When I was ten, Jimmy and I were the same height. People seeing us together when we walked around town would ask if we were twins, which I found delightful. Jimmy, of course, hated it.
"No! I'm two years older," he grumbled.
Technically, he was only seventeen months older, but I knew how hard it must be for him, so I didn't correct him in front of strangers. I just laughed, which, in retrospect, wasn't much nicer.
Unfortunately for me, the year I turned ten was also the end of my physical growth. In June, I started having periods. I'd seen the films at school. When I woke up with blood on my underpants, I got out the special "starter pack" we were given at school. It was awkward to fit that big pad properly inside my underwear and pin it with the safety pins.
At recess, I went to the bathroom and checked the pad. Oh, no! There was so much blood the pad was full. I thought that big thing would last until I got home. Nobody told me you might need more than one.
In desperation, I confided in my most "mature" friend, Diane.
"Don't worry," Diane said, "I'll explain it to Mrs. Kaplan."
While we were supposed to be working silently on math problems. Diane got up and whispered in the teacher's ear. The teacher looked at me. She didn't seem shocked. Maybe what was happening at my age wasn't so strange. Diane came back and said we had permission to go to the nurse's office.
Mrs. Hudson was very kind. She gave me another sanitary napkin and I changed in the health bathroom. When I came out, she said, "You'll have to start carrying a purse to have some extra sanitary napkins." She asked if I had a supply at home. When I shook my head, she place some in a brown paper bag, folded it up and handed it to me.
Because I'd gone to the nurse, when we walked on the way home, all the girls knew something had happened and asked me about it. Beginning menstruation didn't seem special like the films made it out to be. I didn't feel like a "brand new woman." My stomach hurt and my underwear was stained with blood. And I felt messy.
One of the girls said, "You must be really advanced." As if somehow my body was working above grade level and it decided to mature me some more, whether I wanted it or not.
I told my mother about the period starting.
She looked at me and said, "That's too bad. You won't need to use it for a long time." Meaning, I wasn't ready to have a baby. I didn't tell her I'd already made up my mind never to have children. Because you can't have anything when you have kids.
The earliness of that experience bothered me a lot. For years, I remembered it happening when I was twelve. Twelve made more sense. Who ever heard of a girl starting to menstruate at age ten?
In the fall of 1962, emergency drills became more real. An "official alert" could come over the loudspeaker at any moment. The teacher would stop what she was doing and yell, "Duck-and- cover." We students were supposed to dive under our desks, hunch over in a ball and cover the back of our necks with our hands. This was supposed to keep us safe in the event of a nuclear attack. Pacifica was said to be a target for Soviet bombs because there was an underground Nike missile silo right above us in the coastal range of mountains on Sweeney Ridge. During the drill, I would hold my breath, contemplating our common deaths in a nuclear war. Would we even know what happened to us? Would the school be blown away in the fierce wind that came after the first blast? Would we all be burned alive instantly? Those minutes dragged on forever until we got the "all clear" and could come up and breathe again.
President Kennedy talked of an American naval blockade in the Caribbean. There was a big photograph on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle of children just like me in Miami doing their duck-and-cover drills. Miami, the caption read, was only ninety miles from Russian missiles. One day on the playground at school, we saw a terrifying sight. The "secret" Nike rockets we knew about, but had never seen before, were up and ready to launch. Three shiny, white monoliths stretched erect like angels with fins but no wings — an unholy trinity of demolition, destruction and death. We were in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
President Kennedy's speech on television made everybody nervous. What was the point of straining your brain memorizing multiplication tables if you were going to be blown away at any moment? Mrs. Kaplan tried to keep order in the classroom, but there were a lot of boys shoving and hitting each other. Girls suddenly burst into tears.
Since my mother had little seniority at the Post Office, she still worked weekends and Dirk was in charge of us. That Saturday, while the boys and I were watching cartoons, Dirk called Billy into his bedroom. When Billy came back after ten minutes, Jimmy and I asked him what Dirk wanted. Billy shrugged his shoulders and said to me, "He wants to see you now."
"What for? Why would he want to see me?"
Billy shrugged again.
"I'm not going," I said.
We went back to watching cartoons. I waited for my favorite show, "Mighty Mouse."
Dirk bellowed, "Susie, Susie."
I got up, thinking if I showed my face in the doorway, maybe he'd shut up and leave me alone. I walked to the bedroom door and opened it slowly. The window shades were still drawn, the room in shadows. Dirk lay on the bed, under the quilt, his arm stretched across where my mother usually lay.
