A Bedtime Story From Your Future
Sometimes you’re the pursued, screaming around the moonlit hills in a silver sled; more often, you’re the pursuer, bent and barefoot in the snow; a zigzag of tracks behind, a frostbitten slog ahead. If you could just find him, the story goes.
Dropping by his apartment on a Wednesday morning, an hour after his graveyard shift had ended, you fluffed your hair and cinched your belt and walked passed the ferns and the pool and the plastic chairs, and then stopped—because rising like mist from a grave, was an enormous, white For Rent sign in his window. A lump of ice hardened behind your thorax. The guy was restless in his hometown, but he wouldn’t just vanish, would he? Hadn’t he only recently traced your spine with a drowsy finger while you lay drenched and spent and pulsing pink on top of him? You checked his mailbox (name peeled off) and returned to the window, a funhouse mirror in which your eyes became minus signs and your mouth, a cavernous maw.
Only days later, you try to convince yourself that you are finally—for the minutes trudge by—over him. After all, you are sixteen and he is twenty and there have been no promises, questions, or complaints. The year is 1976, and words such as “boyfriend” and “date” are too much like the bow tie your school counselor wears, too much like words your parents spoke during The Crusades before the invention of pre-marital sex.
Meanwhile, in the darkroom of your father’s office where you work after school, you have just pulled some films from the developer tank when two hairy-adult hands clasp your teenage breasts from behind. You hold the films in the air. The small room has space for only two, and the coffee-scented beard sighing into the back of your neck belongs, inconceivably, to your father’s friend and business partner. The tanks make their high-pitched swizzle. The bleached countertops glow in the dark. On the other side of the wall your father talks on the phone, unaware that you’re being groped by his army buddy of “twenty-six years with never a harsh word between us,” the man who would adopt you if your parents were killed in a car accident. The hands lift off and you lower the films into the fixer tank. “I’m sorry,” Captain Godparent mutters on his way out, “I don’t know what came over me.” And this briefly, very briefly, feels like power because balding men with silver beards are in charge of the world and it’s invigorating to have rattled one of them, even at your own expense. Your father is fifty-five, your godfather is fifty-five, and your doctors and the school principal and the cop who cited you for speeding; they’re the authorities. Paunchy with capillaric noses, they all seem fifty-five.
Twenty years later you will be telling your young stepdaughter that the private parts of her body should not be touched by any adult but her female pediatrician, and that no adult should ask her to keep a secret from her parents. During your own youth, however, personal sovereignty is not in the vocabulary. Nor are books on empowering daughters or raising them to assess the value of looks, bodyweight, and the obligation to please. Prime-time television does not yet praise the evolutionary aspects of the teenage brain.
Rather, adults are generous in other ways — as imparters of wisdom, imposers of safety, providers of material comfort and security. Their goal is more to guide you than to understand you; more to mold your character than to help you develop your individuality; more to protect you from influential peers than from advertising. They worry far more about your own moral lapses than about those of the surrounding adults. In short, they trust each other and seek to rescue you from your hedonic self.
Tonight, when you have toppled face-first onto your orangey pink, lime-green swirl bedspread after the day’s screamer with your mother, you will remember Captain Godparent recently asking whether you had a boyfriend. You said there was someone, but in a spasm of fragility your mouth twitched. The radar-equipped office women tilted their heads, smiled knowingly, and said there would be plenty of others. “Play the field,” they advised. You sighed. Could they not see that you were so-over the guy who left?
Later, you try to figure out how Captain Godparent managed to know something about you that you did not know about yourself. Namely, that you would not scream. Or resist. Or even ruin the partly-developed films. That you would not confront him or tell your father. Ever. That you would proceed as if it did not happen. You do this the next day and the next, until even you are surprised at how smoothly you glide by him in the hall with a cordial, efficient nod. Captain Godparent, however, begins to avoid you, leaving the coffee room when you walk in. He no longer calls you pretty or says things like, “I bet you distract the boys from their studies.” Instead, he has become curt, resenting you for what happened in the darkroom, resenting you for the way you walk or smoke or wear your mascara. The grope lasted four-and-a-half seconds, but the aftermath seems infinite, because now he is looking for a way to avoid seeing your face in the office. Perhaps he will malign your work, magnifying some petty complaint into a reason for dismissal. Worse, he might confess the grope to your father and then the two of them—who, in twenty-six years, have never had a harsh word— will then have harsh words because of you. Or they could decide that, rather than have harsh words, they could simply remove you—from the place where you see your dad after school, the place where wives and ex-wives take coffee breaks and spill intimate fragments from their complicated lives, the place where you are earning twice what any other teen job would pay toward your near-future apartment. You could, of course, speak up. Except that you have done a lot of lying recently about parties and crushed car-metal and your absences from chemistry class. Suppose you finally rev up the nerve to tell someone—the affable school counselor with a bow tie, the sympathetic office women with their tilted heads—and are disbelieved or deemed a slut? Is there any reason Captain Godparent would admit the truth? What could another adult do but make the situation worse?
Meanwhile, the Captain grows increasingly moody. So, you warm up to him, jok