The Summer of 17, a young girl moved to Arizona...that would be me.
I'd suffered a near-death experience and my health that fall was such that I'd been given the choice of either going to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN--or go live with family friends moving to Tempe, AZ. Let me see, eenie-meanie-miney-moe... My mother and I hitched a ride with a couple who happened to be driving down, and I arrived at the Ney's house on October 26, 1969.
In this "Year of 17," it was the worst of times because the doctor under whose care my mother placed me before going home to Iowa, molested me. A well-known Christian man, he was also the leader of Young Life at Scottsdale High, and therefore his molestation was a double whammy--an assault on my emerging sexuality (and hence my identity), and he dragged God into it. The worst of times, yes.
Yet it was the best of times. It truly was. For I had Wayne.
I remember well the day I first found him. I suppose he'd all along been going to the little church the Neys and I attended. Skinny, seventeen, blond hair hanging in his eyes, I didn't even know he existed until we were returning from a weekend retreat with our little church group.
Truth to tell, I had a bit of a crush on Howard, and I'd wanted to drive back with him and Jodi Tune, but instead I got stuck in the backseat with Jonathon and two guys I didn't know at all, squeezed between Wayne and Ron Carlson, elbow to elbow, hip to hip, all sweaty and sticky and melting into each other like ice cream and fudge on a blistering hot day. Oh my lucky day! For two hours I was jostled between them, and they, along with Jonathon on the end, were so funny, their camaraderie so spontaneous, so clever, that the afternoon stands as alive in my mind as if the trio were with me now. I mean right now. Listening to my two teenage sons over the years banter and tease with that peculiar humor of emerging men, I felt similar pleasure. But that night in the "Year of 17" Wayne Schroeter (first and last name rhyme) came by the Ney's house in Tom Lutz's Volkswagen van to take me to church and he and I were soon so tight that everyone thought we would some day marry.
He sought me out, a gift I accepted. Yet we were not romantically inclined. I had my own sexual crisis going on, and he was smitten with Sally Taylor. Somehow, though, we loved each other. And though my heart continued to go a little pitapat over Howard, my love for Wayne soon eclipsed anything I felt for anyone else. I woke each morning to thoughts of Wayne, I went to bed each night with him in my soul.
I lived at the intersection of McClintock and Southern, right on the edge of town, cotton fields to the south and west. Between my house and Jodi Tune's was a wide swathe that would someday be a freeway. Wayne lived a mile up this swathe, and so this ribbon of baked dirt and jumping cactus became the epicenter of my world.
I remember popping across the "freeway" to Jodi's, or Jodi popping over to mine. I remember Jonathon Manlove and Wayne rat-a-tatting at my window at four a.m. on scattered Saturday mornings, so the three of us could huddle up next to each other on the freeway, me in the middle, shivering in the predawn air and hardly noticing while we watched the sun stretch and open one eye. (The picture is of me taking a picture of that window. You can hardly see it--but it's right between the last two of three side trees.)
Mostly I remember walking home from school with Wayne, sometimes with Jodi and Linda Halloway, sometimes not. We'd stroll west along McClintock, turn into Jodi's subdivision, exit onto the freeway. Usually I went on across to my house in my own subdivision and Wayne headed up the freeway to his. Frequently, though, he and I dropped off my books so the two of us could re-enter the freeway and head north to within two blocks of his place.
I always wore white flat sandals, exactly like Linda's, with an elastic strap and white daisy at the toes. In these simple shoes, nothing more than a sheet of leather and elastic, I carefully skirted the cactus. Wayne liked to kick the rocks and send them skipping ahead. The heat and the mess he made invariably gummed the dust under my feet, making the sandals a bit slippery, and the little flowers at my toes grew thick with the dust. And inevitably two blocks from his house he shooed me back, and though I always begged to see him home he was firm, and I'd only give up when his distress sent me scuttling back down the freeway feeling sorry and sad for everything we couldn't tell each other.
That was the freeway. Everything else seemed peripheral.
At McClintock High I had an easy schedule: art, music, and English. I spent my days practicing viola, violin, and clarinet, sculpturing in the lovely art courtyard, and skipping study hall to be with Wayne in his math class. Sometimes he fell asleep, and one day I sketched him zonked out at his desk, hair tumbling down around his face. I placed him in a barn, probably because barn wood was easier to draw than a classroom of students and tangle of desks.
