A Witness to the Drowning
First Published in Atticus Review, February 14, 2013
A very close friend, who happens to be semi-famous in small circles, left for Australia the weekend after Thanksgiving. Earlier in the afternoon, he asked if I could find him a barbershop. I found him a small place called “Barber Shop” lodged between an OSH hardware store and a GLO-TONE clothing cleaners in a strip mall. The strip mall, like a beached whale, lazed just north of the 110 in South Pasadena about two miles from where I attended seven years of elementary school. That school was called Stancliff, a cramped and private institution cobbled together out of bungalows, lunch benches, and frightened children. I attended from preschool through the fifth grade. I hadn’t been back in twenty years, so I decided that while my semi-famous friend was having his hair cut, I’d snap some pics of the school to post on Facebook, the latest in a continued obsession my generation has with sharing (and archiving) endless aspects of the past, present, and future.
Thirty-one years earlier, Natalie Wood drowned the weekend after Thanksgiving. That was 1981, the year I was born. The circumstances surrounding her death are still in question. I have romanticized her life and death, and am grateful, in my own gay sort of way, that she and I existed exactly five months in the same space-time continuum. But I, like everyone—with the exceptions of her husband Robert Wagner and Christopher Walken—will never know exactly how she died.
All we know is that at some point on the night of November 29, 1981, Natalie Wood disembarked from her yacht (The Splendor) and was found the next morning, drowned, suspended in a standing position just below the surface, the sea opening deep below her. I have only my imagination, a vague storyboard of images, to piece together the night’s events: Natalie waking up to find her husband having sex with another man; Natalie, semi-drunk, struggling onto the dinghy in the coldest part of the night; Natalie, a movie star with no Oscar, floating off the coast of Catalina, an island most people forget about until a clear day at the beach.
I parked, grabbed my camera, and stepped onto the quiet street. The railroad tracks were still there, now being used by slick, city transit instead of the freighters that growled and roared through my childhood. The chain-link fence had been replaced. In its place now stood a black electric fence. The “Stancliff” sign was gone, replaced by colorful letters, spelling out: C-E-L-E-B-R-A-T-I-O-N K-I-D-S.
A couple, probably in their early thirties, pushed a stroller up the shaded street and stopped at the gate. The father, a tall, pale man with a kind face and relaxed shoulders, pressed some numbers on a gray keypad. Slowly, the gate slid open.
“Excuse me,” I said, crossing the street. “Do you live here?”
“No,” he said. “We live next door. Our daughter goes to day care here. We bring her over on the weekends to play.”
“Oh,” I replied. I didn’t exactly know how to continue, so I blurted out, “I went to school here for seven years in the eighties.”
He stared blankly. I looked over at his female companion. Her mouth bore the scars of palatoplasty, the surgery performed to correct cleft palates. Her eyes were hard, discerning. Her attitude was a strange contrast to the benevolence of her companion.
“Well,” the father finally said with a smile. “I guess you’d better come in.”
Just before I turned five months old, my family and I celebrated Thanksgiving in Eagle Rock, California. The next day, we drove to Irvine to pick up my father’s two children from his previous marriage, my older half-brother and half-sister. For the rest of the weekend we all ate leftovers and napped, cradled in that purely American sound of college football games buzzing away on my parents’ tiny television, the one with the large dial.
At weekend’s close, we all drove back to Irvine, my half-siblings cramped in the back of my dad’s Fiat with my car seat. It was a Sunday night. I wouldn’t go to Stancliff for four more years. We parked, and my mother carried me as they walked up to the house. My dad’s ex-wife met us at the door. She was panicked, out of breath.
“Natalie Wood’s dead,” she said. “No one knows what happened. She drowned.”
The school seemed smaller, which I was expecting. I reached the old familiar landmarks—the lockers, the bench-wrapped tree, the playground—faster now that my gait was inherently adult.
I sometimes think buildings have a melancholy consciousness. Forced immobile, they wait for the greatest disaster to finally let them rest. They are not allowed to die of their own accord. They must stand until a third party (a human, Mother Nature, God, a dragon) decrees them irrelevant. The buildings at Stancliff (now Celebration Kids) weep in this revelation. They yearn to rest. Doors hang heavy; windows droop. They cry enough invisible tears to drown a million movie stars.
“There used to be a tether ball court there,” I said to the kind father.
He nodded and said, “Cool. Oh, just so you know, when you want to leave, press the big green button that says ‘EXIT’ back by the gate.”
“That was my second-grade class room,” I continued, ignoring him. “There used to be lunch benches here. There used to be a basketball net there. That was the sixth-grade classroom. This is where we used to wait for our parents to pick us up. This was kindergarten. Those windows were the principal’s office.”
Finally, the kind father asked, “What was it like going to school here?”
