I just have so much to say, and I keep trying to tease it all apart, but it wants to come back together in one glop, so I’m sorry. I’m going to break this into four posts to make it easier:
- Why I’ve been gone
- Things on my mind #1: Labels revisited
- Things on my mind #2: Planet Fitness and why I care
- Things on my mind #3: I’ve been rethinking lately
I’ve been doing a lot of rethinking lately.
Driving home from work a week or two ago, Evangeline and I were talking about first kisses. Let me tell you about mine.
My first was Stuart, a boy who I’d had some classes with in 8th and 9th grade. We were at my friend Melissa’s birthday party, and the rest of our friends had gone inside for lasagna. We were still outside, lying down in the shade behind her deck, when he just sits up, leans over me and starts kissing me on my mouth.
Not only had I never done this before, but I had never considered it, especially not with him. So I just lay there like a lump, not knowing what was going on or what to do about it. After a minute or so of that, he said, “What? You won’t make out with me because you’re German and I’m Jewish, is that it?”
Well, boy howdy, magic words spoken. I now felt like I had to comply or I would be a Horrible Person. So I tried to mimic what he was doing, bodies pressed together, still not really thrilled about this, until a friend came looking for us a few minutes later. A few things. About the German/Jewish thing, he said that knowing that I had taken it upon myself to learn the Hebrew letters the year before just because, and that I was interested in Judaism. And in spite of him (not because of him, certainly) I would eventually go on to convert. He knew I was no bigot, but he wanted to rub against me. He said anything he had to, to get what he wanted. He never said another word to me and moved away less than a year later.
The second man I kissed (not a boy) was a year later, when I was 14 and my family was on vacation in Jamaica. He was a security guard at our hotel, gun carrying and all. At first, he just wanted to talk, and I thought nothing of it, perhaps because I am an only child and I was used to talking to adults. He got closer and closer and I got uncomfortable, and when he leaned in to kiss me, all I could think about was the gun he was carrying. Passing hotel guests made him desist, and he let me go, but not before admonishing me not to eat too much, lest I get fat like all the other women who come to the hotel. What a gentleman.
So, you see, there’s some things I just want to get out. The further away I get from living with men, the more I realize how troubling some of it was.
Some more vignettes:
When I was in fifth grade, my parents sent me to stay with my aunt, uncle and cousin for a week over winter break. I have this strange memory there. I clearly remember laying down in my aunt and uncle’s bed for a nap, and dozing off trying to make sense of the copy of “Scientific American” on the night stand. But then there are other memories of that afternoon, hazier, most distant and dream-like … my uncle explaining to my male cousin how boys and girls are different, being asked to show him because he’d never seen, being tickled, both of their bodies on mine. For years after, my cousin harbored some weird ideas – like he and I would get married, and he gave me a copy of “The Joy of Sex” as a gift. I told my parents about these memories when I was 19, but they said I made it up. Years later, my mom said that maybe it made sense after all. Unless I get the courage to ask my aunt about this before she dies, I’ll probably never know the truth of this. Maybe not even then.
That same aunt was beaten by that same uncle, and my parents told me then how evil it was for a man to do that to a woman. I don’t know how I fell into that same dynamic, but I did when I was 19. He was cruel, shoving me down stairs, breaking my finger, stealing my things. And those are just the tangible wounds. Being with him left me feeling broken and hopeless, but I overcame. Yet, still he pursues me every few years – and this is now more than 20 years later. Last time, he left harassing messages on one of my blogs. Evangeline’s sister and her sister’s partner told him off and sent him packing, hopefully for good.
My senior year of college, I needed to find someone to share my apartment after my roommate quit school mid-year. One of the people answering my ad was an Iranian man, who asked to come over and look at the place. He was moving to my town from a city a few hours away, and since he would be in town to see the apartment anyway, he invited me to dinner. I accepted, happy to learn about a new country and a new culture. The day after all my friends had left for Christmas break, he came to look at the apartment. After, he took me to his truck and drove me through a Burger King drive through. I tried to hide my disappointment as he then drove to a hotel where he had a room. We ate our dinner while watching television, and then he started to grope me. I froze. I didn’t know what to do – my friends were all out of town, and he’d driven me miles from my home. I sat, limbs rigid, hoping he’d give up. He didn’t. He eventually dragged me to the side of the bed and started pulling down my skirt. I started sobbing then, and he took pity on me and said he’d just rub against me instead. Driving home, he told me that “God sees what you do, and he knows that you are a bad woman.” I sat in the shower for an hour. The next day, I flew home to my parents, resolved to say nothing about what had happened.
