À La Carte: Damage [trigger warning]

[fiction]

4

My babysitter is an old bat. Old and mean. She makes me drink water standing by the kitchen table. She won’t let me sit down. After I drink, she pushes me back outside to play. She won’t let me in until lunch at eleven.

I play with the other kids in the yard. There’s another girl whose name is also Beth. And there’s a boy. He has long hair and thick dark eyebrows like a grown-up. I like him because even though he’s pale, he’s nice to me. We make a game out of jumping over the dog doo that’s turning white in the grass. We run, jump, and never land on the dog doo. Some of it’s sticky and some of it’s hard if you poke it with a stick.

“You two are gross,” Beth says. She tells him, “You shouldn’t let her make you gross.”

I don’t know what time it is, but I have to pee. I knock on the door, and call to be let in. Then I whine. Then I cry. When I can’t hold it anymore, when I let go where I stand, the babysitter yells at me, then makes me sit in the corner with my wet underwear on my head. She makes me wear a diaper the rest of the day.

Her children still live at home. Both of them are also old. The girl child, she’s growing a baby in her belly, even though she’s not married. You don’t ask questions about it. I like to watch her chewing her breakfast. She chews on one side only, her jaw sticking out, popping as she chews. I try to chew crooked like her.

The man child lives in the basement. He walks around the yard wearing just a tiny swimsuit, and his belly moves like Jell-O.

After lunch, I hide in my babysitter’s coat closet. It’s hot in here, crowded with smelly coats. It’s also dark, and I focus my eyes on the thin line of light coming in beneath the door. I stare at it a long time, until my eyes are dry. Cigarette smoke clouds the light. I’m sweating, watching cigarette smoke coming in beneath the door. The man child is home. He’s smoking, looking for me, but he won’t call for me. His mother is taking a nap. He won’t risk waking her. All I can do is wait, pressed in between the coats, my feet hidden in adult-sized snow boots.

 

5

The man child grabs me by my arm, drags me down to his bedroom in the basement. He doesn’t turn on the light. There are high windows, dirty, smoky. Dirty clothes thrown on the carpet. The other children are there, too, the boy and Beth. Both of them look at the carpet.

He gives us a choice. We can do what he says, or else we’ll get a licking. I don’t want to get a licking. Only naughty children get spanked.

His Jell-O belly comes closer. Too close. I don’t even know the words for the things he shows me, for the things I do. He makes me do things to him. He makes me do things to the other children. When he’s done, he cleans himself up with a dirty sock.

I always find new places to hide in my babysitter’s house. The closets, the bathrooms, even the garage, even in the cold. No matter where I go, the man child always finds me.

 

6

My babysitter renames me. I used to go by Beth, but she says I’m to be called Liz or Eliza.

“My granddaughter is ‘Beth,’ and I won’t have my own kith and kin sharing a name with a nigger child.”

These are all the new names I’ve learned today: Liz, Eliza, Nigger.

“Choose. Now. And hurry up, before I get angry.”

 

7

A lady from the school visits the house to talk to my mom. They’re worried because the babysitter sent me to school in a diaper.

“Your seven-year-old should be potty trained,” the lady tells my mom.

“What do you mean?” My mom says. “Of course she’s potty trained.”

“Why was she in a diaper?” The lady asks.

“Why was she what?”

When the lady has gone, my mom asks me if it’s true. When I tell her yes, she doesn’t believe me. She checks my butt, and finds it covered in diaper rash. I tell her other things, everything, about the man child, about the things he makes me do. She looks angry and sad and scared and tired.

“You shouldn’t make up stories,” she tells me. “It’s the same as lying.”

After that, I don’t have to go to the babysitter’s anymore. My life before quickly blurs—the house, the babysitter, the girl child, the man child, the other Beth, even the boy. They become like something I saw on T.V., something I shouldn’t have seen, and now I can just forget.

 

12

A friend from school, Mary, invites me to a slumber party. Bonfire, hayride, hot apple cider. We T.P. the house down the street, then stay up late talking, conversation that turns serious fast. She tells me her parents are divorced too, that she seldom sees her father, that he raped her when she was eight. We bond over our similar damage.

 

13

In eighth grade, after one of our classmates gives birth to her second baby, Mary and I start the V Club. We even have a hand sign, which is just a peace sign, and we flash it at each other to pledge allegiance to our purity. I wonder whether this is a lie.

Gloria is our first member. She sits in front of me in history class. Gloria is raised by her single father, a man I don’t trust. She’s a slumpy girl, one who won’t look you in the eyes when you talk to her, and she stares at her feet in the showers in gym class.

Gloria starts dating a guy who doesn’t go to our school. In fact, I don’t think he goes to school at all. I meet him at a football game. He has a bowl cut and a beer belly and an old letterman jacket that the leather is cracking on. He buys hot chocolate for all of Gloria’s friends.

