Tuesday Weld at age 14, 1957
Listen: Girls in Those Stories
cw: grooming, trauma, statutory rape, miscarriage, abortion
While you were still at work, I went to your house after school let out at 2:30 to wait for you. I had the key you had given me and I parked in your gravel driveway and walked up to the front door with the hibiscus flowers growing on either side of it. I unlocked the door and let myself in. Your wood floors had give beneath my shoes and I put my bag down on the couch. I kicked off my shoes but left my socks on. It was one of the rare cold days in Florida and I could feel the wind creeping in through the unsealed edges of your windows. I went into your bedroom and pulled your U of Guelph hoodie from the back of your closet. I slid it over my head and pulled my hair into a ponytail. Your sweatshirts were always huge on me and I liked to tuck my arms inside while wearing them and hold onto my arms the way you did when we napped together.
I stepped into the hallway and walked to the kitchen. From the first time you took me to your house, I had felt like I did as a little kid visiting a distant relative’s home. I had grown more comfortable over time but I still felt like I was playing house. I made myself a cup of tea as the blue-tinted afternoon sun filled the window. I had helped you pick out the yellow curtains that hung around that window. You didn’t really care how it looked but you were excited by the idea of me leaving a mark in your house. The light that filtered through the curtains was cool and unlike regular Florida sunshine. I shivered and took my tea into the living room.
I set my mug down on the coffee table and walked to your bookshelves. They were built into the wall and filled with more books than most people could ever imagine even skimming through. You had read them all. You brought them from Guelph, from your parents’ house in Wisconsin, and now they sat on the shelves you had painstakingly hammered into existence. You dusted your books regularly, you kept them more pristine than your appearance. They were exquisite. I ran my fingers over each one, my eyes quickly reading the spine of each one. I knew the moment I saw these books that I would be yours; you knew somewhere between looking up from reading my name off an attendance list and me raising my hand to say “here”.
These books said more about you than your eyes or your hands or your words did. They told me that while your brothers were wrestling in the living room as kids, you were hiding on the back porch turning the pages of The Portrait of Dorian Gray as fast as your eyes moved across the page. They told me that you read things not assigned in sophomore English while waiting for your mom to pick you up from track practice. They told me that you had to buy a second copy of The Poetics of Space after you dogeared and highlighted the first one into oblivion while writing your senior thesis. They told me that you knew more than most people did and that those people would probably never learn about the worlds that lived inside your head. This was my first step into those worlds. Every talk over breakfast, every whisper before we fell asleep at night, every conversation as we passed sections of the newspaper to each other on the couch, they just showed me another glimpse of the things I wanted to know about you and about life.
I pulled Life Studies by Robert Lowell off the shelf and made my way down the narrow hallway. I was still freezing and grabbed my coat out of the hall closet. It had been in there since we had gone to New York for the weekend two months before. I’d told my parents one of my girlfriends invited me away for the weekend with her family; luckily I had just turned 18 and didn’t really need their permission to get on a plane with a man ten years older than me. I slipped the coat over my shoulders and pulled the hood up on my head. It had fake fur around the collar. I hated it until you said I looked like I should be kissing Omar Sharif in Dr. Zhivago; I hated a lot of stuff until you told me you liked it. I cut my hair how you liked it. I played the music you liked in the car. Unlike my mom who had been a yeller and future partners who were more aggressive, everything about you was gentle, just wishes you’d say wistfully out loud that I’d instantly want to fulfill. I had no idea that strings were being pulled. I didn’t even know there were strings.
I went into the bathroom and pulled back the shower curtain. I stepped into the dry tub and sat back with my book. You always laughed when I did this but I loved being fully clothed and laying against the cool surface of the tub; I had done this since I was a kid, my parents instinctively pulling back the shower curtain when they couldn’t find me in the house. I opened the book to “Skunk Hour” and began reading. I made it through a few poems when I heard the front door.
“Babe?” You called to me, your voice deep but sunny.
“In here,” I said.
Your footsteps made the floorboards creak as you came closer to the bathroom. I heard you round the corner and then you stood in the doorway. I saw your lean runner’s legs in their jeans first and then looked up to see you smiling quietly at me. You leaned against the door frame and crossed your arms. This was the game we always played when you found me reading in your bathtub. You were almost too tall for the door frame, the tallest man I’d been with up to that point.
“Hi.” I turned my fur-framed face to you.
You walked in, lowered the toilet lid and sat down, your forearms resting on your knees as you leaned towards me. “Am I interrupting?”
“Maybe.” I put the book down on my thighs and looked up at you. I felt shy all of a sudden and I could feel you see it.
You stood up suddenly and held your hand up. I protested as you backed out of the bathroom quickly.
“One second, one second,” you shouted as I heard you rummaging in your bedroom.
“Fine,” I sighed, laying back against the tub again.
You came back two minutes later with your camera in your hands and a shit-eating grin on your face. You kicked off your shoes and climbed into the tub, standing over me.
