Sermon for a Girl in Steubenville, Ohio

Lord, have mercy.

I’ve been following the rape trial of a girl in Steubenville, Ohio who has accused two football players of  “digital penetration.”  In Ohio, as in some other states, the legal definition of rape includes penetration with fingers, or other foreign objects.  Yesterday, this 16 year old girl testified for two hours about what she doesn’t remember from that night and the social media shit-storm (a video the boys posted to YouTube of her naked in a basement, etc.) that she used to piece together what happened to her.  

I was struck by two things:

1. We all have to piece together our trauma, refracted as it is by the mishappen glass of our memories. 

2. The New York Times writes: “Mr. Mays and Mr. Richmond were rising stars in the football program, and some Steubenville residents have complained about a culture that protects the team. Others say the girl, her supporters and the news media have blown the episode out of proportion.” Have blown the episode out of proportion.  My heart feels its fault lines move.  

I have been this girl.  I am this girl.  

Instead of completing this post, I want to include an memoir piece I wrote years ago, first published in the literary journal, Fourth Genre, in the spring of 2007.  It’s much longer than a blog post, but if you’d like to read it, I’ll embed the text here for you.  Please keep in mind that I subscribe to Tim O’Brien’s idea: I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.  

These things happened to me.  But I love my friends and family, so some of the characters are composites, some things omitted, some things blurred.  

I offer this to her, that girl in Steubenville.  Brave girl. 


Amen.

 

Take Me With You

 

by Casey Fleming

 

If I could tell this story as my former self I would. If I could tell it in your words. But I can’t. I hardly know you anymore. I hardly know the place you come from, the place you live, the place I loved once. If I could tell the truth, I would do that too.This is my truth—not yours.You would have kicked and screamed at some of the things I will say about you and your native home, about your parents. No, you were not a screamer.You would have grieved quietly, and alone, as usual.You might have—maybe—written an enigmatic sentence or two in your journal and then laid your head down for a restless sleep.

What haunt me are the things you will never know.You will never know that the woman I am now wants to tell you, it’s okay, you’re okay. I need you to believe me. 

**

Houston. September, 1992. The football boys were already lined up around the edge of the pool, their feet dangling in the water, splashes shattering into the air like fireworks. They were a happy bunch. Rachel hissed into your ear, Oh, GOD, this is going to be embarrassing. Look, look. Mike is right in front of the diving board! Rachel let out a squeal that annoyed you. It seemed childish, and on this day you wanted to be anything but a child.

Your new bathing suit had padded lining, so your boobs, at least at first glance, appeared to stick out further than your rib cage. You tugged at the elastic edges, already self-conscious about having a significantly larger back- side than other 15-year-old girls. Only three weeks earlier Joe Kleinfelder told you that you looked like a pear—little on top and big on the bottom. You wanted to be mad, but deep down knew he was right. It’s okay, he said, the black guys will like you. Your biggest fear that day, besides being a child, was being too much of a woman. You couldn’t imagine anything much worse than your ass hanging out the back of your bikini for the whole free world to see.

You and her friends had planned for this day—you all knew it was com- ing. Drill team initiation. No one could dance during football season, unless they went through this process. The current members of the team prepared you: you learned a special dance, a song to sing, and a certain way to swing your hips, the perfect form to use when jumping, in full straddle, from the high diving board. Each girl was to dance, by herself, around the deep end of the pool where the players eagerly anticipated the show, climb up the ladder to the high dive, and sing the required song before jumping. The players formed a fence around the deep end and stared toward the div- ing board, awaiting this performance; the sweat of their muscled shoulders gleamed; their lower legs disappeared into the water. We all went through it, the elder girls assured the freshman, it’s supposed to be embarrassingYou’ll sur- vive, said Allison Cauldwell. Allison was your “big sister,” a sophomore, so she had already been initiated last year. Like you, Allison had a crush on Mike McCormick, but she also put hand-decorated picture frames and a gold-and-black teddy bear in your welcome basket that morning, so you didn’t confide in her that Mike walked you to your locker every day after sixth period, and that sometimes his hand slid across your lower back when he left you.

