For most of my life, I suspected I was invisible. When I was a kid, I believed if I closed my eyes, no one would know I was there and I could pass through a room unnoticed. I believed I didn’t leave any impression on anyone, as if I didn’t even have a footprint, or like a vampire, I had no reflection in a mirror.
If I were to paint a picture of this impression, it would be of a little girl standing outside a window on a snowy evening. I must have been about four or five. All of my brothers were still living at home and we still did things as a family. That evening, during the Christmas holidays, we went to visit some of my father’s former parishioners for dinner. It was really cold, as I remember being all bundled up in my coat, hat and scarf. The house was all lit up and decorated for Christmas and there was snow on the ground.
When we got to the door, Mr. Rohrbach, an older man with a graying crew cut, greeted my family loudly, gesturing excitedly. He put his arm around my father and mother, ushering them into the warm living room. When my brothers and I got to the door, he held up his hand.
“Nope, no, the kids go to the back door,” he said, with a strange smile on his face. With that, he closed the door in our faces.
My brothers must have grumbled and made comments about how ridiculous this was, but they trudged around the the house toward the back. I’m not sure what happened, whether I couldn’t keep up or I got confused, but somehow, by the time I got to the back door, it was closed. Locked. I knocked on the door with my mittened hand, but there was no answer. Didn’t anyone notice I was missing? I wondered. I trudged through the snow to the front door, thinking I could get the adults’ attention somehow. I knocked on the door, no answer.
I stood in front of the front window, where I could see my parents taking off their coats in front of the fireplace. They were laughing at something Mr. Rohrbach said, my mother fussed with her hair as she took off her hat and scarf. I thought maybe they’d look my way and notice me. I waved, and knocked on the window.
I remember thinking, they really can’t see me. They don’t even notice that I’m gone. I shuffled through the snow again toward the back door, where my brother Don was standing with the door open. He pulled me inside.
“Where have you been, silly?” He took off my hat, gloves, scarf and coat and ushered me into the living room, telling my parents what happened. The adults laughed, as if it were cute, and I felt like I’d done something wrong.
At home when I played with my dolls, or my games of pretend, I’d imagine someone–an adult I admire– watching me. It might have been my Sunday School teacher Mr. Phipps or my swimming teacher, Mr. Poole (that really was his name). I didn’t look at my imaginary friend, but could feel their looking at me, smiling, like Pa Ingalls did when looking upon his sleeping daughters. It was a look of love. I basked in that imaginary love.
My first real sense of loss was when Don left home. As he tells the story now, Mom and Dad agreed that he might be better off leaving. I knew it was him that put the hole in the bathroom door. Mom told me he’d gotten locked in and accidentally put that hole there, but I knew there was no way to get locked in. She crocheted a flower and glued it into the hole, so no one would ever know.
Don was the one who showed me the most affection. He’s 12 years older than me, and even though I got scared when he got in trouble, he was always very gentle and loving to me. I adored him. No one told me he was leaving, but when we were vacationing in Mississippi one summer at my grandmother’s, Don showed up in his old beat-up Mustang, which contained everything he owned– or could fit into the car. I was nine years old. We went to Mississippi every summer, and every time I had to leave Don, I cried so hard I made myself sick.
I was an excruciatingly shy kid. I felt everything so deeply. I don’t remember my father’s presence much in my childhood– he was always at the church office doing church things. He came home and ate supper and went off to watch the news in his recliner. He had a green vinyl recliner that had a button that made it vibrate. It was his throne. When there was some sort of problem or I had a question, my mother sent me to my father. He was the one with The Answers. I’d approach his green vinyl throne like Dorothy approached the wizard. I was a grown woman before I discovered the man behind the curtain.
Because I was so shy, I got bullied a lot at primary school by a girl named Ruth Davis. I never got beaten up because I gave her whatever she wanted. My friends and I would walk down the street on the way home from school, and Ruth would walk right into me, shoving my shoulder with her own, looking down her nose at me. My friends kept walking. “I’m gonna kick your butt,” Ruth would say, and I believed her. I never thought to ask why, I was just scared. When she wanted my lunch, my milk money or the special hoagie I won in a spelling bee, I gave it to her.
God, I hate bullies.
When I approached the Green Throne to ask my father what I should do about Ruth, he looked thoughtful. He didn’t ask me if I was OK, or if Ruth ever hurt me. He didn’t ask if he could speak to my teacher or the principal. At the time, I was too young to notice these things. He was my father, the pastor, the Man in the Black Robe with stripes on his wings who flew above and around my life, always above me, always doing Important Things.
“You need to sit down with Ruth,” my father said to me, “and tell her, ‘I feel there is a conflict between us.’ Ask her how you can work it out together.” He smiled. Are you kidding me? There was no way in hell I was going to try to sit down and try to work out with Ruth why she wanted to put my butt in a sling. I knew I was on my own.
Then that fateful day when I began to learn that adults were mostly useless. That they didn’t have my back. Except Mrs. Fowler, my fourth grade teacher. Mrs. Fowler was a tall, gray-haired woman with lots of lines in her face. Her voice was raspy from too many cigarettes, and she was scary when she was mad. She didn’t get mad at me. She had my back.
One day while everyone was working on an art project, Ruth approached me and told me to ask to go to the bathroom. Well, apparently all the bulbs in the attic weren’t on in my head, so I did. I asked Mrs. Fowler if I could go to the bathroom. The bathroom at the Mechanic Street School was in the basement, and it was like a dungeon. The cement floors were painted gray, it was damp and echoey down there.
I was in my stall when I heard Ruth come in, and she yanked my door open, closing it behind her. She pulled down her own pants, leaned against me and whispered, “Strip.” I didn’t know what she wanted or what she planned to do, but my sudden terror gave me the adrenaline to push past her, out the stall door and run for the stairs.
“Shit,” I heard behind me, as Ruth pulled up her pants and ran after me. She tackled me on the stairs and hugged me while I cried. “It’s ok,” she assured me, and I was really confused as to why my tormentor was now my comforter. We got up and she disappeared. I ran upstairs, and the entire class was already lined up for dismissal. I stood at the bottom of the fourth floor stairway, looking up at Mrs. Fowler and the line of kids on the stairs.
“Susan, what’s wrong?” my teacher asked me from up above.
I stood there, with the eyes of 25 kids watching me cry at the bottom of the stairs. There was no way I was going to tell the whole truth.
“Ruth tried to take my shirt off,” I told her.
I don’t remember many details after that, but my parents were called in. My mother informed me that “all the teachers are talking about it.” All I knew was that Ruth didn’t come back for a very long time. The principal called me to his office, alone, and as I stood before his desk, he said, “Why the hell won’t you stand up for yourself??” I looked down at the floor, ashamed, and just shrugged my shoulders.
One day, as we were lining up in the classroom to go home, I overheard one of Ruth’s friends say to another, “Ruth tried to rape Susan.” I was humiliated. I didn’t know what rape was or what Ruth had been trying to do that day, but I was ashamed. I felt exposed. Ruth never came back, though.
At dinner one night, with my two remaining brothers and my friend Donna at the table, I piped up with my question. This time I asked my mother. My father didn’t seem too helpful. “Mommy, what is rape?”
My mother was always good at keeping that composed, everything-is-fine smile on her face, and was rarely caught off guard. She swallowed. “Well, honey, it’s when people do bad things to other people.”
Donna, who was eight, blurted out, “like throwing rocks in someone’s window!” My brothers laughed out loud, and the subject was dropped.