“Tell me he didn’t hurt you.”
I was sitting with my girlfriend in her car in the parking lot of a fast food joint in Racine, Wisconsin. It was January, 1981, and it was incredibly cold. It was late at night, the restaurant was closed, the engine was running, and still our breath frosted the air.
I was a junior in high school. She was a senior. We had been dating for a few weeks, and in a few weeks more I was going to move overseas with my father. My parent’s divorce was almost final, and I agreed to accompany my dad to Greece. It killed me quite to leave this beautiful girl, but there was no way I would stay with my mother who I blamed for everything, and no way I would abandon my father to solitude.
In the midst of the disintegration of my family, this beautiful, smart, funny, vivacious girl appeared, and seemed to take a genuine interest in me. I was utterly smitten. I completely idealized and idolized her. She showed up just in time, and it was inadmissible that she could have her own needs.
So when she parked that big old car in the Ponderosa parking lot and began telling me about her job there the previous year, a creeping dread overspread me.
It was her first job; it was a great place to work; she enjoyed the crew and the customers. Her crew chief was a nice guy. After a few months, he suddenly seemed distant, preoccupied, sad. She pestered him to tell her what was on his mind. One night he said he’d tell her, but it was personal, it was difficult, he needed her, would she meet him in his car after they closed —
“Tell me he didn’t hurt you.” I was shrunken in my seat, turned away from her, my eyes shut tight in a wince, my forehead against the icy window. My words escaped as a croak from my tight throat, almost unintelligible.
With effort, more clearly: “Tell me he didn’t hurt you.” It was a command. She obeyed.
“What? Oh! Oh, no! No, nothing like that, heavens no, he just wanted to talk, we just, he — god, is that the time? I’ve got to get you home! Geez, what was I thinking?”
She put the car in gear, pulled out onto Douglas Avenue and headed north. The crisis moment was past and I relaxed. I sat up straight, looked over at her, admired her gorgeous blond hair swishing around her nylon parka and smiled. We chatted about the weather, and I stuffed this incident way down, pushed it far away and never thought about it again for years.
It was eleven years before she was able to complete that conversation, in a letter I could not prevent, censor or suppress. She told me everything, everything that had happened before we met, and everything that came to pass after we had parted.
It was another twenty one years before I forgave myself for this, the most cowardly act of my life.