This Is A Secret – Marlee’s Story

This Is A Secret – Marlee’s Story

Disclaimer: This story, although not graphic in nature, has sensitive subject matter regarding sexual assault. I believe it’s an important subject to discuss, but I understand this story isn’t for everyone. Please don’t proceed if you’re triggered by such subjects.

– Ashley

I was nineteen and in the midst of a crisis of my own when I heard the story of Marlee: long, sleepless nights, hands clenched over my chest, staring into the black void of my bedroom, an endless stream of thoughts – guilt, doubt, anger, blame – clicking through my brain, ticking in time with the clock until the light of dawn finally pierced the darkness.

What happened to me was a long time ago, but I still think about it. I also still think about Marlee and the six decades stretching between us, common threads binding so many millions of women, capable of blanketing us in the warmth of unity yet persisting as cloaks of shame and secrecy.

I refute that silence. I refute it for myself, and Marlee, and for the millions upon millions of women staring into darkness on sleepless nights, often listening to the soft snores of someone beside them – someone who loves them, blissfully oblivious to the piercing, tormenting barbs of unspoken secrets.

I was one of the lucky ones. Marlee was not. Here is her story…

In 1956, Marlee Archer was sixteen years old. She was a popular girl, a strong student, wholesome and grounded, with no concept of how beautiful she actually was. She was raised in a suburb outside of the city of Seattle, where everyone knew each other, and her parents, Margaret and Bill, were upstanding members of the thriving little community.

I imagined it like everyone my age, who lives through past decades only in pictures, stories, and movies – a small town with Mom and Pop shops, drive-in movie theaters, a single drag for cruising; a place where everyone knew each other and called each other by name at the country and hardware stores. I envisioned naïve, vivacious girls in pencil or poodle skirts, with bobby socks and shiny saddle shoes, and strapping young men in letterman sweaters.

Despite its quaint charms, the the bustling town had a predictable malicious side: gossip spread like an uncontainable fire, rapid and destructive, ruining reputations and leaving victims in lonely isolation. ‘Dirty’ secrets within family households were to remain firmly shut behind closed doors.

Bill and Margaret Archer raised their two daughters, Marlee and her younger sister Sue, in a strict manner. They attended church regularly and insisted on nightly family dinners. Grades were expected to be held high, and the slow trickle of privileges only accompanied good behavior.

Marlee, who had already garnered much admiration from boys, waited impatiently for one special privilege: a real date.

At school, she listened to friends’ stories as an outsider – whispers of romantic evenings and stolen kisses, giggles erupting behind cupped hands. She watched their wide-eyed, dreamy expressions and mischievous, knowing smiles with the sharp sting of envy.

It was when the bitter cold of winter descended in December – frost tipped the grass and couples snuggled closer together, wrapped in the warmth of each others arms – that Marlee finally gathered the courage to make her wish known.

One night after dinner, she joined her father in the living room, glowing with the cheery lights of the Christmas tree and crackling fire. She tucked one leg under a knee and sat, steeling her shaky nerves.

“Oh, daddy?” Marlee sang sweetly.

Bill looked up from his paper, wisps of smoke twirling from his pipe. He cocked an eyebrow. “Uh oh. I know that tone,” he groaned. “What is it young lady?”

“Yes, well… there is something I’d like to ask,” Marlee began, ignoring the frown creasing Bill’s ruddy face. “I was thinking it’s about time for me to start dating.”

Bill sat silent, paper discarded to the side table. He puffed at his pipe, frowned, puffed again. Marlee bit her lip and waited. The seconds ticked by in tortuous slow motion.

“Dad?” she tried again, after what felt like an eternity.

Bill sighed deeply. “I don’t like it – “

“But, daddy, I’ve kept my grades up,” Marlee interrupted, “I’m participating in clubs. I do all the chores you and mom ask of me… and besides, all of the girls my age have started dating.”

“You aren’t all other girls, Marlee. Your mother and I decided – “

“Daddy, please,” Marlee begged.

“Stop interrupting, Marlee,” Bill said sternly. “I wasn’t finished.”

Marlee winced. “Sorry.”

“Your mother and I decided that as long as your grades were up, we would let you start dating on your seventeenth birthday.” Bill paused and glanced at his daughter, expression softening. “But being that your birthday is only two months away and your grades have been held high, I suppose we can allow it a bit early.”

“Oh, daddy, thank you, thank you, thank you!” Marlee squealed. She bounced off the couch and wrapped her arms around his neck.

