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I'm Trying to Tell You

a fiction feature by May Mon Post

Fall 2004, Vol. 67, No. 3

After deliberating for two days about what to wear on her first date with Mark, Lily Bash settled on a new Bebe dress. It was short, fitted and had tiny white flowers against a fiery red background. The weather was still too chilly for a summer dress, but it looked unusually sexy on the pale, waiflike body achieved by hours of ballet classes and eating nothing but salads. She stood in front of the mirror one last time and brushed her boyish hair. Five feet three inches tall and barely weighing one hundred pounds, longer hair would make her look too thin.

"Is that what you're wearing tonight?" Dr. Bash asked as Lily came down the stairs, flaunting her body. His daughter always looked flawless, but he thought she would have been prettier in pink.

Lily did not reply, and that hurt his feelings. He had noticed lately that not only did she look more like her mother, she also acted more like her. Mrs. Bash was a proud, unpredictable woman-on some days, she had ignored her husband completely or yelled at him with such hate-filled determination after deliberately starting fights. On others, she had gazed lovingly into his eyes and told him how she could not imagine her life without him. She divorced him four years ago to marry a writer from England with whom she had been having an affair while he was teaching Victorian Literature at nearby Bryn Mawr College.

Dr. Bash desperately thought of ways to tell Lily that pink was her mother's favorite color and would better complement Lily's milky complexion.

"You should have worn pink. If you ask me, red makes you look like a ghost wrapped in table cloth."

Now, he felt bad for saying what he said, but he could never speak his mind in an eloquent way around anyone, especially Lily.

"Asshole," Lily muttered. She was sick of hearing the little remarks her father made constantly. Ordinarily, she would have ignored him, but lately, she felt that he had been more annoying than ever.

"Did you say something?" Dr. Bash asked. He was a small man in his early fifties who usually spent his free time reading Charles Dickens in his orderly study room. Sometimes, when he was engrossed in a book, he reminded Lily of a shy girl ducking her head so that no one would take notice.

"You said you'd drive me to Mark's place, right?" Lily said.

Dr. Bash nodded reluctantly. It was drizzling. Wet roads made him nervous because the streetlights glared in the rain, and that hurt his eyes. Luckily, however, he did not have to drive far.

On his way to Mark's dorm, Dr. Bash saw a row of buildings along the east bank of the Schuylkill River, each outlined by a string of white lights against the inky sky. He remembered how he used to walk, before Lily was born, along Boathouse Row, with its paths for walkers and bikers that follow the river for miles as it runs through Fairmount Park. Driving into the city, Mr. Bash noted the high-rises and the graffiti. His eyes wandered from chain stores like the Gap, Steve Madden and Barnes & Noble to Nan, a quaint neighborhood restaurant, and the billboards that read "Be You" and "Just Do It." He didn't like that there was no natural sequence in the city: office buildings, department stores, apartments, record stores, coffee shops, a well-known university-they were all lumped together. But he cherished the way everyone and everything looked busy and bright under the neon signs and brilliant lights.

"Poor homeless people. They look so cold and hungry," Lily broke his thoughts. "If I were really rich, I'd feed them every day so they wouldn't ever starve."

"Such a shame this city hasn't gotten rid of them," Dr. Bash uttered.

"Why? What have they done to you?"

"Well, they could be dangerous."

"So that's why you want them out? Because they could be dangerous?"

Dr. Bash decided not to answer because he knew that she was mocking his insensitivity, that she was thinking something awful about him. Instead, he glanced at Lily's mouth. It was dainty, like a puckering flower, and her teeth were exceptionally white. If he were drunk, Dr. Bash might have wanted to kiss her. And Lily would be disgusted with him if he expressed his thoughts.

When he arrived at Mark's building, Dr. Bash was tempted to ask Lily if he could come upstairs and meet her date. He asked himself, Why aren't you like other dads? Gutsy. Not afraid of your daughter. But he couldn't ask Lily if he could meet Mark. His wife had already left him. And he couldn't bear the thought of losing his daughter, too. He needed his daughter. He decided he would be an understanding friend to her. He would trust her. And he would trust Mark. He reminded himself that you've got to trust people sometimes. Trust, that's all there's left of this world.

Lily was fifteen minutes late by the time she knocked on Mark's door.

"You look beautiful," Mark said as he opened his door with a beer in one hand. With his angular jaw, dirty blond hair, sparkling blue eyes and a tall, lean body, he looked like a movie star, a young Brad Pitt. He wore a Rugby shirt that would fit loosely on an ordinary Joe; but the shirt clung to his body, showing off his rippling muscles.

