“The Front Seat”

My school bus was Lord of the Flies on wheels, and I was Piggy. Nighttime tears shed the residue of that day’s humiliations. My parents’ variegated forms of “Children are cruel” landed as corroboration rather than sympathy. Their concern quickly sewed into ennui hemmed with frustration. An inveterate eavesdropper, I monitored their conversations from the other side of the door, which was the auditory equivalent of reading someone’s diary. Often, what I overheard was hurtful.

“Well, she’s turned into quite a heifer, so she’s ripe for the poking—no pun intended,” my father once said to my mother. I remember that specifically because I had to look up “pun” in the dictionary. He added that, were the situation all that dire, it would’ve motivated me to lose weight. And, if anything, I had gained weight, which according to him positioned me as an accomplice to the so-called crime. He told my mother they needed to “help me help myself.” Their offensive began by not signing the bus contract for sixth grade. Instead, a cash-hungry French teacher who had arranged a carpool would drive me to school. There I would be safe from pint-size cruelty’s maul and lash.

“This is going to be a better year. I can just feel it,” my mother exclaimed on my first day of sixth grade. Though self-conscious, insecure, and yes, fat, I glommed onto her optimism. Maybe this year would bridge easier terrain, which given those first few anticlimactic weeks seemed warranted.

The French teacher’s Country Squire station wagon resembled a hearse. To this day, I shiver when I see one of those behemoths hulking curbside, dodging extinction. The olive-green hood and fenders on Monsieur Lenoir’s were cavitied with rusty abscesses. Wood flanks hollowed from abuse. Inside, taped-over gashes on worn leather magnified copious bald spots, evincing a hag who had lived too long and seen too much. It was less ominous, however, than the modern, sleek bus where youths preened their callousness.

Had my mother, who was squalor averse, glimpsed the ochre, crusty, holed upholstery in Monsieur Lenoir’s car, I would have been back on that bus faster than my tormentors could say, “You’re not sitting here, fatty.” Her southern upbringing and twang instilled a devotion to etiquette and a reverence for musical accents. Hence, she glamorized all things French. In that language she drawled words too uncouth to say in English. It was de rigeur to yell “Merde” as opposed to “Shit” in profane circumstances. Given her Francophilia, she would have been dismayed to learn that Monsieur Lenoir was, in fact, a French-speaking Haitian, not a native of France.

My contentment proved short lived. The teacher, despite the name of his car, was no squire. Adept at navigating temper minefields, I made sure I was always waiting for him and not vice versa. Monsieur Lenoir often ran late. And when he did his joviality disintegrated into anger. The man’s blue eyes would lose their endearing sparkle that compensated for a pockmarked, jaundiced pallor masking his true ugliness. Still, nothing about this gnomish little monsieur read predator.

At first, this new transportation warded me from evil like an amulet. As the last child picked up, I sat directly behind Monsieur Lenoir, next to a shy fourth grader. She wouldn’t dare tease me even if it crossed her mind. An unspoken hierarchy existed: elders were feared if not exactly respected. My former bus mates, who had feasted on my weaknesses, no longer hungered for me, save an occasional bite. The two new girls I had befriended vouchsafed a certain protection and mercy—at school. Upon arrival, we bedraggled lot of carpooling misfits scattered to our separate classrooms like cockroaches when a light comes on.

Just as things seemed to be gelling, on the third Friday morning Monsieur Lenoir said that he was rearranging us to accommodate a new addition. I was to sit in the front with him, trading places with a skinny geek. A fifth grader’s younger brother was coming up front, too, but given his size I figured he’d sit the middle, leaving my head to rest against another dirty window. I was loath to change seats. In my young mind, this newfound peacefulness—tentative and raw— depended on the status quo.

“But why can’t we stay in the seats we started in?” I asked.

Mon Dieu! Listen, Abbey, don’t you give me no trouble you hear?” His voice cadenced in a chilling whisper through gritted teeth.

The following Monday morning, our driver pulled up to my building ahead of schedule. I was waiting. He stepped into the melee of oncoming traffic to open the front passenger door. As I wedged between the bumper and fender of two parked cars, horns honked impatiently. He waved them off with invectives.

“Jimmy, come out. Abbey, go in the middle,” he ordered.

“He’s smaller, shouldn’t he move to the middle seat?”

“Ugh,” he screamed, “there is no seat belt in the middle, it’s too dangerous for him. What did I tell you about not giving me no trouble? Maybe you want to take the bus again, eh?”