“Hold on there, young lady,” Bill said, gently pushing her back to meet his eyes. “There are rules. Any potential suitor must come to the house to meet your mom and me in person before the date. If we don’t approve, no date. You must be home by 11:00 pm sharp. Absolutely no dates on the weekdays, and if your grades slip even the smallest amount, I mean one iota, privileges are revoked. Those are the terms. No exceptions.”

“Of course, daddy,” Marlee responded with glee. “Thank you so much.” She laid a big kiss on his cheek, stubble prickling her lips, and he waved her away.

Finally. A date with Robert.

Robert, a senior, popular and athletic, had already asked Marlee on at least a dozen dates. He’d taken each refusal in stride, seemingly more committed to hearing a yes each time, and Marlee knew it wouldn’t be long until he asked again. She was convinced a fine young man like Robert, who was obviously very keen on her, wouldn’t have any problem meeting her parents.

She was finally going to have a small, gratifying piece of freedom.

After weeks of Marlee dressing her best, coy smiles in the hallway, and much flirtatious eye-batting, her efforts finally paid off. A playful tug on her sleeve after her last class sent her twirling, and there he stood, towering above her, smelling of cologne and leather. Marlee’s stomach dropped to her knees.

“Robert!” she exclaimed. “What a pleasant surprise.”

He flashed her an earnest grin, brown eyes twinkling. “May I walk you out?”

“Of course,” she answered.

They walked slowly down the corridor, side by side, chatting about their classes and plans for the weekend. Her words flowed quickly and loudly, euphoria bubbling over.

Robert opened the door and they stepped into the crisp January air. As they stood at the bottom of the steps, students piled past them in droves, hurrying off the school grounds. An awkward silence stretched out between them. Robert absently scuffed the concrete with the sole of his right shoe.

Marlee’s heart sank. Perhaps he wouldn’t ask her out again, after all.

“Yes, well… wonderful chatting with you, Marlee,” Robert said. “I’ll see you on Monday?”

“You too, Robert. See you Monday.” Her fake smile felt plastered, pained.

As she turned to go, Robert gently rested a hand on her shoulder. It was warm, insistent. “Wait.”

She faced him, heart drumming wildly against her chest.

He smiled, almost shyly. “I know I’ve asked what seems like dozens of times, but they say persistence pays, don’t they?”

“I’ve heard the saying,” she teased.

“So, Marlee Archer, are you ready to go out with me?”

“I am,” she answered, and felt like the luckiest girl in the world.

It was agreed that Robert would meet her folks on Saturday afternoon for the following week’s date, because ‘a good man plans ahead’, Bill declared, and ‘a proper young lady should never be too eager’, Margaret chimed in. Also, Sunday was church and family day, and no upstanding young man would disturb that, nor a week night. Marlee worried ‘the rules’, which had escalated as the impending date became a reality, might deter Robert, but he assured her the efforts were worth it.

On Saturday afternoon, Marlee paced the house while her father sat, stoic and silent, in the living room. Margaret bustled around the kitchen, mumbling to herself. Sue emerged from her bedroom only to observe the terse scene, laugh uproariously, and retreat again.

Margaret popped her head out of the kitchen, hair dusted with flour, with a tea kettle. “What about tea and partries?”

Bill scowled. “This isn’t tea time or brunch, Margaret. I’m not going out of my way to make this boy comfortable.”

Robert arrived on time, hair freshly cut and clothes crisp. There were no snacks or refreshments, no idle chatter.

He handled himself splendidly, with handshakes, ‘no sirs’, and ‘yes sirs’. He agreed to pick Marlee up at 6:00 and, of course, he said, Marlee would be home by 11:00 sharp. He only winked at Marlee and gave her a sly grin once he was on his way out the door, away from the prying eyes of her parents.

“Seems like a good man, a good boy,” Bill mumbled as he dropped into his recliner and lit up a pipe.

Margaret nodded. “Yes, a very nice young man. His parents, Chuck and Darlene, are very well to do, you know. Respected in town.”

“Chuck and Darlene? How did I not know Robert was their son? You didn’t mention that before, dear.”

“Yes, well, I suggested tea and pastries, didn’t I?”

“Hmph,” Bill grumbled.

Marlee paid them no heed. She floated on a cloud.

The week crept by. Marlee fantasized for hours before falling asleep each night. Would he hold her hand? Was there a dance in their future? A relationship? Would he want to kiss her? And, if he did, would she let him? She thought maybe, just maybe, she would.

