For my creative non-fiction class, we are assigned to write short exercises. This is for that class, but is not short and, to tell the truth, was one of the hardest things I’ve had to write. As I type this, my heart is pounding. I’m kind of scared about who might see this, but this fear is tempered by the fact that I know I’m not the only one who has gone through what I have and worse, so I feel a certain compulsion to put this here. Names have been changed to protect the innocent and the family of the less-than-innocent.
One of the most important things you can tell a girl is that she’s beautiful. It’s best if you aren’t trying to get something in return, but we like to hear it just the same. So many girls today are taught by society to believe the idea that beauty is singularly defined by models in fashion magazines and the celebrities that litter the red carpet. So many girls either simply succumb to feelings of inadequacy and head to the fridge or do what they can to make themselves look like what they see on TV – they starve themselves, exercise obsessively, pull, tweeze, pluck, purge, dye, even go under the knife to be what they want to look at in the mirror. Sometimes this satisfies and sometimes it doesn’t.
But sometimes those words are less of a compliment and more of a hook and reel. And once a girl realizes she’s caught, “you’re beautiful” are the last words she will want to hear for a long time and it will be even longer before she can trust that the speaker is telling the truth and not looking for more than a smile in return for them.
My family was not the most affectionate. We weren’t a huggy family and I could go days at a time with only a few words passed between certain members of my immediate family and me. My dad was probably the most like this – not emotional, not chatty until after I went to college, not very warm. I can’t ever recall a time when he said I looked beautiful. My mom would say it. My grandmother might say it. But there’s something about hearing it from your father that makes it feel more true. Maybe it’s the fact that he’s a man, maybe it’s the fact that he is the first man you’ll ever love in your life, but it would have meant the world to me to hear from him that he thought I was beautiful.
Maybe that’s what got me in trouble after I left home to begin with.
I met John my first year of college. My church in Muncie began an addictions program in December and I was excited to volunteer. It was a good way to meet people and I needed some friends that weren’t on campus. The program would also be something that would broaden my horizons and I couldn’t wait to see what would happen.
I don’t know why John was there. He was about fifty years old, African American, about five-foot-five. He didn’t appear to have an addiction and he never spoke of what his habit was, but I didn’t care. John was easy to talk to and it wasn’t unheard of for us to talk for thirty minutes or more at a time. He was a hugger, which I didn’t particularly mind. He kept it respectful. And best of all, he told me I was beautiful. He was like a dad for me. I felt important to him and it felt good to feel that way. True, it was a little weird for someone unrelated and that age to be saying that kind of thing to me, but I ate it up. It was what I thought a dad should say and I needed that.
It wasn’t until my junior year that I found out he had a farmstand at his house, where he did a rousing business all through the summer and early fall, selling peaches, apples, blueberries, potatoes, and onions. He probably sold other things, too, but I went for the apples. Unfortunately for me, I went alone (really stupid decision/mistake number one).
Everything was fine. There was more than one hug and they lasted a little long for my taste but I thought nothing of it (red flag number one for that day). We spent perhaps four hours in that little shop talking about this and that, a lot about his sons, who were about to go to college. He touched on the fact that I was still single a few times as well, even going so far as to say that if he were younger and not married himself, he would have tried to date me. That creeped me out a lot, to be honest, but thanks to my Christian upbringing, I decided to be nice to the guy rather than to get out of dodge when he let that out (red flag number two and really stupid decision/mistake number two). When I said I needed to get going, he carried my stuff (which he let me have for free – red flag number three), and we continued to talk by my car. Somehow the topic of what I was planning to do with the potatoes he gave me (soup) came up then all of a sudden, he grabbed my hand.
I swear on my grandfather’s grave I honestly thought he just had something to show me. I tremble still even after about a month after it happened. I wrack my brains, trying to find out how I could have been so blind, so stupid, so wrong about this person. This next part rocked my world in one of the worst ways possible.
I should have stood my ground. I should have said no. I had already skipped a class to stay and talk. I should have questioned him before following him (big mistake number, what is it now, three?). But I was stupid and naïve and trusting and I was blinded by the fact that he was like a dad to me. He wouldn’t do anything that might hurt me – physically or emotionally, right? I should have done any number of things, but hindsight is twenty-twenty, isn’t it.
It was about five o’clock and he had closed down the shop for the day, but he unlocked the door and led me inside. I about bumped into him when he turned around and grabbed me in a hug that started out, what I felt, innocent (Another should-have here that doesn’t amount to anything now – I should have known something was up when he felt the need to go behind a closed door, but at the time, I honestly had no idea). I didn’t really know what to do. Do I hug back, as is customary? Or do I let my uncomfortable-ness be my guide and get out of there? In my confusion, I just stood there (really stupid decision/mistake number four). Then things took a decidedly less wholesome turn.
