I am young when I meet him. I don’t think I am (no one does at eighteen), but I am. At that age, I think I’m queen of the world. Level-headed, responsible, mature to a fault. Careful. Reserved. In the grand span of life, he’s young too, but not as young as me. At twenty-four, he really is an adult. Job, house, dog, alcoholism. Hallmarks of adulthood.
The night we first meet, surrounded by sparkling ocean breezes and lazy twilight air, is filled with butterflies and excitement and wondering. He acts strategically. He speaks quietly, he watches his language, he touches only my hand and nothing more, he asks no inappropriate questions. He knows how young I am. He tells me he began college and paused to work, save up money, and that he’s planning on going back over the next semester or two. These are lies, but I don’t know that yet. He shows me a steady job and plans for the future. He implies motivation to make something out of himself and hints at some type of drive to succeed.
Over the next few weeks, we text here and there. Then a little more often, then a little more, then all day every day. Then we talk on the phone, sending words and laughs and goodnights and good mornings back and forth across a four-hour separation. From a distance, he chooses his words carefully and draws me in. First real boyfriend. Naïve, eager, and unsure of myself, I dive in headfirst. I pretend like I know how to make these types of judgments for myself. I don’t. There is one visit, then another. Both restricted to kisses, handholding, hugs. If I close my eyes, imagine the scene, I can conjure up that small knot of unease plastered to the inside of my ribs. It appears every time he touches me, anxious at what I might be expected to do. What I might be expected to know how to do.
A budding relationship, only a few weeks old, is suddenly intensified by an unasked-for declaration of love on a late-night phone call I was eager to end. When he says it, it isn’t a statement or an offering or even a genuine gesture. It’s a contract I have no choice but to sign. I can sense him leading up to it as the call goes on and the hours slip by – eleven, twelve, one, one-thirty, two … I watch each number change as his voice invades my ear one lazy syllable at a time. Suddenly:
“I know we haven’t been together very long.” No, we haven’t. Barely even four weeks, actually. “And I hope this isn’t too soon…” It is it is it is it is. “…but I love you.” Shit. All the softness and affection you would expect in those words is absent. Instead, they sound like they’re made of sharp edges and quiet threats. They leave his mouth as “I love you” and reach my ear as “you have no choice but to say it back.” So, I do. But I don’t really mean it. I say it because I don’t know what else to say, I’m caught off-guard, I feel like I have to.
“Aw, haha. I … love you too.” I love… attention? I love to feel special? I’m confused. I don’t love that feeling and I don’t love the immediate desperation that sets in the second those words leave my mouth, a swell of panic in my throat telling me getoutgetoutgetout. From that moment, I search, consciously or not, for any scrap of validation I can find. A television show where characters committed to too much too fast, a song sharing feelings of uncertainty, anything. Most of my headspace is taken up by me convincing myself I meant it, mean it, keep meaning it. I’m tired often.
His conversation, from this point forward, becomes increasingly sexual, and even though I’m painfully uncomfortable with it, I let him keep talking. They’re only words, I tell myself. But those words do much more than just be heard; they find, grab, pull, claw at the parts of me he can’t reach. They overcome the cushion of distance, that frail barrier, that wall so thin and so fragile I can see straight through it, and they make me feel violated. He never says it outright, but it takes very little time for me to understand what I’m worth. To look in the mirror and see a couple tits, a vagina, a less-than-stellar ass and know that’s what constitutes my value to him. More like a sex doll, a plaything, a place to put orgasms, than a whole person.
It’s not long before those words become bored of squirming across my skin and start slicing their way underneath, burying themselves in my bones, making nests in my head. He starts using new words, harsh words, words that remind me of my place. Words that start to shape my thoughts and mold my self-image.
“I saw a cute girl at work today.” My heart drops just a little. “Yeah, she was nice. She was prettier than you, but her tits weren’t as big.” She was prettier than me. Aren’t they all? “You’re pretty lucky, you know.” It could be worse. “There’s girls everywhere around here who are hotter than you. Maybe if you went to the gym once in a while you could get a better body so you can look more like them. They’re probably better in bed than you, too.” A pause. “Not that I would know.” He doesn’t even try to hide the malice in those last five words. He makes it clear: I’m not giving him what he’s entitled to. When I respond with only silence, not knowing what to say and straining against tears, he adds: “You should be grateful I haven’t cheated on you yet.” Yet. Somehow, I’m expected to respond with overflowing gratitude and affection, thankful that my flaws have been pointed out to me so clearly. I don’t respond at all. I hang up. I’m eighteen. I’m still in high school.