"Thanks," Lily answered. "So do you." She wondered what it would be like to stroke Mark's tight, flat stomach. Or, at least, to hold his hands. For some reasons, from the moment she met him, she was fascinated by his hands.

"Would you like to come in?"

Mark's dorm was stuffy, as if he hadn't opened the windows for months. The paint on the walls was dingy gray, instead of the chalky white it must have been once. The room smelled of vomit, old sour beer and dusty carpet mixed with the moldy odor from pizza slices Mark had left on the small Ikea chair in front of an old wooden computer desk. Lily surveyed the computer desk, which was covered with books and emptied bags of Herr's potato chips and the scattered CDs and grimy socks spread across the floor. Her eyes wandered from the twin bed with dirty green sheets at the corner of the room, and the giant poster of Michael Jordan on the wall above the headboard, to the mini fridge that lay directly across the bed. It was the type of place that would have driven her father crazy!

"How about a beer?" Mark asked.

"Um … No, thanks. Not right now," Lily answered.

Lily perched on the edge of Mark's bed. She wondered if Mark would kiss her. She liked him and wanted to be kissed by him. But if he wanted more (he may want to hold her and feel her breasts, like other boys in high school), she reminded herself that she would have to be firm with him. Lily's therapist (her father made her see one after her mother left the country) told her that she had a problem with setting boundaries.

"Did you have a hard time finding this place?" Mark said, as he joined her on the bed and sat next to her.

"No, it's not that far from my house."

"Oh, yeah, I almost forgot you live in Villanova. That's near where my mom works," Mark said. "Nice neighborhood," Mark said.

"Thanks," Lily replied. "I like it there."

"Do your parents work?"

"My father does research on AIDS or something like that. He mostly works in a lab. And my mother … she's remarried. Now lives in England. Yeah, they made an odd couple," said Lily.

"You don't know what an odd couple is until you live with my parents!" Mark said and gulped the beer down. "By the way… I like the way that … your … makeup matches your dress. I mean, some girls just don't know how … well, never mind. Are you sure that you don't want a beer?"

"No, that's OK."

Mark held Lily's hand and gave her a quick peck on her lips.

Lily told herself, remember, it's OK to kiss, but say no if Mark tries to grab your breasts. Well … OK. Unless, of course, he's a great kisser. Then, what would be the harm in him touching your breasts?

"I like the way you said 'no.' It was sexy," Mark broke her thoughts.

"Thanks, I guess." Lily said.

"You know, you look really pretty. Have I told you that already?" Mark said.

"Yeah…" Lily said, smiling at Mark.

"I'm glad you came over."

"Me, too."

Mark smiled and drew her a little closer to him. He kissed her on her mouth, with enough pressure to force her mouth open for his tongue to probe. She closed her eyes and kissed him back, softly at first, more firmly later.

Mark drew her even closer, wrapped his arms around her waist and kissed her passionately once again.

Lily felt her heart race. She wanted Mark to kiss her, and now, at last, she was in his arms being kissed by him. Kissing him made her feel warm and fuzzy all over.

"I love the way you kiss," Mark said. Then he reached under her dress. She wiggled and pushed his chest.

"Mark, I'm not ready for that," Lily said, quietly.

"You're so adorable. And so tiny."

"Come on, Mark. Your hand's not welcome there," Lily said, a little more firmly this time.

"You have such a cute little body."

"Mark, I'm sorry. But I'm not going to do that with you."

"You're such a tease, you know that?" Mark said. He pushed Lily down on his bed and got on top of her. Her warm and fuzzy feelings suddenly evaporated.

"Mark, let me go," Lily said more loudly. She grabbed Mark's arms and tried to push him away from her. But it was no use.

"You've got strong arms. I like that," Mark said, as he held her arms with one hand and pulled down her panties with the other.

Lily could hear her therapist's voice in her mind: Setting boundaries reflects your right to say no to those things that aren't right for you, Lily. Setting boundaries, Lily, is about learning to take care of yourself, no matter what happens, where you go or who you're with.

"No," Lily said. "Don't."

But Mark ignored her and pulled down his jeans.

"Mark. Stop," Lily said, again, tears running down her cheeks. "Stop!"

Her father told her once, "Your mother let another man touch her! She did not love us!" Was she chasing her mother's step? Did this mean that she did not love her father? Was she letting Mark cross her boundaries? Her therapist told her that she had a "disease to please." That she couldn't set boundaries because she was afraid to lose the love of others. But what love? No one has ever really loved her the way she deserved to be loved.

