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Bluffs & Valleys

Janet Dogget

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I.

It is autumn and the light shines in patches on the cracked sidewalk of my childhood neighborhood. I am six years old, thin, waif-like and blonde. I am a piece of paper blown about by the wind, skipping lines on the walk, squinting up at golden leaves that spark the sky. I spy something buff-colored, tiny and featherless on the edge of the grass, nestled in the dirt. It has eyes, a beak, transparent skin that barely hides fragile bones beneath. Gently, I unfurl my fingers and lay a hand just atop its breast and feel a pulsating warmth rising to meet me. I alight and back away; I turn and run to the house screaming, “I need a shoebox, a SHOEBOX!” Back outside and with care I scoop the smooth wonder up and lay it deep within the box and carry it home. My prize. Mine.

II.

Everything is drenched. The long shards of dark green grass shimmer. We return from vacation and as our garage door opens, we find that our momma cat has given birth to ten,  12, or maybe 14 kittens. But the kittens are sick and some of them are dying. Their soft spotted heads are bent; their tongues show just so. We see the mother with her long white coat take the kittens one at a time by the throat and carry them off in the yard, to the glistening grass, an early grave. I am a child but age is indeterminate for the job at hand. I’m handed a thick black trash bag that is bigger than I am and bigger than the blood I imagine seeping through the soles of my pristine white tennis shoes. I step carefully through the wet grass, looking for dead cats.

III.

I’m in first grade. There is a boy in my class whose name comes immediately after mine in the alphabet. When the teacher calls roll, his name sounds like a dirty word sprung from rotten teeth. He with his dark-blonde, bowl-cut hair sits behind me and always sits too close. He calls to me at recess; I pretend that I’m deaf and then I sprint across the barren brown landscape that is our playground. I jump a broken wooden balance beam, scurry under metal bars with blue paint peeling and scrape my knee while swarming into one of the five concrete tunnels that line the chain link fence of the schoolyard. I can’t breathe. My knee is oozing blood that quickly turns brown and gritty. As I drop my head to rest, he appears at the end of the tunnel, his round face a gray silhouette, his grin signaling my impending doom. Later, I screw up the courage to tell my teacher, who, upon hearing of my unfortunate circumstance, belly-laughs so loud that two teachers on either side of our classroom come to join her, to laugh with her. I spend the rest of the year hiding from the boy whose kisses sting like saltwater on my seven-year-old chapped lips.

IV.

I am nine or eleven – maybe even twelve – and I’m at my aunt’s horse ranch. We are allowed to choose the animal we want to ride. I choose a wise-looking spotted one. I choose this one, though, because I imagine him calling to me. I stroke his velvet nose and offer him a carrot from my open palm. Later I ride him bareback and feel his power grow underneath me as we move across the countryside, the ground a mere blur as we travel.  Soon, I sense a stirring nearby. We stop suddenly and see another horse – a dark horse – racing toward the barbed wire fence that outlines my aunt’s property. My aunt stands just behind the spooked horse on a bluff, waving her arms frantically, her mouth making a perfect “O.” I blink and then the horse is down, sliced through with wire; everything is painted red. My aunt thrusts her hand into the warm pocket of horseflesh and pulls out a pulsating artery. With another hand, she feels about in her blue jean pocket and grasps a paper clip. A simple machine. Between bursts of frothy blood, she clips the offending vessel. I lay down on my horse, the spotted one. He calls to me. I pet his velvet nose.

V.

