Nonfiction by Sue Gano
The face of my abuser is in the plain bathroom mirror of my house on Sixty-First Street, my much loved English Tudor on a block of English Tudors on a street that has no trace of white trash. Neither of my parents lived long enough to have visited here. They hadn’t walked through my front door, demanded a beer, or picked a fight over some charged event that was better left in the past. There have never been any late-night hallway shadows. No downstairs screaming followed by the sound of a beer glass emptied shortly before the launch against a kitchen wall.
Every day the mirror welcomes me to take a look, the closer the better, the longer the better. In its reflection I see his high, pasty white forehead complete with age wrinkles that could be a road map for my own. His cowlick that sits smack in the middle of my front hairline, rebellious and untamable, much like the life he led. Unremarkable blue eyes look back at me with the same size and shape, their eyelids progressively drooping with each year’s passing.
I have lived a lifetime trying to work through my childhood, to put it in its proper place, to deal with it and move on. Years and years of therapy; individual, group after group of women, molested as children—survivors of abuse, not victims. Weekend retreats where no word is spoken for forty-eight hours as I work towards forgiveness of my perpetrator and develop a sense of love towards myself. I have tried Eastern religion, “Focus, Focus, Focus,” Western religion, “God is there for you if you would only….” I have done workbook after workbook designed to teach me what healthy feelings are for and why I have a right to them. “I Feel (Blah), When You Say (Blah). I Am (Blah), When You Do (Blah).” Years of daily affirmations, thoughts of the day, meditating, visualizing. Talk, Talk, Talk. Crisp, yellow stickies on the kitchen cabinet door with the day’s date to remind me that I am no longer a child, but an adult woman. Writing letters, burning letters. People with suggestions: “Analyze your dreams. Don’t analyze your dreams. Before you go mad read Gestalt, better yet read Louise Hay. Harriet Lerner helped get me through a serious depression, I think she could help you too . . .”
I stumble drunk into the bathroom with a fury powered by the vodka that is becoming my daily companion. The room is dark, silent, the dampness from my three-year-old’s evening tubby still lingers. I want to turn on the light and be the only one in the mirror. Just me; wearing my favorite ratty gray sweater, my hair askew from lack of attention, my eyes weary from the sins of the past which were not of my own making. Tonight I am going to tell him to get the hell out of my house, that I am no longer that fearful child and he has no business here. He’s going to finally listen when I tell him what a bastard he is, that his abuse is no longer a secret. That I didn’t stay silent, others know what he did and who he really is. With one powerful swipe, I hit the wall light switch.
As my eyes adjust to the glare I see him in the mirror, smug, self-righteous, looking at me as if my appearance is not a surprise. His chin is titled upward; his eyes downcast, observing me, judging me. My cheeks burn as I see the beginning of a sneer. I ready myself to confront him when the familiar tremor begins in the corners of my mouth, deep in the soft folds of my lips. It is slow to get up to full strength, it has its own timetable, its own method of moving the muscles and skin with quick, distinct movements that squeeze and release, squeeze and release.
Swiftly, I reach up with my hand, massaging the lips, struggling to curtail the progression of the spasm that has followed me throughout my life, but it is a useless effort. The lips continue to quiver, and I close my tired eyes, rapidly repeating aloud today’s date, as I try to bring my body and mind back into the present day. The words bounce off my bathroom walls, swirling around as if to engage me in a feverish dance that I refuse to be a part of. Instead, I remember to breathe, working to match the cadence of my words to my slow and steady breath, until they become my own once more. Only then do I open my eyes again to the mirror to find he is gone, his job successfully done.
In his place is a little girl with ragged clothes and a dirty face. She has my blue eyes and a cowlick that sits above the peak of her forehead. It has been a long time since she has appeared in the mirror. She is massaging her lips, a look of panic on her face. I know what she is thinking. “Is it safe to come out? Is he gone? Is it ever going to be okay?”
I am too worn out to console her tonight, instead I quietly tell her to go to sleep, that it is time for her to rest. I feel I have disappointed her again. It shows in her forlorn face, her eyes despondent, as she looks away. She is too needy, I don’t want her to get too attached to me. She needs someone to protect her, but that someone cannot be me. I can barely take care of myself. Exhausted, I turn off the light. I am alone again. The bathroom is still, the only sound is the manic throbbing of blood as it joins the pounding rhythm of my heart. I need air, I need to see the yellow stickies on my kitchen cabinet door, I need to escape.
In the quiet kitchen and with today’s date in my sight, I pack up all my raw emotions from the evening into my imaginary box and close the lid tightly. My therapist will want to know how I felt about my latest encounter. Was there an increased sense of panic? Was I more assertive? Had any ground been made? We will meet as always on Monday for fifty minutes. No more, no less. I will purge, she will listen. I will cry, she will validate. I will hear from her how much progress I’ve made and I will believe her, at least for a little while.
Sue is a native Portlander who has worked for many years as a social worker in rural Oregon. Currently she is writing a book of personal essays. Her work has recently been featured in Six Hens Magazine. Sue has studied creative non-fiction writing at the Attic Institute. She does her best thinking paddling a kayak on the Willamette River.