“Fire up your core and engage your quads.”
The instructor cues the class into plank position. I smell dirt and leaves. The memories snuck up at first. I was surprised by the sensation and the scenes that would rush back as I stared at the cork floor, images growing more vivid each week. The burn above my knees spreads and it happens again. My head spins back to Sherwood Drive.
You were not the first man I ran away from. You did not pop my Poor-Frightened-Girl Cherry. I’d been bullied, followed, hit, and held down plenty of times before. But I find myself filled with ugliness when I think of you. When I think of you in the summer sun on a street curb spitting in my face. When I think of Little Girl. Something is still smoking inside me. Somewhere in the dark spaces within me, something is still burning.
Though many scenes from my youth are growing jagged and warped at the edges, the summer of 2002 remains vivid. You probably don’t even remember my name. Here’s what I remember.
Legs pumping the pedals down the trail, a left onto Sherwood Drive. Early 90s model, cherry red Chevy Lumina parked at the edge of the trail. I pass the back of the car and see NIN and KMFDM stickers tacked across the rear fender. I completely gloss over the license plate – rookie mistake.
Clunky engine revving. Your faces turning like robots in my direction. A hard left to leave the wooded area, something feels off. Cold chills at midday. It’s the week before July 4th, 2002. The next house is too far away, pick up the pace, Becky. Whoosh of air. Windows rolling down. Hand cranks, a charming touch. Leering red eyes, grins of bad intention, and I count. Five faces I do not know. My shoulders climb into my neck.
Film and hope have both raised me to look for the one hesitant boy, the one who does not hurt or rape. The decent guy who fell in with a bad crowd. I cannot find him in that car with you.
“Can you tell us how to get to Myrtle Beach?” I already know you’re lying – you know the way. Must stall.
“Uh, just head up here to the stop sign, take a right, and keep going until you hit 905. Take a left and it’ll take you out to 22. It’s a straight shot from there.” Keep it light, keep it friendly, I tell myself, because in this world you have to be a nice girl so boys don’t hurt you – right? I just need to get to the first house. But my face betrays me, or you hear the scream that hasn’t escaped yet, and the wheel tilts in my direction.
“Tell ya what,” you say, words oozing. The car jerks. It’s starting. Everything I felt on the trail is confirmed as you pull your fucking moving vehicle closer to me. “Why don’t you just come along and show us?”
Your sunburned left arm shoots out of the window and grabs my right knee. Your nails scratch and dig in, and I feel skin breaking. Your friend behind you, greasy blonde, reaches out, hands clutching my shirt before I slam my hand through his elbow to break his grip. I almost expect the car to run into me. I tell myself I’ll be okay as long as I can still run. I scream. I scream as loud as possible. And scream and scream, until my own ears split, a fissure cracking down into me, my heart breaks open, and I become two people – the one who is afraid, and the one who is perpetually smoldering anger. The split happens here and never reunifies within me again.
I stand in the pedals, legs churning wildly as I scream, sucking air in between spasms, quads burning so hot I think they’ll fail me. You start yelling to come back. You reach again, car swerving all over. The boys in the back are laughing, banging the side of the car with open hands.
“Hey bitch, come back here! Hey!”
I am ablaze. You play a tribal drumbeat on the side of the car, and I am speaking in tongues, some other angry language pouring out of me. I don’t know what I’m saying. We do this for another 200 yards or so before I clear the wood line and see the houses.
“I’ll be okay. I’ll be okay,” in my head.
“HELP! Get off me! HELP!” from my mouth. I cannot find a single living soul, nor cars coming this way. It’s like civilization has disappeared and it makes no sense to me.
You reach out again, and this time I’m able to balance on the pedal and kick towards your face, which is now hanging out of the window. I don’t land a blow, but the car veers away long enough for me to turn onto a side street. You keep driving, looking for a spot to turn around, and for a moment, you’re gone. I see a car in the driveway of a modest brick ranch, and I go for it. Tossing my bike over the fence, I jump the fence, and my legs give out. So I crawl. Leaves in my hair, up my shorts. Beeline to the back door. Banging and screaming.
Nobody answers. And then I hear those twisted voices, the maniacal laughter. You’ve turned around and now you’re calling for me like I’m a scared child hiding in a closet. War drum.
“Hoooo-wee! Come on out, little girl! We just want to talk to you, baby,” you shout.
And the rage ignites.
I am not a fucking little girl. The words change everything, hovering over me like a magnifying glass in this July sun. They set me on fire, my DNA shifts, the color of everything turns red. I grow two faces, my thresholds become warped and misshapen, and I am somebody else now. I became somebody else that day.
