If you’re ready, it might help to tell you what I remember.
* * * * *
The field: inch-long dried alfalfa stalks protruded from the damp ground, the usual ashy soil turned spongelike in the late summer rain. Harvest done for the year, the cows had been moved to the forested portion of the pasture, where there was still greenery. They’d work their way through the fifty acres of forest on Hickey Farm before winter turned the forest impassable with snow. When that happened, they’d be moved into the closer pastures, the ones near the barns and outbuildings. For the time being, though, the near field was ours to use. Imagine us, my mother and I, standing there. Her speech was muffled by the ear plugs in my ears as she gave me instruction. She mimed her suggestions to make sure I understood, demonstrated how I was to stand, how I should hold my body, when to let go of the safety. I already knew these things, of course, but her instruction gave us both comfort.
I’d been there before, but I didn’t always participate. Her hobby scared me—still does in some ways. The ceremony of it all. What it meant to our family. My inexperience was what scared her. Or rather, her fear was of ill-preparedness, that it might cause a mishap. And not just that a mishap had deadly potential, but that if a mishap were to occur, no matter how mild, it might frighten me away. And by “away,” I mean from her hobby. And by “from her hobby,” I mean from her. Standing there, we both felt the stakes of my participation as she prepared me. Then, a shout soaked through our ear plugs. It said “pull,” I discerned, and we looked out across the field, just catching a glimpse of the orange disk as it floated in the sky, slowing at its peak, before a gunshot rang clear, tore through the air, through my ears, through the clay pigeon, making it a cloud of dust approximating nothing.
* * * * *
As I recall the times I went shooting with my family, the feeling, a composite of fear and longing, is not unlike what I felt when my mother revealed herself to be a survivor of sexual assault. It happened on Facebook, the comment section of a post I made in conversation with the #MeToo movement. “Me too” I wrote, followed by a recycled explanation of the rules for participating in the trend. “If all the people who have been sexually assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” This was not a common practice for me, engaging with trends online, or talking about sexual assault for that matter, but I was feeling bold. With the membrane of social media as a shield, my ear plugs, and a trend of enormous proportion, my gun, I published the post and watched the responses roll in. My friends, people I had all the respect in the world for, reciprocated my sentiment one hashtag after another. The post was doing what I wanted it to. I felt for a moment that I, too, could say something and be heard. Then my mother’s name appeared, and provided exactly what I had asked for. Her too.
After it happened my mother and I never discussed my assault. And, after she commented on my post, I never asked about hers. But the feeling—the feeling of that near field—it was there, in the space between us. We had mimed the truth to one another, clicked away the safety, begun to take aim, but neither of us had the guts to pull the trigger. It felt too dangerous to make such formidable noise. And, by “noise,” I mean anything that would’ve allowed us to engage our shared humanity rather than our shared shame. Weeks passed, and op-eds on the #MeToo movement rolled around in public consciousness, asking questions about Facebook activism and the possibility of triggering and retraumatizing less public survivors. Despite having made my own post, I agreed with many of them. And in the time that’s past since the initial trend, questions continue to glide through the air. At work, we try again and again to find the right language, the right phrasing and practices for inclusive discussion. Over coffee, we talk about our pain and anger and sometimes our sadness. In classrooms, we talk about how to write about it. And by “it,” I do mean sexual assault. We talk about how to be loyal to one’s trauma and loyal to the reader in the same breath, how art for art’s sake and art for justice’s sake are not the same thing. Can’t be, at times. All the while I have been asking a different question: How on earth does one talk to their mother about it? How on earth does one talk to their mother about sexual assault?
* * * * *
When I said “it might help to tell you what I remember,” I meant it might help me to tell you what I remember. And when I say it might help me to tell you what I remember, I mean I hope it helps me to write this. And when I say I hope it helps me to write this, I mean I hope it helps you as well, remembering in this way. So then, if you trust me, I’d like us to remember together. If you trust me, I’d like to begin with what is easiest to tell and save my triggers for later.
* * * * *
The testimony: I sat in a small, yellow plastic chair with my back to the door. Across the circular table in front of me were two adults, a man and a woman, also in small plastic chairs. We were in a box of a room with walls the same gunmetal grey color as the table top. Besides the chairs, the only bit of color that exists in my memory of this scene was held in my hand: a sleeve of Starburst candies, which my mother had given to me as a bribe for being there. You see, there was math bingo taking place in my first-grade classroom before I was collected that day, and I was upset that my early dismissal had disqualified me from the candy prize I was determined to win. I remember when the two adults had finished introducing themselves I offered to share my bribe with them, secretly hoping they would decline, which they did. My mother would’ve been proud of that offering, I thought, were she in the room when it happened.
