Survival

All I know of him is his somber round face, his skin on mine, the power in his bulky brown body and his repeated efforts to drown me.

Tina has dragged me to this wading pool every day since Mom left me with the Valentines — a Projects family recently relocated to North Minneapolis. Why she left me, here, and when she’ll be back, I don’t know. But no matter what the pool holds for me, it’s less scary than that apartment full of older males I don’t know.

I hope, each time we set out, he won’t be there today, or that his hostility is played out. But no, he comes for me every time. I remain vigilant, evading him, slinking low in the water, behind the tangle of lanky child-limbs animating the entire pool. But I am one of just two whitey blobs, and the only sunburnt-hot-pink one, in a writhing mass of dark brown flesh — he has every advantage here.

I’m guessing I was about seven, he must have been about nine — a huge nine. And even then I understood that the advantage he had over me in that pool might have been the only advantage he ever felt. I didn’t know the phrase Civil Rights Movement at the time, but ‘Racism’, ‘Slavery’, and ‘Oppression’ were common in my vocabulary, and I’d been schooled to accept that those three words together meant that a member of the instigator race could reasonably expect occasional blow back, and that personal culpability was irrelevant in either direction. Even then I understood (because this, my mother taught me), that I was a symbol. I took it as part of my heritage — that it had little to do with either of us personally, we were just jostled bits at the bottom of the pyramid. He was not my enemy, and I would not let his inevitable anger distract me from the real issues. If we turn on one another, Mom said, we solve nothing.

Whatever the reality, I take it for granted that his murder attempts go unnoticed in that mass of writhing children. I don’t yet know these words, but I’m already in the habit of using sociological analysis to dissociate from pain, abuse, neglect — separating my symbol-hood from my Self — so I assume, before and after, that I will resent none of this — not even him. If I can just survive.

But in our moments together, symbols and analysis are irrelevant — right here and now, it’s life and death. My feet slide on the slippery pool-bottom; eyes, sinuses, lungs all burn from chlorine; my scalp stings as if clumps of hair are being yanked out. Sight and sound are chaos, hearing toggles rapidly between the slow muffling gurgle of underwater white-noise and a cacophony of sharp splashing, children’s shrieking voices, sometimes even my own screams — one moment the sunlight slants glowing curtains against a brilliant turquoise background, shot through with slow-moving skinny black legs awash in sprays of glistening air-bubbles, and the next it’s shattered into diamonds and rainbows by the million drops and splashes on the water’s surface surrounding my face — his face grimacing slow hatred against a backdrop of cloudless blue sky and surrounded by all those disinterested children’s bodies. No-one cares if I die here, under this boy’s hands, even my mother may not miss me. Maybe she’ll be relieved — one less tormenter.

It matters to no-one if I die here in this stupid inner-city pool, in water no higher than my crotch at the deepest, in spite of my swimming skills, surrounded by such a densely thrashing crowd, my death goes unnoticed until it’s too late — it matters to no-one but me; and the sights and sounds of my death-struggle thrashing, even the pain and fear, retreat before a solid grey monstrous will to survive which is mine alone to implement. I struggle and flail and pound and rip at him. I will bear no grudge, but if it’s him or me, I won’t hesitate to kill him. I spare not one single ounce of myself from the effort, but once my lungs fill with water, he grows stronger and stronger and though I continue to fight, I can feel death overtaking me — he has won. And each time we replay this scene, in that moment I’m sure is my last, and that this crowded sparkling-sunny wading pool will be my final sight, he releases me. And smiles for the first time of the day.

I stumble, sobbing gasp-ily and snotting, and throw myself over the side of the pool. Lie on my belly on the hot cement, puking water from my lungs, struggling to contain my emotions in the midst of that mass of indifference. My heart slowly settles, the dizziness fades, the chemical burning abates.

I droop about on the surrounding pavement for the rest of the day. The pool is his, and he grins at me in passing, almost lovingly. Eventually Tina comes round to collect me (oblivious of my trials) and we return to her family’s cramped apartment.

How many days did he come for me like that? Two? Four? Six at most. I’d forgotten it all completely, just one of those memories that returns once every two decades, triggered by some obscure connection, then fades away again under the habit of dissociation.

In the endless nights between drownings, I mostly lie awake, naked, on my belly. My entire back has bubbled up into oozing filmy-white blisters, and under the peeling skin it’s red, raw, wet, almost bloody. Even the still heavy air in that hot dark room weighs too much, burns. But there is no-one I can whine to. If I drift off, I wake with a start, not sure what woke me.

I remember other times now too, times when mom left us with other people: Tony S’s mom, remarried, let us stay for a few weeks, in her nice new life in a suburban rambler. I remember learning from her fishtank that you have to provide plants for guppy babies to hide in, or else the mother will eat them. And I remember discovering the pleasure of folding laundry fresh from the dryer — the warm clean smell, the color-coordinated piles, sorted according to owner and article, the precise folding techniques — so reassuringly orderly, I could have folded all day. I remember Tony’s friendly new step-dad, something about his presence, his body near mine — but that’s all. Yearning for a clean and predictable family life and a clothes dryer, but still harboring reservations — already deeply suspicious of appearances.

