This version has been revised from the essay originally published in the March issue of the Central Circuit to its current form, which won this year’s Regional League for Innovation Literary Contest and came in second at the national level.
To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle. – George Orwell, 1946
At 6, I am learning about my peers.
“Be kind,” I learn. “Share. Listen. Help people if they ask for it.” There are other words too, and hidden meanings: Give of yourself. Put others first.
Things for which I am praised: generosity, compassion, modesty.
Things for which I am scolded: pride, competitiveness, assertion.
OK, I think. I have to be everyone’s friend.
At 12, I am learning about adults. About power.
“Kindness is your greatest strength.” “It’s wonderful the way you care for others.”Give of yourself. Put others first. “There’s no way you’re right about this.” The reality you experience is mutable in our hands.
Things for which I am praised: listening, supporting, accepting responsibility for the feelings of others.
Things for which I am scolded: singing loudly, eating quickly, asserting needs that aren’t being met.
A conversation with my father:
“Dad, you know, I can hear you. Like when you and Sue fight. I can hear it.”
“Well you know we can hear you too. When you’re singing to your CDs.”
I stop singing. They keep screaming.
OK, I think. No one is to be my friend.
At 14, a boy I meet in a chat room tells me he wants a friend. I know how to do that! I think. We talk. He tells me he works for the internet company and he will hack my home network unless I text him pictures of my breasts.
OK, I think, so this is how men will be.
At 16, I am dating a boy! He is the first.
A conversation:“This hurts.”
“Something’s wrong. Stop.”
“I need this.”
This time is not the last.
OK, I think. So this was never for me.
At 17, there is a man standing on my porch. He asks if he can kiss me. My boyfriend is asleep inside. I find the question so strange I don’t respond. What am I supposed to do with a choice? Weird, I think. Shouldn’t he just go for it? When his fist ruptures my eardrum a year later, I will call it an accident. He finally found passion. Now he’s making sense.
At 18, we are all on a sailboat. My boyfriend is rude; I go to the deck. Our friends laugh nervously. He follows me. I don’t want to fight. He is screaming. I apologize. Our friends are feet away. He splits my lip. We return to shore in the morning. No one mentions anything. When I get home, I see my face is streaked with blood. Fuck, I think. That must have been so awkward for them.
At 19, I have a friend. He’s been so kind that I don’t know how to tell him to stop. This was never for me. Three months later and I am in trouble. His eyes are lovely and wide with fear. Give of yourself. Put others first. “Don’t worry,” I say. “I’ll take care of it.” I’m strong, I think. I’m wrong.
At 19, I am learning how to drink. I am assigned as a prize in a game. It isn’t my idea. Someone wins. She is pinning me against a table and her mouth is on me. Don’t make a scene, I think. They’re my friends. I can trust them. Months pass. My “no” becomes less polite. She’s my friend. I can trust her. “Baby-killing whore,” she calls me. Generosity, compassion, modesty. Those friends stop meeting my eyes.
At 21, a man is waking me up early and telling me to make breakfast. He tells me what to wear and what’s wrong with me and it’s all so seamless that I don’t ask why. He tells me I’m a “good girl” after he slaps me. His words are in the music I like, and in the movies I’ve seen. This is dating, I think. This is the most adult way of doing things. I am briefly proud of having no feelings. I meet his other girlfriends at parties. I wonder if they know. He tells me about his ex-wife, about his loneliness. Help people if they ask for it. He likes that I listen. He wants me to love him. He chokes me. I hate it.
At 22, my rapist is stronger than I am, pinning me down. I can’t breathe with his hand over my mouth. I won’t scream again. I am in his home. Could I even press charges when I came here voluntarily? I’ve heard horror stories. Better just to wait it out. I am shaking when he finishes. He talks a bit about comics. He falls asleep with his head in my lap.
He texts me as I’m walking home. “When can I see you again?”
Oh, I think, was that a date?
Maybe that’s how dates are now.
“I wasn’t into that.” Not “you raped me.” Not “the fuck were you doing you sick fuck.”
“Sorry. I’ll get better. Just give me a chance.”
I have to be everyone’s friend.
At 23, there is a sexual assault at my school. The student body gets an email from the the “Director of Safety and Security.” “There is no threat or concern for the college community at this time.”
“There is no threat or concern for the college community at this time.”
Every day I walk home I am concerned. Every time a stranger approaches me I am threatened.
Fuck you, I think. You really don’t get it.
I am 24. I am writing. I wonder if you will devalue my words because I’ve had sex. I wonder if you will devalue my words because I was a victim. I wonder if I am a victim first and a woman second, or if it is the other way around. I hope for me there is a difference.
I wonder what has happened with these people I’ve known. How many women they’ve known since me. How many times they repeated the actions I never told them were wrong. How loud would I have needed to be to break through to them. How many people have suffered in the wake of my silence.
I have been quiet and good and I have been generous and compassionate and I have given of myself. Now is the time to be loud and strong and secure and loved and to give to myself. But there is a voice in my head. It stifles my singing and puts others first. And it wonders how many women I’ve allowed to be raped.