18 June 2009
The Weight of a Secret
Rain again today. We had a reprieve for all of two days, during which it was overcast. People I know are thinking of moving to Seattle--or London--for the weather.
Or maybe it'll be better in Trinidad. Only seventeen more days until I go there; nineteen until the surgery.
Another week has ended in the class I'm teaching; it resumes on Monday and finishes on Wednesday. Robin, who is Dr. Bowers' office manager was right: The time is moving even more quickly than I ever imagined it would. It's odd: In the class I'm teaching, I feel that I've gotten to know the students rather well over the course of only three weeks. I guess that's what happens when you meet four nights a week instead of two, and for three hours a class instead of one or two. And I feel that I learned even more about the students who are in this class and took the composition class with me during the spring semester than I did during that semester.
I may have some of those students again in other classes, but I already feel as if I will miss them. In spite of my resolution to myself that I would not make more of that class or this time than I would of any other class or time, I am developing a particular attachment to them. Maybe it has to do with the fact that they're my last class before my surgery, and next week's class sessions will be the last ones until I return from the procedure.
And I have talked with them about it, and about some aspects of my life up to this point. Some of it is funny, even though I'm not trying to make it so. I mean, how else can it be when you've been an altar boy, Boy Scout, soldier and husband? If nothing else, I think Theatre of the Absurd has nothing on my life. The difference between me and the ones who wrote those plays is that I have something like a sense of humor about it.
If I were to meet any of those students again, say, five years from now, I wonder what we would say to each other? Would they want to talk to me again? Or will I be just another terrible English prof who traumatized them?
Now I'm wondering again about what my younger self and I would say to each other were we to meet. I'm thinking about that day--on this date, if I remember correctly--just after my penultimate semsester of graduate school ended. That would be in 1992. I was teaching college freshmen on a graduate assistantship. I supplemented that by doing poetry workshops with kids in public schools, as I had done during the previous five years, with the Teachers and Writers Collaborative.
If I recall correctly, I was doing my very last residency, in an elementary school in the South Bronx. I had been working with very young children: second graders, as I remember. Well, one of them--a girl with big brown eyes who was all circles and ovals--asked if she could talk to me "alone" while the other kids were having lunch. Of course, I agreed.
I should have known what was coming next. Other kids in other schools made that very same request. And they all talked about the same thing: Sexual abuse from a family member. Of course, they didn't use those words to describe it. But, even though they may not have known that what their family members were doing to them was a crime, they felt uneasy about it, and obviously needed to talk to someone. I always wondered why those kids came to me.
Until that day, that is. As Maritza told me that her two older brothers and father followed her whenever she went to the bathroom--which didn't have a door--I felt a mudslide of my own blood and of something else--a kind of gooey fire--descending through me. I don't think I said anything to Maritza, and I just barely made it through the two workshops and the conference I had with two teachers and an assistant principal after lunch.
Then, in spite of the driving rain and the unusual cold for that time of year, I shuffled almost aimlessly to the subway station. And, for no reason I could discern at that moment, I boarded a train headed in the opposite direction from the way home. Yet somehow I felt I couldn't do anything about it: Something beyond my own volition was commanding my steps.
The train rattled and rumbled through tunnels and a couple of underground station before clattering up a sharply curved ramp of track to a series of above-ground stations. Then it descended to tracks that were just below ground level yet open to the sky above them.
Those open-air tracks were punctuated by wide, cavernous stations. At one, Morris Park, a dark-haired white teenaged girl and an older woman who might have been her mother or grandmother disembarked the train. Somehow I took that as a signal that I was supposed to exit there, too. But I could not. Cold air rushed in; the train closed its doors; somehow I felt even colder than before. And I knew somehow that I wouldn't be getting off at the next stop, or the one after it. In fact, I knew that I would be on that train for a long, long time. Yet I could do nothing about it: I could not even lift my hands or move my lips to speak.
The next morning, I woke up on a park bench near Gracie Mansion--about halfway between that school and my place. The last thing I could recall was those train doors closing at Morris Park. A woman asked me if I was OK; I stared at her.
"Can I get you anything? A cup of coffee?"
I shook my head. That was the first voluntary motion I boarded the train. She looked at me, pursed her lips as if a question were going to come out, then thought better of it. Then, after a long pause: "Can I call somebody for you?"
Again, I shook my head. I wasn't even thinking of how I looked or how long since I'd eaten or showered, but I knew I wanted to go home. She said, "Can I get a taxi for you?" I nodded.
She hailed a yellow cab and asked where I was going. Finally, my first words since I left that school in the South Bronx: my address in Brooklyn.
Inside my apartment, I dialed Bruce's number and described, as best I could, what I'd just experienced. I assured him, even though he already knew, that I hadn't been drinking or taken any drugs: It had been several years since I did either. He listened patiently and asked whether I wanted to meet him. I said I would, after I made one more call:
"I need to come down and talk to you. It's something I've got to talk about in person."
"When?," my mother asked.
It was a Friday afternoon. By the end of that weekend, she, Bruce and Elizabeth would hear about something that I hadn't talked about , because I couldn't, since I expereinced it when I was nine years old: molestation by Mike Spinnato, a close family friend.
About twenty-five years later, my body felt like a mass of nerve endings with a cold wind strafing me from the front and something immolating me from within. On the day Mike unzipped his pants in front of my face in a bathroom stall of a White Tower restaurant near the Bronx Zoo--and, I realized later, the Morris Park station-- I had no words to describe what he'd done, much less what I felt about it, and I feared talking about him in the same way I feared talking about any other adult to my parents, or to any other adult. Somehow I felt that even if I was wronged, I would be blamed.
That girl in the South Bronx school probably felt something like that, too. So, most likely, did a few other girls before her who told me similar stories. I would love to know where they are now, and to give them what I couldn't when they wanted to talk to me. Maybe they are all right now; whether or not they are, they understand that nothing is heavier than a secret--at least, that kind of secret.
I would say something like that to the person I was that day. And now I remind myself of that.