BEFORE WE BEGIN you must know a few things: werewolves exist, cannibalism is good, and there are paths of needles and paths of pins. Both lead to great danger, but there are no other options.
As a child I chose Disney’s fairy princesses and Barbie as my role models and playmates. I knew that men worshipped at the altar of their glamorous perfection. Male desire was powerful in my home. It was everywhere. Testosterone saturated the air I breathed. Except for my mom and my aunt, but all they talked about were flowers. “What kind of flower do you suppose that is?” “I’m not sure, bougainvillea maybe?” “I’ve not seen them bloom this early. Aren’t they breathtaking?”
I spent a lot of time alone. I would’ve liked to be accepted by my brothers and the other boys, but that was very confusing. It wasn’t that they didn’t want me. Perhaps it was because they wanted me too much. I was sexually abused by two of them. Sorry. Was that too fast? Should we have gotten to know one another better? I’ve never been good at boundaries, or judging these things. Not that I go around telling people. It’s just that you must know this in order to understand what happens later. You don’t want me to go into any more detail, and I certainly don’t either. Someone suggested I might still be protecting them. I’m protecting myself. Outing my abusers puts the onus on me to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt, which is impossible. These days, no one ever believes the victim.
There was a day however, when women stuck together. Mothers believed and grandmother’s sacrificed everything to help their girl survive the monsters in the woods. To prepare them, they told them stories like this:
The Grandmother’s Tale
A woman finished her baking and said to her daughter, “Take this bread to your sick grandmother in the woods.” The good girl, of about 15 or so, took the basket of bread and set off. Along the way she met a werewolf with glittering eyes, massive biceps and a seductive voice.
“Hello, little girl.”
“Where are you going?”
“To bring this bread to my grandmother.”
“Ah, well, will you take the path of pins? Or the path of needles?” He gestured to each.
The girl thought for a moment. “The path of pins,” she finally said.
“Ah, then I will take the path of needles,” the werewolf said.
Yes, the two paths. Let me explain.
In fifteenth-century France, a 15-year-old girl wintered with a seamstress. As she learned the art of sewing, her teacher showed her how to adorn herself. In the spring the girl emerged a young woman, and young men were allowed to court her. To win her favor, a young man might give her pins. If she wanted to wish for him, she might throw pins into a fountain. However, beware the needles, the sign of sexual maturity and even wantonness. Prostitutes advertised their profession by wearing needles on the cuffs of their coats.
By day I walked the path of pins, by night the path of needles. To protect myself, I retreated into a fantasy world anchored by Cinderella on the one side and Barbie on the other. Cinderella offered no real hope and Barbie haunted me. Drawn to them, repelled by them, I found no understanding in their stories, only more confusion
As an adult, as much as I wanted to find a man who’d treat me like a princess, I never felt like I deserved it. Horrific depression followed soaring mania as I white-knuckled my days and fought demons at night. I drank heavily and allowed men to treat me like Barbie: worshipped briefly, then tossed into a garage-sale box. Dark choices rose from the dark matter in my past and I cultivated a decaying garden of relationships that rotted on the vine. I wanted men to destroy me, because I didn’t have the courage to. My first love said he’d never love me, my next obsession told me he’d always love me but never leave his wife. I didn’t love him, like that mattered. There are other bonds that form more terrifying tethers.
The werewolf reached the grandmother’s house first and quickly gobbled her up. But instead of eating every last scrap, he saved a bit of flesh and a carafe of blood and put them in the cupboard. He then dressed in her clothes and got into bed. When the girl arrived she knocked and the werewolf bid her come in. “You must be hungry after your long journey, my child.”
“I am, grandmother.”
“There is meat in the cupboard. Please prepare it and eat.”
As the girl took the meat a little cat yelled, “Stop! That is the flesh of your grandmother!”
“Oh, kick that old cat,” the werewolf said. So she did. Then the wolf said, “There is wine in the cupboard to go with the meat. Please, drink it and enjoy yourself.” The girl took the carafe, and as she did a little bird cried out, “Wait! That is the blood of your grandmother!”
“Throw your shoe at that old bird,” the wolf said. So the girl did. Then she consumed both the meat and the blood with great zeal.
