I listened to classical music from a young age. Not Bach or Debussy, but these deep, guttural religious symphonies like Joseph Haydn’s Die Schöpfung and Handel’s Messiah. My family did not practice any religion, but I was moved by that music. There was something ferocious and fearful in it that transfixed me, held me to the ground. It was unwavering and unforgiving.
We lived just outside of Philadelphia at the time, on the outskirts of the commuter rail. Our house was several miles from the train station and bordered a deep forest, which felt endless to me when I was young. It was a small house. My father helped build it. He and my mother furnished it with items that their friends gave them, with furniture bargained for at yard sales early on Saturday mornings. My mother, my father, my sister and I all slept in the same room.
There were only a few houses near us. An older couple with a basset hound named Woody lived about a fourth of a mile away, and he would trot over to our yard sometimes. I fed him french fries from McDonald’s and he took them gently from the palm of my hand, his rough tongue lapping at the salt on my fingers.
Further down the road lived a family with three children: one daughter named Claire who was my sister’s age and two sons – Aaron and Dean – both older than me. Their house was three times the size of ours, just built; everything in it was brand-new and expensive. They lived a kind of life that I had never seen before. I was only six. I didn’t understand what it meant to have an entire room just for your toys or furniture that wasn’t ripped and chipped away at. I couldn’t imagine what it was like to wake up in your very own room.
That was the year that my Uncle Ed stopped living with us, packed up and moved to New York City. I helped him move with my father. We placed everything he owned in the back of my dad’s car. Drove it onto a ferry and crossed the Hudson River. My uncle wanted to see the Statue of Liberty on his way in, just like my great grandfather did. It was time wasted, he said, but some time is better off wasted.
Now that he no longer slept on our couch, there was no one to watch Elena and me. The meteorologists warned that it was going to be a rough winter, and it was. It snowed and snowed. My father worked long hours in the city, but sometimes my mother could get out of a shift at the group home – have someone switch with her – if school was cancelled. But it wasn’t always possible. She handed me my coat and boots one morning. “C’mon,” she said, “you’re going to spend the day at Aaron’s house.”
We had only been to their home once, briefly, to welcome them to Blue Spruce Road. I had been wary of its many hallways that seemed to spin out in all directions, its large white pillars that guarded the front door. Since then, Aaron’s mother would call mine every now and then to “check in.” I could hear my mother sometimes on the phone in the kitchen. “Thank you, I’ll keep it in mind,” she would say. I supposed that was why we were headed to their house now.
The roads were already beginning to ice over. It snowed steadily, these big thick flakes that came down like mayflies, floating dead to the ground. I thought they were beautiful, but I also had a distinct fixation on the damage they could cause. I found it strange and fascinating that a thing so light, so delicate on its own, could do so much harm. Could cause the very tar we drove on to crack open in pain, the ice expanding, breaking apart the earth.
We moved up their winding walkway carefully. Elena, who was so insistent on walking despite not having winter boots, slid on the ice, and my mom grasped her hand tightly to steady her. I had only just gotten snow boots the previous winter. Before that my parents would tie plastic bags around my sneakers. We rang their bell, which played a short melody then echoed into silence. Aaron’s mom came to the door several seconds later holding Claire on her hip. She and my sister were both two-year-olds, and Aaron’s mother doted on them, cooing to Elena, “How cute you are…your little chubby cheeks…”
I slipped inside unnoticed, looked back at my mother dressed in her work clothes: jeans and a sweater, her heavy, too-big coat hanging off her body like a sack. She looked poor to me then, compared to the smooth, rounded woman next to me. Aaron’s mom smelled like shampoo and something else, something I couldn’t place. I looked into my mother’s eyes and she gave me a sweet, almost sad smile before turning down the walkway.
I looked around at the shiny tiled floors, the many windows dressed up with lacey sheer curtains. The snow was coming down harder outside, and the soft light that reflected off the ice gathered like dew upon the furniture. Further away I could hear the sound of video games, echoing shouts from the boys.
