“Katalyna?” Rose asked. I looked up. “What’s your first memory? Mine is when I was still learning to walk.” She smiled at the memory. “I was using one of those not-walker things. You know, the ones that had parts that spun or made noise but only when a child was walking with it? I was heading down the hallway in the house we grew up in. Mom was in the back room, and Dad was in the living room. I don’t know why I remember that.” She chuckled. “What’s yours?”
“My first memory?” I thought about it for a moment, then frowned when I found it. “My first memory is of the back of the couch.” Rose frowned, too. “Well, that’s not strictly accurate,” I added. “You remember how I teethed on the dog’s tail?” She smiled and nodded. “That’s what I was doing at the time. He was laying in the patch of sunlight in the living room, acting so put-upon and doing his best to let me know that I was beneath his notice as I gnawed away on his tail. You know how he was. And then I heard the garage door open. And a car door slam. And then he stumbled into the house so loudly it felt like the world shook. And I suppose it kind of did, for me at least. And before he even started his bellowing and staggered to a seat and shouted for more beer, I had already let go of the dog, tottered to my feet, and sprinted around the end of the couch. I got some pretty bad rug burn, which is probably why I remember it. I wasn’t steady on my feet yet, far from it. I slid half the distance, but I didn’t stop to cry about it. I tucked myself behind the couch, directly in the middle where it would be hardest to grab me to take me out. I curled up, tried not to touch my skinned knees, and made as little noise as I could for as long as possible.” No one was smiling at this point. I didn’t keep talking. There was no need. For the two of us, as close as we were, there was no need to narrate what happened when he got drunk enough to drive Mom away. There was no need to tell her that once Mom was gone he started looking for me. And there was especially no need to say what happened once he found me. She knew. She had always known.
“I can’t remember a time,” I continued after a moment, once all that went unsaid had passed between us, “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know. I mean, most kids who experience abuse don’t understand that it was wrong until long after it’s over, if they ever do. I was that one anomaly. I always knew that it was wrong. I always knew that he shouldn’t be hurting me. I always knew that what he was doing was wrong. That didn’t stop me from still feeling the psychological effects, of course. I still feel unclean sometimes. I still feel worthless sometimes, like if I were better, if I were more, he wouldn’t have hit me. But for whatever reason, I always knew that no matter what I had done wrong, he should not hit me.
“That’s why, the one and only time he ever tried to sexually abuse me, I kicked him in the face before he’d even gotten my pants off. I was six years old, and I kicked my father in the face like I meant it. I almost dislocated his jaw, you know.” I smiled a little. “I was glad that I saved myself from that. I’m still glad I kicked him.
“I know that you often wish you’d seen what was happening with clearer eyes,” I told Rose. “You’re my sister, and I know you wish you’d protected me, even as you struggled with their words. But I would never wish that knowledge on you. To know, even as I was helpless to prevent it, that it was all wrong, was almost worse in the end. I know that I don’t have the guilt that you do about not knowing. And I know that guilt is made worse because I did know. But I don’t want you to feel that way. I want you to remember the fun you were able to have. You had a lot of great friends during that time. That was something I didn’t have because I couldn’t stand to let anyone near.
“The fact that I knew he shouldn’t touch me like that doesn’t bring me any peace. Sometimes I wish that I’d thought it was normal, like most kids do. I was so much more alone inside my own head. No one could be trusted, no one could ever touch me. The one friend I did have during that time, we never really touched. We did dangerous things every day. I did them partly because it got me away from home, and partly because the only time I ever felt free was when I was ten feet in the air and doing dangerous things in places children should never be. I used to jump from rooftop to rooftop, down onto a dumpster lid, then dive off and roll when I hit the ground. All those times I should have died from those stunts, and I never got a scratch.
“But that’s not the point. I know it’s not this easy, and there’s no switch to turn it off in your head, but I need you to know. I don’t blame you. I never blamed you. I resented you sometimes, sure. But I never blamed you. I was glad for the innocence you had that I never experienced. I was so happy that you could smile and it was real. I had to get really good at faking it. I’m so glad you never did. I’m so glad that you never had to know exactly what the back of the couch looked like. I’m so glad that you didn’t count the fibers between the beer stain the pulled thread like I did. And I am so, so happy that you weren’t always terrified like I was. I’m so happy that you never had to be. I’m so happy he never hit you. I’m so glad he never touched you like that. I’m so glad that you could sleep in peace.
“I just needed you to know that. We practically hated each other at the time, and I’m so glad I have you now. And I never blamed you. I only blamed him.”