chapter three: me too?

Does anyone really know or remember the first person who came onto them? I'm sincerely asking - maybe you do. I don't. I know from an early age the message to me (to girls) was that I would develop feelings for a boy and I'd have to combine the right proportions of charm, sexiness, beauty and wit to get him to trip on some metaphorical banana peel, fall face-first in a love puddle and jump up covered in love goo exclaiming, "WOW I JUST NOTICED I LOVE HER."

So, maybe someone came onto me. Subtly, without doing all of the above, and I didn't believe it or notice. Let's say my first Me Too was believing I would default as undesirable until explicitly, verbally pursued. I wasn't confident enough in my mind-reading skills to discern a come-on until interest was coupled with voiced affection and subsequent action. It doesn't surprise me, then, that women are so often knee-deep in a situation leading to assault before they have the instinct to get out. We are so trained to remember that men aren't paying mind to us until sexual tension is undeniably high or advances are made. And, for some men, the high stakes have nothing to do with love.

Throughout school; a smattering of memories. A boy I'd been friends with since kindergarten instant messaged me on AOL in ninth grade and used "I like your butt you have a good butt" as his first line. Bold as brass, these boys. I was in my basement slash gym room with my best friend Rachel, doubled over in laughter. Half surprised, half intrigued, the message hadn't included the most important information I'd need to know in order to respond: what does that mean? Could I like like this boy? Probably. I was fourteen. I would have been flattered that anyone liked me. I didn't know if "you have a good butt" meant he wanted to be my boyfriend, or if he was just sharing a bit of research he'd been working on. Rachel responded for me, "hehe." I don't think that was enough because the conversation dropped off. Had I embarrassed him? Really, what was I supposed to say? "I like your butt too?" I walked to the gym equipment and stepped on the stair master. "Does this make your butt look better?" I asked Rachel. I pressed the balls of my feet deeply into the pedals and walked until my legs started to burn. A butt could be an asset to me, apparently. Boys noticed it, though I never had until then. My next Me Too was learning that my body and what I did with it was an incredibly effective tool for eliciting praise.

My first boyfriend kissed me in my living room, while my parents were upstairs. I wanted to kiss him too, whole-heartedly. I had only been kissed once, and that was onstage for a play so it didn't count. I wanted to get my first real kiss under my belt before I turned sixteen. Before I was lame. Did you know people who have sexual encounters are cool and people who don't are lame? Get with it, y'all. We were watching Comedy Central - something he liked, I know, because I never watched it on my own. He leaned over on the sofa, planting his lips awkwardly on mine as Dane Cook chattered punchlines from the television. He laughed at a joke and it startled me. I didn't know what was funny because I hadn't been listening - he obviously was. I remember thinking, "You're not really paying attention to me sooooo that sucks." He plunged his tongue out and we kissed the way only children do - mouths open, tongues poking each other, no breathing, no breaks. We probably sat like that for twenty minutes until a stream of drool forced one of us to break the vacuum and wipe it away. Afterward, I felt obligated to be satisfied with the experience. I wouldn't get another first kiss, so I had to pleasantly arrange the highlights like a decorator shoving the sofa over a stain. That was a heavy Me Too - what happened with my body was more concrete history than how the experience felt. My sexual milestones were each on a checklist, quantity: one, and if they didn't unfold perfectly, well. Well.

That boyfriend staked claim on a few more of my milestones. A classic up-the-shirt boob grab in the backseat of his car, parked in my driveway. My dad caught us. Maybe you're laughing. I laughed about that for years. "Hahaha, don't we all have a back seat story?" Now that I'm a grown woman, I wonder why we do. My parents had seen us kiss inside the house - it wasn't forbidden. There was no necessary reason to make out in the back seat of his car. Only, it felt like a thing people did. It felt like I should do it too. I look back at my teenage self and lower my head with sympathy. I didn't want to discover my body there. I didn't want to feel a new rush of hormones coursing head to toe while laying on a three ring binder and an empty Zaxby's bag. No one forced me, but I should have forced myself to do better. Sexuality is vulnerable, uncharted territory when you're sixteen. You should make space for it, and make the space safe. In the back seat of his car, I taught my boyfriend how I expected to be treated. I taught him that pleasure isn't the kind of thing you have to plan for.

After we broke up, that boyfriend spent an afternoon at Mellow Mushroom telling our mutual male friends that my boobs were nothing compared to his new girlfriend's and that I never "mowed the lawn." I didn't know what that meant until someone else enlightened me. My mother was an Iranian immigrant, raised in a mangled mixture of pre-war European taste, then forced Islamic law. Neither are particularly interested in maintenance of pubic hair, for their own different reasons. I was mortified not only by the rumor, but my ignorance that I had been doing anything wrong. I learned that there was a "right" and "wrong" way to be a woman, and being wrong led to judgement. My pubic hair was a deeply personal issue, but not the only critique I received by far. My brown pants "were for lesbians." My dark arm hair was "manly." My thick, Persian eyebrows were "aggressive." I always had memos in my inbox: be sexy, be feminine, be sweet. 

