“Invisible Girl” by Jennifer Pashley
From the New York State Thruway, Montezuma Wildlife Refuge is a wasteland of wet mud, filled with dead trees stuck like forks in the ground. Eagles, vultures, and hawks circle in the treetops.
As a kid, in the backseat of my parent’s Escort wagon, I crouched with my girlfriend over a black tape recorder, leaning into the one speaker, listening to Duran Duran as low as we could. It was before the days of shared earbuds. I had parents who hated rock and roll, even when they knew that we secretly loved it. Outside, the highway turned from trees on either side, to a black expanse. It was exotic on its own, a literal refuge for wild animals that might not survive anywhere else, who were drawn to a spot and then protected. And then they found a body there. A woman. It was all we could think about, and the only association we had for that place from then on.
Scientists had found her in a ditch, half covered, half exposed. Where the sun had hit her bones, they were white, bleached and beautiful. There were no remnants of muscle or skin. Of what makes you beautiful when you’re alive. The organs go first, leave the cage of bones with a thin covering. No one could tell yet what had happened to her. Only what had become of her.
At twelve, we wondered what it would be like to have women’s bodies with adult desires, instead of the awkward longings of adolescence. We wore bras and makeup, but none of it was real yet. What I knew of how to put on make up, I’d learned from Nick Rhodes and David Bowie, not my mother. We knew little about ourselves, about what was happening to us, and what was coming. What would happen, if in the midst of that angst and confusion, you let the wrong person talk to you? Or worse, touch you?
Girls could end up in the swamp, or in the back of a van, lured in by a man who wants help finding his dog or to ask directions. A girl might be found with nothing left on her but the bones, a few stray hairs, the skin of a covered knuckle. No one ever speculated who the men were, only what had been done to provoke them. A short skirt. A smart mouth. A loose attitude. Nothing was safe.
My home was a conspiracy of non-talking. Later, I learned it’s a pattern common to many abusive households. No one says Daddy drinks too much; they say he works hard. For us, it worked on many levels. No one said my brother was an addict, they said he was social, or nervous, or in pain. If no one talked about abuse, about long nights of screaming, madness, or even rape, it never happened. Those things simply didn’t exist.
Likewise, if no one talked to me about sex, even its basic machinations, I would never do it. Case closed.
In a way, it worked. It was a long time before I had sex with a guy. When I did, I was nearly twenty-one. I’d over-thought it, over-feared it, over-theorized and rationalized everything. But then, at twelve and thirteen, I was already underway, a work-in-progress, working out my desire with my hands, my mouth, with a girlfriend.
Sex with a best friend is safe. A sleepover, the simplest excuse ever. We fell into the pattern that had already been carved out for us and kept it a secret. And if we didn’t say anything about it, nobody would. We remained invisible. Sealed inside our own adolescent longing. For each other.
We used to bar the bedroom door and dim the lights. I’d wear a pair of knock off Candies from a Hill’s discount store – a shoe with a wooden heel and a black X of straps that made me four inches taller. Outside that room, I was more concerned with Chuck Taylors, with dress shirts and blazers with fedoras. It was the eighties, and I’d become my own dime-store knock off John Taylor. I bleached my bangs with peroxide, and lined my eyes. I kept a red sash and a silver shirt that mimicked what he wore on stage. I learned to play bass. I stayed lean and kept my chest bound in flattening sports bras. In my dark bedroom, lit with a red bulb or a black light, a stereo with Blondie or Bowie going, it was enough for her. And in the four-inch heels, leaning over to tip her face to kiss her, it was enough for me, too.
The girl in the swamp that summer was Julie Monson. She had disappeared in 1981, driving her parents’ red Chevette at three am. She had last been seen with a man. We knew immediately what that would mean for us. Other than the obvious threats of kidnapping, of rape or killing, we would never drive our parents’ cars by ourselves. Would never be out at three am. And no one would tell us how to defend ourselves, or how to be smart about it. They would just lock us inside, and never mention a word.
When you teach girls about their own sexuality, you run the risk of opening Pandora’s box. You might give them the power to own their sexuality, or to enjoy it. And if they enjoy it, they might seek it out, bold. They might become the women that men don’t want as wives. They might become women.
