Content warning: This essay contains descriptions of sexual assault.
I was out sick for my elementary school’s single day of sex education, and no one would tell me what I’d missed. Years earlier, my mom said women became pregnant through prayer. After nine months, a woman’s belly button unraveled like a grocery bag, her baby tumbling into a doctor’s arms. It didn’t hurt too badly, my mom promised, and afterward, the doctor tied your belly button back into a knot. You could even request what kind you wanted, innie or outie. I stopped believing her as I got older, but didn’t do any research of my own. Maybe I suspected that clarity would mean shipwreck.
I was nine. A chronic bedwetter, I loved the Backstreet Boys and had debilitating separation anxiety from my parents. All I heard about that day was that the boys and the girls had been sent to separate classrooms, given care packages of deodorant and maxi pads, respectively, and told to shower daily, because soon we would all start to stink. From then on, our teacher asked us to raise our hands if we hadn’t showered the previous night. Presumably, her goal was to publicly shame anyone who hadn’t. Idiots, my mom said. Does she need to know how often I shave my legs, too? I wasn’t as bothered by my teacher’s interrogations. Lying to adults about my body had become second nature, as easy as scattering dandelion fluff.
What I remember most about that year was hanging out at my best friend’s apartment. Let’s call her Vera. Vera was popular. She was tall and had movie-star hair and the beginnings of an hourglass figure. I was in the tenth percentile of height for my age and stuffed my sports bra with makeup remover pads. Vera had perky bubble handwriting and the most impressive gel pen and mechanical pencil collection I’d ever seen. She was funny and domineering, the kind of elementary school queen bee who had two or three codependents trailing her at all times. Her parents packed the best snacks—whole bags of Pirate’s Booty and beef jerky—and sometimes, after sparing me a small handful, she demanded I dispose of her trash. At her apartment, we ate SunChips and watched slasher films and three-way called our crushes to bait them into steamy confessions. We changed out of our school uniforms into slinky camisoles dotted with rhinestones from Limited Too. Vera glossed her lips in opalescent pink sparkle; I did mine in her mother’s red lipstick. When we were done, we went out looking for the building’s handyman.
The handyman was a tall, thin man probably in his mid-to-late thirties. When I picture him, he’s always wearing a baseball cap. I remember his face from the perspective of someone several feet shorter, looking up. Vera had described him as a man who treated girls like they were older than their age. I liked that. From the time I was five, I’d been playing games like Doctor as an excuse to get naked and fool around with my friends. It was exciting and felt good, and—I understood intrinsically—something to keep secret.
I meet the handyman for the first time at the apartment complex’s playground. Maybe Vera and I are on the swings, leaning back until we are nearly horizontal, launching ourselves at the peak like stones from a slingshot. Or maybe we are sitting on a bench, kicking at the wood chips that line the playground instead of grass. Practicing looking cool and unimpressed, our faces half-mooned by bubble gum.
Of the two of us, Vera is the boss. She tells me what to do and I do it. I feel I have no other choice. All of my friendships seem fragile, like I could ruin them if I’m not obedient enough. Standing up for myself isn’t worth the risk. How hard is it, really, to throw out an empty chips bag for my best friend, if the alternative is ending up alone? My mom doesn’t like Vera. She doesn’t like how I follow her around like a puppy, how subservient I am to her whims. Would you jump off a bridge if Vera told you to? my mom asks. No, I think, as Vera yells, Now! and I throw myself from the swing.
We think we are thirteen-year-old girls in nine-year-old bodies. We think keeping secrets from our parents makes us powerful. We think being sexy is related to being powerful, that ensnaring male attention has something to do with getting what you want. I want so much. To be loved by someone who isn’t family, to be chosen, to fall asleep at night believing I am fine. That my body isn’t a cauldron brewing terrible things I am careful not to spill. I imagine my insides filling with purple slime the color of Ursula the Sea Witch’s tentacles. The level rising, the whites of my eyes darkening, slime pouring from my ears, my mouth, my vagina. The entire playground drips with my toxic juice.
