I don't follow my grandpa on Facebook anymore. I used to, but I got too sick of seeing him share photos that say things like "Let me get this straight... A party that supports abortions over life, illegals over it's own citizens, and refugees over it's homeless veterans is going to lecture me on morals? I don't think so, cupcake." Of course, when I saw this photo in particular, my inner grammar lover wanted to reply with a lecture on how the word "it's" works, but don't worry; I didn't. I don't really do anything on Facebook anymore. My Gen Z membership card would probably get taken away if I did. I still creep through my feed out of habit sometimes though, and I still want it to feel stable when I return.
My grandpa and I are still friends on Facebook, but there are too many lies about Muslims and the war on Christmas for his timeline to feel stable anymore. Scrolling past a video of John Boehner hitting Nancy Pelosi over the head with a gavel and onto a picture of my family and me at Christmas is too weird a kind of dissonance, especially when there's a photo of two black children in between holding a "Fuck Donald Trump" sign. The words "Trump isn't the problem, the way you're raising your kids is" frames the children's bodies, their nervous faces seeming to betray they know they're trapped on this profile page.
I love my grandpa, but love gets harder when you get older. Grownups can say whatever they want around kids, and the kids aren't going to argue with them. The problem lies in those kids getting older and becoming real people, too, and the other, older real people still saying the same things. There's a tension between the things my grandpa's said and the things I haven't, a tautness to the branch between us on the family tree. Every now and then, he takes the branch between his hands and presses it down over his knee. Not enough to break it, just enough to hear it splinter, pumping the silence between with more pregnancy each time the sound stops.
Don't get me wrong; it's not a special situation. Generational tension has existed for a long time, same as family trees coming to life. Different generations have different moments and movements that define them, and they tether people together under the same horizons. I was born in 1997, so I happen to be tethered to the first year of the Generation Z horizon. I don't remember where I was when 9/11 happened. The US has been at war for as long as I can remember. I was in sixth grade when Barack Obama was inaugurated. I graduated from high school the month gay marriage was legalized. I grew up during huge advances in technology, and a big part of that technology happened to be social media. Facebook has been part of my life since I was eleven. I use it differently than older generations do. I have to; otherwise why would BuzzFeed News have done a whole "Protect Your Parents From The Internet Week" this past July, complete with the controversial-in-the-comments-section article "What To Do If The Older People In Your Life Are Sharing False or Extreme Content."
Maybe I'm a snowflake for curating my Facebook feed (or for secretly wishing I could curate my in-person feed just as easily), but it's easier to know whom I'm obligated to interact with online. It's up to me how much emotional energy I want to exert, and I get to cultivate the boundaries of my digital life accordingly. Really, if it weren't for the people I'm obligated to interact with offline leaking onto the digital side, I could create a perfect "safe space" on every platform I use. With today's teens fleeing Facebook in droves and more seniors signing up than ever before, whom this platform's safe space is for has shifted from when I first joined in 2009. Maybe that's why most of my older relatives are signed up on there now, too, my grandma included. Her Facebook never took the same hard right turn into politics my grandpa's did, but she still hangs around to like the things my grandpa posts and to repost her own less controversial pics.
Luckily for my own fragile sanity, my grandma has only ever said the word "snowflake" to me once. It came up when she was telling me about a Fox News story she saw about "snowflakes" on college campuses needing special rooms to go cry in, and "isn't that ridiculous?" Even though I was a freshman in college at the time, I'm pretty sure my grandma wasn't implying I was one of these pansies. I don't think she would've brought it up if she thought I was going to disagree, but to both our dismay, I had no shovel to speak of when it came to digging myself out of the snow pile.
For all I knew, Fox News had exclusive footage of me crying on my college campus in their segment. It wouldn't have been hard to get. I cried a ridiculous amount my freshman year. I was depressed as all hell; I was in a toxic relationship; I had a miscarriage before Christmas break; and trust me, I cried. I cried up my own little snowstorm. I can picture the footage now: A sad, blonde girl wipes at her eyes as she walks across campus in negative 30-degree weather (because it's the University of Minnesota, and the cold really adds some pizzazz to her woe-is-me face). She tugs her bare hands out of her pockets to collect her tears before stashing the wet flesh back in her parka like she thinks this is a movie. And I get it. It's a pathetic picture. I try to defend it to my grandma anyway by saying something like, "It's really not that crazy. I feel like a lot of students get pretty stressed out. The U of M even has therapy animals they put out in front of the art museum on campus sometimes."
My grandma and I talk about stuff we agree on, too, though. There was a day the summer after my freshman year of college that we wound up talking about how high the suicide rate for transgender kids is and how, "It's just so sad they feel like they have no other choice." The conversation was unexpected to say the least, and we sat in our usual spots in her living room as we had it. I sat on the couch, she sat in her recliner, and we didn't stop talking until my mom called to ask when I was coming home.
I told a therapist in middle school that I hated watching my grandma get out of her recliner. "She has to struggle so hard to stand, and she drinks so much Mountain Dew, and I don't know why she doesn't want to be healthier. I'm so scared she's going to die." You can't make someone want to take care of themselves, though, and watching her deteriorate was the first time I realized it. Some of her health problems were under her control, and some of them weren't, but none of them were up to me. As I got older, I got better at not taking care of myself, too, just in different ways.