When you first arrived Coach Ryan greeted you. Howdy, little one. Where’s your mama? You told him she was at a swim meet with your brother. Coach Ryan was friends with your mother, who taught down the hall from him in the science wing of your high school.

Rachel giggled again. Amy Howard complained to her mother, a chap- erone, that she didn’t want to do it. That she couldn’t do it. Her voice cracked, but her mother pushed her into line behind Rachel and said, Oh, Amy. You felt sorry for her— Amy never wore shirts that didn’t cover her stomach, or shorts that ended above her knees, and she limited her makeup to mascara. Today she was the only girl wearing a one-piece swimsuit.

You scanned the crowd of players for a familiar face. Mike McCormick caught your eye briefly and smiled—a gentle smile and then a quick wave. For a second, you felt safe because you remembered what Mike’s hand felt like on your thigh the other day in Spanish class, when he asked you for a pen. It felt warm, and strong, and seeped through your jeans like hot water.

Hallie Spencer was the first girl to go. The rest of you coerced her into being the guinea pig because you knew she’d get more applause than anyone else. She had a killer body. Her voice was unnaturally soft, almost broken, when she stood at the edge of the board and sang: I’m a gopher girl and I always gopher guys, and when they don’t gopher me, I always wonder why. Then she crossed her hands over her chest when she jumped, and so couldn’t touch her toes on the straddle jump like she was supposed to. The football players booed and cracked up. Hallie slowly emerged and broke the surface of the water, her painstakingly hair-sprayed bangs slapped tight to her forehead.

**

I ran into one of those football players not too long ago. I saw him at some shady night club I was coerced into visiting by some of my old high school friends. Marcus— a black football player, also voted Best Looking Male of your graduating class.

I expected him to be as you described him to me: arrogant, dismissive, cocky. But instead he too seemed uninterested in the club patrons, the neon disco globes, the bad DJ. He pulled me into a corner booth and asked a lot about my life. He remembered you fondly. I told him about the East Coast, and he filled me in on the West Coast. He’d been living in L.A. the past three or four years.

You’ll see me, he said, on the next season of The Bachelorette.

Get out! I said. So, it’s already been filmed. Can’t you tell me what happens?

No. I’m under contract.

I bet you make it to the final round. Obviously, you don’t win, because you’re not married, I said.

He winked.

A few months later I sat all my closest friends down in my apartment living room to watch The Bachelorette, a silly show about a young woman who picks a hus- band from a group of bachelors the TV station has chosen for her. Marcus only made it to round two. I was surprised, but Avé, my most honest friend, said,

“Yeah, right. They always get rid of the black guy on the second episode. They don’t want to appear racist by cutting him the first round, so they wait until the second. But they sure as hell don’t want to bring a black guy home to mama, let alone the national viewing public.”

**

You can’t remember much of your turn, except for the bile threatening its way up your throat and the heart’s endless hammering. You were, however, keenly aware of the way your bathing suit rode up in the back as your hips popped from side to side. You climbed the diving board. You had to go slowly because your legs shook. You walked to the end and sang your song. You sent up a quick prayer that when you straddled the air your pubic hair didn’t hangout. Somehow you hadn’t anticipated anything after the jump—that blessed freefall. Under water, all you could see were the players’ swollen calves and feet in all directions, so you swam toward the shallow end of the pool to avoid them, and watched from there while Rachel, and Maria, and poor Amy Howard, and Gabriela, and Latisha, and everyone else took their turn. Each of their tender bodies glowed briefly against the blank, hot sky and you wanted to remember them that way: frozen in time above the diving board.

**

When I went North for college, I entered the first-year class of Smith College the same year that fellow Texan Ruth Simmons took office there as the first black pres- ident of an Ivy League school. The Houston Chronicle headline read: Making History.The newspaper explained:

When she is installed as president of Smith College on September 30, Ruth Simmons, the great-great-granddaughter of slaves and the daughter of Texas sharecroppers, will become the first black woman to head a top- ranked college in the United States.

