I told my stepmother I was spending the night at Carla’s house and Carla told her parents she was spending the night at mine. Then we went with the boys up the mountain.
The boys were brothers and—for a while—Carla and I were like sisters. Neither of us wanted to have sex, which is contrary to every parent-of-a-teenager’s first assumption. It’s an assumption that says a lot about parents, and its wrongness became the impetus to our lie. If we went up the mountain with the boys and did not behave badly, our mission would prove we were good girls. We would deserve merits—possibly in the form of more freedom! We knew if we got caught we’d get punished, but we fantasized about telling our parents: “You see! We faced and resisted temptation.” Of course, there was no way we could win.
Before we took off for the mountain, Carla and I made a pact: neither would stick the other with the boy she didn’t want to mess around with. It would be she with the younger brother and me with the older one—or Backgammon.
The Müller boys were star soccer players and Carla and I were too, and so even if we fooled around, at least we weren’t going to smoke weed or trip on mushrooms. Not that year. Not that crew. The Müllers were Austrian. They had actual accents, which made an overnighter with them seem educational.
They borrowed their father’s Suburban. There were snowshoes, soccer balls, and a stack of orange cones in the back. Carla and I put cones on our heads and rubbed them together. Carla said, “Let us hone.” The boys turned and looked at us like we were from another planet, which of course, we were. Maybe they hadn’t grown up with Saturday Night Live in Austria, but they gestured back at us, holding up the victory-V behind each other’s heads, and figured out they were supposed to laugh. We wanted to make boys laugh, especially these boys because they were so exotic.
But sure, all boys—All-American or imports—will do harm to daughters. Fathers know this. Their urge to protect us is both gallant and animal-like.
Carla’s father was more than protective. He wouldn’t let her cut her hair. They weren’t Mormon or anything, but her father said, “That head of hair is mine until you leave my house.”
She rarely did leave their house, but that night we were at 5000 feet in a guest bathroom complete with its own sauna. “Let’s take one,” Carla said. “It’ll make our skin soft.”
“Our skin is already soft,” I said.
We were brushing our teeth when someone knocked on the door. “They can’t live without us,” I whispered. We did a little dance in the mirror and hit our fists together in Wonder Twin solidarity.
“We’ll be out in a min-ute,” I said teasingly.
“Open this door right now!”
Carla gagged. Toothpaste dribbled down her chin. I knew her father’s voice from soccer games. I knew the way he yelled at Carla to walk straight to the car without goofing around if she had played poorly.
Her father had driven three hours up the mountain, and he meant to drive us back down.
“You aren’t my father,” I said. “I don’t have to go with you.”
The boys stood silent in the hallway. What seemed to me then as the epitome of European restraint, of class and good manners, now I know was pure fear. Mr. Mitchell’s neck bulged out of his jacket collar. The sleeves of his jacket were too short, and threads of filling popped out. We were only fifteen, but Carla’s father was already bald. His face was pink and pock marked; his dark grey oily jacket fit him like shrink-wrap. He was part sea lion, part molting bird—and all father.
I realized then that I didn’t know what his job was. I’d been to Carla’s house twice and couldn’t get out fast enough for the stench of sweat and the way her father sat in his recliner while her six-year old sister danced on the coffee table in dingy cotton underwear that read Thursday on a Sunday.
Carla said, “Molly, you have to come.”
“I’ll face my punishment tomorrow,” I said.
Carla’s father’s shoulders twitched as if something had stung him between the shoulder blades.
“Your stepmother is waiting for you,” he said. “And from the sounds of it, you’d better prepare to duck.”
I bit my lip so I wouldn’t burst out laughing. The woman was shorter than me and barely older, a ridiculous threat. My father, a car aficionado, described her as a spark plug. “Dad,” I wanted to say. “Does a siphon qualify as a car part?” But I knew better. A girl who has spent any time living alone with her father receives special education in what men don’t want to hear, and just how far she can push it.
“I’ll get our bags,” I said.
“Boys already loaded ‘em.”
Spoken like a man with a gun.
We marched to Carla’s father’s Datsun. The fabric on the car seats and ceiling was ripped and shredded like a bag of kittens had been let loose in there. It smelled too. Halfway down the mountain, he ran out of cigarettes and pulled into a quickie mart.
