Through my open window, I smell tinprelude to a Colorado rain. All day, the slate-colored thunderclouds have been piling over the Rocky Mountains. By afternoon, they began their slow tumble over the plains. By dusk, they have settled, wet and heavy, over our Loveland subdivision. Already, I've changed into my nightgown and am reading a book on my bed, lost in someone else's story. A gust of cold air flips my pages, and I rise to close the window. From my second story, I preside over wide, treeless streets lined in cheap tract homes. All with fake shutters. I hate those shutters, glued open andeven if they could closetoo small to cover the windows. In the twilight, the neighborhood feels thin and hollow. The first raindrops dot the asphalt, releasing a smell: hot dust, decaying leaves, pepper.
Then I remember: that morning, while Jim was out, his mother had called and left a message. I'd forgotten to tell him. My mother is in the bedroom watching a made-for-TV movie; he's in the family room watching shoot-outs and car chases. I drift down the stairs. The blue light from the TV flashes on the ceiling. Compared to my book, the dialogue seems too loud, urgent, jumbled.
He is on his way from the couch to the kitchen. He hasn't heard me.
"Jim?" I step out from the shadowed staircase. He has a new beer can in his hand. He looks confused for a moment, as if trying to remember who I am and why I'm in his house.
"Jim, your mom called. This morning."
He squints. He's gained weight and is wearing his glasses, which make his face look square. The face of the man I've grown to love seemed to have sunk behind this new, fleshy layer.
"Your mom called this morning. While you were gone. She wants you to call her back. I forgot to tell"
"God damn it, Tarn." He rocks a little. "You and your bitch of a mother My mom. Can. Call. Any time she wants." The air is sour.
"No, Jim I was"
"God Damn it. Don't argue with me!" He raises his arm.
I can't remember the details of his strike. Where I stood. Where he stood. If he grabbed my nightgown. If I had to pull to get away. If he aimed for my face or my gut. That memory is still buried. But I do know he is clumsy and slow, and before he can hit me again, I wiggle out the front door and into the rain. He stumbles after me, grabbing. I leap down the stairs and sprint run the frontage road, that secret street parallel to the highway, hidden by a wall of poplar trees.
As I settle into a steady run, my thoughts keep arranging and rearranging themselves, trying to find the story that can explain what has just happened to me. First, the events organize themselves into a fairy tale: the innocent, virtuous girl is almost beaten by her evil stepfather. She escapes in the nick of time. Look at her run in her flannel nightgown with the little flowers. Look at her bare feet. Look at the rain just dampening her sleeves. She's good, and although she does not know it yet, her goodness will be rewarded.
My mother met Jim, the brother of one of her co-workers, at a company picnic. She'd rarely dated in the nine years after her divorce from my hippie-beatnik father, so I didn't know what to expect from their courtship. I was surprised that Jim won my feminist, socialist, and former anti-war activist mother with bouquets of flowers sent to her office and three phone calls a day.
My sister and I weren't jealous of Jim: we were relieved. Someone else could attend to our mother's tearful nights, assuage her money fears, rub her back, and be her friend. Suddenly, we were free to be teenagers, to talk on the phone for hours in hushed whisperswithout having to report back to our mother the intricacies of our new relationships.
My mother's fantasy man, she told me, was "a Marlboro Man with a Ph.D." My father had the intellect, but Jim fulfilled her cowboy fantasy. He was masculine in a way my father never was: thick, wavy hair; a mustache; a Western drawl; flannel shirts; and perfectly worn cowboy boots. He was a little short for my mother's liking, just several inches taller than her 5'8", but the way he looked in jeans made up for it. When they met, my mother was beautiful: large blue eyes, soft blonde hair that waved around her shoulders, full lips, and a long, curvy body. When they married, my mother wore a lavender silk business dress, held a bouquet of silver-purple roses, played "You Are So Beautiful to Me," and changed her last name to his.
