The first time I run away with Rob to Fort Worth, I'm sixteen. My father drives 550 miles from Kansas to find me. It's not that difficult. He and a Fort Worth Police Officer pull up the driveway to Rob's dad's house while Rob is away at work. It's the summer of 1985. They sit me in the back of the unmarked police car and drive me to the station downtown to show me the concrete cell I'll live in if I try it again.
The next time, my whole family converges on Fort Worth with the youth minister and a friend from church. They don't want me in a jail this time—they want to rescue me. After tense negotiations – Rob twirls a black, brushed metal throwing star in his fingers while he stands, surrounded, in the middle of our bedroom – I ride home three hours with my mother to Conroe, Texas. She promises she'll treat me like an adult.
But when we're home and I'm talking to Rob on the phone, my mother will yell from the bottom of the back stairway that it's time to hang up.
I'll whisper a minute longer, asking about his wallet, anything to keep talking. It's camo-colored. It's got Velcro. I made fun of it the first time I met him. I've seen pictures of the cousin who gave it to him—tall and wiry. He swings the nunchucks. They both do.
Rob speaks quiet and low on the phone.
Mom says he has the voice of the Devil.
"I got it right here," he'll say. There'll be a tearing noise—the Velcro—and then he'll say something like, "I'm looking at a picture of you. Know what I'm thinking?"
"You got a nice ass. That's what."
My mom will holler again. "What did I say?"
I'll hold my hand over the receiver and yell back at her.
"You've got to get out of there," Rob's voice will soothe in my ear. "She's never going to treat you right. Come to Florida with me. We'll make it work this time. They won't find us. We'll go far away," he says. "Merritt Island."
"I don't know." I'll slump into the unpainted drywall in the hallway. I'll pick at the hammer dents in the plywood on the floor near a flattened nail-head. My dad left the summer I got my period, the summer he banged a hole in the drywall over the stairway and kept saying, "Fuck, fuck," until he stomped down the stairs and out the back door.
"I gotta go."
In the car with my mom, I'll stare out the window the whole five miles to town.
We'll have this conversation, again: "He's a bad influence."
"He's fine," I'll say. "You promised everyone that I could talk on the phone."
"Maybe you'll meet a nice boy at church."
"Nice boys are dull."
"Keep your mouth shut," she'll say. "You're giving me a headache." She'll light a cigarette and crack open the window exactly one-half of an inch.
I'll turn to my own window. I'll stare at the fields. I'll keep my mouth shut.
For the next two weeks, my mother drops me off each morning on the highway in front of Conroe High School. I wait until the cars pass, and then I walk across to school. That perfect GPA, the extra math class I took as a freshman, the memberships in Mu Alpha Theta and the National Honor Society, those are all behind me now. Rob has a plan for me. I don't care if I lose my spot as valedictorian. My friend Kim has moved back to Kentucky. My other friend Janet has graduated. There is nothing and no one to keep me in Texas. I don't like the new kids in the youth group at church, and I can't bring myself to talk to Danny, the youth minister, about what's happening to me. He was there in Fort Worth when she made the promises, but he was on her side because he believes in the literal version of the Bible. Even if she is mean, I'm supposed to honor my mother.
And according to her, the voice of the Devil is inside me, so I must be up to no good.
"What are these?" she asked me once. She was examining padded round discs she'd found on my dresser. "What are you doing with these?" She held them up and shook them at me like they were sinful.
"I put them in my roller skates," I said. I was trembling, even though I was telling the truth. They were pads I'd bought with my own money at the Roadrunner Roller Rink because the skates she bought me didn't fit. She thought I was stuffing my bra, like I wanted to be sexy.
Here's another conversation: "You need to apologize to your brother next time we talk to him on the phone." Maybe we are almost at the drop off point near my high school where she pulls over to the shoulder on HWY 105, directly across from the high school. My brother has gone away to college. On days when no one else is home, I stare into his room.
"Tell him you're sorry for that time you bit his you-know-what."
"I was only a baby."
"You hurt him. You need to say sorry." Another cigarette will be clutched in her fingers, hands gripped tight on the steering wheel.
