Illustration by Ansellia Kulikku. Source photograph courtesy of the author.

A senior thinks you’re cute, your best friend Beth whispers in your ear. These are the most amazing words you’ve ever heard come out of her mouth. There is you, and then there are high-school seniors—seventeen, eighteen years old, with cars and sound systems, no uniforms on Fridays because they are now exempt. Your whole abdomen is burning up with this news. You ask, Who? Who? and she whispers again, Shhhh, it’s Chad; that’s who, because her friend’s brother’s cousin’s babysitter said so. Something like that, but it doesn’t matter to you. A senior thinks you’re cute.

And who are you? You are quiet, a nerd. You wear headgear, a back brace when it’s cold outside. Other than Beth and Clarissa, your only friends are your horses, and you gallop with your own two legs to practice strides in the school parking lot. You wear a soup thermos around your neck. You are the only Chinese girl in your mostly Jewish prep school in Boca Raton, Florida, and people call you “Cheesy Chink” because you smell, they say. Your uncle designs shoes for the Spice Girls, so the popular girls ask you for free sneakers, then spit at your locker once you hand over the wrapped gifts. You are shoved into the school lake. Your books are torn from their spines, defaced, “QUEERA” scrawled over them. You are given wedgies. You’ve been stapled to a seat, forced to sing a pop song you wrote, so everybody could laugh at you.

You are in middle school. You are twelve years old. You don’t even wear a bra yet.

But now, everything is different. Everything will change, you’re sure. A senior thinks you’re cute.

These are the days of private telephone lines, inflatable furniture, Juicy Tubes, America Online. Here’s what you do when you come home from school: Find Chad in last year’s yearbook. Call Clarissa and Beth on three-way to tell them you found him: Look, page forty-nine.

Those lips! they both say, and you agree. You have never seen anyone more beautiful than Chad. His eyes are squinty green, the deep end of a lake, his dark hair spiked. The yearbook shows him laughing with a group of friends, sprawled out on a school picnic table in the sun. They look so much like adults.

He’s going to instant message you tonight, says Beth. I gave my friend’s brother’s cousin’s babysitter your screen name to give to him. You all scream into the phone. You scream a scream that brings your father into the room, drunk and soggy from a nap, yelling.

Here’s the thing about America Online, about the instant messaging: you can be anyone—Dominique Dawes, Britney Spears’s cousin, a milkmaid from Mississippi, a criminal—anyone except yourself. Recently, the jealous ex-boyfriend of a popular girl from school—such a creeper—uploaded some photos of her onto an AOL homepage. In the pictures, the girl is lying on her stomach, on a bed, her pink thong blooming. Slats of light curve over her body from the bent window blinds. She wears dark-blue eye shadow; her hair is in a white-blonde ponytail; her pointer finger is in her mouth. You and Clarissa have been sending these photos to the anonymous men you meet online, in chat rooms, and they’re all crazy about this so-called Ashley Flowers, a tenth grader in downtown Miami. They send erotic poems, photos of the stirring bulge in their pants, hyphen roses that blossom into @ symbols. One man named Richard sends a blurry photo of his cock next to a Coke can, for scale. In the dark, with your face inches from the screen, you feel like each one of these men might love you.

On the news, JonBenét Ramsey does a dance. Her case is still open, years later, and everyone still cares. You watch her stamped-on face, clickety-clack cowboy boots, the tulle, her curls of shredded heaven. You strap on your own headgear, hook the elastic behind your big ears. One has to be so beautiful to be chosen like that, you think. Only beautiful girls are taken. Angelic, white girls. Adored and obsessed over. Too good for this Earth. Your parents sip their drinks and say, Such a damn shame. So cute, she was.

It is important to this story to remember that Beth is beautiful. Beth is Latina, whip-smart, a ballet dancer, a poet before you know what poetry is, but most importantly, she is beautiful. She is almost one full year older, the oldest of the seventh grade, while you are the youngest. She has always been kind to you and Clarissa, and you are both as jealous as you are grateful. Like you, Clarissa is poked, tormented; her young face is freckled, blemished, and pale—round as a scraped-off dinner plate. Beth has friends, admiring teachers, and parents. Most of all, she has boys.

