The summer I turned fourteen, my family moved from a deeply Catholic, hippie commune in rural Kentucky, to Brooklyn, New York. Goodbye forested hills, night-time frog noises, all the friends I had ever known, muddy pond-water filled with tiny tadpoles, and twelve kittens that had been born that spring. Hello Sheepshead Bay!
My father delivered my sisters and mom and me, along with all of our mismatched and hand-me-down belongings, to a fourth-floor walk-up three blocks from the Atlantic Ocean.
In those first few weeks, my parents had the hollow look of people returning from war. They had founded the commune in 1972, and invested everything — emotionally, spiritually, and physically. I could see both of them trying to offer their daughters some kind of shelter from the craziness of the transition. But they were cocooned in their own private trauma.
The day after our arrival, my father clapped his hands together and announced we were going to ride the subway into Manhattan. His effort to appear jovial and enthusiastic looked more heroic than anything else, and we followed him like good Christian soldiers. It was 1982, and like so many immigrants before me, I gazed around my new surroundings with a mixture of enchantment, curiosity, and fear.
Walking along the crowded city street that day, we came upon a homeless person passed out in our path. He was filthy, covered in rags, and face-down on the sidewalk. With the Good Samaritan Bible story as a guide, we knelt and felt for a pulse.
The streets were teeming with other people who seemed oblivious to the emergency. While my parents hovered over the man, gently coaxing him to consciousness, my sisters and I tried to stop people as they passed. “Call an ambulance!” I begged a stranger. “Oh my God!” I started to cry with frustration and confusion. It appeared to me that the man was dying on the street, right in front of us.
Finally, one patient woman took the time to tell us the ugly truth. In this foreign land, we were expected to step over such people. We were supposed to accept the fallacy that there was nothing wrong.
Bewildering experiences like this became the norm.
I tried consciously to open my mind to the transition. I saw Brooklyn as an opportunity to remake myself, and to reimagine my trajectory.
On the subway ride home that day, I sat away from my family and tried to place myself in my surroundings, to match my facial features to those of the natives.
At each station, the train screamed to a stop, punctuating my transformation. I sat in the orange, plastic chair and pulled one leg up. I narrowed my eyes in a squinty way, as if I were deeply pre-occupied with a busy life.
I rested one arm nonchalantly on a knee. When I dropped my head back against the wall, I could feel myself become someone who, just possibly, belonged.
A chorus for my new life rose around me — the rhythmic lull of the train, the boisterous graffiti, other people’s body odors and voices all joined together.
I felt energized and ready for action. I felt unpacked inside.
I could finally breathe and something that had been folded up and tucked away for too long, suddenly had space to expand.
I became aware that my own true responses to the world were malleable and that I could choose which room I wanted to be in, inside myself. As if my interior landscape was a house. I could open up windows and lean out into the world over the Eastern horizon or over the Western, from upstairs or downstairs. I stepped boldly into my new world, with authority and excitement, choosing a room that held no fear.
Discovering my capacity — this ability to shift from fear and confusion to engaged freedom and action — was a gift in my life.
Perhaps I had always possessed the ability to shift inside, in this manner. But at that moment, it felt like discovering a super-power.
The part of me that had slid into place on the train home from Manhattan that day said to the fearful part of me inside, Don’t worry babe, I got this. She confidently constructed a layer of armor around me, pushing my more vulnerable self inside, and reveling in her suddenly monumental and critical role.
In some ways, I had used this part of me for defense from the monk when I was younger, but she had been slipping away after I went through puberty, and as the monk had lost interest.
In Kentucky, before I hit puberty, I had been chronically sexually harassed by a monk. I blamed myself for the sexual abuse and believed I literally harbored the devil inside my body.
This part of me had helped me feel less helpless as a child.
And the renewed need for her felt like passion inside me. She was invited to come alive even more than before, to act and be an agent of protection. There was a sincere opportunity for this part, now.
A rebellious, assertive, adventurous girl who could walk confidently through a foreign city was exactly what was called for now. A girl who did not pine for fields of corn, nocturnal frogs, tomatoes on the vine, a whistling kettle, or a pot-bellied stove. A girl who was never afraid.
I did not have these explanations at the time. This part of me simply felt like an intensity inside — a shift into a different gear that was fully operational and legitimate, but came from a different perspective.
