Walk Away, a memoir
In the summer after my sophomore year of high school, my mother returned unexpectedly from one of her angry abandonments of the family. My boyfriend and I were sliding our nakedness together in the finished basement of my parents’ oceanfront home when I heard the kitchen door slam shut and her high heels tick-tick-ticking against the flagstone floor. By the time she started down the stairway, Jimmy and I’d grabbed our clothes and slipped behind the door to the unfinished part of the basement. Without time to dress, I held the doorknob in both hands, wedged one foot against the jamb, and pulled back. My mother, screaming “I know you’re in there,” grabbed the doorknob on the other side. For a few minutes, our strength balanced out, and the door was a fulcrum between our weights.
What is the point? I thought. She knows what I’m doing. I let go, and the door snapped open, revealing us to each other: me, a big-breasted, big-hipped, naked sixteen-year-old girl, and my mother, a trim woman in her late forties with a lacquered French twist and a Chanel suit.
“You cheap little tramp,” she said.
It had been years since my parents agreed on anything, but after a shouting match that night, they agreed that I would not see my high school sweetheart again. He would not be allowed anywhere near the house, and I would be watched closely because of my sinful inclinations. If they found I was seeing him, they would bring charges against him, or against me. They’d threatened to lock me up since I was thirteen, but I was afraid of what they might be able to do to Jimmy.
In odd moments at secluded spots, we continued to see each other through the start of my junior year. A mile down the coast on the North Shore of Boston, the remains of a Gilded Age hotel were in the final stages of decay. Only the cabana house at Whale’s Beach survived the fire that burnt the New Ocean House to the ground when I was in fourth grade, and the waves that flooded over the low seawall during heavy northeasters. Inside the old cabanas, sand and driftwood and small, smooth stones littered the cement floors. The dressing rooms stood doorless like horse stalls. Other people, long ago, hid their nakedness there. Windswept, sea-swept, and off-limits, the cabanas became the perfect setting for forbidden love.
I was naïve enough then to interpret jealousy and possessiveness as love, but as autumn took over New England, Jimmy’s interrogations about what, exactly, I’d done with past boyfriends made me uneasy. Still, in the dampness of the cabanas, on a chilly October morning, I couldn’t wait to get my clothes off. I couldn’t wait to get his clothes off. His body was perfect: taut, muscled, hairless except for a dark line running from his navel to his groin, his skin like hot, white satin. Nothing ever felt as good as his body pressed against mine. I slid my hands under his fisherman’s knit sweater, a hand-me-down from his older brother. He pushed me away.
“Were you naked?”
“When you messed around with Jack.”
“No, not completely.”
“What does that mean?”
“My shirt was pushed up. My pants were around one leg.”
“Did you see his cock?”
“Not really.” I let go of him, leaned against a wall, and slid down it to a cross-legged position, waiting for the interrogation to end.
“Then how did it get inside you?”
Jimmy squatted down next to me. I turned my face away from him. “He didn’t get it inside me. I told you that.”
“What did he say?”
“He said, ‘Do you wanna ball?’”
The time with the other boy was the distant past, nearly a year earlier. The other boy had golden skin, loose curls. He’d pushed against my vulva, but hadn’t penetrated me.
I studied the concrete floor, wishing Jimmy would get over it so we could get down to the business of our own loving, so I could feel his warmth against me. That bond was what I lived for; I knew it would never die.
“Say it again.”
“Do you wanna — ” I turned my head, impatient, just as Jimmy’s fist smashed into my nose, knocking me flat on my back. Then he was on me, his knees pinning my shoulders, his fists smashing my face.
“And you said yes, you fucking slut, fucking slut, fucking slut…” His shouting grew meaningless long before he stopped hitting me. I rolled on to my side, curled into a ball. I heard a new silence. Numbness spread across my face and my chest, down my arms, and into my hands. He was gone.
I don’t remember how I got out on to the beach. Everything was upside down, or I was upside down. The sand was a ceiling. Small puddles of blood appeared on it. I touched my face. My left eye was swollen completely shut. Then everything was right-side up again. Through a narrow slit in my other eye, I saw a herring gull standing tall at the water’s edge. The gull gave a long call, eeyah-ah-ah-ah-ah, neck stretched out, throat muscles undulating in rhythm with the gently rolling waves. The ocean glittered more than ever. I walked up the stairs from the beach to the grassy plot where bathers once sunned themselves. A semicircular bench faced the ocean. I’d always thought of it as a place to pray to the sea gods. Its curve looked welcoming, and I lay down with my back against the curve, one side of my face on the cool, whitewashed concrete. When I got up, I left a small puddle of blood.
What would I say? I’d tell my parents, my friends, and the hospital personnel that I’d tripped and fallen face first into a stone wall. I wouldn’t even admit it to Lisa, my best friend since first grade, who lived on the same street, who’d walked to school with me every day for ten years. Stitches would close a deep split along my left eyebrow; the passing weeks would heal my broken nose and my two blackened eyes. In my bedroom mirror, my face would be unrecognizable. I stared, knowing some piece of me hid behind the swollen monstrosity. I spoke to that reflection as if it weren’t me. “I love you,” I said to it.
What would I do? When Jimmy swore he’d never hit me again, I’d believe him. When he planned, and worked, and saved for our escape to a new life where we could start over, I’d bring my poems and diaries to Lisa for safekeeping, and then go with him, first to Canada, and then to California.
Where were my parents in all this? Mired in a quicksand mix of court appeals, depression, and adultery. Why did no one stop me? Maybe because I believed that love was unstoppable, and that made it so. Maybe because none of us can swim against the riptides of our fate. At best, we remember to let the current take us out, and a new approach opens up, and we take a different tack toward shore.
Maybe I just hated being wrong. By the time I was thirteen, I was spending as little time as possible in my parents’ house, where joy was in short supply, and spending as much time as possible getting high. I was a little know-it-all, but there was so much I didn’t know. Sometimes I sat on my bed, facing a mirror, trying to see who I looked like, who I was, or who I would become. Once, high on mescaline, I watched my face shift into different patterns and colors like a prism. I didn’t make a secret of what I did, and wanting to control me, my parents resorted to beatings. Holding my breath under the whipping belt, the slapping hand, the fingers twisting in my hair, I believed whatever was happening in the moment wouldn’t last forever and was bearable. If I held my breath and held on, there’d be an opening, and I could slip out the door. But always, I went back. It didn’t feel like home, but it was the only home I knew.
Maybe I thought I was too smart to make mistakes. Shocked at my freakish toddler aptitude for reading and memorization, my parents made me perform for friends and relatives. They took me for intelligence tests at a local college when I was only four years old, then passed the results around to people drinking iced tea in our backyard. I grew up, for a little while, hearing I would be the first woman president of the United States. But by the time I hit middle school, my grades and test scores had lost their shine, and the pressure of keeping too many secrets — about where my younger sister, Cherie, and I came from, about our father’s prison term — depleted our parents’ energy. They retreated into separate worlds, and my usefulness to them expired. I grew accustomed to feeling as if I were on my own.
When I met Jimmy, I thought I’d come home, finally, to someone who understood my obsessions with books and with human touch. I didn’t want to be wrong about his love, as I’d been wrong about my parents. But novels and poetry about orphans and voyages led me astray, too. To those, I hung on. No one could have stopped me from being swept out to sea on that riptide.
I believed in throwing myself headlong into experience, in taking the journey, in the mentor who appears at the crossroads with the gift of wisdom. But that mentor wasn’t Jimmy. It was two murderers in California who gave me what I needed to turn back toward shore.
This is Chapter 1 of Walk Away. Chapter 2 is here.