Zoë Bagger nee Levy was born in 1975, She is a Synanon Kid all grown up. She lives in the San Diego area with her husband and her son Oliver Leon Bagger.
“Discouragement is temporary, obstacles are overcome, and doubt is defeated, yielding to personal victory. You need to overcome the tug of people against you as you reach for high goals. Accept the challenges, so that you may feel the exhilaration of victory.”George S. Patton
I am sitting in a chair, the kind with the square steel frame that is sharp-edged and perpetually cold to the touch, very fitting, considering the circumstances. The thin pad that serves as my seat is wrapped tightly in a colorful stretch of Naugahyde as is the flimsy pad at my back and the two raised steel strips, lightly padded as well, on either side of me that serve as armrests, and might have worked in that capacity if my arms were 1” in diameter. As it is, I am constantly having to adjust to find a comfortable position on the unforgiving armrests. I shift from side to side vainly hoping the movement will allow blood flow to the affected area and that I will regain sensation in my butt which has fallen asleep, despite my efforts though, my butt seems content to remain in its Rip Van Winkle-like slumber.
There are four other kids in the room, all of us combined barely making 50 years of life, we are scattered haphazardly around a long rectangular folding table, the kind you see at picnics, or in High School gymnasiums, the table seeming oddly out of place in this environment “this is no picnic.” I say to myself and then chuckle inwardly at the corny thought The other four kids in the room are shifting similarly in their steel-framed seats, their chairs, same as mine, providing no comfort to them either, though no one makes a move to stand up.
I am stoic, my back rigid against the seat and my hands are clutching the front of the armrests, my fingers curled and idly moving over the puckered fabric at the seam, my face is set in a defiant mask. Rahshan and Sevanne have pulled their chairs close to the table, and therefore closer to me, they are resting their arms on the table and leaning in, so they can glare at me from a more suitable position at the opposite end of the table, Betty is on my left, she has been steadfastly noncommittal throughout this ordeal, and she leans back in her chair, her eyes declaring that she is present only in body, and not in mind. On my right, Alia has given up the pretense of interest and rests her head on her left arm which she has curled on the top of the table, her other arm dangling limply between her knees. Rahshan raises his hands, with his elbows on the table, steepling his fingers together against his chin he makes another effort:
“Zoë, we know it was you, why don’t you just admit it?”
Sevanne agrees and says that I should reconsider my position. Sevanne reminds me of an adult, her practical tone, her pursed lips, and unblinking blue eyes accord her a condescending air that grates down my spine, putting my nerves on edge. Betty and Alia remain silent and disinterested.
“I didn’t do it,” I state mulishly again, this whole conversation taking on the worn-down feel of an overplayed broken record.
For once I am telling the truth, which is why I am so adamant.. no, that’s not true.. I am adamant because all of the evidence points to me, but it wasn’t me.. something about the hopelessness of the situation causes me to be more stubborn than usual. We have been at it for hours now, ever since I spotted the giant rip down the back of the armchair I was standing behind and stupidly announced its presence while holding an open knife in my hand.
The moment the words had left my mouth, “Hey, there is a giant rip in the back of this chair.” I knew I had fucked up… I was angry, it was not like me to invite trouble this way, and I am angry with myself for the position I am in, which only adds to my conviction to ESCAPE blame.
The demonstrators were immediately notified, the other kids knowing that punishment would be swift as it is obvious, to them anyway, that I have caused the rip. They were not counting on my denial, otherwise, we would have pretended that we had never seen the rip “We don‘t know how it got there.” the words would have been ready on our lips without even having to think about it, all of us having our hurt/innocent looks down pat, and we would have waited it out until a demonstrator to accidentally found it and asked how the rip had gotten there.
I am denying it though, and I know the other kids are confused and irritated, I know they are thinking that it has to be me, and they cannot understand why am I denying it? It doesn’t make sense, I had taken the blame for far worse things, some of which I did not even do! This is troubling because they know that the demonstrators will not punish me without an admission of guilt, something they are prepared to wait us out to get.
The burden of punishing us falls on Sid Frank, who after asking for the 3rd time, if I will admit to the rip, and my 3rd fervent denial, tells us that we will have to sit at this table until SOMEONE admits to ripping the chair, he will be back at 6:00 p.m. but hopes that we will come and find him sooner.
There is a bible on the table (who knows how it got there, that sort of religion being neither taught nor encouraged ) never the less we had each taken turns putting our hand on it and swearing that we had not ripped the chair. A childish effort, that did not ferret out the guilty person, as we all knew it would not, since none of us felt any obligation or commitment to God. What we do know, is that someone in the room must have done it, there are only the 5 of us living in this building… It just so happens, though, that person is not me. The gathered kids have never seen me this adamant before, they are used to me accepting blame for things, and I can tell that, although Alia and Betty, believe me, they still want me to say I did it.
“Look Zoë, why don’t you just say that you did it, we have been here for 5 hours.” Alia finally voices what I know she had been thinking, sitting up and resuming interest again in the events at the table.
“I didn’t do it,” I state even more mulishly.