Sometimes he met me at my locker, and we'd share a few moments before hurrying off to wherever we were supposed to be. Sometimes I met him at his, #370. At one point he gave me his locker combination. I'm not sure why, but I still have his card with the three magic numbers--25/33/3. "The combination to my heart," he teased, pulling it from his wallet and entrusting it to me.
I remember handing him notes from Karen T, for she was in love with him, and he always disappointed me by never revealing his feelings about this. He simply took the note and stuck it in a pocket. I suspected he was irritated, but too kind and too gentle to say so. And no matter how many times I told Karen that Wayne had his eye on Sally and was mustering up the courage to ask her out, it didn't sway her. Eventually I got so irritated that I refused to bother him anymore and Karen quit speaking to me for awhile.
That was school.
Weekends were less predictable. I might get a call from Wayne. Did I want to go scorpion hunting with him and his buddy Tom? Was a full moon round? Pretty soon I'd hear the purr and rattle of Tom's van bouncing into the drive. Sun going down, we were off. We usually went out Price Road, I think. Tom and Wayne playfully argued back and forth about where to stop. Eventually they'd agree and out we'd tumble. Ten o'clock at night and a 110 degrees. Nevertheless, we were covered neck to toe; only our hands were bare. From a ratty old cardboard box in the back of Tom's van we'd each grab a #10 can and a pair of tongs with the ends dabbed in fluorescent paint. Under the beam of Tom's black light, scorpions twinkled into view like stars in the sky; green glowing stars worth 25 cents a piece.
One night Tom knocked on a farm house door and asked if we could look through some hay stacks out back. "Sure, but you won't find anything," the woman said, "my kids play out there all the time." Minutes later Tom flipped on the black light and my knees buckled. Everywhere... hundreds of little glowing green scorpions. A regular party of them and you could all but hear the boomedy-boom-boom of their music. I think it was Wayne who fetched the woman to come see for herself. We got rich that night. It was picking up quarters and dropping them into buckets for an hour or more.
The scorpions we took to Dr. Stahnke at ASU where I learned years later that my friend Sandy Dengler, a fellow writer and at the time working on her masters degree in bugs, milked, as she said, "those little devils." Small world. (Sandy, in her fifties, went on to get her PhD in bugs.)
I did go rattlesnake hunting with these guys once. The way I remember this? Wayne and Tom took turns driving blind down some desert road without headlights. Suddenly they'd stop, flip on the lights, and the one not driving would leap out and snag whatever rattlesnake was lallygagging on the road and too stunned by the light to move. How they actually snagged them, I can't recall--I was having none of it. I sat in the back, babysitting their catch. And, yes, Sandy milked Tom and Wayne's rattlesnakes, too.
Our church gave focus to our lives, someplace to go, things to do. Sunday afternoons Wayne picked me up in Tom's van and took me to choir practice. He had a good voice; I did not. But I went just to be with him. Down through time and every now and then, in unguarded moments and perhaps feeling uncharacteristically content, I'd find myself singing some of those songs. "He owns the cattle on a thousand hills, the wealth in every mine...;" "cotton candy clouds, so fluffy and white..." We sang mostly Bill Gather songs, about a dozen of us in a poorly air-conditioned room at the end of the church's single wing to the south. I only have to close my eyes to feel the heat of Arizona's climate, hear my friend's voice, and see his glance for he seemed to sense when I needed his smile.
Why we were so close is anybody's guess, but I have a few ideas. Given the circumstances, I most certainly needed his male companionship, the strength and safety of the nonsexual intimacy he offered. A bigger draw, though, was his endless ideas and perspectives that quickened my own. I'd never known a boy smarter than me, and I trailed along beside him like a bee after nectar.
He was a brilliant kid whose mind never stopped, a growing man whose Dad told him he was never smart enough. I guess his dad was off-the-charts and cat's-meow smart because Wayne was no dumb bunny and I have yet to find a man whose intellegence and ability to integrate ideas I admire more. I thrived on the sheer energy of his intellect, for no matter how smart I was, he could out think me, and I revelled in the challenge and found myself articulating ideas I thought peculiar only to myself, only to find he'd already thought of them and had different perspectives that enabled my own. A heady thing. And the sun, warming our skin, eavesdropped on our conversations.
