Excerpts from the novel River, River
This novel is based on a true story.
We do not know the truth because we repress it; and
we repress it because it is painful.
Truth is not in safety or in the middle.
—Norman O. Brown
It is August 10th in Chicago, early evening, humid, warm. The street at this moment is quiet, but just around the corner, people are walking, eating their pizza, driving their cars. It is a moment like any other. No one expects anything to happen. It’s Chicago—home of the Bears.
Sara is walking two steps ahead of her friends, Jon and Abby. She feels alone, even though Abby is her best friend. She senses there is no way to get as close to anyone as she wants to get. It is her birthday; she just turned 18. Her mother took her shopping this morning, so she’s wearing new shoes, platform sandals with leather straps, and a deep blue, spaghetti-strap silky summer dress. The shoes touch down on the sidewalk softly. The dress feels smooth on her skin. She should have brought a sweater though, for air conditioning. She is paused on the sidewalk, which is radiating heat. Abby and Jon are laughing behind her. She turns and walks backward for a few steps. They are paused on the sidewalk, Abby putting her headphones onto Jon’s ears. Sara wants to go to a movie tonight, wants to yell at them to come on, but instead she crosses one arm over the other and bends back, looking up at the creamy evening sky, waiting.
Theo drives a vintage gold Cadillac Coup deVille. He likes things with history. This is unpopular but he doesn’t care. He especially likes jazz, and for every fucking hip-hop band that Roko and Morris listen to, he makes them listen to say, The Birth of the Cool, or Money Jungle, or Oh Yeah, and they put up with it, cause they know nothing touches him. He’s known this for a long time. Everyone’s known this for a long time. He’s the richest, and he’s the coolest. But certain things keep him in the hedge of light, one, his music, two, his leather jacket, which he’s wearing now even though it’s fucking 80 degrees outside, and he needs to find some protection as good as this jacket that won’t make him die of heat exhaustion. It’s a vintage jacket, fuck the tank tops and chains his friends wear. Fuck that. He’s no conformist. He’s driving, and no one can touch him as long as he has on the jacket. He turns up their hip-hop, and drives in rhythm to that, takes a right, another, takes the long straightaway, and he suddenly knows where he’s going; he’s taking his boys on a ride; cruising all the way into the big time space, the big time lights.
Abby is listening to It’s a Beautiful Day by Roxy Music. She just discovered it, and Jon doesn’t know it, and she’s enjoying the fact that she knows one song that he doesn’t. He claims to hate Roxy Music, thinks they’re dumb, but she’s going to convince him to like this song. It’s nice outside, balmy, like those afternoons that last forever. Abby has long strawberry blond hair that waves down her back, and Jon has just stopped her on the sidewalk to wrap her hair around his neck, so that they stand for a second, looking into each other’s eyes. Abby loves the way Jon’s eyes change color, from creamy blue, to dark. She takes her hair from around his neck and tucks it into the back of her green corduroys.
She places the headphones on Jon’s ears, “Listen to this,” she tells him.
Jon listens for a second and then takes Abby’s hair again and wraps it around his neck, pretending to choke.
“Juvenile,” he says.
Abby laughs, leaning back so the hair around his throat tightens even further.
“Brilliant,” she says, “_bon ambience_.”
Sara watches them. She walks over and balances on the curb for a few minutes. She was the first one to ask Jon out. She was the first one to hold his hand in a movie theater. She was the first one to kiss him (beyond the exit sign, behind the Benchmark Theater). She liked the way he could talk about anything. And she liked the way he touched her, soft, so that she was always falling into him. She doesn’t know exactly how it happened that Jon ended up with Abby. But somehow the switch was made, and it was the kind of thing that made her chest constrict and feel icy if she thought about it, if she was in the wrong state of mind. She falls off the curb. She thinks, from a curb, you can’t fall that far. That’s before you’re 18. She was about to be in that wrong state of mind, even if Jon is a moron. All he cares about is his stupid computer and music and now Abby. He never cared about her. He never even liked movies. Her chest is feeling tight. He never liked her.
