*Featured Image: “A Girl Worth Fighting For” by Barbara Carter
By Sara J. Sutler Cohen
I’m an unreliable witness to my own life. My teen years were a blur, which I later discovered is unusual because most people remember their youth. When someone wants to hear about my life, and I begin to narrate, I don’t believe what comes out. I don’t think I’m a liar on purpose, though, just because I don’t remember things. It’s that the past feels like a soft fade, like an on-screen camera swipe. Those early years seem like someone else’s life that I watch unfold in front of me. I awkwardly sit in the dark watching the memories fit and start in spotty visuals, pointing and laughing or crying and shaking my head. I remember feelings, sensations; I remember things as though they were crinkled-up snapshots of scraped Polaroid photos, cupping memories in my hands only to have them fall through my fingers, thick and slow like mud, falling and falling no matter how tightly I tense my hands.
What I recall the most is a sense of fear, rooted at my base, so integral to my sense of self, that there is no being Sara without terror at my core, but I can’t tell you why. I can only say it is. Perhaps a version of some ill-forgotten truth will emerge someday—would I want it to? I just remember being afraid of everything, alone amidst people. But the crisp snap of memory isn’t there. Other people—friends, family, acquaintances—they remember things, share them with me. I stare back and blink my eyes hard but can’t recall their stories. I see real photos and the warm voices pointing, “Remember? Remember?” I chuckle and laugh, “Totally,” but I remember nothing. I only know it’s me staring at the camera because I recognize the other people in the photo, sitting near me, possibly an arm around my shoulder, usually smiling.
I try to remember sex for the first time, and I go straight to sensations. It was painful, terrifying. I imagine that curiosity was at the forefront of my sexual development, though, I equated sex with freedom, I think. I believe I thought that it would somehow launch me into adulthood, that whoever writhed atop my tiny body would take me in, so I might be safe. But I only knew the mechanics of sex, not its consequences. Who does at thirteen?
He was twenty-four. A heavy metal guitarist with big brown eyes and dark, flowing curls down his back. I mistook the vacancy in his eyes for mystery; his long eyelashes threatening to undo me at my core. It was an innocent crush, and my girlfriends and I flocked to his parties, accompanied by other fledgling musicians in Marin. As with all of my memories, these are foggy and in staccato. I remember smoky parties but see through the mist. I remember the dirty carpet, the chipped window sill by the front door—always open—and the cigarette butts crushed in the door jamb. My young girlfriends and I would occupy the greasy couch watching older rockers yell, laugh, and stumble. We were invisible to them, but watched their every move, taking instruction for next steps in life.
I arrived at a party one night, clad in a black leather jacket and tight, ripped jeans, the buckles on the jacket clanging in the dark. The nine block walk from my father’s apartment to the party in October’s rainy chill reddened my cheeks, and my sandaled feet burned in the cold, burned right to the bone. The smoky-warm interior of the party soothed me as I slinked through the doorway. My friends nodded to me as I took off my jacket and sat on the worn-out couch. Someone handed me a lit cigarette, and I dragged in the smoke; my over-smeared pink lips stuck to the butt and I had to tug at it to release it, hand it back to the girl next to me who wiped at it with her beer-moistened fingertips. I leaned back and looked around the room, every inch of it full of noise. Lines and small piles of cocaine littered the filthy, splintered coffee table, with all us girls snorting bits while we smacked our bubble gum, giggling and having a silent contest of bubble-blowing. Someone beer-bonged in the corner, laughing with beer falling up his nose.
The din of the party morphed into a dull hum, driving me deeper into myself. I started to melt into the couch, numb to the activity around me, looking at my friends and thinking they were strangers. I tapped out a cigarette from a crinkled paper packet of Marlboros, lit it, stuffed the pack back into my pocket crushing the remaining few left in the pack, and washed down the yellow smoke with a cheap, warm beer. People were talking to me, but I didn’t hear them. I always felt out of place at parties, but I went anyway, to avoid sleepless, fear-packed nights alone.
I grew desperate for social separation but was afraid to leave. I got up and stumbled across the room, rubbing my eyes. I made it to the bathroom and opened the door, locking it behind me. The room was spinning, and I don’t know how long I sat there, but eventually, someone was trying to get in; I heard muffled voices outside the door.
“Some kid’s in there; I think she passed out.” Male voice.
“Knock the door down, what if she’s hurt?!” Female voice. Loud.
That’s the last thing I remember. I awoke in an unfamiliar bed. I was cold, the blankets half-off my body, my feet in something wet, the smell of rancid and sour unwashed linens stinging my throat. I remember the quiet. I was naked. The left side of my face hurt. I touched my swollen cheek. Had I fallen?
It was still dark out, so I got up, trying to recall what had happened. I heard someone playing an unplugged electric guitar in the other room, and froze. I realized where I was. I got up and peeked out the door and saw him there, alone in the living room, strumming a faded brown guitar that was missing two strings, and sitting naked on the floor leaning back on the couch. He hadn’t seen me yet, so I crept back into his room and sat at the edge of the bed, put on my sandals. Someone cleared their throat behind me.
“Want a ride?” he asked me, still naked, his cock concealed by his guitar.
My eyes sank to the ground. “No, I only live a few blocks away, thanks anyhow.”
“Then how about you come on back in? I’ll make coffee.” He half-smiled, and I stood up, embarrassed. I averted my eyes.
