Monday, February 21, 2011

Highsmith / The Victim

Photography by Anja Millen


It started when plump, blonde little Catherine was four or five years old: her parents noticed that she got hurt, fell, or did something disastrous far more often than did her contemporaries. Why was Cathy’s nose so often bleeding, her knees scraped? Why did she so often wail for mamma’s sympathy? Why had she broken her arm twice before she was eight? Why indeed? Especially since Cathy was not the outdoor type. She much preferred to play indoors. For instance, she liked dressing up in her mother’s clothes, when her mother was out of the house. Cathy put on long dresses, high heels, and make-up which she applied at her mother’s dressing table. Two such efforts had, both times, caused Cathy to catch her wobbly shoes in her skirts and fall down the stairs. She had been en route to see herself in the long looking-glass in the living-room. This had been the cause of one of the arm breaks.
Now Cathy was eleven, and had long ago stopped trying on her mother’s clothes. She had her own platform boots which made her five inches taller, her own dressing table with lipsticks, pancake make-up, hair curlers, curling irons, hair rinses, artificial eyelashes, even a wig on pedestal. The wig had cost Cathy three months’ allowance, and even so her parents had chipped in twenty collars to buy it.
‘I don’t know why she wants to look like a grown-up woman aged thirty,’ said Vic, Cathy’s father. ‘She’s got plenty of time for that.’
‘Oh, it’s normal at her age,’ said her mother, Ruby, though Ruby knew it wasn’t quite normal.
Cathy complained about boys pestering her. ‘They just won’t let me alone!’ she said to her parents one evening, not for the first time. ‘Look at these bruises!’ Cathy pushed up a colourful nylon blouse to show a couple of bruises on her ribs. She tottered a little in her platform boots, topped incongruously by yellow knee length stockings, which would have been more appropriate for a scoutmaster.
‘Kee-rist!’ said Vic, who was then drying dishes. ‘Look at these, Ruby! You didn’t just fall down somewhere, did you, Cathy?’
At the sink, Ruby was not much impressed by the blue-brown bruises. She had seen compound fractures.
‘The boys just grab me and squeeze me!’ Cathy whined.
Vic almost threw the plate he was drying, but finally put it gently on top of a stack in the cupboard. ‘What do you expect, Cathy, if you wear phoney long eyelashes to school at nine in the morning? You know, Ruby, it’s her own fault.’
But Vic couldn’t make Ruby agree. Ruby kept saying it was normal at her age, or some such. Cathy would have turned him off, Vic thought, if he’d been a boy of thirteen or fourteen. But he had to admit that Cathy looked like fair game, a pushover to any stupid adolescent boy. He tried to explain this to Ruby, and get her to exert some control.
Ruby said, ‘You know, Vic darling, you’re being the over-protective father. It’s quite a common syndrome, and I don’t want to reproach you. But you must relax about Cathy or you’ll make things worse.’
Cathy had round blue eyes, and long lashes by nature. Her cupid’s bow mouth tended to turn up at the corners in a sweet and willing smile. In school, she was rather good at biology, at drawing spirogyra, the circulatory systems of frogs, and cross-sections of carrots as seen under a microscope. Miss Reynolds, her biology teacher, liked her, lent her pamphlets and quarterlies, which Cathy read and returned.
Then in summer vacation, when Cathy was almost twelve, she began hitchhiking, for no reason. The children of the neighbourhood went to a lake ten miles away, where there was swimming, fishing and canoeing.
‘Cathy, don’t hitchhike. It’s dangerous. There’s a bus twice a day, going and coming,’ said Vic.
But there she went, hitchhiking, like a lemming rushing to its fate, Vic thought. One of her boy friends called Joey, aged fifteen and with a car, could have driven her, but Cathy preferred to thumb rides from truck drivers. Thus she was raped for the first time.
Cathy made a big scene at the lake, burst into tears when she arrived in foot, and said, ‘I’ve just been raped!’
Bill Owens, the caretaker, at once asked Cathy to describe the man, and the kind of truck he’d been driving.
‘He was red-headed,’ said Cathy tearfully. ‘Maybe twenty-eight. He was big and strong.’
Bill Owens drove Cathy in his car to the nearest hospital. Cathy was photographed by journalists, and given ice creams sodas. She told her story to journalists and the doctors.
Cathy stayed home, pampered, for three days. The mysterious red-headed rapist was never found, although the doctors confirmed that she had been raped. Then Cathy went back to school, dressed to the nines, or the hilt again – platform shoes, pancake make-up, nail polish, scent, cleavage. She acquired more bruises. The telephone in her house kept ringing: the boys wanted to ask her out. Half the time Cathy sneaked out, half the time she stood the boys up with promises, causing the boys to hang around outside the house, in cars or on foot. Vic was disgusted. But what could he do?
Ruby kept saying, ‘It’s natural. Cathy’s just popular!’
Christmas holidays came, and the family went to Mexico. They had wanted to go to Europe, but Europe was too expensive. They drove to Juarez, crossed the border, and made their way to Guadalajara on their way to Mexico City. The Mexicans, men and women alike, stared at Cathy. She was obviously still a child, yet made up like a grown woman. Vic realized why the Mexicans stared, but Ruby seemed not to.
‘Creepy people, these Mexicans,’ said Ruby.
Vic sighed. It might have been during one of these sighs that Cathy was whisked away. Vic and Ruby had been walking along a narrow pavement, Cathy behind them, on the way to their hotel, and when they turned round, Cathy wasn’t there.
‘Didn’t she say she was going to buy an ice cream cone?’ asked Ruby, ready to run to the next street corner to see if there wasn’t an ice cream vendor there.