Nobody ever comes to that back door. I crawl down the steps and hunker down in the dirt under the back deck, behind a shrub. As you taunt me from the road, I pray you will stay in the car as I look for something sharp – a wayward garden tool, tomato stakes, anything I can find to defend myself if you decide to come looking for me. I stop hearing your calls after 5 or 10 minutes and I slow my breathing, terrified that this is the quiet before you jump the fence. Was that a car door closing? I wait. Eventually it grows silent, save for birds overhead and the rumbling of a summer storm in the distance. My legs don’t want to move, but I pick up my bike and sprint home, head on a swivel. I run into the house, crying and screaming to my parents. I pour rubbing alcohol over the scratches where your nails dug into my leg, scrubbing it with cotton. I want to pull off the skin and replace it. I come downstairs where my dad is still on the phone with the police. I wait. They’ll be here soon.
No police ever come to my house. Cause see, the mistake was clearly mine. What was I even doing there to begin with, riding a bike in broad daylight? No license plate number. No witnesses. I don’t have anything to make them care.
The twist comes days later. The red Chevy Lumina, parked at the house on Graham Road where a disturbed boy named Seth once lived. Half a mile from my house, situated on the main route into the neighborhood. You.
You! I met you! The realization slithers around me. It was you. We met once – five years ago, before your voice changed and you grew six inches and you got shipped off to juvenile detention. I don’t remember much about you, except for one unforgettable detail – you told me that you had once tied your dog to the train tracks. I thought you were a psychopath then, but probably kidding. You were “troubled,” that’s what the women in the neighborhood said. Or maybe that’s just a nicer way of saying “He murders small animals and steals money from his mom’s wallet.” The second call to the police happens, license plate number in hand, and they still will not come take a report. Not enough information – you know, beyond what happened, your vehicle, your exact location. It’s maddening.
I decide I cannot run outside anymore, and that is the year I start to hate treadmills. It isn’t fair, I should be able to run outside, free and wild. But you see, everything has to change for me. In case you are there. It’s as if I know, deep down, that this isn’t over yet.
One afternoon two weeks later, my mom asks me if the man outside is the same as the one in the red Chevy. He has been in my backyard asking my little brother where I work. She just asked him to leave. I watch you leaving through the window and I feel like I might vomit. This begins the summer of hell. Weeks go by. You show up at the side door asking if I’m “around.” You found out who I was and where I lived, because the police didn’t feel like dealing with this, so my father talked to your father about what happened. And your daddy, ever the idiot, shared that information with you.
It feels like having a roach crawling up my leg with my hands tied – like there’s nothing I can do to stop you. You call my house and hang up repeatedly. You approach my brother and try to pry details out of him. Some of my mom’s jewelry disappears from her room one day when she walks down the street for a few minutes, back door unlocked. I become jumpy beyond belief. I run on treadmills in the gym where I work and I watch the stairs, always startling, eyeing the door to make sure you aren’t coming. I no longer sit with my back to a door – anywhere, at any time. I still startle easily, 17 years later.
On a Tuesday, I look out the front window of my room and you’re standing in the street, staring at my house. Dear God, this is real. I spend the entire summer becoming more and more aware that I am alone. Nobody is coming. Nobody is arriving shortly to take my report, to say “no” for me when my “no” is clearly insufficient. It’s me and you.
Nobody is coming.
I decide that I will be my own fucking hero, and the fault lines shift. I’m alone. I get it. Leaning into that truth becomes my freedom. It is not without some nasty side effects. I become colder. A switch gets flipped in me. Everything you do to create fear in me just feeds this darkness. I research guns that I can easily purchase and handle, I buy pepper spray, all of that. That dark space is still just starting to open up when you come back again. For the last time.
One afternoon two weeks before I move into college, my mom chases you out of our backyard. Recklessness grabs me and I can’t sit back anymore. I run out of the house, keys in hand, before my mother can stop me. I’m coming to find you. And there you are, around the corner, in the middle of Windmeadows Drive. You are right in front of the Garcias’ house, where Mr. Nick witnesses it all. I slam the gas as I round the curve towards you. I could end this all right now.
I blacked out.
I didn’t see him.
But I stop the car inches from your body, messy and sideways in the street. The door swings open and I am on you. Screaming. Spitting. Right up in your face. Pushing. Threatening. My voice flies out of me so loud that my body must push the sound out like birth. Something is born there in the middle of Windmeadows Drive. The darkest place in my heart. The most anger I have ever felt. The flagrant refusal to be your bitch. The nerve.
“You’re going to fucking leave me alone or I’m going to make you,” I say. Did I say “make you?” “Kill you?”
Or I’m going to kill you.
The words breathe. I burn five-alarm, roof caving in. I push my open hands against your chest, growls escaping me like a caged animal, shoving all 250 pounds of you as hard as I can – not because I think I can take you. I don’t. I just need you to hit me. It’ll hurt, don’t get me wrong. But I cannot afford to appear weak right now and so I welcome you to take your shot. Hit me. Do it. I see Mr. Garcia call inside the house for his wife to bring the phone. Yeah. Call them. They’re real keen to show up.