She tells you and Clarissa all about them, and you watch it happen in the hallways at school—a boy’s arms wrapped around her, his little metal mouth going in for a kiss. I put lotion on as soon as I get out of the shower, she says. In every place. The best revenge is smelling good. The next day, you and Clarissa go to the mall and buy the same lotion as Beth. You smudge it onto your wrists, rub it through your hair to grease down the fly-aways; you slick it between your legs even though it stings there. One weekend, Beth offers to do your makeup like her own. You and Clarissa sit still as saints while Beth paints on the glitter powders, the goopy gloss. She traces greasy black lines around your eyes and on the rims of your eyelids. You can tell she cares, that she wants you to feel more sophisticated, changed. When she is this close to your face, you almost kiss her.

Chad does instant message you. In fact, he does it every night, like clockwork.

Hey Cherry Top, he says, because seventh grade was the time you dyed your hair Mars red, to offset the braces.

Hey you is what you always say. You sounds adultlike, closer than friends.

I think ur so cute, he says. The first thing I noticed about you was ur red hair. Very punk! I luv it.

Cute? ROFLMAO. Look who’s talking lol, you say.

You gnaw at your cuticles until they swell into little globes of blood. You wait like this for him to respond, for the bloop sound of his messages.

You have abandoned all of your other chat-room boyfriends. Ashley Flowers is DEAD, you tell each man. This is her mother speaking and she is gone! My sadness is uncontrollable! I can’t bear it! Clarissa takes on the role of Ashley’s grieving best friend, so she can continue chatting with those who show the most sensitivity.

You don’t need any of them anymore. All you need is Chad, a person in the real world, a real man who drives a real car. Chad, who knows what you look like, who noticed you, who even knows your school schedule and where you take your study hall. You and Chad chat all night about your favorite movies and Bill Clinton and the science teacher you’ve both had. I think she might be an actual LESBO, you say, and he agrees, SUCH a dyke LOL.

I think U might be the only person to understand me, you say.

Same here! says Chad.

Why aren’t we real friends @ school then? U dun even say hi.

People would judge lol. They wouldn’t understand us.

You really believe him.

Baby just consider us special friends, he says. Our own little secret.

Secrets can b the most fun.

* * *

Fifteen years later, you are twenty-seven years old, a writer, and your father has just died. You are in an isolated artist colony in New Hampshire in the dead snap of winter, here to finish another book you have failed to finish, and you sob yourself to sleep every night, thinking about how much you miss your father—his big arms, your smallness. While browsing through old emails one night, you find a message in your spam box.

It’s Chad.

It is dated one year ago, almost to the day.

It says, I need you to forgive me for the things that have happened. It is my one wish.

You recognize this message. You have received similar messages from him over the years, which you quickly delete, block, repeat. Each time you find one, you cannot help but vomit. Each time you block one, Chad creates a new account and name, sends another.

You have never once considered responding to his pleas. The few people you have ever told have said, Don’t. Don’t you dare. Forget you ever saw that. It is satisfying to delete his words, to watch them disappear, but here’s the thing: you can’t forget you ever saw that.

Now, though, you are the saddest you have ever been in your life. Your father is dead. Your mother is in pieces. You can’t finish writing your book. Just last week, your childhood house burned down with everything in it. You wonder when the world will stop hurting you. You wonder when it started hurting so badly in the first place, and why.

You respond.

* * *

Chad is my boyfriend, Beth tells you on the phone. I didn’t want to tell you, because I didn’t want your hopes and dreams to be, like, totally crushed. I liked that you liked that he liked you, she says. It was cute.

But Chad is my secret boyfriend, and it’s serious, she says. Maybe even love, she says.

She says, You need to move on.

When you tell Clarissa, she can’t believe it. You are sitting in the school locker room, straddling a bench, snapping Bubblicious gum. Yesterday, you decided to dye your hair black. You want to look sad all the time, and you think this will help. Your ears are stained gray from the sloppy chemicals.

That bitch! says Clarissa. Who does she think she is? She’s probably making it up because she’s crazy jealous of you.

You both know this is not true, but you allow the lie to sit between you, to swell there.

But Chad doesn’t stop messaging. In fact, he messages you more. He is sorry, just so sorry, that he never told you about Beth. He didn’t want to break up your best friendship.

Do u have a private line? he asks you. 2 talk like adults?

If I get off AOL I can free up the line, yah, you say.

