When I was fifteen, I spent many afternoons with my best guy friend. He was tall, the rare high school boy taller than me, and he made me laugh, even when his jokes came at my expense. He liked to mock my long, “donkey-like” face; my “pancake ass.” I could never say exactly how it started, but he and I established a routine: After watching Maury or something else on basic cable at his house, we’d go out to the garage. He would turn on country radio and sit at the weight machine, then summon me to sit on his lap.
That part was fine: I liked the attention, the unspoken understanding that I was worthy of being admired and touched, even when he said otherwise. I’d never gotten that kind of attention before. I’d never been kissed, not even on the cheek.
But he wouldn’t kiss me, either. Whenever I stood close to him and looked up into his eyes, he looked away. He told me he couldn’t waste his precious first kiss on me. “Fondling” isn’t quite the right word for what he did while I sat on his lap; nor is “groping,” which implies more force. He used my boobs as a resting place for his hands: They hung there while we sat. He said he liked it, but he never said he liked me.
I thought maybe if I cooperated, he’d finally kiss me. And then all of it, our friendship and all the time I’d waited, would be worth it. Some part of me knew he didn’t like me, couldn’t give me what I wanted—love, maybe, or something that looked like it. But I kept coming back, thinking that if I tried harder, if I was more desirable, maybe I could finally change his mind.
One spring day, he and I went into his bedroom. It was much more comfortable than the garage, much warmer, but quite small; his double bed took up most of it. We assumed our usual position, him leaning against the wall and pressing me against him. I wore a bright pink Hollister sweatshirt and Hollister jeans, the most expensive—and, I thought, the coolest—clothes I owned. I had on shimmery lip gloss and mascara. I had dressed up for him.
This time it wasn’t enough. His hand went to my belt loops, and I said, “No.” But his hands were firm, and he laughed a little. Said, “Come on.” He reached into my jeans. I tried to push him away, but he was holding me and his arms were stronger than mine. I didn’t want it to be like this. I saw that he was smiling.
When I got home, I didn’t tell my mom what happened because I thought it was my fault. I wasn’t supposed to be alone with boys; sex and all related actions were bad—or, at least, were not for me, not right now. What happened went against what God wanted, or at least what his followers at church had told me he wanted. It went against the pledge I’d signed in health class, the one that told me I was “worth waiting for.”
It meant I wasn’t worth anything at all.
Despite infrequent Sunday School attendance, I always knew I was supposed to believe in God. I knew simply because I was told I should. I was a teacher’s pet—I wanted to have all the answers, the best grade, the trust of adults because I always did the right thing—and this desire for perfection in the eyes of those in charge transferred to how I thought about religion. I needed to figure out how to be that good Christian girl I was supposed to be.
I tried different church groups in middle school, high school, college; I was constantly going back, starting over, when one of them didn’t feel right. The middle school group was my least favorite. Upon arrival at youth group, there were games, multiple games of tag intersecting, and I always stuck near the doorway, looking for familiar faces. I assumed this disconnect I felt stemmed from my general lack of likeable qualities, the fact that I clearly didn’t love God all-consumingly like the other kids did. If I did, I thought, maybe I wouldn’t be alone, or hate myself so much. Maybe I’d be able to see in myself what God supposedly did.
When I was fifteen, in that boy’s bedroom, I didn’t wonder why certain actions were sins and others were not. I just wanted to be a good girl, to follow the rules. I wasn’t just upset about him taking what he wanted from me; I was ashamed for wanting his company at all, for letting him break me.
I can’t tell you when I realized what had been done to me, but I can tell you when I wrote it down: June 2, 2012, five years ago, in a list of things that made me sad. Item four in a list of eight: I’m realizing that what C did to me freshman year of high school was sexual assault, but I am still blaming myself.
When did I finally stop blaming myself? There was no conversation to mark a before and after, a shift in perspective. But by the time I wrote that list, I was starting to question my dedication to the rules—to always being the “good girl.” I finally left church for good, angry with the latest group’s pushy evangelism and rampant homophobia.
At the same time, I suspect it was partly the church’s influence that finally helped me understand the assault as something that happened to me, not because of me. God did not blame us for our misfortunes—I knew that. I’d been taught that we needed to trust him to help us overcome them. Only recently have I learned that trusting myself can be even more powerful.
When I was seven, I got in trouble for telling a boy to kick another boy at school. Just the idea of being disciplined was unbearable to me. I didn’t want to disappoint my teacher, my parents—my mother especially. My teacher said I had to tell her; that was my punishment. So I wrote my mother a letter and left it on her desk. It was easier to get all the words out at once, to make my case, explain what I’d done and how I felt without being interrupted with criticism. To jump ahead, past the difficult truths, past my acceptance of my faults and my apology, to the part of the conversation where we were okay.
I’ve never gotten over this fear, the inability to talk openly about the hard things. When I was diagnosed with clinical depression last year, I sent my mom an essay I was writing about it instead of telling her directly.
The night Donald Trump was elected, I thought again about the boy I liked when I was fifteen, and I wrote about him, spending an hour drafting a Facebook post. He was still my friend on Facebook. I knew he had two sons with the girl he gave his first kiss to. I wrote about him knowing he probably wouldn’t read it. That even if he did, he might not realize I was writing about him. That he probably doesn’t think of what he did to me as wrong.
It’s been over ten years, and it is entirely possible that, in all that time, he has not thought about it at all.
I’d always been afraid to tell anyone else. I couldn’t bear to speak of it. No one knew the story except my ex-boyfriend and my fiancé. But my fear of what the world might look like, run by yet another man who took what he wanted when he wanted it, turned into the self-righteous anger that fueled my words.
After I published it, my mom called me, screaming. She yelled that it was too much information; that no one needed to know; that if I had to say anything, I should have been more vague. She told me I shouldn’t have “stooped to his level” or used the word “pussy.” It was too personal. It could make people see me differently.
Most importantly, she said, I should have told her about the assault. I should have told her.
Two days after the election, depression still whispering in my ear that I wasn’t good enough and would never be, I decided to go out and get a tattoo. Two tattoos. The desire to do something reckless, to feel sharp pain on my skin, was sudden, and I gave into it.
I visited a shop by the river, and was immediately charmed by the sweet French man working the walk-in shift. I told him what I wanted: “Just some lettering,” I said, “something small and cheesy.”
BE BRAVE on the back of my left arm, just above my elbow. BE KIND in the same spot on the back of my right. It made me think of the lyrics from “Baby, We’ll Be Fine,” by the National: Baby, we’ll be fine / All we gotta do is / Be brave and be kind. If I could see the words every day, I thought, if they were on my skin, maybe I could convince myself they were true.
The tattoo artist wore a headlamp while he tattooed me, and when he paused every so often to look at my face, the light shone in my eyes. It was nice, the blankness of it, seeing nothing for just a moment. We talked of his hometown in France, of my hometown forty-five minutes away, of the election that had just occurred, and it felt good to be open—to be brave—and to be laughing a little while his tattoo gun buzzed ink and spilled my blood.