Innocence Lost

I was seven years old when my mother noticed something was wrong.



“What’s the matter with your eyes?” she asked me. “Do you have something in them? Can you not see well?”

 

My vision was fine, and I told her so. Rather than believe me, she grabbed my chin in her hand and peered deep into my eyes, as though she had a degree in optometry. The truth was that neither of us could explain why I constantly squinted, but like any good mother, she was determined to get to the bottom of the situation. She scheduled a doctor’s appointment for the following morning.



“Ms. Baker, your daughter’s eyes are perfectly healthy,” the optometrist told her after examining me. “Are you sure nothing is bothering her? Children sometimes squint or display other odd behaviors when holding back information.”

 

He waited for her to respond, but she was too busy putting together the puzzle that (up until this point) had pieces missing from it. She now had the complete picture, and it horrified her. A fog was lifted, and everything made sense: my squinting; my incessant squeaking; my hesitancy to undress in front of the New Kids on the Block posters hanging from my wall. These strange behaviors (once dismissed by her as growing pains) were suddenly debunked, and she thought she might lose her mind.



“Tara, I have a question to ask you, and I want you to be honest with me,” she said on the drive home. “Has someone been touching you?”

 

Judging from the tone in her voice, I knew she wasn’t referring to a hug. She sounded serious, sad, and terrified of my answer. As she waited in torment for a response, my young mind wrestled with confusion. This secret (which I harbored for months) was a part of me, rusted into the structure of my being. While it was once uncomfortable and scary, it became my new normal. I grew used to it, like a boulder in the garden that’s an eyesore but stays because it’s too heavy to lift.



Now she was lifting it, exposing the worms and slugs and spiders to the light of day. They scattered in a desperate attempt for shelter, but it was too late. They were discovered, and I could feel their distress. Until she asked me if I was molested, it never dawned on me how wrong the situation was, has been all along. I was content in ignoring it, pretending that it was no big deal. But the days of pretending were over, so I answered her question.



***



My babysitter, Susan, had her operations divided between the upstairs and the basement. The former was a cozy and spacious living environment equipped with plush couches, hardwood floors, and lavish throw rugs. It was warm during the winter, cool during the summer, and had all the technology you could dream of. In other words, it was the house, and it was reserved solely for her children.



The rest of us kids were to remain downstairs for the duration of our stay.



Her basement wasn’t too drab, though. It was remodeled with Oriental carpeting, two couches, a television set, and an enormous fish tank. I can still remember the name of one of the fishes…Leroy. He was big, gray, and scaly, and his eyeballs popped out so far that he scraped one against the side of the aquarium and got a vicious, puss-filled infection.



Man that was an ugly creature.



Right beside Leroy was a doorway to another room, much smaller. It was the play room, and as such, the floors were nothing more than hard, cold cement in an effort to prevent any messes. What the room lacked in style was made up for in an array of toys: a plastic, Little Tikes dining table; a blackboard with colored chalk; a treasure chest filled with toy dolls. You name it, and it was there.



My mates in the basement were two sisters: Tina and Jessica. I remember marveling at how beautiful Jessica was, with her crystal-blue eyes and long, brown hair. Tina was cute too, but for some reason, her red head couldn’t hold a candle to Jessica’s splendor. Tina was the younger of the two sisters, and what she lacked in physical assets, she more than made up for through her spunky, wild personality.



The imagination of children is so wild; they can literally turn nothing into something truly spectacular. Our confinement in that basement wasn’t a prison sentence in our eyes…it was a magical place where anything could happen. During one of our fantasy frenzies, Jessica and I played two gorgeous sisters trapped on the couch, which served as a deserted island for the time being. Our dehydration and famine had no effect on our perfect beauty, as we waited patiently for Joey McIntyre and Jordan Knight of the New Kids on the Block to come and rescue us.



“I’m so exhausted,” Jessica exclaimed, her wrist strategically placed upon her forehead to demonstrate the extent of her fatigue. “I wish Jordan would get here soon, or I might die!”



“I know, what is taking them so long?” I replied, obviously very frustrated at the situation. “Hey, I have an idea! Let’s pretend that there are these two murderers on the island, and they see us and want to hurt us. Then, when Joey and Jordan get here, they can fight and protect us from them!”



“Okay, let’s do that!” she replied, her blue eyes lighting up even brighter at the idea. “Let’s pretend one of the murderers has a secret chamber in the sand where he keeps all of his victims, and he holds us at knife point to kidnap us and bring us down there!”



Where do kids get this stuff?



As you might expect, Joey and Jordan did come after all. They did kick those murderers’ butts, and they did give us the sweetest rescue kisses a seven-year-old girl could experience. Once the fantasy romance ended, we resigned to play a good, old-fashioned game of M.A.S.H. to determine with New Kid we would marry, whether we’d live in a mansion or a shack, and just how much money we’d have to fund our Ferraris.



When you’re seven, the future is wild, unchartered territory.



***



As long as I had my cohorts to pass the time with, life in the basement wasn’t too bad. But when the sisters had after-school activities, I was on my own…just me and Leroy. With no one to help feed my imagination, I simply sat in front of the television and inhaled the basement’s mildew. My mental state was almost trancelike…



Until the day I heard that crash.



