It is March of 1973, a month away from my tenth birthday. I sit cross-legged on a bare mattress that I dragged over to the narrow window by the front door of the empty mansion in a small Belgian town. That window looks out over the circular driveway, and gives me a view of where my mother should have appeared five days ago, to pick me up.
There is no food in this house – I’ve checked countless times – but at this point I am neither hungry or thirsty. After three days, my stomach gave up. The system is shutting down. I don’t have to use the bathroom anymore. The body is wasting away. Bones are sticking out. My teeth, hair: not so different from day two. My lips are swollen and cracked. I amuse myself running my fingertips over the rough surface and picking at the loose ends of hard skin. I smell myself; I don’t mind. It’s my body. I’m preparing to let it go. I’m not waiting for my mother to come and pick me up anymore.
There has been a light come to comfort me, shining brightly, like a subtle sun before my gaze. With open eyes, it illumines everything to look like it is ready to melt into spirit. With closed eyes, this light is like consciousness itself – not mine, but a benign, loving presence – that silently communicates if I need to know something.
I spend more time bathing in the comfort of the light than bothering about externals. The light teaches me that it’s important to prepare for death, because death is the only certainty of life. It tells me that there is a way of dying, to let go of the body before the body lets go of you. I haven’t found out how yet, but I think that I might; I think that I will.
There comes my mother’s car rattling up the driveway, moving slowly past the door, coming to a stop a little further ahead. Nothing compels me to move. The ignition is turned off. I have no expectations, and nothing happens.
The awareness settles that if I remain sitting, I will be able to hold on to my truth; which is one of being raped by many men throughout the first night, and of abandonment and starvation in the four days following. I was brought here and dropped off by my mother. She had told me she was going to leave me here, in punishment, after I had told her that she was no good.
After several minutes, the car motor starts up. I am gripped with the panic of being left behind again, of having to stay here and die alone. I bolt upright. Black spots converge into a black hole before my eyes sucking in consciousness. I pry my eyes open, steady myself and remain standing on willpower. I begin to walk to the car at an agonizingly slow pace, avoiding fainting. I open the door and plop down in the passenger seat. We take off; I’m nauseous, and close my eyes.
“Why didn’t you come home?” asks mama. “We were worried sick about you.”
Anxious, confused thoughts flood my brain: Was I supposed to walk home? Did she tell me, and did I forget? Is it not that long a walk? Did I get it all wrong?
Hearing myself think, I stop the anxious flow, reminding myself of myself. There is no room for truth. Around my mother, facts are dangerous rebels in the totalitarian state of her being a good person, especially a Good Mother. It would be so much easier if I could accept that I had my family worried – there is so much good in that for everyone. I lean my head against the door and turn to look out the window, averting mama’s critical gaze, which says that my appearance proves what she has always known: I am rotten to the core.
The first person I see when I enter the front door of our house is Siska, the cleaning lady. She was hired soon after my stepfather married my mother and we moved into his house in the village. She and her husband took me on outings, swimming once a week and other trips, along with an ever-changing group of children they referred to as their nieces and nephews. After a year of grooming, Siska and her husband took me to a network orgy. When I told my mother that “bad things had happened” she started driving me to orgies herself. Siska stayed on as the cleaning person. My truth is too strange; it is unbelievable; I don’t understand it myself. My mother’s reality makes much more sense. Siska is just a cleaning lady.
Siska’s small, calculating eyes flicker coldly as I cross the wet slate tiles of the lobby, heading straight to the kitchen. The odors enter my nostrils like voluptuous promises. There’s a pan on the stove with browned melted butter that must have been used as sauce for some meat dish, and a pot with some leftover boiled potatoes. This is my stepfather’s fare. He is often away for work, but he must have been home during the past days and will likely be back for dinner.
I mash a quartered potato in the pan and take a small bite. The browned butter tastes too strong; too meaty and salty, but the potato abounds with subtle, nurturing flavor. After my small meal, which is all I can eat, I am overcome with acute exhaustion and lay down on the sofa in the living room. Less than a minute later, Siska runs the vacuum noisily around me while my mother stands by the kitchen door, arms crossed, watching me with a critical gaze.
Moving to my bedroom, I lay down and instantly fall asleep. Then I take a long bath and wash my hair. The knots on the back of my head are so tight I can’t comb them out. It always happens during the nights I am raped. Usually, right after, I spend as much time in the bathroom as possible, for my cleansing ritual, which includes carefully combing all the knots out of my hair.
By five o’ clock dinner is served. My stepfather’s bald crown is the first thing I see when I walk into the dining area. Right before entering his view, I suspect that he will react with shock, dismayed at seeing me this thin and pale with big knots in my hair, and he will demand to know where I was and what happened to me.
