Can I Touch You?
“Do you want to touch it?”
I peeped between his legs and screwed up my nose. “Nooo.”
The afternoon had resulted in a magnificent fort, in the attic of the house where both of our families were holidaying. One of our best yet, blankets dipped down from the ceiling before a narrow tunnel through an intricate construction of chairs. It was invincible, and the perfect place to plot our adventures.
Max* suggested that we give each other a lesson on our bodies. I actually didn’t have much to share; why didn’t I know more, I wondered.
“Can I touch you?” He asked, after I turned down his polite offer.
“No. It would feel weird.” I frowned and pulled my knickers up.
He shrugged. “Okay. Let’s pretend we’re in a treehouse and there are dinosaurs below us-”
“-and we have to save our friend who fell into one of the traps-”
“-and the rain’s coming so we won’t be able to climb back up the trees soon-”
“-you go first and I’ll fend off the dinosaurs with my bow and arrow!”
And with that, we were scrambling out and charging down the staircase, deadly arrows spinning from my bow and keeping him safe from the dinosaur claws.
A smattering of thuds filled the charged air, jostling one another to escape the classroom walls. Until the tarmac and grass cut the tangle of feet into two. Football for them, netball for us. The boys roamed around the field whilst I pivoted on my foot, forced to remain still with ball in hand. I wanted to join their fun, and so the mission was on to persuade my teacher to let me swap. The following week, triumphantly strapped into shin pads with studded boots on my feet, it felt different and kinda good. Until the questions rained down, from both peers and teachers, about my presence on the field. It didn’t seem to matter that my feet could run equally as fast; they didn’t have the chance to touch the ball. I felt left out, and so reluctantly returned to dragging myself around the netball court.
It was that time of year again. The Play. As final years, this one was ours and we knew it. The excitement was so much that we had to clamp hands over mouths to keep from chattering as the parts were read aloud. I was still waiting when the list had finished; my hand rose into the air. “What about the main girl parts?” There were none, and only boys could have the male parts. The frown stayed on my face for the rest of the day. I was given the biggest female part. She had very few lines, was only on stage alongside her husband, sang about diamonds, and wore an apron. I didn’t want to sing about diamonds. I didn’t want to wear an apron. I wanted to be the one wearing the black, bushy beard of my husband, brandishing a sword and claiming the treasure.
A rumour was circulating: a girl in our year had given a boy a blowjob. Sheltered village life gave me the idea that a blowjob was some sort of haircut, until my friend enlightened me to the truth. I watched as the girl was banished to the edges of our year group for being such a slut. I watched as the boy was congratulated. Did she even want to do it, I wondered.
Hanging outside the school gate one day, my friends and I. One of them looked me up and down. “They’ve grown”, he said whilst pointedly looking at my chest. My cheeks flamed and my arms instinctively wrapped around myself. “No need to cover them up, it’s a compliment!” He reassured me. It didn’t feel like a compliment.
“Don’t say that to me,” I snapped and walked away.
Evenings began to pass with apron tied around waist and an increasing number of plates balanced on wrists. Within a month of working, a customer took hold of my arm and, keeping me under his stare, stated that I was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. Pulling away, I hurriedly finished clearing the table and pretended to be busy in the kitchen until he left.
“You should be flattered,” one of the chefs informed me. It made my skin crawl. “You’ll not get a boyfriend if you carry on like that,” the chef responded when I told him so. “You frigid or what?”
Male customers continued to comment on my appearance as the shifts rolled by, but I didn’t make the mistake of admitting how they really made me feel again. Frigid wasn’t a desirable tag to my name.
As instructed, I had made an effort with my hair pinned up and make-up outlining my eyes. Within minutes I learnt that was a mistake whilst serving drinks. The first lager I poured was given to a man who, whilst leaning over the counter for his coins, yanked me in close with a leering expression. “Give you a tip if you flash your pretty teeth at me? Give you another if you flash more.” I recoiled in horror.
But this was not to be the worst comment, and they soon became so normal that they washed over my ears like the dance music that throbbed from the speakers. I told myself not to dwell on the words of these drunken men. I told myself that it was a minority of men that felt entitled to sexualise me whilst I poured their drinks. I told myself that these comments meant nothing.
In reality, they meant everything. A mental barrier would be placed as I stepped through those doors, to keep the unwanted advances at bay. But there were too many to keep the wall from cracking, and they all seeped through eventually.
“It’s just part of the job,” I was told by fellow female employees who had worked behind the bar for years. But none of the men I worked alongside were obliged to deal with this part of the job.
School was out. Compulsory education finished. It was almost too easy to reject my university place and watch the new skies open out. I began by crossing the English Channel, and was soon busking in the narrow, French streets and picking grapes alongside raucous, pot-bellied farmers.
A short time into this venture, a man forced his tongue into my mouth. I said no but he wouldn’t stop. His hands everywhere. His touch forceful and painfully invasive on my bare skin. It could’ve been worse, I convinced my shivering-self afterwards. It was nothing, I told myself. It didn’t matter. I had let him do it. I deserved it.
