This story is by Rebecca d. Jarmas and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
The crickets were beginning their evening concert when I prodded open the window of my first floor bedroom. It hadn’t been opened for some time and the humid New Jersey summer had pasted the seams shut. I forgot about the screen. I tried to be both quick and quiet. The door to my room was closed and the house was silent. The last dust particles from the waning sunset floated through the room I shared with my sister, a wide strip illuminating my purse, which was strewn on the bed. I wonder if I have any money, the thought and the action of rummaging through my wallet coming simultaneously. Twenty-five dollars. Throwing the purse over my shoulder, taking a last look around the room, grabbing a sweater to put on over my t-shirt and shorts, I raised the window as high as it would go, pushed out the screen, and dropped into the front flower bed. And I ran.
I have no immediate destination. My mind is a mess. I force myself to think. I am terrified. Next-door is a field of what? Not corn, I am sure, because in June, the crop would be higher. What do they grow in New Jersey? It’s the Garden State after all. Now it is nearly dark. Rapid-fire thoughts. How long would it be before they realize I am missing? Would they find me? What will he do to me when they find me? Maybe if I turn around now, I could be back before I am missed. No. There is no going back. Run faster!
I was home from college for the summer. Graduating from high school in three years, I was still 17 years old, working at my father’s home-based consulting company as I had during high school. My first year away was tumultuous. I took the bus home every weekend to work for him. No time for homework, I was enrolled in a demanding biomedical engineering program, obediently chasing Dad’s lost dream of becoming a doctor. My first breaths of freedom were intoxicating. I made choices about things that affected me. I had friends and a serious boyfriend.
Working for my father was dreadful. Ridiculous hours and he paid me if he felt like it, conjuring up his Scrooge to my Cratchit. Still I cooked dinner because my mother worked. There were two seatings – the first for my diabetic father who ate steak and salad nightly served on a dinner tray in front of the TV, interrupted by bellows of “change the channel!” Or worse.
On this crickety summer evening while preparing His Majesty’s dinner, he was out in the yard inspecting weeding he asked my brothers to do. Someone was sent in with his demand for a third Tanqueray & tonic. I detested how he got when he drank and I knew it was dangerous, given the diabetes. After some time passed and no one scampered out with his order, he stormed into the kitchen.
“Where’s my drink?”
“I didn’t make you one. I’ve got your dinner almost ready. I’m worried about your blood sugar.”
I saw his jaw set and teeth clench together as he came toward me in the kitchen covering the distance in two or three stomping strides. Like a rag doll, he was handling me by my hair, steering me to the bar in the dining room. I watched the reflection of this tragicomical scene in the mirror of the dining room hutch, softly illuminated by built-in lighting.
“When I ask you for something” then kicking and pushing me back into the kitchen “you give it to me – YOU HEAR ME?”
He was in a dangerous rage. This was not just about the drink. I had gone to college a straight A student and come home academically limping. There was also the serious boyfriend.
I noticed my mother arrived home from work, likely not surprised to see my father in a rage. My brothers and sister gathered in the wings as we did when someone was getting punished, helpless to stop it, but present anyway. I am quite sure my mother assumed the funereal posture I’d seen so many times – hands nervously knitting as her facial expressions kaleidoscoped between disbelief at what her husband was doing to their child and softened compassion for the target of his rage. Her entire visage was overlaid with the agonized realization that she was powerless to stop the abuse and the knowledge that she would not stop it. Perhaps she feared for her own safety. Perhaps she believed her interference would prolong the episode or make things worse.
It is because my mother and siblings were close by that I know what happened next.
I am thrown on the floor with enough force to knock me unconscious. How long was I out? I awake to a black-socked foot suspended just above my head and my mother screaming, “Richard, don’t!” He is going to stomp on my head. I brace for it. Now he is disgusted with me and he hauls me to my feet and into his office. I stand while he holds court at his desk. My head aches. The room whirls and is sucked free of oxygen. From a distance he hisses out questions, screaming at me because I do not – cannot – answer them.
“You’re too stupid to know you’re hyperventilating!” he sneers. “Bianca, get her a paper bag!”
Once my breathing levels, it is my job to talk him down.
