The United States of Trauma


ago
5 min
60
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12
Finalist
Jury

Cassie Premo Steele, Ph.D., is an ecofeminist lesbian mother poet, novelist, and essayist who has published 16 books. Her website is www.cassiepremosteele.com  [+]

Image of Summer 2020

The thing about trauma, when it is survived, is that it can prepare people for the future. Sometimes people develop skills to handle a crisis or deescalate violence. Veterans can become police officers. Gang members can become peacemakers.

Or not.

Police officers can put their knees on the necks of peacemakers and kill them.

Gang members and veterans can put needles into their arms that kill them.

There are no easy answers.

But there was a time when right and wrong seemed clear.

-

Beach Week in the DC area was a big thing in the 80s. So many different kinds of schools – public, private, Catholic, Episcopal, prep, Quaker, military, hippy - from all over DC, Virginia, and Maryland – combined for one week in Ocean City, Maryland, for a teenage party that lasted for days.

I had a boyfriend. His mom wouldn’t let him go. He told me to do what I wanted, to have fun.

I remember three things about that week.

The first is that I got high for the first time. I’d been offered it many times before – weed was prevalent among the Catholic boys whose homes were the sites for most of the parties throughout the year.

But my boyfriend and I were not interested.

We drank, but not as much as many people. We were nerds. We fast danced during the slow songs at school dances. We had inside jokes. We spent most of every weekend together at his huge mansion in McLean, Virginia, near the river, that his élite Puerto Rican mom had dubbed La Quinta and had tiles painted to the left of the front door to say so just before his Colombian dad left his mom for his nurse.

His mom loved me. She let me into her bedroom as she sat before her mirror and did makeup in the mornings or took off makeup in the evenings, and she spoke to me like a little daughter. (Her own daughters and sons were older. Javier was the baby. I was the baby’s novia.)

She told me some people were born to rule. They had it in their blood. They were smarter and meant to lead and teach.

Most people were not, though, she said. Most people are sheep. It’s in their blood, too, she said. They enjoy family and like to work hard. Or not, she said, some of them are lazy, but that’s not what I’m talking about.

So there are leaders and workers, she said. And that is that.

A whole course in Latin American history in the course of removing one pair of false eyelashes.

That’s what I thought about when I got high for the first time: class and talent and blood and history and poetry and music and pain and protest and what it means to be human.

Specifically, what I did was take a couple tokes and then sit out on the balcony by myself with my yellow Sony Walkman and a cassette tape of Bob Dylan.

-

The second thing I remember is that my friend Monique and I pretended to be French.

Instead of attending the high school parties or even the many college parties, we went to hotel lobbies and sat at the bar and waited for men to approach us. And when they did, we spoke only French to each other and we pretended not to know what they were talking about and we joked about the men right in front of them in French and we laughed right in their faces and they couldn’t understand us but they knew what we were doing and they put up with it anyway because we were 17.

We took their free drinks and eventually, we went to the bathroom and hid until we could escape and we laughed hysterically as we ran away.

-

The third thing I remember is an alley. 

It was not the night I got high by myself and it was not the night I pretended to be French with Monique. 

I had gone to one of the parties in one of the many houses huge groups of boys rented for such purposes, and I’m sure I was with friends at some point, but that point had passed, and I found myself alone walking down an alleyway very late at night. 

But I was not alone. 

Suddenly, one of the Gonzaga boys was there in front of me.

It started out friendly. He smiled at me. I was flattered.

I was younger and chubby and wore braces and not the kind of girl like those from Visitation that this kind of boy usually dated.

But this was no date.

And even as my automatic response was to smile back, another part of my brain was banging pots on the balconies and screaming.

Get down, he said. 

What?

On your knees.

What?

Suck my dick.

I...

If you don’t do it, I will tell everyone you’re a slut. I’ll tell them you slept with fifteen guys tonight. Jav will find out. He will be devastated. Do you want that?

No.

So do it. Get down. On your knees. Suck it.

I did.

I did and I thought it was my choice. I did and I told myself that I was doing it to save my reputation. I did and I told myself that this was also partially for Jav. That he would be humiliated by those richer, cooler guys at Gonzaga who would rag him about his fat, slutty girlfriend, and so I was doing it for him.

And maybe, just maybe, this boy actually liked me. Maybe he picked me specifically. Maybe he liked me and that’s why he desired me. Maybe.

When it was over, he zipped up and walked away.

I told no one that night.

-

When the story broke about Kavanaugh and allegations of rape and sexual assault, I knew right away that what the women were saying was true.

I knew it deep in my blood, as Javier’s mother would say. It was knowledge I had earned.

As the memories came back to me, and the feelings, and the images and sensations and aftereffects, I emailed Jav.

I asked him if he remembered my telling him after I got back home. I wanted, for once, a witness, someone to tell me I wasn’t crazy, that this did happen, that I talked about it at the time.

He emailed back right away: I am sorry that this happened to you. And yes, I do remember you telling me about it at the time. It wasn’t your fault then and it isn’t now. You did nothing wrong. You did not deserve this.

What would be different in the lives of girls and women all over the world if they had just one man in their lives to say this to them?

-

I lit the candle on the fireplace hearth first thing in the morning. I settled in with my knitting project and a fresh pot of coffee. I had my phone nearby to text my wife at work.

And I turned on the television.

For hours as the candle burned down and simultaneously lit a circle, I watched the testimony against Kavanaugh.

I nodded when she talked about the hippocampus. I, too, had studied trauma.

I sobbed when she talked about their laughter. I, too, had been terrified of humiliation.

I understood when she talked about knowing where the front door was and the location of the bathroom and bedroom. I, too, had recalled events in vivid spatial detail.

I remembered when she talked about not wanting her parents to know she’d been at a boy’s house without his parents at home. I, too, had wanted to be good.

I took my position as a witness very seriously that morning.

I did it for her. 

I did it for myself.

I did it for our country.

I did it because I truly had hope that her testimony would make a difference, that others would see the snake of the privilege with its straight white male poison that had bitten and infected so many of us.

-

But police officers put their knees on necks, and gang members and veterans put needles into their arms.

And men leave their wives and wives console themselves with makeup and class divisions.

And people get high and listen to music and don’t hurt anybody.

And girls tease men and sometimes get away with it.

And boys show up in alleyways.

And Supreme Court Justices are sworn in. 

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Image of Tony Martello
Tony Martello · ago
Powerful piece, Cassie! My full support- 5 votes. Check out my short fiction story, "Maize of Color" and vote for it in the finals as well. Help it get across the finish line. Thanks! Tony
Image of Keith Simmonds
Keith Simmonds · ago
My support for this harrowing story that deals with very grave societal problems! Good luck!
Image of Cassie Premo Steele
Cassie Premo Steele · ago
Thank you so much, Keith!
Image of Rene Smith
Rene Smith · ago
❤your amazing
Image of Cassie Premo Steele
Cassie Premo Steele · ago
Thank you so much! ❤️