Tell Yourself

Bonnie Jo Campbell

Do not hate all men just because your daughter has come out of her bedroom wearing low-cut jeans that ride so low her pubic hair would be showing, if she had pubic hair. She says all the middle school girls shave down there, though surely your daughter has only a few baby-fine wisps. The mother of a girl can so easily fall into a trap of mistrusting men when her daughter comes out of the bedroom wearing those pants and a shirt that reveals six inches of belly and loin. Calm down, woman, you should tell yourself. Not all men will try to fuck your daughter. There are men who will not even fantasize about touching her small, pretty breasts. Some men are gay, for instance, or prefer mature women. Plenty of men have their minds on sports or on something to do with their jobs many hours of the day (avoiding the boss, say, or developing a more compelling way of explaining the balance of power in our federal government to seventh graders), time during which they will not be thinking at all about parting your daughter’s slender legs and plunging between them like a dolphin after chum. If a man is, for example, playing an intense war game on the computer, you can be assured he is not right then imagining your daughter giggling, naked, beneath him. And remember that most men are good citizens who pay their taxes and mow their lawns, and even a man who wants to fuck your daughter probably would not get an opportunity and would probably, in any case, rescue you and your daughter and two young sons and pets from a house fire or flood.

So stop incessantly questioning your daughter about what goes on at her best friend Nicole’s house. If something unsavory has happened between your daughter and Nicole’s young and curiously attentive father, she is probably not going to confide in you if you seem like you’re out of your mind. She would not tell you, for example, if Nicole’s father were wrestling with all the kids, and if the other kids turned back to the TV, but the father continued wrestling on the braided rug with your daughter, if she relaxed beneath him and let her head fall back, if she let her narrow shoulders sink to the floor and looked up at him and parted her glossed lips. Your daughter would consider it her own personal business if she felt the shock of some part of Nicole’s father pressed against her thigh, just as she considers it her own personal business what she allows boys to press against her in the middle school stairwell, though, clearly, when parents get called in to school, it becomes your business. Anyway, Nicole’s father doesn’t even live at that house any more since the separation; he’s only there to help the kids with their homework and to keep them from fighting on the nights when Nicole’s mom is working late. (And you know Nicole’s mom needs the overtime pay.)

And even if your daughter does snuggle against the man on the couch, not much can happen with Nicole right there, especially not if Nicole stays off her new cell phone, little chatterbox that she is. Nicole’s father has never been convicted of diddling with minors or of any other sex crime (you’ve looked him up on the Internet), and there is no reason for you to entertain the image of your daughter slipping down her low-rise stretch-denim jeans, or of Nicole’s father situating your daughter on his lap, under a blanket, while Nicole is dozing or chatting. After all, what interest could a grown man have nowadays in a girl who chews gum the way your daughter chews her gum, noisily and with her mouth open? How could any grown man be interested in a girl who prattles on mindlessly about the other middle school cheerleaders, tells what happened, play-by-play, in the last movie she watched? I mean, your daughter drives you and the rest of your family crazy with that mindless prattling and gum cracking, and you want to smack her about once a day for the way she rolls her eyes at whatever you say.

Not all men are like your mother’s boyfriend when you were thirteen or like that neighbor guy who allowed you to skip school at his house and smoke bowl after bowl until you couldn’t form a complete sentence. Not all men are like your tall, brown-eyed middle school social science teacher whose attentions flattered you so much that you couldn’t imagine saying no. And girls are different too—look how your daughter says no to you all the time, as you would never have said to your mother, for fear of getting slapped. Surely she can say no to any man who approaches her. She has seen the movies at school, and you’ve talked to her about men and safety. (She rolled her eyes, but she was listening, surely.) Your daughter knows so much more than you did at her age, and she might even come to you with her problems, if you don’t work yourself into a state.

You miss your boyfriend Pete, ex-boyfriend probably, now that he hasn’t called in two weeks. Your sons miss him, too, but all your daughter has to say is, “He’s a jerk.” When you asked her to explain, she rolled her eyes and said, “He’s your stupid boyfriend, not mine. You should know.” A few times you thought you smelled cigarette smoke in your daughter’s room after Pete had gone back to the bathroom, but maybe that was just the way air flowed down the hall. After all, what could he have done in that time he was back there? The most he could have done was to stand in your daughter’s room, study the outline of her body beneath the blankets as he hot-boxed his cigarette in the dark, or if he wasn’t smoking, he might have smelled her shampoo and that cloying flowery perfume she has started wearing. The main thing is that there was never any time for Pete to have touched the girl, and you knew that. Pete always smiled at your expectant look when he returned from the bathroom, sank back into the reclining chair he favored, and resumed watching TV or reading Popular Mechanics, and for a long time, you resisted asking him, “Did you just go into my daughter’s room? Was that her door squeaking?”

Your suspicions were unfounded, almost certainly. You knew you should’ve put those suspicions out of your mind. Pete is a decent man, nothing like your mother’s old boyfriend or your pothead neighbor. He generously coaches your sons in little league, chewing that nicotine gum all Saturday morning instead of smoking, and he has two sons of his own who are friends with your sons. If you hadn’t eventually asked him aloud about going in your daughter’s room, he wouldn’t have gotten upset with you, asked what were you accusing him of (nothing, you said, nothing, you were just asking!), and stormed out, muttering about trust. You miss having him around, with that laughing look in his eyes, his hungry kisses that swallowed your lips. He was generous with his affection, clasped his hands around your waist while you stood at the sink washing dishes. When you finally finished in the kitchen and joined Pete in the living room, he invited you with both arms to sit on his lap and relax. Sitting on his lap made you forget about the day’s exhausting details, the humiliations at work, made you forget even about the years passing and lining your face. When you let out a deep breath and allowed your head to fall back against his shoulder, his big lap made you feel small and pretty, like a girl again.

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