“How’d you like a grilled cheese, dear?” Aaron’s mom said cheerfully. I nodded and followed her into their impossibly big kitchen. The grilled cheese was already made, as if she had willed me into wanting it, had anticipated that I would accept even though I had just eaten at home and wasn’t hungry.
I sat at the counter and ate in silence. Claire and my sister played separately in the living room off the kitchen. “The boys are upstairs, sweetheart. Go join them once you’ve had enough to eat.”
I went to school with Aaron and Dean. I didn’t see either of them much during the day, but we rode the same bus. Whenever Dean got on, he had control, would sit in the back and carve drawings into the seats with the older boys. He was the kind of kid who would always have control. I was never so sure about Aaron, who was younger than Dean. He seemed softer than his brother. Not necessarily nicer, but less tough, like there were things that could get to him. There was some kind of emotion in him that I didn’t see in Dean.
We were always the last three on the bus going home. Sometimes Aaron would slide in next to me on my seat near the end of the ride, would offer me candy cigarettes from his backpack and pretend to light them up. His fingers curled expertly around the end and he would fake puff until his stop came.
I pushed my chair out from the counter and hopped down, my feet chilled against the cold tile of the kitchen floor. Elena was fumbling with a toy car, the kind that could be propelled forward by backing it up and letting go. She was concentrated, unaware of anything else. Her mouth worked as she figured out how to get the thing moving. Despite how much time we spent together, I didn’t know my younger sister, not really. We were specters in each other’s lives, moving invisibly past one another, our narratives already pulling away from the experiences we both shared.
I walked upstairs, not necessarily because I wanted to, but because Aaron’s mother had told me to. Her, with all her jewelry, her smell that was half sweetness, half something else. Something else.
The sounds I’d heard were coming from a room near the back of the hallway. I followed it blindly, like a rat trapped in a maze, coaxed forward by the smell of cheese. I found both boys in a bedroom lined with posters of athletes: men playing basketball, playing baseball, football, hockey. The wall was painted deep red, and there was a bunk bed with a desk underneath the top bunk. Chewing gum stuck to the bedposts. A television and several game consoles, in front of which sat Dean and Aaron.
“Give me a turn,” Aaron said. Neither had noticed me standing in the doorway.
“Like hell,” said Dean. On the screen two characters fought each other, swinging, kicking. Dean’s fingers punched his controller definitively. Then, somehow sensing my presence, Aaron turned abruptly, and we made direct eye contact for a moment, intensely, as if he were anxiously trying to figure out who I was. Then his eyes softened. “Hey Kira,” he said.
I stepped into the bedroom and stood behind the boys. I was aware of my hands, of not knowing what to do with them. I rubbed them back and forth and against my jeans. I watched Dean play for a few minutes, hardly grasping what was happening.
“So,” Dean said without turning, “you’re family is like poor, right?”
“We’re not poor.”
“Isn’t that why we have to watch you though? Because your mom has to go to work at some house for druggies? That’s what my mom told me.”
I had nothing to say. It was true.
“What are you playing?” I asked.
“It’s the new Final Fantasy,” Aaron said. “Just came out a few weeks ago.”
“Yeah and I’m going to crack it in a week flat,” Dean added. Then the game absorbed him again. He leaned in, tightening his grip on the controller.
I kept my eyes on the television, but I could feel Aaron watching me. I glanced over to him, and his gaze struck me in the same way that his mother’s presence did. I felt uncomfortable, but not simply because he was studying me. It was something in the way that he did it, as if he were sizing me up, deciding something about me. I thought about the fact that my shirt was stained and one size too small. Looked down at my feet, where one toe stuck up out of my sock.
After several minutes Aaron stood up, motioned for me to stand as well. “C’mon.”
We left Dean with the game. I followed Aaron down the stairs to the first floor, where his mother was entertaining Claire and my sister. She didn’t notice us when we passed by the living room. We were invisible. He opened a door, revealing another staircase. He led me down to a finished basement. It was filled with toys so tightly packed together that it was difficult to move around. I was once again struck by his wealth, a concept I had hardly any understanding of at the time. Yet I perceived it just the same, and Aaron suddenly seemed so powerful to me, with all his things, things, things. Anything he wanted stretching on as if the basement was not a room but an ocean, and I was lost in it.
