My uneasiness multiplies as we get back on the interstate.
It’s 4 p.m. on the nose. Plenty of daylight left to get to my parents’ house. Still, I mentally WILL Dickhead to drive faster.
C’mon, pal. Chop chop. Pedal to the metal. Drive it like you stole it.
But he doesn’t, militantly deliberate about adhering to the 70 mph speed limit. Sorry, my bad. Make that 74 mph. Just enough over the limit so as not to alert the cops, but slow enough so that every other vehicle eventually passes us. Good ole cruise control. Gotta love it.
“You don’t think someone will try anything while it’s still light out, do you?” I ask nervously, in dire need of reassurance from Dickhead.
“Hard to tell.”
His honesty does fuck all to calm my nerves. But then, he’s not one to sugarcoat anything.
I need something to do — anything will do — to occupy my mind so I don’t think about all the terrible things that might happen if someone really is watching us, following us, intending to do us harm before we ever get the chance to make it to Tideville to grill Mom and Dad. My eyes dart every which way to make sure the vehicles around us aren’t doing anything out of the norm. I keep envisioning a man in a ski mask driving an old beater pickup truck that rams us from behind. I can’t very well blame my overactive suspicions on watching too many cop shows, either, because I’m probably the only person on the planet who doesn’t own a TV. But that’s beside the point.
“Talk,” I beseech him, “about anything. I can’t stand the silence. I keep thinking about all kinds of bad scenarios — you know how I am — and it’s all getting to be too much for me to handle anymore. Please.”
I rip open a bag of Munchos for us to snack on as he indulges me, telling me about his college days. He initially earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism with a minor in communication (Oh, the irony!) from — UGH! — Auburn, accomplishing that feat in just three years. His degree came with an emphasis in investigative journalism. And later, as print and broadcast journalism began moving into the digital age, he obtained a master’s degree in communication — also from Auburn. And he did so with an emphasis in digital technology journalism.
My opinion of him shoots up a few more levels. Most higher-ups tend to get complacent sitting behind their desks, but he continues to open my eyes even wider with his initiative to keep up with the changing times. I wonder how old he is, so I ask.
He gives me that imperial look of his that always sends me right over the edge, raises a single brow and … tells me. Forty-one. So, of course, I inquire about his birthday.
“Don’t laugh,” he orders. “I was born on Christmas day.”
Jesus, Mary and Joseph! You have GOT to be kidding me! Dickhead for Christmas?! What a fucking present!
I bite my lip so hard, it bleeds a bit. But I cannot suppress the giggle that soon becomes my full-blown Mumbly laugh. Mom and Dad often tell me I sound like the 1970s cartoon dog popular for his wheezy laugh.
Dickhead tries his damnedest to look stern, but my Mumbly impression proves too infectious. He starts howling, and neither of us is able to stop for several minutes.
“Not … funny,” he says, gasping for breath between laughs.
I’m doing the Mumbly so hard that I tear up.
“Is … funny,” I manage between laughing bouts.
Another 10 minutes pass as we calm ourselves down enough to speak coherently again.
“Christmas,” I say. “That’s rich.”
He gives me The Look again, so I let it drop.
The suckiest thing about being a Christmas baby is that people rob you in the gift department. Unfortunately, cheap bastards the world over often lump the two occasions together and get you one present — usually some fucked up piece of shit they find on clearance at Wal-Mart because it’s so ugly and useless that nobody else wants it — instead of two. Yes, I know it sounds superficial and materialistic and selfish. But the chintzy-ass fuckers who think it’s perfectly OK to get away with one gift know EXACTLY what they’re doing, and they make the people with Christmas birthdays feel LESS special. I know for a fact because Mandy Jo also is a Christmas baby, and I console her every year when family and friends alike screw her over by pulling their asshole one-for-two — one gift for two occasions — bullshit. I want so badly to ask Dickhead if his mom does that to him, but I refrain. I don’t think he’ll take too kindly to me asking, although I intend to get it out of him eventually.
My nerves kick in again as I do a quick check of our immediate surroundings, but I still find nothing alarming. I relax somewhat.
I’m curious about Dickhead’s stint at Cow College — er, Auburn — so I pry open that door a little further by prompting him to tell me how life at university compared to his upbringing in that rinky-dink town of his in Indiana. He doesn’t disappoint.
“I was very selective about my circle of mates,” he says, “just as Mum was about hers. We still are, in that respect. We hold people at arm’s length because we can’t have them knowing every little detail about the sordid past we share. Frankly, I don’t know why I’m telling you this. You have enough ammunition to bring me to my knees, to destroy my mum and I. And yet, I trust you. It’s puzzling.”
