“Sometimes, when you least expect it, you become the girl in the woods.”
— Roxane Gay, "What We Hunger For"
The three suitcases got lost somewhere between Boston and Denver. My blue one, the boy’s smaller brown one, the red leather one that belonged to my mother. She loaned it to us for the flight back to Aspen after our Christmas holiday vacation in NH—the boy, then five years old, the only grandchild, had reaped such a Claus haul that the haul needed a suitcase of its own.
Now, at the end of a day that began in Boston at dawn and was interrupted when we made the Denver transfer from United to Aspen Airways, the boy and I stood at the counter at Sardy Field reporting the missing suitcases while the line of other weary travelers grew restive behind us. As I completed the paperwork, the boy tugged at my parka. “Did somebody take our Christmas presents, Mommy?”
“We’ll find them,” said the guy behind the counter, whose green nameplate said NED and whose windburn and crushed hat-hair told me he’d had a good ski day. “We’ve got the descriptions and the tag numbers from your ticket....”
“And my phones at home and work are right here,” I said, underlining the numbers.
“Yep, got it,” he said. “I’m sure we’ll have everything back to you in a day or two.”
“A day or two?” A shriek, the sound of a little kid who didn’t nap on the plane and had reached the end of his tether. “Days?”
“Ssshh. They’ll find it, don’t worry. Let’s go call your dad to come get us.”
I’d been divorced for more than a year; this was the first Christmas the boy and his dad were not together. Anger at first, then sadness, then an uncertain peace. Months of negotiations with the daddy and my boss, plus squeezing my budget until it squealed, hoarding enough money to make the trip and buy family gifts. We flew east on my birthday, three days before Christmas.
My parents’ house, with snow up to the window sills, was decorated the way it used to be when we were kids. Food, constant company, Nat King Cole, presents hidden until the last minute. Not one family fight. “Two fireplaces!” marveled the kid. “Santa could maybe come down both!”
Skiing, often sketchy in New England’s December, was perfection. A sleepy midnight Mass, a hilarious champagne-fueled New Year’s Eve, and New Year’s Day, when the sun came out, melting the icicles as people on the chairlifts called to the folks below, teasing about hangovers and winter sunburns. “This was a good one,” said Dad, driving us to the airport. More than I could've wished for. Except the suitcases were missing.
My former husband picked us up in Aspen, hugged us both, and drove us to my apartment, where the small tree we’d decorated before the trip drooped over its container, dry as paper. “I thought maybe Santa left presents here, too,” the boy said.
“One Santa visit per customer, kiddo,” said his daddy. “Settle in now, I’ll see you tomorrow for an overnight. We can ski all day at Snowmass!” Our eyes met and we nodded to each other, reaffirming the agreement we’d made before Christmas.
Too tired to deal with the woodstove, I cranked up the thermostat, put the boy in spare long underwear and my old flannel pajama top. He brushed his teeth with an index finger and was asleep in five minutes.
Next day, the chore list: new toothbrushes, groceries, a pint of peppermint ice cream that I hoped would take the sting out of the missing Santa stash. Then back to the routine, except the boy slouched into Montessori wearing his most pained Eeyore face. “Call them again,” he begged.
“I will, honey. I have.” Two, three times a day, I called. By now, they sounded as sad as I was. “We’re really sorry, ma’am, it’s just the . . . ”
“I know. Chaos of the holidays.”
On day five, Ned called with news. “They’re in San Francisco,” he said. “Retagged and into Denver tomorrow or the next day. I’ll give you a call.”
When he did, we arranged to meet a little after four at the bar in the Hotel Jerome near my office. Two girlfriends walked over with me; I’d warned them it wouldn’t be girls’ night out, I was just going to grab the suitcases and pick up my boy at his dad’s.
When Ned came into the bar, he didn’t look nearly as frazzled as he had the night we met. My friends’ raised eyebrows signified approval. He waved the waitress over to order a round.
“Oh, sorry, I can’t,” I said. “Got to pick up my boy. Let’s just go out to your car and put the suitcases in mine.”
He shook his head. “I actually don’t have them yet,” he said a little sheepishly. “They missed the four o’clock, they come up tonight at seven I thought I’d bring them to your place then. It’s the least I can do.” I gave him directions. He stayed another five minutes, then was off to meet some people.
“Not bad,” said one of my friends as Ned left.
I shook my head no no no, and laughed. “Come on, you guys — he’s just Santa’s helper.”
