When I looked up again, I saw tears in my father's eyes. And I knew he felt it, too. We each had an innate understanding of how much this dance meant. This one moment seemed to have more than made up for all the disappointments, all the betrayals, and all the broken promises. I held on to this experience tightly, in the hope that I could call on the memory of it later. I wanted to be able to recall the true nature of this precious man who just by taking a few steps with me had lifted me up and showed his love for me so dearly.
Even after he sent me sprawling to the floor, I would remember this moment. And I would remember it again later, when another man I loved so much did the same.
I slept that night with my hand to my cheek and my wounded heart pressed to my ratty old stuffed rabbit. Someday I will get out, I promised myself. Please, God, let it be soon.
Although MCDS had been around for twenty-five years, it turns out that I was the first student ever to be expelled from it. Rumors about what I'd done spread rapidly. My mother swears that the real reason for my expulsion was the school's inability to cope with my severe dyslexia, but that's not what the story was on the street. Everyone in Marin seemed to have heard about it. I saw the looks and heard the whispers. Privately, I thought there was only one way I could survive-and that was to give up. I decided that I was damaged goods, untouchable and unsalvageable. I saw it as a plain and simple truth, like a fact you find in a math book. I no longer fretted over it. Once in a while, a sharp pang of sadness would seize me, but for the most part I was filled with a steely resignation, just as I'd been whenever a teacher would place a test in front of me. No answer of mine ever fit in the endless columns of check boxes. I already knew that I would fail, so with some disconnected sense of duty I made it look as if I'd tried, randomly filling in those dots and creating patterns that zigzagged in all directions. Still, a faint hope lingered that by some stroke of luck I might just get a few right. But I rarely passed.
My parents laid down the law with me. After the MCDS debacle, I would be going to Kent Middle School, the county's largest public junior high. My life was to be focused solely on education, not on socializing. Everyone I knew from MCDS was off-limits, and my phone privileges were suspended indefinitely as well. Not that I had many friends from there that I wanted to keep. Secretly I was happy to be moving on, glad to make a clean break from everyone and everything. It was then, too, that my parents sent me to see my first therapist, Dr. Nathalie O'Bourne. Twice a week for an hour, her office was the one refuge I had from the world and my growing depression. But despite even Dr. O's help, I was withdrawing quickly, distancing myself from my family, friends, and life itself. I felt like a snail that had just had salt poured all over it. I wanted the pain to stop, and if receding into my shell did the trick, then so be it.
I may not have been the only girl to feel neglected or to struggle with dyslexia or the aftermath of sexual assault, but I was the only one I knew of. At Kent I did enough to get by. At home, like so many middle children, I found it easy to disappear. Alcohol was one comfort. Increasingly, boys were another. Until I moved beyond boys.
I had just turned fourteen when I met Elliott. He was working a birthday party at which I was a guest. His family owned a novelty gift store called Balloon Dreams, and he drove the company van. I still remember the image of balloons painted on the side and the cheery slogan promising a personalized delivery. Lots of girls had the hots for him: He was wiry, with dark, curly hair, a dead ringer for INXS's Michael Hutchence, a resemblance he made every effort to exploit. He was also thirty years old.
When Elliott left the party to return to his van, I followed and stopped him with a question: "Got a cigarette?"
He turned, cocked his head to one side. Squinted at me and asked, "How old are you?"
"Sixteen," I lied. But as the blood rushed to my cheeks, exposing my lie, I decided to come clean. "Fourteen, really." I shrugged, letting my shoulders fall dramatically. And waited.
Elliott just looked at me. His gaze made my heart lurch and my skin grow warmer. No other girl my age I knew of would have followed Elliott like that. But I was bolder. By now I knew the allure I had. I might not have been confident in other areas of my life, but my desirability was rising on a very short list of the things I could trust. "Getting Elliott" was now my project. I knew that our age difference made us off-limits to each other. In my parents 'eyes, my having a relationship with a male of any age was unacceptable. While that made the challenge more appealing, it was still terrifying.