I run under the streetlights. Light dark light dark light dark. My fairy tale version of my story won't solidifyit keeps being broken by the memory of Jim standing on the front stoop yelling after me with slurred regret, "Wait Tarn it's raining!" In truth, I know the danger has passed: if I turn around, Jim will awkwardly apologize and I can go back to my room. But I run anyway. I want him to feel like a monster. And all my surprise and fear and hurt have channeled themselves into running and I'm not ready to give up that long, strong, stretch of muscle, the wet air against my face. I like being a quiet, fast animal in the night.
Before my mother and Jim married, my friend Margaretwho in ninth grade already had large breastsdeveloped a terrible crush on Jim. She took to wearing tight shirts, inviting herself over, and finding excuses to stay in the same room with him. Although Jim largely ignored her embarrassing attempts at small talk, my mother was so annoyed she finally banned Margaret from visiting when Jim was home.
"I love older men," Margaret sighed when I finally dragged her to my room.
I couldn't imagine finding any male older than high school age attractive: they were too hairy and rough skinned and strong smelling. But I was curious about Jim. He was a key to a world that had always been closed to me: popular and athletic high school boys. Through his confessions about teenage years, I learned their secrets: they were younger and more insecure than I'd ever imagined.
With Jim in the house, I thought I might teach myself to be an athlete. When my sister Rima and I were small and my parents were "living off the land," they set us free to run in the woods, climb trees, scramble up boulders, and balance on fences. But they never threw us a ball. So when school began, we became those taunted children, last picked for teams. But with Jim's support, I signed up for co-ed soccer. I was hopelessbut so proud of myself for trying. I started running, with more success. I exchanged my shirt with the embroidered Peter Pan collar for a blue sports jersey with a number on the back and three white stripes on the sleeve. Sometimes I'd even settle down on the couch next to Jim and try to watch baseball.
On weekends in Boulder before we moved, I ran errands with Jim in his pick up truck and listened to his oldies radio station. Yes, the songs were sappy, but they were generally cheerful and easy to learn, and, best of all, they inspired Jim to tell stories: about his high school buddies, his old girlfriends, and his adventures as the star pitcher of his Arizona high school. His pitching talent got him into collegeand then through college. "Yup. I only went to algebra class two timesand earned myself a B." Afterward, he was recruited for the minor leagues, but he only lasted a year.
Sometimes he'd drive me by streets his company had paved. "The work's more complicated than you'd think." He explained how to determine the slope and angle of pavement, especially for curvy mountain roads. I watched his hands on the steering wheel; his fingers were compact, square at the end, a little furry. His wedding ring still seemed shiny-new, not yet a part of his body. I felt a protective, almost parental, feeling for himfor this man who had loved high school, who seemed to have slept through the political uprisings of the Sixties, whose pleasures were so uncomplicated and so long ago.
My heels sting from their slap-slap on concrete. The newly wet neighborhood has been transformed into an alternate universe with silver sidewalks, pewter streets, and dry lawns turned pearl-white. My adrenaline-speed eases, and I settle into a pace I think I can hold forever. Then my fairy tale morphs into a story more bitter, a tale tinted with pride and a shade of revenge. I'd been the girl last picked for teams; Jim had been the semi-pro athlete. But I'd practiced running while he'd practiced drinking, and now I can run for miles while he, with his new double chin, can't stagger farther than the front porch. He deserves his stumbling ugliness.
The year before Jim met my mother, she'd been raped by a stranger who'd broken into our house while we were sleeping. After months of nightmares and ragged tears, she thought she was recovering, that her marriage was a healthy sign. But just months after the wedding, she began to have anxiety attacks. She couldn't concentrate at her job as a manager in an oil company. Now that she was no longer a single parent, she thought she could afford to quit: "Someone can support me, for once."
But they'd been too hopeful, and Jim's income from his work as an estimator at a paving company wasn't enough to cover the payments on the condo in Boulder we'd just bought. We lost the house. We filed for bankruptcy. Then we couldn't find any rentals that would take our two large dogs. My mother was willing to give the dogs away, but Jim, his marriage shaky, was not willing to sacrifice his buddy Sam, his curly-eared mutt and ally in a house full of women.