The boy was in his pajamas and I’d stoked the fire when the knock came at the door. There stood Ned, a brown suitcase in one hand, blue one in the other, the red one in the snow next to his boot. ‘“Hi, there,” he said to my son. “Delivery from the North Pole, with your name on it.”
“My stuff!” hollered the boy.
In minutes, the goodies were strewn across the living room — Legos, the GI Joe, a New York Giants football from his uncle, signed by all the players, the butter cookies in a tin from my sister. The kid talked a mile a minute, explaining to Ned what everything was, how to make a fishing pole out of the Legos, how to get GI Joe into his tank. I felt teary—nothing had been lost.
Ned was on the floor, assembling a red-and-white Lego castle and a mini-vehicle. “Thanks so much for this,” I said. “Would you like a glass of wine while I put him to bed?”
“Sure, I’d love one.” He looked around the room. “This place is nice. Do you want me to bring in a little more wood?”
“No thanks, we’re okay for now. He’s exhausted, way past his bedtime, and I’m not up much longer either. It’s so crazy in the office, getting caught up after being away.”
“Oh, OK. I’ll just sit here and play with toys.” He grinned.
The boy went off to bed with the football tucked under his arm. “No story tonight,” I said, but he was half-asleep already. I snugged the blankets under his chin, clicked on the night light? and pulled the door softly closed.
I poured myself a glass of red and poured another one for Ned. “So how did you end up in Aspen anyway?”
“A friend from the Navy lives here,” he said. “I was a helo pilot overseas, now I’m waitlisted for commercial flight school in Denver. I thought it might fun to be in Aspen for the holidays. Two, maybe three more weeks.”
“Raise a little hell in the meantime?” I asked.
“Doing the best I can,” he said, and we both laughed.
“I really thought those suitcases were sitting on a beach in Hawaii.”
“Nice when things work out,” he said, getting up off the floor just as I leaned down to begin gathering up the Legos. We bumped shoulders, he caught my arm. Then he pulled me down. “Oops, watch it there,” he said. “You almost fell.”
“No, no, I’m good,” I said, working to get back on my feet. But he pulled again.
“Better than good,” he said without letting go of my arm. “Come here.”
“Hey, wait up.” He’s still pulling my arm. “No, hey. I’ve got stuff to do to for work, you probably have an early day as well.”
Something in his face tightened. He pulled again, hard this time, and I went all the way down.
“I can manage my day just fine,” he said, sliding a hand under my butt, somehow positioning me beneath him.
“Ned, not a good idea,” I said, raising my voice, trying to slide over a few inches. He had the advantage in weight and height, and his grip tightened.
“Keep your voice down.” he said. The lightness in his earlier voice was gone. “You don’t want the kid out here.”
“Ned, get the hell off me.” Calm, I thought. Stay calm.
Taking a deep breath, I pushed at his chest with both hands and torqued as hard as I could away from him; in the same moment, he grabbed both hands, managed to scissor a leg up and planted his knee onto my right forearm, leaning hard. I saw stars.
“Damn it, quit this!” At which point, he put a hand over my mouth.
When a girl . . . a woman . . . imagines the hand-over-mouth scenario, it’s the unseen guy hiding in the back seat of the darkened car who suddenly looms into the rear-view mirror. “Shut up and drive,” the backseat guy always says. This wasn’t that. Had I pulled the boy’s door all the way closed? Was he safely asleep? Were my neighbors home next door, could I get away with yelling or maybe kicking over a chair? Could I somehow get to the kitchen counter, where one big damn knife sat beside the breadboard? No. No options.
I was wearing a long skirt; Mom had collected my grandmother’s quilt pieces and made a prairie skirt for me the year before. I’d worn it today, with knee socks and a cotton turtleneck, because it was cold, because the suitcases were still missing. I also wore an old flannel shirt of my ex’s; I’d layered up to bring in the wood and get the stove going. Ned’s hand went under the skirt, furiously — I heard the muslin lining rip and felt my underpants being yanked at.
I rolled, I twisted, I tried to jam a knee into his crotch. But he had the advantage and he took it. He ripped at my clothes, yanked at my hair, never touched my breasts, never kissed me, never said another word, although he muttered to himself and at one point made a grunting sound, frustrated at the elastic in the underpants, the fact that they didn’t slide down easily. He’d moved his knee off my forearm, getting a solid purchase on the floor, his legs between mine. Both my arms were free for seconds; then he put his own forearm on my throat. Screaming, if I could’ve gotten the sound out, would’ve brought my child into the room, half asleep, curious and then scared. No, I thought. This is happening. Let it. My hands fell to my sides as he drilled away at my body as though he were mad at it.
