Apr/May 2005 Nonfiction


by Sherri Linn Kline

When I was fifteen a young Black woman in my Spanish class reached out, grabbed my hair and pulled out a switchblade, which she proceeded to click open and lay the cutting end across my outstretched neck. She called me a Cracker and told me she'd cut my throat if I didn't call her ma'am. I rolled my eyes up into hers and said "Okay." Then I just sat passively in that awkward, sacrificial position. My arms didn't even move from where I gripped the edge of my desk to keep my chair from falling over.

I stared up at her, she stared down at me. The entire class sat hushed, waiting to see what would happen. The teacher had just gone up to the first floor to make some copies of a handout, and as soon as her footsteps had faded down the hall, the class had settled into an expectant silence as the girl moved over to sit at the empty desk next to me. They had known it was time to set the new kid straight on who held the balance of power at the school.

Even by that age I'd met people crazy enough to cut the throat of a kid sitting quietly in a roomful of witnesses, and eighty-nine percent of me was sure she wasn't one of them. The other eleven percent didn't give a damn. Somebody whispered that the teacher was coming back down the hall. She let me go and put the knife away. I sat up as the teacher came back into the room and calmly took my handout when it got to me. I looked over at my attacker and passed the rest of the stack of papers on to her.

She wouldn't willingly stay in the same room alone with me even when we got to high school.

I had just come back to Columbus, Ohio to stay with my aunt and go to school on the North side. The school that I went to was known as one of the most dangerous in the city at that time, but the dangers didn't reckon on the kind of teenager that had been shaped by my first fifteen years.

I spent the quietest, safest school year I'd ever had after that. Actually, the entire period up to my high school graduation was quiet, aside from a couple of times when I went out of my way to get into trouble.

I once stopped several kids from beating up on a Pakistani girl just by walking up with a rock and announcing matter-of-factly that I was going to commit as much mayhem as possible if they didn't leave us by the count of five. My first target would be faces, joints would be secondary. The leader stopped, eyed my rock and I, and decided that screwing with a suicidal lunatic was probably not worth the effort. I got my Pakistani out of there. She became a good friend, although I don't think she had enough English at the time to quite understand what had I said to get them to leave us alone.

I wasn't exactly suicidal, although I wouldn't say I was sane at the time either. I just didn't care one way or the other. It takes some time to inflict the kind of spiritual wounding that causes such numbness. All of the little hurts add up and blend into the major agonies until nothing much matters on a day-to-day basis.

It's not the physical kind of wounds that have this effect, I know. If you survive the initial damage of a physical wound, it'll usually heal on its own, even if you don't take much care of it. It just might scar worse. Emotional wounds burn and bleed for years, and you can still die from them years later.

I spent some time as a runaway when I was eleven, after my mother's physical abuse had escalated to the point where I was worried that she'd kill me. Street kids were waving sharp objects around all of the time in those days, but I figured I was still safer on the street than I was locked up in the country, alone with a woman who hated me. I picked up a few marks on my hide during that year, but they healed cleanly.

It was an emotional wounding that finally leeched out most of the humanity from me. Up until I was in my teens I craved contact and affection as much as any child. I think. I found a few good people to trust, at least a little. Then the two major supports of my life, my dad and my great aunt, died around when I was twelve. After that, a short stint in the Children's services system had cured me of any lingering trust or respect for authority I might still have. I still comforted myself that I had some friends in various school systems who I had spent time with over the years. Every so often we'd exchange letters.

My mother finished the job on my soul one night when I was about fourteen. By this time I had been in foster care for a year before and had come back to her after my dad had finished dying. She'd stopped most physical abuse but she'd worked on refining ways of inflicting pain that no authority figure could point to and call her on. She was good at locking me up in dark places, then leaving for a day or so. Then there was speeding down backcountry roads with me clutching the door in a death grip, trying not to show fear. She had a tendency to keep me up most school nights, ranting various strings of hurtful scenarios.

Apropos of nothing one evening, she started on one of her, “You're not worth caring about and everyone knows it,” rants. I objected and pointed out that I had had some friends over the years, and I would make more.

Her smile was as feral as any I'd seen on wild dogs that I'd met walking around the countryside or in the city by the train tracks. I'd never seen a dog look so cruel, though. She told me that she'd been paying them fifteen dollars a month to spy on me, all the time we'd spent time together. Then she had me call one of them and ask. The girl said, “Yes.” I suddenly understood why almost every kid I ever met would abruptly break contact with me after they met my mother.

