Four decades later, the sandy sliver of riverbank where my childhood ended remains, littered with beer bottles and the imprints of old fires, dusty stones in a rough circle on the wet clay. We were both lost there, all those years ago, swallowed by time and circumstance.
I know now that I gave you up too easily. I should have fought harder, run away, found another way to survive, so you could live. But that is not what happened.
I killed you and saved myself.
I was home after my freshman year at a small Jesuit college, working as a camp counselor, when I bumped into Dean at the grocery store―my old high school crush―star athlete, popular, cool. Standing at the checkout counter, he looked at me like he’d never seen me before. I said yes before I knew the word had left my mouth, secretly both thrilled and vindicated. I hadn’t been popular in high school, but after going away to college, I’d shed my baby fat, now all cheekbones and angles. I was someone else. A new creation, still developing my protective shell.
It was a shell I’d begun to acquire after an incident in high school, when I drowned in a landlocked sea of depression after a boy tried―and failed―to rape me one afternoon in a bedroom of his empty house. I was left with bruises like faded ink blots on my wrists and shoulders, concealed by long sleeves in the July heat.
There was no one I could tell―not my parents, my friends, or our kindly parish priest behind the screen of the dark confessional―though I came very close. But thoughts of the boy’s breath on my face, his knees pinning me to the carpet, the torn fabric of my blouse―all this seemed too much―too carnal to share in a church with a man who’d presumably never had sex with a woman, and would likely ask the very questions I’d been avoiding: What were you doing there? Why did you agree to go to a boy’s house when you knew his parents wouldn’t be home? So I smothered all of it inside myself, taking shelter behind the bolted door of my room in my nightgown all day.
I began to wish to die.
At my parents’ insistence, I visited a psychiatrist and tried medication, but then discovered how alcohol could blur and blunt my terrible thoughts. I hid behind a haze of ice-cold screwdrivers, both desiring and fearing getting close to another boy. But I knew how quickly things could go from a kiss to a fist. Sometimes it felt like my vulnerability was branded on my forehead. Bambi, one of my college friends called me. Wide-eyed, freckle-faced, stupid.
I still attended Mass sporadically and knelt with the others to pray. Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. But I didn’t return to the confessional. I pushed away my half-formed beliefs like a plate of food I was no longer hungry for.
Now, when Dean turned his attention to me, it felt like a dream. Dean Reynolds, he of yearbook fame, who had passed me in the hall between classes with barely a glance.
We spent our nights down at the river after dark, naked and reckless on a rough blanket, or sometimes in the dirt under the stars, far from the lights of town. Inside my head I said, I love you. Then wiped the wetness from between my legs with an old towel from the backseat of his Mustang. He didn’t say anything to fool me into believing he loved me. But thinking about him the next morning―his calloused hands on my bare skin―my knees went out from under me.
That was the first summer I saw an ob-gyn, Dr. Walters. He asked private questions and wrote my answers on a clipboard, then handed me a prescription slip for birth control pills. One more sin, I thought.
When I started to get up from the table, white paper crinkling under my thighs, he stopped me. He still had to do a Pap smear―my first. I clenched as the pinch of the swab brushed my cervix. Ten days later his nurse called asking me to come back in. My test results showed some abnormal cells. She didn’t elaborate, only repeated that I needed to come in.
Cryosurgery: freezing the bad tissue with liquid nitrogen, deep inside my tender body where I didn’t know pain could live. I lay on the table and sobbed without making noise. When I tried to sit up, the room spun with exploding stars.
Dr. Walters explained that he’d packed the area and would see me again in a few days, that I’d feel better soon. No bathing, no douching, no sex.
The following night I had a date with Dean. I didn’t cancel, though I had trouble sitting and bending. Instead, I took two of the Lorcet tablets Dr. Walters had prescribed and left the house with a breezy wave. I said nothing to Dean about my procedure. It didn’t seem possible in that time and place.
At the river, I leaned against the worn edge of the picnic table and sipped a cold Rolling Rock. Dean drifted over, his shirt unbuttoned in the heat, and stood between my knees, pressing his crotch into me. Then lifted me up with his hands under my legs and half fell with me onto the gravel. He was a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier. I disappeared under his weight like a violet flattened by rain.
No, I tried to say. The word stuck in my throat, blocked by the fierce rush of my heartbeat.
I can’t. He dragged my flowered dress up to my waist.
Please don’t. He raked my panties down in one swift motion. As he thrust, the back of my head struck the ground, the gauze inside me shifting.
No. I pushed my hands against his biceps.
Please, I said out loud. Stop.
Something tore. I was sliced in half by a hot knife. But he did not stop. Not even to put on a condom.
I focused on the skein of stars in the dark expanse of sky above his head, the sound of the river breaking in a slow ripple of waves against the sandy shore. God seemed far away.
When he was finished, Dean rolled off me and opened another beer. In the darkness, I staggered barefoot back to the car, my macramé purse sitting primly on the front seat. I wadded up a handful of Kleenex and jammed it between my legs to absorb the blood. Then eased down carefully and smoothed my summer dress over my knees. He drove me home. I did not cry, and he did not apologize, just leaned over the wide bench seat and kissed me goodbye on the side of my mouth.
I stood for a long time under a hot shower, lost in the pounding water, until the shaking stopped and the bleeding subsided to a crimson trickle on the inside of my thighs. Then I lay on my bed, smoking cigarettes out the open window, constructing the details of the credible lies I’d tell other people, and the harder ones I’d tell myself.