He guided me, weaving in and out of discarded Nerf guns, overturned chairs, rollerblades, and action figures, over to a playhouse made of colorful plastic.
I ducked my head and entered. It was quite large, with enough space to fit a table. It had a door and a small window. Inside it I could stand up fully. Once, my father had built me a playhouse out of junk wood scraps. I’d had to crouch down inside of it and no more than one person could go in at a time, but it was mine, and it wasn’t something handed down or bought at a yard sale but something that had always been and would always be mine. But it didn’t last. The wind wore it down; all it took was one big blizzard for the roof to crack under the weight of snow.
I stood in Aaron’s house now, expectantly.
“Okay,” he said, “you’ll be my wife. You have to pretend that you’re cooking and cleaning. I’ll be at work.”
He left through the little yellow front door, shuffled his way around all the toys to some other part of the basement, and I felt I had no choice but to do as he said. I dutifully picked up an invisible dish, inspecting it for food remnants.
Aaron returned soon after, holding a toy gun. He aimed it at me then, made a series of rapid clicks with his tongue. “I shot you, you have to fall on the ground and pretend you’re dying.”
I did as he told me. Silently, I lay on the floor, flat on my back.
Then Aaron cried out. “Oh my god,” he said, “I’ve shot you, you’re dying, I’ve shot my wife!” He sounded desperate to me, and I was afraid. It didn’t feel like a game anymore.
Aaron dropped down to the floor, pulled me into his arms and rocked me back-and-forth. I lay stiffly, my eyes open to his pretend suffering.
He lifted my head and stuck his tongue into my mouth, moved it around schizophrenically. It felt like a fish flopping, the kind I had seen my Uncle Ed catch at the lake the summer before, bouncing on the dock desperately before dying.
And then Aaron pulled back the fabric of my pants and my underwear, stuck his hand down there and rubbed it hard against me. It hurt a lot; I don’t know how long it lasted. I closed my eyes tightly, I was dead, I was dead, dead.
“Now tell me you love me. That’s what husbands and wives do. I love you, you’re my wife. Tell me you love me.”
“I love you,” I said.
When my mother picked me up at the end of the workday, the snow had still not let up, and it was completely dark outside. She skidded halfway up their driveway before stopping, and we had to trudge through the snow to get back to the car. The ride home was silent and tense. I looked out the window at the snow coming down now in sheets. The car slid around on the unplowed road. The windshield wipers smacked back-and-forth frantically against the blizzard. I felt a wrongness deep inside of me. A wrongness I couldn’t name. School would be cancelled the following day as well, but my mom had found someone to switch shifts with this time. “I don’t want to put their mother out again,” I heard her say.
When we got home I went to the bedroom and shut the door. I put my tape of Handel’s Messiah into my father’s Walkman, placed the headphones over my ears and lay prostrate on the ground. I let the sounds wash over me and pummel me deeper into the carpet. Until the waves of noise rolled me back back back to some other place, to another plane of knowing and being. Until I was twisted back into myself, back into the nothingness between each deep, resounding note.
A few weeks later, Aaron had a birthday party. We got the invitation in the mail, all wrapped up inside an orange envelope. There were basketballs and footballs on the invitation. My name was written in a curly script that could only have belonged to Aaron’s mother. “Could be fun,” my mom said, shrugging.
My father took me out to buy a gift for Aaron the weekend before the party. We went to a candy shop near the train station. I got him two packs of candy cigarettes and a set of big red lips made of cherry-flavored wax. Two little vampire teeth stuck out of the corners.
“Go ahead, pick out something for yourself,” my dad said, nudging me on the shoulder. I took my time choosing something, looked up and down every isle, inside every clear tub of candy along the back wall. I settled on a small bag of Satellite Wafers, these sprinkle-filled cornstarch wafers which my father called “flying saucers.” On the front of the bag was a picture of a smiling sun. Its face was crunched up into a grin, but I wasn’t convinced. It may as well have been crying.