I am twelve. We are playing tennis in the street and the yellow balls burst forth from the asphalt like stars painted with a big-fisted yellow crayon. They suck and pop back and forth between Yvonne and me until a boy crosses the street, catching one in his fist, raising it high in the air. He isn’t just any boy. He is THE boy. THE boy that we all like because he is nice, smart, and cute. He angles towards me and grins, showing his bottom tooth that sticks out and makes his face, perfectly beguiling. He is the epitome of young love. He is a sixth-grade catch. “Race you to the tree house,” he says, and like a streak, he’s off. Yvonne and I hesitate, and in that moment we see her younger and decidedly more attractive sister heading us off for the tree house and the boy. Yvonne grabs her sister’s long brown pigtails and throws her down on the pavement, never minding that this leaves her sister’s left cheek scraped and bleeding. She runs home crying. We make our way to the backyard and climb the tree, feet-over-fists, to get to that boy. Now seated comfortably, the three of us talk about school parties, homework, parents and siblings; the air around us is electrified. I’m sure it is Yvonne that he likes. She is blonde and bony, a ballet dancer, always poised, like a jewelry box doll. Shiny and new. Personified innocence. But Yvonne is sure that he likes me. She has said that her nose is too big and crooked, that at least I have boobs and wear a bra, that I have darker skin and silky blue eyes. She says my hips move when I walk. These things count with the boys, Yvonne has told me. But for now, we sit triangulated, the boy, a straight up-and-down girl, and a curvy girl. Darkness falls and the boy takes my hand. Yvonne looks away. He leans forward and I can smell toothpaste and soap. His lips brush mine. The softness catches me off guard and I giggle. I am twelve.

VI.

I am thirteen, I'm looking in the mirror in the tiny bathroom at the skating rink, spraying clouds of ozone-depleting Hair Net to plaster my ‘80s style “wings” to the side of my head. I’m wearing my flowered sear-sucker shirt with short puffy sleeves, my dark blue, bell-bottom Calvin Klein jeans that are both tight enough to zip while lying down and long enough to cover the tops of my new white roller skates. I feel the coolness of my white patent leather belt as I buckle it against the palm of my hand. I feel the pulse of the disco music as I skate side-by-side with my first true love: John. He is seventeen, a high school dropout and drug addict, and I am so young and pitiful, beautiful, untouched. The me I was then is small and blurry and keeps fading over time. But some of the moments spent with my young boyfriend stand forever at the forefront of my mind. It is a perfect summer day – a Saturday – and we drive to the hill country to visit his older brother. We make love on the bed in a one-room shack. It is the second time for both of us. I remember wanting to climb inside his skin. I am fascinated by the aftermath of our love-making pooling on my flat, unmarked belly. I swirl it with my index finger as the sunbeam strikes it and makes it eerily incandescent. It glows. I watch John wash himself in the bathroom. He has long golden hair, a muscular back, a swimmer’s body. He is a pyramid. That same day, a bit later, we go outside the cabin, down by a stream and John carves our initials in a towering oak, a tree whose markings seem to scream, “We are here!”

VII.

I am twenty-six, living on my own in Galveston, Texas, and completely enclosed in a gray metal suit of armor against would-be lovers. After having too many dreadful experiences with men, I decide to simply enjoy the company of a few good girlfriends. I am at a jazz club, carrying a dirty martini in one hand and swaying to the music. It is after work on the night before Thanksgiving. The world is open and full of possibilities. I meet a guy named Ricky. He hands me his business card, all white and sharp and flat. It matches his three-piece suit and winning smile. My breastplate quickly falls apart as he whisks me around the dance floor time and again throughout the evening. The club closes at 2 a.m. and a friend drops me off at my apartment by the seashore shortly thereafter. From the bay windows in my one-room dwelling you can see the ocean, the waves shining and splashing beneath the full moon. You can see the water’s depth in the dusky glow. I kick off my heels, take two steps towards the bedroom and hear a quick staccato knock at the door. It is Ricky asking if he can come in. I say yes because I always say yes. He is upper-middle-class, still wearing that suit and that winning smile. His business card is still in my jacket pocket. He is someone you say yes to. We talk, laugh and listen to jazz music. Finally, I cross the room to check on the Thanksgiving turkey I am cooking. When I come back into the living room, he encircles my neck with his arm and pulls my head to his. He mashes his face to mine so hard that when he kisses me, he bites my lip. I taste metallic copper blood mixing with my saliva. When I try to pull back, he tears at my hair; his tongue probes deeper.  I gag.

We are the same size and about the same weight, but he overpowers me. You’ve been a tease all night, he says. Wearing a short skirt, dancing the way you do, he says. He says he is going to get what he came for. He pulls a small, toy-like gun from the back of his pants and pushes me into the bedroom and onto the tightly made bed. I fight back. I kick him with my bare feet in the head and face. He strikes me in the temple with the gun.