Horrifying, isn’t it? Yet this is the grandmother’s purpose. She’s lived her life and now she’s dying. She has nothing else to offer the girl except her knowledge. The girl, by consuming her grandmother, completes her initiation into womanhood. The knowledge she absorbs will save her life later in the story.
My knowledge, my stories, only prepared me for destruction.
He’d been hunting for someone like me for a long time until that day we met and colluded to bring about my annihilation. I distinctly remember that I took the path of pins and he the path of needles. The end was nigh. Finally. And I would go out the way I deserved to. Eaten by a wolf with glittering eyes and sharp white teeth. Yes, that’s right.
We met like this:
A friend of mine starred in a film that was premiering at the New York City Film Festival. Before the screening we attended a massive party for festival participants and attendees at a warehouse where shadows lurked in corners and red and blue lights flashed across ghoulish faces. Bodies pressed in on every side. I wanted to claw their eyes out. “Get the fuck away from me!” I wanted to scream. It wouldn’t have mattered. Deafening decibels of sound pumped out from the speakers. I was surrounded on every side. Should I run from the place screaming like a lunatic or plunge headlong into the crowd to see what damage I could do? I chose the latter. My heart was splattered all over hell and I wanted revenge, if not on the asshole that splattered it, then the next guy in the cross hairs.
Oh yeah: that guy. The splatterer. I’d loved him, but naturally he was unavailable. We’d talked about his unavailability for more than two years. I thought I could love him enough for both of us. In the end I had loved too much. Wrung out, I raised the question one last time at breakfast.
“Can you ever love me?” I said over bagels and coffee.
He paused, looked down, and said, “Why do you do this?”
“Answer the question.”
“Why do you make me hurt you?”
“I need to hear you say it.”
“You know that I can’t.”
“Can’t love me.”
“God, you can’t even say the word.”
He looked at me pathetically. I calmly pushed back from the table in his kitchen, then threw the rest of my bagel away and poured out my coffee. I walked up to his bedroom to make sure I wasn’t leaving anything behind, then walked out the front door, quietly shutting the door behind me. I think that was in October because the leaves were turning and the sky was gray as I shrank smaller and smaller, becoming a tiny speck on the sidewalk as I scaled the enormous hill to my job at a chain Italian restaurant. Suddenly, nothing made sense, not the guy, the job, the city, nothing. My life was choking me. I had to leave, but I couldn’t. It was time to roll the napkins.
As I joined my bleary-eyed, white-shirted colleagues for the morning meeting and the ritual rolling of the silverware, my head buzzed with a new kind of murky energy and this appalling thought: He’ll beg me to come back. All I have to do is wait. But I knew that that wasn’t true and I was angry at myself for thinking it. Predictably, he never called, until a year later, but that’s another story for another day.
Now it was November and I was climbing a wrought iron staircase in the center of the room that spiraled up into blackness. I climbed until I found a landing that seemed as good as any. To my left stood the most beautiful man I’d ever seen. Yes, him, I thought.
Dark eyes, dark hair and white teeth, he stood in the shadows against a railing, watching people pass. Then he saw me. He spoke in an accent I couldn’t identify. Transylvanian perhaps? “Where are you going?”
“I’m not sure.”
He smiled. “Please.” He gestured to a space at the railing. I smiled. We talked, but he did the heavy lifting. Words were too much for me then. After two years of talking to that other guy I was ready for this one just to take me back to his bed and do whatever he wanted. “Just fuck me and kill me,” I thought. Why not?
His eyes glittered. “Can I buy you a drink?” he asked. I froze. Oddly, I didn’t know what to order. Drinking socially made me afraid. I shrugged and said, “What are you having?” He asked for two vodka cranberries from the passing waitress. I hate vodka cranberries. What’s the point? What did the vodka do to deserve that? The server brought them in small plastic cups. I looked at mine in disgust as he took a sip then asked, “Can I kiss you?” I shrugged. Sure. He did. I liked it. “This is good,” I thought. “We’re on track to something really destructive.”
But alone with him in the cab to the theater, I no longer felt like dying. I didn’t know what to say. He was so good-looking and nice. I just wanted him to like me. These were my thoughts as I looked over at him. Jesus Christ.