Theo is 19 on the day he circles that block, checking out the rich hippie chicks and nerdy guy walking slowly down the street. He asks himself if they are the reason he turned right, and thinks no—the girls ain’t nothing to look at; the day is long enough. He wants his music. But the other two, clambering like dogs, they’re thinking he turned right specifically for those girls. Roko is saying, “Let’s fucking get em.” Morris is saying, “Fucken A.” So, Theo decides, easy enough.
When Morris played ball, he was the best. The ball connects to your body. Around the back. Through the legs. Off hand. Pump fake. Reverse lay-up. Cross dribble. Reverse. This is now what he does with his bronze colored 9mm Calico. It’s his new ball. And Theo, driving south, like going down on a woman, is entering the white zone. Fucken A.
Abby and Jon and Sara are walking into the balmy evening, not quite dusk, with maybe one hour before dark. The moment has the long extended feeling those summer evenings can have, like the day will never end, like time is endless.
Theo likes this street because it’s smooth like gold. The world outside his tinted window has an extra edge. This is a street that glides. Theo eases his gold Cadillac Coup deVille down this white street like cream. He sees the light slamming off the houses blinding him. He sees a girl with headphones on, and a white lacy shirt, and he can already hear music. He is in his own music, playing it in his head. His friends see targets. Good, easy targets. Their voices change; he can hear in their voices the resonance, the pitch and fall of hitting their zone. They are ready for action. Theo is aware now that his gold Cadillac Coup deVille with a black top glides like no other car on the planet. He curves around the corner easy and slow, letting the girls disappear.
Roko turns down the music the second time around. Two girls and a guy. Theo’s a fucking coward, because he doesn’t say what’s on his mind. He expects Roko to do everything.
“There’s our booty,” Roko says. His main policy in life is to say what’s on his mind. “Still just standing there. It’s going down now.”
Theo shakes his head. “Once more around, slow and easy. They haven’t registered us yet.”
Roko is going with the magnum. He doesn’t know why Theo and Morris need those street sweepers. It’s almost embarrassing. And Theo drives like an old man. Roko would be around the block and back in one second. He gets the blond.
Morris chews a few more V-cuts. They’re bitter as hell but he’s used to it. To counteract those he chews four pumpkins, gagging. He’d rather snort them but no place to grind them. He washes the bitter powder from his mouth with the warm Pepsi he bought hours back. Now he just has to remember what he took, real general, so he doesn’t OD.
Abby is listening to It’s a Beautiful Day for the third time. She has put the headphones over Jon’s ears again, so he can hear a particular phrase. He decides not to explain to her that he already knows it—once he hears a piece of music, he already has it memorized, and can usually play it. Sara is ahead of them and he’s feeling her impatience and he doesn’t blame her. They’re moving slowly, and something makes him feel like they should pick up the pace.
This particular neighborhood makes Roko sick. He twirls the magnum. It’s nice and heavy.
“Morris, you got the dark girl. I got the blond,” Roko says, as Theo finally slows to the curb. “Theo? You’ll cover? Keep the guy off.”
Morris rakes his gun back and forth. “Fucken A.”
“Theo? You know what I’m saying?” Roko asks again, “You in?”
Theo is driving slow. “I’m pulling over for you. Just be patient, steady. I got your back. Toss me the AT-9.”
“Fucken A,” Morris says again, throwing the gun to him.
Abby stops on the sidewalk. She is looking at a Cadillac that has just pulled over. Jon follows her gaze and takes note of the bumper sticker for a local rock station, WMET.
“Odd, for a gold Cadillac,” Abby says.
“What’s odd?” Sara asks.
They watch the car’s slow gliding stop.
“That’s odd,” Abby finally remembers, “We’ve seen that car before.”
Abby is still staring at the back rock bumper sticker when three guys emerge from the car. They are all holding guns, metal, with straps and sliding sounds and look somehow ultra powerful, like they have apparited from some war zone in a foreign country. The guns are surreal; one is as long as the guy’s arm. The three guys are maybe about the same age as Abby. Black guys. The tallest one quickly grabs Sara and shoves a rifle under her jaw. He’s bald and wiry and Sara is fighting him. A shorter guy in a leather jacket spins his gun around in half circles, looking bored, until he steadies the gun and points it at Jon’s chest. Abby looks from gun to gun, and thinks maybe she’ll run, but already the guy with the red bandana around his head is gripping her arms, forcing her into the car, his knee at her back. She is screaming, and as he shoves her into the car her head hits the seat and hurts her neck and he pushes her face into some guns in the back seat.
