Author’s note: Names have been changed to protect individuals’ privacy.
In 1980 my Aunt Lydia accused her husband Mark of spousal rape. It was the first case Fresno County had ever seen. Though Fresno is the fifth-largest city in California, it was uncomfortable for people then (and now, I would guess) to imagine that rape could occur between a husband and wife. That Mark—Lydia’s high school sweetheart, the father of her small son—had assaulted her within their marriage covenant.
Mark was a tall, attractive man. A high school swim team star. Lydia was an ethereal woman who wore a golden headdress to their wedding, long blonde hair, eyes feline. They seemed like a great couple from the outside, until they didn’t. The case ran its course and Mark was acquitted. When I asked my mother why, she recalled: “They brought in a pair of Lydia’s short shorts as evidence.”
“Evidence of what?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” my mother said. She paused. “To show what kind of girl she was, I guess.”
Less than a year after that trial, Mark shot and killed Lydia through her bedroom window. He was trying to evade paying the back child support and property money he owed her. Just days before he killed her, his vehicle had been repossessed and they found a 12-gauge shotgun in the car. It seemed like kismet, an intervention of the universe to save her. But the gun was returned to him. He was not questioned at all despite the fact that h e had warned Lydia again and again that he would “blow her fucking head off.”
Lydia died before I had the chance to meet her, but she would have been my youngest aunt on my mother’s side. I know her best sitting clean-faced in her pale blue two-piece bathing suit, one tan leg curled under her. It’s a photo that lived on my grandmother’s bookshelf. For years, I would stare at it while I talked on the phone, first with my mother for our weekly court-appointed, ten-minute calls, and later, silent, while my friends would question a boy I liked on a three-way line to see if he thought I was cute. All the while, Lydia was next to me. I’d wipe the dust from her frame, make sure not to ask about her. But somewhere in adolescence I began to think of her often.
As an adult, I search her name online like a habit, hoping to find more information than what was revealed growing up. I can’t shake how she must have felt in that court room, standing in front of a jury, telling them, screaming to them, Help. And all she got was a pair of her shorts paraded before her.
I lived with my mother until I was nine years old. Not long but long enough to see things that confused me about women and consent and sex and my body and her body and our bodies. She was an alcoholic and we were poor. Downstairs below our apartment lived a man named Fred. He was old, he wore velour tracksuits, and he had a tiny gray mustache. He kept dozens of Playboy magazines under his bed. The feature image of the 1996 summer edition—a gymnast naked in the straddle splits—is forever burned into my memory. He liked my mother. They didn’t pay attention to me, and I don’t really know the nature of their relationship, but I know she depended on him for booze, and often, late at night, she would disappear for hours to drink his vodka. Sometimes I would follow in exasperation. I would scream and beg for her to come home. Sometimes I relented and ate jelly beans while watching horse races on his television at three in the morning. She kept me home from second grade for over a month so she could drink in peace without having to see the light of the sun rising into the Fresno smog, and I was nearly held back. Life was like that, putting tape around our dog’s food bowl to catch the cockroaches, eating from the bags of Subway or leftover Chinese food containers neighbors left for me on our doorstep.
One night, my mother and Fred got in a fight. She was in only panties and a loose top. I don’t know why she looked so frazzled, why she was half naked. All I know is that at some point in the fight, Fred looked me in the eyes. He grabbed my mother’s crotch. “This,” he said. “ This is what women are good for.”
When my mother fell in love with a man she met over the phone, he came for her wearing a turquoise-studded belt, and I threw a hairbrush at him. She got in his car despite my begging, and I lived alone in our apartment for nearly a month, walking myself to school, setting my own alarm clock, stealing food from other kids’ lunch pails, waiting for her, waiting, until social services placed me with my grandparents. I moved out of my old life with my mother, and into the lore of Lydia. Into the hush of her. My grandparents had fought hard in court over Lydia’s murder. Mark got the death penalty, but a few years later it was overturned. Life without chance of parole instead. I will never know exactly what it feels like for my grandmother to think of it all now, or how often she does, or if while she is driving on certain familiar roads her daughter is there again, next to her.
While my questions never seemed welcome in a family of forgetters, recently it seems I may have read my grandmother wrong. Unprompted she told me that God has offered her the ultimate favor. Finally, at ninety-two, when she thinks of Mark and that time, she feels nothing. Nothing, she said, is the best she can hope for.
My grandparents were silent in matters of sex and bodies. I was instructed to wait for marriage, and I know my grandmother meant it genuinely, and must have thought that if I waited, other wonderful things would fall into their rightful places. That I wouldn’t get murdered. She meant well. It wasn’t practical.
I had sex for the first time with a wavy brown-haired, straight-toothed boy who carried red rum around in a water bottle. I snuck him into my room through a screenless window. I was sixteen and determined to get it over with. In hindsight I wonder why I felt such a manic rush—the obsession to have that experience even though I had professed chastity until marriage and had never touched another naked body in my life, and truly, truly did not know where the testicles were located (were they above the penis? Below? One on each side?). Maybe the rush was simply to give myself away before I feared I’d be taken.