Robert sought her out during lunch breaks and between classes. She memorized his dimples and gazed into his soft brown eyes. In those stolen moments, they talked of their possible futures and what might happen when Robert went off to college. Marlee noticed the envious looks the girls cast in her direction. Her friends squealed with delight. Robert, they cried, you’re so lucky.

And she knew she was.

On Friday morning, Marlee bounced out of bed. She dressed for school with care, having spent the entire week trying on different outfits for both Friday and Saturday. She stared at the clock all day, counting down the minutes. Once the final bell rang, Robert met her outside of class and walked her down the corridor.

“I’m really looking forward to tomorrow, Marlee.”

She looked up at him giddily, butterflies whirling in her stomach. “Me, too.”

“I’ll be round to collect you at 6:00.”

“See you then,” she said, and resisted the urge to skip away.

On Saturday afternoon she chose a sleek, sophisticated style for her long brown hair, applied a touch more make-up than usual, dressed in a curve hugging pencil skirt and tucked-in blouse to accent her small waist. She waited for 6:00, incessantly retouching her make-up and fretting over her choice of outfit. Her sister Sue, also excited, burst into her bedroom.

“I can’t believe you’re going on a real date,” she marveled. “I never thought mommy and daddy would agree.”

“Leave me alone, Sue,” Marlee hissed. “You’ll get your turn soon enough.”

“I just wanted to see what you’re wearing,” Sue whined. “He’s very handsome. Do you think he’ll kiss you?”

“Even if he did, I wouldn’t tell you,” Marlee said indignantly. “Anyway, you’re much too young to be thinking about dates and boys. Stick to your school work.”

Sue crossed her arms. “I’m not a baby. I know how things work.”

“You don’t,” Marlee huffed. “Now leave.”

Shoulders hunched, Sue skulked away.

When the knock came at the door, Marlee jumped. She listened through the door to the murmurs down the hallway.

“Marlee,” Margaret finally called, “Robert is here.”

She took a huge, calming breath and joined the trio in the entryway. She drifted toward Robert, handsome as ever in his letterman’s jacket and slacks, as though in a dream.

“Wow, Marlee. You look great. I really like what you’ve done to your hair.”

Bill rolled his eyes and repeated his usual grumble. “Hmph. Remember – 11:00 sharp. No funny business.”

“Yes, sir. Of course.”

“Marlee, where is your coat? It’s January. You’ll catch your death,” Margaret chided.

Marlee giggled. She doubted she’d be the least bit cold. “Sorry, mom. Let me just grab it from the closet.” She hastily rummaged through the closet, settling on a bright red princess style coat with a belted waist.

“Here, let me help you with that,” Robert offered, smoothly taking the coat from Marlee’s hands and holding it up.

“I wish all parents taught their children such manners,” Margaret sighed.

“Common sense, more like it,” Bill scoffed.

“Yes, well, we’re on our way now,” Marlee sang, swooping up Robert’s arm and ushering him through the door.

“11:00,” came Bill’s muffled shout as the door slammed behind them.

Laughing, the pair scurried to Robert’s Chevy and he helped her inside. Despite the crisp, biting January evening, Marlee only felt the warmth of Robert’s hands through the thick fabric of her coat. The night was already shaping up to be the best of her life.

The Chevy fired up with a roar. “I thought we’d head to dinner first,” he announced.

“Sounds great,” Marlee agreed. She decided against asking his plans for the evening. It was her first date, the first time a boy had picked her up. She wanted it to be a surprise.

There weren’t many choices in town for dinner; nevertheless, Marlee was slightly disappointed when she realized Robert had chosen the Rock n’ Roll Diner. She had envisioned a quiet and intimate evening, and the diner was the opposite: a well known hang out for students.

She didn’t want to share Robert with his friends, fellow football players, or jealous girls. She wanted him all to herself.

Sure enough, the diner was a buzz – a typical Saturday night. The tables were packed with familiar faces, mostly juniors and seniors. The air was thick with the smell of grease and perfume, electric with young, wild hormones and unfulfilled weekend opportunities. Voices rang out, a mixture of high pitched squeals and baritone chatter, everyone shouting over one another.

As they entered, eyes swung in their direction and Marlee hesitated, but Robert took hold of her hand and marched toward the back. He stopped at a table with two sophomore boys, one of whom Marlee had attended school with since the second grade.

“Scram, guys. I need this table,” Robert shouted.

Bewildered, the boys looked up. Marlee’s flush spread from her cheeks to her throat and blossomed, emanating heat beneath her coat.

Robert’s damp hand tightened on hers. “You heard me Out. Now.”

