I spent all day today staring up at the sky or sometimes down into the sand, often asleep, on the Jersey shore. I was with some friends, a couple new and one old. I am jealous of the new ones, their tender hearts, their special loves, all that hope and promise. They are so poised!
Listen up my little sparrows, I finally said, leveling over a plastic basket of corn chips and trying not to spill the salsa on my towel upon return-drag. I know what it is to date. I, too, have been in love. Met the one! Married soon! Yes yes, I hear you my gorgeous porcupines, supine on our towels. But then, prickly as can be, I informed them all about the little business known as being left, pregnant, the man with a backpack over his shoulder and the parting thought a tumbling revelation of his childhood sexual abuse, his repeated rape and molestation, coupled plainly, finally, with his assertion that he could not guarantee that he would not do the same to our as-yet unborn child. On December 5, I told the girls, I went alone for my abortion, the counselor holding my hand on the cold metal table while the doctor quietly opted to up the anesthesia to the maximum I could take.
“You won’t want to remember this,” he said. I passed out. I wish it were so easy. Nothing has felt easy for a long, long time.
I said all these to my chirping birds, these younger women, my new friends, with my teeth clenched in a gritty half smile, some low life’s prayer that they would see my fake demeanor and guile, the cunning little vixen still muscling her way through these many months later, and they would reach out to me. Hold me. Tell me to stop. It’s okay. It wasn’t my fault. It was the right thing to do. More and better and new and surer would come along. Yes! Asbury Park was made for such American assurances, such grit-clenches of hope and new purity, such Springsteenian motorboats making waves.
But instead they just stared at me. God damn the young, so unburnished by all that lies ahead! So unwilling to share just a gram, just one ounce, of that noble naiveté.
“Wow,” they said.
“What?” another asked. “That’s just—wow.”
Ah well, yes, on and on and over to the next. I reached for another chip, dipped it liberally into the salsa and bit back the roiling desire to share more, share it all, to scoop down deep into the rich, dark bucket and come up with the final chunks and nuggets—this past week would have been my due date, my dears. But you can’t very well go down the street for a quart of milk and wonder what the hell the father is doing to your still young, forever vulnerable child now, can you?
We are all children and we are all vulnerable forever and ever. The project of those of us who no longer bear a passing resemblance to children—even though we are all just that, all of us, through and through—is to take the best possible care of those who do. Take the measure of ourselves and the good care of those coming up. What more important duty could we possibly have on this planet? What else is there?
But I didn’t say any of this. It would have required tipping the table over, raging against chairs and windows, the raw animal nature of my mourning, my sadness, my unabiding sorrow into the eighth month now here together with us and trapped, naked and scared, in a Mexican taco joint. So I kept her tamped down. I smiled my grit-smile. I tried to make stable and protective and knowing and true what is unstable and unprotected and bewildered and worse.
And all I could really muster was, “Well, just think: Whatever pain you feel now, you can always feel more.”
This idea was and continues to be a salve. But the girls didn’t see it that way. Instead they deepened their looks of deadpan shock:
“Molested throughout childhood?”
“And you didn’t know?”
“Then threatened to rape? Your unborn child?”
Yes yes yes. But so too does the idea—the inevitability—of yet more and worse pain to come remain a source of comfort, a great big pillow for my exhausted animal heart to lie down, to curl up. Yes, I take this idea as cozy source, even these eight months later. Eight years later. Eight hundred years later.
“You’ve made great progress,” my older friend assured me. I could hardly hear her. I am so sad, so much buried and in a curly cue on the pillow with my massive desire to accommodate more pain and then to be rid of this. To swap it out, if I could, for something else. Some other experience, some alternate life, some possibility of a different set of memories than the one I have, the one that includes his retreat, his backpack on, or his empty, blank stare backed by his own memory of so much pain and violence when he was just a child, his grave honesty in sharing with me the very real prospect of sexual abuse in perpetual cycle.
