the walls, the plush carpet, the sink, the towels. It is 1985. Beige is in.

After I am done/he is done, I get off my knees, stumble into the bedroom. You are there, wrapped in a beige blanket. Naked otherwise. The other boys—because they are technically boys even though they are three years older than us—are in a rush to leave. My boyfriend barely rights his clothes, and he is out the door with them. Suddenly everything is very quiet. I remember you are crying. I do not remember what you say to me. It is “we got together” or possibly “they all took me.” I don’t know; I just know what happened. Sex with more than one of these boys—nearly men—maybe with them all. “Don’t tell anyone,” you say—this I am sure of. And for more than thirty years, I don’t tell anyone. Hadn’t I invited them over? Wasn’t it my fault? We are fourteen.

Now I am forty-seven, and I tell my husband because a man just a few years older than me is about to be confirmed as a Supreme Court judge. Women—about my age—have come forward, accusing him of the same thing—my secret. But it doesn’t seem to matter, this sexual assault. I cry, telling my husband how I invited the boys that long-ago night. I am to blame. He is looking at me, incredulous—this woman who knows better than to blame herself. But the fourteen-year-old girl is still inside this middle-aged body. She still thinks it’s her fault. I keep trying to play the reels, and they are the same every time. The apartment in Oxnard. Coors Light. Bartles & Jaymes Fuzzy Navel. Exotic Berry. Drinking games at the table. The bathroom. Finding you. The boys leaving very quickly. Nobody ever saying anything. I want to excavate this memory—this thing that, for so long, I have tried to convince myself I didn’t really see. But I cannot un-see it.

If I’d told, we would’ve both gotten in trouble. We were staying in your real dad’s apartment when he was out of town. I invited my boyfriend, his friends. We were drinking. Breaking the rules. So I said nothing. To protect you, and to protect myself. But the boys, they were my fault.

When my mother died last year, I found all my letters from 1985. Teachers sometimes confiscated our letters, so we wrote in code: WBS, LLL, SSS&S, BFF. Write back soon, longer letter later, sorry so sloppy and short, best friends forever. I am surprised these codes come so easy to me even now, more than thirty years later. They’re etched into me.

In our letters, we say we try to let boys down easy. “It’s nothing personal,” we learn to say. “We value your friendship.” We do not want to hurt them. In other letters, I tell my friends—they are fourteen—to jump on the boys they like. What do I mean? Why do I ask? We are bodies in perpetual motion, too. We just don’t know how to own these bodies we inhabit.

Before the older boyfriend in the bathroom, I go with another boy. That’s what we call it: “go with.” My mother asks me where I am going, and I am so annoyed with her. She knows. She just wants me to see how ridiculous I am. I am not ready. One of the places I go is to see the movie Footloose. But really, I never see the movie. I sit in the back row with a boy who finger fucks me. I don’t yet know this should be for my pleasure, but it isn’t. He hurts me, and I feel dirty from the inside out. When my father comes to pick us up, he asks how the movie was. I am dazed. I don’t know. I must have said something like “so-so.” I am thirteen.

But I want to get back to the beige room. I look for clues in your letters. They say things like “I am in auto safety, and Mr. Lochner is playing classical music. This isn’t supposed to be a fucking symphony.” Your letters say, “I feel so fucking old.” Your letters say, “When he comes, I will see what comes up. Bad choice of words. Better get going. The bell’s about to ring.” Only thirty years later, I get the pun.

In another letter, a friend writes to me, “Are you grounded? You must be. I could hear your dad screaming at you over the phone. It scared me.” We thought everything was our fault. But Daddy knew his screaming was his, so I was never grounded. Not once. This is what it was like to live with someone screaming Bourbon-fueled tirades at night but self-aware and kind in the morning. He did the best he could. And he always liked you—he said you were so smart. He was right.

I know I am lucky. Drinking and screaming are easy things compared to what you endure.

More letters. Folded origami letters. Letters in code. Letters about hard-ons during sex education (even then we wondered why these films were screened to coed audiences). Letters that apologized for being dumb, for being boring, for being fat, for taking up space. Letters that wondered what “kind of guy” they were. What “kind of girl” they were. What kind of girls we were. Letters that saved us. Letters that failed to save us.