I’ve long wondered why it took me so long after that phone call to end our relationship, but I now know why. I was so deeply and thoroughly trapped. Over time, he had placed the weight of his entire wellbeing, his personal safety, his physical and emotional health, on my shoulders and mine alone. He reminded me constantly that I’m the reason he stopped drinking and made an attempt to curb the raging alcoholism. If I ever left, he would have no choice but to start drinking again: my fault. Oh sure, it’s fine if I don’t feel like talking on the phone while he drives to work, so early every morning, but maybe he’ll get in an accident and I wouldn’t even have said goodbye: my fault. He would be alone dealing with his mother’s worsening cancer: my fault. He would become depressed – he might even kill himself: my fault, my fault, mine. He built a box out of threats and nailed me inside to suffocate.
The first time he touches me without my consent is in his truck in a parking lot, of all places. We’re parked outside of my favorite coffee shop and all I want, so badly it almost hurt, is to go inside. To get out of this truck and be around other people. Safe. Safer? Instead, he makes out with me, stabbing the back of my throat with his tongue. He jerks my head back toward him each time I try to pull away, to say I want to go in; my neck is sore for the next three days. I have to brush my teeth three times before the taste of his mouth – sour, stale, like drinking the last sip of a stranger’s abandoned coffee – finally disappears. Eventually, after too many failed attempts to get away and a growing ache at the top of my spine, he digs his fingers into the soft flesh of my sides and forces me onto his lap. My objections, though spoken aloud, seem like silence. He crushes my hips in his hands so hard I’m certain there must be blood seeping from under his fingertips. My hips are moved back and forth against my will, against my hips’ will, against every last fiber of my being.
“I want to stop,” I say, as firmly as I can manage. Breaths coming quick and short out of fear instead of arousal.
“I never get to do this, just let me,” he snaps back before continuing to manipulate me like a toy, only there to suit his lust. “You like it anyway.” I don’t. He continues until I wrestle against him as he tries to pull my clothes off in broad daylight in the middle of a busy parking lot. Angry, he grabs my arm and throws me off him, leaving cheerful red lines on my sensitive skin. I sit in silence as fear, guilt, shame, and disgust pulsed through my body.
When he brings me back to my house, he makes pleasant conversation with my parents.
That night, I shower for hours, trying to scrub his touch away. I scoop up handfuls of homemade sugar scrub and scour every inch of my body until I can’t stand it anymore. The hot water stings my peachy raw skin, and I close my eyes, imagining layers and layers and layers of skin falling away, disappearing, and still I can’t rid myself of him. His forceful touch crawls over me, lingering like a sickening ghost, and the bruises on my arm, my hips, my sides, serve as a reminder for weeks to come. Each time it crosses my mind, my stomach folds in on itself in a gut-crushing snap, nausea rising in my throat, the intense feeling that I’ve been damaged and made unclean seizes my whole being.
Even now, all this time later, I work hard to reverse the changes he wrought in my life. The heightened anxiety, the intensified depression. The constant feeling that I will never – can never – be good enough, beautiful enough, fit enough to be loved by someone. That I don’t deserve to be loved, genuinely and kindly, by someone good. That all expression of sexual attraction is equal to objectification. I wonder, constantly, if I’m wanted, loved, appreciated, looked at, enjoyed, valued as a whole person. I want to be a sexual being. I never want to be touched again. I want to be a woman. I hate my feminine body. I want to be a human. I want to fall asleep and never awake up. Those still-healing parts of my brain echo thoughts that I’m a burden to those around me, my conversation is boring and a waste of time, my presence anywhere is a nuisance, my feelings and problems are nothing more than inconsequential annoyances.
I was young when I met him. I’m still young now. I aged weeks and months and years and decades and centuries and I’m dating someone else and we’re happy and we’ll get married, someday, and then some nights I’m in a truck in a parking lot and my hips are bruising. But I’m in bed now. My blanket is soft and warm. There is a man next to me, asleep, who has never laid a hand on me. I trust him. I never thought I would trust again. But I’m going to sleep. And it’s quiet.