The first time I helped a man cheat on his wife, I was ten. It was a cold March day when Vinnie came home from church, his forehead covered in Ash, wearing his green raincoat and eating a banana. I hugged him, and I could smell the Marlboros on his coat and knew he had been smoking again. Vinnie took off his coat and told me it was Ash Wednesday. He touched his forehead, and lifted my bangs to smudge me with his leftovers from the excess, laughing. My hair was a charcoal brown down past my waist, so long I needed to lift it when I sat down. He grabbed me by my shoulders, pushing me towards the white garage door where a crucifix was hung on. “We need to measure you.” I ran towards the cement wall giggling. There was still a few small patches of snow on the ground, but the rays of spring were finally shining through the grey marshmallow clouds. Vinnie had celebrated his 59th birthday that Valentine’s Day and I had made him a large pink construction paper card in the shape of a heart with a ghost out of paper napkin. I placed it on his pillow with a note: QUIT SMOKING OR YOU’LL END UP LIKE ME. The card was on the wall across from us.
“Wait till I tell Carina you’ve been smoking again.” I laughed.
“You won’t tell her anything.” Vinnie said. His rough hands pushed me flat against the wall, and I could feel the weight of his eyes staring at my chest. I was wearing a white limited too monkey t-shirt and I shivered from the cold. My mother refused to take me for a bra. She told me I was just a little girl.
“My my, little Ashley is getting a body.” Vinnie laughed. I felt him mark the wall above my head, staring up at his swinging cross necklace while he looked at measurement. Then he pulled away, laughing, “You’re so grown up.”
Suddenly, Vinnie leaned in and kissed me, hard, and I tasted the banana on his tongue. My entire body was shaking, and he grabbed my breast and squeezed it, twisting it in his fingers. I kicked him in the shins, then ran towards the stairs. Vinnie followed, pulling me back towards him. His arms were strong, and hairy, stronger than me.
“Where are going?” Vinnie said. He was snickering, shaking out his leg, as I kicked him in the other. “You’re a good kicker.” He was too strong for me to move, and I melted into his arms, shaking and terrified, my small cheek pressed against his stomach. I would have done anything.
“We’re pals right?”
“I love my little sweetie pie.” He kissed my hair, and thumbed the ash once more, pressing it deeper into my forehead.
“You need God to get to you.”
When I was a little girl, I used to blow wishes on dandelion seeds after Sunday school in the church parking lot. It was only a kiss, but it was more. It was the closure of one thing, and the beginning of another: My life as a slut.
There was nothing interesting to me about the psychology of sex offenders, and I didn’t want to think of the man who taught me how to dance as one. It was his faith I attached myself to- and at 14 years old when he hurt me, I was destroyed and in such agony that I could no longer go to church because I didn’t think god could love me anymore. To call myself pure when I had participated in a mortal sin was a lie, and if I ever told anyone, I would betray the hero and father figure he was for me. I felt like a criminal for having wanted him and I abandoned my dreams to become a musician and write songs about praising god, but I didn’t feel jaded. I felt ashamed all my life, but too guilty to ever forget. I lost my faith in Jesus Christ, unable to trust a man who meant everything to me to be able to forgive my body and my desires, and I got angry and I fucked. When I felt hopeless, sex was my spark of light leading me to a place where I found peace. Some were women. Most were men. The guys I fooled around with didn’t have names because I never cared enough about them to remember. They had titles and scenes: The Bartender in the backroom freezer, The depressed atheist addicted to lesbian porn, The doctor while wearing his wife’s $500 Black Prada dress on Sanibel Island, The catholic youth minister into golden showers and bondage, The guitarist on the hood of my Volvo, The Cocaine dealer who bought me a bagel, The boyscout on my kitchen counter, The failing pothead cello-ist that went down on me on a beach chair, The other guitarist sitting next to me in my therapists waiting room. The drummer on his deaf grandmother’s bed. The controlling but sexy Indian, The Italian guy at my cousin’s baptism who offered me a cigarette.
I don’t know which is more is disturbing. The fact that I had slept with so many people, or that I had never loved any of them more than I loved him. To men, I was someone beautiful and wild. They didn’t care that I painted, or that I dreamed of climbing up a tree to the heavens. We didn’t have heart to heart talks, or sometimes even kiss. I sucked, chewed, crumpled them up, and threw them away like Tootsie pops.
