I was 11 years old. I was at the beach with friends. I got out of the water before they did, and I went into the public restrooms to rinse off. You know the kind “” they have them at public pools, too “” the concrete block buildings with slimy floors and open showers. It was dim inside, but I could see that someone else was there too. He was tall, skinny, with black hair and pale, white skin. He wore one of those orange safety vests road workers wear. He held a long, wooden stick with a sharp metal point attached to it, like a long, thick nail “” the kind of stick janitors use to pick paper up off the ground. Only he wasn’t picking up paper, he was staring at me in my red bathing suit.
“That’s a pretty swimsuit,” he said.
In my memory, he is suddenly behind me, his right hand running his finger under my suit strap, saying, “I want to get a suit like that for my sister. What brand is it? I’m looking for the tag.”
I knew he wasn’t looking for the tag. But the big stick with its metal spike was hovering over me on my left, and I knew he could kill me with it, and I was scared.
Then he was looking for the tag (but not really looking for the tag) between my legs, his fingers running along the inside of my suit, his arm holding me in place, that sharp point somewhere over me. He didn’t need to hold me in place, because I was frozen there anyway.
“I don’t think the tag is there,” I squeaked, as if he didn’t already know that.
Then I heard my friends’ voices approaching. He let me go.
“It isn’t your fault, honey,” my mom told me later that day, because honest-to-God, I thought it was. I was this little kid, and I thought I had somehow asked for it. But later in the evening, when I started crying again, she said, “Enough already. It was nothing.”
No one called the police. I didn’t tell anyone else for years.
It wasn’t as bad as others have suffered, but sometimes when I go into a locker room alone, I feel my stomach tighten. And sometimes when a man touches me on the shoulder “” a friend, my husband, it doesn’t matter “” I freeze for a second. Not big things, I’ll grant you, but not nothings, either.
Why am I telling you this? It’s not to make you pity me, because I’m fine. I’m telling you because our culture says I should be ashamed to speak of this, that you’ll respect me less if I tell you my story. Enough already. When we don’t tell our stories, it’s easy to think that things like this are rare and therefore insignificant. They’re not. According to the American Psychological Association, some CDC research estimates that one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before they turn 18. Other CDC research estimates that one of every six women has been raped during her lifetime. You are surrounded by walking wounded; you might even be one yourself. Come out of that dark place. Tell someone who cares about you, and, if you think you need it, get some help. If someone tells you their story, please listen.
Kelly Carlisle is an assistant professor in the department of English.