Appears in Other Voices #45
The O Street Girl came back to school today. She arrived between the first and second homeroom bells. She’d been absent since last January, and now it was October, and so many things had happened, things you would have told her once, before she was the O Street Girl, when she still was Beth Dinard, your friend. But no one was talking to her today, so you couldn’t tell her about your first French kiss, your first hit off a joint, your first fist fight. No one was talking to her and no one was talking to each other and so much happened since she went away.
The O Street Girl was what the papers called her, because it happened on Oak Street and because they wanted to protect her identity in the world outside this city. But that was many months ago, and the world outside this city soon forgot her. You almost forgot her too; you began to blot her from memory the way you blotted out other friends of yours who had died. You were fourteen years old and not dead. Last Friday, in back of the Oak Street basketball court, behind the place in the fence where the chain link is most gnarled, Neal Lenard put his tongue into your mouth. You told all your friends about this, about the hard press of his teeth against your lips, and how you could taste the pizza he’d eaten for supper. But you did not tell the O Street Girl, and now she was sitting at a desk in the back row with her head pointed toward her lap, and she was wearing a stupid knit hat that covered her ears, and it seemed as if she was trying to hide from you and from everyone else.
You met her the way you met all of your friends; she was simply there, as you were and as you’d all always been. Before becoming the O Street Girl, she’d sat on the stoops with you, jumped rope with you, played manhunt on your team. When you smuggled your mother’s copy of the Joy of Sex into the empty garage on the corner of Oak Street and read parts of it aloud to your friends, it was the O Street Girl who’d never before heard the term “hard.” She’d said, “Hard with what? Some kind of coating?” And everyone had laughed because, even though none of you knew very much about sex, you at least knew what caused an erection. But now the O Street Girl knew more and she knew it first-hand, and it felt like she was a new girl at school rather than someone you’d known since your earliest memories. Over the past many months, you’d begun to forget her, and now she was back and her old name sounded strange and you noticed that, although you and all of your other friends had grown taller and rounder and prettier, somehow she had not.
She was always the littlest girl in your clique. A full head shorter than most everyone else, she acted funny and loud like the littlest girls sometimes did. Of all of your friends, she was not the one it should have been. It should have been Mary Langan, who was busty and shy. Mary’s mother was half gone whether she was on smack or off it, and most of the time they didn’t seem to live anywhere. They sat on the sidewalks with their stuff in boxes and old Sicilian men walked past, asking what was for sale. “Va’a farti friggere,” you’d heard her mother say. Get lost. Then she’d add, “It’s important we keep whatever we have.” In their boxes, they had a cast iron skillet, old shoes, and a wooden statue of a frog holding a doctor’s bag. Mary’s mother named him Henri Mancini. Mary called him Dr. Frog.
Or maybe it should have been Darla Santiago, whose father used to own a store before he died, but who now got evicted every month and went with her mother to the basement shelter at the Church of Christ. You used to go there too, before your mother went straight a year ago and began to sell Avon, and you remembered how it went. You remembered the lukewarm turkey slices, canned peas, and mashed potatoes made from powder. You remembered how the men and women all shared a single room at night, and how a man in the cot beside yours once said, “C’mon pretty girl, c’mon while your mama’s not looking.” Darla wouldn’t have been able to say no or fake sleep. Darla, though proud, was not quick to do anything.
But the O Street Girl was quick and loud and her mother knew whole books by heart. Before she was the O Street Girl, she could imitate teachers and boys and rewrite love songs so that their lyrics described farting instead of romance. She said she was clever because her mother was smart. She said she was funny because her mom was nicer than yours. And you had your doubts only once, when you went to her apartment and noticed a pile of shit on the floor. “It’s from the dog,” Beth said and she cleaned it with newspaper. You didn’t think she had a dog, but there was a leash in the corner, so you believed her as much as you worried for her. She said that her mother was nicer than yours, and in time you forgot the shit and the leash, and you believed her much more than you worried.
Then, one day last winter, the day after you walked home with her, arguing whether Harding was president before or after Coolidge, the day after she walked you to the door of your apartment building and said she’d see you tomorrow, you heard that she’d been found half-dead and bleeding on Oak Street. The papers called her the O Street Girl, but they gave her address so you knew who she was, and you read that her mother had thrown a party, and that Beth had been raped by some men there. Later, on the street, you heard that the men had paid, that it wasn’t a rape but a sale, that Beth had been turning tricks, just like her mother did, just like your own mother did before going straight. Still later, in the papers again, you read that it was all her mother’s idea, that her mother traded Beth’s body for smack, and, for a minute, you wondered whether your friend had been tied up in that leash when the guests arrived that night. But there were men on the stoops who claimed to have been there, and who claimed that Beth had liked it. The final word on the street was that she liked it, and you decided to believe that.
