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/jenn lee

A History of Western Civilization

I am thirteen.

It is the summer between eighth grade and freshman year, and I am thirteen.

*

A few weeks back, I won my junior high’s Excellence in English Award at our Graduating Eighth Graders assembly. My parents attended along with my grandmother, my little sister, and my aunt. I didn’t know I was winning an award, but my school had contacted my parents ahead of time to let them know so that they could be in attendance. My parents decided not to tell me. They wanted the award to be a surprise.

I sat in a folding chair in the school gymnasium — metal frame with a rough wood seat and back. The chairs, which the janitors unpacked and set in rows and then repacked for every assembly, always felt precarious. I perched on mine, anxious about potential discomforts ranging from a splinter in my ass to a public collapse. I sat in my usual, eighth-grade spot for assemblies — back row, far aisle seat. This location forced only one other student to sit next to me, and it held as many of my classmates in my view as possible while keeping me out of theirs. It also let me hang back after assemblies. Sometimes, if it seemed extra dangerous, I could hang back long enough to help the janitors put the chairs away. I might even score a Good Citizen’s pass from class for the rest of the school day. I never did. I don’t think there was such a thing, but I always hoped.

The set up for this assembly was different. We had guests — family and friends of eighth graders. The janitors had created an artificial aisle, five feet wide, directly behind the last row of students, the row where I sat. After the aisle, they had placed extra seating for parents and siblings and extended family, nicer and newer chairs with clean seats of molded plastic and sturdy tubular frames.

I wasn’t too worried about someone’s dad snapping my bra or tossing tiny, crumpled notes at me, aiming to stick the crinkled paper to my hair or in the gap between the waistband of my jeans and small of my back, notes that I maybe wouldn’t find until later, until I got home and got undressed, smoothing out the wrinkled and torn college-ruled scraps that rolled out of the bottom of my pants, smoothing them out even though I knew better. I wasn’t too worried. Still, I would have preferred to be in the very last row.

One of my English teachers, Miss Worther, rose from her seat on the stage at the front of the gym. Her heels clacked on the black-painted plywood. She stood behind the podium and spoke my name into the microphone. I remember feeling surprise. I remember feeling a sick mix of yearning and dread — a buzzing in my belly, a coldness in my fingers and toes, a chlorine sting in my nose.

I unperched from the creaky metal folding chair. I walked up to the front, my gaze fixed on my ratty gym shoes. My shoelaces remained firmly tied, but I still took as much time as I dared on the stairs up to the stage. Just in case.

Miss Worther congratulated me, smiling, and shook my hand. The vice principal handed me a sheet of paper with a border of fancy, swirling scrolls he picked up off of a scarred folding table and then he, too, shook my hand. I’m sure there was sound, but in my memory it’s all muffled — cannonballing into my grandfather’s swimming pool in Florida and that flipped switch from my sister’s shrieks to the smothered thrum of water on eardrums. I remember seeing my family sitting in the way-way back of the gym. My mom and aunt clapped fiercely for me, their faces red and splotchy as they smiled. My dad, decades before transitioning, snapped photographs, face hidden behind a camera. My sister looked bored. My grandmother clutched her program and beamed, dabbing at her cheeks and under her eyes.

Walking back to my seat, I stared at the toes of my shoes the entire way. I placed my steps carefully so that the rubber soles of my sneakers wouldn’t squeak on the lacquered floor. I counted the steps until I sat back down, smoothing the scrolled paper out against my lap.

That night, after the celebratory dinner at the local diner, after the giant banana split with no nuts and extra hot fudge, I walked into my parents’ bedroom to say goodnight to my mom. She sat up in bed, legs crossed with a thick paperback held in one hand, the cover bent back on itself. A half-full can of Coke sat on her bedside table. Beside it, an ashtray overflowed with cigarettes smoked halfway down before she stubbed them out and lit one fresh. A ripped open bag of Dove dark chocolates sat propped against her knee.