You write, “He is telling me he loves me. Don’t you think he is pressuring me to tell him I love him? What can I say? He’ll call me a bitch. I need one of your stupid lectures.”

Another letter tells me our friend’s stepdad won’t let her boyfriend into the house because he is black. She tells me she loves him, asks me what she should do. She says she is scared, like, “really, really scared.” She says that her new stepdad wants to control her and her sisters and her mother, too. She writes “Private and confidential” on the envelope. She tells me not to tell anyone, so I don’t. “What,” she asks, “should I do?” I want to go back in time and listen to one of my lectures. What could I have possibly said? I remember that Daddy will not allow me to me go to her house. He tells me he doesn’t like her stepdad, doesn’t trust him. He says, “He is a bad man.” I say, “But he hates black people, and I’m not black, so it will be okay.” I’m desperate to see my friend, who has moved far enough away that I can’t see her unless Daddy drives me there. Daddy tells me he’s sorry but I’m not going. And then we get the late-night call. It is my friend, and she is at the hospital. Her bad stepdad shot her mother in the head and left her for dead. Then he turned the gun on himself. He died. The mother recovers. Looking back, the signs were there. I can still hear my friend’s voice on the phone.

This story started because of the night in the beige apartment. But the stories tangle together, folded in my brain like small squares of letters. They run together like ink on the page.

After the night in the beige apartment, you stop eating, stop going to school. You teach me how to erase the skin on the back of my hand with a pencil eraser. Then I see the horror in my parents’ eyes. What? I think. I don’t understand their horror. What’s the big deal? I can erase myself! But they make me promise I’ll never do it again, and I don’t. The scar stays for a long time. If I look hard enough, I can still see a trace of it now.

You dig words into your skin with a razor. And you keep trying to erase yourself, bleach yourself out. The bleach burns your esophagus. You go the hospital. Daddy takes me to see you, and we make jokes, never talking about why you are there. These are the easier ways of being marked.

I try to imagine it: You holding your nose, putting the white plastic jug to your lips. Drinking bleach.

One of the letters asks me if I had to succumb to “Well?” again with this new boy. It’s a code, of course, but even all these years later, I know what it means without having to think about it.

I am at his house, my neighbor’s. There are three brothers, and the middle one circles me once I hit puberty—I can see that now. Other neighbors have hired this boy to water their plants while they are gone. I go with him into these strange houses, bring in the mail, water the plants, and then we make out on water beds and couches. One afternoon, we are sitting on an overstuffed couch, and something like Gilligan’s Island or The Twilight Zone is on TV. We are watching a little and kissing a lot, and then he pulls down his pants—it’s the first erect penis I have seen. And he says, “Well?” I am not sure what he means, so he leans back and tells me to suck it. I am twelve, and I do not know this is something people do to each other. He must have given me further instruction. But I am gagging, so I stop and say, “Okay. That’s enough.” I smooth my hair, and he sits there for a while with his pants down. He continues the neighborhood housesitting business without me. I’m unsure what I did wrong. I don’t know about ejaculation, not until later.

After the beige night, another friend wonders why you won’t come to school. Then she writes, “She’s acting weird. Maybe she doesn’t like me?” I do not know what I write back. I do know that you have too many truancies, so you can’t come back to school. We lose track of you. I lose you. We graduate without you. I learn later your first baby comes at eighteen.

I try to find you over the years in that half-assed way people do when they really aren’t sure they want to find what they’re looking for. Until the story of the judge enters the news cycle. Then I am desperate to find you. To find out what has become of you. It’s an excavation. I google you until I find the obituary. But I tell myself it isn’t you even though it is your name and the right age. So I find your sister on Facebook and I ask her to put me in touch with you. She writes back to me, saying, “Of course I remember you.” Then she apologizes for having to tell me they lost you in 2012. You were forty-one. She says, the chemical dependencies were too much. Your body finally gave out. She says you left five beautiful children. I write back and tell her that terrible things happened to you when we were girls, how I wished I had said something. Your sister says, they learned these things through your various hospitalizations. I wonder what they learned, but I know better than to ask. We are still speaking in code.