I gave the wheel to this part of me and marveled as I stepped back inside and perceived the shift in gear.
It wasn’t always a smooth shift.
There was sometimes a clunking, craggy modification — an internal revving followed by a smoother adjustment as we powered forward. I would feel the pangs of my struggle inside, and would argue internally about the choices.
In many ways, I was still a little girl. I loved unicorns and rainbows, dreamed of true love and imagined myself a princess with a fairy godmother who would grant wishes. I loved to draw flowers, women wearing fancy clothes, horses, cats, and moonlit nights. I read Harlequin romances voraciously and dreamed of a soft-eyed man on a horse who would love me in unimaginable ways and take care of me.
The necessity to shift into gear as a teenager who was assertive, and bold worried me. I was afraid that my efforts to appear fierce and intimidating were being driven by the devil himself, and I didn’t want to be a sinner.
The monk’s strategy had been to convince me that I was a vixen sent to tempt and control him, and that his desire for me was my fault. Similarly to how I had handled things as a child, I tried to imagine possible scenarios where I controlled the devil but still let him do some of the things that he apparently wanted to do.
This internal debate created poisonous self-loathing and contempt inside. While I contemplated whether to be fierce or soft, another part of me sat back and watched the whole thing from a distance, judging and critiquing.
In any case, I didn’t have time to contemplate the options for long. Brooklyn — the vivid, brassy, graffitied Brooklyn of the early 80s — was happening all around me.
What else could I have done? I was fourteen, and being offered a provocative, new kaleidoscopic of a world at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, and I said yes.
I learned quickly how to pack a cigarette, light it, and inhale slowly in the little-girl-in-the-city way that screamed I know what I am doing and fuck you I am not a little girl anymore. I went to the flea market under the subway trestle and found Jordache skinny dungarees, size 2 — so tight I needed my little sister to help me yank them off, turning them inside out and pulling from the waist down as I lay on my bed, laughing, and trying to keep my box of Marlboro Reds from tumbling out of my jeans-jacket pocket.
I listened to the radio for help with my accent, and I practiced cursing. I tried to put the words, God and fuck into the same verbal exhale.
Reasoning that if I could curse casually, it would prove my new, confident, urban self.
Due to my upbringing, I couldn’t help turning briefly to the church to see if I was missing something important. Walking by myself to our neighborhood parish church, I felt hopeful in anticipation of guidance. But I came home restless and still searching. It seemed to me that God had mysteriously just up and left.
It felt like everything that had mattered in my childhood, all the best stuff, was suddenly a lie. I was disoriented — as if I’d woken up from a long dream that I’d thought was real.
Maybe my agreements with the devil had severed things with God. Although spirituality had been the most important thing in our Kentucky lives, God no longer appeared to matter in my parents’ Brooklyn lives either.
My parents appeared unconcerned about my neighborhood explorations and the choices I was making. They didn’t ask to meet the people I hung out with, or offer input into how I might approach safely integrating into this new society, beyond encouraging me to trust the world and to explore.
Their naiveté matched mine.
Three blocks from our apartment, salt water crashed relentlessly against rocks — a more reliable tranquilizer than either paperback romances or the Catholic mass. I took up residence at the beach, soaking in the constancy of its rhythms, smells, and sounds — my internal compass procuring a delicate peace while I sifted sand through my fingers and watched the luminous horizon.
I brought a towel and found a spot at the far end of Bay One, where I could hear rock music from a boom-box nearby. The radio belonged to a group of gritty looking men who hung out on a large concrete slab that jutted over the water, locally referred to as, The Rock.
The men were damaged Vietnam veterans and other misfits. They had a cooler filled with beer and their radio blasted a predictable rotation of 80s hits — Pat Benatar, The Rolling Stones, Annie Lennox, and Billy Idol.
The men noticed me nearby and welcomed me up to The Rock and into their ragtag group with warm carelessness. Like they recognized or remembered me from an earlier time, and as if they had missed me in a mild and casual way.
I did not have the skill to interpret their intentions. I took their friendliness at face value, having no ability to assess their culture. I gave each one of them the benefit of the doubt, and besides — it was a party! A constant, daily oceanic party!
I sensed these men were pleasantly amused by me, like I offered a diversion from the monotony. I did not sense sexual aggression. Most of them were older men and I couldn’t help comparing them to the monk.
When I compared them, I registered the absence of the kind of lecherous hunger that had previously been directed at me. These men seemed sleepy and harmless in comparison to the monk. I did not know that this is what it looks like when you dull your demons with drugs and alcohol. I had never seen this before, and I misread it.
I entered the scene and observed my newly sexy self take her place. Standing in my black bikini, with my cigarette casually clinging between thumb and finger, my hips just slightly shifting to the beat of the music, I approved of my new incarnation.
Constant rolling waves — the hypnotic pushing and pulling under the summer’s simmering sun — cocooned us. I thought I was just another earnest, tired misfit, relieved to find a place to perch and let the world fade away. The mindless chatter of the DJ and 80s rock became a monologue in my head.
The men taught me how to let alcohol, and the hazy sun, and the background chorus of the ocean, caress and lull me to sleep. It was a sleep that I did not wake up from until I was in my forties.
They never asked why I needed comfort. We all needed comfort. It was a given.
I found a tattoo parlor under the train trestle, and a drawing of a wild rose like the ones I had loved in Kentucky. Wild roses own their little patches of sunlight in the woods. They are entirely self-sufficient and tough, but tenderly gorgeous weeds.
I liked the symbolism of the wild rose, and the way the tattoo married my memories of Kentucky with my current Brooklyn life.
Heroine was abundant. A head of greasy hair would duck and tilt to snort, or a piece of rubber would get retrieved from inside a pocket and wrapped around an arm. A needle would puncture flesh. A man would nod back against the pale concrete wall. Maybe his head would bobble for a bit, and maybe he would stare blankly at the water pushing and pulling nearby, nod again, and smile benignly. Just let him be, I was told. He’s in a good place right now.
The heavy smell of Old Milwaukee’s Best mixed with the salt of both the ocean’s body and the men’s bodies.
Occasionally, someone would buy rum and coke for me. It made me feel special and loved, the same way I had felt when my mother had sliced an apple for me — like someone cared. They considered each other family, and I felt honored to be invited into their exclusive group. They called me Babe, and it felt like a badge of honor.
Babe was careless — she had curvy hips, a wild rose tattoo, a black fedora cocked over one eye when evening arrived. She drank Captain Morgan’s rum, listened to the Rolling Stones, and standing over a cooler of ice, she let the men get a long slow look at her ass.
I shot out of the gate and into Brooklyn, with a bang. To hell with the rest of world.
One of the vets was in a wheelchair, and his buddies would lift him and his chair onto The Rock each day, with casual ceremony. If we were a family, he was the grandfather — the paternal leader in the hierarchy. Looking as if his wheelchair had replaced a Harley, he wore a black, leather vest with an American flag pin on the lapel. His face was lined and darkly tanned under an unkempt salt and pepper beard.
Another man was a school bus driver. He was obviously second-in-command, the appointed father of the group — looking out for everyone but answerable to the veteran in the chair. The bus-driver had a girlfriend who was the only other female in regular attendance on The Rock. She was Puerto Rican, the mother of a small boy, and had a wide smile along with a tidy apartment tucked away in Brighton Beach.
One of the men had the street-version looks of a very young, unkempt Paul Newman. He was impossibly handsome — tall and lean, with blond curls, bright sea-green eyes, high cheekbones, and a smirk. I will call him Bobby but his nick-name was The Kid because he was the youngest of the bunch.
One day, Bobby asked me to go for a walk with him along the water. We walked and let our footprints wander in and out of the gentle slapping waves. I watched the scene from outside myself, approving of the setting and the storyline. It was straight out of a Harlequin romance.
Bobby carried a worn blanket. He stopped and arranged it in the sand and we folded ourselves onto it. Although I had been partying with the men on the rock for a couple of weeks, I had never been alone with Bobby until this moment.
He turned to me, brushed my hair behind my ear and said softly, and with intentional ceremony, Will you be my girl?
The question satisfied my heart’s desire for romance, although I felt unworthy. Why would this man — this older, beautiful, blond, green-eyed Adonis whose chest and arms glistened with the perfect tan — why would he pick me?
