Being a girl

Searching for a father figure, I finally found a man I could trust. He lavished attention on me -- it just wasn't the right kind.

By Natalie Pearson
Published December 22, 2003 9:39PM (EST)

The picture hung in a flat glass case that had long promised "Coming Attractions," but sat empty once the Salvation Army moved into the abandoned theater. Somebody tried to scratch the words off, but they must have given up and only the "C" was half peeled away. Now, in place of a movie poster, Capt. Rowan (not his real name) had tacked up a picture of Jesus. This Jesus had a sweet smile and an untroubled face. His hand was out, palm upward. A group of beautiful children stood in that hand, illuminated by a beam of golden light from the sun behind his head. When I was 6 years old I often stopped to stare at the picture as I passed beneath the empty marquee on my way home from first grade.

I was headed to our house, which was not a house at all, just the top half of a laundromat, an apartment reached through a rickety, unmarked door at the back. We called our place a laundroma, because the "T" no longer lit up in the sign that hung below our living room window.

Like everything else in that neighborhood, our home was strung-together, secondhand. Even the people were makeshift. The nice old man next door bought me birthday presents and let me call him Grandpa, though we were not related. My real grandpas had both died years before I was born and I didn't really miss them, not like I missed my father. I wondered what it would feel like, calling someone "Daddy," sitting next to him in the pew on Sunday mornings at church, casually saying, "Well, my dad thinks ..."

But I kept such thoughts to myself. Mom would hear none of it.

"Count your lucky stars, little girl," she'd say, fists pounding a batch of overflowing dough back down into the bread bowl. "You've got the best kind of dad there is, one who leaves you well enough alone."

Like ours, the Rowan house wasn't whole either -- it was attached at the side to the cobbled-up theater -- but it had a swing set and a fenced yard. The closest thing we had to a yard was a gravel parking lot. Drunks from the tavern next door sometimes sped out of it late at night. I heard their spinning tires and rocks hitting the clapboard wall from our bedroom upstairs. Mom couldn't send me off to play in a parking lot, and was relieved if I wandered to the Rowan place for a few hours.

"Just don't talk to them about God or Jesus, and come straight home if they start asking you churchy kinds of questions," she said at first, right after I met Robin Rowan at kindergarten. Mom worried about the Protestants who ran the Salvation Army, said they looked down their noses at us Catholics. I worried too, just not about that.

One day as I stood there alone staring up at the hippie Jesus, Capt. Rowan, Robin's dad, was suddenly behind me, close enough that I could smell the coffee he'd been drinking. "Isn't that a wonderful picture?" he said, leaning down, hands on his knees so he was even closer. "It's announcing our new girl's club. We'll call them Sunbeams, all the sweet little ones like you. Robin will be there, so will Regina. You'll do crafts, put together shows, read stories. It will be a whole lot of fun," he said as if he could already picture us sitting in a circle weaving potholders or piecing together puzzles of landmarks in the Holy Land.

"Wouldn't you like to be one of my little Sunbeams?"

Capt. Rowan had never spoken directly to me before; he always seemed to have more important things to do, like herding ladies to choir practice or collecting cast-off boots for the needy. I didn't know what to say to him. Robin Rowan and I were in Mrs. Smith's class together, and we were always making up pretend clubs. But this was a real one, with a beautiful name, and a poster, and meetings. I was sure that my mom wouldn't want me anywhere near it.

"They'll meet Thursdays, here at the Post. Wouldn't you like that?"

"Oh yes," I said. "But my mom, I mean we're Catholic."

"Oh goodness me," the captain laughed, sound echoing from deep within the boxy blue jacket of his uniform. He was a minister, worse, a "holy roller" like Mom had warned me about. His uniform, though, with its golden loops and rows of medals, made him look more like a policeman, the fire inspector, or Captain Kangaroo, whom I watched each morning before school. In my memory, Capt. Rowan has no face at all, just a bowl haircut and that enormous jacket trimmed with braid.

"This is just a children's club -- not a church thing. It's just like the Brownies or Bluebirds, of course without the fees and no camping or outdoor business. I'll talk to your mother, dear, explain all about it. I'm sure she'll let you join us once she hears from me."

I don't know what Capt. Rowan said to Mom, whether he called her "dear," or put his hand on her shoulder, but she said she'd think about it. And when he offered to bring me home on the Salvation Army bus after the meetings, like he dropped all the other Sunbeams off, just to save her the trouble of walking that half-block to get me, it was settled.

From then on, Capt. Rowan almost always took me home last, after all the other girls left the rainbow-painted bus. As he drove all over town he liked to have me sit on his lap, where I could watch him turn the giant steering wheel to ease around corners. I should always smile, he'd tell me, show off my nice straight teeth. A pretty, smiling girl like me spread sunshine, he'd say, driving along with just one hand on the wheel.

