Perverts I Have Known
Courage is fear that has said its prayers. I wasn’t afraid. If I were courageous, I would have made a fuss.
Louisiana in the summertime, before air conditioning. The heavy humid air feels like a weight pressing down on me. I can’t exert myself. I can barely even move. I simply lie, exhausted on a daybed on the screened-in front porch of a weather-beaten little house belonging to the grandmother of my friend Carolyn. In my memory, the grandmother is at least a hundred years old, with a gray bun pulled tight at the back of her small head.
This was the summer between eighth and ninth grade, so I guess I was just barely fourteen and looked about twelve. I was skinny, only just starting to need a brassiere that year, with big hair that overpowered my small face. Carolyn was much more mature, but we became friends by virtue of proximity. She lived across the street from me in Wichita, on a short dead-end street west of the western suburbs.
Glancing up, I was startled to see Carolyn’s Uncle Roy standing in the doorway, blocking the light from the adjacent hallway.
When Carolyn’s family planned a vacation trip down south to their family home in Louisiana, she asked me to come along. Carolyn was overweight and rather plain, with a colorless face and lifeless brownish hair. Her mother, however, was a caricature of a Southern belle. Her black hair was styled into a stiff 1960s bouffant, her bright red nails were filed into talons, and she favored clothing in bright pastel colors. Carolyn’s mother knew exactly how to arrange herself on the beige wingback chair by the big living room window to best show off her dramatic colors.
I had scarcely ever been out of state, except to the Rockies in Colorado and to Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. I was up for the adventure, even though I wasn’t sure what to think about my friend Carolyn’s family.
In my mind, Louisiana was a land of faded antebellum mansions and dull green Spanish moss draping the spreading branches of gnarled oak trees, a region populated by Cajuns with funny accents and French names, descended from Acadian forebears. Carolyn’s family, however, hailed from northwest Louisiana, in the general vicinity of Shreveport, close to where Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas meet. This was not, so far as I could see, the world of Cajun and Creole. I soon identified a few of Carolyn’s extended family members as what some people call rednecks.
My other vivid memory from the trip is lying on a twin bed at Carolyn’s aunt’s house, reading a book. Carolyn was reading her own book on the other twin bed, her back turned to me. The shades were drawn, the light was low, and the room was cool. I don’t remember if the heat had lifted or if Carolyn’s aunt was lucky enough to have air conditioning. Located on a shady street in town rather than out in the country like grandmother’s house, this was a much nicer home than Carolyn’s grandmother’s ramshackle abode.
As I flicked through the pages of my book, I yawned as I struggled to stay awake. Glancing up, I was startled to see Carolyn’s Uncle Roy standing in the doorway, blocking the light from the adjacent hallway. I sat up. I was even more startled when he came over to sit on the bed beside me, putting his arm around me and pulling me close. He smelled like soap and smoke, and his plaid shirt felt soft.
“Carolyn won’t want to see this,” was all he said as he kissed and nuzzled my neck, biting the tender skin. I stiffened, straightened, and pulled away, glaring at him. “Stop it! Go away!” I commanded. He pulled away, got up, and shuffled out of the room without another word.
And I’m not courageous. If I were courageous, there is something I would have done differently. To this day, I remember Carolyn’s young cousin, the daughter of her lecherous Uncle Roy.
I don’t have a very clear memory of this man. He was probably in his early thirties, nondescript with brown hair and of medium height and build. His eyes lacked expression, and there was a dullness about him. When I first met him the previous day, I thought he was vaguely repulsive. I was sure he wasn’t very smart, although he had a white-collar job and wore a suit to work every day. That perception of his dullness was confirmed by his approach to me when Carolyn was in the room, where I knew I was perfectly safe.
“I don’t like my uncle,” Carolyn said after he left. “I don’t think my mother does, either.”
That was all either one of us said about the subject, at the time or later. That seems odd now, in the age of people baring their souls and talking about their most shameful secrets. I come from a family and an ancient Anglo culture that value self-sufficiency and self-containment, though. No emoting for us. No group hugs, no uncomfortable displays of angst, no expectation of emotional support. In fact, I really didn’t feel anything.
Many years later, when I lived in New York, I was chatting with Judy, the mother of my daughter’s friend. Married to a psychologist, she was Jewish and so bright she skipped two grades in the New York City schools. I mentioned the incident, and Judy gasped. “How did you have so much courage?” she asked me. When her piano teacher molested her, she said, she didn’t have the courage to tell him “no.” The experience was clearly traumatic for her.
