Oh, sure, that whole raped at twenty-five, married to a heroin addict who committed suicide thing was bad. Boo-hoo. Who hasn’t been raped? And drugs are all over the place, as is death.
No, what’s important is what came before those life tragedies the REAL tragedy that happened when I was eleven. Twelve. Thirteen. Fourteen. Those years of learning the saintly lessons of poverty (yeah, we were poor), obedience (yeah, I wanted to be a nun when I was in Catholic school), and chastity (how it doesn’t have anything to do with sex and you never get it back).
When I was eleven, my thirty-six-year-old mother got herself an eighteen-year-old sailor boyfriend, and, rather than have the neighbors talk, she pretended he was my boyfriend. And just so the St. Joe’s nuns never found out, we moved two hours by bus away from the district. She worked nights waitressing as a pancake house, and he spent lots of time at home waiting for her with his dick in my mouth, and his hands rubbing my budding chest.
She bought him beer. He drove her car. Picked her up at twelve-thirty. They’d come home around two, but I was usually asleep by then. I had to be up at five if I was going to catch the bus downtown. I couldn’t be late for the courtyard assembly where we prayed that the Holy Ghost and our Guardian Angels would protect us and make us smart. In confession, I told the priest I’d been “impure” with my boyfriend. He refused me absolution and closed the door. I knew I was going to hell and was afraid to fall asleep. What if I didn’t wake up?
Anyway, Mother seemed ecstatic to have the guy around. He’d come down from San Francisco every weekend to visit, and she’d make up bullshit about how sweet it was that I had a guy who was so crazy about me, he’d come all that way. And I believed her. I was special. He wrote me letters and sent me presents. Addressed to me. The little girl no one noticed, not even her father. And, if my mouth hurt once in a while and I was going to hell, it didn’t matter.
When I turned thirteen, however, serendipity destroyed Sodom and Gamorrah. My sister’s boyfriend wasn’t as self-restrained as mama’s beau (or maybe guys really do prefer oral sex to pussy, who knows?). She went to Senior prom with a guy named Marlowe, and came back knocked up. Marlowe didn’t want marriage and a baby, so he joined the Air Force just in case he had to do his duty, but Mama saw a chance to realize another fantasy. Immediately, my boyfriend was asked to make a decent woman out of my sister. I overheard the discussion by accident, complete with Mama’s reassurance to my sister that everything would be alright. No, she couldn’t have an abortion. After, all we were Catholics. Converts, sure, but…Besides, Mama had had abortions, and they weren’t good for you.
The marriage didn’t happen. My sister wasn’t having anything to do with Mama’s flame, and my boyfriend wasn’t having anything to do with a woman who now had the title and responsibilities of a grandma. His sudden disenchantment was my reprieve. Mama was now in love with my sister’s impending motherhood, and their mutual grown-up fan club excluded me once again. Mama’s meager income, sans boyfriend, now had to buy a crib, diapers, and receiving blankets. Aren’t they just adorable? Everything was going to be so sweet and cute.
Only, once the baby was a reality instead of just a ball of flesh inside a swollen belly, my sister realized she’d be serving a life sentence of regret and it wasn’t sweet or cute. Especially because I was able to sneak off to dances at the sinful, Protestant YWCA and, at last, have a little fun. When Mama found out, she cursed and warned and threatened…I was too young to date. Boys were off limits. Only whores went to dances where young men in uniform hung out. It was San Diego, and San Diego was a navy town then.
I know. It didn’t make any sense to me either. How could I have a boyfriend at eleven, but not at thirteen? I asked that question once too often, and Mama relented. I could go, but only after a battle that insured I wouldn’t have any fun. I wore Avon perfume, a little green dress, and guilt instead of jewelry. It almost seemed I was going to have a life of my own.
I’d like to think that my name came up in the conversation at least once, but I know it isn’t true. Sometime, maybe when I was off dancing, my sister made the decision to move out and move on with her life. The plan didn’t include the baby, who had a broken wrist, the hospital said. Not to worry, tiny limbs mend quickly.
The chain that couldn’t hold my sister, was now around my neck. I’d go to school during the day and tend to the baby at night. But, I needed a flexible schedule in case mama was called to work days or and afternoon shift. It meant transferring from public high school, to a “continuation” school. It meant another hour bus ride downtown, no going out at night, no dances on the weekends, no prom. It meant living the life of a teen-age single parent.
For the next two years, my sister would check in once in a while, when Mama was at work. She’d dropped out of school, and was living and working at a boarding house owned by an elderly man who doted on her. She had her own room that was decorated with gold angels on either side of her bed, and purple gauze curtains across the wall. She had new clothes and a car. He brought her by the house once, and I met him. He seemed like a nice person.
