Harriett’s Father

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Photo by Fuad Ismayilov

 

I know exactly what a pedophile looks like. He looks like everyone else.

Harriett and I were best friends. We had a special bond that blossomed as we grew. We lived in the same building. My family occupied an apartment on the first floor, Harriett’s mother and father lived on the fifth floor, apartment 5B. And although I had to climb five flights of steps, it never stopped me from spending as much time with Harriett as possible.

Our birthdays were a few weeks apart, both Virgos born in September, both only children. Harriett was my ideal and I wanted to be as much like her as possible, Harriett, tall and slim, with a mop of curly red hair and elfin features. By the unlucky happenstance of genes, I was doomed to be short and fat with dark, stringy hair, thin lips and a large nose like my dad’s.

My parents were in their mid-forties when I was born. They’d never expected to have a child.

I was a tot when my mom was in some sort of car accident never explained to me which left her  brain damaged. She cannot, without assistance, eat, dress, or use the toilet. I couldn’t understand her silences; her inability to communicate with me. She’d sit slumped in her chair in front of the television set, never taking her eyes from the screen, her useless hands clenched into fists. I constantly watched for something to soften in her face. She couldn’t kiss me, hold me, comfort me, tell me a story or even scold me for doing something naughty. Here I am, Mommy, love me! But my mom could not love me the way other mom’s love their kids. I loved her, hated her—no longer knew which.

I’d sit on the floor in front of our television and watch families laugh. Wonder what it was like to hear my mother laugh. I never felt the warmth of affection, heard kind words or shared laughter, wished we could have a conversation like kids and their mom’s did on the TV shows I was allowed to watch. Once, after dinner, I yanked her arm and screamed, “Talk to me, Mommy,” wanting her to admire the paper doll I had dressed. Dad lost his temper and spanked me. “You don’t yell at your mom like that ever!”

Every night I’d kneel by the side of my bed and ask God why I was born to this household, pray for mom to get well. But God did not seem to hear me. Although Dad took no interest in my activities, I’ve never know him to do anything for me out of kindness and consideration. He never wanted to hear about how I got the scab on my knee or how well I did on my spelling test, the resentment I felt was for my mother. I tried not to hate her, but her pallid, silent face tugged at me—a part of me wanting to feel sorry for her but another part—a bigger part could not begin to forgive her for not being normal and loving like other moms.

My dad’s a postal clerk, a silent suffering man full of suppressed rage. After work, he does the shopping and takes care of whatever errands have to be made and returns home slump-shouldered, back hurting, opens a can of beer and prepares dinner. Then we eat without talking. After we wash and dry the dishes, he helps mom to bed and collapses in his easy chair, with no time for a needy daughter.

Our doctor suggested that mom be moved to a nursing home, but my dad refused. He hired Miss Dorothy, a retired nurse who smelled of talcum powder to look after Mom. On Miss Dorothy’s first day on the job she made it clear that children were to be seen but not heard. She likes to have her nose in everything, she’d glower at me when I was thirsty and running the water in the kitchen sink too long, or making too much noise tapping my pencil while I was practicing my times tables, always complaining about her minimal, ordinary tasks.

I grew up knowing little about my parents’ earlier years.  Sometimes I’d take the photo album from the shelf and leaf through pictures taken before I was born. When I asked Dad a question about their families he’d give me an eye roll of exasperation answer, why do you want to know? It’s not important.”

My father spoke to me only if he had a specific purpose in mind; “Clear the table, take your toys into your room, turn off your lamp and go to sleep.” Other than being corrected or chastened I can’t remember any meaningful conversations with him.

 

Once, I overheard him tell Miss Dorothy that I had been in the car the time of my mother’s accident. I thought a lot about what he’d said, but this is what I remembered: brakes screeching, a loud bang, the whole world spinning upside down, a spooky quiet and then sirens. I wondered if I were to blame. Had I taken her attention away from the road? The more I tried to remember, the more jumbled my memories became. Was this the reason Dad never showed me any affection, or was it because he suffered severe back pain, and took pills that never helped? There were many questions I wanted to ask but fear stopped me from asking.

