My biological mom’s husband had kids, three boys and a girl, my step-siblings. One was five years older than me and something drew us together that summer I visited, eleven years old. I was childish and naive and curious and innocent and fascinated by the prospect of an older brother. We repeatedly stayed up late on the couch after everyone was asleep, sitting and talking. He embraced me in a hug in the dark hallway one night and I was frozen against him, unaccustomed to human contact. Another night I would complain about needing to get to bed, and he would sympathize saying he wished we could sleep together. No bold lines were crossed, but dozens of vague, confusing lines were. And I was entranced. Bewitched. Addicted. We exchanged numbers and emails and I dreaded going home and when I did, I refused to leave in case he might call.
That was the summer my Childhood Friend moved to a different state. That was the summer my parents spent tirelessly building up their business. That was the summer I spent fading in my room, propped against my bed on the floor alone, listening to the songs my birthmom had played in her van.
Inevitably all the adults in my life realized what the Brother was doing and my dad shut it all down, not allowing me further contact. We sat on our living room couch, I don’t know if the embarrassment or the anger was more prominent but I was crying and I was angry with my dad, not comprehending what he was saying about protecting me and what it meant to be used. I had never been angry with my dad before. We went to see Planet of the Apes and I fumed in my seat. The anger didn’t dissipate for two years. Sometimes it would transform into depression.
And I went to middle school and I made friends with people who reminded me of him. Boys too old to be in my class, held back and troubled. Boys and their girlfriends who spoke a forbidden language I’d never heard. I pretended to understand.
My grades dropped and my loyal childhood friendships passed away and I experimented with cigarettes and my friend’s dad’s beer. I started cutting my hair, dying it, and learning the names of all the wrong people in the neighborhood. My childhood transformed into smoking at the park and stealing up my friend’s stairs, stealthily dousing ourselves in perfume, stowing ourselves away at AJAA games with whichever bad boy captivated us that week, me fulfilling the clearly defined role of third wheel, learning to hate my stepmom, like That Girl hated hers. Learning to lie. Lying to parents. Lying to no one. Always analyzing and trying to make sense of it all, letting my imagination fill in the gaps. And most everything seemed to be a gap.
I lied about being a virgin, because none of these new friends seemed to be one. I withheld that my first and only kiss had been planted on my cheek while we waited single file in our Kindergarten class. My awkward and thin body and frizzy hair and large teeth became something to tease and I began to seriously doubt I’d ever be desirable.
Throughout it all, I stayed with my youth group, mostly scowling in a corner, rolling my eyes. Having no explanations, no understanding, no words for the conflict within, for the new darkness, but wanting someone to see, to care, someone to assure, not scold. I was in 4-H, still mucking out stalls once a week. I started art lessons reluctantly, not understanding that talent must be trained, feeling ashamed that I couldn’t claim the status of ‘self-taught.’ Middle school was the middle ground. The clouds and drizzle before the storm. Not everything had crumbled yet, and I hold innocent memories and laughs and experiences with my family and vacations at the sand dunes and card games and computer games and youth conventions.
It would be my youth leaders who explained to my then thirteen-year-old self at Pizza King that they would have to intervene, that they would tell my parents about my lasting brokenness over the hardly understood loss of the Brother, about my smoking and stealing and rebellion.
I stared at the faded photographs of red benches behind the scratched glass and little train track. This wasn’t the seeing and caring I was looking for.