Me, too

Erica Zendell
Oct 17, 2017 · 9 min read

This isn’t the first time I’ve thought about writing this. The timing is unfortunately impeccable.

It’s nearly 14 years to the date and this was the first time I found myself in a sexual situation that was nonconsensual. I wish it were the only time something like this ever happened to me — not one of five.

I’ll add that those are only the five that immediately come to mind. No doubt there are many others buried in my memory but have felt so commonplace, so embedded in the experience of being female, that I have cast them off as “normal.”

In a sentence, for anyone who wishes to cut to the chase before (or without) reading further: this is the story of how I was manipulated and coerced into oral sex for recovering a friendship when I was thirteen. Needless to say, the friendship didn’t recover; instead I spiraled secretly into a depression until I wrote my way out.

The first time I ever wrote something personal for others to read was because of this incident. I wouldn’t be who I am, writing what I write, believing what I do about men and women without it. Writing set me free when my mind had me in chains and I had no courage to speak aloud.

I can’t remember exactly when I first met him, but we inevitably spent a fair bit of time together starting in the 6th grade. Outside of school, our parents were friendly because they belonged to the same golf club in my hometown. In school, we were around each other quite often between the shared roster of honors classes and the long bus ride we shared to school. Most of our classmates lived about 5–15 minutes away — we lived between 30 minutes and an hour away, depending on traffic.

Even though we saw each other every day and were connected both inside and outside of the classroom, I wouldn’t say we were really friends — I wanted to be friends with him, but I was the total nerd, friends with a group of culturally-diverse outsiders. He was a popular boy, funny-looking but athletic, charismatic and friends with the uberwealthy, cool kids.

Still, somehow, over time, I think in the tail end of seventh grade, something began to bubble between us. The pinnacle of our intimacy was holding hands while watching Van Wilder or Out Cold at my house and he felt me up. He might have kissed my neck, I can’t remember. It was completely hush, hush, of course, because I wasn’t cool enough to be seen with him in school and I felt embarrassed at the idea of what my friends would say if I told them that I liked him.

I recall taking that physical movement as a sign of net forward motion, in addition to frequent conversations on AOL Instant Messenger (I can’t believe that product is being deprecated, but good riddance. I can’t think of the product without thinking of this guy, his screen name, and everything that was communicated and not communicated via DM).

It’s all very hazy at this point, but what I do remember is we had been getting closer and friendlier on the down-low and I thought we were making headway toward a real, public relationship until one day he suddenly stopped talking to me. Nothing had changed or happened (that I was aware of) that would change our dynamic.

Anyway, he stopped talking to me and I didn’t know why. I reached out over AIM for an explanation of why he was acting so weirdly. I made no headway. As the conversation continued and I asked what it would take for us to be friends again — more than friends, I hoped in the long term, but at least back to where we were before — and he made a proposition. In exchange, he wanted oral sex.

I was confused, scared, embarrassed, upset, and didn’t know what else I could do. I didn’t feel like there was anyone I could trust or talk to about what was going on. I wanted this person back in my life and I was mindfucked into believing it was worth doing whatever it took to get him. I didn’t want this, but I talked myself into it.

I went over to his house the following Friday, I think. He was completely cold. I walked into his bedroom and remember a sports game playing on his TV, loudly so nothing could be heard over it. The door was locked. The quilt was grey. It was the first time I had ever seen a penis and I remember being disgusted by the sight of that rogue fleshy finger-sized appendage between the legs through the frond of pubic hair. He pressed my head down. Hard. I didn’t have the faintest clue of what I was doing with my lips or teeth, though if I knew then what I know now, I’d have bitten his dick off. I didn’t want to be there. I just wanted to be back to where we were.

I remember him reaching his hands down my pants and appearing disgusted by my ungroomed pubic hair. Again, I didn’t know much about these things. His crowd was a fast crowd — not as fast as the kids I heard about in the New York prep schools, but close to it.

We never kissed on the lips. That should tell you all you need to know. The crude, transactional nature of the whole thing. He never cared about me. If he did, his friends probably made him feel ashamed of it and he’d have rather had been cool than be caught liking someone like me.

I held back tears on the ride home as my mother picked me up. Normally chatty, I was quiet. My innocence and lightness toward the world was gone that night. I was never the same.

When Monday came, I was hopeful that what I had done would have achieved the desired result. Instead, things got worse. He ignored me, treating me with coldness or indifference. I felt like I was crazy.

Did I want this? Was this consensual? Would anyone believe me if I told them what had happened? I was depressed and out of my damned mind. And I would continue to be for the next six months.