Morris sees a bright circle around all the bodies like he’s seeing their auras, which he just may be. But it could be the pills too. Who knows the effect that combo did. The only thing that can go wrong is if he gets a headache. But that won’t go down. He probably took too many pumpkins. He loves this part. Shadows on the sidewalk, shadows gone.
Theo is more amused at the looks on their faces than anything else. He loves that look of astonishment, fear, and that overblown response, my god the longhaired blond girl has no control over herself, screaming like that. He can almost count the seconds in his mind, white boy frozen, Morris about to get the feisty girl in; they’ve got one more second to get off the sidewalk.
Sara is arguing. This is ridiculous. A man is now pushing her toward the car, a machine gun at her neck. She’s not going to get in; her heart is racing and in her throat, her feet are scraping across the sidewalk. Jon is just standing there, not moving. Then Sara can’t resist any longer, the guy has somehow picked her up and shoved her in the door.
The shorter guy with the automatic is wearing black jeans and a glittery silver button-down shirt, and a black leather jacket. He is standing there, eyes opaque, not excited by the scene like the others, but amused, maybe, or bored, or on something, and Jon briefly thinks about what the guy might be on, as the guy is pointing the gun at Jon’s chest. Jon is standing there, uncertain about what to do, the guy silent, the light falling, as though into dusk. If Jon moves, a bullet presumably enters his chest. But if he doesn’t move, the car drives away with the girls.
Abby is panicked, terrified of sitting down, for scattered across the back seat are several guns, sinister, cold, horrifying, automatic rifles like she’s never seen. And she can still feel his hands on her arms, and feel the gun at her temple. The car smells, like stale cigarettes, something sweet, cologne, maybe. She feels nauseous. No, she won’t sit down. She turns and folds herself around, slips toward the driver’s side, the car door ajar. Sara is making strange sounds, being shoved in the front seat, but Abby isn’t thinking about Sara or even herself; her only thought is to get away from the guns. There must be at least ten of them, with long skinny barrels, black, copper with straps, cold. Abby throws herself out of the car and onto the pavement, her wrists buckle, she is on her back, her neck is somehow whipped back, she feels like she’s been punched, like her brain just hit her skull.
The guy’s sweat, his cologne, is already on her, and he has lifted her, pushed her through the door, into the front seat and then through the space to the back. The guy is skinny, tall, and she keeps thinking she should be able to escape his grasp, please God let her escape, but his hands are wiry and hard and impossible and Abby was there, in the seat, Sara saw her there, but now Abby is gone and Sara can hear her screaming. Abby is on the ground by the driver’s side. Sara tries to think how she can get away, but the guy is holding onto her tight, he’s in the seat too, has somehow just fallen in and pulled her close to him, and she feels like she can break away and follow Abby if she could just move, but black spots are in her eyes and she can’t seem to think that fast.
“Fucken bitch got away,” Morris says.
“I’ll get her back,” Roko says, but Theo is no longer pointing his gun at the guy on the sidewalk; he’s taking easy steps toward the car.
“Roko, get the fuck in the car,” Theo yells, and in one motion, he is off the sidewalk, over Roko, on the driver’s side, and they are driving away.
There is yelling, the door slams; Abby is stunned. They are driving away, her hair is caught in the door. She can’t really move, but she is being carried down the street, a ravaging cut glass road, her feet trying to stop and becoming wet with pain and blood, her neck and shoulders about to break, her mind somehow blank, her hair being pulled out of her head, and then she is screaming on the street.
The Cadillac rounds the corner and Jon finally runs to Abby, helping her up. He carries her to the nearest house, a relatively large one, with round white columns, yellow roses, the whole works. A house with cachet, Jon thinks. A woman in her 30’s, dark hair, tired face, opens the door. Right away, before Jon has finished talking, she’s pulling him inside.
“Come in and use my phone. Call the police.”
Abby can see a long white carpet past the small wooden floored entry hall.
Abby’s feet are bright red, bleeding profusely.
