Tea Break Read
A serialised short story
By Allan Hunter
“Sail Away for a Year and a Day”. That’s what Malcolm had us think about in this class.
After last week we were more open than before this time. People shared what they’d learned about meeting the stranger with the bag of gifts, and some of it was hard to fathom. But that might have been because not everyone said everything that was on their minds. Kayla described seeing her old softball coach, a guy who had made her life miserable (because she had always loved softball) and in the meeting he as sarcastic and handed her a softball. And I wanted to ask her – did he do more than belittle her? Was he a sexual predator? I mean, it sounds like he was psychologically abusive, but was he more than that? What grown man victimizes a kid of 12 who just loves to play softball and is actually good at it? Some sick part of him must have singled her out for destruction. I wanted to say all that, but I mean, how can you say that to someone? “Did he molest you?” Is that what you say? “Did he hurt you?” is that any better? Jesus I don’t know. So I listened and I think that even without my questions she got what she needed to off her chest. I wanted to know more, though. The whole thing really stuck in my mind.
Personally I didn’t want to say any more about Rudi. I want to keep that as my memory, not spread it around.
There’s more, though. I may as well write it down. When you write stuff down it can be scary. What if someone reads it? But somehow when it’s written it stops being so big around the heart. It stops trying to suffocate you.
So here we go. After Rudi died I was really sad for a long time. You know we were going to have the whole summer before college to have fun (we both had jobs, but they weren’t taking over our lives or anything. Not like an internship.) So I was left sort of dangling, with my sadness all around me like a blanket.
And that’s when Stefan came into my life. And he was so wonderful and caring, or so I thought. I’d known him a bit at school, but hardly enough to talk to. So we start dating, and I’m still hurting from Rudi, so I’m a bit confused. And then we started getting intimate. Having sex. I think I was trying to get Rudi out of my head.
So I’m not sure what I feel about Stefan, but he’s a good looking guy, and I thought I’d give it a whirl.
Yeah. One of my better ideas, right? What I didn’t know was. What I. See, he had one of those tiny cameras. And he videoed us. I didn’t know it. I didn’t know it until he circulated it. Then suddenly all these people I’d graduated high school with are calling me asking if it’s true. Was that me?
I can’t even begin to tell you what it felt like seeing that video. It was like a huge bucket of acid was burning all my insides. I think I shook and trembled for days.
I couldn’t tell my mom, my Dad, anyone.
This was a dark time for me. Stefan wouldn’t take it down. He didn’t care if he was in the clip – he just wanted to boast. I had no idea what to do.
It turned out that help came from an unexpected quarter. Someone sent it to my brother. My brother’s a total fuck up, but he has an anger problem, and that turned out to be a god thing for once. He found Stefan and made sure he found him alone. He wouldn’t tell me what happened. But the result was that the link disappeared, Stefan and his friends shut up. Mind you, the damage was done because so many kids had seen me giving him a blow job and they weren’t going to stop talking or making ugly jokes. It was grainy and blurry and badly lit, but it was still me, doing it. By then it was only a few weeks before I had to leave for college orientation, and I guess most people who’d seen the clip were doing the same thing, running around buying stuff at Target for their ultra-cool dorm room, and so on. I was old news, suddenly.
And then I came here and left it behind, perhaps forever. Who knows? I don’t care anymore. If people here get to know I think I’ll be kinda pissed, but I don’t want to throw myself off a bridge anymore. It feels like a lifetime ago, actually. A betrayal always leaves a mark on you.
Weird though, that one of the people I trust least, my brother, was the person who stood up for me. But perhaps he was just standing up for himself – after all he still has to live in that stupid town. Who wants to be known as the guy whose sister is a slut? He’s not that big, but he comes across as angry a lot of the time, so people don’t like to get in his way. An unlikely knight in shining armor.
So there you go. I wrote it. Now it’s all out I feel better. More free. I really, really needed to do that. Perhaps I’ve wanted to write it all out from the start. That and the rest of it.
Today I re-read all this. I think I’m getting free.
Yeah, so class has to do with that, too.
Malcolm read us this poem, a nonsense poem, he said. It was by Edward Lear who lived in the nineteenth century. I wrote it down so I wouldn’t forget.