“Now,” you said, looking through the viewfinder. “Smile for me.”
“I hate you.” I tried to keep a scowl on my lips but I couldn’t help smiling as you put the shower curtain over your head like an old timey photographer.
“Look at the birdy, little girl.” You waved your hand above your head as you snapped photo after photo of me laughing at your shtick.
“Are you done yet?” I reclined in the tub and looked up at you.
“No.” You kept taking photos as you knelt awkwardly over me, your long limbs splaying out of the tub. You took a photo of just my face as I smiled a real smile at you. “Now, I’m done.”
You leaned down and kissed me. Your face brushed against mine and against the fur, your tongue darting inside my mouth. I opened my eyes while we kissed and saw yours were open as well. Your eyes were so green at that moment as you looked into my brown ones. I still haven’t met anyone with eyes as green as yours. My hands found their way around your neck as we kissed lazily in the tub. You pushed back the hood to kiss my earlobe.
“What are you reading?” You bent your chin to kiss my fingers that you once told me seemed to be made for your mouth.
“Life Studies.” I sat up a bit and we faced each other almost level now.
“Again?” You motioned that you wanted to move around me and I moved forward as you laid back against the tub. You held your arms out for me to lay against you.
“Don’t again me.” I sat against you and leaned back against your chest, your arms wrapping around my waist. “You’ve read that copy so much it’s falling apart.”
“You’ll put the final nail in its coffin though.” You kissed the back of my neck.
“Whatever.” I picked the book up and opened to where I was when you got home. “Read.”
You read “Man and Wife” in a soft voice and I stared at the ceiling as I leaned my head against your chest. We were at home like this. If this was all that life involved, books and inside jokes and having sex, we could have stayed in that tub for the rest of our lives, our hair graying as we struggled to lower our arthritic limbs into the bathtub for an afternoon of Amy Hempel’s short stories. Instead there was your job, my school, my parents, my supposed future, the difference in our ages, my insecurities that seemed to halt me at the doorway of actually expressing what I wanted and needed, the way that in my gut I just knew you loved me too much; too much to stop yourself. Our chemistry was perfect but it couldn’t exist outside of this space. As soon as it hit oxygen, we would shatter. For a year, we would hide out until we had to face the world again. Back then, it never struck me that they reason we had to hide is because what we were doing was wrong. Criminal actually.
We stretched out our legs, my short ones in between your long ones, and we read until night fell over the house. You were still as you breathed into my ponytail and right then I felt like the luckiest girl in the world to have found you. The way you loved me made every nerve ending fire on all cylinders; in your bed, you whispered that I was special and rare and that this only could have happened with me, because of me, because of how perfectly special I was. You always reminded me that I made the first move, that I kissed you one day while you were showing me something in the library archives, as if you were trying to implant the idea that anything I may feel weird about was on me. That I had done this to you, the man who was in charge of making sure I got enough volunteer hours to get into a good university.
So I took on that agency and responsibility. I excused things. I attributed things to how special I was and couldn’t imagine it’s not me and everything about my light that was special to men but my age, my type, my look, my trauma. It’s a projection onto the vulnerable and impressionable. I’ve had to ask myself who’s giving me power and why don’t they want to be culpable. You loved me like a man but I could only love you like a girl. I wasn’t a woman yet, we weren’t equal. I used to think that I needed you to become myself, which seems cruel but maybe that’s what you wanted, to be needed, to be everything. The only thing that made me leave was this feeling that I just had to.
We tried once again when I was older, not entirely on equal footing but closer. I’d lived some and seen what was out there, I thought it would be like before but amplified and deepened. But of course it couldn’t be like it was before; I wasn’t a girl anymore and you were still in love with that girl. That girl who thought this was love, that being shaped and guided and led with her eyes covered into the lion’s den was love. It didn’t work the second time. Even so long ago from today, I was still more myself than I was at 16 or 17. I had opinions. I had an identity. I couldn’t be shaped as easily.
There was a moment that time when I could have chosen to stay with you, when I was 22 and found out I was pregnant. I told you and you were thrilled; I felt like I’d been handed a death sentence. I was still in university and I still wanted to do so much. I knew I had to make a decision but my body made it for me. You were there holding my hand when I had a D&C after the miscarriage and all I could think was that I didn’t want to be with you. I didn’t have the words to explain why yet. I felt like a horrible person turning down someone who had been nothing but kind and gentle and caring to me. I worried I was sabotaging my life because it wouldn’t be the first time. I carried that guilt for a long time, telling myself that every bad thing that happened to me afterwards was my fault because I had left a good person who loved me. It took a long time for the camera in my brain to pull back for a wider shot, to see what was actually going on, that despite how I looked and acted and pretended, I was a child who was preyed upon. It was love but love isn’t always good or healthy.
I dream of your bookshelves sometimes, your books deeply cared for, lovingly treasured belongings held on a pedestal. This is how you loved me. The world doesn’t always change when something ends or begins but you will.
the author at age 16, 2003//the author at age 28, 2015