She had just left her husband with the hot temper and the cold eyes. He would later tell me her blood alcohol level in the same sentence as how many stab wounds she had. No pause. Not a single Marlboro scented exhale in between. He doesn’t bother to blow the smoke away from my face, so it floats there in the forefront, carrying the weight of his words.
How dare she.
Her voice was bigger than her. She drank beer with men and welcomed strangers into the home. She stayed out late and walked home after dark, a little kitten that went looking for love. She rode on the back of their motorcycles in a leather jacket that matched her inky black hair. She slept naked curled up next to a butcher knife.
Shame on her.
Fresh out of a Battered Women’s Shelter, she went to the police when her problems spread and strangled like poison ivy, leaving marks around her neck. Years later they tell me she was murdered with her own knife.
Death claimed her on the floor of the apartment, scarlet blooms spread across the bedspread that covered her. I was five years old sitting in the back seat of a station wagon outside the home when she was discovered. Teresa Schmansky went from being my mother to being my cautionary tale overnight. I wonder about her last moments, what that fight was like.
When my driving instructor, who keeps checking his paperwork throughout the drive-along training because he cannot remember my name from the class, tells me I’m the kind of girl he likes, I’m confused but happy someone notices me. I’m trying hard to be a good driver, a good student.
He simply points a pudgy white finger, “Right at the light, and take another right here.” And even though I’m the driver, I do not know where we are going. Even after everything they’ve gotten wrong, I still blindly trust adults.
He smiles and waves to his neighbor as he unlocks the door of the house on Cornwall; I know where this is going to end. At fifteen I am old enough to know that this cannot be part of the instruction, but young enough to not know how to get out of it. It’s a single-family home with no family inside.
I play it cool when he hands me a wine cooler, even though I don’t know how to open the bottle. He twists open the top and hands it back to me. I chug the sweet berry flavor because I want to get this over with; I want to show him how I survive.
Instead of instructing me on how to parallel park, he directs me to take off my clothes. I think of my mother and how it can’t be me too as I slowly take off the cottony plaid pants I took from my sisters’ room without asking.
I lay down.
Something sinks within me and I want to say it was dread but it was probably alcohol. I do not fight him as he shoves the pillow against my face and tells me not to look at him.
I check out.
Before dropping me off in front of my house, he signs my driving certificate to prove that I have the skills to drive a car, and survive. He signs our names on the certificate with the same sloppy and careless handwriting he put on my innocence.
Fear was a delayed reaction that came the day after and never really subsided. I called him from the cordless phone in our laundry room and asked him with all of the charm in Charm City not to tell anyone. Something still dies inside of me every time I think about that phone call. How long I blamed myself.
Relief comes in the form of crimson streaks on the white cotton of my panties a dozen or so sunrises later.
I’m not pregnant.
It couldn’t have been more than two months later, when we are taking a break from reading Shakespeare in English class; I over hear a familiar story. A driving instructor molested a girl in our class, and he was no longer allowed to teach. The story isn’t just familiar, it is near identical and I wonder if she fought first or told after. I doodle in the margins of Hamlet to calm myself. The house on Cornwall comes rushing back in waves of maroon flush across my face.
I spend the rest of the class staring at her from across the room, comparing only what I can see. Thick brown hair in loose waves to my stringy blonde, her fresh pressed field hockey uniform to my hand-me-downs. I suppose she is also the kind of girl he likes, but I still don’t know what he meant by that. We are not the same kind of girl.
She has courage.
I’ve worked in this seedy Baltimore bar long enough. Through eight years of college, at least. By year seven I drink before, during, and after my shift. Hangovers are less painful than memories, and I’ve learned its best to get nice and numb before talking to strangers.
I’m sitting at the now empty bar with my boss, feeling like the muddled strawberry in the bottom of the tumbler in front of me. It’s got to be near three in the morning and my head still stirs with all the alcohol I had helped myself to. The alcohol I didn’t buy but paid for.
The owner and I are close enough, so it just feels like venting when I tell him through loose laughter and then drunk tears about the grabby big tipper who shoved his hand up my skirt.
He says nothing, letting me prattle on as he pulls clothes from a shopping bag. He holds up shirts with the tags still on them, as I raise my glass to my mouth and empty the rest of its contents.
He asks me what color they are. When I tell him Red, he prods for more description. I guess like Sangria. I watch him take a sharpie to the inside collar of the shirt: Sangria Red. He smiles up at me, putting the lid back on the sharpie before he explains he is color-blind. He holds up the next sweater and the next until the bag is empty and
So am I.
It is then that I realize we do not see the same colors. These are the things I cannot teach him no matter how many times he takes notes along the collars. We aren’t absorbing the same reflected light. I cannot make him understand Red; it’s a color he will never have to know.