Image Credit: Ero Gray
She said it so casually at first.
“Mom, me and Ellie joke that Mr. Dan has a crush on us,” Harley said. She giggled. “He tells us that.”
We were on the couch in the living room post-dinner. She was lying down after a long day of kindergarten, downloading everything spinning in her brain. It was a rare moment when she was still and not sneaking carrots out of the refrigerator to feed her baby dolls or begging me to watch My Little Pony.
“Oh,” I said. “What do you mean?” Maybe he was trying to be cute, endear himself to the kids. It was only the second month of school.
Mr. Dan was a 60-something year old teacher’s aide in her class, a large man with a slow drawl who wore a Kiwanis hat over his greasy, balding head. Jeans pulled high over his belly. Coke bottle glasses. He looked nothing like us parents or the majority female teachers in the building. I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt yet every morning at drop-off I had the same questions: Who is this creepy looking guy? Is he somebody’s grandparent? Why is he here? I said nothing because I believed the right thing to do was to give him a chance. An older man had every right to become a teacher, too.
“He asked me for a kiss. I asked for a Band-aid and he said he’d give it to me if I gave him a kiss,” she said. “I did. On the lips.”
I clenched the pillow. Maybe I misheard.
“Can you tell Daddy what you just said?” Steven was reading the book Chicken Cheeks to our other daughter in her bedroom. The four of us sat on the bed, our knees knocking against one another. Harley told the story again. It was the same. Steven heard “lips” and jumped up, letting out a growl. “What, Harls? He can’t do that.”
She began to cry.
“Daddy, don’t tell, Daddy. Don’t tell. I don’t want to get him in trouble. He’s so friendly,” she said. She buried her head into my lap. I thought of the time I saw Mr. Dan holding Harley’s friend Simone against his belly, massaging her temples, telling her how much he missed her over the weekend. I’d said nothing. She was so fragile, her parents so aloof. And she wasn’t my kid.
In my house, there are photos of the girls holding “A Woman’s Place is in the Resistance” signs from the Women’s March. My social media feed is full of feminist publications and female friends doing world-changing work and my own articles that frequently feature women and girls. I’m on the board of a feminist nonprofit.
For a moment, my brain rotated through a wheel of excuses: I shouldn’t have let her wear all those leggings with those T-shirts that don’t cover her behind. She might just be getting the story all mixed up; that’s what kids these age sometimes do. He’s a lonely man just trying to connect like a grandpa would.
Everything I’d been trained to think.
The red light of the cop car glowed through the kitchen curtains and nearly blinded my sister and me. We were sitting on the stairs, her two years old and me seven, our shoulders glued to one another. This was the first time the police had come to our house. My uncle was a cop. I’d only ever seen him in action at the district-wide pool party, lost in a giant swath of men dressed in blue, eating BBQ and handing out candy to kids.
My mother had called 9-11 after my father flipped over the cocktail table and punched her in the back. There were screams, and sirens shortly afterward.
Our parents yelled at us to go to our rooms, but the excitement of the moment was too much. We had to know if Dad was going to speed away in a jailcar wearing a black and white suit like Bugs Bunny on Looney Tunes. They couldn’t take him away; we had things to do. Like pig out at the all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast at the local high school. Or go camping in Maine.
At 12, I told my mother “yes” when she asked if she should leave him. At 19, my father and I would have the sorts of fights ignited by the feminist books I read in college, my arguments always ending in emphatic repetition of “You hit her.” At 33, after we’d thrown his ashes in the ocean and I learned he’d suffered from bipolar disorder, I swore I’d never forgive him for not getting help.
But back then, I was rooting for him. I’d heard him countless times say in jest to my mother, “You were made from my rib, woman” and I couldn’t imagine how we’d all exist without him. I nearly jumped off the stairs and squealed in delight when my mom decided not to press charges. The cop told her to call if something like that ever happened again and it did, several times over several years, in different variations.
One of these days, Alice . . . bang, zoom straight to the moon! He was never really joking. Ralph Kramden was his hero.
Goddamnit. Why do you make me hurt you? Once, he pushed her in a gravel parking lot while she was holding my infant sister.
I’m so sorry. It’ll never happen again. Then he’d do laundry for a week. Rinse. Repeat.
I didn’t need to look outside my windows to know the world was dangerous for women; I’d learned that lesson early on in my home. Being Dad’s ally ensured it wouldn’t happen to me.