I know, right? It’s a puzzling jigsaw that gives me a case of the warm fuzzies. What a Kodak moment.
“Was there anyone special?” I try to ask in as slyly nonchalant a demeanor as possible because I HAVE to know, all the while wondering why it’s so damn important for me to ferret that information out of him.
Yeah. About as sly as a bull in a China shop.
Who am I fooling? I’m no Columbo — a retro TV show featuring Peter Falk as a rumpled, unassuming homicide detective that my parents watch religiously on cable — just as he’s about to blindside a murder suspect into confessing, and Dickhead knows it.
But he plays along anyway in that direct way of his.
“You mean women,” he says, not even attempting to pose it as a question. “Yes, there were a few. And yes, one was special. Or so I thought. She knew everything about me, even my suspicions as to the identity of my father, because I thought she was THE ONE and I trusted her. But when we were both up for a prestigious internship — one that I had intended to turn down all along, regardless of our relationship, because of the promise I made to my mum to keep as low a profile as possible — she turned on me and threatened to out us to the British tabloids if I didn’t bow out. So I did, and she got her precious internship. I never spoke to her again, not that it mattered. She moved on as if I never existed, as if we never were, as if I never meant anything to her. It devastated me. It changed me. And I vowed never to make the mistake of trusting anyone but Mum ever again. Until you, today. Please don’t make me regret it.“
Fuck me! No wonder he has major trust issues! Women like that ladder-climbing piece of … WORK give the rest of us a bad rap.
His confusion mirrors mine as he metaphorically opens the door wider to me with that admission.
“I can be a bitch, but I’m not cold-hearted,” I acknowledge, “and I don’t have an ambitious bone in my body. I love my job, but I’m not out to make a name for myself, and I despise people who use others as stepping stones. I’m truly sorry for what she did to you, but not all women are like her. I’m not like her.“
Prove it. Tell him your secret. Tell him about Indiana.
I look up just in time to see the sign.
Welcome to Alabama the Beautiful.
We’re just north of Athens, about 45 minutes from the Tideville city limits.
Tell him before you lose your nerve.
I falter before I can even begin.
TELL HIM NOW.
“We all have our secrets,” I finally hear myself say as the shame of more than a decade ago pervades my memories. “Even me.”
His free hand finds mine, loosely linking them.
Easier said than done.
I start by sharing the basic stuff Dickhead already knows about — how I attended Indiana University South Bend while working full-time, how I left school when I was offered my first job with a small daily newspaper — before rewinding back to a time in my life I cannot erase no matter how hard I try to forget.
His name still has the power to make me flinch.
I suppose there are some things — no, people — you never quite get over. We were an item for seven months. We lived together six of them.
Growing up, boys often were intimidated by me because I was such a tomboy. Hell, the only “dates” I ever went on were to my junior and senior proms, other than a boy from my school I fancied up until he tried to stick his tongue down my throat under the bleachers at a football game. I bopped him so hard in the nose that I made him cry. Afterward, word got around fast that I was a real ball-buster, courtesy of said rebuffed boy. Even worse, I literally had to beg a co-worker to take me to junior prom and a friend’s brother to go with me my senior year only AFTER I offered to pay for EVERYTHING. Nope, it sure ain’t easy being a tomboy.
But Joe didn’t mind at all. He was such a gentleman, such a sweet country boy — didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, didn’t do drugs — who was close to his family like I am with mine. I was smitten from the very beginning of our courtship. He made me feel special — like I was the most beautiful woman in the world — and he had eyes only for me. He put me up on a pedestal so high, I felt like I was floating in a dream from which I never wanted to wake. I was so in love with him, and he with me. Life couldn’t have been more perfect than it was when I was with him. Anything and everything seemed possible with him by my side.
I was 19 when I graduated from Holy Mother of Jesus Catholic School (yes, REALLY) — I was held back in first grade because I had so much difficulty learning how to read — and decided to take a year off to figure out what I realistically wanted to do with my life. What I really yearned to do was attend the University of Alabama, but we couldn’t afford it AND I didn’t have the grades for it anyway. I was horrible at science and anything harder than the basic business-type maths normal people actually DO use in their everyday lives. So when Kayla and her parents offered to let me come live with them in Indiana after graduation, I jumped at the opportunity — with my parents’ blessing. We all knew each other from our dads’ military days together. So I worked in a nursing home as a geriatric aide for a year before opting to enroll at IUSB. It took me another three years before I had enough courses under my belt to reach sophomore status because I had to continue working full-time to pay my way through school and Kayla’s parents for my living expenses.
