by Tina Mortimer
The Achilles tendon rests between the calf and the heel. It’s the largest and strongest tendon in the body. It’s also the most vulnerable to injury due to its limited blood supply and the tension it endures when you flex your calf muscle. This is where M, your on-again, off-again high school boyfriend pinches you, grasping the delicate muscle between thumb and forefinger. Until the day you give birth, you think it’s the worst pain you’ve ever felt in your life. M does this to show you he is in control. When you met, M was kind, funny, even sweet. At least that’s what you tell your friends. You have lied for and about him for so long, you no longer remember what’s true. The details of your first time together are murky. You can recall fragments: playing beer pong at a friend’s party, doing shots of tequila, almost falling down the stairs, M helping you up and asking if you want to go somewhere the two of you can be alone. M on top of you.
You lose your virginity on the bottom bunk of an impossibly hard bunk bed. The sheets covering the pencil-thin mattress are pale blue and dotted with tiny cartoonish spaceships. You imagine yourself inside one of the spaceships, floating above the bed, airless and weightless until the awfulness is over. Thankfully, it’s over pretty quickly. When you get up, you notice a splotch of red on the fitted sheet—a dark moon rising in a sea of blue.
It isn’t until a few weeks later—after you and M start seeing each other regularly, albeit never in public—that you find out M has another girlfriend. She knows about you too. This becomes painfully obvious when she accosts you at your locker after first period one day. You don’t remember what is said but the conversation gets loud, and you both end up in the principal’s office. Later, when you confront M about his duplicity, he denies it—sort of. He says you are the only girl he wants to be with, but he doesn’t know how to break up with this other girl. He needs time to let her down easy, he says. But you’ve watched enough movies to know how this story ends. Still, you tell M you believe him because you want to believe him. Maybe he’ll change, you think.
One night, you walk in on M having sex with a girl you’ve never seen before at a friend’s house party, and something inside you cracks. You start to scream and kick the bed frame. Inexplicably, you throw your purse across the room. You aim for his head, but your purse hits the wall and breaks open like a piñata. Lipstick, gum, tampons, and loose change go flying in all directions. M is furious. He drags you into a nearby bathroom. Once inside, he puts one big hand over your mouth and the other hand around your neck. Stop making a scene and go home, he says. Or else. Or else what? He’ll get his sisters to jump you after school on Monday. You go home and spend the rest of the weekend applying concealer to the bruise on your neck and waiting for him to call. When he finally does call, you apologize to him.
A few weeks after the party incident, M breaks things off. You’re too clingy, he says by way of an explanation. You plead with him to give you another chance. You’ll do anything, you say in between sobs. But it’s no use. He can’t have you following him around and embarrassing him at parties, he says. And that’s it. Your pseudo-relationship is over. Done. And you are gutted. The pain is so visceral, so overwhelming, you become physically sick. Nothing is left inside you anymore but a giant, gaping hole—and you make it your job for the rest of the school year to fill it.
You gain forty pounds in less than six months. By spring break, you no longer recognize yourself in a mirror. A girl—a friend of one of M’s other girlfriends—writes THUNDER THIGHS in black marker on your math book when you accidentally leave it in study hall. She’s the student council president and captain of the dance team. In a few years, she’ll marry her high school sweetheart and have three kids: two girls and one boy. On Facebook, she’ll share Bible quotes and memes like, in a world where you can be anything, be kind.
You’re a senior in high school when you start sneaking out to go club-hopping in the city. It’s a short train ride from Connecticut to Grand Central Station and you can easily make it there and back before dawn. Your first stop is a club called The Limelight, where your friend’s sister bartends. Because you know one of the bouncers, you get to skip to the front of the line. But before you can make it inside to meet your friend, a different bouncer—one you don’t know—pulls you aside. You’re too drunk to argue when he asks you to follow him to the back of the club. He has something to show you, he says in a flirty voice. You laugh and in a flirty voice ask him what it is. He laughs and says you’ll see. He takes you to a back room. You go in even though the room is dark. He’ll turn on the light after you’re inside, you think. He doesn’t turn on the light. He slams the door shut, pulls down his pants, and takes out his dick—it’s already hard. You laugh, wanting desperately for this to be a joke, and tell him to stop fucking around. Come on, he whispers. He’s so close you can smell his cigar breath and feel his erect penis against your thigh. You fumble in the dark behind your back for the door handle. Your hands are shaking so badly you can barely grip the knob, but you manage to turn it.
You don’t know why he lets you go. You keep thinking he’s going to follow you, but he doesn’t. When you lean over the bar to tell your friend’s older sister what happened, she shrugs and pours you a drink. A girl standing next to you at the bar overhears your conversation. At least he didn’t rape you, she says—as if you should be grateful.