When he calls, it is the first time you’ve ever heard his voice. At school, he has only ever looked at you: through the classroom windows, from inside of his car, across a swarm of students moving through the bells. He has never once even waved. His voice on the phone does not match the way he looks. It is high-pitched, ragged as puberty. His laugh sounds like Pee-wee Herman crying, you later tell Clarissa.

Are you in bed? asks Chad. I wanna talk you to sleep like I’m tucking you in.

Suddenly Chad wants to know what you’re wearing under the covers, if you know what sex is, if you’ve ever given a blow job, and, if so, to whom.

Aren’t these questions you should be asking your GIRLFRIEND, you say.

What I have with Beth doesn’t change the way I feel about you, says Chad.

I can’t even talk to her anymore, you say. It’s too painful for me.

I have another friend who thinks you’re cute. We both beat off to you, he says. Maybe if you like him we could go on double dates. The four of us could always be together in secret. That way I can still be close to you, because I think I might love you, he says.

I love you, too, you say. You like the gravity of that word. You feel sure of it.

Instead of calling Beth every night, you start calling Chad. Beth thinks she’s too good for you and Clarissa. She’s becoming a real snob, a bitch. This is what you tell yourself.

That friend I told you about, says Chad. I really think you would like him. I’ll be so jealous but I really hope you can go out, so I can be around you in real life without getting in trouble.

I don’t even know who he is! you say. He could be a creep!

It doesn’t take long for Gil to message you. Gil is another senior, eighteen years old, and he seems nice enough, but maybe a little boring.

Do you ever feel SO alone? asks Gil.

All the time, you say. I want to kill myself almost every day. My mom is SO embarrassing and my dad is always drunk and I have NOBODY who gets what it’s like.

That was before me lol.

Gil is a good listener. Sensitive, sweet. You think he might be a long-term friend or maybe husband material one day. You plan to meet him the next day between C and D periods, just a wave in the hall, so you can find out who he is. You don’t look him up in the yearbook because the suspense gets your blood pumping.   

The next day, you wear your mom’s bra under your school uniform. You stuff it with cloudy silicone pads shaped like chicken cutlets. You and Clarissa bought a whole pack at the mall last month, felt each other’s double push-up bra padding as if you were lovers, Oh yeah, baby, that feels soooo good. You confirmed that the cutlets feel most like the real thing.

After C period, you stand by the door of your history class. Middle and high schoolers rush by, Eat shit, Queera. Go kill yourself already. You respond by holding up your pentagram necklace, a Wiccan symbol, because you’ve recently promised that you are a real witch and are casting hair-loss spells on everyone who has hurt you.

You look for somebody cute, somebody you must have missed all this time. And then somebody approaches you and says, Hey, I’m Gil, and everything inside of your body crumples. This man looks old old, like, thirty. He is over six feet tall and wears square glasses. You think something might be wrong with his eyes because the dark irises of them look straight up at the ceiling. He breathes through his mouth, and it hangs open, underbitten, the smell of clogged dishwater. Most striking are his teeth, narrow and long as piano keys, the gumline black.

He leans in to hug you even though his eyes are somewhere else, and you scrunch your face into a walnut—disgusting.

You ignore all messages from Gil after that.

* * *

Chad looks older now in his online picture. His face is bloated, hairy. The whites of his eyes have gone red. The picture is one he took of himself on a phone in a splattered bathroom mirror.

You respond to his message.

You say, Why do you want my forgiveness?

I dunno, I guess I just feel bad, he says. About the way things happened.

Why? you say again.

I didn’t know if I should act on the feels of love for you, he says, and I chose wrong. Anyway, I can’t believe you would still be that mad about it now, after all this time. Beth didn’t care.

You know these words mean nothing. He’s lonely, you think. Or maybe desperate. He only wants a way back in. You’ve heard rumors about his life after high school. Everyone has.

I was 12, you say. Those things don’t go away.

In my defense, he says, I thought you were 13.

* * *

Let’s put all this bullshit behind us, Chad says in an instant message. It’s a Friday night, and you are alone, as usual. Clarissa is always babysitting. You refuse to speak to Beth, even though she tries.

I feel bad we’ve never actually hung out. Not very nice of me, says Chad. Why don’t we go 2 the mall this wknd? Buy sum Xmas presents?

Just us? you ask. Really 4 real?

Just us, he says.

Why don’t u pick me up tom morn round 10?