As we stared at each other, I slowly fingered the unicorn medallion that hung around my neck on a thin silver chain, twirling it, then lifting it to my lips. I knew that the ball remained in my court. So I pressed: "What about that cigarette?"
I could see he was intrigued. More than intrigued, he was fascinated. But also appalled and unnerved. I had him believing that I knew what I wanted-and that what I wanted was dangerous. Taboo. Forbidden. Pulling a pack of Marlboro Reds from his back pocket, he expertly shook one to the surface and held it out for me. Without fumbling, I took the cigarette, placing it between my teeth, all the while continuing to hold his gaze. I thought of Debra Winger in Urban Cowboy and waited for my man to light me up.
"I do not get something," Elliott said, having lit my cigarette. "Here you are at this party full of kids. But you're obviously not like them, are you?"
I smiled, silently urging him on.
"So you see me, and when you should be enjoying birthday cake and Pin the Tail on the Donkey, you follow me out here. Could not just be for a cigarette, huh?"
I had him. I grinned, leaning back on the hood of the van, turning my gaze skyward, letting the rays of sun splash across me, conscious of how I hoped I looked. I knew I still had to play another move. The only way I could see Elliott would be if I got his number; it would be a disaster if he called my house and one of my parents answered. I raised my head, meeting his eyes, and in a steady voice asked him for it. He tossed his cigarette away and scribbled it on the inside cover of a matchbook, pressing it into my ready little palm. As coy as could be, I waved at him, then walked back into the house, knowing that his eyes were on my ass the entire time.
Under my parents 'strict curfew, there was only one time I could see Elliott: in the middle of the night. We developed a routine. I would sneak out of the house after everyone was asleep and meet him, returning home before dawn without fail. I needed Elliott and the freedom and excitement he represented, more than I needed sleep. And night after night, week after week, I got away with it.
I had carefully planned rituals to ensure my safe escape from the house. I always waited until after midnight, when the: 00 on my digital clock radio flipped to: 01 and P.M. changed to A.M. I'd climb out of my bunk, still wearing the street clothes I'd worn to bed. Most nights the outfit was the same: tight jeans and a sweatshirt with Mickey Mouse on the front. The jeans were my stab at looking sexy, the sweatshirt my threadbare attachment to childhood. Even at fourteen I could sense the conflict between these two aspects of myself-the confident sexuality I was trying to display and the innocent girlishness that was still very much a part of who I was.
I would arrange my pillows into the shape of a slumbering body and pull the covers up over them. I'd tiptoe to the window, straining to hear if anything was amiss. I'd open it just wide enough to squeeze my slender body through, and then I'd drop a few feet to the ground, leaving the window slightly ajar for my return. At this point I'd always pause and listen once more to be sure that the thud of my landing had not roused my parents or my sister. It never did.
It was not so much where I was going, or even who I was going to see, that gave me such a rush. What I loved most about these escapes was the game, the art, the science, and yes, the experience of just setting myself free. To make it all that much more exciting, I'd pretend I was a princess narrowly slipping through the clutches of evil captors, risking death if I were to be caught. The thrill was tremendous. Once I was in the clear, I'd be off and running.
Elliott and I always met at the same place: a 76 station on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, less than a mile down the hill from my house. I did not dare let him drive any closer for fear that a neighbor might see us. The gas station was the nearest safe place. And at the end of our nights together, it was at the 76 that Elliott would leave me to climb back up the hill and into my house alone.
One unforgettable night I reached Elliott's car just before twelve-thirty. When I stood at the door of the old Toyota Supra (he was not forced to drive the family delivery van all the time!), I found him fast asleep with the driver's seat fully reclined. The engine was running, the stereo was pumping. The car shook from the pulsating bass that rumbled through his prized speakers. And the backseat was filled with helium balloons, as it so often was. The balloons seemed to cradle Elliott's head and torso as he lay there, oblivious to my insistent rap on the window. I figured out what had happened pretty quickly. Elliott usually passed the hours waiting for me by getting drunk and high; by the time I made it to him most nights, he was already loaded. But this time he was passed out cold. A half-smoked joint in a roach clip sat in the ashtray.
