I have become, it seems, something of a collector: old magazines filled with young starlets, Mason jars full of homemade concoctions, confidants who were once wayward lovers, and a cat who hasn’t lived with his rightful owner—my now grown middle child—for too many years. There is a row of empty ceramic planters lining my window sill, awaiting soil and seeds and a goodness that will never arrive.
Then there are the scars, both physical and emotional, that I have collected—too numerous, it seems, and too painful to count. Sometimes, I run my fingers across the blemishes—the nicks and pits and disfigurements—that litter my body. There are few mirrors in my house, lest I am forced to see the fullness of their bounty. Each one whispers its own story. Each one holds its own trauma, some petty and some profound, one and all a maker of all that is me.
A thin brown keloid marks the spot along my right heel, sliced open by a broken bottle in the yard some 46 years ago when we lived in a Duck Hill public housing project. There are various other cuts and burns, some abrasions from scraping concrete, hopping fences and climbing trees. They remind me of the moments when I rejected my girlness, the femininity that left me vulnerable and afraid. I rarely think about them now or even about the small rise of skin on my back, where a man who swore he loved me shoved a blade into the meat of my shoulder as I ran screaming for my life.
I tell myself that, for the most part, I have let them and the circumstances that wrought them go, and that some things, like the cat at my feet, must simply be embraced. There are a few, though, that have yet to heal.
It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen—a 24-inch orange 10-speed with a black seat and matching vinyl-wrapped handlebars. I first spotted it on the lower floor of a Northwest Plaza department store. My godfather, Thom Puckett, promised that if I helped out around his Sinclair gas station, he would “see about that bicycle.” I swept the stockroom, grabbed extra cans of motor oil for my “uncle” Frank, and washed window shields for every customer that pulled up to a full-service pump. Puckett, who would later buy and teach me to drive my first car, made good on his word.
It was 1980 and I had just finished sixth grade. I had been elected student council president in an all-white school. The gravity of that missed me. They were simply my friends. Some still are. We played together in a creek awash with nuclear waste, ferried cakes to celebrate Mrs. Bateman’s birthday, and learned to swim at Tiemeyer Park.
I could not know it then, but the world was changing around me as the evening news carried stories of an Olympic boycott, a child born from a test tube, a presidential election, and American hostages in Iran. I remember witnessing a solar eclipse from the back playground at Buder Elementary School, our makeshift viewfinders fashioned from shoeboxes. Even then, I was mesmerized by it all. Johnny Carson was the king of late night television. CNN aired its maiden newscast. My older sister got married and had a baby that summer.
Weeks after Mt. St. Helen’s spewed its lava, smoke and ash into the sky, I pulled the bike from the side yard and left our small pale green house on St. Christopher Lane. It was morning, the sun still low but already burning away the dewy air. My legs, even with the saddle lowered flush with the frame’s top tube, were barely long enough to reach the pedals. I was headed to summer camp, a free city-run program at Schafer Park. It wasn’t far. Maybe a half mile. I proudly parked my bike alongside the gazebo and spent the day playing checkers, swatting tennis balls and stringing colorful beads.
Some time that afternoon, I started the way home, pushing my way up sloping St. Williams Lane. Clumsily switching gears, I felt a tug at my bicycle seat as I hit the top up the small incline. It was a familiar face—an older boy, maybe 16 or 17, named Chris.
What unfolded next left a wound so deep and abiding that, until this summer, I could not speak it aloud. I told myself that, like the stack of cookbooks I never open, this was a chapter best left closed. I told myself it did not matter.
I remember being led down a path that led to Hoech Jr. High School and through the parking lot to a house on the other side of Ashby Road, just south of Tiemeyer Park. He pushed me through the door of a screened-in back porch, yanked down my blue and white basketball shorts, and raped me on the slat board flooring.
I was eleven years old.
