From Issue 19: The Winter of East 81st Street

Robin Greene

     Above the grainy black and white Newsweek photo, the caption read “New York’s #1 Pedophile Gets Caught.” And here I was, sitting at a dentist’s office, in Fayetteville, North Carolina, staring at Marty’s face again.      

     Marty—the man who raped me when I was seventeen and who I hadn’t seen since—the man who, almost four decades ago, changed my life. Convicted of recently raping two young women, Marty had confessed, the article reported, to raping hundreds.  

     I put down the magazine, glanced around the large, almost empty waiting room—a man in a suit flipped through an issue GQ; a raven-haired teenage girl texted with her thumbs and smiled into her iPhone. Then I heard my name called, shoved the Newsweek into the rack, and followed the hygienist into an exam room. 

     On the chair, I listened with my mouth open as the hygienist cleaned my teeth and talked about her toddler, how she had wandered outside in the rain yesterday, and for ten frightening minutes, she and her husband searched frantically before they found her playing in a large cardboard box in the garage. Then the dentist appeared for a final check, saying something about the recent heavy rains. Then, patting my shoulder, he said “looking good,” as he left. The hygienist nodded, offering me a new cherry-red toothbrush, a small tube of toothpaste, and a miniature roll of dental floss. “See you in six,” she said.

     At the front desk, I paid, scheduled my next appointment, and left to drive to campus, only a few minutes away. I had two student appointments, a class to teach, and a late afternoon meeting. 

     But that evening, Marty’s face returned to me, and after my husband went to bed, I went to my study, pulled up the Newsweek article on my computer, and began, once again, to write about Marty and that winter on East 81st Street so many years ago.    

      

     It was 1972. I lived in Manhattan and attended a non-traditional college. My program consisted of attending lectures on existentialism at the New School for Social Research, studying with a playwright and theater critic for the Village Voice, writing poetry under the guidance of a Bank Street poet, and taking modern dance classes with a performance company. I lived in a four-room, cockroach-infested a railroad flat, with a roommate, Denise, a stranger I’d found through an apartment-sharing agency. Though we had “hit it off” immediately and I thought we’d become friends, Denise—twenty-eight, an unwed mother who had “adopted out” her infant daughter to an aunt and uncle in New Jersey—botched up a suicide attempt two weeks after I moved in. 

     In fact, I was the one who discovered her, heavy and stiff, collapsed from an overdose of valium—pills scattered across her bedroom floor. I don’t remember much about that night, but after calling 911, I rode with Denise in an ambulance to Lenox Hill Hospital, where she had her stomach pumped. Later, her doctor told me that I’d saved her life.

     All this to say that I wasn’t in a good frame of mind that fall. In fact, as autumn temperatures dropped and leaves fell, Denise was released from the hospital and returned to the apartment to recover. And I became depressed.

     I’d been running out of the money I’d saved from my summer job. To survive, I ate lots of oatmeal—often for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Then I stopped sleeping; I’d felt claustrophobic in the small flat and found myself leaving the apartment and going out to walk at two or three a.m. along the concrete path by the East River. In the distance, I’d see Gracie Mansion’s lights shining across the black water, and sometimes there’d be tugboats struggling against the current to reach the lower-end docks. I wore my old green army parka, zipped completely up, with its faux rabbit fur hood extending past my face. I’d stop, peer into the river, and huddled against the sharp wind, brace myself to continue walking until dawn. 

      All my classes met downtown, so I killed a lot of time in Washington Square Park, where I’d sit on a bench, watching the ebb and flow of NYU students, street people, and food vendors. I met Moon-Dog, an indigent poet and musician who dressed like a Viking in furs and a horned helmet, and whose death I learned about many years later on NPR. I met Stevie Wonder and spent an afternoon with him. And I met a Ghanaian, dashiki-clad poet who invited a crowd of well-wishers to a lower Westside dock; a big, dark man in traditional costume, he read his poems in a loud, deep voice at the edge of the Atlantic, the Statue of Liberty behind him.

     And during this time, at the onset of winter, I met Marty, a man of average build, with a trim beard and glasses. But truth be told, until I saw his photograph in Newsweek, I hadn’t remembered his face. What I did remember was that Marty claimed to be a psychologist and urged me to talk openly about my life. He had authority and was in his thirties, which seemed old to me. 

     One day we met in the Loeb Student Center, and I told Marty about my childhood, complained about my crazy brother and how my parents always seemed oddly on his side. Another time I met Marty at the Eighth Street Book Shop, where we discussed literature, and I’d been impressed that Marty loved Tolstoy, one of my favorite writers. I remember us walking once across lower Fifth Avenue—holding hands and weaving between cars stalled in gridlock. Once we had coffee together in a small village café, sitting across from each other at a tiny table against the wall, where we intimately connected about Denise and my current situation.  

