You are five years old. You have an aunt who is only nine years older — she’s your babysitter today. You wake up to a strange man raising his voice toward your aunt.
The first thing you hear is: “If you wake her up, I’ll kill her.” The first thing you see is her face, terrified.
The second thing you see is a gun. She tells you to stay asleep, or at least to pretend. He takes her to another room.
You can only pretend for so long.
Like any five-year-old, you’re curious. You hear commotion, but you don’t know exactly what’s going on out there. Slinking toward the door, you peek through the thin slit where light seeps in.
You see the man sitting in the kitchen, gun in hand. Your aunt pours him something to drink.
You pretend to sleep until sleep becomes reality.
When you wake up, the man is gone. Your aunt checks on you and gives you your favorite toy to play with. She calls the police and tells them about the break-in and what ensued after.
Still groggy from your nap, you wonder if it was all just a dream. You step into the kitchen and pause for a second. You can remember every detail about the man’s face and voice. Your Mr. Potato Head drops to the floor; its parts scatter.
His transition from inappropriate to illegal is gradual. It starts with him in the bathtub, asking you to fetch him a towel. It develops into something that will define you, if you let it.
Your stepfather is handsome — maybe not traditionally, but what do you know? You’re not even six years old yet. He is kind and financially stable enough for your mom — and you — to have fallen in love with him, and that’s what matters.
They are married, so you call him dad now. You and your mom have even taken his surname, which is something you will wear as a badge, then as a label, then as a cape.
When mom goes out, you get nervous. You hear dad’s voice in your head, remembering all of the things he’ll nitpick about — Have you done your chores? Your homework? Are you wearing your slippers? Slippers? — then you hear his voice for real.
Trembling, you make your way to the bathroom, or to the living room, or to wherever daddy needs you this time. He’s in his bedroom, with those four teal walls that drown you in feelings that make you want to vomit.
Teal is green and blue. Teal is the monster under your bed. Teal is even darker once the lights go off. Teal is a decade of sexual abuse. If nightmares had a color, they’d be teal blue. It’s everything you hate in this world.
You wonder, Do all of my friends’ daddies treat their daughters like this?
You know they don’t, but you also know it’s because you’re special. He tells you how special you are. Special is a status until it resembles something more of a prison sentence. You no longer want to be special.
You know nothing is wrong with your friends, and you’d never accuse your dad of anything because all he did was notice how special you are. If there is a problem, you think it must be with you.
By the time you’re a teenager, you wonder if you’re some kind of magnet for sexual abuse. Years later, you’ll find out every woman in your family — your great aunt, your aunt, even your mother, and now you — had been a victim of rape or sexual abuse, almost as if you’d inherited it like an eye color or a sum of money.
As you stand at your locker, you notice today is different. You feel heavier — not because you had a big breakfast or because you’re holding a bunch of textbooks, but because something else is weighing you down.
Like gravity’s force has tripled overnight. Like you are dragging an 18-wheeler through the halls. Like the weight of a thousand nightmares has suddenly collapsed on top of you, on the verge of forcing your feet through the ground.
You find the strength to walk away from your locker and past your homeroom. If you were playing hooky, you’d scan the area for teachers. Instead, your eyes remain focused on the door.
“Step out that door, young lady, and you’ll be suspended.” A nun sees what you’re doing and tries to stop you. Perhaps if she knew why, she’d rethink. Perhaps if you knew why, you’d turn around and go to class.
You can only pretend for so long.
Cheeks dampened and eyes straight ahead, you walk out of school without looking back. This is the second most important choice you’ll make today. You head for your aunt’s house.
The world you knew is no more. You feel branded, and though a weight should have been lifted from your shoulders, gravity remains unflinching like it’s holding a grudge.
As you pack up some clothes to stay at your aunt’s place, Mom says some things she will regret — or at least some things you hope she will.
You spend some nights under your parents’ roof and some under your aunt’s, bouncing back and forth for months at a time, over a span of years.
What began as physical has manifested itself as psychological abuse. Your stepfather has become a man you barely know, yet one you recognize all too well. He routinely follows you when you leave the house, a stalking habit that grows stranger, sadder, and scarier with age.
He sometimes punishes you for reasons he makes up on the spot, to prevent you from going out with friends. This becomes a running joke in your friend group, but it’s never funny. You seem more and more predictable each time you need to cancel plans. There are dishes to wash and laundry to fold. Your friends eventually stop calling.
It takes seven years for your mom to divorce him. You don’t go to college and that is your biggest regret, but not your only one.
One of the last times you speak to your stepfather is at your grandmother’s funeral. He tells you to take care of your mother.
The last chance you have to see him is at another funeral — his. You take the day off from work but decide not to go. It is then that you realize you’ll never get the one thing you want from him: a genuine apology.
You remember that feeling you had years back, the feeling that you are a magnet for abuse. You have a daughter of your own now, and as hereditary as sexual assault seems in your family, you vow to do everything in your power to make sure its lineage stops with you.
You are in your early fifties now. Emotional scars don’t fade like physical scars do. You get a new job at a law firm — a fresh start.
The first day, you notice the harsh sound the door makes when it shuts. It jars old memories loose, when your stepfather used to come home and you’d sit in your bed, trembling.
Not too long after, you notice the sound your boss makes when he walks up the stairs. The door slamming, the heavy footsteps of a grown man heading toward you — together, these should be enough to break you down into pieces.
You realize you must face the reality head-on, much like when you were five years old and it confronted you without warning. But one thing has changed since then.
You’re bigger now. Older, wiser. You’re stronger in every sense of the word. You’re prepared.
One weekend, you allow your niece to paint your fingernails. She lets you choose the color.
You recall the way teal blue makes you feel — that awful color. The color that represents your cell, the one that imprisoned you for nearly a decade and that’s held you captive ever since. The color that’s tattooed your memories, making you wish you saw only black and white. That diseased color, that monstrous, oppressive color that never fails to make you sick to your stomach. Teal is ugly.
You insist that your niece paint your nails teal blue.
Teal blue — that beautiful color. The color that matches the new blouse you bought for work. The color that brightens up any outfit or party or painting. That vibrant color — a work of art in itself — that now puts a smile on your face just as fast as it used to wipe one off.
Holding your arms out straight, you finally see what’s in front of you. Your hands, teal blue fingernails, your future.