I learned something in the coat room in elementary school.
If they can, people will touch your body without permission.
Especially if it’s dark. And quick. And there are enough people around that you can’t be sure who exactly touched you. Let alone call them out on it.
Sometimes more than one kid would cop a feel as we shuffled out to meet our teacher, who watched us from the doorway as we got on our winter jackets. She was right there, but they did it anyway.
Now, I don’t blame her for not seeing. Kids are squirming masses of terror. Especially when you get a lot of them into a small space. I imagine she was fixated on the rugrats who were screaming. Hitting each other. Cussing.
Not the quick squeeze of a little girl’s chest as she struggled with the zipper on her pink coat. Or my deer in headlights look as I registered what had just happened. Clamping my eyes shut out of shame.
And even when I cried, who would know the difference? I was a sensitive child, quick to tears. This was nothing different. Nothing new.
If I Have to Explain, You Wouldn’t Understand
I cried all the time in those days, feeling thrust into a world that I didn’t understand with no instructions. Or at least not any that made any sense to me. I was that kid who was always stepping over the line without meaning to. Lines I didn’t even realize were there. Being pulled back by an adult. Scolded. And then laughed at by my peers because the line was obvious to them. What was I doing? What was wrong with me? I was the most confused child in the bunch.
And as much as I longed to be like everyone around me, I never could. I always stuck out. There was just a way things were done, rules that other people seemed to know to follow without being told, and I didn’t pick up on it intuitively the way everyone else around me seemed to.
It was just like what my older sisters always said to get a rise out of me: “If I have to explain, you wouldn’t understand.”
Aiming for the Middle Shadows
So I learned what little lessons I could, even if they seemed to make no sense as they stretched out before me:
- People would touch your body without your permission, so long as they could get away with it.
- The last thing most people wanted was to be at the bottom of the pack. And most of them would victimize as many people as necessary to avoid being there. Shove others down so that they could be higher than them in comparison.
- It was safest to be somewhere in the middle. High enough so that you weren’t enough of a threat to attract haters. The ambitious who longed for the top. Who would attempt to unseat you, Game of Thrones style. But not so low that you risked having your face shoved into a snowbank every recess.
The last lesson was reinforced at home a lot. “You should really think about toning down your intelligence,” my mother would advise me.
It was important that I find someone who’d want to marry me, since she and Dad couldn’t take care of me forever. And career women were cute and all on TV but more considered a mythological creature in my own home. No, marriage was my best shot.
“No boy wants a girl who’s smarter than him,” my mother would say. “They want to feel big. Important.”
Not me, I’d think. I just want to disappear. It’d be nice if everyone could just leave me alone.
And yet, the shadows weren’t so safe either.
Becoming invisible hadn’t rendered me the kind of protection I’d hoped for. Sure, it gave me cover. But it also gave cover to those who would harm me and harm others.
The shadows hide everyone. They don’t care what you’re going to do with that invisibility.
No Time to Cry
My blood would freeze every time J. K. Rowling published another book.
That’s because when I worked at Borders, the Harry Potter release parties were our busiest times. They made the Christmas rush look pitiful in comparison. People camped out for Harry. The store ran special promotions. Hired performers who would act at stations dotted around the store. Special activities like jelly bean tasting, the Russian roulette of Bertie Bott’s, where half the flavors were delicious and half were disgusting. Close your eyes, stick out your hand. Is it vomit or pear? Marshmallow or dirt?
The bookstore became a kind of carnival.
I was a bookseller but worked a lot of shifts where I was designated backup for the entire store. Essentially the person who floated around and jumped onto whatever station was busy. Whether that was at book info on the first floor, music info on the second, the cash registers, or even occasionally in the cafe when they were really overwhelmed.
And of course on Harry Potter nights, I had my work cut out for me. The store was packed with people, and I’d essentially hustle all night from one place to another. Well, I tried anyway. People were packed in so thickly sometimes that it was like moving underwater.
And every release party, without fail, I’d have customers who’d grab me as I hurried to my next location. Not quick brushes. But that undeniable feeling of having body parts squeezed.
My blood would go cold. I’d sigh. But I’d have to keep moving. I had places to be. Work to do. There was nothing I could really do about it. I was at work. We were slammed. There was no way to know who had done it.
It was just like the coatroom all over again.
But the difference now was that there was no time to cry.
It seems like every day there’s another story of a well-known person who has violated someone’s consent.
And every time that there’s a large outcry, there’s also an element of shock. And often, denial.
A sense of disbelief that in this just and fair world of ours that something like this could happen. That bad things can happen to good people. And good people can do bad things. It doesn’t make sense. It wasn’t what we were sold in the storybooks. In the movies. It goes against the lessons people wanted us to learn. The ones we desperately want to believe are true.
It’s easier to be surprised by it. To deny that anything untoward ever took place.
It’s easier to believe that a nobody is lying than that an important person did something wrong. That’s basically the definition of power: Getting the benefit of the fucking doubt.
But I’m never surprised. Because I learned different lessons growing up. Paid more attention to what happened in the coat room and on the playground than what happened in the picture books. And I saw the difference between the way adults told us to act and how they behaved themselves.
“Well, God has a bigger plan, and it’s not for us to understand,” my mother would say. The ultimate conversation ender.
And we’d stop talking, but I’d keep carrying the incessant but why? around with me in my head.