We had never even kissed each other out of the characters we’d created in the dark. I was always the boy, JT, tall and cool. And she would stay too ashamed to address what seemed so real to me. That desire, at least at that time, wasn’t mine to own.
Julie Monson had been stabbed to death. Even though she didn’t have skin, there were holes in her bra and her deteriorated sweater, that indicated four or five stab wounds. No one knew whether or not she had been raped. There wasn’t any tissue left to examine. The scene of that crime had become invisible, disintegrated into the muck of the refuge. Post trauma, her vagina had erased itself.
Eye witnesses suggested that she got into a car willingly. The accused was an ex-boyfriend. There were more lies than there were facts, accusations about Julie, about where she’d been and who she had been with. The only fact was the body. The plain sight of a dead girl, her bra full of holes the size of a knife blade.
My sister had been raped. I knew this only peripherally. Like family folklore, it remained unspoken, unbelieved, like something supernatural. People were more apt to talk about ghosts, or near death experiences, than something that supposedly actually happened. What I knew I had gleaned by eavesdropping, by simply being present, yet unseen. In the backseat of the car, I was invisible. They said he was a hitchhiker, and like Julie Monson, my sister had willingly let him into her car. The rest of the story, the part that mattered the most to me, was that no one in my family believed her.
It was never discussed with out the disclaimer: well, that’s what she says happened.
She had taken the hitchhiker to her apartment, where he raped her. This is what she said. Which I came to understand, did not make it true.
The underlying logic was that she consented when she let him in the car, or into the apartment. That as a woman, you didn’t own your body. You body became someone else’s once he formed expectations about you. If you allowed anything – with a smile, a ride, a kiss – you allowed everything. The job of a woman was never to let anyone form expectations about her. Which also carried the double standard of being labeled frigid, or a bitch.
The most terrifying part of the story to me – because I couldn’t imagine the rape – was that saying it didn’t make it true. Telling wasn’t enough to make it real. It wasn’t just us. My parents never believed anyone. If a neighborhood kid said his father hit him, the kid was a liar. If a girl said a boy harassed her, she had asked for it. No one was ever to be trusted or believed. Inside our house, it further set the precedent of non-speaking. After that, anything could happen, anything at all, and no amount of speaking, of crying out in the dark would make it true, would make anyone believe you, would make them rally around you because just you belonged to them. Because you were theirs. Nothing was safe.
It took me years to identify as a woman. I wanted to be John Taylor. I wanted to be my brother. A rock star guitar player. Funny, always holding a glass of vodka, a bottle of Heiniken. I wanted my best friend to love me, to find me irresistible, a different kind of rock star, with a bass guitar and blonde bangs. With the small hands of a twelve or fourteen year old girl, stretching around the neck of the bass.
I had one conversation with my mother about it. She had found a love note, and had gotten a call from my girlfriend’s mother, who said she’d noticed we’d been a little “close.”
I was on the stairs, on my way up to the dark bedroom that was my solace, where I relished in non-talking. My mother just handed the note to me, and my cheeks began to burn, the top of my head on fire with shame and guilt. Then she told me about the phone call, and I told her we were only kidding, playing out a story, like we had, with Barbies. It was a game. Just a game.
Well, that’s what I thought, my mother said, accepting the denial. Perhaps she was pleased that I had learned so well to not talk, to not admit. That I had swallowed my truth whole and kept moving, comfortable in the silence we’d created.
I didn’t find myself, couldn’t see myself as a woman until years later, by then, pulled up out of the muck and refuge of my own life, bones exposed, heart full of stab wounds, and the rest of me – my desire, my swagger – gone, dissipated into the mud, and picked at by exotic birds.
My girlfriend moved the summer I was fourteen. The new house was close, still in the same school district, but just far enough, and in such a congested area that my parents refused to drive there. It was handed down like a sentence: we’re moving. When my parents nodded at the address, I knew it was over. I would see her only in the crowded halls at school. Never in a dark bedroom. Never in the back of a car. Maybe it should have built character in me, but in the heat of that summer before ninth grade, I fell apart. Heart full of holes, gut filled with bile.
