Diane does this strange thing at bus stations, or on the busiest sidewalks of Minneapolis. She knows exactly where she’s going and how to get there; but she’ll pick a stranger, the scarier looking the better, someone who looks distracted and unavailable — and she’ll pretend she’s new to the city and doesn’t know how to get where she’s going. She approaches them and asks how to get to, uh (she fumbles for the address in her phone or purse), thatplace. Invariably — and really, this has never failed her — she feels their kindness as they explain her best route. They usually go out of their way to help her.
One day, she tried to refrain from playing this game with people, but was not always successful. Kindness is her crack cocaine, and she will go to great lengths to be on the receiving end of it. Even unto fabricating ignorance and vulnerability.
You might wonder why anyone would actually work to look vulnerable in a city known for its feral ruthlessness. But Diane has somehow always managed to stay out of trouble. She’s wily that way.
She’s always hated certain female protagonists in the movies. The kind where, realizing they were in danger, they tried to escape sooner than they should — betraying what they knew. This always triggered their captor’s wrath and squandered their advantage — putting themselves in even greater danger.
Couldn’t they see it was more effective to pretend they didn’t know? To just go along with their captor, maybe even befriend him? That way, he might begin to soften toward them, maybe drop his guard a little. Then they’d have the relative luxury of choosing their most optimum escape time and route. Sure, it would be risky, but wasn’t that smarter somehow?
She’d watch those movies, watch those girls screaming their heads off, and think how shortsighted and silly they were. Idiots.
Ice in her veins.
Diane didn’t let anyone know what she knew. But for optimum effectiveness, even she couldn’t know what she knew.
When she was fifteen, her family had an irrigation ditch that ran cool and sweet along the border of their forty-acre property. They lived outside of St. Cloud, Minnesota in those days, on the Mississippi River. Their land lay in a valley of sorts, sheltered by a dense ridge of trees, and no one could see in. She’d bring her beautiful book of Wordsworth poems with the gold-edged pages, carry it into the forest, sit at the base of a massive Georgia pine, and read. She didn’t understand the poems, but it seemed a romantic, teenager-y thing to do, so she did it.
She also used to go skinny-dipping at 5 AM in the summertime, as a kind of devotional to nature. One morning she was walking down the gravel road that led to the ditch, enjoying the warm cool of an August dawn in her terrycloth robe…and suddenly she heard behind her the unmistakable sound of gravel under Cadillac tires going slow.
That sound, and the river flowing in the distance.
It was her father. She knew this without looking back. She feigned complete ignorance and kept walking. Thinking back on this moment years later, Diane wondered, “WHY?” Why didn’t she just face him and tell him to leave her alone?
Because she was not an idiot, that’s why.
He wouldn’t leave her alone. And if she engaged with him, it might provoke a trip into deeply icky territory she did NOT want to visit, especially with him, especially consciously. Also, bonus: if she pretended she didn’t know he was there, he couldn’t get close enough to touch her. He. couldn’t. touch her.
So this was her brilliant strategy: 1) Pretend she didn’t know he was there; and 2) because she was a ninja-denier, pretend he actually was not there.
On the days when she really was alone, her descent into the water unleashed orgasmic cries from within her. Whooping and hollering, she lowered herself further down as the ice water kicked her heart into double time, her core becoming a furnace. She gasped for air, she laughed.
But that day, the backdoor part of her brain knew he was watching her as she disrobed and stepped into the freezing water, so now she buried all reaction. He could look, but she wouldn’t give him this. She wouldn’t give him how she felt. By the time her body was fully submerged, she was so deep into hiding, she’d actually forgotten he was there.
This was her superpower. Hiding from her life. Making like she didn’t know, pretending it wasn’t happening, and then forgetting all about it. No wonder her husband, decades later, still looks for her in her eyes when they make love, wondering where she went.
They moved to Minneapolis by the time their third child came along. Her therapist had encouraged her to participate in a workshop that teaches you to retroactively confront your abuser — whether dead or alive. But Diane never saw the point in digging up old wounds just to pretend they were healed.
So she works part-time as an usher at the Guthrie Theater. She keeps busy with the house and the grandkids. She has wine with the girls on Friday nights.
Wednesday is her favorite day of the week. On Wednesdays, she volunteers as a dog walker at Underdog Rescue. There, she gets to be with fellow animals who carry their own weight in the world. They don’t tell her their troubles. She doesn’t tell them hers. But they walk side by side every day, each knowing there’s someone next to me right now, and they get it. When she opens her eyes into their unconditional gaze, that’s when she feels most seen.
(Ray Bradbury had an idea for how to get your own education in writing. It’s the 1000-day MFA. I learned about this from Shaunta Grimes. Having launched into this project, the idea is to read a poem, an essay and a short story every night before bed for 1000 days. And during this same period, write a short story every week. This is my Friday story of the week.)