Chapter 39 | Chain Reaction
My portfolio is due today. I have it set out on the desk Grandma let me move into the bedroom. I have a few minutes, so I read through to see if it’s as terrible as I remember. Instead, I’m startled. Did someone else write these? I may have pulled it off. Hopefully it helps me pass tenth grade. That’s on Mr. Castell now.
Maybe if I change the order, it will read better. Twenty minutes later, I’m still fiddling with papers. Better put it together and let it go. It’s time to move on. I head for the shower. Is it too late to ask Grandma to bake something? I’m not above bribery.
Grandma’s well into the morning paper when I come to breakfast.
“Good morning, Grandma.”
“Good morning. Sleep well?”
“Yep. My portfolio’s done, and I’m coming into the home stretch. I might even pass tenth grade, if I’m lucky.”
“It will take more than luck to do that, but I trust you’ll do fine. You’re not the same boy who came here a month ago. I’ve noticed changes. Have you?”
That stops me for a minute. How long has Grandma been watching me? Maybe Jonathan came by his sleuth skills more honestly than I realized. Grandma seems cut from the same cloth. I’d better watch myself before I give too much away.
“When do I get to read your portfolio?”
“After Mr. Castell grades it,” I say, grabbing food and heading for the door. “I’d better get going or I’ll be late. Have a good day, Grandma.”
“You too, Joel.”
When I get to school, I head right for Mr. Castell’s room. I want to get it over with, turn it in before anything happens. I’ve worked too hard for it to get crumpled, lost, or messed up. Mr. Castell is surprised to see me before class.
“Hello, Joel. Is this what I think it is?”
“My portfolio. Finished. Glad it’s over, I think.”
“Not entirely sure?”
“Until you grade it, no. See you in class,” I say, heading to homeroom. Now that it’s in, I try to stop thinking about it, but I’m easily distracted in American history class. I’m not alone.
All the students can talk about is the Underclassman Formal. When Mrs. Dixon writes due dates for an upcoming assignment on the dry erase board or gives us PowerPoint notes on the Smart Board or finishes up with group work for us to complete, whispers crisscross behind her. Notes are passed, stealthily. The class pretends to listen, but they continue to talk about who’s going with whom, what they’re wearing, and whether they’re going to go in on a limo together. Can’t they wait until their actual prom to blow money like that?
I’d groan out loud, but there would be no point. Not everyone is going, so I’m not entirely alone. I try to concentrate on the Great Depression, Rockefeller’s reaction to the Wall Street crash, and Roosevelt’s “Fear Itself” first inaugural address, but instead I just become greatly depressed.
Should I try to get a date to the dance? I wouldn’t even know who to ask. The only person I want to ask hates me, and I’m sure her perfect senior boyfriend has already asked her to his prom. Why would she slum with me at the Underclassman Formal over senior prom? I can hardly wait for tutoring, where I’m sure I’ll have to hear all about it in great detail. Padma will spill if Amber’s not there to share the deets. Maybe I should skip today. I haven’t missed in weeks. Now that my portfolio is in, maybe I can ask to be let out of the Writing Center for good behavior.
A week ago, on my way into the library, I nearly walked right into Amber’s Sasquatch. He has six inches easy on me, dark wavy hair, and clearly pwns a regular workout routine. The dude is built. Either the ground around me became quicksand or I shrank in his presence.
I ducked back around the corner before I saw Amber run up and jump up on her tiptoes to give him an enormous hug. I watched as they kissed. My stomach plummeted.
“Darren! How’d you get off work? Wait, let me get my things, and you can tell me everything.”
I don’t know why I keep trying to repair things with Amber. I’ve got no chance to surpass this guy. He’d squish me between his fingers.
When I jetted from my corner spot to slip past the happy couple and into the library, my weakling Joel body beaned off Darren’s muscled brick wall.
“Hey, watch it, dude.”
“Sorry, uh, my bad.”
I scraped myself off my knees and grabbed my bag off the floor where I’d stumbled, and then I bolted for the back, silently wishing a wormhole would open up and swallow me.
No such luck.
“That’s the one you were so heartbroken over?” He starts to laugh.
“No, seriously. I can’t believe you were ever into that guy.”
