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Ripening - Ann McDowell Wagner

It was the summer that Cathleen Crowell said she was abducted by three men just outside Washington Square Mall, after ending her shift at the Long John Silver’s, and was raped by one of them in the backseat of a car. Rumor was that the rape itself happened at Isaak Walton Park, and that the rapist had scratched letters into her stomach with a beer bottle.

 

Sandy and I were just barely thirteen. Eighth grade awaited us, and summer had ripened into days of riding off on our ten-speed bikes, no questions asked as long as we were home before dark. After the rape allegation became public, our parents told us to stay away from the mall and the park, yet somehow we still roamed freely.

 

We both babysat, so Sandy and I always had a little of our own spending money.  Somedays we’d curl our hair with hot rollers and head over to the Lion’s Club Pool, eat Twinkies and fat pretzels from the snack bar, and lay out in our bikinis during adult swim. On other days we’d ride to Cal’s Roast Beef, lingering about in shorts and tube tops, hoping to see cute boys. Wolf whistles from passing cars became a regular thing. It was the summer that we figured out how to use tampons. It was the summer that we started to wear padded bras. It was the summer we learned the power, and the dangers, of being female.

 

It was on one of those hot summer days that we rode to the mall, intent on seeing a matinee of The Spy Who Love Me. I’d like to say that Sandy talked me into it, but I was the one always pushing the envelope. The Cineplex still had a new feel to it, even though the upholstery reeked of buttered popcorn and the floors were soft-drink sticky. Sandy always got Dots and a Sprite. I hated the way Dots stuck to my teeth and went for Lemonheads, more of a tart and sweet girl.

 

We settled into the padded seats in the center of a middle row, shrinking down with our feet on the backs of the seats in front of us. We were the only ones in the small theater and we delighted in the private viewing. From the opening—Roger Moore as Bond skied off a cliff—I was mesmerized by the action, the sexual overtones, and the feeling that Sandy and I were getting away with something we weren’t supposed to do. Scrunched down in our illicit, sugary bliss, we didn’t notice the two boys who entered the back of the theatre.

 

They could have been there a while, taking some time to screw up their nerve, or perhaps they had been screen-hopping. As the film was reaching its conclusion, they each came down separate sides of the aisle and sat next to us, trapping us in our seats. We sat up and stiffened. I was in a heightened state of alert, yet also strangely curious, and maybe even a little flattered. We sat there for what felt like forever, staring at the screen. Then, seemingly planned and on cue, each boy put an arm around one of us and nuzzled into our necks. The boy on my side placed his hand on my knee and began stroking it.

 

Bond’s love interest pointed a gun at him, but then changed her mind and embraced him instead. I jumped up and shoved past the boy who had a hold of me. Sandy followed in my direction, stumbling over his feet. I could hear the boys cackling as the music swelled. We arrowed to the theatre exit.

 

The lobby’s neon glow was an assault. The workers behind the popcorn counter weren’t much older than us, and what would we have said anyway? I don’t remember leaving the theatre or the mall.  I do remember waving at Sandy as I was riding up my driveway, calming myself so that my mom wouldn’t suspect something was up. I knew I couldn’t say anything because I wasn’t supposed to be at the mall in the first place, so I sucked in the tartness of what was the first of many experiences of men behaving badly. Sandy and I never spoke of it again.

 

It was the summer that Gary Dotson was arrested for the rape after Cathleen Crowell identified him from a mug shot, and years before she found God and recanted her story, and even more before his three-day clemency hearing, during which her stained underwear were projected on a wall in a televised event.

 

All those years later I was mesmerized with how my hometown’s horror story had unfolded on national news. The truth and lies of adolescence, how complicated it all was.

 

Ann McDowell Wagner has traveled extensively and has lived and worked in the U.S., China, Cambodia, and Ethiopia. She is currently an independent school leader, online instructor of international teachers pursuing their master’s degrees, and a student in the UCLA Extension Creative Writing Program. She has been published in Miracle Monocle and a Nat1 Anthology. “Ripening” is a creative nonfiction story, 797 words.

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