“It’s an electric guitar,” I said, blinking at her as innocently as I could manage.
Dalene smirked at me, “I know what it is. Where’d you get it?”
“Last night. You know how musicians are- always horny, always broke. I made a trade.”
It was mostly the truth, though I had laid out cash for the amplifier, dipping into my reserves to make it all come together. Dalene turned the case and opened it, then looked at me with a question in her eyes.
“This is a pretty nice guitar,” she said, “and it’s left handed.” She drew the Fender Stratocaster from its case, “You didn’t steal it…”
“Ham would have my head if I got caught, you know that.”
Aiko walked in and just stopped, staring at Dalene and me.
“Holy shit, where’d you steal that?”
I looked daggers at her and she stuck out her tongue at me, then we both broke down in giggles as Dalene plugged the guitar into the amp and hit the power. It took a minute for it to warm up and she touched the strings lightly, her fingers barely in contact with them as they hummed in high, clear tones that warbled, then steadied as she twisted the machine heads with practiced precision.
It was like the whole world just vanished for her- Dalene shut out everything and concentrated on the instrument in her hands. She plucked at it: weak, discordant sounds bleeding from the amplifier until she reached for a knob on the amp and twisted it to the right. It didn’t get louder- it just started to howl, and after that it was almost hypnotic, watching her long fingers dance along the neck of the guitar as it sang in high, moaning notes that blended into harmonies almost too high pitched to hear before crashing down into low, dirty tones that grabbed us by our bellies and shook our bones.
By then Neff was watching, and Aiko looked at her, the two of them grinning as Dalene’s fingers sailed up and down the register, coaxing agonized harmonies from her instrument until a sudden metallic whine scarred the sound and she clamped her fingers across the neck of the guitar.
“Needs new strings,” she said, then she looked at us, saw the expressions on our faces. “What?”
She stared at us for a moment, perplexed, then grinned.
“I’ve been playing since I was five, you know…”
Her voice trailed off as she looked down at the guitar in her hands and I watched all the joy drain from her as she closed into herself again. She yanked the cord out of the guitar and dropped it back into its case, staring at it for a minute before she slammed the case shut.
When she looked at me again she was the gaunt, wounded, joyless girl of the past months once more. She thanked me, but there was so much pain in her voice I had to believe I had made a terrible mistake. Neff and Aiko saw her shaking, but neither of them would approach her, instead just standing there as if to recognize her suffering would somehow shatter their world. In a way it was the honest truth: Dalene was the center of everything for them, she was the strong one… and she was slowly unraveling before their eyes.
I reached for her, just laying my hand on her shoulder, feeling her tense under the touch. She fixed her gaze on the floor, taking slow, deep breaths as her face flushed with the effort of burying her pain, but I moved closer, settling to my knees beside her, drawing her head to my shoulder. She was stiff, tried to resist the simple physical contact I offered, but something inside her yielded just a bit and she let me cradle her as we sat in an awkward silence, Neff and Aiko both frozen nearly as thoroughly as Dalene.
“My father…” she whispered, then she stopped, choking on the words before starting again. “My father bought me a guitar just like this… just a few months before he… before he threw me out of the house.”
It was not what she said, but the way she said it- there was a pause there, something she was desperate to say, but could not force herself to put into words. I looked up at Neff for she had known Dalene the longest and she stared at me wide-eyed for a moment before ever so minutely moving her head from side to side-Don’t do it.
Aiko’s eyes were nearly pleading with me to just let this go as we had so many times before… but I knew what that would mean and if I gave in to their fear yet again I might as well slip away and leave the three of them to their chosen fates. I nearly did just that, once again overwhelmingly aware of my own arrogance in thinking I had the right to intervene; to judge Dalene, and Aiko, and Neff and decide they had to have choices made for them. By me.
Dalene would be dead within a year, either from the drugs or from the brutal reality of the life she lived. Since my coming to this place there had been three prostitutes murdered and those were just the ones the police would admit to. There were more, of that I was certain. When Dalene was gone what would her friends do? How far behind her would they be? Aiko was already dabbling in Dalene’s heroin habit and Neff… Nefertiri was wasting away be sheer force of will, refusing to eat for long stretches until Dalene could coax her into it again.
All of this ran through my mind for the hundredth or thousandth time as I clasped the shaking nineteen-year-old girl to me and finally chose for her, for all of them.
“There’s a lot more to that story, isn’t there?” I whispered, “What really happened?”
She went rigid in my arms, not even breathing as I felt her heart begin pounding so hard it was as if her whole body was being struck by the repeated blows of some infernal hammer. She tried to pull away, but I held her tight.
“What did he do to you? What happened when he found out you were a lesbian?”
She drew a deep shuddering breath and this time I let her sit up straight. She stared into my eyes, not even looking at her friends, just completely focused upon me, seeking something in there. I opened up every non-verbal cue I possessed, asking her to trust me, to let this out. There was utter silence in the room. The outside world had melted away so that the universe was nothing more than that small space and the four people within.
“He said there weren’t going to be any dykes in his family… He said… he made me pack a suitcase and he drove me to New York, to Albany.”
“He left you in Albany?” Neff asked and I quietly raised my hand, gesturing for her to keep quiet. Dalene hesitated, looking now at her two friends, uncertainty in her eyes. I shook her gently, just once, and her gaze snapped back to me.
“What happened in Albany?”
“Daddy… he knew a young man there, a guy who’d done contracting work for our family when we had a summer place up in the Catskills. I guess he’d called ahead because when we got there he already had a Justice of the Peace waiting. The wedding was over before I even really knew what was happening.
“Daddy tossed my bag in Doug’s pickup and told him he knew he could straighten me right out. Then my new husband dragged me out to his cabin in the middle of nowhere and spent the next two months raping me two, three, sometimes four times a day.”
I heard the sharp intake of breath from both Aiko and Neff- neither of them had known of this. Despite the squalor of their current lives, what Dalene described was something beyond horrific. She was sixteen, her husband was twenty-five and he patiently explained to her that this was her life now, that he wanted a big family and he had promised her father that he would take good care of her. He was not violent, at least not overtly, but he kept her on a very short leash, confining her to his rustic home for three months before finally taking her into town.
“I finally got pregnant,” she whispered, her voice straining to escape her throat as tears began to flow, “and he wanted me to have a good doctor. I’d been pretty docile, just biding my time and when we realized I was pregnant he got all gooey about it, like this meant I’d finally come around… at the doctor’s office they sent me into the ladies room to pee in a cup and I went out the window. Second floor… dropped into a dumpster, then ran like hell.”
She had no money, no idea where she was, but she found the bus station and managed to beg bus fare from two women, telling them she was a runaway, but was going back home. At the station in New York City she hopped the first bus she could find and landed in New Orleans.
“That’s how I met Jacques… I needed an abortion and he offered to help me out. And then…”
She just waved her hand over her head as if to say “and here we are now”. Neff and Aiko drew close, the spell that had held them rooted to their places finally releasing them and the four of us held each other there on the floor.
I finally understood her. I finally realized that I could indeed help her, help all of them… if they would let me.