His voice was harsh, cruel – a tone Marlee had never heard from him. She cringed as the boys slid out of the booth with a shrug, Cokes in hand, and squeezed into a table behind them.

Robert gestured to the booth. “That’s better. Slide on in.”

Marlee bit her lip, disconcerted. Robert wasn’t a mean boy. He couldn’t be… could he?

As though reading her mind, Robert grinned. “My girl needs a table, doesn’t she?”

Melting, either at his charm or the sweltering heat of the diner, Marlee quickly shrugged out of her coat and sat in the booth opposing him. She tested a small smile. When he smiled back, dimples crinkling his handsome face, she relaxed and settled into the vinyl. He was a nice boy. She knew he was.

Robert ordered two hamburgers and two chocolate shakes. Although Marlee preferred strawberry, she didn’t protest. A few boys, mostly athletes, stopped to say hello and Robert quickly ended the conversations.

Despite the alone time, the chaos of the diner created a deep crevasse between them. Marlee gave up talking and picked at her fries. Robert didn’t seem to mind; he smiled at her throughout dinner. Marlee returned his smile, yet she couldn’t shake the feeling that something seemed off. Was it her imagination, or was he smirking? His eyes bobbed back and forth, unfocused and glassy. He nodded to himself, muttered under his breath, even when no one had spoken to him. It wasn’t until he slid something out from behind his back and she saw the flash of silver raised to his lips, that her stomach dropped. Had he been drinking when he picked her up?

He returned her stare and held out the flask. “Want some?” he slurred.

“No, thank you,” she mumbled.

“Goodie goodie,” he mocked. “Are you a goodie goodie, Marlee Archer?”

A flurry of emotions assaulted her: anger, disappointment, shock, confusion, shame, all convoluted as one, along with the hope that none of it was truly happening. But it was.

“No. I just don’t want any.”

“Suit yourself,” he said, and took another long pull.

When the waitress removed their plates, Robert asked for the check. He slapped down the money and looked at Marlee expectantly.

“Well?” he asked.

She shifted in the booth. “Well, what?”

“Aren’t you going to say thank you for dinner?”

She appraised him with hooded eyes. There was no humor in his expression. For the first time in the evening, she felt the nagging twinge of danger. “Thank you for dinner, Robert.”

He sneered. “That’s better. You’re welcome. Let’s get out of here. It’s time for the next part of our date.”

Marlee winced. She didn’t want a ‘next part’. She just wanted to go home.

Outside, Robert did not help her into the truck. She wiggled her way in as he sat behind the wheel laughing.

“I think I’m ready to go home now, if that’s okay,” Marlee asked quietly.

Robert didn’t answer. The truck rolled out of the diner parking lot and took a left in the direction of home, so she assumed he’d heard her. At the half way point, the truck swung a sudden, squealing right, careening off of pavement and onto a dirt road.

A forbidding, icy snake clenched within Marlee’s stomach. She knew where they were going: the long, primitive road led to a single abandoned shack on a large wooded piece of property. It was where students partied late on Friday nights after football games, where boys brought dates to park.

Marlee squirmed, a sweat breaking at her hairline. The air in the cab felt ominous, thick. She looked at Robert’s silhouette in the darkness, the whites of his eyes no longer glassy but glinting, entirely focused on the road ahead.

She realized she didn’t recognize him; that maybe she’d never known him at all. “I’d really just like to go home, Robert.” The tremble in her voice was uncontrollable.

Robert reached over and put his hand on her leg. He roughly slid her skirt up and squeezed her thigh hard, fingers digging into flesh. “No you wouldn’t. Stop saying that.”

Her entire body flared with panic, igniting her nerves, her pores, her hairs standing on end. She fumbled for the handle of the truck, hands tingling with the pins and needles of adrenaline.

Robert accelerated the truck, barreling over potholes and violently jolting her in the seat. She let go of the handle as she slammed against the door, then back across the bench seat, almost into Robert’s lap. Disgusted, she propelled herself away from him and clung to the door, staring out the window at the rough, dark road.

“Don’t jump out, Marlee. You’ll hurt yourself,” he warned.

“Please take me home,” Marlee cried. The tears ran down her cheeks in hot trails.

He ignored her plea and returned his hand to the wheel.

When they reached the clearing, the headlights bounced and came to rest on an empty lot. There was no one to help her. The truck finally slowed and Marlee jumped out. She stumbled, hands scraping the moist, cold earth, and sprang toward the woods, her strides clumsy, plumes of steam expelled in ragged breaths. The door slammed and she heard him calling her name, the animal-like urgency in his voice, his heavy steps growing closer, heavier, louder.

