Still Literary Contest Nonfiction Winner: Bobbi Buchanan
Bobbi Buchanan's work has appeared in many publications, including The New York Times, The Courier-Journal, The Louisville Review, New Madrid, Still and GreenPrints. Her essay "Signs of Life" appears in Motif 2: Come What May. Bobbi is the founding editor of New Southerner, an online magazine designed to help the most reluctant people take baby steps to live more self-sufficiently, locally, and with greater regard for the earth and all its creatures. A Kentucky Foundation for Women grant recipient, she earned a bachelor's in journalism at the University of Kentucky and a master of fine arts in writing at Spalding University. She teaches English at Jefferson Community and Technical College's Bullitt County campus.
Judge Janisse Ray writes of Bobbi's essay: "This is a deeply moving piece from a writer with a mature and very creative voice. Its great first line captured me from the start, and I found the entire essay compelling, even mesmerizing. The writer used great action verbs, a zigzag structure, and unusual metaphors, which served to seize my attention and hold it hostage. This is a tough story to read, and I'm sure it was tough to write. I admire this about it, that the writer took sorrow and tragedy and at long last did not shy from it, but looked at it through a clear, unwavering, and artful eye. I stand in admiration of this writer's courage and skill."
In the Woods
I didn’t blame the woods for what happened. By then I had already abandoned them, along with crayons and dolls, as the stuff of childhood. I had forgotten the thrill of flying on a tire swing beneath a red oak’s yawning bough. My heart no longer raced at the thought of scaling cottonwoods, rubbing my knees raw on the rough bark until I reached that first wide branch and hoisted myself onto its mighty arm. I had parted with that playground. The woods were merely a friend left behind. How could they have then become my enemy?
At eighteen, I was a shadow of my former self, a ghost of the girl who once hid in a copse of evergreens counting pine cones. My face was powdered and pale, my jeans too tight, my waist never small enough. I had stretch marks like tiger stripes down my stomach and flabby skin there that no amount of sit-ups could remedy. I’d had a baby at seventeen, and my parents had forbidden me from marrying the father. They’d taken out a restraining order to keep him away after we tried to elope. Aided by distance and time apart, we had fallen out of love. I had finished high school and stayed with Mom and Dad, and they helped me when I started classes at the community college.
The summer after giving birth to a beautiful black-eyed girl, I had a chance to find love again. I met Russell at the county fair. He had straight blond hair and kind eyes—eyes as blue as the bottom of a swimming pool. We dated for a while, and our necking soon progressed to petting. When he pressed his mouth against mine, desire fluttered inside me like a tiny bird. His hands were gentle. But each time he reached under my clothes, I pulled away. I was embarrassed by my scars and anxious about the possibility of getting pregnant again.
Eventually Russell found someone else. And so did I, provoked by displaced passion. In the wake of losing Russell, I guzzled enough liquid courage to strip off my jeans in the backseat of an old Chevy and bring a guy I barely knew to the kind of ecstasy I’d read about in Jackie Collins paperbacks. I don’t remember his name, but I recall that afterwards he swore his love for me. When I avoided his calls, he brought me gifts. He begged for a second date. I laughed, though secretly I prayed for my period to come. I bargained with God. I’d made a mistake. I’d never do that again. And I welcomed that blood when it finally appeared. I beamed through tears. I thought my troubles were over.
I gave up the woods, believing that’s what one did growing up. I emptied my belly of its creeks and minnows, the solace of night skies and cricket music. When I was old enough for a training bra, I took the rocks I’d collected and dumped them out behind the garage. I shook the seedpods from my pockets, raked the hay from my hair. Not long after that, I outgrew my pony, and my parents gave him away. Soon I lost interest in the cats and even our dog, Sniffy, who still came to me, wagging her tail when I walked out onto the patio. One day I caught sight of my reflection in the sliding glass door: a gypsy-skinned girl with short legs and bare feet, face framed in messy curls.
That was when I decided to brush and blow dry, to style my hair like Farrah Fawcett’s. My love for makeup—that magic paint that veiled my flaws—replaced my love for mud. At thirteen, I traded the moss and mulch of the woods for the shiny floor of the local roller rink. I fell in love with love, sought the approval of one boyfriend after another, and at sixteen, surrendered my young, awkward body in hopes of making that romantic high last forever. It didn’t. And I got pregnant.