I remember staying with Barbara Randazza too, more than once, I think. Barbara was an Aries (like me), so I considered her a role model — she had a way with men that my mom admired, and encouraged me to learn from. Always the boss-queen, with no end of would-be man-minions.

I remember the plastic on Barbara’s couch, coming and going demurely, feeling girly, sharing a bed with her daughter Debbie who later became a ballerina, giggling at night, playing with the flashlight under the blankets. I remember the steep steps down to the sidewalk in front of their duplex, the retaining wall in front, the alley behind the house where we played, the angle of the hill the street went down, the street-light intersection on the corner at the bottom of the hill, and the corner store a block up the cross-street. There are blocks I walk sometimes decades later and a memory of a familiar but unrecalled life nags me until it comes back — this is like Barbara’s block, I wonder if this is where she lived when we stayed with her. I wonder, also, where was my mother then? Why did she leave us with Barbara?

All of those deviations from the norm, I forget for the bulk of my years.

Recently I recalled another mostly-forgotten drowning attempt and for the first time in my life, connected the dots between them. In the 70's experimantal hippie ‘Free School’ I attended, we took a field trip to Mexico for about six weeks each winter.

The first year, I was twelve. Me and three eleven-year-olds, the youngest students on the trip, spent most of the time settled into a big, cheap cement room on the outskirts of a centrally located Mexican village, while the other groups of older students came and went, using our place as a base.

Ruth Anne was the teacher in charge of us little kids. We were joined later by her boyfriend Dennis. Both were twenty-something hippies. Dennis and I became pals. I adored him and spent as much time as I could clambering around on him, yapping, tagging along, whatever he would tolerate.

Toward the end of the trip, our group went to spend a week at the ocean. On our first day at the coast we went splashing in the bay, body surfing, swimming, splashing each other — playing in the surf. Then, I don’t know, maybe I was pestering Dennis too much, but he dunked my head under water. I popped up hissing and scrambling like a drowned cat, which must have egged him on, because he dunked me again, but this time he held me under for a moment. I panicked, flooded with fight, and reached out to gouge my way up from under the surface. Dennis suddenly released and flung me away from him. I turned to see his chest streaming with blood, his face angry and hurt: I ran to our communal motel room broken-hearted, and instantly developed a migraine. Ruth Anne came to check on me shortly after, and found me throwing up, face streaming snot and migraine-tears, barely able to beg her to keep everyone out of the room for the rest of the day so I could sleep off my headache.

Dennis tried, after that, to be friendly again. But his body always recoiled a little when I got close.

I was again contemplating recently, that pattern in my life, of me liking men, looking for a father figure, and the inevitable rejection stemming from that effort. Contemplating the conviction I carried most of my life, deep in my bones, that men feel about me the way they do about Medusa, a penetrating paralyzing horror.

Cataloging the evidence, which is still coming in — like a recent FaceBook exchange with a friend I’d had a crush on from later Free School days, a seriously tough guy, who some thought was psycho and whom no sane man would tangle with to this day, listing the girls we knew whom he was in love with back in the day, a short list, I was on it. Then he finishes up with “I can’t say exactly why, but you always scared me” — one shred in the mountain of evidence that I was repellant, terrifying even to the toughest dudes. The data-points all connected up again recently, and though I thought I’d recovered from that conviction long ago, I still hadn’t clearly seen the pattern back to the beginning. I still thought my dreadfulness was more nature than nurture. I was over the pain, but the shame still lurked.

Thinking about that sense of repulsiveness again — decades after I allowed awareness of that conviction into my conscience and have many times strained gut and ribcage muscles heaving house-rattling sobs of grief over the lack of male love in my life — now, long after it no longer matters to me, because I finally found the one man in the world who finds my fearsomeness beautiful, the one man I don’t have to worry will leave me when the snakes on my head rise up larger than the sun, the one man I’ve learned to trust — cataloguing the evidence dispassionately now, I recall Dennis, and the drowning and the shame I felt at my over-reaction, and my hurt that it seemed to everyone like an overreaction (my life felt threatened at the moment), and the inevitability that if a man cared for me, I would ruin it somehow — always with too much force — like slapping GN, nailing the gym door shut, drawing blood, not pulling my punches — like with my unerring and instantaneous ability to focus a burning laser-beam on any man’s deepest source of shame, an ability my whole life has merely honed to perfection, and which I still cannot always master the restraint of.

And suddenly, in the midst of struggle about the surface of the salt-splash surf, and the reaching up with my claws out, I connect that apparent over-reaction that has made me shudder in shame upon every previous recollection, to the boy in the wading pool and my repeated certainty of death in those redundant moments, and my lifelong, barely-repressed rage at a culture in which a young black boy would find pleasure in torturing an utterly unknown lonely white girl — a deeply embodied rage at the intimate violence apparently required for survival — down here at the base of civilization’s hierarchy.

I make that connection, now, at age 53, and a certain weight lifts from my heart. I begin to recognize the relationship between all those early forgotten dissociated traumas, and the ways I’m shamed by how I respond to certain stimuli, even to this day. I begin to recognize that I’m not really the monster I always seemed, in spite of a lifetime of evidence.

I’m sorry for pain I’ve caused because of it, but I’m even more powerfully grateful for that solid grey monstrous will to survive which was mine alone to implement.


Image by SUPERFAMOUS

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