I see myself at 15, just months before I escape from under my stepfather’s dreary roof. Our neighbors have brought along their nephew, who is home on leave from the navy, for an evening’s visit. He is clean-cut and handsome in his uniform. When he smiles his dimples flash, and our eyes meet for the briefest second. I am sitting crossed legged on the floor in bell bottoms and the poor-boy sweater from my last birthday. I’ve just managed to grow my hair out so that it is the same length as Marlo Thomas’ in That Girl. It’s the first time my step-dad has allowed me to wear long hair, as he prefers it short.
The details of this visit are vague (for instance, did they eat dinner with us?), but because my teen-aged self was so fraught with turmoil and inner chaos (the chaos of abuse and DID), the mood it evoked in me haunts me decades later.
I see myself poised for flight, not knowing yet that my days, weeks and months in this house of torture are about to be cut short. As I sit Indian-style, shyly watching the nephew’s sensitive features as he answers polite questions about his navy career, I am filled with an aching longing. There is something decent about this young man, decent and kind and grounded. I yearn to touch his hand, or sidle up closer to get a whiff of his after-shave. I know I’m younger by several years, but this does nothing to dampen my desire. Oh, it’s not even a desire for romance, but for recognition of a sort that is sadly lacking in my home: I want to be seen and acknowledged for who I am, rather than playing this perpetual Cinderella role of which I tired long ago. Around the house I am useful, because that’s a safe role to play. I’m good at it, having learned years ago to do my chores quickly and thoroughly, so that I can receive permission to hang out with my best friend.
But it’s not just that. The babysitting, the ironing, the housework, the weed-pulling—these are merely the busy work I perform to move me through the vague blur of my days. They are the visible perimeters of my world, and they say absolutely nothing about the me that exists beneath the surface, panting for the nurturing which would be as cold drops of water to my parched, shrivelling soul.
There is something in the intelligent face before me (and I don’t think I’m imagining the way his eyes kind of slide over my face in a reluctant way, as if loathe to leave its features!) which riles up within me longings I didn’t even know I had. This stranger walks through the door, sits on one of our modern swivel chairs, and I am struck with a sudden heartsickness for everything that’s been denied me for 8 years.
I want to matter. I want to matter to someone like him. I want his big strong hand to brush straying wisps of hair from my eyes as he whispers, “Don’t you worry, I’ll always be here for you.” I want him to speak certain words to me, and me only. To enunciate them with that special verbal caress known only to lovers. (My definition of “lovers” is very limited and virginal.) I want him to fulfill a need in my life which I can’t even articulate. It’s an effort to look away from him for long moments at a time, so my mom and step-dad don’t recognize the naked hunger plain as day on my face.
There is an electricity in the air between this stranger and I. I feel zapped by it every time his pleasant voice speaks. I am light-years beyond this home of sour moods and recriminations, for I’m bursting with a sudden greed for freedom. Maybe I could be somebody, away from this arid atmosphere. Maybe I could grow into a better version of myself if someone were to come along, someone like this stranger, who immediately recognized in me a sense of worthiness. Worthy of love, respect, consideration.
His words fall like a pleasant mist. I breathe them in, too much in the moment to be horrified at my gaping need of them. I look from him, with his carefully parted hair and manicured nails, to the step-dad’s bristled head, and mom wearing her best politely aloof expression, and marvel that I ever thought this was all there was to life: this suburban home with two loveless parental figures. Little did I know, when we opened the door earlier this evening to our company, that a little ray of hope snuck through the door, landing right over my head. For once, right over my head.
I see myself at 15, awakening from a long slumber, even though Prince Charming has yet to kiss me back to life. Through the years there will be others I look to to fill that role, never guessing until it is too late that the whole Prince Charming thing is a myth, and a silly one at that. At 15, I didn’t know any better. At 15 I was ignorant of the fact that I had nothing of value to give to any man, for it had been stolen from me years ago before I even knew it had a name.
And that is what hurts, when I see myself at 15: I didn’t know I was used goods, didn’t even know what the word “virgin” meant. And so, my sudden flight from home months later, was not much of an escape after all, for the inescapable had long since become a big part of my identity.