My trauma therapist warns me that my worst memories might surface later, outside of his office, that sometimes a session shakes one loose, like some kind of burrowing insect or a parasite.
It happens while I’m doing the grocery shopping, and a Eurythmics song comes on the PA. I stop in the pasta aisle and remember 10th grade, driving to the bowling alley on Brownswitch Road with a carload of girls, singing along with Annie Lennox to “Who’s that Girl?” on cassette, the windows rolled down to a warm, wet summer night, the yellow street lights illuminating halos of insects and the tops of the pines, passing a bottle of warm Boones Farm, the coiled glow of the car’s cigarette lighter in the dark, Misty behind the wheel, Tiffany tossing the bottle out of the window after taking the last sip, the crash of glass on the pavement behind us, our laughter.
Dumb hearts get broken/Just like china cups.
I remember all the words.
We were going to the bowling alley because we were 15, and we didn’t yet have the fake IDs that would get us into the bars in Olde Towne, saloons built by the railroaders who settled this town in the 1800s, long before it became a land of strip malls and truck stops circumscribed by the I-10/I-12/I-59 junction, a place that most people only see on their way to and from New Orleans. For a time, the city’s motto was “On the way to anywhere!” which sadly advertised that it was, in fact, nowhere. The railroaders drank in those bars after laying the track that ran behind my house, which served as a boundary between us and the old forests and bayous and the houses that swayed there on stilts and pilings. My oldest friend lived in one of those houses, and we used to walk to the tracks to smoke, taking turns, one of us always keeping watch. I’m not sure who we thought was looking. By that time I was almost always home alone. But old habits die hard.
We gathered at a round table. Someone, probably Andi, bought mozzarella sticks. Andi paid for everything; she was the only one who ever had any money. She also had real Doc Martens and a red Honda scooter and two living parents who loved her, which made her seem impossibly privileged. She was always immaculately groomed. She wore purple hair and piercings and tattoos better than the rest of us, making them look somehow delicate and regal. She was also a terrible snob.Over the sounds of falling pins and the rumble of the ball return, my friends traded molestation tales like war stories. They all had them. A babysitter who made her undress. An older cousin who slid his hand down her pants. A junkie father who slipped into her bed at night. I tried not to look as shocked as I was. But soon my silence became conspicuous. I didn’t have that kind of story to tell. Until just a few months before, I’d had a wonderful childhood. Loved, secure, stable. Parents married, grandparents around the corner, a network of aunts and uncles and cousins planted across the southeastern parishes of Louisiana. Same friends, same school, same church, same house, same neighborhood, all peacefully orbiting my young, beautiful, healthy mother. But when she died, it dissolved like a dream sequence and I woke in a different world. Long before I ever saw anything as wholesome as It’s a Wonderful Life I learned just how much can depend upon the life of one person. One tragedy can leak into the ground water like the runoff from our local creosote plant, poisoning a whole population.
These were my new world friends, hard-won in my new motherless life. This was who I was becoming.
A girl who breaks bottles on Brownswitch Road. A girl who will survive rather than discover her life. A girl I will want to escape, annihilate, forget.
Jessica Mesman Griffith is the publisher of Sick Pilgrim and a widely published writer whose work has been noted in Best American Essays. Her memoir, Love and Salt: A Spiritual Friendship in Letters, co-authored with Amy Andrews, won the 2014 Christopher Award for “literature that affirms the highest values of the human spirit.” She is also the author of A Book of Grace Filled Days (2016, Loyola Press), and the piece above is from Eden Isles, her memoir-in-progress about a Catholic girlhood in southern Louisiana.
Joanna Penn Cooper curates the “Approaching Mystery” series for Sick Pilgrim, publishing flash essays by writers encountering the unseen, the uncanny, and the unresolvable.