My father pulled a ten out of his pocket and paid. In the car I opened the bag and tried a flying saucer. It was tasteless, Styrofoam–like, and the candy inside was less sweet than I would have hoped. But the beads felt nice in my mouth, and I held them there on my tongue. I looked out the window, watched the telephone lines closely as they stretched by into distance. We could have been anywhere. I could have been anyone, really.
Back at home, my father lay down to read and fell asleep quickly, with the book open on his chest. My mother was with Elena, getting a double haircut, two-for-one at Roberta’s. I put on my coat and boots and closed the front door quietly behind me. I walked along the side of the road eating the flying saucers, my boots crushing down patches of snow that hadn’t been stepped on yet. Wind whipped at my body; it was the kind of winter weather that makes faces go numb, makes hands crack and bleed. I went as far as Woody’s house before turning back. The old dog was inside. I had been hoping to feed him a wafer.
The night of Aaron’s party was clear. Not even a flurry of snow. I looked up at the dark dark sky: no clouds, no moon, only stars. It was bitter cold, and I blew hot air onto the fingers that stuck out of my ripped gloves. Aaron’s gifts were stuffed into a little bag, and I gripped it tightly.
“So do you know who else is going to be there?” my mother asked me on the way over.
“Well, maybe this could be a chance to make some new friends.”
When we arrived, my mother rang the doorbell, that same echoing melody that I had heard in my dreams for weeks. There was so much noise coming from behind the door. So many boys voices yelling, feet stamping on the ground. I wondered if anyone would hear the doorbell. My mom shifted from right foot to left foot on the doorstep. “Freezing,” she muttered.
Then Aaron’s mom opened the door and a rush of warm air escaped. “Hi Kira, honey!” she cried, scooping me into their house. There were boys running in every direction. In the corner of the foyer sat a cartoonist, and kids were lined up to have him sketch oddly proportioned pictures of them. Dean darted past with a Nerf gun in his arms, and several boys followed closely behind. Aaron’s mother helped me out of my coat. “Ana Teresa is here. Aaron told me you know each other.”
Ana Teresa was my age, a small, dark-haired girl in my class. She lived with her father near the cornfield behind the supermarket, in a little trailer. She didn’t have a mother, and I never asked, but I knew from what others said that she had died. I’d been to her house before. She owned every movie in the Land Before Time series, all packed away in their VHS boxes and lined up in her room in chronological order. Her father made us rice and beans with warm corn tortillas, and I had never eaten beans like that before. When he lived with us, my uncle would eat baked beans every day straight from the can. He’d open it up and scoop them out with a fork just like that, day in and day out. But these beans were different, and I loved them.
We watched the first Land Before Time movie together, and I saw Ana Teresa’s dark eyes well up when Littlefoot’s mother died. I studied her, searched for some clue of what had happened, things I would never know. She looked back at me. “Do you believe in God?” she’d asked me.
I hadn’t been back to her house since.
Aaron’s mom leaned over and touched my mother’s arm. “You know,” she said, “Aaron told me that Ana Teresa and Kira are his girlfriends. How cute is that?”
“Oh really?” my mother said. “Kira, you hadn’t told me.”
I shrugged. I hadn’t known either.
“Aaron,” his mother called, “Come greet Kira. Come greet your girlfriend.”
It took several seconds, but he came from around a corner, pulling at a stiff button-up shirt. His mother motioned him over to her and turned down the collar. She stood behind him and rested her hands on his shoulders, every so often running her fingers up and down his arms.
He looked to me, gave a half-smile. “Hey Kira.”
“Thank her for coming,” his mom prompted.
“Thanks for coming.”
I handed Aaron the gift bag containing the candy cigarettes and wax lips, and he took it from me, glancing at his mom.
“Lovely,” she clapped her hands together. “Go put that on the gift table.”
