“See me,” I whisper. “See me! See me!”
I am startled by the screams that come from outside of my body, and I am surprised to find that my hands have balled up into fists at my side.
“Do you see me?! Do you know who I am?! Do you remember me?! See me, Goddamnit! See me!”
I think it is someone else screaming the words, someone else’s spittle flecking the old man’s creased face. Leaning into his wheelchair, I try not to retch at the stench coming off him. He reeks of piss and shit and old beer. He hasn’t bathed in months, slumping in his wheelchair like a relic from the ‘70s with his fucked up, matted afro and his tattered dashiki.
I feel the scratching in my throat, the words becoming hoarse mumbles that make no sense. Glimpsing my face in the mirror, I am confounded by the fury that twists my features into something unrecognizable. My eyes are wide, pupils darting from one side to the other, taking in the familiar dark wood dresser, the urine stained mattress, the jar of Vaseline on the nightstand.
It’s the jar of Vaseline that snaps my head back in shock and slams me back onto that bed, my plaid schoolgirl skirt pulled up to my waist as he tries to push into my seven-year-old body. He slathers himself with Vaseline first, careful to wipe the globs of grease on every inch of his penis. I stare up at the ceiling, wondering what will come next. Will he split my body in two? How badly will it hurt? Will my mother beat me if she finds out? Am I being a bad girl? He smiles at me as he struggles to fit his giant organ into my tiny body. I cry out in pain.
“Shush now. Just try to relax, and remember, this is our secret. You’ll get in trouble if you tell your mother.” But my cries grow louder.
Frustrated, he climbs off me and wipes my tears. I pull up my yellow cotton panties, pull down my red and navy-blue skirt and try to steady my trembling legs. I stare at the Vaseline and feel a churning in my gut. I vomit across the floor and slide in the mixture of tater tots, ketchup and chocolate milk as I try to run to the bathroom. He sucks his teeth and grabs a towel to clean up the mess that I have made. I am silent, wondering if I will have to play this game again tomorrow.
His sister skips down the attic stairs, my brother dragging his feet behind her. He is tiny for a six year old and is often mistaken for a preschooler. His head hangs low, and his hands are shoved into his pants pockets.
“What happened? Did you do it?”
“Couldn’t. I used the Vaseline and everything. But it wouldn’t go in. She’s too small; I’ll wait.”
Brother peeks up at me, our shame reaching across the room to unite us in our babysitter’s house. I want to help him, to save him from the games they make us play. But they’ll beat us if we don’t submit. So, I stare back at him, willing him to be quiet and keep our secret. A beating from Mother would be so much worse. She would blame me, as the oldest.
I suck in air, willing myself back in the room with him, the man who has lived in my head for more than forty years. My black, patent-leather pumps make clicking noises on the hardwood floor as I walk over to a worn, brown upholstered chair. Easing down into the seat, I feel a spring push against my buttocks, forcing me to shift to one side.
“Motherfucker, do you know who I am? I bet there have been so many of us. You wouldn’t remember me.”
His head lolls back before settling at an upright position. He glares at me, his rheumy eyes locking onto mine.
“I ain’t do nothing to you girl. What’s this about anyway?”
His head rolls back and nestles on the side of the wheelchair. He might be napping; he might be faking. I can’t tell.
“Old man, you and me are gonna have a ‘come to Jesus.’ you tried to fuck me when I was a little girl,” I snap, pulling my black suit jacket closed. “You and your sister babysat me and my little brother. You did terrible things to us.” My voice trails off. “Terrible things I can’t forget.”
He lifts his head, focusing past my shoulder to the bright sunlight piercing through the sooty window.
“You little girls always come up in here actin’ all fast and shit. Actin’ like you don’t know what you doin’.” He shifts his body and reaches down to better position his foot on the wheelchair.
“You knew what you was doin’. You knew. Lil bitches. Didn’t tell you mama, though. You knew what you was doin’.”
His voice trails off again, his chin coming to rest on his chest. The sun is beaming right on him, highlighting the beads of sweat forming on his greasy face. I have always wondered how much my mother knew.
We were crossing the street from the grocery store, headed to our Brooklyn walk-up. The cold air felt good, even if my vagina still throbbed from the latest game. Outside, in the street with my mother holding my hand, I could pretend that I was safe. She looked back at me, noticing my awkward gait.
“What’s wrong with you? You hurt your leg at school or something?”
“No Mami, my cuca hurts.”
She was silent the rest of way, then stopped abruptly at our gate and turned to face me.
“Don’t ever take your panties off for anybody, you hear me? They gonna have to peel me off of you if I find out you let somebody mess with you.”
He is snoring now, his head slumped all the way down and his chest moving rhythmically. The room grows hot as the sun bears down on the small apartment. The jar of Vaseline is open, it’s lid lying beside it on the nightstand. I stare at it for a few minutes, lost in memories that I have never been able to shake.
“You’re letting him rent room in your head for free,” I hear my therapist say. “What do you need to do to evict him?”
His coughs bring my attention back to the wheelchair and the old man who caused me so much pain. I think I am done, but the anger flares up again.
“I fucked people I didn’t even like because I thought I was garbage!”
I am pacing now, watching the sun cast shadows on my reflection in the mirror.
“I hated myself because of what you did to me. Do you understand that? The damage you did?”
“Ask for forgiveness, motherfucker!”
But the old man keeps sleeping and I stop pacing. I gather my purse, brush off my pleated skirt and start walking toward the bedroom door. Picking up the jar of Vaseline, I hurl it at him and watch it bounce off the top of his head. He never stirs.
“Hey, do you have a cigarette or not? Girl, you must be on the beach in Costa Rica or something, because you haven’t heard a word I said.”
I swing back toward my desk and gather my purse and lunch bag.
“You leaving without giving me a smoke?”
“Nah, you can have one.” I fish around in my pocketbook and grab the pack of Newports. I toss one toward my co-worker before heading for the door.
“Amen! I need this right about now. You alright?”
“Yeah, just got a lot of things on my mind. But I’m better now.”
“Where did you go at lunchtime?”
“To a funeral,” I reply, swinging open the exit door.
Beverly James has more than 28 years of experience as a journalist, public relations manager and creative writer. She obtained a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Howard University, and a master’s in professional writing from Kennesaw State University. In her spare time, Beverly enjoys writing young adult fiction and is working on a memoir.