I told some women there your story. I joined a group called Rape Awareness and was promptly assured that your story did not qualify, and more importantly, that everyone knows what kind of girls become cheerleaders. A young woman with a shaved head and thrift store clothing and a house on Martha’s Vineyard told me I could support survivors but not be one, as though I was trying to join a sorority. I tried to explain the difference between a cheerleader and a drill team colonel, but at the end of the day, they both have pompoms.

Ruth Simmons and I went North together, experienced the heaviest snowfall of the century that first fall semester. I did not even own a scarf.

My senior year, after someone had drawn a stick figure hanging from a noose on the marker board outside a black student’s dorm room, the Black Students Alliance organized a rally. I attended. So did Ruth. None of us expected her. If I could explain to you the composure and grace and quiet strength this woman exuded every day, you might understand why we all adored her so much. How many student bod- ies do you know that erupt into applause every time their college president enters a room? If I could explain to you the example of success and refinement she offered us, you might understand the vast silence, and the quickening pulse of the crowd when she began, unabashedly, to cry, as she said into the microphone: I moved away from Houston a long time ago, and I had hoped that I would never see anything like this outside of the South. I believed this place was different.

** 

After everyone took their turn jumping off the diving board, the players and elder drill team members joined you all to play in the shallow end of the pool. All you recall is a number of baritone voices and tanned bodies all around, and being pushed toward the center of the group. They’ll throw you in the air, someone yelled to you—you think maybe Hallie. It’s fun. Then you were there with all their big hands everywhere, sliding across your skin, slithering, preparing you to be launched. You balled yourself up to be shot into the air like a cannonball. It was only a split second, but your skin crawled and you realized your bikini bottom was creeping up and you felt something like a tampon, but harder, alive, moving—a finger, then sev- eral fingers, then somebody else’s fingers—and then a moment of nothing but bright blue before you hit the water again. For a brief second, you expected to see a brownish cloud appear in the water between your legs, and then you thanked God you weren’t hurt bad enough to bleed.

At the other end of the pool you coughed up water and then told Rachel. Someone stuck their fingers, you whispered. She threw you a wild- eyed look, but she also touched your arm. Someone stuck their fingers inside meAnd moved them around. Thighs clamped shut—hers and yours—and then there was the commotion.

Allison Cauldwell was crying on the side of the pool, her wet blonde hair turned a slimy shade of green, and directors’ and coaches’ mouths moved in a mad frenzy. The football players shook their heads and threw their hands up like we don’t know what you’re talking about.

Please stop crying Allison, you thought, you’re making a scene. Rachel whis- pered, do you think they did it to her too? And then it did became a scene: mothers hastily plucking their daughters out of the water, Ms. Bates—the drill team director—screaming at Coach Ryan about protecting her“girls,” a few angry football players pointing fingers or standing quietly in the background with their eyes nailed to their feet.

**

In college I took a class that reminded me of you. Gender in the African American Community.To this day, I swear that it was my best college course, even though it wasn’t at Smith Collegeit was during the fall semester of my year at the University of Texas. I also swear that Professor Anderson, with his brown skin and sea-green eyes, was the best teacher I ever knew and the first in a long string of pro- fessor-crushes I would have in my adulthood. He drew a triangle on the blackboard and at each of three points wrote the words in scrawling letters: race, class, gender. Then he asked the men in the class, mostly athletes and black, if they thought racism or sexism a worse crime.They laughed.

One Tuesday I raised my hand to point out that the Black Panthers treated their female members like slaves. I felt mean when I said it, but my voice did not quiver. I actually used the word slaves.When the men began to argue with me—vehe- mently—Professor Anderson raised his right hand high into the air to silence them. I think she has a good point, he said in his calm, velveteen voice.