The owl and the pussy cat went to sea in a beautiful pea-green boat
They took some honey and plenty of money wrapped up in a five pound note.
They sailed away for a year and a day to the land when the Bam tree grows.
And there in a wood a piggy-wig stood with a ring at the end of his nose.
He said he’d adapted it. As if we’d know.
So then he repeats it and asks to imagine a boat. What kind of boat? How big? And what would we take with us? Would we take anyone? And where are we going? Where do we meet the pig? Do we do anything about the ring?
There was a big groan from Jessica when he got to the “who would you take with you?” and a couple of people looked up in sympathy. A couple of people started to draw the boat, in specific detail, but most of us just wrote down what the boat was and what sorts of things we’d take.
By now I’m kind of alert to what these exercises might be about and I thought it might be a way of looking at how secure or insecure we are, you know, in terms of where we chose to go. I wasn’t exactly right about that.
So we got a lot of response from the class. Almost everyone spoke up. We had big cruise ships with several hundred people on them, and we had sailing yachts with just a few friends. Me, I decided to go alone, with maybe my cat (Rufus is my favorite, but he’s not fond of water, so I don’t know), and I took my music, some blank notebooks, pencils for drawing and that’s about it. I was sailing away to a desert island somewhere. I forgot about the pig, but I did see a ring in the sand and I picked it up. Then I put it on a string around my neck. It was plain gold.
I think we all sort of raced through it because we were thinking about what Malcolm would say it all meant. I know I was. So perhaps that wasn’t the best way to do it.
Anyway, so we got some weird results. Mike wanted to take a whole lot of safety equipment, including a spare bilge pump, a raft, distress flares and survival kit. When he mentioned all those things I wondered if I was doing the exercise right.
Malcolm explained that the sing-song verse tends to lull us a bit, and our defenses drop. Then when we hear “a year and a day” we tend not to think of 366 calendar days but more of a really long chunk of time. So, he said, with luck this becomes a metaphor of something bigger, like a voyage through life. And he said that no one had any sort of calendar, and no one said they’d be back in time for Christmas or anything, so it was a sort of limitless expanse of the future – and therefore it might reflect how we saw our future unfolding for the next stage of our lives.
That sounded about right to me, somehow. It got my interest for sure. Then he talked about how some people are light packers and some people always over pack. And that made sense, especially for those who’d been on Spring Break. And there were plenty of jokes about who had wound up carrying Kayla’s suitcases and how much extra gear she’s taken on a beach vacation. We had a few laughs about that. I know Kayla and she always has too much stuff. The amount of junk she puts in her backpack each day – you can’t miss it – that she drags to classes!
So Malcolm says that those who take a lot of stuff feel that perhaps the world isn’t going to supply what they need, so they bring it with them. Those who take less are perhaps more confident or optimistic. I guess that puts me on the optimistic or confident side, but you know, I just don’t need all that much. I’m kind of self-sufficient. If I don’t have something I can usually ask someone for some help, and I usually get it. I don’t feel vulnerable. I mean, compared to Mike who had practically an entire spare boat with him I was very restrained. Mike seems to expect trouble wherever he is. He expects he’ll have to do everything himself, and not ask for help. It’s a guy thing. It’s really boring. He doesn’t accept help. And that’s what he said. He said “I find it really difficult to ask for help with stuff, because I don’t want to be ‘one down’ to someone.” Guys. I tell you. He reminds me of my brother so much. Exactly the same. I’m starting to feel sorry for Mike, now. Here he is, in this class that’s almost all girls, and he’s always such a guy – how’s he ever going to speak up about what’s on his mind?
So the voyage through life also has to do with the size of the boat – a big boat suggests a really social approach to life. Mine was a smallish, but a sturdy ocean going sort of sail boat, able to move under its own power, and just me on it. And Malcolm said that it might mean that for the next part of my life what I need to do is spend some time building a deeper understanding of myself. He said that the people you take with you are likely to be those you want to build a relationship with for the foreseeable future, and that it’s absolutely OK to want to get to know yourself, especially when you’re at college. The cat I took is part of that. It’s not Rufus, my tortoiseshell, but it’s something like him. And cats feel very self-possessed. They don’t give their affection very easily (just like Rufus) although they’re good at taking affection, so they tend to be representative of that need to be self-sufficient and not have to care for others. A dog, by comparison, is all about needing attention all the time.
