He had a severely handicapped little girl, about seven; he said was the result of the Agent Orange from ‘Nam. I had no idea what any of that meant. I knew ‘Nam was ‘Nam as in Viet and I had a very literal idea what Agent Orange was from my childhood friend whose dad was some big shot at a company where one of the components was still manufactured. They kept the herbicide in the garage for emergency weed infestations and a couple of drops made gallons of the desired effect. We shot some of the stuff into a weed with a hypodermic needle to see how it worked. This was before the internet and kids did science experiments with deadly chemicals for fun.
He was a friend of a friend, and no doubt the brace on his foot had something to do with my offering help that day. Someone told him I was a writer and he had this elaborate camera that hung around his neck. It was confusing why someone would add the burden of the camera to their already precarious mobility-but I recognized an artist when I saw one. The photo I was using for my “author” picture was getting old so I said “yeah, what the hell. Take the picture.”
I never thought about something untoward happening because his miniature mute daughter was always with us. Until one day she wasn’t. He pulled up in his handicap equipped station wagon without her, which didn’t strike me as odd since he had joint custody and I just figured it was the wife’s turn to keep her out of danger.
He stepped out of the car with his good leg and dragged his braced leg behind him.
“I’m glad you’re dressed so nicely, today I’m going to take your picture.”
My faulty warning bell did not go off, but this compliment should have been ringy dingy number one.
Soon we were driving down the road in his wagon packed with photography equipment and on the seat between us, a small handgun. Seeing me see it, he stowed it in the glove compartment.
“I always want to be able to protect my companion. That makes up for my bum leg.”
Somehow this made perfect sense to me, and I was happy it was out of sight. Ringy dingy number two.
We arrived at the park where the third warning bell would go off if I hadn’t been so hell-bent on getting a photo for the back of my book jacket. It’s OK to laugh, I think it’s funny, too.
I helped set up the tripod and despite our previous friendly conversations there was something different going on, something I mistook for concentration and poetic license. He looked down into his camera and when he lifted his head back up, he had the gaze of a dog licking his lips in anticipation of a treat, a German Shepard-like anticipation dripping from his clenched jaw. It suddenly occurred to me that I was in a heavily wooded area with a man with a gun. This was before the day of cell phones and my head started pounding so hard I couldn’t hear myself think. I was trying to think of what to do when I heard him over my racing heartbeat suggesting I take drop a sleeve off one of my shoulders, “for the camera.”
The therapist had an office in the upstairs bedroom of his lovely home. Decorated in multiple shades of blue throughout, extra warmth provided by a fluffy little white dog that would eventually settle down into my lap after jumping around for a bit, it was covered by my insurance. I forget the guy’s name, and I had little respect for him when I found out he was working on his MSW. This, to me was like finding out my brain surgeon had previously, by way of experience, removed a few splinters from a child’s hand. He was getting his MSW and here I sat, owner of my own Diagnostic Manual, a gift from a friend. When you get a DSM-IV for your birthday aren’t you entitled to at least a psychiatrist? This was how my insurance worked, so…
I didn’t feel that I needed someone to talk to concerning the string of things to which professionals like to cling.
“Oh, you were adopted? When and how did you find out? Did you ever want to find your real parents?”
My real parents were George and Bernice and I resented mental health professionals insinuating that this was where my issues might be buried. I went to this particular guy for about a year, and the house noises made by the baby and things like the dishwasher that I never got used to. As unusual as the whole scene was, it was unbelievably pedestrian compared to the college counselor who took his consignees to Happy Hour after our sessions.
I escaped without physical harm or contact from the photo session in the woods, but it came up a couple of years later. I was spacing out, massaging the dog, when a tap on the desk snapped me to attention.
“Earth to Jaye.”
He didn’t raise his voice nor did it contain any sort of intonation at all, and you could tell this wasn’t only his counselor’s voice, that “flat” would describe his everyday demeanor. I tuned in, my glance betraying my little space-out.
“What were you thinking about just there?”
Some stupid shit I did.
“Did you want to talk about the stupid shit?”
His use of my word startled me just slightly.
I kept a poker-face but the dog betrayed me.
My brain said “no” but my lips, often out of sync with the master cylinder, kept going.
I’ll tell you something stupid I did and you will tell me I was young, anyone could have done it, it was no biggie.
“I promise not to say any of those things, let’s have it.”
So on I went about the man in a leg brace with the Agent Orange daughter and the big camera.
In college I was on a first name basis with the handful of security guards, several who surveyed the campus round the clock. Almost everyone chose the school for it’s waterfront, if not the waterfront program specifically. I didn’t exactly choose it at all so much as it chose me. They gave me a handful of money and they had a kid playing French horn on the cover of the catalog. Let that sink in, young parents…I chose my college because there was a kid playing French horn on the cover of the catalog. There were other reasons, sure, but I wanted to continue with my band activities and without further due diligence I assumed French horn kid would be there to show me around the tiny campus.
In actuality, the world-famous organ program, with one of only three (at the time) Flentrop organs in the nation and an outstanding choral program were the only music programs the college offered. The music program was outstanding but in its infancy and there was no place for my Selmer clarinet and me.
If you sat about playing guitar into the night campus security waved at you. They were a friendly sort with implementation of the original ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy firmly in place. I had a friend explain it to me this way: the city has a deal with the school-they don’t police the campus and the school doesn’t depend on them to do so; if you do call them it better be goddamned serious because a single call would likely change this lax position and the city was aching to do it. This, explained to me by my friend that escaped being sprayed by Agent Orange by being a conscience objector and serving two years in a Veteran’s hospital.
I didn’t really believe all of this about the campus police but 36 years later I’m still reading a lot about apologetic swimmers and rape culture so I guess it is true now and it was true then.
Years later while therapist shopping I would recount the experiences both on the on the yellow plastic couch and later, with the little fluffy dog in the blue room. I reluctantly talked about leg brace man but I couldn’t remember what happened to him. Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome was still reserved for military personnel but there was a suggestion that whatever ended up transpiring on that day was blocked out my memory due to trauma. I have never bought into this, but I’m pretty sure there’s some connection here: Around the same time as the Gulfport murder I stopped feeling safe sitting outdoors at various waterfront venues with my guitar. It was time to leave, but I didn’t know it yet.