After getting boyfriend experience on my resume, I began to pursue a real relationship with the boy I'd loved since the fifth grade. Can ten year olds fall in love? If they come from dischordant parents, have a high sense of empathy and understand trauma from a young age: yes. I loved this boy throughout my childhood and adolescence. I did all of his statistics homework, sensed when he felt insecure, talked to him on the phone for hours, encouraged him to pursue his dreams and made out with him whenever he felt like it. Every moment we spent together is still seared into my mind. I stopped speaking to him when I was nineteen and I didn't stop seeing his face in my dreams for a decade after that. I loved him. He confessed to loving me intermittently - when it served his selfishness to get something from me. I have faith that a few times, it was said genuinely. Perhaps accidentally. I could tell when he needed me - when we was willing to need me. I could tell when something more interesting had caught his eye. I chalked his wavering up to self-confidence. Afraid to openly choose me, he measured his status by the quality of the girl on his arm. Sometimes I was good enough, sometimes I wasn't. I resolved to believe that knowing he loved me was enough, even if he wasn't willing to say it. I expected honesty and bravery of myself and nothing of him. He had reasons. He had baggage. (I had reasons too. I had more baggage. I chose to forget that part.)

He broke the news that he had asked someone else to be his girlfriend as we sat in his parked car after a ride home. "She's a damp sponge," he explained. "You don't want a wet sponge - like a really slutty girl - because that gets water everywhere. But you don't want a dry sponge because you can't do anything with it. You're a dry sponge. You're a prude." 

I still can't speak to that. I have words, but none of them come out right. Maybe just one: fuckyou. I had never turned down any of his advances. I think he was projecting on me, probably? He cared more for me than he wanted to, and it meant he wouldn't hit it and quit it. He wasn't ready to commit, and I had been for years. He was afraid to get too close to me. That made me the prude, I guess. I felt used up. I felt heartbroken. 

My life wasn't shaping up to be a very romantic story. I, too, believed that girls with less-than-glimmering histories would have to sing the Bad Girl Blues or be graciously rescued by The White Knight. I envied the girls with protective dads who answered the door every time a boy knocked. Who stressed the importance of curfew. The girls who had long-term boyfriends who brought flowers to school for their birthdays and asked them to homecoming. Probably the girls who thought they were expected to give hand jobs during movies, but I didn't know that then. I was only realizing I wasn't that girl and I wouldn't become her. Ultimately, I enjoy exceeding expectations, so I resolved to be the best Bad Girl I could be.

From that point, I was reckless. I "hooked up" with whoever, wherever. Usually to get back at him. Usually at a party where I knew he would see. My dad had an issue with alcohol that scared the shit out of me, so I never drank. That was a blessing. I was never intoxicated, so I stayed rightfully afraid of going "all the way." Instead I went "a lot of the way." I was curious who I could attract - who would see me and say okay. I used every "yes" vote to prove that I wasn't a dry sponge. I was desirable and desired. I was damp, goddamnit. I'll spare you the rap sheet, but my friends know the standards started low and got lower. I really scraped the bottom of the barrel. My husband looks at pictures of the guys I dated before him and laughs until tears form at the corners of his eyes. "How did you think those guys were in your league!?"

Well. I thought I was a piece of shit. It's a pretty wide-open league. 

That path ended with my last boyfriend. Deeply wounded and emotionally abusive, I lived on a rollercoaster he re-designed every day. He loved me and loved me not. I was his muse and his savior or I was a bitch and a whore. I was accused of cheating weekly. Called at all hours of the day and night, in class and while sleeping. I drove from my college on the weekends to his campus to cook him food and clean his room. I listened to him talk to himself about music and movies. I watched him play on his computer. I waited while he slept in. None of the time we spent together was sacred. None of the miles I drove were repaid with excitement or gratitude. I locked my keys and wallet in my car and begged him for $40 to pay the locksmith. "Give him a blowjob, it's not my problem," he snapped as he walked away. He would scream in my face and then beg me to help him get better. I believed relationships were about fixing the people you love. 

One day, he hit me. I had gotten used to putting up with a lot, but I knew hitting was on the Never OK list. He drove me home as I cowered against the passenger side door. I think I opened it before he came to a stop on my street. I ran inside my mothers house and hid in a closet until I calmed down. I never saw him again, but he called me every night for a month after that, promising to commit suicide on his birthday. When I finally called his mother to beg for her help, she replied that she'd done her best and "gave him up to God." He didn't kill himself. Lucky for her.

I went on my first date with my husband seven months later. He called me on the phone and asked if I'd like to go out. He picked me up at my mother's house, his car cleaned and his pants ironed. We went to a restaurant and saw a movie. He held my hand on the car ride home. It was the first time I'd ever been taken on a date. He kinda pulled a White Knight on me. I've spent eleven years since that day letting him tell me that I was never broken or bad or wrong. I almost believe it.

Here's the truth. The White Knight can rescue you from a bad boyfriend, but he can't save you from the whole world. He can't save you from the messaging, the magazines, the one-day sales, the beauty regimens, the Fabletics ass ads on instagram and the Hadid sisters. I am not a broken person, but I was given a rudimentary education by a broken world. No one will rescue me from this. I can't be swept away. I have to fight back. Everything is not just "okay" now because I married a man who respects me. I have to take all my broken pieces and jagged edges and cut a new space for myself. For other women. For other men.

Do I think all of these men assaulted or harassed me? No, with obvious exceptions. Do I blame them for living in the culture that formed us all - Adams and Eves of America? I have only compassion and grieve shame I'm sure they endured with equal silence and misunderstanding. I don't think they got what they really wanted from me. I don't think, at the time, they knew what it was. I would explain their side of the story, but I can't because I'm me. I'm the girl. I only know this side. But yea, Me Too.