Vanessa Says No
As a sixth grader, I felt incredibly good when I aced Friday’s spelling test for the sixth straight week. At recess on that same Friday, my new friend, Marcy, invited me for pizza and to spend the night.
“I wish I could, Marcy, “but Friday nights my mom works the evening shift at the hospital and the deal is, I make dinner for the family an clean up afterwards.”
“No problem,” Marcy said. “We’ll make it another time.”
After I finished the dinner dishes, I disappeared into my room. Dad snoozed in front of the TV, his fifth beer still clutched in his hand. Jack, who was twelve, a year older than I, had just slammed out the door, headed for the mall with his grungy friends. Sara, a dreamy third grader with stringy hair, lay on the family room floor staring groggily into her constant companion, a hand-held Gameboy.
Ready for some alone-time, I clicked on the boom box Mom had bought me for my eleventh birthday and settled stomach first onto my bed to write about this special day in my diary.
“School’s good, I actually like it,” I finished up. “I hope we stay here for a long time.” Then I crawled under the covers, looking forward to finishing The Wanderer, the story of a girl about my age who learns lots about herself as she crosses the Atlantic Ocean in a small sailboat with uncles and cousins. But sleep snuck up on me before I could get her safely to shore. I heard to book fall to the floor as I dozed off. I let the radio play on, too sleepy to do anything about it.
But consciousness returned quickly at the sound of my bedroom door opening. “Schleep yet, honey?” Dad mumbled as he closed the door firmly behind him. He clicked off my radio and the light.
This wasn’t his first trip to my room in the evening when Mom was at work. Usually he sat on my bed, mellowed by too many beers, holding my hand and telling me how beautiful I was becoming. He always made me feel a little trembly inside. Even though I knew it wasn’t Dad, but the beer talking, his words made me feel proud. After a few minutes, he’d kiss me goodnight and disappear.
But not this night. With the loud clunk of Dad’s belt buckle as his jeans hit the floor, I shot up, stunned. Without a word and before I knew what was happening, he climbed clumsily under my covers and pulled me roughly toward him as he slid his legs alongside my body. All I had on was a T-shirt. Dad’s breath, loud and raspy, stinking of beer and cigarettes, made me gasp. A tiny squeak was all I could manage to get out of my mouth before his rough hand clamped across my face. “Lie perfectly still. No noise,” he commanded. I obeyed.
It was over quickly, painfully. Minutes later, as Dad left my bed and stumbled from my room, leaving his jeans crumpled on the floor, I heard Mom’s key in the front door.
“You bastard,” I heard Mom scream. I lay in my bed, unable to stop sobbing, curled up in a little ball. “You’ve been drinking again, and where are your pants?”
Then I heard Mom in the upstairs hall. Maybe she heard my sobs. She burst through my door, still open a little, and tripped over jeans that she had to know right away did not belong to me.
I couldn’t move or say a word. I lay shivering and sobbing, still curled up. I felt as if I might throw up any minute.
“What, for Christ’s sake, has happened?” Mom demanded, grabbing my shoulders and shaking me. I didn’t answer her, not then, and not later when the lawyer begged me, or when the therapist tried, more gently, to pry words out of me. No words would come.
Dad didn’t spend the rest of that night, or any other night, in our house. Before the divorce was final, he left town and Mom sank into single parenthood. She began to work seven nights a week at the hospital. I made dinner every night now.
School became a drag. I couldn’t concentrate for more than about two minutes at a time. I never aced a spelling test again. Marcy asked me to spend the night two more times before she gave up and lost interest in me.
In a few months, Mom married Tony, a guy she met at the hospital when he came to get his leg sewed up from an accident he’d had on the air force base. I liked Tony, mostly because he made Mom happy. He made us feel more like a family again.
It didn’t bother me much when Tony’s orders came and we left for Germany. A year later we followed him to Guam. Now Jack was in high school and had learned how to make friends fast. In a few days he was surrounded by a gang of chain-rattling-baggy-pants buys who thought they were real studs.
Josh, one of Jack’s new friends, was at our house all the time. He was kind of cute, I thought, until he forced me to have sex with him on the couch in my own basement. He acted like he had a right, and the strange thing was, a part of me thought he did. I could have stopped him if I’d thought I had the right to say “no.”
Now when I look back, I realize that the experience with my dad had made me timid and passive. When a man asked something of me, I was helpless to refuse him, no matter how I felt inside. Right after that, the anxiety attacks began.
When my PE teacher asked me to try out for the cheerleading squad, I refused. “You’re so athletic and graceful,” she said “Come give it a try.”
I couldn’t think of a good reason not to. No one was more surprised than I when I made the squad. I was even more surprised when being a cheerleader opened the door to all kinds of friendships for me. By the time I entered tenth grade, I felt like the center of my group of friends. “Ask Vanessa,” she always knows what to do,” my friends would say.
That year my friends began using drugs more than just now and then. It wasn’t possible to hang around with them and not know they were using, and using hard. Then one day I got called into the principal’s office. “I need your help, Vanessa. You and I both know who’s using drugs in this school, and I suspect you know where they’re coming from. But I need specific information to get this stopped. You going to help me?”
“Squeal on my friends? I can’t do that,” I said, feeling my anxiety level rise.
In ten days, the principal talked to me again, begging me to give him the evidence he needed to bust my friends. If he kept up the pressure, I knew I wouldn’t be able to hold out much longer. The anxiety attacks were coming regularly now and there were days when I could hardly get myself to school. I’d wake up in a sweat and have to force myself to get dressed and out the door.