The room, more hers than my father’s according to time spent in it and the traces of a life left upon it, looked a mess, but it had been carefully curated and arranged by my mother. Everything situated so she could reach it one-handed. Stub out the old cigarette. Grab the Coke. Sip it and put it back. Grab a chocolate and scrabble the wrapper off. Pop it in the mouth. Shake out a new cigarette with one hand and slip it between the lips. Pick up the clear plastic Bic and flick. Fit flame to paper and inhale. Bic back down. Exhale a soft stream of smoke through the nose. All without causing her eyes to stray from the page of her paperback.

I stood in the doorway. I knew she knew I was there. My mother always registered any potential disruptions to her reading. Any disturbances rippled out to surge against her core.

She held up her index finger on her non-book hand as she continued to read to a reasonable pause point. Lit cigarette dangled limp at her lips, ash threatening to fall with every exhalation.

I waited.

She dog-eared her page and set the book down. She crushed the end of her barely smoked cigarette in the ashtray and looked up at me with a smile in her eyes. I entered her room. I sat down on her bed with her.

I know she told me many things. My mom always told me many things whenever I sat in bed with her. She’d stroke my hair back off of my face with soft, warm, dry hands that whispered against my skin, the edges of her nails yellowed by cigarettes. She’d brush my hair back and tell me things. She loved me. She was proud of me. She thought I’d like this book she was reading — there were dragons or vampires or witches or wolves. She couldn’t believe how long my legs were getting. She couldn’t believe I was so tall. She wanted us to shoot pool soon. She thought we should see this movie she’d read about — it had dragons or vampires or witches or wolves. She was sure high school would be a fresh start for me and I’d get a chance to be whomever I wanted.

I’m sure she told me many things that night. But I only remember one thing she said.

“I can’t believe those asshole kids booed you. Fuckers.”

*

In my memory, nearly a year after that night after the assembly, I am almost fourteen when my mother sits me down on that bed she shared with my dad. Another ripped open bag of Dove dark chocolates scatter across the comforter between us. Sunlight glitters off the red foil as her fingers fumble to unwrap them. Light splashes my eyes. I know I am not quite fourteen and my mother sobs, chocolate staining the corner of her mouth, while she confesses to me that her long-dead father raped her.

She was eighteen or nineteen or twenty. Or she was eighteen and nineteen and twenty. Home from college.

Except her father taught English literature at a local university and my mother and her older sister both attended that school for the deeply discounted tuition. They all lived at home, so my mother would not have needed to “come home from college.” She lived there.

So I think she was eighteen and nineteen and twenty and living at home while going to college and her father invited her into his office and there was Irish whiskey and his hand on her knee and that is as far as she gets in telling me before she sinks down into the bed. She flip turns and pillows her head on my leg. My fingers stroke her hair back off of her face. Her tears darken my jeans.

I cannot be almost fourteen. If I’m almost fourteen, it smacks the math in my head. It’s definitely late spring when she tells me, the school year nearly at an end, and my birthday falls in October. And I know — I know — I know she tells me before everything escalates with my grandfather, my dad’s father. I know because, as a part of this conversation, my mother makes me promise that I will tell her if anyone, no matter who, ever “fucks” with me. I remember promising her. I remember the crow hop in my heart. I remember knowing that I am already breaking this promise before the words finish echoing around the room, but not knowing that it will turn so much worse.

My dad says they told us both together. Both parents. Both kids. My dad says we were young — too young — but that Mom could not hold her breath any longer.

My sister, two-and-a-half years younger, also remembers Mom telling the two of us together. She remembers we sat in the living room. She says she knew it was bad when Dad turned off The Little Mermaid. She says she was ten.

If my sister is ten, then I am twelve-and-a-half. This drops the talk in the couple of months before the summer when everything turns so much worse.

After talking to them, I remember as my dad and sister do.

We sit on the itchy loveseats, hand-me-downs from when my grandfather, my dad’s father, moved from Evanston to Florida. My fingers pick at loose threads of red and brown wool. Dad sits near Mom but does not touch her. Dad perches carefully in the corner so that they don’t touch accidentally. I remember registering that oddness of not touching. Now I imagine my mother instructed my dad to not touch her. That a sympathetic touch, a supportive hand on a shoulder or the barest brush over the back of an arm would undo her — make it impossible for her to finish forcing out the words. I am the same way.