The final, convoluted solution was that we would rent a house in Loveland, an agricultural community thirty miles north. My mother would continue to take temporary secretarial jobs. My sister and I would commute with Jim for our last couple months of school; in the fall, we'd start school in our new town.
Before we moved to Loveland, I thought I might enjoy it. After all, it was Love Land. My aunt and cousins lived there, and they had a large house on the lake, a motorboat, a trampoline, and a dad. My aunt scared me a littleshe turned all her family members' embarrassing mistakes into outrageously funny storiesand I dreaded the time when my blunders would make it into her repertoire. But my cousins were kind to us, and, with the lake and big house and green grass, Loveland was, in my mind, a land of peace and abundance. By the time we moved, however, my mother was no longer speaking to my aunt, and we settled on the edge of town where cheap developments crawled into high desert.
At first, I didn't have time to worry about the sad barrenness of our neighborhood. Our days were long. We woke up early. Or rather, Jim and I woke up early and spent the next hour trying to hurry my sister. Rima, still in junior high, would stay in bed until the last possible moment, then grab an enormous armful of her clothes, make up, homework, and whatever food she could find. As Jim drove and I watched the sun rise over the cornfields, Rima transformed into her fashionable self: green eye shadow to match her green eyes. A long pink sweatshirt with large black streaks like smeared Chinese characters. Black leggings. Pink pumps. Once she forgot her shoes and was mortified she had to borrow tennis shoes from my gym lockerwhite canvas ones with a blue trimangry that I would even own shoes that ugly.
In the evenings, as we drove back to Loveland, we stared at the long shadows of cows and barns and bales. The corn had grown several inches since morning. Every day I was amazed, and every day I'd comment:
"I can't believe how fast the corn grows. It's taller than it was this morning!" I'd trace my finger along the window, as if petting the stalks.
"Yup. Pretty amazing," Jim would answer.
"I wonder if I sat there and watched all day if I could see it grow."
"We should try that some day."
Rima didn't comment. Watching corn grow was not cool.
I was prepared for some goodbyes. I was wearying of my old crew of friends from junior high, Kathy included, whobored by the uneventful stories of their suburban livesplayed with drugs, drinking, punk hair cuts, heavy metal music, and sex with older men and each other. I didn't judge them; they just made me tired. If you asked me, real life was hard enough without inventing complications. Or maybe, in the same way as they wanted a more dramatic version of their lives, I wanted a sweeter one. I felt tainted by the messiness of my childhood and I, too, longed for a different story of my life: I'd be a good girl. So this is what I didn't want to leave: my new Sunday school teachers, an old couple who were round and smart and not afraid of my questions; my brilliant, Buddhist Latin teacher; my work as a counselor at a science camp for elementary school students; my newly elected position as president of the Key Club; my enormous Norwegian PE teacher who, when he saw my frustration with volleyball, let me, instead, run around the lake and encouraged me to sign up for my first road race.
Busy saying goodbye to our old lives, neither Rima nor I had prepared ourselves for what would be the long loneliness of summer. We had no transportation and we were too young for local jobs. We couldn't even find any children to baby-sit. My mother, angry at God for the betrayals of the last several years, refused to even drop me off at Sunday school.
Most days, the temperature soared over a hundred and our house turned into a dry sauna.
"I can't do nothing all summer," I complained to my mother.
I couldn't describe to her the terrible boredom, which had already started to descend. All those thin houses heated by sun. They might turn to dust and blow away. And I had no way to escape from the thickening tension between my mother and Jim. Nothing to distract me. Nothing to contribute anywhere to make me feel as if I were useful or needed.
"I would die for some time off." My mother snorted. "You should be grateful."
Rima and I, again, were left as each other's only companions. When we were little, our family lived, isolated, in the British Columbian wilderness, and had only each other. I needed more solitude than Rima, and when I retreated, I hurt her feelings. Since my anger was more entertaining than neglect, she'd follow me and imitate whatever I was doing.