His other hand had already slipped up under the hem of my dress, eased beneath the elastic band of my cotton underpants.

"You are a good girl, a smart girl, one of my favorite girls," he'd whisper into my ear as we drove slowly up Third Street. "But you must never say anything to your mommy about this, you know. You would be in very big trouble if she knew.

"This is our secret, isn't it? Just between you and me," he'd say, his voice quiet and soft. I believed Capt. Rowan. I would get in trouble if anyone knew how I sat on his knee as he drove the bus, his fat finger going in and out, in and out, his breath in my ear. It never hurt, what he did to me. And this was the most shameful part, that I liked it -- that was the reason I could never tell anyone about the captain's hands.

I stayed a Sunbeam riding the bus every Thursday night, feeling put out if he picked another girl to drive with him instead of me, which happened sometimes. When it did, I couldn't catch his eye at all. Those nights I sat by myself on the cool vinyl bench feeling invisible and lonesome.

I didn't exactly like Capt. Rowan, but I liked being chosen by him, being the girl picked for his lap, the one he watched and winked at and whispered to. This is how it must feel to have a father, I decided. If you had a dad, you might be chosen like that all the time.

And then, over the summer, the Salvation Army pulled up and moved into an old funeral parlor downtown. The move took them nearer their people, the captain had explained to Mom, those who truly needed help. The Rowans moved into an apartment upstairs there and Robin and her sisters transferred to another school.

I didn't tell anyone about Capt. Rowan and the rainbow bus for what seemed like a long time. Then one Saturday night, some months after he and his Salvation Army had moved on, Mom let me stay up with her past bedtime to watch "The Flower Drum Song."

We lay on the nubby mauve couch that pressed little bumps into your cheek if you fell asleep on it accidentally. Cuddled beneath an old quilt, we listened as Nancy Kwan crooned to a many-mirrored reflection of herself.

"When men say I'm cute and funny," she sang, "And my teeth aren't teeth but pearl/ I just lap it up like honey/ I enjoy being a girl."

Mom's hand was tucked at my side, and she looked down from the movie to pull my two fingers from my mouth. Sucking my fingers was a habit I'd picked up as a baby and it drove my mother crazy.

"Don't. You'll ruin your teeth," she said. "I could never afford to fix them."

And maybe that was it, the teeth that made me remember, as I fingered the edge of my nightgown. I thought about Nancy Kwan's perfect teeth, how it would feel to be just like her, though surely I wasn't anywhere close. I, too, adored being a girl -- I wanted to sashay before that elaborately lit mirror singing about men who said I was sweet as candy.

I wanted to twirl myself around while Mom looked on, smiling. Hadn't she always said that I was lucky, that my looks would save me? But even as I thought about it, a tucked away piece of worry tumbled back out.

Mom laughed then at something in the movie, and I knew she had no idea what kind of girl I was, not with her arm around me like that. It made me sad, and I knew I had to come clean. I waited until the show ended. As we walked through the dark apartment to our room, I started talking.

I needed to tell her something, I said. Something really bad. She wasn't listening so close until she saw that I was crying. And then I told her about Capt. Rowan, how I had let him put his hands into my underwear -- into me -- how I knew that it was wrong but still I let him do it.

"Was it just that -- just his fingers? Did he do anything else? Did he hurt you?"

"No," I said, marveling that she didn't seem so mad -- at least not at me.

"You didn't do anything bad," Mom said, her hand brushing back my bangs, relief and gratitude rushing over me so fast it hardly registered. "He did the bad thing, he's a grown man. I'm going to call them and turn him in. He's in big trouble. Don't ever think that this was your fault."

When Mom told them, the Salvation Army people said there had been other complaints. The captain no longer worked with children, they told her. It would be OK now. I watched as she stood at the phone in the kitchen, her head shaking, brown eyes narrowing to tell me she wasn't satisfied with their answers.

"At least he's gone from here, at least we turned him in," she said after she hung up. "They have some nerve, though, it was almost like they thought it was your fault, like we're the ones who did something bad."

I knew then that they saw it. They saw my guilt, even if Mom didn't. Confession hadn't cleaned away the stain, after all, which sat still tucked away inside. It stayed with me for years and I never quite shook the sense that I had gotten away with something.

Only a few months after that, just past Christmas, we moved away from the laundroma. We settled into a different neighborhood, different school, different apartment atop a fast-failing corner grocery. I wasn't a Sunbeam anymore, but I still sometimes thought about the captain, imagined how it would be to have a father, wondered if he was the bad person -- or if I was.

Natalie Pearson

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