Who You Are Now

It’s 1966, you’re sixteen, in the arms of a boy swaying to the slow sax, For Your Precious Love. The gymnasium air is dense with AquaNet and English Leather, his warm hand is on your back; the rough tweed of his sport coat welcoming against your cheek. He likes you, and you like that he likes you, even more than you like him.

Later, you linger in his parked car; his lips on yours and you feel dizzy. You’d never go all the way, you’re not a slut or a tramp—mom’s labels for dirty girls—. You can’t wait to see him again.

I love you he says as he gently lays you down. After the first time, you cry for who you were and who you are now. But after that, you cry for a different reason. You know there is no place for a fatherless child in your life where labels are cruel. Stop worrying he soothes. Everything’ll be okay; you believe him, whatever happens, everything will be okay.

If only you’d known that what you wanted mattered; that you mattered. Someday you’ll discover your power, to be genuine, honest, and humble. And how to forgive.

But for now, you can’t let go of what you think is love, even when the policeman shines a flashlight over your naked bodies. The cop asks if you’re okay; how old you are. You must protect the boy who loves you. Eighteen, you lie.

Two years pass before you skip. At first, the worst part is that your mother will know what you’ve done.

Your bare feet twist in the cramped phone booth. Coins rattle through the black box. Ah Christ, he says. He needs to think things over. The receiver slams in the metal cradle and you notice it’s broken.

You learn to act, to smile, to lie. To run. Six states away, you hug Nana and Papa, tell them your latest lie, that you’re leaving school, that you want to see the world. They frown. Life is tough Papa explains. We don’t quit just because school gets hard, Nana insists. You hope they don’t hear the toilet flush again and again. It’s difficult, vomiting without a sound.

There is no running away from who you are now. At home again, spasms grip your insides. You tell Mom the trip was fun even though your teeth are permanently clenched, like when you were eight and crashed your two-wheeler into the neighbor’s car.

Then it’s June, after eleven o’clock Mass. The smell of boiled hot dogs makes its way into the living room where your boyfriend sits next to you on Mom’s sofa, not touching. You are aware of the gaudy yellow brocade between his quiet and your fear. The drapes are closed, but a slit between them allows sunlight through, exposing dust motes, tiny bits of dirt that we inhale every day without a thought.

Then your bewildered parents sit across the room from you.

Breath squeezes through your vocal cords. I’m pregnant. Your father bolts from his chair, ablaze, hands balled up in fists, nose to nose with your boyfriend till Mom makes them sit down, and for a moment the air is sucked out of the room as you wait for the master of your fate to declare his loyalty, his intention to make everything okay.

He’s leaning on his forearms, his head down, “I can’t.”

Your mother screams, get out, get out, don’t ever come back here. He stands, goes to the front door, pushes the handle, steps out and walks to his car. You think you might die. You wish you could.

You leave school, leave home, make up a story for your friends and your sister.

Christmas dinner is Velveeta on white bread in the dim cafeteria, next to a fake tree, by yourself in the dry, odorless air. Shut-ins—like old folks in nursing homes and unwed mothers in foundling homes—get presents from do-gooders. You open your gifts, a new toothbrush, a comb, a candy cane.

Your name fills the Yahtzee scoresheets. The nuns no longer insist you join in the bridge games. You sit by the window, watching the snow, waiting, focusing on after.

You labor in a white metal hospital bed, the door closed, NO VISITORS permitted. A nurse named Lynn holds your hand and weeps. You shouldn’t be alone she says. For a moment, you believe her. But you know better. You deserve to be marooned on this sweaty, stinking raft.

Your baby is lifted from your arms and carried into her new life, without you. It’s the worst pain you will ever have. Even years later, after you’ve accepted the past and you’re a different person, you will always be someone who gave away her newborn.

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