Saturday, December 13, 2008

small world

cliché

When I was 16 my uncle died. He was young. Not a whole lot older than I am now. Maybe younger.

The details are murky in my mind but I think it was cancer followed by complications and hepatitis.

I knew my uncle through brief summers spent with my mother in Sonoma. She re-materialized in my life after a long absence when I was 12, and every summer after that we’d spend a little time with her. It was awkward, trying to be someone’s kid after seven years of no contact, no conversation -- a spread that was more than half my lifetime at that time -- and she wasn’t much for kids, so my sister and brother and I made every effort to be on our best behavior. We found fast enough that if we weren’t she’d leave again. Sometimes she wouldn’t talk to us. Once she left us at the county fair when she decided it was time to go home and couldn’t find us.

My sister and I were looking for her, combing the rows of funnel cake and corndog stands and 4-H projects, when my uncle found us. K was a lot like the guy I’m married to today: solid, steady and still, with a way of scanning the situation and stepping in quietly to fill the gaps in a who was that masked man kind of way. He did what was needed and then stepped away without fuss when everything was under control.

K said hey with his generous smile and stayed with us while we searched the fairgrounds, trying to find someone who wasn’t there. I suspect he realized before we did what had happened. He knew my mother better than we did.

And then he drove us home. Without fuss, talking all the while about something else altogether to distract and calm us, while I was fretting that my mother was still looking for us at the fair. He took us home to where she wasn’t wondering, wasn’t worrying, maybe was thinking about going back for us later, but greeted us with a flatness of emotion that made me feel awkward for ever being anxious.

He died in the Fall. Our family had just moved to the North end of town. I was going to a new high school and trying to get settled. My father and stepmother had just ended their tumultuous marriage; she went off to heal and he took a job that meant a long commute to L.A. and back to Denver every week or so. My sister left for college and I missed her. I was suddenly the oldest kid in the house, and the base grew when my father moved his new girlfriend and her two kids in with us, against the strident objections of me and my brothers.

Not the best of times.

My mother called late one night to tell me that K had died. I would have liked to have gone to the funeral but I didn’t ask for a plane ticket and she didn’t offer. I cried through the night, woke up late and cried some more. My dad was working from home and we talked a bit, I settled some, and then decided I’d head to school for my last few classes. I asked him for a ride since the buses had long since run. For some reason he couldn’t give me one just then so I decided to walk. School was about 40 minutes away on foot.

Then I did something something remarkably stupid, something I suspect I wouldn't have done if I wasn’t frayed by grief and worrying over getting to my afternoon classes on time and occupying that strange shelf between here and there that descends when the body’s going through trauma and trying beyond all measure to make things normal: I accepted a ride from a stranger.

A brown Celica hatchback with louvres on the back window pulled to the curb. I noticed the make and model because my father’s girlfriend drove a grey version of the same. The guy inside wore dark glasses and had a beard. He leaned over to the open window on the passenger side and asked if I’d like a ride.

I said sure. And thanks. And I got into his car.

I told him I was going to the high school and pointed him that way. He asked me to roll up the window. They were darkly tinted. Did he ask me to lock the door? I remember it that way.

Our conversation was pleasant, polite, and without breaking stride, about half way to our destination, he asked me if I’d like to fuck.

Heat and fear flooded through me.

I said no thank you, and then after a pause I told him he could let me out right here.

He said: “I’ll tell you what,” and I looked over to see that he was holding a small shiny blade in his left hand. Probably a pocket knife. “Why don’t you lay down in my lap,” and he pulled me down with his muscled arm so that my head was resting against his jeans, warm and firm with his erection. He was steering with his left hand, the one holding the knife, his right hand firmly on my shoulder.

He kept driving. I don’t remember what he said after that; I don’t remember what I said. In my mind I was running through the instructions I had received in teen magazines. In matters like these, when a weapon was present, the glossy richly colored pages, the ones that I could recall just then, advised giving in. The danger of injury was too high. Submit. Avoid death or severe injury. Do what he says.

I decided against their advice.

He took his hand off my shoulder to turn the wheel -- we were rounding a corner -- and I sat up saying: “Look -- no -- please.” With one hand I reached for the knife, with the other hand I grabbed the steering wheel. I don’t suspect I could have overpowered him on the straightaway, but because he was turning I had an advantage. The motion was disruptive enough that he said “I’m letting you out, I’m letting you out,” and he pulled up to the curb.