I pounded on the window with a closed fist. No response. I pushed up and down on the hood of the Supra, trying to rock the car more than the bass already was. Still nothing. I was at a loss. I knew from experience that the cops would drive by every so often; I needed the shelter of being inside the car, and soon. And it was not only the cops I sought shelter from-the late hour brought with it all kinds of fears.
Headlights blinded me momentarily as a huge gasoline delivery truck slowly pulled into the station. It was not unusual for them to come by at this time of night, but I felt afraid, exposed, still very much left out in the cold even though my boyfriend was only inches from me. I watched the truck's cab as the engine shut down, seeing only the red ember of a cigarette inside. I turned back to Elliott's window, hitting it as hard as I could, bruising my knuckles in the process. Still nothing.
The driver of the truck climbed out of the cab and began walking slowly toward me. He was tall and lean, wearing jeans and cowboy boots and a T-shirt that read COCA-INE written in Coca-Cola script. He was older than Elliott, and I sensed by his approach that he was not going to leave me alone.
"Whatcha doing there, young lady?" He slurred his words as if he'd been drinking.
"Just waiting for my boyfriend," I replied. As soon as I said that, I realized how stupid it sounded.
Cowboy looked past me, into the driver's seat. "Yeah. Seems your boy's out like a light. Stone-cold stoned." His expression changed from feigned concern to an unmistakable leer. He moved closer. I backed away, praying for Elliott to wake up.
Just then my prayers were answered. I heard the door to the Supra open and a sudden burst of music pour forth from within the car. I only half turned to face my boyfriend, not wanting to take my eyes off the trucker.
"What's up, girl?" Elliott asked, making eye contact with me, trying to assess the situation as quickly as he could. "What's going on here?"
I moved to get behind him, and instinctively Elliott stepped forward as if to shield me from harm's way. There was something impressive about his fearlessness, something that made me want to curl up in his lap and wrap my arms around his strong neck. He was everything my father was not: assertive, defiant, brave, protective. But I could see Elliott's temper rising by the second. I already knew his reputation for violence, and though I'd not yet been one of his targets, I'd seen him throw some wicked punches that had knocked even sizable men out cold.
Cowboy trucker stood his ground. "Your girl was trying to get into that car of yours. Just making sure she was all right. Strange to be out at this hour, such a young lady and all. And strange she could not wake you either."
"I do not see how that's any of your fucking business," Elliott snarled, the words coming out slowly and rising with emphasis as he at first walked toward the trucker and then broke into a run, almost charging him.
In a split second, I saw a flurry of movement as the trucker reached behind his back and whipped something shiny from his waistband, something that stopped Elliott dead in his tracks. Cowboy pointed a .357 Magnum right at Elliott's forehead, cocking the gun.
"Step the fuck back, boy. You do not want to come any closer."
I could see the wheels turn in Elliott's head. I prayed frantically, silently, Just step back, Elliott, step back. But I could see that he was lost to his rage and his toxic pride. Drawing himself up tall, he stared straight at the trucker and spit.
"Go for it, motherfucker."
It was my first time seeing a man I loved facing death. It would not be the last either. Quicker than I knew I could move, and without any hesitation, I ran in between Elliott and the gun, turning to face him.
"Elliott, step back. Just do it." At that moment I could hear my voice, strong and sure, a voice I had not exercised with Chad or my family or anyone else, for that matter. Inches from a gun pointed at the back of my head, I had found it. And with it I felt how wildly out of control my whole situation had become. I was fourteen years old. It was nearly one in the morning on a school night, and I was standing between my boyfriend and a deadly weapon. It was crazy. And more than that, it was downright terrifying. So near death, I was alive.
I spoke again. "Elliott, step back. Get in the car. Let's just go." I turned to the cowboy, face-to-face with the gun, my eyes now pleading with his. I had always known how to rescue, fix, or manipulate people and circumstances. But this expertise was definitely being put to the test.
