Written By: Danara Wallace
I remember her face before the bruises. I remember her before she met the man who called her a motherfucking cunt in front of their three-year-old daughter as he slammed the bedroom door with her fingers in the jamb. I remember her before the grand jury passed around emergency room photos of her swollen body and hollow eyes, before I consented to a trial for her husband. But I don’t know if I remember her before the hurting. It was enough in high school to pass her in the bathroom and think she was a skanky bitch. That didn’t require deeper consideration. A bitch who wanted to receive love. A bitch I saw walking through town with a cane, and now I think to wonder why. A bitch who had finally made it to the emergency room. I remember that her name is Blair.
We talk about God and gays. We talk about medication and Medicare. The peaches are sweet and juicy at IGA this week, and it’s a bad year for corn. We don’t tell what we wear beneath our clothes, the bruises and the scars, skin singed by the friction of forceful hands. We don’t tell what has been forced inside and drawn out from us. We talk, but we don’t tell. It isn’t that kind of place.
Legs folded on my yoga mat and fingernails digging at cuticles, I tried to explain to my friend which trailer park I grew up across from. Out in the country, just above a tight valley. Kids, thin and tough with dark circles around their eyes like baby raccoons, who moved from trailer to trailer while their moms shacked up with wiry guys who had a roof and a bed. It must have been that way for Starr. A pretty face, dark and serious, long black hair. Sinewy body without curves or fat or femininity. She’d see someone look at her on the bus and say, “I’m gonna bust ya!” Gravelly voice like a lifelong smoker, she’d swagger up the aisle to bury her knuckles in someone’s cheek. Mary would pull the bus over and yank Starr out of the seat, but she didn’t yell at Starr or write her up. Maybe she knew how it was there, where every sunset left that girl in a darker place. Starr would plop next to me while I stared at my backpack. I didn’t know then what it took to make clenched fists a teenage girl’s coping mechanism. My friend said, “Oh, you lived across from the Rose Garden.” I shook my head. It was called Kaufman’s, I thought. “Yeah, that’s right. When I was a county commissioner, we called it the Rose Garden because there was so much incest and abuse.”
You don’t know anything about poverty until it’s the only thing you possess. You don’t know that poverty is not defined by dollar signs. And maybe kids don’t know anything about poverty because they don’t know what else there is. Nomads in mobile homes. You take what you get. Wrap it in tight fists. Pummel the world.
Someone must have told Jessica that she was beautiful once in her life, but no one treated her that way. The greasy hair, glasses, and acne hadn’t changed much between eighth grade and the mugshot. Her gangly limbs still hung out of too-short shorts and a tiny top when she walked down the sidewalk yesterday. I’m glad I didn’t run into her at the Dollar General with my yellow plastic basket of canned cat food and paper towels. She wouldn’t know me because I never talked to her in school. Not like the popular boys, the townies whose fathers had money. They flirted with her, made her feel desired, and they laughed in that way boys do when they don’t know what power they wield with their smiles and words. They learned about power, though, when caressing words changed into mouths covering mouths. Jessica either learned something or nothing. “Gross Sexual Imposition Victim under 13,” it says under her photo. The searing details of this woman’s life might render me blind, but she must have lost sight long ago. Who doesn’t see a child standing in a child’s shoes? I heard she lost them all, all three of her children. Who knows what they’ve lost.
I try finding faith in humanity after searching my neighborhood online for sex offenders. I find myself in a conversation where someone says, “Well, I know what happened, and it wasn’t that bad. Not like a rape or anything.” I agree in that moment because rape is pretty bad. But I realize that I don’t understand the degrees of victimization, the spectrum and the measurement. I only know what it feels like to be raked by hungry eyes and groped by fast hands. I only know the cold ache of my muscles when I imagine things taken from me forcibly that cannot be returned. Rape is pretty bad. I can only imagine.
I was just back from college and she said she had something to tell me. I had followed my opportunities, some kind of dumb luck, and love that formed this brain into the engine that carried me away and back, away and back. “You can’t tell,” she said, and she was right. I couldn’t. Not for over ten years. That was always the way between us, a confidence given that I pressed into a little space under my liver for safekeeping. All the times she said, “Don’t tell mom and dad,” she usually told them herself. My mom used to bark at us, “No touching!” and you could have called me a touch-me-not. No one tried. As a teenage girl, I followed my brain to where it would lead me. Her own brain, as beautiful as mine, with a crafty streak matching my crafting streak—she sneaked out and I crocheted. Her beautiful brain followed boys into all the shadowy places because that’s where our own blood had pushed her flesh to go as a four-year-old girl. So many times, she told me not to tell, and I never did because I didn’t know how to re-form those words. Who could change what I could not? I don’t forget those dreams shared on our bunk beds or over the phone or what she told me over a blackened pan at Pizza Hut one summer break from college. The bruises aren’t on her body, but on her beautiful brain.
All the things we witness as children with nothing but the Bible to say what’s right and wrong. At least, that was so for me. What would Jesus do? What would teachers do? Ministers? Social Services? What would I do? I held my memories of the bruises I saw and the ones I knew existed beneath t-shirts and jeans. I held the secrets of the women I have loved who only spoke in whispers. I held my silence the way I was taught—in this place where any words besides “the Word” made us cringe. In this place where an ex-Marine shouts “vagina” as insult to another man across the bar, and turns to me to say, “I’m sorry. I should have said he’s weak.”
I have held my silence, but I am learning how to speak.
Danara Wallace is a writer of prose poems and short stories. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from University of Southern Maine Stonecoast and is beginning a PhD in English Lit at Kent State University as a teaching fellow.
Sunsets, little toads, and losing herself to the hills all soothe her soul. Those beautiful things along with witnessing the challenges of life for those on the threshold of poverty inspire her work. Danara lives in rural Ohio with a mess of cats and one tolerant Lady Dog.