Image Credit: Flynn Larsen
The monster squeezes hands at an award ceremony, walking past a young actress he’d earlier tried to coerce into giving him a massage. Stripped of his private plane, mansions, and handlers, his face above the fold, the monster hangs himself in a cell in midtown. Sitting in a Congressional hearing room, poised to wear a black robe and make decisions that will have a generational echo, he seethes as a woman describes events from a high school party: “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter, the uproarious laughter between the two and having fun at my expense.”
Harvey. Jeffrey. Brett. The monster—my monster—has so many names. I thought there was one monster. Just my monster. But he seems to be multiplying, a hijinks of proliferation. His identity is fluid, which is part of what makes him so terrifying.
As some monsters need the eclipse or the midnight hour, the trick of my monster is to appear in the guise of a trusted person—a classmate, colleague, or person of stature. Or, perhaps, a husband. Looking like Trust itself, you feel foolish to ever doubt him. But once he turns around and you see the matted, coarse fur and the tail, it is too late. You’ve already been devoured.
My monster first came to me the summer after first grade when a babysitter asked me to unzip his pants. He dared me toward what I only vaguely understood to be something not right. The teenage body in the hands of a grade schooler: not right. The nakedness on a summer evening in suburbia: not right.
Back up. Unspool that memory.
I am just barely in elementary school and recently recovered from a bout of the chicken pox. An only child, I spend my time reading and playing make believe games with my collection of glass animal figurines. I still believe that when I put the album “Pearl” on the turntable, Janis Joplin will rise from her velvet chaise lounge and sing, wherever she is.
He is in high school, athletic, freckled, with green eyes. His house, older and with a swimming pool, is up the hill from our subdivision with its recently unrolled sod. We have casseroles and hand-me-down furniture. They have plaid wallpaper, chiseled bottles of alcohol on a console, and a Standard Poodle that poses in family photos.
I don’t know what expectations this family has put on this boy, only that he is funny and outgoing and totally different than all of the teenage girls who have looked after me. They perch on the vinyl kitchen chairs, talking to their boyfriends via the sinuous cord of the sunflower-yellow wall phone. The most attention they pay me is to braid my silky ash blonde hair, pulling it back with a brush so that it hurts just a bit.
With him, it’s different. We head out on bike rides and go too fast. Play hide and seek and he hides too well, refusing to come out. Once, panicked, I find my parents’ camera and stand at the top of the stairs holding it above my head, demanding he appear. It’s a false threat—I’d never break what seems like the most expensive item in the house, but I’m desperate.
When he lays down on the creamy carpet at the meeting space of our split-level house where one stairway pauses and makes room for the other, I am already in my nightgown. It is still light out, that peachy color of July dusk. He gestures with his eyes toward his belt buckle. It’s a dare. A desire. A request. I don’t know if I negotiate the brass buckle or the button and zipper of his jeans. I don’t know what happens next. And I hate this. It is a failing, I sense, that my memory can only take me to this precipice and then leave me there to wonder.
The memory has led me to gag. I’ve vomited on it. Perhaps that’s enough.
About a year later, I saw an episode of The Nightstalker, a precursor of The X-Files with a similar line-up of vampires, UFOs, and other activity that wasn’t really second-grader material. Instead of FBI agents, though, the hero was a reporter named Kolchak, a bumbling cousin to Columbo. The miracle of Amazon allowed me to revisit this particular episode after more than 40 years, to discover that while many of the details didn’t make an impression me, the metaphor of the monster was indelibly ingrained. It hadn’t mattered to my seven-year-old self that the episode took place in a Jewish neighborhood in which someone was marking swastikas on the sides of buildings. Nor did I recall that the creature was a Hindu demon called a Rakshasa, which can only be killed by a shot from a crossbow. All that mattered to me then and was worthy of retention was the trick this creature played, turning its frontal appearance into a rabbi and then a police officer and, finally, Kolchak’s dear co-worker, Miss Emily.
Each time, the monster lulled its victim into believing they were safe. Which is what happened to me, even though I tried for so long to remind myself of this trick it can play. To my credit, I thought he was gone. Or not gone, but a figment of childhood fancy that I’d finally outgrown. Just as monsters do in any good horror flick, however, he popped back up.
On a Saturday morning in June, my husband asked me to come upstairs. He was too eager, the room too neat, his smile much too big. Either something unexpectedly awesome was going to happen, or something dreadful.
He gestured to a blanket he had folded and arranged in the middle of our bed and patted it, saying: “It’s okay. You’ve got this.” Given that one says this to cancer patients or during the final minutes of a grueling sporting match, I winced. This didn’t seem good. I just wanted to have a normal weekend; I didn’t want to “got” anything.
Like a magician disgorging a string of scarves, he pulled the details out of himself, one after the other. Women’s names, places, vague dates emerged into the space of our bedroom. The totality of infidelity was immense and not at all something I could comprehend in that moment.
I inhaled sharply. Reeled. Screamed. Begged. Laughed. And hit him. To which he smiled more, though the quality of the smile was shifting now, and said he always knew this was the real me.
The monster had shown itself. I’d been waiting for its return since that evening on the creamy wall-to-wall carpeting, my polyester nightgown insufficient armor against the bulk of the belt buckle and the heft of the dare, just as now, the thick silver ring on my left hand meant nothing against the torrent of unwanted information.
I’d waited for so long, preparing myself and fearing for the worst. Back in junior high, when my parents had first started leaving me alone at night, I anticipated Charles Manson. I’d read that he’d been discovered only because some of his hair was sticking out from a kitchen cabinet that he’d managed to cram himself into. Before going to bed, I would take the largest kitchen knife we owned, stand at the top of the stairs, and announce to the Manson who was undoubtedly in our basement: I am going to bed. With this knife. Leave me alone. It was not unlike the threat I’d made when I’d held my parents’ camera aloft: See me! Listen to me! Leave me the fuck alone!
By college, it was Bundy I prepared for. Hundreds of miles away on death row, awaiting the electric chair but having already escaped several times, he scared the shit out of me—so much so that when I closed my eyes in the shower to rinse shampoo from my hair I would become so certain that he was nearby that I would jump at his absence when I reopened them. A sort of complicity that the monster extorts from you, just as now, my monster texts to inquire: When are we going to talk about how you hurt me?
The monster was still lurking in my 20s, when I forced lovers to turn around in the middle of the night as they returned to bed from going for a pee or after coming home late from a party. “Turn around!” I’d order, frantic and terrified. Prove to me that you are human, that I have nothing to fear, that you are exactly who you appear to be.
After ten years with my husband, I believed I knew who he was. I never asked him to turn around.
The Kavanaugh hearing occurred two months after my husband left our house. As the would-be Supreme Court Justice ruffled papers and spat out denials, I sensed his claws. His own disbelief that someone, much less so many of us, might witness his animal backside was inconceivable to him. The monster doesn’t like to be discovered, but that’s what’s happening.
Prove to us you are indeed a legal expert. Prove to us you are a movie producer. A singer. A filmmaker. A chef. An investor. A politician. Prove that you are not a monster on an ABC sound set, circa 1975, who is about to bite off someone’s head and swallow her whole. Prove you are here. Real. And just as fragile as I am. Though I doubt I’ll believe you.
Jennifer New has been playing with language in order to understand her world for most of her life. When she was nine, she started writing poems from a perch in a tree that she’d climb along with her dog Amy. Since then, she’s had the pleasure of publishing three books, raising two children, practicing yoga across the country, and sitting in stillness wherever and whenever she can find it. This essay is dedicated to Bella with gratitude.