He was the most beautiful man I’d ever seen. At the beach, when he would walk up out of the water, droplets clung to his long lashes and he would smile at me with a full, slightly crooked grin, and white teeth. I was flat-chested and skinny and eight years younger than him. But I said yes, and thanked God, who must not have completely deserted me. How else could my hero have found me?
That Bobby was a twenty-two-year-old heroin user and an alcoholic who couldn’t keep a job, and spent most days passed out in the sun, seemed like messy and inconsequential details. He was gentle and was rescuing me. Every Breath You Take by the Police became our song.
The Kid-n-Babe appeared in white spray-paint above the Rock, on a large boulder facing the ocean.
Let’s put it another way — my capacity to know when I was in danger and to protect myself had been dismantled when I was a younger child. So, faced with this new world, the part of me that might have said RUN, didn’t kick in. My Catholic, hippie childhood led me toward the edge, not away from it.
Don’t judge. Have compassion. Love others. Say yes. Don’t say no. Love comes in all different forms. All of these things were refrains from my childhood. Bobby looked at me with his unblinking sea-green eyes and captured me easily.
He had a studio apartment and one day, he told me to come to a party. As far as I can recall, I was the only female in the room when I arrived.
This wasn’t unusual. Bobby put rum and coke in a plastic cup, handed it to me and then took me by the hand to lead me into the bathroom. The other men waved goodbye to us merrily.
Bobby pulled a red chiffon scarf out of his back pocket and placed it gently over the vanity light at the sink. I watched big white bubbles form as he poured green dish soap into the running water. He wanted us to take a bath together. He wanted me to take off my clothes. The fuzzy pink light, the fuzzy white bubbles, the fuzzy feeling in my head — none of it was real. I was Babe. I was in a movie about a girl from Kentucky, new to Brooklyn. Or I was a breathless virgin from my paperback novel.
I was drunk.
I dropped all my clothes on the floor in a pile. I tried not to look at Bobby. I looked around the bathroom like I was assessing its dimensions. Bobby stepped over the tub’s rounded edge and held out his hand for me — he was a prince escorting me into a carriage. He leaned against the back of the tub and positioned me between his legs, with my back against him. His hands roved my body and I tried to be still.
My body floated in the tub with this man who said I was his girl, and I rose silently up and out of my body, to a corner of the room where I could watch the action from a safe distance.
Bobby stood up, dripping water on the skinny, small girl in the tub. She kept her eyes down, and she blinked as the water fell on her face. Bobby reached across for the towel and pulled her out of the tub. He dried her off gently, seemingly with great care. He was happy, smiling — looking at the girl’s face intently, and trying to catch her eye. Moving the hair out of her face, and kissing her.
She took a piece of the towel and bent her face into it, rubbing, and Bobby chided her. That’s not how you dry your face! You’re supposed to blot it, like this. He lightly blotted her face the right way.
See!? I said to myself, from up in the corner of the room. He’s gentle, not mean. He loves her! Look how careful he is being with her.
Bobby put the thin, wet towel down on the floor neatly. The floor was cold. Bobby wanted me to look at him. I worried about the chiffon scarf over the light and whether it would catch on fire. I noticed that the bathroom floor was made of tiny tiles and that the molding where the tub met the floor was old and grey. I listened to the last of the water drain out of the tub. Glug, glug, glug.
We got dressed and walked out of the bathroom to applause. Lots of applause. They had all been waiting for this moment, just outside the room.
The Stones’ Beast of Burden was playing on the radio. I steadied myself with the countertop in the kitchen, and someone handed me another cup. My stomach hurt but I drank up like a good girl and then ran back to the damp bathroom to puke.
I came back again, wiping my mouth and drinking water now. Bobby looked at me indulgently.
Do you trust me? Now you’ll always be my Babe. Bobby whispered into my ear as the others looked on attentively.
I stood uncertainly, taking gulps from the tap water in my hand, and then looking around at the men who were my friends.
Do you trust me? He asked again.
Yes, I said.
My breath felt jagged. I was dizzy. I felt like I was drowning.
Bobby put his arm around the girl who was me, but also wasn’t me any longer, and walked her to the door. She walked home quietly, and alone. Bobby went back to the party to be the big shot.
The voice inside my head said, Stupid, fat cow. I had one very clear dismaying thought — I’d always heard that you never forget your first.