His hands were grabby – groping their way down my back. I was scared and confused and shocked, petrified. I like to think he was trying to kiss my cheek, but landed on the right side of my neck instead, but I doubt it. His hands groped to my butt and I finally woke up and pushed myself away. Looking back, I should have hit him. Yelled at him. Done something. But I just said, “I have to go,” grabbed the doorknob and yanked the door open, making my way as fast as I could outside and to my car.
I have never felt so dirty in my life as I did on that drive home . Something had been taken from me that I couldn’t get back and the feeling was horrible. Like someone had taken a spoon and scooped out some of my insides. Guilty, for a reason I couldn’t understand. Maybe it was because I knew his kids who were only a two years younger than me. Maybe it was because I knew he was married – separated, but married. I hadn’t invited him to do that, but I felt the blame just the same.
It was awful, having to spend that weekend acting like nothing was wrong. I felt the need to do what I could to be my normal self that night at the addictions program, where I worked in the kitchen on refreshments and talked to the kids who snuck in there for apple slices when they thought the teachers weren’t paying attention. By Sunday, I couldn’t take it any more.
Aside from working with the addictions program, I work with the children’s ministries as well, including the bus routes our church runs on Sundays. On the bus I ride on, there is a couple who act as captains. These two are like my Muncie parents and I adore them, even more so now after this. On the way to take the kids back home after church I asked, for this piece’s sake, we’ll call her Mom, if I could come over to her house that afternoon. There was something I needed to ask her privately.
It was a beautiful day. The sun was shining and a gentle breeze was blowing. I could see her husband and a friend of his out in the middle of their property, digging another pond. I stepped inside to the shade of their living room to where Mom was sitting on the couch. We made small talk for a few minutes before I couldn’t do it anymore. I told her what had happened. I remember barely being able to get it out, I was so scared to admit what had happened, even to her, still in shock that it hadn’t just been a nightmare. I needed to confront him – tell him what kind of line he’d crossed and lay down the law so I could move on with my life, but I couldn’t do it on my own. I had learned my lesson of going alone to places like that the hard way and I needed someone in my corner when I went to do this. She agreed immediately.
I drove over there with her in my passenger seat, trying to talk about other things as we made our way around Muncie to where he lived. He was with a customer when we got there and we let him finish his business with them before I said a word to him. When the customer left, I remember the conversation going something like this:
“I need to talk to you.”
“You crossed a line on Friday.”
“Now, what happened was just a hug –”
I held up a hand, (surprisingly) silencing him, something I had never done to a grown man before. “I’m not finished, and it was not just a hug. Innocent hugs do not require closed doors and innocent hugs do not require groping of someone else’s butt. You are never, never, to touch me again. You are to have barely minimal contact with me. Is that understood?”
He nodded, “I understand.”
“Are we going to have any trouble with this? Do I have any reason to be concerned?”
“No, you don’t have to worry about me. I understand.”
And with that, I left the shop with Mom and have never returned. I hope I was that firm. Mom said on the way to my apartment to get the things John had given me so she could take them with her, that it was short and to the point, just as it should be. I found out later that day, when I talked to one of the assistant pastors about what had happened, that John had done time before. That did very little to settle my nerves. Now, three or four weeks after, I’m finding myself breathing easier. I’ve seen his sons and his vehicles around, which raised my blood pressure slightly, but the cars were driven by his oldest son, who I have no problems with. In fact the biggest reason for my changing John’s name is for his sons’ protection, just in case I ever decide to print this anywhere. I don’t want to press any kind of charges or call him out anymore than I have here because I feel the matter has been closed and I don’t want to cause any problems for his family. I just want to be free from this.
And for the most part, I’m back to normal. Of course, I’ll never be completely the same. I shrink away when someone I know (unrelated) says I look pretty. I’ve had to change my hugging policy, something I’m not so happy about because the other male hugger I know has been nothing if not respectful about it from the start, keeping his hands no lower than the shoulders and keeping any contact in full public view. We fist bump now. What I hate most about that is the fact that I now am changing the way I interact with others because someone else has betrayed my trust.
I started out talking about my father and how he never said I was beautiful. I place no blame on my father for this. I blame only John and myself for what happened – John because he did it and myself for not putting a stop to it when I should have, for not seeing the signs that are so glaringly obvious now. I’m much less trusting in other people, especially men. My fiction writing may not reflect this, as I still have tendency to write a strong father figure for female characters, but in my real, personal life, much of the trust I’ve had in the men like the ones I write about has disappeared. Not that I don’t trust men anymore. I have a few non-relatives who I’m comfortable around, but I’m much more cautious. There’s a freedom that has been taken from me – a freedom to not watch my back all the time, an innocence that has been removed from my life.
It makes me sad.