He was the one, of course, who took me to the doctor, driving me from Tempe over to Scottsdale. I got through whatever was in store by going elsewhere, outside my mind, outside my body, outside the walls that hid me. I escaped by visualizing Wayne in the waiting room, slouched down in a chair, arms crossed, one knee or another jiggling up and down in patient boredom. When Dr. Mattson finally left and I was free to come back to myself, I'd pick up the pieces of what I could find and slip into the sunshine and safety of Wayne. He'd be ready with some kind of quip, joke, or jaded comment about an article he'd skimmed. I'd laugh. We'd climb into Tom's van--until the next time.
He had no idea, of course. He didn't need to. We seemed to understand each other on a level that didn't need words and, because I had no words, he became everything to me.
One day he took me to Phoenix on a job he was doing for his father. Somewhere downtown he told me he wanted to marry me. Were we in the Tom's van? Had we stopped someplace and gotten out? I have no memory; it's my calender that records the event.
This gesture was not a proposal; at the time he was finally dating Sally. That I needed him we were both very aware of, and so this suggests that the subterranean repercussions of my molestation were becoming a burden to us both. His enormous capacity for affection and sacrificial protection dominated his own emerging sense of what it means to be male.
After graduation, he went to ASU in Tempe, I to Grand Canyon College in Phoenix, a Southern Baptist School. I had a difficult time. The rules were oppressive and I missed Wayne with all the ache of arthritis on a rainy day. When I couldn't take it anymore, I'd call him. He'd borrow Tom's van and come over and get me. Girls in those days were not allowed to wear shorts on campus, and because pants were out of the question in the 120-degree temperatures, I was stuck with dresses. Our ritual was quickly established. He'd drive me over to a gas station where I 'd sneak into the bathroom, pull off my dress, and wriggle into shorts and a tank top (another no-no). Slowly--slowly but surely--I began to forget Dr. Mattson, make friends, and by spring Wayne and I saw less and less of each other.
I married the end of my second year of college. Wayne came to the wedding. I contacted him only twice after that: Once when I was going through my divorce ten years later; once when my youngest son turned 17, another sixteen years later. I'd simply gotten nostalgic for my old friend from "17." This last Christmas, though, I grew lonely for him and sent off a Christmas card.
He sent back a CD of some of his photography and we began e-mailing. Once or twice we called each other. His familiar voice and oh so familiar laugh stirred up memories of good things I'd forgotten, like the blue of his sister's pretty eyes and our church trips out to Legend City and the beastly heat of days we all spent at Big Surf, and then the flashbacks of Dr. Mattson started to haunt me with a strange sort of detachment. It was like cleaning out a closet and mundanely finding an old cast that had once fit your busted arm, an arm you'd forgotten had been broken. The cast kept falling out of the closet, so I decided it was time to go back and face not just the memories of Dr. Mattson but to also put to rest the craziness of the year between Wayne and the rest of my life, a year of confusion that led me into the darkness of a marriage without love.
Wayne's "little" sister Carol took me in and orchestrated a reunion with the minister's wife of the little church we'd gone to, as well as with one of the youth group leaders, Gwen Lavelle.
A brief detour here. When I was divorced in 1982, I phoned Wayne; I also called Jeff and Gwen. Jeff was without mercy. He made it clear I was committing an all but unforgivable sin. I wrote to Gwen; she refused to answer. Their condemnation was crushing. I was in a fragile state and for 25 years I carried a deep sense of loss. So when Rita and Carol told me she was delighted to hear I was coming down and wanted to see me, I was surprised. When they told me she wanted to join us for lunch...I was very much surprised--and I wasn't all that sure I wanted to. I had enough on my plate. But then I thought, what the heck, why not? Pile it up.
I was pretty anxious waiting for her to get to Carol's. I'd determined I wasn't going to let the loss pass without comment, but I wasn't sure how to handle it. As with Wayne, I'd never stopped loving Gwen; her condemnation was a badly healed scar. The first time I ever spoke of it was to Wayne last winter--in our first phone conversation.
