Or, We Already Know How This Story Ends
[The following essay includes aspects of assault, and therefore, this serves as a trigger warning for any who might need it.]
Nobody at Monta Vista High would date me, of that I was certain. Going to school with the same kids since kindergarten, I had long held the reputation of being the fat, funny girl with no sexual appeal in the eyes of my peers. I was also known as the smart girl, and was often lauded for my academic achievements—living in the middle of Silicon Valley meant that personal relationships took second priority to homework, school, clubs, SATs, ACTs, and bolstering my college applications. Sixteen years of focusing on my academic future, and I felt desperately behind all the other teenagers in America: I was halfway through high school with no boyfriend, no experience, and no prospects.
On homecoming night of junior year, I thought this might all change.
He towered over me and looked clean in his button-up and tie. Having always felt insecure about my weight, I liked that standing next to him made me feel twice as small as I really was. We ended up at the same after party where he found a guitar and started to play it in a familiar way, singing a cover of Drake’s “Controlla.” We scooted closer and closer until our knees were gently grazing, and briefly talked about guitar, singing, and the politics of our respective schools. I gave him my number, and I left the party hopeful that he would use it. “He was really interested in you,” my friend Athena pointed out as we got into our Uber. With her reassurance, I started developing my innocent crush: maybe he did like me I thought.
We spoke over Instagram for a few months, after he sent me a post that was captioned “tag your crush.” We joked about extracurriculars and lamented being too busy to see each other because of our hectic school schedules. Despite all our homework and stress, he still found little ways to make me feel special; nobody had ever taken that kind of an interest in me before, and I loved that he wasn’t embarrassed to tell me how much he liked me. After posting some clips of my singing to my social media, he messaged me saying, “I really enjoyed that last post, I wanna hear more.” My heart felt like it was smiling, and I started to picture our fairytale high school romance. Homecoming, football games, and senior prom all waited for me, if I could just see him in person. By the time we went on our first date in January, I was sure I wanted him to be my boyfriend.
That night, I gently closed my front door and locked it quietly, trying not to wake my dog, Pepper. I looked out at the black night and yellow street lights but didn’t see any car. He had parked on the side of my house so as not to be detected by any lurking parents (which made it all feel very sneaky and secret). I approached his white Camry and was struck by how familiar it looked to me. Before my parents got divorced, my dad had driven the same car, except ours had a homemade gel “Discovery Toys” sticker in the left window of the backseat. I looked at his car and immediately felt safe. Even if it didn’t have a sticker in the window, nothing bad could happen in a white Camry.
I opened the door, sat in the front seat, and we drove out of my neighborhood with no decided destination in mind. The seats were cold, the air was stale, and the fuzz on the car carpet was matted and full of crumbs. I was enamored with his broad shoulders and the way the sun had kissed his skin even in the middle of winter. After staring at his built figure for a few minutes, I suggested that we drive to the nearest park because “nothing in Cupertino would be open past ten anyways.” It was cold and dark out, but we had no intention of leaving the car.
We moved to the backseats upon parking, and a pit developed in my stomach when I realized what was supposed to come next—because we all know what is supposed to happen next in the backseat of a boy’s car, late at night. I started picking at my nails compulsively, a bad habit I have for when I’m anxious, and started talking at rapid speed:
“High school is all such bullshit, and it’s all predicated upon how much money you have, you know?”
“Yeah, I agree,” he began before I quickly interrupted with:
“And I think it’s just crazy because it’s like what? You need money to go to good schools and then money for tutors for good grades and then money for SAT classes and money for the SAT and money for the AP tests and money to pay for college apps and then money to pay for college!!”
“I mean, I know it’s all so messed up—”
“And did you know we’re in a drought? Yeah, it’s actually really sad because there used to be this pond here and now it’s dried up so there are no more ducks, you know?”
I talked and talked until the green digital numbers on the clock struck two. Then I ran out of things to talk about. He started moving closer and closer, and the pit in my stomach was back. I couldn’t hide behind walls of conversation anymore. I knew what was coming next, and I knew I wasn’t ready.
What happened next is a familiar story for those of us who weren’t taught that we can say no to sex when we don’t feel comfortable, or those of us who have ever had the thought: I want him to think I’m a cool girl, I don’t want him to stop talking to me. I let him take my shirt off and pants, although I remember him having trouble with the six buttons on my high-waisted jeans. I suddenly wasn’t in my body anymore; I was existing only in my head. Guilt, shame, and overwhelming worry began to consume me. I couldn’t leave the space in my mind because maybe I wasn’t kissing right, or moving right, or making the right sounds. I couldn’t see what was happening on top of me even though my eyes were open. I kept looking at the condensation on the windows, at the cracked light on the ceiling of his car, and the bright green clock by the driver’s seat. I wasn’t thinking about the huge body on top of me or why he still had all his clothes on. I wasn’t thinking about how much everything started to hurt. There we were in the back of the white Camry: a boy produced by a society that told him his value came from him fucking a girl, and a girl produced by a society that told her that her value came from boys wanting to fuck her.
Before things went too far-you know, to the place you cannot come back from—I finally came up with an excuse to go home, and he begrudgingly passed me my underwear. I put everything back on, climbed back up to the front, and we drove to my house in silence. When I got back inside and saw that my shirt was on inside out in the mirror, I started to cry.