For most of high school, I was pretty oblivious to politics. I grew up white and middle class, so I got to decide how ignorant I wanted to be. That's why when I told my grandparents about the journalism class I was taking in ninth grade, I thought it was a good idea to share that, "On Fridays, we all have to bring in a news article to present to the class, but we're only allowed to use unbiased sources, so our teacher says we're not allowed to use Fox News." I was so oblivious, I didn't even realize that little tidbit would get a reaction (which, obviously, it did).
By my last year of high school, I realized things weren't going to wrap up quite as neatly as, "My grandparents' political party is my parents' political party is my political party." During my senior year, I had to do a presentation on one of the candidates in the 2014 Wisconsin gubernatorial race, and I picked Mary Burke to support because hardly anyone else in my government class picked her, and, you know, identity politics or whatever. She was the Democrat challenging Republican governor Scott Walker at the time, and I didn't realize how on her side I was until I started researching both of their viewpoints. Then I wanted to know how any of my classmates could support "a college dropout who cut funding to our schools." But then Walker won again like the polls said he would. And then bigger stuff happened. Donald Trump stuff happened.
For my fellow generational borderliners and me, the 2016 presidential race was the first election we were old enough to vote in, and the histrionics of it all ushered us into adulthood. With each new outrage, people kept reminding us, "This isn't normal," but it was our normal no matter how hard we pretended it wasn't. Some people were excited by the abnormality of it all, and others were disgusted, but this election was our introduction nonetheless. We watched the news cycle spin together a too long red tie and a crisp blue pantsuit until the two became knotted together, and all of our hands became stained with the color of the piece we decided to pull on. We hadn't put in the time just folding clothes and putting them away, and something felt wrong about all of the fabric tearing, but we hadn't set up this game of tug of war. We walked in on it when the rules were already being broken, and as it chafed against our palms, we didn't follow the same people on social media anymore.
We didn't know how to as the personal got more political, and we know one contributing factor to that difficulty now: fake news. A January 2018 study funded by the European Research Council shows that voters saw an average of 5.45 fake news articles in the final weeks before the election, and five of those articles were pro-Trump. Along with this conservative fodder came the self-identified "conservative" and "very conservative" people who were more likely to share it, and a lot of these conservative people happened to be older. A 2019 study published a year later in the journal Science Advances shows that people 65 and older were seven times more likely to share fake news than those aged 18 to 29, and, really, that statistic just makes sense. Older people lack the kind of digital literacy I had the privilege of learning about in school, the online nativity I acquired without even trying. They were never taught how to vet sources or fact check online, and it leaves them more vulnerable to misinformation.
Maybe that vulnerability is why my grandpa ended up sharing a fake news story about Muslims in Dorval, Montreal, "demand[ing] the abolition of pork in all... school canteens" with the mayor retorting that they should "adapt to Canada" and respect its "Judeo-Christian roots, Christmas trees, churches and religious festivals" instead. Maybe that's why my grandma, great aunt, and great uncle all liked it even when I can Google "Dorval Montreal Canada pork" and have all the search results tell me the story's a hoax that's been going around for years. The 2016 election made propagating hate without fact checking it more popular though, and we're still living with the consequences in 2020.
During Trump's campaign, those who were disgusted by the abnormality of it all shouted, "This isn't normal!" even louder when the Access Hollywood tape leaked. When the infamous "locker room talk" picked the boys-only club lock and flashed itself to the world, Trump got more personal for me. Hearing him brag that when it comes to women, he doesn't even wait; he just "grab[s] them by the pussy," made me feel like there was blood coming out of my eyes (out of my "wherever").
I just wanted to shove his words back in his mouth. I wanted to trap him in my old eighth grade girl body for a day before he ever got to say them. That way I could send him back in time. That way I could send him off to that house. Yes, I know the day I'd have my body walk him through, the day I went to that boy's house.
As Trump adjusts to the new body, I want him to feel the ways it doesn't fit right, the disordered eating and antidepressants that go into making it inhabitable. While he waits to leave for the boy's house, I want him to feel excited as the body's older sister teases him about having a date, and, "Show me a picture. Is he cute? Do you like him? Oh-my-gosh you totally like him."
Trump doesn't know if the body likes the boy in the picture. He just knows he needs somebody to tell him this body is beautiful because only beautiful girls deserve love, and when your therapist says it, it doesn't count. Everybody knows that, so he/she goes to floppy-haired boy's house and follows floppy-haired boy up the stairs to his room and sits down on the bed when he tells him/her to because the door's still open, and there's no reason to feel nervous (even though it's a little weird you guys are in his bedroom, right?). But come on; isn't this what you came here for? Validation? Validation can be physical, and you're not a little kid anymore. You're 13, so you lay down next to him on the bed, and you ignore the dirty clothes, and you kiss him, and this is the third boy you've ever kissed, but this is the first boy you've ever really kissed, and it's all happening so fast, and, "Shouldn't you shut the door?"