“Not a word out of your lying mouths,” he said.
In the backseat, I said nothing. I thought that man could see my mouth move from twenty yards away.
“When we get home,” Carla said through her teeth, “he’s going to beat me to a pulp.”
My father had taught me how to drive his Jaguar, so it would have taken three seconds for me to hop into the front seat and guide that lemon Datsun down the mountain. Three seconds to strand Carla’s father in the dirty snow of the quickie mart parking lot in his inadequate jacket.
I didn’t. Hijacking a car wasn’t a matter of saving us girls. Life, as it presented itself in Crown Heights, made me believe we were plenty safe.
Things at home went downhill fast. Dad forbade me from “any future friendship” with the Müller boys and grounded me for two weeks. And then, to get me out of the house, he would give me a couple hundred dollars cash and drop me at the mall.
Carla didn’t have money, but beyond that, our failed escapade affected her days differently. The dark fist that was her home shut tighter, and so at school she became luminescent. She willed every ounce of her teenage girl power on becoming Popular. Her desperation was real, but her method seemed phony. We were done.
Cherie and I became close because her father also had teenage girl liquid income to spare. Her brother rolled us joints. We’d get high and walk twenty minutes to the Mexican restaurant her family owned, where the waitresses brought us bowls of chips and salsa, hot plates of enchiladas with the sauce still bubbling, and flan. Our bodies craved it all.
Cherie and I could eat 4000 calories each at one sitting and not gain weight. The boys who hung out with her brother could do bongs all night and still win State. They would take us along when they stole Christmas trees and picked magic mushrooms. They gave us our first Fleetwood Mac albums. They would show us the red laser beam security systems in their homes, which made the beds in the center of their rooms as valuable as the Hope Diamond.
Cherie and I smoked pot and shopped and listened to rock. Some nights I’d come home for dinner. The Spark Plug had a loose eyeball and a small mouth, which she pursed around spaghetti noodles that weren’t Italian, but Japanese and see-through. I didn’t know what bothered me most—her screwy menu, her table manners, or the way she tried to get me to say things she knew would put me at risk. My stepmother knew what I couldn’t have known at the time: never take a man’s loyalty for granted, not even your father’s.
One night, she told my father I was spoiled because he had bought me a bicycle.
“It’s not my fault you had to pick blueberries to pay for yours,” I said. Then I said to my father, “You promised me a dog, too.”
“A dog is a lot of responsibility,” he said.
“I took care of Pippi.”
The summer I turned six, my mother and father had returned home one night with a Great Dane puppy I insisted on naming Pippi Longstocking.
“Pippi?” my father had said. “For a dog that already weighs more than you do?”
“If this dog could wear stockings,” my mother had said, “imagine how long they’d be.”
My father helped himself to a second plate of Japanese spaghetti. “That dog was a royal headache.”
“No,” I said. “You cheating on Mom while she was dying, with Melanie, that was a royal headache.”
My stepmother’s name was not Melanie. She stood up from the table. “More water anyone?” She was young, but she already had bumblebee butt. Usually, only old ladies who wore nylons under their pants had butts like that.
I swallowed a meatball, chased it down with water, and held up my empty glass when my stepmother returned with the pitcher. She filled my glass. I wondered if my father had chosen this woman for her homely looks. He had told me a few years after dumping Melanie, right around the time I was just letting boys up my shirt, “Good-looking women are bad in bed because they’re selfish. Keep that in mind.”
“I feel sick,” I said, scraping my see-through noodles back into the serving bowl.
My stepmother said, “You can’t let her get away with this!”
How could that woman ever have picked blueberries? She was allergic to wheat, legumes, latex, and dust. That was the night I started taking lint from the dryer and sprinkling it on her pillowcase. Some days, her eyes were as bloodshot as mine.
After Cherie’s brother moved to L.A., Cherie and I dealt directly with his source, the braless hippy waitress at their restaurant.
One Friday night, besides slipping us our baggie, she gave us three non-virgin cocktails in a row. After Cherie and I outtalked ourselves at the table, we went to make phone calls from her father’s office. We wanted to find a party.
The noise the cooks made working the pots and pans was amplified by the power hose the dish washer used to pre-rinse incoming dirty dishes. Burning hot dishwater spray mixed with the steam from vats of simmering beans and sauces. Bleach and chili powder burned my sinuses. My hair frizzed.