At first, I was too sore to walk properly, but by the time I finished the bottle of Lorcet, I’d resumed moving through the world, a thin shadowy version of myself. I didn’t explain to Dr. Walters what happened until much later. He was also a Catholic, and I wondered if he’d already bent the rules by prescribing birth control to me. I didn’t see Dean again. I returned to college and he rejoined his unit in the Marines, thousands of miles away.
Of course, I was pregnant. Despite the blood and the gauze, despite the way it had happened. I’d only been on birth control a week, too early to prevent the invisible coupling of cells. Months later, in my dorm room, I was still laboring to understand that night with Dean. What it meant. What it was. What I did to deserve it. Again. No one called it sexual assault then, or date rape. No one called it anything. These things just happened, and the girls they happened to moved on, or they didn’t.
Somehow, I had become one of those girls.
The ones parents shake their heads over, shunned by other girls, talked about in whispers. It was impossible not to blame myself, to impart some inner flaw―invisible to the eye―apparent only to the boys and men who crossed my path. You can take what you want from her. She doesn’t belong to anyone or anything.
At nineteen, choking on the silence and shame, I had few inner resources to draw upon. My depression returned, waking me with dark thoughts in the early morning hours, tears soaking the front of my nightgown. Morning sickness, day after day, as I sat through classes, scribbling my initials in the margins of my notebook. A glass of water and a box of Saltines hidden beneath my bed. A diary with the days marked off—nothing about how I felt, or what I planned to do, just rows of Xs, each with a number below, days counted and recounted. No period since August. Now it was October.
A young teacher, Adeline, had taken me under her wing on the first day of my Freshman Composition class. Come in, come in, she commanded, pushing back her sheaf of long flowing hair, an Indian batik skirt brushing her ankles, her slate blue eyes crinkling almost shut as she smiled. We enjoyed impromptu dinners off campus, talking literature and graduate school, parsing lines of Shakespeare. She knew my past and still she let me in, lighting my way with the warmth of her gentle attention.
“It’ll be okay,” she said, when I finally confided in her. “You’re not alone. I’ll support you in whatever you choose to do. You still have time before you have to make a decision.”
But I was deadlocked between my Catholic upbringing and my embodied reality, weighing the fate of my immortal soul against the secular world’s rigid insistence. One early morning, I stumbled on an unexpected solution: What if I embraced this child―as blameless and innocent as I once was―and instead of ending a life, I did the first purely good thing I’d ever attempted―had the baby, then gave it up?
Adeline handed over pamphlets from a Catholic organization that supported girls in my situation. “If you’re really sure,” she said, touching my hand with her fingertips. “It won’t be easy.”
But my plan to drop out of school temporarily and give up the baby collapsed like a paper house in a hurricane.
My mother retreated to her bedroom in tears. “How could this have happened?” she asked, hands over her eyes.
Then my father arrived. We took a drive to talk, away from my younger siblings.
“No baby,” he said. “If you want to keep it, find somewhere else to live, a way to pay for college. You’ll have nothing―no money, no education, no health insurance, no family. Unless you plan to marry whoever did this to you.”
I looked out the window, watching the moon pass behind the trees, winking silver at me, illuminating the road we traveled with a ghostly shimmer.
“Sometimes I wish you’d never been born,” my father pronounced into the barren silence between us.
I thought of Dean’s hands pushing me into the gravel, erasing me even as he created life. Nothing I wanted seemed possible. No one was going to save me. Not God, not my father.
“I just want to die,” I told him.
“Too late for that.”
He made an appointment at an out-of-town hospital and dropped me in the parking lot as the sun rose over the gray stone building.
“If you don’t go through with it, don’t bother coming home,” he said.
Dr. Walters held my hand in pre-op while I cried. He gave me Valium through an IV, so I could calm down enough to sign my name on the release form. I’d already had an ultrasound in his office―before I told my parents―witnessed the pulsing white dot on the grainy black screen. Heard the swift whooshing echoes like the sound of the sea trapped inside the whorls of a shell: your beating heart.
I don’t remember what it was like to lose you.
At the moment you ceased to be, I was hidden far inside myself. I closed my eyes and willed myself gone, the same way I had that night at the river. I was a coward, borne away by exhaustion and tears and sedatives.
When I woke, I felt a thick pad between my legs, cramps tight and low in my belly. Dr. Walters kept me overnight. I don’t know if I was on unofficial suicide watch, or if he just wanted to offer me a bit of respite before I had to return home. On his nightly rounds―likely after visiting new mothers in the maternity ward―he entered my darkened room, studied my chart for a moment, then laid his warm hand across my forehead.
“I know this is hard. But it’s probably for the best. You’re still a girl yourself. You have your whole life ahead of you.”
“I’m sorry,” I whispered.
Forty years have passed since that autumn.
I moved to California as a young woman and left everything behind: my parents, the Catholic church, Dr. Walters, and the riverbank where the moonlight sometimes sifted through the branches of the willow trees when I was flat on my back, wishing things could be different.
Since then, I’ve borne two children of my own, beautiful and endlessly miraculous, in the way only your own offspring can be. I rediscovered my soul on the yoga mat, the practice of honoring the light in others, and in myself.
On rare occasions, I allow myself to imagine that the story turned out the way I’d intended: you became a man, living your life with a wife and children, driving a campervan down to the shore with surfboards and a big cooler. Tall and lean, perhaps with my hazel eyes or knack for remembering the words to old songs.
I imagine the life I took from you. I struggle to forgive myself, despite the complicated circumstances of your conception.
But sometimes―in rare moments of grace, facing the Pacific―I comprehend for an instant that love is more important than anything else. You have already forgiven me.
I stand small and humbled before the mystery of your clemency, and vow to revere my life the way I could not then. As a gift briefly given―then gone―like a seabird lifting and vanishing over the shifting waves into the broad horizon.