Cushion & Frame

by Rebecca Kuder

issue 72

“Everything reminded you of what happened.”

—Rachel McKibbens

Everything reminds you of what happened. It powders the shelf you use as a nightstand, the shelf your daughter will someday use as a dollhouse; it snows and settles between the threads of your sheets, infiltrates the fur of your stuffed Snoopy; it crawls inside your pores. When you are nine, it glazes your sun-snarled hair and seeps down into your bones.

* * *

When you are thirteen, it is there after lunch when you skip school to see him, to do it again and again after you’ve been told it’s not allowed, lectured by your angry and anguished mother when she finds, under a pillow, an unused condom, flat plastic pocket of intention.

Which must still be in that wrapper, somewhere in the landfill.

In the living room on the fabulous mid-century modern sofa—which you don’t yet know is fabulous, or mid-century modern—your mother lectures you, thirteen, and him, eighteen, asking what if you get pregnant, and is he prepared to marry you? (He says yes.) In the living room, on that sofa, grass-green slab cushion, black iron frame on which you nick your shins from time to time.

* * *

The sofa is gone. The rest of the story is still here.

* * *

Everything reminds you of what happened because it is all still here; jet trails of it are painted across the sky and on your skin and inside your heart when you are thirteen and the boyfriend says, If you loved me, you’d have sex with me, or does he say make love?

* * *

It is here even before the boyfriend at thirteen; it is painted when you are nine, painted not in the sky—because shhh, a secret isn’t painted in the sky, a secret is between him and you, because he says don’t tell—but painted on your skin and in your heart. Painted when you are nine, by that man who is supposed to be taking care of you.

The invisible bruises never mark your skin, but graffiti your heart, your bones, via words, via touch.

* * *

In your twenties, in therapy, living across the country, recall age nine, and call information and get his phone number and write down what you intend to say and dial his number and then by phone, confront that man who was your mother’s boyfriend. Tell him you remember what he did.

(He was your mother’s boyfriend after she and your father split up. Before she married your stepfather. When you were a child, that man—are you legally allowed to name him on the page?—had nine children of his own.)

In your twenties, pace your apartment in Seattle’s Queen Anne while by phone, that man tells you what you were like as a child, says you were precocious. Says that (during what you now know to call the grooming period) he remembers you sitting on that green and black sofa, cushion & frame, watching TV and touching yourself between your legs. He doesn’t say it quite this way, but by saying he remembers you sitting on that sofa, watching TV and touching yourself between your legs, by mentioning that scene, he implies you provided him some sort of invitation, an excuse to touch you, later, after the grooming period was complete and it seemed, to him, to be time for him to touch you.

(Tell him children do that, touch themselves.)

From across the country by phone, as you cross the grey carpet in your apartment, talk to him longer than expected. Not sure what you expected, but you didn’t expect a conversation, not exactly. (Decades later, you recall most of the phone conversation verbatim, which is unlike you, because most of your memory is moth-eaten.)

You were taught to take care of others. To be nice, to be helpful, available. Not to consider what you wanted or needed, not to consider your own boundaries. Continue to talk to him.

Talk to him longer than expected: similar, maybe, to how it was when you were nine and he was in your bedroom, and you didn’t know what else to do. Don’t hang up yet because, after you’ve said all you had planned to say, he keeps talking. He is a live person; there is unpredictability. The conversation, like when he molested you, is out of your control, is happening to you, becomes a breathing thing of its own, no longer about confronting the villain; now it’s about him.

From across the country by phone, it shocks you how naïve and unintelligent he sounds. He says lately I’ve been hearing so much about this, it’s all over the news. He says you seem very well-informed about child sexual abuse (as if it’s a compliment). He asks you questions, as if you are an authority, his counselor. As if he expects you to help him understand why he touched you in that way.

Why he said, when you were nine, as he touched your clitoris, This might feel good, and that’s okay.

Twisting the word okay until it no longer means what it means.

* * *

Although you remember so much of the conversation, when you are fifty, you replay it while washing dishes and realize that he didn’t apologize. Or if he did, that is one rather important slice of the conversation, which, apparently, the memory-eating moth has devoured.

When you are fifty, writing, remembering, focus on the furniture, the sofa…where is that sofa now, wouldn’t you love to have it back, if only so the ephemera of memory would become substance, attach to something real? Ponder the set design, how to describe the shelf beside your bed, the peach floral wallpaper of the room where, at age thirteen, you lose your virginity to that eighteen year old.

(When you were thirteen, you loved him, but were too young. Have endless regret.)

Writing, remembering, focus on surroundings, what is solid, because it is not in question, not subject to the fickle weather of time and memory. Memory is too sheer, translucent. If you can’t see the whole picture, like a movie, can you trust any of it? The human transactions are faded, innuendo, nearly gone. The house where these things happened when you were nine, and then thirteen, the house itself is ephemera because you lose it, burned down by the town’s fire department three years after you lose your virginity: your family only rented. The town owns the house and land, your home; they want to expand the park beside your home. The fire department needs practice putting out fires. It is very logical. The peach floral wallpaper of the room where if you loved me is now carbon beneath a soccer field, but you’re still here writing this essay. Trying to write this essay.

* * *

Trying to write this essay even before the forty-fifth president is elected, even before the free world is clubbed and dragged by its hair by this exceptionally heinous hater. Trying to write this essay while the sexual-predator-in-chief burns through your world, slashing indirect yet fully felt assault on your entire half of the population.

* * *

Everything reminds you of what happened.

(It’s still here in your bones.)

Is there forgetting? Is there a way to erase, rid the world of what happened? Does forgetting erase, or do the pencil-marks still whisper forever? Why do you, mature, learned, self-aware and fifty, still think you can excise something from your history, something, a terrible thing, yet a terrible thing that made you; why do you think you could forget?

Where is the grass-green slab of cushion and where are its black iron bones? Is the cushion and frame in pieces somewhere in a landfill, near that flat plastic pocket of intention? Or is the sofa still intact, in someone’s living room? Recovered and restored? Has the furniture forgotten the shins it nicked?

Why do you think you could forget?

* * *

(Be nine. Then later when you’re fifty, fabulous mid-century modern yourself, having moved back home, see the man. See the man—are you allowed to name him in print?—in your town. See the man, now old, almost frail. The house is gone, the man is old, but it’s all still here in your bones. Avoid him as hard as you can.)

* * *

Be fifty and have a nine-year-old girl. Watch her step into the age you were when, and breathe, and think about it and don’t think about it and keep breathing.

Breathe as a way to hope.

Breathe, and do what you can to allow your child a childhood. Allow your honed sense of not okay plenty of air: when another child’s father stands too near your child, or shows too much interest, stay nearby. Feel what you feel and know what you know. Let your graffiti-embellished bones be scaffold, watchtower, superpower, so you can see all. Trust and heed what your invisible bruises tell you. Say no to certain sleepovers. Fortify boundaries.

Tell all the secrets.

Cast the sturdiest protection spell you have.