I have pondered her response, and I can assure you I am not courageous. I’ve never been intimidated by authority, however, and when trouble looms I subconsciously jettison emotions, favoring instead a pragmatic approach. I was calm. Carolyn was in the room with me. It was quite clear this wayward uncle couldn’t get very far with his intentions even if he imagined he could. I wasn’t scared. That was that.
Although I wasn’t too far beyond an age when I thought kissing a member of the opposite sex caused pregnancy, I already knew men could be creepy. My parents always warned me to never let a man pinch my bottom, although I have never heard of this being a threat at any time since. The prospect seemed to concern them, however, and therefore worried me.
Of course a man pinched my bottom, catapulting me into a brief paroxysm of concern about whether that was how a girl got pregnant. I was ten years old, standing next to my mother at a crowded Girl Scout event. I felt a pinch and when I looked up, I saw a man with a craggy face, dressed in a gray suit and seeming to be seven feet tall, looking down at me. I didn’t tell my mother.
My impression that a fair number of men were perverts was again confirmed when I was sixteen, two years after The Incident with Carolyn’s uncle. Again, I was calm, pragmatic, and completely unflustered. Again, I didn’t tell anyone.
First, a little geography. The cul-de-sac where I still lived was separated from town by a strip of wheat fields bordered on one end by a blacktopped road and on the other end by Cowskin Creek, a slash of green edging the golden fields. Our house was built on a little algae-choked pond formed by a pocket of the creek. My siblings and I loved to take our old rowboat across the pond, pole our way through the aquatic weeds in the narrow channel connecting the pond, and explore along Cowskin Creek.
The creek’s banks were high, lined with a tangle of underbrush and trees whose branches arched over the water, providing perpetual shade. The brown water was deep, especially after a heavy rain, and the smells were pungent, damp, and earthy. Occasionally Cowskin Creek flooded, cutting us off from town. When that happened, my parents had to drive the long way around on the country roads that crisscrossed the flat prairie.
Every summer afternoon that year, I walked a couple of miles to the neighborhood pool to meet my friends before I went to work at a nearby ice cream parlor. Part of the route was down a dusty dirt road, slicing through the wheat fields and connecting my little neighborhood with the rest of civilization. That summer, the road was closed to the public because the county was replacing the ancient iron bridge crossing Cowskin Creek. As part of a flood-control project, a massive bridge constructed of cement was rising high above the creek, a bridge that wouldn’t have to close when the creek flooded.
Mother frequently scolded me because I never remembered to put a shirt over my swimming suit. I didn’t have much of a figure and looked much younger than my age, so exciting passion in men was not something I worried about. This July day was no exception. I wore a skimpy blue two-piece with white polka dots, enjoying the hot Kansas sun warming my bare shoulders and arms and daydreaming. Harvest was past, and sunlight shimmered on the fields.
As I walked down the dirt road, a pale-blue Ford Falcon passed me. I thought nothing about the car or the man inside except that the road was closed, so he must be going fishing in the wide, placid creek. A lot of people fished there. As I got closer, I noticed he had pulled the car off the road and down onto a grassy stretch of creek bank, shaded by a thicket of trees. I couldn’t see him.
I kept walking, heedless. As I started across the cement span of the new bridge, I heard a man’s voice call, “Hey!”
Looking down from the bridge’s height, I saw the blue Falcon. Beside the car, I saw the man. He was stark naked, doing something I shouldn’t be seeing. And I can still see him, like a snapshot: Young. Not bad looking, actually. Dark hair. Slender. Stark white against the shadowy backdrop of trees.
“Want to come help me?” he called.
Even as young as I was, I knew I was supposed to panic. I realized the thrill for an exhibitionist would come from scaring me, and I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction. That would make him feel strong and powerful. No.
I gauged the distance between us, calculating the odds of his catching me. Not possible. “No thanks,” I responded. Nonchalantly, I sauntered on, never even looking back.
I’ve got other stories about perverts, enough to convince me that perhaps a third of all men are doing things they shouldn’t be, unbeknownst to their male friends. I laugh them off, but I feel for girls who are less rebellious, or less pragmatic, or in situations where they really aren’t safe. I’m glad their stories are coming out, and young girls, whether pretty or plain, are no long expected to accept dealing with perverts as an untidy, unpleasant part of life.
And I’m not courageous. If I were courageous, there is something I would have done differently. To this day, I remember Carolyn’s young cousin, the daughter of her lecherous Uncle Roy. Tammy was about eight years old, with curly golden strands of hair pulled back in a half ponytail from her sweet face. A thin girl, and anxious. Anxious like her small, dark-haired mother, Roy’s long-suffering wife.
Courage is fear that has said its prayers. I wasn’t afraid. If I were courageous, I would have made a fuss.