I remember the long walk home, the darkening sky above and the buzzing winged insects that danced around the streetlights. Long after the last of the sun had drifted from the sky, I sat on our painted concrete porch sobbing, waiting for somebody to come home. My panties bloodied, my arms and knees scraped. The pain seemed to come from everywhere. I waited there with my cat Lucky, afraid to go inside until my mother turned into the gravel drive.
I was unmoored. I had no idea what that meant then, but it seems the only fitting word writing this now. I belonged nowhere, and to no one specifically.
Nobody took me to see a doctor. Not for my injuries, not for the infection that came after. Nobody went to the police or even sat me down to talk through what happened. My mother gave me two pills—antibiotics I assume—and rubbed ointment on the boil. I remember the pitying look she gave me, and the anger she seemed to have for me. I could not help but to believe that whatever happened to me, wherever I had been, had been my fault.
Looking back, I can only imagine what manner of hell might have been unleashed in our predominantly white, working-class neighborhood where we were one of only three black families. I cannot imagine what might have been said to an all-white St. Ann police department, which took a particular interest in my decidedly black teenage brother. Or maybe, my mother’s response was a byproduct of the horrors she experienced as a child. I can make no excuses for the care and protection I was not given, though I can now give them some measure of context.
Part of me understands or at least wants to. Part of me wants to go back, to demand more and better for myself.
As I returned later to pull my bike from the opening of a tunnel along Coldwater Creek, where it had been ditched, I remember thinking, knowing that I was on my own. It was not the first time I had been molested and it would not be the last. The sexual violence that I endured during my formative years—at five when a neighbor boy in our housing project lured a group of my playmates into an upper bedroom, at 13 when an older cousin in the basement of my aunt’s house, through high school when a football coach preyed on me and my classmates.
Sometime in 1981, I was sent to live with an aunt in East St. Louis, the crumbling town my mother had fought so relentlessly to leave. I slept on the living room floor for several years, often soiling myself in the night. When I wasn’t scrubbing floors, polishing furniture or lining a church pew, I immersed myself in books of every sort. The library in our bottoming-out neighborhood was my refuge, my safe harbor. I found Toni Morrison, Nikki Giovanni, Langston Hughes and James Baldwin there. To them, and to an 8th grade honors English teacher, I owe my very survival.
I was without my mother then, detached from all that I had known. My blackness was suddenly present and burdensome in ways I cannot number or name. The school smelled of piss, the lunches served in plastic wrappings and the texts missing full chapters. I won another race for student council president, joined the speech team—winning statewide competitions—and wrote essays that brought accolades. Anything to escape the lack and despair of the half burned-out school house.
There are no repressed memories for me, only a tucking away. Some of the marks on my psyche are indelible, I know. But nothing was so hurtful as the sense of abandonment I felt then and even now. It has marred relationships with my closest family and undermined my ability to navigate the waters of intimate relationships. I learned to fight, early on, as a means of self preservation and I rarely leave home after the street lights come on.
This summer, as I began pulling together old essays and penning a spiritual memoir, these are the things I know that I cannot avoid. If I am to speak of my life, of the joys and triumphs, the vulnerabilities, ailments and healings, of the rocky road made smooth by the might of my own faith that there has and will be better, there is nothing I can leave out.
I think now about the life that went unlived, the one that gathered layers of mold in the dark cabinets of desolation. I sometimes wonder what I might have been, but for the pus and scarring of sexual violence, how it formed and defined and confined me. Even so, I marvel in the journey itself, the things I learned to reject and accept, the withering of my faith and the solace I have created for myself in its absence.
There is a strange peace in this, an odd sense of surety that I cannot shake. It allows me no hatred, no compulsion for retribution. The wounds are without salt. There is a comfort knowing that my tomorrows, if nothing else in this world, belong to me. What I choose to carry with me, to what extent what lay behind me colors the road ahead, is a decision that only I can make.
“You wanna fly,” Toni Morrison wrote, “you gotta give up the shit that weighs you down.”
At some point, I imagine I will get around to planting that herb garden. But, for now, I am content to bear witness to my own blooming. Though the scars remains, there is a life—I know—beyond them.