Dread filled her entire being, like something alive crawling deep into her bones. She had become prey, scurrying away from her predator, with no place to hide.

When he grabbed her from behind she felt no surprise, just the heavy burden of anguish to come. She fought and scratched and kicked and, as his heavy form descended upon her, she knew her attempts would not stop him. She felt his relentlessness and unceasing need in the air, on his alcohol tinged breath, on his repulsive skin.

She caught his face with a nail and raked hard. He gasped and a heavy slap nearly stunned her unconscious. He pinned her down with his forearm against her throat and ripped at her clothing. She gasped and wheezed for air, unable to ask him to stop, or to release her suffering with the screams that expanded within her, threatening to split her apart. She looked up through the branches of the surrounding trees, at anything but his contorted face, tears blurring the moonlit sky above, and prayed for the pain and humiliation to end.

Marlee cried soundlessly as he drove her home. Her urge to scream had subsided. She was broken. Used up. Dirty.

“Don’t cry, Marlee. You got all dressed up for me. You know what you do to boys. You know I wanted it. And so did you,” Robert said.

He pulled into her driveway, where a single light shone from the front room. Her dad was waiting up for her. As she reached for the door handle, he stopped her with a strong jerk, her jaws and teeth slamming together with a hard, hollow knock. She didn’t feel it. She was numb.

“Don’t you dare tell anyone, Marlee. This is a secret. It’s your fault, you know. If you tell, everyone will know how loose you are. They’ll know everything.”

She refused to look at him. She didn’t need to see his expression; the venom in his voice reverberated into her.

She slipped out of the truck, shuffled up to the door, already sore everywhere – at her very soul, at places she never knew existed – and entered the house quietly.

“Back so soon, Marlee? That’s responsible,” her dad called from the living room. “Did you have a good time?”

“Yes, daddy,” she answered shakily, and hurried down the hall.

She flung the door of her parent’s bedroom open and rushed to where her mom lay sleeping. “Mom,” she sobbed, “Mommy.”

Margaret’s eyes flew open and she turned on the light. She took it all in: the dirt, tear stained face, ripped clothes.

“Oh, Marlee,” she breathed. “Come with me. Quickly.”

Margaret ushered her daughter out of the bedroom and into the bathroom. She closed the door and ran a hot steaming bath. Marlee stood shaking, arms crossed, rocking herself back and forth.

“Let’s get you out of these clothes,” Margaret cooed. She undressed Marlee, evading her eyes from the angry bruises already spreading across her daughter’s body. “Get in, Marlee. Wash yourself now. Wash it all away.”

Marlee climbed into the bath and let her mother wash her like a child. A knock came at the door.

“Is everything alright in there, Margaret?”

Margaret held her finger to her lips, signaling silence. “Everything is fine, dear. Just woman stuff.”

A long beat of silence. “You sure?”

“Yes, dear, I’m sure. Go on to bed. I’ll be there soon.”

Footsteps clomped down the hall and the bedroom door closed with a thud.

Marlee looked down. Light purple streaks mottled into darker, bolder hues on her chest, arms, and legs. Blood pooled in the bottom of the tub.

“You mustn’t tell anyone, Marlee. This is a secret. Our secret. A family secret just between us,” Margaret said forcefully.

Marlee looked up at her mother with empty eyes.

“No one needs to know. No one should know. Do you hear me, Marlee?”

Her own mother sounded just like Robert. Was it her fault? Did she do something wrong? She nodded. “Yes, mom. I hear you.”

Marlee didn’t tell anyone. Not when she realized the following month she was pregnant, and her mother found an illegal abortion clinic. Not when she saw Robert at school, flirting with other girls and offering to take them on dates. Not when she carried her guilt and shame into future relationships and found herself in the vicious cycle of repeated abuse. She kept her secret for decades, until the weight of it finally threatened to crush her.

Marlee’s story is not so unlike the stories of millions of women made to feel at fault for sexual abuse. These feelings of guilt and shame are constructed and perpetuated by society, by perpetrators, or worse, by those closest to us, or even ourselves. It doesn’t have to be a secret. It’s not your fault.

I do have my own story, but by sheer luck, or circumstance, or divine intervention, it did not end like Marlee’s. I don’t want to tell my story here; I want this page to be for Marlee, to let this be her turn, to be the voice she was made to feel she couldn’t use. We all deserve a voice; we all deserve to be heard. We’ve come a long way. We have much further to go.

Spread the love!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *