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At Seventeen~Part One

December of 1973 was a turning point in my life.  I was seventeen.

At seventeen I should have been having fun.  I should have been carefree.  Instead, at seventeen I was worrying about my mother. At seventeen I was concerned with school and my future but also with my mother’s future.  She cried a lot.  She missed my father.  She hated him.  She loved him.  She was confused about her life and what would happen to it.  She was also enjoying her life for the first time in a long time.  She was finally alone, without my father, for the first time since she married him at age sixteen.  My sisters and I included her when we went places, like weddings and dances.  We were having fun, too.  My father was always very strict and never allowed us to go any place.  We couldn’t date.  We couldn’t leave the house without some kind of supervision.  My father had left months before for what was to be a two week trip and had not returned.  Without him, my mother was a lot less strict.  She let us go places and a lot of the times, she went with us.  During those times that she went with us, she was distracted and less sad and it made us, her four daughters, glad that she was not crying.

When Mr. Flanagan, my counselor called me in to tell me about tryouts for the Junior Miss Pageant. I considered it for just a few minutes, before putting it out of my mind.  But, my sister knew.  She was in the first year Journalism class which met at the same time and in the same room as the fourth year Journalism and Newspaper staff room.  I was on the Tribune staff and my sister knew I had been called to the office for the pageant information.  That night my mother asked me about the pageant because my sister had told her.  I told her if I wanted to do it, there was an application to fill out and then I would have to show up at a meeting for information and an interview the following Saturday.  She surprised me when she said I could go.  I had not even thought of filling out the application.  So when she said that she wanted me to do it, I filled out the application and my mom signed it.

After making it through three rounds of pre-selection, I was officially one of twenty contestants for the pageant and I started to dream.  That month was filled with rehearsals, public appearances, including the Thanksgiving parade through the streets of downtown San Jose.  I was also working part time at Sears, after school and some weekends.  Luckily, I had committed to the pageant before committing to Sears so when they hired me, I told them up front that I was in the pageant and would need to work around pageant rehearsals.  They agreed.  My month was very hectic but it was a happy hectic.

Finally, the night of the pageant arrived and so did my father.  He had finally made it home with no idea of what was going on with the pageant.  From the moment he drove in the driveway, he was angry.  When he found out about the pageant that night and me being in it, he became even angrier.  He didn’t want me to go.  My mother and I explained all about the pageant.  My mother assured him it was very decent and nothing to be ashamed of.  We told him it was too late to cancel.  Tickets had been sold and we had friends and relatives coming.  My teachers and counselor from school would be there.  I had to show up.  We pleaded with him to let me go.

Two hours later we were on our way and he was seething.  He was so mad at me that he began to back out of the driveway before I was completely inside of the car. I asked him to wait as I pulled my formal length gown inside the car and shut the door.  He cursed at me.

He was angrier than I had seen him in a long time.  I knew he would not like the idea of me being in the pageant but somehow I had not imagined this anger.  He was swearing and he rarely did that in front of us.  He swore in Spanish.  He swore in English.  His driving was reckless, which in itself was nothing new but he was different that night.  He was intentionally driving dangerously and it scared us all.

We were late.  The Civic Auditorium was just a short drive but we had left late and I had already been nervous because of the pageant.  Now I was not only nervous but terrified that we would have an accident before we even got there and it would be all my fault.  His constant barrage of cursing had me fighting tears.  My mother was upset.  She sat stiffly but I could sense that inside she was crying, too.  This was supposed to be an enchanting night for me and instead it had turned into a nightmare.

Then he said it.  He had called me all kinds of names but then he finally said it.  He called me a whore.  He said I looked like a puta in my dress and makeup.  I couldn’t answer.  I couldn’t tell him that I had to have extra makeup so it would show in the audience.  I would be under stage lights and I had to have that extra makeup.  I was shaking and trying to figure out what would happen when I got to the Civic.  I was already late and I knew I would have to wash off my face and start all over with my makeup.  I didn’t want him to see me sitting behind him like a small heap in the corner of the back seat.  I was glad for the darkness of the December night.  I wished he had not gotten back when he did.  I wished he had not ever come back.

Irene sat next to me and gave me a Kleenex.  No one said a word.  I could feel them sitting stiffly.  Gilda was sniffling.  There were lots of silent tears inside that car.  I tried to look at my mother.  She was shaking but she wouldn’t ever challenge him.  What he said to me, his cold, belittling words hovered over us inside the car.  Why didn’t Mom defend me?  Why did she always let him get away with beating us and calling us names?  Tonight had been the worst.  I was the good daughter.  I was the respectful daughter. I was the smart daughter.  I was the daughter that caused no problems and yet, tonight he treated me like this.  What had I done?  It would not be for months and months that I would discover or be allowed to discover why he behaved so cruelly on that night.

We got to the Civic and I asked him to drop me off before parking so I could run and check in.  Without uttering a word he pulled over to the curb.  I got out of the car and as I turned to close the door, I glimpsed my sisters’ faces and my mother’s.  They knew how I felt.  Their faces wished me luck, their voices remained silent.

I checked in and the woman in charge, Ginny, helped me with my makeup and told me not to think about anything that had happened.  I hadn’t told her what my father had said or that he had been angry.  I was embarrassed and so I told no one, but she could see that something was wrong.   She told me to think only of the show ahead of me that evening.

I don’t remember much of what happened that night but in my mind I have a clear memory of having to instantly put on a big, fake smile as I walked through the curtain at the rear of the auditorium.   I joined the procession of girls sauntering down the aisle to the tune of “The Girl From Ipanema” and as I walked I held a single red rose and the stinging memory of the drive earlier that evening.

That night was the beginning of the end of my life at home.  I knew then that I had to get out.  The coming weeks would only strengthen that need.  Two weeks after the night of the Junior Miss Pageant, my escape route emerged.

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