In the pitch black when it was all finished, I still didn’t know what his body really looked like, or mine, or how we looked together while he sweetly asked if I was okay on top of my blue star quilt, glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling. But the experience cracked open in me a touch of my own adult world. It was a way to leave my own mind, so I liked it.
Soon after that, as if the new sex was a scent I wore, a strange man told me he wanted to suck my clit on the street outside of a Chipotle. We locked eyes. It took me a moment to hear him. To realize he wasn’t saying hello, or asking for directions. I felt shaky in the hands over it. He hadn’t touched me, but it felt like he had. I thought of it for days. His slow creep of a voice, his eyes on my skirt. In that moment it felt like anything could happen, that his words could sweep me over, take what they wanted. I told an older woman I admired what had happened, waiting for her horrified expression. She said, “Be thankful they’re looking. No one looks at me anymore.”
So later, in college, when I drank too much and ended up with a guy I didn’t really know, and I didn’t really want to do anything with him and said so out loud, but in the morning it was evident we did do things, I thought, I guess I should be thankful. Thankful he liked me, thankful he thought I was hot, that for that night, I was the one he chose. I didn’t want to be a girl raped. I told myself it was fine and for many years, that was enough.
The summer after I graduated college I moved back in with my grandparents for nine months. I sat on the floor with my grandmother while she sorted through some of Lydia’s things, her costume jewelry, unfinished patterns with the textiles still pinned to them. It was the first time I had ever seen her do this, and I wept. I couldn’t help myself. I told her how sorry I was that her daughter died, that I couldn’t imagine what she had been through. Such simple, cliché words fell from me for the first time. Her daughter had died and I was only then saying sorry. The magnitude of what had happened hit me suddenly and with force. For a small moment I knew I could ask anything and it would be fine. “How did you get through it?” I asked. “How are you still here?”
She told me how nice it was to hear someone say her daughter’s name. That for so long, no one had.
“I thought it would upset you,” I said.
“The upsetting is not the crime,” she told me. “Letting her name die forever. That’s a crime.”
Now my mother lives in New Mexico. Since she left me when I was nine, I have seen her only a handful of times, most of which ended in her arrest for stealing booze from various corner stores. And my bravest time, when I drove from California to New Mexico with my then boyfriend to do a surprise (and ultimately failed) intervention on her, and I walked into the brick-walled Section 8 studio she still shared with the turquoise-belted man after all those years, and she reached out to my face and said, “Are you a ghost?”
We sat in the emergency room for an entire day waiting for her to be cleared for a state-run detox center where she would have to sleep on the floor. She was concerned that they would take away her lipstick, which they would. “I need my lipstick for God’s sake,” she kept saying. When I finally said goodbye she said, “I like your purse,” and I gave it to her.
Later, I asked her about what she remembers from when Lydia was killed. When Mark killed Lydia. My mother had been an hour away working a job at a bar in Shaver Lake. She says when she got the call she sped down curvy mountain roads home. She doesn’t know how she even made it, she was so frantic. She says she remembers that my grandmother wanted to ride in the ambulance and that they wouldn’t let her, that she wouldn’t want to see what they had to do.
“What did they have to do?” I asked. My mother let out a long sigh. I feared I was losing her. Going too far.
“They had to open her up,” she said finally. “To massage her heart with their hands.”
I am feeling angry lately. Admittedly, I am late to the party. I should have been feeling angry long ago but I didn’t know I could. Instead I was feeling thankful. I was thankful I got a job as an editor at a magazine right after college, and even though I was later told it was because the hiring manager liked the way I looked, I was still thankful. When I got a graduate teaching assistantship and some guys in my writing program got drunk and said it was probably because I had a special relationship with a male professor, I was demolished inside, because it couldn’t have just been that I was worthy, but I brushed it off and was thankful instead. Thankful I had the scholarship money, thankful I was seen as someone who could be desired.
I asked a guy I thought of as my good friend what they had all been saying. I pressed for details. Wouldn’t you believe it, he told me to be thankful I was being talked about at all.
I’m not thankful anymore. Under the strains of new motherhood, I rarely go out dancing, but I love dancing and the last time I went a man decided it was fine, that because I didn’t want to give him a ridiculous high five, to slap my ass hard with both hands. But it wasn’t fine, and I stood on the dance floor screaming. I wanted everyone to hear me. I wanted to shame him. He put his hands up showing them to me, showing me they were empty. Eventually my friend stepped between us. I buzzed all the way home, my body an untethered electrical cord snapping in the wind. Don’t touch me was all I yelled at him until my voice became nothing but a scratch.
I lay awake that night, my husband next to me. I felt mad he could only console me, but never relate. Everywhere I go, I imagine scenarios and I imagine avoiding them. How to avoid rape, assault, etc. When he goes to the grocery store, he is thinking about the cereal, the avocados. I never get to just think of avocados.