I'd throw up my hands and yell, "Don't imitate me!"
She'd yell and throw up her hands, "Don't imitate me!"
But when she reached junior high, our roles switched and everything about me annoyed her: my clothes, my voice, the way I parted my hair, my answer to any question. She'd make herself as different from me as possible.
But that summer, driven by necessity, we'd reached a fragile truce. The only activity within walking distance was a small public pool. We resorted to reading whatever novels we could find and spending a large chunk of each day lying on the concrete. At regular intervals, we'd cool ourselves in water so blue-thick with chlorine we could taste the flavor on our lips all summer. Our tongues turned to glue. The dry-hot air sucked all the moisture from our skin. Our hair frizzed and the ends turned green.
Lying on our towels, head to head, we remembered our elementary school summer days at the public pool in Boulder. Playing mermaid. Doing handstands in the water. The "deaf sister" game. One of us would pretend to be deaf and the other would speak fake sign language until we elicited the curiosity and sympathy of one of the mothers.
"What a good sister you are," she'd say to the one of us who could hear. And then she'd whisper, "Was she born that way?"
I don't remember what my mother and Jim fought about that summerjust this one issue and only because I got tangled in it: Jim's parents liked to call him too early for my mother's liking on weekend mornings. She thought they were controlling and over-involved: Jim was a Momma's boy.
Jim and my mother's problems, of course, were much deeper. They were both, I guess, deeply disappointed. And neither of them knew how to soothe each other's fears. Jim worried that he wasn't smart enough, that he wasn't a good provider; my mother, that she wasn't worthy of love. She'd lost her father when she was seven and no man was big enough to fill that ache of loss.
I no longer remember the words they hurled at each other, just my awareness that this was a new kind of fighting. When Rima and I fought, I thought we hated each other, but, in contrast, I suddenly saw that there were lines we would never cross, cruelties that would cut too deep. Rima's insecurities were imaginarybut real enough to herso I'd never say, "You're fat." "Our father loves me more than you." Jim and my mother, on the other hand aimed for weakness and for blood, for the damage from which a relationship can never recover.
"Crazy bitch!" Jim slammed the front door and squealed away in his truck.
"If he just weren't so god-damned dumb," Janet told me, crying on her bed.
I wanted to take a positive action, to make something of this waste of a summer. I signed up for a 10K race, my fourth. I'd run the Bolder Boulder the year before and had been proud to finish smack in the middle of the pack of Kenyans and grandmothers. My lucky number, I thought, was threethe number of our family members before Jimso when my bib arrived in the mail with the number 333, I was sure I was destined for a strong race.
The start was ten in the morning, and the day was already scorching. As soon as the gun signaled the start, I felt as if bricks had been laced to my thighs. I lugged those bricks for an hour in long rectangles around the cornfields. At the awards ceremony, I was presented with a special T-shirt for coming in last. Everyone laughed and cheered. I appreciated their spirit, knew that T-shirt would make a funny storyand was wise enough to recognize a lesson about faith in lucky numbersbut, still, the race felt symbolic: in this flat, hot land, even my smallest gestures were doomed.
As I run, I'm mesmerized by rhythms. Thump-thump-thumpety-thump of rain on my scalp and forehead. Thwup-thwup of bare feet on sidewalk. Breath in, breath out. Step up curbs, down curbs. For whole blocks, my chest feels empty and I forget all stories and am left only with animal joy. The joy of the muscles expanding and contracting. The joy of rain on my eyelids. The joy of being hidden in shadows. The joy of escape. The joy of being wrongly dressed. The joy of being alone.
As part of his job, Jim was required to be on the emergency road crew: in the event of a snowstorm, he could be called to plow the roads. "It's beautiful," he said. "The snow at night it's quiet." He was silent, and I could see what he couldn't say: the snowflakes in his headlights, the slight squeak of the snow under his tires. The way the snow blanketed fences, and bushes, and the tops of cars and absorbed almost all sound: all the clicks and snores and buzzes of a modern night.
"Maybe I could come with you. Sometime."
