By Melissa Joan Walker
At Country Fair Apartments, I come out at night and stand in the hall, 4 years old, and watch my dad and his friends, smoking a bong. My dad strains forward in his chair, eyes excited, and yells at the fight on the TV pushed against the dingy white wall, the rabbit ears wrapped with tin foil for good reception. He lifts the foot-tall purple bong to his mouth, then cleans the bowl with a long metal prong with a curl on the end of it. His index finger grabs that curl and pushes through the hardened resin. Loosens it to smoke, then repacks the bowl from the baggie. Says, “Bud?” in a strange voice and his friends, Ed and Maury, lean back into the sofa and laugh.
Ed, tall, thin, Native American blood, with a bony nose that makes him look like Abraham Lincoln to me, wears a leather biker jacket with no shirt. His skin shines with sweat. Maury is black and for decades he will be one of my favorite of dad’s friends. They all laugh when dad makes jokes about my body, but Maury is the only one who says, “That’s fucked up,” and ducks his head, glancing in my direction. Later he gets pudgy after he has to stop drinking and go on antipsychotics but now he holds a can of Miller Lite loose in his hand and leans forward on the couch, and covers his mouth with his arm as his laughter turns to coughing.
Ed is languid, his movements slow, his chin-length hair pushed over to the side, one lock of hair falls across his bony forehead and into his eyes, he leans back on the sofa. He is my first crush, this beautiful man. His eyes close and he smiles. Moves his hand up to his face and rubs an itch like he is moving through water. He wears jeans and black work boots. His motorcycle is parked outside, in the edge of the grass, at the edge of the parking lot.
Later there will be Rex and Eric and Willy and Robert. Theresa and Hans and Regina and Gloria. Dad’s friends from the Kraft factory, all of them.
For now there is just the tv, the fight, my dad and his friends smoking a bong. Ed on heroin probably, or pills. Something that slows you down all the way to just breathing. Or where your breathing stops once in a while and you just wait to see what will happen. You wait to see if you will die. Slooooow. No, you breathe, it turns out. But that kind of fucked up is later for me. Right now, it’s just my dad and his friends and me, four years old, or three, standing at the edge of the hallway, watching.
Next is 1506 Rosewood Drive where I climbed out of my window rather than walk through the living room full of my father and his friends. 6 six years old, I came through one Saturday in a T-shirt and ripped jeans and Dad laughed with his friends. “Why you sick sons of bitches!” he said, and then to me, “Missy! You better get a towel, honey. You wouldn’t believe what these sick motherfuckers been saying about you.” What did it mean? Who knows. Nothing good. Drunk guys being drunk.
The hallway carpet was worn through to black webbed backing, and when my parents painted the bathroom, the masking tape around the tile walls stayed up for years, aged and cracking. There were three bedrooms, my parents’, and my brother’s room and mine, where a woman named Barbara who I’d never met before came in one day and dropped a beat up duffle bag and stayed and stayed and stayed.
I slept on my brother’s bedroom floor for months, polished cement tile, on a blue carpet remnant that cut a fat line down the middle of the room. Each night I wrapped a leopard print sleeping bag with a broken zipper around me and blazed with rage. If someone had to lose their room, it should be the youngest kid.
Barbara came in through the kitchen door every day and paused at the refrigerator for a can of beer as she pulled her bra off through the sleeve of her blouse. I hated that. “She just wouldn’t leave,” my mom said later when I asked who Barbara was, or how she ended up staying at our house, in my room. “It was awful,” the only explanation my mom gave. “Just awful.”
17 years old, I go to a party with my friend Debbie at the Wheel of Fortune house. It’s a big rundown house, on the edge of the Big Ten college campus in the town where we live, and a big wooden “Wheel of Fortune” stands in the yard, like on the game show, not as big maybe but you get the idea. Who knows why. I’d never been there. We found the keg in the back yard and we started drinking immediately.
In the kitchen, I talk to a boy named Craig who goes to (or went?) to Debbie’s high school. We’re juniors and it’s only the second time I’ve ever gotten drunk. Drinking in the kitchen with Craig, he asks if I want to see his room. I think this sounds so much like a line from a movie that it must not be. I’ve learned to speak an opposite language at home, where silence is crowded with words that take decades to decode and the simplest conversations involve complicated strategy and words often mean their opposite. The paramount rule is that if you ask for something, you will definitely not get it, so you have to try to control people with your mind, getting them to figure out what you want and trying to make it so they want it themselves. You wanting something is not enough. Not only is it not enough, it is an actual deterrent. I’m 17 and I’ve been dropping acid since I was 12, but drinking is new to me and I’m not used to it. I follow Craig up the crowded stairs, I guess. The last thing I remember is the question. “Do you wanna see my room?”
