My Me Too

I’ve been fortunate to keep the company of some truly excellent men. These are men with whom I have walked alone at night without an ounce of fear. Men who have stood by my side and comforted me when I’ve cried. Men who have offered to egg another’s man’s house for saying sexually explicit things to me. Men who have always sought to protect me, even when I told them I could do it myself. I love and trust these men.

But, unfortunately, they haven’t all been so pleasant.

So I guess this is my Me Too.

This is my sister and I at ages sixteen and fourteen, roughly. For perspective.

There are two ways to walk to my parents’ house from their local library. The first involves walking on a fairly busy main road, passing the fire station, and running the risk of being hit by a car. (The sidewalks there, last I checked, are really more of a formality.) The second takes a side street lined with houses. It’s a safe neighborhood, overall, and there’s a bus stop at the end of the street. So my sister and I, not wanting to die that day, chose the latter.

We rounded the corner and were greeted (literally) by a group of guys. I estimated they were aged eighteen to twenty, but I was short and underdeveloped–so what did I know, really. They were smoking and drinking and generally being rowdy. We didn’t know them. But they’d seen us, so it was too late to turn around.

“Hey, come over here!” they called suggestively. We could feel them leering at us through our hoodies.

My sister told me to keep my head down and walk faster. “Don’t look at them. And don’t run.” Either of these would only encourage them.

I was thirteen. She was fifteen.

I’m sixteen. My sister, her now-husband, his cousin, and I are all downtown for the annual Yankee Homecoming Festival. We manage to snag a bench on the boardwalk, despite the crowd. It’s oppressively hot out, so my sister and I are wearing sundresses. I’m enjoying the view of the water until something slams on the bench next to me.

When I look up, there’s a man looming over me, blowing cigarette smoke in my face. His bicycle is propped on the bench beside me. I smile politely before turning away; it’s a popular festival, after all. Maybe there’s something wrong with his tire.

He says something to me–something that has since faded into antiquity, alongside the many car horns and catcalls–and I pretend I haven’t heard him. His shadow gets bigger as he leans closer to me. I can feel his breath on my neck as he repeats himself. I take my sister’s hand as he snarls, “Hey, I’m talking to you!”

We are not physically affectionate, so she knows something is wrong even before turning around. She leans over to the guys and tells them, “Somebody is being not friendly, so Leah and I are going for a walk.” The guys stay behind until we’re lost in the sea of people.

I’m seventeen, and I finally have my first boyfriend. The day that we become official, he asks to touch my butt. I’m so shocked that I laugh my way through declining. A few days later, in a dark corner of our high school auditorium, he looks at me and says, “I’m sorry.” When I ask why, he gropes me. I’m too caught up in the newfound thrill of kissing to stop him.

He employs the same tactic later, to do other things to my body that I have expressly told him not to.

I spend two years torturing myself over this after we break up. I don’t categorize it as assault or molestation–partly because I don’t have the vocabulary for it yet, and partly because it wasn’t violent and, in the moment, I didn’t exactly say no. I tell myself that I should have fought him, should have stopped him, should have said something. That it’s my fault. Should have, should have, should have.

Years later, he contacts me out of the clear blue. He has a new girlfriend and wants to know how he can be better to her than he was to me. When I tell him that I wish we’d taken things slower physically, he calls me a “pretentious bitch.” We never speak again.

I’m nineteen, getting over the heartache of a relationship that I’ve finally realized is never going to come to fruition. A guy that I’ve worked with on our college literary magazine offers to text me a ringtone that I’ve been hunting for years. I give him my number, assuming that he’s just going to delete it anyways. He spends the next seven hours flirting with me via text. He’s cute and I’m vulnerable, so I’m actually enjoying the attention–until he tells me in no uncertain terms that he’s only interested in me because he’s “never been with a redhead.” I tell him to leave me alone. I feel like I’ve invited this, or at least should have seen it coming.

He graduates, and I’m relieved.

Until the next year at homecoming. He comes back to visit. I do my best to avoid him, but it’s a small campus and he hunts me down. He notices how skittish I am and gets angry, insisting that I should give him a chance. I lie and tell him that I have a date. He relents and tells me to have fun. I block his number and his Facebook.

This photo will become relevant in a moment.

This is the hardest story to tell.

I’m still nineteen.

There’s an older male professor that is widely considered brilliant and sarcastic, if a harsh grader. We’ve all noticed that he singles out certain students, often female, and gives them extra outside-class attention. It’s a topic of speculation and gossip, but this is Christian school. All the scandal here is made up. He and I develop an instant rapport–but somehow I don’t make it into his inner circle. My roommate does, and I can’t help feeling a little jealous.

I go swing dancing every Friday at a local, not-affiliated-with-the-school but still student-run, social club. By this time, I’ve gotten good enough to help teach the beginner lesson. Anyone is welcome, but professors never attend.

So you can imagine my surprise when he comes in.

I offer for him to join the lesson, but he already knows how to dance. To prove it, he pulls me flush against him and whirls me through a few sets. He smells like cigar smoke and… something–something I should recognize, but can’t seem to place.

After the lesson, we go through our usual opening spiel: “Welcome to swing club! [Blah blah blah] And ladies, if any of the gentlemen are being ungentlemanly, feel free to talk to [the male leaders of the club]–or Leah–and we’ll help you take care of it.” I can’t recall a time that this has ever happened, but we always make sure the option is there.

While I spend most of the evening dancing with the professor (the other girls seem less than inclined to), he still singles out a seventeen-year-old freshman. “She’s my favorite dance partner,” he confides in me. “She’s my favorite.”

“How’s your family?” I ask, switching us from closed position to open. “You should have brought your wife with you!”

“I’m getting a divorce,” he confesses. He goes on to reveal quite a bit of personal information, only stopping when one of my male friends cuts in.

“I thought I’d save you,” he says as we dance. “That man has had way too much to drink tonight.”

I realize now that of course that’s what the other smell was.

We’re always careful about girls walking home alone, but tonight we’re fastidious. Everyone walks in a group, and there’s one guy that I have personally vetted in each. My then-boyfriend/now-husband drives me home. He seems unconcerned when I tell him about the professor, but I’m trembling.

I call my father. He takes me seriously (thank God) and tells me to talk to the head of security or to the head of the department. Both of those prospects terrify me, so I tell a trusted female professor/advisor instead. She hears me out, wide-eyed, and starts to say something before deciding to take me to the department head. (Another woman, not that it matters.) Upon hearing what I have to say, the department head sighs.

“We’ve been watching him for a while, now,” she says. “You did the right thing in speaking up about this.This is in no way your fault.” She assured me that the college has counseling services, if I need them. “Would you be willing to tell this story to other people, if need be? The head of security, or the president of the college? We will not let your name get to the professor.”

I assure her that I’m willing to speak to whoever needs to hear. Thankfully, it never came to that.

The professor didn’t make it to the end of the semester.

One last story; I promise it’s short.

I’m twenty-one. My then-fiance and I are going out to dinner with my family at a restaurant in the city. We walk by a sizable group of people and I unconsciously take his arm. “You’re scared of them because they’re black!” he accuses me once we’re out of earshot.

“No,” I say. “I’m scared of them because they’re men.”

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