January 25, 2012
The neighborhood is buzzing in electric green while kids scrape their BigWheels along the sidewalks and newly hatched insects take to the air. I rip through it, fast as fever. It’s spring, and everything is vibrating. As I run, I turn to look over my shoulder and can almost see my parents as flickering apparitions behind me, growing smaller, plumes of gray smoke rising from their messy heads. I can’t see their fists, but I know they’re flailing. The key is that they’re getting smaller, that I have crossed a threshold.
Out of the neighborhood and out of breath, I walk up Rockville Pike. The hissing of passing cars seems like a message I’ve been waiting to hear, a kind of yes. Sometimes a car honks; sometimes guys call out something indiscernible, which I answer with an extra swing to my hips. Last summer when I was twelve, my friend Dawn and I learned that if we shook our asses when we walked, we could get cars to honk at us. Each time we went to the Hawaiian snowball stand on Liberty Road, we’d count how many honks we could get.
When I finally make it the few miles to the high-rise apartment building where my friend Sharon lives, I call her from the lobby. No one answers, so I sit on the small bench by the phone and watch people get their mail.
This isn’t the first time I’ve run away, though this time feels different. All the other times I asked the wrong people for help: once I spent the day at a pay phone calling runaway hotlines. But all the hotline guy did was try to get me to say where I was. “I’m not telling you where I am,” I kept saying. “I just want you to help me. Aren’t you supposed to help runaways?” Finally, he told me to go home. I guess he thought it was better to get beat up by your own parents than by strangers on the street. But I don’t agree, because a stranger isn’t supposed to love you.
Another time I stole a few twenties from my father’s wallet and took a train to my grandparents in New York, but they said they were too old to take care of more children. “But I’m not a child,” I said. “I could do all of the dishes. I could go to school and get good grades and make you proud.” My grandmother shook her head while dragging on a cigarette, and the next day they put me on the train back to my father. It was a good night though, sleeping there with the window open and the familiar scent of my grandmother’s sheets.
I don’t know how I know it, but as soon as I see him stick his key into his mailbox, I know I’m looking at Mr. Malekzadeh–Sharon’s Mr. Malekzadeh, the rich older man who bent her over the washing machine in the mezzanine laundry room. She told me all about it once during recess at our junior high, but when I asked her if she actually liked having sex, she just looked down and kicked at the grass. I think about that sometimes, how she kicked at nothing.
Mr. Malekzadeh takes his time with the key and the door and the mail, watching me all the while. “Hi,” he says, in an accent that makes it sound more like hoi.
A minute later, I’m standing beside him in the elevator. As we rise in silence, his cologne screams. I try to ignore it and pretend I’m a glamorous and sophisticated woman on her way to someplace important.
Mr. Malekzadeh’s apartment is small but plush, replete with mirrored walls, leather furniture, and a bar full of bottles. I’ve never been alone with a man like this before.
“Why don’t you sit down, have a drink?” His words move slowly under the weight of his accent. In this forbidden territory, I don’t know what else to do but awkwardly insert my thumbs into the two front pockets of my jeans, until he hands me my wine, which he pronounces vine.
Mr. Malekzadeh and I make small talk, while our reflections mimic us across the room. Then he produces a small pipe and asks if I smoke pot.
“Yeah,” I lie, starting to feel warm from the wine. “Well, once.”
He lights the pipe and pulls on it three times. The pot glows orange as he inhales, reminds me of jack-o-lanterns.
When it’s my turn, I inhale deeply and cough. Seeing myself coughing in the mirror somehow makes me cough harder. Meanwhile, Mr. Malekzadeh has put the pipe on the coffee table and is leaning close to me. “You’re a pretty girl,” he says.
Suddenly he is all face. It’s kind of a turtle face, and I expect some turtley voice to come out, slightly squashed and nasal. “A very pretty girl,” he says. And I start laughing because the face and voice are too much.
The push of his tongue into my mouth stops me cold. I have kissed a boy only once—a single shy peck on the lips at a birthday party—and this feels nothing like that.
I pull back sharply. “I have to go.” My voice bounds unfamiliarly in my head, and I wobble on my feet as I stand up.
“C’mon,” he says. “You just got here.”
I tell him that Sharon’s expecting me, so he puts the pipe down on the table beside his wine glass and grabs a piece of paper. “Call me anytime,” he says, pressing his phone number into my hand. On my way out the door, he runs his fingers down my spine. Even after he’s closed the door, I can still feel his hand there.
Once, on a perfectly crisp October night just before Halloween, all the girls in our third-grade class went to a sleepover party. Outside, small dark breezes kicked clusters of leaves along the streets up into swirls. They are like people, I thought, rising from the dead. Inside, I could hear kids laughing. I clutched my duffle bag and felt the excitement of getting to live someplace new for a night.