U shitting me? he says. Not lookin 2 get arrested. Get dropped off @ the mall. Noon.

You call Clarissa. You will NEVER guess what I’m doing tomorrow. Clarissa screams. You both scream. You father opens your door again. When did it always become scream, scream, scream? he says. You shuffle through your drawers, try to find the perfect outfit. At school, your uniform consists of sweater vests, long khaki skirts, starched collars that cut. This is your chance, you think, to look like a sultry island princess, to embrace where you came from, to show off the exotic woman you could one day be.

You go through every outfit with Clarissa on the phone and decide on the perfect one: shredded bellbottoms, purple satin flip-flops with beaded flowers, a matching purple t-shirt that says HAWAIIAN GURL in silver glitter across the chest. You use your new Sapphire flat iron to press your hair straight as streamers. You light incense under your vanity mirror and practice applying your makeup through the snaking smoke. You blast Boys II Men and sway your hips in the mirror like a woman. You decide to wear a bra. Your mother bought you your own recently, a training piece. It is pink with red flowers, a little embarrassing, too cute, but the look of it won’t matter. The t-shirt covers the straps. You like the way it feels, tight across your chest.

You don’t sleep that night. In bed, you read Drew Barrymore’s memoir, Little Girl Lost, for the one-hundredth time, trying to distract yourself. On the cover, Drew’s hair is frizzed and lit from behind. Her lipstick is dark. Drew Barrymore’s life was so hard, you think. Her only friend was the robot of E.T. You used to relate to this book. But that was the old you. Look at you now.  

* * *

It is difficult to find the twenty-eight-year-old Beth. Years ago, you looked her up online. You had exchanged a few words, casual niceties, but now that account and address are gone. Vanished. Her old number is disconnected. It is as if she doesn’t exist. Your remaining high school friends haven’t thought of her in years.

There is one person who knows where she is. The friend whose friend’s brother’s cousin’s babysitter helped make it all happen. You still don’t know the story. She hands over Beth’s email address, wishes you well.

You write an email with the subject line: Difficult. You divide this email into two parts. Part one explains that you miss her. Part two explains that you’re sorry.

You were such a huge part of my life, you write, through those raw-heart, formative years. But we are also connected in a way we never fully addressed.

* * *

Your mother drives you to the mall before a hair appointment. When she asks who you are meeting, you tell her it’s Beth. She’s too close with Clarissa’s mom for the lie.

That’s good, sweetie. I thought you had a falling out or something. Haven’t seen her around lately. I’ve always liked Beth. A good best friend to have.

I’m sure you did, you say. You roll your eyes until they ache.

Daddy and I will pick you up at four. We’ll go to dinner around here.

Whatever, you say.

Pick me out something good! she says.

Chad told you to meet him in the department store, Burdines. Of course, you are early. You stand near the top of the escalator, knotting and unknotting your puka-shell choker. You want to look busy when he shows up, so you pretend the cord is broken, bothering you. You feel like annoyed is your most mature look.

Hey, he says, from behind you. You had expected to see him on the escalator, but he must have been here all this time, waiting.

Hey you, you say.

You hug an awkward hug. A few hard pats on the back.

You wonder if, by the end of the day, you will kiss goodbye. If the hug will be tighter by four o’clock. If he might even slip you some tongue.

So I, ummm, I left something in my car, he says, and it almost sounds like a question. He smiles at you as he says it. His teeth are so wet and perfect. They glow under the fluorescent lights. He repeats himself, left something in my car? and looks at you as if you should know what this means, as if you should have expected this.

What about shopping? you say.

It won’t take long, he says. Will you walk with me to the car?

He holds your hand as you walk out the exit, over to the covered parking lot. Nobody has ever held your hand before, not in this way, and it feels damp, uncomfortable. You feel self-conscious that he will see your fingers in the daylight—the raisin-sized open wounds around your nails where you gnaw the skin off, where you cut with safety pins at night. You always carry yourself with fists for this reason, your thumbs tucked in. Sometimes, when it’s worse, you wrap each fingertip in bandages for school. Your mother says you look like a serial killer that way, and this only makes you do it more.  

This is me, he says, motioning to the blue car you already know is his.

