I pressed my head to the window and gazed at the scenery sweeping by me. Normally, I would have been excited at the thought of spending a week or two with the Morgans. It was a chance to get away from everything that was happening at home and blow off some steam for a change. But today? No. Today I would have given anything to turn the car around and go back home and pretend that none of this had ever happened.
But if I was going to pull off something like that, I was going to need to go back, way back. This had all started, after all, with my father.
He and my mother, I had been told, had met when they were at a youth church camp together. They had fallen in love, gotten married and had me. And, as my mother moved away from her family, she found she was less engaged with the intense religiosity they had foisted on her. She assumed my father would go the same way, but instead, it became even more intense.
She had wondered to me a few times, my mother, if things would have been different had I been a boy.
"It’s just that ..." She sighed, her fingers wrapped around a glass of white wine as she reclined on the couch. She always got to playing the amateur psychologist when she’d had one too many, but I was always curious to hear what she had to say about it all. It was my past, after all, my history. It was the reason I was currently as screwed-up as I was.
"Maybe he wouldn’t have felt such an urge to protect you," she explained, "if you had been a boy. Maybe then he would have been able to let go a little … I don’t know. I wish I could go back in time and undo all of it."
"All of it?” I had asked her, my little fourteen-year-old self in her gawky, gangly body suddenly feeling worried about just how welcome I was in the house.
She reached over and tousled my hair, smiling at me. "Not all of it," she promised me. "Not you, Cindy, I promise."
It was enough to salve some of my worst fears, but there wasn’t much she could do to help with everything that had happened when we had been living with my father. He had never been abusive to her, she had always made that very clear--she had changed so much and he had remained sullenly and stubbornly the same.
Sometimes I wondered if she was just being nice, not admitting the truth of how miserable things had been because it was easier to breeze past it than to go over it all in years of meticulous therapy. Either way, she had sworn over and over again that he had been a better man before I was born before all of this had started. That he hadn’t been the hardcore religious monster I remembered him as when I thought back to him, which I tried to do as little as humanly possible.
I knew why she believed what she did about me being a boy. I was pretty sure she was right, too. My father had always been so keen to point out how important it was that I hung on to my chastity, my decency. I couldn’t imagine he would have pushed the same thing on a son with such a passion.
"It’s everything you have as a wife," he explained to me one day, while I was doing the washing-up--he got me doing chores every day, even as schoolwork and extra-curriculars stacked up. I barely had time to go out and see any of the people I would have called friends, and I was sure that he intended it that way. If I couldn’t go out and see other people, then I wouldn’t get all those nasty ideas in my head about what I could be doing with my life beyond just bowing down and letting him tell me how my life was going to be.
"You have to keep it safe," he continued, taking a swig of his beer. "You have to make sure you are still pure when you find the man who’ll take you on. It’s like chewing gum that’s been used up--nobody wants to eat that. It’s got no taste, it’s disgusting ..."
I could have reeled off a hundred of the euphemisms he had given me over the years for what I would become if I dared to have sex before marriage. Honestly, it got to the point where I was pretty sure he didn’t want me having sex at all. I couldn’t imagine a man who would live up to his standards for me, and frankly, I was already fearful for the ones who would dare try it. My father would beat them back like they were the devil himself come to find me. I knew that getting out from under his thumb was going to be near-impossible.
I suppose, at some point, while I was still in single-digits, I just accepted that. I couldn’t imagine a future in which my mother would dare to leave him. That meant his rules were going to be the ones that governed my existence for the rest of my life. It was almost a relief, knowing I was never going to have to step out into the world and be my own person. I knew that’s what other people wanted, but without the opportunity, I was assured I wasn’t going to make any mistakes, right? His firm hand would guide me until he eventually found a husband he felt lived up to his standards and was happy handing me off to.
I learned to wear long dresses, keep my hair pretty, and cross my legs when I sat down. I had chaste fantasies about holding hands with boys in my class, but even that felt far too close to sin for my liking. Even as I started approaching puberty, and the people around me started talking about boyfriends and kissing and other things, that part of my brain seemed to have been cut off, tamped down to the point where I wasn’t sure that it existed anymore. I was proud of the fact that I didn’t seem to have any of these urges, and couldn’t help but think about how disappointed the fathers of these girls must have been. How angry. If my own had found out I was so much as thinking some of the things they were saying out loud, he would lock me in my room and wouldn’t let me out for a week.