"Oh, Lily, I know you want it as much as I do," Mark said, as he forced his wrestler's body on her. "I just want to make you happy. I know it'll make you happy."

"No, Mark. Don't…" Lily cried. She wanted to push Mark away from her, but she was weak, despite what Mark said about her arms. She wanted to say something to Mark, but his arm gagged her and words got trapped in her throat. She glanced at Mark's hands, the hands she used to adore, and saw the green dials of his silver-tone watch on his wrist glowing in the dark, like the eyes of an alien.

Even while it was happening, as he thrust his penis into her and she struggled, trying to scream and trying to get up, even then, Lily was thinking, This can't be happening. Mark is my date. Sure, they had flirted when they first met, but he wasn't supposed to do this to her!

After Mark was satisfied, he got off Lily and rested next to her on the bed, breathing heavily. She stared at the ceiling, sobbing and feeling confused. Her head hurt. Her arms hurt. Her whole body hurt, actually. She didn't want to move. But she got up and slipped on her panties. She left his place quietly.

The rain had stopped by the time she got outside. Light from the street lamps loomed over the nearby trees. Their shadows swayed on the glistening street. She felt like a zombie, or a machine, in a dreamland. She walked a few blocks and called her father from her cell phone to pick her up early, even though she didn't want to face him or anyone else. She didn't want to do anything. She didn't want to talk to anybody. She just wanted to disappear from the face of the earth. She wanted to die. She wanted Mark to die. She replayed the attack. All she could remember was Mark's red, sweaty face and his cold, hard eyes that pierced right through her. And the green dials of his watch that glowed in the dark.

As she waited for her father at a street corner near Mark's dorm, she felt brittle, with an icy sheath around her heart. Emptiness swelled up inside her when she remembered the boy whose eyes sparkled when he smiled. The boy whose hands she imagined holding.

When Dr. Bash arrived, Lily got inside the car looking pale, muddled and awfully quiet. Thinking her secret thoughts. "Is something wrong, sweetie?" Mr. Bash wanted to ask. He was never sure when Lily was mad at him or when she simply wished to be left alone. He thought he saw a tear running down Lily's left cheek. He wondered, "Have I said something you didn't like? Why won't you tell me anything? What have I done to deserve this?" But he knew better than to ask her.

"Can we go, father?" Lily asked. Her voice was shaky. Unnatural. She was glad her father was (thank god!) everything Mark wasn't-her father wore glasses (even though they seemed as though they were about to fall off his small, crooked nose any minute) and he was balding, thin and so delicately built (when Lily was younger, she wondered whether his bones would shatter if she ever hugged him really hard).

Dr. Bash started the car. "Did you have a nice time?" he said, trying to smile.

"Uh huh," Lily said, facing the window.

"What?"

"Fine. It was fine."

"Just fine?"

Lily didn't reply. She was clearly upset. Dr. Bash wanted to give her a big hug and smooth out her hair with his fingers. But she was too old for that. She was 16. All a teenager wanted was her privacy, wasn't it? He was once a teenager himself.

That night, Lily did not talk on the phone with her friends as she usually did after a date. She took a long, hot shower and went to her room, where she tossed and turned all night. She dozed off for a few minutes at one point, but even then, she woke up from a nightmare. In her nightmare, she ran and ran from a monster, but her legs would not move. She screamed and screamed, but no sound would come out. She called out to her father because she could not fight the monster alone. But her father laughed and watched her dying in pain.

When she woke up the next day, her face was swollen, and her body itched from a rash. Her body often itched whenever she was stressed, like when she studied for exams. She could not make herself go to school because she felt sick and dirty and worn out. She could not let anyone from school find out her secret.

She spent all day in bed, except when she watched the local news for an hour in the living room. It was all bad news. But it made her feel less scared about breaking the news to her father during dinner.

"Can I speak to you, father?" Lily asked during dinner. Her voice was calm, but the tear-shot eyes, and the wobbly spoon in her hand said otherwise. "I mean, you know when I went out yesterday with …"

Dr. Bash knew something was coming. "Is it me?" he wondered. "Does she think I'm cruel because of what I said about the homeless people on the way to Mark's place?" "Look, it's not my fault there are homeless people in this country. It's not my fault they're hungry. And young lady, before I forget, I got a call from your teacher today. You didn't go to school, did you?"

"No."

"Well, why not?"

"Because … I forgot."

"You FORGOT? What's wrong with you?"

"Nothing. What's wrong with YOU?"

"Stop acting like an immature kid."

"May I be excused from the table, please?"

"You aren't going anywhere. You'll finish your dinner!"

"I'm not hungry."

"Eat it!"