     On most days, though, I’d be busy with classes and wouldn’t see Marty or socialize with anyone. After school, I’d ride three subway trains and walk from Lexington Avenue to East End and York to return to the dingy apartment in late evening darkness. 

     Denise would be in bed, lethargic from depression and the drugs the doctor at Lenox Hill had given to her. She’d say hello, and after dumping my books on the dining room table, I’d cook oatmeal for myself and dinner for her—usually hamburgers broiled in her small gas oven. I’d bring her dinner on a tray, and she’d eat in bed. Then I’d help her use the bathroom. Most of the time, she’d be in pajamas—Dr. Denton’s with feet and a back panel. I can still feel the weight of her as we hobbled down the narrow hallway—she, leaning against me while I undid her flap buttons. I’d have to back her carefully into the tiny bathroom, pushing slightly so that she landed onto the toilet.    

    The apartment would either be too hot or too cold, and there was no thermostat to control the temperature. I’d do a bit of homework, but often couldn’t concentrate and would go to bed, try to sleep. But there, I’d feel the subway train rocking me through the dark tunnels or visualize Denise after her suicide attempt, the night I’d discovered her: heavy and stiff after a sleeping pill overdose, almost dead. I’d see her on the stretcher, EMTs struggling down the four flights of stairs to carry her unconscious to the ambulance, where I rode with her to Lenox Hill Hospital—the siren screaming, red lights flashing through the dark streets. 

     Over time, my insomnia worsened until, by first snowfall, I was almost sleepless and very depressed. Or more accurately, I stopped feeling. Though I attended classes, took notes, tried to write my academic papers, I became emotionally disengaged and lost my sense of who I was; I felt suspended in time. I stopped writing poetry and did the minimum to get by. 

     One cold morning, while trekking to the Lexington Avenue subway, I picked up a chunk of glass from the gutter and pocketed it. Later, when I got off at the Eighth Street station, I removed the glass from my pocket and cut the palm of my right hand. I had to strike the flesh a few times to make it bleed. I felt no pain. And when I finally bled, I stopped in the middle of a crowded street to watch the red liquid trickle from my hand. But even then, I couldn’t feel. Pedestrians bumped into me, walked around me, but no one stopped. I slogged off with my wounded hand to Washington Square Park and sat on a concrete bench in the frigid morning air before finding my way to the New School and to my existentialism class.    

     Then, one late night as Denise slept, I sat on the rocking chair in the poorly lit front room, listening to the loud argument of couple next door. Joel was a cameraman for NBC, and Sarah worked as photographer. Dishes broke, furniture crashed. I heard Sarah scream, “Joel, you’re not a man!” and watched as cockroaches streamed from the woodwork, scurrying across the hardwood floor.  

     I put on my parka, ready to walk along the East River, but then, I remembered that I had Marty’s phone number in the pocket of my jeans. I pulled out the small piece of torn notebook paper, the phone number’s ink faded and bleeding, and walked to the kitchen to call Marty from the wall phone there. Though it was past midnight, Marty answered right away. I sat down on a kitchen chair, and we spoke for an hour—I telling him that I felt suicidal and wished to harm myself, he insisting that I come to his apartment immediately for help. 

     I agreed—without considering the risks. Stupid, I now think, but I was seventeen.     Marty lived on the lower West Side, and I had a long trip ahead of me. I had to walk to my station, take the train to Times Square, transfer, take another train, and then walk six blocks to his building. The train and the streets were nearly empty, and the night was biting cold, but somehow, I wasn’t dissuaded. Nor was I frightened to be out late, or scared to be going to a near-stranger’s apartment. I wasn’t thinking and couldn’t feel much. Desperation drove me forward.    

     Marty opened the door and welcomed me. I hesitated, then crossed the threshold into his small apartment. I probably looked distraught. I took off my parka. Marty made me tea. We sat together on his upholstered couch. Marty touched my knee.

     Then there’s a blur, and I’m lying on his bed, my shirt off, and Marty’s rubbing my back. I feel his hands reach lower to my thighs, and then he’s on top of me, my pants off. I don’t struggle, only whisper, “I’m seventeen.”

     At some point, Marty pulled off my underwear. I remained passive, lying on my stomach, my back toward him, so I couldn’t see his face. I heard Marty remind me that he was a therapist and my friend. He told me he was sterile. I closed my eyes when he penetrated me. In a matter of minutes, it was over. 

