Content warning: sexual violence, language
When I was four years old, my sister and I were messing around at the pool. I slipped and hit my head on the concrete. It split open in the back. I remember the lifeguard gave me a squishy ball to squeeze. I remember she said I could keep it. I remember my dad scooped me up in his arms. It doesn’t make sense that it happened this way, but I remember he carried me all the way to the emergency room. I remember the pressure of my face pressing into a pillow as the doctor stapled my head back together. I don’t remember the pain at all.
I remember when I fell, I heard my mom cry out. I remember I was worried she would be angry with me. She was angry often. The next morning, she got my sister and I ready in our swimsuits and sunscreen in our double bed hotel room using the faint light of the cracked curtain. I remember she let my sister sit on the bed where my dad was sleeping and watch whatever cartoon she wanted, even though we didn’t normally get to watch TV. Then she took me to the souvenir shop by the hotel to pick out a floaty, like a baby, which was not fair because I was not a baby (and she should have been done with buying baby floaties) but was also unavoidable because the doctor had said I was not to wet my stapled head for a week, and what else was she supposed to do with two kids on vacation in the heat of pool season. She held my hand, but her grip was too tight. I felt like a prisoner on a mandatory excursion. I remember the floaty cost way too much money.
When I was five years old, my dad told me he would bring me back whatever I wanted from his three-week trip to Germany. “A puppy,” I answered immediately, and my dad had laughed and told me that I knew my mother would never allow that, and he was right, but he promised me to find a very special stuffed puppy as a compromise. I thought about it for the next two weeks.
“I can’t do this anymore,” my mom had said the day before, and I knew she was frustrated, and I knew it was my fault. My dad traveled a lot for work, at least every Monday through Friday, and I used to crawl in their bed and cry every Monday morning when I realized he had once again left for his flight while I slept. My mom was used to this, and she knew, as my mother, she was obliged to comfort me, but the resurgence of my dramatics on that Friday evening when I realized he would not be returning for the weekend had been more than what she had signed up for. She hugged me but her arms were stiff. She gradually lost her composure until her face was contorting, and her nose was turning up like she smelled something awful before she finally called my father that evening with the proclamation that she was throwing in the towel. Thus, the next day, I skipped as I returned the landline to her with the good news that Daddy would be bringing me home the most wonderful stuffed puppy, and it would be yellow, like my favorite color. I remember she smiled as she took the phone and she said that’s just what a Disney dad would do. That sounded like a good thing, but it didn’t feel like a good thing because I remember her smile didn’t reach her eyes. I pretended to busy myself with a toy and when she thought I was suitably distracted I remember her whisper yelling into the receiver about me becoming spoiled.
When my dad came home, as promised, he presented me with a stuffed yellow lab with big brown eyes and fur as soft as the lamb’s ear in our garden. I hugged it tightly, overwhelmed with joy, and I remember the way my dad beamed at me. He told me that he had been shopping in the evenings after work with his coworker, searching high and low for my prize, and that she had grabbed it off the shelf, proclaiming its perfection and hugging it tightly just like I did on the night they finally found it. I remember now how my mom pursed her lips tightly and left the room.
When I was twelve, my dad left our home for good. I remember my chest felt so tight I took ibuprofen. He called me a few weeks later, and he explained everything. He didn’t leave me; he left my mother. She was hard to live with. I said I understood. He told me the judge had said he got to have me and my sister for two whole weeks straight during the summer and we could go anywhere we wanted. Then he asked me why my sister wouldn’t call him back and I said I didn’t know. I remember I was worried I had disappointed him with this answer, but he told me that it was okay. He knew that of all people, I would be the one to be on his side because our bond was special. I was just like him. That was my favorite compliment.
When I was fourteen, though, I called my dad in tears to tell him how my favorite compliment had been welded into my mom’s weapon of choice. I told him how she spat out the words like they were venom in her mouth. I was just like my father. I asked him if I could stay with him because she had told me that I was old enough to make my own choice. It had been an easy decision for me. But I remember how he shifted uncomfortably on the phone, the way his words came out like the service was poor. “I don’t know about that,” he had said. He needed to think. I could hear his new wife speaking in the background and I couldn’t hear what it was that she said but I remember his “I don’t know” turned into, “No, I don’t think that’s possible.” He told me he loved me while my tears were still flowing, and I remember they felt hot against my cheeks when he hung up.
I’m sixteen now, and I stopped calling him first, so we don’t talk much. My dad complains in emails to my mother that she has poisoned me against him. But she and I aren’t colluding by any means- the last thing the two of us can do is get along- and I spend as much time away from home as possible. Not in like a depressing way, I mean. I have fun.