Aaron pulled out of his mother’s grasp, disappearing into another room. I looked over at my mom, who caught my eye. “Have fun,” she said, “I’ll pick you up in a few hours.”
I left them in the entryway, following Aaron to the dining room, which was just off the kitchen. There, he set my gift on a pile of other, much larger gifts at one end of a long table. At the other end were plates of sandwiches, bowls of cheese puffs, pretzels, and candy. There was a punch bowl and Oreo cookies and several boxes of pizza. Sam popped a few cheese puffs into his mouth, licked the orangey powder off his thumb and forefinger. He frowned at me.
“Don’t follow me. I’m going to play with the boys.”
He left me there, and I ate pretzels and Oreos to fill time. I wanted to leave this house. I wanted to stuff my pockets with roast beef sandwiches and candies and all the things that I didn’t have. I wanted to take something of Aaron’s, a toy that he loved maybe. I wanted to take something from his mother. I had never stolen before, but I felt the urge now; it was boiling inside of me. I looked around the dining room at all the toys that were strewn on the floor – he had so many of them; he wouldn’t even know – when I noticed Ana Teresa leaning against the wall in the next room, picking leaves from a small potted tree in the corner. I went to her.
Ana Teresa saw me coming and waved me over. “Look,” she said, holding out a leaf, “the tree is bleeding.”
I leaned in. A drop of milky white liquid bubbled out of the stem where she had ripped the leaf off.
“It’s like alien blood,” she said.
I examined the tree. There were marks on the branches too, little bubbles of white tree blood where she had ripped off other leaves. Ana Teresa had a fixation with these kinds of things. I had watched her pick the legs, one by one, off daddy longleg spiders on the blacktop at school. Had seen her, on multiple occasions, carefully poke and prod at anthills, slowly destroying their intricate tunnels and pathways, their homes.
Ana Teresa stuffed the leaf in her pocket, tugged on my sweatshirt. “Let’s get our pictures drawn.”
The cartoonist was flamboyant, and put on a show, asking each child, “What would you like to be when you grow up?” He brandished his markers and thrust them at the paper on his easel with a flourish. Each kid sat on a chair in front of him, remaining as still as possible, waiting excitedly for the moment when he presented the finished product. “Voila!” he cried, bestowing them with their cartoon portraits.
While waiting in line, I spotted a photograph of Aaron and his mother on a side table. It was a little wallet-sized photo in its own tiny silver frame. A slightly younger Aaron sat on his mother’s lap and she squeezed him around the waist. They both looked happy. They looked different in the picture than they did in real life somehow. My family didn’t own a camera, so there weren’t many photos around my house. Once, my father bought a disposable Kodak, but Elena had torn in half most of the photographs we developed. She didn’t know better my parents insisted. I’d saved one though: of my parents dancing in the kitchen, frozen in time. I liked that I could play any song and imagine that that was the one they were dancing to.
I slipped Aaron’s picture – still inside its frame – into my sweatshirt pocket. I don’t believe anyone saw me take it, and if Ana Teresa did she never mentioned it.
Then it was my turn. “And what would you like to be when you grow up, sweetheart?” the cartoonist asked, gesturing for me to sit down. When I said nothing, he tapped his marker on his temple to show me how hard he was thinking. “How about a ballerina? I’m sure you’d like to be a ballerina.” I had no interest in ballet, but I didn’t know how to object. He worked his markers across the page deftly. In a few minutes, he handed me a picture of myself in a pink leotard, pirouetting on my left leg. My head was twice as large as my body, and I wore a crooked, toothy smile that disturbed me.
When her turn ended, Ana Teresa came over, holding a drawing of herself as a nurse. “Do you want to be a ballerina when you grow up?” she asked, peering at my portrait.
“No, do you want to be a nurse?”
