Excerpted from Here Lies Memory
Up and down the avenue, in and out of the shadows, walked the girls—the true-to-life girls, the would-be girls, the if-only girls, the once-upon-a-time-I-was-that-young girls. The elderly, the nearly too youthful, the girls who clearly knew better. Boys walked the avenue, too, or they leaned against streetlamps. Beautiful boys. Fair and tender boys. They made their way into and out of cars. All night long, deep into the early morning. Everything imaginable was permitted along the backstreets or on the side streets of the North Side. More than everything imaginable was permitted in the alleys. A tragic end awaited nearly every one of these girls and boys, and every girl and boy was aware of it. They felt it near to their skin.
Sylvia wanted to escape such an ending. She felt that she knew more about how to control her body than most other girls. She did not so much work the street as simply walk it, moving her feet from here to there. She knew she did not mean anything by what she did in those lonely front or backseats of those cars smelling of cigarettes, fast food, and beer. She hid nothing beneath or inside her movements. Each touch was simply and precisely that, a touch. Each word was merely that, a word. Nothing more. Nothing less. She held back her unspoken dreams of a place, where she could love what she chose to love, in whatever ways she needed.
Sylvia never risked revealing any of those beliefs or any of her other beliefs to anyone. When men asked her to tell them her dreams, she only told them what they had convinced themselves they wanted to hear. She echoed their own secrets back to them without them even knowing she was doing that. She would tell them, “Beg.” She would say, “Suffer.” She would say, “Yes;” unless she felt they needed to hear her say, “No.” She would say, “Touch me here and there and here again. Yes.” And she would say, “Again.” And her voice would be soft. And her eyes would close almost as if she had done nothing to close them. And the men would go about finishing what they thought they had started.
Sylvia told those men she had to leave home. She made a little sad face and nearly cried when she told this story of fleeing a home damaged by her parents. She told them she was a runaway and that she was too innocent to be doing any of this, but that she would do this for them, for them she would do what needed to be done. Sylvia told these men that one night her father sat down on a chair in the kitchen to have a cup of tea and the chair gave in and shattered into a million tiny pieces, and her mother said simply, with her tired mouth, that now they would have to kill one of the children. Sad as that thought was to her mother, there was no other way. What else could be done? There was not enough money, and, now, there would never be enough chairs at the table. Where would they all sit? Her mother sounded so sad and Sylvia’s little sister would have cried if she could understand what her mother was saying. So, Sylvia told these men, “I had to leave home.” And, even though those men had lived so many more years than Sylvia had lived, she knew what none of these men dared to know: that there was nothing to lose. Nothing. Not misery. Not joy. Not love. Nothing. She knew that everything these men feared losing the most, they had already lost.
Years ago Sylvia’s father taught her that she had nothing to fear, not in this life. He told her this nightly. Hush little baby, don’t say a word. Ever. Don’t you ever say a word, little baby. Poppa’s gonna buy you this and buy you that, and Poppa’s gonna do this and that. And you’ll still be the sweetest little baby in all of Pittsburgh. Good night, baby, sweet dreams. And this man, the one who claimed to be her father, told Sylvia that there were no mysteries anywhere, not in her heart, not in a man’s words, not in the quiet of night. He told her that even this was not a mystery. Her father taught her that perhaps the only mystery was that there is no mystery, that there never was a mystery. She held onto her father’s cynical wisdom, but did not give her trust to it. She was convinced that mysteries were everywhere. From the bottom of the staircase, her mother would scream: “Say your prayers, Sylvia. Pray the Lord your soul to keep.” And her father would whisper, “Don’t cry.”
Sylvia knew what she was doing when she got into car after car after car. And, like she knew there were no mysteries locked inside her father’s bedtime stories, she knew there were no mysteries in any of those cars. Men rolled down a window, a door opened, and Sylvia simply stepped in. The door closed. She rode down the avenue in the man’s car, then up a side street. Later, the man returned her to the avenue, the door of the car opened, and she stepped back out into the night. The car itself sped away, off on an important mission to be elsewhere. She did this night after night, because she wanted to escape the cold in winter or because she wanted to escape the heat in summer. It was truly that simple.
Sylvia wanted someone to take her where she would never hear her parents calling her name, never hear them calling her for dinner, calling her for Christmas morning, or calling her simply for the sake of calling her. To not hear her mother call her the spitting image of all that broke her heart, to not hear her father call her the child who would never, not in this lifetime, ever know any better. To not hear her father tell her that he saw in her the spitting image of his own diseased heart. She no longer wanted to be anyone’s spitting image. And she did not want to hear her father say that no girl should look like her. What kind of girl goes around looking like her? With those eyes and those hands? Those eyes? What kind of girl, her father asked, what kind of daughter would dare to have eyes like hers? She wanted to be away from a father who told her that there are things in life that can never be taught, they can only be learned in the darkest corners of the earth, and learning is never simple. “You have to lose something in order to learn something,” he told her. “What are you willing to lose?” He asked her, and he moved so close to her that she could feel her father inside her.
Sylvia hoped to someday be far, far away from that house where her mother knitted sweaters and scarves for babies who would never be born, where her mother smashed pink hearts and yellow moons and orange stars and green clovers with a hammer, because she hated that leprechaun more than she hated that man, her father, the man who stole her car and her savings and her heart and her trust of country and western love songs, and fled across the wide open spaces of America to Arizona or some other godforsaken place, surrounded by women with knees and elbows that seemed to be in the wrong place. Sylvia wanted to flee that place where that woman mourned that man with impossibly high cheekbones. “Like you, Sylvia. Like you. He had cheekbones like yours. I see him in you,” her mother sang to her daily, each morning waking Sylvia with that little song, to remind her whose daughter she was, so she would know what she descended from.
And Sylvia knew her father would never die. She knew the man was immortal. She knew that he would just leave for good someday, just walk out the front door, carrying rabbit ears from the television set and maybe a suit or two swung over his shoulder, get in that beat-up Chevy Impala and drive. But he would never die. She knew he would be even more alive to them, to her mother, to her own desires, once he left for good. Sylvia longed to escape, if just for a night, from that place where her mother broke coffee mugs because there were too many coffee mugs in the world, and the world needed more space. So she walked along the streets and bridges of Pittsburgh and slept along the Monongahela River with Johnny and became an orphan with a secret hideaway that felt like a home in ways that orphans never seemed to experience.