I thought of you then. I couldn’t help it.That tiny scar I have somewhere inside me pulsed and grew pink—it ached as though it could sense a heavy storm on the horizon.

** 

Monday morning at school gossip whirled through the halls in hurricane fashion, turning heads, slamming lockers, and raising voices. Allison is leav- ing school, she’s switching schools, someone told you. Rachel passed you a note in biology: Allison’s parents came into the building this morning, all hell is about to break loose. Her face barely contained her excitement when she slid the note over your desk. And then Corey Locklin, a cheerleader, told several girls at your lunch table that DeAndre Lewis did it, and Allison’s parents wanted him expelled and maybe charged.

DeAndre Lewis. His name did not ring a bell. But you envied Allison her memory. In your mind, those fingers inside you had many faces—all those hands, how could you have connected them to one specific face? Your perpetrator looked like a team, not a person.

During sixth period you wondered if Mike would meet you outside class, whether he would pretend to have passed by with friends as usual, and whether he might hold your hand this time. Sometime between Great Expectations and semicolons, a student aide popped her head into your English classroom—excuse me, she said, Ms. Jackson wants to see Casey Fleming in her office.

The walk to Ms. Jackson’s office was long, and abnormally quiet, so quiet you could hear each footstep as it rattled the lockers and echoed. Ms. Jackson was an assistant principal and in all your years of schooling you had never been called to a principal’s office for any reason. And she was not just any assistant principal—other students warned of her potential for mean- ness. She had pale skin and her hair was huge and curly; most people referred to her by her student-given nickname: the Fro Ho. Although it seemed unlikely, you couldn’t help but feel as though you were in trouble, so you pulled hard on your lower lip and your bladder tightened.

Four people stood in Ms. Jackson’s office when you arrived: Coach Ryan, an assistant football coach whose name you never knew but who had deep acne scars pocked into his cheeks and forehead, Ms. Jackson, and Corey Locklin.

Casey, come on in and sit down.This is about the Drill Team Initiation this past Saturday.

Ms. Jackson looked up briefly at Coach Ryan as if they shared some secret. Her enormous hair cast shadows on the wall behind her. Coach Ryan nodded.

Something unfortunate happened, I understand, and I don’t want to pressure you, but Corey here informed us that you may have been involved as well?

The only thing you knew about Corey Locklin was that she had a huge forehead, went to fake tanning beds, and had an alcoholic mother who wore gaudy, jewel-heavy rings on her fingers. She was not your friend.

Corey, Coach Ryan interjected, thank you for being so honest with us and concerned about your friend.You can go now. Go on. Git.

Corey left and as she closed the door her hair swung over her shoulder—it reminded you of a hand-painted fan your grandmother brought back from China, black and very thick.

Casey.We need you to tell us exactly what happened to you.Allison’s parents are very upset.

You told them what you could.

Thank you. I understand this is hard, but we need you to tell us exactly where he touched you. Don’t be embarrassed to use the word.

The voice you used then—vagina?—sounded like a stranger’s voice and your insides cringed to hear it.

Okay, now. Coach Ryan here is prepared to kick DeAndre off the team and speak to his parents. Does that sound okay to you?

I don’t know. Coach Ryan’s smile scared you. I don’t—I can’t be sure it was him. Just him, I mean. I couldn’t tell.There were so many people.

But was it a black boy? With a gold tooth?
I don’t—probably.
DeAndre? We need at least two witnesses to take any action.
I don’t know.
The air-conditioner’s whirring rubbed up against the silence. The leather chair squeaked against your jeans. Everyone waited for you to say something more, but you didn’t.

** 

The things you confessed to me years later: There were more black players than white on the football team.You never knew many of their names.There were only 3 black girls on the entire 70-member drill team, and no black cheerleaders. After that day, you never dated Mike McCormick.You wanted it to be DeAndre.You wanted to blame him too. It would have made everything easier.You had a night- mare that night that would reoccur throughout your adulthood. In it, you drive a car up the Sam Houston Tollway, where it climbs up and up before splitting off into I-10 East and I-10 West.Your brakes give out, you can’t turn right or left.You crash through the barrier and go flying off the end of the highway into a sheet of clouds.

