CW: This essay discusses sexual assault. If you or someone you know has been assaulted, find help and the resources you need by calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673, or visit www.RAINN.org.
By Shannon Brazil
All those parenting cliches you hear, it goes by in the blink of an eye and it’s over before you know it. I hate to tell you, but they’re all true. Five minutes ago our firstborn stood between my husband and me holding our hands and we swung her into the air. One, two, three, wee. Now, the oldest of four, fourteen years old, she walked in front of us wearing my old Doc Martins. From the actual 90s. Her hair, long bleached blonde. Day-glo blue at the tips. The three of us pushed through the double doors of her high school and the sign that read, Freshman Orientation Night.
Inside the building there were glossy linoleum floors. Florescent lights overhead. And the bright, boundless energy of teen volunteers. We handed maps. Maps that were highlighted in pink to mark popular sites like the caf and the gym. My stomach pulled into tight twisted knots. Knots that made sense. The grief of babyhood to childhood to adulthood. All wrapped up in my daughter. Except not.
Except a hard something clogged the back of my throat somewhere near the cafeteria. I fished a cough drop out of the bottom of my bag. Told myself to get a grip. On the down-low I joked with my husband about how much I hated high school. My husband was an A student. Me, I barely made it through. Head in the clouds, my grade school teachers said. Doesn’t apply herself, they said in high school. Late-bloomer, the guidance counselor had hoped. But she wasn’t making any promises. Lucky for my kids, I was a mom who defended the dreamy late bloomers of the world. I would help teach each one of them how to apply themselves in their own good time.
But it was a maze of unfamiliar corridors. The chatter and traffic of other parents. The sharp ringing of bells. When we rounded the corner toward the gym I stood apart from my family. My feet almost too heavy to move. I traced the backs of both my hands, a fiery red rash had erupted. While my husband and daughter laughed and talked about classes and schedules, I’d been walking in silence. I’d been scratching my skin raw.
The closest exit sign, twenty feet ahead on the right. Another one thirty-ish feet behind us on the left. I’d been doing this the whole time too: tracking escape routes.
Sometimes the body remembers a thing before the brain does.
My body had fallen into a memory. The imprint of this one day in spring, back in Massachusetts when I was fourteen years old. A freshman in high school. When all the green was returning to the trees. And it was warm enough to wear a skirt without tights.
I was late for P.E. Quick-stepped the empty halls and when I rounded the corner toward the gym, there he was. Mark with the black hair, leaned up cool against a wall. Football player tall. Dark blue jersey. On the front, our school logo, a big and white galloping Mustang. Mark was older than me, a junior. I could smell the older-ness of him as I passed by, a cloud of cologne. Something about his dark brown eyes, the way they always narrowed on mine. Keen. I usually avoided looking directly at him, but that day his eyes were softer.
Or maybe I’m making that up. Maybe I saw what I wanted to see.
Mark with the black hair had never spoken to me. So when he said hi that day I did the classic look behind me, turn back to him, point who-me? to my chest. And when I did that, he laughed hard. Laughed himself long and loud into a forward bend. Toothy white all-American smile. Black hair loaded up with spiking gel. I was surprised he thought it was so funny, but it counted. Because making people laugh was a way of distracting them from how I ugly I was.
OK, I know now from relative safety of years and geography that I wasn’t ugly back then. But my fourteen old self carried the shame of being nicknamed “dog” in elementary school. I’d been in fist fights on playgrounds. At home I’d been hit with hands, belts, shoes, an occasional chair. Alone in my room I survived by writing stories. In school I survived by being funny.
When the laughter died down, Mark straightened himself up. How tall he was standing next to me. We’d never looked at each other this long before. I usually avoided looking at him. But here, my eyes were dizzy in the upgaze. Me, in my brand new pinstriped denim miniskirt. The one I’d been saving for a warm day. Books cradled to my chest. Heartbeat racing wild under my ribs. When his football player arms reached out to me, it was so unexpected. His hands so close. I confess, I didn’t resist. I didn’t even protest.
I let the books slip right out of my hands and into his.
Six-three, six-four, tall as my dad. Mark held the books high over my head, kitten and string, and I giggled. Giggling is the opposite of protesting. Giggling was the same as an invitation. Also, my skirt was an invitation. Because my father used to say that dressing a certain way only invited trouble. He said it sent the wrong message. I didn’t know anything about messages. I didn’t know anything about anything. When Mark walked away, that white number on his navy blue back, he held my books out to the side and waved them at me. A come-and-get-‘em wave.
