When I stood at the altar, dressed for the first and only time in bridal whites and took his hand and read the vows we had both written; when I was twenty-two and my hair wreathed with perfect flowers and my hands both wound in his and bound with silky white wedding rope; when I said the words “as long as we both shall live”—I was going to stay forever.
I never planned on marrying a child molester.
He was tall and handsome—beautiful, really. In his wedding shirt, he looked like Lancelot. He was first just mine and then later a father, gentle as he held our youngest and cooed at him. He smoothed the blond hair back from our eldest’s brow. Under our house, feral cats kept having kittens: year after year, more and more kittens. And he caught them, tenderly ushering them upstairs, to set upon blankets in baskets, and to croon at in baby talk. He volunteered as a fire fighter in our rural town. He brought me, one Valentine’s Day, a jeweled necklace in the shape of a tiny heart.
Our lives were made of these small things: small gems, tiny wisps of baby curl, the touch of hands in the kitchen, nicknames, vacations we’d taken. We were every other couple. Maybe we struggled—a little—but that was all.
When I first knew him, I was barely older than a girl: nineteen. He was thirty-two. But I preferred older men. I was taking care of the iguana that belonged to a friend of mine, who was away on a family cruise. He came over to repair a light socket that wouldn’t work. The iguana hated me. It cowered in my Christmas tree and refused to be my friend. But it loved him. It climbed into his lap and sat perched as confidently as if merely soaking up the sun. He stroked underneath its chin.
“He’s cute,” he told me. “I’ve never held an iguana before.” You can always trust animals to know which people are OK. I knew: The iguana had picked him out for me.
My sister Angela* was studying Psychology at the time and she spent her afternoon hours taking care of an intellectually-disabled six year-old girl. Tansy was her name. Tansy sat in the living room of our shared apartment, blowing bubbles and smiling like a silly, happy loon. She laughed like a Muppet. She was adorable and curly-haired—always toddler-new. Angela rubbed drool off Tansy’s chin periodically and, even when irritated with her slowness or her incontinence, had to laugh at Tansy’s enthusiasm for everything.
Tansy liked him, too. Immediately, she trusted him. Just like the iguana, she climbed onto his lap and perched there: laughing, cooing, and looking right at home.
One year later, we were married and our baby was already on the way. When he arrived, Tansy was elated.
“Bay-bee!” she exclaimed. “Bay-bee!”
“Yes, Tansy,” Angela told her. “A baby. His name is August. That’s Ellie’s baby. He’s beautiful.”
“Bayyyy-beeee,” she emphasized.
I quit my job at the coffee shop and gave up college, just before getting my own degree. I could finish later. I wanted to spend as much time as I could with August. Tansy became part of our family: an adjunct, a part-timer, one of us. She was there sometimes for dinner with Angela, or when Angela came bustling in again with “brand-new” thrift store baby books, or left with me when Angela needed to run to the store. I watched Tansy and August play together.
Two years later, I had Jules. August went from being Tansy’s junior playmate to being her senior playmate in the space of just six years, and took on the job of bossing her around. Jules, when he was four, was still her peer, but she called him “bay-bee.”
“I’m nawt a BABY, Mama,” he argued.
“Tansy just loves you,” I consoled him, brushing his straw-colored curls.
Tansy was thirteen when August turned six. Thirteen and still full of drool and squeals and chirps of joy, soft edges of fondness uncorrupted by the world. Bubbles blown and chased and babies smiled at in delight.
It was then that I found out.
He and I were going to go to Vegas. Everything seemed perfect, gorgeous, resolved. We had never been perfectly happy, but who was perfectly happy? Everybody told me that marriage was work. I expected this, and work we did. It was getting better. There were fewer fights and more hugs. And now we were off to Vegas, just the two of us, for the very first time on our own trip.
“I need to talk to you,” he told me, one morning while I stood, still half-awake, with coffee in my hands.
“OK,” I said.
“I have to tell you something.” His voice was strained and tight.
“What?” I asked.
There was a long, uncomfortable silence.
“You asked me some time ago,” he said, “if there was anything I was hiding from you.”
I flashed on an evening, sitting in the passenger seat in darkness as he drove. I’d been overtaken by foreboding. Something—something—was wrong. We had worked that out, though, long ago.
What had he said? I couldn’t remember…I’d been satisfied.
“There is something,” he said.
Physically, I wasn’t there anymore. All my limbs were made of hearts, fluttering, and bile, rushing through everything. My hair was made of broken teeth.
“It’s Tansy,” he began. “When she sits on my lap, sometimes I get aroused.”
Maybe this is normal. It’s a physical reaction. It’s just friction. Flesh on flesh. Girl-flesh on a man.
“That’s what you’re hiding from me?” I asked him.
He looked as if his very being had been melted down and poured from shame; cast out of Eden; broken. He went on.
“I can’t lie anymore,” he said. “I wish that was all.”
That wasn’t all.
There was the call to Angela to tell her that my husband had been sexually abusing her client since she had been nine.
“No,” I told her, “I don’t think penetration was involved.”
There was the visit that Angela made to Tansy’s parents to tell them what had happened. There was the very-personal visit Tansy made to the doctor. There was Angela not speaking to me. There was my husband leaving on a Friday morning, and on Friday night, Jules and August sitting on a rug in the living room, listening wide-eyed as I explained that their lives were to be entirely different now. There was the call to the police. The attempt to get a restraining order. The denial. There was the secrecy: the attempt to protect my children from the damage that their father had done. There was the supervised visitation. The visits from Child Protective Services. The watching in amazement as our friends, refusing to pick sides, stood by him, even while disgusted by what he’d done.
In the end, no one threw rocks at him. Once twenty or thirty or forty people in the outermost ripple of our social circle knew the truth of it, it was still easy to contain. They didn’t want to spread the gossip. They didn’t want to think about it, talk about it. No one went after him: not the courts, not the police, not Tansy’s parents, not gangs of men with tar and feathers—nobody. Everybody protected the kids, for which I was deeply grateful, and they protected him as well.
Five years later, he was granted 50% custody of our children, over my protests. He seems never to have abused them.
Once Angela started speaking to me again, she brought Tansy around again. She still takes care of Tansy. It’s been fifteen years now she’s had the job, and Tansy’s an adult. She’s grown plump and has a woman’s body instead of the hairless, skinny child’s body that was abused. She still blows bubbles and calls “BAY-beeee!” whenever babies are in evidence. She smiles and her eyes wrinkle up as cheeks fill up with joy. She still giggles like a Muppet. She still likes Sesame Street. I look at her and think of her as another little sister.
And yet I cannot ever look at her without seeing what my husband did to her and then hating myself for this.
He is well-liked and goes on school field trips. He runs electrical in people’s homes. He laughs easily and opens doors for old ladies. Dogs come and wag their tails at him. We get along fine. We make joint decisions about our teenagers. I’ve stopped fighting. I was never going to win.
Sometimes, though, when I see him, in the middle of a row of chairs at church, in the center of an assembly, at the side of the baseball field, I want to scream at everyone, “Don’t you know? Do you have any idea who he is?”
But I don’t. We don’t know who anyone is. Sometimes, not even when we marry them.
*names have been changed