So, the day my mother told him she was leaving him, it was like my entire world had fallen apart. I mean, I had lived my life under such strict rules for so long that it was hard for me to believe there was anything else out there in the world for me. I supposed my mother still recalled something before that--a life where she had been allowed to call the shots. She packed up her stuff, bid for custody of me, and calmly told him she wasn’t going to be with him anymore. She felt like what he was doing to my brain was dangerous.
"I’m protecting her!” he spat back at her furiously, his face so red it looked like he was going to pop.
I was cowering in the doorway of the kitchen as this conversation took place, not sure whose side I was on.
"You really think any man is going to want her if she’s all used up?” he demanded, gesturing to me. He knew I was his last-ditch attempt at proving his point, but my mother shook her head.
"She doesn’t need anyone but herself," she replied, and she held out her hand to me. For a split second, I saw the glimmering future laid out in the front of the little twelve-year-old me, the life I could live without having to answer to all of his rules, without having to play his games to make sure I didn’t land myself in trouble. It was … it was so free. I could do anything I wanted and nobody would stop me or judge me. I took her hand, and with that, we were free.
Well, that’s what I thought.
I supposed she had imagined it that way, too. The two of us walking off into the sunset together and starting a whole new life away from him. And yeah, to some extent, we did find that freedom together. It was incredible, being away from him at first. We could eat what we wanted and stay up as long as we wanted and wear what we wanted. At first, I wanted to take advantage of all of these rules. But every time I did, I heard his voice in the back of my mind, do you really think that’s an appropriate way to act? You’re going to be someone’s wife one day, how do you think they would feel about you wearing that? Don’t you want to keep your figure looking trim?
And that was a glimpse into how it was going to be for the rest of my life. My mother managed to integrate back into the real world with some level of ease. I supposed because she’d had some experience with it before she got married to him. The divorce went through, and she moved in with Andrew, the man who would become my stepfather. She decided not to marry him, a radical choice, but one I respected. She was finally living her life the way she wanted to.
But me? I couldn’t let go of things that easily. I wished I could have moved on the way she did, but he was still in my head. He had permanent residency there, it seemed, percolated into something even stronger than he had been before. I hated it. I hated that I couldn’t shake him from my brain. I hated, even more, the feelings that were beginning to grow inside of me as I turned from a girl into a woman.
Being a teenager and having these messages zooming around and around my head was so painful, I could hardly describe it. I wanted to go out and have fun, cut loose, but I knew that my brain was never going to let that happen without piling me with guilt and fear and the certainty that he had been right all this time and that giving myself over to someone would take away from all the value I had been trying so hard to cling to.
No matter how many times I tried to convince myself it was irrational, it just took hold further. By the time I was sixteen, I had started going back to church of my own accord, punishing myself for any untoward thoughts with hours on my knees, trying to pray my guilt away. Everything he had told me seemed to be coming true around me--all those women I saw sleeping with their boyfriends ended up with their hearts broken. Yes, maybe it was just because high school boys were assholes, or maybe it was because they didn’t see any worth in these women any longer now that they had taken what they wanted from them.
By graduation, everyone around me was excited about leaving for college, about seeing a dating scene outside of our small town. I was already planning on how to deflect those questions from my family so I could stay at home. It was safe there, I was sure of it. Nobody wanted to go after a virgin who still lived with her family. I knew the rules here.
Or, at least, I thought I did.
"You need to get out of the house sooner or later," my mother had told me gently when I was about to turn nineteen. "I know it’s a lot to take in out there, but ..."
"I don’t want to go," I told her. "I’m not ready. You really want to get rid of me already?”
"I don’t want rid of you," she soothed. "We love having you around, you know that. Andrew and I are worried you’re missing out on experiences you should be having at this age."