He glances back at the door. "Trust me. Nobody's gonna care." And he shoves his tongue back in your mouth. And you keep an eye on the door. But it doesn't matter. Because then he does it.
He shoves his hand down the front of your leggings, and he grabs you, and you freeze like a deer in headlights because you're 13, and you want to be a writer, but you still use clichés. The 22-year-old woman watching you from the present thinks you look taut, like a branch that's too thick to bend. It's a good thing you can't hear her think that, though, because you'd probably think she was calling you fat.
Before you have time to think through the freeze, he releases you and pulls his hand away. It's cold where his fingers were. He glances down at your crotch and says, "Never mind, it's all hairy down there," before rolling off the bed and leaving the room. You hear his bare feet hit the stairs as you lay clammy on the bed. You hear him turn on Family Guy when you get up to shut the door. You run your fingers across the acne on your chin and wonder if his saliva ate away your concealer. You imagine peeling away your skin like bark and finally touching the smooth wood underneath.
You close your eyes when he leaves because you want to nurture your shame in private. You need isolation to harvest it properly. You don't realize older real person you is still watching you, but she feels obligated to. She's still watching you when you go home and shave off all your pubic hair for the first time. A week later when you text him, "I shaved lol we should hang out again," she's still watching you. She wants to look away from your pathetic need for approval, but she pities you for your itchy, bald crotch.
When he tells you he doesn't want to hang out again, and you realize none of your shame is safe, she watches you strike a deal. Maybe there's a little Trump in you after all. You convince him to send you a picture of him in his boxers with the promise that you'll send something even more naked back, and when he follows through on his end of the bargain, you tell him, "I won't show anybody as long as you don't tell anybody what happened." Otherwise, no one will ever save you. When your mom asks you why you're not texting floppy-haired boy anymore, you tell her he asked you for inappropriate pictures. She says you did the right thing when you say you said no. You never tell anybody what really happened. You delete the picture because it makes you feel like a bitch.
You never tell anybody what really happened the summer before your junior year of high school, either, when you went on a date with that guy you met at Christian camp. He was from a city over, and you watched each other as he boarded the bus that took you out of Wisconsin. You watched each other when you got to camp, too. Boys and girls sat at separate tables for meals, but you always sat at an angle that allowed you to make eye contact with him. Your blood vibrates when he starts doing the same.
Since the camp is co-ed, the gossip is always who has a camp crush on whom, and when you admit you like steely-eyed boy, one of the girls in your cabin warns you, "I have a friend who goes to school with him, and she said he's really creepy. Like he sent her a ton of messages even though she never responded kinda creepy." You don't stop your mealtime gazing though. When camp ends, you still take a goodbye picture with him. It doesn't matter that you never really talked. Everybody's taking pictures with everybody, so it's the perfect excuse to have something to say, and it works. A few days after you get home, he posts the picture on Facebook, and he tags you in it. He messages you afterwards to ask you out on a date, and you say yes because that girl who warned you about him went home with her new camp boyfriend (and they probably slept together).
The day of your date, he picks you up in his car because you aren't old enough to drive yet, and he takes you to a nearby park to walk around. He holds your hand, and you don't really like it, but you don't not like it enough to say anything about it. You sit down in the grass, and he tells you about the school he's going to in the fall and how, "It's so stupid that anybody pays for state schools when they could just go to community college." He calls a lot of things stupid, and he doesn't smile at most of the things you say, but he still leans in to kiss you, and you don't really like it, but you don't not like it enough to say anything about it. It would just make things weird when you guys went out to dinner afterwards.
When he leans in to kiss you, you're sitting cross legged, and he's sitting beside you with his legs straight out in front of him, so you both have to awkwardly crank your bodies sideways to make contact. But you guys still do it. But it doesn't matter. Because then he does it.
He grabs your crotch, so you scooch back and try to laugh it off like it's all a big misunderstanding because you don't like it enough to say something about it. "Actually, maybe we shouldn't do that. Maybe we should just get going to dinner."
"Oh, come on. You've probably just never had anybody do it right."
You don't want to admit you've never had anybody do it at all, so you laugh through the prickling in your throat and say, "Yeah, probably not, but this is still a public park, and I don't want anybody to see because that would be super-embarrassing," but he still lays his hand flat on your inner thigh and tries to push his fingers up your jean short-shorts. You cringe at the roughness of his hot skin pushing against the grain of your thigh stubble. It's a good thing you wore underwear because you didn't shave all the way up.
"We could get back in my car then. Plenty of privacy in there," he says with a smile.
This time you stand up and say, "Actually, I don't know if I'm feeling that great. Maybe you could just drop me off at home, and we could do dinner some other time?" He looks up at you from the ground like you're a cliché little twig he wants to snap. You brush the dirt off the back of your thighs and avoid his eyes, staring out at the baseball diamonds where you used to play t-ball as a kid.
"Yeah, I guess if you wanna be like that. Didn't realize you'd be such a buzzkill though."