Then I don’t have a destination. Malcolm said that some people go with life’s flow, and so have no set destination. They enjoy the trip. Others have a specific goal in mind and get focused on that. Which are we? Good question. Of course I want to graduate and get a job, but it’s not like I’m determined to run a Fortune 500 company before I’m thirty, or anything like that. I’m not about outer rewards. For me it’s about happiness, contentment and inner peace; really, it is. I mean, isn’t that what it’s all about? Well, it is for me. I don’t want to be a goal-oriented go-getter with hypertension and a shitty home life, and ten million bucks in the bank that I don’t even get to enjoy.
The pig, it turns out, is a gate-keeper, a person or situation that might stop you getting what you desire. I didn’t see one at all. Mike caught his and had a barbeque with it roasting on a spit. Who’s he trying to kid?
The ring, though, was interesting. Rings are circular and so have no beginning or end, and mine was gold, which often suggests something eternal (because gold doesn’t rust or decay). So Malcolm tells us the rind is suggestive of the reward that we think life will give us. Do we expect a reward? What might that be? And then he says that a ring can be seen as a symbol of the completed self. When will you feel complete? Will there be a time, or will it just happen? The people who didn’t see the ring are likely to be those who don’t need a “reward” like a medal to show them they were complete.
And I wasn’t convinced about that. I mean I think I am a person who doesn’t need rewards or diplomas or whatever to let me know who I am, and I said so.
And Malcolm said, yes; he agreed. And we could look at it another way, too. Where did I put the ring? On a string around my neck. So it was hanging near my heart, perhaps? A gold ring, a bit like a wedding ring, but not on my finger, but near my heart. And he looked at me, as if to say, finish the idea. And I started crying. Before I knew why, I was crying. And it wasn’t about him being mean to me (he wasn’t) it just flooded over me. So the Kleenex box comes my way for a while.
And it doesn’t come clear until after class. I’m sitting back in my room, feeling confused, still a bit weepy. That’s when I see that the ring is about me healing my heart. My heart was broken by Rudi, by Stefan and by those fuck-heads at the party. And by my dad. And that’s what I want to heal. And if I can be alone for a bit and sail as I need to I know I can be healed. I know it. But right now it hurts.
I cry myself to sleep.
For the next few days I’m in a bit of a daze, but I function OK. Still, I know something has changed. I give Jessica a hug just because she’s there, and she’s a bit surprised but she hugs me back. Then I do the same to Goo Goo and we have a really sweet moment, and he says thank you. And I say why? And he says he was afraid I didn’t want to be his friend anymore. And I laugh and give him a bigger hug. And that’s when he tells me he thinks he’s gay, and I tell him I’d thought so for a long time so this isn’t news to me. I still love him, I say, you’re still my friend. And he gives me a big kiss on the cheek. We hung out for a few hours, but we didn’t need to say much, not really. It was all kind of understood.
So Malcolm was telling us about this poet, Mark Nepo, who has a technique for understanding things. It comes from Brazil. It’s good, and I hope I can remember it properly.
He says that when something bad happens the best thing you can do is listen to a person, and then you ask this question that goes: “and so?” Meaning, what does this all mean in the greater world? How does this fit into world events? Does your broken heart alter your life plans? And then the person thinks about that and speaks. Then, after they’re done you ask the same question, except this time when you say: “and so?” it means, do you have a sense of where you are now? Then you let them speak and when they’re done you ask: “and so?” again, but this time it means, So – what are you going to do?
I thought this was amazing because I’m always saying “so” as a way to lead into my next series of ideas. It seems I’ve been doing this all along. Cool, huh? Because each time I say “so” it really means I’m going to try and get my mind around it better. This method of Nepo’s seems more structured and more helpful. I tend to get stuck in repetition a bit too often. Then I wind up going round and round until I make myself sick.
Malcolm then led us in another exercise which was pretty similar. It began with “I’m here because…” and you had to complete the sentence. Then you use the next bit, the bit you just wrote, and use that as the first part of the next because sentence. Then you keep going. So I wrote:
I’m here because I like this class.