We had a field trip sometime at the end of the winter/beginning of sprint to a nearby museum. For English class, we had an assignment to write a story about a piece we saw at the museum — I picked a sculpture by George Segal called “The Parking Garage.” It showed a man, likely a parking attendant, face and body hunched beneath the bright ‘PARK’ sign. It’s primary colors, white, and black, paper cache. It gelt abject and absolute. I don’t know much about George Segal and his work but the deflation of this man struck me hard.

I began the writing assignment talking about my dad’s kids from his first marriage and my trips to New York with my mom and dad to visit them and their children — they were my primary association with parking garages. It transformed into an autobiography of the last 13 years of my life, at least 20 pages long. The middle of it included the story of what happened with him. Harassment. Assault. I still don’t know what to call it to this day.

I tried to edit and cut what I wrote, but decided against it. I submitted it, raw, exposing myself in every line, pseudonyms barely concealing what was really going on. I didn’t care that my teacher, a little bit of a dirty old man, would read it.

When I was done, I gave it to my mom to read — I couldn’t use the words, so I let her read it. She cried with me on my bed, stroking my hair, saying over and over, “I am so, so sorry.”

It took me six months to tell her and to tell my friends. They all supported me unilaterally. I wished I had said something sooner. I wish I had told this story sooner.

Later that year, I won an English award. I think this piece, along with an essay on Fahrenheit 451, were the main reasons for it.

All’s well didn’t end well, though. My academic rival, friends with him, who learned what I had written, wrote a response story from his perspective, trivializing what had happened to me, saying that I had wanted it and it was all my fault. I remember getting a hold of a copy from one of my friends and it made me sick.

This wasn’t the last time a man would take control of a narrative and make a women look insane and obsessive — in my life or the lives of others I know.

Four years later, after I thought all this shit was dead and gone and completely under the bridge, at an intramural sporting fundraiser, a friend of his brought it up to attempt to humiliate me. Four years later, I was still being quietly and insidiously bullied and teased. It felt like there was no justice either when we both got into good schools and there was no consequence, divine or otherwise, for what happened.

It’s one thing when the person who sexually harassed you is a total stranger on the street, someone you never have to see again. It’s another when the person is sharing breathing room with you in the crammed space of a school bus with you for four years after the fact, making you think you’re crazy, forcing you to pretend you’re fine and cool with everything that happened, avoiding eye contact or having to share a seat.

There was never an apology. I doubt there was ever remorse.

Even though I begrudgingly went through with the act, I didn’t want any of this at all. I was thirteen. This wasn’t someone I loved. He manipulated me and it wasn’t my fault.

In hindsight, I don’t even know why I ever found him attractive. Why I was always so nice to him. Why I helped him as often as I did with homework. This was the kind of guy who was smart and didn’t need to cheat but cheated anyway, from what I remember. Needless to say, he went from Wharton to investment banking to venture capital to HBS. We got coffee peaceably in San Francisco when I spent the summer out there. He is in a super-committed relationship now. Our parents remain acquaintances, still at that golf club. My mom knows what happened. My dad does not. His parents know nothing.

He is now in Boston. We crossed paths about a month ago, not acknowledging one another in a bar in Harvard Square. Thank goodness, I was in the company of two girls from my jiu-jitsu gym to celebrate one girl’s birthday. “No one could fuck with us even if they wanted to,” paraphrasing the refrain of Cardi B. The birthday girl, in particular, could put someone to sleep with a guillotine chokehold in a matter of seconds.

I shot him a quick Facebook message later that night acknowledging that I didn’t acknowledge him because I wasn’t sure it was him. This was a lie — I just didn’t want to speak to him and the same seemed true of him. (He never replied to the message). Part of the reason I didn’t want to speak to him was because I had spent 2.5 hours that night grappling and going out to birthday drinks afterwards was a already physical stretch. But mostly, I didn’t want to speak to him was because I didn’t like the fact that he was in my city, the place I called home for the last five years that he would have as his for the next two. I still don’t.

I’m over it and at peace with it, but I’m not past it. I won’t forget.

Writing saved me then. It always has since. Speaking aloud or on paper when my voice was too shaky has gotten me into trouble, but done me far less harm than good.

What an older me would say to the younger me now is this: “This was someone who was far beneath you. He didn’t deserve to touch you. He didn’t deserve the emotional influence he had over you. I wish I could have supported you then to find the courage to say, ‘No, this isn’t right.’ Or to tell him to fuck off. I know you felt like you had no options and you had no one to talk to, and I am so, so sorry. Regardless, It happened. I believe you. You aren’t alone. I wear that shame with you, but your have nothing to be ashamed of. Let’s go back into the light together. “

If you’re reading this, all I want to say is even if you think no one is listening, someone is — someone who needs to hear what you have to say at the very moment that you have to say it.

Speak up. We hear you and we’re here for you. You won’t regret it.

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George Segal, The Parking Garage (1968)

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