That’s when the handyman finds us.
The thing with having secrets when you’re a kid is that they usually aren’t secrets. Your parents know why you are shoving your crotch into a jacuzzi jet. They know what you mean when, in the car ride back from the park, you tell your friend, When we get home, let’s show each other our you-know-whats. Pretending not to know, letting you have your secret, is a kind of love. But the secrets you succeed in keeping from your family, the ones that never make it into their peripheral vision—these are the ones that will hurt the most.
I don’t tell my parents about the handyman. How, when I go over to Vera’s apartment, I make myself pretty for him. How he is a friend to girls throughout the building, not just me and Vera, but also an older girl, Irene, who is fourteen, and an unspoken number of others. He knows that I stuff my bra. He tells me I don’t have to do that; I am perfect the way I am. I can feel him seeing right through me, into the cauldron’s venomous froth. Being observed in this way makes me nauseous and excited. It’s how I felt earlier that year, the night 1999 turned into 2000, not knowing whether the whole world was about to blow up.
The first time I see an adult’s penis, I am eight years old. I share an AOL account with my parents, which gives me access to their email. One afternoon, in what is surely a rite of passage for kids of the internet age, I click into the spam folder. There’s an email with the subject line ~~pENiS EnLaRgEmEnT~~, which I open. Out springs something I have not, in the twenty years since this moment, been able to explain: an erect penis that is so long it curls around itself like a pig’s tail. It reminds me of my slinky, and is the same shade of pink.
I click on the picture and immediately regret it. Endless popups of naked men and women erupt across the screen. With each one I close, another five open. I panic and shut down the computer. Is it broken? Will it fire off naked pictures forever? My life is over, I think, my breath fast and shallow. When I restart the computer a few minutes later, I bargain with God so desperately, I’m surprised my parents don’t hear. I can’t decide if I’m more upset by the prospect of my parents knowing I was looking at naked pictures, or of having to look at the naked pictures with them. Or how I’ll explain to them—recent immigrants working oppressive hours to provide not only for me and my brother, but also for my grandparents and great-grandparents—why we need a new computer. I’m not afraid of being punished: They have a dark, Soviet sense of humor and might find the whole debacle funny. I’m afraid they’ll recognize in me something deviant I have tried to keep hidden.
While the computer reboots, my mom enters the room and asks to use it. I let her, and I turn on Charlie’s Angels in the living room to distract myself. Every few minutes, I pause the movie to stand in the doorway of my parents’ bedroom. I watch my mom, and I watch the computer, feeling like both the stalker and the stalked. Each time nothing happens, a relief like throwing up after hours of nausea washes over me. It doesn’t last. For hours, I wait for the penises to expose me.
I don’t remember if it happened once or several times. I remember his venetian blinds dismembering sunlight onto the carpet. I remember the frilly thongs he extracted from a Victoria’s Secret bag under his bed. I remember a catwalk. I remember all of us under the covers. I remember the word he used, playing. I remember my hand being wet. I remember assuming he’d peed on me. I remember, after, Vera assuring me this was a good thing. I remember not telling my parents. I remember thinking this was the same as when I played Doctor with my friends—but also, that it was not the same.
At school, I do not tell the other girls about the handyman, but some of them already know. My classmate Sofia says she wants to join us next time. Maybe she does—I remember the three of us in Vera’s room, Sofia borrowing a pink satin cami with roses on it. We went out looking for the handyman that day. Did we find him?
One day at recess, another girl, Angela, approaches me on the playground. She says she knows what Vera and I are up to and that it has to stop. You know what happens to girls who do that kind of stuff? she asks. They get cancer. Their nipples turn dark and shrivel up. I’ve been deeply anxious about death and illness for as long as I can remember, so this does not sit well with me. Years later, I’ll become the kind of middle schooler who forwards chain emails about Bloody Mary clawing her way out of the bathroom mirror, promising violent death to whoever breaks the chain. That day at recess is when I realize what I’ve done with the handyman will have permanent consequences. I grow light-headed imagining the repercussions of my self-sabotage.