He opened his pants to reveal a massive boner. “See what you do to me?” Shocked, I tried to laugh it off. “Touch it,” he begged. For reasons I still can’t explain, I did. I put my hand around it. Now what? Should I do something with it? The cab driver’s eyes stared at me in the rearview mirror. I pulled my hand away. This had suddenly taken a very wrong turn. He kept it out for a while as if it needed air. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
He shrugged and smiled. “You’re so beautiful. I can’t help it.”
I felt nauseous, filthy, guilty. We arrived at the theater and met my friend. Relieved, I tried to get away. He kept right at my heels. We watched my friend’s film. He didn’t pay attention, but kept fidgeting in his chair. Co-dependent and needy, I worried about his feelings, like I had with my abusers’. As this awful awareness dawned on me, I grew numb and left my body. Then I thought, “Walk away.” But, I couldn’t. I was violently attracted to him.
After the meal the girl licked her fingers and stared at the wolf, her eyes dancing.
“Are you cold after your long journey?” he asked.
“Then climb into bed with me and let me warm you.”
The girl removed her apron. “What shall I do with my apron, grandmother?”
“Throw it on the fire, for you won’t be needing it,” said the wolf.
The girl removed her stockings. “What shall I do with my stockings, grandmother?”
“Throw them on the fire, for you won’t be needing them.”
This ritual proceeded for each item of clothing. When she was naked she approached the bed.
“Now come to bed, my child,” said the wolf.
The girl drew close. “Grandma, what big arms you have,” she said.
“The better to hold you with.”
“Grandma, what big eyes you have.”
“The better to see you with.”
“Grandma, what big ears you have.”
“The better to hear you with.”
“Grandma, what big teeth you have!”
“The better to eat you with!” The wolf smiled. “Now come to bed.”
The next day we made a date for dinner. He picked me up and we took a cab to an industrial area on the outskirts of the city. “This is a beautiful place. A romantic place. I know these guys. They’re French. They treat us good and the food,” he kissed his fingers. “The food c’est magnifique.”
The restaurant had a strange vibe. It looked like it had been poorly staged just for this occasion. Wooden benches and cheap candles, something that once had a vision, but ran short of money spread out in a massive space. No one was there and nobody there knew him. He pretended to know them, speaking French, but they gave him strange looks, half smiles and answered him in English. What was his game?
“Fuck the French,” he mumbled. “The French are assholes. I piss on all of them.”
“Where are you from?”
“Me?” He pounded his chest. “I from Algiers! I a real man. Not these French faggots.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Are you hungry?”
“Not really.” I was starving, but eating seemed inconvenient and like something one does when they feel safe and comfortable. I was terrified for no apparent reason. Though on its face the evening appeared relatively benign, beneath the surface I was contracting into a small and quiet knot in the center of my body. There I descended into a primitive and early place, so dark and horrifying it had no words. I shouldn’t have been there with him, I knew it, but I couldn’t stop myself from careening towards the inevitability of my demise.
“Okay, we get a real French meal.” Which meant, according to him, cheese, nuts, bread and figs. He ate most of it. I drank red wine. We were sitting in a corner of the restaurant, exposed on every side. All the walls were made of glass. The view was shit. Burnt out buildings and trash-lined streets. I wondered if this was supposed to be on its way to “gentrification” or “renaissance” or whatever they were calling it. It seems like every city has its own name for that.
“Hey, look.” He was holding a picture of two infants twins. I stared at them. No one shows you photos of their nephews on your first date, only their own children.
“They’re beautiful,” I said. I didn’t mean it. I couldn’t even see their faces. “Are they yours?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“And their mother?” I asked, taking a sip of wine. I was half listening, expecting him to say that they all lived with her new boyfriend or husband.
“Yeah, you know. I take care of them.”
“What does that mean?”
“I take care of them. They my family.”
“Do you live with them?”
“You live with them.”
“Yeah, you know.”
“Are you married to her?” My brain exploded.
“Yeah, but you know, just for my green card.”
“Okay, I’m going to go.” I got up, disoriented, and wobbled toward the street.
“What? Where you going? How you going to go?”
“No cabs out here. You have to call them.”
“This is New York!”
“They don’t come out here. You have to call them.”
