At my mother’s house, the usual busy-ness when we are there: Nana at the table with two great grandchildren, one grandchild playing Scrabble. Another granddaughter stops by for leftover meatballs and cavatelli. My sister is upstairs making soup for another sister who just broke her leg and is hospitalized. Dennis has taken Justina to the local sporting goods store to buy sneakers. Beatrice says she’s going on a run.
“How long will you be gone?” I ask. She tells me. “Leave the earbuds out,” I say, but she probably has them in already.
I’m looking on my phone to see if quin is an acceptable word (it is!?) when the Amber alert comes in. A twenty-one year old woman missing in Kingston, RI. Kingston is twenty minutes away. This woman, another woman, some poor mother’s beautiful daughter, has been gone for two days. My daughter is out running, wearing the earbuds I’ve asked her not to, ticking off the miles on her GPS watch, marking her way along unfamiliar routes but not paying attention to anything important. This is no ordinary day out there for one family, while here my mother, my sisters, my children and nieces and nephews carry on as if the bottom has not fallen out of someone else’s carefully constructed universe.
I borrow my sister’s car, guessing at Beatrice’s route. The road stretches out, ominous in its ordinariness. Women are not safe out here. Don’t tell me the odds are against a woman being attacked in a town like this. Quote all the statistics you want. Here’s the only number that matters: One. I remember Linda.
We were ten years old that summer. Along the mostly residential Route 1, we walked to the Dunn’s Corners Volunteer Firemen’s Carnival. On a stretch beside a tract of cedar swamp, we played games of chance for a dime, took our first ride on something called the Round-Up. At a prize-every-time booth, run by an old man who might or might not have been a firemen, I rolled balls into chutes trying to win stuffed dogs. He let me have several chances for free. The next night, I returned to his game. When my mother found the plastic poodle consolation prizes hanging around my bedpost the next morning and asked how they’d gotten there, I told her.
“A stranger let you play his game for free?” she said.
I thought it was a great coup. Fearless. Stupid.
“Well, be careful,” she said. It’s what most mothers in Westerly, RI, in 1973 would have said. The next night, I went back, my friends and I laughing at my mother’s warning.
Three months later, I climbed off the bus. My friend’s older sister sat outside their house, leaves turning colors around us, the air still warm, and motioned us over.
“Linda Robinson is missing,” she said. “She never made it home from the YMCA last night.”
Linda was thirteen. She lived a few miles away from downtown where the YMCA was. Her younger sister attended the same elementary school we did.
Someone along a dark stretch of road had heard her scream, had found her schoolbooks scattered across his lawn.
To reach my house, I had to leave the noise of Franklin Street ‘s traffic, of the kids outside playing kickball, raking leaves. Our lane was a quarter mile stretch bordered on one side by the back of a shopping center and on the other, by a stretch of woods. I stood at the top and studied — from what seemed like an insurmountable distance — the white block of my house where my mother would be watching her afternoon soap operas, behind which my father would be filling the pit silo with the final truckfulls of corn silage.
It wasn’t the first time I’d been afraid to traverse that lonely stretch; I was a child with an active and fearful imagination. But it was the first time that I understood: bad things really can happen here. A thirteen year old girl was missing in Westerly, RI. Someone had been responsible for that.
Young girls should be able to walk home alone in the dark. Young women should be able to go out for a three mile run at any time of the day or night. We should be able to park our cars and not think about it, to sleep on a hot night with our windows open. Bikeriding to school, showing up for our lifeguard shift at a local pond, lying in our sleeping bag at a slumber party in a friend’s basement, closing up shop after a long day at work. None of these situations should put us in jeopardy. None of these things should separate mothers from their daughters. But they do.
Instead of a Mother’s Day gift this year, I asked my daughters to take a self-defense course with me. They would rather have gotten me a plant and done our usual picnic, but they agreed. We took twelve hours’ worth of classes with officers from the Ipswich Police Department. These concluded with us participating in three scenarios where we had to fight against a perpetrator. These were police officers dressed in protective clothing, men who had taught us what we would need to do to defend ourselves, “perpetrators” who, no matter how ineffectual our resistance, would let us go, and yet we were terrified. For the duration of the two hour class, my hands shook. When it was over and they asked us to talk about our experience, I could barely say what I wanted to: that, as scary as it had been to work through these exercises with them, I felt empowered by all the women who had not had the benefit of this kind of training. The countless victims who had had no idea and perhaps no chance to fight back. How could I not learn to fight? Even Linda Robinson, thirteen, had fought back, but in the end, she had been no match for a man so intent on doing her harm.
When I reached the end of East Avenue and saw the flash of Beatrice’s neon singlet, I wish I could say I felt better. There she was, my beautiful girl, my life’s work, healthy and present, only a few steps from home. But finding her and following her back(discreetly since she doesn’t appreciate my vigilance), only reassured me for today. She has a long life ahead. So many miles to travel.
When I pulled into the driveway behind her, she rolled her eyes. Not again, that expression said. Yes, again, I thought. Again and again and again. My paranoia and her disregard. A mother’s fear and daughter’s assurance that she will be okay. Most of them will be, after all. There’s that idea on which to cling.
Inside the house, her cousins erupted at the table at Nana claiming yet another double word score. Justina showed her her new running shoes. My mother reminded us that we’d need to get to the restaurant early if we all wanted to sit together. Her aunt finished the soup that will help our sister heal. What could possibly be wrong in the world?