I felt the settling doom of the rest of my life, laid out for me in Technicolor. The rest of my life.
I took the story and I tucked it away.
I took the dirty bathroom floor, the glugs of the water in the tub, and the burn of rum in my throat, and stashed them away in a corner deep inside me where I would try to never look, again.
The men’s applause, their eyes trying to catch mine, the crooked window shade in the ratty apartment, and the casual arm that Bobby threw over my shoulder afterward. The smell of alcohol on his breath, the shuddering urgency to run and hunch over the toilet, and the taste of vomit — I took all of that and I put it away. Gone. I lost my virginity to Bobby. That was all I needed to remember.
I didn’t need to remember it was in a bathroom, at a party just for me, while others waited outside, and that I was only just barely fourteen years old and he was twenty-two. It was enough that I had lost my virginity to a man I thought of as my romantic hero. That was enough.
Got it? Got it. Done. Fine. Good.
The next day, Bobby grinned and told me that it’d been a good party. I viciously kicked the aching part of me, inside, and turned to the rum. Sting’s voice crooned tenderly from the boom-box, Every breath you take…. Bobby leaned down and kissed me. His warm salty, cigarette breath exhaled into my hair and over my neck.
You belong to me, he sang softly in my ear.
The memory of being Bobby’s best girl, his Babe, is all mixed up with other memories. Memories I can barely keep steady in my brain. The memories are hazy, and I like them that way. I would rather be Bobby’s girlfriend in my own narrative, but this waking up that happens when you’re in your forties and have spent decades in therapy, has brought new meaning to the phrase, best girl.
I turn slightly away from it in my head. It’s too painful to look directly at the sun. Don’t do it, says my inner protector. I like the haze — the way time smooths everything into a kind of comfortable horizon that I can look back over, from a distance.
Half of the vision is water and half is air. No land for miles, except the rock where I am standing.
Bobby bought me a silver charm necklace and added fifteen charms all at the same time, each supposed to signify a shared event. None of them had any significance at all. I bought him a Stetson hat. He loved that hat, and he looked great in it. I bought him a white gold rope chain to go with the Stetson.
I never said no to him. I never said stop. I never even asked for clarification of the rules. I watched him closely for indications of what he wanted and expected from me. And I did what he wanted, immersing myself in the comfort of the familiar self-hatred afterward, each time.
One morning, I got an early phone call. The Puerto Rican mother told me that Bobby was at her apartment, and I should come quickly. I walked into the kitchen where he was hunched over a table. The skin under one eye was blue-grey. There was a red split in his bottom lip, and a heavy, black pistol sitting on the Formica table.
He’d been shooting pool in a bar nearby, he explained. And he’d heard another man refer to me as a whore. She’s not a whore, she’s my girl, he told the other man.
Bobby demanded that the man take back the offensive word but he wouldn’t, and so they’d fought. Bobby planned to go back to the bar with the gun, in order to defend my honor. His fingers rubbed the dark metal gun sitting on the Formica between us.
I worked with my friend to dissuade Bobby from taking the gun back to the bar. I said it didn’t matter to me if some asshole in a bar said I was a whore. And then I walked back through the wet, misty morning, and I tried to figure out why he had a gun. It took twenty-five more years for me to think about the word whore.
Bobby already had a girlfriend — an older, loud, chesty woman who tolerated me. When Bobby’s girlfriend and I would cross paths, she laughed outright in my face. I thought she was pretty, and I wished she didn’t find me so humorous.
Bobby’s mother treated me with similar scorn the one time he brought me to her house. The kitchen was small and oily. I sat in the middle of the room at the wobbly table while Bobby rummaged around for something he’d come to get. His mother asked me a few pointed questions about high-school, looked me up and down and then walked out of the room.
There was not much I could truthfully share with my own parents. I swung from moment to moment, feeling icy and hard inside, watching myself.
My parents trusted the world to be good, and they trusted me to manage my life. They didn’t expect me to sidle up to a group of Vietnam Veterans, take drugs, or take orders from a heroin addict.
They became increasingly suspicious but their disappointment and anger held no real weight for me. I was in ice water, sinking fast, and my parents were on a boat yelling at me about smoking cigarettes.