**

After you returned to class, and the bell rang, you saw Mike standing against the wall, alone, staring right at you. He did not even pretend to be passing by with friends. The two of you walked in silence. You walked all the way down the stairs and out the front entrance of the building together. In contrast to the cold inside of the school, the daylight shimmered, the warm wind raced, and you could hear the flags—Texas and the U.S.—clap in counterpoint against the flag pole. This sound comforted you until Mike finally whispered, Corey Locklin says that you told everyone it happened to you too, but that you just wanted attention. Casey, tell me the truth—his blue eyes burned red, which made your stomach ache and you wanted so badly to kiss him then—did that nigger hurt you too?

**

That same year I had my crush on Professor Anderson, I started to date Al Samson, an old friend from middle school, from before drill team. He was beautiful, a base- ball player, and had loved me since we were ten years old. His skin was so black, so very black, that the tiny wrinkles around his eyes shimmered and moved, spider webs or rivers. If I were a fish, or a dragonfly, I could have crawled right inside them and disappeared.

I want to tell you this. Sometimes it makes me angry with you. A bottomless, raging angry.When Al held my hand, or touched my body, the skin on his palms felt rough, foreign, like sandpaper. He never knew but it scared me, his skin. If he woke me in the night, when I least expected it, and pressed a coarse hand to my back, my body trembled and, I swear to you, I could not tell if it was love or fear.

My friend would tell me years later that I exoticized Al, and maybe she’s right, and maybe that’s the real source of my anger. Because when I was 12 he was Al who passed me notes in Spanish, and Al who sat with me on the school bus, and Al who laughed way down deep in his throat, and I have no memory at all of what his skin felt like next to mine. I only remember that it made me happy.

** 

You went home that night shaken. When you arrived you walked down the skinny front hallway lined with family photos and then took your shoes off and placed them toe to toe next to your father’s, mother’s, and brother’s shoes, already abandoned there by the side table. Yours were by far the smallest. Your father sat in his usual spot, on the right side of the couch, TV remote control in hand, glasses perfectly perched on his nose.

How was school, Sister Girl? your father asked. He meant it. He was that kind of parent, not the kind who asked because they were supposed to. He really wanted to know.

Fine, you said in a small voice.

This is the important part of your story. Because you told him then, about the pool, about the principal’s office. And your mother appeared from behind the kitchen counter to listen. But you must not have said it clearly, or loudly enough, because neither of them got sad. Neither of them got angry. Neither of them pulled you to them in a rush of parental empa- thy. You got no ice cream, no chicken fingers and French fries (your favorite meal), no nothing. Your father looked at you perhaps a little longer than usual—in that way he did when he was studying something. But that was it.

You didn’t cry. Maybe that’s why they didn’t know to react, since you were the kind of girl who cried easily and often. Maybe if you had shed a tear an alarm would have gone off—a high-pitched, steely one and your father would have asked you to sit next to him on the couch and your mother would have ripped someone at the school a new asshole for not bringing her into the principal’s office from her classroom down the hall, for daring to interview her daughter without her mother there to protect her.

But you didn’t cry. You thought maybe what happened wasn’t so bad. Maybe what happened was part of growing up and you, a perfect A stu- dent, couldn’t bear to fail at that. You thought maybe you did something wrong too.

Your parents laughed out loud together at a sitcom on television, and everything fit neatly into its place. The fan above your heads hummed at its usual rhythm and the sun fell in squares from the French doors onto the car- pet. So you went to your bedroom, closed the door, and fell into the bed.

Lying there, you remembered all their faces—Corey Locklin’s proud eyes and black, black hair, Coach Ryan’s patient and encouraging but stiff smile, and Ms. Jackson’s expectant, hopeful prodding. And you remem- bered walking out of the office and the heavy door taking its time to close behind you, and the way you stood outside it looking down the tunnel of endless orange lockers, and how you felt then such a darkness.

