“Why did I not perish at birth, and die as I came from the womb? Why were there knees to receive me and breasts that I might be nursed? For now I would be lying down in peace; I would be asleep at rest with Kings and Counselors of the earth, who built for themselves places not lying in ruins, with rulers who had gold, who filled their houses with silver, Or why was I not hidden in the ground like a still born child, like an infant who never saw the light of day? There the wicked cease from turmoil, and there the weary are at rest.”
“Are we the only ones? When can we rest? When will it stop?”
My Thoughts, Tess’s Journal
Holding onto hope meant pretending it existed. It meant going on as if nothing happened. Again. It got easy to do. To ignore.
Cold cereal mornings were welcomed as well as the shadow of mom’s pink robe as she came down only long enough to start her coffee pot. The percolator, the only stability I had most days. The motor started with a whir, and just as she walked up the second stair to her bedroom the dripping started. All at once, a whole bunch, like a dead river drying out, trickling into nowhere, and then the drips were slow, defeated. Done.
I never told my mom about Uncle Andy. My father never mentioned the mountain side again. Some things are better left unsaid I suppose. Something triggered dad’s own hidden secrets to blister up again, and he left; somewhere. That afternoon on the first Saturday back from Monte Vista, sitting in the front doorway with him and Christie, left a wonderful numbness on my body that in the days later sneered up through my soul.
“Your mom and I just need some time apart, it has nothing to do with you girls,” He’d said, not looking us in the eye.
Mom’s crying upstairs in her bedroom, pink robe and cold coffee, made dad nervous. Not nervous enough to go to her though. No, that would have to be left to Christie and I.
“I’ll come and see you on the weekends too,” he went on, not noticing that we weren’t listening anymore. All we’d heard was that he was leaving us.
Our little cul-de-sac of middle class homes circled slowly around and above me, and once again I left my mind’s eye and floated to catch sight of what we three looked like. We looked scared and dumb.
Just when he said, “Are you girls going to be okay?” I wanted to whisper to him, “Daddy, Andy tried to rape me in Monte Vista,” but I don’t. I think he has his own problems that he’s running away to go try to find. I wish, for one brief moment that my love was enough to save him.
Christie and I watched him take off in the little brown Fiat, the beginning of his bald spot on the back of his head waving a sad goodbye until he turned the corner – until he was gone from sight. Then, we did the thing that started our relationship for all the thirty years to come … we didn’t talk about it. Not any of it at all. We got up, went inside, and that was it.
Numb at school, and home only long enough o do my chores, feed Kelsey and practice the required thirty minutes of piano my mom made me do, I couldn’t get out of my own skin fast enough. I’d found the ditch that week, climbing through a lapse in our backyard fence, it was there as if waiting for me.
Running the length of the street block, the ditch separated the backyards of our houses from the backyards of the houses on the other side. It wasn’t deep, but deep enough. This mirror friend of mine was made of yellowing cement, cracked and old and dried up. Weeds grew up around the sides and broken bottles of beer and Pepsi littered it as far as I could see down the five blocks to the main road. “You and me are a lot alike, “I whispered into it, “we both got a lot of damage, and we’re both stuck where nobody seems to take notice.” It never talked back to me, but I always believed it heard. Strange how a forgotten, run down place could make me feel so belonged.
It took me five days to gather up pieces of wood and broken bricks, whatever I could find that might build something. I had a pretty good size pile and with that I added today I could start building whatever it was I wanted to build.
My broken, misshaped, and disregarded treasures revealed a vision to me. A bridge. This little deep abandoned ditch felt the same as I, and I knew what I wanted to do. I’d build a bridge to prove that no matter what lies below, there is always a way to cross over it to the other side. Just to imagine … that there might be another side.
I started with the broken bricks, stacking them up on one side of the ditch when I felt someone watching me. I looked underneath my arm, trying to peak without whoever it was watching, noticing me. She walked towards me, slowly, and looked about my age. I just kept on stacking.
“What are you doing with all this crap?” She asked when she got close, her voice a high pitched whine, her mouth a thin shred of dry, cracked lip.
I don’t look up after stealing a glance, “I’m building a bridge.”
She glanced around at all my stuff, picked up a big stick and played with it in her hand, “You know what bridges are for don’t you?”
I looked at her finally, puzzled, “No, what are they for?”
She put the stick down and walked closer to me. I didn’t recognize her from Mr. Herr’s sixth grade class, but she did look a little older so maybe she was in seventh grade. But the more I looked, the more I saw. The more I saw, I realized she came just as I did. Two of us, and the ditch.
She sat down, pulled her hands around her scabby knees, “Bridges are for hiding under.”
The moment she said those words I knew her. Like a shaded reflection of myself, I’d seen her time and time before. I sat down next to her. She wasn’t pretty, prettier than me though. Her long, skinny legs all covered with goose bumps made me feel equal to her.