The door to the office was locked.
“Where’s the key?” Cherie asked the cook, a white guy with a long skinny ponytail.
“No sé,” he said, wiping his forehead with his sleeve. The dish washer, a Mexican, snickered.
Cherie knocked louder and put her ear to her father’s office door.
“Dad!” she shouted over the drone of restaurant kitchen equipment. “I know you’re in there.”
She slumped against the doorframe.
“Tell him your mom’s on her way,” the cook said.
“Fuck you!” Cherie said, “I’ll get you fired.”
The office door opened and our waitress spilled out. Strands of her hair stuck to her face and she was sweaty, like she’d been doing dishes instead of serving them. Her fake Mexican peasant’s blouse was buttoned crooked—the turquoise and coral embroidery across her chest was off-kilter. Cherie’s father shadowed her.
“You bossing these boys around?” he said to Cherie.
Our waitress chattered at us so fast she might have been speaking real Spanish.
“Mom’s coming,” Cherie lied.
Her father yelped and slapped our waitress on her ass. “Earn your keep, girl,” he said as they left the kitchen together.
“Nobody’s getting axed from this circle jerk,” the cook said. “You little snots should take a pile of your dad’s shit to one of your parties. You’ll make friends with wheels in no time.”
“My mom owns this restaurant,” Cherie said.
“Your mom knows where she’s not wanted.”
Cherie herded me into her father’s office and slammed the door. She began tossing piles of receipts and papers and folded waitress aprons in the air until she found a margarita glass full of cocaine.
It was pretty, the white powder in the pale green glass, raised up to the bright bare bulb hanging in the office.
“That crystal my mother wears around her neck is supposed to be saving their marriage,” Cherie said.
She picked up the glass-load of cocaine and I followed her to the cook’s station, hoping she would dump all that snow into the mole sauce. Instead, she threw the glass onto the tile floor and it shattered. A blast of steam from the dish drying cycle turned the pure white powder to a globby smear, like Cream of Wheat.
“Luis,” she said to the dish washer. “Clean that shit up.”
Soon after, Cherie’s parents took off to some vortex in Arizona for a weeklong couples’ workshop. I waved a Ziploc bag full of Liberty Caps under Cherie’s nose and said, “Let’s make some calls.”
Because we hadn’t affiliated ourselves with one crowd, all crowds came to the party. Cherie and I wove like diplomats between the jocks, the geeks, the brains, the punks, and the stoners. We let a few cheerleaders in for good measure. Girls with kinky perms wearing turquoise leggings stuffed into hot pink Converse high-tops were dancing to Boys Don’t Cry. Joe Ruggerio, a freshman with the most incredible skin, lay at the edge of the dance floor near the sliding glass doors, breathing in the Pacific Northwest night. I was about to join him when a group of guys doing beer bongs outside signaled the red alert. “Who drives a Lincoln Continental?” someone yelled. A man who appeared to be somebody’s father had just pulled into the driveway.
“Cherie’s dad!” somebody else shouted.
Girls stopped giggling. Boys swarmed in a haze at the front door, as if to protect the damsels in distress. I made a panicked round of the first floor and could not find Cherie, so I decided to march forth through the blockade and explain to her father that despite how things looked—and they looked alive, electric, and shiny—everything was under control.
A petite brunette was walking towards the house. I grabbed her shoulders. “Party’s over,” I yelled. “Cherie’s fucking dad is home!”
The stars were hyperventilating.
The girl pushed me aside.
“You can’t go in there!” I said.
The house was emptying in time-lapse speed. I could walk home. But I had mixed whiskey with beer with weed with mushrooms. It would be impossible to pull sobriety off with my father. I saw the Lincoln in the driveway. It was from another galaxy and era. It was ridiculous. It was… how had Cherie’s father slipped by me through that kaleidoscope of people? Where was her mother? I spun. The streets glistened like obsidian under a soft steady rain.
When girls got hit by their fathers, the same thing always happened: within twenty-four hours, everything returned to normal. I was invited up the hill for dinner at Cherie’s the night after being busted. This never would have happened in my house. My father would have let his disappointment linger in me so much longer.
Cherie’s father answered the door, wearing an apron. “Great party last night!” he said.
I said, “It won’t happen again.”