One night ten years from now, when your kids are away at their father’s and you can’t sleep because of loneliness, you’ll see a Girl X story on the news and you’ll remember Beth with a sudden, sharp ache, and the need to apologize will rise uncontrollably, like the need to profess a new love. You’ll talk to national directory assistance until you find a number for an Elizabeth Dinard in Chicago, and when she answers her phone in a loud, whole voice, you’ll forget what you meant to be sorry for.
“Who is this?” she’ll ask, pretending. “I don’t even know who you are.” But she’ll answer every question you should have asked but never did. She’ll tell you that her mother and the men had gotten high, and that everyone, even her mother, kept laughing and laughing. She’ll tell you that they pinned her down and that there was no place to look because every time she turned her head, she saw another man’s naked flesh. She’ll tell you that she closed her eyes, in an attempt to retreat within herself, but that retreat was impossible because the men took up every inch inside her, her rectum, vagina, mouth, even the air above her stomach. Their voices inhabited her ears. She’ll tell you how one man laughed with pleasure when he said, “I forgot how it felt to fuck a tight cunt.”
Back when she was the littlest girl in your clique, you all dragged old mattresses into the street on warm dry days, and used them as trampolines. You all could do flips on the mattresses as easily as you could sing or double-dutch jump rope. Sometimes you all wrote, “We hex the Man” over and over on the laundromat wall. You got the idea of hexing from Nancy Drew. There was no such thing as best or worst, and to belong, you needed only to be there.
She was always the littlest girl in your clique, but now you and your friends had grown even taller, and she still had not grown, and the difference between you was even greater and made her look as strange as her old name sounded. She sat at her desk and did not talk to anyone. She looked down as if trying to hide, but she couldn’t hide because she was responsible for the silence that surrounded her and filled the room. You considered waving hello to her, or at least talking to one of your other friends about the idea of waving hello to her, but no one was looking at anyone else and no one was talking, and you were fourteen years old and reluctant to be the first one to do anything. Then the second bell rang and Mr. Lloyd entered and he looked at the O Street Girl and said, “Oh. You’re back. Good to see you. I didn’t know that you were coming back.” She didn’t look up and she didn’t talk and Jimmy Plato, who had three fingers on his left hand and had always been teased, started laughing.
That night on the phone ten years from now, she’ll tell you how hard it was to come back to the same streets, the same school, to everyone thinking they knew what happened when no one knew what really happened. If she’d had money, she’ll say, she would have had relatives in different cities. Or the relatives she did have would have taken her to someplace new. But starting fresh is a luxury, she’ll tell you, and not everyone can.
Even though she lived with her grandmother now, even though her mother was in a mental institution for the year and some of the men were in jail, she was back in the same school, back with Jimmy Plato to whom Mr. Lloyd said nothing. Back with Mr. Lloyd, who was at least one hundred and eighty years old and who, because he had taught every grade level, had taught the O Street Girl three times before. To the O Street Girl, Mr. Lloyd said, “We’re beginning now. Remove your cap.”
She shook her head no. Of all of your friends, she was not the one it should have been. Maybe it should have been you. Not now, of course, because your mother went straight. Not now, of course, because your mother served chicken that wasn’t raw and pink the way it always was before she learned patience with things cooking. Now your mother even gave you flavored lip-gloss from Avon. You wore bubble gum flavor when Neal Lenard first kissed you. He said that your lips tasted shiny.
“Remove your cap,” Mr. Lloyd repeated. “There are no special privileges here.”
Again she shook her head. And you began to think that perhaps you were wrong, that the O Street Girl in the papers was, in fact, someone else, and that this girl, your friend Beth, wasn’t locked away in a hospital for broken bones and madness and bleeding, that she was hospitalized for cancer instead and, perhaps beneath her cap she was bald and ashamed. You had known two other children with cancer. They wore hats to school and then they stopped coming to school and then they were dead. Rosie was the first to die. You remembered the last time you saw her, how her mother carried her down the apartment stairs and into a taxi waiting by the curb. Rosie looked so shockingly small that you forgot to wave goodbye. And your mother, who had not yet gone straight, said, “Her mother’s lucky. She’ll get her life back.” Now, of course, your mother cried whenever she thought about losing you, and she claimed that there was something bad in the poorest neighborhoods’ water that poisoned the poorest children to death. And now you thought maybe there was something bad in the water, and maybe your friend was caught midway between being diagnosed and being dead.
But Mr. Lloyd walked to her desk and pulled off her cap, and she had as much hair as ever. It took you a minute to look lower than her hair, to notice that the top halves of her ears were missing. There were the lobes and the little holes she heard out of, but the seashell tops were gone and in their place were only curled, thick, red nubs. Jimmy Plato started laughing again, and then everyone laughed, and you laughed too because it was scary to see the strange curled stumps that used to be ears. Mr. Lloyd dropped the hat on the O Street Girl’s desk and said, “No caps in class,” but you could tell that he wished he’d never said anything.