I heard Elliott exhale behind me, trying to right himself, weighing the options. "Fuck it," he said, and with that I could feel my insides sag in relief. I kept my eyes trained on the cowboy until I heard the driver's-side door of the Toyota open and close. I gave the trucker the most thankful smile I could manage and backed quickly toward the Supra, sliding into my seat and slamming the door once inside. Elliott revved the engine and peeled out of the lot.
As we hit the boulevard, he rolled down his window and screamed, "Motherfucker!" I moaned in fear, turning to look behind me. The trucker stood framed in the orange glow of the mammoth 76 globe. As we tore off down Sir Francis Drake, Cowboy raised his gun and fired a single bullet straight into the sky. That should have been my warning shot. It was not.
My last night out with Elliott came a few months later, the night before my eighth-grade graduation. I followed the same routine that had worked for me so often before. After the episode with the trucker, I had decided that I needed to get to Elliott earlier in the evening so he had less of a chance to drink and smoke himself into a stupor. Instead of meeting him at midnight, I began sneaking out nearly an hour before that. My new magic time became 11:07 P.M. These numbers proved reliably lucky every time.
Some of my fellow eighth-graders at Kent were holding a pregraduation party at Muir Beach that night. I knew better than to ask my parents for permission to go. Elliott had promised to take me, and I suspected that it would be raging until well past midnight. I found him at the 76 station as always; he wanted to keep meeting there, even if it meant risking another confrontation with the trucker. Thankfully, we never saw that cowboy again.
As soon as I climbed into the Supra, Elliott handed me a beer. We chugged the better part of a six-pack as we drove over the windy roads to the beach. When we got there, I was relieved to see a bonfire; the party was not over yet. I was already very tipsy, and as soon as we stopped, I climbed onto the roof of the car, yelling and signaling to my friends. I began to do a little provocative dance, swiveling my hips, the beer easily in my grasp as I raised my arms over my head. Suddenly I was in a very real spotlight. Flashing red lights followed a second later. The unmistakable sound of a police car loudspeaker crackled.
"Get off the car, ma'am. Now."
I thought about making a run for it but realized the futility in that idea almost instantly. I was caught. I could barely climb off the Toyota's roof at that point. Elliott staggered out of the car, and before I knew what was happening, he charged the cops, two of whom drew their guns and ordered him to the ground. Fortunately, he obeyed and was quickly handcuffed.
There was more than one police car, and in no time at all another cop was at my side. He asked me for identification. I had none.
"How old are you?"
"Old enough," I said smartly. He was not impressed.
Elliott and I were taken back to the station in separate cars. My parents were called. A young officer with a bushy mustache spoke to my sleep-addled mother, who apparently insisted that I was still in my bed.
"Ma'am, I apologize, but we do in fact have your daughter here with us. You need to come pick her up. Right now." The officer looked at me as he spoke. I squirmed under the bright fluorescent lights. Somewhere Elliott was being interrogated. I silently hoped he was not getting himself into more trouble. I could guess what the cops thought of a thirty-year-old man caught in the middle of the night partying with a fourteen-year-old girl.
The mustachioed one hung up the phone with my mom. "Your mother says you have graduation tomorrow," he said, shaking his head. "Uh, I guess make that later today, huh?"
I shrugged. "Yeah." I stared at the clock above the cop's desk-4: 25 A.M.
My father arrived angrier than I'd ever seen him before. He'd been to jails many times as a lawyer visiting his clients. But he'd never had to release his daughter from one, until now. He walked past without even looking at me.
The officer behind the desk handed him some papers. "If you'll sign here, Mr. Otis, you'll be free to take your daughter. But we need you to decide if you want to press charges against the man she was with."
My father looked taken aback. "Charges for what, Officer?"
The cop hesitated, clearing his throat awkwardly. "Well, sir, for... Um, statutory rape."
Great. I'd only said Elliott was my boyfriend. God knows what Elliott had told them. He was foolhardy enough to tell them the truth.
My father went white. With his fists clenched at his sides, he slowly turned toward me, cocked his head, and looked me right in the eyes. I did not want to meet his gaze, but I could not help it. We stared at each other for a moment.
"No. That will not be necessary."