What was terrifying about what had happened to my sister, or Julie Monson, wasn’t the randomness of it. That should have been frightening – the idea of a man suddenly upon you, threatening with violence, with death. But it wasn’t. It was the reaction of the public, and the response from our own families. It was easy to blame a woman for what happened to her, because of where she was, or what she wore, because of who she was, or who she knew. It meant that if you were the girl who got in the car, or the girl who walked into her own apartment with a man, whatever happened to you – even when it was as extreme as death – was your own fault. Because you did it willingly.
I couldn’t stop throwing up. After my girlfriend moved, I developed an illness that kept me nauseous all the time, for weeks. My family had tried to travel to Virginia for a vacation, but I spent the entirety of the trip in bathrooms. In the hotel room, in restaurants. I shook a lot and couldn’t stop. I was sweaty and vomiting, couldn’t eat, and slept poorly. I had lost fifteen pounds.
That same June, I had tickets to see Duran Duran for their 1987 tour. They were seventh row seats, on the left side. John Taylor’s side of the stage. Close enough for eye contact. For recognition. I was dying for someone to see me.
After pointless days in an Econo Lodge in Fredericksburg, my parents agreed to abort the vacation and drive home. My father told my mother I was faking. Like most conversations, it was not directed at me. No one asked me what was wrong. He only told her I was trying to control him. That I was worried about getting home in time for the concert, which he would never actually commit to arriving in time for. He left it hanging over me the whole time. Maybe we’ll be back in time. Maybe we won’t. It was his favorite game to play, to let us have something and then take it away, or threaten to take it away. To drive you to the brink of denial, and then, when he handed it back to you, the thing you had already earned, you were supposed to thank him for being so kind. It was a game that repeated for all of us, my sister, my brother, me. Back home, the concert was cancelled. I got there in time, thinner and paler than ever, and then had nothing to go to.
My body was so racked with grief that it shrunk in on itself. When I went to the doctor finally and they confirmed that no, I was absolutely not pregnant, the diagnosis was officially nothing. No one asked if it was anxiety, or depression, or grief. The mourning over a lost first love that had never existed in the first place. The illness was invisible. A silent worm, eating me from the inside. The illness was invisibility.
How do you heal from something that never happened to you? How do you heal a wound that isn’t? You carry your hurt in your gut like a black rock, like a cancer that slowly caves you in, thinner and thinner.
How do you recover from a rape that wasn’t? What happens to your body, years later, having carried it for around, that punch in the most vulnerable place, the invalidation of what you thought was yours, and yours alone?
You eat it. Drink or smoke it, and perpetuate the silence of addiction, and never met the hurt head on, with an honest heart, a clear head. It becomes the monster in your closet, under the bed of your life, threatening to surface at any time. The wound nests inside your skin, deadly. And if you’re unlucky enough to end up dead, the only things left are your own ribs, carried off by marsh animals, picked up and flown off, by eagles, into their nests. An exotic wind chime for birds of prey. You become the remnant of what was, a ticket stub kept years later, or a relic of sacred bones for new girls who seek recognition, but are left only with the magic of your bones.
We never met eye to eye. When I attended her wedding, or saw her again, years later, she acted as if she were staring into the sun. I was something to be averted, for her own safety. Never looked at directly.
When I met John Taylor, he was fifty-two. Tall, thin, sober. He’d met his pain with a honest heart, had cut away the dead wood of addiction, insecurity, hurt. I might have tried to mirror him then, still, walled up in a fortress of someone else’s identity, but I was just me. Soft from children, nearly forty. I waited in a line of other versions of me, women approaching middle age, women who were waiting for a glimpse of their girlhoods, while I stood waiting to confront my boyhood, face to face, honest. I handed him a copy of his book to sign, and he said my name. We made eye contact and took a picture together. Someone behind me said it was like being fourteen again. But I knew better. It was like being thirty-nine, right then, in my own skin.
Jennifer Pashley’s fiction has been published widely in Mississippi Review, Los Angeles Review, PANK, Carve Magazine, and her stories have won several awards. She is the author of two story collections, and her first novel, The Scamp, will be published by Tin House in August 2015