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April 28, 2009

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Gwendolen Gross

Drazenka was my bestfriend in grade three. She was Yugoslavian and had a round, kind face with a pointy nose, a constant Mona Lisa smile and an easy laugh. Her dirty blonde hair was a thick silky braid perpetually hanging down her back. She was the second of five kids, the oldest daughter, in a very old-fashioned, traditional, old-country family. Somehow she spoke perfect English. She was an excellent student. I made her laugh and tried to corrupt her innocent ways, not that I was exactly worldly at 8 years old but I sure was compared to her. She was just so good she brought out the bad in me. She wasn't the last person to have this effect on me.

Drazenka and I exchanged playdates and sleepovers, our moms chatting briefly, politely, during dropoffs and pickups, mine hip with her sexy leather sandles, tight jeans and charcoal eyeliner, Mrs. Kalanz motherly with her broken English, matronly polyester clothing and pregnant belly. Mom would laugh for years about Mrs. Kalanz wondering allowed "I don't know why but the babies keep coming!"

During sleepovers Drazenka and I would lip sync to Shawn Cassidy and giggle up a storm. We were so comfortable with each other, completely at ease. She told me stories of her dad butchering sheep in their shed which freaked me right out. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, my house was brewing up its own fodder for nightmares.

My parents' early 1970's partying was slowly evolving into my mom's late-70's alcoholism. My dad, my younger brother and I made an unusual trip to my grandmother's house 500 miles away. I later learned we went to Grandma's so Dad could tell his mom his marriage was coming to an end. I had no clue they had ever even fought let alone had serious problems and I still didn't know as we pulled back into our driveway at trip's end. While we were gone Mom had moved a new man in, an acquaintance of my dad's. We came home and there he was, in his underwear, at our kitchen table. Mom kicked my beloved father out right then and there... and he let her, without so much as an unkind word which I assume was for our sakes. My heart aches, over 30 years later, imagining the humiliation, shock and misery that experience must have brought him. As for us, we were good kids and we did not complain as we witnessed our family shatter right along with our hearts.

Suddenly unchained and wild, my mom's morals loosened more and more in a downward spiral and we were subjected to her infactuation stage with her new lover, Hatley. We took trips to the movie theatre as a "family" to see R-rated movies along with Hatley's kids who were even younger than us. Mom and Hatley were naked around us, free-spirited and open... and just so stupid, so wrong. I have a vivid, seriously unfortunate memory of Hatley's head up Mom's braless tank top in our sunny kitchen. I remember mickeys of vodka in Mom's purse to pour into their OJ at breakfast restaurants. Hatley would kiss me goodnight with an open mouth which I was too young to realize was wrong. I don't believe he was a predator... just a complete idiot and an utter loser. Compared to our life with my cleancut dad this whole scene was vile, shocking, confusing, disgusting.

Drazenka saw us through it all. From our facade of the ideal family down through my mother's sleazy, boozy, groovy 70's, let-it-all-hang-out-even-if-it-destroys-everything fall from grace. My dear, innocent friend was a little buoy from my former life that I clung to, a relief, an escape, so refreshing. Eventually she started to seem almost pathetically innocent, but I loved her nonetheless. We have a photo in our family album of us kids, including Drazenka, in a tidy row smiling innocently for the camera. In the background is Mom dressed as a man, moustache pencilled in, floppy brown suede hat on her head, gun holster of some kind around her hips, cigarette in one hand, 22 gauge shotgun in the other. Hatley is dressed as a woman with a pink bathrobe on, black wig and fake boobs, hand wrapped around the barrel of her gun suggestively. I like to think that the fact that I can laugh, a little, at the insanity of it all is a good thing. And one thing I took away from the entire experience is that I am 100% shock proof.

Shortly after Hatley moved in, they sold our house and rented a ridiculous hobby farm and we had to change schools and things went from bad to worse. Although we tried to continue with the sleepovers and playdates, Drazenka and I naturally drifted. I imagine if she went home and reported about the time she stayed over and heard my mother and Hatley having sex during the night that might have had something to do with it. She was so innocent she didn't even know what they were doing. I wish I didn't. Our last visit was probably my 10th birthday party. The one mom slept through.

My dad was, and is, a gentleman, truly loving, trusting, trustworthy, loyal, funny, hard-working, Paul-Newman-handsome even in his 60's, a loving dad and just a decent guy. Too decent. Back them Mom would probably have said boring, wimpy, hard to respect... but she would live to pay heartily for her mistakes and to regret letting him go. These days he is a hopelessly depressed hermit after his second marriage ended with that wife in the arms of one of his highschool buddies this time. As for my mom, she died prematurely just before her 49th birthday and, yes, it was alcohol related. But despite all the hell she put me through on and off over the years... I loved her deeply and grieved the loss of her just as deeply. For all her troubles there was a good side to her and a kid loves her mom unconditionally. I also cut her some slack when I think of her motherless childhood, her lonely adolescence on her own, her marriage to my dad at the age of 19, my birth less than two years later. After she died I found a bookmark she had bought or been given which read "I finally forgave myself" and she had dated it January, 1997. She died in September of that year. My four-year-old daughter, Eva, has given me the gift of resurrecting mom's scowl in her own sweet little face and everytime she uses it on me it takes my breath away and I forget to be offended.