At the end of the night, your friend, her sister, and her sister’s boyfriend walk you to the train station. On the ride home, you brace yourself at every stop. You imagine the bouncer’s thick arm pushing through the double doors the second before they close like in a bad horror movie. You think about what the girl at the bar said. At least he didn’t rape you. He could have.
You’re married and living in a suburb of Saint Paul, Minnesota. You carry your two-year-old son everywhere on your hip, which causes you lower back pain, which causes you to visit a chiropractor. The chiropractor is an older man with salt and pepper hair and the deeply tanned skin of someone who does not winter in Minnesota. You talk for a few minutes about your pain: is it sharp or dull? Constant or intermittent? He punches notes into a laptop. The room you’re in is dimly lit and smells woodsy and sweet like cheap aftershave. When he’s done asking questions, he tells you to hop on the table. You lie on your stomach and put your face in the hole. He runs his fingers down your spine to your tailbone and slowly back up again. You shift uncomfortably. You’re about to open your mouth to say something when he tells you to take a deep breath. As you exhale, you feel his hands push down on your spine and your back lets out a satisfying crack. Then he tells you to move onto your side and pull one knee up to your chest.
You feel your lower back release. He moves on to your shoulders. More deep breaths. More pressure. More cracking sounds. You’re just beginning to relax when he slaps you on your ass. Turn the other cheek, sweetheart, he says curtly. For a moment, you’re too stunned to move.
Other cheek, please, he repeats in the same brisk tone, and you quickly turn over on the table. Your face feels like it’s on fire. You should say something, you think. Or better yet, you should walk out, get off the table, and walk out the door without saying a word. But before you can work up the moxie to do it, he’s adjusting you again. It’s not until you’re sitting in the parking lot a few minutes later that the humiliation sets in. You consider going back inside and confronting him. Then you think about calling your husband. But what would you say? Hi hon, my chiropractor slapped my ass. What should I do?
In the end, you do nothing. Well, not exactly nothing. On the drive home, you replay what happened in your head, each time with a different ending. Later, when the anger and shame threaten to blot out everything else, you make excuses for him: he’s an old man. He doesn’t know any better. That kind of behavior was probably perfectly acceptable back in his day. You’re overreacting.
You’re 45 years old. You have a loving husband, two great kids, a mini poodle. You have friends, a strong support system, a therapist. You do not have a chiropractor. You’d like to say that the confident woman with the quick smile and snarky sense of humor is who you are now. You’d like to say that. But the truth is, you’ve spent more than four decades believing you were unlovable.
As a young woman, you did things you’re not proud of: you abused your body with alcohol, drugs, food. You put yourself in dangerous situations. You made terrible choices. And yet. And yet. Now that you’re older and wiser, you understand none of that shit matters. When you’re young, you get to mask your insecurities with designer jeans and crop tops and too much makeup. You get to have poor judgment and act older than your age because your brain is still developing. You get to make mistakes.
Sometimes you worry you will become your mother. She, for whatever reason—her upbringing? her Catholicism? her depression?—was incapable of talking to you about your changing body, much less sex. But you are different, you remind yourself. You talk openly with your kids. You teach your sixteen-year-old to treat girls the way he’d want his little sister treated—with kindness and respect. You tell him he needs to speak up if he sees someone being mistreated. You tell him there are boys who will commit sexual assault and never be held accountable. You explain to him that this is what it means to live in a rape culture, and this is the environment girls like his little sister must navigate every day.
You tell him:
Never assume you know what another person wants.
Always ask permission. If the answer is not a clear and resounding YES, then it’s a NO.
If you see someone in a dangerous situation—if they’re passed out and alone at a party, for example—help them.
Your daughter is only eight years old, but you’ve already taught her the difference between good touch and bad. You practice saying that’s not okay and that makes me uncomfortable, until the words roll off your tongues as easily as please and thank you. She doesn’t understand why she needs to learn these phrases, and that’s okay—for now. You hope she’ll never need to use them. You remind yourself that while the rape culture you grew up in still exists, she is not you. And you are not your mother.
You tell her she can talk to you about anything, and you mean it.
You tell her:
It’s okay to say no.
If someone really likes you, they won’t ask you to do something that makes you uncomfortable.
And because you hope that if you say it often enough and fervently enough it will ring true for her in a way it never did for you:
You are deserving of love.
Tina Mortimer is a marketing writer by day and a fiction writer by night. Her work has been featured in the digital and print versions of MUTHA, Hippocampus Magazine, Cleaver, Defenestration, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, and Minnesota Parent Magazine. Tina lives in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, with her partner, two children, and mini-poodle, Ms. Ruby. When she isn’t writing, Tina enjoys participating in her book club, drinking good wine, and winning at Scrabble. She is currently reading Hurricane Girl by Marcy Dermansky and working on her first novel.