I wanted to ask her why she wore shorts if she was so cold, but I didn’t. Lots of times I do stuff just because, even if it doesn’t make much sense. The goose bumps looked painful. Her face hid behind matted dark and dirty brown hair, and the only evidence of features underneath was a big brown and blue bruise on her chin. I couldn’t see but half of one of her eyes.
She was drawing something I couldn’t see in the dirt next to her feet. She starting humming a song that sounded familiar to me. I began to hum it with her. And we just sat there, for a long time, until the sun melted itself down like crayons left out too long in summer, and the moon yawned so big and so wide that I nearly caught it.
After a while she stood up. I stayed sitting. I looked over at what she’d drawn into the dirt. She’d spelled her name, Rebecca. I smiled at her. She smiled back.
Then, she walked away and as I watched her go I stood to the sound of my mom’s voice echoing through the ditch and thought to myself, with a smile, I finally had a friend.
Faking hope had actually worked. The smile dad noticed when he picked Christie and I up to go out to dinner that night was authentic. The dreams I had that night weren’t so scary. School passed quickly the next day and I didn’t even care when I was teased for being the only girl without a training bra yet. I just wanted to get back to the ditch and to Rebecca. I’d never had a real friend before.
I jumped off the school bus, ran up the cul-de-sac, dropped my backpack on the floor in the living room, grabbed a few cookie’s, kissed my little sister Kelsey, and ran for the ditch. It was the first time I’d ever felt that I had somewhere to go.
As I lifted myself from the ground onto the other side of the fence I saw it. I saw what Rebecca had done. She’d finished my bridge. My bridge. But it wasn’t mine now. I couldn’t hide under or cross over someone else’s bridge, I couldn’t be safe in anything but my own. I felt furious, frustrated and frightened all at once. I walked closer to look around at how she’d done it, but I heard a sound. Seconds later Rebecca appeared out from underneath the bridge, wearing the same ugly green shorts with matching bruises. She was smiling.
“What took you so long?” She asked.
I didn’t say anything, “Well,” she continued, “What took you so long?”
I looked at her, “Why’d you do it?” She looked panicked, “Do what?”
I started crying, even though I didn’t want to, “Why did you build my bridge?”
She paced in front of me, her hands swung and then clapped together, she looked and acted suddenly as if nothing had happened, “I just wanted to do something nice is all.”
I felt bad, but still hurt, “I can’t hide under somebody else’s bridge you know.”
I expected her to be mad at me for not appreciating what she’d done. I waited for her to leave me and never come back. But, when she started taking the bridge apart, I felt overwhelmed. She picked up several bricks and some wood pieces, then she carried them over to where I stood and laid them at my feet, stepping back she said softly, “Here, you build your half and then we can hide together.”
That entire next week we shared our bridge. We spent hours inside of it, sharing stolen candy and cookies we’d each brought from our houses. She taught me how to do the cat’s cradle, and I taught her how to draw cartoon animals. We played cards, and other silly games, until the dark came and we heard my mother calling.
“Does you mom know about this?” I asked her one night just as we stood to leave.
“No, does your mom know what you’re doing back here?” I shrug my shoulders, “Nah, she doesn’t care where I am, as long as I feed Kelsey and practice the piano.”
She looked at me, her eyes sad, her hair stringy against her bruised cheek. She breathed a deep sigh as if to say something. I waited, leaned in close and waited. She looked down at the ground, then up at me again, took another breath. Her mouth opened, and then she just turned away saying, “I guess I’ll just see ya tomorrow then.”
“Wait!” I called out as she was a few feet towards her house.
She looked back at me, “What’s your last name?” I asked her.
I felt stupid for asking because I really didn’t know why it mattered,” I guess I just want to know.”
“Some things you don’t want to know,” She whispered.
I smiled, though I didn’t mean to, but what else could I do? I heard my mom call out again and turned to leave Rebecca. She knew I didn’t need to know her last name, but she knew that I also knew I’d created a distraction for her to say what it was she felt she had wanted to say.
“Hey!” I heard her shout at my back after I’d turned to leave.
I stopped, but didn’t turn around. I heard her say, “Perry. It’s Perry. Just so you know.”
I whispered back without turning, “Nice to meet you, Rebecca Perry.”
After dinner I found my green notebook and curled up on my purple blanket in bed to write. I wanted to put Rebecca on paper. I wanted to see what she really looked like, and what I looked like when I was with her. I wanted to understand why I felt so separated from the little girl I once was. I wanted to understand who Rebecca once was. Writing made my life a story. I could read the pages, and close the book. I could leave it.
I didn’t want to leave Rebecca in my book, but I did want her to be a part of it. She was the first real thing I’d had. I wanted to write about the bruises, and the silences on her face. I wanted to write about the girl she became when she sat underneath the bridge. And why she looked so familiar to the face I saw every morning in my own mirror.