After raiding the candy bowls, we huddled together and told ghost stories about one-armed men, we bobbed for apples in the backyard under a low black sky, and we nervously but eagerly walked through the dark maze of Shannon’s basement, which had been converted into a haunted house. Skeletons leapt forward and bug-eyed victims bled in dark corners and tall monsters perched forward in silence, waiting. On a table beside a trio of pumpkins, a woman’s head watched us from its place on a silver platter and cried out as we passed. And in another room, a teenage boy moaned in pain while he held his abdomen. “My guts,” he kept saying, “feel my guts.” Most of the girls didn’t want to touch him, but he was pleading, so I reached my hand into the opening between the buttons on his flannel shirt and pushed my fingers inside until I felt something mushy, slippery, and slightly cool. My breath caught. His guts. I was touching his guts! I snapped my hand back quickly and dizzily made my way out of the basement. Back in the candlelight, I searched my skin for blood, but there was none. Even when someone told me the boy’s guts were only a plastic bag filled with smashed grapes stuffed behind several layers of flannel shirts, I didn’t entirely believe it. I had touched a boy’s guts, as far as my hand was concerned, and I never forgot the darkly intimate sensation of intruding there.
On Rockville Pike, I don’t know where else to head but in the direction I came from. All I see is this long road, these headlights coming at me through the bruised dusk.
When I get back to my neighborhood, I prowl past people’s windows. Occasionally someone is eating or walking into a room or watching TV, its blue light strobing into the street, but mostly the rooms are empty, like dioramas into which you could put anything. You could put a girl there. You could give her parents who love her.
Eventually I get tired of walking and settle onto a back staircase inside an apartment building. I curl up on one side, just below the top step, where I rest my head on my arm. The night is cool, and the concrete steps are like a vacuum sucking the heat from my body. I briefly consider trying to sneak into my father’s house and grab a jacket. No going back, I tell myself.
But the night is rough. No matter how I turn my body, the stairs dig into my ribs. Every so often I’m jolted by late-nighters coming home. “I’m just waiting for a friend,” I mutter, sitting up straight and trying to look awake, though they don’t seem to care.
In the morning, I find a church and go inside because I’ve seen in movies how people get saved in churches. Though they’re too far away, I want to touch the stained glass windows, the glowing colors. One of my favorite toys ever was the Lite-Brite my grandmother gave me for my fifth birthday, because you could push into the black and find light, and because you could actually touch the light—those jeweled pegs—as opposed to the one time I touched a light bulb and blistered my finger.
So I sit on the wooden bench watching the light change on the windows and waiting for someone to come and tell me about God. But no one comes.
Eventually I walk back up Rockville Pike. I call Sharon from the lobby again, and this time she answers the phone. She sneaks me into her room, and while she’s in school the next day, I hide out in her closet. That evening, the police find me there. They take me to a group home called Open Door, where I spend two weeks with girls who make my short experience as a runaway seem laughable. To get out of there, I have to promise I won’t run away again. And then it’s summer, and I go to stay with my mother, and she’s raging through the house, flinging books and candles around and yelling at her boyfriend, telling him he’s a dumb fuck and why does he have to be such a dumb fuck, and then at me, wanting to know why I’m such a slut and why I have to wear so much eyeliner.
“I’m going outside,” I say.
“You better not go farther than where I can see you,” she says.
The air outside is balmy and slightly sweet. A streetlight emits a small halo into the dark, while summer lingers around everything—my bare shoulders and legs, the occasional car that whooshes by, the silver half-face of the moon. There’s something exciting about this stillness, about the slow air settling on my skin.
And then there is a sound. It’s coming from an open window in the next apartment building—the vibrating of a synthesizer sweeping into a pattern that feels like a story, secret and ancient. Into the pattern, three power chords resound on a piano. Drums follow, and the song becomes a world in this otherwise quiet night. The first scratchy lyrics ring out clearly: Out here in the fields, I fight for my meals, I get my back into my living. I don’t need to fight to prove I’m right, I don’t need to be forgiven.
The song keeps sailing from the window into me. The blinds are closed, backlit by flickering light, a candle maybe, but I see no one’s shadow. I want to knock on that door, to know who’s playing this music, but all I can do is listen. Toward the end, a violin comes in slowly, then quickens, like dancers spinning, faster and faster, until it finally smacks its last note and leaves its crescendo in my body.
After the music, there is only the moving light behind the window and the return of silence. I stare at the window, waiting for something to happen. The darkness canopies around me but offers nothing. The music has left a hole, and the buildings around me seem to enclose it. Now when a car passes by, it leaves me lonelier. Finally I give up on the window and look to my left: the direction out of the apartment complex. On foot, all I’d need to do is cross a big field before I’d be out on Liberty Road.