The following year, I am raped. As his hands closed around my throat, I thought I’d never see the sun rise again and I wondered how my parents would cope if I was killed. It scared me into compliance, and it went on for six hours. The only person I told about it was an ex-boyfriend, who told me I had been stupid to trust the man. I felt stupid. I didn’t tell anyone else for almost 15 years.
Shortly after I met the man I would marry, we went to a renaissance festival, where a man he knew made leather bodices. He wanted to buy me one, and I gratefully accepted. When the vendor – his friend – asked if he could take a picture of me wearing it, I looked to my then-boyfriend, Dave, questioningly, and he nodded. We went behind the curtain of his shop, where the vendor said that what he really wanted was a picture of me wearing the bodice without a top on underneath. Again, I looked at Dave, who again nodded. So I complied, because I they both seemed to want it, and I wanted to seem grateful. Dave stood and watched as another man took topless photos of me to use for masturbatory material.
Dave also wanted to show me off to his closer friends. When we met, I was only 23 and he was 36. He wanted to show friends his own age that he could get a much younger woman. So he invited his closest childhood friend over and put on some porn videos, and I sat there awkwardly as they masturbated. Eventually, Dave asked me to have sex with him as his friend watched, and then he asked me to give his friend oral sex, which I did, because I didn’t want to embarrass Dave. Not embarrassing him was more important than how I felt about doing it.
Should have known the marriage would never work. I had decided in third grade I would never change my last name, because I was the last person in my family to have that name. Dave took great offense and said that a couple should have the same name. I offered him to use mine, which he seemed to think was outrageous. “A name is the most important thing a man can give his wife,” he said. I should have known.
Years after the fact, when we were separated and trying to work things out, Dave confessed that the night before he proposed, he had sex with someone else, “just to see if what I felt for you was real.” Amazing. If I had known that, I would have said no and spared us both 11 years of misery.
Getting married to Dave was perhaps the worst mistake of my life. At least, it was the most expensive and time-consuming one. I didn’t see it then, but I do now: he was a consummate narcissist. He would work occasionally and had a talent for getting himself fired just as soon as he became eligible for unemployment. And once unemployed, he was sometimes too lazy to even call in twice a week for his unemployment check as required. But this didn’t stop him from handing out money like candy on Halloween. One day he came home with a clarinet: $1,200 (never mind he could buy one used for $50 if he watched wanted ads, or even just rent one for a few bucks a month). Another night, he declared he simply had to learn to fly a plane or life was meaningless and he might as well die (that thankfully ended when he then CRASHED a plane as a flight student, costing them far more than he cost me). Finally, it wasn’t flying that would make his life worthwhile, but being a woman, and that meant thousands of dollars in electrolysis, which he paid for up-front on his own (thank god) credit card marketed by the hair removal studio. He was a user, through and through.
About that last point. I said before that Dave wanted to be a woman. I could be cruel and say he looked like Janet Reno, but what bothered me more was that his idea of “woman” was indistinguishable from every stereotype about 1950s femininity. Despite protestations to the opposite, “being a woman” to him seemed to mean sitting around the house all day doing nothing while being financially supported by someone else. It meant acting weak and timid and being passive. Curiously, though, it did not mean doing housework, because damn if he ever did anything useful. Funny how he cherry-picked his definition of what being a woman was all about.
My old job had me going to factories frequently. One time, I was at an assembly plant for a major manufacturer, being escorted on the floor to a meeting. As we walked by workstations, one worker urgently waved me over. I took two steps his way, at which point he flashed a porn magazine centerfold at me. I’ll never forget the look on his face – a kind of malicious glee. I said nothing immediately, but as I was leaving the plant, I called the public relations person over and told her what happened. She did everything right – apologized immediately, asked me where in the plant it happened and what he looked like. Later that afternoon, she sent me photos of people who could have possibly done it. The man’s face was among them. But as I stared at his picture, I just couldn’t bring myself to pick him, knowing full well that if I did, he would likely lose his high-paying job with good benefits, possibly harming his family and children. So I said, “I don’t know.” I hope he had the shit scared out of him, though, and will never do that again.
A few nights ago, driving home from work, Evangeline asked me what five things I would tell my younger self if I had the chance. I only came up with two things to say, just two things that would have made my life much better.
- Skip the men. Except for your father and very few others, they weren’t worth the trouble.
- Her name is Evangeline. Find her sooner.
Our stories are what make us. These stories helped shape how I think about men and women.