"Christ!" Lily said. She picked up her fork with a shrug and began to eat. "I can't take this anymore."

Dr. Bash stared at Lily. Is she testing him? He wanted to slap her, tell her to be respectful of her father. He wanted to shake her and ask her, "Why won't you ever love me? What did I do to you that you despise me so much sometimes?" But Dr. Bash didn't say anything. What if she left him just like Mrs. Bash? He couldn't stand the thought of it.

"You don't ever listen to me!" Lily continued. She started to cry.

If he were a mother, Dr. Bash might have said, "Don't cry, honey. I love you so much it hurts to see you cry." But he was a father, and no good with words.

"Oh? Is that so?" Dr. Bash answered. "Why should I listen to you when you never talk to me?"

Lily broke into heavy sobs.

Dr. Bash wanted to reach out to his daughter and hold her in his arms, but she was in the midst of eating. He would have looked like a fool. "What are you doing?" Lily might ask.

"Pathetic. Always a crybaby. Guess what, missy? Crying won't get you anywhere," Dr. Bash heard himself say. His heart ached. Stupid, that was stupid, he thought. Why did I say that? But it was too late. The words had already stumbled out of his mouth.

The next day, on his way to drop Lily off at her friend's house, Dr. Bash pretended to have forgotten about his fight with his daughter.

"What's your friend's name, again?"

"Brianna."

"Brianna. Brianna. That's the girl who came with us to Pod, isn't it?" Dr. Bash said. Dr. Bash remembered the girl clearly. He paid for her dinner at Pod, an Asian-fusion restaurant in a futuristic mod setting complete with George Jetson cafeteria-style conveyor belt sushi bar and the red Wendell Castle-type lounge seats. Dr. Bash was sure that he impressed Lily and her friend by choosing to dine at what he thought was a cutting-edge place. But Brianna did not seem to be impressed with anything. And, she didn't even thank him for dinner.

Lily did not answer Dr. Bash. She was obviously absent-minded. She had not looked into his eyes once since dinner. "Is it me? Does she hate me? Or worse, is she pregnant?" Dr. Bash wondered, but he could not digest these ideas.

"Watch it, asshole!" a fat man in a white Bronco broke Dr. Bash's thoughts with his course hoot. He had a large, red, stubbly face that complemented his bulbous nose and bulging eyes. His greasy brown hair was so tangled it stuck out from his skull. Judging from his double chin and flaccid arms, Dr. Bash figured he was an old fart who got drunk every night.

"Yo, Jackass. Watch where you're driving!" the fat man bellowed. He looked at Dr. Bash and gave a middle finger.

Dr. Bash's face hardened and turned red. He could feel Lily's eyes following his every muscle twitch, watching him, wondering how and when he would react. You low-life son of a bitch, he wanted to yell. He would have to say something to the driver. He did not want to be a coward in front of Lily. After all, he was no coward. Or was he? He moved his lips as if he were about to say something but instead shook his head.

The fat man laughed and showed his middle finger again as he zoomed past Lily and Dr. Bash, the Bronco swaying from left to right. Dr. Bash could feel his face burn, like it had a thousand little paper cuts.

Lily thought her father had the same look on his face as she did when he picked her up from Mark's place. It was a look of defeat, of humiliation. Lily smiled at her father with sympathy because she knew everything hurt and embarrassed him easily.

"Don't worry about him. He's obviously nothing but a jerk," Lily said.

"People aren't always so nice, are they?" Dr. Bash said. He made a left turn.

Lily burst out crying.

"Are you OK?"

"Sure. I mean, no. I've been trying to tell you…" Lily said, sobbing. Her body was shaking uncontrollably.

Dr. Bash stroked her hand. "Don't cry. It'll be OK."

"No, yesterday, the day before, I don't know… When I went out… I … Um… Mark…" Lily continued. "I... I hate him…"

Dr. Bash pulled over and parked his car on the side of the road. "Shh… Shh… pumpkin. You don't have to tell me everything now." He moved closer to Lily and held her in his arms.

"I mean, I thought he was different. But now, I know…" Lily said, still sobbing.

"Honey, Lily. I know… But it'll be OK."

"How do you know? You don't even know what I was going to tell you."

"It's OK, Lily. I think I can guess some parts. Everything will be OK."

Lily looked at him. "You promise?" she asked, forcing a tired smile.

"I promise," Dr. Bash whispered, his eyes glittering and his heart lifting.

Dr. Bash turned up the volume to his favorite Etta James song, "At Last," and started driving.

You smile
You smile
Oh and then the spell was cast
And here we are in heaven
For you are mine at last…