Bobby and I had a big fight. He flung his arm at me, catching me in the face. I lost my balance and I fell on the rocks by the beach, biting a big chunk of concrete when I landed. I don’t remember why we were fighting. We walked back toward my apartment — he stormed and I trotted along beside him like he was holding a leash. I held my mouth, feeling the strange new outline of my front tooth. Along the way, he got angry again and he ripped off the chain I’d given him and threw it in the gutter.
My heart felt tender, watching his dramatic action. I thought his anger meant he loved me. Probably, it meant I owed him money.
More than being his best girl, or his prized possession, I had become what I like to think of as, a hand-me-down-girl. He shared me with his close inner circle, the same way someone passes along clothes they loved wearing but are done with for the time being. That’s all, I say to myself.
I try to comfort myself with this way of looking at it. Somehow, it feels a little better to think of it as sharing.
But somehow, I don’t think that having me as his best girl was about the money, so much as it was about the way it positioned him inside himself.
I think he liked to stand outside himself and look back, also. I think he liked a view of himself as a man who could command a young girl.
And even though I knew this at least a little bit, even then, I went along with it. Because I was fourteen, and because there was nothing more beautiful to me than Bobby when he was stoned and happy.
He would pull me down on his lap, as he sat sideways in one of the booths at Angelo’s Pizza Place, and tell me he would always love me — I would always be his girl. Although most of the time, my inner life felt random and liquid — with no solid place to stand — in those moment, I felt singularly special.
During that time period, I began dreaming that I was a man — a solitary male with a big gun in a wrecked urban landscape. There had been years of war, and the layers of debris told the story. A city off in the distance was still standing, but I was in rubble. Bricks and torn concrete with steel rebar. Twisted and exposed fragments of what had once been other people’s homes.
There were shadowy figures darting skillfully in and out of my view, shooting at me. I was an expert at war, and I had powerful weapons and good aim. I had the spectacular muscles and the briny smell of a soldier who’d seen years of ceaseless combat. I was an expert, but my heart pounded with fear.
I had this dream over and over. I was someone else entirely — an athletic, powerful and muscled soldier. My breath felt sour in my mouth, the sweat dripped into my eyes as I found my target. I could smell a rotting rat corpse at my feet. I jumped and ran, agilely navigating as I took aim with a large automatic weapon. Sometimes I crouched down, hiding — hearing my breath and feeling my heart beating wildly in my chest.
I would wake up exhausted from the war. It felt like time travel. Not like dreaming.
Bobby died of a heroin overdose years later, when I was far away from Brooklyn and in a whole other life. There is no surprise to his death.
I have tried to feel anger at him, at his manipulations and the many ways he added to the distortions of my childhood.
But mostly, I feel sorrow and fear when I think back to those days. I feel sorrow for the many ways I was taken advantage of in my youth. I feel fear again, easily, like a shock when I occasionally see a face that looks like Bobby. The fear does not leave me as quickly as the sorrow.
The fear is less about Bobby than it is about my capacity to go places that damage me.
The fear lingers like broken glass, glittering in the night at odd hours. It used to wake me up. Not anymore. Now, I simply look at it steadfastly, knowing it is there, knowing that if I keep following this path of “looking and learning,” “telling and showing,” “sharing and being true to myself and other victims,” I will eventually live into a not-that-distant-future day where I never even consider the possibility of going someplace that will damage me.
Sometimes, I believe I am completely healed. I will be sitting by the lake watching the curving water around a duck. Sitting in the Colorado sun, so far away from Brooklyn in the early 1980's, I say to myself, You are over all that! You have survived! March forward!
I very rarely dream of combat.
I have a psychiatrist who specializes in trauma. She has helped me wake up and find my footing in the present. I have another tattoo. It is a line from a song, sewn into my flesh in my own handwriting, across my abdomen. It reads — half of me is ocean, half of me is sky.
I stand still, and listen for the sounds of the birds. I soak up sun. I feed my endorphins. I do not talk about being the girl of a small-time pimp in Brooklyn.
I have labored my way through this story, finally. I avoided it for so long! It is just a chapter, now, and I can leave it where it belongs — not at the beginning of the book, not at the end. Just a chapter in the middle.
I give it a tiny shove into the world, and watch it float away from me — watch it get smaller and smaller on the horizon, and feel the land of the present under me. Solid. Like a rock.