We told Harley that if Mr. Dan asked her for a kiss again, to say “no” and tell her teacher. Then for nearly a week, we did nothing. I walked Harley to school, careful not to look Mr. Dan in the face or smile at him. I was disgusted by his mug, but in those moments when he greeted children and told Harley to put her lunchbox away, he seemed like such a sad sack that I still prodded her to respond to him when he said “hello” to her. I also didn’t want him to know we were onto him. Steven and I knew Harley wouldn’t make up a story like that. Yet we didn’t know what to do. We tried to talk about it at night, after we’d spent hours fighting to get the girls to bed, but were too exhausted. Our conversations always ended with “I don’t know.” We didn’t believe this was really happening. I’d sooner ignore it.
We’d fallen in love with our new school community and were afraid of what would happen if we were wrong. This was somebody’s life. I didn’t want the attention on us; I could talk a big game but I’d never liked confrontation. Had Mr. Dan seen that in Harley, too?
The next day, Harley ran into the kitchen.
“Mom, Mr. Dan asked me for a kiss when I was on the monkey bars. I told him ‘no,’” she said. She crossed her hands over her chest and jutted her chin out in the way Harley does when she’s forced to admit that yes, she really did pinch her sister because she stole her LOL Surprise! dolls. “Now don’t ask me any more questions.” That was Harley being her hard-headed self. When she was done, she was done.
This was the week that Harley’s teacher was out with strep throat. It was also the week Harvey Weinstein’s mug was all over the news. If Harley could be on social media, she would also use the hashtag #MeToo. She’d be thinking about the boy in preschool who kept showing her his penis underneath the tarp used to cover the sandbox. Or the boy who kept poking her butt with his finger at naptime. And now Mr. Dan, who taught her that to get something, she must barter her sexual power. Band-aid now, career later.
We weren’t wrong. He was wrong. He knew better.
I tried to talk to Harley about Mr. Dan when I tucked her in at night. “You did the right thing by telling us. He acted inappropriately,” I said. “Okay, baby?”
“Mom, I know,” she said. “I don’t want to talk about it. Let’s read.”
We emailed the teacher, still unsure. “Sorry for bothering you . . . ” and “Sorry to bring this up . . . ” In the meeting with her, we found out Mr. Dan had asked for kisses from two other girls whom he told not to tell. “Grooming” was mentioned, a thick, ugly word that got caught in my throat. That day, the principal asked Mr. Dan to leave and not to return. He was later banned from all school property in the area and his application to be a foster parent halted. That last detail was a gut punch, as children in foster care are four times more likely to experience sexual abuse. Any doubt I’d had about speaking up was gone. I told my girlfriends that for my upcoming birthday I wanted to rent out an empty warehouse, fill it with old china and electronics, and smash everything to pieces.
I thought it would be over. That we could move on. Then a detective called.
“Celeste, you live in La-La Land,” my mom said.
I’d heard this my whole life. As a kid, she used to get on my case for giving out my Easter candy to my best friends down the block, Easter candy that she walked 36 lanes as a bowling alley waitress to buy because my dad wasn’t giving her child support. She couldn’t understand why I’d give it away for free. No surprise, then, when I joined the Peace Corps and worked for a nonprofit called Idealist.
She took a drag of a cigarette. “I would’ve kicked his wacko ass to the curb the next day.”
We were sitting on the porch at my brother-in-law John’s farm. She’d arrived from upstate New York for her annual visit to Portland the day Steven talked to the teacher.
“Mom, I didn’t know what—” I said.
“You didn’t do anything,” she said. “You waited a week. I would’ve kicked his wacko ass to the curb the next day.” Repetition was her trademark. I’d learned to ignore it over the years. But on this porch, surrounded by greenery for miles and the occasional chicken cluck, I couldn’t tune her out. I had enough voices in my own head.
I sighed. “It was complicated -”
“Complicated?” She chuckled. Fluffed her bangs with her fingers.
Steven said nothing. Once she started in on one of her rants, there was no point in trying to argue. His brother packed a bowl. Inhaled slowly and passed it to my mother. She took a hit.
“And while we’re on the subject, why do they have volunteers at the school here anyway?” she said. “That would never fly on Long Island. That’s why we pay taxes.”
She held the bowl out to me. I swatted her hand away.
“That’s enough Mom,” I said. “That’s enough.”
Things I found about Mr. Dan from snooping his Facebook page: He likes memes with scrolling text. He can’t stand Colin Kapernick. He’s had those Coke bottle glasses a long time. He no longer has a father. He went back to college a few years ago and got a Bachelors of Science degree. He posts a lot of pictures of snowy roads and streams and fried eggs cooking over campfires. He thinks it should be mandatory to say the pledge of allegiance. He was with Harley’s teacher, his first class, the whole year before.
