Cries on the Wind
Do they not hear the cries on the wind? Or do they choose to ignore them? It feels as though there’s howling, a great calamity of outrage and terror, of pain and fury, but they do not flinch to hear its call.
My mother used to be scheduled on the late shifts at the grocery store where she worked. We would spend the evenings being watched by my father before leaving to pick her up in our family’s only car. I don’t recall if there was ever a time where, by the time the sun dipped below the horizon and the streetlights along the cul-de-sac apartment complex had come on, his eyes had not already glazed over. Cheeks ruddy, movements slow. Always that tremor in his gaze, too. Like something inside his brain was always vibrating with anger, just waiting for myself or my brother to accidentally trip the switch and set it free. He was a drunk and he was a mean one.
One night when I was five, we left to pick my mom up from work. It was well after dark, and somewhere along the way the car broke down, so we had to walk. I had no shoes. I tripped, feeling my toe snag on something rough and jagged, and complained that my feet hurt. I started to cry, which earned a slap across my face. I was told to shut up or I would be given something to cry about. When we reached the grocery store my ruined feet tracked blood across the cold linoleum.
When I was six I used to play on the playground in our apartment complex with a group of slightly older kids (about three or four years above me). They used to tease me for being a girl, but it was never something that bothered me. I was a girl, and therefore the jokes must be true.
I don’t recall the entire conversation on this particular day, but I know that at some point we reached the revelation that they had penises and I had a vagina. I was uncomfortable with the subject, and I remember feeling like I was full of worms, like every part of my insides were squirming. They found this hilarious and started chanting “you have a vagina” like it was something I’d chosen, something I’d mistakenly brought with me today when I should have left it at home. They pushed me into the sand, pulled down my pants, and stuffed their hands inside of me. I punched one of the boys and got away, running a good distance with my pants still around my ankles before I pulled them up to run faster. I heard their laughter the whole way home. I recall staring listlessly at my dinner, refusing to eat, and my father screaming at me about it until my mother noticed something was wrong. A few weeks later I was marched to the boys’ house and they were made to apologize. Our parents gave each other knowing looks.
When I was seven, another evening where my mother was out working and my father was our keeper, he fell deep into his cups and decided it would be a grand notion to talk about leaving my mother and moving to Alaska. I was not allowed to go to bed yet, so I stayed on the fringes of the room, staring at the floor and biting the inside of my cheek. He said he would take us with him, that we’d never get to come back here. That we’d go up there and go camping every day. He asked us if we were excited, and I said no, that I didn’t want to go. He told me that I was a dumb bitch, as dumb as a fucking fence post. At least after that I was allowed to go to bed.
When I was nine we went hiking – one of the last hiking forays I went on with my father – in a gorge somewhere in southern California. It was the middle of summer, well above a temperature that was comfortable to hike in. I started to feel ill as we were on our way back, but he didn’t want to stop for a rest. I tried not to cry but couldn’t keep the tears in as I started to get dizzy. He told me I was pathetic. We didn’t get to rest until I passed out. I remember my mother giving me water, and the scorn and irritation from my father, but not much after that.
When I was eleven I was with my father as he bought beer and cigarettes at a convenience store. He looked down at me from the corner of his eye, and something like shame passed across his face. He loudly exclaimed that my titties were coming in, and that we needed to get me a bra. The man behind the counter snickered, and I hunched my shoulders and crossed my arms over my chest.
When I was fourteen I wore a pair of shorts that came halfway up my thigh, and my father slipped a dollar in my back pocket and told me I was dressed like a hooker. I ignored the horrified looks on my friends’ faces and went back to my room to change. I haven’t worn shorts in public since.
When I was fifteen my father left. I didn’t mourn his leaving, nor did I say goodbye. Things stabilized at home. I felt more at peace. We got pet kittens from my mom’s friends. We were very broke, often running out of food, but I never minded. It felt like a new beginning, like I could breathe for the first time in my life. A year later my father returned.