Embarrassment circulated through me like venom. I jerked over to the middle.

Bookended between the teacher and this morsel of a boy, I was acutely aware of my girth; thighs oozed past the seat margins like blood seeps from a dressing. Unnerved, I shook my leg to release tension. In response, Monsieur Lenoir patted then rested his hand on my knee. When the movement ceased he did not retract it. His crab-like hand with clawed fingers encased in nubby dry shells had attached itself. I recoiled, sliding as far toward Jimmy as I could. The crustacean tightened its grip. Then, it began to scuttle up and down my thigh.

“It feels good, eh?”

My heart started to race; my throat constricted. “Not really,” I squeaked rather than affirmed.

Leaning closer to me he cooed, “Don’t you give me no trouble, you hear.”

His warm cigarette-y morning breath assaulted my nostrils. I sneezed and coughed. Droplets of sputum landed like granules of sand. As though it were acid, Monsieur Lenoir’s claw fled to the wheel.

“Eh, what’s the matter with you? You want to cause an accident?” He asked loudly enough to garner the other passengers’ attention. I imagined all heads behind me raised, their eyes boring into the back of mine in tacit condemnation.

Monsieur Lenoir delivered the question as an admonishment. I had been duly chastised. By exorcizing anxiety through my limb and with my coughing fit, I could have caused him to crash. The quavering had beseeched his attention and distracted him and endangered us. If he called my parents I would get in huge trouble. Or worse. It was either Monsieur’s carpool or the bus. I shouted an apology.

Tres bien.” I understood that meant “very good,” though I suspected it wasn’t good enough.

I had intended to preemptively mention the incident to my mother, but I did not. She had begun to greet me at the door with a smile, enjoying the reprieve from snarls and tears that had greeted her most afternoons in previous years. It was a Friday, and at home with the weekend ahead of me, Monsieur Lenoir’s image unthreaded and faded like an old tapestry.

I suppose I enjoyed my mother’s positive feedback, though I couldn’t have qualified it as such back then.

“Well, it’s such a pleasure to see you in a good mood.”

“School has been going okay.”

“I’m so glad to hear it, ma chérie. Come in the kitchen, I made you a healthy snack.”

Healthy was code for low calorie, which deflated me instantly. On the plate were four sticks of celery with a dollop of mustard on the side, lean materials that would build a thinner me. I had squirreled a bag of Peanut M &M’s in my book bag to insulate me from hunger. I could not tell my mother that having scarfed a chocolate donut before leaving school, I wasn’t hungry for crudité.

“Um, thanks, but I have a lot of homework, so…” As I walked out of the kitchen, her voice trailed after me. “Abbey, you’re not eating a thing, yet you don’t appear to be losing weight. It’s a riddle for your father and me.”

Food, my cure and my affliction: instant temporary gratification that kept me fat. My parents pleaded, cajoled, and bribed me to lose weight. They sent me to a diet doctor, where my weight inched up in half pounds. Though lean and fit, my parents nevertheless dieted with me. My father signed himself and me up for ice skating lessons—exercise and togetherness. My mother aligned shopping sprees with weight loss goals. They filled the cookie jar and pantry with junk food to model discipline, resisting it along with me. But in the middle of the night I would tiptoe to the kitchen and dip into every bag and canister, taking a small amount from each to avoid getting caught.

My room was my refuge. The wall-long window looked out to a courtyard between our building and the abutting townhouses. Alternating between lush and bare with the seasons, it was an apt metaphor for my ever-shifting perspective. I daydreamed about the lives lived in the apartment across from ours, where shadows moved behind opaque curtains. Lithe and graceful, I imbued them with a narrative I wished were my own: that of a gentle, loving family. Torment began to dog me at home. The children who’d lost my scent at school had metamorphosed into my hounding father.

His impatience and hand tremors calibrated in proportion to my weight. It was as though he were Narcissus and my heft a river. I reflected as his failure. He said things such as, “Abbey, it’s not just the fat, it’s what the fat broadcasts: ‘I have no discipline’”; “If you weren’t so pretty I wouldn’t bother—svelte won’t help ugly”; or “I am trying to help you because boys do not have to settle for just a pretty face when there are plenty of pretty, thin girls out there.” Some were compliments, others he intended to be constructive. They all torpedoed my confidence.

