Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You
The following is a short excerpt from Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You (University of Georgia Press), a memoir by Sue William Silverman. If you wish to read a description of this book, please click on "Sue's Books," above.
(EXPLANATION: One result of being sexually molested is that, as a young girl, everyday objects or actions took on an importance beyond their everydayness. In this brief excerpt, a pair of flannel pajamas took on mythic proportions for me. They were, like the pajama party I attended, exotic in their ordinariness--because they were part of a life I didn't have. What follows are pages 131 to 135 of Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You.)
In tenth grade Elizabeth invites me to her pajama party. I take this literally--that I must bring pajamas. But my mother won't give me money to buy pajamas; she says what I sleep in--that nightgown--is what I will bring...she will not waste money on...on what? Suddenly I am not sure about any of my clothes. Once I wore a tight knit sweater to school and I thought I noticed a surprised hesitation to Christopher's "hello." At the time I thought little of it, but now I'm unsure. My mother helped me select the ruby-red dress I wore to the Paradise of Hearts dance. The cut was lower than the cut on other girls' dresses. But my mother says it's okay to look this way--it's important to attract boys, just don't allow them to touch you.
So when I receive the invitation to the pajama party, I'm scared all my clothes are wrong: for school, for dances, for pajama parties--wrong for Christopher. I take the bus to Ridgewood and wander the aisles at Sealfons, where my friends shop, usually not where my mother and I buy clothes. Blue, pink, and white oxford shirts with button-down collars. Plaid sweater-and-skirt sets, loose fitting, with matching kneesocks. Well, yes, I have clothes like these, too, but Sealfons sells no ruby-red dresses or tight knit sweaters. I know I am wrong, wrong, wrong. The clothes here are teenage clothes, while my mother takes me to stores for adults. And I know I cannot bring a nightgown to Elizabeth's party.
I wander to the sleepwear section and study exotic flannel pajamas. Pink. Yellow. Blue. I take a blue pair with white flowers into the dressing room, slip off my skirt and sweater, and try them on. Perfect. They fit loosely, showing no contours of my body. I smooth my hands over the fabric. I believe if I owned these I would be able to curl inside them and sleep undisturbed for years, smelling and feeling their warm comfort. I have no money, but I must own these pajamas. I must steal them--I must. I cannot leave without them. I roll the cuffs to my knees, put my skirt on, pull my sweater over the top, and zip up my jacket. Slowly, I leave the store.
Since I want the pajamas to remain new and clean and pretty, the way I know the other girls' pajamas will be, I wait for the night of the party to wear them. Once I shed my school clothes, button the top of the pajamas, and slip my legs into the bottoms, I safely blend into the group of girls. Camouflaged in my flannel uniform, I smile, pleased I made the right choice, all by myself, on what to wear for the party.
Our sleeping bags, blankets, and pillows are spread across the carpeted living room floor. Our overnight cases spill scarves, underwear, socks. We roll each other's hair in plastic rollers. We paint each other's fingernails with pink and white pearly polish. We paint our toenails, too, stuffing cotton between our toes as described in Seventeen. We play rock 'n' roll records and dance--alone and with each other. We eat bags of chips and drink bottles of pop. At midnight, Elizabeth's mother brings us boxes of doughnuts: jelly, cinnamon, cream. We laugh. We gossip about boys and tell secrets. "You think Christopher'll ask you to go steady?" Robin asks me.
"I don't know," I say. "Maybe. I hope so."
"My mom says I'm too young to 'get involved,'" Elizabeth says. Quickly I glance down at my pink nails, worried I might have given the wrong answer. "Oh, of course," I say. "My mom tells me the same thing."
"It's not like you gotta do everything your mother tells you," Robin says. She tells us her mom allows her to kiss her boyfriend only if she keeps her feet on the floor. Except she demonstrates how it's possible to lie on a couch and still keep at least one foot on the floor. We all practice. I am slow to learn this; I am, I must be, the most innocent of all.
Late at night I go to the bathroom. I drift down the hall away from the girls still playing records, still talking. The door to the bathroom is closed, so I wait, admiring my new pajamas. I press the crook of my arm to my face, breathing the material. It smells good and new. And suddenly I am afraid to sleep in them, afraid when I wake in the morning they will no longer smell clean or good or new. Perhaps I should slip them off while everyone is sleeping and change into my clothes.
The door opens and I pull back, surprised. I'd assumed one of the girls was inside, but it's Elizabeth's father in his robe. He holds the door open, but I can't move--I don't understand--I'm confused by his sudden presence in this nighttime hall. He smiles and jokes--I barely hear him--something about girls and noise and fun. I mean, what he says is nice. His smile is nice. That's all it is, but I can't respond. I fear my new pajamas will be criticized. He will tell me to change them. No, he will unbutton them. He will ... but he doesn't do any of this. He walks down the hall to a bedroom. He opens a door. As he does I hear a woman, his wife, say something to him. From the tone, what she says doesn't seem to be significant, probably: "Please, turn off the light." She is not angry. Nor is she silent. The door closes. For a moment there is a rim of light beneath the door, but then it disappears. The room he shares with his wife is dark. Still I can't move. I lean against the wall and close my eyes. I think I am waiting for something. I wait for that door to open again. He will return, come back down the hall, silently. No one will hear. Except everyone hears. But he does it anyway because he can't stop.
But that door--the door behind which Elizabeth's father sleeps with his wife--does not open. He does not walk back down the hall. How do I know he sleeps in that room all night? How do I know he doesn't leave it? Maybe from the definite way the door tapped shut. Maybe from the sound of his wife's voice. Maybe from the still air here in the hall, air that will not be disturbed again until morning. Or maybe because I believe Elizabeth's mother knows how to teach her daughter, knows how to guide her.
For the briefest of moments--more a sense than one clear thought--I understand that what I do every night is not repeated in every other girl's bedroom, down every street and block, in every neighborhood, all across town. Had I believed that what I do with my father is usual? I don't know, I don't know, I don't know. But then, as definitively as Elizabeth's father shut the door to the bedroom he shares with his wife, that thought--the thought that I might be alone, that what I do is not repeated, is not normal--is slammed from my mind.
All night I'm awake. I'm afraid someone will see me if I change into my clothes, so I lie awake in my pajamas, not moving, not wanting to wrinkle them. I spread my arms to the sides so I won't sweat on the clean material. I think I know my love for these pajamas is irrational--at least I know the other girls don't seem concerned about theirs--but I want these pajamas to last the rest of my life. They have to. But I'm scared they will be taken from me. They will be ripped; they will be ruined. That place between my legs feels safe behind the tightly sewn seam. But I have this small dread the seam might split. So I don't move my legs. I lie perfectly still until morning.
On Monday I neatly refold the pajamas along the creases, smooth the material, and return the pajamas to the store, leaving them in a paper bag in the dressing room. I must. I would not be able to bear seeing the pajamas wrinkled.
This is the end of the excerpt from Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, reprinted by permission from the University of Georgia Press.