I don’t know why it mattered that he liked me, that I made him laugh so quickly, that he flirted with me. It just did.
So I followed him.
Which is why I never told a soul.
Past the gym, which was where I was supposed to be. Past the girls locker room. Away from the boys locker room. Away from all the class rooms. Around the corner and up the stairs, slow. To a dead-end. A stairway to nowhere. Mark so tall, way up on the top landing. Still waving my books, come-and-get-‘em, in his hands. His huge white smile across his fair skin.
It never crossed my mind how strange it was that there even existed such a stairway, that he’d walked straight to it as if he’d been there before. It was my own hand that pulled me up the railing that day. My own that feet climbed those stairs. The closer I got to dreamy Mark with the spiky black hair, the more dark-hungry his eyes were. My belly twisted up in a funny I’d never felt before. Love, butterflies, anticipation, whatever it was, in that moment my brain did a horrible thing. It made up a story that wasn’t true. It told me that all those times Mark with the black hair had narrowed his eyes keen on mine was because he liked me.
They used to say the reason those elementary school boys called me dog was because they liked me, they just didn’t know how to show it.
Mark sat himself on the very top step of that secret stairway. He spread his legs wide, elbows on knees. I was so drunk off of his eyes on my eyes, I didn’t care that he slid my books behind him, out of the way. All these details, clean and clear in the memory. My books left a trail on the dusty linoleum floor. Sheets of cobwebs in high corners. The beginnings of cobweb chandeliers on the florescent lights overhead. Linty threads dipped from light to ceiling, ceiling to light, crisscrossed back again. Months of neglect. But all I saw was Mark’s hand patting the very top step, the place between him and the bottom of the hand rail. An invitation for me to sit next to him.
Which is why I never told a soul. Fixed my denim skirt snug beneath me. Covered as much of my legs as I could. Scent of his older boy cologne, his shampoo, his deodorant. Our shoulders barely touching. My thoughts ricocheting with possibility. Maybe he’d sit with me at lunch. Maybe we’d go to the mall together someday. Maybe even prom. Head to toe princess shudder when he leaned in for the kiss. Slow. Black hair, brown eyes. Eye lashes, fair skin. His lips closer and closer, until were kissing. But something was wrong.
The kiss was wet and rough. So rough that my head banged against the metal posts of the railing. His drool down my chin. Tongue serpent whipping around my mouth. No place to escape my head. Or breathe. Trapped by the seal of his lips. I pressed my palms against his t-shirt. The white logo of our school. But his chest was football solid and it just wouldn’t budge.
“Ouch,” I said. “You’re…”
Maybe I was going to say you’re hurting me. But my words were lost in the hollows of his mouth. And all at once his hands were everywhere. Everywhere, everywhere. Fast. Over my shirt, under my shirt, squeezing my breasts. My hands right behind in a push-pull frenzy. But he was faster than me. And stronger. The two of us alone in a stairway at the end of a hall that nobody ever walked down. Not even janitors. My words out in fragments.
Wait. Hold on. Just a second.
Dirty hands. Dirty mouth. Dirty strength. At me, on me, again and again. But the thing I never said, the thing I wish I had said. Stop.
I never said, Stop.
Which is why I never told a soul.
All the things I could have done while I still had the chance. While we were still sitting upright. But then we weren’t. The force of his body pushed me flat-backed onto the landing. Mark with the black hair, his body on top of mine. Hard to breathe. The most terrible, unmistakable shape inside of his pants. My body knew what it was. My body knew to be afraid.
I dug my fingernails fast into the hem of my new pinstriped skirt, closed my fists tight. My skirt became the shield between us, held down with every bit of muscle and bone inside of me. Mark’s fair skin went sweaty red in the cheeks. His hair, wet with sweat. Animal growl from the deep part of his throat. I knew what it meant. Warning. The kind of sound that comes right before the animal takes your hand off.
“Please,” he said. “Please.”
But it wasn’t the word please. It was through his teeth and it was an order. Every time he said the please that wasn’t a please he drove his hips into me harder.
“Just please pull your underwear down, please, just for a second, please, just do it! Please!”
My new skirt, my chest, my legs, crushed beneath the weight of him. This ache clotting my throat, silent and sore. But then something else, something worse. Something my entire body knew to fear more than anything else. His hand fishing for something. Fishing inside of his pants.