Cherie was lighting candles at the formal dining room table. I handed her cloth napkins and napkin rings from the buffet.
“Where’d you end up last night?” she said.
“I don’t know.”
The doorbell rang. “The new cook Dad hired,” Cherie said. “A real Mexican.”
“Where’s your mom?”
“Still in the desert.”
I surveyed the table, pondering the uselessness of napkin rings.
“I slept in the Lincoln,” I said.
Cherie held on to the back of a dining room chair.
“He made me move it into the garage. Why didn’t you say something?”
“Girls!” her father yelled out. “I don’t hear any pretty little footsteps.”
I followed Cherie to the front door. The little brunette who had rushed past me the night before entered. She removed her coat and gave it to Cherie. We waited for her to undo her scarf and pull off her gloves—one finger at a time.
“I’ll put these away,” Cherie said. “You two get cozy. Mi casa es su casa.”
The brunette and I stood in the foyer. She raised her chin, rubbed her hands together, and said, “I, for one, am thrilled that Cherie’s fucking dad is home.”
That young woman had been inside that house, while Cherie’s mother was not, while Cherie was being chased down. I’d been about to sneak in to the downstairs guestroom when I heard the screaming. When Cherie came out to move her father’s car, I lay paralyzed and silent because she wasn’t crying or even breathing weird.
Girls subjected to their father’s hand experience pain I clearly do not envy. But at least later, as women, they can track back to specific incidents and heal. I could point to nothing. When asked, “What’s your father like?” I still answer, “Compared to others, good.”
It took six months after the mountain cabin incident for my father to trust me to stay home alone for a weekend. Friday at school, Cherie and I announced a party, inviting the latest transplant. Sara wore acrylic fingernails and a white leather jacket. She’d been sent to Crown Heights by her mother to live with her father. Our fathers were good friends.
Dad had been urging me to introduce myself, so while he was packing the car I said, “How about I ask Sara Chambers for a sleepover tonight?”
“I’d much rather you go to her house.”
“You don’t just invite yourself over to the new girl’s house, Dad.”
My stepmother came into the garage carrying a suitcase, a duffel bag, and a tote.
“I might have to trade in for a Suburban,” my father said.
My stepmother sighed.
“Small price for beauty,” I said, smiling.
“True,” Dad said. “I can’t complain.”
“Yes for Sara?”
“Make sure her father is okay with no parental supervision. I’ll check in with him. He’s just up the street.”
“Have fun,” I said.
“You don’t want to have to earn my trust all over again.”
I certainly did not.
Sara came carrying a backpack full of beers.
“Our kind of gal,” Cherie said, helping unload.
“Something’s missing,” Sara said.
“My dad hardly drinks,” I said. “Stuff’s coming.”
“Guys too,” Cherie said.
“Music,” Sara said.
I showed her the stereo and albums. “You’re in charge for the night,” I said.
Everyone arrived at once. Joe Ruggerio, the boy with the perfect skin came with some of his friends. They were freshman—but Joe was gorgeous. He had brown eyes the color of the first horse any girl ever loved.
We had more alcohol in my house that night than I’d ever seen at anybody’s house, except Cherie’s. The music was loud, but we somehow kept it contained enough to keep the cops from showing. Whoever puked had made it to the trashcan. We were pulling off a minor miracle.
And then, I broke the hostess rule and disappeared from my own party.
Joe and I climbed the stairs to the third story—to my father’s bedroom. I was not going to lose my virginity, but I let him get me down to my underpants and watched as he got down to his. Then we rolled around on my father’s California king-sized bed.
This was not the bed I had jumped into as a child, waking my parents. The last time I’d been in bed with my father was under my yellow canopy. He invented a story where I was a princess who saved an elephant that was stuck between two trees, by using sticks of butter. My father thought his stories put me to sleep, but they didn’t. My favorite part was the minute beyond “The End.” He’d say, “You asleep?” and I wouldn’t answer.
“You have any good animal rescue stories?” I said to Joe.
“Like Flipper?” he said.
“Can I sleep here?” he said.
“No way. The girls are.”
“Me and three older women.”
“I better check the party.”
I whipped him with my bra before roping it back over my shoulders. Joe didn’t flinch. He laughed and cooed and put his hands behind his head. He wasn’t a large boy. He was a benchwarmer on JV football. Everything about him was slow. There wasn’t a competitive, driven bone in his body.