It seemed to last forever, but I’d guess five, ten minutes tops. In those minutes, I literally stepped out of my head, my eyes closed tight, wondering if I’d have an involuntary physical sexual response, praying to God that I wouldn’t. A slab, I thought. I’m a slab. Be a slab. Slab. I felt the tears on my cheeks, my face burning as it often did when I was refilling the wood stove with a fire already in it.
When he finally rolled off me, I didn’t move. I didn’t speak. Neither did he. I looked anywhere in the room except at him. The couch. The cathedral ceiling, the logs up there holding each other in the V position. The desiccated little Christmas tree, its needles all over the floor. “Get out of my house,” I said.
“I’m going,” he said. “And you’re not going to tell anybody about this.”
“Or what?” I muttered. “You’ll come back and kill me?”
“Nope,” he said. “I’ll just tell Jack what a hot babe you are, how I fucked you all over your living room floor and how much you liked it. The wine. The flowers on your living room curtains. Your little boy’s Legos.”
He’d mentioned someone I’d been dating. Someone I cared about. Someone I forgot he knew, who in turn knew a lot of other people I knew. In minutes, he was gone. I didn’t move.
Since the divorce, I hadn’t lived as my mother had asked me to — as though there were a moat around my house. I had relationships, a casual overnight or two with a couple of guys I liked, no strings. I cared deeply for two others; their opinion of me, their affection for my kid, mattered. I went out to dinner; I went dancing, and I worked really hard at being a mom, packing lunches, skiing with him on Saturdays, making sure he called his daddy every night. Staying late at my job when I could, hoping to turn it into something that paid more. I didn’t envision a future with anyone — I was still getting used to the present. Sometimes I over-drank (too much for me was a third; a fourth was a train wreck; a fifth was catastrophic). If my boy was with his dad or grandparents for the night, I was often out, but usually in a group, not a twosome — my friends Tom and Ellen kept a close eye on me, rarely letting me drive back to my house if I was drunk, tucking me into their guestroom instead and ragging me mercilessly in the morning.
I could call them.
Tom was a hot-headed Irishman, just like my father. He’d go after Ned and take the Aspen rugby team with him. So — not Tom. I had other friends I could call in an emergency. Was this an emergency?
I stayed on the floor. It felt like every bone in my body was broken. My throat hurt where he’d leaned on it, plus I’d bitten my lip almost clear through; I put my hand to it, and came away with blood on my fingers. As I did the body check, I knew I was OK. No gun, no slapping, no punching. Nothing a hot bath or a hot shower wouldn’t fix.
I also knew in that moment that I wasn’t going to call anyone — not a cop, or my ex, or any friend. Mostly, I knew I had to get up off the floor; the fire was low in the stove, it was getting cold. There was a tiny Lego block stuck to my back. My underpants were all the way off, the turtleneck pushed up, the skirt pushed up, the knee socks oddly still in place. I had to move.
Slowly, I got up, rearranging my skirt and the two shirts. I bolted the front door, shut off the outside light and the ones in the living room. In the kitchen, where the little stove light was always on, I reached into the cupboard where I kept the liquor and poured myself a water glass of scotch, which I’d always hated, and chugged it. It immediately came back up and I vomited into the kitchen sink. Running the hot water, dumping a bottle of vinegar down the drain after it, I cleaned the sink. His gloves. His gloves were on the kitchen counter. Black leather, lined in something pricey—mink? Rabbit? I tossed them into the wood stove. Then I tossed my underpants in, too. The coals sparked and hissed, a flame rose up, then settled again.
Walking carefully in the dark, I went into the bathroom and started the shower, then checked my boy; sleeping, softly snoring, his arm draped over the Giants football, its red, white and blue glowing in the nightlight.
There was a window in our shower, and I opened it. Standing in the dark under the hot water, I breathed in the icy air, leaned both elbows on the window sill and began to gut cry.
I let him into my house. I poured him a glass of wine; did I pour him a second? A second for myself? Did I smile in a welcoming way? What I was wearing wasn’t attractive — was it? Did something I said or did tell him that what he was thinking was OK with me? Did he worry now that he’d run into me in town in City Market or the Red Onion? Did he really not have the suitcases at four? Would he tell Jack? Did he drive home thinking he’d have the cops on his ass in the morning? Divorcee, two wine glasses, a one-night stand with a small child on the other side of the wall. It was like throwing a rock into a lake and watching the circles widen.
