August in our nation’s capital is oppressive–clammy and stifling. On the way to settling in New York, I arrived by Greyhound Bus from a summer job in Cleveland.
Mama had insisted that I visit her old schoolmate from teachers college.
Lora lived in a neat house surrounded by other neat homes in a place called Anacostia. Her flower garden, at the front of her ranch style home, received loving attention. I could see what this woman’s passion was.
Exhaustion rippled through my body. I rang Lora’s bell. The chime reminded me of home.
A slim woman well settled in her sixties flung open her door. I saw her mind suddenly gasp as she took in my face.
My hostess lowered her eyes as she stepped aside.
I crossed the threshold and my mind leapt back to the previous evening.
The night had not gone swimmingly. In fact, it was a nightmare I will recall forever.
I had stepped out to a Georgetown club, one famous in jazz circles.
The coolness of the club was welcoming. A waiter directed me to a shared table. I ordered gumbo and white wine. “My Funny Valentine” lifted me into a cloudless universe. I swayed to the romantic ballad, background to a mind rapidly becoming dangerously relaxed.
I looked up into the most beautiful pair of soft brown eyes I had ever seen. The young man ordered more wine for both of us. We introduced ourselves. I heard the familiar tune that jazz musicians play to conclude a set. I looked up into the smile of my table partner.
His soft brown eyes drew me into them. “Join me for another glass of wine? We can talk.”
We strolled through the barely cooling evening and arrived at his flat. He opened a perfectly chilled bottle of Chardonnay. We sat together on his narrow couch.
I rose and perused his bookshelf. It reflected intellectual curiosity.
“I have many of these same books.”
“Have you read much James Baldwin?” Smooth Brown Eyes inquired.
“He’s on my list.” I smiled.
Shirley Horn’s piano filled his cozy apartment. I returned to the couch. Brown Eyes leaned over and kissed me lightly. I kissed him back. I collapsed into the alluring eyes. We continued to kiss. His hands moved away from my shoulders.
The evening’s tempo exploded from three to thirty. Brown Eyes tugged at my dress.
I pulled back from him. No one had ever tried to remove my clothing.
I was going on 21, and pure. Unblemished.
“No,” I told him. “Please, I’m not up for moving so fast.” I barely understood what was happening, but I knew I wanted to pull back from Brown Eyes’ pursuit.
Over and over, I begged him to stop!
I might have been speaking to myself. Brown Eyes continued to yank at my favorite summer cotton dress.
“I’m uncomfortable with this.” My words dissolved in the heat.
I felt his fist collide with my cheek. In a comic book, the caption would have been a series of huge stars.
“Stop! No! Please! Stop!” I was yelling now.
Shirley Horn played on in the background.
I tried to pull free. He pinned me down. He tore at my panties.
I felt his fist again and again on my face. I struggled. I sobbed.
He forced himself on top of me. I screamed. His fleshy hand covered my mouth. My mind dissolved into mush. Above the scene I watched my “good girl” self break into shards.
After what felt like an hour, but was probably only five minutes, he peeled off me. I dragged myself from the couch and sprinted into the bathroom.
I found a hand towel, scrubbed at the places where I had been touched. I was soiled. I was black-and-blue. I quivered.
I raced into an emerging dawn. A miracle occurred — a taxi rounded the corner.
Back in my hotel room I showered until the hot water expired. I sobbed into the steam. I threw my favorite summer dress into a wastebasket.
Oh no! I was expected for lunch with Mama’s friend.
I risked a look in the mirror. My face was a train wreck.
But… what could I do?
I pulled on a spotless cotton dress, drifted back into Washington’s whirl. Somehow I managed to arrive for lunch on time.
Despite Lora’s shock, she smiled and uttered conventional words, “Come in, come in. How good to see you.”
My skin prickled from her detached politeness, her naked lie. Stiffness gripped my neck. I was a mess.
Why did she not see that?
Lora’s dining room table was gorgeous House Beautiful-lovely. The exquisite centerpiece created from her garden was a show-stopper.
I tried to smile and my face felt crinkled.
“Please sit,” Lora said.
I imitated a person nodding. My head ached like it had been used as a punching bag. …It had!
My hostess poured iced tea, and then disappeared through a swinging door. She returned with luncheon plates of tuna salad, potato salad, and cold string beans.
She sat opposite me and began a torrent of chatter. I picked at the tuna salad. I thought of dry bones. Or was it sawdust?
I mumbled at appropriate intervals. “Yes, I know.”
Finally, I admitted, “I’m sorry. I’m unwell.”
“Of course, my dear.”
Lora called me a cab.
“I enjoyed the salads.” I could fib, too.
“I’ll tell Mama I saw you.”
My hostess smiled.
I bounced around in the cab’s backseat. Lora’s farewell smile lingered.
I didn’t understand. Why? Why did this woman not see? Feel? I did not understand.
The driver peered into his mirror. “Are you okay?”
I didn’t know how to say I was far from okay.
Decades—many, many decades, passed before I did understand what an excruciating reminder I was for Lora.
Bruises on the surface heal; the ones around the heart never do.
Libbe Dennard is a poet, memoirist and essayist. She is a fourth generation native of Texas who has lived in New York City, Juneau, Alaska, Pondicherry, India, and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Her work has been published in The Blue River Review, Solamente en San Miguel, Vol III, Empty House Press and Native Skin Magazine. Her chapbook, A Journey, was published by Finishing Line Press. Libbe just completed a poetry/prose chapbook, Soul Making. Her memoir, Whispered With the Wind is in-progress.