"Susie, come here," Dirk said. His voice was slow and mellow, like he was happy. That was a surprise. He was never happy as far as I could tell.
He pulled the quilt back and patted the mattress next to him. "Come here," he said in the same mellow voice that sounded like love. I didn't trust it.
My heart beat faster. Could I run? No, that would just make him angry. Why was he being nice to me?
I crossed the room to the bed and sat down on the very edge.
"No. Lay down."
Gulping big breaths, I laid down. He threw the quilt over me up to my shoulders.
Dirk scooted closer, He pulled up my nightgown and began rubbing my upper legs. "You're so cold," he said.
I smelled whisky on his breath.
What were my choices? I couldn't fight him. I weighed maybe 60 pounds. He weighed over 200. I couldn't run away. He would chase me down. Besides, I lived here. Where else could I go?
So I froze. I told myself not to do anything that would encourage him.
He felt the tension in my body. "Relax," he commanded.
The last thing I wanted to do was relax. I held myself still. I tried not to breathe. He rubbed my legs, up and down, for several minutes.
"Here, feel this," Dirk said. He fumbled with his pajama bottoms, then took my hand and placed it on some skin that felt hard with a spongy-soft top.
"What is it?" I asked, my voice trembling. I snatched my hand away.
He laughed in his new slow, easy way.
Oh, I thought. It's one of those things my brothers have. But his was hard and huge, way bigger than a boy's. If he put it inside me, I thought, I will be torn in half.
Freeze, I told myself. Just freeze. I was aware of Dirk's huge body next to mine, the strength of his muscles compared to mine. I was a small girl, my arms and hands unusually tiny compared to the rest of me, as if I had bird bones in them. If he got angry, he could snap the bones like matchsticks. Whatever happened next would depend on him. I was terrified.
We lay together in the bed, me frozen and he rubbing my legs again with his ham-sized hands. Eventually, he stopped. He told me I could get up.
I scooted off the be and headed for the door, my nightgown falling over my legs.
"Susie," Dirk said.
I stopped and turned around to face him.
"Don't tell your mother about this." He paused, as if considering what to say next. Finally, he said, "She wouldn't like it."
I left the room, pulling the door closed behind me.
I had escaped.
I hurried through the living room, where the boys were still watching cartoons, and ran to the backyard, where I broke down and sobbed. Dirk had hands to spank me, feet to kick me and now I knew he had another weapon to hurt me. A weapon I didn't, couldn't, understand.
I was still crying when Jimmy came outside.
"What did he do to you?" Jimmy asked.
I shook my head. Dirk hadn't said not to tell Jimmy. But there was no point in telling him. He was as powerless as I was.
It was the first time I'd ever kept anything from him.
The next time my mother had off work in the afternoon, she called me into the kitchen and closed the door to keep the boys out. Dirk had already left for his job working the swing shift. She sat. I stood facing her, the blue-and-white Formica table with its stainless steel edge separating us.
"Jimmy said you were crying Saturday morning," she said. "Did Daddy hit you?"
I said nothing.
"Did he? Did he?. . . Because if he hit you, I'm leaving him." Her face was hard, her voice angry, agitated. I'd never been in the middle of one of her fights with Dirk and I didn't like it at all.
This was confusing. She'd asked him to spank me. She knew he'd kicked me home from the beach and had done nothing to punish him. Why was she asking if he'd hit me?
If she left him now, wouldn't it be my fault?
If she left him and then changed her mind, wouldn't I be blamed?
Hadn't Dirk said not to tell?
"No," I said. I trembled and cried. I felt myself ripping apart with the questions, hers voiced, mine internal. Wanting to tell. Daring not to tell.
"Are you sure he didn't hit you?" she asked again. "Because Jimmy said your face was red, like you'd been hit."
I shook my head, sobbing. Thoughts flooded my brain, swirling around like a tornado, overwhelming me. If I told her what he'd done, it would hurt her. I didn't want to hurt her. I knew she loved him, on some level at least. If she left him, what would happen to us and the little house I loved? She kept pushing, as if she wanted me to say the words that would free us from him forever. All I had to do was lie.
I didn't want to lie, not with such severe consequences. I stared, close-mouthed, at the table. Silently, I begged her to ask me what had happened. If she would only ask the right question, it would show me she wanted to know the truth. If she wanted the truth, I would tell her everything.
But she didn't ask that question.