And then under my rain-joy, the more painful memories begin to rise. The ones from which I've been running.
After we moved to Loveland, Jim, who usually drank a couple of beers a night, was soon downing six-packs.
"Jim, you're drinking too much," my mother warned.
"Damn it, Janet, you can't tell me what to do!"
My mother, whose mind was agile, talked circles around him, baiting him. When Jim's thoughtsalready too slow for his likingtangled and stalled, he grabbed her arm.
Memories of their fights arise only in shards. Already, my mind has buried the images so deeply I cannot place myself in those moments: where I stood, how I reacted. Only later, reading magazine articles, would I piece together the cycle, that age-old story. The first slap. The first stunned silence. The next day, the apologies, the flowers. More finger shaped bruises. The first punch. More flowers. The hands choking her throat. And my mother, so hungry for the words: I love you I need you you're beautiful, forgives again and again. She believes his words; she believes he can change. But the violence comes harder and faster. My mother spends most of her time at home in an old nightgown, her face colorless and puffy, smoking and crying. "How does he expect me to get a job like this?" She puts her face in her hands and cries some more.
Wet, snaky strands of hair stick to my forehead, my cheeks, my neck. I'm tiring and my pace slows. My stories fade, my joy dulls. And suddenly my point of view tumbles and I'm no longer the center of my stories. Jim is the main character, and his is the tale of a fallen hero, a breaking, broken man. It's a story too sad to bear, so I can't hold it for more than a moment.
Rima and I never talked about the fights. Only once, and obscurely. On a Saturday afternoon, in the midst of one of their brawls, Janet lifted a houseplanta large, happy one with heart-shaped leavesand hurled it against the wall. The pot shattered and the plant collapsed in a tangled heap on the carpet. The little white roots, poking out from the earth, looked startled to feel light and air.
My mother, still in her nightgown, ran halfway up the stairs, then turned to give Jim a look of pure hatred. Hatred seems too abstract, too overused a word, but I have no other for that glare, which although directed at Jim, bore into my memory. It sucked all the color from her face, her lips, even her hair. Her cheeks had fallen, like an old man's. She held his eyes for a long moment before stomping up the stairs and slamming her door.
Jim, in turn, slammed the front door and screeched away.
Rima and I, suddenly alone, looked at each other. Then looked at the plant. It seemed so disoriented, so alive, so in dangera goldfish flung from its bowl and flopping on the kitchen counter.
"Wanna replant it?" I asked.
"I was just thinking the same thing!"
We swept up the plant and handfuls of dirt and carried them to the garage, where my mother had stored some empty pots and potting soil. The garage was Jim's domain, so it was tidy. A tall ceiling. A clean, concrete floor. A few tools on the wall. The light, dim and industrial. Together, we poured the black earth into the pot. I scooped out a hole.
"This is kind of like a scene in a movie, huh?" I asked.
"Yah, this is the touching part." Rima nestled the roots into the soil.
"Two sisters, bent over a plant, lovingly"
"This is the part in the story where everyone cries."
We started giggling. The kind of giggles we got when we were kids, the kind our parents never understood. Together, we patted down the soil.
I ran to the kitchen for a pitcher to give the plant a drink. It looked a little disheveled, but re-oriented.
"Think they'll feel a little guilty when they see it?" Rima asked.
"I don't know." I held the pot up. "Probably not." We laughed. She grabbed it, too, and nestled close to me, dramatically, as if we'd been directed to hold that position as the lights dimmed for the closing of our scene.
At the beginning of August, I dreamed I'd killed Jim. I asked Rima to help me hide the body in the master bedroom closet. He kept falling forward and nudging the door open. The police were coming; they were going to search the house. They were sure to find him.
