Will you take me as I am? Will you? – Joni Mitchell
She’s small, the police officer, a no-nonsense kind of woman. I can tell she’s trying to be delicate with me even though it doesn’t come naturally to her.
“Everything you tell me will be written in a statement and read out in court,” she tells me. “Unless, of course, you’d rather testify personally.” I think about that for a little while, but the instant I imagine him in that room, his eyes on me, I think I might be sick.
“A statement is fine,” I reply quietly.
She nods, and with her eyes, gently prods me to begin.
Not knowing exactly where to start, I choose the beginning. She interjects every few sentences, the level of detail she requires throwing me more than once.
“What colour were his togs?” she asked. “What style were they?”
I wondered how the answers could have ever made a difference, but I disclose them all the same. I recount everything I remember; how he had asked me if I wanted ice cream, how he had led me down to the river bank, how he had stood behind me and pressed himself against me in the water, how I had felt something hard in my back, how he had slipped his hands into my swimmers. As I talk, she types on her computer, making eye contact and nodding earnestly as if following the training she had been provided for circumstances just like this. I think of my friends back at school, probably playing handball by the oval, and in that moment, I wish I could be there with them, a normal child, doing normal things.
“And what happened then?” she asks me. “You mentioned before you told him to stop?”
I look into her brown eyes. They are hard and unflinching.
“Yes,” I reply. “I told him to stop.”
The lie hangs in the air between us. When she finally breaks eye contact to type this information on her computer, I look away, willing myself not to cry.
I sit in the back seat of the car. My mother turns and passes me a newspaper.
“He went to jail,” she says, simply.
I look down at the paper and find a small, printed statement alerting me to the fact that an old man had received a 5 month jail sentence for molesting an eleven year old girl. I suppose my mother expected me to feel relief at this news, some kind of justice. But I look at those jet black words, and I imagine him in court, hearing my statement read aloud, only he and I knowing the truth of who I actually was. That not only had I stood perfectly still and taken everything he had done to me, but that I had insisted, in a court of law, that I hadn’t. I pictured him sitting there, his lips curling up at the sides ever so slightly, knowing that even though he would go to jail, he had still won.
This secret only he and I shared bound me to him in the most visceral, intimate of ways. He would be there when I would later lie in men’s arms, when I would take my clothes off and sleep with them, when I would never believe them when they told me they loved me. How could they when he was the only person on earth who knew who I really was – a pathetic, gutless mouse of thing he had conquered.
It was then, in the back seat of that car, holding onto that newspaper with my small, shaky hands that I took a knife and severed myself from my own body. It was something I couldn’t rely on, a body that was not, under any circumstances, to be trusted. What kind of person just stands there and doesn’t fight back? The most savage of wars began that day, one that would last 25 years, except nobody knew it but me.
The music is intoxicating, like it’s coming directly from the inside of each of my cells. I dance to every beat, to every note, experiencing it with the kind of intensity that feels like I’m in the middle of the universe itself. I haven’t slept in three days. The DJ knows me by name. It’s an underground world I finally feel at home inside. I would have put anything into my bloodstream, and I did. I am at the front of the dance floor, my very favourite spot. “I’m so in love,’” I yell out, to everybody and nobody, my head tipped back, my eyes closed. A guy who is dancing next to me grabs my face with both his hands. I’m so high that it feels normal, that a stranger should do this. He looks at me, sweat pouring from his forehead. Even in my state, I’m concerned that he’s going to kiss me. “I’ve been in love before,” he says. “And believe me, this is not it.” He locks his eyes with mine and continues to hold my face. Then, in one swift movement, he lets go of me, and I stumble back, back into the music, the beat, the nothingness, except this time I’m there, his words clang around my head like an iron bell.
This is not it.
This is not it.
This is not it.
The sureness of the way he had said those four words rattled me. They made me jealous, like he knew a secret I didn’t. They pulled at my insides, those words, and though I couldn’t know it then, they would later be the thing I’d cling to when drugs had pushed me too far beyond myself and I would be sitting on a lounge room floor begging my mother to help me. Even then, the foolish pursuit of love was the one thing that kept me here.