To my surprise, Gwen gave me her beautiful smile, a smile I've never forgotten and which has returned to me over the years in the most unexpected moments. She came up the walk and gave me that well-remembered smile, warming my heart. She gave me a warm hug. And before I could catch my breath she gave me a warm and weepy apology. It had been bothering her for years, she said, and she was so grateful to God for giving her the opportunity to tell me she how sorry she was. "I was young, I was stupid," she said. "I followed the script. And I didn't think," she added, "that what I had to say was important."
Important? What Gwen had to say was everything. And so I, too, was grateful God had given her the opportunity--an unexpected gift.
The three of them--Rita (the preacher's wife), Gwen (newly restored to me), and Carol (Wayne's sister)--took me to lunch and then drove me over to Scottsdale to what is now a parking garage--but which had been, once upon a time in the "Year of 17," the doctor's office where I lost myself before having a chance to know me. (The picture, left to right, is me, Rita, Carol, her and Wayne's grandnephew Damion, and Gwen.)
Therapists and doctors tell us that our bodies hold memories when our minds cannot--which is why intellectually letting go isn't always restoration. As Gwen zig-zagged toward the parking garage rising out of the ashes of my past, I recognized nothing--though my body did. Panic jerked up from my gut when we rounded the corner and my throat pinched, quivered really, like something fluttering. I found it hard to breathe around the frantic internal chaos. Tears squeezed out of my eyes, then came spilling down my cheeks, tears that ran with a lot of snot.
Before arriving in Tempe, Rita and Carol had told me Dr. Mattson was dead, about fifteen years dead, but in Gwen's van, surrounded by people who knew me "then," and with tears dripping off my chin, images of a man very much alive ricocheted around in my head and heart, and my skin crawled with his touch that seemed worse than I remembered. But then the panic subsided--for I remembered Wayne. In the waiting room. Bored. Knee jiggling. Nevertheless, waiting.
He was waiting for me at Carol's. I'd not seen him for thirty-four years. Dusk was about to settle in, and in the soft light of a tired sun I slid into his hug with a silly smile, and wondered how it was that I had waited so long to come back.
We spent the evening and into the wee hours talking at two different restaurants, and then again on Monday before leaving. Perched on low stools and hunched over a toadstool of a table, eating Ethiopian food--and watching (always watching) his mouth and chin, for it was in the energy of these features I felt us seventeen again--he told me something that drop-kicked-me-Jesus down a hole into time. He'd come to see me, he said, after I married. My misery, he said, was palatable. My husband, he said, hated him. Why don't I remember this? My misery was, I know, ripe, a cesspool of disappointment and loneliness. On my wedding night my husband, after "having had his way" (me nonexistent in the act and obviously not to be considered), had drawn his finger down the sheets to make a line. "See this? Don't ever cross it, not even your little toe unless I want you." And in the midst of this bleak winter of my discontent...Wayne had come to see me?
A psychic cog must have slipped. I continued to rattle down the hole like Alice into Wonderland, only with me it was 1972, 1973. Memory morphed into something I could feel again. My nostrils flared on the danger I smelled. I struggled to jerk myself out of past into present, Wayne my conduit to 2007.
I've long known that molestation is merely the introduction to either promiscuity (an effort to normalize the behavior or born from a damaged identity) or further sexualization (boundaries gone). Neither is right or wrong; they just are. And, unfortunately, the all but inescapable reality for too many women. For me, raised in the church where boundaries are often taught to be sin ("turn the other cheek," "walk the second mile," "give the shirt off your back," "suffer in silence"), Dr. Mattson's violation blew down what barriers and common sense I had left, leaving me a sitting duck for someone like the man I married.
And he, too, brought God into it--coercing me into marriage by shoving I Corinthians 13 down my throat, pointing out that I was commanded by God to love everyone, including him; that I was commanded to forget his unkindness, forgive his cruelty, forsake my own desires to accommodate his own. I could think of no way out. Some proposal, huh? Once married, the Bible became not just a stick with which to browbeat me but a knife--forcing me to sacrifice everything that was left because the Bible made it clear my body was no longer mine. And it wasn't.
Eating Ethopian food, I stared into Wayne's sky-blue eyes, the same sky-blue eyes that smiled whenever we met on the freeway for a walk and a talk. "I was never married, Wayne," I told him, realizing for the first time the terrible loss Dr. Mattson had set into play.
"I know that." He took a breath. He did know; and it felt in that moment he was and is the only person in my life to really comprehend what this meant and means to me.