Years after I'd lost touched with Drazenka I saw an announcement in the newspaper that she had received a scholarship for accounting. A few years after that she appeared at the law firm where I was a secretary to do some kind of accounting. She was the same warm, kind girl I had known. I was instantly comfortable with her, as always. She seemed surprised by my lack of higher education but for me it had been all about surviving and getting the hell out. Graduating highschool was my mother's big dream for me and I had been so busy taking care of her that I hadn't yet had time to dream my own bigger dreams.

Later still, I saw Drazenka at baby weigh-in with our respective newborns. I spontaneously tried to rekindle our friendship - the bond was still, amazingly, palpable - but it fell flat on her end. I sensed she was busy with her career and extended family obligations to parents (still married, still living in the same house... imagine that) but I could feel she was happy to see me. Maybe she was afraid of what I had been subjected to... who I had become as a result. Who could blame her? I had a strong base in my early childhood that kept me grounded during those wild years and thankfully nothing criminal ever happened to me... but she didn't know that.

The hands we had been dealt, our paths in life and our families were all so different but Drazenka and I bonded over high-volume laughter and Da Doo Run Run and we just "got" each other. We were both good girls, oldest daughters, we shared the same hair color, she was my first true girlfriend. I think her goodness and innocence reminded me how things could and should be and gave me something to shoot for.

posted for Arlene
Welcome! We're glad to have you, Arlene--what an amazing post (it brought back some of my best-friend memories, too). Kudos to you.
Gwendolen