“Mum!” she cries out. I instantly know something is wrong and look up to find her running through the doorway, lurching herself into my arms. It’s cold and snowing outside, our last week in Japan. I’ve been waiting for her to wake up.
“Honey,” I say, alarmed. “What’s wrong?” She clutches onto me and I wrap my arms around her, rocking her in that instinctive way all mothers do to soothe their children. Joel and I share a confused glance.
“Sweetheart, tell me what happened,” I say.
She looks up at me, and I sweep the hair out of her eyes.
“I need to tell you in private,” she replies.
We go into the laundry room and shut the door behind us. I scan my mind for all the possible reasons for her distress, but I come up short in every scenario.
“Honey, what is it?” I ask.
She looks at me and I can tell she is struggling to get the words out.
“I had a dream,” she says. “Although it wasn’t really a dream. It was real, and I know it.”
A shiver runs up the back of my spine, and I hold my breath, waiting for her to go on.
“You were wearing another ring,” she said.
My breath freezes in my chest as I watch her sob. “I missed you so much,” she cries. “I was running and running, looking for you everywhere, but I couldn’t find you. You had another ring, and you were gone.”
I grab her, pulling her to me, wrapping my arms around her. “Shhhhhh,” I whisper, into her ear. “I’m right here, sweetheart.” She cries into my chest, and I would die for her in that moment.
“It was just a dream,” I tell her, though the minute I hear myself say the words, I know that it wasn’t. A deep, unnerving sense of knowing rushes out from every cell of my body and settles inside the pit of my stomach. Right then, I am back in that nightclub, back in the underground, back in the music, the sweat, the nothingness, his words clanging around my head like an iron bell.
This is not it.
This is not it.
This is not it.
There it was. The truth. One I had forced out for so many years because of everything it would mean. And with it, there she sat, an eleven year old girl, perched on a rock, daring me to look at her.
What are you going to do about it? she asks.
I close my eyes shut and rock my daughter with a confidence that feels fraudulent. The laundry room is suddenly too dark, too cold, too small. How could I possibly leave? But how could I possibly stay?
The girl on the rock sits there and watches me, silently, and though I couldn’t know it then, three months later, I would leave my husband. It would be the first time since I was eleven years old that I would take that little girl’s hand, turn to face my very own self and trust it with my life, no matter the cost.
I sit in her kitchen, perched on a bench. “She had the baby,” I say, and she waits to gauge how I’m taking that fact. “Billy was so happy to get the brother he always wanted that he spent all morning writing cards for him to open every year on his future birthday.”
She doesn’t say anything, but her eyes tell me they’re sorry.
“It’s too much to ask of me,” I say.
“It’s too much,” I repeat, my voice breaking.
I feel her arms around me, like I’d done so many times before. We sit in silence for a minute before she speaks.
“Rach,” she says. “This is it.” I wonder what she’s talking about before she pulls away.
“This is the last hurdle you have to come to terms with. You’ve met the girlfriend. You’ve dealt with her moving in with your children. She got pregnant and she now has a baby that is a brother to your children. That’s it. It doesn’t get any worse.”
I look at her bitterly.
“And you have accepted all of it in front of your children with a smile on your face. Do you know what a service you are doing them? Do you know how strong and amazing you are?” she asks.
I hate her saying this.
I pick up my tea cup and cradle it in my hands. “I’m not strong or amazing,” I say. “I had no choice.”
It’s then that she grabs my hand, making sure that I’m looking at her. “You did have a choice,” she says. “You had a million choices, and many of them could have involved making things very difficult for Joel. But you didn’t, because the character of who you truly are didn’t allow it.” I look at her, tears pricking my eyes. “Yeah, well, I want to take my children and run far, far away from her,” I say. “I don’t give a fuck about character any more.”
She passes me a jar of chocolate coated peanuts and I take one, even though I don’t like them.
“Yes you do,” she says, and we sit there in the silence, because we both know she’s right.