I loved to steal musician’s hearts- like swiping a lighter from a counter at a gas station- a cheap thrill to satisfy my cravings. I lied to all of them, telling them I loved them, writing them poetry, calling them my inspiration, and asking them questions about their lives- and they answered them, believing they were falling madly, quickly, and irrevocably in love with me when in reality, I was screwing cigarette guy in the bathroom and they didn’t know me at all. Women aren’t supposed to behave this way. They aren’t supposed to fuck- because that was what I was doing, not making love to my husband, or even having sex with someone I felt truly committed to. I never said no to any request, and stopped fighting off all advances, no longer caring whether or not they wore condoms. Then, I would return home wearing their band T-shirts, wet and confused, and strangely alive. At night when I was alone, I would sit on the floor with a razor blade in my hand, slamming my head against the wall surrounded by broken beer bottles and half-finished canvases so worthless, that each time a man found a strand of my hair in his boxers, I would carve forgiveness into my arms like Christ when the nails went through. I’d tie them up and fuck them so hard they were terrified, unable to be able to look them in the eye, dead inside.
Sex was the only thing I knew, like the white house I grew up in surrounded by pine trees and red, orange, yellow, and green October leaves. Sometimes I found the way he chased after me funny, kicking him like a game. Sometimes I cried myself to sleep when I stopped going to art club after my friends reported that I had touched them the same way he touched me. The way his hands wandered cupping my ass, his fingers hooking their way beneath my yellow Rugrats sweatpants, I knew I could always win him if I had nothing at all. The anger didn’t hit me until I was 20 when I was in love for the first time. My boyfriend watched me cry on the floor when he left at night. He couldn’t understand how I could compare him to man who was evil. I hated him, but I missed the way he held me when he came home, pressing me tightly to his chest like a rose in a book, his maroon sweatshirt smelling of rosemary, and fresh cut grass from the front lawn. I wanted a husband to look at me the way he did, like I was a rainbow and he was the luckiest man in the world to have my eyes. My friend Chris would wash the blood off my arms in the shower. He loved me and he wanted to make me feel better. He held me so tight the nights my armed were crimson ribbons, the ocean tides of his breathe were the last thing I ever heard when I closed my eyes and fell asleep. I told him I cannot continue to live, and Chris and I had sex, shaking, and crying. He made me the happiest I had ever been since I was a little girl. I left him my suicide note on his pillow while he slept, begging him to forgive me.
Sex was a game of Russian roulette I cannot tell you why I continued to play. All I can tell you was that one morning I looked at myself in the mirror- circles around my mascara smeared eyes, the raw pork smell of two men covering my skin, blood between my legs, and I threw my fist through the glass, no longer wanting to live.
I was a fat little girl. In the fifth grade, I was 4 foot six and weighed around thirty pounds more than I do today. When you’re a Tomboy who plays the tuba, you tend to be very self-conscious. I hated my double chin, the large mounds growing on my chest no one else had yet in Ms. Muller’s class, and the tree trunk thighs that Vinnie loved to run his along the inside when I came home from school and was trying to watch Darkwing Duck. My friend Alison would wrap her hands around the width of their legs resting against the back of the bus seat in front of us. I shook my head marveling at how delicate they were. Alison grabbed mine, her fingers stretching, but never meeting. “I wish I had legs like yours.” She smiled. Alison was the one who told to the principle about the way we played in her barn after we got into a fight while we were practicing our dance routine for the talent show when I told her I didn’t want to be her friend anymore and stole her Aaron Carter cd. The barn was 400 feet away from her old Victorian house from the 1800s nestled among an apple orchard and falling apart. We climbed over wooden railings pretending to be girls in Josey and The Pussy cats on a mission to save the world, running through secret passages where slaves used to be kept. I clung to her hands, terrified of the bats over our heads, and she told me how they flew through a crack in the ceiling at dawn. Alison was daring- and always wanted me to jump off the swing, ride with her on her horse- but I was afraid of everything. Sometimes, when I was nervous during singing in the choir, I would stare at the stained glass window of a dove holding an olive branch for courage. My Dad, although he took me to Sunday school, and watched me be an acolyte, play the bells, act in the Christmas play, or sing in the choir was never religious- but I thirsted for god. I loved how snug and warm the hay smelled, like Alison when I reached for her, her grey skirt stretched open and waiting. I didn’t know what I was doing, and I like to think neither did she, but the day of the class field trip to Storm King Art center, when Alison and a group of three girls watched as the principle asked me questions about what we did with each other’s legs, I was terrified. My art teacher Mrs. Gallagher was an openly lesbian woman who I idolized and Alison called disgusting. It was 2002, and a photo of her and her beautiful blonde girlfriend was on the cover of The Record newspaper, getting married in a New Paltz courthouse. I loved her green self-portrait, her flannel T-shirts, and the gold hand sculpture she kept next to her construction paper cutter she told us belonged to King Tut. Mrs. Gallagher always gave us popcorn even though I wasn’t allowed to eat it, and I had a huge crush on her. I cried because I was terrified of Vinnie, but also I cried because I was terrified I was gay. Alison and the other girls she brought with her walked past me the hallway as I threw up laughing. Mrs. Gallagher found me, and brought me to the nurses’ office and told me to get better soon as the travel buses parked outside the window.