A few years ago, at a noisy Los Angeles bar, I reconnected with Angela. I hadn’t spoken with anyone from school about the abuse, had even wondered at times if I’d imagined it. Over a shared plate of garlic fries, I broached the topic of the handyman, assuring Angela that my nipples hadn’t fallen off. We laughed at our nine-year-old selves, how we thought we understood the world and were confident and afraid of our assessments in equal measure. I asked her how she’d known what went on between us, who had told her. In retrospect, the answer was obvious—he’d assaulted her too. She told me he never touched her below the waist because she was too ashamed of her weight. Sometimes, he kissed her on the lips. We sat with that. We wondered which was worse.
Do you remember what it was like, to be young? You do. Was there any innocence there? No.
Alexander Chee’s novel, Edinburgh, reckons with the aftermath of a mass act of childhood sexual abuse, a choir director against twelve choir boys. The protagonist, Fee, recognizes that what is happening is wrong and even knows the word for what his choir director, Big Eric, is: pedophile. This awareness magnifies Fee’s shame, his suspicion that he was targeted because, just as he recognized Big Eric, Big Eric recognized him. At twelve years old, Fee knows he is gay. He does not expose Big Eric to the other choir boys, afraid it will lead to his own exposure. The abuse spreads throughout the choir, leaving Fee to grapple with the guilt he feels for failing to protect his friends.
For nearly two decades, I’ve obsessed over the question of my own innocence. When, a year after the abuse, I gained a rudimentary understanding of sex, I was horrified to learn the wrongness of what had happened to me. What I had done, as I thought of it then. I didn’t feel innocent. I don’t think I knew the words rape or sexual assault, but if I had, it wouldn’t have made a difference. I was the sicko, seducing a man several decades older than me. As I got older and encountered sexual violence in film and in books, it never approximated my experience. A scream, a hand over a mouth, roofies, football teams, an alley, a cold knife against a neck. On the rare occasion that the victim was a child, they always tried to resist. This was rape—someone saying no and someone else trespassing.
I tried not to think about it. When my mind went there, I hummed, loud and insistent, a melody like angry telephone hold music. I avoided researching sexual trauma, afraid to confirm that I was irreparably damaged. I had visions of myself in a locked psych ward, a nurse advancing on me with a loaded syringe. I imagined a life of loneliness, of sexual dysfunction or compulsory asexuality. Or worse—finding a partner and starting a family, only to discover I am incapable of love. When, as a teen, I learned the phrase asking for it, my experience hardened like a tumor.
It’s fifth grade graduation, and I’m preparing to descend the steps of my classroom with my friends, all of us together in one place for the last time. I’m having a panic attack, and I don’t know why. Maybe I’m afraid I’ll forget the choreography to the dance we’ll be performing or that the black tube top I’m wearing as a skirt will slip off. Maybe it’s the prospect of moving to a new neighborhood and starting a new middle school in the fall. Maybe I’m afraid I will see the handyman in the audience. I am thinking about how broken I am for doing what I did with him, how one day it will make me sick, kill the me I know until I am just a shell for this other thing that calls itself Ruth but isn’t. Purple slime climbs my throat. I gag. I swallow.
The graduation ceremony goes well. I don’t forget the choreography; my skirt stays on; the handyman doesn’t show. When it’s over, my grandparents give me roses. There’s a big family dinner at our apartment. Everyone is proud of me. My mom cries. But as soon as my grandparents leave, the panic returns. It feels like I swallowed a crowbar that’s constricting both my stomach and my throat. My secret becomes too large for me to hold in my body.
I pace my bedroom, crying, thinking of all the ways I’ve damned myself and my family. How my parents brought me to America for a better life, and I am repaying them with perversion and lies. How my grandparents did not give up their careers, their country, their community for me to become some kind of child whore. I feel lightheaded, can’t take a full breath. I am afraid the panic will never stop, that I will feel this way forever and have to be hospitalized. I imagine the gurney, the straitjacket, the electrodes. The spike of a needle in my elbow. Everything going quiet.