Ah, no, I can do this. I have this. So I can do this. I tucked my hair behind my ears and my pain down into my stomach. I swallowed and I felt embarrassed. I thanked the girls for listening. These birds nodded seriously, according the story its resounding due, before we all piled back into our car and zipped off to the beach, washing ourselves clean with chatter of where to sit, of if we had enough ice and water and chips and sunscreen, of how excited we were to get there, our much anticipated destination. I bit my lip and I tasted blood.
On the beach I mostly slept while the other girls swam. When the girls slept, I swam.
Inside the cage of my chest my heart crashed and leapt. It begged for something better. But I had nothing more to offer it than this sun, this day, these clouds, this sky, these chips, this sand, this dream of obliteration, the space in the middle of the day where you are asleep and see nothing, feel nothing, are nothing. I had nothing more to offer my heart than all that and so what choice did it have? It took what I gave it and after a while it quieted down again. These are not, after all, small things to give. I have my health and I am free.
“You’ll move on,” my older friend continued to assure me after the others had gone for one last swim. “You’re really doing so much better than I think anyone possibly could at this point.” I put my hands on my knees. By the time the younger girls came back up from the water I had cleaned up well. I looked as though nothing had happened and really, on the beach, nothing did. I was just standing there. There was nothing more to see or say.
As we prepared to leave I got a series of emails from a business I had never heard of, from people I don’t know on the hunt, it seemed, for some other Caroline Cooper. The messages contained a request from one person about the schedule to “release the files”, and then the assurance from some other person that “it was decided to move the in-house delivery date”. In being inexplicably copied to all of this I was reminded, again, of my secret affection for the passive construction of sentence, it’s abiding ways and abjuring presence. There is a power in the passive voice not found in aggression.
At the bottom of each message ran a pert sentence of encouragement to follow this company on social media!
Feeling stronger now, back to my sea legs and enormously amused to be looped in on this unexpected business exchange to which I am no party and have no quarter, I quickly dashed my reply, copying one and all:
I have specifically asked that these files be cancelled in their current state and reworked. As you are all well aware by now, I am extremely concerned about the way this capital campaign has shaped up. Not sure why we can’t get together on this, clearly another video conference is in order.
Be in touch with the rework.
I found this to be absolutely hilarious. A scream. I howled with laughter, with the amusement of my opportunity, this chance to mince and wander around the corridors of some random office, scaring up big changes, casting aspersions and demanding results before I went, Yahoo account and all, slinking back into my day and my strange little life. I read my reply out to the girls, hardly able to breath I was laughing so hard.
“Are you sure you want to send that?” they asked.
That seriousness about the face again. The concern in their eyes.
“Are you sure you really don’t know anyone at this company?”
Oh, I’m sure, I assured them. I have no idea what this is about. Isn’t it a riot? This is hilarious.
“Caroline, don’t send that.”
“Caroline that’s not the right thing to send.”
“I wouldn’t send that.”
“Just ignore it.”
“Caroline you’re taking way too much glee in the destruction of corporate America.”
Yes yes yes, maybe so. Maybe so. I kept the draft, a miserable little snip of my still-hard edges, my hope for a bit of fun and levity, however much at someone—anyone—else’s expense and giving voice, finally, to my suspicion that the best fun might very well be at someone else’s expense and so losing sight, again, of the baby fine duty to protect.
I went belly-first back on my towel. I noticed the girls’ body language, their languid turn away from me. I tried not to read anything into it. I read everything into it. I discarded my original reply. I wrote and sent a new message:
Not sure what these messages are about or why I am copied here. I don’t work in this capacity. I am a high school English teacher.
Best of luck,
We packed up. The girls walked ahead. At the boardwalk I found a cheap old Springsteen sweatshirt in a discount bin. “Born to Run” it blazed across the top. “Asbury Park, New Jersey” and the Boss right there in bold, searching relief. I paid in cash and pulled the sweatshirt on. I could not put this piece of clothing on my body fast enough .
Now I work down at the carwash,
Where all it ever does is rain.
Don’t you feel like you’re a rider
On a downbound train?