Saturday, July 23, 2011

What River Is This?

by Alana Noël Voth

To xTx

My mother ran away from her father when she was seventeen. He did terrible things to her body, which had everything to do with her inability to love herself; which had everything to do with her inability to love me.

My mother escaped her father by marrying the man who’d become mine. Her past had everything to do with her inability to love him.

When my father was a boy, his father did terrible things to his body, which had everything to do with what he did to mine.

My mother was eighteen when I was born.

My face didn’t conjure any maternal instincts.

I was three when my mother ran away from us. No idea how it felt because I don’t remember her leaving. Mainly, I filled holes. I fell in love with my father. I trusted a babysitter’s husband too much. Later, I wrote dirty, violent stories in notebooks. Terrible shit that happened to bodies: car wrecks and knife fights and burnings. In my room, I listened to music.

No one knows what it’s like to be the bad man, to be the sad man behind blue eyes.

That was a song by the Who. I also remembered “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin and “Nights in White Satin” by the Moody Blues because my father played those records after my mother left us. He had long hair and blond sideburns then. Nights in white satin, never reaching an end. Letters I’ve written, never meaning to send.

I don’t know if my father wrote a suicide note. He came in my room one night and knelt by my bed then held my hand and cried into it. He wanted to run away that night. I stopped him.

What it was, my father worried I’d wake to the sound of a gunshot then have to see his brains all over the wall. That’s how I saved my father. But I wasn’t enough. I was a daughter. He needed a wife. Soon as my father married my stepmother, I felt dumped.

The father I had after he remarried was all oppression and control and anger.

I went from a child to puberty.

There was my father’s anger and its effect upon my body. He always focused on the negative.

“You look fat.”

“You look ridiculous.”

“I hate your hair.”

One day I told him, “I hate you,” and he beat me black-and-blue. Face down on my bed, my father held me by the back of my neck. Blow after blow after blow. I tried to breathe between them. Ever tried it? I was a desperate little bitch. Soon as I caught my breath I said, “I wish you were dead.” My father let go of me, and I clamored off the bed then crawled under it pulling up carpet with my nails like skin. I could see his feet, the belt hanging limp.

Neither of us cried; neither of us said anything. I went to gym the next day and had to undress in the locker room. I worried. Would the other girls say anything? Would anyone feel sorry for me? What would my gym teacher say? Nobody said anything. I didn’t want to tell on my father. Men beat their daughters. My friend Cheryl could tell you stories worse than mine. I undressed then got into my shorts and tee shirt. I walked through the locker room with my scarlet letter; my walk of shame. I loved my father. My father had beaten me. I’d asked for it.

Next day, I asked for it again. I got home from school nine minutes late.

My stepmother said, “Wait until your father finds out.”

When he did, he took my car keys. That was it; that was everything.

The most precious thing men take from us is freedom.

I climbed the stairs to my bedroom, went to my desk in a corner, took out a piece of paper then wrote, “Dear Daddy, I’m leaving and taking Boy George with me.”

That’s what I wrote. My father still has the letter. He loathed Boy George. I loved him.

One afternoon, my father rigged the cable box so I couldn’t watch the faggots on MTV anymore, but he didn’t rig out the Playboy Channel, so I got all the soft core heterosexual porn I could ask for: all those tits and ass. Maybe you wonder about the effect on me.

I packed a bag with clothes and all my Culture Club tapes. Then I took the Culture Club poster off my wall and rolled it up and tucked it under my arm.

I tiptoed down the stairs and out the front door, Boy George my spirit faggot.

When I got to my friend Kristine’s house her mother didn’t say a word. I showed Kristine the bruises, red welts, all up-and-down my legs. She said my father was bad. She said I’d done the right thing, but I was also eighteen. I wouldn’t have to go home ever; he couldn’t make me.

Here’s the thing: I was in love with Kristine. We used to ride in the back of her mother’s 1982 Ford Thunderbird holding hands. We slept in the same bed, watched all the faggots on MTV. Sometimes we went to school. I had five months of twelfth grade left.

One time Kristine said, “I wish you were a man so I could marry you.”

The first time I fucked a boy, he said I was too good at sex to have been a virgin.

I’d seen the Playboy Channel, read Harold Robbins, masturbated, fantasized, been molested. Was that what he’d meant?

I told Kristine I wanted to get out of town.

We drove her mother’s 1982 Ford Thunderbird eighty miles east to Glenwood Springs, and at the pool, met two boys, Dominick and Bryan. Dominick was dark. Bryan wore eye makeup. That’s why I liked him. Also, Kristine and I pretended we were French, no English, so I figured not having to talk to a boy put enough distance between us.

Eventually the four of us left the pool and went for pizza.

Kristine spoke to Dominick in fractured English, keeping up the French accent.

Bryan and I watched each other across the table.

Later we walked down to a river bank. Kristine stripped and got in the water with Dominick. Bryan’s eyeliner started to melt. Dominick and Kristine splashed each other, wrestled.

Bryan was girly enough I told him. “I’m not French.”

“I know.” He smiled.

We watched the water, watched them.

“What river is this?” I asked.

I have a photograph of my mother and me in a river somewhere. I was six months old and wearing a diaper. She’d dipped my feet in the water, and I’d clasped my hands together and opened my mouth in an “o,” either happiness or shock. Hard to tell.

“Let’s get in the water,” Bryan said.

“I don’t know.”

When my father called Kristine’s house, her mother handed me the phone.

I didn’t want to. Finally, “Hello?”

“Come home,” my father said.

“I don’t know.” My moment of power. And I wasn’t prepared for it.

My father sobbed in the phone.


“Please come home,” he said.

Bryan grabbed me by my arm and pulled me toward the water. We had this tug-of-war with my body. Into the water I went.


  1. As ever, heartbreaking and gorgeous, Alana.

  2. Thanks so much for sharing this, Alana. You are an amazing writer and an inspiration.


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