In the living room, my parents watch television. I walk toward them, weeping. What’s wrong? they ask, leaping from the couch. I don’t remember what I tell them. I remember them telling me that the handyman is a bad man. That he should not have done what he did, but that it’s good I told them, that it will never happen again. That I will be fine. They are calm. They are rational. They speak in soothing tones. It’s unexpected; I know my parents to be emotional and deeply protective. I can see now that they were trying to prevent the assault from imprinting as a traumatic memory. They could tell I didn’t fully understand what had been done to me. But it’s not the same as when Soviet parents command toddlers who have fallen to get back up, to shake it off, no need for tears. This conversation is gentle. We’ve fallen together. We help each other up.
There are other memories. A school talent show in fifth grade. Vera, myself, and two other girls reenacting an iconic performance from a film about sex workers. Did we know that the entire song was about sex? Yes. Did we wear tight, shimmery camisoles and dark makeup and perform four-and-a-half minutes of stripper-inspired choreography? Yes. Had we auditioned with the same choreography before a group of teachers, who offered us a slot in the show? Yes.
Did I understand the mechanics of sex? Barely. Did we play Spin the Bottle at recess? Yes. Did I kiss anyone? No. At nine and ten years old, kissing was a step too far.
After the show, my mother noted that I’d watched Vera throughout the performance instead of facing the audience. You knew the moves, but it’s like you needed her permission, she said.
I never learned the handyman’s full name, which has made it difficult to find anything about him online. At the bar a few years ago, Angela told me there had been a trial. One day in fifth grade Vera came to school late, wearing a black blazer, her long hair pulled back with a tortoiseshell clip. This was unusual because of our strict uniform policy. The black blazer was crisp, with shoulder pads. It made her look older than ten. I wonder now whose idea that was.
I am at a writing conference, about to meet with a poet I admire to discuss my first poetry collection. It’s 2014, a sticky July in the Pacific Northwest, and I am on the edge of a panic attack. After years of tinkering with airless, invulnerable persona poems, I’ve begun writing about what happened with the handyman. I don’t know if these poems are good or merely indulgent, if showcasing my humiliating secrets is worth the pain it may bring my family.
The poet and I discuss my book on a grassy lawn by a playground. While we are talking, another faculty member swings with his young son. They wave at us. The poet lights a cigarette, and though I don’t smoke I’m tempted to ask for a drag, hoping the nicotine will dampen the fight-or-flight state I’m in. Earlier that week, I smoked a friend’s cigarette down to the filter outside a poetry reading and felt unnervingly better.
I’m curious about the way you describe Vera, the poet says. There’s not a lot of compassion there. I consider this. One poem opens with, “Vera put cotton balls down my shirt outside the handyman’s apartment.” Another refers to her “carnal knowledge.” Several poems implicitly blame her for dragging me into her horror show, for dragging even more girls in behind us instead of seeking help or shutting the door. This was her sad reality; why did she have to make it mine?
I guess I don’t feel much compassion for her, I admit. She was like a brothel madam, procuring him a selection of girls.
What he says next surprises me. You’re angry with her, he says gently. You should try to let that go. She was a child, and a victim, like you.
After I told my parents, it was as though a spell had broken. Vera and I graduated, I moved to a new neighborhood, we attended different middle schools. We lost touch. There wasn’t a fight. We were best friends, and then we weren’t. My parents’ confirmation that I’d been violated curdled with my anxiety that there was something incurably wrong with me, and with my mother’s repeated critiques over the years of my submissiveness to Vera. My way of processing all this was to believe that what happened with the handyman was mostly Vera’s fault. That the most fucked-up power dynamic at the center of the abuse was between myself and Vera, rather than between the two of us and the handyman.
I managed to slough off some of my shame by forcing Vera to carry it. The more I tried to convince myself of my innocence, the more intensely I denied her the same alibi. For one girl to be innocent, another had to be guilty.