Never before had I seen him so angry, my then-boyfriend. It had taken a while to work up the courage to tell him, and now he was raging. At me. Because I had cheated on him. Because I should have tried harder to stop this man. Because I must have wanted it. Because it was my fault. All my fault.
A few days later, he said that he would forgive me. It was difficult for him, but he could do it. Then he wrapped his arms around me tightly, which always used to feel good and safe but did not anymore. I didn’t want to be touched. I didn’t want to kiss. I didn’t want to have sex. He said there was something wrong with me. He said it hurt his feelings. It made him angry when I said no. I wanted it to all go away. So I lay underneath him until he had finished, one night, two, three, over and over. Until I was numb. Until it numbed the guilt and the shame.
My first one night stand was with a man twelve years my senior. It was a drunken decision to take up his ‘innocent’ invite to crash in his hotel room, but it was also fun and different. Until, “I’d give you oral if you’d shaved” left his mouth. I wondered how he would react if I said the same thing to him. However my thoughts were unspoken. Some things are better left unsaid to men, I was learning. Unless I wanted the onslaught of names to come in my direction: frigid, whore, slut. A commonplace contradiction.
“I know that you love me. I know that you’re denying your true feelings.”
I stared incredulously at the boy in front of me who was uttering these words. Technically he was not a boy; he was twenty-seven years old. He was also supposed to be my friend. But a friend would surely listen when I said that I was sorry but I did not feel the same way. A friend wouldn’t climb into my bed without asking whilst I slept. A friend wouldn’t press himself against me, until I woke up, confused and panicky. A friend wouldn’t get angry when I scrambled out of bed and locked myself in the bathroom, until my breath slowed and the nausea passed. A friend wouldn’t try to convince me that my feelings were wrong.
I cut contact and, in return, received angry emails demanding that I explain myself and lashing out at the rejection. After all, what right did I have, to say no.
The rays beat down. There was little shadow to shelter from the intensity, but it was welcome. I shifted on the hard boards of the bench, tilting the pages from the harsh glare whilst lifting my face to greet it. Something caught my eye: a man sat on the opposite side of the fountain. His eyes blankly bored into mine as he jerked his hand up and down between his legs. I froze. Then I was jumping up, throwing belongings into my bag, and running.
Three years in London was more than enough time to bury certain clothing at the bottom of my wardrobe: the tighter items, the tops that clung to my waist, the shorter dresses and skirts. Street harassment was part of daily life here; the wolf whistles, crude remarks, threats and groping, they became normal. The surrounding media, politicians, society at large, stated that victims of street harassment and assault asked for it. So, even though I knew that it didn’t make sense, I changed the way I dressed. It made no difference, but the physical layers of cloth between these men and myself provided a sense of control.
I stopped going to clubs: hunting grounds in which predators closed in on their pieces of meat. As if to step through the door were to consent to their desires, no didn’t seem to have any meaning within these walls. If I was so daring as to assert myself as more than an aesthetically pleasing doll, the angry hisses of slut and whore would rain down.
New Year’s Eve: part of the crowd lining the Thames in the shadow of the London Eye, my sister and I. We had lost our friends in the sea of people but it didn’t seem to matter. We joined the drunken masse, dancing to music blaring from unseen speakers. A group of men introduced themselves to us; we talked, we took selfies. They wanted more. They were getting too close. They surrounded the two of us, blocked our way and refused to let us pass. We said no. I could feel hands where I didn’t want them to be. Panic set in. We said no, again and again. The more we screamed and pulled away, the more they laughed. Frantically pushing my sister through a tiny gap, I felt a hand forcing its way between my legs. He held my vagina so hard that it hurt. My palm met the side of his face. Hard enough for him to release me. Not hard enough to wipe the laughing entitlement from his features.
Colour exploded across the black canvas above our heads. Scarlet and emerald sparks cartwheeled from the Eye and glitter fell upon the city like monsoon rain. There was cheering, joy, laughter. But, inside, I was aching. All my fault. There was pain between my legs. All my fault. I should have known better. I should have protected my sister. I was too drunk, I had led them on. All my fault.
“Happy New Year.” She whispered into my ear, arms wrapped around each other, whilst the bells chimed twelve. There were no words adequate enough. Little point in reassuring each other that it was okay. Because it wasn’t. Our embrace grew tighter as we silently accepted that this was yet another night to push beyond memory. After all, it is too painful to allow all the stories to remain clear and vibrant in our minds. But every woman has her collection; the ones that opened her eyes to the reality of being female in today’s world. Every girl is gathering those stories, right now. My thoughts turned to Max: how simple it had been to say no, and how easily he had listened. I wanted to believe that he was still listening. It would never be so easy again, I realised with a sickening jolt. And how I longed to return to our fort: high in the trees, bow and arrow in hand, where only the dinosaurs would get me if I wasn’t fast enough.