By Suzanne Roberts
When the friend request comes in, the mind’s rolodex immediately places the name with the pinkish face, red hair, and tooth-gapped smile. With a shaky hand, I click over and see it on his wall: RIP Kenny Williams. A cousin, or perhaps one of his children, saw we have mutual friends. Maybe my name came up in the drop-down menu under People You May Know because we went to the same junior high, listed the same hometown. Alive on Facebook, but dead.
There’s relief and something approaching happy. What’s wrong with me? It’s been more than 30 years since I’ve seen him.
The junior high classroom is arranged by last name, so Mr. Ballard, the ancient Life Sciences teacher, can remember who’s who. R gets seated next to W. And we are required to share a worm, a frog, and a fetal pig with our partner during dissections. My partner, Kenny Williams, is far more interested in scrambling the frog’s guts, pulling out the fetal pig’s heart to mash between his fingers, and seeing if the giant worm will stick to my curly hair.
And that’s the best of it.
Between botched dissections, Kenny whispers, “I bet you don’t know what a blow job is?”
“Yes I do.”
“If you know what it is, will you give me one?” he asks.
“Sure. Why not?”
And with this, everyone in my seventh grade class will be told, by Kenny Williams himself, that I want to suck dick. That’s when I learn what a blow job is, though at first, I don’t believe anyone would put a penis into her mouth on purpose. I have yet to be kissed and have no idea that a blow job is in the repertoire of the possible.
By the middle of the year, Kenny passes me notes:
I know you want to fuck me.
Your tits are hard. Thinking about me?
Nice jeans. I can see your coozie.
We are eleven years old.
I gather the courage to ask Mr. Ballard if I can move seats, but he tells me that we don’t always get what we want in life, and my last name begins with R, so I am to sit at the back of the room. He can’t go around moving everyone who doesn’t like her dissection partner, now can he? I would have to learn to work with other children, no matter the differences. And besides, Kenny’s just teasing.
In fairness to Mr. Ballard, I don’t tell him that Kenny Williams said he wanted my coozie. But what if I told Mr. Ballard exactly what was happening to me? Would I have suffered the blame? Even today I think I might have. I didn’t have it in me at eleven to doubt the inviolable alphabetized seating chart, to see Mr. Ballard as the accomplice he was. How many teachers are ignoring it while children are being terrorized at the backs of classrooms?
I know that eleven-year old girl is not to blame. But there’s still that girl buried inside of me, something of her that feels like maybe it really was my fault. Because of my silence? Because of my confusion about my own burgeoning sexuality? Because though I found Kenny’s advances terrifying, I also felt something bordering excitement? Like getting sick on the Tilt-a-Whirl at the fair—a scary but thrilling nausea.
By the end of the year, Kenny not only passes me dirty notes, he snaps my bra (hard), snatches at my early-developing breasts, and reaches for the crotch of my purple Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, which fit tighter as the year wears on. And when he grows a hard-on, which is often, he grabs my hand and tries to put it on the lump of his OP corduroy shorts. He says You’re such a tease. Because of you my cock’s hard.
“I’m telling,” I try.
“I’m only teasing,” he says.
I am the first of my friends to get her period, wear a bra, and by the seventh grade, I already fill a C-cup. I believe Kenny Williams’s advances are my fault for developing early. I start wearing tops with frills along the front and long dresses, as if I am auditioning for a part on Little House on the Prairie. And at lunch every day I eat a chocolate shake, chocolate chip cookies, and French fries. I gain 20 pounds in a year, and my face blooms with acne. My breasts and my butt only get bigger. There’s no hiding, not even under a layer of pre-teen fat and prairie dresses.
I had been in the Popular Crowd since the fourth grade when I moved to the suburbs from Los Angeles. Being “in” is a benefit I enjoyed without thinking twice about the possibility that I could so easily be out. In the complicated politics of junior high school, you can go from Popular to Misfit overnight, and that’s exactly what happens to me. The popular girls are slender with clear complexions. They don’t wear glasses, and they have the right jelly shoes, the kind my mother says are too expensive, and to her credit, they are made of plastic.
I start getting crank calls from the girls who previously wanted me to wear the other half of their BFF necklaces, girls who passed me notes with hearts over every I and j. Now the notes read:
Fatty four-eyes. You are so fat. How do you fit through the door?