The phone rang in my Boston College campus dorm room. It was late Friday night and I’d just gotten back from a party where I’d kissed a guy in an un-ironic fedora after playing rounds of beer-fueled flip cup. I was questioning my choice in men, and picked up the phone hoping it would be my secret crush Bob. The voice on the other end of the line was small and gravely. Distant. Not Bob.
“Is Jennifer there?” he said.
“Nope.” I giggled. The amount of Jennifers I knew in my life was absurd. “Wrong number.”
I should’ve hung up.
“Who’s this?” he said. I told him my name. He asked what I was doing.
I told him about the party and fedora guy, and how his breath smelled of bubblegum and basil. He laughed. I liked that he listened. I was licking my wounds from a break-up, if you could even call it that, and craving any attention. We didn’t talk long but he said he’d call back the next night. I told him in a slight whisper, “You better” and he did.
I was young enough to get a small thrill from flirting with a stranger, old enough to know that this was the beginning of made-for-TV-movies about serial killers. Still, I picked up the phone each night for a week because I had nothing better to do.
The last time I spoke with him it had started innocently enough. Then he asked what I was wearing. I told him an oversized Gwar t-shirt I’d stolen from the guy I dated. He started breathing heavy. The breaths got fast. He moaned. I hung up. I knew this wasn’t good. The next day I was shaken. The phone rang at 1 a.m. every night for weeks. I let it ring and told no one. I had no idea if he knew my last name. Where I went to school. My dorm number. I’d put the pillow over my head. Leave me alone. Leave me alone. Leave me alone. Eventually the ringing stopped. I’d escaped. What, I didn’t know.
In Oregon, kissing a minor on the lips is considered third degree sexual abuse, a misdemeanor that’s punishable up to one year in prison. Same with possessing naked pictures of kids. The detective called me months later to update me on the case. They’d found child pornography on Mr. Dan’s phone. Blonde little girls, his apparent type. Baring skin during bath time. Jumping into the pool and oops the swimsuit bottom is falling off. Blowing a kiss into the camera. Or so I imagined these everyday scenes from my world. I could never ask, could never know. It was the only time I cried.
I shoved I Will Never Not Eat a Tomato back on the bookshelf in Harley’s class and ran after Ellie’s mom.
“Hi, I don’t think we’ve ever formally met. I’m Harley’s mom,” I said when I finally caught her outside the school. “I think we have something in common.”
I’d heard through mumblings on the playground that Ellie was one of the other girls Mr. Dan had kissed. I wasn’t supposed to know her identity; early on, school officials said in not so many words to keep it hush for a few reasons, one being not wanting to blow the lid on potential prosecution. The other, I assumed, was because of the local paper. They had an ongoing investigative series about how, for decades, the school district was dismissive of girls who’d brought up sexual misconduct allegations against a gym teacher. The district couldn’t afford any more bad press.
I needed to talk to Ellie’s mom; the silence made me feel as if we were the ones involved in a cover-up. I also needed affirmation that this happened, that it wasn’t worse than I thought, that he was really gone.
She looked at me knowingly. “Mr. Dan,” she said. Parents are terrible secret keepers.
I was hungry for her story, so I urged her to go first. She told me about how she wasn’t sure whether to believe Ellie in the beginning. How she hesitated before saying anything to the teacher, and when she did, apologized for bringing it up. How she was slow to realize anything was seriously wrong.
“Me too,” I kept saying at her every sentence. “Me too.”
Once, on a sidewalk in Buenos Aires, I was about to take a bite of my salami sandwich when I heard gunshots. Pop pop pop. They sounded like the first few hesitant seconds of microwave popcorn. But soon the corner of Cerrito and Libertad was chaos. Man running. Cop chasing man. Man firing gun. Everybody screaming and running past the cafes, past the hole-in-the-wall shop where I had purchased the best salami in the city, past me standing there.
People whizzed by in a blurry haze while I was trying to piece together the narrative playing out in front of me. Robbery? Revenge? Action movie? I bit into my salami sandwich.
A man in a business suit placed his hand on my shoulder. He aggressively nudged me with his briefcase toward a nearby car.
”Down! Down!” he said.
I crouched and took another bite. I clutched the salami sandwich to my chest until the shouts stopped. Wondering if I what I just saw was real and if anybody at my office would believe me.