The day at school will be long and slow, and I'll feel lost in the hallways, like everyone is a stranger even though I've known most of them since first grade. Later, on the phone, I'll ask Rob what he thinks about my brother and if I should say sorry.
"She's keeping you down," Rob will whisper through the receiver. "She wants complete control of you."
He's right, and I know it, too. It's time to leave again. "You're right," I'll say.
I bring an extra piece of clothing to school each day and hide it in my locker. Panties. A bra. The T-shirt I bought in Kansas when I lived with my dad that says, "Auntie Em: Hate you, hate Kansas. Taking the dog. Love, Dorothy." A pair of jeans and a pair of shorts. We have a plan. On Friday, after I've asked my mom for money to buy tickets to the football game, after I've shoved all of the smuggled clothes into a little duffel bag and left all of my textbooks in my locker, I'll walk out onto HWY 105 and wait for Rob.
He's eighteen and has brown hair and sky blue eyes. He's a California state Tae Kwon Do champion. His shoulders are broad and his muscles ripple beneath his white t-shirt as he helps me strap on my helmet. He doesn't look like the Devil. He starts up the Honda 350Four—it's a small bike—and I swing my leg over the seat behind him and wrap my arms around his waist. He flips out the metal footrests for me, and I lean into him. Conroe High School melts into the distance behind us with the August heat.
We stop at a yard sale near the town of Cut and Shoot and buy a little arm cushion that I wedge between my legs. We pass the Coushatta Indian Village I visited as a child with my grandmother, where I bought handmade turquoise jewelry and watched Indian boys my age dance with beads strung across their bodies. On the second afternoon of our long ride, we nap on a concrete picnic table at a rest area in the Florida panhandle. We drive on, shifting positions when his leg cramps or my arms go numb from holding tight to his waist.
Our tiny cinder block apartment is across the street from Merritt Island High. The first morning, I call to see if I can enroll myself, and they say no, I need a guardian's signature.
Rob goes to his uncle's jobsite to beg for work, and I stay in the little apartment by myself as long as I can. Rob is very clear that I am not to interact with any guys while he's gone. At night, he tells me stories about his day. The men in his family do drywall, snowmen when they're sanding, white speckled hands, arms, and faces when they're taping. Evenings spent at the bar. One of them lives here in Florida. The rest are in California. Rob grew up playing with his cousin beneath bar tables with beer bottles and pull-tabs. I hang on his every story about the jobsite, about his childhood and his cousin, about his long days at work with his uncle, ready to shed my own life.
I go to the Merritt Island Public Library down the street and take magazines from the free stack. I cut out coupons for groceries we can't afford, taking my time to separate the paper carefully on the dashed lines. Rob comes home tired, speckled with white mud and dust. I start going to work with him because he says I have to when a guy in a nearby apartment takes an interest in me. I walk around the jobsite, a high-rise near the beach, and stare into the ocean. I am careful not to talk to any of the men.
Rob starts telling me fantasies to turn me on. I feel dead inside. I don't want to have sex with him. He whispers things like this: "Imagine we're on the beach and a man walks up to us. He's handsome. He wants you, and we go back to his apartment."
"The three of us?" I say.
"Yes. I watch him put his fingers in you, but you only come when I'm inside."
My breathing gets faster, and I close my eyes.
The first time Rob and I went all the way was at a Motel 6. This was before I ran away that first time. I skipped school, my friend Kim, who eventually moved to Kentucky, covering for me that night with a lie about a sleepover. When Rob was finished, he rolled away.
"Well, we've done it all," I'd said.
"Not everything." He proceeded to turn me over and show me where else you could have sex. I thought things would get better. I'm not sure why.
In Florida, I sleep a lot. We don't have much food. It's been weeks, and Rob hasn't been paid. He's working under the table. His uncle has gone to California. His uncle's son, the cousin who gave Rob the camo wallet, is coming for a visit soon. He's bringing money. In the meantime, I hang my panties to dry on the shower rack, and I drip-dry my body on the bathroom tiles after each shower. We steal pink hand soap and thin toilet paper from the gas station at the corner. We buy a loaf of white bread and a tub of margarine and a shaker of garlic salt at the convenience store. The white bread reminds me of my great aunt who liked to eat onion sandwiches. She died just a few months after the first time I ran away. I spoke with her on the phone days before she passed, feeling light-years away from her little clapboard house on Robert Street in New Orleans, her laughter and orange hair and costume jewelry. "Are you okay?" I'd asked her when she was in the hospital.
