This has been hard for me to write, so I hope you bear with me. For my friend who asked me to write it, it may be even worse for her to read. I just hope it’s terrible for all the right reasons.
I’ve never really learned how to handle surprises well, and because I spent much of my formative years being made fun of, I’ve never really learned how to take a compliment either. Both are usually treated with suspicion or derision. Usually both.
Which is why when I sat down with a friend a few months ago and in the same conversation she told me she liked my writing, that it helped her through some dark times, and that she wanted me to write her story about her struggles with sexual harassment and resultant depression, I had absolutely nothing to say. I still can’t quite believe it. What does one say to something like that? I still don’t know what the right thing to say is, but I know the right thing to do.
What follows is a story based off of that terrible, beautiful conversation I had with my friend. What happened to her is true, just as the other stories of other girls included here are true as well, but some details are changed so that her identity and job, such as it is, will be protected. What convinced me to write this is something she said. She said, “Somewhere, there is a woman who is going through the same thing I am, and I want her to know she’s not alone. But I don’t know how.” I don’t know how either, but I will try. For my friend, for that woman out there sitting alone in her car, crying, and for the women and men in my life.
Sitting In a Car
LAs I’m sitting in my car outside of the school, the smell of vomit in the enclosed space is making me want to retch again, not that I needed the help. The sensation of my skin crawling, trying to rip itself free of my bones was enough to do that, whether it was because of the quickly cooling stickiness on my shirt and pants, or because of the thought of going inside and seeing him I couldn’t really tell. I looked around and the few people who were up at this hour walking past is making me want to hide, to cover my face like a criminal coming out of a courthouse. If I could just wait until everyone is inside, before I drive home in shame, I might be okay. I just want to die. Yet all the shame out here is better than what waits for me inside.
I look around again and see there’s a break in the seemingly endless trudging line of teachers. I put the car in drive, and quickly drove away from a place that I worked my whole life to get to. A job that I know is my calling. I drove away because I can’t bear the idea of stepping inside those doors. Because of one person. One man. How the hell did I get here, dreading the very thing I wanted to do most of my life? How the hell did I become “one of those girls?”
Interlude 1 – Elsie
I was grading papers when one of my students came to see me. It was Elsie. She was a good girl, a little bit awkward (though weren’t most of them), tall, and always disheveled. Every time she comes by she’s almost always involved in some drama or another. And almost always it involves a boy.
“Hi El! What’s up?” My attention was already back on my papers. I had just finished giving the county assessments and the window to get them entered was fast approaching.
There was a pause, filled with the shuffling of papers and feet. I looked up and saw big tears threatening to fall down her acne studded face. Our eyes met and she saw my concern, and suddenly she just started sobbing in great big, heaving waves. I got up and went to her, putting one arm around her shuddering shoulders and in between each crest of crying, a story started to emerge. One I had heard too damn much.
There was a boy, one whom she knew had problems. He’d been taken to juvie, he’s been kicked out of almost every school in the county, and he was always, always, angry. But he’d been kind to her. She started skipping school to spend time with him. He’d take her shopping and to see movies, and she’d help him with his school work. He was fine for months and she started sleeping over at his house. But something happend (didn’t it always). He didn’t say what but he got mad. He stared pacing the room, getting all worked up, and when she told him to calm down he started in on her. He called her names like slut, fat, stupid, dozens more, like he had been saving them up.
She said she stood up to go and looked down on him, she was a good six inches taller than he was, and that was the last straw. He hit her, and when she fell down he laughed. Elsie cried and cried, and after what seemed like hours, he stopped yelling and laughing and just looked at her. The look was the worst. Like she was something he stepped in. He told her to leave, so she got up, but was hunched over like an old woman so as not to make herself seem tall, and walked out.
She had walked maybe a mile when she heard the shitty car he drove. She said he leaned out of the car and he apologized and she let him. He drove her home and promised it wouldn’t happen again. And of course it did.
By the time Elsie stopped talking, most of my planning period had evaporated, but she needed this more than I needed to grade my papers. All said, he had hit her at least on five different occasions and she knew he was going to do it again.
“So why do you stay with him?” I said. I knew the answer before she even said it. She was going to say something like, ‘He’ll change.’ Or, ‘It’s not his fault.’
“I dunno. He’s been through so much, it’s not really his fault. He just gets so mad and he doesn’t know how to deal with it. But he’s a good guy at heart, I just know he’ll change.” I did my best not to roll my eyes and sigh in resignation. We talked for a few more minutes, I got her to agree to give him a break for a few weeks to give them some time to “heal.” She walked out of my room lighter than she came in, I sank lower into my chair. I looked into my now cold coffee and wished for some whiskey to warm it up.
I sat at a stop light thinking about the man who I was running from. I know the statistics, I know all the numbers about men who abuse women in all the ways they do it. I know the psychology behind women becoming victims, both on the woman’s end and the man’s. I know the factors that contribute towards sexual harassment and the damage it causes, yet how the fuck did I end up here? At a red light with the smell of my partially digested oatmeal that was slowly staining my sensible blouse burning my nose, with tears rolling down my face as I am driving away in shame from what should have been the safest of places? With humiliation in my heart and rage in my soul? How?!
The car behind me had to let me know the light turned green, because I can’t see through the red.