The next day, I tried to text a few of my friends to tell them about what happened, but each time I picked up my phone, the empty text box taunted me. What are you even going to say, it seemed to ask, the first boy who ever touches you and you’re going to tell your friends you didn’t like it? I thought I needed to settle for experiences like these because I was too fat to be touched in any other way, so instead of texting my friends, I texted him and thanked him for a lovely time, said we should do it again.
We would hang out a few times after this. He would teach me how to ride a bike, take me to watch fireworks on the Fourth of July, and meet my friends for burgers all before the start of our Senior year. I would let the innocence of our summer romance wash away any doubts I had leaving that first date and get swept up daydreaming about what our senior prom photos might look like. I would ignore every red flag and every friend who told me not to see him. Then, on our first date of the new school year, he would take off my shirt in the back of a movie theater and choke me, leaving six massive bruises. In that moment, in the very back row of theater three, I found myself unable to breathe, unable to say, “No, stop, you’re hurting me.” I just have to play along until the movie ends, I thought instead, and it’s going to end soon, I hope.
After that, my closest friends taught me how to cover bruises with makeup and lent me their turtlenecks to wear to school. Some advised me to tell police or tell my parents, but I thought those were both extreme courses of action. He didn’t mean to hurt me, he thought we were having fun, I told myself. It’s not his fault he’s so much stronger than me. Instead of listening to my friends, I listened to my guilt and tried to quiet the rumors surrounding the obvious indication of shame on my neck. I denied my fear and told myself that what happened wasn’t that bad: He wasn’t a stranger in a dark alley—he just took things too far. But despite these excuses, I knew that I didn’t want to see this boy anymore. I stopped returning his texts and ignored his DMs. I moved forward like any other high school senior, and once again focused on college apps and my future. I started preparing for the rest of my life, far away from Cupertino, California.
It’s three years later, March of 2019, and I have long put the events of that night behind me. Since then, I have been accepted into NYU and started my life at college. I have rented and moved into my first apartment, have adopted two cats, changed my major twice, come out to my friends and family, started and ended my first long-term relationship with a girl, found a core group of friends who have supported me through every late-night breakdown over homework, grades, and family, and have started attending therapy every Tuesday morning. I have put miles of space between me, the white Camry, and the movie theater.
I’m heading to my friend Asher’s dorm room for a boring Saturday night filled with films and card games. On the way, I decide to stop at the CVS on Twenty-Third Street and Park Avenue, where the subway lets off. I’m reaching for a pack of Sour Patch Kids when I get a text from my high school friend, V, who attends college in California. I open my phone to see a selfie of V standing next to the broad-shouldered owner of the white Camry flashing me a peace sign:
“Do you know this kid? ******?” she asks.
My heart starts pounding and I can immediately feel my face start to flush.
“I told you about him in high school,” I type back.
I spend the rest of the night with my mind in California, fretting and imagining what could be happening. Are they drunk together? Is she okay? Should I call her? Sitting on Asher’s floor, I obsessively pick at my nails until they bleed and reach for Sour Patch Kids until the bag runs out.
The next morning comes and she responds:
“He’s fucked up. He was being fucked up yesterday to me and inappropriate.” My biggest fear spoken into reality, and all I can come up with is,
“Yeah he was like that in HS.”
“Bro what the fuck. He said some fucked up shit yesterday and being handsy.”
“I’m so so sorry you had to see him,” I text her back, although I don’t know why I’m apologizing.
“No I’m fine I had friends with me it turned out ok . . . Was just scary and honestly gross.”
The words she says repeat on a loop in my head: inappropriate, scary, gross, fucked up. It was fucked up, I tell myself, and for the first time since leaving California admit that I hadn’t wanted any of what happened to me. He could have asked, he should have asked, I think as the cold shock washes over my body. Here, on Asher’s floor, I lie still and go numb in a way I’ve only done in the back of the white Camry and the seats of the theater. I could have said no, I should have said no, I remind myself, and the contradictions of my story begin to overwhelm me. I remember how special it felt to hold his hand in the same breath that I remember being frozen in the back of the theater. I easily recall praying that someone would catch and stop us the same way I remember hoping that we would go undetected, worried about the impending embarrassment of being caught without a shirt or bra and covered in bruises. And as much as I want to forgive him for what happened, my mind still refuses to accept that he did anything wrong. He was just a boy that wasn’t taught to ask, and I was just a girl who didn’t know she could say no, I think. Like many other girls, I had to learn that lesson through experience.
I realize in this moment that I have already thought of every excuse for why this happened: Maybe he watched too much porn and thought this was a normal thing. Maybe he wanted to convey to me that he had experience. Maybe he didn’t think that asking was sexy. Maybe he grew up a boy and I grew up a girl—maybe he was told all his life that having sex would make him a man, and I was told that having sex at the right time with the right boy would make me feel like a woman. Maybe it was an honest mistake. Maybe it was not about me or him, but about what society taught us about sex, about what roles we play as gendered bodies in our world. Maybe something so personal and intimate—the violation of my own body—isn’t even about me. Maybe our bodies were just actors in a play that has already been scripted and performed hundreds of times. Maybe I know he’s not really the one to blame, not the only one to blame. Maybe I know all of this. Maybe I have empathized and understood it, have analyzed it to no end. But maybe I haven’t felt it at all. Not until now. And now all I can think is that none of the excuses, justifications, or apologies can change what happened.
I stay laying on Asher’s floor for the next few hours. Wondering how these memories managed to chase me all the way to New York, even after all my therapy, rebuilding, healing, and processing, I don’t respond to V. The empty text box taunts me once again, and I instead leave the message unopened, and the story unfinished.