Mom’s elbows brace against her knees, hands clasped in front of her, her torso tilting over her legs. Her chin juts forward. My mother always leads with her chin. I smell her — cigarette smoke and stale Coke and the softened bitterness of dried sweat. I feel the force of her eyes urging me to look up, but I stare at her hands. The lines. The freckles. The yellow nails. The blood-flushed palms, red and lacy. In the corner of my vision, my sister’s blonde hair swims as her head swivels back and forth. She turns to my parents. She turns to me. She must be so confused. I hope she’s so confused.

My mother tells us of Irish whiskey and his hand on her knee and she dives forward off of the sofa and onto her knees in front of my sister and me. Her hand grabs my arm above the elbow. She does the same to my sister on the other side. She orders us to tell her if anyone, no matter who, ever “fucks” with us. Anything that ever makes us even slightly uncomfortable, we are to tell her. Tell them. Her breath, hot and full of spit, mists over us. We nod. We promise.

A couple of months later, my sister and I visit our grandfather in Florida. He invites me into his office. There is Scotch whisky and his hand on my knee.

When we get home, I do not tell my mother until I find out that he’s coming up to visit for the holidays. I tell her as gently as I can. Holding the shock of the conversation behind my back, I try to slip sideways into telling her by saying that “the way that Grandpa touches me makes me uncomfortable.”

This is as far as I get.

My mother tells me that he was raised hard. That his family did not know how to show love. That he loves me very much and he is doing his very best to show me that he loves me and sometimes he overdoes it because he loves me that much. She tells me I am lucky to have a grandfather who loves me so much.

I nod and don’t bring it up again.

I make sure my sister is never alone with him.

*

“I can’t believe those asshole kids booed you. Fuckers.”

I don’t remember what I said in response. I must have said something adequate. Or maybe I said nothing at all. Maybe I just nodded and shrugged, and we said good night.

I laid awake in bed and didn’t sleep. I remember that. I remember not sleeping that night. I don’t remember being booed.

I didn’t remember being booed, but I tried to.

Safe in the nest of my childhood bed, I replayed the assembly in my head. I picked up the program from my bedside table and, tucked under the covers with my flashlight so I wouldn’t wake my sister, I kicked through the speakers with their boring speeches full of words and stories that didn’t seem to mean anything. I ran the watery beam of light down the paper of the program and watched the presentation of awards in my head. I remembered which student won each award, though the program listed none of their names, and I didn’t remember being booed.

My classmates were entirely capable of booing me. It was possible. Maybe even probable.

I recalled Miss Worther’s smile when she congratulated me and shook my hand. A smile full of sympathy and teeth. A smile, if smiled hard enough and long enough, that could transfer her own bravery and poise to me. But she always smiled at me like that.

All my teachers always smiled at me like that. I’m sure everything was abundantly apparent to all of them. I’m sure, though I thought I hid everything so perfectly and so cleanly, my body was clear, blue water.

My mother saw threats and insults everywhere. A hallmark of survivorship. Constant guardedness. Hypervigilance against all potential attacks. Danger leaking behind all eye contact, abuse tucked inside every accidental touch, a mind spinning out and projecting possible penetrations upon the empty air.

The traumatized brain skips into all futures, spraying out horror and catastrophe seven steps ahead. And my mother’s brain had been irrevocably altered by the experiences forced upon her.

But then, by thirteen, so had mine.

*

I am thirteen.

It is the summer between eighth grade and freshman year, and I am taking summer school.

I am starting high school a handful of months before everyone else in my class. I don’t need to take summer school. I’m not behind. Nothing needs to be made up. I’m trying to get ahead. I just finished eighth grade and I cannot wait for high school to start, so I don’t. I take some social studies class. A Survey of Western Civilization. European History from Caesar to Thatcher. Western Civilization: Rise of the West. Something like that.

We meet in a classroom tucked into the far end of the enormous building. A bank of south-facing windows eats up an entire wall and radiates light and heat. The whole room sweats.