At seventeen, Todd had what seems to me now an animal instinct for weakness and a foolproof front as the son of a local businessman. I knew him from riding the school bus. He was skinny and awkward then, a quiet kid with a bad complexion. But he’d grown into a tall, strapping young man. We ran into each other at the county fair, which I considered a stroke of luck, as though meeting someone there might bring back the previous summer’s possibility with Russell. I thought nothing of Todd’s sudden interest in me, or the unfriendly way he eyed my body, without smiling, without meeting my eyes. When he asked for my number, I thought only of the chance this would give me—the chance for a fresh start, a new boyfriend.
But Todd never once kissed me or said I looked pretty or offered to drive. Instead, I was the one who picked him up in the big jalopy my brother had fixed up for me. I was the one who drove, and Todd brought the alcohol, and Todd’s friend rode along, blowing in my ear and acting as though he was my date.
That first time, I was surprised when Todd reached inside a paper sack and pulled out a beer.
“How did you get that?” I wanted to know.
He popped the tab and stared at me, shrugging, as though he never had a problem getting what he wanted. He fished out another and gave it to me. There was always plenty to go around, although I never once saw Todd drunk. I never questioned his motives.
Later that same night, I found myself alone in a darkened bedroom, half-dressed and bleeding between my legs. I couldn’t see the blood, but I could feel it, slick and sticky against my thighs. I lay perfectly still. The room was spinning.
Then Todd’s friend walked in and undressed in the darkness and kissed me. It didn’t hurt at all; I couldn’t feel a thing.
Maybe I sensed the danger and got addicted to it. Or I was just desperate enough to trust Todd, to be deceived by him, again and again. Maybe it was enough getting the comfort and sympathies of his friend to suffer the abuse. At the time, I acted as if being an unwed mother didn’t affect me, as if I would never beat myself down for the choices I’d made. Todd must have seen through me, must have seen right through to the core of my grief and exploited it, selfishly, without apologies, even when the evidence pooled there on his bed, in the starkest of sheets.
After that night, I told myself I’d lost my virginity to him, no matter that I’d had sex multiple times, that I’d given birth. Somehow Todd got it. That explained the blood when my period wasn’t due. It explained the clots that fell like dense red clouds into the toilet bowl when I got home that night. I recoiled when I saw them, terrified of what I might find there—appendages, a tiny skull, a sleeping face.
I stayed with him not knowing those days were a test of my will, a game to break me of love and grit and any morsel of faith I might have had left. It must have worked. If I had believed a mustard seed of goodness lived within me, I would have been strong enough to find my way out, to emerge from those woods and forever bar an impossible darkness.
That summer I returned to the woods. I was eighteen.
The night it happened, we were supposed to go to McDonald’s with my year-old daughter. I wouldn’t have taken Rachel with us, but Todd thought it was a good idea.
“I like kids,” he said. “She’ll be fine.”
So I loaded her car seat. “We’ll be back in a few hours,” I announced.
My mother tucked her lips between her teeth in that worried way of hers. “I could keep her here,” she offered, but I knew my dad would oppose. In his view, it was enough that Mom watched Rachel while I studied and went to class.
“I want to take her with me,” I lied, stuffing a diaper in my purse.
She frowned at me.
I gave her a pleading look. It was summertime, and I was young, despite my circumstances. I had a date with someone who was willing to have the kid along for the ride. Was that so awful?
Except we never made it to Playland. We drove with the windows down, stopping at the city park to relieve our bladders and let Rachel tumble across the grass. We drank hard liquor from a bottle. I don’t remember what it was, only that it hit me hard, so hard I couldn’t figure out where we were. All I remember is the sun falling into the hills and light fading from the car window.
Somewhere in the dusk, we met up with Todd’s friends, who were piled in a pickup truck with the radio blaring. I could see the lighted ends of cigarettes glowing through the windshield, hands fanning the space of the cab, shiny cans tipping back. Someone burped. They all laughed.
Todd put his arm around me. “You can’t drive,” he said and guided me to the passenger’s side. He smelled like marijuana.
I know, I wanted to answer, but it was too noisy, and my mouth wouldn’t work. I felt foggy, disoriented. I closed my eyes, thinking I could sleep off this feeling.
Then someone was next to me, an arm brushing mine, an unfamiliar voice whining with the radio. The shoulder pressed into me, and I turned and saw the face, silvery eyes fixed on mine, jagged teeth grinning at me.
We were driving. Ahead of us the headlights bounced off clumps of mud and weeds. I didn’t understand. I didn’t recognize this place.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
No one answered.
We lurched forward and rumbled along a dirt road. When we finally came to a stop, I got out to check Rachel. She was still in her car seat. Voices cooed and hands reached in around her. I held up my elbows to keep them away.
Time passed in a haze. I stumbled around the car, looking up at the sky, trying to figure out where we were.
Laughter rang out from far away.
The car door slammed.
