One year ago, it was an ordinary Monday, the day after Mother’s Day. There was work and lacrosse practice after school and the usual chaos that surrounds trying to get two kids to do their homework and chores and have something of sustenance to eat before they have to put on their gear before practice.
This Monday felt harder. The kids were borderline ornery–don’t get me wrong, my kids are smart and spirited and loving and kind–but on this day, they were not really emphasizing these traits, let’s say. Let’s say that on this particular Monday, what they were actually emphasizing was their worst selves, the selves that just want to sit on the couch and stare at the TV for a couple of hours, possibly while drooling, instead of taking care of their responsibilities. (I can’t say I blame them…but somebody has to keep the trains running, know what I mean?)
So it was one of those days when I had to push and prod and nag and wheedle, as I simultaneously tried to wrap up my work day, which had proven to have its own challenges.
It was just one of those fucking days.
We were late for lacrosse practice, and I drove as recklessly as I dared, feeling the anxiety building. In retrospect, I wonder if it’s really THAT big of a deal that we are the family who is late for lacrosse practice nearly every time. In the grand scheme of things, probably not.
But this day was about more than just being late. This day was particularly tough. With their laziness and pokiness and talk-backiness, the kids had pushed me to the edge of my sane place, where I sort of hovered with questionable stability, trying to balance on the right side of the line that demarcated normal mom from screaming irrational mom.
Of course I fell.
I mean, I teetered for awhile and then I just went SPLAT! into the place where I shrieked for most of the somewhat-reckless car ride to lacrosse practice, using tired phrases like, If I had behaved like you when I was a kid!!! and Why is it so hard to stick to the routine after school? and Calgon, take me away! (ok, not really, but the sentiment is there).
I had had these mom-freakouts before, occasionally. But this one felt different, exquisitely sharp. I felt like I was losing it, like I had to get out to go, to do something. There was something clawing at me, begging for my attention, poking at my insides to get me to see it or hear it or feel it. Something. SOMETHING.
When I had relieved myself of both children I started to drive home. I had things to do, you know.
Always with the things that need the doing.
I didn’t want to go home, though. That Something was bubbling up from my stomach, demanding my focus.
I was going to get a Starbucks and go sit by the pond. That’s what I would do, and wouldn’t that be nice?
No, no I didn’t want to do that either. That would not be nice at all.
I would just drive. I would just drive somewhere, nowhere. I just needed some time on my own, alone with my thoughts.
So I drove, and as I drove, I knew it was more than being alone with my thoughts. I didn’t think I was going anywhere when I realized I was actually driving Somewhere.
That Somewhere took shape in my brain, and a clear picture of a yellow house formed in my mind’s eye.
The House. I was going to the House.
The House was one where I lived from 7th grade through 11th grade, just four short years, but this house has lived on in my dreams…or, my nightmares, I should say.
For some reason, despite my less than stellar childhood spanning every house (or apartment) I’ve ever lived in, this house has come to embody the terror, sadness and loneliness of all of it.
My most frequent recurring nightmare is of this house, being in it with my children, knowing there is danger outside, and knowing I can’t protect them from it.
We are always in that fucking house in my nightmares.
By all rights, That House (which was repainted red at some point) should have been demolished years ago. It is practically falling apart anyway. It has been uninhabited for probably 20 years, as other houses in the area–not really a neighborhood, just a couple of houses along a major road that is right next to a major highway–were knocked down in favor of a hotel and a large office building erected there.
But that house still stands–barely, by now. But it stands, and this day I believed that it still stands just to haunt me.
As I drove toward Wallingford, I suddenly came to realize that I was not just going to visit That House. I was going to visit every house we had lived in since we came to Connecticut. This was a thing I decided to do simply, cleanly, as though it had been my plan all along. I didn’t know why I was doing it; I just knew I had to.
We came to Connecticut from Florida when I was 8, and the first place we lived was in Meriden, a bit further north than Wallingford. I would go there next.
As I headed that way, my stomach started to feel unsettled and I tasted bile in the back of my mouth.
Why was this feeling so ominous? I didn’t really understand what I was feeling. I had memories in that first apartment that were happy.
For a time, in that Meriden apartment, I remembered happiness. I remembered the pond in our backyard that we used to skate on in the winter and fish in during the summer. I remember an old railroad track we could follow through a meadow if we walked through a wooded area and over a little bridge on the pond. If we followed that track, it ended near a playground.
I remembered our time in that apartment as a relatively carefree time when we spent lazy days catching sunfish with my cousins, going on adventures, riding our bikes to the dirt BMX track at Falcon Field, which was right across the road from our street.
My memories of living there are glazed with a golden wash of childhood adventure and leisure.
Why, then, did I feel like something terrible was about to happen?