“Zoë,” Sevanne begins in her best demonstrator tone, though she is only 3 months older than me, “you were standing behind the chair, you had a knife in your hand, couldn’t you have accidentally ripped the chair,” she says this very reasonably, which only irritates me more.
“I did not rip the fucking chair.” I state each word slowly tasting the conviction of each word as it leaves my mouth, “and I will never admit to it.” I finish quickly.
A sigh of frustration ripples through the room like water over the hot rocks in the sauna, hissing and steaming. Sid Frank had instructed us to resolve this among ourselves before 6:00 p.m. and it is already 5:30 p.m. The others know that we will ALL get in trouble if they are unable to get an admission out of me.
Sevanne starts one more time, this time using her no-nonsense tone, “Zoë, we all know it was you, don’t we?” she keeps her eyes on me knowing, without looking, that there are affirmative nods around the room after her last question. “Just admit it was you, and we won’t be mad at you.”
Mad at me? I am wryly amused by that, which tempers my fury at being asked to admit to something that I didn’t do, by a person whose ass I had saved from the paddle on more than one occasion by taking the blame in her stead.
I look directly into her eyes so that she knows I am serious, “Sevanne, I did not rip the chair, I don’t care if I was holding the knife and I don’t care what you think. I will not admit to it, because I didn’t DO IT!” I finish angrily.
“So what if you didn’t do it?” Alia shoots back, “just say that you did.. I swear Zoë.. if we all get in trouble for this I’m gonna kick your ass.” she states baldly.
I know that she is serious which only pisses me off. “You think I give a shit, I’m not afraid of you, you fat cow!” This is my favorite insult, a guaranteed fight, it hits home, Alia stands up as if to expedite her threat and I stand up too, I am biting my lower lip, something I do, which Alia has come to realize over the years, means that I am ready for a brawl. She can certainly kick my ass, she has done so before, but never without a major fight and I can see that she is not in the mood for that right now, not with the threat of a demonstrator showing up at any minute.
“Come on you guys.” Rahshan asserts soothingly, “this is not the time to fight.” Rahshan has a calming influence on us and we both sit down. “I have an idea.” all eyes snap around to look at Betty, she has decided that I will not admit to anything but wants to find a resolution that does not include the whole group getting in trouble, especially herself.
“We can say that I did it?” we are all shocked, this is not normal behavior, Betty generally opting to save her own ass rather than mine, or anyone else’s for that matter “We can say that I was sleepwalking!” She states brightly.
SLEEPWALKING?!?! the word sets us off, “What do you mean?“ Alia asks suspiciously, though with renewed vigor. Betty, apparently taking the blame, has us all on edge. “Well, I do sleepwalk, at least I have before.“ She looks at me as she says this last bit and I know we are both remembering the same thing.
The incident happened years earlier when we were both 5 years old, we were living in a giant dorm with about 40 other kids, at night it got pitch dark and the bathroom was outside. Betty had walked over to my bed, stumbling through the darkness, and had crawled under the covers and peed in MY bed with ME in it, before getting up and heading back to her bed. The event had woken me up, but Betty had blithely ignored my question of “what are you doing?” her eyes were closed and, though I was suspicious, I chalked it up to sleep-walking, besides I was tired and pee in my bed was nothing new to me, as I was a chronic bed-wetter. I had been suspicious back then, knowing that my fear of walking alone to the bathroom, had precipitated more than one intentional bed-wetting. I am even more suspicious now, but I see the truth in her words.
That sleepwalking story had been told and retold, all of our moms had passed it around amusedly, such that it had acquired a status far greater than the reality deserved… Betty had earned the title of ‘sleep walker‘, she had even followed it up once by accidentally falling 6 feet out of a top bunk, hitting her head on an end table on the way down, and waking up on the floor the next day, none-the-wiser of how she had ended up there.
I realize Betty is right, THIS idea has merit! I am infused with energy and avidly start to construct a story around the raw material Betty has given us. “Yeah.” I say, “you were SLEEPWALKING and you had to go to the bathroom..” I am warming up and the others are watching me eagerly. I notice that the demonstrator’s desk is just outside Betty’s bedroom door and I see that there is a pair of scissors resting in a cup near the edge of the desk. “..and you grab the scissors..” I leap up and grab the scissors and start reenacting the imaginary events,”.. and then you TRIP..” I move the damaged chair into a position I think would be right for the angle and distance, ..“and when you fall, you accidentally rip the back of the chair with the scissors.” I move my body and arm to measure the correct distance between the edge of the desk and the location where Betty would have fallen with her arm out and scissors in hand. The excitement in the room is at a fevered pitch.. this just might work, we are all thinking. “You go to the bathroom and then go back to bed.” I finish enthusiastically.
There is a general murmur of approval. “How do the scissors get back into the cup?” Sevanne asks the voice of reason again. “She picks them up on the way back from the bathroom and puts them back in the cup,” Rahshan replies confidently, we all nod our heads at his sensible solution.