I grabbed the handle, lifted up. It was locked.
“Open it!” I screamed.
I lifted the latch and pulled, lifted and pulled like an impatient passenger, like a child waiting on a sibling to let her in. I beat my fist on the window and fell against the car door, groaning.
“Calm down. She’s fine.” It was Todd. He sounded as if he was speaking through a bullhorn.
I pulled myself up and looked around, spotted him standing in the glare of the headlights with Rachel in his arms.
“Give her to me,” I ordered, starting around the car.
Todd took a few steps in the opposite direction, toward the back.
I slapped my palm on the hood. “Did you hear me, you idiot? Give her back!” I made a run for it.
A car door opened, blocking me. Someone grabbed me by the shoulders. I jerked away, but it was too late. Todd had disappeared.
I knew it then. I was trapped. Tricked. Maybe even drugged. I hated myself for being so foolish.
This is what happens to a girl who gets pregnant and has a baby. You don’t get a date at a nice restaurant with candlelight and cloth napkins. No one takes you to a movie or brings you flowers. No one opens the door for you, except when they expect you to get in the backseat of a car and pipe down while they fuck you with such disdain, as though you should consider yourself lucky for that much.
I knew what was coming. I knew that night I was ruined. But I fought it. I flailed my arms through air so thick it was like swimming in a dream.
Silvery eyes closed in on me. “Get back in the car or go home without your baby.”
I staggered around, swallowed back tears. Each quivering breath I drew blended in with the ticks and hisses of night creatures. It seemed I walked a long way before giving up. I thought I might hear crying and could follow the sound of it.
But Todd was gone, and so was Rachel. There was nothing out there but the night, its shadows and secrets; its stupid hiding places.
I made my way back to the car. The door was open, and as I climbed inside I gagged on the heavy musk of underarm sweat. I closed the door and covered my mouth. I tried not to look at him as I slipped out of my shorts. I stared out the window, into blackness, pretending I was dead.
As he moved on top of me, I searched trees blacker than the sky. I watched elms and sycamores turn into long-legged dancers. Their limbs arched, stretched, intertwined. I watched, almost smiled, until he shifted and something sharp jabbed my thigh, again and again. I let out a little cry and scooted myself up. But the stabbing continued. He leaned over me, lifted my shirt.
I closed my eyes and imagined shimmying up a cedar, legs wrapped around the trunk. It was the spiky stub of lost branches pinching my skin. Over and over and over.
Sweat splattered my face.
I opened my eyes, and I knew. It was his belt buckle. It would leave the only visible mark on my body that night—a tiny bruise no bigger than a dime.
Afterwards, he rambled like we were getting acquainted under the most ordinary circumstances. “Man, I loved that,” he said, leaning back to light a cigarette. “I think we should go out sometime.”
My mouth filled with spit. I kept quiet. He left me alone.
One by one, they took their turn with me in the backseat of the Chevy like big nasty vultures. There were four, five, maybe six. Their faces blur in my memory. I avoided their eyes, summoned to life trees that stood like soldiers surrounding us, guardian angels who would follow me home.
When it was over, Todd delivered Rachel to me. She was sleeping. I took her in my arms, held her close and kissed her. At home I would rip off her diaper and check her bottom. I would check her every time I changed her after that. I would gaze at her face and wonder for years whether she remembered that night, whether she had seen me in my shame.
A part of me died in those woods that night; a part of me seeped into the earth, scarring the soil with my fate. Every night in that same spot in the Kentucky hills, a girl suffers the curse of sick men. The ground trembles and bleeds. Vines choke the trunks of old oaks. This is how spirits come to haunt a place—not by the dead, but by the living.
I would survive, but I would tell no one. Word would get around anyway. A friend would tell me of the rumors my brother heard, the brother who’d given me the Chevy: “They’re saying you pulled a choo-choo. You know, a train, a gangbang.” I would shake my head. But what could I say? How could I fix this? Who would believe me?
So I would say nothing, for twenty-five years. My secret would ferment in silence, but I would find my way to hallowed ground, and I would heal there.
As we drove out of the woods, I promised myself I’d be a better mother, a better daughter. No one had to know about this. I wouldn’t let it happen again. Next time I’d be sober. Next time I’d be able to drive my baby and me home. We would go to Playland first. We would eat french fries and run through the mulch and giggle down the slide.
I pinned down our location. I noted the road we were on, that gravel road that cuts into the knobs by the interstate.
I remember those hills, and how the sight of them sickened me after that. How, for years to come, I saw nothing in the woods but the crowns of trees and stars that seemed to stare down at me. I worried what they thought. But they never said a word, and they never turned away.