“I’m sorry I didn’t get your drink. I care about your health,” I placate. It has to be like this. If I dwell on the reality of this near-death experience – or any other – I will be in even graver danger. I might crack. I could lose my edge, my innate ability to defuse volatile situations at home, to intuit danger before it erupts, to sacrifice without thought as hockey players do when flinging themselves to the ice to block an opponent’s goal. The tears are real – relief at finding myself alive? Surrender to the self-prostration? Anger at being punished for caring? At least there will be no sex – my mother is home. Since I’d gone to college, he had left me alone…
When the rage leaves him, he sends me to my room.
Picking my way through the crop-less field by the light of a rising June moon, large clods of dirt and furrowed grooves make the footing treacherous. Stalk remnants from the last harvest swipe at my bare legs. It is buggy and between the bugs and the tears, I struggle to see. The skin on my face is pulled Botox-tight from dried crying and I have a pounding headache. I hurry on not daring to risk the main road. Just keep moving forward. I hope a plan will come to me. In the darkness I come to a place where the fields meet the town and major roads intersect with the state’s turnpike. This area seems familiar. Somehow in my frantic scurrying, I am at my university’s bus depot! As soon as the thought forms, it evaporates. I cannot go back to my university town – my father will surely search for me there. Before I can reconsider, I approach the driver of a tractor-trailer who is re-fueling his rig at the adjacent truck stop. I move in slow motion.
“Hey – you headed south?” (my university is north).
“South? Yes, south. Need a ride?”
I climb up into the jump seat, steeling myself for the journey, just wanting to get as far away as fast as possible, stunned as he pulls up to the neighboring trucker’s motel. Just my luck – he is pulling off the road for the night.
I stopped caring about what happened to me shortly after my daring escape – no fate could compete with the one that awaited me at home. I am dirty and dead-tired. My eyes sting from crying. I am thirsty. More than anything, I need a shower and a bed and here is a way for me to disappear into the night. The trucker showers first. I pace the room nervously trying to think clearly through the fog of exhaustion and stifled emotion. My best option is clearly to spend the night – make the best of it – and get a ride south the next day. Hopefully after some sleep I can cobble together a longer-term plan.
“Your turn – shower feels great!”
No spa service has ever felt as luxurious as the simple shower I took that night with the motel shampoo and standard-issue Cashmere Bouquet. Getting out of the shower I realize the only clothes I have are the ones I had worn. So I put on my panties, bra and t-shirt and towel dry my hair. There is one bed and he is in it. The trucker asks me some polite questions. Not like my father – kinder, not threatening.
“So what’s your name?”
He tells me his name, which I have long ago forgotten. He must have told me something about himself but my overwrought brain is capable only of retaining facts that impact my immediate ability to survive. I do remember what I told him about myself.
“I am a college student. I just finished my freshman year and I am on my way to meet my fiancé in (some southern locale). My parents don’t approve of the marriage so we are eloping. I don’t have a car so I planned to get a ride down to meet him.”
“Lie down. I won’t touch you. We will just sleep.”
Relieved, I tell him about my fiancé, how we love to hike and fish together. Concerts we’d been to. How we had found love at first sight. I still don’t know why he didn’t force me to have sex with him (or worse). Perhaps he knew I was a minor and had some sense of decency. I like to think God was watching over me that night because I was beyond exhausted to watch over myself. Maybe He thought I deserved a break.
The next morning the trucker buys breakfast at the motel restaurant, strains of the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” filtering from a tableside jukebox. I poke at my pancakes, skittish because it is daylight and I am mere miles from home. I have no idea what to do next. It is decided for me.
“Don’t you like your breakfast?” he asks.
“It’s good. I’m just not hungry.”
“Well if you’re done eating, I need to be going. I’ve got to get back on the road.”
He pays the bill and before he puts away his wallet he asks, “could you use some money?”
Practicality triumphs over shame. I feel cheap though I had no sex with him and humiliated taking money from a stranger. Gratitude came much later. Adding the $20 to my $25, I walk hastily over to the nearby discount clothing store and purchase a small tote and a change of clothing. Looking less like a runaway, I use the last of the money to buy a bus ticket back to my college town. Next I find a payphone and call my boyfriend but my father has beaten me to it.
This was the beginning of the Hiding Time. My father never stopped looking for me – not because he was concerned about my welfare, not to ask me to come home, and certainly not to apologize. He was looking for me because I had defied him. Somehow a 17-year-old girl had bested him. I moved in with friends and got a job as a secretary. I lived in the spare bedroom of an ancient house and slept on a cot, all my belongings in one cardboard box. Weekends were spent hiking and fishing with my boyfriend and the months passed until my 18th birthday.
I never returned home again.