He opens the rear-left-passenger door, and asks you to slide in. He slides in after you. It is dark in the car in this covered lot, but right away you see a figure in the driver’s seat, the side of a face—it’s Gil. Hey princess, he says, but he doesn’t turn his head around. He doesn’t even look at you. He smacks a button that locks all the doors in a quick thwack. He moves his right hand around the seat, toward Chad. Chad gives him five.

You say nothing.

Chad leans in with his eyes open, staring at you. You can’t believe a man is this close to your face. He tells you to open your mouth. You do. You feel his tongue on your tongue, and you feel like you might choke. You like this feeling. So this is a kiss. You don’t know what to do with your hands, so you sit on them. Chad moans as he circles his tongue—it’s that same laugh-cry sound from the phone. He pulls away. Show me, he says, as he lifts your t-shirt to your neck. Flowers, how cute, he says, as he yanks down the cup of your bra. In this moment, you are humiliated. Your bra has shape but your breasts do not. Your breasts are nothing but swollen, sore nipples—puffed and pink as erasers. There is nothing else but that. Still, he takes them into his mouth, the left and then the right, and calls you so sweet, sexy, and says, Is that what you’ve been keeping from me?

You say nothing.

Chad pulls your shaking hand out from under your jeans. For a moment, you consider reaching for the handle of the door. Instead, he catches your hand in his, wraps your raw fingers around his cock. You don’t know when he unzipped his pants, when it appeared, but it’s there, twitching. You have never seen anything like it before, this strange organ, the palest skin. He moves his hand and your hand with it. You are surprised that the skin moves, that it’s not a solid thing. With his other hand, he takes your hair in his fist, pushes your head down, tells you to be good. You have no idea what you’re doing, but you do your best to breathe. He says, Cut that shit with the teeth. Open up. You do your best to be good. He pushes your head all the way down to finish, and tears splash from your eyes onto his boxers. He opens the car door, says, I’m going shopping, and Gil gets out of the front seat, comes to meet you in the back. You had forgotten he was even there all this time; you had forgotten the world. His cock is already out, there is no kissing or touching or words. It is larger than Chad’s, the size of your forearm. It smells like chlorine. He is more forceful with you, squeezing your wrists in his big hands, clearing your pulse. He pushes and pulls your hair like a fast, violent knock on a door until the rot of him glugs down your throat, until you are coughing, crying, until you have bitten your lips so hard they are bleeding.

He calls Chad on his flip phone. Come back to the car, he says, and snaps it shut.

Chad opens the driver seat door. He turns the music up.

They high five again.

You can’t just get out of the car like this, Princess, says Chad. It’ll look weird.

They drive you around the loop of the mall, drop you off on the side of the road. Thanks, Cherry Top! says Chad.

You say nothing. You don’t for years.

* * *

In the fifteen years since high school, Chad has been arrested nine times. He has attempted suicide three times, overdosed twice, and spent three and a half years in state prison. He has been arrested for grand theft, drug possession, assault, battery of a law enforcement officer, and multiple violations of parole. He spent years in a homeless shelter. Once, in prison, he was strapped naked to a steel bunk and shit himself. The correctional officers dragged his soiled body around the grounds of the prison, hosing him off, humiliating him, scraping his body pink as a gumdrop. Just last year, after he was released, Beth filed a restraining order against him. He reached out to her for forgiveness, he tells you, and things got ugly from there.

Gil is a successful attorney in Boca Raton. He represents victims of sexual violence and harassment. He married his high-school sweetheart—the eighteen-year-old classmate and girlfriend, you learn, that he had the whole time.  

These are the things Chad is telling you now, on the Internet. They all check out. With a simple Google search, you are able to scroll through Chad’s mug shots over the years. You find his Twitter, his dating profile, the racial slurs he has posted online. Still, it is difficult to think about him as more than a ghost, as a real person in the world.

* * *

You walk along the side of the road, back toward the mall. You do not understand what has happened. Maybe, you think, this is what adults do when they feel the feels of love. Maybe they share their girls; maybe it’s quick, forceful; maybe it happens just like that.

It is not even one o’clock. Winter in Florida. You push open the mall door and feel the suck of the air conditioner. You are nervous to be seen: you are absolutely not allowed to be inside of a mall, or anywhere, alone.

You walk in and out of cosmetic stores. In the track-lit mirror, you look different. Your eye makeup is smudged like a bruise; your cheeks are flushed; your hair is no longer straight or smooth. Worst of all, your lips. Your lips are at least three times their regular size, raw and shiny, purple and inflamed from the teeth. Whose teeth? Whose bite marks? You can’t be sure now.