‘I didn’t hear her said that,’ said Vic. He looked frantically in all directions. There was nothing but men in business suits, a few peasants in sombreros and white trousers – mostly carrying bundles of some kind – and respectable looking Mexican women doing their shopping. Where was a policeman? For the next half hour, Vic and Ruby made their problem known to a couple of Mexican policemen who listened carefully and took down a description of their daughter Cathy. Vic even produced a photograph from his wallet.
‘Only twelve? Really?’ said one of the policemen.
Vic handed the photograph over to him and never saw it again.
Cathy returned to their hotel towards midnight. She was tired and dirty, but she made her way to the door of her parents’ room. She told her parents she had been raped. Meanwhile the manager of the hotel had rung seconds before to say:
‘Your daughter has returned! She went straight up in the elevator, didn’t speak to us!’
Cathy said to her parents, ‘He was a nice looking man, and he spoke English. He wanted me to look at a monkey he said he had in his car. I didn’t think there was anything wrong about him.’
‘A monkey?’ said Vic.
‘But there wasn’t any monkey,’ Cathy said, ‘and we drove off.’ Then she began to cry.
Vic and Ruby were dismayed at the prospect of trying to find a nice looking man who spoke English, of trying to deal with Mexican courts if they did find him. They packed up and took Cathy back to America, hoping for the best, meaning that Cathy wasn’t pregnant. She wasn’t. They took Cathy to their doctor.
‘It’s all those cosmetics she puts on,’ said the doctor. ‘They make her look older.’
Vic knew.
A real drama, however, took place the following year. Their next door neighbours had a young doctor visiting them that summer. His name was Norman. And he was a nephew of the woman of the house, Marian. Cathy told Norman she wanted to be a nurse, and Norman lent her books, and spent hours with her, talking about medicine and the nursing profession. Then one afternoon, Cathy ran into her house in tears and told her mother that Norman had been seducing her for weeks, and that he wanted her to run away with him, and had threatened to kidnap her if she didn’t.
Ruby was shocked – and yet somehow not shocked, but more embarrassed. Ruby might have chosen to confine Cathy to the house, to say nothing about the story, but Cathy has already told Marian.
Marian arrived just two minutes after Cathy. ‘I don’t know what to say! It’s dreadful! I can’t believe it of Norman, but it must be true. He’s fled the house. He packed his suitcase in a flash, but he’s left a few things behind.’
This time, Cathy did not cease her tears, but kept them flowing for days. She told stories of Norman forcing her to do things she couldn’t bring herself to describe. Word got around in the neighbourhood. Norman was not in his apartment in Chicago, Marian said, because she had tried to ring him and there was no answer. A police hunt was mounted – though who initiated it, no one knew. Vic hadn’t, nor Ruby, Marian nor her husband.
Norman was at last found holed up in a hotel hundreds of miles away. He had registered under his own name. A charge was made by police in the name of a government committee for the protection of minors. A trial began in Cathy’s town. Cathy enjoyed every minute of it. She went to court daily, whether she had to testify or not, primly dressed, without make-up or artificial eyelashes, but she could not straighten her permanented hair, whose ultra-blondeness was starting to grow out, showing darker hair at the roots. When on the stand, she pretended she could not force the awful facts from her lips, so the prosecuting lawyer had to suggest them, and Cathy murmured ‘Yesses’, which she was often asked to say louder, so the court could hear. People shook their heads, hissed Norman, and by the end of the trial were in a mood to lynch him. All Norman and his lawyer were able do to was deny the charges, because there had been no witnesses. Norman was sentenced to six years for molesting, and plotting to abduct across a state border, a minor.
For a while Cathy enjoyed the role of martyr. But she couldn’t keep it up more than a few weeks, because it wasn’t gay enough. Her legion of boy friends retreated a little distance, though they still asked her out. As time went on, when Cathy complained about rape, her parents paid no much attention. After all, Cathy had been on The Pill for years now.
Cathy’s plans had changed, and she no longer wanted to become a nurse. She was going to be an air hostess. She was sixteen, but could easily pass for twenty or more, if she chose, so she told the airline she was eighteen, and went through their six-week training course in how to turn on the charm, serve drinks and meals graciously to all, soothe the nervous, administer first aid, and carry out emergency exit procedures if necessary. Cathy was a natural at all this. Flying to Rome, Beirut, Teheran, Paris, and having dates all along the way with fascinating men was just her cup of tea. Frequently the air hostesses were supposed to stay overnight in foreign cities, where their hotels were paid for. So life was a breeze. Cathy had money galore, and a collection of the weirdest presents, especially from gentlemen of the Middle East, such as a gold toothbrush and a portable narghile (also of gold) suitable for smoking pot. She had suffered a broken nose, thanks to the insane chauffeur of an Italian millionaire of the cliff-hanging road between Positano and Amalfi. But the nose had been set well, and did not mar her prettiness in the least. To her credit, Cathy sent money regularly to her parents, and she herself had a skyrocketing account in a New York savings bank.
Then the cheques to her parents abruptly stopped. The airlines got in touch with Vic and Ruby. Where was Cathy? Vic and Ruby had no idea. She might be anywhere in the world – the Philippines, Hong Kong, even Australia for all they knew. Would the airline please inform them, her parents asked, as soon as they learned anything?
The trail went to Tangiers and ended. Cathy had told another stewardess, it seemed, that she had a big date in Tangiers with a man who was going to pick her up at the airport. Cathy evidently kept that date, and was never heard of again.

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