"I'm fifty-five," I told him, "and I don't know what marriage feels like. I don't know what it looks like."
"I know that."
Together we tried to remember when he came to see me. Near as we could figure, it was at the Thomas Street apartments, down by St. Joseph's hospital. That he had come meant a lot. Still, why hadn't I let him help me find my way again?
Scooping up shrimp in my "pancake" made of Egyptian teff, I pictured myself throwing my arms around his ankle, refusing to let go, him walking out that brick apartment, dragging me along behind like a ball and chain. In high school he'd have done anything for me. He still would have. "Why, why didn't I go with you?"
"Did you have a child or two by then?"
"Not at Thomas Street."
But I was trapped. Physically, psychologically, religiously...and God held the key. Wayne could not have fought God and won. The battle was mine.
It took ten years and three children for me to finally declare war. I see now that I was dead for ten years and that the seventeen years following exacted all the skill and wit and focus a person rising from the dead can muster, and then some. If I'm allowed to carry the analogy further, it was another ten years in rehab. My body, heart, and mind had worn out.
"I must be a woman of great strength," I told Wayne, "to have let you go that day without asking for help." Then I smiled. "No. I'm a woman of great stupidity. Let's talk about something happy now." I jumped right into it, what my friends all wanted to know.
"They all want to know what was wrong with you that you weren't attracted to me!" I grinned at him. "I mean, after all, your hormones were intact, it was me who was sexually damaged. And," I admitted, "my adult Self has her nose out of joint."
He laughed. "I wasn't, and am not, attracted to every girl."
And was too shy back then, he said, to speak to girls. If they said hi, he walked away.
"But you talked to me," I pointed out.
He hemmed and hawed, knee jiggling.
"Let me get this straight. You're saying I was not only unattractive romantically but I wasn't even a girl? I was just one of the guys?"
Thinking on it, that's exactly what I was. And I have to say, now that I'm thinking, it's a rare priviledge most girls never experience.
When Wayne took me to the airport a few hours later, he went as far as the security gate. Deja vous, he and me all over again, saying good-bye two blocks from his house. Only it was me walking away, he going back. But I headed on, content. Some day he'll call, deja vous, to ask if I want to go scorpian hunting. And, deja vous, I'll say yes. It's the way were. Are. Friends without definition, without structure. No angst. No ups and downs, just easy conversations, stimulating ideas, and do you want to go four-wheel driving in the desert today? Passing through security, throwing my shoes in the bin and giving up my mascara, I felt a sense of bliss reminiscent of my life with Wayne all those years ago.
At the parking garage across from Scottsdale Hospital I'd sensed a stirring of rebirth. On the plane somewhere between there and here I fell into a dreamy state, contrasting Wayne's memory of finding me in such misery to the day I first met him. What had happened to me in between?
When I wrote Taming the Dragons for HarperCollins in the mid-1990s, this was my thesis: Women can make choices to either endure or resolve their conflicts--but not until they know they can. This is the fundamental crime of victimization: it robs victims of their greatest power. And this is what had happened to me "in between." I'd been robbed. It wasn't until I was 29 that my sister Tresa gave me back what had been taken. "You can choose." And armed with choice, I'd at last declared war and begun fighting my own battles.
Next thing I knew I was crying for the girl who had been me, the girl whose right to choose had been taken before she knew it was hers. A stranger noticed and handed me his hankie. This is the gift of God, the universe, whatever name by which some have come to define as the Divine. Strangers and friends are always ours. I'd come full circle, begining again where it had all gone wrong, beginning where the worst of times had truly been the best. I'd been given the garden of friends, especially Wayne--who never knew the gift he'd been, and I flew home on the clouds restored to myself, time at last chronological, past and present no longer a parallel overlay in my mind and out of which I experienced life.
I landed to find three of my five grandchildren dressed in their jammies, their little bodies wiggling and wriggling and bouncing up and down, unable to contain their excitement. I'd been born to be their grandma, and the spectrum of time focused in Nathan's "Granny!" Jamie's sweet smile and tilt of his head, the baby's studied frown, pacificer in her mouth, as if to say, "What is all the fuss about, boys?" I was in the present.
The winter of my discontent had vanquished under the high noon of Arizona's sun and Carol, Rita, and Gwen
and the man who was, in the very worst of times, the best.