When you get home, your mom asks you if you think you'll ever go out with him again, and you tell her no because, "He was too boring." You never tell anybody what really happened. You think you should've stopped him sooner. Instead, you stop taking your meds again and decide to pray more. You decide you want a testimony like the ones your camp counselors had, a story of how you were all broken and wrong, but then God fixed you. Older real person you decides to untag you in that photo steely-eyed boy posted instead. She deletes the old messages from floppy-haired boy, too, because apparently you're still friends on Facebook. She still doesn't like you, but she hopes she can tether your horizons.
When Donald Trump, the President of the United States, is tethered to the words "grab them by the pussy," maybe tethering all my past selves together again is all I can do. Sometimes, when my grandparents listen to him, I feel like I'm tethered to Trump, too, though, and I think about the 47% of white women who voted for him. When my grandparents listen to him, that's when I wish I could filter their words away.
They listened to him in November of 2017 when he stood by Roy Moore during the special election Moore almost won. After the sexual misconduct allegations against Moore had come to light, I was over at my aunt and uncle's house with the rest of my family when my grandpa decided he wanted us to know he stood by Moore since it was "stupid" what was happening to him. I didn't say anything in response to this opinion. I just made eye contact with my older sister and opened my eyes wider as if to say, "Can you believe it? Can you believe he's standing by a credibly accused child predator who probably preyed on girls our little sister's age and younger?"
They listened to Trump again in September of 2018 when he stood by Brett Kavanaugh during Kavanaugh's contested nomination to the Supreme Court. That time, I was over at my grandparents' house with my mom when my grandpa decided to ask if my boyfriend had been talking about the confirmation hearings in class. I knew why my grandpa would ask that, what stance he wanted to take, but I tried to deflect the inevitable splintering anyway by saying something like, "Yeah, but they talk about all the government stuff that happens. It is law school after all." It didn't stop him from saying it, though.
"Good. They should be talking about it. It's just ridiculous what's happening. I mean, I can hardly believe it. It's just ridiculous that he might lose out on something he's earned because of all this stupid stuff going on. I don't know how all of this nonsense is being taken seriously."
And he went on after that, but I had to turn off the Fox News in my head if I was going to keep from crying. I don't know. I guess it just hurt. It hurt to hear what Dr. Christine Blasey Ford had to say. It hurt to know her testimony was the only reason I'd ever know or remember her name. It hurt to know 25 other women have accused Trump of sexual misconduct, too. I couldn't fathom being as brave as any of them. I couldn't fathom caring about my country enough to stand up in front of it and let its death threats force me to move four times. And I don't know. Maybe that makes me a snowflake. Maybe that makes me a pushover or a good granddaughter or a bad woman who didn't post anything on Facebook when the #MeToo movement was happening, but I had nothing to say, and I had nothing to say when my grandma agreed with him, either. I just looked down at the ground and hid my wet eyes until my mom said it was time for us to go. Unfortunately for my mom, I had a lot to say on the car ride home.
"Can you believe he would say that? What would she have to gain by making these accusations if they weren't true? Like do you think she wanted this? Do you think she wanted to be dragged by half a nation of people who just want her to sit down and be quiet like she has been for decades while he just keeps getting louder and getting more and more power?" I couldn't stop crying as I spoke. I kept getting louder without meaning to. I was shouting by the time we got back to our garage. "This is just going to keep happening, and men in power are going to keep getting away with it because nobody fucking cares! It doesn't matter how good of a woman she is or how composed she is or how smart she is. Nobody cares!"
My mom couldn't really comprehend why I was blowing up about this. I was surprised I was blowing up about it this bad, too, but when so many people have been sexually assaulted, I had no idea why my grandpa felt like he needed to say anything. I mean, just look at the numbers. They're devastating. Take the US Department of Justice's 2018 Criminal Victimization report. It found that 6.9% of Americans have been the victim of a completed rape, 7.2% have been the victim of an attempted rape, and 9.2% have been threatened with rape. The DOJ also prefaces these findings by saying that their percentages usually come in lower than other national averages because they use in person interviews as opposed to less personal survey methods to gather their results. For comparison, the latest 2015 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 21.3% of women and 2.6% of men "reported completed or attempted rape at some point in their lifetime," and 37% of women and 17.9% of men reported unwanted sexual contact.
On top of that, according to the DOJ, the percentage of yearly rape and sexual assault victims more than doubled from 2016 to 2018, going up by hundreds of thousands of people. Despite this increase, the percentage of rape and sexual-assault victimizations reported to police fell more than 15% to just 24.9% from 2017 to 2018. It's hard not to blow up in the face of these numbers, but since Kavanaugh pushed me over the edge, my mom had to ask, "Why are you this upset, though? Is it because something happened to you?"
I stared through the windshield at the coolers and lawn chairs hanging on the garage wall, and I thought about saying something. I really did, but then I lied instead, the same way I probably would've lied to a DOJ interviewer. I told her nothing had, and we got out of the car and left the question behind, going inside to where my dad was watching football in the living room. Not saying anything was just my default at this point, my best defense. I didn't tell her what happened with my last boyfriend, how bad things really got. I kept my secrets clamped between my legs, beneath my tongue, the shameful goo of things unsaid.