“Come on, sit. Sit! I tell you something. Can I just tell you something?”
“What?” I sat. There was no one else in the restaurant but us.
“I don’t love her.”
“You don’t love her.”
“You think I be here with you if I love her? I a good boy, a sweet boy. I do nothing wrong. Come on. Let’s have good time.”
I thought about it briefly and honestly didn’t feel I could do any better at that moment. We drank some more, then he got up to go to the bathroom. After what was an excessively long time he returned.
“I was waiting,” he said.
“You were what?”
“Waiting. You know. Waiting.”
“Where were you waiting?”
“Back there. In the bathroom or whatever.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I was waiting for you to come.”
“Why would I do that?”
“Come here. I have to show you.” He took me to the restrooms: single rooms, one for the men and one for the women. He opened the door to the men’s and showed me. It was just a toilet and a sink.
“What?” I asked.
He shoved me in the room and locked the door behind us. “Like this. I was waiting like this. You supposed to come and find me.” He took his pants down and sat on the toilet.
Well, that was too much. I’d need a little more time for this kind of madness. I turned around, left and asked the bartender to call me a cab. He followed. “Wait. I just kidding. You know, having some fun. Don’t be mad. I like you. You should be flattered.”
These kinds of things and worse continued to occur throughout our two and a half years together. He always tried to get me to have sex in public places, but I’m relieved to say that even in my most self-loathing state, I have limits. However, in every other way I was his toy, the pretty plaything he chained to his metaphorical bed. His hurricane-like intensity whipped me apart. I’d hung my flesh on a clothesline for him and he blew me into tattered patches. In the end I held together with the rotting thread of a thinning life. I knew I had to move as far as possible to put myself back together. I chose Los Angeles. He didn’t fight to make me stay, which shocked me. He simply accepted it. Or said he did.
It was a brutal and devastating move. My two cats shat and pissed themselves on the flight over. I had purchased them their own seat because I worried that leaving them in the belly of the plane might kill them. If they died due to this move that might be it for me. I’d throw myself over the nearest overpass. About four hours in to the flight I took them to the bathroom to wash them off. My male cat, a marmalade tabby, went limp in my arms. I placed him into the sink, turned the water on lukewarm and gently washed away his excrement. He didn’t move or make a sound. When I finished I wiped him down with paper towels. Then I put him on the floor at my feet and cleaned out his carrier. It still smelled, but it was the best I could do under the circumstances. This is when I understood the extent of my isolation. There was no one to help me care for my babies, or help me carry my luggage, or even to tell me that buying the cats a seat on the plane was a terrible idea. I’d flung myself out onto the edge of this massive continent knowing no one, running towards nothing.
This might explain why I stayed in contact with my captor. He came out to visit within the first month. I didn’t have anything more than a mattress and a lamp. I didn’t want him to touch me, which made him want to touch me more. He brought me rings. “Here, you want a ring, right?” They were costume pieces, three of them. I think he threw them at me. No, that’s not right, but that’s how it felt.
I really didn’t want to have sex with him that weekend. I was so disconnected from my body and disoriented from the move, but he felt he deserved it for making the flight. I lay on the mattress and let him, drifting far away from the room. On the last day I was sore and didn’t want him near me.
He took off his clothes and lay down next to me. I turned over on my side away from him. “I’m sore. I can’t.”
“Come on,” he said. “I came all this way.”
“We’ve done it a lot. Can you just give me a break, here? I’m exhausted.”
“I’m leaving. We’re not going to see each other.”
“So? That’s how you treat me?” He pushed me onto my back.
“Please, I can’t.”
He pinned me down. I tried throwing him off, but he raised his hand to slap me. I knew he would. He once told me he’d beat his wife black and blue just for asking if he was cheating. He was proud. In his mind, he’d done it for me.
I let my body go limp and turned my face away. “Fine,” I said and shut my eyes. I knew that if I stared at the corner of the room and counted scars in the paint or watched how the light fell in the hallway, those particular details would always remind me of this moment.
He finished. I got up and got in the shower. He followed. I don’t remember if we talked or not. I got him to the airport, said goodbye and when I returned home I washed my sheets and vacuumed, then lay down in my clean bed with my cats and watched reruns of Law and Order SVU. Ultimately what I learned from running away is that I just bring my problems with me.