The next minute, I open my eyes to find myself a foot from the ceiling on a loft bed with Craig on top of me and we’re fucking. The first thought I have – what happened to my tampon? My friend Tari told me she pretended to come when she had sex with her boyfriend so he’d finish faster. I try this and it works.
On the stairs, I wonder loudly what happened to my earring? Debbie and her boyfriend Geoff gave them to me. Geoff sees me and says, “Aww, Miss, you didn’t,” and I shrug Whatever and go back to find my earring caught in the sheets between the mattress and the loft’s frame. I die and I die and I die but I keep moving and no knows I’m dying, not even me, for decades. Not just from this, but still.
Weeks later, Debbie sees Craig standing next to the keg at a party and he asks, “Why won’t Missy talk to me?” and I roll my eyes. “Why would I?” I say. “I don’t even know him.”
Years later, I find him on facebook and I comb through his status updates and family photos, looking for evidence of what happened that night. The key question in my investigator’s mind, who pulled out my tampon – me or him? I don’t know and I don’t know and I don’t know. I repeat the story to myself, write it here, and look for clues to help me map my life, again.
Next it’s my house, the cramped little townhouse in the fancy suburb I share with my husband and son, more than I ever thought I’d own, and my husband and I have been in marriage counseling for months. One week the counselor tells me, “Melissa, you just seem like you’re starving,” and I answer, “I am.” Now a man I barely know is at my house, at my invitation, this man who I recently kissed for the first time in a church parking lot and who I cannot stop thinking about, this man of whom I long to ask questions like, what do you do on Sundays and How many times have you been married and Do you ever jerk off thinking about me? So, I bring him to my house, to the house which I share with my husband and my son, and I lie on the bed, on our bed, and I kiss him. Afterward, I heat up leftovers, maybe even leftovers my husband made, which makes me seem terrible now even to myself, but believe me when I tell you I was trying to save my own life and people who are desperate are cruel. Or I, I, in my desperation, was cruel. So, afterward, I heat up these leftovers and I fry an egg for him, so he can eat it the way we like, my husband and I, with an egg on top, and when I offer it to him he says, “Sure, I’ll eat that stuff.” And I notice how easily he takes the plate, so easily, like it’s his to take, like of course – like, obviously – I would cook for him.
It snags me, but it does not stop me from leaving my house, from leaving my husband and my son and my troubled marriage, to rent an apartment and let this guy come on my tits a few times a week and then watch him reach down to rub it into my chest, like it’s lotion. I wonder what he’s doing and what it means that I’m letting him, but I don’t ask because when you’re sleeping with a married man so much depends on not asking why, about anything, to yourself or to anyone. You just roll with it because this is how things are somehow, and you are making choices but you also aren’t. Or, it’s a different part of you that is in charge of everything. It’s like you are an iceberg and you thought the icy peak was the whole thing and now there is this giant hulking hidden sadness driving you through everything and you can see it doing so much damage, but the thing is, it feels just like freedom.
What does this place mean, you wonder, this boxy little apartment? And when your friend, a suburban mom who lives in a big colonial house where she driven crazy by her Land Rover and her kids and the PTA stops by to lend you a hammer, she stands in your doorway with the cheap carpeting and the neighbors’ too loud TV and looks at the boxes stacked in the empty room and the view of an identical square brick apartment building just eight feet away and she says, “Oh, Melissa, this is the dream.”
I move back home months later, but that’s another story, and my husband forgives me, sort of, and I forgive myself, secretly, and I sort through the evidence to find where the bomb went off, and we sort through the wreckage to see what can be saved. And I write essays that go out like all essays, like a message in a bottle to myself, to some burning part of me that knows, or to some sleuth part of me that knows where to even find me, that knows my address and where that iceberg part of me lives, some part of me who has the secret map and the password and the key, that speaks in a language of fragments and shards and ripped up photos found on the lawn the morning after a night of rain, the images faded and spotty and mysterious and the places and the time unknown, except it’s always the now, and the here, the then and the there. All of this, I carry it all around with me until I stop at the edge of a dry grass yard littered with memory and silence and knowing and not knowing, with last night’s rain rushing by in the street. And I toss it in and say Go bottle. Find your way, and speak.
Melissa Joan Walker’s writing has appeared in several outlets, including theNewerYork; After Hours; Orion Headless; Denver Quarterly; Sentence; Parable Press; Ignavia; Wunderkammer Poetry; Disembodied Text; Yes, Poetry and Split Rock Review. She holds an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and lives in Portland, OR with her family. She can be reached on facebook or on twitter @mjoanwalker.
This is beautiful. Stunningly.
Thank you, Julia! So kind.
This is such an enthralling piece. I was glued to every word. Thank you for sharing.
Thank you, Sara! It was hard to write so plainly about these things — I’m glad it paid off and you “heard” it. I was afraid of being judged.
Life is one big lesson in humility through experience. Thank you again for sharing your “truth”.