On the phone ten years from now, she’ll tell you how her mother pinched her ears until the cartilage tore, how the pain went down her throat and seemed to fill her eyes and lungs, how it seemed to coat the inside of her brain. She’ll tell you that her mother did this to stop her from pleading, how her mother did this because she kept pleading with her to stop the men, her voice squeaky and desperate and implacable until her mother grabbed her ears and said, “Shut up goddammit or I’ll rip them off!” She talked too much that night, she’ll say, and a year passed before she could talk again. Ten years from now, she’ll explain to you how, that night, she lost all faith in words.
But right now you didn’t understand why the O Street Girl sat like a horrible doll, her head bowed and silent beneath her disgusting half-ears. It would have been easier if she had cried, if she had talked back as she once would have, if she had laughed with everyone else. Her silence made her ears all the more disgusting, and now you were terrified that she would look at you. You did not want to be looked at by a girl with hideous nubs for ears. You wanted to keep her far away from you, as if she embodied bad luck itself.
Jimmy Plato said, “Hey Ho Street, what happened to your ears?”
“That’s enough,” scolded Mr. Lloyd.
And everyone laughed again, and you laughed again too, and you knew that, from now on, she would be called Ho Street. And you hated her for her new nickname, and you hated her for her freak ears, and you hated her for what her mother and the men may have done, and because she may have liked it. A part of you remembered that she used to be your friend, but how much you used to like her did not erase how much you hated her now.
Mr. Lloyd yelled, “Shut up!” and you all stopped laughing, and Ho Street still didn’t look up and she still didn’t talk. And you knew that Jimmy Plato would no longer be the one to make fun of, that Ho Street’s ears outdid his missing fingers. And you were glad that you did not wave hello when she first walked in, because that would have made you a target too, and you would have lost all your friends, and Neal Lenard would have told everyone that he’d only kissed you as a joke. Then everyone would have said that you’d gone further than you had, and they’d have jammed up your locker with bubble gum. So you were glad that you did not say hello, and that she alone would be called a loser and a retard and a ho, and that no one—not even she—would expect you to be nice to her. She would know better than to approach you, and she would sit with the special-ed kids at lunch knowing that no one at your table would make room for her. She would know better than to ask even you to scoot over on the slippery Formica cafeteria bench because, even though she’d become Ho Street, she knew the politics of childhood too.
On the telephone ten years from now, she’ll tell you how men in her nightmares still call her Ho Street, even though, as soon as she was old enough, she fled to Chicago, hundreds of miles from anyone who’d ever called her that. But starting fresh is a luxury, she’ll say, and not everyone can. She was already away in Chicago, her ears had been rebuilt by surgeons, and she thought she had a new start, when she heard that her mother had died. Her mother hadn’t really died, though, not yet; it was just an act that time. But for a while she didn’t know and, suddenly, she’ll say, she wanted to turn tricks. She’ll tell you how she quit her job, bought a pager, and met an old, married man in the Days Inn every afternoon. He liked for her to lie on her stomach while he covered her back and legs in massage oil, too much oil to ever wash off and large, painful pimples took over her skin. She’ll tell you that she made two hundred dollars a day, sometimes more, and she only felt humiliated when her body came against her will. She’ll tell you how, finally, she sold back her pager and never went back. She’d never given him any way to track her down. He didn’t even know her real name. She’ll tell you, “That’s how I really got over it. Not by starting fresh.” And you will decide that she never got over it. For a moment you’ll imagine inviting her to come live with you, to stay in your house until she really is whole, but you won’t, because you won’t want her body on your bed sheets or her ears on your pillows. Instead, you’ll remember to say that you’re sorry, and she’ll reply, “What for?”
You’ll say it wasn’t that you didn’t care. You’ll say that sometimes, long ago, you’d even wished that she had died that night; you’d wished that dying could have saved her. You’ll say, “I wished it for your sake,” and she’ll ask you, “Not for yours?”
She’ll tell you, “I never once wished I was dead. Never once. Not even that first day back at school.”
“Well I’m sorry,” you’ll repeat. “I’m sorry I didn’t stand up for you.”
“Look, I told you I don’t even know who you are,” she’ll say. “I don’t even remember which one you are.”
Mr. Lloyd moved to the front of the room, lowered the map of the Western Hemisphere, pointed to Peru. “Eyes up here,” he said. “Let’s all focus on Peru.” And his dusty voice mixed with the dusty light to lull you into private daydreams, in which neither Ho Street nor Peru had a place. You didn’t wonder what she was thinking, or what she was wishing for. Instead you thought about Neal Lenard’s slick tongue and how good it felt with his arms grabbing hard around your waist, in the back of the basketball court, in the sweet dark cold of an early October night.