So I read letter after letter, crying for you. Crying for us both.

I remember one night. I am staying over at your house, and you ask me to come inside your closet. You sometimes read in there. I do not think this is weird because I sometimes read on the bathroom floor when Daddy is yelling. I like the way the bathroom fan whirls his loud anger away. You have written all over the closet walls. I am surprised by this because that isn’t something my own parents would have allowed—writing on walls. You invite me to write something, and I do. I write that I heart the boy from the beige bathroom. You point to your own words. They say, “_________ fucked me.”

_________ is your stepfather. At first I don’t understand, and then I do. I keep that in a container inside a container. Though later, I remember trying to tell this secret to Daddy. I can’t imagine how I would have put it. Daddy drank but when he wasn’t drinking, he was kind. I want to ask him if I told him. If that memory is right. But I can’t even ask my mother now, who might have known. And I can’t ask you. Everyone’s dead.

In another letter, a friend complains about you. She says, “I just wished she liked someone else. Now I don’t have a chance. She will do anything with a guy, you know she will.”  There is no date on the letter. I do not know if this is before or after the beige night.

So I write to this friend, ask if she remembers you. Yes, of course. Then I ask if she remembers this truth you showed me in the closet. She writes back and says that you had a difficult home life, that your house was not a warm place to be. She is still using the euphemisms. I wonder who she is protecting. I tell her you died. She writes back and says she will be sad all day. “Me, too,” I say. Me, too.

I don’t ask any more questions.

Three years after the beige night, after I have lost track of you, I was in a room with a boy in Hawaii. I was on my graduation trip, and after drinking Blue Hawaiians on a booze cruise, I met a college boy—he was spending his summer break from Harvard in Hawaii. I remember he was a lacrosse player. His rented room was outside of the tourist district, miles away from my hotel. The room smelled like cigarettes, incense, and surfboard wax.  He pushed me onto the bed and tried to pull off my dress, and when I told him no, he said, “What did you think? We were coming here to talk?” I was too embarrassed to say that, yes, I thought we would talk, and maybe kiss. Shouldn’t I have known better by then? I was seventeen. But before I could try to explain myself—because it’s always the girl’s job to explain herself—he pinned my arms to the bed, telling me I was a “cock tease.” The only reason I got away was because he was drunker than me, and I had a lucky strike to his groin—I was a strong girl who had taken her track workouts seriously. Or maybe remembering you, wrapped in the beige blanket, terrified me enough to give me strength. I escaped the room while the Harvard boy was bent over, moaning. He shouted after me, calling me all manner of bad-woman names. I ran the four miles in my strappy sandals back to my hotel room. My friends were already asleep, and I was relieved because I didn’t want to tell them what had happened. We were told these things were our own fault, and we believed it. I believed it.

Does this boy from Harvard—now a middle-aged man in a suit—remember that night in Hawaii? Maybe he sees it as a small folly of his boyhood. Maybe he was blackout drunk. I don’t know. I will never know.

I do not know if the boys remember that night in the beige room. But I can still see them, hurrying from the apartment, leaving you there, wrapped in a beige blanket. I remember you getting dressed, and us walking to the train trestles and sitting together on a bridge. I know that if my parents find out I am out on a train trestle late in the night, they might actually ground me. Or worse. I do not want to be there, but somehow, I don’t say anything because I know you need me to be there. Maybe my hand is still scabbed from the eraser. Maybe you smoke a cigarette. Maybe the train comes. Maybe the coastal fog creeps in, fetid in its salty decay. I don’t remember. I only remember this: we look out over the tracks, our feet dangling, and we say nothing at all.


Rumpus original art by Briana Finegan.

Suzanne Roberts is the author of the memoir Almost Somewhere (Winner of the 2012 National Outdoor Book Award), as well as four collections of poetry. Her work has been published in Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, Brevity, and elsewhere. She teaches for the low residency MFA program in Creative Writing at Sierra Nevada College and currently serves as the El Dorado County Poet Laureate. She lives in South Lake Tahoe, California. More from this author →