I was just starting what would become my final semester of school when I met Joe via an online dating site at Kayla’s urging. She set up an account and created a profile for me before telling me about it. I thought she was nuts, but I went along with her harebrained idea anyway. All I had to do, she said, was check my messages on the library computers between classes since I didn’t have one of my own. His was the first I received, and the only one I ever bothered to read. We were like two peas in a pod from the moment we met at a Pizza Hut, and things moved pretty fast between us. He asked me to move in with him after only a month of dating — much to the chagrin of both sets of parents — and I excitedly accepted on the spot.
I moved in with Joe in February 2006. He was 25. I was 22.
Joe was frugal with his money. Diligently paid his bills on time. Never used credit cards. Always invested wisely. He even owned his own house, two trucks, a trailer and a horse at that young age. All were paid in full. He didn’t like owing anyone anything.
He made good money working for a company in Michigan City installing garage doors, in addition to being a volunteer firefighter and certified first responder for the small resort town of Hoosier Lake. I loved living in that quiet little town, sans the summertime when all the FIPs — fucking Illinois people, as we dubbed them — overran our slice of utopia, invading it on their annual family vacations. Of course, I wasn’t actually around for long during the ONE summer I DID live there.
Anyway, I was rendered completely helpless by the longest, most intense migraine I’ve ever had — it went all the way down into my eyes, my sinuses, my ears — just over a week after moving in with Joe. It lasted three days. I went through an entire bottle of Motrin, which did fuck all to relieve the pain the two days I took it, before trying Alka-Seltzer Plus after one of our friends suggested it. Surprisingly enough, it did the trick and I felt MUCH better, just in time to catch Joe’s best friend perform with his band at one of the local honky-tonks on a Saturday night, three days before Valentine’s. I was still nauseous and sensitive to light, but I didn’t want to disappoint Joe because it was so close to our first Valentine’s Day as a couple. So I went, against my better judgment.
It was the first time Joe had taken me to a bar. He absolutely did NOT dance, but he loosened up quite a bit after guzzling some “liquid courage.” He drank rum and Coke all night. We stayed until well after closing time, hanging out with his buddy and his bandmates while they did several shots of tequila. All I drank that night was water because I still wasn’t 100 percent healthy. I ended up driving us home as he verbally gave me a crash course in how to maneuver a stick shift — I only knew how to handle automatic transmissions — and managed not to destroy the clutch. Thankfully, we didn’t have far to go. We pulled into our driveway in the wee hours of Sunday morning.
Joe was feeling amorous, thanks to all the alcohol he consumed, but I was exhausted and went straight to bed.
I pause, temporarily unable to put into words the final events of that night. Dickhead gives my hand a soft squeeze of encouragement as he merges his car onto I-565 toward Tideville.
“It’s OK,” he says tenderly, “you can tell me.”
I swallow. HARD. No, it’s not OK. It’s NEVER going to be OK. But I force myself to relive it anyway.
All of that rum and tequila didn’t weaken Joe’s resolve to fool around; they strengthened his determination, his intent to take what he wanted. And he did.
Take what he wanted. ME.
The man who had stopped all the times before ignored every single “NO,” ignored every single plea that came out of me.
And he raped me.
He wasn’t violent. Just insistent. I couldn’t get him off of me no matter how much I struggled, couldn’t get away in time with all of his weight pressing down on me. He was too strong for the tomboy who used to be able to hold her own with the boys.
It was my first time.
I was no longer the virgin he coveted.
Dickhead’s hand crushes mine. I fight to wrench it free, succeed. I can’t bring myself to look at him for the shame. MY shame.
“You know what he said to me when he was done?!” I ask, the question rhetorical. “He told me, ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I used to be able to go longer than that.’ And just like that, he rolled over and went to sleep without a fucking care in the world. I lay awake all night. I didn’t cry. Not once. I wanted to, but the tears just wouldn’t come. I withered up and died inside of myself that night. The innocent girl was gone, knocked off her pedestal forever. And all that was left was a pathetic ghost of a person who went through the motions of her daily life like a Stepford Wife.”
I look out the passenger window, the passing scenery a blur to eyes that don’t really see.
“I hated myself because I still loved him, chose to stay with him, never told anyone what he did, what he took from me. I figured it HAD to get better, so I had consensual sex with him the next day. It was tolerable. But I was never the same.”