 **

At one of Al’s baseball games in college I tried to tell your mother again what hap- pened to you.This time she did cry; so did I. She didn’t believe that you ever told her—she swore she would remember that. I ended up consoling her, because her response to sadness is always anger first and she yelled at me. She accused you of having an exaggerated adolescent sense of drama; she doubted your recount of events. Luckily, we were separated from the other spectators, sitting on our own splintery wooden bleachers along the first base line.Al stood in the outfield, his dark skin shiny in the humid, thick-as-syrup mid-evening heat. From his vantage point, we were nothing more than pale outlines that stood every once in a while to cheer for a great throw or catch, then sat, then stood and sat again.We could sense when we were sup- posed to do this without paying any attention at all.

He could not have seen our blotchy faces, all shades of red and pink, mine lined in mascara, my mother’s streaked only with salt.You would have felt betrayed by her outbursts and denials, but I understood her heart was breaking. I could see by the way she gripped the bleacher, her knuckles impossibly white.

I believed her when she said that she would have done something had she heard you the first time. She is the kind of mother that acts, and reacts, relentlessly, and pushes her children to be as relentless. Like that time you got stung by a bee while waiting on deck for your swimming relay when you were eight years old.Your mother, who also happened to be the swim team coach, said, “You’re okay,” quickly made you the first swimmer of the relay instead of the fourth, threw you onto the block, swatted your butt when the start gun went off (your bee sting pinched and ached, still unattended to), and said, Go, Casey. Swim. Fast.And you did, your right leg full of sting the whole lap. And your relay won first place, and she was there at the other end of the pool to pull you out, all slippery and wet as a seal, and she tenderly pressed tobacco into your sting, which made it sting less, and then she brought you ice for the swelling. See, she said. You’re okay.

And she acted then too, at the baseball game.When Al trotted in from the field and filed with the other players out of the dugout, and said, Hi, Mrs. Fleming. Thanks for coming, she kissed him hard on the cheek, took his hand and then took mine and said with utmost cheer, Let’s get some Frito Pie.

** 

 At the pep rally the next day at school, the gymnasium roared with stu- dents. From down the hall you heard the approaching thump of a giant drum as the band marched into the gym. Because you passed initiation with flying colors, you sat for the first time in full uniform: the bodice newly dry-cleaned so the sleeves popped out of the black and gold cum- merbund a bright, pure white, your hair pulled back and held in place by a bright gold bow, your black skirt barely covering your ass and from beneath it your panty-hosed legs locked together in perfect position. Lipstick gathered in the corners of your mouth.

The first game of the season was that night. You could feel the anticipa- tion slide off the football players’ and cheerleaders’ backs and into the sweaty air, filling your lungs too. Banners and streamers in all shades of gold and black swung from the rafters, and a podium stood center court, await- ing Coach Ryan’s address to the student population.

After he spoke, you would dance the first dance of your drill team career before the entire student body. Your stomach hollowed at the thought of it. You tried to ignore what felt like a giant bruise between your legs that stung each time you peed since last weekend’s initiation pool party.

Coach Ryan stepped up to the podium then and the crowd hushed. The cheerleaders’ pompoms shivered against the basketball court floor. You noticed that Coach Ryan’s gut kept him from standing too close to the microphone.

I’ll tell you what, he said. These young men behind me are ready for a great season.

The students cheered.

Yes, sirree.These boys are strong as iron ore.

Rachel giggled next to you, and poked you in the ribs. When Coach Ryan talked in his thick Texas accent “iron ore” came out sounding like “aaarn ore,” at least four syllables long, and it struck you both as hilarious.

This team is like aaarn ore, I swear to you.Ya’ll are gonna get quite a show tonight.These boys have a lot of Po-tential. I’m proud to work with ’em every day and ya’ll should be proud to watch ’em. Aaarn ore, I tell you. Aaarn ore.

