The Worst Kind of People

An excerpt.

Winter, 2012–2013 / No. 29
Art by Matthew Daley
Matthew Daley

Sometimes you can have the greatest idea in the world and be clueless about its potential impact to transform lives. The inventor of the Internet search engine didn’t think anyone would feel compelled to use it more than once or twice in their lifetime. I think about that every time I type something into Google. At 2 A.M. I sat curled on Jimmy’s basement couch with my laptop and typed in: “prison sentences for attempted rape,” and “average prison sentences for attempted rape of minors.” I scanned the list of potential articles without linking to any of them. Then I typed in: “why men rape,” before closing the window. After my father was arrested, I volleyed between wanting to know everything and wanting to clip my own brain stem in order to be clueless to the reality of my life.

On the day preceding the arraignment hearing, I decided I definitely was not going to go. If even some of the allegations against him were true, what would my support mean? But every time I settled on a decision, I was hit by a powerful surge of guilt.

When your family needs you, you should be there.

Even though I recently had begun the transition from agnostic to atheist, there was no ignoring the impact going to church every Sunday for my entire life had made on my psyche. Those things you learn at the age of five come right back to you in times of crisis. Do unto others. Honor thy father and mother. If I was in prison and I believed I had done nothing wrong, would I want my father to abandon me?

I had no answers, no ability to rationalize or analyze, since I returned from New York City, when Jimmy and I stood at my open front gate, confused by the crush of cars crowding our driveway and the adjoining street. Seeing my father being led away, nudged into a car by two uniformed police officers. The look on his face, was it the burn of shame or utter confusion and innocence? A woman in a glossy blue jacket with lettering on the back wouldn’t let us into my own house.

“Where is my dad going? This is my house!” I was hysterical. I yelped like a hyena; screamed like a confused relation to the suspect on a TV crime show. It was my only frame of reference.

I kept crying. I don’t know why, I just couldn’t stop. Jimmy was silent, mouth agape. We ran toward the front door. The cop followed, yelling at us to stop. It took her forever to explain why she was there, why there were cops everywhere, opening drawers and taking photographs. One cop grabbed our family photo albums, carrying them outside to a waiting truck. All of our memories, clutched in a bear hug. For the longest time, my mother focused on that, all of the things we lost, all the photos of me as a baby, never returned.

We were hustled outside to the backyard to sit on our patio furniture. I sat down, and the tears of shock stopped. A numbness enveloped me. A lady cop tried to explain things to us. As if it could be explained, really. Where was my mother? Why haven’t you gone to get her? Was she at work? She should know what happened.

As if I’d manifested her, my mother’s voice was heard coming through the kitchen. “What are you doing to my house? What is going on? Where is George? ”

A man in a suit trailed her, trying to explain, but she wasn’t listening.

“I am a lawyer from the firm representing your husband. We are here to explain what has happened.”

“What? ” my mother kept repeating, as though the man’s voice was a piercing sound she couldn’t hear through.

Meanwhile, lady cop kept talking to me like we were just chatting in the park somewhere.

“Elizabeth, I understand this is difficult, but was your father ever inappropriate with you? With your friends? Did he make your friends uncomfortable? ”

The cop had three red curls that escaped a series of tidy barrettes. Eventually she stopped trying to re-pin them and curled a finger around them instead. When she leaned over I could see a tattoo of a blue sparrow cresting her collarbone. She took notes in a lined soft-cover paper notebook. I kept wanting to ask her, “Why don’t you record this? Is there not some sort of phone application that would make your job so much easier? I could spill this water on your notebook and we would have to start all over. Pencil fades, smudges out.” But I didn’t say that.

“Dissociation,” explained Jimmy’s mother, Elaine, later, when I told her how it felt to be questioned like that. “It’s how your body copes with stress.”

“So I am not a cold, unfeeling psychopath? ” I asked, between sobs.

I hadn’t really ever talked to Elaine much before this, other than the polite things you say to the mother of your first boyfriend. It was a role too new to me to really know exactly what the socially appropriate level of intimacy was.

Jimmy and I took off when we could. My mother was calling my brother, Andrew, and my aunt Clara. She told me to go. I knew she didn’t really want me to go, but I felt like I was going to throw up for miles, and then the cameras started to arrive. How do they find out about this stuff?

“Can we get a shot of your pretty daughter? ” one man with a beer gut and polyester suit yelled at our closed front door.

I stayed up all night, sitting on Jimmy’s couch, leaving in the pre-dawn light to spend the morning practising my sprints at the track outside our school. Two hundred metres, from one white line to the other. The world record was set in 2009: 21.34 seconds. I obviously ran nowhere near that time, but I was the best in school. I knew what to do and I did it, felt more certainty about my decision with the pound of each sneaker as it hit the packed dirt track. I ran my best time on two hours of fitful sleep, collapsed on the grass still dotted with dew, breathing in that earthy smell and staring at the sky as it changed from pinky-orange to blue.