Each afternoon after school I escaped to apartment 5B where, unlike at home, I felt welcome, although I never brought Harriett or anyone else into our apartment—asking her to my house was out of the question. I’d told Harriett a little bit about my mom, Dad, and Miss Dorothy. She listened, tried to cheer me up. Harriett was always on my side.

Harriett’s father worked the night shift—something to do with fresh produce — I never asked Harriett what that meant—and was home during the day. He was a friendly, nice looking man, known and liked by other tenants in the building. Harriett’s mother worked nine to five at the neighborhood bank. I spent Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas in apartment 5B. I’d watch Harriett open her presents, and there was always something for me. On Valentine’s Day we each received a tiny red velvet box of Whitman’s chocolates. My heart filled with delight. Harriett’s family liked me. I ached to stay there, be a member of their family— a part of their wonderful, ordinary life.

When we were tots, Harriett’s father cuddled us. He oohed and aahed over our carefully crayoned coloring books and read to us all the Dr Seuss books. We thought them funny. He read “The Little Engine That Could,” “Charlotte’s Web,” “Heidi,” and “The Secret Garden” to us, one huge arm around each of our shoulders, and as we grew, pointed out our spelling mistakes or praised us for error-free homework and never wearied of our questions. After school, rain or shine, we’d see his eyes skimming over the tiny heads looking for us, to walk us home and sing “The Wheels on the Bus.” With time, his cuddling became touching me in places I knew were private. I felt guilty, though not sure why, yet I was happy relishing his attention, his capacity to notice, to listen, to care and decided his touching was not a bad thing. It was a good thing. My dad never touched me.

I especially liked the days the weather was nice and Harriett’s father would take us to the park. We’d step over the lines in the sidewalk, each of us lengthening our strides to match his pace and chant: Left/ Left/ Left my wife and forty-eight kids/ Right/ Right/ Right in the middle of the kitchen floor/ Left…

Time passed. Harriett’s father’s caresses increased in frequency and intensity, his hands finding opportunities to wander over my tiny breasts. I wondered if this kind of stuff happened to all kids. The scarier part was thinking it was happening only to me. That it was my fault and that I was too dumb to object. This is not right…No, I’m sure it’s OK. Harriett’s father just likes me. It doesn’t matter. It does… stop it. Stop it. Stop these mean thoughts. I’m just a kid with silly fears. So I tried not to think too much about it, wished I were older so I could start to have answers to my confusion.

In apartment 5B we were not allowed to lock doors. One day Harriett’s father came into the bathroom as I was peeing, legs dangling over the toilet bowl, my panties down around my ankles.  I’d unrolled a length of toilet tissue, and to my discomfort and embarrassment saw him watching me. I closed my eyes and when I opened them he was gone.

He often found opportunities to press me against his chest and I began to notice something hard and insistent in his pants poking at me when Harriett was out of the room. I wondered if Harriett had noticed. Of course she hadn’t.

“What did you learn at school today, sweetie’?” he’d ask, rubbing my chubby buttocks, trying to convince my seven-year-old self he wasn’t doing any real harm. On rainy days we played hide-and-seek and no matter where I hid, Harriett’s father always found me first, hands outstretched, feeling my body.

Maybe I didn’t like Harriett’s father as much as I thought I did. Maybe the truth scared me too much; and although I was just a little kid, some things got to a person my age—although I was too young to put a name to such things.

One afternoon when we had just reached our teens and Harriett was in bed recovering from an upset tummy her father invited me to play Hearts with him. I sat down on the couch with my hands folded in my lap. I picked up my cards and noticed there were dirty pictures on the front—naked men and women doing stuff. I felt an unfamiliar sensation in the pit of my stomach I knew I should not be feeling. And from what little I knew about sex, I knew this much: what I felt was wrong. I saw the funny way Harriett’s father watched my face and my heart began to hammer when he reached over, slid his hand over my chest and down under my belly and began to rub his finger on top of my jeans. I wriggled away. “Doesn’t that feel nice?” he asked.

“Touching me there is bad,” I whispered, not far from tears.

Harriett’s father stared at me, his silence growing large and fearsome until he smiled and said, “Let’s stop worrying about what’s bad and what’s not.”

I moved away so his hand was no longer on my leg and said, “I need to go home.”  I was at the door when he added:

“By the way, sweetheart, we wouldn’t want Harriett … disturbed.”