In the mirror you think: I don’t look like a girl anymore.

And then: I look like such a pathetic little girl.

And then: maybe this is what a woman looks like.

And then: I look sexy like this. Beaten. Theirs.

And then: I wish I were a boy.

And then: I look like every other girl there ever was.

You do your best with the sample powders, rub the beige cream under your eyes. Your mom will notice the mess of you, you’re sure. You are nothing like your mother. Your mother is clean and smooth as a candlewick. Pressed creases. Adored.

You buy each of your parents a present with their own money. A teacup for your mother. A baseball cap for your father. You buy a large bottle of orange soda from the food court—your favorite. You want the fizzy orange chemicals to dye your mouth, to blame the bloom of your lips on this simple thing.

Your parents pick you up from the entrance of Burdines at four o’clock. Those lips! they say, and you agree. You lift the empty bottle of soda, Sorry, I must’ve drunk too much.

You look like you’re bleeding, says your father.

I tripped on the escalator, you say.

You sure about that? asks your father.

I’m super sure.

Something happen in there with Beth? he says.

Your father was never a great father, but he was always a great man. He was the person who loved you most, and, fifteen years later when he dies, you consider this moment in the car—how the trajectory of your life and your relationship to him could have changed had you told him the truth. If there was no mother in the driver’s seat, no fear of getting in trouble; if there was no escalator in that mall.

Just shut up about it, you say.  

* * *

The only person you ever tell is Clarissa. You are sitting on her bed under her painted-on clouds. You tell the story calmly, sucking on your fingertips, no big deal. You tell her they both wanted you, they both had to have you, and you were very good at it. Their cocks were big, and you took the whole thing like a champ.

You are such a slut! she screams. Jealous, you think.

You want so badly for her to be jealous.

You gonna do it again? she asks.

Nah, you say. They’re graduating soon. I don’t want them to get too attached to me.

The truth is, you never heard from Gil again. You heard from Chad only once, online. He asked if you might be willing to meet up with him the following weekend, if next time you would let him fuck you in the backseat. He promises it will feel good. He warns you not to tell Beth. You block his screen name, unhook your private line. You begin sleeping in your parents’ bed every night, a habit you were never able to fully break.

It was just so romantic, you say.

* * *

You find an email address for Gil online. It’s listed on his law firm’s website.

It is late at night in the New Hampshire library. Your friend James watches your hands shake, your bracelets clattering against the desk. He says, Are you sure you want to do that?

You are.

Do you remember me? you type. I have some questions. I would be grateful if you might be willing to answer them.

Why did you hurt me? is your question, the only one, but you do not write this.

Of course I remember you! he replies, almost immediately. I will give it my best to answer any questions you have. I hope you are doing good.

You ask if he might be willing to share his memory of that day at the mall. Your point of view would be helpful for my own closure, you say, no matter what that may be. You ask if he has ever thought of it again, if the experience ever held any weight for him. You tell him there are no right answers, because you believe this is true.

Gil responds from a different email address. His personal one.  

Let me really think about it, he says, so I can give you my best recollection.

I want to help you, he says, in any way that I can.

You never hear from Gil again.

* * *

On Skype, the twenty-eight-year-old Beth looks exactly the same. There is a reason I am so difficult to find, she says, but I’m so glad you found me.

Beth tells you that she still works every day to forget her experiences with Chad. She says she doesn’t blame him, that blaming him would give him power. Beth believes that blame would add fuel to a dangerous situation. It’s a chapter she has closed. She is religious these days, at peace with her thirteen-year-old self and the decisions she knows she didn’t consciously make. She says, If I can wish him well, I feel that I have won.

Do you feel that he assaulted you? you ask.

No, she says. I think he only ever wanted love.  

* * *

One day, in the spring, Beth writes you a note in class: Meet me at the flagpole after the bell.

She does not look at you when she passes the diamond-shaped note. At the bell, she swings her backpack on and almost hits you in the face with it.

Outside, in the sun, Beth looks more beautiful than ever. Her hair whips around her face like she’s pulsing with electricity. Her eyes twitch so the tears won’t fall. You know what is about to happen, and you miss her already.

Was it worth it? she asks.