My eyes go wide. I can see Amber glancing my way.
“I told you not to bring that up.” He’s pleased with himself. Amber crosses her arms, looking right at me.
“Is that really true? What he said? I thought you said you’d never— So why did you—?”
Her eyes shimmer. “Joel, I—”
“This doesn’t make sense…” Why won’t she come out with it and end it already?
Her voice hardens. “And neither do you. You can’t even find your voice long enough to spit out one coherent sentence.”
“I do. I did.” My mind crunches data, scrambling for a solid example. “All the things I’ve written…”
“That’s not enough. I’m not one of your characters you can control. You can’t pin me down on the page with your words. I’m here. Be here. Now.”
I’m held in the wordless grip of silence. I might as well have no mouth.
“When it comes down to it, you shut down and say nothing. I’m done with guys like that.”
“That’s my girl,” he says to her, and then to me, “I like ’em feisty.”
“Let’s go. Enough’s been said.” As she walks away, Darren’s arm presses gently in the small of her back, she tilts her head to the side and says, “And unsaid,” leaving me alone in my silence.
In English, Mr. Castell calls me over as soon as I walk in the room. I’m instantly nervous and hope it’s not bad news. I try to brace for impact.
“Joel, I read through your portfolio during first period. I was amazed at the quality of your writing.”
Mr. Castell makes such a large pause, I’m waiting for the “but” to negate everything he’s just said.
“Due to the content, I had to make a few phone calls. One to Mr. Faber, who needs to meet with you right now. And one to a professor of mine from university. He’s the head of the English department, and with your permission, he is willing to accept poems from your portfolio as a late entry in this year’s Secondary School Poetry Prize contest. I hope you don’t mind my sharing your work. My professor was quite impressed. I faxed him a preview.”
“You did what?” I’m not sure whether to be proud or angry. Some of the poems are personal. I don’t know if I want to enter a poetry contest. This could stir things up worse than they were at Broad Run.
Mr. Castell does not expect me to be upset. He looks surprised. “Nothing has been finalized, Joel. If you’d rather not have your work considered, I’ll ask my professor to withdraw your entry. I don’t think you understand how big this opportunity is, however. The contest is run through Princeton University.”
I am mute.
He hands me a pass to go see Mr. Faber, but my feet have become cinderblocks, and I can’t walk or move or talk. If Mr. Castell thought the poems were good enough to share with his university professor, I think I’ll pass English. Ironically, I’m at a loss for words. All I manage to do is open and close my mouth a few times.
Finally, I take a deep breath and blurt out, “What does this mean?”
“Well, Joel, I think it means you’ve turned a corner, and it doesn’t hurt to make an impression with an Ivy League school like Princeton while you’re still an underclassman in high school. Congratulations.”
I head to guidance. My head is spinning. Princeton University? I haven’t even started thinking about college yet. This is insane, even for me. As I replay the conversation in my mind, I recall something Mr. Castell said about having to make calls. What did he mean? Why would he have to call Mr. Faber about my portfolio? Maybe it has to do with me passing for the year. I head back to his office when the receptionist tells me Mr. Faber’s ready to see me.
“I hear you’ve had some good news, Joel.”
“I don’t know the details, but I guess it’s good. Why did Mr. Castell have to call you? Is it about me passing for the year?”
“Uh, not exactly, Joel. Why don’t you have a seat? I need to explain something. It’s pretty important.”
I don’t like where this is headed. I grab a pillow.
“Am I in trouble?” I venture.
“No, you’re not in any trouble, Joel.”
“Then what is it?” I try to calm myself, but I can feel the anger ratcheting up inside, fueling a flood of words. “You’re all the same. You’re not there for me when I need you, just when you want to help. All you do is make decisions without asking. You’re just like him. All of you are just like him!”
“Joel, you need to know schools are mandated to report within twenty-four hours of suspected abuse. Mr. Castell had to report it after reading your portfolio, for your safety. If not, he could lose his job.”
“He did what? Wait, you’re reporting me? Am I going to prison? What kind of messed up—? He did that stuff! It wasn’t me!” I’m up and backing toward the door.