We all adapt by wearing as little clothing as possible and the teacher seems disinclined to enforce the dress code. He stops wearing ties after the first week. He keeps the lights off and screens a lot of movies only tangentially connected to western history. Ben-Hur. The Lion in Winter. The Name of the Rose. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. He grows more desperate with each passing week. I imagine that soon we will be watching Star Wars or Indiana Jones and, by this point, I’m perfectly fine with that. I just want to be done with this class.

I am the only not-quite-a-freshman in it.

I am thirteen and the class is filled with upperclassmen. Seniors who walked across a stage in May and needed to come back to pass this class before the school will send them their diplomas. I am thirteen and the rest of the class are all seventeen- and eighteen- and nineteen-year-old boys. Boys who almost all play or played varsity sports for the school. Boys who hope to continue playing sports in college, provided they pass this class. Football and basketball and baseball and swimming and wrestling. Boys bursting at the shoulder seams of their too-tight t-shirts. Boys whose hairy legs sprawl out from under their desks. Boys whose desks creak dangerously with each shift of their hips.

Boys who are men—at least physically.

I am thirteen and there is one boy-man who always sits behind me. He is a senior or will be one come September. He’s taken this class twice before and has failed both times. His coach has given him an ultimatum to pass now or lose his position as starting running back. He talks at me a lot.

After the first week of class, I move my seat.

He moves with me.

I move my seat every day.

He moves with me.

I sit in the last row of the classroom even though this means I cannot see anything at all. If the teacher bothers to write anything on the board, I can’t see it. I definitely cannot see the thirty-two-inch CRT TV set on the black rolling cart at the head of the room. Not that it matters. We’re watching Spartacus and, as the daughter of a deeply queer cinematographer, I’ve already seen it many times.

The boy-man sits in front of me.

When the class breaks for bathrooms and water and to splash water on their faces and the backs of their necks, I stay behind, as I have done since the first day. I don’t know where the girls’ bathroom is and I’m too afraid to ask anyone now.

He stays with me.

The teacher leaves. We are alone in the classroom. The boy-man turns around in his seat. He rests his giant, sweaty forearms on my desk, pushing my notebook to the side. My pen rolls and falls to the floor.

He smiles at me.

He bares his teeth at me in a gesture I mistake for a smile. He asks me if I want to play a game.

I shake my head and pretend to review my notes on Spartacus. Notes I wrote from memory based on the last time I watched the film. Mostly gay gladiators in improbably colored tunics. Bare and hairless chests gleaming with sweat that slicks viscous like oil. Erect swords. Erect spears. Affection that reeks of aggression. Every line and frame painted in so much man-ness. A spectacle that makes me feel yellow and sick and liquid. Too small and not small enough.

He wheedles at me. Come on, it’s just a game.

I say no thank you.

I am wearing a black bodysuit, the kind that snaps at the crotch because it’s the nineties. It is sleeveless and scoop necked. It is low cut on me like everything that isn’t a turtleneck is low cut on me. It has a little lace-up detail at the neckline that I thought was cute when I got dressed that morning and that now seems dangerous and scary and makes me want to cry.

He places his hand on my notebook. Dark hairs dust his knuckles. With his palm spread flat, his fingers reach the edges of the page. He covers everything, smearing my handwriting with his sweaty, wet skin. Come on. Come on, it’s a quick game.

Everyone will be back soon.

Just a quick little game. You’ll have fun, scout’s honor.

I think about reaching for the windbreaker I keep in my backpack in case it rains. I think about the classmates that maybe booed me but maybe didn’t. I think about my mom and her desire for a fresh start for me. I think about knowing a football-playing senior before high school even begins.

I look up at him.

I do not say yes. I do not say no.

He tells me the game is called Radio Operator and he’s the radio operator. I am the radio. He tells me to hold my arms out to the sides or up above my head and he will adjust them. My arms are the antennae. He tells me he has to dial up the right frequency using the radio knobs.

I think this is the stupidest fucking thing.

I am right.

I think this is the scariest moment of my summer, of this summer.

I am right.

I think he is stupid and scary and awful and disgusting.

I am right.

I think this will make no positive difference in my high school experience.

I am right.

I think this is not how you make a fresh start.

