You think you know someone.
You let your guard down because you tell yourself they wouldn’t.
They couldn’t possibly.
They’re practically family.
Maybe they’re shitty to other people sometimes, other women. But not to you.
* * *
I’d known Jonathan since he was in junior high. He had come home with my brother one day, all golden curls and pink cheeks, like one of Michelangelo’s cherubs. It had made me laugh then, and it still did, mainly because I knew it annoyed him. He liked to see himself as brilliant and strong and masterful, not babyish.
“No, no,” he’d always clarify to anyone who was listening. “We didn’t really become friends until college.”
He was one of those straight white men who had opinions he often mistook for truth, opinions he believed were not diminished by his own limited perspective on a much vaster reality.
Women shouldn’t be so angry if they want to be taken seriously.
Black women are just not attractive.
Divorce fucks you up. You’re not going to be right for a long time.
A series of goldfish passed through his studio apartment, all of them named after Roman emperors until their inevitable flush down the toilet. His one bookshelf was lined with translated Greek classics, philosophy, poetry, history, and the mandatory Infinite Jest. I never saw him read for pleasure, and I never saw him laugh or smile over the pages of a book. He engaged with art because he believed that was what cultured people did, and he forced himself to finish books he disliked so that he could say he had read them.
Frankly, I worried about him. I worried that he did not understand why people like me would labor their entire lives to produce one worthwhile book. I worried that art was lost on him and quite possibly people were, too. Film, he avoided altogether (I’d rather be doing things, he often told me, which I found amusing).
But what do you like? I would ask him whenever I got fed up.
What is “like?” He asked. How can we know what we like? How can we ever really distinguish between what we’ve been socialized to like and what we actually like? And what is this “I” anyway?
I rolled my eyes. That’s such a cop out, and you know it. Stop being such a coward.
Once I invited him to a museum exhibit with a friend of mine who had studied Classics at Oxford and knew more about ancient Greece than anyone else he was likely to encounter in his lifetime. I had, naively, believed he would be thrilled to meet an expert. Instead, he spent the whole afternoon pulling me back, whispering to me, forcing me to shuttle back and forth between himself and the friend I had truly wanted to come with. He was childish and petulant that day, and I was forced to conclude that he in fact had no desire to learn at all. He wanted to show off, and if he couldn’t, then he wanted nothing to do with the whole event, and particularly with someone older and more educated than himself, who was neither male nor white.
It was, of course, another pattern. We played badminton every weekend for months until I beat him, and he refused to play me again. I invited him to my dance classes, but he knew it was an art I excelled at, so he didn’t want anything to do with it. Like a spoiled toddler, he refused to engage with anyone or anything where he couldn’t be sure of his superiority. He didn’t know how to exist without the illusion of it.
For years, I thought he was funny. I thought he was the comic relief in my own awful story. When you’re surrounded by abusers and yet blinded by your own privilege, other forms of destructiveness can seem positively benign.
* * *
The last several months, I’d been exploring consensual sex for the first time. I had expressed interest in a man in his mid-twenties and had subsequently discovered the glorious millennial possibility of a fuck-buddy. It was exactly the degree of relationship I could handle, and it was exhilarating.
I had expected Jonathan to be thrilled for me. He seemed quite skeptical of traditional sexual mores, from his affair with an underage girl while in college to regularly seducing female coworkers within weeks of their transfer dates. So I was dumbfounded when, without any irony, he complained that I was “giving away the milk for free.”
Seriously, dude? What does that even mean? Is sex a transaction to you?
The depths of his sexism were only beginning to dawn on me, so I’d given him a wide berth since my divorce and the beginning of his final month in town. Simply put, I couldn’t afford taking on any more shit at the moment.
But then he let me know he’d be at a bar in Ballard with friends. He’d often told me how much he enjoyed their square dancing nights, and I thought hell, we’ve been friends for such a long time. Let’s go send him off properly and see him at least a couple more times before he rides off into the sunset.