Gwendolen Gross

I walked out into the world, took one look and ran screaming.
I was planning to attend a large university when I left high school. I ended up attending a very small liberal arts college for women. Not that it was a bad college or that I didn't get a good education. It was my reason for going there that made it a bad choice. A safe choice.
Let me explain. It's the thoughts. The strange outlandish thoughts that got stuck in my head. I blame everything on that. Which I suppose is also a mistake, but what can I say? There has to be some reason for who I was back then.
So, my thoughts. The ever looping darkness that preoccupied every waking moment from the time I stepped out of my parent's car as an adult of 18 until the day I discovered where the pain was coming from. It's hard to describe them without getting a little graphic. Hang with me, it gets rough.
First, men. Like any young woman stepping out into the world, I wanted to be around men. But it was more than that. I just liked them. I liked that they were so different from women. I liked the way they fought, their lack of sophistication, their honesty.
I'm not saying women aren't honest... only that from time to time, we try too hard. From the makeup we wear to the smile we plaster on our faces. Our interests lie too often in making people like us. It's something I personally am trying to get over.
Despite the fact that I enjoyed the company of men, I was unable to be around them for long without their faces beginning to occupy the darkest places in my mind. I never halucinated, but I would definitely "see" them becoming brutes, becoming rapists and abusers. Vivid pictures of it would circle around and around in my head until I was almost convinced that what I was seeing was real. Then it got worse.
I could hear the voices of these same men saying, "You deserve it. You like it. You're such a stupid c***." I told you it got rough.
Here's the thing. I knew it was in my head. I knew it was not real, though sometimes it certainly felt that way. What I thought I knew was that I was insane. Surely. In fact, I rather hoped so.
I was not. I did have to come to a conclusion, however. I had to discover what it was that was doing this. I had to discover that it was me and not some demonic presence possessing my mind.
Here's how that happened.
It was close to the end of my freshman year in college and I'd led perhaps the quietest year of my life, hidden in a dorm room, surrounded by books, letting only a very few people into my circle.
As it happened, I had a roommate whom I hadn't really let in. She was too worldly for me. She was too sure of herself, though looking back I can see she wasn't sure at all. She was just putting on the show we all put on. 'Everything's OK. I'm doing fine.'
I do have to give her this. She had twice my gumption. I could never make myself go to bars or try to meet men at parties. My voices ran amok in such places and I feared the overstimulation.
She knew this. But one inevitable weekend, most of her friends were gone and she wanted to go out. She asked me to go with her. To a bar called "Whispers."
"I don't do bars," I told her.
"Come on, Beth-y. Just this once. We won't stay out to late. I'll bring you home and tuck you in bed. Just come for a little while."
It wasn't that she wanted me with her. She just didn't want to go alone and I was the only game in town.
Oh, and I HATED being called "Beth-y."
Nevertheless, I went. I still can't tell you why I made that decision. It was a trigger waiting to happen. I'd take one look at the men at that bar and I'd panic. I was almost sure of it.
As I suspected, the bar was a hurricane of overstimulation. Flashing lights, incredibly loud music (the name "Whispers" obviously being an oxymoron), moving bodies, the smell of beer and sweat and pheromones.
My roommate found a seat at the bar and told me to scram. I found a seat in the back corner away from the lights and people. I drank cola.
My roommate approached one young man after another. She certainly wasn't shy. Desperate, maybe. I tried to be entertained by what was happening around me, but to tell the truth, it was like trying to be a wall flower in purgatory. I just wanted to leave.
"Hey."
It made me jump. In fact, I may have spilled a little of my cola.
"Uh, sorry. It's just... I saw you come back here to sit and I know you probably want to be alone. I just thought maybe you wouldn't mind some company."
He was tall, a little too skinny, curly blond hair kind of like Art Garfunkel's except he had more of it. He was holding a beer in one hand and the back of a chair in the other.
I said, "Sure."
I meant, "Oh, my God!"
It's been a long time and I don't remember everything we said, but we exchanged names ("Craig. Beth"), and he told me he worked with computers, locally. What college did I attend? I told him and he smiled at me. Nice smile.
"Yeah, I know where that is. What year are you in?"
"I'm a freshman."
His beer made it about half-way to his mouth and stopped. (Great! I've managed to hit on the only teenager in this entire place.) He took in a breath and a swig, settled himself.
"How about you?"
"Well, I... don't really go to school. Anymore."
Funny, I expected my predator alert to start it's inevitable wale, but it didn't.
In fact, the more we talked, the more I liked Craig. He said he'd come with his roommate too and he pointed to a young latino man sweating it out on the dance floor. He himself wasn't much into bars, was rather quiet, really, went to church on Sunday (a Presbyterian like myself).
I pointed out my roommate to him.
"Ah yes. Her. She tried to talk to me earlier." He leaned in a little as if she might hear. "Tell you the truth, she's a little pushy."
Yep, I liked Craig just fine.
Was it hot in here? It was getting a little warm. But nevermind. Here comes the roomy.
She stopped at our table and smiled down at Craig. "Hi again," she said. "I just came to get little Beth-y. It's her bedtime and I'm driving." She dangled her keys in front of his face. (Damn. Maybe she DID hear that!)
It pissed me off. I mean, really.
"No luck?" I said.
She snapped her keys into the palm of her hand and Craig looked into his beer bottle and smiled.
"Thing is," she said, "I'm driving and I'm leaving now. If you want a ride..."
Craig opened his mouth to say something, thought better of it, sat back in his chair and looked disappointed.
I shrugged at him and gathered my purse.
"Maybe I could get your phone number," he said. "We could talk some more?"
I wrote it on a napkin and left.
On the way back to our school, I broke the painful silence of my angry roomie's disgruntled mood with my happy chatter. I think she would have killed me if she'd had a weapon.
A couple of days later, Craig called and it was like talking to an old friend. We stayed on the phone for well over an hour. You know the feeling. When you hang up, your ear can still sense the imprint of the phone you held firmly to your head, pressing the sound of his voice into your brain.
We agreed to see each other again that weekend. I was beyond excited.
The actual date is a little sketchy for me. (Been a while.) I do recall that we went to a restaurant and he brought his roommate with him. I think he was trying to make me feel safe, really. He was like that. I enjoyed both of them and I knew I wanted to see Craig again. I don't think I'd ever met anyone so kind and considerate.
We pulled back up to my dorm later that evening and I wondered if he'd be bold enough to kiss me in front of his roommate. But he wasn't. He told me he'd call me again and I got out of the car and headed to my dorm.
This is the part I'd rather forget. I want to expunge it from my memory forever, but I can't. I don't suppose I ever will. Just a few feet from his car, the images began to pour into my head. One after another, an onslaught of horrifying pictures of us together in ways that ... one doesn't write out in words.
Worse, those voices came back. "It's what you want. You'll bring it out in him. Eventually, everything will fall apart. What a stupid bitch."
No! Shut up! No, no!
But too late.
He called again and we talked for a long time. But this time, the voices in my own head ran interference with his.
I explained to him that I was leaving for home soon. What lousy timing.
But it wasn't that far away, where I lived, he reasoned. He would come to see me.
And he did try. When I got home for the summer, he called. He would come to my little town, pick me up, take me where ever I wanted to go.
I held tightly to the phone, spoke the lie.
"I can't see you. I... I'm thinking about getting back together with a guy I used to date and... I can't see you."
I recall him asking me if I was sure, really sure that's what I wanted. I said it was.
I have to admit that for an excuse, it was the most pathetic and hurtful thing I could have possibly said. He was angry and I felt I deserved it.
"Fine! Something's wrong with you, Beth." And he slammed the phone down.
I cried for the next three weeks.
It wasn't so much that I'd miss Craig. I hardly knew him at all. It wasn't that he'd been angry and hurt. I believed and still do that he may have been ticked off for about five minutes, but most likely moved on with ease, chalking it up to trying to date a teenager.
No. It was what he said. "Something's wrong with you."
It didn't register right away. But slowly it did. Something was wrong with me. It waxed and waned for the next four years. Sometimes I was fine, other times, I was so fearful and anxious, I could barely move. Only after years of hiding and wondering did I discover what it was.
I had something called pure obsessional OCD. Not many rituals were attached to the disorder, but my mind grabbed onto the most gruesome and violent thoughts it could muster and recycled them endlessly.
Not long ago, a therapist asked me if the thoughts had interfered much in my life.
"They did not interfere," I said. "They WERE my life."

posted for Beth Muse

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