Was what?

You cover your ears with your hands. You say, No, No, No, No. You cry. You take it. You deserve every last insult. You beg. You fall onto your knees and stain your uniform in the wet grass. Your classmates walk by, shaking their heads. You almost throw up into the dirt. You say, Please, Beth. No, please.

Beth picks you up off the ground by your armpits. She hugs you like she means it, like she is the first person that has ever wanted to take care of you. You do not understand why, but she does. There is no one who has ever been more kind to you than Beth.

Beth tries to be your friend for the rest of high school, but it’s not the same. You are a slut and you know it. You can’t be trusted and you know it. Soon, you only occasionally wave to each another from across the halls.

The two of you never talk about Chad again. Clarissa and Beth become best friends.

You deface both of their pictures in your yearbook.

You sleep with the book in your arms.

* * *

You tell Chad, Clarissa, and Beth that you are writing an essay about them. They all give you permission, tell you to rename them however you’d like.

I am so deeply honored that you would write about me, Chad says. Although I’m sure your portrayal of me will not be glorious. He has had a spiritual awakening, and he sends you a YouTube video about it. He asks if you are religious. He feels bad for you that you’re not. He compares you to a plant growing in the shade. He wants to know if you’re single.

You are not sure why you are even talking to Chad, what you think he can tell you.

Was there anyone else? you ask him. Other girls our age—besides me and Beth?

One name, and then another. And another. He lists four. These are girls you knew, liked. A girl from the school play. A girl who once made you a friendship bracelet out of telephone wire. Other girls everyone wanted to be.

Chad says, My life up to this point has been…not so much fun. You could say I was paid back 100 times over for what I did to you or anyone else. Does that make you feel better?

Does it? I don’t know.

All of us in the same car, outside the same mall. All of us girls, now women. All of our hands reaching for a door.

T Kira Madden

T Kira Madden is a writer, photographer, and amateur magician living in New York City. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Columbia Journal, The Kenyon Review, and Tin House online. She is a recipient of fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and Hedgebrook and serves as the founding editor-in-chief of No Tokens.

29 Comments on “The Feels of Love

  1. It’s hard to believe that there are still boys and men like Chad and Gil around…Had a few experiences similar to yours but not as young and it’s been almost 50 years and it was just before the feminist movement came to fruition…I’m so sorry for your pain and humiliation but I hope your writing has helped…I truly enjoyed reading it…LOVE YOU, KIKI

  2. Hello,

    You may not remember me. I was a junior during the time of your story at NBPS, and I know many of the people in your essay… well, knew them. My best friends and I were almost you and yours. We were very, very lucky.

    Thank you for writing this. Thank you. I’m so, so sorry for their behavior. I am so sorry that none of us spoke up to our parents, to the police, to the school. Most of all, I’m sorry that the others like you, who were bullied and violated in so many ways, didn’t have more support from the rest of us who, though we may not have known what exactly was going on, knew SOMETHING was going on- especially those of us who knew what it was like to be on the receiving end of torment and sexual abuse.

    I live in NYC, as well, and spend some time in NH, oddly enough. Please feel free to contact me if you’d like to speak further or get a cuppa. I’d be happy to hear from you.

    1. Of course I remember you! Thank you so much for this message. It makes me so heartsick to keep hearing the same stories about the same perps, but less alone in this. Please find me at TKMadden@gmail.com — would love to see you. TKM

  3. Dear Kira,
    Thank you for a most beautiful and profoundly touching essay.
    I was at Tin House in poetry this summer.
    Congratulations on your essay being published. It is very powerful and we all need to read it and learn.
    Love,
    Fanny

  4. I can’t stop thinking about this story Kira. My husband was formerly a school teacher and he always used to say to me “your children have a whole life outside the home that you know nothing about.” Your story reminded me of his words and broke my heart. I can’t even imagine how it has made your mother feel. I am so sorry this happened to you. But I am glad to hear that Chad at least tried to make amends. It gives me hope. Thank you so much for sharing your story. It is so well written Kira. I look forward to reading more pieces by you! xoxo

  5. I experienced something very similar when I was 13. Thank you for putting the feelings out there that I’ve never been able to put into words. The confusion of an immature mind and then the confusion in adulthood of whether you should still feel anything at all.

