In Amsterdam I knew a hippie man whose children from an early marriage were coming to stay with him. They were thirteen and eleven, I think. The older girl had been incested by her stepfather. This came into the open because the older girl tried to kill herself. This she did at least in part valiantly because she saw the stepfather beginning to make moves on the younger girl in exactly the same way he had gradually forced himself on her. The stepfather had started to wash and shower with the younger girl. The mother, in despair, wrote the hippie man, who had abandoned all of them, for help. She wanted to mend the relationship with the second husband while keeping her children safe. The hippie man made clear to those of us who knew him that he considered his older daughter responsible for the sex; you know how girls flirt and all that. His woman friend made clear to him that he was wrong and also that she was not going to take care of the children. She wouldn’t have to, he said; he would be the nurturer. When the girls arrived in Amsterdam, one recently raped, exceptionally nervous and upset by temperament or contagion or molestation, the hippie man forgot his vows of responsibility, as he had always forgotten all the vows he had ever made, and let all the work, emotional and physical, devolve on his woman friend. She wasn’t having any and simply refused to take care of them. Eventually she left.
One night I got a call from her: the hippie man had given each kid 100 guilders, set them loose, and told them to take care of themselves. He just could not be with them without fucking them, he told her (and them). In a noble and compassionate alternative gesture, he put them out on the streets. His woman friend made clear to me that this was a mess she was not going to clean up. I asked where they were.
They had taken shelter in the frame of an abandoned building, squatters without a room that had walls. They lived up toward the wooden frame for the ceiling. Their light came from burning candles. I found them and took them home with me, although “home” would be stretching it a bit. At that moment I lived in an emptied apartment, the one I had lived in with my husband, a batterer. I had married him after I left Bennington for the second time (the first was Crete, the second Amsterdam). After I had played hide-and-seek with the brute for a number of months, he decided I could live in the apartment he had cleaned out. By then I was grateful even if it meant that he knew where I was. A woman’s life is full of such trade-offs. So when the girls came with me, it wasn’t to safety or luxury or even just enough. The apartment, however, did have walls, and one does learn to be grateful.
The older girl thought that she was probably pregnant. Her father, the hippie man, did light shows, many for rock bands; he had the habit of sending musicians into the older girl’s bed to have sex with her; the younger daughteslept next to the older girl, both on a mattress on the floor. They were wonderful and delightful girls, scared to death; each put up the best front she could: I’m not afraid, I don’t care, none of it hurts me.
The first order of business, after getting them down from the wood rafters illuminated by the burning candles, was getting the older one a pregnancy test. If she was pregnant, she was going to have an abortion, I said. I’m not proud now of using my authority that way, but she was a child, a real child; anyway, for better or worse, I would have forced one on her. In Amsterdam the procedure was not so clandestine nor so stigmatized. It turned out that she wasn’t pregnant.
One day she was suddenly very happy. One of the adult rockers sent into her bed by her father was going to Spain and he wanted to take her. This was proof that he loved her. I knew from the hippie father that he had paid the rocker to take the girl. Finally I was the adult and someone else was the child. I told her. I told her carefully and slowly and with love but I told her the truth, all of it, about the rotten father and the rotten rocker. Her mother now wanted her and her sister back. I sent them back. Nothing would ever be simple for me again. A strain of melancholy entered my life; it was the fusion of responsibility with loss in a world of bruised and bullied strangers.