November 8, 2016. A map of the United States is turning red. I calculate: Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nevada, and Colorado need to turn blue. I need them, the world needs them, to turn blue. It isn’t looking good.

When Pennsylvania turns a tentative pink, messy sobs burst up from my throat, my chest, my belly—helpless animal sounds, bereft. My teenage son sits down next to me and takes my hand.

That night does not go well. Early the next morning I wake in tears for the first time in months. It’s been a tragedy-filled couple of years for my family, so I’ve grown used to sorrow, but I’d been absorbed in those private griefs and wasn’t prepared for a deep new onslaught of sadness and fear born of politics.

These tears, this grief and fear, are how I react to Donald Trump and his supporters, to their public displays of bigotry, misogyny, and homophobia. To the way they embody fear of “the other,” violence against the other, whether Black, Mexican, Muslim, gay, trans, or female. Because of them it now seems somehow normal to mock people with disabilities, to see Black men as thugs, to grab women by the pussy.

I begin remembering somehow-normal incidents. For weeks they fly through my brain and settle in my stomach.

 

Ages eight to forty-four. These scenes have happened, will happen, so often they blur together.

I walk, run, or bike around town or to the beach. In summer I dress carefully, in long shorts and a shirt that’s as baggy as possible, disguising my femininity, covering my thighs. Still, the comments follow wherever I ride, wherever I walk or run. “Hey, nice legs!” “Hey, baby, let me see more of that ass!” “Oh yeah, just enough to jiggle when I pump!” Sometimes exactly what they’re saying doesn’t sink in till I’ve passed them, and other times I fake nonchalance, flushing, my hands shaking, my body betraying me.

The sly ones think themselves gentlemanly, but they make the hair on the back of my neck stand up, make me save my strength so I can sprint away fast if it comes to that.

“Mmm, hmm, Legs, thank you for being here! …What, nothing to say to me? That was a compliment!”

I quicken my pace and push my shoulders out to look tough when all I want to do is disappear. If they can’t see me, they can’t hurt me. In high school I grow my hair long and hide behind the curtain of it so no one can see how I feel.

This scene plays on repeat my whole life. I am not gorgeous, but I have a delicate look that seems to bring out predators, makes the wolfmen follow me.

Decades later, I’ll be grateful for adults and friends who force their way through that protective teenage curtain, who make eye contact and conversation with me, who ask why I’m not eating lunch, why I have insomnia, why there are razor marks on my left arm.

In my forties I’m walking home from the gym and a slow-moving car approaches from behind, a wolf-whistle calling out the window. (I’m wearing form-fitting yoga pants and a T-shirt—someone always wants to know.) When the car pulls even and the young man catches sight of my face, he says, “Whoops, sorry, ma’am!” He’s not apologizing; he’s letting me know I’m too old to bother harassing or assaulting.

I’d rather be too old for him than a predator’s plaything, but I worry about the girls who will take my place.

 

Age eleven. This one is private. Those same boys throw rocks at me on my way home from school. I use my viola case as a shield and I run fast. It’s a gritty New England mill town in the 1980s, and this is just the way things are. I don’t want to be a tattletale, so I keep quiet.

 

Age fourteen. This may be the first time a stranger touches me. It’s right after my birthday, and my parents have given me money to have my hair cut at a fancy salon with a rich friend. It’s not enough money, but the hair stylist says it doesn’t matter. He keeps telling me how beautiful I am, how beautiful my friend and I both are. His hair is slicked back in a way that makes me think him old and oily.

While he cuts my hair he presses up against my legs. Is he trying to get a better angle, to get the layers right? I’ve only had my hair cut at the affordable salon where a church lady touches only my head and neck. Maybe she sometimes pats me on the shoulder. She’s someone’s mom, and there is affection in her voice as she compliments my thick hair and asks me about school and sports. This hair guy keeps a leg on either side of my thigh as his scissors transform me from a ponytail-wearing tomboy to a pretty young woman with soft curls framing her face. I look like someone else. When the haircut is nearly over I realize what the hard lump in his pants means, the thing he’s been pushing up against my thigh. I have never even kissed anyone, though I held hands with a boy at church camp the summer before.

I shift to the other side of the chair. He still leans against me, but with less pressure. I’ve had my period for a year, but my figure is understated, and I’ve been hoping my breasts would grow rounder. But is this what they’ll bring? I have to be on guard. Always.

When it’s my friend’s turn for a haircut, I’m relieved. Sitting under a dryer, I stare at a fashion magazine. She flirts and he leans in close.

