I think sometimes of all the bad things that could happen to me. Does anybody else do this? All the ways I could be hurt, the exact level and amount I could suffer, and survive.
It started, I think, in elementary school, while watching West Side Story with my parents. That scene where the Jets taunt Anita. Her shirt is fuchsia and her hair is short and her mouth is loud, and I love Anita the best out of everyone, sort of in the same way Rizzo was my favorite in Grease. I have always been drawn to loud women, to brusque women, to women who are defiantly nothing more, or less, than exactly who they are.
Anita disappears under pale arms and shouting. I ask my father, “They raped her, didn’t they?” Maybe it’s the first time I’ve ever said that word aloud. I try to remember just how many of them there were, and what I would do in a scene like that, how fast could I run, how loud could I yell, and if I ran the fastest, and yelled the loudest, would it make a difference.
I think I was maybe ten years old. My father doesn’t answer.
In middle school I get in trouble for wearing denim minidresses and high black boots, shirts made of lace, jeans that show my skin from hip to ankle in an inch wide gap held together by suede string. All around terrible fashion sense, but I love going to the mall. My mother shakes her head as I walk to the car each morning, but she lets me decide what I want to wear. Later, she’ll drive to school, pissed off and long-suffering, with more appropriate jeans and an I-told-you-so. And I’ll roll my eyes right back, and do the same thing the next week, because I like the attention, even when it comes in the forms of thirteen year old boys sticking quarters down the back of my pants. For blowjobs, they say.
I don’t know what a blowjob is, and once it’s explained, I’m mostly concerned with the nomenclature. Why blow job, if you’re not actually blowing on it?
My best friend and I do cartwheels on her front lawn after school, giggling when our shirts go up, smirking at each other when we hear whistles from the cars driving by. Is there anything better than being looked at? Is there any other way to know you’re beautiful?
Eighth grade. I’m walking with my mother and kissing noises squeeze their way wetly out from the cracked windows of the cars driving by. It’s summertime and I shout FUCK OFF. “Don’t do that,” my mother says, and I feel a thrill, of terror, of rage. It is the thrill of knowing my young body is desirable, is noticed, and the terrifying certainty, dimly recognized, of knowing I have no way to defend it.
Later on, we’re on line at McDonald’s, and a man, tall, thin, with dirty blond hair and clearly drunk, presses up against my mother as she orders our food. I freeze. I say nothing. The girl behind the counter is only a few years older than me. She freezes too. I hear my mother, tiny and brave, say through gritted teeth, “Get your hands off me.” She’ll tell me later that it took her years to be able to say that. It will take me years, too.
The man giggles.
I dream my mother and I are in a forest, in a circle of men with no faces, who hold shovels and bare their teeth. Then I’m floating above their laughter, looking down into a pit of bones. I dream this more than once. I dream it frequently.
Whenever a man says something to me on the street now, I want to remove his face.
I’m told this is inappropriate.
I’m trying to think of ways to make it less dangerous:
walking around, existing.
There are things I could do, classes I could take.
I could make myself more dangerous.
I could learn how to hit — harder, more accurately.
I could learn to throw knives.
In ninth grade, a van follows me home. It moves less like a machine and more like an animal, somehow, a stalking thing, and I think: the sun is setting and I’m alone and most abductions occur 2.5 blocks from home. Was that true, or was it a statistic I made up just to scare myself into walking faster? Do decimal points make me feel less like prey?
Here is another statistic I read recently: A man is more likely to get struck by lightning than to be falsely accused of rape. (I don’t know if it’s true, but it seems likely.)
Here is a true story: A Vietnam War veteran went to a self-defense class to support his girlfriend. She was told to be vigilant, always. She was told to be aware of her surroundings, always. She was told to hold her keys between her fingers like a weapon, to be prepared at all times for an attack, to treat every stranger like a potential enemy, a potential threat. Her boyfriend — a soldier, a vet — said it reminded him of his war training. War training is how I walk home from the subway after dark.
Here is a true, sad story: Overwhelmingly, it is not strangers we have to treat as threats.
I keep thinking about a performance art piece Yoko Ono did in 1965, called cut/piece. She sits on stage in a dark room, the light above her harsh and hard. Her face is still. Her body is covered in black — a cardigan, buttoned, a skirt. There are scissors next to her: heavy, long-bladed, cold. One-by-one, people step up and cut away a scrap of clothing, and I thought: How brave, to sit there, hands folded, with a weapon you don’t reach for, and strangers in the room. The women cut little bits — a swath of sleeve, small and soft, hardly noticeable as it leaves Ono’s collarbone, her wrist. One cuts a line up to her shoulder, and lets the sleeve fall open. It’s so precise, it almost looks as if the cardigan was designed that way.
Men start to come up to the stage. Some of them are visibly uncomfortable. Some of them are arrogant: they saunter, they grin. All of them cut much more from Ono than any of the women did.
Two days after the van followed me home, I tell my mother. We go to the precinct. There is a bulletin board filled with the brown and black faces of girls who have vanished in our neighborhood. I stare. A police officer, a woman, walks over to us. She’s tired. The precinct is dim and quiet. Everyone just wants to go home. I tell her — a van followed me home.
—When, she says.
—2 days ago.
—Did you get a license plate?
She’s my mother’s height, with similar dark eyes, and longer, grayer hair. Her voice does not lift at the end of any of her questions.
—No, I say. But it was red. Maroon. A maroon van followed me home.
—What do you want me to do about it? she says. Next time, come to us sooner, and with a license plate.