“I’ll be right back,” he said, walking away. I stood there, frozen and sore. My vagina hurt, my thighs were sore, my back ached, and my head throbbed.
He came back in a black bathrobe, without coffee. I rolled a joint from the dust on his bedside table, lit it, and stared out the window. He sat next to me.
Silence. What happened? I didn’t remember. I couldn’t remember. I wanted to go home, but I was afraid to leave. He broke the silence, put his heavy hand on my shoulder, rubbing hard.
“How old are you?” he asked, and the weight of his hand reminded me how I bashed my face on the floor when I passed out in the bathroom. I shuddered. Didn’t answer him.
He continued the conversation with to my muted shrug.
“I’m twenty-four.” He squeezed my shoulder, leaned into me.
“Why do you want to know, anyway? You’re only giving me coffee,” I finally said, hoping my dumb, awkward words would fill the space. He dropped his hand to my waist, fingers cupping my ass, squeezing.
“Just curious, is all.” My eyes adjusted to the light. He was winking, lips heading toward my throat.
He got up and walked across the room to turn on the stereo, and then a faded yellow light, which was concealed by a dirty blue bandana slung haphazardly over the shade. “My band’s demo.”
I blurted it out. “I’m thirteen!”
He cleared his throat uncomfortably.
“Oh. Well. Ummm….”
“Never mind, man, I gotta go anyhow.”
“No, wait! Don’t go yet. I mean, we can still be friends, right?”
He took my hand, pulled me close. I stood there. He smelled of alcohol, stale cigarettes, and cocaine; I didn’t resist his advance, but I gagged at his smell. He kissed me, fondling my tiny breasts. He explored my body. I stood there. His lips to mine, his lips everywhere, his hands slipping in and out of me, stinging. I didn’t move.
He undressed me, pressed me onto his bed, squinting at my developing body in the fading moonlight. I looked away and sat down; I gave in, battling the urge to leave, full of fear, wanting to get it over with and go home. He kissed me everywhere, and I felt distant from him, cold. Poured oil on me and rubbed it around, rubbed it on himself, rubbed it between my legs. I let it happen. At that moment, the world opened up and I sank into another fade of time split open. Blackness echoed, comforting me. My ears filled with velvet, my eyes glazed over with a Vaseline lens. If I opened my eyes, the pain was unbearable. Inside was stabbing, scraping, his hard penis too big for me, feeling impossible. I felt ripped open, flayed. Closing my eyes again to forget, letting a warm fog and darkness caress my body, weightless. Opened my eyes again and listened to him let out a yelp and collapse on top of me. Quiet now, soft moonlight shined on my leg, tears streaming, looking away from him and letting the wet salt soak into his greasy pillow. The bed shifted when he got up and walked to the bathroom.
Silence pressing before the chaos.
“Oh my God, what’s this shit?” He said behind the closed door.
I sat up and dried my tears. I was sitting in a pool of blood.
He slammed open the bedroom door and threw on the light.
“Why didn’t you tell me!” He screamed. Sweating in yellow light, pointing a calloused finger at the blood, eyes darting around but never directly at me.
“Sorry. I’ll go now.” Swallowing shame.
“Yeah, I think you’d better. Shit! My fucking quilt! You bled all over my stuff, you stupid bitch. Get the fuck out!” It could have been my imagination, but it sounded like he emphasized stupid bitch, so it slowed like hot molasses drifting to my head, the words oozing a kind of hateful triumph.
I grabbed my clothes and fled out the door. I got dressed outside.
When I got home, Dad was asleep. There were two slices of mushroom pizza on the kitchen table with a note, sending me a good night kiss. Across the slices of pizza lay a pink carnation. I sat down and picked at the cold food. I got up and walked over to the couch where I fell asleep for the night.
When the sick feelings came, I thought I had the flu.
I cried to my mom when I went back to her the next weekend, one week after I found out I was pregnant. She shook her head, helpless. She shrugged and asked me what I wanted to do. I never answered her. Bounding back and forth between their two homes, my parents never agreed on anything and fought through me, the errand girl. I never cried in front of my mom. I felt lost, confused. This wasn’t something any of us could handle. I was confused; my parents were checked out. They needed direction; I didn’t have any.
I had my fourteenth birthday three days before the abortion. Dad walked me into Planned Parenthood where I was given valium and told to sit patiently in the waiting room. I flipped through the pages of Good Housekeeping, and my dad stared at me and stroked my hair. I started to feel light-headed when I heard my name called.
I followed the nurse into a cold room with a metal table. She handed me a paper robe.
Dad nodded at me then gazed down at his upturned hands, bewildered. At the last second, I caught him gazing upward at the dusty window sill. He cocked his head in concentration for a moment before he sighed and went back to his open-palm concentration. I thought I smelled him sweating in the cold, blue plastic chair.
“You might feel a little dizzy, dear.” I’m in the fog again, the dark caress this time is the soft voice of a nurse, a slight uptick in her delivery.
“Yeah, a little. Will it hurt much?”
“Just like bad cramps. It will be over soon.” A hand taking my elbow, another hand on my forehead. Nurses talking over me. I’m gone, melted into the table. I lean back and place my slippered feet on the stirrups as the whir of the vacuum-like machine hummed in my ear. A sting inside of me, a burn. I moan. Fall asleep.
A few months went by when I saw him in San Francisco, arm in arm with a friend of mine that was about a year older than me. He saw me looking over at them and nodded politely. I pretended not to see him and kept walking, back into my fog.