My feet and calves feel tender. I slow to a trot. My nightgown is wet through. But I don't want to think about turning around, opening that front door, and walking back into my life. And I don't want to think about the questions now bubbling to the surface: Why am I surprised Jim's violence has spilled over onto me? Has my denial been so complete? Do I believe my virtue has somehow protected me? In turn, do I believe my mother is not virtuous enough? Why haven't I tried to stop Jim from hurting her? Am I so desperate for male approval, even from a man I barely know, that I'll sacrifice my mother for it? Am I so self-centered that I can't see violence as fully real until it touches me? The answers suggest a more complicated story, subplots in which I, too, can be implicated. It's too painful to hold the questions long enough to find an answer, so I push them all back under.
I don't know if this is a true memory. It was our last winter in Boulder. In the middle of the night, Jim shook me.
I stirred, groggythe wisps from my dream still lingered, confusing me.
"I'm on road crew. Wanna come?"
I lifted my head and squinted.
"You said you wanted to come. Snow removal."
I couldn't get my heavy-warm legs to stir. The images from my dreams wrapped around me, tugged me back to their watery reality. It was a school night. My head fell to the pillow.
"Are you sure? You said you wanted to come."
I turned over, closed my eyes, and disappeared into my dreams.
When I awoke in the morning, I was sorry to have missed a snowy night and felt I'd betrayed him. But I never told him my regret and he never asked me again.
Across the street is a small churchan ugly, worn, 70s-suburban thing with pokey anglesbut it has a large overhang over the entrance. I suddenly long to feel a divine presence, but I'm embarrassed to think I might find it there: philosophically, I don't believe God prefers churches over other placesand certainly not such tacky ones. But I cross the street anyway and sit against the front door. The concrete chills my tailbone. Water drips behind my ears and down my neck. The bottoms of my feet feel needle-poked. I shiver. I lift the hem of my nightgown and touch the muddy spots.
I'll write about this some day, I think. But even at fifteen I am embarrassed by how contrived the scene seems: a girl almost hit by her stepfather runs away in the rain in her nightgown and finds comfort under the overhang of a closed church. A cliché from the bad TV movies my mother had taken to watching weekday nights when she was too depressed to move.
Across the street, in the pale orange circle of the streetlight, the rain falls in silver streaks. I listen. It drums and splashes, pitters and gurgles. Rain on the roof, rain on the sidewalk, rain on the grass, rain tumbling down drainpipes, rain blown by wind, heavy rain in the distance moving closer. My breathing slows. The edges of the church overhang, the sidewalks, and the sleeping houses seem crisp and distinct, beautifully clean. Across the street, the streaks of rain have become silver necklaces, chains of miniature diamonds, thin-shimmery jewels.
My body feels empty, released from cold and fear, and full only of black space. Then I sense herthat quiet self at my hidden center. The one who is ageless and invisible. Untouched by guilt or betrayal, by rain or fists or shattered flowerpots. She has compassion; she doesn't judge. What you think is your life, she seems to say, is the book I read from my quiet, dry place.
Now, years later, I've try to recreate that moment at the church with a description of clear edges, rain that looks like jewels, and sudden emptiness. But words are pale. My hidden self lives under the details, deeper than sentences can dig. Now, I try to speak to her again. I'm trying to tell a true story, I say, but the work's more complicated than you'd think. At first, she's silent. Your stories, she finally answers, are only your effort to contain what's too big for you to hold. Shutters too small to cover your windows.
When I open the front door, Jim is gone. I assume my mother has been worried about me, that she will be outraged at Jim, that she will act like a mother in a story, but she's just depressed. She sits on her bed smoking and watching TV and doesn't seem surprised when I walk in. I try to talk a little, but she is watching her show and refuses to be angry.
In the decades after my mother's divorce, I rarely thought of Jim. "He wasn't my real dad," I shrugged when anyone asked. "They were only married two years. I was already in high school." I don't know why I tell the story nowhis sad marriage, the day he hit mewhy the tectonic plates of my interior suddenly shift and thrust to the surface long buried memories like dinosaur bones.
How do I assemble these bones to tell a true story?
That's okay: I don't want to tell the whole story, anyway. I know if I speak of the church, the moment might lose the clear, clean, silver impression it's left in my mind. Even then I knewto tell a story too soon is to lose it forever.