"No," she'd said. "I'm in pain." She sounded angry. I thought she was angry at me. I thought I'd done something wrong. After the funeral, Rob came to see me, and we had sex all day in a dark room. Something died inside me, but I couldn't say no. I'd already told Rob once that I wanted to break up, and he'd tried to kill himself. In the spring, weeks after I'd met Rob, his cousin called me. He found my phone number in the camo-colored wallet—Rob was visiting him in California. He said Rob had nearly overdosed on pain meds when I told him, during a phone call, I wanted to break up. I'd imagined Rob sitting in an old brown reclining chair, clutching his chest.
"I don't know what to do," the cousin said. "I've never seen him like this."
In Florida, I wake up hungry, and each day it gets harder to fill up on bread and margarine. We can't get food stamps until next week, so we go to a soup kitchen. We're staying here until I turn seventeen in November, and then we'll go back to Texas to live with Rob's dad. I'll be an emancipated minor. I'll go back to high school. We'll sell the motorcycle to get money for the plane tickets.
At night, the evenings are cooler, and Rob's sex fantasies now include the cousin. He tells me stories about him, about the three of us, and I try to form images in my mind and hold onto them long enough to feel something inside.
It's October. I see a health worker at a county clinic and get birth control and feminine hygiene products and other toiletries. Rob waits outside in the parking lot. The young woman asks my age, and I tell her eighteen. Her long brown hair falls forward across her face as she writes my information on a form. She's so pretty, and I want to tell her something more about myself, something true, but I don't want to go home. She hands me a paper bag with a three-month-supply, and she says please come back if I need anything else. "I will," I say.
The cousin arrives in time to see the space shuttle Atlantis take its maiden voyage. He's tall and thin and has the same eyes and cheekbones as Rob. I shake his hand and welcome him to Florida. We drive up HWY 1 to Titusville to watch the launch in the morning. The ground shakes under our feet, and my chest vibrates with the deep rocket engines firing. The white light from the base of the shuttle cuts through the hazy morning sunshine like overly bright distress flares, shooting downward. Lift off occurs and I'm shouting and clapping and crying with everyone else parked for miles and miles of roadside viewing.
A few days later, I call my mother on her birthday.
Our conversation goes something like this: "I wondered if I might hear from you today."
"Where are you?"
"I'm safe." It's all I'll tell her. Her years of suspecting me of being a bad girl have come true. "How is work?"
"You're making my heart hurt," she says.
My chest squeezes tight. If she dies from a heart attack, right here on the phone, it'll be my fault. "I'm sorry," I say. I hang up. My head feels like it's in an astronaut helmet. The rest of the world has been suffering while I have been on my little adventure down here in Florida. I sit by the payphone as the coins clink inside the metal chamber, looking at the tall weeds growing at the edge of the concrete beside the convenience store. I feel like I'm being squeezed inside a tube of metal made for something or someone much smaller than me.
Rob's cousin has brought money, easier days, and California sunshine, which I didn't know before was different than Florida sunshine. He and Rob skip rocks along the beach, bouncing them over the waves. We go to a casino. I'm too young, but they sneak me in. The cousin goes to the bathroom, and Rob and I wait in the lobby. He sees me watching. He knows my head is full of the fantasies about his cousin he's been whispering to me when we grind against each other on the mattress in the back bedroom. "I guess I have to let you fuck him," Rob says.
"Okay," I say. I don't notice that he hesitates. I don't catch it until I rewind the scene later.
We ride home. I sit in the middle of the seat. I put my hand on the cousin's leg and tell him what we want to do with him.
"Seriously?" he says.
"Yeah," Rob says. "Serious."
We go to the apartment, and the cousin sits on our brown recliner, the one we salvaged from the side of the rode. "I'm surprised," he says.