I stayed in the shower until the hot water ran out, then stood in the cold water as long as I could stand it. The air coming through the open window was arctic. Barely toweling off, I pulled two pair of pajamas from the suitcase, put them both on, then went to bed, certain I wouldn’t be able to sleep, stunned in the morning when the alarm went off.
I called in sick, then let Montessori know my boy was sick, too. We went south to Glenwood Springs and spent hours splashing in the hot mineral water, the steam wreathing our heads, the crystalline January day all around us. If nothing else, the sulphur would wash my body clean. I wasn’t sure what would happen to my mind.
No, I decided on the drive home, with my boy zonked on the back seat and the Jeep heater blasting. No. Damn him to hell. I didn’t do this thing; he did it. Let him carry the weight of it — I won’t.
The next morning, I called my doctor. “We can get this guy,” she said, giving me a whopping penicillin shot, because who knew what little bugs Ned carried around.
“I don’t want this guy,” I said. “I don’t ever want to see him again. Maybe he’ll win the Irish Sweepstakes and live to be 90. Maybe he’ll die tomorrow. Crushed by a snowplow on Loveland Pass.”
That afternoon, I called my friend Annie, who worked for a vet and was always campaigning to adopt out the strays.
“It’s time for a dog,” I said. “Let me know when you get a good candidate. Not a puppy. A grownup.”
A week later, she found Daisy, a German shepherd who’d been dumped on Highway 82. A dog who obsessively investigated corners, walls, windows, and under our beds. A dog to sleep beside the boy’s bed, a dog who’d been trained to watch, defend and maybe tear someone’s head from his neck.
Ned disappeared. Into Denver, I guessed, maybe into the cockpit of a plane. No one ever mentioned him to me. I got off easy, I told myself. It could’ve been so much worse. Who even thinks like that? Why do any of us think like that?
I took the luggage down valley to the junk place in Basalt. I painstakingly fixed the torn prairie skirt, kept it with me for years, never wore it again, and wept each time I saw it, Finally, I donated it to the Salvation Army, hoping someone would love it as I had.
Did I forgive him? No. Do I? No. Is he relevant to my life? There have been no nightmares, no more tears, no fear of commitment; my second marriage is well into its third decade. That night was a very bad dream some other woman had. I wonder what happened to her.
And I never told anyone. My best friend didn’t know; my shrink didn’t know; my brother and sister didn’t know. I only told my husband and son a few months ago. The looks on their faces, their clenched fists, and their thoughts, their words—I’ll kill him, I’ll find him and kill him—these hurt my heart as surely as an arrow might have. These men who love me, both now helpless and raging, unable to turn back time.
Why did I wait more than 40 years? Because. Because it was my story. Mine to live with, mine to do with as I pleased. Mine to keep or throw away. Mine to tell.
40-plus years? You think the passage of time changes anything? Please. There is no memory I don’t retain, no bodily feeling, no emotional one. I can tell you how the wood snapped in the stove, how the man’s hand smelled when he put it over my mouth, the colors in the quilted skirt, the way I wore my hair back then, how long the purple welt on my forearm lasted, how the scotch tasted coming back up, how the shower water finally hit me like needles. That night is a broken bone that heals; you can never really fool yourself into believing it didn’t break in the first place.
Could I have saved someone else by going to the cops, by calling the sheriff, by howling the truth to anyone who’d listen? Would anyone have listened? Would Jack have walked away, in disgust or even shame? Would my former husband have claimed my child because obviously I was an unreliable parent? Would my parents have been broken? The consequences, the blowback, even in pre-internet days, seemed endless and ugly. How many of us, from childhood to dotage, still stand in the shadows and firmly resolve to stay there?
So — are we at a watershed moment? Are the revelations, the sorrow, the shame, the defenses, the creepy covert investigations of women daring to speak out, the onlookers who decide who’s a perfect victim versus who’s a questionable one, the survivors who name names (including their own), the men we thought were good guys who turned out not to be — is all this indicative of some kind of magical vanguard that will change the workplace, the home place, the working conditions of women and girls and boys in restaurants, hotels, theaters, summer camps, high schools, offices, even churches?
I hope so. I pray so. My God, how I pray so. But no, I don’t believe so. I wish I did.