Where I live, there’s a community-based medical program that assesses, treats, and prevents child abuse. In existence since 1987, they’re one of the oldest and largest centers in the country. Their approach is gentle and child-centered. No prodding, no poking, no telling the same story of trauma over and over again to the medical provider, mental health professional, child protective caseworker, or detective. Instead, they all work under one roof and coordinate their response to help children begin healing as soon as they walk through the door. They ask open-ended questions and respect when the child has had enough.
The detective had encouraged us to take Harley there, as the case had gone to the District Attorney’s office. Mr. Dan had possibly done something like this outside the school, he said. In addition to documenting Harley’s story, he wanted to make sure nothing else had happened. Social workers would first ask her questions while law enforcement watched through a one-way mirror. Then, as part of the process, even though it was a month later, they’d do a light physical examination. It would be similar to her annual check-up at the pediatrician, but with less clothing and more scrutiny, albeit subtle.
We said “yes” without hesitation. I wanted to follow proper procedure, do what people normally do in these situations. I’d already wasted enough time.
The first person I saw when I walked into the waiting room was a little girl with short brown hair and a giant flower headband. She was sitting on the floor with a young blonde volunteer—her name tag said “Kate”—and together the two pushed marbles down a plastic ramp, clapping as they spiraled down the slide. I fought back tears; I hated that such a place like this existed. I imagined the worst for that girl: a father who hovered over her bed in the middle of the night, a family friend who followed her to the bathroom, a coach who cornered her in the locker room. I was lucky that Harley’s experience was likely on the other end of the spectrum.
On the drive over to a “different pediatrician” as we had told her, I wanted to see if she was still thinking about Mr. Dan, if she knew what she had set into motion.
“Where did Mr. Dan go?” I asked. “ I notice he hasn’t been at school.”
“He got a new job,” she said.
“Do you miss him?”
“Yeah, he was really nice.” I bit my lip.
In the waiting room, cartoon fish swam across a television screen. Kate got up and greeted Harley, directing her to a table with crayons and coloring books. It wasn’t long before two women, a social worker and a doctor, guided Harley down a hallway past a painted mural of squirrels frolicking in the forest and dolphins diving in the ocean.
The little girl in the headband had moved on to building a tower and she squealed as a stack of blocks fell over. Across from where we were sitting were two women who I assumed were her mother and grandmother. I tried to read about John Stamos and his pregnant fiancé in People, but couldn’t stop staring at the women as they filled out paperwork. I wanted to know what they were writing. I married a man after I got divorced and had no idea he was a monster. What stories they had told themselves. He loved me and my kids. My mother’s voice was on loop in my head: “I would’ve kicked his wacko ass to the curb the next day.”
A half hour later, Harley came back clutching a blanket decorated with kitties, her favorite, that a volunteer had sewn. She seemed distant, and wouldn’t look at us. Steven opened his arms and she crawled onto his lap, curling into a ball. I reached over and rubbed her back. Shortly after, the social worker and doctor returned and brought us to a separate room while Harley played with Kate. They told us that based on their exam and interview they didn’t think anything more serious had happened, but after a while she’d clammed up. I was annoyed they couldn’t get anything else out of her; weren’t they trained in this? But Harley didn’t want to talk about Mr. Dan anymore, no thank you. And when she did, she told them, she preferred to talk to herself.
Harley snapped out of it once we got outside. “That wasn’t so bad,” she said, still holding the blanket. “I didn’t even have to get a shot.”
First word, first steps, first tooth, first kiss. Months after the visit, when we stopped talking about Mr. Dan because there was nothing more to say, nothing more Harley would say, we kept receiving letters from the state Department of Justice as part of the state’s victims’ compensation program. Each one a memento dated and signed as proof of the first instance where a man behaving badly had almost altered the course of her life. To them, she is owed money for a doctor’s visit. She is owed more than that. She is owed a do-over for the story of her first kiss. I saved that paper, put it in her keepsake box. Years from now, I will tell her what happened so this story becomes hers to retell. After a deep breath she will say the words it took too long for the women in my family to say. Words I can only hope she says again and again as she grows: ‘I said ‘no.” I said, “no.”
Celeste Hamilton Dennis is a freelance writer and editor. Her nonfiction and fiction have appeared in various literary journals including Literary Orphans, Lunch Ticket, Gravel, Boston Accent Lit, Barely South Review, Drunken Boat, and more. Currently, she’s working on a book of short stories connected by her hometown of Levittown, New York. She’s got a thing for mouthy women. But really, she’s got a thing for her mom. Everything is always about her mom.