I really believed the worst of it was behind me. I would graduate from college in less than two years, and I would leave my parents’ house, and I would be safe. I thought I could tell who was an abuser and who wasn’t.
I knew I could tell the difference.
I had to believe I could.
How else could I have faced the world?
I was 20, but I was still a child. I hadn’t even begun to recognize the abuse of the last two decades. I was vulnerable, susceptible, gullible. The magical thinking that had kept me alive through most of it was now a liability. I believed everyone else was different from my parents. They were better.
But I didn’t know the first thing. Not about bank accounts or car insurance or apartment leases. Not about what makes a person trustworthy or responsible. And not about the signs that someone desires, above all else, power and control.
I did not know even the simplest fact: that it is possible, even necessary sometimes, to tell people no. And that when you do, nothing bad should happen to you.
* * *
I was 20 years old. I had been working at the college writing center for a year when I took on my first private student, a 29-year-old man from Thailand who needed to pass the TOEFL exam. Noppachai. He was gentle. Soft-spoken. He offered me mints while I tutored him. When I caught a cold, he looked at me pityingly and said he wished he could offer me orange juice. I felt a warmth toward him I rarely felt toward men, and I took this warmth as a good sign. So when he asked the tutors if any of us were willing to give private TOEFL lessons, I immediately volunteered.
That summer, we had a routine. I prepared lessons. He brought lunches from his relative’s Thai restaurant. He paid me a small amount each week that we agreed upon in advance. We worked steadily through TOEFL prep books, occasionally in the college library but usually at picnic tables in a park near the college. His Thai nickname was Top, and this was what I called him now, too. I thought that maybe, after the summer ended, we would become friends. Maybe we would even fall in love.
I still had never dated, but college was different. At 20, young men had begun to ask me out. I always said no. I wasn’t attracted, or their intensity frightened me. I also knew I simply wasn’t ready. I had been suicidal the year before, and at 20, I was still depressed and painfully lonely. But Top’s company now was a relief. He was so different from my father. From the boys I had known. I didn’t want our days, sitting shoulder to shoulder while sun glistened on water, to end.
So I started to suggest we try other parks, parks nearer my home.
Admittedly, I had poor judgment. I was not in love; I was, in fact, incapable of a healthy relationship. I was simply profoundly lonely, and there is a difference between these two things—love and loneliness. But I couldn’t recognize it. Many people, I have learned, can’t recognize it. I was delusional and childish, and my misplaced sense of safety with him stemmed from my own racism. The model minority. When the truth is that Asian men are no better and no worse than other men.
By far, my biggest obstacle to safety was boundaries. I didn’t have any. I didn’t know I was allowed to have any.
My parents told me when I could leave the house and when I had to come back. I never had a curfew because my parents decided these things on a whim. In high school, I was sometimes punished if I stayed even 15 or 20 minutes after Tae Kwon Do class, driving home to find my parents sitting on the couch, their faces accusatory. “Where were you?”
“It’s 8:40. I had Tae Kwon Do tonight. Remember?”
“You’re fifteen minutes late,” they said.
“Late for what?”
“From now on, you come straight home.”
This was always the refrain. Come straight home. As a teenager, I didn’t get much practice at goodbyes, at extricating myself from conversations, at deciding for myself when something had gone too far or too long and judging when I wanted to leave. If I socialized after church services on a Sunday afternoon, if I stayed past dinner at friends’ houses—it didn’t matter. It was always the same. I was met at my front door with accusations and criticism and ever smaller circles drawn around what I was permitted. The older I became, the more they constricted my world.
Their mercurial tantrums, the ever-changing rules, the punishments if ever I dared tell them no—it had made what was about to happen that day all but inevitable. They had unwittingly groomed me for it. They had all along been teaching me a lesson—the lesson that all abusers are trying to teach their targets—and I had learned it too well: I was not in control.
* * *
On this day, I had settled on having class at O.O. Denny Park, a vast and wooded park on the northeastern bank of Lake Washington. We completed our lesson on the lawns.
As we finished up and I closed the book, Top leaned in to kiss me. It startled me. Yet I almost let him. I wanted to be kissed. Or at least, I thought I did. A breeze rustled through the oaks overhead. The sun shimmered on the lake. It should have been perfect.
But it wasn’t.