Saturday’s before Rebecca were nothing special. Mom slept in, and Kelsey and Quinton played together in one of their rooms, and Christie and I pretended to watch cartoons while not talking. I had plans for the first Saturday in all my years and I couldn’t get out of the house fast enough.
“Where are you going?” Christie asked when I jumped off the couch.
“I’m going outside,” I said, walking to the kitchen with my empty cereal bowl. She paid little attention to me and for the first time I was actually glad. Normally I hated how she didn’t need me like most little sisters need their big sisters. She didn’t follow me around or want to play with me. I’m glad I didn’t really buy her from a magazine, she wouldn’t have been worth the payments. She didn’t even question me when I walked outside without telling mom.
Walking the path through the backyard, under the fence, and down into the ditch, our bridge looked sleepy. Rebecca was no where around. Fall was on its last leg and I didn’t realize how cold it was so early in the morning until I started shivering. I didn’t want to sit and wait in the cold for Rebecca, but I wasn’t sure which house was hers and I didn’t want to walk into a stranger’s backyard.
Just as I turned to run back home for a jacket I heard a loud slam, maybe a door, and then some glass breaking. It came from the direction that Rebecca always did. Immediately Rebecca’s face filled my mind and I saw the bruises that she kept making excuses for. I was worried. If that noise was coming from her house, should I go? Would she want me to admit to both of us I knew her secret? I didn’t have to think long. If it were me that something bad was happening to, I’d want someone to know. I’d always wanted someone to know.
Slowly and carefully, I walked the length of the ditch and looked for fences with holes in them. She had to get into the ditch somehow, so I figured if I found an exit I would find her house. Six houses down on the other side of the ditch I saw what had to be hers. The fence was wood and broken. A section of it just laid flat, her backyard was a mess. The grass was dead. Not the kind of dead that dies so that it can grow again in Spring, but the kind of dead that dies on purpose. There was a place cut out from one side of the yard, barricaded by old railroad ties and chicken wire. I guess maybe it was supposed to be a garden. But nothing had ever grown there expect weeds. I could tell.
Old rusted toys and tools, tires, and junk littered the yard and trash bags that had been thrown out were covering a cement porch off the back door. Just as I was about to step up onto the broken fence I heard someone yell, “Damnit Rebecca, how many times do I have to tell you?”
I froze. It was a man’s voice. I felt bad for being here. Just as I contemplate leaving I watch in horror as Rebecca is thrown up against the back door. I can see her because half the door is glass, and it shatters against her. She must have fallen to the floor inside. I don’t see her father, and everything goes eerily quiet.
I can’t move, not because I’m afraid but because I’m mad. I want to run in there and take her away, but I know that I can’t.
“Daddy, don’t!” I hear Rebecca scream.
I listen as her father hits her from inside the house. I hear stuff breaking, and I hear pounding. I hear furniture moving and then I heard her father, “You think you’re too good for me? You little brat, you’ll get what is coming to you!”
Then I heard what must be Rebecca’s mother, “Henry, please …”
“Oh, you want some of this too? You think you’re too good for me too? I’ll just teach both of you!”
I knew that Rebecca’s mother was being beaten now. I listened to Rebecca yell for her father to stop, and then I heard a loud slam as I’m sure he threw her down. By their voices I could tell that her father and mother were taking the fight through the house, and upstairs. I waited.
I hadn’t realized how cold I was until it got quiet again. I was shaking now. From cold and anger and fear. I didn’t know I was crying until tears fell into my mouth.
I heard a bunch of crows as they landed on the power lines above me. I looked up and when I did I felt the anger come down upon me. Where was God now? Was He paying attention to this?
I heard movement close by and looked back towards the house. I watched as Rebecca climbed out her bedroom, on the bottom floor, and get up on top of what looked like an old firewood box. The window she came out of was underneath the top balcony. The firewood box was almost big enough to reach the top of the balcony, because the deck sagged so much. She climbed up on it, curled into a ball with her back to me, and I could hear her crying.
“Where’d that brat go?” You hear me brat? Where the hell are you?” Her father was storming through the house, I caught his shadow in her bedroom. His face appeared through the broken window and when he saw her up on the box he just huffed, “Ya, that’s right, you just stay out there then!”
She flinched when he spoke at her, pulling her legs up closer to her chest. I tried to be as still as I could so that he wouldn’t see me watching, and luckily he went back through Rebecca’s bedroom and into the house.
I saw her body lift with a breath, a sigh I knew. I’d sighed the same sigh. Glad for it to be over. She was going to stay outside all day int he cold. Probably even sleep there. I could see her breathing and shivering. I wanted to walk over to her, but I knew that it would hurt her. Pain doesn’t hurt as much when you suffer alone. Or, maybe, I just didn’t know any different. I stepped back through the fence and ran all the way home. I knew, now, what I had to do.