There was something about that day that sparked something in me. I still love women. I love to tease them, to dominate them, to taste the sweet curved place between their ribcage and their navel. I’d have sex with straight women, and shock them with the way they lost their breath from the softness of my lips. Women loved my props: my leather harness, my rainbow handcuffs, my dildos – some called me intense, others called me insane. Ultimately, it was the power that seduced me. With women, I was both their rebel and their protection. I loved to make a girl feel safe so much that I would run to her in the middle of the night until my lungs burned out and love her so much she could feel it every time she breathed out. I’d fold them into my arms and shield them with such a fierce look in my eyes that no man ever dared to come inside.
In domestic violence, there is a cycle of power and control. During the honeymoon phase, the abuser is apologetic and makes sincere promises. Vinnie promised me food and pets. The first was a hamster I named Peaches. The second in the seventh grade after my friend Carolyn’s mom called the cops on him was a black cat named Midnight. Vinnie was having one of his moods, and I listened to the shouting coming from the kitchen lying on the den floor playing Thomas the tank with Andrew, my pseudo three year old little brother. Vinnie kept a walk in closet full of guns next to the record player. He had on Dean Martins ‘Everybody Loves Somebody Sometimes’, and I could hear the sound of the grandfather clock chiming from the dining room and glass breaking in the kitchen. I ran outside to the kitchen, where I saw him with his hands clasped tightly around Carina’s neck. He had Carina cornered against a countertop and was shaking her frail body. I knew he had just returned from his friend’s house, because I could smell the scent of lemon cello and thick grapa curling his words. “Does that shirt even fit you?” He hissed. I gained around ten pounds each school year and needed new clothes each September. He hit Carina across the face and I grabbed Andrew on my hip while he cried and ran outside straight into the woods. Vinnie gave me a track phone so that he could always get a hold of me, and I used it to call Carolyn frantic. After the cops left, Vinnie told me I couldn’t tell anyone about what happened because he would get in trouble. Andrew was sitting in his highchair eating cheerios and I nodded. I told Carolyn how I used to cut myself and she held me tightly against the schools grey fence, promising Jesus loved me and speaking in tongues.
Carolyn was a Pentecostal who couldn’t cut her hair or wear pants because the bible said women should be modest. By my 14th birthday, I would be 167 pounds when I received a red bass guitar that changed everything. My Dad listened to a lot of classic rock and Alice Cooper, ACDC and Zeppelin made me go crazy. I was listening to the Scorpions Rock Me Like A Hurricane when I jumped up and down and told him I wanted to play guitar. Dad was excited, and soon I started taking lessons from my Uncle Jimmy a youth minister. Every Monday, I watched my uncle jimmy play electric with amazement. We formed a band called Indoor Yard sale and I became obsessed with music and my bass, but also, I became obsessed with god. American Idiot, Back in Black, Blink 182, Sum 41, Barlow Girl, Casting Crowns, bibles, and crosses littered my room and I listened to them on my Walkman on the way to confirmation class. I began to look up schools where I could study theology to become a minister. Every Friday, I slept over Carolyn’s house to go to youth group. Carolyn’s family all sat together on Saturday mornings at the table, reading and discussing a daily devotion over coffee. She was braiding my hair, a ring on her finger, when she showed me a Silver Ring thing book about Purity and becoming a pure bride by saving yourself for marriage. There was a few boys I’d smooch in the middle of the hallway, quick, but I was fat and I felt completely alone. I was at a religious retreat, listening to the testimonies of other Christian kids about their journeys in their faiths, and singing and dancing in a mosh pit to a cover of God Of Wonder Beyond Our Galaxy when suddenly I closed my eyes and felt a warmth spread across my chest and fill my stomach, like someone was hugging me. It could have been an instant, it could have been hours, but I had felt a love that time would stand still for- A man who would kill for you, die for you, fight for you, would never let you go. When I finally did decide it was time to talk about Vinnie, at a Christian concert in the mountains, I went to my Uncle Jimmy. He asked what I was wearing, if Vinnie had been drinking or If I had, and to show reverence to god and ask him to forgive me. I rode home in silence staring at the snow falling out the window and put my guitar in its case in the back of my closet, deciding I would never play again.