Mark has an online dating profile page on a site for prisoners and on it he writes of his hobbies (gardening, reading) and of his life goals (pursuing higher education) and what he looks for in a partner (someone nonjudgmental). There is a photo of him, thin faced, thin lipped, eyes colorless. In another search I found that years ago he was involved in a “study of the emotions” with a Rudolf Steiner scholar who had been visiting him in prison. What the study entailed I may never know. The scholar died a decade ago. It strikes me that while no one will ever hear from Lydia again, Mark still has a voice in the world.
The one constant in the court documents is that Mark never showed outward remorse. He is quoted telling his friends he could help them get out of their spousal obligations, too. It was easy. You don’t even have to have good aim with a shotgun, he boasted. The documents say that his son awoke crying around midnight every night and he bragged that it was probably because that was when Lydia had died. Perhaps I have never read a more ruthless line than that in all my life.
I think of how Lydia never got to know her son, and he grew up motherless. She never got to make the art she wanted to make. She was talented and smart. She was creative, and witty. She had innate style and carried herself in the effortless lilt of a person going somewhere important.
But I don’t know these things for a fact. They only comprise the identity of her I’ve created, a singular possibility, and none of that matters. She was simply a person who deserved to live and that is enough. But I would like to believe she would have been an advocate for victims of assault. I’d like to believe her brave proclamation of spousal rape at a time when it was unheard of did open a door to another perception.
I know it did for me.
Before I got married, I dated someone seriously for a few years. Toward the end of the relationship things got bad between us, and there were times I feared him. There were times I was sure he was following me, tracking when I was home or not home, getting into all my accounts and reading everything. He sent me a series of emails so brutal I made a habit of opening them in public spaces so as not to be alone with them. In one he wrote that he wished I did not exist anymore. I told people what was going on, people who knew us both. I was told not to get crazy about things. That he wouldn’t really do anything. That it wasn’t that bad. I spoke with a lawyer on the phone, a family friend, and asked what it would take to get a restraining order. She told me to wait and see if he would do one more thing.
I thought of Lydia. It wasn’t the same scenario, but she was told a similar sentiment. That she’d have to wait.
I waited. Nothing happened. We separated for good and silence became us. We grew older and turned into adults with children, worlds apart.
I’d like to teach my daughter to protect herself. I’d like to teach her not to be thankful for the leering eyes of a man on the street, or the groping hands of a man at a bar. I’ll teach her that she is the ruler of her body, and I’d like to imagine a world where she can go to the grocery store at night and not walk fast to her car with her keys poised like a weapon.
I don’t know everything about Lydia’s story. I don’t know the way the rest of her family feels when they think of her. I don’t know the particular pain of her innocent son who was forced to grow up parentless under harrowing circumstances. It’s not my story. But to me it seems simple. She was failed. She needed protection, and there was none. She needed, but will never have, a different kind of world.
On my last trip home I sat across from my grandmother at a café. The older we both get the less we speak of the unimportant, something I value about our relationship, about this surrogate mother of mine.
My grandmother brought up God. She worried, that in all her years of steadfast belief, she had missed something crucial. She now had more questions than ever, and it unsettled her. Her questions were around forgiveness.
“The Lord says we can’t have any ill will against our brother,” she said. “I wonder sometimes who I need to apologize to.”
I bristled. Her apologize? After all she’d been through, there she sat tired eyed, wondering if it was her that needed to apologize. Women, I thought. We were always finding ways to be sorry. I remembered then something she once told me about Lydia’s spousal rape trial. That the jury was comprised of half women and it was the women who were unwilling to entertain that Lydia could have been raped by her very own husband. How my grandmother thought, walking into court that day, that those women would be the ones to save the whole thing. But no. How could they have when they were products of the same world, the world where her daughter had been raped in the first place?
“You don’t owe anyone an apology,” I said. “What could you possibly be sorry for?” I held her hand.
She looked up at the ceiling and her eyes went red. “This is my life,” she said. “This is what I was given.”
“People always have choices,” I said, meaning I guess that abusers and rapists and murderers all have choices. My mother when she left me made a choice, though she would like to imagine the choice was made for her. Mark too made a choice to kill Lydia. “I’m not as good as you, Gramy.”
She changed the topic to my deepest sadness. “I wish I could have taken your mom to some farmhouse and straightened her out on my own. I could have done better than all those rehabs.”
“I think about Lydia all the time,” I countered. I wanted her to ask me why. Why this aunt I’d never even met swam in my thoughts. I wanted her to answer that question for me. To say the things that would cast our pain away for good, relieve me of this treacherous inquiry.
“It’s in the past,” she said. “We leave it there.”
Later, after dropping my grandmother off at her retirement village, I considered that maybe she wasn’t altogether wrong. That to beg forgiveness for something we had not chosen was perhaps a sort of action against the things in life we couldn’t possibly understand, against powerlessness. A way to take up arms against the prospect of a greater hell.