He didn’t like cats, and I think he resented my reluctance to love him despite of his shortcomings. I withdrew from his horrors, where my mother and brother opted to ignore them. A few months after his return he made my brother shoot my kittens with a BB gun, and I saw it. All of it. The running, the sounds, the death throes. I remember screaming. I remember going to my room and closing the door. I sank to the floor, feeling tears washing down my cheeks. I was shaking violently, and I wrapped my arms around my knees to make it stop. The next thing I remember is my mother driving me to a friend’s house several hours later. I still can’t think about what happened to those cats without triggering a flashback. I can’t see animal violence without being reminded. Sometimes I still have nightmares about it, or about him coming back to get the cats I have now. He left again two months later, only that time he didn’t come back.
I spent most of my childhood being told that feminine things were lesser, were worth ire and scorn, and so I developed an unhealthy need to not be like “other girls” as I aged. I didn’t befriend many girls, I ditched liking anything “girly”, and pretended to be cool with anything a boy said or did.
I was laid back, chill. Girls were nonsensical and emotional, overly concerned with being attached to things. They wanted labels and commitment. I was totally above all that, for sure. Or, that was how I presented myself, at any rate. I think a lot of girls have been there when younger, so you know the trap that it becomes. For that matter, a lot of boys or nonbinary folks have found themselves in similar or opposite ends of this spectrum. Trying to pretend to be more or less like your pre-assigned gender to fit society’s ideal that feminine is bad and masculine should dominate. It’s damaging on all ends, but I’ll save the destruction of the gender binary for another post.
When I was sixteen, my quest to not be “that girl” landed me at a sleepover with a bunch of boys where we drank and stayed up until 3am playing video games. At 5am I got up to go to driver’s ed, and one of my friends drove me. After, he picked me up and opted to take me back to his house to hang out, though I protested and insisted I would pass out. He dismissed the complaint with a roll of his eyes.
We were watching Cirque Du Soleil and I started to drift off to sleep on his couch. I remember waking up at some point to discover he had maneuvered me so that I was sleeping in the crook of his arm. I was surprised, and a little uncomfortable, but I didn’t want to offend him by moving. If this was cool to him, then it needed to be cool with me.
I drifted back to sleep, and the second time I woke up it was because he had shoved his hand down my pants. I froze, I didn’t move, I started breathing erratically, and I stared at the ceiling. I counted my heartbeats and the number of callouses on his fingers, or the number of times his nails snagged on my skin. He never stopped and never checked to see if I was enjoying myself or even wanted it. I didn’t say no, but I sure as hell never said yes.
Afterward I went home and cried for four hours, but I didn’t understand why at the time. I had no comprehension of what had just happened to me or why it hurt. I tried to ignore it, pretend it hadn’t happened at all, like I didn’t feel hollow and used. Naturally, he told his buddies – boys who I thought were my friends. When everyone found out what happened, they stopped wanting to hang out. I’d been “tapped”. It was like it had always been a game, and someone had finally gotten the prize. Season done, trophy awarded. Pack up your gear and wait for next year when a fresh prize would be on offer.
When I was seventeen I got into what would become a four-year abusive relationship. The funny thing about that was that I asked him out in the first place because I thought he was a safe choice. I picked someone who I thought wouldn’t reject me, because I’d already lost so much of myself and many of my friends. I just needed someone – anyone – to say yes and to love me. So that I could prove to myself that it was possible for me to be loved.
I’ve chronicled some of the sexual trauma before in my Locked Box post, but it went so much further beyond that. The rape, the strangling, the bruising in hidden places, that was the physical part, the part that feels like it’s applicable to the show and tell of my story. It’s harder to quantify what he did to my mind.