We are told to let go and let god. To be humble and ask Christ into our hearts and he will wash away our sins and clean us, pure. Vinnie took that away from me and replaced it with rage. I had dreams about killing him, shooting him with one of his guns in the mouth, strangling him until his head shrunk. I couldn’t allow myself to be vulnerable. I was too afraid. There was too much risk, too much shame to believe god could find my heart, a diamond buried beneath layers of sand. When Christians talk about purity, they don’t talk about compassion, devotion, courage or honesty- however, there is a lot of talk about hymens. A young woman can be a moron, a bitch, or just a plain hypocrite, but as long as she hasn’t had sex she’s considered a spiritual ‘good’ person, where as a woman who has had many sexual partners is considered deviant, shameless, and sickly idolized at the same time. Either way, a woman’s worth and is based upon her body, a prize whose purpose is to please a man. Christians believe sex is based upon the foundation of marriage and the ability to bear children however, the bible doesn’t say Adam told Eve he wanted to get her pregnant. Adam told Eve he wanted to get inside her garden. According to the bible, sex was about creation, but the creation was a union of two people who knew each other, no longer two separate bodies, but an intermingling of souls.
I’m not sure if I have ever looked at myself in the mirror and thought of myself as beautiful. To other people- my body has been all they have ever seen. I went to Art gallery openings drunk and late with my lovers to see my pieces, unable to even function, a leather jacket covering my bandaged arms as I clung to them stumbling in my black dress and spilling red wine on guests. There was nothing unconditional or selfless about their desires for me. There was no love, or communion of souls. There was only what they wanted for the time. The value of sex no longer meant anything to me, there was no bond, no man, and no drink that could ever fill the cup of my thirsty heart.
After I was baker acted, I sat on my couch still wearing my graham cracker hospital socks, and nicotine patch on my right arm, crying and listening to my messages. There was one from my mother, wondering why I hadn’t wished my father happy birthday, a man from an art gallery opening who wanted to buy one of my paintings, and my apartment calling to evict me because I was unstable. Somewhere in my mind I thought I cannot not continue to live. I remembered a dove I saw that landed on a barbwire fence one afternoon during my three day stay in the psychiatric unit. Then, I thought I cannot continue to live this way. I promised myself I would stop drinking, save myself until marriage, and find god again. I needed a new life, a new home with new friends and I decided I was going to create it. I was going to return to the artist I had always been, read the bible again, and become the musician I wanted to be. Instead, I went to bible study, got drunk, and fucked a new guy each week, showing up hung-over with gashes all over my arms to make sandwiches to feed the homeless. But I kept myself a few promises. I registered at a community center art class, made a new friend who gave me a cross, and I began to pray.
My friend Rizzo neatly wrapped my arms at 2am, rolling up my red sweatshirt, and wrapping an entire roll of ace bandages around my arm. It was one of the nights I was alone, tossing and turning unable to sleep. He didn’t seem freaked out, but he didn’t seem calm either. He had found me two and a half pages of verses about strength and gave them to me a few days prior. I told him I needed to go to church, and I rolled down the window, smoking a cigarette when we pulled into the church parking lot. We walked up the stairs, listening to the sound of church bells play, familiar the weight of the bells, haunting me like ghosts gripping my hands. There was a stage in an opened room with a red guitar exactly like mine, and I knelt before it, and began to cry, screaming with my face in my hands, talking to god as if he was it. Rizzo sat on a chair behind me, quietly listening, before he left outside the emergency exit. I told god I was sorry for leaving him, for all the sex, and begged him to take me back when I heard a voice loud as a lion.