My ex-boyfriend and I dated my final year of high school through the summer after my second year of college, and there were problems from the beginning. Our senior year of high school, he was telling me I couldn't get mad when he complained about our sex life to his friends and they told me about it. He was getting mad when I wouldn't send him revealing pictures and praising me when I did. He was getting mad when I got mad at him for backing up my revealing pictures on his laptop because whenever I got mad, he always had a reason why he was right or a reason why I deserved it even if he was "wrong." I remember joking to him after one of our fights that "Sometimes you're like a serial killer. It's like you have no empathy."
More often than not though, it wasn't like that at all. It was him asking me to the homecoming dance with a big "HC" pancake and wearing his football jersey to the homecoming game. It was having sex for the first time. It was him paying for all of our dates. It was being called beautiful, and sweet-nothing text messages, and saying "I love you" for the first time. It was putting up with that stupid other stuff that came up because all anyone could see from the outside was the movie, and everything fluttered when they were watching. I was living out the Wattpad YA stories I used to gorge myself on in middle school after I was done copying down mantras from pro-ana and pro-mia Tumblr. "Boys like girls who don't take up too much space." "Boys like girls they can pick up in their arms and spin around." "Boys like girls who don't crush them when they sit on their laps."
My freshman year of college, we wound up going to school an hour away from each other, but meeting new people was still hard when I first moved to Minneapolis. When I tried to make new friends, he would overload me with texts if I didn't text him back fast enough or if I didn't give him enough details about what I was doing and who I was doing it with. Then it felt like I missed my chance to make friends altogether, and I didn't have a roommate to fall back on since I was assigned a single room. I figured that was alright though because I wouldn't have had time for friends anyway. He came to visit almost every weekend unless he had plans with his new friends and keeping him happy kept getting harder and harder. I used to never have panic attacks around him, but now I was having them almost every time I saw him from the pressure of trying to keep him happy.
No matter how many precautions I took, he would get mad about something though, and he would ignore me for hours and refuse to tell me what was wrong. It could be that my dorm room wasn't clean enough, that I went to bed before him, that I had to go home for a weekend without him, that my legs weren't smooth enough, that I took my family's side over his when I was just trying to keep everybody happy. It could be anything, and it was never just about that one "mistake"; it was about all the mistakes I'd ever made, every time.
Usually what was wrong was that we hadn't had enough sex yet that day. He always had to cum at least once, but actually twice, sometimes three times, and he knew that if he just ignored me and shut down, I would shut down, too. Anything could cause him to withdraw, and there was no real way to avoid it when he could be provoked by something I didn't say or didn't do. He was becoming more well-versed in how to provoke my panic attacks.
The only way to atone for a panic attack was sex, though, so we had sex after each one. He would still get what he wanted, and I would do my best to moan along because it was one of the only things I ever seemed to do right anymore. I couldn't always stop crying completely for it, though. I just knew I had to cry silently because if he heard the fake moans crack in my throat, he would stop, and we'd have to start all over again, and I just wanted it to be over, so we could go back to normal.
Normal got harder to go back to when the miscarriage happened that December though, right before my first semester finals. When it happened, and I realized what was happening, I called him to let him know since I figured he was part of it, too, but he told me, "I don't think I can physically be sad or feel bad for you about something that didn't happen to me and my body. I guess it just doesn't even feel real for me, and I don't really wanna talk about it."
Since my periods had been irregular at that point due to stress and sporadic eating, I walked to Walgreens the next day to buy a pregnancy test (since the Internet said it would still come back positive if it was a miscarriage). I slipped it into my sweatshirt pocket, took it to my dorm floor's bathroom, and held the stick beneath me. Everything leaked and blurred above my toilet bowl cauldron as the plus sign formed.
One night the week after it happened, I told him I thought I might just end myself because, "I don't know if I can keep on living like this anymore," but he went to bed instead of staying up with me. A few hours after he stopped responding, I opened up my mini fridge and took out the Ziploc bag of fetal remains I'd been keeping inside, and I put it in my backpack. I found myself out on the bridge that runs over the Mississippi River on campus with my antidepressants in the pocket of my parka. I'd already taken too many of the pills, and my stomach churned watching the river froth beneath me in the early morning darkness. I pictured John Berryman slipping over the railing, the Pulitzer Prize winning poet who killed himself there. I thought about the chunks of flesh that slipped out in the shower, photographing them as proof for my boyfriend, and swaddling them in paper towels before sealing them into the Ziploc bag.
I took the pill bottle out of my pocket and opened it. I watched black spots grow on its orange skin like mold. Then I dropped it over the railing with a hand that wasn't mine and watched it fall like a car full of people. I cried. I cried like a spell had been broken. I threw up because I needed to. And then I walked farther. I walked until I found myself down on the ground at the river's edge, and then I threw the Ziploc bag out into the water too. I listened to the song "Flightless Bird, American Mouth" (the one that Bella and Edward dance to at prom in Twilight), and I cried my face numb. As I walked back to my dorm, I threw up foam like white river foam and watched it freeze onto the pavement. I watched it freeze again and again like blood drying on thighs as I tried to go to sleep. He said sorry in the morning.