In my head, I can see a pile of me below us, dumped on the asphalt, bloody, broken, and writhing. I push again and again, your face becoming angrier each time. It will be worth all the pain. My awareness reverts to you, feeble vocabulary and tiny brain, hurling the word bitch at me as if someone who just came inches from mowing you down with a Chevy Prism would ever be bothered by that word.
No. We’re way past that, little boy. Your hand draws back twice, like you’re about to punch me. I consciously hide my response, stick my neck out further, get a little louder. I fucking dare you. I am so close. A strong shove from you, pushing me back a few feet before I charge again.
You never do. Because this was only fun for you if I didn’t fight back. I’ve ruined it now, haven’t I? You go soft and I realize: You only get off if we’re afraid. The anger of a woman is enough to make it go limp, right? We spit and scream at one another with an audience forming in front yards, whispered questions if someone should call the cops, all while you call me every epithet your daddy taught you. And then it happens. My moment.
I watch you back up. One step. Then another. I almost cannot believe it. I watch the boy who entertained himself by terrorizing me, who has stalked me and followed me for eight weeks, backing away and shaking his head. Like I’m the psycho. Maybe I am. Maybe you made me that way. Why were you there? What did you do to make her mad? What were you wearing? See how fucking annoying that is?
“You’re going to leave me alone. You’re going to leave my family alone. Or I’m going to kill you.” There’s no use in avoiding it. Either you accept that I might really mean it, or this is just all way too much work for you. But that’s enough. I glare you down as you continue to back away.
I stand still with neighbors shuffling back into their homes and watch you retreat.
The burn becomes a simmer, for all my life.
Perhaps my greatest regret from the whole thing is that I get cranked up that day, and I never come back down. I function, I’m happy, I get married, get jobs, raise children. But I exist bubbling, always just shy of a low boil.
A few days later, when all of the stupid people have started to think it’s over, I march down Graham Road. I cannot change the fact that you live in this neighborhood. There you are out front, with your father. I stop. You both look up. This time I turn and face you. Angry eyes and squared shoulders fixed in your direction. I hold eye contact, for a painful amount of time until you look away. Like a dog who’s pissed in the corner. That’s you.
I am my own hero, standing here on my own two legs. There’s nobody coming to help save you from me. I could end you today because I’ve figured out how to destroy you. I glare you down, make sure that you know you’ve been seen, and that your sad little daddy sees the monster he raised. I get drunk on the victory and stumble home.
It simmers when I pass your house leaving to go to my wedding and I feel the same burning anger that smolders forever. I brush it off and I wear white, but it’s still there. A tiny blue flame that never goes out. The pilot light that propels everything.
It simmers when every once in a blue moon, I ride a bike and the wind on my face feels like panic and smells like Crabtree swamp.
It simmers in the burn of my legs in this yoga class, quads lit up with little snapshots I took that day, photographic fires that flash in my head and must be put out.
It simmers, when a car full of men bark at me and my friend, as if we’re dogs, and I respond by running-not-walking into the middle of the road like a woman possessed. Maybe that’s what I am. Possessed.
It simmers in the sick smirk that spreads across my face as I stand dangerously close to the car and dare them to do something about it, the sheer satisfaction I get from their stunned looks of embarrassment.
Jesus, what is her problem?
I’m just the wrong girl, man.
I don’t hate men. Not the way you hate women. I just hate men like you. And yet, we both went on in our lives to become parents. And I’m raising boys, always painfully aware of how they treat and talk about the girls in their classes. And you – with daughters? The injustice of it – you, a father – makes my breath catch in my chest and get heavy and warm on my lungs. Worse yet, the knowledge that you have daughters tastes like bile coming up. I cannot imagine a worse fate than being your daughter.
It will simmer on. Every six months, I will check your criminal record, as I have for the past 17 years. Various larcenies. Multiple assault and battery charges – always a woman, because you’re not one for switching it up. Kidnapping – a woman, and also the least shocking thing I’ve ever read. You hit her with your car because she wouldn’t get in. I would pick up my jaw if my teeth weren’t gritting together so hard.
I will always have an eye on you. Wrong girl. I sometimes think they’ll never lock you up for good until one day you finally get your life long wish and actually get to kill a woman. That’s what you want, right? And if you do, I will be the very first person to march down to Horry County, sit on a witness stand, and look you and your pitiful father in the eye once again.
I promised you that day in the road that you’d never be safe. From me.
Little Girl got angry.
I became someone else. And I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to protect that girl, hiding under that back porch, leaves up the shorts, scrapes from your nails, shuddering and trying to contain her tears as five men taunted her from the road. Little girl?
Little Girl never leaves my side. She is there in my “fuck you” smile. She is the daughter I may never have and the ones you were unfairly given. She is every woman with a story to tell. She is the smoking ash of the person I was before that day. She’s the pilot light for everything.
She is still angry.