Thursday, December 20, 2012

Can’t save anybody, you have to save yourself

Dec. 6. 1981

I’m afraid: of guns, women, cars, taxes, police, drugs, booze, bikers, trucks and me.
Most of all me.
I’m my own worst enemy – partly because I care too much about those other people call the wrong people.
Now, I’m sitting with a frightened 17-year-old named Joanne, who tells me again and again how not scared she is.
We’re sitting in a completely American diner in a completely American town, and she tells me about her father and his rage, and the exploding fist on the dinner table that always shakes her world apart.
I’m not complete sure why I’m with her, except for the lure of a free breakfast after a hard night’s work working up a huge hunger in me, a hunger that three eggs, toasts and hash browns won’t cure.
She scares me more than her father scares her – or my reaction does anyway.
I’ve heard all the rumors and gossip about her, and they make me ache, and feel guilty, because she’s looking for salvation and I’m looking for…
Yet her terrified eyes hurt me.
She asks, “how to do I tell him?”
I break the yolk of one egg with the tip of my folk, watching the yellow ooze out. I’m scared to look up. She wants to know how to tell her father about Chuck, the 47-year-old married mall guard who professes to love her.
There are always a lot of Chucks in the lives of women like Joanne.
I tell her, I don’t know, still staring down at the spilled yolk, cringing at the still two unbroken eggs that stare back at me like eyes.
I’m no longer hungry although the hunger still rages inside of me.
I’m thinking of that time in Portland with Louise when we lent our spare bedroom to two 17-year olds so that they wouldn’t have to “do it” in the cold back seat in some remote parking lot where the cops might catch them, only to find out later, the girl’s uncle was a police captain, and he wasn’t happy with me for acting as her pimp.
I can’t give love advice to someone who makes me ache to look at, even when she gets angry at me for staying silent and tells me to stop staring at my eggs and tell her what to do.
I ask what she thinks her father would do if she told him straight out.
“He’d call me a whore,” she says, loudly enough to turn the heads of some of the patrons, and raise the curiosity of some Chuck-like men near by. “He always calls me a whore.”
“You know what I mean,” she says, her voice lowered as if she realized her mistake. “I can trust you, can’t I? You won’t turn on me.”
“Yeah,” I say, knowing that I’m always the trusting type, but don’t look up from my eggs, “you can trust me.”
“I thought about getting my father drunk first,” she says. “But then he might beat me.”
Her hand moved to cover the bruises on her right wrist, bruises that look suspiciously like large fingers. “He always gets violent when he’s drunk. But I have to tell him something. He saw me kissing Chuck in the mall, and now he thinks the worst.”
“The worst?” I ask, looking up finally.
Joanne takes on a coy look, somehow managing to blush when she isn’t the type to blush.
“I hate when my father calls me a whore,” she says, voice still lowered, her gaze sweeping the interior of the diner as if she expects to see her enraged father making his way towards us. I look, too, scared he might think I’m doing Joanne to, when I only want to.
All I see are the other patrons, their gazes returning to their own lives, their talk is of weather, of Sunday’s sermon, of football teams waiting at home on the TV, but not of angry father’s beating hapless daughters.
I hear someone laugh and I’m ashamed, as I break the yolk of the second egg and stare down at the contents I can no longer devour. I sip the milk I ordered instead of coffee because I soon have to go home to sleep and do not want more coffee keeping me up. I imagine all this will do that already, the talk and the hunger, and the desperate need I have to win her trust, when the last thing I want is to be trusted.
“Truth is the best thing I can think of,” I say, my words sounding hollow, like a lie. “Was it Chuck’s birthday or something? You might tell your dad that’s why you kissed him.”
Joanne’s eyes brighten, and she reaches across the table to squeeze my hand. Her fingers are warm, but it is my blood that boils. She rushes out. I wait until she’s gone, push back my plate, pick up the bill Joanne was supposed to pick up, leave a tip and head to the register, wondering the whole time if truth is anything more than a convenient trap, playing into the hands of an enemy who would use it like a knife and twist it deeper.
I keep thinking of the poor girl back in Portland who gave us up because her father, the police captain, made her swear to her lie on with her hand on The Bible, and she couldn’t do it. I keep hoping Joanne’s white lie won’t bring her more black and blue. I keep thinking how much trust is a two-edged sword, with me aching in everyway possible over a girl who loves someone else.
But I know I’ll do it again. When she comes back crying, I’ll sit with her, breaking yolks as my own heart breaks, trying to find a way to help her when I know I can’t save anybody, least of all myself.
I pay the check, and head to my car, and hope I can get some sleep.

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