And that was the thing. He would say sorry sometimes. Sometimes, the dying part of me would swim up through the bloodstream riptide, flailing to the surface, and I'd confront him. I'd list off all of the irrational things he'd gotten mad about and how I couldn't live in paranoia and fear anymore, and he would apologize. He would stop his abuse and overcompensate with niceties for a couple of days, maybe even a couple of weeks, but it never lasted. The dying part of me always drowned again.
After the miscarriage, he liked it when I told him he was the only medicine I needed anymore. I didn't like that I still needed more. I didn't like that I was supposed to be able to fix him, that I was supposed to be able to make forever out of the first man I slept with. I knew women were supposed to be able to fix men, though. Men were gruffer and tougher. They needed a woman's touch to tame, and when you tamed a man, you got to keep a man. I figured I just wasn't worth changing for anymore.
My second year of college, the manipulation continued, but there were more people around to deflect it. He'd made friends at school who were from a Twin Cities suburb, and they'd catch a ride home with him when he came to visit me. We'd hang out with them sometimes, going out to casinos and going out to drink, and he performed normality for them.
He moved into a house off campus with his suburb friends that summer, and I helped move in old furniture from his dad's bowling alley. I came to visit some weekends, and I learned how to play beer pong and beer darts and how to laugh when somebody threw up and kept drinking afterwards, and it felt like what a normal college kid should be doing.
One weekend when I was there, my boyfriend and his roommates decided to throw a kegger, and they invited anybody they could find to come to it. It was the first time I ever drank beer out of a keg, but I never drank a ton at these parties (or any other time really). I wasn't supposed to drink if he wasn't around.
The night of the kegger, not enough people showed up at first, so my boyfriend told me he and his friends were going to a different house to go and get people. I followed him outside to go find it, but it was dark, and my boyfriend and I got separated from the group when he wanted to look down a different street. I kept following him, but he took off running while he was holding my hand, and I fell down on the sidewalk from the sudden motion. He kept going without me, but he turned around when I started calling his name. He came back and grabbed my hand like he was going to pull me up, but then he pushed me back down and laughed. And then he did it again and laughed and did it again and laughed and did it again and, "Stop it! It's not funny!" Then he released me and ran off again without me. I winced as I brushed off the scraped hand I'd been using to catch myself.
When I got back to his house, I found him in the basement playing beer pong with his friends, loud and off-kilter in his throwing attempts. He saw me at the bottom of the stairs after he lost the game, and his smile drooped away as he made his way over. We stared at each other with eyes that were red for different reasons, and my performance of cool-girl fun came to a close. I turned around to go back upstairs to the bathroom to go get ready for bed, but before I could get the bathroom door closed, he came in and locked the door behind him. I backed away and sat down on the toilet in the corner. I felt my skin harden into a crust, my insides liquify into magma. I told myself I wasn't afraid he was going to hit me. I wasn't afraid. He never hit me even when he got really drunk.
Sure, sometimes he got pushy, and yeah, he'd never pushed me down like he did tonight and laughed about it like that, but I'm okay; I'm okay; I just had to prove it. But I couldn't prove it. Because the fear cracked open my skin, and all the heat was escaping, and I was hyperventilating, and, "Really? I'm not letting you out of here until you stop frickin' crying. Did you really have to ruin tonight? People probably saw you, you know. You better get your shit together. I've had enough of your shit for one night." As I tried to catch my breath, he crossed his arms and stared into me. His eyes were like magnetars, disbanding the electricity inside my brain, exhausting me with their pull. I just wanted to lay down. I just wanted to dissolve.
"I didn't mean to. I'm sorry. I was just going to go shower and go right to the bedroom afterwards; I swear. You can let me out. It's fine. I'm fine." But tears kept slipping out of my eyes because his bedroom was right next to the bathroom, and it was so close, and I felt like an idiot.
"You're still fuckin' crying. Come on. Get up." He grabbed my upper arm and pulled me to the sink, squeezing my bicep tight. "Splash some water on your face at least. God, you look like shit." I looked up at myself in the mirror and saw makeup, snot, and tears. I tried my best to wipe it all off, and I guess it was enough because he pulled me out of the bathroom and over to the bedroom, pushed me inside, and shut the door. My overnight bag was in there, so I changed out of my clothes and tried not to think about how sore my ass was from hitting the sidewalk so many times. Then I took some Advil in his room, laid down on the bed, curled up on my side, and let the gravity of sleep push me down.
But then the weight lifted. And I was awake. And I didn't know why I was awake. But there was a hand pushing up my thigh. And my sweatpants were pulled down. And he was behind me. And I could hear him breathing. I could smell the whiskey. Fuck. I could feel him shove inside me, chafing and chafing and chafing and chafing. Don't cry. You just want it to be over, right? It'll probably be over soon. It's okay. You're okay. You're okay. But how can you be? It's just like all those other times, but it's not like that at all. You didn't have time to prepare. You didn't have that end-of-panic-attack-numbness to spread over your skin, and now it hurts, good God, it hurts. God, this is all your fucking fault. You always give into him, and look what you've done! He's fucking you while you're sleeping now! He's not even bothering with your consciousness anymore! Jesus. You must be fucking worthless. FUCK, that one hurt. Fuck, you need to get up. You don't need to let him finish. It's totally justified if you start crying. But what if that just makes him mad again? What if he's as drunk as you think he is? What if you just make it worse? But god, you want to get up. You want to push him off of you, push him out of you. But you can't. Fuck. Everything's frozen. You're caught in the magnetic field again. It's disbanding your brain again.