Every part of me screams run, but what holds me there is that Mr. Faber would just call the police. This is bad enough; I don’t need the police chasing me down. And to think I told myself I was ready to share this with someone. Instead, those I should be able to trust have betrayed me, just like my mother, and hurt me just like Uncle Steven. Is there any adult who doesn’t use children the way everyone uses me?
“Joel, you’re not going to prison. We’re reporting this to protect you. You were the victim, not the perpetrator. Try and calm down.” He motions toward my seat.
He says he’s not sending me to jail, but how do I know for sure? I need to figure this out. None of it makes sense. I’m starving and tired, and I start yawning out of nowhere. Mr. Faber watches closely.
“That’s better, Joel. I can see you have a hard time trusting adults, myself included. Given what has happened, I’m not surprised.”
Now he’s starting to be clearer. Maybe he isn’t out to get me after all.
“How old were you? Five, six?”
“It was right after my father got transferred. I was six. We were supposed to go fishing, but then he left.” I focus on breathing, but I keep yawning instead.
“And you’re sixteen now?”
“Almost seventeen. My birthday’s in the summer.” I grab the pillow again, just in case.
“I see. I’ll have to research the statute of limitations in this case. It might be too late to consider prosecution. This was your uncle, you said?”
“No! He’s not related. He worked on my grandmother’s farm. The only person who could watch us was ‘Uncle’ Steven. It was just a title. I think his real name is Steven Jacobs.”
“Is he somewhere nearby?”
“I don’t know. He took off after I ended up in the hospital. I was having growing pains and woke up screaming. I forgot about that. I never realized those happened at the same time.”
“It’s actually more common than you think. Forgetting is a way to survive, until you can deal with what happened safely.”
That actually makes sense.
“Mr. Castell told me you wrote about your experiences in your poetry. I haven’t read it yet, but if it’s okay with you, I’d like to see your portfolio. Do you think you’re ready to talk?”
“Well, since I turned in my portfolio, I thought you might find out. I planned to talk to you today. Just not like this.”
“It’s amazing how far you’ve come. Not everyone survives. Many give up, some are institutionalized or, worse, take their own lives. The fact that you were able to write about it and speak up for yourself is incredible to me. You should be proud of yourself.”
“Wait, what did you say before about a statute?”
“The statute of limitations protects the rights of the accused. If the victim does not file charges in a timely manner, time runs out, and you cannot file afterwards.”
“Is there a set rule about that?”
“It can vary from state to state. I believe ours is ten years. I will have to check.”
“But, it’s already been longer than that! Now what am I supposed to do? I just realized what happened. You said it yourself—I had to forget to survive. Are you saying I can’t go after him or press charges for what he did to me?” I grip the pillow tighter.
“I’m not sure, Joel. We can check with the police or file an appeal with the judge. Perhaps your case can change the current precedent. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First we should discuss what happened. Let’s start from the beginning.”
I tell Mr. Faber about the nightmares, how they returned and led me here. I explain what happened when I ran away and how my mother shipped me back home. I talk about the sorting project. I explain how I finished the garage and how I ended up at the farmhouse to finish with the shed and the attic.
I tell him how I had a vivid memory of the first time Steven Jacobs abused me and what he’d made me do.
“The term is fellatio, but what you’ve described is still sodomy.”
“Well, sodomy covers anal or oral intercourse. However, that implies consent.”
“But I didn’t.”
“Right. You should know that the perpetrator can commit forcible sodomy by making you do things against your will. I’m guessing he intimidated you somehow?” I nod. “And in your case, because you were younger than thirteen, it would be ruled as aggravated sexual battery, due to the severity and the number of occurrences.”
By the end, I’m exhausted. I’m also starving, but I’m not sure I could eat. Mr. Faber asks the secretary to arrange for us to have lunch in his office. Meanwhile, I get a drink of water.
“I didn’t know this was so… complicated.”
“It can be. Each case is unique. But there are also commonalities. Mr. Jacobs followed the pattern of a perpetrator. He used his age and size, as well as frequent threats, to physically harm you and your brother, to intimidate. He took full advantage of the situation with your father leaving, your mother working, and your grandmother caring for your ailing grandfather. You were completely isolated, and he could do whatever he wanted in that scenario. When he thought he might get caught, he took flight. Very typical behavior for his kind.”