It was, of course, a terrible idea.
* * *
I still hadn’t processed or healed from Top’s rape. Standing in a crush of bodies in a bar and agreeing to let total strangers place their hands on the small of my back was horrible. (If you’re wondering why, here’s my post on triggers.)
Towards the end of the night, I felt a surge of relief when I took Jonathan’s hand. At least I knew this person. At least there was some trust between us. At least I had a modicum of safety now.
It wasn’t true.
The caller shouted, “Swing your partner,” and Jonathan grabbed me. He pulled me as tight as he could against him, until my arms were pinned to my sides. He grinned, laughing.
“Let go,” I said, and I tried to push him off. But the more I struggled, the tighter he held me until I couldn’t move at all.
“Let go!” I said, this time more frantically.
The old familiar panic began to rise like a tidal wave. The PTSD surging up with enough violence that I felt I might shatter all over the floor, brittle as glass. My throat clenched, and I was afraid I would scream.
The caller shouted Promenade! and Jonathan released me.
And then he called Swing your partner! and Jonathan did it all over again. I shoved him off and broke free. He yanked me back against him and pinned my arms again.
“Stop it!” I shouted at him.
He laughed. He was squeezing me so tight that it was hard to breathe.
Each time I tried shoving him off, he gripped me tighter, ensuring I couldn’t move, trapping my body, his arms like a vise. “Let go!” I shouted. Several people looked at us.
The next time he did it, he ran one hand slowly down my back. His hand reached my waist, and he popped his eyebrows at me. Like this was cute. Like he was flirting.
He knew my father had sexually assaulted me. He knew I didn’t have feelings for him. He knew I was fighting him because he fought back, tugging me tighter each time I tried to wrestle free.
And still, he just smiled and laughed like nothing at all was wrong. Like everything was great. Like what I wanted and felt and asked for meant nothing. As if my hands shoving him away were just a game. An invitation. As if my resistance signaled consent.
* * *
I took him to gelato afterwards. “I’m paying,” I told him and whipped out my wallet. I felt faint as I slipped out my debit card. “Who knows how many more times I’ll see you before you leave town?”
He was my brother, I told him he was my brother, and I was going to go on treating him like my brother if it killed me. Nothing had changed, I told myself. Nothing at all. He’d just gotten carried away. It was fine. It happens.
I had shouted at him and pushed him off, time after time. But he hadn’t said sorry. He hadn’t stopped. He hadn’t acted like his assaults were a big deal, so they probably weren’t.
Everything was fine.
* * *
I didn’t yet understand the truth. His assaults were not a failure of communication. They were a failure of perception. A glitch in his ability to process the world.
Everything meant exactly what he wanted it to mean.
He couldn’t perceive anything beyond that.
At my bus stop, we said goodbye.
“I guess we should start hugging,” he said.
Okay, I thought. Sure. I hug a lot of my friends. And Jonathan is such an old friend.
The moment he touched me, I felt two hands pressing down on the top of my head, and my feet sank into the sidewalk just as if it were pudding. I went on sinking, sinking until my bus came. Gravity was so much stronger than it had been five minutes before.
I didn’t know it then, but it was my first bout of vertigo. The new sensory aura that from that night forward would precede all my migraines. A condition that would slowly take over my life and ultimately cost me two jobs and the career I went to grad school for.
Jonathan had robbed me. It would be weeks before I saw it clearly, but in a single night, his assault stole what I had believed was a lifelong friendship. He shattered my ability to trust. And he took from me what remained of my health.
The hardest part of it all, even years later, is that he knew. He knew exactly what he was doing that night, pushing around a woman who’d been through the ringer, and he simply did not care.
He didn’t have to care.
He’d done this kind of thing before, and for him, there never had been any consequences. And there never would be. He had reminded yet another woman that he could beat them. He would always beat them. And for him, nothing mattered more.