“How’d you get the scars?” he said.
“Car accident,” I said. “I was little.”
He sat up, bringing his face so close to mine that his eyelashes tickled my cheeks. He put one arm behind me and traced those weird pink places.
“It’s like a newborn baby’s neck,” he said.
I cocked my head, keeping my eyes on Joe’s eyes. I would be with good-looking boys, and then with good-looking men, but never with so little complication.
“Shh,” he said. “Listen. Sounds like the party’s over.”
“I’ll see if there’s any beer left.” I backed off the bed.
He patted it. “Stay here, with me.”
I went downstairs in my bra and panties. Cherie was on the couch watching a movie.
“It’s about time,” she said. “Carla dropped by. She heard there was a party and thought it was your birthday. That little kiss-ass actually brought you a cake.”
Close, she was a week early.
“She was supposed to be running an errand for her father, are you kidding?”
“You know how to entertain better than me.”
“Not better than Sara,” Cherie said. “She’s in your bedroom with half the party.”
Then, as if the joke was on us, a loud howl of laughter came from upstairs.
“Come on,” I said.
I grabbed a towel from the bathroom and wrapped it around my body. Cherie and I listened outside my bedroom door. Sara was talking and some boys were laughing.
She was on my bed. Her pants were down at her ankles and her feet were on the floor. I had a view of her vagina that I’d never even had of my own. It was like a sex education horror film scene. Her lower body appeared larger than life and four boys were gathered in a half-circle around her. She had one pedicured finger inside herself. The boys, those friends of Joe’s, didn’t even turn to look at Cherie and me.
Sara’s free fingers seemed to beckon and when one of the boys started to pull his penis out of his pants, the others grunted and cheered. Sara howled. Cherie put her forearm across my chest like a mother does in the car when she’s hitting the brakes hard, and backed me out of my own bedroom.
She dragged me into the guestroom and turned off the lights.
“We have to wait until those pricks leave,” she said.
“Joe will stop them,” I said, reaching for the doorknob.
“No,” she pushed the lock. “He won’t.”
We lay under the skylight on the guest bed, waiting for something bad to happen. We buried our faces in pillows as we heard the boys pass our door. We listened to their laughter echo in the refrigerator as they grabbed beers for the walk home. They weren’t old enough to drive.
“Joe’s upstairs,” I said.
“Let’s sleep here,” I said. “Let’s just sleep.”
“We have to kick that whore out.”
“Right! Her dad will tell my dad and I’ll be grounded until college.”
We were each hugging a pillow.
“What if they go home and tell their brothers?” I said.
We ran downstairs and locked the front door. We were loading the dishwasher when we heard a thump. Sara had stumbled down the stairs onto the landing. She pulled down her pants and urinated.
We dashed up the stairs and grabbed her by the arms.
“Stand up!” I said.
She was a ragdoll.
Cherie slapped her again and again.
“Help me get her clothes off,” she said.
They were only half on, but when we fully stripped her, she peed again.
“Sara,” Cherie said, “you have to make it to the bathroom.”
We set her on the toilet. Cherie ran the shower.
“It’s ice cold,” I said.
We pinned her to the shower wall. “Great first impression!” Cherie shouted.
Sara’s eyes rolled to the back of her head. She was slick and heavy under our hands. Cherie was slapping her more lightly now, like the slaps we’d seen the heroin addicts give themselves to produce a vein in health class videos.
“Hold her tight,” Cherie said. She took the showerhead off the hook and shot a cold spray over Sara, pausing a few extra seconds between Sara’s thighs.
“Hand me that towel.”
“Not these towels,” I said.
“Fuck’s sake, she’s clean now.”
Cherie rubbed a towel over Sara’s head, across her chest, between her legs.
“You don’t have to scour her skin off!”
“Who would want this?” Cherie said. “Who would want a daughter?”
We propped Sara up in the corner of the hallway, tore the sheets off my bed, and threw an old blanket across it. We heaved and swung Sara, naked, back onto my bed. Cherie found two used condoms on my floor. She picked them up with yellow kitchen gloves on and wrapped them in gobs of paper towels and buried them deep in the garbage can in the garage.
