I was eleven almost twelve but I looked thirteen when I walked across Orlando toward my father’s apartment on Orange Avenue. (I told him telepathically I was on my way. I can’t stand living with her anymore!) I was thinking: French toast, snuggling with the funnies. I tried different ways of walking: fugitive style, fancy bra wearer walk, and a walk that always provoked my mother, why are you sticking out your bottom like that? There were no sidewalks. Parking lots and sandy yards, sandspurs, sandspurs, sandspurs—on my tennies like jacks. I placed one sandspur on my tongue, green, tiny pricks, not yet ripened to a constellation of swords. To balance that sharp star in my mouth and walk well, I had to keep the pressure inside of my mouth even, and this super hard task made me feel all the difficulty of my life was both manageable and behind me.
I held my tongue to the spur, and I walked and pretended. Pretended I was walking to church. I pretended I’d saved orphans. Now aren’t you sorry, Mother, aren’t you ashamed? I walked for miles. Men honked. I waved back politely but what I meant was Rescue this girl! I waved with both hands, quick. Honk honk, wave wave. I meant Take me to your house and let’s eat. I did not know the significance of she was found with no panties. I didn’t know what no panties implied other than forgetfulness, some kind of personal dirty. Hey baby. I waved thank you. I was not used to feeling powerfully pretty, traffic-affecting pretty. At school, I was dark, mute, attractive as a hairball.
This was my second arrival at my father’s apartment complex. First time on foot. Holley Apartments. Why an e? Why holes in the sign? Gunshot holes? There were bullet holes in my house. They’re the opposite of eyes. I spat my spur, galloped up the outdoor cement stairs, ran down the corridor, dodging around the puddles on the lanai. At his door, I knocked and knocked and knocked. It’s your daughter! I pressed my ear to the peeling blue door. Television, voices. The smell of cigarette smoke. Not that again.
That’s when I remembered. In the woods behind my father’s apartment complex, in the pine scrub, a girl’s body was found. When? I didn’t know time well. A girl from my school. Trisha. I loved that name, Trisha. Like tissue and winning, tish and ta-da! Trisha. Tisha? I loved her but I didn’t know her. Everyone kind of knew her after she was found dead behind Holley Apts. Her dress pulled up. No panties. What? This was 1976. Standing outside my father’s apartment that Saturday afternoon in July, I saw a swath of my not-knowing disappear in a bright flash.
I watched myself from outside myself so as to not be so tiny and so hopeful, and when I turned the doorknob, I fell in. Couch, table, kitchen, all one room. It didn’t take much time to see in the dark. I tiptoed through the smoke, opened the little half-fridge. Six pack of beer. Liquefying head of lettuce. I pressed my hand on the card table—stacks of mail, ash trays overflowing, tumblers of liquid. Sticky. Slowly, I walked down the hall. Was this my father’s apartment? The hall took longer than the entire walk across Orlando.
In the back room, an air conditioner up high in the window shuddering, banging. Blue-black light. My father, asleep on a bed that was half-folded, an el. My father, in the midst of being swallowed. I put my hand on his sock foot. I wagged the foot back and forth, Hey there honey. So good to see you. I watched the soft pink forms on the television screen. Surging synthesizer. Uh uh. Parts of people: a man’s leg. A woman’s breasts. A purse of skin. Soundtrack, urgent, dull, like pain. Was this like a murder everyone wanted to be in?
I survived, she says to herself sometimes. Not all of you survived.
Walking down Orange, pretending I was beautiful, pretending I was dead. Motorcycle guy, no helmet, at the light on Holden. Wanna ride? Close to home. Not that close to home. I hopped on the back and put my hands on the sides of him. He said Where to? I did not know because I knew he knew, and the light turned green and I held on.
Heather Sellers’ memoir, You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know, was Editor’s Choice at The New York Times. The Practice of Creative Writing (Bedford/St. Martins) is her textbook for the multi-genre creative writing classroom. Recent essays appear in The New York Times, O, The Sun, Prairie Schooner, and Fourth Genre. She teaches in the MFA program at the University of South Florida and conducts workshops at Kripalu and in New York City as well as private classes. You can read Heather Sellers discussing the origin of her essay on the Brevity Blog.