Later on that night, I sat out on the back porch and looked out at the darkness. I thought I'd never feel anything worse than when my great Aunt died. I'd never allowed myself to feel grief when my dad passed on. But this was a grief that filled every corner of my soul until it was the only thing I could feel. I drowned in it for days. When it ebbed, it took all of my warmth with it. I felt clean and cold, like dry bone. Even my mother sensed it, and her efforts to dominate me grew more extreme. It got to the point where the authorities had to intervene and I picked up two more scars that meant very little to me—two bullet burns on my rib cage and the inside of my upper arm.

After that I spent a little time in a group home, then went to Columbus, to my Aunt and the school, where I found myself unexpectedly looking up into the brown eyes of a young woman with her fingers twisted in my braid and the cold line of her knife against the right side of my neck and jaw. The only thoughts I remember having at the time was knowing that, one way or another, nobody at the school was going to bother me after this. The worry about tipping over and getting my throat cut by accident and the crick in my neck from the awkward angle concerned me equally.

The look the girl gave me when I handed her the stack of mimeo sheets after she let me up was starker than I'd felt when she had me at her mercy.

About a day later, the principal sniffed out a rumor about what happened and had me in his office. He tried to get me to report the incident. “You don't have to be afraid to tell me,” he said. I just looked blankly at him and smiled. It wasn't what he'd said that made me smile; it was just that I'd never seen a Black man as dark as he was up close before. I thought his skin looked pretty. His words were just that—words. I paid them no mind. I told him that there wasn't anything for me to be afraid of. Nothing in particular had happened in Spanish class.

Not caring is a powerful thing. I was completely cut out of any clique at that school, but not even gang members would come near me. This was a slightly gentler time, before empty-eyed teenagers were more common.

I guess if you have tendencies towards humanity, they'll grow back eventually. I saw a little brown girl beset by bullies at the end of that school year and felt a need to get involved. I had no reason except that her helplessness made me angry.

By the time I came back from my summer break in West Virginia, I found myself enjoying the company of the little group of immigrant girls who went to my school. A Pakistani, a couple of Vietnamese sisters, a little girl from Thailand who mostly spoke French, so the others had to translate when she wanted to speak to me. They fed me part of their lunches from home and kept me company, and as long as I was physically near them, bullies avoided them like they avoided me. I liked the fact that these girls never seemed to be afraid to meet my eyes, because even adults looked away from me most of the time.

And oh, I loved wonton soup. I probably was the first person on either side of my family to experience it.

High school came. Warily, I made acquaintances that I carefully never mentioned to any member of my family. I'd learned about their games, and one of the biggest rules was Isolation. Once I gained some control over my life in college I awkwardly started trying to make friends. I didn't get particularly attached to them; we passed in and out of each other's lives as the seasons and our college classes dictated. The ones I trusted, though, I trusted as fiercely as I didn't care about the rest. Sometimes I was nearly as wrong about them as I was about my mother. Sometimes, though, I was right.

Somehow, over the last three decades of my life, warmth has again taken root inside me. There have been huge mistakes on my part, betrayals large and small as I felt my way around human nature and learned what to expect in more normal behavior patterns. I know that my own patterns are hardly normal, but they seem to be viable in the long run these days. People don't automatically flinch from my eyes when our glances meet on the street or a bus. Actually, I tend to draw creatures who need protection of whatever sort.

My mother lost the war: I know I'm alive. There are friends I love, who love me. The warmth from our touch seeps into my pores when we're together. My husband and I are a warmth, the way our eyes communicate without benefit of speech and how we hold each other in the night. Even the pleasure I share with my little spoiled cat when we spend time together, my fingers gently scratching between her ears as she slits her eyes up at me and smiles a cat smile as I sit, reading.

I find joy in carving a true line in a bracelet or a bead. Running my hand down the haft of a spoon and feeling its smooth straightness and knowing that it's my work. When I tell a story and make my listeners laugh or frown, there's hardly any cold detectable in my heart at all. Oh, it's still there, but much diminished.

When I'm taking a shower, I can't even see where most of the cuts from my street days are. Even the scars have faded with time and decent diet.

If you survive, wounds can heal—if you take care of them.

I still love wonton soup.


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