Jimmy lumbered up, lines of pillow and shock across his cheeks, his hooded sweatshirt pulled tight around his head.

“I figured you’d be here,” he said, loosening the strings, pulling off the hood to free his matted hair. “Make good time? ”

I shrugged, pulled him onto the grass beside me.

I was raised by two nerds—the kind who only allowed us to watch PBS, for one hour every week. My father sat reading Harper’s and Physics World while I ran in track meets.

“So, they just run back and forth and jump over that bar? ” I remember my father saying to me when I was a kid, watching the athletic field filled with ecstatic children with a mix of bewilderment and boredom. “Well, good for you, champ!” he’d said, reaching out to touch the first-place ribbon. But he was never more proud than if I’d won the science fair or an oratorical contest. Fair enough. What’s going to serve you better in life, really? That I could run back and forth really fast, or that I possessed critical thinking skills or the ability to be innovative?

Still, nothing made me feel more present and alive than running back and forth idiotically between lines on the ground and beating my best time. Maybe I just liked the literal quality of the action, or the metaphor.

Jimmy put his hand on my shin and squeezed, and that one sweet motion prompted the arrival of sharp shots of tears I couldn’t have anticipated.

When I was calm enough to listen he said, “Sometimes you just can’t trust adults.”

“You are so good with summary sentences,” I laughed, in-between sobs.

“They turn out to be monsters sometimes.”

Jimmy had an uncle who was a monster. Or apparently so. He’d only met him once. His mother had a restraining order against him.

Jimmy lay down beside me, then rolled over top of me, propped himself up on his elbows, and kissed my nose. His breath smelled of cereal. I ran my hand under his shirt, grabbed him on each side, and kissed his mouth.

The line between teenager and adult is more than just a birthday. Adults are often responsible for most of the ridiculously tragic things that occur in life: for example, thirty-seven per cent of Russians today approve of the direction in which Stalin took their country. There’s a man in North Carolina who has been in prison for fifty-five years because he once stole a television. Adults fuck up on such colossal levels so often, yet they’re always questioning the motives of the young. When you turn eighteen you do not instantly develop an innate sense of intelligence the young cannot possess. All you get is the ability to vote and fight in a war, and you can go to jail without it being all your parents’ fault.

“I have always trusted my father,” I said. It sounded so simple, a fact so obvious that I’d never had to say it out loud before.

“I know, it’s so weird. Of all the people to be accused of something like this, your father would be last on the list.”

“I’d never suspect him of even cheating on my mother. He has always been an example of one of the ‘good guys.’ He’s pro-choice. He donates to the local women’s shelter every year. He’s been giving me the girls-can-be-whatever-they-want-to-be speech since Grade 1!”

I was sitting up now, shouting and using my hands for emphasis.

“I know. I’ve always been a bit jealous that you have such a good father.”

“I mean, besides his inability to notice dirty dishes and bring them into the kitchen to be washed, he is pretty much, like, a perfect man. Other women have always wondered how my mom ended up with such a great guy. I’ve thought that my whole life.”

He has never touched me, or watched me, or made me feel uncomfortable. I don’t say that out loud, because Jimmy knows it. But I wanted to repeat it to myself for some reason.

I know that feeling. I’ve had coaches who had the propensity to stare too long; a camp counsellor who liked to tell dirty jokes and take Missy Lederman on long walks to talk about what Jesus thinks about her virginity. You can sense it, sometimes, if you have some sense about people. My dad, on the other hand, treated me like an equal; he was interested in my opinions. He never seemed to care about whether or not I had made my bed; those kinds of life lessons were reserved for my mother.

Jimmy trusts his mom. She’s like a rock of stability. Boring, boring stability, he jokes, but I know it comforts him. Her thick brown horn-rimmed glasses and wraparound wool sweater that is neither brown nor grey but somewhere in-between, from a mid-nineties-era L. L. Bean catalogue.

“I don’t think we have to go back to school today,” he said. “At least you don’t. Cheryl can run the meeting.”

Cheryl was student council vice-president. Jimmy and I fell in love after we bonded in student government because we were the only ones who knew what we were talking about. Other kids were there just so they could say they were on their college applications.

The kids in our school have everything most children in this country lack—not just money, food, and shelter, but attentive parents who want them to succeed. Parent–teacher nights at our school scare the crap out of the teachers, because almost all of the parents seem to care and want to know what’s going on. Some of them even bring their lawyers along. Our town seems ripe for parody, with its lack of a crystal meth problem and low high-school dropout rate. Jimmy and I are the kind of kids other parents use as examples. Now, I suppose, we were the kind of kids that will be talked about for at least a decade, the daughter of Mr. Woodbury, once the most popular teacher and accomplished physicist, jailed for…whatever official charge they’ll come up with at the hearing.

Zoe Whittall’s latest book is the novel Holding Still For As Long As Possible. Last updated winter, 2012–2013.