I like this class because we get to explore parts of who we are.
We get to explore parts of who we are because we need to!
We need to because most of never have explored like that.
Most of us never have explored like this because we’re always so busy doing all kinds of crap.
And so on.
It kind of wakes you up to what you’re doing why you’re doing it. Or at least as far as you can get with the “why” part. It’s the most difficult part. We can all recall pretty much what happened but they why is a bitch. Because is a pretty useful word – it takes you towards the causes of things, the reasons you might not want to face particularly. Really — I’m in this class because I’m confused and make bad decisions a lot and I want to get out of that. That’s the truth. That’s why I’m here.
So Malcolm gives us a case study to think about.
It goes like this. A girl (19) goes to a party and passes out in the bathroom from too much booze. Her friends are there and call her father (who’s not in her life much but he’s the only person who is). He comes and picks her up. Takes her home, puts her to bed. Next morning she wakes up rushes to the police and says her father raped her when she was passed out. Father denies it. Girl goes to stay with cousins and asks to stay with their well-functioning family. It turns out girl’s apartment lease is up and she has no money.
So we all get to float ideas about what could possibly be going on. And of course we all take the girl’s side. Her father probably did it. Or could it have been at the party? I start to get anxious at this point. I’m thinking of my own experience. But why blame her father? And someone says I bet she’s really angry at her father because he’s not in her life. And Malcolm says, “Go on” in that way he has. And she says a whole lot of stuff about how angry she’s been at her father, and how much she’s wanted to make him feel hurt, but she’d never go to this extreme. And Malcolm thanks her for this “great insight” as he calls it, and so I say, “What if she really was raped?” And Malcolm says that it’s very possible she was, or had sex and got frightened, or perhaps she wanted to use the event to hurt her father?
Then Jess says: what if she was pregnant and wanted to blame someone for it? And a couple of us sort of gasp – like: that makes sense.
Then someone else says, what if nothing happened at all? Why would she fake something like that? And then Mike says, did she fake it just to get somewhere to stay? She gets to stay in a proper family, one that’s quote well-functioning unquote, and so she gets a place to live and some sort of substitute family too. And I kind of wake up more at this point because I can see that she’d have a motive. She’d get to play the innocent victim and not have to be an adult with an apartment to pay for and a job and all that stuff that’s a bit scary, really.
That gets me curious, and I say, “Did they do any DNA testing? I mean aren’t they supposed to check if there’s any evidence, you know, fluids and so on?”
Before Malcolm can answer Jess says, “So what happened? What was the answer?” And then everyone wants to know the answer, too.
Malcolm holds up his hand and then he replies, rather slowly. He says that what we’ve just done is exactly what he’d hoped we’d do. We looked behind the actions to ask what was the cause. Because, he says, that’s the key. That’s the word we used earlier. We can’t understand events unless we ask that question a lot. When we do so we are probably going to get to the issues about the Unconscious.
Now, he says, rape is a very tricky thing to discuss. Plenty of emotions and plenty of openings for cries of sexism and “blame the victim”. So I’d like you to see this as just one case, not a pronouncement about all rape cases.
I like that he said that. People get so touchy about this stuff. And that’s good.
In this young woman’s case, he says, it wasn’t the father. The DNA test was negative, and that could be because she didn’t get it until the morning after and she’d had a shower by then, too. She may have known that it wasn’t her father or she may not, but she jumped to a conclusion probably because she wanted to hurt him. And she did. She must have known that would happen. She didn’t seem upset about that – perhaps her own sense of violation was too strong. She managed to have sex with someone, though. And promiscuous sex is sometimes what happens when women feel neglected by their fathers. It’s a way of getting male attention. Not always, but sometimes.
Do you see how complex this can be? Malcolm asked us. I was beginning to think that this sounded about right for a couple of people I knew, who definitely have some weird thinking . Malcolm gave a few moments for us to think about and then went on.
