This is about my cousin named Debbie. She died in 2002. I think she was maybe 48 or 49 years old.
I always think about her, but there's no way to talk about her because nobody really wants to know. I don't really want to remember most of the time, but I feel obligated because she had a force in my life way beyond what it should have been. I'm sort of grateful. You have to have a deep-seated tragic mystery in your life, I guess, even if it isn't that mysterious at all, just white-trash tragic with a gloss of Tennessee-Williams grandeur.
Debbie was beautifully tragic and trashy, always feeling things way too deeply and running away from home, but still somehow glamorous enough to warrant the upset and the bother. Her life had a terrible arc to it. She was never going to get out of what she was in. She had wild blond Stevie-Nicks hair, and pouty lips, a moon-shaped face, and was always dressed in lacy tops and cutoffs and sandals. She had this room in the old house where she lived in Tennessee that was painted tangerine, a big mirror with liptsick notes she wrote to herself all over it. Perfume smells and the taint of cigarette smoke blown out the window. Skinny but voluptuous, all 1975 teen-aged runaway, and on the tangerine walls were Scotch-taped big rock-n-roll posters and albums covers of the era.
Houses of the Holy seems to be the most significant. Little blond girls climbing up a craggy mystical mountain.
Her dad, my uncle, was the source of most of the tragic and trashiness. He molested his two sons, her younger brothers, for most of their formative years. Debbie was a witness to all this, and yet she was always the one who got ostracized for being "trouble." It's all blurry now, and nobody wants to remember the shit that happened, but I'm stuck because I have the need to write stuff down. When I was a kid we would visit and just get sad little glimpses into the ongoing tragedy during Christmases and summers. She was trying to kill herself a lot of the time, running away and taking drugs, mouthing off to her mom, who was ignoring the ongoing pedophilia situation like all of the other adults, until finally, in the early 80s, my uncle had a big breakdown, confessed, tried to apologize, and went into the psyche unit for a while.
By that time his perversion had caused all kinds of ripples, but mainly you could just feel it in the way Debbie had aged from being a loud-mouthed, doped-up slutty teen-aged beauty in the 70s into a bleary-eyed, slightly overweight out-of-work secretary at the age of 26 or so in 1982. She got married to a Vietnam veteran in 1985; I went to the wedding with my mom and sister, as we had moved down to Tennessee by this time. My mom and dad were getting a divorce. My dad had fooled around on my mom, and my mom lost it completely because, maybe a little like Debbie, her happiness had depended all on one person, and when that one person does something you can't forgive your whole life loses its meaning and feeling, and you're back at square one, except this time you've already lived through a lot of life and you know what is in store for you. So you kind of give up. You just move into the next phase with a blank face and then sometimes a really horrible scream gets out.
In 1985, Debbie's dad, the recovered perv who was still married to Debbie's mom, gave her away. By that time he was forgiven (except by one of his sons, who separated himself from the whole thing and never looked back). Debbie sported a spray-on fake tan which made her bloated face look almost Al-Jolson comic. She was getting fat then from drinking too much, and taking too many painkillers. Her Vietnam vet husband had bangs like an early Beatles, and he was always trying to soothe Debbie with jokes, but you could tell he was just as damaged as she was -- he just felt the need to keep it together more until he closed the front door. They would get divorced a year or so later.
Debbie's dad, though, by 1985, was more bloated and miserable than Debbie. He had his signature pompadour-styled head of hair and horn-rimmed glasses, a big round gut, and a raspy, sweet laugh that made you want to reimagine him as someone else, someone who didn't do what he did at all. It was just rumors and meanness, you would say to yourself when you heard that laugh, and then you'd snap back into reality and realize that's why he was still around: because people didn't know how to wake up from his laugh.
It was a little country Baptist church. He walked her down that aisle and she looked so tragic and absurd I remember I wanted to turn away, but I was in a pretty fucked-up situation myself. My mom and my sister and I were living in hillbilly section-8 housing, on food stamps, and I was just starting a job as a dishwasher at Bonanza Steakhouse. I was just about to be taken into this hillbilly fold here, the patriarch of it being a child molester, and the Queen all black-faced and soggy-eyed in a peach-colored gown some lady had made for her with a veil and everything.
Debbie was a rock-n-roll goddess back when I was 10 years old. Summers in that tangerine dream of a bedroom. Rock music and album covers and cigarettes and makeup. She used to dress me and my cousin (her little brother) up in girl clothes and we'd act like we hated it, but I don't know. It was just a way of pleasing her, I think. She was like the only artist I had ever known, glamorous and stoned and excited about everything. She was like a Special Guest Star on the drab TV show that was my life, and even that day in 1985 when she was getting married to the Vietnam vet with her pervert Dad giving her away I could still see that girl in my head.
* * *
In 2001, I went to see my mom and her husband for Christmas. They were living in a trailer near the mountains. By this time I had escaped all of it and was working a social-work job trying to help people with developmental disabilities, and also trying to write short stories and novels. The hit song of Christmas 2001, right after the 911 horror, was Enrique Iglesias' "I Can Be Your Hero."
When I got to my mom's trailer, Debbie was already there with her third husband, a sadsack one-time professional bowler who worked in demolition. He was skinny and short and apologetic, and beside Debbie he resembled a dwarf. Debbie was obese now, so flabby it looked like a bad fat suit in a Farelly Brothers movie. Her doll face was trapped inside her body, and she was out of her mind on drugs of some type. I remember thinking upon seeing Debbie in the trailer living room that she was like one of the people I was trying to get help for at my job, but now I had no way to detach myself from the whole sad situation because I was related to her. That connection can kill you when you are in the middle of something like this.
Plus, and here's the punchline finally: Debbie was talking in a horrible fake accent. Kind of Spanish, I guess, kind of Latvian for all I know, white-trash-European? It was such an overblown affectation it took over the room, like a large bird had gotten in. When she first recognized me Debbie let out a sweet scream and then talked in that voice a mile a minute, shit I just could not understand. But my mom and her husband (a morbidly obese sweet guy she met at the VFW who collected KISS memorabilia and had devoted a whole room to it here in the trailer) and Debbie's husband just went along with it, as if being held hostage. Nervous smiles and nods.
I guess I could try to emulate the language she used but I don't think I have it in me.
We talked some more, and then Debbie turned on my mom's stereo, and that's when "I Can Be Your Hero" enters the picture. Debbie turned it up really loud, but then turned it down. She stood in the middle of the room and closed her eyes, and then she started to sing that song in that foreign language her drugs and her life and her sadness had allowed her to make up. She belted that fucking song out. It was like she was singing the National Anthem at the Superbowl. And we were all, I think, captured in that moment by what had been done to her by her family, and by everyone, and by herself. She was victim, and no one wants to know about that story, but that's what she was, and that song somehow made it all feel right:
Let me be your hero,
Would you dance,
if I asked you to dance?
Would you run,
and never look back?
Would you cry,
if you saw me crying?
And would you save my soul, tonight?
Would you tremble,
if I touched your lips?
Would you laugh?
Oh please tell me this.
Now would you die,
for the one you love?
Hold me in your arms, tonight.
She died a couple months later, in her sleep.