It sounded like glass shattering, followed by muffled, masculine shouting. I trekked upstairs to investigate, and the closer I got to the main floor, the louder and angrier his voice sounded. Intertwined between his curses were the shrill cries of his children, scared and confused.

 

Is he hurting them? I wondered to myself. Maybe he doesn’t like children. I should probably go back downstairs.

 

But I didn’t. Rather than heed my own advice, I slowly turned the doorknob to witness what was on the other side of it. The sound of footsteps running for dear life consumed me, and I soon recognized their source. From one of the bedrooms ran Susan, her shirt torn and hair mangled. Her face wore an expression that (at the time) I thought was reserved solely for the young…pure, unadulterated fear.



“Come here you stupid bitch!” her husband’s voice demanded as he stormed after her.



He was dressed in torn blue jeans, heavy-duty boots, and a white t-shirt stained with motor oil. His hair was thin, greasy, and balding in the middle. His face epitomized hatred.



“You do what I tell you!” he shouted, and he jerked her arm to stress the point. “What did you do with it? Where is it!”



“I don’t know Mike,” Susan said, almost begged. “I put them in the garage, just like you told me.”



She was interrupted by a shoe lunged at her face, indicating that Mike didn’t approve of her answer. I flinched at the shock of it all, a mistake on my part. Both she and her abuser directed their attention at my unknown presence.



“Who is that!” Mike asked Susan, almost perturbed at my existence.



“She’s one of the kids I babysit, Mike,” Susan answered. “Go back downstairs, Tara!”



Rather than obey, I just stood there – a million thoughts racing through my prepubescent head. I never shared a space with a man before, and I couldn’t help but wonder if this was what having a daddy was really like.

 

Did they all scream and yell like this? Was it normal for them to throw random objects at the mommies? Why is this guy’s head so greasy?



My heart was pounding so much; I could feel it straight through my back.



“Tara! Go!” Susan repeated, and this time, she meant business.



I snapped out of my daze to notice the cold, hard stare of Mike’s eyes, which seemed to impale me. He scanned my petite body with scrunched eyebrows, as though I were some foreign specimen from another planet. His mouth hung open, and his chest heaved rapidly from the exhaustion of having to beat his wife.



I ran straight out of there.



***



When my mother came to pick me up, she looked like an angel.



I never said anything to her about what I witnessed, which is strange, because children are usually so inquisitive. Susan never relived the event to me either. Maybe she wanted to pretend it never happened, or perhaps she was just embarrassed. At any rate, it didn’t matter. The bruise that engulfed her left eye was a memorial in itself.



During the following weeks, Mike remained in the garage to work on his car, and all seemed well. The sisters and I got our thrills through old favorites such as Truth or Dare, and of course, M.A.S.H. Some kid in Jessica’s class told her about Bloody Mary, so we wasted no time turning out the bathroom light, standing in front of the mirror, and reciting the woman’s name five times in the hopes of being bludgeoned to death.



Kids can be so crazy.



While I never confided in my mother about Mike’s cruel demeanor, one person I knew I could talk to was Jessica. In a sense, I became an extension of her and Tina’s sisterhood, and being an only child, this was something I enjoyed immensely. Ever since I can remember, I wanted siblings. Brothers and sisters meant someone to gossip with, share with, and best of all, argue with.



I guess the desire for conflict is innate in all of us, even when we’re little.



“Do you know that guy upstairs?” I asked as she twirled a piece of gum around her finger. “What’s his name? Mike?”



“Huh?” she replied, too engrossed in the wad to even listen. “Yeah, I know him. Well, I mean I don’t know him, but I know who he is. He’s Susan’s husband.”



“Yeah, well what do you think of him?”



She looked at me like I had two heads. “I don’t know. Why do you care?”



“Well, does he scare you?”



“No.” She seemed almost appalled that I would even ask such a ridiculous question. “I mean, he can be loud sometimes, but he hardly ever comes around, so I just don’t pay any attention to him.”



Clearly, I was being delusional, so I dropped the subject.



***



It was just an ordinary day, nothing special. Jessica and I just got out of school, and rather than indulge in our usual antics, we simply sat on the couch in front of the tube. When we heard the door to the stairwell open and close, we thought nothing of it. Chances were it was Susan, maybe one of her kids wanting some youthful company for a change.



What we eventually saw shocked us.



It was Mike. The man who (up until a few weeks ago) was a deranged lunatic suddenly wanted to invade our space.

 

Was he here to yell at us? I wondered. Maybe he wants to throw things at us too. Oh God, what does he want?

 

The questions scurried through my brain like rats in a race.



“What are you girls doing?” Mike asked as he sat on the couch. His demeanor was so composed, as though it was perfectly natural for him to come and dish with us.



“We were just watching MTV,” Jessica said.



“Yeah? Well is there anything good on?” he asked us – one big, happy family.



Jessica and I look at each other, totally confused.