I knew what she was saying. Everyone else was dating, partying, having fun, while I was doing Bible study in my room until late at night. I wasn’t even sure I believed any of it anymore, but it was safe, a reminder of everything I would lose if I … well, if I lost it. The few friends I did have from high school seemed to drift away, more focused on their adult lives than coming back to check out my childish one. And that was about the point I felt myself losing grip on reality.
I knew it was crazy, but I couldn’t let go of this part of my past. I had grown up being told that to give myself to a man would be to lose everything that made me valuable. I couldn’t do that. Why would I want to do that to myself? I would see clearly-happy couples walking down the street and be angry at them, angry at them for daring to be happy in my vicinity, angry that they got to enjoy themselves and each other and I didn’t.
Those feelings inside me, the ones I had done everything to ignore, they were beginning to reach a boiling point. I wasn’t sure how much longer I could push them down. I would lie awake at night and feel something between my legs screaming out for attention. I felt like I was constantly trying to ignore the voices inside my own head telling me to give in to what I needed so badly. I knew they were trying to lead me astray, but that was hard to believe when all I wanted to do was listen.
I couldn’t allow myself to be stripped of the only thing that gave me worth. That meant my only option was doing everything I could to get rid of the feelings filling me every moment of every day. I knew where they came from. I had been forced, beetroot-red, to sit through sex education like everyone else in my class. I understood there was a center of pleasure that this grew from.
So, the solution was simple: I needed to get rid of it.
"What the hell is this?” my mother shrieked when she came across the search terms on our shared computer. She had offered to get me one of my own, but I didn’t trust myself not to look up work of a sinful nature and had turned her down.
"It was just some research--"
"Clitoris numbing surgery?” she exclaimed. "You have to be kidding me, right? I mean, I know you have your hang-ups, but this ..." she trailed off.
I knew I was in trouble. She had been getting more and more frustrated with my inability to leave the house and now this.
"You need to get out of here," she told me. "Your father, he’s gotten inside your head. You’re not going to be able to shake him until you put some distance between yourself and everything else ..."
And with that, she started to plan. I tried to protest, but she told me that this was the way things had to be. She wasn’t going to let me mutilate myself because my father had told me that something so natural was wrong. I felt like I was going to cease to exist with sheer embarrassment at the sounds of those words coming out of her mouth, but I did my best to keep that off my face. Before I knew it, she had booked a trip for me across the country to stay with the Morgans.
"The Morgans!” I couldn’t think of a worse family to go stay with while I was trying to overcome everything that was happening. Talk about throwing me in at the deep end.
Thom Morgan was a divorced dad with full custody of his daughter, Donna. He was pretty much known around town for being a man-slut. We had spent a couple of summers lodging not far from their place, and Donna and I had grown close enough that she had let me know her father was bringing back a different woman practically every night to the house they lived in together. The thought of it intrigued me, but it also made me feel a little ill. I felt sorry for Donna, having to put up with that. Though, maybe some part of me wanted to be one of the women he brought back to his place ...
And now, Andrew, my stepfather, was currently driving me cross-country to stay with them for a while. I still couldn’t quite believe it was actually happening. Some kids got shipped off to military camp, and I got turned over to a family with looser morals in the hopes of opening me up a little.
"It’ll be good for you to spend time with a girl your age," Mom remarked.
I knew what she was trying to say: a normal girl my age. Which I was apparently not. I couldn’t stop thinking about the surgery I had been researching, how good it could have been for me. The relief I would have found making it impossible for me to feel that part of my body ever again. It was almost a fantasy, a thrill. I loved the very idea of it. I wanted it, more than anything, to feel that freedom, that release.
But now, it was never going to happen. My mother had sent me away to make sure I would never be able to do that to myself. She was hoping that a few weeks with the Morgans would be enough to scrub me back to a factory reset and save me from the mess going on inside my head and my body.
I sat there, arms crossed in the back seat of the car, refusing to talk to Andrew and watching as the fields whipped by the window. Nothing was going to change my mind. I was going to stay a good girl, no matter what. No matter what I had to do, no matter who I had to convince. I knew I was capable. I had to be. Because if I wasn’t, I didn’t know what else would remain for me.