Soon, Gloria stops returning the V sign when we flash it at her. She starts biting her nails, chews them away to nothing. She no longer talks to us, or anyone else in school. She’s always been quiet, easy to overlook, but she’s somehow transparent now, folding silently into herself. I am able to miss her, even when she is sitting in the desk in front of me in class. Within a few weeks, she stops attending school altogether. She disappears so gradually that I don’t notice her gone, not at first, until all at once one day I remember she used to be there.

 

15

Rainy day at summer camp, and we two lock ourselves into the van to play Truth or Dare. I choose Truth, like a wimp. He asks if I’ve ever given a blowjob, and I say no. I don’t think it’s a lie, because “given” implies consent.

When he chooses, I dare him to suck my toes. I’m a sandal-wearer. I bathe maybe once a week at summer camp. I like to splash in the puddles on the dirt paths. Even so, he does it, and from then on, I will forever keep my feet clean, the callouses scrubbed away, my toenails painted, because he sucks my toes and, oh, I like it. I like it.

 

16

My friend and I play Penis in choir class. It goes like this: I say ‘penis,’ and then my friend says ‘penis’ louder, and then I say ‘penis’ louder, and we keep going like that until we get caught. We don’t ever get caught, because we’re altos and stand in the back row, and because we’re playing while everyone else is singing. Also, our choir director is too busy mooning over Alexia, the red-headed soprano in the first row, to bother with much of anything else. He and Alexia are dating. It’s supposed to be a secret, but this is a school of only five hundred students, and just about everyone has seen them at the mall holding hands.

“It’s so gross,” my friend says, and I nod along. “I mean, he has buck teeth and wears gay vests,” she says.

I don’t tell her that part of me signed up for voice lessons with him after school because I imagined being the student who got seduced, like in a movie, I could be the student whose talents had gone unrecognized until now. A few weeks later, we find a heart drawn on one of the music stands, with “Alexia + Mr. Henley” written inside. It’s drawn in pencil. You can only see it against the black lacquer of the music stand if the light hits the graphite just so. I wonder if she calls him Mr. Henley when they’re alone together. I can’t even imagine what his first name is.

 

18

On more than one occasion, my roommate wakes me up in the middle of the night to ask if I’m okay.

“Whatthefuck does it look like?” I say. “I was sleeping fine.”

“No you weren’t. You were screaming.”

 

22

I set up a dating profile. My name is now Loves2Laff.

The profile reveals just enough. My age, my hobbies, that I work as a chef. A picture of me in makeup and a sunhat and a tight tee shirt. These men see through the picture, the name, into the damage inside me. It draws them to me like flies to garbage.

They ask for my measurements. They ask for a full-body picture of me. They ask if I shave my pubic hair. They ask me to shave. They ask what I like to drink. They ask my dating history. They ask how many sexual partners. They ask me how tall. They ask my panty size. None of them ask my name.

They tell me they want to take me to the hot tubs. They tell me they want to eat my cooking. They tell me they want to take me for drinks. They tell me I remind them of someone. They tell me they want to eat my pussy. They tell me what trucks they drive. They tell me they love my lips, I have nice lips, my lips are big and soft and firm and snug. They tell me they want my number. They tell me they want to take me out. They tell me they want to lick my ass. They tell me I will love it. They tell me my picture looks sad, that they can make me smile for real. They tell me I look familiar. They ask my cup size; they tell me they’ve always wanted to date a D. They tell me they’ve never dated a black girl. They tell me about med school, about fireman training, about working construction, about their grad programs. They tell me I look nice, I look fun, I look sexy, I look cute, I look shy, I look like a daddy’s girl, I look light. And when I give them my number, they don’t call, and when I ask them why, they don’t message me, and when I ask again they block me or they say I’m pushy, they say Bitch, what’s your damage? They say they want a girl who is whiter or darker or taller or thinner or thicker, who wears more makeup, who wears less makeup, who knows how to have a good time, who has a better education, a better job, who drives a better car, who shares their interests, who has a daddy, who dresses better, who can hold a conversation, who can hold their gaze, who can hold herself together.

 

23

First date with the fireman. I want to date him because of his muscles, and because he wears nerd glasses, and because he tells me online that firemen work hard and play harder. I’ve never been a party girl, but I want to try. I pay for dinner, to see if he’ll let me, but also, I don’t like to feel like I owe anyone anything.

Even so, I find myself in a park with him in the dark. He sprawls out on the grass, pulls me on top of him. He’s kissing me drunkenly. He’s not a bad kisser. His hands go down my body, and I think he’s feeling me up, but then I hear he’s unzipping his pants. I’m drunk too, but not drunk enough to be okay. He stops kissing me, pushes my head down. I get to his belly before I come back up, but he pushes my head down again.

I can do this. I can know how to have a good time.

