I started contemplating suicide on a regular basis when I was 14, as it dawned on me that no one was going to help—no matter what I said or did. My grandmother, a stoic with her own skeletons, refused to get involved. She listened to my reports at her kitchen table while she prepared elaborate duck or pheasant dinners for her hunting friends. But she never confronted my dad. And my mom, who’d already lost one husband, wore her denial like a heavy coat.
I can still remember the look on her face when I handed her a poem I’d written, one morning after my dad had been in my room. She read half of it—I can’t remember what it said—then folded the paper over. My dad was standing close enough in the kitchen to intercept the missive, but he didn’t see it. Why I didn’t give her the poem in private, I don’t know. But when she peered up, her eyes burned their own message back. “Please, please stop telling me this,” they said. And so, one night in the middle of August, 1985, I ran away.
It’s late, and I’m lying stomach-up on the living room floor, with one leg sticking out of a faded yellow nightgown with Tweety Bird on the front. I’m pretending to sleep as the wind screams across the lava flats, rattling the windows of our house. And my dad, dressed in a terrycloth robe and reeking of Old Spice, hovers a couple of inches above me, so that I can feel the heat coming off his chest.
I squirm, and he backs off. I roll over; he inches on. I jerk my head and lurch my body—still pretending to sleep, but showing him that I know what he’s doing and that it’s making me sick. My dad and I twist around like this until he decides I’m too restless to lay on top of tonight.
He gets up and stares at me, then goes outside for a smoke. When he comes in, he turns out the lights and heads to bed. I listen. Teeth brushed. Covers back. A little moan. Asleep.
When I hear him snoring, I put on my pink-and-black Vans and slip out the front door, careful not to let the wind slam it shut. I run to the end of our driveway and turn north, toward the Perrine Bridge. This is the night, I think, that everyone will remember, but no one will understand. I am running to the bridge, which stretches across the Snake River, nearly 500 feet in the air. When I get there, I will walk to the very center. I will climb on top of the railing. And I will jump.
The nights I was abused have become like dreams, some locked in a vault and others softened around the edges so that they sometimes seem almost tender. But there are others, terrifying aftershocks that flash out of nowhere—visceral as if they’d happened yesterday.
Lying in my sleeping bag a half-mile below Sawtooth Lake, I can’t get the bridge, the Tweety Bird nightgown, or my desperate 14-year-old face out of my head. It’s 3 a.m., and I’m staring at the roof of my tent. A thin layer of condensation has turned to ice, which keeps shearing off into my face.