You're cold dark matter now. You're invisible, supporting what can be seen but barely supporting yourself because being fair doesn't mean constructing this universe. You regret taking that astronomy class freshman year because you suck at math, and space is huge. You swear you can see her in the empty space though, little 13-year-old you. You swear she's watching you, repaying the favor. She's picking at the skin around her fingernails, but she doesn't look away. She keeps her wet eyes forced open, trained on yours. You want to reach out your hand to cover them, but you don't know how.
And I don't know what to say. I didn't get up. I didn't punch him in the face. I didn't scream. I'd screamed in that room before, and it didn't make his roommate across the hall come knocking. I cried the way you cry when you look up at the night sky, and you realize how big it is, and it's infinite and visceral and terrifying. And if you've never done that, I still don't know what to say. Maybe you've never been raped.
Yeah. There. I said it. Rape. We're acknowledging the big, bitter elephant in the room because sometimes I still have this dream where little 13-year-old me comes into the office where I work now, and she's so skinny, and she's crying so hard, and when I see her walk in the door, I get up from my desk and run. I don't know. I guess I haven't tethered all my past selves together again yet. I guess it takes time. I guess it takes thousands of words, and I pick at the skin around my nails thinking about how many words it's taking, thinking that my family might ever read them, but right now, I just don't care. I just want relief.
My relief is going on YouTube and hearing Olly Thorn from PhilosophyTube talk about the abusive relationship he was in that he didn't even realize was abusive until it ended. Or hearing Kat Blaque from TransDIY talk about the time she was raped while sleeping on a couch after a party and how she couldn't move, either. Or hearing Jimmy Snow from Mr. Atheist talk about the toxic, traditional values about sex and relationships he used to believe and how he let them go. It's going on Reddit and reading people's relationship stories and seeing random Internet strangers educate each other on what's healthy and what's not. It's going on Facebook and seeing NPR share their interview with Jenny Teeson in "This Woman Fought To End Minnesota's 'Marital Rape' Exception, And Won" and just losing it as I read their article. It's all the stories that drag out the hard ball of breath that lives in my chest, so I have to unclench it whether I want to or not.
As a resident of Minnesota, I'm especially grateful for Jenny Teeson's story. She's the woman who campaigned to pass the bill that closed the "voluntary relationship defense for criminal sexual conduct crimes" loophole in our state law. This defense stated that if a rape victim and their alleged perpetrator lived together and were in "an ongoing voluntary sexual relationship at the time of the alleged offense," or were legally wed without living apart and having "filed for separation," then no crime had been committed. Teeson had to learn about this loophole firsthand when she filed for divorce from her husband and found four videos on his computer of him raping her while she lay unconscious in their bed. In one video, her four-year-old son is lying next to her. Teeson believes she was drugged before these incidents.
Even with this concrete evidence, Teeson's ex-husband could only be convicted of invasion of privacy because of this loophole. That means he only had to spend 45 days in jail, and that fact just wrecked me for a while. Reading how Teeson had to meet with lawmakers and testify in committees to make sure this bill passed since a budget bill they shoved it into in 2018 died on the floor just put me out of commission for a while. Minnesota is pretty progressive as far as the Midwest goes, and it had still been pretty much legal to drug your spouse and have sex with her unconscious body until May of 2019.
Since then, I've cried a lot for Jenny Teeson. I've cried for her, and I've cried for that girl I used to babysit who's falling behind in school after she was sexually assaulted at a friend's house. I've cried for that 11-year old in Argentina who was forced to give birth to her rapist's baby. I've cried for that friend of mine who was a sex worker who told me a client raped her while we took shots of vodka in my kitchen. Empathy is emptying sometimes. Sometimes, it's a finite resource. Sometimes, people could use more of it.
There are people like Stefan Molyneux, a popular podcaster and far-right social media activist, who could use a lot more of it. Anyone who's said shit like, "All the cold-hearted jerks who run the world came out of the vaginas of women who married assholes, and I don't know how to make the world a better place without holding women accountable for choosing assholes," could use more of it. His rhetoric and milder forms of it are what enforce the double standard that women are not just responsible for their own actions, they're responsible for the actions of the men around them, too. It's the same rhetoric perpetuated in online extremist spaces like the alt-right media, in offline conservative spaces like the Catholic Church I was raised in, and even in snowflake-level liberal spaces like the university I attended.
I know that last one because this isn't the first time I've tried to write about my ex-boyfriend. I tried to write about him back when I was still in college for the nonfiction creative writing class I was taking. Since I knew that what I wrote was going to be workshopped, though, I left the sexual abuse part out altogether. I focused on the emotional side instead and handed out my rough draft to the two women and one man who were in my workshop group.