On a Monday morning at breakfast, a few weeks after school had started, his right hand began quivering uncontrollably. He dropped his mug. The coffee-splattered wallpaper cried tears of brown liquid. Embarrassed, he left to change his clothes. As my mother sponged around me and my pick-up time and Monsieur Lenoir neared, I announced that my stomach hurt. “You just devoured a scrambled egg and two pieces of toast.” She felt my forehead. No fever. She called my father back to the table for verification. The back of his left hand, its ring finger bulbous with matrimonial gold, landed like a punch. “Ouch!” “Nope, cool as a cucumber. Try eating more slowly, or,” he paused, “less.”

Monsieur Lenoir reached past Jimmy and pushed open passenger door. “Get in the middle.” Situated, I focused on constraining myself within the charred leather demarcations. The teacher’s left hand was on the steering wheel. The right, now a clandestine tarantula, sat poised for action. Furry tentacular fingers grazed the top of his pants. They scampered to his groin. Monsieur Lenoir elbowed me as he fondled himself. The low, guttural noises that accompanied his masturbation seemed audible only to me. I looked over at Jimmy who, leaning against the window, head cradled in his right arm, appeared oblivious. Perhaps the thick oversized Fair Isle sweater I wore to hide my protruding belly blocked his view. The noise stopped. I glanced at Monsieur Lenoir. Both hands were on the steering wheel. Clearing his throat, he instructed us to gather our things; we were almost at school.

I went directly to the nurse’s office. A lie had scaled into the truth. The dissonant groans echoing in my ears had tailed into a vertiginous nausea. When it finally subsided boredom descended. Old yearbooks were stocked on the bookshelves of her makeshift clinic.

I flipped through them, idling on photographs of pretty girls. Blithe, toothy grins stenciled vibrant, pearly crescents onto their thin faces atop thinner bodies. With them, handsome jocks had no physical obstacles to hurdle. My father would have been proud to call any one of those girls his daughter.

The crotchety, past-her-prime nurse telephoned my mother hourly. She never answered. I took the late bus home to avoid Monsieur Lenoir, arriving just before our dinnertime: 6:45 p.m., sharp.

No sooner were we seated than the interrogation began. Meals had devolved to Darwinian experiments, for which I was unfit. Survival resided in short answers and averted eye contact. Most nights I changed into a light blue sweatshirt hoping to fade into our dining room walls, which were painted the same color. And each time I did, I was reminded of the exercise’s futility. We formed a triangle at the table, my father at the head and my mother and I on either side. My chair was tall, high-armed, bow legged and stiff, a wooden marshal with a fugitive in custody. In this autarchic justice system there were no fair trials. My father cross-examined me until I perjured myself.

“Abbey, have you gained weight?”

“I, I, I don’t think so.”

“Well, are your clothes tight?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know if your clothes are tight?”

“I haven’t noticed. I mean, I guess not.”

“You look heavier to me.”

“What?”

“You say ‘excuse me,’ not ‘what.’ We can’t have people thinking you are being

raised in a barn, though you’re starting to resemble a…never mind.”

Pig.

My teeth clenched. Tears pooled. Sweat leaked.

“Jane, what exactly have you been feeding her in the afternoons?”

Through her tightened jaw, slit eyes, blushing skin, my mother’s expression amalgamated fear, indignation, and restraint. “What we discussed, exactly. And she hasn’t been eating it,” she said, quietly.

“Is that true Abbey?”

“Yes, I mean no, I mean I really haven’t been eating a lot so I don’t know how I could’ve gained weight.”

“Staying away from the cookies and candy?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Are you sure?”

He didn’t badger a witness unless he had evidence. I should have interpreted it as a signal to yield, but instead I said, “No.” And, just like an unwitting swine, it was as though I marched into the pen; the barn door locked behind me.

“That’s curious to me. Yesterday there were four stacks of twenty cookies, and today there are four stacks of nineteen.”

The night before, after they went to bed, I took one from each stack—to make sure they remained even.

“I’m sorry, it’s just…” My voice cracked.

“You know the punishment for lying. I don’t want to hear another word.” Then he tagged on, “And I’m going to weigh you, too.”

I watched him wrest meat from his chicken leg and gnaw on cartilage. Lying was the crime, no time discount for entrapment. Doomed, I berated myself for every sugary sin.

I had gained two pounds. This excited the mathematician in him. My father multiplied by twelve months, then those twenty-four pounds by a varying number of years, to estimate my impending obesity. And to formulate how many lashes, he divided the number on the scale by twelve. He told me to take down my pants and lean over his bed. My bare ass goosebumped with anticipation. I put my head down on their rose-colored, satiny bedspread and wept while he whipped. Afterward, with his belt rebuckled, he migrated to the den to pour himself a scotch. I could hear ice cubes jingling from his shaking hand as I wobbled to my room.