From this distance, I got a closer look at Mike. He was a scrawny thing, dirty like the sweat stains underneath his armpits. I could smell that sweat, too. For some reason, it reminded me of a pepperoni pizza. His thin, blond hair was combed over in an attempt to hide his baldness, and from it, a coating of oil smothered his forehead. His blue eyes bulged out of his skull in response to Belinda Carlisle’s presence on the television set.



“Man, she is so hot,” he said. “Don’t you girls think she’s hot? What’s her name?”



 “Belinda Carlisle,” Jessica answered.



“Belinda Carlisle, eh?” he said. “She’s cute. A hell of a lot cuter than some of the women I work with. In fact, her hair reminds me of yours, Tara.”



Had I been ten or so years older, I would’ve seen straight through this statement disguised as compliment. After all, why else would a grown man reveal all of his dirty, pigheaded thoughts to such young minds if he weren’t up to something? But little girls are, if anything, naïve and eagerly seeking acceptance from wherever they can get it, a fact that didn’t seem to escape Mike. As a result, I took the bait.



“You really think so?” I said, honored at the thought that someone (a man, nonetheless) thought I was pretty.



“Oh yeah, don’t you?” he replied as he helped himself to a strand of my hair. “It’s so straight and soft, and it’s got that same, light-brown color as hers. Don’t you agree?”



I could feel my cheeks flush with flattery, and the redder they got, the more I began to question my first impression of Mike.

 

Maybe he was just having a bad day when he was yelling that time. After all, I never really got to know him all that well. And besides, he thinks I look like Belinda Carlisle, and she’s so pretty. Could I have been wrong about him?

 

I decided that I probably was.



***



From that day on, Mike made his way downstairs without fail, a ritual I and the sisters both seemed to look forward to. He cracked jokes with us at the spectacles on television, and he even offered us an open ear to drown all of our troubles into. He displayed the utmost patience in teaching me Gin Rummy, and when the game got too difficult for me, he lowered his standards to play a round of Go Fish.



“Alright,” he said as he agreed to a game I was more familiar with. “But if it’s the last thing I do, you’re going to learn Gin Rummy. Then, when you get the hang of that, I’m going to teach you girls how to win at Poker.”



As the only child of a single mother, he possessed the father-like qualities I always imagined a dad would have. I never knew what it was like to have a man pay so much attention to me, and he seemed to look forward to our time together as much as I did. He cared about me. In a strange way, I cared about him too.



Mike was so enthusiastic about our friendship, it shocked me the day he came downstairs and simply plopped onto the couch. He was normally so eager to engage the sisters and me, but this was something entirely different. I wondered if he was mad at me, what I had done to upset him. I was tense, frustrated, and completely starved for his attention.



“What’s wrong Mike?” I asked, nervously awaiting his response.



“Work was a bitch today,” he said. “If you don’t mind, I just want to lie here for a while.”



I did mind, but the memory of his temperament the day he hit Susan still haunted me, so I decided not to press the issue. Jessica, on the other hand, made no secret of her disapproval towards the situation. Like a spoiled brat, she jumped up and straight onto his reclined physique.



“Play with us, Mike!” she demanded in between giggles. “You’re not tired. You’re just lazy!”



He gently placed his hands on her sides, a gesture which seemed more like a sign of affection than an attempt to control her tantrum. I couldn’t help but feel jealous.



“No Sugar,” he told her. “I’m tired. I just want to rest for a bit.”

 

When Jessica dismounted Mike, I wasted no time taking her place. “Isn’t there anything you want to do?” I asked, but he was too engrossed in the television to even listen to me. This bothered me even more.



“Mike!” I screamed to get his attention, which I did. “Catch me, Mike! I’m going to fall!”



I stood up on the couch, gleefully awaited his arms’ embrace, and let myself fall. He smelled like sweat and beer, a manly combination that I could not help but inhale joyfully. His hands were strong as they wrapped themselves firmly underneath my armpits, his thumbs strategically placed onto my unripe breasts.



“You want to do it again?” he asked, his eyes indicating that he was having just as much fun as I was.



Naturally, I obliged him.



I stood up on the couch and towered above him. From this view, he seemed no different to me than a safety net to a trapeze artist. Before me was a man who cared enough to catch me when I fell, and he made the impact pleasurable. I felt safe in his presence, so when he held me to his chest, I didn’t mind at all.



“Stay like this for a little while,” he said as he gripped my tiny body. His breath was pungent with alcohol. “Don’t get up again. I’m tired of this silly game.”



If he no longer wanted to play, it was fine by me, so long as he wanted me close to him. His arms were strong, and his animal musk was a novel and enticing scent to my nostrils. I liked this new arrangement, and when Jessica went home with her parents, I was glad to see her go. I was in a world of my own, and I didn’t want to share it with anyone.



We rested for a few minutes before he started delicately rubbing my back with his hands, interchanging between his palms and fingertips. The sensation sent shivers throughout me, and I wanted to beg him to never stop. I was so engrossed in emotion that I almost missed the impression of something hard between my legs.



“Do you feel that?” Mike asked, challenging me with his eyes.



“Yeah, what is it?” I asked.



“Here, let me show you.”


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