That Time (1)
The Story I Need to Tell
(Some names in this story have been changed, some have not.)
I was taking a break in a writing class when I decided to google my childhood rapists. I was 60 years old and it had never occurred to me to do that before. I found Frances’ obituary. Technically, it was his older brother who raped me but Francis held my face against the dirt with his boot. The obituary was about Frances but it mentioned Carl as surviving his brother. Who said irony is dead?
I’ve been trying to write this story for years and this is not what I usually start with. I didn’t know I was raped for most of my life. I lived in fear of a big, bad, dark secret that I never could get close to without feeling like it would kill me. I mean that literally. Every time I approached the memory I thought I had to die if I dared to remember it. I thought someone had to kill me. With a knife.
This is all I knew: abandoned chicken coop; running; shouting; trying to get away; not being able to; a flash of white underpants; jack knife; black. This makes it sound obvious but it was always vague and blurred. In soft focus. I couldn’t really see any of it. I just had a sense. These weren’t memories. They were impressions received while in a fugue state. Look away.
The first nightmare was about dinosaurs. I wake up in my upstairs bedroom to see an ape man sitting in the tree outside my window, looking at me. I run downstairs, through the kitchen, then down more stairs to the basement. One of those dinosaurs with the long neck was down there. I run outside and the the front yard opens up and more dinosaurs come out from the ground. I had that dream a bunch of times. It was always exactly the same and I never remembered the ending. It was terrifying.
Every other time I tried writing about this I started by keeping you in the dark. I figured since I had to live with the mystery of what happened to me, you should, too. I started with the biggest clue, my brother’s suicide, and then slowly fed you more clues in preparation for a big reveal at the end. Because that’s how it went for me. My life was one long literary technique. Well, here we are: I Just gave away the ending.
Or did I?
The other nightmares, and there have been a lot of them, were also recurring but less exactly so. The gist was the same. A dark figure appears. Has a knife. Is going to kill me. I run away. I wake up, sometimes with a scream. He appeared so frequently I gave him a name: The Prince of Darkness. I wrote about him so often I dubbed him, “The P of D.”
I met him in real life a few times but I always managed to get away. I usually had to humiliate myself by running away in front of everybody but a boy’s gotta do what a boy’s gotta do. To stay alive.
Wondering about that suicide? It was the cataclysmic event that put me on the path to finally remembering everything. His name was Frankie. He was older by a couple years and we were best friends for a few years as kids. Some of my best memories were of me and him on various adventures. Riding bikes. Fishing. Skinny dipping. Stealing shit. Firecrackers. Exploring the burnt down drug store. Digging up bones in that crypt we found in the middle of the woods.
Hey, remember that time we rode our bikes 20 miles from Franklin to Sherborn? We were gonna spend the night at Nana’s house but as we finally turned onto her street I got this funny feeling and I slowed down and let you get ahead of me. Your turned into her driveway and I started pumping the pedals hard past the driveway. I just took off and never looked back. I never understood how or why but you didn’t come after me and I got lost. I spent hours riding who knows where but I miraculously ended up home again by nightfall. Everybody was worried, then relieved, but also amazed that I managed to get home. Ever since I have always trusted my innate sense of direction.
That story was always going to be one of the clues but the truth is I never solved it. Why was I so afraid that I chose to get lost instead of spend the night there at her house? What was I really running away from? I still don’t know.
I found out much later that she had sexually abused my father when he was little. I certainly couldn’t have known about that then. Could I?
Frankie and I eventually grew apart. By the time we were teens he had taken to ignoring my very existence. He seemed to think I was trying to follow in his footsteps and resented me for it. After having had little interaction with each other for a few years I suddenly started hanging out at the local drop-in center in Falmouth where he was a regular. I then followed him into an alternative high school program for kids who had difficulties navigating the regular high school. On a more personal level, I lost my virginity to an ex-girlfriend of his and, soon after that, began having sex with his next girlfriend. Yes, this was all in high school. It was the seventies.
It was too long ago and my memories are too vague to be certain but I don’t remember consciously trying to emulate him or in any way mess with his head or hurt him. As I recall, it felt like the similarity of my trajectory to his was coincidental. To him, it almost certainly would have looked and felt differently. Maybe it was.
I’m going to make a big leap here to his suicide while we were in our forties. I came home one day to a message on the answering machine. “Hello Eric, this is your brother Tom. Call me as soon as you get this. And you better be sitting down.”
In all my other attempts to tell this story, that’s where I start. With Tom’s not subtle message. It seemed weird that he would say, “it’s your brother Tom” instead of just “it’s Tom” but that’s just Tom. And at the time we probably hadn’t spoken in a couple years so maybe he thought I’d forgotten about him? Nah. That’s just Tom. So was, “and you better be sitting down.” Tom doesn’t prevaricate. I knew immediately that someone (in the family) was dead. But who?
There were eight of us. Two parents, six kids. Now there were seven. None of us were close. Tom and I have had periods of being close, and since this call we’ve become closer. But he gave me nothing to indicate who had died.
I knew it was Frankie.
A few years prior I was in therapy. Well, actually, I had been in therapy for most of my life, but a few years prior I was specifically examining my relationship with my parents and I had decided that I wanted a break in contact with them. I wrote both of them (they were divorced) a brief note saying so. I put it in the simple context of “I’m going through a difficult time, emotionally.”
My father responded with a postcard (he always wrote postcards, never letters) saying, “I got your note. Ha, ha.” My mother responded with a letter of apology for my shitty childhood. I had gotten a lot of those so I “filed it” with the rest. I was expecting those responses. I wasn’t expecting the letter from Frankie, with whom I hadn’t communicated in a very long time.
He knew about my request because he lived with our mother. He was 44 at the time. I think he only lived apart from her for about 10 years of his life. That’s not a relationship I care to contemplate. But she showed him my note. Or told him what it said.
So, Frankie wrote me a letter. It was handwritten, five pages, both sides, in tiny cursive. In short, it was long. I almost didn’t read it out of spite. I couldn’t fathom why he would do such a thing after I specifically said I didn’t want to be contacted.
It began, “I hate myself so much and everyone else would hate me, too, if they knew who I really am.” Just like that, as if I would know what he meant. We hadn’t spoken in years and I rarely thought of him. He had become a stranger to me. The entire letter just kept saying the same thing over and over in different ways.
He was a wretch. He hated himself. He was a fake and a phony. Pretending to be like everyone else. His life was a lie. He thought about killing himself all the time. He was such a horrible human he probably should kill himself. Five fucking pages without any context or background. A hate letter to himself. Addressed to me.
I was stunned. I was pissed. I was mystified. Not just with the content but with the timing. He didn’t write me a letter. He wrote me a confession. It was almost as if he was apologizing. Was he unburdening himself of something? Was I expected to respond? My anger grew.
I tore up the letter, threw it away, and didn’t think about it again.
Until a few years later. Until the phone call. From my brother Tom. It was Frankie. Frankie had killed himself.