He was so heavy I could just barely squirm. And the world went sideways. The tilt of the cobweb chandeliers, the wooden hand rail with the metal posts. Paint peels and yellow water stains on the ceiling. My hair, sliding up and down on the dusty linoleum floor.
I lost time.
Didn’t know where I was or who I was. Didn’t believe it was really happening. Even as his naked flesh rubbed itself against the tops of my hands, I didn’t believe it. White knuckle fists of stone around the hem of my skirt, don’t let go don’t let go don’t let go. The shape and distance of upside down things where nothing made sense. The lights overhead were close enough to touch. But the metal posts right next to me, out of reach. Sweat poured from Mark’s red face onto my skin. The stink of his armpits, his cologne, and hair gel, up my nose sour. In the middle of all that buckled around me and inside of me, through the clotted stop of my throat, my voice somehow managed to eek out a tiny pile of words. No. Please don’t. Please no.
But it was a quiet, non-voice. A whisper-beg that only made him grind faster. And harder.
My weakness, his strength.
Mark’s slick neck against my cheek. His sharp teeth. Animal grunting. And me, begging please no until the whole of him overtook the whole of me. And his force shifted again. This time, his hand under my skirt, pushing for the cotton panel of my underwear. He hooked it good with one finger, pulled it over and open. Cold air between my legs, his angry finger pushing for the girl-center of me.
My consequence for being an ugly girl. For wearing a miniskirt. For following a boy I hardly knew. For being in an abandoned stairwell when I should have been in P.E. Nobody would come to rescue me.
I let go of the hem of my skirt, both my hands quick and hard around the bone of Mark’s wrist, the wrist that was fighting its way into my underwear. But even then, my two hands against his one, Mark was still bigger and stronger than me. Every time his angry finger was close enough to touch my most private girl place, my body somehow jerked back in the nick of safety. But I knew I couldn’t hold him off much longer.
Part of me wanted to stop fighting, to just go limp and let it happen so it would be over faster. So I could run to the nearest exit and hide until school was over. But another part of me, a part I didn’t even understand, stayed with me.
And this is the part I want to be really clear about. Because sometimes when we hear a story like this, we think why didn’t you punch him, why didn’t you run away, why didn’t you at least call for help.
Because I froze.
Because it wasn’t a matter of choice. If I could have, I would have chosen to box his face. I would have chosen to kick his balls in. I would have chosen to erase this memory from my body and my mind forever. But I was in shock. So while my hair slid up and down on that filthy floor, and Mark ground into me harder and faster, my body protected itself by shutting down. And while my body protected me, my brain skittered for a way back to myself. A way to pull the voice up and out of me.
In the upside down panic of it, my mind made letters. Single letters. The slow strike of a typewriter. Letters to words. Words to a single sentence. Because even though I couldn’t speak help, I could still read. My eyes clumsy over a single imaginary sentence that I read aloud. Like a machine, no inflection at all.
“Stop,” I said. “Or I’m going to scream.”
Mark’s slapped my neck when I said the word scream. His fingers gripped my throat tight. Fiery bite sting of my skin. Blur of tears. The choke of it, the shock. He forced my face up to his, black shark eyes through the blur, hair stuck wet to his red face. Pressed his forehead mean against mine, bone to bone. The hiss of his teeth.
“If you scream,” he said. “I swear to god I’ll punch you in the fucking face.”
Spit came out his mouth when he said the punch you in the fucking face part. And he butted my forehead hard. Shook my jaw, shook my whole face before his teeth came at me again.
“Go ahead,” he said. “I dare you.”
Animal breath hot in my mouth, up my nose. Fire tears. All of my words stolen away. Girl-spirit in a million pieces right then. Pieces that never went back together again. Not the way they were before.
I believed him when he said he would punch me in the fucking face.
So I said nothing.
I let his hipbones grind my spine faster and harder into the floor. I let his hand and fingers choke me, and I was grateful for the choke. Because with one hand wrapped around my neck and his other hand braced against the linoleum for traction, it meant he couldn’t stab the girl part of me. It meant I could hold tight to the shield of my skirt and wait for him to be done with me. Every muscle in my body flexed solid, resistance.
I don’t remember the exact sound he made, the end-groan, I just remember that my head wasn’t sliding up and down on the floor anymore, and there was this lift, this flood of thank god oxygen back into my lungs, into my body. A flood of gratefulness too, because I was still a virgin, he hadn’t speared the inside of me.