Relief. Then confusion. Why the hell not, Daddy? I wondered. Do not want the family reputation spoiled any more than it already is? I stood quietly looking at him. Searching for an answer.
My father turned back to the cop. "Just tell that motherfucker if he comes anywhere near my daughter again, he'll have a shit storm to deal with."
My father signed the papers and left. He did not wait for me. He walked briskly to the car, got in, and started the motor.
Tears rolled down my cheeks as I slowly followed him. The air remained thick with silence the whole drive back.
The sun was rising as we arrived home. My father shut off the engine and spoke to me for the first time.
"Get yourself washed up for graduation. I never want to speak of this again. You will graduate, and then you will be grounded. The entire summer."
I sat staring straight ahead, forcing myself not to sob.
Then he opened his door, put one foot out, and turned back to me. "And by the way, kid, you got off easy." He walked into the house, slamming the door behind him.
I was crushed. As inadequate as his response had been, he'd done the best he could do with the tools he'd been given. And who's to say which was greater: his disappointment in me or my pain at having disappointed him once again.
A few bleary hours later, I sat with my classmates in the school gym as we graduated from Adeline E. Kent Middle School. On our drive to and from the ceremony, my parents said nothing about what had happened. Simply one more denial in a long string of them.
Just as perplexing was the sight of Elliott standing defiantly in the doorway staring at me, a faint smile on his lips as I walked across the stage to receive my diploma. I never saw or spoke to him again after that day.
The summer of 1983 was a hard one. My parents and I barely spoke. I had already been grounded, so there were not many more privileges they could deprive me of. Clearly they were running out of ways to control me. Hoping that another private school might do the trick, they enrolled me in Marin Academy in nearby San Rafael.
Academically, it did not matter much if I was there or at any other private school. But there was one difference that did matter to me. I started as a freshman at Marin Academy with a boyfriend. And not a boyfriend like Elliott either. This boyfriend was someone I could see in the daylight hours. Scott Hamilton Chase was everything Elliott was not. He was bright and athletic, and he came from a well-known family in the community. He was heading into his junior year at Branson, Marin Academy's elite rival in nearby Ross. Scott was also handsome, charming, and age-appropriate. Miraculously, even my parents approved of him.
I met Scott at one of my sister's parties just before the start of my freshman year. We bonded over our mutual love of ska music. My favorite album that summer was the English Beat's Special Beat Service; Scott was into another English group, too, called Madness. He rode a Vespa, the signature ride of all the cool kids. We quickly became a couple. For the first time, I was allowed to date openly. My parents were so relieved that I was seeing someone still in high school and someone from a well-to-do family that they agreed to relax some of the restrictions they'd imposed on me at the start of the summer.
I loved Scott, and I loved the attention we got as a couple. But he was also a mystery to me. He kept a lot hidden behind his popular, happy-go-lucky persona. One thing I did find out quickly: Scott used a lot of drugs, even more than Elliott. I was not always sure if it was because of or despite being high on cocaine that he managed to make it through his rigorous classes and varsity sports so successfully. He was a golden boy who got away with everything. Or so we all thought.
I'd been in high school less than two weeks when Scott showed up at Marin Academy unexpectedly one afternoon. I was on the track for PE when I heard him calling my name. As I walked over to him, I saw that he was sweating profusely. A thick, white, foamy paste caked the sides of his mouth. His eyes were wild and unfocused. He grabbed me by the hand and led me away, his grip damp and hot.
Scott tried to speak, but nothing came out. His mouth moved but could only form shapes around a disobedient tongue. There was a silent, desperate exchange between us, with me knowing he was in trouble yet also knowing I was completely in over my head. I had no idea what to do. He was high, higher than I'd ever seen him. Much too high.
My hand reached up to touch his forehead. I gently wiped the trickling sweat from it, pressing the moisture into my now-dampened sweatshirt. He leaned back against a redwood tree, staring off into space, his body shaking.
"Are you okay, Scott?" It was all I could get out, the answer obvious before the question was asked.
He grabbed me with a trembling hand, his eyes briefly focused. In a flat and cold yet clear voice, he got out one sentence: "I lost my soccer match."