Second date with the fireman, and in his truck on the way home from the movie, he tells me his friend is also dating a black girl. His friend says black girls will let you do anal, you just got to throw it up there, ha ha. Dummy that I am, I’m not sure why he’s telling me this.

Back at my apartment, after he drinks all my wine coolers, he gets my clothes off quick. He flips me over and goes for it.

“That kind of hurts,” I say, but he keeps fumbling, keeps trying. “I mean I don’t like it.”

“You’re hella blunt,” he says, but he stops, goes back to plain old vanilla. And I should have told him to get out, not to let the door hit him in the ass, but instead I let him finish because I never was good at thinking quickly.

 

24

I move in with my boyfriend after we’ve been dating for six months. I cook him butter burgers. I bake him hand pies. I clean his apartment. I wash his laundry. I want to keep this one.

He’s invited to a friend’s house, and I’m not invited to go with him. I don’t want him to go. I don’t know why, but it feels important that he not go. When he goes anyway, I am wrecked. On my way to the bathroom, to dry my face, I bang the wall with my fist. The drywall is damaged. He doesn’t leave me alone again for a while, until he can’t stand it anymore, until he leaves me alone for good.

 

26

I meet a good man. I tell him nothing for fear I will tell him everything. It seems to work. He thinks I’m normal, whole. He finds me attractive. He says he only wants to know me, because knowing is loving. He tries so hard to make me feel good, his head buried between my legs. We lie in bed in the morning, our bodies so close. I’m not attracted to him. I remind myself that he’s a good man. I tell my body to shut up its cravings; the mind wins this time. He’s the kind of man I would want my son to be. I manage to seem whole long enough that he marries me. I take his name, shedding my own like dead skin.

I give nothing, have nothing to give. I am nothing. My insides have been scooped out, have been buried, rotten, in someone else’s yard. What little of me is left I’ve shoved down deep, hoping to hold onto it, terrified of it being discovered.

But my husband is smart. He intuits the pieces of me I’ve shoved down deepest. He asks me about myself, and when I’m evasive, he asks, “Why so secret?” He only wants to know me.

“You’re inscrutable,” he says. “Unknowable.”

I hate him for making me remember that I’m insufficient. I hate him for not knowing me, for not guessing.

After our son is born, a change takes my husband like a cold front. Practically over night. It’s subtle: he leaves piles of folded clothes on the floor; he cooks all the meat from the freezer, then lets it spoil in the fridge; he makes a full pot of coffee and only drinks a cup; he turns the air conditioner down to sixty-five without telling me. To compensate, he buys me sweaters, three sizes too big. He buys five gallons of orange juice and leaves them to ferment in the fridge. He moves us to a bigger house, a bigger yard, a bigger city, more space to lose each other in. He plants a garden that takes up the entire yard, then lets it go to seed and weeds, green and glossy and so thick the grass underneath dies.

I tell him all this: he doesn’t take care of himself, he doesn’t take care of me, he doesn’t take care of the house, the yard’s a mess, he won’t pick up after himself, he doesn’t appreciate all I do around here, he puts too much into work and not enough into this marriage, he doesn’t know how hard I work. He paws at me constantly, wants my body, demands my body, as if he could dig into me, as if he could unearth me.

Our two-year-old son latches onto the chaos. He upends a box of Cheerios onto the kitchen floor. He pulls the pots and pans from the cupboard, moves around the house clanking them against each other. He fills the dog’s bowl until it’s spilling over. He empties the silverware drawer, a cymbal crash on the floor. He does this all quickly, with more speed than I would have thought such a tiny body capable of. When I catch him, he’s reaching for the drawer that houses the kitchen knives.

I’m seven months pregnant with our daughter, and my belly is so big it looks like I’m lugging a boulder in front of me. My husband cowers from the excess. I hate him for making me feel like I’m too much. He comes home later and later, he’s sullen when he’s home, a presence that feels like an absence. Our daughter is born in one of those absences, and she fills the void with her howls. She screams my heart out, all of the words I’ve kept inside for decades come pouring out of her in that eerie music that predates language.

As I suspected, my husband won’t take her raw emotions. He won’t wake in the middle of the night to comfort her, he barely wants to hold her. He comes home even later from work. Then, one night, he doesn’t come home at all.

The next time I see him in person, we sign divorce papers.

I slip back into my old name, and with it, all the violence, the anger, the humiliation, the damage it has endured. My name is a garbage bag, tied around my head. If I am to ever breathe again, I must begin the slow work of ripping it wide open.

 

Jeni McFarland holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Houston, where she served as a fiction editor for Gulf Coastmagazine. She is a 2016 Kimbilio Fellow, with an essay appearing in The Beiging of America(2Leaf Press), and fiction in Crack the Spine, Forge, and Spry, which nominated her for the storySouth Million Writers Award. She was a finalist for the 2015 Gertrude Stein Award in Fiction from the Doctor T. J. Eckleberg Review. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and many cats. Follow her on Twitter @jeni_mcfarland