I don’t recall the majority of their questioning, likely just the final ten minutes, when the woman pulled from a manila folder an illustration of a naked boy who looked to be about my age. I remember her asking me, her voice choosedly more optimistic now, to name each of the body parts she pointed to with her pen, slowly working her way down from the eyes, the lips, the throat. I complied, and when she reached the boy’s groin I stopped until she assured me it was okay to speak. I remember wondering where my mother was at that moment, and whether she knew what this woman was asking of me. Ten minutes later, I would discover that she and my then stepfather had been watching me the whole time on tiny TV down the hall in what looked like a broom closet. A “tee-tee,” I said in response to the woman’s pen. That was my word for it. But, when I said “tee-tee,” I really meant wiener, which was what he had called it whenever we hung out together. But “wiener” really meant penis, which was a word I wouldn’t learn until the car ride home, when I asked my mother what that part of me was really called?
I remember how it bothered me that the woman skipped the knees and toes in lieu of her next line of questioning. She asked me about Austin, the other boy, who was my age and had been a close friend until recently. That’s my name, I told her, we call him AJ. She asked me what he had done to me, what AJ had done to me. He had put his mouth “on mine,” I explained after a pause, squeezing my hands together between my knees. Had I told him he could do it? No. Did I put my mouth on his? No. Did he say where he had learned to do it? No. Had he told me about anybody else he’d done it with? I didn’t know, or have the language to know, to find what they were looking for. So, I kept my eyes on my candy wrappers until they were done asking questions, and we left.
I now wonder if this was the moment I formed the idea that what had happened was not something we were supposed to talk about. My mother hadn’t told me why I was being pulled out of school that day, at least not with any specificity. I knew the woman across the table had tried to sneak up on me with her real questions. There was a reason she had hidden their trajectory. There was a reason my parents weren’t allowed in the room. There was a reason that, afterward, nothing more was ever said of it. Until now, that is. And when I say “there was a reason,” I understand that reason to be shame. And when I say “shame,” I don’t just mean my own. When I say “shame,” I might be talking about my mother’s, too. I might be talking about all our shame. I might be talking about yours.
* * * * *
My mother began calling me more regularly when AJ’s dad got sick. She had been helping him out whenever she could because they were neighbors, and because it frustrated her to see how isolated he was without his family. After what happened between AJ and I, he left his dad’s doublewide and began living almost full-time with his mother, only visiting during occasional school holidays. They suspected his father’s trailer may have been where AJ learned what a blow job was. My mother suspected otherwise, that something like this was convenient ammunition in a custody battle. That night in AJ’s life—and mine—had become a weapon which found its nearest target, AJ’s dad. He was an alcoholic, a chain smoker, and a hoarder of broken-down vehicles and machinery. It only made sense that he’d be a sexual predator, too. At least, it was easiest to believe that was the truth. At least, it was the quickest answer to the question: how had their son become a sexual aggressor at six years old?
A cancer survivor herself, it troubled my mother that AJ’s dad spent so much time alone. After her treatment, we all knew how very necessary it was to have a support system to manage transportation to and from appointments, to cook meals and clean, to carry the burden of all one’s preemptive grieving. AJ’s dad had no support system, and my mother’s calls to me vacillated between rage-filled critiques of the heartlessness of his family, AJ included, and despairing reportage of the latest diagnoses. When, over the phone, she tried to describe the sound of his breath rattling near the end, how it really did sound the way they describe, I understood the way her trauma must have been crawling from his lungs. I understood that when his last lungful whispered out into the hospital room, just an echo of actual breathing, so did my mother’s trauma from her time as a patient. Her calls to me were as much a tool for processing her grief and anger as they were a coping mechanism for the ways she was triggered by his loss.
I understood this way of encountering trauma intuitively at first, then intimately when she called to say she had been speaking with Austin. Which is my name, I thought. But when she said “Austin,” she meant AJ. And when she said she’d been speaking with AJ, she meant she’d been helping him with all the logistics that follow the death of one’s father. She had taken him under her wing as a kindness to his father, but also I suspect because helping him was helpful for her in some way, as well. Healing, perhaps. For me though, the thought of my mother with AJ cut like a gunshot through air.
When still friends, AJ and I relished over the similarities in our lives: our shared first name, our closeness of age, the fact that our father’s also shared first names (among other attributes), and especially our shared love of grape soda. But when his image appeared in my mind juxtaposed with my mother’s, I couldn’t help but feel an echo of the uncanny. For years, I’d looked out my family’s living room window to see his father’s doublewide—his broken-down cars—and tried my best to ignore the history that lingered there. Each day, as I drove down our driveway, his father’s property, the place where it all happened, in my periphery, I’d try my best not to think of the ways my identity was tied to his. Our sameness, overwritten by the shame I felt following that evening with AJ, manipulated my earliest conceptions of my identity, turning them foul, into something not meant for speech. My sexual body, and my proximity to any potential queerness, were always meant to be forgotten. Forgetting was the only aim. Ignore history until it’s too distant to touch you, until it slides from the air, becomes indistinguishable from horizon. At least that’s what we hoped would happen.