I was belittled for everything I did, everything I thought, everything I said. I was controlled mentally and physically. He once took away my birth control because he thought it was making me gain weight – a big sticking point for a lot of his actions. He also put me on a week-long “Jell-O diet”, in which I was only allowed to eat Jell-O, the idea being that it would work like a juice cleanse and help me lose weight. I gained a lot of weight once the rapes had started, and that was always painted as a massive failure on my part, and the reason he was justified in his ire. After all, he hadn’t signed up for this. He told me it was like I had trapped him, being hot when he met me and then turning into a “tubbo”.
He worked tirelessly to manipulate my world so that I felt as though nothing belonged to me. I had no physical place that was mine and no things that held any permanence. He used to make sure that anything he bought me – birthdays, Christmas, you name it – were all gifts that were resalable. He would wait about a month and a half before selling them to get money to buy something for himself. He sold all my belongings that were of value: computers, musical instruments, games. When I moved in with him, he threw out most of my stuff, calling it trash that was a carryover from my white trash upbringing.
I was required to keep my hair long, because short hair wasn’t feminine enough. I was only allowed to play games with his friends sometimes, when they were in the mood to put up with a girl. I was not allowed to read comic books, because they weren’t suitable for girls. I was required to watch movies with him, endless hours of ancient horror films, and if I tried to check my phone or play a handheld game I would get punished. I was allowed to read whatever I wanted, but it would irritate him if I did it while he was in the room, insisting I was ignoring him or turning the pages too loudly or shifting around too much. I think he wanted me to sit perfectly still and motionless in an unlit corner of the room until he had need of me. Even then, I still would have managed to piss him off somehow.
He separated me from my friends. Anyone I knew from high school he deemed stupid, or jealous, or against our relationship, or annoying. They interfered with our time together. I was not allowed to get close to his friends, because they were his. If I overstepped a line, he would send me to the other room and ask that I not come out or talk to anyone. My mother was a poor influence, someone he painted as the worst parent possible, and every time I talked to her he would lament her existence. Any new friends I tried to make in college were obviously just trying to fuck me. He insisted that was the only reason anyone would bother talking to me at all, because they were desperate enough to think I was an easy target.
He often told me how much he hated sleeping with me. That it was too much work. That if he ever got the chance to cheat on me, he would gladly take it. If I expressed being upset, he would turn the whole thing around. It was all my fault. I should be more attractive, I should be more receptive, I should “let” (as if I ever had a choice) him do rougher things. I should understand that if he slept with someone else, that it was probably just sex, and that I should forgive him because otherwise I was the only girl he was ever going to be with, and that was so depressing to him that he wanted to kill himself. I’m not paraphrasing there, he threatened his own death often, but especially during rants such as the above. Me being the only person he was ever with made him want to die.
Seven years after I left him, he committed suicide. He never dated anyone else, and there are a great number of people that think I broke him. That I drove him to loneliness that could not be soothed. That I’m the reason he’s dead. Some of them have told me as much. I had moved on enough in my recovery to know I’m not directly responsible, but I feel a lot of regret regarding it. He needed help, he was ill, because that’s the only reason a person can do what he did. But I never told him that, I never told him to seek treatment, and now it’s too damn late. Not my fault, I know, but…I wish I’d been able to do it anyways.
All this, everything above? These are just the highlights. These are just the moments that I remember with such clarity that they could have happened yesterday. The one’s worth recounting to make my point. I’ve got dozens of other examples waiting in the ranks. Examples of sexual violence, of sexist aggression, of being othered and oppressed and used and ignored and talked over and disbelieved and mocked and shunned and emptied and discarded.
It becomes noise. All these memories, buzzing around in my head. A swarm of bees that I’ve learned to keep, turning my scars into honey. It’s taken work – so much work – but I’ve learned how to bear the weight of this story. I’m lucky in that way. There are many who have not yet harnessed the storm that these things create. For them, things have been so much worse of late.
