Erin Osborne: You Can’t Tell This Story Without Telling That Story

When someone asks about her adolescence, which isn’t very often now that her kids are grown. and distant, now that she no longer spends her days working next to Carol and Maria at Jesper Ammunitions, her nights down at the Anoka Legion, Patty prefers to tell the story of how she ran away from home when she was fourteen, washed her hair in the Nicollet Mall fountain on principle, and spent the night on the third floor of a dingy house next to Loring Park, a more discerning and attentive member of the BPM’s motorcycle club locking her away in his room to protect her from the other members and their buddies.

“I thought he was just beautiful,” she would say of the young biker, Scottie. “He had this long, curly, dark hair and a moustache. I can’t remember if his cut-away was denim or leather. I guess it could’ve been either. I asked him if I could go potty, and he said ‘you can’t now,’ because there was a party going on downstairs, and if anyone knew I was there well, who knows what would’ve happened.” She’d watch the listener, her eldest daughter, a lover, or the woman perched at the bar at the Legion, for the tell-tale signs of panic, and then relief, and then disbelief when she’d state that her older brother, Jacob, miraculously found her the next day perched atop Scottie’s shoulders walking out of a small sundry shop on Nicollet Avenue. There was no questioning Jacob when he told her to get down from there, neither by her nor Scottie. She’d posit that maybe there was an air about Jacob that Scottie respected because he’d just gotten home from Viet Nam, and he “didn’t give a shit about who’s shoulders I was on. He looked like he was gonna explode.” Jacob took her to his apartment where his new wife, Sandy, clucked and paced and fed Patty a tuna sandwich and cold can of Coke. “It was one of the best meals of my life,” she’d say.

Patty does not prefer to tell the story about how three years later she was raped and subsequently became a mother.

She has never admitted the toll the violence has taken on her.

And maybe one of the reasons she hasn’t is because she was told to believe the rape wasn’t violence. Men were raping all over the place: raping in the parks, raping in their own beds, raping in someone else’s bed in someone else’s house, raping under bridges, raping in back storage rooms, raping at cocktail parties, raping at funerals, raping in offices, raping in hospitals, raping back stage, in cars, on trains, in spacious skies, in amber waves of grain, on purple mountains, and on fruited plains. Men rape strangers, their dates, their grandchildren, their sisters, their wives, their nieces and nephews, their co-workers, friends of friends, their girlfriends, that drunk lady, their patients, their mentees. Unfettered. It’s a rape orgy down here. If an alien were to survey this world with their delicate technology, in the nano-second it would take to gather all the information over the millennia, the geographical, the cultural, the physical, the psychological, the religious, they’d determine that rape is just something we do. And that alien would be correct.

There is a collection of us then, in corporeal or in spirit, the children of rape, some of us knowing our violent beginnings, some of us spared the information. We plod, we swoop, we flail, convulse, and then stiffen, in cycles around the perimeter of our Fatherly Holes, because we only know something is missing and can’t work out what it is. And so all there is to do is plod, swoop, flail, convulse, stiffen. Or maybe we have something added. An extra edge, a coldness, a sharpness to our jaws, a quickness in clenching our teeth, a habit of flinching that is proportional to the fear our mothers felt at the moment of conception. If allowed some of our mothers adopted us out. Some of our mothers kept us out of grace? Love? Coercion? Spite? In this story, Patty is my mother. Her real name is L—–. My father is the rapist. He is a rapist.

The man who raped Patty was three years older than she. He was twenty; she seventeen, and at the time maybe the age difference wasn’t such a big deal. Patty’s mother was somewhat reluctant to allow the date, but not so much as to let Patty’s protestations deter her from giving permission to go. Protestations may be too light a word to use to describe Patty’s tactics. Patty was loquacious, a natural performer and, when she wanted to use it, she had a sound logical mind. Her arguments for the date included evidence of her loneliness since her parents’ divorce, the fact that since she had found the community theater, where she had met the rapist, she had stayed out of trouble, and she hadn’t gotten any other offers from any other boys, and so maybe this was one of very few chances she’d have to potentially secure a husband. That last bit sat heavy with her mother, who wasn’t so old-fashioned as to not allow her daughter to explore her own interests, but still had the programming that the best way, albeit desperate, to make it in the world was to get married and get married young. It was how she, herself, had escaped her abusive father’s household back when she was seventeen. Patty’s mother shifted her glasses down the bridge of her nose, looked over the frames so that Patty knew for certain she meant business and said, “Home by ten. No monkeyin’ around.”

