AT SIXTEEN I felt sorry for my mother and grandmother’s bleak lives, but I desperately wanted to leave the house. I felt mired in a spiderweb of yuck. This was made worse by their close friendship with the most disgusting person I had ever met. My stomach turned every time I saw her, which was often.
June White had crusty, light brown hair that spilled its dandruff everywhere. Her face and arms were covered in open sores and she stunk. She always smelled like twenty-year-old sheets might if they were stuffed into an old pillowcase, yellowed by age, and forgotten amidst spiderwebs in a filthy garage. June had regressed into a physical depository of ills since we had met her eight years before.
When I was six or seven, I sometimes visited my friend, Sara. We would sit on the floor, watching cartoons on the small television in her unkempt living room. There was no available vacant space to be found in the living room, dining room, or kitchen, since magazines, dirty clothes, cigarette butts, and encrusted dishes cluttered every bit of space. June, Sara’s mother, would hum mindlessly as her head was bent over her sewing machine, absorbed with her dearly loved swatches of colorful material. She caressed them and talked to them as if they were real family members. She cherished her fabric the way I always imagined a mother was meant to love her children.
One day the door to the bedroom was left ajar, and I could see Jane, the oldest daughter, her body being kneaded the way I’d seen bread prepared on television. Low grunts erupted from the mouth of Jane’s father, who was atop her. At that age, I didn’t exactly understand what was happening, but everything inside my body recoiled at this mysterious, frightening scene. I was certain that something was wrong, but could not for the life of me figure it out.
Watching with a feeling of foreboding, I looked from the television, to the mother, to the little sister, to the bedroom, and back, again and again. I tried to reconcile what I was witnessing with the feelings that I was experiencing, but I never succeeded. I left that house feeling as if I were going to gag on the little pieces of June White’s fabric.
I don’t recall when, or how, I finally told my grandmother what I had witnessed, but I did eventually tell her. Since no one in my family ever mentioned this situation again to explain what had happened, it left me feeling even more confused, just as the time would come when no one spoke to me about the incident with dear old Uncle Bill.
Toward the end of my fourteenth year, my mother persuaded my grandmother to take a weekend trip with the family. We would drive to Los Angeles from San Diego and visit their oldest friends from New York. Aunt Hazel had known my grandmother when my mother was just a girl. Her son Bill and my mother grew up together. Mother and grandmother were very excited about the trip, and I was excited to have them leave the house for a change.
After dinner, visiting, and television shows I was escorted to a comfortable cot in the laundry room. With a full tummy, I immediately fell fast asleep.
I awoke to suffocating alcohol breaths and wet lips covering my mouth. This man, this distant uncle they called Bill, was now calling me filthy names as his large hands tried to grope me.
“Get out of here or I will scream!”
“What the matter with you, girly? You think that a slut like you is too good for me? Well let me tell you sumpin, you little bastard.”
Jumping off the cot and backing up against the wall, my heart was pounding out of my chest while I fought his hands off me. I said, “I mean it, I swear to God I will start screaming if you don’t get away from me.”
He backed away and left. I stood against the wall wondering for the millionth time how everyone seemed to know about that bastard thing. Then the sound of a gun: Uncle Bill had committed suicide.
I watched as men in white wheeled his blood-soaked body out the door. I told my mother and grandmother what had happened, but was met with silence. In spite of their silence, I somehow knew from a deep place within that I had not caused his suicide. What remained confusing was that the families continued reminiscing about, “Dear old Uncle Bill” as if the incident had never happened. It seemed to me at the time that the importance of his good memory was clearly more important than the truth of what actually took place just before the gunshot.
Barely fifteen, I assumed a budding new sense of pride in myself by saying no to Uncle Bill, even though the unwelcome echo of the gunshot diminished that feeling. It seemed like a haunting refrain that taunted me for years to come. How I wished just one adult would have told me it wasn’t my fault.