The Way Forward: Fear, Courage, and Tampon Boxes

a blue box of tampax tampons, where I stored my fear and courage
Image by Lindsay Attaway / CC BY

“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.”

-Plato

*

I can still remember the way Kurt’s eyes would turn. Silver, flinty flashes.

“There’s a war out there,” Kurt would say. “Don’t you know?”

Didn’t I know? I froze, the lump in my throat closing in.

“What am I talking about? You don’t know anything.”

He liked to answer his own questions. Especially when they were about me.

*

I met him one night at a friend’s place. Kicked his ass in Tetris. We bantered back and forth. Made out on the couch.

“Could you give Kurt a ride home?” my friend asked.

I did.

“You should come in and meet my roommates,” he said when we got there. “They’d like you.”

But when we got into the apartment, he pulled me past the cluster of 4 men smoking and laughing in the living room. Into a side room. Closed the door.

“I thought I was gonna meet your friends,” I said.

“There’s time for that later,” he said.

And I’m not sure why I didn’t run then.  It wasn’t like he was bigger than me (he wasn’t). My car was just outside.

I guess I just didn’t feel afraid. Not then.

There was a certain softness to the way he had said it. The way he kept speaking to me.

“You know,” he said. “You’re really fucking gorgeous.”

And even though I felt a tug of resistance within my brain going, “Hey, hey, he’s awfully insistent, what are you DOING?” I found myself going along with it all.

I had been partying all night. And my center, my sense of self? Well, it lived somewhere else now, in a place just beside my body. Each chemical had led me to a different place. It was like I had chosen a strange town and started taking turns down random streets.

And now this man. His face under a dull bulb. We crashed onto the sheetless mattress on the floor. Within seconds, he went down on me, without even asking. I was horrified but frozen.

Well, it’s too late, I thought. You don’t even know his last name. This could literally kill you.

When he mistook my leg twitching for an orgasm, I tried to get up.

“Hey, that’s not fair,” he said. “I gave you yours. It’s my turn.”

*

The next morning I went to get my keys and couldn’t find them.

“Looking for these?” he said, smirking. But it was a warm tone. Confusing, as always.

“Yes.”

“Last night was incredible,” he said. “You just… wow. How old are you anyway?”

“19,” I answered. “I have to get home. My parents are expecting me.”

“I thought you had to be young.”

“How old are you?” I asked, suddenly realizing I didn’t know.

“Guess,” he said.

I thought. He seemed a bit older than the people I was dating, but there was also something really young about him. Adolescent. He was confident like an older person but looked 12 when he smiled.

“Are you 25?”

He laughed like I’d said something absurd. “Noooo, no way. I’m not 25.”

I blushed, embarrassed. I had aimed too high, I thought. “I hope I haven’t offended you.”

“It’s okay,” he said.

“But yeah, I need to go,” I said.

“You can have your keys when you give me your phone number.”

I refused. He insisted. I refused. He insisted.

Eventually, I gave him my number on the condition that he didn’t call it. My real one. I knew he could probably call our mutual friends and round it up anyway.

And of course he called the very next day, needing a ride. A terribly convenient personal crisis.

And of course I believed him and came to his rescue.

Before long, he said it was his car. He moved my reality an inch at a time, and it was so gentle and so sweet that I never knew it was happening.

He was the most convincing liar I have ever known. I believed him more than I believed myself.

But he did tell the truth about one thing. He wasn’t 25.

He was 32.

*

“Of course Kurt loves you, Page, don’t be so silly,” my new roommates said.

They were the sweetest boys. Well, they all had their quirks. Runaways from one thing or another. But they were mostly good to me.

Their girlfriends? Not so much.

“Who does this bitch think she is? Just because she’s fucking Kurt.”

I would come to find out that he was a fairly infamous person in the neighborhood. That people respected him, were afraid of him. That I should consider myself lucky to date him.

His mind operated like a mosaic, his moods fractured and not communicating with one another. In certain moments, he was brilliant. He had taught himself how to build computers. And I’ve never met a person with more business savvy. But he was definitely wounded and had never pulled out the weapon. His flesh had healed around it, and as he moved through life, Kurt would flail and hit situations that would throw him into blind rages.

His father was a policeman. Kurt used to hide behind the recliner whenever the belt came off after a long shift.

“I’m so sorry,” I said, when he told me about the beatings. “What did you do?”

“Do?” he said. “I got the fuck out of Indiana, that’s what.”

He’d been moving around for some time. And ended up in Maine after a stint in Florida jail. Hoping a relative could help him out. When his relative told him to go fuck himself, he’d rounded up some followers, the lost boys I now lived with. Somehow got them to give him most of their money, and he promised him he’d sort it all out.