These are heavy things to admit and even heavier to read. You’re a trouper for making it this far. But, it’s the truth and that should count for something even if, in the end, my story is just like any other story of degradation, without resolution, without end, without justice. And what is justice anyway, in this scenario? Do you know? Because I don’t. I put myself there. I chose to relive my childhood repeatedly until I finally chose not to. Which brings me to the point of my twisted tale. For several years I circled the gravesite of my decomposing potential attached to a feeding tube filled with anorexic stories and a radioactive experience that decayed anything I touched. I was addicted to destruction.
But this isn’t the end of my story.
When the girl realized the werewolf meant to eat her, she said, “Grandmother! I must go outside. I have to relieve myself.”
“Then do it in the bed.”
“No, please let me do it outside.”
“Do it in the bed,” the wolf insisted with growing impatience.
“It must be outside!”
The wolf hesitated.
“I will tie this string around my ankle and secure it to the bed post, that way you will know where I am and that I will return,” the girl said.
The wolf reluctantly agreed. As soon as the girl got outside she cut the thread, using her sewing scissors, and secured it to a tree. Then she fled. The wolf waited a very long time. Finally, having grown weary, he got up and called to her. “Where are you child? Are you watering the flowers?” No answer. “Are you tending the garden?” Still no answer. The wolf threw open the door, followed the thread to the tree, saw that he’d been tricked and gave chase.
Ahead, the girl came to a group of laundresses washing sheets at a wild river. “Please, stretch out your sheets and make a bridge for me to cross. The wolf is at my heels!” The women tied the sheets together and the girl crossed safely to the other side. Then the wolf arrived and said to the laundresses. “Which way did the girl go?” The laundresses pointed across the river. “Then make a bridge for me to cross,” he commanded. The laundresses did his bidding and the wolf began to cross. Once he reached the middle of the river, however, the women pulled the sheets out from under him causing him to fall in and drown.
“The Grandmother’s Tale,” as well as other fairy tales like “Cinderella,” predates even the Grimm Brothers. They’re part of an oral tradition carried down by women. In these stories heroines use their wits to outsmart their predators and join together to save one another. I didn’t have a mother or a mentor to tell me how to escape or to help me survive, but I found a way out of my death spiral. I like to think that a deep and ancient knowledge of my mothers, sisters and grandmothers rose up within me and guided me to the shores of a new life. Or perhaps it was simply the will to live.
So I’ve kept my silence until now, which is a fine thing for me, but what about the other girls I put in danger by keeping it? This only just occurred to me. What a terrible realization. They just don’t stop. But that’s life and you better get used to it, because from here on out, it doesn’t get better. This won’t be the worst thing you ever read, but it sure is goddamn depressing. So there’s that, and I’ve got nothing more to say on the matter, no hope to give, no button to press, no reason you should feel good about having read this.
Okay, that’s not entirely true. I like who I’ve become. And why not? I saved myself, shed the atavistic paradigms of Cinderella and Barbie and began the backbreaking labor of shoveling out the decades of shit and sorrow. Then I married a great guy who doesn’t even know about these fuckers from the black recesses of a bygone day. Well, until he reads this. But he’s stuck with me now, kids. That’s right, marry ‘em before they know all the humiliating details of your past relationships!
And I’ve gotten perspective on the abuse. It happened. I’ll be dealing with it in one way or another for the rest of my life. It comes off in layers. They’re smaller and less painful now. I’m in a great place. You’ve got shit you have to deal with in your life. I hope you deal with it. I can tell you from experience, it’s the only path to happiness. And so that’s where we’ll leave this. At happiness.
Note: I based the Little Red Riding Hood story here on Terri Windling’s version. She is a writer, artist, and book editor interested in myth, folklore, fairy tales, and the ways they are used in contemporary arts. Yvonne Verdier, a French ethnographer, as cited in Terri Windling’s article, “extensively recorded and studied the folklore, traditions, and rituals of rural women in remote areas of France, and she brought her wider understanding of traditional women’s stories to her examination of ‘The Grandmother’s Tale.'” It was she who first observed what the Path of Pins and Needles meant.