Joe wasn’t the man I first thought him to be, not even close. It wasn’t just the drinking he had hidden from me in the beginning, either. He had a violent temper, and he could be downright cruel. He took his anger out on his Australian Shepherd, Tequila, kicking the poor dog in the belly with his steel-toe work boots whenever he was in a rage. I didn’t try to stop him. I was afraid he’d turn on me, knock me around. So I became his live-in maid with “benefits” who catered to his every “need.” He took advantage of my submissiveness. He always did, even sodomizing me one night. I just lay there, still, waiting for it to be over. It was always best not to fight him because it would only make things worse, so I endured it without a word. It didn’t last long, but then, it never did. That was the only upside to sex, such as it was with him. I ran to the bathroom afterward, physically sick to my stomach. I made it just in time.
Shockingly enough, I was the one who ended it in July. Monday the 31st, to be exact. The fire department had gotten a slew of calls at the beginning of that summer once the FIPs came to town, so Joe kept his radio close. Thing is, he had a bad habit of putting it at the edge of everything — counters, tabletops, shelving — thus leaving it more prone to get knocked over. I committed the heinous crime of bumping it that day when I set down a huge box of groceries on the kitchen table. His radio toppled over, breaking into several pieces on the floor. He screamed at me so loudly for so long, he gave new meaning to the phrase, “surround sound.” I’m pretty sure the whole fucking town heard his tantrum.
THAT was my breaking point.
“I remember, verbatim, what I told him,” I relay to Dickhead, “as I started walking toward the door: ‘Fuck this, and fuck you!’ He grabbed my left arm so hard, the bruises that came later were of his finger imprints. I screamed like a banshee for him to let go of my arm. I was surprised when he did. I just kept going. Didn’t stop. Didn’t look back. Just got in my car and drove away.”
I ended up at Kayla’s parents’ house. They took me in, no questions asked. Kayla’s dad later retrieved my belongings. Everything that had anything remotely to do with Joe got thrown out. I already had enough to contend with from the bad memories I’d never forget. I wanted no tangible reminders of him, no trace that we ever were a couple. Nothing remained except for the scars permanently seared into my soul. And the annual torment leading up to Valentine’s Day, when he revealed his TRUE self to me.
Two weeks later, I got my first professional newspaper gig a few towns away. So I moved, embracing the fresh start. Like the mythical phoenix, reborn, rising from the ashes of the innocent girl who died that fateful Sunday morning in February to become the strong woman who finally mustered up enough courage to break free of her abuser.
It’s also when I started smoking. As a means to cope with it all, I suppose.
“Last I heard, Joe was shacking up with some married woman,” I finish, gathering the courage to look at Dickhead again, to meet his eyes head on, resolute yet afraid of what I’ll find in them. “I still struggle with my choices — not reporting it, staying with him, letting him kick his dog and doing nothing about it. It’s hard to look at myself in the mirror some days, but I’ve learned to live with it in my own way. I just sort of tuck it away, compartmentalize it.”
Dickhead succeeds once more in blindsiding me.
In place of the disgust I expect to glimpse in his eyes is compassion.
He’s right. He’s not a monster at all. No, the only REAL monster is Joe.
“I haven’t been with a man in THAT way — you know, in the biblical sense — since Joe,” I continue. “I just CAN’T. I want children someday. I want so badly to help create a baby out of love, but I don’t know if I can do THAT — sex — ever again. And other artificial methods are definitely NOT an option for me. I don’t want ANYONE, not even a doctor, poking around down there. I guess I’m just damaged goods. I feel so … so fucked up inside.”
It isn’t until then that I notice the slight clenching of his jaw, the control with which he evenly expels his every breath, his non-driving hand steadily balling in and out of a fist. He’s angry, after all. No, scratch that. It’s something else. Almost like he’s trying to calm himself.
I wait for the tornado to touch down on top of me. Looks like it’s going to rate an F5 on the F0 to F5 Fujita scale of intensity, too, if my observations are correct.
But it passes over me — over us — without incident.
“If I knew I could get away with it, I would kill him with my bare hands without a moment’s hesitation,” Dickhead says with eerie composure. “I’m angry — no, fucking enraged — for you, but this isn’t about me or how I feel. It’s about you surviving what this piece of rubbish did to you. And you did — survive. So don’t EVER be ashamed for doing whatever you had to do to survive. And don’t beat yourself up for loving him, for trying to see the good in him BECAUSE you loved him. As appalling as it sounds, some people choose to abuse our love, to use how we feel against us, to twist it into something ugly because it gives them power. But you stripped him of his power when you left.“
He certainly has a way of putting what happened to me — what I survived — into perspective. It finally hits …
“Home!” I shout as soon as I see the sign on the side of the interstate, more happy for the diversion than I care to admit.
Tideville City Limits.