From here, the images of that night fade and blur like an old photo album that has been thrown in the wash. But I do clearly remember his hairy belly lapping over me, and him holding my throat while forcing my too-tiny mouth onto his erection. I felt as if I were choking, as if I couldn’t breathe. I felt, too, at times like I was being crushed by an elephant and then tortured with a searing hot cattle prod. The whole event was animalistic. The smell of semen suddenly was disgusting.

All strength and power were sapped from me like a maple tree in Vermont during sugaring.  I couldn’t grasp the fact that I had no control over the situation. I kept thinking about that book title, When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” I wondered where that book was. I also wondered where all the neighbors were. I couldn’t assimilate the information. What is happening to me? I’m being raped? There must have been tears and screams among the blood and bruises, but I only remember hearing his heaving against the silence and seeing single drops of sweat ball up and then drop one by one between my breasts. In the wee morning hours, he sat on the floor against the bedroom wall, gun in hand, and asked for money for a cab. He told me not to call the police until he had left. I gave him all the money I had. I called a cab.

Walking through the apartment with the police later, I tried to figure out who had fought there. The bathroom door stood off its hinges. The bed was broken, and a chair was sideways, too. The turkey that had been in the oven all night was now the consistency of jerky. I paused by the bathroom mirror and realized I could no longer see myself. I had disappeared. I was now a mere jumble of body parts: a frizz of blonde hair, the sloping shoulders of an old man, alien-sized eyes with dark eyeliner streaking down my face, and narrow pink lips that were stretched in a taught line. I was thirteen when I first fell in love and had sex, but I was twenty-six when I first lost my innocence.

VIII.

I am standing in the kitchen doorway, a dirty dishtowel in hand and the kids are reeling in the background from the five Diet Cokes they drank after dinner. I am 37-years-old. It is 6 p.m. and like every day at this time, I can’t figure out what to make for dinner. Dark is falling but I am still clad in my torn and worn terrycloth bathrobe. My light-eyed, dark-haired daughter is maniacal and bites her brother hard enough to draw blood. My tow-headed son stares zombie-like at the TV, his eyes resting on a house plant just above the picture tube. The house is a disaster with clothes and books, toys and trash littered from the front door to the back. My husband commutes to work and is gone for twelve hours at a time. Despite this, there is never enough money or time or energy to go around. I have a graduate degree, but this in no way prepared me for life. Not this life.

So I gaze out of the rusty front screen door, and fixate on a strong and sturdy tree and think, “What if I drove into that really fast?” Not bothering to get dressed, I grab my keys and make my way to the old car sitting atop dead leaves and wild branches in the makeshift gravel driveway. I drive towards a tree on a dead-end road. I try a couple of times, foot on the pedal, faster and faster still, but I stop just short of the towering oak. After five more tries, I dry my tears, turn around and drive home. I wait in the easy chair for my husband, one muddy boot-clad foot across the other.

Later, I am taken to the hospital because I am a danger to myself. My belongings are searched. My mascara is taken away, as is my pocket mirror. I am allowed to keep one picture of my children. They take the string from my pajama pants as I shuffle off to bed. The next day I meet with the psychiatrists and I am diagnosed with bipolar disorder, just like my young daughter. I am told that the chemicals in my brain are currently in a “mixed state.” To me this sounds like an art term, like a “mixed palette” of colors. It sounds eccentric and pretty and not half-bad.

My husband is allowed to visit for one hour on a Monday. He brings me a silver angel that I can look at but can’t keep because of its sharp and shiny angles. I sob because he understands. I sob because he doesn’t understand anything. I say goodbye and then pad off to the art room. Today I will make a coaster out of tiny pieces of tile. I choose squares of blue, purple, gold. I glue on the tiny shapes and as I sand it, the angles seem to blend together and form a colorful but sorrowful array – flat, cracked, but at times, too, silently brilliant.

Michele Campbell

The Amber Room

The Amber Room