“If innocence is ignorance of the capacity for evil,” Fee explains toward the end of Edinburgh, “then it’s what adults have, when they forget what it’s like to be a child. When they look at a child and think of innocence they are thinking of how they can’t remember what that feels like.”
Looking back on our makeup, our sexual curiosity, the loud ways we inhabited our bodies, I used to imagine the handyman saw us as baby sluts. That he thought by wearing shorts and not asking questions, we were asking for it, that it meant we were game. But a person can’t be game if they don’t know what they’re playing. Playing at obliviousness, he weaponized his innocence against us. He made our bodies the guilty ones.
Before reading Edinburgh, I had drafted this essay eight times. Originally, it was about the female rape fantasy. I was interested in the fact that coercive sex is among the top three most frequently cited sexual fantasies among women, and in Virginie Despentes’s claim that these fantasies are a mechanism for female sexuality to climax from its own powerlessness. I wrestled, mostly unsuccessfully, with the connection between rape fantasies and a personal history of sexual abuse. Early drafts were a mess of cultural criticism and sexuality theory, sparingly peppered with personal narrative about my assault.
“All I could think of was what a terrible person I was,” Fee says, reflecting again on the abuse. “How I needed something terrible to happen to me. And years later, looking at the pictures of this in my head, moving in time, resolving one into the next, I can see how it never occurred to me that the reason Big Eric had gone to prison was because he was found, by the law, to be guilty of the crimes. Not me. I was not the one in jail. I wasn’t guilty. Was it enough, that the law said it? Not then.”
Edinburgh helped me empathize with what Vera may have experienced. It finally sank in that a child isn’t capable of protecting others when they don’t have the tools to protect themselves. I have no idea how the abuse has affected Vera’s life; if, like Fee, she feels overwhelming guilt for not protecting her friends. But I finally understood that it is useless to speculate about a child’s guilt or innocence in relation to their sexual assault. I couldn’t get this essay or my early poems to work—much less do the important work of healing—until I stopped seeing myself as hero and Vera as villain. Until I saw that blaming Vera was just another way of blaming myself.
I don’t know what ultimately halted the abuse, aside from a story Angela tells me. Even calling it a story is a stretch—it’s a rumor about Irene, Vera’s teenage neighbor. I remember her large breasts, how her ass bounced when she walked. She was five years older than us. In the story Angela tells, Irene and the handyman are alone in his apartment. With her, the handyman is rough. He crosses a line. What passed between them becomes a fight. Or rather, it was always a fight, but the handyman knew how to mask it as play.
Irene runs from his apartment fully naked. She shoots out of the darkened room like a ghost. It’s spring, and the sun hangs low on her skin, and she weeps as she passes the endless courtyards of the complex separating his apartment and the one where she lives with her parents. Neighbors watch from their kitchen windows, wondering what they’re witness to. Her parents find her shivering on their doormat, feet coated in wood chips from the playground.
Did this happen? It feels overly cinematic, the sort of thing a preteen would imagine. Escaping naked from a bad man, running to the safety of your parents. Understanding, finally, that what is happening to you shouldn’t be happening to you. The stares of horrified neighbors. Your parents wrapping a blanket around your shoulders, kissing you, telling you it’s okay. Locking the door.
Vera works in fashion. Sofia has struggled with substance abuse. Angela and I work in healthcare. All of us are immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Several of us are in relationships. We are not incapable of love. We do not live in inpatient psychiatric units. Our nipples, presumably, have not fallen off.
I wonder most of all about Vera. Sometimes, I look her up online. She has the same movie-star hair she did at nine years old, and still gravitates toward a pink lip. I wonder how old she was when the abuse started. I wonder if there actually was a trial, if the handyman faced any consequences. If she knows what happened to him. If she’s told her partners. If she has children, what she will tell them. How much she understood what was happening to us while it was happening. If the reasons she stopped speaking to me were the same as the reasons I stopped speaking to her.
I am as curious about the details I’m missing as I am afraid of what she might tell me. But sometimes, I imagine reaching out to her. I would tell her I’m not angry with her. I would ask if she’s happy. I would ask if she’s read Edinburgh.