My parents took me out of Stancliff just after the fifth grade for several reasons: financial, personal, things adults don’t tell children. They put me in public school where I never really quite fit in. Two years later, as I fought to tread water in the homophobic shark tank of my junior high, my parents read in the Los Angeles Times that Stancliff was being investigated on charges of physical, sexual, and mental abuse. The article was published on January 23, 1995. It contained the following paragraphs:
“[Two mothers], who become upset when they talk about the school, describe a place where children were singled out for harassment by teachers who spread vicious lies about children, made insensitive and racially offensive comments, and falsified grades and progress reports. The Stancliff staff amused themselves, the women claim, by picking out one child to harass each year.
The accusers say children were severely disciplined and arbitrary rules were set for certain ones. Some youngsters were thrown into dumpsters or into the school ice machine and made to cross the nearby railroad tracks to retrieve lost balls, they alleged. They also claim that Stancliff students were required to clean up vomit or feces and that severe roughhousing was permitted, even to the point of injuring children.”
What these two mothers alleged happened is still alive inside of me. There is no flood of memories when I read those words. How can there be a memory for something that hasn’t ended yet? I can still feel the waxy tiles beneath my knees the afternoon my first-grade teacher made me crawl up and down the aisles, instructing the other students to throw trash at me. I still feel my skin tearing when I was stabbed in the fifth grade with a pen. I still feel the shame of being swatted once in first grade and then again in fourth. I can still feel my second-grade teacher grab onto my pink tuxedo (a costume for a school production), yanking my left shoulder sharply back when she wanted to get me out of her way.
I also believe that the kid who wet his pants and was hosed off naked in front of the school is still crying, that the girl forced to wear a “tail” made of trash for the whole day still feels her shame, and that my classmate who was tied to her desk because she wouldn’t stop moving still feels the leather belt burning in her arms.
My favorite Natalie Wood movie is Splendor in the Grass. If not a great movie, it’s at least a melodramatic romp through the angst of teenage existence. It briefly touches on sexual repression, the Great Depression, and mental illness. The title comes from the Wordsworth poem “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”. The poem is about the lost glory of youth, how what was once seen as divine is now gone, the ability to see such revelation dormant in the cement of adulthood:
What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now forever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind…
In the movie, Natalie Wood won’t have sex with Warren Beatty. When he has sex with someone else—a “fast” girl—Natalie has a nervous breakdown. Her breakdown plays out over a few scenes. Her teacher recites the above lines of the Wordsworth poem in class as the girl Warren has slept with preens with smug confidence. Natalie runs out of the classroom in tears. She goes home and takes a bath where she feels better but is then accused of “being spoiled” by her mother. She then—in pure Britney-Spears style—cuts off her hair. She stays out of school for a few weeks until the school dance where, as a flapper, she desperately throws herself at Warren who tragically asks if she has any pride. Natalie claims she has none and when he rejects her she runs all the way to the town reservoir where she tries to drown herself.
I told the kind father and the scarred woman about the abuse. They had never heard of Stancliff, had never known that it was ever anything but a day care with thirty-five kids. This pierced me. Everyone should know, I thought. Everyone should read the January 23, 1995 Los Angeles Times article. Everyone should know.
I walked away from the couple. I needed to explore on my own. It was a perfect Southern California afternoon. South Pasadena has its own air, its own light. Dusty gold bands bend and rest on the sleep-deprived buildings like discarded memories. All was silent except my adult-sized steps and breathing. I was suddenly a grown-up in this formerly child world.
Parts of the playground were now gardens. The lunch benches were gone. The big wooden numbers on the doors were still there but in a different order. The bungalows in the back were now used for storage. One of the bungalows was where I’d been swatted both times.
My last year there they built a playhouse in the back east corner of the property. I remember how at ten I was worried that the new playhouse would erase my memories of playing in that same corner when I was five, how the memories of the games of tag and the colorful temporary book shelves of the book fair would be erased. The staff paid no heed to my invisible protestations and built the playhouse just the same. I remember thinking when it was fully erect that it was far too big for that corner.
I walked over with my camera. The playhouse was still there. When I was a child it seemed the size of a real house. Now, it resembled more a gingerbread house. The ficus tree beside it had almost engulfed it. The original blue paint was chipping in streaks behind the thin branches and tiny leaves. It rested deep in the tree’s foliage like a forgotten idol, like something someone—not I—forgot. I could only think how the kind father and the scarred woman had no clue.
I’m obsessed with Natalie Wood. I’m obsessed with Stancliff. Somehow, they’re inextricably linked in my mind. In my obsession, I imagine Natalie walking around the campus, somehow being able to save me from drowning but not her self.
That word. Obsession. It conjures curves in my mind, the movement of warm air around porcelain. The two different sounds of the ‘s’, the way the second syllable lifts you and then softly drops you into the cushy ‘shin’ of the last syllable. “Ob-SEH-shin.”
I’ve silently fought for her, as I obsessively believe she would have for me, since I discovered her. I imagine holding a torch to the truth of what really happened the night she drowned. On the anniversary of her death, November 29th, I say a prayer to her, “I remember, Natalie. I remember.”
