We remember rooms—which ones we entered and became trapped in, which ones we fled to in our dreams. This memory is nestled somewhere after the Halloween of 1976, after Mom and Dad had searched through candy bars and apples to ensure they were razor blade free, probably after Christmas and maybe even Easter, after I had wept at being told I could no longer go shirtless outside, even though at seven my flat chest looked exactly like a boy’s, probably after I had graduated first grade but before we hatched the baby chicks in an incubator for Mrs. Smith’s second grade class. I can’t ever be sure of the when because time doesn’t work in clear arcs with such narrative certainty. It’s not always as demarcated and cleanly defined as we want it to be.
Mom and Dad called me into the dining room and asked me to sit down. She lit up a cigarette, but I noticed that her eyes were slightly red, as if she had been crying. That was a rare sight—I had only seen her cry a few times, the last one being when her cousin died.
“We’ve found out some things about Grandpa,” Mom started, but then looked to Dad. It had only been a few months since their last visit, but I could tell something was terribly wrong.
“Is everything okay?” I asked. Maybe something terrible had happened to him.
But no, this was all about me.
“Nancy Lee, we’ve heard about stories about your grandfather and the way he spends time with other kids. Have you two ever done anything he said to keep secret?” He paused while my face grew warm and I shifted my gaze to a spot on the wall. “You can tell us anything, you know. You’re not in trouble, just tell us.”
The dining room disappeared. That’s what happens when your brain doesn’t want to acknowledge the world anymore, when something is presented to you that you just can’t look at yet, let alone name—it’s a trick I picked up when Grandpa and I were together. Some things that he did I liked. Other things, maybe not so much, so my memory just cropped those times to short pictures with no sound. That was how I found myself no longer sitting at the dining room table staring at my parents but instead in their bedroom, burying my face into the bedspread as if I could force my way through blankets and sheets and mattress, through floor and dirt and then rock until I bore straight into the center of the earth where no light could reach me. I would become flame with no body at all.
But my powers were limited and my father had laid down beside me, waiting for me to tell the story. I made him turn off the lights so that only slivers of sunshine snuck past the drawn shades. Mom had stayed in the dining room because I could only tell one of them. And as I whispered about the things Grandpa and I had done, the things I would get a butterscotch candy for, I saw myself as a shadow—neither little girl, nor woman, nor innocent spirit. Parts of me were being erased as I described disconnected images: the blue of Grandpa’s towel draped around his massive waist, the mountain of his body he wanted me to see and taste, my own Raggedy Ann pajamas that were shifted slightly to reveal my most tender places, and the eye scratched into the wall right across from the bed, the eye that was always watching. Some things I had to pantomime because I knew they were so bad that they couldn’t be said aloud by a shadow girl who knew too much about what her body responded to, the kind of pleasure it could produce. My body was a thing I didn’t understand anymore.
My father listened calmly, not showing any emotion. “Other people do those things when they love each other, Nancy Lee. Your mom and I do that too.”
How many colliding bodies was I expected to keep in my head? My stomach churned like it did the day I ate half a bottle of Flintstone vitamins and had to throw up an assortment of mangled people. Fred, Wilma, Barney, and even Pebbles—all chewed up monsters.
“Grandpa was very wrong touching and kissing you like that,” Dad added.
Was I just as bad for liking it, then?
I could not ask that question. I couldn’t bear to hear the answer, which was just as well since my father seemed to think the conversation finished. “How about you play in your room for a little while? I need to talk to your mother,” he said.
I crawled out of their bed, not bothering to check in on Mom, who was probably still waiting at the dining table. I was happy to disappear into my room, and would be even happier if I didn’t have to come out till sometime next year, or in the next decade. Twenty seemed like a good, round number. I had made my bed that morning and dusted my desk, organ, and shelves, so as long as Mom brought me a sandwich now and then, I could be a hermit. I tried not to think about what would Grandpa say when my parents confronted him. Would he call me a liar? I took out my Weebles and knocked a few down just to remind myself that they always bounced right back up. I’m sure Mom was trying to keep her voice low but soon their conversation was loud enough to overhear.
“He was a missionary, and dared to lecture me about faith. Who else did he get? How many total?”
“Nancy we won’t visit them at Christmas—”
“As if that will make everything okay?” she shouted. “I will never step foot in the same room with them again! How could he, Paul? Did you know?”
I couldn’t hear Dad’s response, but there are times when we’re not ready to face the total truth of a situation anyway, a dark history we might have been witness to and yet remained silent. My father would try to rectify this in a letter addressed to my grandfather detailing how he knew Grandpa had acted “inappropriately” with his brother’s friends when they were growing up, how they suspected the same with me but didn’t want to draw conclusions. My father always wanted to believe the best about someone, no matter what the evidence. And so he trusted my grandfather to be good with me just as he believed that Jim Bakker was an honest preacher even when the financials told a different story.
A knock on my door forced me back to the present. I would always be floating between time zones now—always trying to anticipate what bad thing might happen next, a part of me forever in the peach painted guest room where my grandfather tucked me in at night.
“Nancy?” Mom asked as she opened the door.
What room did this actually happen in? Perhaps we were on the couch? At the dining table?
“I’m sorry,” I said. I wanted to say it over and over again until she believed it.
“You did nothing wrong, little one.” She pulled me to her. “Grandpa’s actions were evil, and the Bible even says it’s better that a man have a giant stone tied to his neck and he be thrown into the sea than to do what he did to a child.”
Then why was I the one drowning? Trapped underwater, the sound muted. “I liked it.” My tongue grew heavy with the confession.
I hid my face in her shoulder while she tried to soothe me. “You did nothing wrong.”
But I did. I was all wrong. I wanted her to undo the dark magic that now wove pleasure and guilt together, made them inseparable.
“It’s not your fault,” she said again, rocking me back and forth. Years later I will understand she was saying this to herself as much as to me. Years later I’ll find out that she had gone to parties after work on those weekends I was with Grandpa, because she wanted to find a sense of self apart from husband and child, apart from the good Bible-college girl who married the first man she slept with. She had experimented with drugs and other men while her little girl was trapped in a peach-painted room. Later I will come to understand that abusers never act alone; they always have a network that looks away, allows them to move freely despite their sins.
Later that night there were phone calls to the parents of other victims, whose names I never learned. More shadow boys and girls, from toddlers to teenagers. More calls to my grandparents after I had gone to bed. I found out that Grandpa confessed to molesting the other children, but denied doing anything to me other than blowing air on my tummy. I wondered what made him lie, when he was honest about the others. Could it be that because I enjoyed it, it didn’t count as abuse?
“We believe you, Nancy Lee,” Dad said, kissing my forehead.
“You’ll never have to see him again,” Mom promised. “Or talk to talk to him on the phone.”
I tried to appreciate that small comfort, but it didn’t get rid of the eye that seemed to follow me everywhere, nor did I believe I was good or guiltless. Maybe that promise helped my parents feel better; maybe they saw it as penance for leaving me alone with a man I would come to find out later they had doubts about.
“You will never see him again,” my mother repeated as if the act of not seeing correlated to not remembering. But the shadow of my grandfather’s actions took on a life of their own; it was yet another demon my mother would continually battle as she slipped further into a charismatic world full of spiritual warfare, and soon enough her war with evil became mine.