I resolve to learn the phonetic alphabet, for next time.
Next time is a year later, less than a block away from home. A white SUV. I don’t get the license plate, but I hold my keys between my fingers and sprint away from where I’m headed. This is something my mother taught me: run against traffic, and don’t lead them home.
I double back once he’s gone. Home, base, safe.
I do not tell my mother. I do not tell the police.
When I was seven, my older cousin used to tell me about sex. He’d keep me up at night, make me do push ups and crunches in bed so that I wouldn’t fall asleep. According to him, sex was filled with monsters like in the video game, Doom, which we used to play together, which I would only play as long as I could cheat and become invulnerable. Monsters ate breasts like they were sandwiches, he said. (You may be wondering, how? Do they smoosh them together and bite? Do they coat them in lettuce and mayonnaise? Are they served toasted, with dill pickles? Do they use whole wheat, or rye?)
It seems funny to me now. It seems not funny.
Tenth grade: A boy in our class keeps touching my friend in the hallway, even though she is saying no and stop. I push him against the wall and raise bruises on his shins with the pointed tips of my boots. He calls me a bitch.
Fine. I’m a bitch.
I join the fencing team. I like fighting with swords. I like the ache in my body when muscles tear. I like the feeling of strong, and the bruises that bloom up and down my arms (not target), that change colors as they heal. My math teacher asks if everything is alright at home. When boys double over because I’ve hit them in the nuts (target), I laugh.
I’m told this is inappropriate.
I think, nastily, that if they weren’t wearing athletic cups, they must have been asking for it.
I’m sure this is inappropriate too.
In eleventh grade, we learn about Kitty Genovese and the bystander effect. We read Beloved, and I cry, and cry, and dream about teeth, and bones, and burning things.
I start a club at school. I tell the dean I want to perform The Vagina Monologues, but you’re not allowed to say the word vagina in high school, except maybe in health class, maybe, and definitely not on stage. So we make posters instead about eating disorders and loving your body. I don’t realize the irony until later. You can love your body, but god forbid you name it.
College is a mess.
Freshman year: I am full of tequila and lime and away-from-home giddiness. A boy walks me back to my dorm. He kisses me like it’s a video game you can start over, like you can use another life and maybe get past the button-down level this time, and into the bra, and finally defeat the twin bosses, the boobs. Every no is just a chance to try again.
I say, no. I say, I’m sorry. He calls me a good girl.
The next morning I tell my best friend, a boy I’ve known since I was five, and have loved almost as long. I say, David kissed me last night, and it was o.k., but I stopped him and now I feel awkward. My best friend says, you were drunk, Christina, and David already told me what happened, how you started making out with him when he put you to bed.
Then David gets on the phone to give me a play-by-play.
I say, o.k.
I think, it could have been so much worse.
It can take a boy thirty seconds to come.
It can take a girl years.
The first time — that first time — I’m twenty and drunk and it’s with a guy who writes mediocre science fiction and rides a skateboard and seems to own only one pair of pants. A girl who barely knows me at all tells me this is a bad idea, but I take him home, and I kiss him, and eventually, because our clothes our still on, he calls me a tease. I pause.
I say, o.k.
Sex hurts, but at least it’s a hurt I choose. I fuck him for a year, even though it never feels any better.
My mother told me a story when I was twenty-one.
Her parents owned a Blimpie. A man comes in and flirts with her over his roast beef and lettuce sandwich. Just roast beef and lettuce. No mayo. No mustard. When he asks my grandmother for her pretty daughter’s name, she spits, “Tomasina,” because she has no other way to protect my mother than by giving her a name she considers ugly. This doesn’t do much, but they are running a business, and besides, my mother has had to look after herself since she was nine, riding the subway to and from school every day, not speaking a word of English.
(I could tell you about the times she was followed, about the times men have showed her their dicks in the front seat of their cars as she walked past, about the times dry, cracked fingers have found their way under her skirt on the 7 train, about how the only time they didn’t was when my grandfather accompanied her to school. He told her afterward that she must have been lying.)
My mother, sixteen and excited and rebellious, says yes when roast-beef-and-lettuce asks her out.
She tells me she was wearing green pants and an orange shirt when he attacked her, like these are the most important details.
She says — he stopped. You know. He didn’t go through with it.
She says he told her that she reminded him of his sister.
I wonder if that’s true. If he did really stop, or if my mother has a truth that she edited, for me.
I think (I dread) it could have been so much worse.
I wonder if he’s still alive, and where. I would spill his blood on my hands and lick them clean while his eyes go from staring to not staring anymore.
I wonder if has sons, and what he’s taught them.
I wonder if he has daughters, and if he remembers my mother, sometimes, when he looks at them.
A man told me I was sexy that other day, as I ran by him. It was bright and warm out, and I was sweating, and happy, enraptured by the strength of my legs, the burn and thump of my heart, the salt of my sweat, my skin soaking up sunlight and turning brown. He opened his mouth, and it was like running straight into a wall, or missing a step, or tripping over a raised crack in the pavement: disorienting, sick. I was suddenly exhausted. He was walking with his wife, or girlfriend, and his little daughter. I wanted to spit in his eyes.
My father asks me why I am so angry all the time.
When my mother told me about the man who attacked her, she grabbed my wrist and said, “Look, my hands are all clammy.”
I shook her off. I said, a reflex, “Why did you go up to a strange man’s apartment?”
I will never stop being sorry for saying that.
Christina Tesoro lives and writes in NYC, in an apartment with too many animals or just enough. She tweets, sparsely, @storyqday.