When I was in middle school, I remember what the boys on the bus said.
The boys at the back of the bus talked about girls. They always talked about girls.
I tried not to listen — to immerse myself in my reading, or my homework, or my sketchbook — anything and everything to avoid listening to what they were saying.
But one day I couldn’t shut it out. That was the day they were talking about pubic hair.
On that day, one of the boys on the bus said: “If I ever have a girlfriend with pubic hair, I’ll rip it out myself.”
His friend guffawed roughly, then agreed.
Several seats up, my heart began beating wildly in my chest. What’s wrong with pubic hair? Why would they rip out a girl’s pubic hair? I have pubic hair. What if they find out?
When we got off the bus, most of the kids trickled into the adjacent gas station to spend their allowances on candy and gum before their parents picked them up.
I stood in line in line behind those boys, clutching a pack of gum in a white-knuckled grip, waiting for my turn at the counter. My stomach clenched as tightly as my fingers; my thoughts raced in fear. I felt like my clothes were suddenly invisible — like they could see my secret, forbidden, forsaken hair. I made it through the line, but lived in terror for weeks after overhearing their conversation.
It wasn’t until many years later that I realized how deeply I internalized those boys’ words. It took many more years to realize that what they were bragging about was the very definition of sexual violence.
These days, I’ve mostly forgotten about the boys on the bus. But, sometimes, I remember what they said. Sometimes, someone will say something that reminds me of them. And when I remember what they said, that unctuous fear rises back up to the surface: it’s like I’m just thirteen again, like I’m rattling around on that vinyl seat again, like I’m staring at my book again, like the words and lines are blurring together again, and like I’m still trying so hard, so desperately, not to listen to those boys.