“I can’t,” Abby says, “my feet.” She looks down at them. They are bloody and not quite whole, but she is standing on them. Her sandals are gone. But her feet are still there. The woman looks at them too.
“I’ll get you something,” she says.
Jon is calling the police and Abby is standing on the porch, the woman beside her again, with a white towel and water. Abby can’t stop crying, though she thinks to herself that this crying is unnecessary; she is trying to breathe, but her whole body is trembling. The porch is trembling. She should have noticed the car earlier. Sara is gone in the car.
Nina has just hung up after talking to her 5-year-old granddaughter. She is still nodding her head, silently laughing.
“The ham won’t let me construct my sandwich,” her granddaughter had been saying.
It is two hours earlier in California, where her daughter lives, and her granddaughter was just having a “midnight” snack, at around 8:00 at night.
The banging startles her so severely that she just rushes to turn out the light.
Hide, she tells herself, where can she hide?
Then after quite a lot of banging, there is a girl’s voice, yelling for help.
Nina has had her share of trouble and doesn’t need any more.
She stands in the dark, and then takes a few steps toward the door.
The knocking stops; the yelling stops.
The police, Nina thinks, of course, she should call the police.
But the girl might need help now.
She takes a deep breath and walks to the door.
There are no windows near, to peer out and make sure it isn’t a trap.
She listens some more. Maybe the girl is going down the steps, away.
She unlocks the door slowly, opens it ever so slightly.
The girl is white.
She wants to shut her door again; she’s had enough trouble with whites to last her forever.
The white girl is standing on the last step, looking up at her.
“I was raped,” the white girl says in a rough, broken voice, appearing to have lost all her energy yelling.
When Nina had been raped, maybe around the same age as this girl, her father had asked her what she’d done to deserve it. The usual story. Nina knows it is unfair, but she’s wondering, anyway, what that white girl did to deserve it. Obviously something? She can’t bring herself to actually speak to the white girl, but she opens her door, and makes a hand motion.
“Were you followed?” Nina asks suddenly, wanting to close the door again.
The girl nods no, seemingly unable to speak as well, and walks slowly up the steps. The girl is holding up a purple dress, her hair matted, the side of her eye greasy and bloody. Her body is scraped and grimy. Her eyes are wide, shocked. The girl won’t sit down, just wants to lean against the kitchen counter. Nina goes to the phone.
Nina walks to her phone. When she was raped, it was in the back of a truck. She hadn’t thought of it for many many years. Now she can taste it, feel the pain when he broke her arm. Her legs feel unsteady, like she might not make it to the phone.
She calls 911.
“A rape,” she says, “The girl is in my house. Can you come and get her?”
She gives them the information and hangs up the phone as slowly as she can. She moves in slow motion back to the kitchen.
“I called the police,” Nina tells the white girl.
The girl nods.
“You want some tea?” Nina can’t believe she just asked that. She isn’t even sure she has tea. She only drinks coffee. She opens her cabinet to check.
The white girl doesn’t answer; she’s just standing there, her bloody hand on Nina’s counter.
Nina sighs and sits down. She thinks about her granddaughter, about Los Angeles, and wonders if it’s any safer than Chicago.
“Where did it happen?” Nina asks.
The white girl looks at her, then points off in the direction of the water.
“You’re lucky he didn’t kill you,” Nina says.
“They,” the girl says.
“Three of them.”
“Oh.” Nina hates this. She stands up, looking into her cabinet for tea.
There is, Jon thinks, while standing next to Abby at the station, focusing on the Far Side Daily Calendar on the chief’s desk, what one calls unpredictability. And then predictability. A kind of order, like here, they have stack after stack of forms, all labeled underneath the shelf—Vehicle Impoundment Form; Evidence Tag; Notice of Missing Person Form; Offence Incident Supplement Form; Stolen Car Affidavit Form; Field Contact Card; Consent to Search Form. There is a bag of Oreos open on a chair beside him. He wants one. There are three motions in the world, he thinks—self-determination, fate, and chance. And if the universe was created by chance, what would stop his world from being created by chance? So that he and his friends are walking down the street, and then suddenly in a car, and then taken to god knows where, as in Sara’s case, or here, looking at a Far Side Daily Calendar in a police station, wanting an Oreo when one of his friends is being raped, tortured, something. He dislikes the fact that he doesn’t even know what math to use to figure out the relation between chance and determinism—it should be able to be measured, graphed, predicted. But no, it’s like the weather, or love, or sudden insanity.