The closeness of his body frightened me more than anything. The same thing had happened the year before, when a young man closer to my age had also tried to kiss me. He was handsome. I thought maybe I was attracted. But when he leaned in, all I felt was panic.
This time the same thing happened. At the last moment, I ducked my head. At the time, I had no idea why. Was I being coy? Was I playing hard-to-get? I thought this was what I had been waiting for all summer. But suddenly, I realized it wasn’t what I wanted. Not with him. Possibly not with anyone. And certainly not here.
I looked up at him, expecting hurt feelings. Even outrage. “I’m sorry,” I said.
“It’s okay,” he said and smiled.
I was relieved he had taken it so well.
But it turned out that it wasn’t okay. He suggested a walk, and I recommended the Denny Creek Trail that led up into the hills, away from the water, and into the woods. I was hopeful that we could still remain friends, that I hadn’t just ruined everything. That maybe even one day, I might be ready to kiss him. Really kiss him the way people kissed in the movies. The walk, I thought, was a good sign.
I was wearing clothes my mother had bought for me years before, an ankle-length skirt with white loafers and nude pantyhose. But it had not rained, and I expected we wouldn’t go far before turning back.
We didn’t. But we didn’t turn back.
* * *
As soon as we pass a bend in the trail and find ourselves alone in the trees, he grabs me. He shoves me against the trunk of a cedar with such suddenness it scares me. He pins my arms behind me against the bark. Then, he grabs my skirt and yanks the waistband wide.
Suddenly, there are two of me. The one pinned against the tree trunk and another one, watching from behind him. I am the one watching, standing on the trail. I am frantic that someone might find us here. An unsuspecting hiker. A mom out with her kids. I feel profound shame.
I am not there, in my body. That girl over there is someone else. Someone I would like to disavow all knowledge of. Yet I still feel it when he shoves his hand down my skirt. He finds the pantyhose and peels back the elastic waistband and snakes his hand down that, too. His fingers are cold against my abdomen, still cold when he pries apart the folds of my labia. Without any warning, he stuffs his fingers up my vagina. It is uncomfortable. Painful.
I am well trained by now and do not struggle. Mostly I am surprised. Caught off guard. I don’t like it. But I also don’t call for help. After all, I like him, don’t I? I invited him here, didn’t I? And I sure as hell don’t want anyone seeing me like this. What if someone comes around that bend and sees this? I will just stare at the ground, I decide, hoping they look away and keep going.
Something else edges into the shame. Something bitter. Briny.
I am disappointed. Is this what sex is?
I stand on the trail and wait for him to finish doing whatever he is doing to me. It repulses me. It is so unpleasant. So invasive. So, well, rude.
When he finds me unresponsive to his fingers, he withdraws his hand. And now he is pounding his pelvis against mine. Bam. Bam. Bam.
He never looks at me. He just looks down at his zipped fly. He says nothing to me, from start to finish. So I wait for it to end.
But I don’t remember it ever ending. I don’t remember when he heaved himself off me, when he let go of me, when I was finally free to move my own body again. When I was able to straighten my pantyhose and pull up my skirt. Who drove whom where. What, if anything, we said to each other. The next time I saw him after that.
I have no idea.
* * *
Something strange happened when I had decided to live, and it turned out this was what I had stayed alive for. I split right down the middle, the tree cleft in two by a lightning strike in Jane Eyre. One half of me knew everything that had just happened was disgusting. Repugnant. I wanted sex, in my own time, when I was ready for it, and he had given me sexual assault. I wanted pleasure. Instead, I got pain and humiliation.
I knew all that.
But it was not the story I told myself.
For years, I told myself I still felt the same warmth, the same affection. I told myself that what he had done was simply sex. It was normal. It was what everyone else around me had been doing for a long time. It wasn’t a big deal. I just wasn’t into sex. And that was okay. I could still do what a man wanted me to do, give him what he needed, so he would still like me. Maybe it would hurt. Maybe I’d never like it. But that was what grownups did. They made sacrifices.
And it was all okay.
Everything was okay.
And he loved me, right? He must have. To grab me so hard. To care so little if anyone saw him. He loved me. Surely. And that’s all I’d ever wanted.
One of my favorite stories was The Velveteen Rabbit.
Love is supposed to hurt. Don’t you know that?