I have my own friends now who feel like family and a boyfriend they’re all jealous of. I wear his letter jacket to class, and he drives me home after school. He's a senior, and he has his own car. I look out his passenger window at the underclassmen as they walk home. We pull up to the stoplight next to two freshman girls waiting for the crosswalk. He doesn’t even notice them, but he leans over to me, puts his hand on my chin, and draws my face to his for a kiss. My stomach flutters with the thrill of knowing those girls are looking directly at their hopes for the future. I know everyone hopes to be loved like this, to be so irresistible to someone that they can’t pass up any opportunity to touch them.
He comes home with me, and he knows my mom can be loud and angry, but I’m not worried about it, and he isn’t fazed. Ever since he got his license, we’ve been able to whisper many secrets in dark parking lots after gatherings with our friends. I know that no matter what it may look like on the outside, his family isn’t perfect either. He gets me. I always return home floating, impervious to my mom’s snide remarks about the late hour and how it relates to my promiscuity. I’m not scared of her anymore. In a year he’ll be off to college and in another I'll join him. He's going to call me every day and I'll get to visit all the cool college parties. When it's time for me to move we'll find a place out there together and I will never have to feel alone again.
Tonight, I tell my mom I’m going over to my best friend’s house, and she believes me. She makes sure to make plans with her friend from her church group because she doesn't like to be alone. But instead, I make fettucine alfredo for my boyfriend, and we eat it off the fancy dishes at the kitchen table. It’s our ten-month anniversary. He tells me it’s the best meal he’s ever had. After dinner, I suggest we go to my neighborhood swimming pool, and I instantly regret it. I’m probably so bloated after all those carbs.
He doesn’t care though, and he exclaims how incredible I look in my swimsuit as soon as I take off my t-shirt to get in the water. I’m blushing, but I love it. It’s the end of August, so the pool is still open since it’s technically still summer, but school has just started so nobody even thinks of coming here anymore. And it’s 9pm, so it’s almost dark and technically closed, except no one ever actually locks the gates. It's just the two of us in the world. It’s perfect. We swim together, giddy with laughter. We race, play contests to see who can hold our breath the longest, and when I gasp to the surface for air, he grasps me in his arms and takes my breath away again, kissing me deeply, his hands reaching up underneath my top.
I’m surprised, and I push him back. I’m not quite ready for that, I tell him. He pauses. Frowns. Then he grips my waist to lift me up onto the side of the pool. I sit there while he positions himself out of the water to sit beside me.
We talk for a minute. We’ve been dating for a while. He understood I was distracted during the school year, but the past few months, we’ve spent every day together. I’ve been teasing this all summer, he points out. Now that school has started up again, he can’t guarantee he won’t drift away from me. What I hear is that we spent every day together, but it wasn’t what I thought. It was a transaction.
He’s reached his hand forward, and now it’s holding the left side of my head. He takes my silence as a yes, but I feel sick inside. He kisses me, again and again. He keeps going.
“Please stop,” I hear myself say.
“Just relax,” he whispers. He’s still being gentle. I tell him I don’t want to. He doesn’t stop. I’m begging, and he keeps going. The tears start to fall. I think, then, that he will understand that I mean it, but when he sees, his eyes turn black. He isn’t gentle anymore. I try to get up, but he pushes me down, hard. I try to cry out, but his hand grips my throat. The ground feels rough against my face.
Afterwards, I’m still crying, and he regards my tears with disgust. He tells me to stop putting on a show. He sits there uncomfortably for a minute, until I can stop sobbing. I'm still laying there. He moves my hair out of my eyes, stroking it softly. He assures me he was careful, and that he’s glad we solidified our connection. That he loves me. He insists on mutual promises that we don’t tell anyone. Then he gets up to go use the men’s restroom.
On Monday, though, he will tell all the boys in our friend group that we did it. At lunchtime, my best friend will come up to me and ask if it’s true. And I’ll hear myself laugh and answer flirtatiously that maybe we did do it, because I’m not a victim. We’ll drift apart. She’ll tell our other girlfriends she feels like she’s the last one to know my secrets these days. I won’t notice for a while, because I’ll still have him. And once I do, I'll blame her for not asking more questions. For not knowing me better to see through my facade. And I'll confirm my own greatest fears, that without him, I would be utterly and terribly alone.
But right now, I don’t know any of that yet. Right now, actually, I’m wondering where my dad is. Maybe he’s in Germany, or China, or at his new house meal prepping chicken. And, for a moment, I consider calling him tomorrow. But just for a moment, because then I go to try and get up, and the next thing I know all I can think about is how bad the scrapes feel on my face. Moments ago, I went from being scared I was going to die to wishing I would. They say your life flashes before your eyes. I remembered everything. And I’m wondering why my dad ever scooped me up in the first place, if I was just going to end up back here on the fucking concrete.