* * * * *
When I said it might help us to remember together, I meant I hope it is helpful to re-experience trauma. And when I say “re-experience trauma,” I mean I hope that by magnifying the component parts of our shared pain we might reach toward a kind of healing. And by “healing,” I mean something beyond shame, maybe resembling open pasture, maybe resembling flight.
* * * * *
That evening: it must’ve been about seven o’clock, still plenty light outside, the world awash in the grey-blue hue of those late summer evenings. We were meant to go for an evening bike ride with his dad. Another sleepover was intended. AJ wanted to play in one of the cars, an old jeep. That burgundy upholstery. Its smell, a blend of motor oil and cigarette smoke. The play kissing. His persistence. The high pitch of my scream. The look on his father’s face when he found us. How I was too paralyzed to button my jeans. I remember these things as I have for many years, with a spark of shame in my chest, my anger chambered between my teeth. I remember these things and I let myself hate AJ, hate his father, hate the woman with the pen and the questions, hate grape soda, hate my mother for reminding me of it all, maybe even hate myself a little.
But I’ve started trying to remember my mother’s resilience, as well. The bravery it must have required for her to write that “me too.” The strength she exhibited by confronting AJ’s father’s cancer—and her own. I’ve started to think that the tenderness my mother found in those difficult spaces has been her key to healing, that tenderness might be worth a try. So, I’ll try again.
I’ll try remembering the tender things: the mountain of dirt AJ and I used to play on until we were more dust than boys; the campfires in his driveway, their soot smell mosquito repellent; the empty soda cans we left behind tires, waiting for them to move, for that most satisfying crunch; that time his father lifted the two of us into the night sky in the bucket of his tractor, left us there to look at the stars; the fact that AJ was also six years old; that his behavior was both his and someone else’s that night; that, painful as it is to admit, we share this trauma; that, even as he is its source for me, AJ must be familiar with the type of forgetting I’ve attempted for so long; that, when I got home that night, my mother held me on her lap in a rocking chair while I cried; that she cried as well, and as she cried for me, she may have been crying for AJ and his father, she may have been crying for herself, she may have been crying for all of us, she may have been crying for you.
* * * * *
The last time I go shooting with my mother, she and I share her shotgun. At the time of this memory, the #MeToo movement doesn’t exist yet, I’ve still not found the language to truly understand the complexities of that evening with AJ, my mother’s cancer has likely just begun to grow on her breast, and AJ’s father’s diagnosis is still years in the future. But now, on the other side of so much, I look to this memory for instruction. I look to this memory because it feels loaded with the looming context of all that unfolds in the following years; it feels, in some way, emblematic of all that has—and has not—changed between my mother and I since then.
In the memory, I’ve just grown taller than her so the gun is a touch too small for me. After years of use, though, it is a well-seasoned tool, and rests in both our shoulders comfortably. In the near field, we pass the weapon back and forth between each barrage, pulling the loose sights back into place with every third or fourth shot, re-adjusting the duct tape on the stock that reinforces the butt of the gun, trading attempts at each airborne target. The gun looks worse for wear, but we know it’s the most consistent tool in the batch. The practice still scares me a bit but, when my mother and I share glances between each successful shot, I feel a pull of tenderness.
* * * * *
I carry no resentment toward my mother for the silence that followed that evening with AJ, or for the kindness she extended to him following his father’s death. I now understand the ways her trauma reverberates within mine, and mine within hers. Her silence echoes my own. Her healing, mine. There is a poem by Maggie Smith that parallels the work I attempt here, which begins:
The mother is a weapon you load
yourself into, little bullet.
The mother is glass through which
you see, in excruciting detail, yourself.
Perhaps it is not enough just to say I see myself in her, however. There is something reciprocal here, with which I’d like to answer the poem. The mother is landscape, when I am the near field. The mother is manuscript, when I am both reader and artificer. The mother is sky, when I am the horizon line. The mother is a gun, when I am her little bullet and her marksman. In that near field, as my mother takes aim, and the sound of her gunshots causes me to flinch, I understand the healing that takes place when her aim is true. I welcome her trigger pulls, for there is tenderness in their sharpness. When I hold her gun in my hands, I hold her trauma as well. When she holds mine, I embrace its seasoned utility. When we trade shots at our trauma—at each other—we aim toward something greater, toward something resembling safety.
Cover Art by Sarah Hussein
Note: This essay was the winner of the 2019 Blood Orange Review Nonfiction Contest, as selected by Aisha Sabatini Sloan.