I’ll Never Bother You Again
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Names and some identifying details have been changed to protect privacy.
When I was in junior high, my mother forbade me to speak to anyone outside our home. So I sometimes went whole days without talking. Muteness was like my superpower. It allowed me to move about unnoticed. It made me invisible.
Of course my mother didn’t mean, Go mute. She meant, Don’t attract Social Services. “Don’t tell anyone what goes on in this house,” she would say to me. “If anyone finds out, they’ll take you away.” She saw danger everywhere and established elaborate rituals to keep threats at bay: nailing windows shut, hiding, checking locks for tampering.
She saw shadowy men: the stranger in the side yard, the military-looking guys trailing us. (“It’s the same three men from last night, Heather.”) I figured the neighbor was probably looking in our windows — he was known for that behavior — and we lived in a military town. The soldiers weren’t following us; we were just in front of them. But I went along with her paranoia. If I offered other explanations, it only made her more anxious. “How do you know these things?” she would ask. “Who have you been talking to?” My mother often couldn’t bring herself to answer the phone or talk to neighbors. Making friends was out of the question. Anything with a frame around it — windows, paintings, mirrors, screens — seemed to make her especially fearful. She detected noises that I could not: “Did you hear that?”
I did not hear that.
My mother wouldn’t let me invite anyone over, ever. No guests inside the house. I couldn’t wear jeans, short skirts, tight tops, makeup, or anything black. We made our own clothes or bought them cheap at a sale barn outside of Orlando, Florida, where we lived. In junior high I owned two pairs of pants and one pair of giant orthopedic shoes. I was ugly and hairy because she banned shaving legs or armpits. These were her rules. If I didn’t like them, I could go live with my father. And sometimes I did.
Holed up in a shabby duplex on the west side of Orlando, my father wore bras under his guayabera shirts and pantyhose beneath his pants and makeup on his face. He shaved his legs, arms, and chest, put on nail polish, and drank gin with his eggs and toast in the morning. When he got mad, he hit people. I couldn’t walk past him without his grabbing me and pulling me to him.
When I left either parent’s house for school in the morning, I passed into a different world, one in which I didn’t understand the customs, much less speak the language. I rehearsed my lines — Hey, y’all want to hang out? — but I couldn’t figure out to whom I might say them or how.
Sometimes my mother would disappear for days at a time. Sometimes I’d find my father passed out in the driveway in the morning when I walked to the bus stop. Worried he was dead, I would feel his throat for a pulse.
One day in the fall of tenth grade, Joe, a boy I’d known in elementary school, found me alone on a bench at lunch: the weird, quiet girl in unfashionable clothes, chewing on her pencil’s crumbling pink eraser. He said hi to me as if he’d discovered a long-lost fellow tribe member. He acted as if I were normal, as though we were friends. He led me dumbstruck to a table in the back of the school library, far from the librarian’s desk. I walked behind him, my silence surrounding me like a cape.
Two guys were sprawled at the table: Randy, whom I’d also known in elementary school, wore frayed denim bell-bottoms and a dashiki. (This was in 1979.) He had before him a deck of cards and a knife. The other boy, a curly-haired blond named Louis, wore a rumpled oxford shirt and pressed khakis. He was holding a book by Plato. The two did not say hi. Weirdness radiated from me.
“Why is she here?” one of them asked.
Joe said I was cool, and he ushered me toward the empty chair.
I sat down and put my head on the table, my brown hair concealing my face like a curtain.
Every morning when I got to school, I went to the library. I heard people whisper: Heather hangs out with guys. I was getting a reputation. At last. This social promotion was completely unexpected, terrifying, and welcome.
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