We stop for lunch. I talk about the things I’ve been working on to make changes in my life. I’m still helping my grandmother complete jobs around the house; I go for bike rides and am working hard to pass this school year. I talk about trying to curb my swearing and how writing helps. I’ve also started going to practice for this year’s poetry slam.
“It makes perfect sense to turn the assignment you already had to complete into the motivation to reclaim your childhood. You’ve got a strong testimony, Joel. One that needs to be shared.”
I try to picture myself at the regional poetry slam. It’s only a few weeks away.
Mr. Faber asks if he can go through some tougher questions. I tell him if what we’ve already covered isn’t tough enough, we might as well go onto the next round.
“I want you to know I’m not asking these questions because I believe they are true, I simply need to ask them. It’s just protocol.”
“Okay. Go ahead.”
“Did you do anything to encourage Mr. Jacobs to pursue sexual encounters with you?”
“No. Sometimes I didn’t say anything, but I was afraid he would do more.”
“That’s fine. We can talk further, if you like. For now, I’ll try to get through these questions.”
“Did you ever do any of the things Mr. Jacobs did to you with anyone else?”
I doubt Elias even counts. Besides, what we had felt good, not like anything Steven did. “No. If Mr. Jacobs hadn’t done what he did, I’d still be a virgin.” Technically.
Now it’s time for me to ask a question. I’m nervous about the answer. Should I even ask?
“Mr. Faber. If I enjoyed any of it, does that make me gay?”
“Joel, childhood sexual abuse has nothing to do with sexual identity. It has nothing to do with sex. Regardless of any erection or ejaculation from you, that still doesn’t imply consent, no matter what he said to you. What he did is something completely different. Sex isn’t about power. You determine your sexual identity based on who you are attracted to, but survivors of CSA need to go through therapy to ensure they clearly understand their sexual orientation apart from their abuse.”
“You’ve also survived childhood sexual assault. What Mr. Jacobs forced you to do does not make you homosexual.” I don’t know what I am. Bisexual?
“Does that mean I can ask someone out?”
“Sure, when you’re ready. Just take it nice and easy. Intimacy can trigger flashbacks and cause confusion. If you get serious, you’re going to have to let them know, so they can be sensitive to what you’re going through. It won’t be easy for either of you, but you can have a normal life. It’s just going to take a lot of work.”
No way am I telling Amber about this. Not that I have much left to even keep us as friends. Knowing this, she’d drop me for sure.
“This just keeps getting bigger and bigger.”
“Unfortunately, that’s very true. But you’re already well on your way to recovery. Have you told anyone else? What about family? Do you have a plan for how to tell them?”
“No, I didn’t tell anyone. Are you kidding? I hadn’t even thought about that. I don’t think I’m ready.”
“Tell you what, let’s take the rest of this week, and we’ll work on a plan together before you tell your family.”
I don’t answer what I’m really thinking. Instead, I nod my head.
[From the journal of Joel Scrivener.]
WORMS IN THE SUMMER GRASS
It isn’t that far into June when the heat stings soft
Spring away, and my family migrates to the sticky lake
to cool ourselves beneath the shade of a beach-umbrella.
Rusted fishhooks and burnt grills surround the lake
like ants around a rotting tree. The sky floats across
the water, as I rub my hands on wet grass,
dripping sweat and bugs. Silence unnerves me.
He brings us here, like a family affixed, but
the worms and I know differently.
He rocks on water-logged sneakers near lake-weeds
where the mosquitoes hover and snails are born.
I concentrate on threading a dying worm and imagine it’s him.
The ground around makes a sucking sound
like a dry drain. I sip from an empty can praying
he slips into the water. He sits away from us,
over where the boy from Rochester Farm choked
and died a few years back. I never knew that boy.
At some point his presence wakes me.
He hovers over the bed; I notice my sheets peeled back
towards the wall. Encumbered by his weight, I await the end,
clenching my eyes as his hand holds onto the mattress.
My line jerks and I reel in a throw-back. I wait until nightfall,
when we will travel back to the house,
and I will scrub ground worms from beneath
my fingernails—and he will come into the bathroom
to pee with me, the worm burdened around a rusted hook.