I never thought about it before, but I wonder if he steadied his thrashing hand by gripping the wrist above it with his free one. That would have added momentum and strength.

Later, numbed by the alcohol into his version of remorse, he would apologize. He couldn’t stand that I was being humiliated. He was at his wits’ end having tried everything he could think of to get me to lose weight. He didn’t know how else to get through to me.

I think he lacked the introspection to see that he was simply repeating what his father had done to him.

My mother would come in shortly thereafter to ask if I needed anything: a glass of water, a cold compress, a hug.

I can still taste the sour hatred that curdled on my tongue.

Yes: protection, an ally, a mother. Handcuffed by fear, shackled in subservience, he had withered her. Whenever she ventured an opinion, he retaliated with, “You move your mouth and I’ll talk.” I crimsoned with shame for her. Those power plays were an admission of sorts. Though diminutively thin and short in stature, my mother possessed a shimmering intellect that my father was smart enough to reckon dangerous.

At ten-years-old, I understood on a visceral level that I was tougher and more resilient than my mother. She, too, had been an only child, whose idyllic, sheltered upbringing had ill-prepared her for combat. I was weaned on her husband’s frustration and wrath.

By the next morning my welts had fainted to a scribble of red lines like a crossed out mistake. They would remain tender for days. Fresh from the hot seat in my dining room, I edged into the decrepit station wagon’s middle seat. Monsieur Lenoir whistled as he drove, one hand on the steering wheel the other on his thigh closest to me. I yelped when it leapt to mine. He pinched me quiet. I held my breath as his fingers began crawling toward my vagina. I willed myself mummified. Monsieur Lenoir jimmied my legs apart. He rubbed and chafed. The seam of my corduroys dug into my labia. Both rigid, we were two sticks. I wanted to ignite, smolder to ashes, burrow in the crevices, meld with the rest of the grime and trash. Was Jimmy watching? Would he tell people? In my peripheral vision I noted that his ears were covered with one elbow jutting toward me. If it could speak it would have said, “You have cooties.”

Monsieur Lenoir jerked his hand away, flapping it as though I had scorched him.

Did he think I wanted him to do this? I couldn’t be sure if the other passengers were aware of what was happening to me. They tendered neither subtle allusions nor overt acknowledgements.

Certain Monsieur Lenoir would call my parents, distort the situation, and pin the blame on me, I resolved to tell my mother. She met me at the door clothed in a tea length, bell-sleeved floral print dress, her hair pulled back in a chignon, joviality plastered on her face. At first I balked, worried that the conversation would sully her mood and outfit.

“What’s newsie?” (News+New=Newsie.)

“I got an A on my history paper.”

“That’s the best newsie! See, you do much better without me.”

(My mother had helped me with a biography of Julius Caesar. I got a C+. Apparently, she was unfamiliar with new writing and new math, having been taught the old way.)

She brought me a plate with Granny Smith apple slices, a teaspoon of honey, and my courage. “Mom, I have to talk to you about something very important.”

A big exhalation was followed by, “Should I sit down for this?”

“I want to take the bus again.”

This newsie startled her. “Mais pour quoi?”

Her French catalyzed my reticence into ire. “Because I hate Monsieur Lenoir, that’s why.”

“Is he not a good driver? Do you feel unsafe?”

Her questions were banal and appropriate. I faltered. “He’s gross. His car is gross. I just don’t want to go with him anymore.”

My mother’s equanimity wavered. “I’m sorry Abigail, but this makes no sense to me. Out of the blue you want to go back on the bus? Are you being picked on in that car—because I can talk to…”

“That’s not it,” I interrupted her.

“Excuse me!” my lack of politesse affronted her. I apologized. There were a few beats of silence. I figured she was scrolling through possibilities, weighing whether they would require French translations or threaten her emotional balance. I might have chickened out had she not said, “Why don’t you just tell me the problem, and then we can decide if there’s a solution.” Passivity, her reflex, emboldened me.

It gushed like verbal vomit. “It’s Monsieur Lenoir. The first time he just touched his, you know, private part, but then, I mean now, well twice, he rubbed my, you know, vagina.” I whispered vagina and croaked the rest of the story. Her narrowed moss green eyes converged word by word into a swamp of tears. She plopped down next to me on the banquette. With her arms around me, fingers combing my thick brown hair, she kept repeating that she was sorry. It was the first time I remember feeling that her love for me had density and vitality. Perhaps she feared that my father would mistake affection for coddling, an indication of weakness under his regime.