The moldy stench of him all over my arms, my face, my neck. Dirty sticky sweat. Cheeks, flushed. Breath, flushed. He picked himself up and stood over me with those black vacant eyes. Tucked his ugly flesh thing back into his athletic pants. Snap sound of his elastic waistband. He brushed off his football shirt, raked his fingers over his head. Tried to re-spike his hair, but it was just sweat-flop by then.
My heart was still beating crazy, but I didn’t make move. Didn’t say a word, because I didn’t want him to change his mind and come at me again. Then he turned and walked away. No, not walked, trotted. Mark with the black hair trotted down the first few steps. Like nothing had happened. Just another zippity-do-dah day for him. My shoulders, my arms, and legs, in mini-convulsions.
Mark was halfway down the first landing when I looked at myself. In the folds of my pinstriped skirt, a thick pool of egg white slime. My eyes didn’t even understand what they were looking at. I’d never seen anything like it before. Not even in books. The dirtiest slime. From the dirtiest part of him.
Acid flood at the back of my throat. Mouthful of vomit blocked by fast hands. I swallowed it back. Raw. Those fire tears burned tracks down my cheeks. Everything tangled up inside of me. Heart, limbs, lungs, I couldn’t tell which was which.
I didn’t know the protocol for when a boy you hardly know pins you down and ejaculates all over your pretty new skirt. If I stood up his slime would drip and it would touch my actual skin. I quick wiped my tears and called out to him. I tried to smile, because I was helpless. Because I didn’t know any other way.
“Wait, look at my skirt,” I said. “Please, do you have tissue or something?”
He stopped a couple of steps from the bottom, white football number on navy blue. My breath stopped too. For just a second. I was afraid he might turn around and hurt me for real this time. Pivoted around on the stairs. His eyes, puffed up angry. His angry finger, the one that had come after me, the one that was inside of my underwear, pointed bad dog at me. Mouth and nose crumpled into a sneer. Teeth bared, when he spoke I felt the bite of his words in my belly.
“You ever tell anyone about this,” he said. “And I swear to god I’ll kill you.”
I believed him.
Which is why I never told a soul.
That long walk to girls locker room. What it took for me to stand and descend those stairs, to drag one foot after another. My silent prayers. Don’t let anyone come, don’t let anyone see me like this.
My reflection in the mirror. Bloodshot slits for eyes. Mascara smeared black down my face. Dustballs in my hair. Hives, not the flat kind, but the raised up kind, splotched huge across my neck and collar bone. Eczema scratched raw all over the backs of both hands. Scabs that would last the rest of that spring. And summer. Years even.
I never went back to P.E. that semester. It was easier to get an F.
The metal sound of double doors springing open. Whoosh of night air on my face. Pacific Northwest deep and clean in my lungs. Our footsteps fall across the parking lot of my daughter’s school and my throat loosens. My ears begin to understand words again. My husband and our daughter talk grades and allowances. Chores that will never get done. When our daughter stops to take a selfie, we roll our eyes and she laughs, hashtag you just don’t get it.
And she’s right. I don’t get it. The way my body holds all the memories of my life. The way my skin can burn red and weep from something that happened to me over thirty years ago. The way it comes back and back when I least expect it.
We relive our childhoods through our children. It’s another one of those cliches.
My children have never been hit with belts or shoes or chairs. My children have never been called dog. My husband is the most gentle, soft-spoken, ethical man I have ever known. The opposite of Mark with the black hair.
Mark, a real estate agent back in Massachusetts. I wonder if remembers me or any of the other young women he sexually assaulted back then. I wonder if he’s raped women since. I wonder if I’m partly responsible because I didn’t come forward then. I wonder if Mark will track escape routes for his own daughter when she starts high school.
Or is that he gets to live his life as if nothing ever happened?
Without any consequences at all.
My husband starts the engine of our minivan. I press my forehead to the cool glass of the passenger side window. Street lights and fast food neon across the windshield. Open sores on the backs of both my hands. My hands curled into fists.
Several lifetimes ago, Shannon Brazil was an actor and an award-winning playwright whose work was produced in Los Angels and New York.She’s the recipient of a Literary Arts Special Fellowship for Women Writers, a member of Dangerous Writers, and a member of the Corporeal Writing tribe. Shannon lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and their four children. An excerpt from her first novel, currently in the works, can be read at Hip Mama Magazine. Shannon thanks the brave truth-speaking women of the world. Without them, this essay would not exist. Shannon can be found on Instagram and Twitter.