“So,” the lady holds up a pencil drawing, depicting the shorter guys face. “Is that close?”
Jon looks at the drawing. She’s missing something. And drawings never look like people anyway.
“His face—you know, it was more angular,” Jon says.
“In what way? Cheekbones higher?”
This is ridiculous, Jon thinks. Just bring on the chaos. Maybe he could make a computer program like that—something that responds independently.
“I’m not sure it’s the cheekbones,” Jon says, “Just more in the jaw, maybe.”
Nina sits alone in the kitchen. There is the glass of water on the counter she had given to the girl. She flips out the light. There is an overwhelming emptiness, weight, something she can’t name, filling her body. She turns out the light and goes to the stainless steel kitchen sink. She stands there for a moment, just leaning into it, the metal cold under her palms. She doesn’t know why she does this, or even how she gets there, but next thing she knows, she is on the counter, her feet in the sink, her body heaving with sobs. Her body, her voice, throbbing, crying, until her eyes are swollen, until the lights out her window are fuzzed and small, until her body is folded over itself, a heap in the sink.
Morris needs more coke. Immediately. But there is none. Plenty of other stuff though. He swigs a random sampling of pills he’s collected here and there for these occasions. Two purple, two yellow, he forgets what those are, five Valium, those are easy, three Ritalin, he got those from the school kids, a few old fashioned Black Beauties, a few Adderalls, those are the best, also from school children, and downs these with a beer. This slows him down, almost. For a while, he sees everything double and he loves this. This is the way life should always be. But after about 40 minutes he needs more, wants coke, but no coke around. There are blue pills, and more white. He takes them, ten or so. He needs oblivion. To be wiped away. To feel the blood rush back. To have all the pain end, the pain that is more than just oblivion itself. As he’s going down he sees just fragments. The girl who smiled at him in class. The road speeding beneath him. The thrill of the weight of the gun, locking itself, the clicks, the metal sliding against itself. The fall of the wet shower curtain against his back, his blood pink in the bathtub. Then he has to lie down. Sweet blackness, sweet sweet blackness.
The officer who takes her to the car seems potentially cruel. He tells her to sit in the front. When the other cop comes down and opens his door, she’s sitting there. He doesn’t say anything; he just gets in the back. They drive in silence. For a long time her eyes are closed. The driver has brown eyes and a mustache and his gun. He’s mellow. You never know though, he might stop in some alley and do the whole thing all over again. This, she thinks, she could not live through. She looks at the cop driving and evaluates the streets they are taking. They seem to be nearing the hospital.
“How you doing?” he asks.
“Fine,” she says. Just don’t talk to me, she thinks.
“Do you remember any names they called each other? What kind of weapons? What did the weapons look like? How tall were they? Those kinds of things—just start talking, my partner will write it all down.”
At first, she remembers nothing. And she wants to keep it that way.
“Nothing,” she says, her mouth dry, her voice gone.
The officers don’t say anything. If they had said anything at all, if they had made any sound even, she never would have spoken. But they’re quiet, and after a few minutes, she knows something. She knows a lot.
“Theo, that’s the driver.” she says. “His name is Theo. Black leather jacket. The driver. The other, the guy with the red bandana—Rocko, Roko, something like that. It starts with an R. The other guy …” But to contemplate him is beyond her. “The other guy I hate,” she says, “And I hope to kill him one day.”
The radio suddenly crackles with official information.
She can hear the partner in the back seat writing.
“Good, good,” he says.
They stream through all the lights; everyone moves out of their way. The car is big, plush, and Sara leans back, shaking, cold, like she’s in a sudden fever.
Theo hates to leave this cool air, the shiny black water, the music. He stays in the car, running down the battery. He floats inside the notes, dancing around the car, out into the night, except he has this feeling like something is banging him in the head. He opens his eyes. No one, nothing around. The urge to throw the guns into the water is so powerful he has to grip the steering wheel and hold on. He plays the music over and over again. He will stay here, in the notes. Except the notes are changing, notes that he’s heard a thousand times, they sound different now.