  6. Somewhat related is the ongoing culture of arranged child marriages, justified by both religion and culture, in large parts of the world to this day. There is no end to the suffering that humans cause each other, it would seem.

    To the author, there will never be justice, as what happened to her cannot take away the suffering it caused. Forgiveness can lead to healing,,but it is understandably hard to give.

  7. Thank you for sharing this story. It does many a things at the same time. While I remember my own assault at teenage, I feel sorry for your humiliation. I wish you find in yourself the strength that this incident doesn’t cause you more pain.

  8. I wanted to cry the whole time reading this. You are very brave for sharing your story, and my heart breaks that you and so many other young girls had to endure this abuse at the hands of boys who knew better. You are a beautiful writer! I know that the memories never go away, but I hope that you will find peace.

  9. Your writing beautifully expresses your pain and strength…by sharing your story…u are helping so many women..
    Thank u..u are beautiful!

  10. i had an experience with teenage boys when i was in elementary. though not as gruesome as this… i kept thinking if i am to blame for me to be treated less of a woman. i am so sorry for your pain.

  11. Thanks for sharing your story it is part of the healing process. I had something happen similarly when I was 15. I always blamed myself. I never forgave myself for many years until I was an adult. I know telling our stories helps others and heal us. I pray you are doing good now. Keep writing and healing yourself. Lizzy

  12. Absolutely devastating. Reading this brought me back to this difficult stage of life where the hope for love and acceptance leads to all kinds of horrible things for a young girl. Thank you for sharing your story. You are a lot braver than many of us out here. So well-written, too.

  13. Do you remember me? Your story is very interesting. It’s sad people have to go through rape in their lives. It hits home. I never read a story written like that. New to me. Glad I read your story.

  14. Such a wonderfully written piece. I’m so sorry that you experienced such hardship and heartbreak. Makes me think about things that I haven’t given thought to in years. Also, makes me wonder what experiences my children and other people’s children may have had that are unknown to us. It saddens my heart. I applaud you for your bravery in re-living these hurtful moments before an audience of readers. Looking forward to reading more by you.

  15. That was fucking tough to read. Thank you for sharing. I hope writing about this has helped you and Beth and anyone else who has had similar experiences in their own life.

  16. That was tough to read. Thank you for sharing. I hope writing about this has helped you and Beth and anyone else who has had similar experiences in their own life.

  17. “There is an ache in my soul that leaves no visible scars, and yet I am scarred all the same.” -MWJ

    This killed me. The depravity of the world is a great and terrible fog in which we live. It’s the truth, THIS truth, and speaking words you haven’t spoken in years to be the beginning of hope. It is the breaking of silence where we find our purest hope. When you wrote this, you wrote it not just for yourself but for millions of women who have been treated this way and are shushed into believing it was their own fault. You gave them a voice. You gave ALL of us a voice. Don’t forget that.

  18. I read your story because I think that my wife of 28 years suffered some type of sexual abuse when she was young and I wanted to view it from the victim’s eyes. I am deeply saddened about what happened to you. Thankyou for writing your story. Sincerely, Harry Robinson

  19. Innocence was stolen on that very day. Female sexuality is a very precious gift from God, and it is not to be tarnished. No, it is not Maden’s fault that she was raped, but I wish she had not kept it a secret at all. Yes, it was tough to read, but I think it was important to understand. The piece was quite graphic, but that was what she had been exposed to as a child. In some way, she was already beginning to lose her childhood innocence before the assault had occurred. A child’s innocence is of great value.

  20. This is an incredibly moving story and so very brave of you to share with the world. It is so important for you to write this. I can relate on so many levels and as a survivor and mother of two young daughters what I want so deeply is for the experience of sexual violence to stop being so common among women. And I use that word “common” deliberately ; we hear the vague facts of sexual violence so often that its occurence begins to sound like an immutable fact. But it is not. Thank you for braving your past to share these details with the world and remind us all that the victims and perpetrators are both real people. That these are real experiences. This is how we begin to end it.

    I live with PTSD from the physical and sexual violence I endured as a teenager. I recently started a blog about being a mother while having PTSD. It is neither polished nor profitable, and I have not yet written specifically about my abuse (though I plan to for my birthday on the 8th) but I am sharing the link with you in case you have the time/inclination to read it. I would be honored to hear your thoughts if you do: http://www.bettysbattleground.com
    Again, thank you for this story.

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