My own paycheck I never saw. He got me a job cleaning rooms at the hotel where he cooked breakfast. And he’d pick it up from HR as a “courtesy.”

I don’t know how he did it, but we all believed him. We all loved him.

I’m sure the drugs helped. He would give me handfuls of mystery pills, strongly suggest substances depending on my mood. He played it off like he was curating experiences.

*

I’d lost 30 pounds prior to meeting him. I was in good shape. Healthy, on the thin side. Tiny for me.

As the weeks passed, he changed from his “you’re so fucking gorgeous” narrative.

“You’re making me like bigger girls,” he’d say. “I mean, it’s not so bad.”

“Not so bad?” I said.

“Well, Page, if you want some help with your weight, I’m here for you.”

Beaming his megawatt smile. Oh, that smile.

Before I knew it, he had locked up the cabinets. I didn’t have any money, so this would help me not snack, he reasoned.

When a roommate gave me a honey mustard pretzel, Kurt screamed at them until they apologized.

I can still remember lying back on our mattress, stoned out of my mind, rubbing my belly, staring at the glow-in-the-dark stars stuck to the ceiling, coming up with various schemes that could result in food. Rejecting each in turn.

There was nothing I could do. I was so fucked up, dependent on substances I didn’t even know the names of.

I had no money. Everyone loved Kurt.

Well, except for Matthew.

*

“Page,” Matthew whispered to me. “If you tell anybody this, I’ll say you’re a liar and that you’re fucking me. And you don’t want that. He would kill you. Me, I can leave.”

“What the fuck?”

“Shut up,” he hissed.

We were sitting on the BAT – Bangor Area Transit. We were on the bus that runs from the worst part of town, where I lived, to the sad airport mall where Matthew’s wife worked. Kurt had sent me out with Matthew to run errands. He figured that Matthew could keep me in line and make sure I didn’t spend the money he gave me “on anything stupid.”

I did as Matthew said and shut up.

“Kurt doesn’t deserve you,” he said.

“I feel like he doesn’t love me, but the boys are always telling me that I’m silly to think that.”

Matthew rolled his eyes. “Page, that is not what I fucking meant. That’s half your problem. You think life is some fucking romance novel. Stop a goddamn minute and listen to me.”

“Okay,” I said.

“He’s taking all your money. He’s hurting you. He’s going to destroy you. I’ve known him for years. He’s a monster. He did it to one of my wife’s friends. You’re fuel for him. He’s gonna burn right through you.”

“But… I can’t… I can’t leave him.”

Matthew rolled his eyes again. “I knew that’s what you’d fucking say. Women, right? You always want the asshole.”

“I love him,” I said.

Matthew sighed. “Well, you’re gonna do what you’re gonna do. But you’re really smart. Almost too fucking smart.”

He wrote his number on my hand in black ink.

“I like you, Page. Just do me one favor, okay?”

“So long as it’s not promising to leave Kurt.”

“It’s not,” Matthew said. “When you get home, you write this number down. Inside your box of tampons or something. And then you wash your fucking hands.”

*

A few weeks later, I was cleaning rooms at the hotel when I doubled over in pain. I barely made it to the toilet I had just cleaned.

I hadn’t felt well that morning either. I told Kurt this, and he made fun of me. Told me that he knew I was 19 but that I didn’t have to be a fucking baby. Grownups went to work when they had a tummy ache and a sore throat.

I dragged my ass through my shift. But at home, I got worse and worse. My roommates hooked me up with some powerful muscle relaxers for pain relief, but the fever and sore throat grew.

Eventually, Kurt sighed and took me to the doctor. “Tonsillitis,” they said. Gave me a Z-pak. Sent me home.

It didn’t work. I woke up with my throat closed, breathing but barely able to talk.

“Your tonsils are abscessed,” the ENT said in the emergency room. “We’re going to have to admit you.”

They put me on a children’s floor. Most of my neighbors were bald and terrified, frail. Recovering from chemo.

“How about a Muppets Movie?” the nurse taking care of me asked. “You seem like a Muppets person.”

“Do you have the Manhattan one?”

I watched it on repeat. The nurse asked me questions about drug use, and I clumsily dodged them. I could tell she knew I was lying but didn’t press. I was on pain meds for the tonsils, but as she tapered down my doses over the days, I began to feel more sober than I had been in months.

“I don’t know about that guy you’re seeing,” she would say. And I’d notice she would kick him out earlier in the evening. That she’d let my other friends or relatives stay later. She placed his get well soon package (flowers, stuffed animal, and a card — all from the hospital gift shop) conspicuously behind the other presents.

“You’re a good girl,” she said. “This is all not for you. You can’t get sick like this again.”

We both knew she wasn’t talking about the tonsillitis.

*

When I healed, I went back to the apartment with Kurt. But I was still sober. Kurt was worried about me going back in. I needed to heal a bit more.