I wished I knew how to put a stop to the touching. I no longer believed it was OK, but I didn’t want to lose Harriett as my one and only true friend.  I wondered how she would react if I told her. Harriett? If I tell you something terrible about your father, something you won’t like, will you be mad at me? Silly goose, what could you possibly say that will make me mad at you? Oh, you never know, but….

One day while Harriett was not in the room, I gathered up all of my thirteen-year-old courage and whispered to her father, “I need to tell you something.”

“Sure, sweetheart. What is it?”

“I don’t like it when you touch me.” I whispered desperately, afraid that if my heart beat any louder he would hear it.

In our second year of high school our close friendship fell away. Weeks passed when Harriett and I rarely saw each other.

One afternoon I went up to apartment 5B to tell Harriett I’d been accepted into Brooklyn College not remembering that Tuesdays Harriett stayed late for cheerleading practice. I’d pressed the doorbell, Harriett’s father far from my mind, when he answered the door and before I could react, grabbed me and pressed me against the wall, his hand jamming up under my T-shirt. I panicked, gasped, “Please don’t! Please… get away. Get away…” Freeing myself from the lock of his arms I spun out of his reach and groped for the door knob, panicking until I finally got the door open. My breath coming in rasping gasps, gathering breath and momentum, I scooted down the five flights of stairs two or three at a time into our apartment. Ignoring Miss Dorothy and my mom, I flung myself onto my bed, willing my heartbeat to slow.

When Dad came home I waited until Miss Dorothy left, came out of my room, took a deep, shuddery breath and gathered up my courage to tell him what had happened.

The look on his face was a mixture of disbelief and anger. He grabbed my arm and shook me.

“How could you make up such a vile, terrible lie? How could you impugn this good man’s character?  He’s been there for you through the years while I was working, fed you milk and cookies and helped you with your homework. You should be thankful to him. He’s a saint.”

“He’s not a saint. He’s a criminal.”

Dad waved a hand, his eyes all slitty.”Oh you stupid, miserable, child, you’re always looking for attention. Trust you to be dramatic. Who do you think you are, Miss America?”

My mother began to snuffle and hum, flutter her hands. “You’re giving your mother undue stress!”

Another piece of my heart crumbled. Maybe I hadn’t explained it properly. Maybe he needed to be seventeen-years-old with a cold, impossible-to-please father. I raised my voce loud enough for the tenants in the building to hear. “I thought you’d understand. I thought you’d care. I shouldn’t have told you. You don’t care!”

“I do care. I care that my daughter is a dangerous liar. Wash your hands and set the table.”

Bitterness and desolation swept over me that was far more powerful than pain.

I never went back up to apartment 5B, nor did Harriett ask me for any explanation. Whenever we passed in the school halls, I gave her a little wave, but she gave me the silent treatment—can only guess what her father had told her.

Years passed. I wanted to move on, to forget. But I never did. When I’d first met Harriett’s father, I loved him before I began to despise him.

I decided I would put my story down on paper for all those girls in need of rescue, and because my soul has waited too long to tell this story. I’ve intended to show how cruelly the delicate fabric of a child’s life can be ruptured by child abuse, and how precarious the illusion of safety and security really is. Child abuse leaves a stain on your heart and takes a long time to heal and be forgotten. It is a crime that is less visible, but has been out there everywhere all the time. I know of nothing more damaging, more powerful, more deceitful, and more sinister than child abuse.

I open my computer to Microsoft Word, stare at the empty screen. How do I start? Then I begin to type, each sentence pushed along by anger.

I know exactly what a pedophile looks like. He looks like everyone else.

 

About the author

Barbara Weitzner has an M.F.A. in creative non-fiction from The New School and a B.S. from New York University. She completed a 250-page manuscript for a memoir and it was selected as a semi-finalist in the William Faulkner Creative Writing Competition. Her most recent essays were published in Poets & Writers Magazine March/April 2015 issue and Brain, Child Magazine, March 2016. She teaches creative writing workshops and has taught poetry workshops for adults and children with developmental disabilities. She also attended Robert McKee’s Story seminar and the Harvard Business School Executive Education for High-Potential Leaders.

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