     Rising from the bed, Marty quickly became apathetic. He tossed my clothes to me as he himself dressed in sweatpants and tee-shirt. In the living room, he seemed anxious for me to leave and didn’t offer to call a taxi or to talk further. 

     I put on my parka, zipping it up all the way up, and left. I have no memory of getting home. 

  

     The next day I was miserable. I didn’t go to my existentialism class nor did I meet with my teachers. Instead, I left the apartment early and walked the cold streets—all the way from 81st down to 8th, thinking about what happened. I had no one with whom I could talk, so I tried to process my experience with Marty alone, replaying the previous night’s events, feeling first guilt, then shame—for being needy, naïve, stupid, complicit. 

     I never reported the incident to the police nor spoke about it with friends. After all, I reasoned, I was the one who called Marty and asked for help; I was the one who’d ventured out in the middle of a winter night to a near-stranger’s apartment, allowed myself to be touched. 

     During the next few months, as spring approached, Denise began to recover. She dressed during the day, went grocery shopping, began seeing a therapist, made trips to New Jersey to visit her daughter. She even went to interview for a secretarial job with an uptown CPA firm. 

     I, on the other hand, spiraled downward. I’d completely run out of money and had all but withdrawn from my academic program. By March, I knew that I had to leave the city. 

     When I phoned my parents on Long Island, they said that if I attended an accredited college, they would help. So, I made a last-minute application to a college in Connecticut, and when I got accepted, packed my stuff, moved home for a month, and then into a college dorm. 

     I never saw or spoke to Denise or Marty again. 

     By my second semester, I had declared myself an English major and began writing. I wrote about my experience with Marty. At first, I’d write as if I were a criminal—each poem a trial in which I’d find myself guilty. Then, I developed a more fatalistic view, imagining my encounter with Marty had been inevitable, that we were partners, and that my innocence was something I had to lose. Later, I saw myself as a victim: Marty was the culpable adult who had taken advantage of me, a child. Had I been raped? Seduced? Or merely unlucky?

     And why, I’d ask myself, did I need to answer these questions? Why couldn’t I forget or simply let this unfortunate incident go? It had happened—for whatever reasons—and I needed to chalk it up to experience. 

     Back then, no one spoke openly of rape. There were no crisis hotlines, no networks or agencies for victims of sexual abuse. In fact, women victims were often blamed for provoking the men who assaulted them. So, I continued to suffer alone, struggling with shame, searching for self-compassion. 

    Now, alone in my upstairs study, I found myself suffering again, remembering back to that winter on East 81st Street, recalling the many years during which I distrusted men. Over the decades, I’d dealt with depression and suicidal impulses—even as my life became increasingly successful; I was now a tenured English professor, a writer, living in North Carolina, with my professor husband, having successfully raised our two sons.  

    

     I turned my attention to the computer screen to reread the part of the article in which Marty described his “seduction” of hundreds of young women. The stories were versions of my own. Marty found lonely, needy young women, developed trust, raped, or—as he insisted—seduced them, allowing sex, vulnerability, need, and shame to merge so powerfully that his victims became unwilling to step forward. But now, two had, and Marty had confessed, even bragged about what he’d done. And, the article continued, Marty had been convicted, sentenced to prison.  

     “Closure?” I asked myself, leaning back into my office chair. 

     I shut my eyes and saw myself at seventeen, sleepless, walking the pavement along East 81st Street in the middle of a cold, dark night. I could feel the winter wind burn my face as I pulled up my parka hood and turned onto the path along the East River. Then, I saw myself at the threshold of Marty’s apartment, felt the warmth of his living room, the promise of human connection enticing me forward.    

     I breathed into that space—anger and shame washing over me. 

     When I opened my eyes, the grainy photo of Marty’s face still appeared on the computer screen before me. But something shifted as I realized that my story was and wasn’t my own. Women strangers were now coming forward to tell their stories. Certainly, two of Marty’s victims had, but there were others—across the country.

     Yes, I would tell my story, too, add my voice to the chorus of others. 

     All that week, I wrote about my experience—words pouring from me as I remembered the girl I was and the winter that occurred during the springtime of my life. 

     I wrote longhand, mostly, with Marty’s photo in front of me. But sometimes I’d minimize the screen, and type, giving myself over to the electronic page. 

     Then, one morning I was done; I’d completed a draft—this draft. For one last time, I maximized Marty’s face, then clicked him away from the screen.

 

Robin Greene’s new novel THE SHELF LIFE OF FIRE is due out in April 2019, and her last book REAL BIRTH was published in 2015. Greene teaches Writing and serves as director of the Writing Center at Methodist University. Check out her website at robingreene-writer.com for more info.