Lately, as people my age tend to, I’ve been attempting to grapple with my early life. I had a fairly traumatic childhood. I was ill-suited to the place I grew up, a misfit, and a natural contrarian to boot. So it’s a measure of comfort to ponder this time and lay to rest any ghosts present from then.
This is a ghost story, too, but I didn’t realize it until yesterday.
But first let’s start with the corporeal. I’d heard of the girl named Tia sitting next to me in English class. Around my school, she was almost legendary both for her actions and her personality. I figured she’d never speak to me. Why would someone like her talk to someone like me? But she did, that very first day, and from that day on I ended up knowing quite a lot about Tia and the sort of person she was. And as the reject that I had been and still to some extent was, even after that first day I expected her to find another seat, somewhere closer to her friends — but she stayed there next to me that entire year and we got to know each other pretty well.
And Tia was, more than any other thing I can think to say about her, unwaveringly kind. She’d give away more of herself without a thought than anyone I’d met before or since. It was her greatest merit and likely her worst weakness.
Here’s what I found out as I talked to her over the next two years, separating the fact from the rumor. The rumor was that she’d done something horrible and her parents had thrown her out, glad to be rid of her. The reality was that her father had abused her with her mother’s knowledge and she’d taken the unprecedented step of somehow achieving legal separation from her parents at the age of 15 and living independently. She was thus by herself altogether and struggling. Struggling, beautiful young girls in a place like where I come from tend to attract bad elements, to say the least.
Remember now, this was in 1993 sometime. The internet wasn’t really a factor. Calumnies and libels didn’t spread, as they do now, like smoke on the wind.
Later that year, on the phone sometime outside of class, she told me that she worked at a club as a dancer. I said something like what kind of club, what sort of dancer, just making conversation. She paused for a moment and then told me it was the kind of club where she was nude. She was 15 years old. I was only 16 myself. You have to understand, back then the world was different, especially where I grew up. It didn’t even occur to me to tell anyone or to call the police even though I knew it wasn’t good, that nothing was right with that. Tia was my friend and I didn’t have that many, though far more than I did in early high school or middle school. The last thing I would do would be to blow up her life which is all that telling anyone would’ve done. I know that most of you reading this probably won’t understand but times were absolutely not the same and rural North Florida was a different world.
As I write the above, I know that for many the fact of what she did, even while so criminally young, will define her. But there was so much more to her: she wrote and did art. She was a good painter. She liked to swim. She spent a lot of her free time teaching herself how to oil paint when I knew her. She’d often come to school with paint on her fingers, on her clothes. I haven’t, respecting her family’s privacy, told you her real name, as her true name was Hawaiian and it means “beautiful ray of sunshine” in that language. It described her perfectly, revealed exterior and the greater presence within. She was kind to everyone, never said a hurtful word to anyone that I ever heard or saw, even when they deserved it. She had a wonderful raucous laugh that took over her whole body and made everyone who heard it smile sympathetically, no matter how cynical or jaded.
I asked her then if she was happy, and she said that she was, mostly, but not to tell anyone else, that it was far better than being abused by her father. And I did not tell a soul, not until now, when the story of Tia became for me something that can only live in my mind.
Because Tia is dead, has been for years like so very many of my North Florida compatriots, and I kind of wish I didn’t know that. I wanted to be able to imagine her out in the world doing the amazing and bounteously kindhearted things that she was certainly capable of doing — not lying in a cold fucking grave, likely next to the father who raped her. It makes me enraged that she had to grow up there, in that place, that eventually consumed her and turned all that was wonderful about her against her, ground into dust and ashes, forgotten. Well here’s me not forgetting.
To close on a less somber note, I will tell you my favorite memory of Tia. It started in class one day, AP English, where we had to read Shakespeare aloud. Hamlet, to be exact. Most of the kids could barely struggle through it, of course. I’d read it before and knew all the words and what they meant, so when my turn came I read it like it was a story happening in front of us to real living people, not some archaic words in a musty old book.
I think this caught Tia off guard, that I could do such a thing. Our conversations, though she was plenty clever, had never really strayed much into the intellectual (unless you consider painting).
As I was reading my part of Hamlet, I saw her look over at me, surprised, and not look away. After I was done, she leaned a little closer to me and said, “I liked how you read that. I felt it, really felt it. Read more to me later?”
I said, “OK, but you have to read some, too.”
“Deal,” she said, and for a few months we read each other plays and books and articles over coffee for her and Mountain Dew for me, sometimes in her tiny little place on the edge of town, sometimes in the library. Those were good times because she felt all of life more deeply than most and it expanded my capacity for empathy too, I’d wager. My very favorite memory of that time, though, is reading a Dave Barry column to her, doing funny voices, and seeing her face transformed with laughter over her coffee, as wild and as free for a moment then as she was always in her heart but could never be in this life of armor and sacrifices.
She was a good person and she’s gone and god it’s not fair. The world didn’t deserve her.