The air hits me like a slap in the face, and I welcome the aggression of it. I walk a hundred metres before seeing Bill. He waves to me, and I go to him. He looks like a wizard, his white shoulder-length hair whipping in the wind, like a character that belongs in a fantasy novel. “Oh dear,” he says when I get there. His recognition of me, despite how hard I was trying to hide myself, makes it difficult not to cry. He waits for me to speak, like he always does.
“What does D.H. Lawrence have to say about sharing children after a divorce?” I ask. The question throws him, though I can tell he’s trying not to let me see that. He doesn’t know all that much about my personal life. He takes a second before replying.
“Well,” he says. “D.H. Lawrence never had children, but he did marry a woman who had three.”
I look at him, waiting for him to go on. His eyes are serious for a moment as he searches my face, as if wondering if he should keep going.
“And?” I say.
He keeps looking at me. “Well,” he begins. “Now, I’m not suggesting you do this,” he says as he trails off. In the pause, I see that signature, mischievous look dance across his eyes in the way they often do. I wonder what on earth he is going to say.
“She eventually threw herself under a train, Rachel.”
He pauses for a second and then bursts out laughing. The sheer surprise of it made it impossible not to join in, and there we sat, a divorced mother of three and an elderly man, on a cold, deserted beach, laughing like lunatics. Eventually, Bill reaches into his pocket and passes me a handkerchief to wipe the tears from my eyes. “Keep it,” he says, and to this day, there it sits in a drawer on my bedside table, reminding me of who I used to be, and what is possible to overcome.
The hot water rushes over me, a welcome end to a long day. I tilt my head back and close my eyes. When I finally open them, my eyes fall upon the two toothbrushes resting in a mug next to the bathroom sink. The sight of it jolts me until I remember a conversation we’d had the day before. “I thought I’d just keep a toothbrush here,” he’d said, and I watched as he placed it next to mine as if it was the most natural thing in the world. He had walked back to the bed then, and a memory flashed in my mind as I watched him.
“Tell me what you need me to do,” he had whispered. I’m breathless, from the shame, from the sexual hang-ups that still haunt me, from the way he had wanted so badly to care for me, which had only made me feel worse. “I hate this,” I whisper. “I hate that this is a part of me.” He ran his hands softly up my naked back. They reached my face and when they did, he cupped my cheeks with both his hands as he locked his eyes into mine. The blueness of them was like an ocean that scrubbed me clean. It was nauseating, how much they bore into me. Though I wanted to run as far from them as I could, something inside of me held me there. “There is nothing to hate,” he had whispered. “I love every single part of you.” I wondered how my life might be different if I decided to believe him.
Dear man in that nightclub,
You were right.
That was not it.
That was not it.
That was not it.
Because one day, decades later, a man would slide the door to his van shut and I would wait for him on my driveway. He would walk over to me and wrap his arms around me, pressing his face into my hair. He would take a long breathe in and slowly exhale, and when he did, he would softly whisper into my ear one, short, single word. “Home,” he would sigh, and I would close my eyes and press my face into the nook of his neck. Finally, I would think. I’m finally here.
Every single thing that happens to us belongs to us. Every man that fucked us against our will, every mother who betrayed us, every drug we took, every child we lost, every marriage we left, every lie we told, every promise we broke, every mirror we looked at and despised again and again and again; We take it all and place it inside our mouth. We taste it, every edge of it, and let it linger on our tongue. We swallow it deep into the pit our of stomach, feeling it slinking down our throats, and we let it feed us. We take it all and fight like hell to allow it to turn us into a more beautiful version of ourselves than we ever would have been without it. It is ours. Ours. And it is not, for one second, our duty to look sideways and long for another story. This is it. Grasp it and swallow it – You, the one who stood perfectly still, and you – the one who put a smile on her face when her children held their baby brother in their arms. You are pathetic and strong, needy and whole, jealous and content, frightened and powerful, ravenous and satiated, tortured and at peace. Do the work of healing not just to redeem yourself. Do it not just to find scraps of peace amongst the cards you were dealt. Do it so that one day, when a man stands before you and tells you he loves you, you believe him.