Sevanne is not so sure, and she looks at me then, I can tell she is worried, her cold blue eyes melting into pools of fear and hurt. I know that she feels that I have betrayed our unspoken pact, I take the blame and she hides me away from the world while I bear out whatever punishment has been assigned to me, mostly signs announcing whatever crime it is that I have committed, and inviting the reader to ask me why I would commit such a crime.
Sevanne would tell me to “Wait here.” in her terse little voice, while she foraged into the kitchen to bring me back whatever meal was being served at the time, so that I do not have to be irritated by whatever wandering adult walks up and feels the urge to ask, “Well Zoë, why did you…lie…steal..play with matches.”
I knew that wearing a sign would break Sevanne, she is too sensitive, she would take the condescending looks and preached out reprimands to heart, where they would course through her nervous system like weighted lead before crushing her soul. I have always protected Sevanne, even once lying so convincingly on her behalf that I made Alice Rost doubt her own eyes.
Sevanne is afraid that I will not protect her this time, but I know that I will. We all know that If we can pull this off NOBODY will get in trouble, a prospect that has us all feeling like convicts planning for a prison break, where our freedom will be guaranteed at the other end. Nervous excitement skitters around the room and off the walls, our bodies are pressed against the edge of the table, or heads bent as we recite and refine our story in the brief time remaining to us, it is 5:55 p.m.
This is how Sid finds us and I know that he thinks our bent heads and earnest conversation mean that we have established the culprit, he looks once at me before turning his eyes onto his daughter, “Betty. : Have you figured out who ripped the chair?” he asks. There is a final jolt of nervous energy that courses through the room, and I know that if I don’t speak up now, the other four might turn on me I leap into our story with enthusiasm…
“SLEEPWALKING” I declare! was the culprit and poor Betty, it’s unwilling accomplice, I finish. We are all staring at Sid, the story finished, but still lingering in the air like a disaffected ghost.
I can tell that Sid is doubting what he has heard, he blinks once or twice, and there is a question in his voice when he says, “Sleepwalking?” as if trying to assure himself that he heard me correctly “YES! sleepwalking.” I repeat, trembling with nervous excitement.
There is a pause while Sid scratches his bearded chin, he is thinking about it, and each one of us holding our collective breath. He runs his amused eyes over our eager faces before finally clapping his hands together signifying that he has come to a decision.
“Okay,“ he says casually “sounds good, now get dressed for dinner,” before turning around and walking out of the room.
There is a moment of silence and disbelief before we heave mutual sighs of relief, I am back on top again, I have accomplished the unimaginable, at least that is what is going through the minds of the kids, now standing, around the table. They feel like I have gotten away with it, and Alia smiles over at me with renewed respect before saying, “Zoë, seriously, it was you wasn’t it?” I look back mirroring her grin, which causes the rest of the room to grin, before simply stating, “Nope.” The grins don’t fade, my continued denial a silly punch line now that the danger is over.
Six Years have passed, I am 15 years old and trying to cope with my family’s post-Synanon move ’down the hill’ to Visalia where we are starting life over again, they for a second time, me for the first. We have moved to a cul-de-sac in Visalia where many other escapees from ‘the hill’ have moved, congregating like refugees.
Rahsaan’s family lives a few houses over from me. We mostly hang out over at his house so he can watch sports and feed his pet garden snake which sounds like the ’fill’ cycle on the washing machine when it hisses, which it does every time someone enters the room.
It is Sunday and we are on the couch in his living room watching football, both of us feeling safe in each other’s company, a throwback to all of the years we lived together and depended on each other as kids. Rahshan casually asks, “Do you remember that time when you found the rip in the back of that chair, and we all tried to get you to say that you did it.” I freeze, do I REMEMBER?!?!?! do I fucking REMEMBER?!?!?!? “Is he kidding me,?“ I think to myself.
“Yeah,” I state mildly, concealing the rush of emotions that surged up at the reminder “I remember that.” I give a wry snort before continuing, “I told everyone the rip was there while I had a knife in my hand.. what an idiot.” I finish.
Rahshan chuckles at this reminder, obviously recalling the scene. “I did that, you know?” he says calmly, his eyes never leaving the television set.
I am surprised that this statement generates so much emotion in me after so many years. “Remember when we all swore on that bible? I had my fingers crossed begin my back,” the humor in his voice acknowledging how childish our swearing on the bible was.
Rahshan continues casually, there was already a small hole in the back of that chair,” he explains “and I put my finger in it and just ripped it… I don’t know why I did that.” he finishes, partly amused and partly confused by his admission.
I become momentarily thoughtful, irritated yet elated… Then I am overcome with relief, I am vindicated. I hadn’t realized until that moment, that I had been holding on to that.. NOBODY believed me at the time, not my dad not Sevanne, not the demonstrators, not anybody… Not anybody, but Rahshan… Rahshan knew it wasn’t me.
I felt so proud, joyous even, that he knew, had born witness to my adamant refusal to proclaim my guilt for something I hadn’t done. How I did not bend under overwhelming pressure and doubt. I held firm when all other forces around me were battering my defenses and Rahshan knew that I was that strong. I didn’t give up, and for one glorious moment, I felt that right had prevailed in the end, as it so rarely does in life.
An odd moment, but one I will remember forever.