Don’t Look

by Kathleen
That June when Helen was thirteen a soft, bright sky domed the earth, covered by dazzling green lawns. A profusion of buttercups blossomed.

Helen loved her father so much it hurt. She attended six a.m. Mass with him and his law associate, Janet Collins, every morning.

And if he punished Helen, but never her sisters, Helen only loved him more. When she made a mistake, he smacked her hard. But he and Helen shared a daredevil nature, he said. So that Helen, like him, needed harsher discipline, unlike milder souls.

At eight p.m. Friday, the Transfiguration eighth-graders would attend their last dance before high school. So Helen dragged her friend Mollie home for lunch. She planned to grab her white dress and shiny blue shoes. After dinner, Mollie’s older sister would help them with their hair and make-up.

Helen’s mother was away, visiting relatives, and last night her father, who was working on a legal case requiring a marathon strategy session, had sent Helen and her two sisters to stay with the neighbors.

His car was gleaming in the driveway, along with another car. The house was locked, when ordinarily it never was.

Helen rang the doorbell. She leaned on it and tried the garage door, the basement door, and the back porch. Mollie wanted to buy their lunch in town. But Helen needed her dress-up clothes. Behind dense shrubbery, she opened the pantry window. They crash-landed among cereal boxes and canned soup.

“Dad, hey, Dad!”

Her parents’ bedroom door was half open. But from behind the door came a menacing vibration. The space between the hinges revealed naked Janet Collins behind the door. Through the hinges, Helen saw Janet’s arms pressing into her breasts. She saw Janet’s nipples and deep, linear navel.

Her father was pretending to talk on the phone. His feet were crossed on the disheveled bed and he adjusted a flannel robe he never wore.

Then Helen turned, pushing Mollie down the stairs.

In the village, Helen bought Mollie some French fries. She wasn’t going back to school.

Mollie said, “Meet me at three.”

Helen wandered around until the school bus was waiting in an alley.

Instead of preparing for the dance, Mollie left Helen alone in a bedroom until almost dark. Mollie’s mother entered, saying Helen’s father had stopped by with her good clothes. She could sleep over but he expected her home before noon.

The next morning Helen thanked Mollie and her mother and left. Wearing her school uniform, she drifted through the suburbs.

Finally, at a loss, she traipsed home. Her father ran up.

“I said, be here at noon.” But instead of punishing her, he fondled her ear.

The worst thing he did—though she wouldn’t think so for years—was to ask her directly, “Is anything bothering you, Helen?” And then he turned his head. “Something you don’t understand?”

“No, I understand. I totally understand.”


paisley said...

i have a rather warped view of human sexuality,, as i do not feel extracurricular sex is necessarily a bad thing.. i do so wish we would stop inculcating in our children that which we only want to believe we "should" be... it is so very misleading,, and causes so much pain... this was very well done kathleen.....

kathleenmaher said...

Paisley, Your sense of our sexuality doesn't sound warped to me. Rather, it's our social traditions and institutions, many of them medieval, that leave lots of well-meaning people in misery instead of love.
Don't forget I consider myself a heretic, in some areas more than others.

Bosco said...

Is the last line ironic? Can a 13-year old girl really understand adultery?
It is very nicely done. So much tension in the relationship between this father and daughter.

Irene!! said...

Bosco, of course she does. I had my own experience when I was that age. I didn't see anything, but also discovered it myself.

kathleenmaher said...

Bosco, Adultery is so far outside this devout Catholic girl's understanding that she can hardly acknowledge its reality; yet she's too honest to deny what she saw. That's why she says that she totally understands it. Maybe life will make sense some other day.
No doubt I overreached. The fewer 500-words rule, which I'm approaching like a poem, stymied me here. But then, I agree to the incomprehensible every day.

Stella said...

Another good sketch. I like the fast pace (it adds to the sense of confusion), and the way the oh-so-important dance is left out entirely to show that it's now meaningless.

kathleenmaher said...

Irene: We needed your testament here. This child has heard lectures about "sinful sex" and "sanctioned sex" every school day. That was my experience, anyway.

Stella, I don't know if that's what you were referring to, but you are such an astute reader that when you offer praise it means a lot.

Paul Burman said...

'The worst thing he did ...'

And so the bad faith begins. Like it, Kathleen; and the clarity of understanding that Helen articulates.

Stella said...


Thanks, Kathleen. Just appreciating your skills.

kathleenmaher said...

Paul and Stella, Thanks. Knowing people read and respond to my writing is such joy.

Dan Leo said...

I too like how the really bad thing the father does is to dissemble at the end.

Another brilliant piece.