by Barbara O’Byrne
At thirteen, us girls pony; men bounce on the moon. Our suburban world is symmetrical lawns, split levels, and Dairy Queen. Vietnam is something on TV, an American thing. Facts are true. Anyone can look them up. The talk is all football at our Catholic high school. Our team, the Saints, (what else?) assumes mythic proportions. Pep rallies, special assemblies, busses to transport us to and from games. We bathe in the glow of district and city trophies in the school foyer. Elisa, senior cheerleader of the football team, is pissed. Her squad can’t go the team victory party. “Boys only,” the principal informs her. In the corridors between classes, in the cafeteria at lunchtime, in the foyer at the end of the day, she airs her suspicions, “He’s a perv. That’s why he doesn’t want girls there.” Her meaning? It’s another Vietnam. But I laugh along with the other girls, mimic her, mock her. She’s just mad she can’t go to the party. Rumors circulate about her. The next year, Elisa’s gone. Who knows where? Who cares?
I am eighteen and fluent in Freud and Marx. No one dances; everyone is stoned. We are passionate about classless societies, the dispossessed. We get it. We question everything. On Thursdays after class, we gather in the office of a young part-time instructor. Leon tells us about the suburban high school students he taught for a few years. “Vacuous,” he says, “they have no consciousness to raise.” James says he’s heard that LSD in the suburban schools is an epidemic, fed from the pockets of affluent parents, a sign of the nihilism bred by corporate capitalist culture. I am about to say that I attended that school and to agree with James when Leon’s face contorts in anger. “At St. Joe’s, the drugs are not the worst of it. You’ve heard about that famous football team. The Saints? Shiny trophies and regular write-ups in the city papers. But have you heard about those players-only parties? No trophies are worth what is done to those boys. Heinous acts!” I am mute. I have discovered this other Vietnam. I know what Leon is implying. But did he really say it? Anyway, I have a term paper due tomorrow and I am busy inventing myself.
I am twenty-three and the women’s movement is in full swing. Fridays are social night at the Women’s Center where I volunteer. Women of all ages swirl around Good Will couches and coffee tables, nibbling from vats of free popcorn and $.50 cans of beer and $.10 cans of soda. Disco music blares. A newcomer is excitedly talking to one of the regulars, pausing only for long swigs on a Molson. She is a solid woman, maybe thirty-five, with chin-chopped-brown hair, flecked with silver. Her full moon of a face is dominated by hard gray eyes. She reminds me of a medieval woodcutter. A pudgy, short-haired dog curls at her feet, tucking its head over her crossed ankles. My friend, Jennifer, offers some information. “That’s Dani. Don’t let her corner you. I heard her story twice at the Take Back the Night Conference, once when she was sober and once when she was drunk. She’s a teacher who got fired two years ago. Pretty clear why when you see the way she’s knocking them back.” I nod, and move on to other friends.
Later that evening, I sink into one of the sofas that reek of cigarettes, grime and beer. Dani plops into the empty spot beside me. “Have you met Max?” she says hoisting the small black dog in her arms. “He’s a rescue.” It’s clear she wants to talk. She’s a few beers along and launches into her story. She tells me she had been a teacher at St. Joe’s in the suburbs but now is looking for a job in the city. I don’t tell her I went to that school. I am looking for an escape route. Dani unpacks the tale of how her teaching career was sabotaged by the principal. “He had it in for me,” she begins, “constantly spreading rumors that I was an alcoholic, unfit for the classroom.” Dani’s tone shifts between a detached, disjointed rambling, her eyes looking outward to an invisible audience, to an in-your-face rant, her steel gray eyes widening, glowering. Dani attracts a group. She raises the volume, “Those players were being messed with. Everyone knew. Nobody said anything. Nobody wanted to hear about it.” She reaches down for the small dog who is whimpering on the floor and cradles him in her arms. I make an early exit from the center.
I sit in my dark 2/12 apartment in the student ghetto. Voices and faces from the intersection of memory and thought loop, bend, and arch like ribbons of tape pulled from a VCR. A belief emerges, the way a slight twist of a kaleidoscope snaps a design into view. It can’t be looked up in a book. It can’t be questioned. It just is, like flesh and bones.
BARBARA O’BYRNE is a Literacy Education professor living in Charleston, WV where she directs a site of the National Writing Project. Her fiction has appeared in Perigee Publication for the Art, Flash Fiction, and The Citron Review. When not writing, she can be found on a bicycle, exploring the forests of West Virginia.