When you see this small town, the first thing you might think of is how peaceful it looks. There are green trees everywhere, planted down the main street in front of all the buildings. Perfectly spaced light posts at every corner. Each building is differently shaped, made of different materials. Some are brick and quaint, others are newer and more modern. The bars are a little run down looking and stereotypical. And the churches, oh man, there are churches everywhere. Church, bar, church, bar. At the end of the main street is park, in the shape of a triangle, possibly meant to be the city center, although the main street strip feels more of the center. The park is small with, with newer playground equipment and wood chips underneath the swings. The houses are all different shapes and sizes, but most are moderate and comfortable looking. The people all look friendly, and most smile at you, but something sinister is in the way they won’t really make eye contact, as if they’re hiding something or don’t really believe you will ever fit in there.
It smells of trains, cow manure, and dust. There are railroad tracks that run through the middle of town, cutting it in half. The tracks are used several times a day for freight trains and Amtrak going to and from Chicago. It is a farming community with three giant grain elevators two blocks behind Main street, so the smell of manure and corn fill the air all summer and through the fall. The corn gets crushed and creates a fine dust in the air and covers the ground. If you ride your bike by them you’ll get a mouthful of what feels like dirt and the smell will stick to you all day. It’s not a strong odor, just enough that you know it’s there and you know it’s summer.
It sounds like train whistles, bus engines, and cheers from the crowds. The train doesn’t blow its whistle in town, but blows it right outside to let us know it’s coming. It sounds like summer, although I’m not sure why, because the trains come all year long. It’s a small town, with its own high school, so the town’s livelihood is high school sports. The school buses transport kids in and out of town, to other tiny towns, all year long for the football, baseball, volleyball, softball, and basketball games. When they win, they get an escort back into town, down main street, with the police car and firetruck sirens. The town is small, and through the school year you can hear the bell ringing every 45 minutes to signal the start of the next class through half the town, probably a 4 block radius in every direction of the school.
It feels like home, but also a place that you’re not entirely welcome. It feels like you are always being stared at, but a place that you’re accepted as long as you’ve lived there your whole life. It feels like a place that no matter what your life turns out to be, you’ll be accepted, but judged, for who you are. You’ll always be one of them, a Cougar for life.
I had always done okay with fitting in, I think that made you happy. One less thing to worry about. I felt like I could see your furrowed brow relax as you thought, “But Ellis has friends. She’s liked. That is taken care of and checked off my list.' You always had to-do lists taped to the fridge, sticky notes stuck to mirrors to remind you to pay the electricity bill, and mental notes of what needed to be accomplished that day running through your head like a rolodex. Some might think that made you seem forgetful or scattered, but it brought me comfort to know you always had everything taken care of and filed away in your imaginary filing cabinet. Why didn’t we ever get a real filing cabinet?
Track and field helped me fit in. We live in a town of extracurricular activities, so if I was good at running, I had to be deemed worthy of a social calendar. My chest helped with that too. Developing a C cup seemingly overnight when you’re twelve does things to the people around you. All the boys wanted to be my friend, or boyfriend, and all of the girls wanted to be my friend because all of the boys wanted to be my friend. Looking back, maybe I can just blame mother nature for my downfall. When you’re in junior high, you are made to feel that your body isn’t really yours. It’s not a sacred thing to be kept private, it is for jokes and commentary from everyone around you. Being told you’re part of the big tittie committee, being put on a “butter face' (everything is good to go, but her face), hot or not lists, and nicknames announcing your body type are just parts of school. We’re groomed for it. And you better laugh, otherwise you’re just a dumb bitch. I guess when you’re thirteen or fourteen, anything is better than being known as the dumb bitch, so I laughed. Looking back, that might have been where we all went wrong, but who’s looking past anything further than surviving gym class when you’re in the 8th grade?
There was a night at the end of junior year, just as summer was starting, that I had sex with Alex Casner, right outside of the house where a party was happening a few feet away, where everyone saw and heard everything. However, I think I need to tell you now that that was actually the night I was raped by Alex Casner, in the bed of his truck a few feet away from where everyone saw and heard everything. It’s weird how one word can change a story, isn’t it? It was normal that guys make the girls drinks, and girls drinks always have a few extra shots. You’re supposed to be drunk, what fun are you if you’re not a paralyzed slobbery slurring mess? Looking back, this could have been where we all went wrong. Who made up these rules? Why did we accept it? I know that I screamed, I know that I yelled, until he put his elbow into my throat so that I would shut the hell up. Why didn’t anyone come outside? Why didn’t anyone help me? In the morning, I asked myself all of these questions as my body ached and screamed at me in protest as I tried to move as if I hadn’t been injured, but I knew what the eyes would say. I knew how the eyes of the town would look at me. And I knew that the furrow in your brow would get deeper, so I didn’t ask any questions, and I buried it down.
For the rest of the summer I couldn’t get the smell of crushed grain out of my nose and throat. It’s like it had been burned into my esophagus from his elbow pushing down down down. As fall began, and senior year started, it got worse. People thought they knew what had happened and their eyes burned off my clothes every time I walked through the doors. I would hear him laugh from somewhere behind me and it froze me. My mind would shut down and my fingers would go cold. I got called a skank and boys texted dick pics to me almost daily. I felt the same burning humiliation as I did when I first saw my name scribbled under the Big Tittie Committee column when I was twelve, but this time I couldn’t laugh. I started to feel as if all of my laughs had been stolen. However, I was still a Cougar and that meant something. The same girls who called me a skank in the hallway cheered for me as I crossed the finish line. Maybe that should make me feel better, but it made me feel less. Do nothing, say nothing, be a Cougar. That should have been our school motto.
It was about Thanksgiving when I knew you were starting to worry, I saw you scrolling through your “Top 5 Signs of Teenage Depression' list in your head, and so I mustered up the last of my laughs and talked about funny conversations that had never happened in Chemistry. It had been too long. The lies ran too deep, the weight too heavy. Sometimes I got close to spilling my ugly truth, and then I remembered the feeling of being crushed and I turned and ran the way I wish I could have that night. By Spring it was too much.
So, I am telling you now, I’m screaming it actually, but I don’t think you can hear me, because you don’t lift your head from my gravestone that was finally placed. Looking back, I know I am too late, because I don’t think I have ever seen the furrow in your brow so deep. I don’t see you checking through any lists, I don’t see anything in your eyes. I fear I have broken you, when all along I was trying to keep you from breaking. Looking back, I have been so wrong.