What emerged much later was that the young woman had been recently dumped by her boyfriend, with whom she had hoped to move in – which is why she hadn’t made proper arrangements when her apartment’s lease was due to run out. Drinking until she passed out was possibly the cry of sorrow she couldn’t express any other way. She drank that evening and really didn’t know if she’d had sex with anyone that night, although she was afraid she might get pregnant. In counseling she blamed her father for her entire situation, and she said she’d hoped she’d be adopted by the other family, so she could show her father how well she’d do in a proper functioning family situation. But actually she was afraid of growing up, and she admitted that. While she was with the other family she tried to take the place of the oldest daughter, and at that time she seemed to want to destroy the family by pitting them against each other. Perhaps this was envy at what she’d never had? She even accused the son of spying on her.
We all sort of sat back when we heard this, because it was way more complicated than we’d thought.
Well, said Malcolm – the case isn’t over because these things are never “over”. Human suffering lingers for a long time. And when people are frightened they do things that are often more Unconscious than anything else.
For a while there’s a fair bit of to and fro talk between us about this kid. Some people pitied her, others thought she was evil, and a few thought she was too far gone to ever be a functioning human again.
I’m listening to all this, yet there’s something I want to say but I’m not even sure what it is.
And then I start talking.
I tell them about the party and about how I was nearly raped. And I tell them that I thought I could handle anything, but really I knew I couldn’t. And part of me was asking, “Who’s going to protect me?” Because my dad never even tried even when I was a kid. And I thought I could do things that were dangerous and I’d still be fine because I can deal with it, because I’m strong, because I’m stronger than anyone else. But I’m not. And I knew it at the same time as I knew I wanted someone to save me. I think I went to that party because I was expecting to get into something. I didn’t think it’d be that, though. Never in a million years. The memory comes back to me sometimes and I hate it. I can still smell the alcohol on those guys, that smell that gets into clothes of beer and cigarettes and sweat. And that’s what jarred me. At the time, I mean. Luckily for me I wised up and ran. I don’t know why I did. I just knew I had to get out. I saved myself.
By the time I’d finished talking I’d kind of forgotten anyone else was in the room, I was so there, so back where it almost happened. And then I’m feeling my legs running for the car, and I’m out of breath talking about it, and I stop. I look around the room. Jess stands up, pushes past some chairs and gives me a hug. And we hug for a long time.
I don’t remember much else.
Actually I do remember more. I’m not sure I can write it. I can’t write it. I have to.
I knew things were getting out of control. I knew it. Then this guy grabbed my hair, from behind, and pulled, hard. His other hand was tight on the back of my neck and I couldn’t do anything. I could hardly move. And he was pushing me, pushing me towards a garden bench thing, and I knew what he was going to do. He was going to shove me over it, with my ass in the air, so I couldn’t move, and get between my legs so I couldn’t kick him, and he’d be there holding me down with my ponytail in his fist, bending my head back. He got me to the bench and let go of the back of my neck. I went face first over and I could feel him put his body between my legs and then he ripped my pants down and, and, and … I was scared! I was choking so hard I couldn’t scream.
I don’t know how I did it, but instead of pushing back against him I gave a huge lunge and threw myself forwards. I went over the bench in a somersault, and my legs came up and must have hit him somewhere, and we’re both falling forwards. And he let go. I rolled forwards, got up and ran.
I can’t write any more. I never wear skirts anymore. Never.
Every day I thank God or the Angels or whatever is out there for that escape. Every day I know that I can face myself because I got away. If I hadn’t, where would I be?
This is more than a class. This is something else.
Malcolm’s told us he’d like us to do a final paper. He says he’d like us to write about what we’ve learned or discovered, and if we haven’t learned anything much then perhaps we need to write about that, instead. Or we can write about particular exercises we liked, but this time we might want to go deeper, and perhaps connect to other exercises. We all nod, and say that sounds good. And Jess says she’d like to do a video and Malcolm says that’s OK, but this is a writing class, supposedly, so we’ll need a written component. So we think about that.
Then he says that perhaps there was something you wanted to talk or write about that you didn’t get to yet, and that the final paper would be a good place for that. It seems pretty wide open, and yet I can see that if I’m going to do this right I’m going to have to be specific and choose an approach so that it’s not just a series of dislocated comments.
Then I know what I’ll do. I’ll give him this diary. Yes. The whole thing, except I’ll add a section at the end that explains where I’ve got to, and why it matters.
And I start to tremble after I’ve decided to do this. I try not to let anyone see, and of course no one does; except Jess.