My legs swing in slow-motion, my bare heels hitting the concrete wall with the whisper of a thud. I lean my back against the old, rusty pole used to keep the clothesline in place, positioning myself in the furthest corner of the yard, willing the dripping-wet school uniforms to keep me hidden from any eyes. I’ve been sitting here for three hours, my first attempt at circumventing my usual Sunday morning chores seem to be a rousing success. I only had to shoo my youngest sister, Clara, away twice, afraid she might reveal my location. Not like anyone is searching for me anyway.
My mother has been singing loudly to her favorite soul-gospel songs blaring from her radio for the past few hours. Each note she belts seems to shake the blossoms from the lone ackee tree, the branches gently swaying in rhythm to her voice, sending hundreds of whitish pink blossoms flying through the air, ultimately resting on the grassless yard beneath my feet. From my perch, I can clearly see her shadow moving from counter to counter in the small kitchen, chopping, blending, grinding, and stirring. The Sunday morning cook-all-meals-for-the-day-at-once ritual in full swing.
I’ve spent most of the morning wondering “Why?”. Why now? Why these memories? Why me? Why him? Why? Each time I said the word, another lump forms in my throat, resting on my windpipe, making it harder and harder to breathe as the questions flutter through my mind over and over again. The more I thought about it, the more I felt disgusted at myself, my own body recoiling at its own existence.
I started having these “memories” about two years ago, just a few weeks after my twelfth birthday. Of course, I had no idea that they were memories at first. They were revolting to say the least, in an abstract way. Faces were never shown, voices were not heard, but I could clearly sense a darkness that was so impenetrable that, in these memories, my body was held aloft, almost as if being held by a string from head to toe. All these memories were similar, yet I could tell they were representing different times. I couldn’t see where I was, but I had a familiar feeling. In most of these memories, I was wearing my bedtime uniform: an old t-shirt five sizes too big that once belonged to a long-migrated family member, and a pair of shorts so old that any identifying pattern that it once had is now a distant memory.
I thought I was dreaming a series of bad dreams, shrouded in my own paranoid teenaged existence. Until I realized that I wasn’t.
I have a long reputation of sleeping like a log. Once my head hits the pillow, and I finally drift off to sleep, I am out. I typically know nothing until waking up early to get ready for school, rarely being disturbed by the loud snoring of the two siblings that I share a bedroom with. So when these memories, or visions, or dreams, started to show themselves during my slumber, I was taken aback, but gave it not much thought.
Here I am, still hiding behind the damp clothes hanging from the metal wires suspended above me, alternating between staring into space at nothing, and catching quick glimpses of my mother’s shadow through the paned kitchen window. The more the ackee blossoms fall over the yard, the heavier my head feels, as if growing too big for my neck to support by the second. My relationship with my mother has always been good. My whole life I’ve been her second-in-command, changing diapers, cleaning house, and cooking by her side. I used to call her my best friend, but I woke up this morning in a pool of sweat from my own immediate clarity unsure how long that could last.
What will my mother say? Should I even tell her?
Those dreams were not dreams. There were not nightmares featuring a duppy with evil intentions, trying to rip me away into the underworld. Those dreams were not dreams. Rather, they were memories, a peek into what has been and what had continued to be. My eyes were shut, but my body was at war, the startling realization hitting me after last night.
Mona and her brood of four spent last evening at the home of a family friend. The adults cackled amongst themselves into the night, drinking a shot of ‘whites’ after each punchline. As the eldest of the brood, I took my usual spot as the designated babysitter for my siblings and all the other children running around like Miss Ivy’s chickens when she cuts their head off to sell in her shop. The children screamed, the adults laughed, and I stared off into the distance, trying to make out our backyard ackee tree from our rooftop position. We walked home as a group at around midnight, accompanied by my mother’s boyfriend, Don.
I have spent many hours for many years of my life, wondering ‘Why?’
Why me? Why did someone who I was supposed to trust, violate my body? Why did my mother, who I had always assumed would protect me, and hold me close to her ample bosom, not come to defense? Why me?
I was about twelve years old when I first started having these memories. The thing about it was, I didn’t realize that they were memories at first. I also surely did not figure it out for at least a few months. From as far back as I can recall, I have had the reputation in my household for sleeping like a log. I mean, once I was knocked out, I was gone, and that would be that until the dawn of a new day. I never thought much of this, as I usually went to bed at a respectable time for a child, and woke up relatively early, in order to get myself prepared for a full day of school ahead. I don’t recall having many memorable dreams as a child, so when I started having these random visions every once in awhile, I was slightly taken aback. Yet, I didn’t give it much thought.
The staggering clarity came to a head for me one fateful, December night. We — my mother, stepfather, three siblings and I — had spent the night at a family friend’s get-together. It was mostly for the adults, less so for the children, and to be honest, I cannot place any significant details to that night. I probably stayed to myself in a corner, socially awkward and playing my usual eldest sibling duties. What will forever be emblazoned in my mind, happened after we got home and settled in for the night.