Slut. Everyone knows you want to suck Kenny Williams’s cock.
The crank calls become so frequent, my parents change our telephone number. To be my friend now means social exile, so I become the girl at school who sits alone at lunch, slurping a chocolate shake. None of my teachers take me in like you read about, allowing me to clean their chalkboard erasers at lunch. It seems that even they know that if they befriend me, there will be adolescent hell to pay.
I finally notice I’m not the only outcast, so I make friends with the other misfits, the too-skinny Diane, the chubby Long, the mousy Jane (who feels sorry for me because she had been pressured by the popular girls to make some of those crank calls, providing a voice I wouldn’t recognize). We cling to each other until it’s time for high school, and we all go off to different high schools, leaving junior high, but not the memories, behind. Luckily Kenny Williams attends a different high school—the continuation school for bad boys I later find out on Facebook—and I never see him again.
Not until the friend request comes in, and he is already dead.
I never once considered that his advances were not my fault. This was confirmed years later in college, when I really did suck the cocks of ungrateful boys, fuck men in hopes of being loved by them, which of course never worked. I once read that dysfunctional boys become violent while dysfunctional girls get pregnant. Boys want to hurt others; girls set out to destroy themselves. At 22, I had a boyfriend who liked to grab my ass. I told him to stop. I cried and told him it made me feel like a slut, that I was a slut in college, but I didn’t want to be one. My boyfriend responded with the following: “I’m not going to catch a disease, am I?” I learned to keep my mouth shut after that, but it would be a long time before I would stand up for myself, reject the labels, like the misogynist word slut, given to me by a sexist world, a world that says, “C’mon, he’s only teasing,” when someone asks an 11-year old girl if she wants cock.
My nieces are girls of eleven, twelve, and thirteen. They wear pink braces, giggle with each other over secret jokes, awkwardly steal glances of themselves in the mirror. They like playing volleyball, learning ballet, making chocolate chip cookies, trying on different shades of lip gloss and taking pictures of each other, and of course selfies for Facebook. They are innocent and beautiful and blameless. I want to see my eleven-year old self in them. I want to forgive her for something I know she could not have done. My forty-year-old self knows she didn’t tease Kenny Williams, as he told her. But somewhere deep inside me, that young girl feels responsible, to blame. Slut. Cock-tease.
Facebook thankfully didn’t exist in my junior high school days. Who knows what Kenny Williams would have posted about me? Who knows what the Popular Girls might have written on my wall? The ways my misery would have multiplied, taking on an electronic life of its own? Paper notes floated about Los Cerritos Junior High, lipstick insults scrawled across my locker. But none of it was indelible. Or maybe it was. But still, paper scraps found their way into trash cans. Lipstick washed off with rain. The internet sticks. A Facebook wall remains, cached by google. More indelible than memory. A place where even the dead can make friends.
Since he’s been dead, Kenny Williams’s recent Facebook history shows that he has made 13 new friends and added The Rock-n-Roll Café as a favorite. Someone wrote on his wall, “I miss you, Bro. Why’d you have to go?” Another wrote, “Fly with the angels.” There is Kenny Williams riding a motorcycle. Kenny Williams drinking a beer. Kenny Williams posing with his pit bull on a boat. Kenny Williams smiling next to a dead lion. On Facebook, he’s there in the present tense.
And if he’s there on Facebook, part of me believes he’s still out there.
I can see him sitting in the back of the classroom touching himself, grinning at me. I can see myself too: I’m the one floating in the cold formaldehyde. I’m the one dissected, the vacant eyes staring at the asbestos ceiling of the seventh-grade classroom.
And then there is this: I have escaped Kenny Williams but others just like him follow me to high school. I protect myself by getting a boyfriend, an older boy who plays football. But one night, this boyfriend and his friends from the football team come over to my friend Samantha’s house. Her parents are out of town. The boys have brought us Bartles and James Peach wine coolers and we are drunk. I make out with my boyfriend in the bathroom. Meanwhile the others have sex with Samantha. I do not know the details, only that I find Samantha, naked and wrapped in a blanket. The boys say they have to go, and they leave very quickly, even though back then, only the girls have curfews. I do not suggest that Samantha go to the police. I do not know the words gang rape. I only know that something has gone terribly wrong, but that sometimes boys do these things to girls. Samantha stops attending school, starts tracing lines down her arms and legs with razors. Her hands are mapped with scabs from the rub burn of a pencil’s eraser. She eventually drinks Clorox bleach. We are 14 years old.