The details of the rape are as follows: the rapist picked up Patty from her home in a northern suburb of Minneapolis, the rapist took her to a pizza counter for dinner, the rapist brought her back to his apartment, the rapist got her drunk, the rapist raped her, the rapist brought her home. The rapist calculated every move, including the choice of Patty from a list of young women at the community theater because he had heard a rumor she was a slut.      

For the record, Patty was not a slut. And for all the free love, the sexual revolution, Roe V. Wade, and women’s empowerment that seemed to dominate the intellectual class at the time, the new way of thinking had not spilled over into working class, suburban Minnesota. And that may say something about well-circulated, well-intentioned ideas passed along by those who are able to lavish their time and energy on thinking and caring and formulating, and those who are not. In Patty’s world, if a girl had sex once, if a girl looked like she was the type to have sex, if she spoke about sex, if she knew about her own body, she was likely to be gossiped over in any manner of social circle, even within the open and glittering world of the community theater in which Patty felt she had found a home. She had had sex one time with a nice boy named Bobby mostly out of curiosity. Behind her back, those adult actors and stage crew spoke about her as if she were the madame of a brothel.

I learned who I thought was my father was not my father when I was seven years old. I did not learn about the rape until much later. My mother sat down my twin sister and I (in reality, two babies) at the edge of her bed, in the back bedroom of the trailer we shared with our little brother, our infant sister, my mother’s boyfriend R—-, and his two boys when they came for visitation. Her bedroom was hazy with cigarette smoke, and warm from the humidifier she ran in the winter. The sheets on my mother’s bed always felt like someone had just been in them. She had illustrated a story book for us on wide-ruled notebook paper, in blue, blotchy Bic ink. I was impressed she drew the Burger King sign exactly as I had seen it in real life, but without the orange hamburger bun and red lettering. The story the book told went something like this: Everyone went to the Burger King to hang out. Burger King was an exciting place. There, she met a boy whom she drew with hearts around his head. She mentioned love. She said he was cute, and she loved him. Together they made me and my sister. This was before Daddy came along. I cried a little. Maybe a lot because I hadn’t seen who I thought was my dad in a long time. He lived two states away. I fantasized who my real father was, something I still do, though acerbically. But back then, my real father was rich, kind, and so, so, sorrowful over not being with me. But mostly rich.

When asked about her pregnancy, which isn’t very often, Patty prefers to tell the story of how she ignored school district policy and walked to receive her diploma at the graduation ceremony anyway, visibly five months pregnant. She had managed to hide her pregnancy throughout most of the second half of her senior year. Mr. Pugh, a troll of a man whose demeanor screamed wood shop teacher more than gym teacher, outed her. He wasn’t kind, but his own daughter, years ago, had gotten pregnant as a teenager, and so he thought he knew a thing or two on the subject. At the time of his daughter’s pregnancy, young motherhood wasn’t really frowned upon unless the girl was single, and since his daughter found out early on, and Pugh was friendly with the boy, it wasn’t difficult for Pugh to remedy that situation with a forced marriage.

The third time Patty came into his office and asked for a larger size of gym shorts, he knew for certain she was pregnant. She had made some excuse about her mother’s cookies and how irresistible they were, even though her mother never allowed cookies in the house. Pugh put out his cigarette and exhaled through his nostrils like a bull ready to charge, but his fury dissolved into light annoyance as he waddled to the file cabinet, his pot belly leading the way. He held his lower back with his left hand as he lowered himself to the bottom drawer where the extra men’s shorts were kept, his knees cracking and popping on his way down. He had the idea to give Patty two pair, one medium and one large, so he wouldn’t have to do this all over again in a month. “Here,” he said, “that should last you,” and he flung the shorts at her. Patty took his actions and his words as an unlikely act of kindness from an unlikely man, even though Pugh’s intentions were strictly as those of a supply sergeant. On his lunch break, he made his way up to the main office, waved to the secretaries, and poked his head into the Vice Principal’s office. “We got another one,” he said.

During Concert Choir rehearsal the next day, Patty was delivered a yellow hall pass from one of the students who worked as an assistant in the office during her free period. Patty thought she looked the part: a high ponytail, lavender sweater, purple plaid skirt and thick white tights. She was very well put together. Patty’s judgement of the girl was swift. Her thought process went like this: matchy-matchy, money, spoiled, uptight bitch. Patty looked down at her own ensemble: a billowing peasant shirt and her favorite wide bell-bottom jeans. Her thought process went like this: cool, rebel, loose, open book. It wouldn’t be the last time she’d frame herself as diametrically opposed to another woman, or league of women.