His business took a turn for the complicated.

“There’s a war out there,” he said.

He’d been cheated out of rightful money — a major weight had come up short.

As he and the boys discussed what to do next, Kurt became distracted, less focused on me. I saw my opportunity.

While Kurt stepped outside for a few minutes to talk with a contact about the situation, I carried my box of tampons into the kitchen and dialed Matthew’s number.

*

“Shit,” Kurt said. “I gotta go. Matthew paged me, and he never pages me. I wonder what the fuck is going on over there.”

“Oh, okay,” I said.

“Oh, Page, it’s okay. I won’t let anything happen to me. I won’t go alone. Or unarmed.”

He had misinterpreted the fear on my face. I was relieved.

“I’ll be back in a couple of hours, I promise,” he said.

I nodded. Listened as he left our bedroom and the apartment. Swiveled and watched him walk out of the building. Waited for him to go around the corner.

My heart sank as I stepped into the living room. One of my roommates was sitting on the couch.

“Hey Page, you’re up!”

I nodded forlornly.

“Don’t worry about Kurt,” my roommate said, again misinterpreting my facial expression. “He’ll be fine.”

“Yeah…” I said. I was gutted.

“Oh! I know what’ll cheer you up,” my roommate said. “Let’s go to Denny’s! Don’t tell Kurt though. I don’t want to get yelled at again for sneaking you food.”

Denny’s it was. My roommate sat us down at a table and called his coworker over. Ordered us free breakfast. The unofficial employee discount.

But just as the food got there, my roommate caught sight of his supervisor. “There’s been something I’ve been meaning to do,” he said.

“Hey,” he said, calling the supervisor over to the table. “I don’t think it’s right that I’m working the overnight for less than Cheryl makes.”

I got up.

“Hey, Page,” my roommate said, mid-sentence. “Where you going?”

“To the bathroom and then to smoke,” I said quickly, my heart beating out of my chest.

“Page you shouldn’t smoke,” my roommate said. “Your tonsils.”

I sighed. “I know.”

My roommate flashed me a smile. “I won’t tell Kurt if you won’t.”

*

My father booked it when I called him from the payphone sobbing. “I knew you weren’t quite right in the head,” he would later say. “I probably shouldn’t have let you drive your car home.”

Dad and I were almost gone when Kurt showed back up at the apartment. My possessions were in boxes, and we were loading up my car.

Kurt’s eyes flashed with anger. Those silver, flinty flashes. But then he saw my father, and his face grew relaxed. Sad. The change was instant.

He sat down on my stereo and cried. “I love you, Page. Why are you doing this?” he sobbed over and over again, and I believed him.

My father not so much. He rolled his eyes. Dad walked over to him. “Kurt, get up. We need the stereo,” my father said.

*

Of course, it didn’t end there. I was up for days from stress. Sober but more than a little crazed from sleep deprivation and anxiety.

And Kurt called and called.

“Don’t answer that,” my grandmother would say.

On the fourth day, I got to hear my grandmother threaten a drug dealer. Not something you soon forget.

*

It got ugly, really ugly, before it got beautiful again. And it took about a decade.

But it did.

*

When I first saw the election results, I was empty. My courage extended to only a tiny radius around me: Where my feet go right before they go there. Nothing else.

But even in the short time that has transpired since then, I feel myself shift. It is not avoidance but the necessary acceptance of the reality that is set before us. We are afraid. So very, very afraid. Especially those of us who are outsiders, who have never fit squarely into that box of “acceptability.” We who have known persecution as children and dreamed for a better world as adults. One in which we could flourish and thrive.

The civil rights movement of the 60’s was like a fairy tale I was told in elementary school. Good triumphing over evil. And I never did that math to realize many of the “villains” of that story still lived and breathed among us — certainly in the 80’s when I grew up and, yes, even now.

This is a collective loss of innocence. I’ve had a lot happen in my life, but it took this to really underscore how fundamentally naive I really still am.

We have our grit, our brains, our courage.

As a recent meme once said, it’s not an insult to be called sensitive. Empathy is a superpower.

People voted the way they did because they were angry. Because they were afraid. Fear makes us do drastic things.

Now, we are the ones who feel that fear.

That fear is a gift. It is the best form of intel. A glimpse into the desperation of those who might harm us.

We cannot let the fear completely swallow us. We cannot let fear become our new reality. But if we can feel our fear, thank our fear, really learn from it, we just might find our opening.

But for now, we grieve for our loss. Those who pretended they were horrified by Trump but now trickle in one by one, oddly cheery, conspicuously so.

We will do what we need to do to keep a small radius of courage around us, and, when we can, expand it.

I do not know the way forward. But we must commit to finding it. Making it.

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