Noisy Water Review

The Damsel

Madeleine Easton

I am eight or so. We live in a pretty, historic neighborhood, nine blocks from my elementary school, at the corner of two dead-end streets. It is summer, and it must have been rainy some time recently, because the grass is vibrant when I answer the knock at the Keesling Street door. I had not yet encountered our new neighbor, but she had come, frantic from her rapidly flooding kitchen, soaking wet, arms raised palms up like the Virgin Mary, quarter-inch hair sparkling with beads of water in the sun, white t-shirt stuck to her skin, panic – and, was it shame? – on her face.

“I can’t turn off my water!”

Both parents come to the door and I am pushed aside as my father runs with her out the gate of our chain link fence to stop the flood.

She was a lesbian. I found that out by eavesdropping. Sometimes she’d throw parties in her back yard, and I would dress up and stroll through the shifting bodies, skirts and shoes, cigarettes and wine glasses, then skip back to my room and change my clothes, and try it again, seeing how best I fit. Even after she moved away, my mother would sometimes visit her, or go to one of her parties. When she brought me along I was an anthropologist on mars, marveling silently over specimens male, female, old and young, but always colorful, and smelling of things I could not identify. I can’t remember the things they talked about, probably because I had no way of understanding. To have remembered would have been like memorizing a poem in Icelandic.

My father did not like my mother spending time with this woman. All I knew was I wanted to snoop in every room of her house, because there was treasure. Once, I found a photograph (among many on a cork board) of several friends, naked at a rocky river. I think that was the first time I’d seen a penis.

When my parents got divorced, a lot came out. My father’s narcissism, for one. And my mother’s many supposed indiscretions – marijuana and tarot cards and lesbians, oh my! My father is not a bad man. Even the terms bigot and misogynist are too harsh, though they are used.

I never considered why the image of Dana, sopping, desperate and apologetic at our door, stuck so firmly in my mind. Now I think it might have to do with how my father saw it.

Damsel in distress. Man to the rescue.

She wasn’t threatening to him, wet and helpless. It was only when my mother tried to assert her independence that Dana became a scapegoat. Dana, and Christine, also with short hair, also unwed. And Joyce, who smoked pot and read her horoscope. Friends who offered my mother nothing more than their homes, their support and understanding, their strength. Teaching my mother that she hadn’t forfeited hers when she married him.

My father clung to the Bible, to church, to the ideal of a pretty little wife with long graceful hair and no goals. (Which he eventually found, and divorced.) It is unfortunate that church and Bible became his justification for what he already hated.

Is this why he looks at my short hair and registers danger?

What my father saw was weakness, requiring a rescue. And later, a threat, capable of taking what was his and letting it think for itself. What I saw was strength, right from the start. Humility banging on our door, Busting into our lives and expanding my world.

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