I was an innocent kid. I don’t mean that in the way everyone says it. I really had no idea what was up with sex, drugs, anything. Not even swearing. One time, in elementary school, I stole a book from a kid because he wasn’t going to read it and also he was an asshole. The worst thing I did in junior high was getting caught smoking one of my dad’s cigarettes. He said, “Don’t do that anymore,” and I said, “OK” and that was it. In high school, I was a band nerd in a very special band: unlike other, more hedonistic ensembles, we kept to the straight and narrow. I’m talking about Monty Python marathons and cookies and card games and absolutely nothing else. To paraphrase The Smiths, I didn’t even know what drugs were.
I had emotional blinders on—I still do—but that was my experience, as I lived it. So I was fairly enthusiastic when, on a recent trip home, my mother asked me to clean out some boxes she’d been holding on to. It was pure high school: papers, books, and a huge stack of notes. There was a time somewhere between junior and senior year of high school when three of us exchanged notes on a regular basis: Kate, Mary, and me.1 In classic high school fashion, I was infatuated with Kate, and her best friend Mary was infatuated with me. Kate spent most of the time trying to get me interested in Mary. You can imagine how that went.
But through all of it, we were friends, and it’s in that spirit that these notes were written. I was reminded of how much the three of us cared about each other, how brutally honest we were, and how I don’t feel much more emotionally mature than I was back then. We talked about school, complained about classes, recapped the band trips. Even then, there were moments in their responses where I could tell my nascent self-hatred was coming into focus. Now, years removed, it’s not as humble or self-effacing as I thought it was. (“I would love to still be great friends with you if you would just learn to stop complaining all the time,” Mary wrote, in a screed dedicated to my crummy behavior.)
I get the feeling that if we were friends today, Kate and Mary would be writing about very different things, and I would still be going on about the same trash: I’m overly sensitive, I take things the wrong way, I’m neurotically perceptive, I can’t figure out how to talk to people I like, I can’t figure out how to talk to people at all…
Anyway, this isn’t about me. It’s about the people in the background of these notes. Because after I came down from the nostalgia, I began to notice a troubling pattern.
There was a significant amount of ink reserved for men, familiar and strange, who were doing exceptionally rude and creepy things to Kate and Mary.
It wasn’t just once or twice. It’s there in almost every note, and it’s painfully easy to spot.
I got angry at my 17-year-old self for not being aware of any of this, for more than likely telling them that it wasn’t a big deal, that they should just forget about these incidents.
By the time I was done reading, I could no longer maintain any kind of pretense that I was somehow innocent. I was ignorant, unaware, but not innocent at all. I was bullied pretty heavily, sure, but it was always clear the bully knew they were behaving in a way they could get in trouble for. They saved their abuse for when the gym teacher wasn’t looking, or on the way home from school. But Kate and Mary’s accosters didn’t have any such restraints. Leering at a girl, following her, asking about her fantasies in a chat room—it was completely natural, unchecked, accepted behavior. I know this because in their accounts, Kate and Mary were already resigned to having to tolerate the unwanted attention. It’s just how boys are, we would have told them. Relax. Forget about it.
I suddenly had a very clear recollection of a particular moment, one which had always been there in my memories but which now took on a much darker significance. Senior year, I had been dating a junior named Carrie for a few weeks and things were going as well as they usually did: I was completely uncomfortable and unable to figure any of it out. But we liked each other, and we spent most of our time sitting under trees and talking, and that was nice.
One night, I had driven her home and we were sitting in the car talking. She opened up a little about a previous relationship she’d had with Scott, who was a year ahead of me. I remember when they had dated that they had seemed like a great couple. I never spent much time with Scott, but he was always nice to me.
What she said, though, didn’t line up with any of that. She was trying to explain to me why she didn’t want to move too fast, and it was because of him. She thought they had an understanding while they were dating, she said. They were both Christians and they agreed that they would keep the physical stuff to a minimum. And it seemed to work, they had even been dating for six months and celebrated an anniversary but then he just got a little too pushy and, she said, it ended up not being right for her. She said it went farther than she’d wanted it to.
At the time, I figured it meant that he tried to put a move on her, they had a fight about it and split up. And then I forgot about it, because Zeppelin came on the radio or whatever. But the way she talked about it, and what she didn’t say, was more meaningful than anything she told me that night. That meaning stayed in hibernation somewhere in a dusty corner of my mind, waiting for me to catch up. It had to wait a long time—right up until then, sitting in my parents’ living room with aged papers and academic memorabilia splayed everywhere—for me to realize that Scott had raped her, and she didn’t know how to tell me, and I doubt she ever told anyone else, because when you don’t know what sex is, how are you supposed to know what rape is?
It stung me hard. It changed everything, my entire perspective of Carrie and who she was and it got to be too much and I could only wait for the moment to pass, frozen on cold tile while my heart raced and my brain exploded and all I could think was I’m sorry, I’m sorry I didn’t listen, that I didn’t understand. I’m sorry.
[Post image via Shutterstock]
Not their real names, obviously. ↩