So the memory of June’s husband molesting her daughter and the nightmare of Uncle Bill were with me as I watched June oozing herself into our living room. I always felt as if her dull, brown, preying eyes were secretly watching me. Like the victim of a black widow spider, I was sure if she looked at me she could ensnare me in a web of poison. It didn’t help that the inevitable conversation made my stomach feel as though it were absorbing sticky venom from the air.
June, in her high-pitched, whining voice, would describe her latest doctor’s visit with some warm-up, get-ready-for-it, I-can-be-even-more-detailed prefaces: “Well, the doctor said that I just had to get more rest to protect my bad heart.”
So then my mother, excited about contributing her misery, would reply with glee, “Last week, the doctor told me that I had diabetes. So now I have to take these certain medications, along with eating better.” (During this time, our main food was TV dinners or some drop-off food from the Salvation Army.) “Of course, I also need to rest more.”
On cue, I’d hear my grandmother having an asthma attack. Knowing that she held a cigarette in one hand, she would take her other hand and remove her inhaler from her ever-present, five-pocket apron. She would place the container in her mouth, shut her eyes, and inhale deeply. The routine never varied. Next, Grandma, pushing on through her laborious breathing, voice weak with suffering, would reply to Mother’s new health advisory, “But you know that I will take care of you, Veronica.”
At this point, I stuffed a pillow over my head so I wouldn’t hear any more of the hypochondriacal exchange. I was fuming, angry that my sickly grandmother waited hand and foot on my mother, who rarely left the living room couch. For years I watched her shuffle from the kitchen to the couch, meeting my mother’s every demand. I adored my grandmother, and I railed against my mother’s demands for service.
From age fifteen through seventeen, the years passed uneventfully. By the time I was sixteen, my mother, grandmother, younger brother, and I were living in a decent neighborhood. I was working and going to school—well, sometimes.
I was earning my own money through various jobs such as house-keeping for neighbors, babysitting, and ironing clothes. Thanks to a few severely decayed teeth that I had to have extracted, I was forced into my first visit to a dentist. He said to me, “Young lady, at the rate of your tooth decay, by the time you are twenty-one you won’t have a tooth left in your mouth.” After explaining that we were on welfare and I had no way of paying to have my teeth fixed, the dentist offered to fix the rest of my decaying teeth in exchange for babysitting his young children on an ongoing basis. I leaped at the opportunity and was proud of my resourcefulness as my pretty new smile emerged, which added greatly to my budding self-confidence.
As my confidence and self-sufficiency grew, I was beginning to have more dates than I had time for. I controlled the kissing part of the date so that most of my suitors didn’t try anything else, except for one time when a boy tried to force himself on me. When he tried to force me I bit his cheek so hard I could taste the blood. The pain forced him to loosen his grip and I escaped into the night, running through the canyon until I found help.
I may not have fit in with the in crowd, but it was a big school, and I had lots of friends. I went to six senior proms, starting when I was a freshman. Girlfriends loaned me beautiful dresses, and I worked enough odd jobs to afford to have my long hair put up into a pretty bouffant for the dances. My self-confidence grew to a point that I even taught a group of evelopmentally challenged girls at school how to fix their hair, and I couldn’t have cared less if other kids made fun of me.
So I was taken aback during my junior year to discover that many folks still recalled my old house with no paint.
I think back sometimes to a conversation that I had with a boy at school. He was seventeen, I was sixteen. His name was Finn Z. He drove a cherry red roadster, which was the envy of every boy in school. Each day, at lunchtime, his eyes, the color of the sky, met mine across the cafeteria. Finally, one day in the parking lot, he offered to drive me home after school.
He said, “I would love to take you out but my mother won’t allow it. I’ll be in big trouble today if she hears that I even had you in my car.”
“Why?” My jaw slackened.
He said, “Because of your reputation.”
Mortified, I said, “But I haven’t done anything, Finn.”
“But people assume that you have because of your past.”
“I’m still a virgin.” Like a frantic child trying to show my worth, I said, “I could prove it by going to the doctor.”
He smiled kindly as he slowly shook his head, “People remember where you grew up, and your family. . .” and his voice slowly trailed off into silence. I could tell how uncomfortable he was saying these things; though shame-filled, I didn’t feel I was being judged by this young man. I thanked him for the ride, and we said our good-byes with sadness. For the rest of the school year we continued our tender glances across the cafeteria, but we never spoke again. Embarrassed by Finn’s words, I wrote this poem:
“She was forbidden to date the elite who proclaimed dirt and chipped paint was embedded into her core.
While she endeavored to hold her head high, she knew her place, one step back, the appropriate place among those filled with inherited grace.
Her virginity still in place afforded defiance against her invisible disgrace.
THIS was her visible badge of honor.
She valiantly fought anyone who dared tarnish it.
She consecrated herself to the one who would come someday—her Prince, her savior.
In the piercing of the veil, redemption would prevail. She readied for HIM, which made it possible for her to endure THEM.
He would know of her innocence and grant her absolution for the sins she never committed.”
How desperately I wanted to be redeemed. But I believed that redemption came from the outside. I needed someone, anyone, to stamp me whole, like an accused prisoner found innocent.