Do you remember where you were the day President Kennedy was shot? It’s a generational question. Not unlike when people ask, where were you on 9/11? Or election day, 2016. On the eve before Kennedy’s final day, it was bitterly cold in San Diego. Mama was in one of her rages, angry that I insisted on going out because she had the night off and could babysit. After vomiting her usual invectives about my being a dirty whore (the double whammy, I guess) and having hot pants and all manner of carnal desires, I said I wanted to go out anyway.
She took my housekey and told me not to come back, and physically shoved me out the door. I had three pennies in my pocket. I walked to a girlfriend’s house, a girl I’d met at continuation school who’d since dropped out, and told her I had no place to go. She and her boyfriend took me to the wife of a guy he knew, and asked if I could stay the night. Her husband was out on a West Pac cruise and wouldn’t be home for another three months. She said OK.
By morning, Lee Harvey Oswald had decided to kill the president, and Mama had decided she’d had enough of both her daughters’ irresponsibility. She took the two-year-old to the boarding house and told my sister she’d have to take care of the baby herself. She’d also called the cops and reported me as a run-away, my sister said, when I called begging for help. She needed help too. She couldn’t take care of a baby at the boarding house. Was I going home? If not, she’d have to give the baby up for adoption, and what did I think about that? I told her the truth. “If you give the baby up, Mama will never forgive me, but for the baby’s sake, give her to a good home. Don’t let Mama have her.”
And it was true. For the rest of her life, I was reminded that the insatiable needs of my vagina were responsible for her taking her granddaughter to her mother in a moment of desperation. It stayed my fault until the day she died. Who knows, she might have told all the angels and saints in heaven that it was my fault. What I didn’t know was, why? Funny that a perfect stranger should be the one who set me straight.
It happened when I was eighteen, at Spanish Village art studios in Balboa Park. I’d been married, divorced and had a six-month-old son. I was living on welfare, and trying to locate my ex-husband for child support. Mama told me about this ad she saw about a photographer who had advertised for a model, and said it was a quick way for me to make some money. She packed me and the baby in the car, and drove to Spanish Village, and when we got there, I learned he wanted nude models for a Playboy spread on spec.
He took me upstairs alone, and told me to get undressed. I did, but pulled sheet around my body, and sat on the edge of the bed. He came over to me, sat beside me, and said, “You’re a very pretty girl, but I want you to put your clothes back on. And don’t you ever let your mother do this to you again. Nobody who loves you asks you to do things you don’t want to do. You take your baby home and stay away from her. Do you understand me?”
I don’t know if he ever sold a photograph to Playboy, or if he was just a pornographer with a trite hustle, but he was one of the most decent men I’ve ever met in my life. Certainly, he was one of the most diplomatic people I ever met. It was a difficult truth to deliver: your mother doesn’t love or respect you. But he did it as kindly as anyone could have. I wish I’d learned his name; I’d light a candle for him.
Now, I can spot users at a hundred paces. I hear plaintive recitations of people who are asked to do unthinkable things, like being asked to purposely flunk the senior year in high school so your mama can get one more years of welfare (yeah, it actually happened) and I don’t think twice about exposing the lie. The person who is supposed to love you doesn’t and won’t. Get away and stay away, and don’t feel guilty about hating people who hurt you. You don’t have to forgive them, be nice to them, or even speak to them.
And don’t be afraid. With any luck, she (or he) will die before you, and you’ll be truly free of the dastardly demands of the weak and cruel, demands that deny children their innocence, thwart their goals, destroy their dignity, crush their feelings, and brand the “V” for victim of their foreheads.
I’m living proof that you can outgrow your growing pains, and when people ask me, “How did you___________?’ Fill in the blank. Become happy. Get tough. Overcome disadvantage. Avoid drugs and alcohol. Raise your own children without violence or exploitation. Break the cycle of negativity. I answer: Freckles. I have them, can’t change them, and I’ve learned not to go out in the sun because I have very delicate skin. I protect it. I wear long-sleeved shirts.
Jenean McBrearty is a graduate of San Diego State University, who taught Political Science and Sociology. Her fiction, poetry, and photographs have been published in over a hundred and eighty print and on-line journals. She won the Eastern Kentucky English Department Award for Graduate Creative Non-fiction in 2011, and a Silver Pen Award in 2015 for her noir short story: Red’s Not Your Color. Her novels and collections can be found on Amazon and Lulu.com.