We stood there in the thick of it all, the only girls at the party from what I could tell. Boys played corn hole, pin the tail on the donkey, darts. They flew madly by with fake guns and swords, shouting out their battle cries: “goddammit” and “move!” and “more ammo!” I stood there, feeling nothing. I had the thing that I wanted; I could go home. Except I couldn’t go home, not yet. Ana Teresa shifted her weight from one side to the other, tapped her foot, crossed her arms. She was thinking. And I was waiting for a plan. I would do anything she wanted to. Part of this realization troubled me, but another part of me was happy to follow her. I had a friend!
She grasped my hand and tugged me back toward the snack table. We each discarded our portraits there. Ana Teresa opened a pizza box and took a cold, limp slice. I chose a jolly rancher from the candy bowl, unwrapped it carefully. When I put it in my mouth its sweetness hurt my jaw.
Aaron’s mother spotted us from another room. She sauntered over. Again I felt an uneasiness. There was something that soured her, made her presence unsettling in a subtle way that I still cannot express. Did Ana Teresa perceive this too?
“Let me see those portraits you’ve got there.” She held them in front of her, admiring their perversely clownish cartoon features. “How cute. Girls, why don’t you play with the boys? Aaron’s been anxious to see you. He talks about you two all the time. Makes me jealous!” She let out a too-loud laugh. I cracked down on the jolly rancher then, bit my tongue and tasted blood.
We stared up at her. “Well, go on and enjoy the party while it lasts, before you have to go back. Make yourselves at home.” She smiled, her lips pressed tightly together, her eyes staring, staring. She was seeing something in us, deciding something.
And then she turned and left us there. And Ana Teresa and I walked, as if we shared one mind, to the basement door. We opened it, flipped the switch that illuminated the steep, finished staircase, and made our way down, down.
We meandered around the basement room dizzily, ducked into that plastic house, which was messy with discarded toys. “What d’you wanna play?” Ana Teresa asked, kicking at a toy car.
I turned and found a bin behind me filled with all kinds of fake foods: apples, butter, milk, eggs, steak, fish, bananas…more kinds of food than I had at my own house. We pulled them all out, set them down carefully on the yellow plastic table in a cornucopia of tastes and smells that we could only imagine. It looked beautiful all spread out on that table; it looked generous, colorful. I was proud of what we made.
We wavered in front of our feast. I wasn’t sure whether to sit or stand, so I looked to Ana Teresa for an answer. And she looked back at me. And in that moment I saw it all, saw all the hurt and confusion and pain that she felt. And I guess she saw it in me too, because she slapped me then, across my face. I didn’t cry out, but it stung, and my eyes watered. I held my palm to my cheek, turned back to Ana Teresa and pushed her down. I hovered over her, and we stared at each other like that, both of us understanding and not understanding what was happening, what had already happened to each of us. How could we have let this happen?
I don’t know how long we stayed like that, but at a certain point Ana Teresa sighed, giving it up. “Geez, let’s just pretend to eat.”
I helped her up, and we sat across from each other at the table. We shared our imaginary meal as if nothing had happened. And when we emerged from the basement, no one even noticed that we had been gone.
If anyone ever asked me again whether or not I believe in God, I would say yes. I would say yes because I cannot imagine any version of my life without pain, and there is something essentially, profoundly God-like in that suffering. The same kind that I felt in the music of Handel. A kind of pain weighted with meaning, meaning that I could never put my finger on and never will.
We were all children of abuse – Aaron, Ana Teresa and I – all hurting and abusing each other. We wove each other’s lives out of a ripped and soiled fabric that unspun as we grew up; we laid the path for what would come later for each of us.
I left Aaron’s house the night of his party and looked up at the sky on the way to my mother’s car, gripping the picture of his mom and him in its tiny silver frame. In that moment I was struck not by the stars themselves, but by the dark spaces behind them, the billions of miles strung between each of them. What filled those spaces, I wondered? I had a vague sense that most of the universe was made of nothingness, that there were few lights in that vast darkness. Somehow, I knew it was an illusion that the stars looked so close together. In truth, every one of them was alone.
Nikki Smith writes and lives in Brooklyn with her partner and their cat. She wrote this story to heal and to educate others about the truths of sexual abuse and the experiences of survivors.