My dread mounted as I turned left into the dead end street, our apartment having been in the third and last house.
The first two houses looked much as I remembered them, with improvements. One of the improvements in the middle house was a looming stockade-like fence built on only one side of the house, the side that shared a border with my old house. Odd.
But when I looked at the old house, I could see why. Two trucks and a shoddy-looking camper were parked on the front lawn, and the driveway/parking area was littered with car parts and a bunch of other unidentifiable “stuff.” It looked like a broken down junkyard.
I wanted to pull all the way to the end of the road and right into the parking area to get a closer look at the backyard, the door we used to use to go in, the path down to the pond, and the trail through the wooded area, but there was no way for me to do that without making it incredibly obvious that I was staking out the place.
I turned around in the driveway of the middle house and headed out, my heart hammering.
Something was bubbling in my chest. Something.
Trying to remain calm, I drove across the street and into the Falcon Field complex. To my great surprise, the dirt BMX track was still there, exactly as I remembered it from nearly 35 years ago.
To my greater surprise, I noticed I was crying.
I turned around in the parking lot and left the track behind, following the road around the pond to the far side opposite my old house. I pulled into a new playground area where I could park my car and study the back of the house from the other side of the pond.
The dread was still bubbling, but I felt a bit safer observing the house from this distance.
I saw the bridge we used to sit on when we cast our lines into the pond.
I saw the path to the meadow, and the hint of the old train tracks with the high grass growing around them.
Behind me, I saw another path into the woods and up a hill–I had forgotten about that path, but I suddenly remembered that it was a shortcut to my elementary school.
None of these sights made me afraid; instead, they filled me with a fond nostalgia.
But the house was a different story.
I had a memory in this house, one that over the years, I had all but forgotten. Sometimes, an image of it would bubble up into my brain under some other context, never the right one, never making sense, but accompanied by the same sense of seeping dread I had been feeling since I got off the exit two miles from this house.
In that moment, sitting in my car in that parking lot, with a few kids playing on the monkey bars nearby, that memory came back to me.
It was foggy and nebulous, but it was there in full context: a vague impression of being pushed down onto a bed. The loud creaking of the bed frame, grabbing hands, the full weight of a body on top of me.
A shared joke was made, and I laughed.
I knew something wasn’t right, but I laughed.
I was going to be sick. I was going to be sick in my car as I thought about it. As I realized that this was the Something. The Something had solidified into this thing, this thing that had been dancing at the edge of my memory most of my life.
And as I thought about it more, I knew it wasn’t the only time it happened.
As I sat there, fighting against my urge to vomit, I realized that this nebulous memory was simply a series of impressions of about 30 seconds of my life, but I know it went on for longer and it happened more than once. Maybe twice? Maybe 10 times? 35? I don’t know. I don’t even have a true memory of any other time except for the feelings, the impressions of it happening again, often with the same shared joke coming up.
I stared at that house and started to feel the shame. Shame for how I had played along. What was wrong with me? Why didn’t I push him away? Why didn’t I stop him? Why did I submit?
A young father nearby looked at me crying in my car. I tried to find a tissue and came up with a napkin from my center console to clean myself up. But I wasn’t ready to leave yet. The father turned away, chasing his daughter toward the slide.
I dug deeper, poking around in my memory, and found another Something. Another time when a memory had inexplicable dread and shame attached to it.
I relived this memory with this new context, remembered sharply the feeling of being trapped and scared and for once, for this one time, I found anger instead of submission. I wasn’t laughing, this time. I wanted to fight back, and I did.
He screamed out in pain as his face contorted, and I knew I was in trouble. Whatever he was holding back before, he released on me now as pure rage in the form of vicious punches and kicks. All I could do was endure it.
I was nine.
The remembering was too much.
It was too much for me to admit all at once, in a parking lot, in a neighborhood full of ghosts coming back to haunt me.
This is a real thing that happened to me, I said to myself.
I whispered it out loud in the car, I was abused.
This is a thing. This is the Something that happened to me. The Something that had been bubbling up, poking at the edges of my consciousness, for close to a year now. I had sought therapy to deal with family issues, things I thought were–or at least should be–long healed, but they just weren’t and I didn’t understand why.
This was why.
That Monday, I continued on to visit four other houses and two cemeteries. I yelled at uncaring headstones. I cried more. I remembered more. I got sick. I cried again.
Then I went home. But the real journey had barely begun.
I have been dreading this day, May 11, 2016, for months. How would I react to the passing of a year, the demarcation of such a dubious anniversary?
It wasn’t a great day, to say the least. But it wasn’t my worst.
One year later, I call myself “survivor” instead of “victim.”
One year later, I no longer feel shame about what was done to me, although I do still grieve.
One year later, I’m still standing.