I was crouched on the side of the road, hiding in the bushes from drunk men who were shining flashlights into the scrub. I refused to move as they yelled “cunt, cunt, cunt, we’ll find you,” the culmination of a street harassment scenario they were attempting to take to the next level. It was clear that this thing, cunt, was all I was to them, all I could aspire to be. Cunt, my other name.
This was the year of the kidnapped girls (which is to say, a year like any other). There were the dead girls, the ones in the woods, the ones in the lake. At a sleepover after my friend and I binged on ice cream and poured over middle school yearbook photos while she shared her notes on the interpersonal power hierarchies of the cheerleading elite, the jumpy cats alerted us to the sounds, outside, of nearby shovels chipping away at rocky topsoil in the dark, echoing off the cliffs. We wondered at it as we fell asleep in bed, this persistent tinny din, a racket like ghosts from the nearby prohibited mine, full of heavy metal contamination and seething acids, eating away at earth.
In my memory, I’m never sure if we were hearing the forensics team or their sinister predecessor that night, or how long the gap was before we realized what had been found, before the paper reported they’d found her, before we’d even remotely made the connection. The bones were uncovered so close to where my friend lived in the woods. She lived in a rurality usually breached only by people who lived there or knew those who did, and the occasional polished pack of out-of-town researchers on their way to run more tests in the Superfund site. And so we begrudgingly added “murderers” to that list of local visitors.
I quickly realized the likelihood that on one of those nights when we soaked in the hot tub with new nails, conversing in a giggle dialect about crushes and sexual rumors, not so far away, a girl our age was realizing she would die, preparing inwardly for her death, witnessing the brutality from outside of her body in a haze, the dissociation one last kindness. All of us in the same woods, with the same mute animal witnesses watching from hovels and nests, with the treacherous moonlight which illuminated the path to the would-be grave, the same glow which shimmered and reflected onto our newly adult bodies in the tepid water of the spa.
When we read the news, we talked about it, only once- the fact of our safety while one of us was out there being murdered, one of our own. We didn’t know her but we knew her. We recognized her, we claimed her, an act of love. And then we never discussed it, preferring long drives to the tops of cliffs to scream into the night to a conversation about our core vulnerabilities.
So in the bushes, scraped up a little from diving in, and bleeding, and grateful for the blood and its accompanying adrenaline, as the headlights from the parked semi cut into the field of starthistle and junk tires, as the men screamed “cunt” I thought instead, “bones.” And that was what helped me, then and every time after, to run.