I shared a room with my two sisters, both of whom slept on a bed together, opposite my twin-sized one. On some nights, the smooth sounds on my favorite radio station are the only things to soothe me to sleep and so was the case on this particular night. I first remember, while in that middle ground between deep sleep and slight wakefulness, opening my eyes to see an adult figure sitting on the bed across from mine, staring at me. Was I hallucinating? Was I even awake? Maybe I was having a nightmare. Who could it be? I remember the radio playing some 90’s R&B song, crackling with static, and I felt myself almost paralyzed, still confused about my state of wakefulness and this figure that was sitting on the bed, next to my sleeping younger sisters, staring at me. This image began to be intertwined with the sensation of being touched. Touched in places that made me uncomfortable, but I was not conscious enough to move, much less make a sound. I could feel the tears that were stuck in the form of a huge lump in my throat. My body was frozen in place by shock, and then it all went dark.
Waking up the next morning, for lack of a better term, I was hit like a ton of bricks with, what I now know as a debilitating mixture of anxiety, panic, fear, anger and disbelief. My stepfather, the man who has been in my life since I was seven years old, has been creeping into my personal space while I was essentially unconscious, and touched me. My mother’s boyfriend, who was as much a parent to me as my own father, went through his daily life as if he had never attempted any violations.
He touched me.
He has BEEN touching me.
How could I not have known that this was happening to me, on multiple occasions?
How many times has this actually happened?
What else has happened that I am still not cognizant of?
As if a dam had burst, I was suddenly having countless flashes of memories. Memories where I was obviously not entirely awake, but my eyes have captured some snapshots of what was going on. He touched me.
What was I going to tell my mother? Would I, or should I tell her anything?
Would she believe me? What did? Did I deserve this? Did I somehow do something wrong enough to deserve this? Was I being punished for an offence unbeknownst to me? How could he do this to me? The numerous questions that I had for myself tumbled their way around my mind, over and over again, rattling my brain as aggressively as our second-hand washing machine with a heavy load.
For hours that morning, I alternated between completing my usual household chores and standing in our small backyard, staring into nothingness, a slew of questions running repeatedly through my mind. At the forefront of my mind was my mother. My mother and I had a very close relationship at the time. She was my best friend, or at least that was how I would describe our closeness with my pre-teen mind. I was her first child, and her right-hand girl in any situation. My stepfather had already left the house earlier that morning, heading to open the family-owned store that was just a short distance away. My mother was in the kitchen, singing loudly to the tunes playing on the radio. Despite my heart pounding like a jackhammer, attempting to make its way through my chest cavity, I made the gargantuan effort to place one foot in front of the other and approached her.
What is she going to say?
How do I say it?
With sweaty palms and wobbly legs, I walk towards my mother in the kitchen, armed with a truth so terrible, I was sure would spin our household into chaos indefinitely.
I honestly cannot remember the exact string of words that I was able to put together, but I can clearly recall the devastated, confused, and dazed look on her face. Then my champion emerged. That is the only way I have ever been able to describe to myself the transformation I saw in her that day, albeit for just a few hours. She was released from behind closed gates, with fire in her eyes and I was stunned at just how mad she was. In a whir of questions, we both came to the realization that these memories that I was having, along with the previous night all had a common thread connecting them. I can only recall just a handful of instances of my stepfather going out with friends to drink late at night. Those instances seemed to have coincided with my nightmarish memories and visions of being watched and touched while I slept.
In my mind, the hardest part was already done. I told my mother. I opened up to her, and now, it will be us against the world.
Or so I naively thought.
Later that afternoon, while she had already called and spewed venomous words to him over the phone, she decided that we both had to confront him. I manned the storefront, while they both disappeared to another area of the building. What I remember most about that evening was pacing back and forth, thinking myself into a stupor about what their conversation, or argument, must be like, and what he could possibly be saying to quell the fire that was raging within my mother. Regardless, I was sure that my mother was being my Champion, verbally fighting for my right to be a child. My right to feel protected and safe as a child in the only home I’ve ever known.
She called me to meet with them and I could barely stand still. I was shivering almost uncontrollably in the still night.
I was dreaming, apparently.
“She must have been dreaming.”
“I didn’t do anything.”
“I never touched her.”
I looked at her sitting next to him. His eyes rife with feigned innocence and confusion, the moment that I started to really realize that this man was not the person that I have always thought he was. Her facial expression could only be interpreted as a silent apology for her not fighting anymore. Her fear of being alone had trumped rhyme, reason, and motherly instinct. I didn’t realize then, but looking back at it now, that was one of the defining moments that created the crack in the foundation of our now non-existent relationship. I looked at her that night, and almost instantly my mind began its unassuming counter defense attack.
Without consciously realizing it, I had given up. In less than a day, I had gone from repressed memories to illumination, to faint hope of having a champion, to now realizing that there is nothing that I could do. I was a child, living in a small house, with a man that I have now recognized as my sexual abuser. I was now beginning to further hone my skills of invisibility; learning to walk and talk without calling attention to myself.
I was now the eldest daughter of a mother who put her boyfriend first.
I was now the daughter of a mother who was complicit in my first heartbreak in life.
I was now the daughter of a mother who decided that she would rather not be my champion, so that she could have a warm body to lay next to at night.
As somewhat of a defense mechanism, I subconsciously pushed all the memories, both new and old, way below the surface. It would haunt me, but I learned quickly how to pretend that nothing was amiss. I made sure to be hyperaware around my stepfather, but I buried myself further into my schoolwork, as well as further into my household duties. I would not allow it mental space. I could not. Like a seed that repulsed me, I buried it, not realizing that it would grow.
Thank you for taking the time to read the words that have been spilling from my heart onto the screen in front of you.
We get vulnerable around these parts, and it’s no easy task finding the strength it takes to reveal your truths (whether through writing or just reading a piece).