I am right.

I think I know where this is going.

I am right.

I am right.

By the time the class comes back from break, I am wearing my windbreaker and he has moved his seat. He doesn’t sit next to me the next day. He doesn’t sit next to me for the rest of the class.

*

I was thirteen and he was eighteen.

I was thirteen and he was eighteen and I didn’t say no and I didn’t say yes. I said no a few times and then I stopped saying no and I never said yes. I was thirteen and it was hot in that classroom and I made a decision about what to wear.

What about the boys at the Halloween party?

I was eighteen and I don’t remember and I can extrapolate.

What about the time in Mexico?

I don’t remember if I ever said the word “no.” I do remember wanting to leave his hotel room. I do remember wanting to leave my body. He asked me if he should wear a condom and I said “yes.” I was drunk. He was not. I was drunk and I was twenty-one.

I was drunk and I was half his age. I wanted to be home in my childhood bed with its Teddy bears and Cabbage Patch dolls, its stack of books stashed underneath with a flashlight and extra batteries and I wanted to be that young again, that safe again and when I was that young I was already not safe, already years past safe. I wanted to not be drunk and I was drunk and I was half his age.

What about what my grandfather did to me?

What about what my grandfather did to me, made me do to him, made me do for him?

I was twelve and I don’t know how old he was and his thin hair was gray and his skin was old expensive leather and

And.

Squishy caramel carpet, wet where [my] feet have been. Using a corner of the Eeyore beach towel to squeeze [my] braids dry as they drip chlorinated water onto [my] bare shoulders, freckled from the Florida sun. [I] am so worried about the state of the carpet, about what [my] chlorine-wet feet will do to it. The shrieks and shouts of [my] sister and cousin echoing off of tile and stucco before he closes and locks his office door. Dark wood cabinet opening and closing. Cut crystal cups chiming inside. Amber alcohol and a sharp smoky scent. Tribal masks on the wall from his trip to Kenya with his wife who is not [my] grandmother. Empty eyeholes on the wall. Photographs of [me] at three hanging over the toffee loveseat, its leather gone butter soft with age. Everything in this room is older than [I] am. Leather and carpet and wood and masks and crystal and alcohol and skin. Sunlight flashing off of his glasses. Eyes gone blank and Daddy Warbucks white.

It wasn’t sex.

It was maybe a kind of sex and it wasn’t penetrative sex. It wasn’t penetrative sex and I was penetrated. He did not take my virginity, whatever that means, wherever that is.

How do you have a virginity? How do you be a virgin? Or not be a virgin? Where does that boundary lie? When did I cross it? Did I cross it? Did I mean to? Does it matter if I did or didn’t mean to? Did he mean to cross it? What does it mean if he meant to? What does it mean if he didn’t?

Does it matter?

*

A few months before my mother dies, she tells me she remembers that I once tried to have a conversation with her. We are sitting on her new bed in her new apartment that she doesn’t share with my father. I have come over to take pictures of strange things she has crocheted and wants to sell on Etsy — Barbie doll clothes and amorphous hats — and to make sure she is taking out her garbage and to take it out for her if she isn’t.

I am thirty-five and she is sixty-three.

She tells me she thinks she handled it wrong. The conversation she sort of remembers. That she didn’t listen. That she couldn’t listen. She just couldn’t hear me. Not then. She says she hopes that if there is anything I need to tell her

She says she is ready to listen.

I am almost forty-one and twenty-one and eighteen and almost fourteen and thirteen and twelve. My mother is eighteen and nineteen and twenty and sixty-three and she will never be sixty-four.

I make a confused face and smile.

I tell her I don’t remember. I reassure her I am fine. She strokes my hair back off of my face and kisses my forehead. I get up off of her bed and go to her kitchen. I tug her garbage out of the trash can and cinch it shut, tying it tight before heading out back to throw it away.

Jenn Lee has had work featured in The Rumpus, The Penn Review, Burning House Press, The Ocotillo Review, Bending Genres, and other places. She founded the ARS reading series at Northeastern Illinois University, and is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Columbia College. She lives in Chicago with her partner and two cats.

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