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Picky Aardvark | 2017 | Sometimes the Abyss


The most authentic thing about us is our capacity to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love and to be greater than our suffering.  

-Ben Okri

My First Victim: the Little Girl with Black Eyes

puddle in a tree
Should be here. Try not to question it.

In the third grade, a second grader with black eyes, a new student, reciprocated my crush.

I grew up in a safe, quiet, middle-class community. It fed into a middle school, then high school, each progressively less of these cozy adjectives.

She never made it that far.

She lived in a trailer mid-way through my bus route, up a dirt path overgrown with grass. On either side lay ranch houses with paved driveways and yawning wide trees above mowed lawns.

I don't know what made her choose me on her first day of school, weeks into the semester, and then always sit by me thereafter. I depended that she would, brushing off other people so that the seat would be available.

I remember her in pretty, though unclean, frocks, nicer in style than the other girls wore, more old-fashioned, gingham with Peter Pan collars. An Alice band held back her golden-brown hair most days.

I don't know that we talked about much. What does a third grader have to say that isn't repeated questions about cartoons? It was better that we didn't speak. She preferred the comfortable silence.

I knew she liked me, though she didn't verbalize this and I didn't ask. Our hands touched but we never entwined our fingers. She would rest her head on my shoulder and would sometimes mouth along to the radio. I knew not to draw attention to this, any more than I would grab a kitten gradually nosing into my space.

I don't know her name now. She wasn't at the school long enough to have a yearbook photo I could consult. I picture it with a hard K sound somewhere in it, a Kara or Nicole.

I knew then that something was different about her, that little girls are not that quiet, that they did not usually lay their head on the shoulders of near strangers, almost whispering lyrics to them. By middle school, having encountered a few people with this air about them, I understood that she was abused, physically if not sexually, by her family.

Did the school notice? Is that why she arrived in the middle of one semester and left before the completion of the next? Is this just wishful thinking on my part, because I didn't know to help her and couldn't have shouldered that burden if I had?

She was the first abused person to whom I was drawn, but she wasn't the last. Maybe it was that I recognized something in them that needed me - or just someone who wasn't likely to abuse them again. That's not the way of trauma, though. If no one else will reenact the trauma with which you are most accustomed, sometimes the trauma begs to be pushed onto someone else. Trauma demands repetition, even in the absence of the original inflictor. After a significant breakup in my late teens, one of my adult friend advised I find someone who looked like my ex, then sleep with her and break her heart to make myself feel better by crushing something innocent in my ex's place, a suggestion I found ghastly. As the clinicians at my facility say when they are feeling pithy "hurt people hurt people."

I can't know what became of her, my Kara or Nicole, since I can only remember her ghost. It has been thirty years since I had any contact with her. Her fate isn't my business, but I cannot help curiosity.

I have tried to get into contact with others who entered my life after being hurt. I wanted to know that one bad day, or week or month or year, didn't ruin them. Most are doing well. Some have turned their hurt into something beautiful, have leveraged it into missions and careers. Some have just left the trauma behind, which is no less healthy once your mind lets you believe the truth that you did nothing to bring this on. None hobble daily, at least none who have survived the years.

Lovers and friends have taken their trauma out on me, because they needed a victim and I showed the poor taste of sticking around.

I can't understand their psychology, but I can prod at my own. I am no dumb bunny, so what made me take this abuse? I assumed for a long time that loving someone required you to survive them, that a series of slights and lies didn't constitute a pattern when they were nice to me in private, that I was not wounded enough for these to accumulate into a serious pain. What taught me this? Why did I stay when things turned sour, sacrificing my nights and sanity on the altar of someone else's insecurity and bad experiences? I surely didn't think I deserved it. I wanted to help them. If they were more whole, if I fixed them, they would be happier and I would more deserve them at their best.

The moment after you help some people up, when you give them the safety to develop their confidence and strength, they use it to step on your face to get away. It is the reenactment they crave because it is more comfortable to hurt after so long. Healing someone is too parental, too entitled.

Maybe I subconsciously sought them out because it was easier to deal with someone who was broken, so the relationship could be cemented by the glue I poured on them, however they were frayed or coming apart. If they were broken, I told myself, they were worth getting to know. I fetishized someone for whose restorative journey I could take some credit, someone whose damage made facets. I took up roles and obligations that were not mine to take. I let myself be cued for a part for which I knew an outline of the script, but for which I hadn't auditioned or been cast.

The reenactment of a trauma is not a line, with the persecutor on one side and the victim on the other. It is a triangle, with a rescuer. This person is not a saint, but a martyr. Rescuers guilt-trip. We feel we are the only ones who can help. We feel like a force of good for letting the helpless have power enough to turn bullies, being put upon because we think we can take it. We get angry when they won't do the work we think they should. We let them abdicate onto our shoulders responsibility for their progress.

The triangle is always in flux. The victim one day is the rescuer the next is the persecutor the day after. Nothing is ever really solved, just repeated.

RAINN states that one out of every six American woman is the victim or an attempted or completed rape. How many more are physically abused, verbally assaulted, made to feel small by the very people who ought to be building them up? How many can claim to arrive to adulthood without a ding? How many stay that way? Trauma affects everyone differently. I wasn't much traumatized and I still have depression and anxiety. Had someone really hurt me, I don't know how I would be today, if I would be this functional.

But maybe it isn't that I have linked myself to victims but simply people who have had a long, unsteady life before our paths crossed. Who among us is unblemished? How many of us act out the hurt that was done to us because of this? Maybe I am not as culpable as I seem for letting people hurt me because I thought their pain must be so much more. Maybe I simply loved people instead of trying to fulfill victims.

Sometimes, the hurt person only needs you to sit there on the bus, pinkies barely in contact, and let her whisper along to a song because it is her one moment of quiet in the day. Sometimes, she just need to know that someone cares without seeing her as damaged goods, staples and tape in hand.

Soon in Xenology: Gods. Untrustworthy adults. Detribalizing. Writers. The Abyss. Apocalypse.

last watched: The Tick
reading: Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang
listening: Regina Spektor

Picky Aardvark | 2017 | Sometimes the Abyss

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

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