Sara walks out into the hallway of the hospital. Her dress is torn. They’ve wrapped white paper shoes around her feet, given her a tetanus shot, and treated the cuts on her eye and knees. The smell of disinfectant or the sour smell beneath it is driving her crazy. Her mother is down the hall, turns, and rushes toward Sara. Sara doesn’t move. Her mother hugs her.
“I have to wait for my discharge papers,” Sara says.
“Oh, honey,” her mother says, then sits on the bench.
Sara just continues to stand there. In the middle of the hall.
Theo is hearing the underside of Bluesology. It’s talking a different language now, taking him toward the lake, taking him away from here. The urge to throw out the firearms is overwhelming. This vision, this irrational and annoying vision—he can see guns breaking the surface, can see the water swallowing them—finally breaks him. He’s been sitting here for hours. He has at least ten thousands dollars worth of guns in his car. He almost always carries these around. The police never stop him. He’s a perfect driver. The magnum that Roko likes was the second gun he bought—when he was 14—and there is absolutely no fucking reason whatsoever to dump it or anything else in the lake. He’s pissed off about it. The music is changing, has become some other music, and if he doesn’t do what the vision tells him, he won’t be able to go home and sleep. Worse will come his way. He knows he must follow the vision and he knows this without reason, without desire, but with certainty. Shit, he can make another ten thousand in a few weeks. He’ll buy all new guns. The copper Calico 9mm is Morris’ and he can’t dump that. But the vision tells him to dump them all. He’s so fucking pissed off. He loves his magnum. He loves them all. He gets out of the car, slams the door and stands there. He won’t do it. He also won’t drive around unarmed, how stupid is that? He won’t do it.
Sara is hot, sweating, but she’s also shivering, and ashamed. They are trying to make her ashamed, they are trying to make her remember, or maybe forget, to ignore it, or shove her face in it. It all goes back and forth and it is all something they know nothing about. They know nothing about it at all. They all know nothing. When Abby moves forward to hug her she senses that they can all destroy her. They can judge her and condemn her and hate her and feel sorry for her. She stands still, holding on to the image in her mind, a kind of rising up. She pretends that she’s been crucified, she’s been on the cross, she herself is spilling blood and water and the halls are filling with it. The others will all slip and fall and she will rise up, fly out the doors, into the orange blackness. There are petty conversations, rape crisis numbers handed off, papers to be signed, money to be paid.
Abby knows why Sara says nothing. She just hugs her, just tries to pretend that one of them is leaving on a trip. She doesn’t notice Sara’s bloody eye, her torn dress, her feet cut up like Abby’s. She doesn’t smell the cologne on Sara’s skin, the vacant look in Sara’s eyes, she doesn’t notice. She wills herself to not notice. Jon lightly brushes Sara’s shoulder with his hand, not looking at her, not even facing her. In the car on the way home, Abby’s father turns on the radio news. When they drop off Jon, he doesn’t even say good-bye, he doesn’t kiss her, he doesn’t touch her. Abby is more alone than she has ever been, in the back seat, the news on, her father pulling into the driveway, saying, “Okay then, let’s get some sleep.”
Later, when Sara is stuck in the car next to her silent mother, really, she is above, gently gliding across the top of the car, black on black, deep in the world now, deep in brokenness, in violation, in blood.
Jon has a small stash of chronic in his sock drawer. He takes his orange glass-blown pipe and carries it to his window. The smoke burns his lungs. He leans against the window, thinking about Sara, whom he had made love to exactly two times—could still feel her soft body, remember the look in her eyes, afterward. It’s possible she might have loved him, he thinks, though, even then, she was already broken, already weak, never took what she wanted. What does he want—he doesn’t really know. Maybe Abby. Is he even taking that? The bullet went into his heart and out his back and yet it didn’t and yet the hole is there, because the smoke has nowhere to go, and the damn notes from Abby’s song are still here in his head, not in harmony with the numbers he’s thought up, and not in harmony with the universe as notes and numbers are supposed to be.