My mom had complained about being tired for months. Finally she went to the doctor, and she wasn’t faking. She was diagnosed with lupus, a difficult to treat blood disease, and she had to quit work. We were badly in debt, mostly because of stupid spending in Germany where everything was expensive. Teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, and without Mom’s income, we were in big trouble.
Sometimes a bad thing becomes an opportunity. I tried to turn this bad thing into something good for me, and for my family. I decided that if I quit school and went to work, I could help out with the family finances and at the same time avoid confronting the principal who kept pumping me for information about my friends and their habits.
Now I know that was a dumb decision, but at the time it seemed like the right thing to do. And for a while, things went well. I found a part-time job as a housekeeper on the air force base and a second one as a food demonstrator in a grocery store. I didn’t mind cleaning and I worked fast, so that I could have my afternoons free when I wasn’t scheduled to demo at the Blue and White.
At night I partied. I loved going to clubs with my friends. That’s what I lived for. I wasn’t the only tenth grader who’d quit school that year. I began to hang out with other dropouts, now and then raiding family liquor cabinets, begging cigarettes where we could, and smoking a joint or two when we could get them for free.
Max was older than I and in the air force. He liked to hang out at my favorite club, a dingy little place with great music and a tiny square of a dance floor. We loved to dance, covering every square of the creaky floor, whirling and swooping, laughing at each other’s bizarre movements. Max didn’t seem to have a care in the world, and neither did I when I was with him. We weren’t ever what you’d call “serious.” We hung out together for a couple of months, and then Max’s orders came to go to Texas.
By the time I drove myself to the public heath clinic two weeks after Max left, I had a considerable investment in drugstore pregnancy kits. I took about 15 tests. Most of them were positive, but now and then one showed up negative, and that gave me hope. But after the clinic test, I had to face the fact that I was pregnant.
Back in my battered tan Escort, I scrounged through the overflowing ashtray for a decent-sized butt and sucked in the calming smoke. My mind raced as I pulled out of the crowded parking lot heading I knew not where. Gotta quit smoking, I told myself. Gotta quit drinking, and eating junk, and partying all night. If I’m going to have a baby, I want a healthy one.
Looking back on that sweltering afternoon that I spent driving rutted country roads, I know it was then that the change inside me began. Later that same day, after three long hours on my feet passing out pizza samples at the Blue and White, I dragged my aching back and legs home and stuck my head in the family room. “Hi guys. It’s been a long day. I’m headed to bed.”
Only mom responded. “Sweet dreams, honey. Glad you’re home.”
Despite exhaustion, sleep did not come quickly. I lay on my back, rubbing my hands over my flat stomach, still trying to accept the fact that I was to be a mother at seventeen. Alone in the dark, I tried to imagine how the next months would play out. Would my family accept my determination to have this child? Would I feel good enough to work? Could I make the money I would need to support my baby? I shouldn’t have quit school. Maybe I should go back. No. Need money. Will they let me stay here? Some kids get kicked out when they turn up pregnant. Finally, I drifted off to sleep.
Not my mother, but my grandmother, far away in South Carolina, insisted that I have an abortion. This was the grandmother who herself had become pregnant at seventeen, before she married. “Don’t ruin your life by having a child so young,” she begged over he phone. “You’ll never forgive yourself.”
I listened to her words, but there was no way I could end my unborn child’s life. Mom was disappointed when I told her, but supported me in my decision. “Only you can decide what you must do,” she said.
Tony had a weird reaction. “You’re going to be a mother? Hard to imagine you in that role, Vanessa. Don’t expect us to baby-sit when you want to party.”
Tony had no children of his own. I think he harbored some deep down feelings of jealousy that I was having a child that would not be his and Mom’s. The fact that she couldn’t have any more children had always been hard for him.
As it turned out, Mom became attached at the hip to her first grandchild, and Tony couldn’t get enough of him either. Often they begged me to go out so they could have Kevin to themselves. Most of the time, I didn’t even want to go.
I gave birth to eight-pound Kevin a few weeks before we moved again, this time to Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. Not long after we arrived, Max came up from Texas to meet his son. He acted like a proud father and I laughed at the obvious likeness between Kevin and his dad. But when Max wanted to establish a relationship—just see where it might go—I couldn’t.
“I have an education to finish if I’m going to support this baby,” I explained.
“We’ll support him together,” Max said.
“I’m not ready for a permanent relationship. Not now. Probably not ever. I don’t do serious, long-term boyfriends, and I have never been able to see myself as married,” I told him
Max went back to Texas alone and I enrolled in classes to get ready to take my GED tests. For a while, I had an office job at the Red Cross, but I couldn’t listen to people’s tragic stories day after day. I couldn’t fix them, and that depressed me. After a few months, I quit and went back to work at what I know best—cleaning on an air force base.
As long as I live with my family, the $10.15 an hour I earn is enough to contribute to household expenses and support Kevin and me. I dream of the day when I’ll be able to live on my own with Kevin, but for now, I know it is best for him and for me, to stay with my family.
I dream of becoming a paralegal, and perhaps, one day a lawyer who specializes in working with abused and neglected children. To that end, I will enter community college this fall.
I don’t party the way I used to. I’m still fun to be with, but the club girl I once was went underground and emerged as a mom. Sometimes I go to movies with friends. Now and then I go out with a guy. But mostly, I hang out with Kevin.
I’ve learned to say “no.” I couldn’t say it to my dad, or to Josh or Max when we were I Guam, but now I can say it to anyone. Getting pregnant was the jolt I needed to realize I had to set boundaries for myself.
I call it my “aha” moment. That was when I realized hat I could no longer be a doormat for anyone. I wasn’t going to let men—or anybody—make me feel like I was nothing and that I had no rights to my own body.
I will never again be passive or timid. I am now the woman I always had inside but that was locked up with fear. Now I am free.