** 

Today I look through your memory box, your scrapbooks from high school. I find three letters from your father. He started leaving them for you the summer after you were hurt in the pool. Maybe a famous quote, or passage from a book, sometimes just his own thoughts. He’d fold the piece of paper in two and hang it over your steering wheel so that you’d sit in the platinum heat of the driver’s seat and read them before heading for school each morning. It was his way of saying things fathers have a hard time saying to daughters, his way of educating you.The notes I found:

A message to Casey Fleming from her father—
The soliloquy of the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz: What makes a king out of slave? Courage!
What makes the flag on the mast to wave? Courage!
What makes the elephant charge his tusk
In the misty mist or the dusky dusk?
What makes the muskrat guard his musk? Courage!
What makes the Sphinx the Seventh Wonder? Courage! What makes the dawn come up like thunder? Courage! What makes the Hottentot so hot?
What puts the ape in apricot?
What have they got that I ain’t got? Courage!

Courage! Dad

And then another:

A message to Casey Fleming from her father— “I know moon-rise, I know star-rise,
I lay this body down.
I walk in the moon-light; I walk in the star-light To lay this body down.

I walk in the graveyard, I walk through the graveyard To lay this body down.
I lie in the grave and stretch out my arms,
To lay this body down.”

—One of the 10 Master Spiritual Songs of the African slaves in America

Love, Dad

 

And then another:

A message to Casey Fleming from her father—
You’re way cool and doing as good as you can when you’re only 16.

**

When Coach Ryan finished his speech, Corey Locklin led the cheerlead- ers out onto the court, and they made fists with their hands and jumped in the air, curls bouncing everywhere. Players and students whistled. The cheerleaders chanted: We got spirit, yes we do, we got spirit, how ’bout you.

Then it came time for the drill team to dance. You stood. You all marched, hands on hips, head high, in single file onto the gymnasium floor and waited for the music to start.

When song finally filled the gym, you danced with all your might that day, and smiled so hard your cheeks throbbed and your jaw ached. The stands became a giant smudge of faces. You hit every pose, every beat, exactly right. When the song ended, and applause broke out, your heart banged loudly against its cage and your lungs heaved in and out the dense, spectacular air of perfection. Then you watched Mike McCormick stand up from the hordes of players in front of you. He looked right at you, through you, then turned his head away and blew Allison Cauldwell a kiss, and you heard her delighted squeal in your ears for a long time afterwards.

**

I find something else tucked away between ribbons and senior photos, messages hastily scrawled from friends that say things like “Stay sweet!” or “It was fun know- ing you.” I find a photo of you on the football field.

You must have just finished a performance, because you are marching off the field in a line of girls and all of you head back into the stands. Behind you, football play- ers and band members and cheerleaders (there is the briefest side angle of Corey Locklin’s enormous forehead in the crowded background) file out of the stadium too; one injured player receives help from an assistant coach. A ripe green turf stretches beneath your feet.You are smiling into the stands—a wide, effervescent smile that rises between your clownishly rouged cheeks—most likely at your mother’s camera. This photo was taken only weeks after the incident, and what strikes me most is that you are happy, blissfully so. It takes my breath away.

I look at you smiling up at your parents and know that you stored up that smile especially for them. Because they prepared you to be the kind of person who dares to stand on a dangerous strip of land and dance.They prepared you to do that even without them.

I look at the players behind you, and I cannot tell the color of their faces, which of them will be a good man and which will not. I look at this photo and realize it was never their faces that scared you, but their masks.

I look at you smiling and I remember the wind rushing into my face, the exhil- aration of a 100-yard stage, a stadium full of rapt observers, my nimble body, the rat- tat-tat of a drum roll. I remember kicking my leg high into the night sky, my toes disappearing into the stars, the persistent feeling of hope, hope, hope in each choreo- graphed step.

I pretend it is me in the stands, and your smile is telling me something too.That smile says, like my mother and father before it, you’re okay. I’m okay. And I believe you.

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