Ironically, when our group met in class, the first piece we discussed was an essay about an abusive relationship one of the other women had been in. She really laid herself out raw as she described the toxic dependency her ex-boyfriend created and the ways he took advantage of her. Basically, there were a lot of similar themes to mine, so when the one guy in our group pretty much refused to make any comments at all besides, "I'd give you more feedback, but I don't really understand what your boyfriend did that was so wrong," I knew things weren't going to go great for me, either.
Par for the course, when we got to my piece, he didn't have much to say (or many fucks to give), and when we tried to give him any feedback on his work, we just "didn't understand" what he was going for. His closing remark to us was that even though we didn't use their names, it was wrong of the other woman and me to "call out these guys when they can't even defend themselves." I figured I came out of the workshop pretty unscathed, all things considered, though, or at least I thought I did until he gave me back the copy of my essay he had written his comments on. That's when I saw the note at the end that said, "His name is on Facebook."
After that, I went home and unfriended about half of my Facebook friends. I made sure my profile page didn't show up in search engine results. I untagged, hid, or deleted every picture my ex-boyfriend and I were in together. I couldn't help but worry that it was too late though, that the guy from my group would reach out to my ex-boyfriend, and my ex-boyfriend would find a way to contact me again. I'd blocked my ex on everything I could think of, Facebook included, but I was still afraid he would show up again somehow. I still twisted the hair on my forearms into knots and ripped them out at the thought of seeing him, but I also worried that I didn't deserve to be afraid. When plenty of people wind up in worse relationships all the time, when the worst days of my life are nothing compared to the ones other people could cite, I worried I wasn't worthy of my own fear. The CDC reports that one in ten women have been raped by an intimate partner in their lifetime though, and some of them are probably still afraid.
After we broke up, I did hear from him again. He used an email address of mine I didn't know he had to send me a message a year and a half after we broke up. The subject line read, "I am Abusive." The email read:
Just think you should know, I am never going to abuse another human like I did to you. I understand that I am an emotionally abusive person and I won't let myself treat someone the way I did to you because that was awful. Pure awful. My hope in telling you this is hopefully you being able to fall asleep a little earlier every night and knowing the three years of suffering you went through was not for nothing. Please sleep better knowing that no girl is going to have to go through what you did as a result of my actions. You of all people probably can understand I am not an awful person, I am just purely abusive. This is not a suicide letter as it may look so no need to take any actions, just know I am sorry for the way I treated you and how I hurt you. I have large dreams and I am lucky enough to be in a position that my actions can make a difference. I am going to make this world a better place, not worse. I promise.
I never wrote anything back. I didn't feel bad for him.
Research on empathy shows it's easier for people to feel empathy for their in-groups than their out-groups, and even if that feels like a pretty obvious finding, I think it's still important to think about in our 2020 presidential election America. For a long time, research has also tried to figure out which political affiliation has more empathy overall, but these studies usually show that both parties come out about equal. However, there is evidence that shows both parties feel empathy differently. The paper, "Ideological differences in the expanse of the moral circle," discusses this contrast through the findings of seven studies conducted on how liberals and conservatives feel and show compassion. The results showed that conservatives tended to exhibit "greater concern and preference for family relative to friends [and] the nation relative to the world" and that their "moral circles [were] more constrained." Liberalism, however, was "positively related to [a] sense of universal compassion," and liberals identified more with all of humanity than with their country or community.
These findings make a lot of sense to me. They line up with why my grandparents' empathy extends to me even when it doesn't extend to others. After all, their empathy is why when I was being bullied in elementary school, I told my grandma about it first. Why when I backed my dad's car into a wall in high school, I went to my grandparents' house first. Why I know that if I called them right now and told them there was an emergency, they'd come drive five hours to help me because we used to go on summer trips to Michigan, and my grandpa and I used to go out to brunch at this restaurant nobody else liked, and I used to mow their lawn for 20 bucks, and they still send me birthday cards, and they've lived hard lives full of hard work. They've lived through the Cold War, and the Civil Rights movement, and the space race, and the Vietnam War, and the Watergate scandal, and the legalization of abortion, and the Anita Hill hearing. And it's complicated.
It's complicated because I'm still with that guy who's in law school, and if I bring him home for Christmas and my grandpa makes the same A Christmas Story-style fa-ra-ra-ra-ra jokes he did last year, I'll have to throw myself out the window because my boyfriend also happens to be a Vietnamese immigrant. I don't know. I don't have all the answers. I do know we should all be trying to expand our in-groups though. People are people, and it's dangerous to hate whole other in groups of people. We shouldn't be undermining anyone's humanity or sense of safety. We should be trying to listen (even if all opinions are not equally valid). And yeah, I probably won't always feel the same way I do now, and I'll have to write a whole new essay in a decade about how naive I sound, but for now, as someone who lives in a big city, has dyed her hair dark brown, owns three cats, wears men's clothes sometimes, wears sexy women's clothes sometimes, is an atheist, is in a healthy relationship, has healthy sex and gets along with food and her body, at least I can say I became the person I wanted to be when I was thirteen.