Thinking back, I don’t ever remember seeing them hold hands.

Rocking in my armchair after confessing, I wondered if secrets weighed anything. Free of mine I felt lighter. There was no movement behind the curtained windows of the apartment across the way, nothing to embellish with narrative. Chilly weather had unleaved the courtyard’s trees. An audience of naked branches with long, sinewy arms were adjoined at the tips as though they were clapping, for me. I heard my father bellow, “Hello.” He expected my mother and me, his sheep, to flock. Having beaten me to the door, she motioned me back to my room. Hearing their bedroom door shut I assumed my regular post, ear affixed to the crack in the frame.

“That is exactly what she told me, and yes, I believe her.” My mother had recited my story almost verbatim.

“Jane, take a good look at your daughter. Why would this guy choose her?”

“That’s exactly why he would choose her, Jerry. He’d think she was an easy mark.”

“Listen, we shouldn’t take things like this lightly, but we can’t accuse the man; it’s her word against his—he could sue us for defamation of character or something.”

“Not if he’s guilty. Child molesting is a crime. Our daughter could be seriously scarred by this; it’s the sort of thing that renders adults incapable of having intimate relationships.”

“Whoa—she’s about thirty pounds and a lot of years away from an ‘intimate relationship.’ In terms of Abbey’s sex life, if that’s what you mean, right now I doubt she’s even a candidate for, what’s the game where they spin the bottle and have to kiss the kid it lands on?”

“Spin the Bottle.”

“You get my point. You remember last Valentine’s Day when the kids on the bus threw black paper hearts at her.”

“You are, can be, as cruel and heartless as those kids.”

“If I recall correctly, you put her in this situation. Had you even met this guy? What did you know about Mr. Lenoir when you entrusted our daughter to him? Nothing, that’s what! I’m heartless and cruel but you’re the one who handed her over to some pedophile who molested her.”

“Don’t you think I know that? Don’t you think I feel terrible? I don’t think I’ll ever forgive myself!”

“And I’ll tell you something else,” he yelled, “Men like this are not one-time offenders!”

My mouth fell agape. He was almost defending me. But at my mother’s expense. It was always someone else’s fault. He had done his time, scapegoated for his mother’s death, endured my grandfather’s wet-towel whippings as penance.

“I would never intentionally endanger our daughter. I was trying to spare her,” my mother pleaded.

“Well, Jane, you know what they say about the road to hell. You got her into this. You believe her, you handle it.”

The next morning brown sugar and butter accompanied my oatmeal, testaments to parental guilt. No one uttered a word until I broke the silence.

“Um, how am I getting to school today?”

My father said, “Today you go with Mr. Lenoir. But you will not be in the front seat.”

My jaw dropped. Then bravery rocketed through me and out my mouth. “You can’t be serious—you’re making go back in that car?” My nose tingled, a precursor to weeping.

He and my mother locked eyes. My father’s hand went up, his fingers fanned, like a stop sign. “Abigail, we need more than twelve hours to sort this out. I promise you, he will not hurt you anymore.”

It was obvious that a discussion had ensued with Monsieur Lenoir, one that I did not overhear.

I shuffled toward my assailant, a giant marshmallow in my bulky white down jacket. He thumbed in the direction of the backseat. My spongy legs froze in place. Monsieur Lenoir angrily tapped the door. I could not look at him as I tumbled gracelessly into my former seat. The fourth grade girl who wouldn’t dare tease me had replaced me in the front. Staring at the back of her French-braided head I wondered if she would be his next victim. “C’est pas ma problem,” I decided. Morning light glinting through the besmirched window splintered into rainbow prisms that haloed her with dust.

I never forgot what my father said about men like Monsieur Lenoir: they don’t do it just once. I wish I could forget many of the other things he said. I wish his tremors had been guilt instead of Parkinson’s. I wish he had lived long enough to see my thin self. Whether I have a pretty face is subjective, but thinness is a fact with gradations of thinner. While many women gain fifteen pounds during their freshman year of college, I came home one month into mine to bury my father. Weight loss followed.

______________________________________________

V.E. Gottlieb
In 2014, at forty-eight-years-old, I earned my MFA from New York University’s Creative Writing Program. Prior to that I raised my two children and co-created Pam&Vix, a weekly blog that focused on parenting-related issues. I am currently working on my first novel, The Holders.

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