The bell-bottoms were getting increasingly tighter around her waist, as was to be expected. One night in early April, she crept down to her mother’s sewing room in the basement after she was sure her mother was asleep. She made V-shaped cuts between the belt loops on the back side of the jeans and sewed in long pieces of elastic with whatever thread her mother had had loaded in the machine. Patty saw that her mother’s latest project was a set of eight quilted placemats made with a floral print in Harvest Yellow and Amber Wave. The ovals and the length of fabric needed to make the ruffles around each placemat were already cut, arranged in their own sets, two ovals to one length, spread out in a straight line across the cutting table her mother had fashioned out of an old closet door and four table legs.

Her mother didn’t know how to make an apron for the table to provide lateral stability, and had just hammered nails through the door, into the tops of the legs. The table was wobbly, but it stayed standing as long as Patty’s mother didn’t lean on it or weigh it down with anything substantial. When she’d prepare to cut out the fabric for a pattern, Patty’s mother hovered above the table, bent at the waist. She fiddled daintily with the fragile paper, incrementally shifting it into place. When it was time to pin the paper to the fabric, she used the caution and precision fitting a bomb technician. She liked this type of work. She was wired for this type of work.

Patty’s mother knew about the pregnancy but not the rape, and in some granular amount, she could empathize with her daughter privately about her state because she felt the weight of the family’s legacy of violent men. She felt all men were violent in their own ways, some more subtle than those of her own father: taking time, sucking energy, withholding love, demanding services. And so she figured some boy had weaseled his way into Patty’s heart, took what he wanted, and left her alone afterward. She didn’t scold Patty, nor did she comfort her. How Patty got pregnant just was. The pregnancy just was. They never talked about it or anything adjacent to it, even when Patty was dropped off at the doctor’s office, just a quick “everything okay?” and a “yep,” which was why Patty had to sneak off to mend her own jeans. Looking at her mother’s carefully placed pieces of placemats, organized and hopeful, Patty rolled her eyes. “Why eight?” she said out loud to no one. 

The uptight bitch tried to hand the yellow hall pass to Mrs. Melting, the choir director, just as the choir was finishing up a run-through of “Lacrimosa,” from Mozart’s Requiem. Mrs. Melting waved off the girl politely yet firmly, her turquoise Zuni cluster cuff bracelet sliding down the length of her spindly arm. Patty loved Mrs. Melting, if not for her black turtlenecks and curly salt and pepper hair, teased and sprayed to give her a look of windswept epiphany, but for the way she treated Patty. She knew Patty was a gifted singer, a strong and knowledgeable alto, and she did not let Patty get away with half-assing a part. She was the rare music teacher who knew and loved the popular music of the time, John Denver, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Jim Croce, and could parlay her students’ musical taste into a love of the classical choral music she insisted her students perform. No showtunes, no modern hymns, no patriotic anthems, her singers were not pious entertainers. They were serious, working musicians. On the first day of class, she declared “Mozart was the Jimi Hendrix of his time,” which was true, in her opinion, and yes, a bit dramatic, but then so were her students. She gained their trust easily. She could push them in whichever way she wanted. When it came time for correction, which in Patty’s case almost always involved leaning too heavily on her talent and not doing the extra theory homework outside of class, Mrs. Melting would ask, “What do we say when the Lazy Demons come calling, my dear?” Patty would reply, trained, humbled, “Not today.”

Patty was pleased, relieved, when Mrs. Melting stopped the uptight bitch in her tracks so the choir could end “Lacrimosa” properly. “Lacrimosa” ends with a lift to a major chord from the sad and lonely key of D minor. The altos provide the lift, moving down from G to F sharp. Patty loved the way it felt to take a half step down with her voice while lifting the sound of the choir up to a major chord. On this day, the change affected her guts, like a flip of a miniature magnetic field, jarring Patty out of her own presence. She felt as if she had been flung up and out, landed on a plane above this one, squarely on her feet, able to survey her foggy inner world with a small amount of clarity, feeling safe, feeling that everything would be alright. And for a moment she connected herself to the baby as being instead of burden, as though maybe what was to come was meant to be walked through side by side instead of suffered alone. She felt a sense of calm she hadn’t realized she needed to feel, and when Mrs. Melting called out the name scribbled on the yellow hall pass, “Patty, my dear, they’d like to see you in the office,” she simply stood up, received the yellow pass, and walked out of the choir room as if no challenge couldn’t be overcome.


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