Finally, alone in her bedroom, Abby almost feels safe, in the quiet house. But she can’t sleep. She turns on her bedside lamp and sees, as though for the first time, how these walls are pale blue and how pale blue is a draining color, a hopeless color. Poor Sara, she thinks. Why did she escape and not Sara? She should have helped Sara to escape. She holds on tightly to the cold corners of her blanket. Running the cold through her hands from one end to the other. The satin trim washing her hands with cold.
Sara is in the bathroom, running the shower as hot as it will go. She waits to get in, letting the room steam around her.
She can hear her father’s voice, barely, from the hallway. He’s yelling, drunk.
She leans into the darkness, the steam, the sound of the water all like a shine, a glitter on her mind, keeping her away from the alley.
This novel is based on a true story. I was sitting with a few friends in a backyard watching our boys playing something elaborate that turned into a game involving guns. Abby’s kids were not allowed to touch any of the wooden guns that the other kids were using. I asked her, “Aren’t you worried that if you suppress that desire they’ll want it more?” We’ve all read articles where a kid not allowed to play with guns will eat his peanut butter sandwich into the shape of a gun. “I’m not worried,” Abby said, and then, in about five minutes, she proceeded to tell me the story that became this book. Even after more than 15 years, she was trembling after she told it. It’s not a story I normally would have ever considered writing, mostly because I didn’t feel it was my story to write, but also because I had no desire to discuss rape or race in any way. Both issues deserve volumes, and I wasn’t interested in entering into the political realm of either issue. But the story obsessed me—I found myself waking up, day after day, just knowing how to write it, (in snapshot form, like grainy black and white photos), and knowing that my dreams were not my own but the dreams of these characters. I regretfully put aside a novel I was happily halfway through, and wrote this one. All the bare narrative facts are true, and I didn’t want to change them to be politically correct. In the end, I suppose, it is a story about race and rape, though in my mind the whole time, it wasn’t about that at all. It was about how we all transform and adapt and alter who we are in order to survive our surroundings.
I asked myself a hundred times a day why I was writing this book. I didn’t want to write it. The cliché that writers talk about, “I didn’t choose the story; it chose me,” happened. At first, the story seemed to be about how to turn around a bad experience and make it something you can use for strength. Everyone must cope with bad situations; everyone must learn to survive, and part of survival is transformation—the question was how to transform oneself after such an event? But that wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to know about the men. The men Abby had described, seemed to me, in their cultural context, just “out to have some fun” much in the same way, as a male friend of mine, when drunk, “picked up and threw a cop through a plate glass window—all in good fun.” There was a line in my mind, that may easily be debatable, between violence and violation, and where that turns into evil. This is a story about violence, but in my mind, it isn’t a story about evil. The way Abby had told the story, I hadn’t perceived the men she talked about to be evil—they were young, angry, frustrated, and probably rightfully so, and she and her friend happened to be easy, and symbolically apt, targets. Abby doesn’t harbor bad feelings against them, but can still feel the deep fear they left in the wake of that day. Rape is a vast and bizarre thing to research, and definitely the issues of degradation, humiliation, violence, and power issues can push into areas of what I would consider evil. These kids were pissed off, oppressed, poor, and wanting revenge or power, but somehow not so far gone as they could easily have been. As I wrote these characters, I moved into their world, as much as I could from my world, and their actions, in their context, made sense to me. I don’t want to condone anything; we are all responsible for our actions. But what happened to the real life Sara is symbolic of a larger story that makes up the underworld of this country’s history. In that sense, I think of it as a study in history, in the dynamic interplay between races, economic groups, and in the way the past is not past.
But why even write about this, which already happened once, so that it can happen again in words? I think of it almost like a translation. The only way some people are heard is through violence. Violence is speaking without words. I wanted to explore that violence, the place it comes from, and I wanted to explore the woman who was and was not a victim, and how all of us at times place or don’t place ourselves in the victim position. I wanted to explore how the fear and anger and sadness moves through us, and how we recover from it, or don’t.
As a final note, it is important to remember that the incidence of men roaming around and attacking girls off the street is fairly low. Most rapes occur by someone the girl knows, often by relatives, and in date-type situations.
LINDSAY AHL is the editor of Bliss magazine, an arts & culture magazine.