I scrambled for the door, grabbed my backpack, and -- for some crazy reason -- said “thank you.”

I got out of the car and started walking and didn’t look back. I should have looked at the license plate, I should have written it down, but I just walked, shaking, gasping and gulping and trying not to cry, walked straight ahead in the direction of my high school. My hands were sweating hard and I wiped them repeatedly on my jeans, trying to dry them. It wasn’t until I got to school, to the restroom, where I splashed water on my face and grabbed the sink, still shaking, still trying to calm down, that I realized my hand was bleeding from where I had grabbed the knife straight on, and my pant leg was smeared with blood.

Quick coda: I went up to my teacher before class and started to cry, told her what had happened, she took me to the principal’s office and we called the police, called my father. I immediately calmed down when my daddy walked in the room and held me in a big hug. The police said there was nothing they could do -- no crime had happened, I had no license plate, and my description was vague enough to be of no use.

Which was nearly the end.

Except.

A few years later when I was going to school in Boulder I inherited a job from an acquaintance who was heading off to Paris to live a lovely ex-pat life. I worked for a little Napoleon booking appointments and handling payroll in his hair salon. He was stocky and strong. Clean-shaven, good-looking and short. Remarkably short. His women clients adored him. His hands were covered with a strange, nervous kind of eczema that was so severe he preferred not to wash hair and asked me to do it.

In an effort to maximize profits he started coloring and perming women in the same appointment session. I hesitated when he asked me to book the first one. I tried to hide my horror when she came to the counter to pay for the terrible orange frizz that he had made of her hair. She smiled weakly and wrote a very large check. Years later I ran into her in a bar -- she joined our table, the friend of a friend, and recognized me. Told me she cried for days, that her hair took forever to come back. The violence of that visit, of what he coaxed her into, lingered.

I came to hate him.

He parked his car in the alley alongside the salon. He drove a brown Celica hatchback with tinted windows and louvres on the back. He had muscled arms, familiar hands.

I never knew for sure, but I wondered.

9 comments:

Emily Kania said...

Wow, Dayna. Intense story. I'm glad you got out of that situation. That's a lot to handle for such a young person. And what a weird coincidence. Wonder where that dude is now. :[

anniemcq said...

This is full of so much. Reading at first, I felt so protective of you, and feel sure that those adults around you that weren't completely fucked up, adults like your Uncle K and your teachers, were worried for you, hoping you'd get safely to the other side of your teenage years.

Then reading about the experience with the stranger, I was just terrified for you. When I read "I scrambled for the door, grabbed my backpack, and -- for some crazy reason -- said “thank you.”" I just started to cry.

This is an amazing piece of writing, Dayna.

suttonhoo said...

thanks, you two.

I really believe that how we tell our stories (and see our experiences) makes us who were are. this is a story about how I got away -- which makes it a good story in my book.

a.m. said...

That's a brilliant story. And well told, with economy and directness.

There is an agency within you that is quick and intelligent, able to size up a dangerous situation and react in a way that serves you best. We've seen it before in your writing. It is too quick to be rational and too rational to be instinct. You could have had so many different responses and yet you navigated a narrow path through to safety.

That's an agency worth keeping close to.

Elefanterosado said...

I remember Part I of this story well, and it was as chilling to read as it was to hear verbally over 20 years ago. I remember the knife and the blood on your hand, though not the rest of it. Bless your heart for the courage and survival instincts that brought you safely through these painful experiences. You have empowered yourself and others by sending these memories out into the world with a strong and steady voice.

Elefanterosado said...

P.S. I feel really sad for your mother...she missed the priceless gift of watching a remarkable young woman, who happened to be her own daughter, grow up.

Lolabola* said...

goodness what a post! I kept reading bits out to B and then had to stop, too many good bits. he'll have to read it himself.

I, Rodius said...

Wow. More than once now, I've started reading something of yours that I thought was one thing, and then POW! it takes a sharp turn and into something totally unexpected. Well done. Thanks for sharing!

Ciji said...

How did we second generation Gooch girls come to be so strong??? Dayna that is one insane memoir... I knew you were going to take down that slime ball!
What a visual you give through your writing, it's absolutely amazing. Thank you for your share about who my father was to you, it's other peoples stories like yours that give me insight to who he was.
Thank You!
xo

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