Why would I take you back? I have never stopped loving you. I have been in the trees, the ocean waves, the night moon, the mountains. The music inside you is a fire. YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW MUCH I LOVE YOU.
A janitor came inside the building, and I returned to the parking lot still crying. I reached for Rizzo and he picked me up into his arms beneath a large cypress while I continued to cry- unable to stop the tears streaming down my face as he held me, not putting me down- not letting me go, standing there carrying me, my pack of Marlboros and lighter lying next to his white sneakers.
I found myself getting a lot of attention in my art class, and put all of my energy into my canvas. The teacher was impressed with my work with a religious based focus with crosses, doves and quotes about god and from the bible and wanted to put my stuff in her show. Rizzo came over to my house painting my nails aqua rain because I refused to get up or look in the bathroom mirror. He started unpacking the boxes scattered on my floor, folding the various T-shirts of men I had slept with, and I took out my red bass from it’s case, dusty, toned the strings and began to play for the first time in years. I was surprised I could remember Lord I lift your name on high, and I can only imagine perfectly, even after all this time. Rizzo laughed at me, watching me smile, sitting beside me on my couch singing. I spent the night tossing and turning, wondering if this was what I was supposed to do- and decided to go to the park to ask god for my answer. It would soon be my birthday, and Rizzo was taking me out for ice cream before Bible Study to celebrate. He found me with a hand over my eyes facing the sun at a boat launch, watching the water lap against my bare-feet encased in the muddy bank as a drunk man in the distance fishing sang God Bless The USA. I thought about how I wanted to be with someone I loved. I was sick of fucking, fucking people who didn’t respect me, and fucking people I didn’t even care about. I spoke aloud, telling god there was days when I wanted to die. I cannot continue to live. The mangrove trees began to sway with the October wind, and their green and yellow leaves shimmering in the afternoon sun, as I closed my eyes, and saw myself playing in a guitar in front of a crowd.
MUSIC IS YOUR FIRE. USE YOUR ANGER. YOU ARE MUSIC. YOU ARE THE LIGHTS, THE SOUND, THE ELECTRICITY. YOU ARE FIRE. MUSIC IS YOUR FIRE, THE FIRE INSIDE YOU.
Suddenly, a scream escaped my mouth, and I put my face in my hands, and began to cry. I saw my grandfather telling me to practice my guitar, and kissing me on the forehead. I could smell his colone, Segrams Seven and bengay. I could see his smile, feel his wrinkled bruised hands squeezing mine watching a movie, showing me his easel full of paint. The fluorescent light glimmered on his saxophone, and his name, written in his hand writing, was scribbled on my pink birthday cards. I let out a moan, shaking and feeling the sensation of being wrapped in a blanket, and chills spreading down my arms sent a warmth in my chest. I turned and saw Rizzo was not touching me. I reached for him, and he pulled me close to his body, my blue sweatshirt wet with tears and rippling in the wind. Rizzo ran his hands down my back, not speaking as I whispered ‘I miss him so much’.
“I know you do.” Rizzo said.
“He was the only one I wanted to know.”
Rizzo placed his arm around my shoulder, complaining about the mud on his sneakers, and how he needed to change his shoes as we walked back to the car. I kicked him in the butt with my foot, leaving a stain on his jeans, then went to kiss him on the cheek, when he turned and his lips met mine.
If this was a fiction story, the guitar would symbolize my faith. The way it sat in my closet gathering dust, would be a metaphor for how I left god, and not the other way around as I had believed for years. The trees would be strength, and the water healing and a representation of the many changes and cycles of life. The October air could be a rebirth. The story would end and we would see the heroine on her way towards forgiving herself, and finding her strength to stand again without using sex as a way to feel. The kiss would be a seed: the closure of one thing, the beginning of another. But this was not a fiction story.
Sometimes life just is what it is. I would have to realize that at the end of the day, I would have to accept that I could never be a virgin again, and I understood that innocence was not something I could ever get back. Purity means coming to god with your whole heart and selflessly devoting entire your life. That day I kissed my friend and got in my car with my dirty bare-feet and went to see the man I loved.