The dryer warms me as the hair guy takes my friend into the back room. She will tell me about it later. He kisses her and put his hands all over her fourteen-year-old body, shows her how to move her hands on him. They are gone too long. I squirm out from under the dryer and call her name. Eventually they return to the main room. My friend is rumpled looking and adjusts her clothes. Later that school year she loses her virginity to this adult hairstylist. Why did she do it, I wonder, because I’m fourteen and somehow I think there can be mutual consent between a child and a thirty-five-year-old. She threatens to spread terrible rumors about me if I tell a soul. I keep my mouth shut. It’s betrayal on both sides. Somehow I don’t tell my parents, my sisters, my trustworthy math teacher. I do what is expected and keep quiet.

That spring that same girl and I are at a party while another fourteen-year-old friend gets drunk and high and is pushed into intercourse with her sixteen-year-old boyfriend in his car. I don’t think of it as rape or even date-rape; it’s just what happens when you’re not careful enough. These girls are popular. The first girl somehow gets mad at me about the second girl, insisting I’ve told others about it. I stay quiet and drift toward more bookish friends.

 

Age fifteen. I start babysitting at eleven and keep at it through my teens. One child has a quiet dad who always drives me home. It’s mostly woods from his house to mine, and I keep my hand on the door, ready to spring out if he touches me. He has a meditation room and seems like a good person. But I am already on guard. He thanks me, wishes me a good night, and pays me well.

 

Age fifteen. My chemistry teacher, a Catholic priest, rearranges the seating chart. He takes in my short skirt and intense eyes and has me switch seats with a boy in the front row. He moves several girls to the front where he can “keep an eye on” us. My best friend, a devout Catholic who’s cursed with a curvy hourglass shape, turns bright red as he leers at her breasts. He smells of liquor. When she has to stay late to finish a lab, I stay with her “to help.”

 

Age sixteen. This one is private too. He will die young, in his early thirties. I survive.

 

Age seventeen. I go to college and meet a brilliant young man who makes me feel more beautiful and more confused than I’ve ever felt. I am at first resistant and then very drunk the first time we have sex, and we keep seeing each other. I listen to his hollow declarations of love and I begin to fall apart, to become a shadow version of the girl I was.

A trusted mutual friend tells me the guy is pretending to love me because he’s afraid I might press charges. The friend is clearly disgusted and has trouble getting the words out, but he tells me, and I feel nauseated; I walk to the dorm bathroom and try to purge myself of it, but it won’t go away. I take a break from men and get through the days.

 

Age eighteen. At the end of summer I am riding in an ex-boyfriend’s car. He is stopped at a red light. I disagree with something he says, and he punches me on the shoulder, hits me the way he hits his little sister, hard enough to ache, but not hard enough to leave a fist-shaped bruise. He is six foot six and 215 pounds, and I am five foot seven and 125, but rage bubbles up and I react. I punch him back, hard, in the chest and shoulder, with the full force of years of rage, and he has to pull over to the side of the road. I yell at him till we both cry. He says he will never hit a girl, not ever again. He tells me his dad hit his mom before they split up. He drives me home and tells me he’s sorry, tells me once more he’ll never hit anyone.

I want to believe him, but I can’t.

That night I go out with a new guy. He asks before he kisses, before he touches me. His soft touch is something entirely new, and I feel womanly, grown up, and somehow lighter.

Weeks later he becomes obsessive and controlling, and I break it off. This formerly gentle guy cannot accept the breakup. He sends flowers and letters, and he calls and calls until my roommate tells him I don’t love him and he needs to back off or she will call the police. We unplug the phone. His college is halfway across the country from mine, thank goodness. He writes letters, but I don’t have to read them.

 

Age nineteen. I’m walking down the sidewalk to my part-time job at a sandwich shop. I am majoring in English lit and have just finished an exam. My hand hurts from writing so much. I filled three blue books and did well, I know it, even though I couldn’t remember the name of all the characters in all the novels. As I cross a main road inside the white lines of the crosswalk, my head stuck inside a story, a clump of teenage boys crosses toward me. There are about six of them, aged thirteen or fourteen. As I try to pass, they surround me. Clumsy hands grab me all over. They laugh. That one has done this before, I think, as a tall, pale dark-haired boy holds the back of my waistband and tries to penetrate me with his fingers, knows how to get to me, and I am grateful for my thick jeans, and for daylight. I can’t speak, and I am jammed into the group, unable to get free, held by the pants. A car horn beeps but the driver does not get out. They’re blocking his way. The driver just sits there watching, polite and Midwestern. Somehow I break away, the cars drive on, and the boys continue.

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