When I sit down, he greets me as if I had been there all week, and as if nothing were amiss. He squeezes his eyes shut, bows his head and folds his hands. Loudly and slowly he utters a prayer. When he concludes with ‘amen,’ my mother and little brother chime in. My mother serves a long sausage that she cuts into pieces in the pan. Mashed potatoes. Boiled endives. And spinach, for me. I have it every meal, ever since watching the Popeye cartoon and became convinced I would need it to keep me strong.
My mother goes to the kitchen. I anxiously look at my stepfather, hoping he will notice what he missed earlier. My mother’s senior by twenty years, he’s fifty-five, with white fuzz, purple veins running across his big nose, and little blue bloodshot eyes that avoid me. He gets up slowly and takes a half-empty bottle of red wine from the top of a cabinet, a tulip-shaped glass from inside the cabinet, and slowly pours it, looking intently at the liquid.
“You see?” he says to his two children, holding up the glass, “see the rich brown tones in this Burgundy? That’s how you can tell that it’s old.”
As he looks up at the wineglass, his thin lips curl into a tight smile, while his blue eyes remain unsmiling. He swirls the liquid, takes a deliberate sip and swallows audibly.
“Papa?” I begin.
He looks at me. His gaze is so devoid of recognition of my state that I doubt myself.
“I haven’t been home,” I stammer.
“Yes, I have heard about your fancy exploits,” he jokes loudly. “Too busy mingling in the higher circles to give any time to your poor father at home!”
“Don’t you see anything different about me?” I ask, quietly, as my mother returns from the kitchen.
She puts a bottle of orange soda and glasses on the table for the children and then serves her husband. He directs her to give him more sausage.
I put my hands around my waist to try to show him that my middle fingers are touching. He can see; he doesn’t look.
I mix spinach with potatoes and pour melted butter on top. My mouth muscles must have lost their tone; it is hard to chew and swallow. The spinach tastes like the cardboard out which it came.
After the chocolate pudding desserts are finished and my mother has cleared the table, my stepfather, as usual, stays behind, savoring his second glass of wine.
“Papa, I was very hungry while I was away,” I venture nervously.
He throws a sideways glance over my body as he drinks. When he puts his glass down, he says:
“I can see that you’ve lost weight. Didn’t they give you enough caviar?”
After pronouncing ‘caviar’ in an exaggerated version of the Flemish working-class dialect of our district, he forces out a big, fake laugh.
“Seriously,” he goes on, “make sure you don’t get too thin.”
His eyes glide over my body as if I were a good bottle of wine.
“Papa, I’m trying to tell you something,” I continue, nervously eyeing the kitchen doorway through which my mother may appear any second.
My little brother gets up from the table and heads to the television area, asking his father if he can watch. My stepfather picks up his glass, stands up, stretches self-consciously, adds a little audible yawn for effect, and follows my brother. I jump up.
“Papa!” I plead.
“What do you want now?” he replies.
My stepfather laughs as if I were conniving to get something from him, and as if he humorously condoned my shrewdness. As he turns on the television for my brother, I clutch his arm.
It’s real, papa, I’m trying to say. I really need you.
He finally drops the pretense and looks at me, and I see that watery softness in his eyes through which his love lights up, mixed with desire, while his impotence translates into a melancholic air.
“Papa, listen, I didn’t eat. There was no one there.”
My mother enters the area from the kitchen and eyes us both suspiciously. Suddenly, it seems as if she just caught me trying to seduce my stepfather.
Her cold stare turns on him. He stiffens and pulls his arm loose, as if he just got caught.
He mumbles: “What stories are you trying to tell me?”
His eyes once again become dim. He makes his way to the table to help my mother clean up.
I feel that they are a nice couple and I was trying to disturb their peace. I’m even too lazy to help them clear the dishes, I think. I was too lazy to walk home from that house in the other village. They were worried about me.
The next day, my mother keeps me out of school. The doctor arrives for a home visit late that morning. He does a perfunctory exam on me while chatting with my mother, and decides, without asking me a single question, that I am getting over a flue. He writes a note I can bring to school, backdates it to the beginning of the week, and tells me to get some rest.
After the doctor has left, my mother gets a comb and scissors. She tells me to sit straight up on the chair and not to move. I hear the scissors cut, once, twice. Mama pulls out a chunk of hair, a knot with a lot of long hair attached.
“You’re cutting it all off!” I exclaim in horror, touching the back of my head.
“That’s the only way to get it out,” my mother retorts. “That will teach you, for running away from home!”
Another big strand of my hair is being pulled.
No! Stop it, please! Okay, I ran away from home and stayed with rich people who fed me caviar. That’s what you told papa and that’s the truth.
Okay, I tried to seduce papa.