Later I will follow a boy back to his apartment in Waikiki. He goes to college at Harvard, plays on the field hockey team, so I reason that he must be a “nice” boy. Only he isn’t: he rips my striped turquoise mini-dress—when someone tries to assault you, you never forget what you are wearing. Was it because my skirt was too short? But I say no, try to push him away, and he calls me a cock-tease, says “What did you think you were coming back here for? To talk.” I do not admit that I had in fact imagined sitting on the balcony talking, that maybe this was the beginning of a summer romance. But I am a strong girl, so I kick him hard, and he doubles over, calls me a bitch. I make for the door and then run the four miles back to my own hotel in a mini-dress and sandals and never tell anyone except the enormous prostitute on the corner who wears a belt made out of shiny handcuffs. When she asks where I’m going in such a hurry, I tell her I was attacked. She says, “Motherfucker. He’ll get his.” When I reach my hotel room, I have no desire to tell my high school friends what happened. I’m embarrassed, continue to blame myself. And I know I’m lucky. I know terrible things happen to girls like me. I am 17 years old.
Since my girlhood, I have been trying to find the antidote for what I believed I had become. Cock-tease. Bitch.
I do not like violent films, but I wanted to see The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo because the main character is a bad ass, and I am only a bad ass in the dark theatre of my dreams. So here is what I tell myself: I am a grown-up with college degrees and a nice husband and a big house with a view. And I share all of these successes on Facebook with my closest 3,500 friends, so I must have made it back into the Popular Crowd. At the same time, I’m the myopic girl sitting by myself, drowning my confusion in chocolate milkshakes, or these days, red wine. And I’m also the one stalking through the pages of a dead person on Facebook, trying to find out how Kenny Williams died, hoping to find something there that will reveal something of myself to me. When I look at his profile pictures, even though he is bald, puffy-faced, and wearing a long red goatee, I can see the boy there. The same red-head complexion and close-set eyes, the same space between the ridged front teeth. I don’t want to be happy he’s dead at 39. But there’s something about that Facebook page that makes me believe that even if I do speak ill of him, he’ll be able to defend himself, speak back.
In my morbid need to know how he died, I finally messaged the hometown gossip. She’s one of the girls who never escaped the suburbia of our adolescence, and she still knows everything about everyone. I asked her how Kenny Williams died, told her I sat next to him in science. I wrote, 39—so young, hoping to imply tragedy. She wrote back and said she’d heard his death had something to do with alcoholism. At first I felt vindicated and then shame for feeling it. I want to say that I finally felt sorry for him, that I have forgiven him.
For all these years holding on to the hatred has felt like a form of protection. But from what? A ghost? Or the part of myself that isn’t ready to reconcile her girl-self and her woman-self? Hatred in my heart inevitably means hatred for my heart. And also there is this: the little boy Kenny in the Facebook pictures, pre-junior high, the smiling four-year old, clutching onto his mother’s neck. A blameless boy who bears no resemblance to the boy in my mind’s eye. Children learn from others, from older people who do bad things to them. Unthinkable things. I know that now. Was there a cousin or a beer-drinking uncle, Kenny Williams? An unhappy childhood and an unhappy ending. That story.
There is more than one way to reconciliation.
This story would end better if I said I have forgiven Kenny Williams. That closure. And that could be a lie I tell myself and then I tell you. But in the end, the lie does nothing. I know enough of myself to know I can’t betray myself for long.
The best I can offer is this: to forgive is a process, not a verb of being but of becoming.
Suzanne Roberts is the author of the award-winning memoir Almost Somewhere (Bison Books, 2012), as well as four collections of poetry. Her work has been published in many journals and anthologies, including Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, National Geographic’s Traveler, and Best Women’s Travel Writing. She holds a doctorate in Literature and the Environment and teaches for the low residency MFA programs at Sierra Nevada College and Chatham. For more information, please see her website: www.suzanneroberts.net
Featured image courtesy of Tiffany Lucero.