We ran a load of laundry through two hot cycles—my sheets and Sara’s clothes. We scrubbed Sara’s urine out of the carpet. It was Cherie’s idea to crank the air-conditioning at full blast to dry the wet spots in the carpet faster. “You think your stepmother won’t notice?” she said. We cleaned until four in the morning, setting Sara’s clean clothes out on the chair next to my bed.
“We’ll sleep in the guestroom,” I said.
Pulling the blanket up under my chin, it hit me that Sara was probably freezing. “Cherie? You awake?” I said. No answer.
Who knows when Joe left.
At noon, Cherie and I woke up. We didn’t know what we would find opening the door to my room. I was sure there would be vomit, more urine, or that Sara would have walked straight through my floor-to-ceiling window—trying to get home.
She was naked on my bed, just as we’d left her.
“Look,” Cherie said. “She’s got cellulite already.”
She yelled, “Sara, wake up!”
Sara opened her eyes. She lifted her head and touched her naked belly. She looked at us and said, “Huh? Sorry.”
I thought she was going to be pissed. I thought she would scream at us for backing away. What were we supposed to say to those boys? They were stronger than us.
But she shivered and said, “I’m starving.”
She reached for the blanket and rolled herself up in it like a burrito. “Give me five minutes,” she said. “I’ll treat us to breakfast.”
“Did you have fun last night?” Cherie asked.
I wanted to kill her.
Sara brought herself to a slow slump. She ran her hand through her hair, held the blanket-wrap up over her breasts and laughed a broken laugh. “Did I do anything stupid?”
Cherie laughed like she was going to tell the story, but I stepped past her, putting my arm across her chest the way a mother prevents her child from smashing through the windshield, and said, “We all did.”
When my father and stepmother came home the next day, there wasn’t a pillow out of place. The next weekend Dad dropped me at the mall, and I bought new sheets with his money. That first month, I waited for a teacher to stop me in the hallway, for news to pass around school that four first-year students were being summoned to juvenile court. It never happened.
One night at dinner, my dad said, “Dan Chambers called me today.”
“Sara is being shipped off to some sort of rehab center. Seems she’s had blackouts. She told her father she thinks she was raped in this house,” he said. “Thinks.”
My stepmother’s eye wound around like crazy. “I wouldn’t want to be a teenage girl these days,” she said.
Really, I thought, was it better ten years ago?
“Honey,” my father said. “Your friend almost died here. Because of alcohol. Understand?”
I nodded. I waited for the world’s biggest punishment: not only had I thrown a party with no permission or supervision, there was booze and sex, there was rape by four rapists, and practically one dead body. I waited for my father to struggle for the right words, to form his mode of protective questioning: Have any boys, he would clear his throat, has any boy, anybody’s father, any one ever tried such a thing with you? I waited for him to tell me what I should have done or what I could do to make things right. How to avoid such things in the future. If Sara’s father wanted to question me or kill me. If our fathers were going to meet with the fathers of those boys.
My father didn’t even ask, “What happened?”
“You girls have to get it through your thick heads,” he said, “high school boys have a hard time resisting temptation.”
“All males do,” my stepmother said, making my father choke on his beverage, and making me remember that my father was defending those boys.
But a girl who has lived alone with her father learns to gauge quickly what it is men want to hear.
“You’re right, Dad.”
Sara came back from rehab a ghost in the hallways at school. Our fathers took us out to fancy dinners together once in awhile until we both left for college. Those outings were supposed to be special father-daughter outings. But because Sara and I knew what we knew, yet didn’t know exactly what the other had seen or remembered; nor did we know why our dads had to keep quiet in order to keep pushing us forward, we started to find excuses. We made up little lies in order to avoid the big lie at the table.
Our fathers continue to golf together. Sara and I joined them just last Sunday at the club in Crown Heights for brunch. Like Sara, but for different reasons, I said no to champagne. I can’t drink in front of her. In the weeks that followed that party, what had she remembered and how? Does Sara think we let only one boy rape her? Or does she think I was passed out somewhere too, and that the shame has been hers alone to carry?
This remains unspoken between Sara and I, and so it will remain, as each of us walks to her car after these father-daughter brunches where we do like we do every few years. We catch our fathers up on our accomplishments at work, our latest travels, and our interesting friends. Always, we shrug when they josh, “Why is it so hard for you girls to find good men?”