Finally, the inquisition over, she let me leave the kitchen and I went outside to finish crying, feeling a mixture of relief and anger. Happy Dirk wouldn't be angry with me, wouldn't punish me. Angry with her for pushing me to say something that wasn't true when the truth was so much worse.
I finished crying with big gulps and sighs. Only Jimmy had asked the right question, even if he'd come to the wrong conclusion. But I couldn't rope him into my problem. It wasn't fair to him.
Another week passed and the Cuban Missile Crisis was over. The whole world was not blown up. We still had our duck-and-cover drills and we still lived with the threat of nuclear annihilation hanging over our heads. Eventually, the threat retreated to something that you knew in the back of mind could happen, but it didn't seem imminent.
By my world had been shaken to the core.
Afterward, I wracked my brain as to what I had done wrong. Why would Dirk invite me into his and my mother's bed? I kept mulling it over and decided it was the way I walked. When I walked, I took long strides, as long as my short legs would allow, anyway. This meant my hips swung from side to side. I decided this must have been what triggered his interest in me. Therefore, I trained myself to keep my hips from moving. It only took a few weeks of concentrated effort to keep myself constrained, making the lower half of my body act like it was in a straight jacket.
I gave up using the biggest muscles in my body because I thought it would keep me safe. Later, as I gained weight, the fat settled around my buttocks and the tops of my thighs because those muscles had been silenced. I noticed the same thing in many bodies of girls and women around me. I never asked, but I assumed they had done the same thing to avoid tempting men.
Then I had a new fear: Dirk might come into my room at night. During the work week, he came home after midnight. I might be asleep and he could catch me unawares. My private room, which I'd been so proud to have, now seemed dangerous. And, oh, God, I was having periods now. That meant I could have a baby if he forced himself on me. Could he do that when I was asleep? I didn't know and I certainly couldn't ask my mother.
I began having nightmares. I'd wake up in the middle of the night, heart pounding and gasping for breath. Somehow Dirk turned into King Kong, the giant gorilla from a movie I'd seen on television. It kept chasing me. I'd hide in a closet or in the bushes in front of the main door. Either way, I woke up just as the monster was about to catch me. Home wasn't safe.
Down the street from us was a two-story post office, the tallest building in the neighborhood. In my nightmares, I'd run down to the post office, climb to the roof and just as the monster was about to catch me, I'd jump off and fly away in an attempt to kill myself before I could get caught. But gravity rules, dragging me down. I always woke up before I hit the asphalt of the parking lot.
My nightmares continued for a long time until one night, I jumped and landed on my feet. In my dream, I walked home. I never had that nightmare again.
Most of the time, I didn't have to deal with Dirk at all. However, the weekends could be brutal if Mom wasn't home. We had to keep quiet. If we woke Dirk up, there would be hell to pay. He'd come bursting out of his bedroom, grab anything nearby and start wailing on the nearest kid, which always seemed to be me. When he attacked me with a metal ruler, he didn't stop bashing me until I stopped fighting and played dead, uncurling myself and showing my stomach in submission, like a mistreated dog. I realized then he was capable of beating me to death. He wouldn't be able to escape the consequence of that, but I would still be dead. Any retribution against him later wouldn't do me any good.
At the time, I assumed he was totally out of control, but, looking back from the perspective of adulthood, I realized even in lashing out, somehow he never hit my face, arms, or legs, where it might show the world that I'd been beaten.
Mrs. Hudson looked at my clothes and said, "You really should go home and change." I'd been sent to the nurse because I'd slipped on the playground and the back of my skirt was coated with mud.
"No! No!" I yelled, terrified. "I'll be alone with my stepfather."
She cocked her head, stared at me for a moment with a questioning look, then conceded. "Okay, I'll see what I can do." She had me take off my skirt. I waited in my slip as she washed the mud off at the sink and dried it as best she could with paper towels. She had me put my skirt back on and sat me in front of a heater so my skirt would dry. I even got a carton of milk and a cookie. She was the best.
Dirk must have complained about me waking him up in the mornings because my mother forbade me to watch television or play with the boys when Dirk was sleeping.
"Your voice carries," she said.
"What am I supposed to do?" I whined.
"Find something quiet."
The next time we were home alone with Dirk and the boys watched TV, I stood stuck in the doorway of my room. I stepped out of the doorway, then retreated several times. I really wanted to be with them and watch cartoons. But I knew if I started, at some point I would forget myself and laugh too loudly or get too rambunctious. I'd make too much noise and the beatings would begin again.
I went back to lay on my bed, contemplating the ceiling. It wasn't fair, but that was my reality.