When Robert Wagner’s name appeared on the screen during the opening credits of Austin Powers: Gold Member I yelled in the movie theater, “Booooooooo!” My friends laughed.When my aunt told me she’d dated the choreographer of West Side Story, I became jealous of her virtual proximity to Natalie. When I was in college in Northern California, I let a close friend borrow my Natalie Wood biography–the one I got for Christmas in 2001 that quickly became my bible—I worried for days if I’d ever get it back. When I dated a man who lived with his grandmother on a cliff in San Pedro, I chronically ignored him so I could stare out the living room window toward Catalina, wondering where it happened, wondering if Natalie’s ghost haunted the coves and hidden beaches. When that boyfriend dumped me in the same living room for cheating on him, it was nighttime and the island was not visible from where we sat crying on his grandmother’s white couch.
I’m often asked why I told no one about the abuse. I can only answer that question vaguely, in a roundabout way.
Firstly, movies have soundtracks. Real life doesn’t. My abuse happened in relative silence. There was no drama, no narrative build. There was no sudden bang of jarring music. It happened in the course of a twenty-four-hour day. I’d had breakfast every morning I was abused. My mother made dinner for me every night. They were just regular days, regular silent days that we all occupied. You were probably at work or in school yourself. My childhood wasn’t a movie. When Natalie loses it in Splendor in the Grass it’s to a melodramatic score of jazz and sweeping strings. I was broken down to a train’s diesel roar and the hum of a window-unit air conditioner.
Secondly, at the time, I wasn’t sure that I knew what was happening wasn’t supposed to happen to children. It made perfect sense that kids were punished through shame and humiliation. It made perfect sense to be hit and ridiculed on a daily basis. It all occurred under the umbrella of “private school,” and we were told we were the lucky ones who were getting such a good education. Having been enrolled since a few months after my fourth birthday, how was I to know any better? How was I to know to ask for help when it was happening to everyone? We were told that what happened at public schools, including the relative safety invoked by things like PTAs and school boards, didn’t matter to us. We had no cafeteria, no mascot. We had no stairs, no multiple classrooms for the same grade. Stancliff was its own world, its own government.
We didn’t know to say that something was wrong because we didn’t think anything was wrong. We thought we deserved what was happening to us, what we got. And therein lies the real abuse, the lasting damage. Spending my childhood believing I should be punished has destroyed any natural sense of self-care that I ever had. Being good to myself, taking care of myself will never come easily to me. It will always be a struggle. I will always think that I’m the bad kid with the chicken-scratch handwriting and the girly mannerisms. I will always seek validity from strangers.
This constant, never-quenched search for validity is the heart of my insecurities. I’ll always crave one more “like” on Facebook, one more comment, one more hit on my website, one more “reblog.” This endless desire to be validated is proof that I am still and always will be drowning. It’s not so much that I want to be rescued, but just that I want someone to see it, to witness it. I want some someone to see me drowning. I don’t want the circumstances to forever be in question like Natalie Wood’s death. I want everyone to know exactly what happened.
I walked to the two-room building where I’d been in fifth grade, the last place I’d had class before I was moved to public school. The drooping window in the door had a metal grate over it. I looked in and could just make out a single table in the empty room. The afternoon sun came in the other side, just enough to give it a ghostly air.
The tiles were the same as when I crawled around on the floor and my teacher had told the other students to throw trash at me. I could see myself as a child still crawling up and down the rows of desks. I could see my raw fingers, the result of chewing them out of stress and fear. I could see the panic on my face and feel my stomach turn with anxiety over not having written my homework neat enough. I heard my teacher say I should wear the girls’ uniform. I heard the vice principal refer to me as Norman Bates because when I was four I once cried for my mother.
I took in a deep breath. I exhaled slowly.
Suddenly I felt the buildings tell me it was okay, that they remembered. In their imprisonment, like quiet giants, they patted me on the shoulder and whispered that they saw everything and that as long as they would stand, nothing could ever make them forget. “We remember, Philip. You are not alone.”
I stepped back from the window and took another deep breath. I turned to the kind father and the scarred woman. I waved goodbye.
“Thanks! Take it easy!” I shouted.
They waved, and I walked to the front of the school. I searched for the green button but couldn’t find it. I began to sweat. I got a text from my semi-famous friend telling me that he was done and waiting for me in the parking lot. I began to panic. I remember hearing stories of a teacher who had jumped the chain-link fence during the police investigation. Would I be able to do that if I couldn’t get out? I looked around and saw nothing. I walked back up the driveway determined not to go back and ask the kind father and the scarred woman, determined to find the button myself. I knew I could figure this out even though I was frightened and worried I was trapped. My skin began to crack with panic. Just as my stomach began to turn, I looked over at a tree by the circular driveway. Nailed to it, some wires dangling beside it, was a big green button with the word “EXIT” on it in big white letters. I walked over, punched it, and the gate slowly opened. I turned around, took one last picture, and slipped through the gate.