And with that, Scott ran, breaking into a sprint, heading for home. I took his place against the redwood tree, watching as he disappeared. I could have run after him. I could have told someone. I could have seen the obvious warning signs. But he had not been my boyfriend for long. I did not know him as well as I had wanted. And it was just a soccer game, I reasoned.
After school I hung out with a few friends before heading to the bus stop. It was nearly seven; the sun was starting to set as I took my seat on the plastic bench and waited. I had not been sitting for more than a minute when instead of a yellow school bus I saw my mother's old yellow Volvo approach. Both my parents were inside. My first reaction was pleasure at the thought that they'd come to pick me up. My second was confusion. My mother and father were very rarely in the same car these days unless they had to be. I stood up and walked toward them. I saw my mother's expression, her mouth pulled tight, her hand inexplicably gripping my father's, her knuckles white. I took a step back, inhaling sharply, knowing that news I did not want to hear was coming.
My father leaned over toward me, his voice a single crackling whisper.
I remember my body beginning to shake as my insides unraveled. The rest was a blur: my mother's mouth moving, my dad lifting me in his arms, placing me gently into the car, helping me out again when we arrived home, and carrying me to my room, where only my bunk bed, a heating pad, and my stuffed rabbit consoled me.
When Scott left me that day, he ran straight home. After eating a chocolate chip cookie with his mother and sister, he went up to his room and wrote a note on his monogrammed Ralph Lauren stationery. He then took a handgun from his father's dresser and shot himself in the head. He had died instantly.
The note he left contained messages for his parents and his sister, but it was addressed to me. He had signed his name and added in parentheses, "See you later, maybe." The police showed it to me, hoping I could shed some light on what Scott had been thinking and doing in his final hours. But I had no explanation to give them. We'd been together barely a month, this beautiful, funny, golden sixteen-year-old boy and I. What I did know was that he had come to me seeking my help that afternoon, but whatever it was that he'd needed from me I clearly had not been able to give him. I also knew that on one occasion before this I'd been capable of standing squarely between Elliott and a gun, yet I could not do the same for Scott. In my mind and heart, I felt partly responsible for saving one life and equally responsible for not saving another.
I would never let that happen again.
Soon it seemed as if everyone in the county knew that Scott's note had been addressed to me. Some people were sympathetic, others judgmental, and of course there were those who just gossiped behind my back. Two weeks into my high-school career, I was desperate to get out of a very unwelcome spotlight. Because of the circumstances of Scott's death, a lot of kids at Branson and Marin Academy pledged never to do cocaine again. I, on the other hand, could not take that pledge. Scott was gone. The new friends I'd made through him were gone, too. But the impressive stash of coke that Scott had given to me was not. And in the days and weeks after his suicide, I slowly but steadily made my way through his supply.
One blustery late-September afternoon, desperate to get off campus, I invited an older fellow student to share a few lines with me. We drove her car to a tree-lined street above the school and parked under an old oak stand. Using her open glove compartment as a makeshift table, I cut two long lines of coke, pulled out a straw, and snorted. As I lifted my head, I came face-to-face with a cop, who was staring straight through the passenger's-side window. I was busted again.
It was in everyone's best interest to keep the misdeeds of the town's rich kids out of the courts and the newspapers. So rather than arresting us, the cops drove us back down to campus and turned us over to the headmaster.
Marin Academy was a "progressive" school. Rather than dismissing me in private, I recall the administration gathering the student body together the next day to settle my punishment. I was made to stand at a podium in the auditorium before my classmates as they voted to expel me. The results were not even close. My career at Marin Academy ended nearly unanimously, less than a month after it began.
By the start of the ninth grade, my formal education was over. At this point I was numb. Scott's suicide, my guilt, and my public scapegoating for his death had done more than enough damage. Being kicked out of my second private school in three years seemed to have hardly made an impact on me. (Of course, now I know how far from the truth that statement really is!) I was so overwhelmed by the drama and the disasters that I did not even react when my parents told me they were sending me away.
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