On My Back, On A Bed -- Excerpt From Hold Your Tongue

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That night before my mother tried to kill herself, I sinned. For a teenage Christian girl, living at the crotch of New Mexico and the Texas Panhandle, it was the most dangerous sin of all: sex. Not real sex, but safe counterfeit sex, the kind separated by a telephone wire. In my sweet, Christian heart, I knew it was wrong. There was a boy, a friend of my best friend, who had been calling me every night. He spoke tender filth through the tin can radio of his phone. As I listened I could feel my cheeks flush and my breath run short. Thumbing the warm silver of the chastity ring my father bought for me, I said nothing. I just laid there on my back, in a bed – a woman's place in this world.

Once I hung up the phone I immediately began to pray. I was nervous about what God had witnessed.

The following day was one of those sun-dappled, just before summer, too-chilly-to-swim-so-I'll-just-tan, sort of days. Dad was at work. I was somewhere on my own planet, traversing a mountain of books, when the phone rang. My father’s voice spilled through the receiver, “Your mom, I found her with an empty bottle of pills in her hand. She's in critical care.” I said nothing.

For the first time in several years I desperately wanted to see her. I passed quietly through the ominous double glass doors of the ICU. All the other family members had shown up before of me. The sudden awareness that I was the last to find out, the last to come to my mother’s side, pricked pink anger and shame into my cheeks.

The window of time I was given to see her was brief, but it was all the time needed. The room was empty of God. The ivory sheets were stained, though strangely luminous in the striped sunlight. The smell of bleach radiated from the floor. There was my mother, the woman I loved and hated – on her back, in a bed. As her eyes opened we looked at each other for a world's end before she said my name. Soon the sodden smell of her charcoal shit singed my nostrils, and I began to cry. Without an utterance the doctors began to pull me from her outstretched hand, leading me back out into the lobby filled with all those with whom I shared blood.  They had already digested the experience of witnessing her strapped down into that bed, on her back, looking at the mortal clocks inside her glassy eyes.

After a while the Boy and his mother arrived at the hospital. Before I could even say hello he thrust a teddy bear into my arms; my cheeks burned as he wrapped his arms around me. His grip was a belt cinched one notch too tight around my brain. He began asking questions I drowned out by the surreal blow to my head, the one echoing my mother’s skull striking the linoleum as she gripped her empty pill bottle.

Three days later Mom was moved to a rehabilitation center. People were allowed to visit, but Dad wouldn’t let me. I assume he thought her suicidal germs were contagious and that I would try the same thing.

Next time I saw the Boy, he had invited me over to his family’s house. I sat on their sofa, yellowed from two decades of desert dust and perspiration, with my legs over his lap as we watched TV. His mother kept checking in on us “hormone-ridden teenagers” with offers of lemonade, ice water and lunch. Giving in, I told her I was hungry. She rushed into the kitchen and busied herself, while the Boy busied himself with the top button of my pants. He only got a few fingers into the waistband of my underwear – grungy, period-day underwear – when I could tell he was recoiling as to not get us into trouble.

No one had ever touched me anywhere below my hips before that day. Sure, there were boys who had tried, but my will to say no had been stronger when God was bigger and more benevolent. His mother soon returned with some spaghetti and garlic toast. We ate so fast I had a bellyache afterward, one that quickly worsened as we went out into the harsh noon-hour sunlight. June beat down on our backs as we took a walk around his family's land, stopping for solace in pools of shadow provided by healthy trees. On our way back, The Boy said he wanted to show me something as he led me into his detached garage. A harsh metallic clang, like an interrupted second hand, centered in my chest. This was my moment. Handfuls of control in my tiny world.  He pulled the door closed, throwing us into the dark. This boy, this easy boy – who knew little more than I did on the subject of Original Sin – got down on his knees and stared up at me: a subordinate waiting for instruction while carelessly taking liberties with his meaty hands.

I told him No.

My command echoed in disbelief from the Boy's mouth, his breath sticky cinnamon on my stomach. No was the answer I gave, and No it would be even as he tried to pull my pants down to my knees. When my hand struck his right cheek, he was startled and angry.

We sat wordlessly on opposite sides of the back seat during the return drive to my house. His mother tried to wave the silent rain clouds away with light conversation. At one point, she dismissed us with a flick of her hand, and the Boy flinched. His kiss had left a mark above my navel. It would leave me anxious every time I lifted my shirt, fearing my father would walk into my room, see the ring of teeth on my skin, and get me to a nunnery. On the day my mother was released from rehabilitation, the mark had finally gone.

Our family went out to dinner to celebrate her journey back to sanity, but I could tell, as she was sitting there, contemplating her salad, she was not well. No one at that table was. No one wanted to talk about the corpse that was slumped and decaying on the tabletop.

No one but Mama.

As the silence deafened, she looked as though she was about to die again, right there, if we let her. We remained silent. No one gave her that satisfaction. We looked the other way, having only enough heart-space for our own anger and sorrow over what she had so selfishly done. We didn't want to hear her side of the story. Mama was in the waiting room now, and we were resolved to make her sleep there, on her back, on the linoleum, until she begged for us to let her explain herself dry.

Months went by. Summer ended. School began. Mama’s smile came back -- the same fake smile I inherited, the one that runs in my family. The one every one of us uses to bury the bones of her attempted suicide deep within us. Life moved, but it did not move on.

On Christmas Eve The Boy had me over. His parents were out doing some last minute shopping. His sister was busy wrapping gifts in the den. The atmosphere felt as right as it ever would. This time, I gave him my virginity. Real sex. He did not take it, though I knew he would like to think so. I let him have it. Suddenly, I was beyond my father’s house and the place where my mother had fallen. My father's shelter shook apart as the boy pounded away, and I wondered what he would say. Would life be different now that I had found a place where I felt I belonged? The Boy’s dog sat close by, his panting breath humid against my leg, as my innocence was pushed out of me in one heavy thrust. I thought it would hurt more. I thought I would bleed. I thought I would cry for him to stop and scar the Boy for life. But, in the end, it was as good as I wanted it to be. I gave him my virginity -- and he took nothing -- even when I was on my back, on a bed.

 

Bonnie Kerls is a writer and filmmaker in Santa Fe, New Mexico. This is her first published work.

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