I don't say anything. I'm buzzing, supercharged for the first time in a very long time with the thought of having sex.
Rob has it all planned out. We put a blanket on the living room floor. He turns on the TV and the radio. Reggae music. I don't want the TV, but there's a flash in Rob's eyes, and I give in. We all slowly undress. The cousin lies down on the blanket, and I lie on top of him. We kiss. He's big, and he goes all the way inside me. Rob straddles me from behind. It's hard to coordinate all three of our bodies. They don't quite fit. But somehow we make it work.
When Rob finishes, he pulls away and gets up and walks toward the kitchen, slow and creaky like he doesn't want to leave his cousin and me alone.
The cousin whispers to me that I'm beautiful. He brushes my hair to the side, looking up into my eyes. I shake my head. I say no. One of my tears falls onto his face, and I wipe it away quickly. Light from the TV illuminates his brow, his nose. I'm alone with him. I haven't wanted to be alone with anyone in so long. It feels good, and it feels bad.
Rob walks in the room and says he's going to bed. He says my name. What he means is that I'm going to bed, too. So I do.
The next morning, when the cousin has gone out for a walk, Rob wakes me, his hands wrapped around my neck. "How could you do it?" he says. "You're killing me."
I drop off the bed and fall onto the floor, unable to breathe or answer him before the room goes dark. I wake, tangled in the sheets with him crying beside me, wiping my hair from my face.
"At least you didn't come," he says. His voice is quiet. Calm.
Here's the conversation I wish we would have: "I did come."
Pause. "Do you love him?"
"I don't know. But I do know I don't love you. I'm leaving."
But we don't have that conversation. I can't see my way out. In addition to threatening to kill himself when I tried to break up, Rob often proves to me how strong he is, holding me down after a session of tickling, pressing his hand or foot into different parts of my body, explaining how he can take me out. I'm afraid of him, but he's been my ticket out, my release.
So I wait. The cousin leaves. Rob and I return to Texas. I talk to my parents occasionally, but seldom see them. Rob and I stay together. He tells me if I ever cheat on him, he'll kill me, no questions asked. I get pregnant with him, and I get pregnant again. I have two boys, and I never find the courage to leave him. He finds another woman and leaves me instead. I let him go, holding my breath in case he changes his mind. He berates me in public and on the phone – in that quiet voice, his jaw clenched – and he tries to negotiate with me for sex. I'm destitute, but I don't want him back.
One day, I meet a woman at the library where I've started working part-time. She's a counselor. I have no health insurance, but she says she'll let me come in once a month for $35.00. She'll give me books to read and homework assignments, if I want them.
It takes me a long time to say Rob's name in our sessions. We talk about other things, a new guy I'm dating, the kids, my job. Anything else. After a year of therapy, I finally tell her a little about him. She teaches me to visualize locking him in a deep freeze when I feel like I can't breathe, when the room starts getting dark. We practice what I can say if I decide I want to hang up the phone on him. After months of this and other therapeutic activities like beating a cushion with a foam stick, I finally do something.
Rob and I are standing on the sidelines of our older son's soccer game.
Here's the conversation: Rob starts saying something about a mistake he thinks I've made. His voice starts getting loud.
"Please stop yelling at me," I say.
"If you don't stop, I'll walk away."
He continues, his face red, his hands gesticulating his rage. Like how my dad used to get when he was pissed, just before he slid off his belt to beat my older brother or me. Or like how my mom used to get, just before she'd grab a frying pan from a hook on the wall or a wooden spoon from the countertop and commence to chase after me.
At the soccer field, I turn and walk away. A deep part of me doesn't believe Rob won't run up behind me and choke me. But he doesn't. I keep walking until I've launched myself to the other side of the field, and I stand there, far away from Rob, far away from everyone. No one is choking me. No one is chasing me. I can't hear his voice anymore. I can only hear the cheering, the shouting and excitement for the soccer game unfolding on the field, and maybe my voice joins in, cheering for my kid out on the field and for something it'll take me years to understand. Maybe I'm just cheering for myself, and maybe I don't have to understand it at all.
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