You see, regardless of how we have learned to lift this weight, learned to live with it, grown strong enough to carry it at least well enough to keep breathing, we are all feeling overburdened. Every time we are reminded of these stories, they get heavier, and there are so many things reminding us of late. The president of America reminds us of these stories. The political system reminds us of these stories. The people in charge of the infrastructure that supports us reminds us of these stories. The people that make our entertainment remind us of these stories. They are there, an onslaught that never ends and gets louder day by day, and we are tired.
We are asked why we don’t come forward, and a hundred think pieces are written trying to explain as much. To explain why we didn’t argue, why we didn’t stand up for ourselves, why we didn’t say no, why we didn’t say it louder, why we didn’t fight back, why we didn’t report it the day after, why we didn’t take it to court, why we drank, why we ate, why we dressed, why we didn’t do it differently, why we didn’t why we wouldn’t why we couldn’t why, oh why, oh why?
And then we do. We stand up as tall as we are able, and we say #MeToo. We write articles and essays and we post them online, or in the paper, or across the spread of a magazine. We make vlogs and go on talk shows, we get interviewed for the 24-hour news. We write songs or paint pictures or scrawl poetry. We dress in a suit, square our shoulders, and calmly recite our tale to a group of withered old men towering over us. We are brave, and we are powerful, and we are shattered in the process.
Then our abusers are forgiven. They are set free. They are eulogized and celebrated. They are elected. They are confirmed.
I watched us – those that have been abused – relive their pain as Dr. Ford gave her brilliant testimony. I opened my eyes and stared at the coverage even as it tore me apart, because I needed to feel that solidarity. I watched as others turned away, because the weight of their story was too heavy on their shoulders, and I felt solidarity with them, as well. We were all with each other as the world shoved reminders in our faces and our stories rose to the surface, climbing out of locked boxes and stirring up the swarms. We were all there, in those moments in the past and firmly planted in the present.
And Dr. Ford’s abuser faces no consequences.
After all that, all the pain and all the telling of tales and all the tears, we were told to be silent. To forgive or forget. Deeper than that, we were told that our bodies are not our own – will not be our own. That we have no right to them if it stands in the way of power. Of the power that is built into our systems. The power the writhes at the core of it, rotten and festered and deeply ingrained.
I see all the news today, and I am angry. I am angry for myself. I am angry for Dr. Ford. I am angry for you. I am angry for our children. I am angry for those younger than myself who must stand up today and vow to fight. I am angry for those older than myself who have been fighting so long the shape of the world looks like battle. I am angry at my own two hands and my own broken mind, so full of words that feel so powerless against the monstrosity that they face.
What good am I? What good can I do? What is there within me, within my bones, within this fury, that can push upon this world that change that is so desperately needed?
And can I harness what power I have without burning myself down in the process?
These questions are probably familiar to you if you have been one of the abused. You have likely been asking them to yourself the past few days, weeks…years.
I answer those questions the only way I know how. I am not a politician. I don’t have the power to pen my words into law. I am not wealthy, I don’t have the ability to share my bounty to organizations or people that have more power than myself. What I do have, though, is resilience. I have the ability to mourn the travesties and pick myself back up, and I have the strength to reach out my hand to help others do the same. I have words and the means to shape them into things that might inspire or might ease the weight or provide an escape.
And I have this story. It’s a drop in the bucket, a ripple in an ocean of stories just like this. The things I’ve suffered have been suffered by others before, and until things change they will be suffered again. But with these words I can tell this story. I can tell it here, I can tell it when asked, I can tell it softly or loudly. I can bleed it into my works of fiction and let that illustrate the ways I lift it. I can tell it over and over again, as many times as it takes to aid the cause.
I am strong enough to tell this story. To add my howl to the wind along with others. For now, perhaps, they can ignore it. They can pretend we make no sound at all. But eventually, if enough of us are howling, if enough of us wield our stories to prove our strength, to weaponize our fury, to stand on the ashes of our traumas and prove to be too unbreakable to fall…
We can make it so that they cannot ignore the cries on the wind.