Dear Little Liz, Your Heart Can Take It

You’ll be molested at age 12. This will define your sexuality for years. Be as kind to yourself as possible. It will be hard. Your body will remember. This is a trauma-response. This does not make you a freak. You are not alone. You are terrifyingly, incredibly, not alone. This is the year you’ll begin to escape into academics as a way to put up a wall between yourself and everyone else.

You won’t get kissed until you’re 15, although you won’t admit this to anyone but your closest friend. You’ll date the boy for less than two weeks, and break up with him when he tries to convince you he loves you. You’ll get kissed again a few months later, by another boy who uses downers and skips school, and you’ll break up with him after he says he carved your name into his bedpost.

The boys in your high school will openly talk about looking down your shirt, will grab your waist and your ass and your breasts. You’ll feel like you deserve this or brought it on, but you don’t and you didn’t. Sex Ed will be abstinence only, and your teacher will tell you that if you have sex with someone, you’re also having sex with everyone they’ve ever had sex with, and everyone those people have ever had sex with, ad infimum. You and your friend Dan sit in the back of the room and create a flow chart of what this would look like, based on who in your class is supposedly sleeping with whomever else. You find this hilarious.

At 16, you’ll make out with a boy you’ve had a crush on for more than a year, at a movie theater. Later, he’ll say he’s not interested in a relationship with you. You’re confused, but not heartbroken. You’ve already learned intimacy doesn’t equal love. (And, as it turns out, the two of you will date for a summer in your mid-twenties. You’ll spend most of that summer in his bed, memorizing the shape of his body with your hands and your tongue. You’ve been friends all that time, and the word love comes early and easily. You’ll end things because you love him, and because you know you’ll never make each other happy.)

At 18, you’ll go to college and make friends with a guy in your creative writing class. One day, class will be canceled, and the two of you will make out in your dorm, because you’re bored and vaguely attracted to each other. He’ll make an off-hand comment about how a woman can say a man raped her and ruin the man’s life. You should take that as your cue to kick him out (though you won’t). The two of you maintain a complicated friendship — not dating, not friends with benefits, but friends who occasionally make out. One afternoon, he touches your breast and you start to shake. He asks you what’s wrong, and you just shake your head. He cuddles you, and doesn’t press, but maybe if he did you’d have told him how you were molested as a kid. How your sexuality terrifies you.

At some point, you learn virginity is a construct and in grad school, you’ll talk with girlfriends about sex you’ve had without meaning penis-in-vagina, and you’ll know that while your girlfriends understand, most people won’t get the difference. You won’t care. There will be the man who flirts by bringing you Hershey’s Kisses, who you kiss exactly never before he disappears for three years to New York. He’ll call you out of the blue one summer afternoon to confess that when you met, he was addicted to heroin. He’ll ask for a second chance. You’ll say no, because you’ve moved, and that will be the end of it. There will be a possessive man you’ll briefly date, which will make you wary of relationships that move too fast.

There will be the sad, married man you fall a little in love with in grad school, whose touch is the first to light you up instead of shutting you down. And his close friend, who in hindsight, would have been a better choice, who you never do more than hug. There will be the brilliant man with an addiction, who you will date for a few months before he breaks your heart. In your late 20s, he’ll be sober and in your city, and the two of you will hook up. He’ll be the first ex you’ll do this with, and you’ll love the familiarity of him.

At 25, you will move to Oregon, and there you’ll meet a park ranger at a carnival. You should not exchange numbers. You should not believe his sob story about sleeping in his truck. You should absolutely not kiss him. But you will, because you’re lonely, and you’ll invite him to sleep on your couch, and, love, what happens next is still not your fault.

The next morning, you’ll call your best guy friend and leave a short message. When he calls back, that afternoon, you’ve already gone to Planned Parenthood, already gotten Plan B and a bag filled with condoms they handed you on your way out. It takes a long time for you to form the word rape. He is the second person you tell, though the only one you wanted to tell. Your friend gets angry on your behalf. He asks if you’re safe now, if the man who raped you is gone. You tell the truth, no. Your friend pleads with you to sleep somewhere else, and you refuse. You’re too numb, too overwhelmed to tell anyone why you need a place to crash. You’re not even sure of the legal definition of rape, though you researched it. Because of course you did. You victim-blame yourself so hard. Your friend will do his best to shut this down. Please, love, listen to him. He loves you, without condition. Let yourself be loved. It’s worth it.

Eventually, you’ll find a word that describes your sexuality, and feel such a sense of relief. You’ll learn the vocabulary and practices of sex positivity and risk-aware and safer sex. You’ll have sex with men because you like the intimacy of it and because sometimes it seems like a natural extension of friendship. You’ll describe these relationships as complicated to end conversations you don’t want to have with friends who won’t understand, but really, they’re not complicated. You are able to cleave love from sex, and also to understand that for you, it’s okay to fall a little in love with a lot of people and a lot in love with a few, and that that is a choice, and that your heart can take it. That your heart thrives.

Love, you are strong and beautiful and resilient as hell.

We’ll be alright.

With love,
Your older self