I hitch a ride back to Rockville and check my reflection in the pay phone outside a 7-11. There is motion here, every minute a new car, a new face, the sound of tires moving over the asphalt. I waste no time calling Sharon.
“Guess what!” I practically yell. “I’m on Rockville Pike!”
“What are you doing here?” Her voice is guarded, and it crushes me instantly. “I thought you were supposed to be at your mom’s for the summer.”
“Yeah, but she was going psycho again, so I took off.”
“Wow, girl, you’re crazy! What are you gonna do now?”
A car pulls in behind me and lights up my legs. “I’m not sure.”
“Well, I’d tell you to stay here, but you know what happened last time. After the whole police thing, Uncle Frank would throw a fit if he saw you.”
“I guess he’s home, now, huh?”
“Yeah, he’s here all right. Look, Rita, I really wish I could help you, but—”
“No, I totally understand.” My voice comes out too high. “Besides, the police would probably check there again anyway.” I scrape at the sidewalk with the front of my sandal.
“Do you need any money? I could meet you,” she says, apologetically.
I push through the makeup and scraps of paper in my purse and collect my change. “No, I’m fine. I’ve got money.”
“Okay. Well maybe we can get together soon, meet at the mall or something.” We both know this won’t happen.
“Sounds good. Thanks, Sharon.”
“Be careful, you.”
I stand leaning into the phone booth for a minute, trying to think. Cars keep driving by and it’s late and warm and I’m getting tired. I consider walking back the mile to the apartments near my father’s house, but I can’t bear the thought of another night on those steps. I dig through my purse again and find a phone number I’d been keeping, just in case.
Fifteen minutes later, a Rolls Royce pulls into the 7-11, and I get in. The car reeks of cologne.
“I’m so glad you called,” says Mr. Malekzadeh, stretching out the word called. “I thought you probably got rid of my number.”
“Why would I do that?” I ask, looking out the window at the buildings passing by. I know I should feel nervous, but I don’t. I feel resigned.
We drive the rest of the way in silence, and this time in the elevator I don’t pretend to be glamorous. This time, I know where I’m going.
Out comes the wine, the pot, the tongue—and now I don’t resist. Now I will know what Sharon knows, what the group home girls know. Mr. Malekzadeh unties my halter and shoves his tongue inside my mouth. But when he unzips his pants, I step back. I don’t expect it to be so big, so aggressive-looking.
“Put your hand on it,” he says.
But I can’t. “I’ve never done this before.”
Mr. Malekzadeh’s pursed lips curve to a smile, as if he’s seeing me for the first time. “You’re a virgin?”
“Then we’ll go slow,” he says, taking my hand and leading me into the bedroom, where he takes off the rest of my clothes and lays me down on the bed. There’s a window behind me, and I tilt my head back to see the moon, a halved pearl.
Mr. Malekzadeh reaches for the bottle of Vaseline Intensive Care lotion on his nightstand and pumps it into his hand, slathering it on himself and on me. The scent reminds me of baby diapers, a thought quickly knocked out by the force of him pushing against me. But it won’t go in.
He becomes relentless with the lotion, pumping, then trying to push himself in again, then pumping, then pushing. It seems as if a week goes by. And then suddenly something breaks. There is the moon. There is Mr. Malekzadeh on top of me thrusting and grunting. There is the moon. There is the pressure, the pain. There is the lumbering sound of my father’s footsteps; there are my mother’s glazed eyes. There is the moon. There is the screaming in my mind with every thrust: Fuck you, Mom! Fuck you, Dad! I can’t say it enough. We are both relentless.
When it’s over, there’s a fire between my legs. Mr. Malekzadeh lies back sweating and lights a cigarette. I smoke one, too, and grow older. Our smoke curls toward the ceiling, swirling up to a single haze over the room.
After we press our cigarettes out, Mr. Malekzadeh gets up and, without a word, starts dressing, so I get dressed, too. He moves briskly, matter-of-factly, as he pulls his polo over his head. He won’t look at me. I feel suddenly forgotten, almost like a trespasser. The alarm clock glows 3:37 a.m., and I’m exhausted. I want to go back to the bed and close my eyes, to travel back and back, to a Halloween sleepover, to dreams about water and boats, to an early childhood carnival spinning and glittering while trees stand quietly around it in the darkness and all I have inside me is hope.
On the sheets, my blood is smeared into a sloppy star. There’s a power in the destruction, a strange satisfaction in the proof.
Rita Zoey Chin’s writing has appeared in Tin House, Blackbird Review, The Rumpus, Birdsong, and elsewhere. A recipient of a Bread Loaf waiter scholarship and a Katherine Anne Porter Prize, Rita Chin lives in the Boston area, where she teaches at Grub Street, serves on the Board of Paris Press, and rides her mischievous horse. She is currently at work on a memoir.