Jonathan’s assault was among the least violent of the assaults I’ve survived. In fact, to some people, it isn’t an assault at all.
But its effects have been every bit as long-lasting and devastating as the rest of the abuse.
* * *
It wasn’t what he did. It was who he was. He was my best friend, the person I texted when I needed encouragement, the person who showed up at coffee shops when I needed to vent. I had entrusted him with as much of my history as I could bear to. I had believed our friendship was gender equality actualized.
Except I had been wrong.
He didn’t see me as a person. He saw me as female. First and foremost, he saw my biological sex before he saw my humanity. And not even my gender, but the gender identity that he assumed. When I told him one of my aspirations in life was to wear cufflinks, he laughed at me. “You’re a woman,” he said. “Women can’t wear cufflinks.”
“I don’t see what’s so hard about it.” I told him. “And besides, they’re jewelry. Aren’t women supposed to love jewelry? Maybe my favorite jewelry is just tie tacks and cufflinks.”
He sighed to show his frustration with my stupidity. “They’re not jewelry.”
“Gemstones and precious metals?” I said. “Sounds like jewelry to me.”
He had drawn so many lines around what women could and could not do, and he believed it was his job to enforce the norms that benefited him. I had believed, foolishly, that I could help him see how arbitrary it all was. I could show him these beliefs of his were really just a defense of patriarchy, an attempt to keep women in the silent and subservient position that has been forced on us for millennia. Cufflinks were just a symbol. His real issues were with my identity and the ways I asserted it.
I guess I hadn’t taken my own oppression seriously. I had believed Jonathan’s misogyny was just a flaw, one that could be set right. I didn’t understand that for many people, it didn’t matter what I said because I would always be the one saying it. Me. Female.
There would never be a time that I would be able to step out of my gender or sex and just be heard as human. Sexism, like racism, is in the very air we breathe. It’s in our early readers and coloring books and Disney films and Saturday morning cartoons. And Jonathan had worn those lenses for so long that the tint they gave to everything had become, for him, the shade that the world really was.
* * *
Watching television became difficult.
Jonathan had overpowered me in a bar and, through force alone, had made me stand closer to him than I wanted to. He had made me do things I didn’t want to do.
So had my father.
So had my ex-husband.
So had classmates and neighbors and bus passengers.
I hover around 126 pounds. Wristbands designed for adults don’t fit me. Neither do rings. The eyeglasses that fit me best are children’s eyeglasses. I am tiny, and most men can overpower me without any trouble at all.
After Jonathan’s assault, I thought about this all the time. I couldn’t stand next to a man at the library without marveling why he hadn’t attacked me yet. Because he could. After all, this was Jonathan’s point. He’d yanked me around and forced me against him, pinning my arms every time I shoved him off, just to show that he could.
Most men could do what they wanted to me.
So why didn’t they?
I watched Claire on Modern Family go toe-to-toe with her brother or her father, challenging their opinions on her job or the family, and I covered my mouth with my hand. Didn’t she know this wasn’t safe? Didn’t she know they could knock her down if they wanted to?
Didn’t she know she should just keep quiet and stay in the back of the room and not risk provoking them at all?
After 31 years of gender-based violence, I had finally absorbed the lesson that society had been trying to teach me all along: asserting myself was just too dangerous.
* * *
My brother didn’t believe me.
He doesn’t dispute that it happened, Allan said. He had spoken with Jonathan first, and I heard the implication in his tone of voice. He drifted off past the period and left the sentence hanging mid-air, where it awaited the other half: He just disputes that you have a right to be upset about it.
I was shaking. Sitting in my attic room with my cell phone pressed to my ear, I didn’t know if I was shaking out of outrage or fear. I still believed explanations could make a difference. He doesn’t see me as a person. Otherwise, he couldn’t have done it. I was fighting him off, Allan, and he just fought back. Do you seriously expect your friends of color to keep hanging out with white people after they do something racist?
So how is this different? How could I possibly feel safe around him again? Now that I know this about him, why am I supposed to just let it go?
How can you still be friends with him? I don’t understand.
Look, he said. You don’t get to tell me who I do and don’t get to be friends with.
* * *
At my bus stop every morning, I considered stepping off the curb and into traffic. I looked down at the bus tires as they rolled up and imagined them rolling over my rib cage, my chest caving in with a crunch.
There was a gun shop 20 minutes south from my rented room. I could just go pick up a handgun. Put it on credit. Walk to a public park after dark. BANG. It would be done.
Overpasses were another strong contender. Just lean over the barrier a little too far, and I’d fall down onto the freeway below. No coming back from that.
These were old, familiar thoughts, and I knew the quickest way to stop them was a friend. So I reached out to my fuck-buddy, Nick. We had both moved on, but with Jonathan gone and my brother dismissive, he was the next best thing to family that I had.
Please, I texted him. Please, please come. If there’s still any friendship at all between us, please come talk to me. I can’t stop thinking about killing myself. Just come sit with me for an hour or two.
* * *
Nick and I stared at each other across a table of pho. He was wearing his usual black hoodie. I was in a sweater and my beige bucket hat, just so I wouldn’t have to look him in the eye if I didn’t want to. Nick had met Jonathan on a couple occasions and had liked the guy, though it had certainly not been reciprocal. Which Nick enjoyed.
Pissing people off was his forte, which is maybe why I liked him. I always had been too accommodating, and I liked people who weren’t.
“So,” he said and blew on his noodles.
“So.” I nodded.
“How you been?”
I looked down into my bowl and let the steam fog my glasses because I felt the tears coming. “Not great.”
“Right,” he said. “What happened?”
I told him.
Nick leaned back in his seat. “Wow,” he said.
“I just can’t believe he would do that.”
“I know.” I tucked my lips together.
“I mean, knowing your history… And you’re sure he knew about your dad’s assault?”
“I told him several times.”
“Yeah, I just can’t believe it. That’s fucked up.”
I pulled my bucket hat down around my ears and blew out a breath. “That’s really good to hear.” I said. “Like, really good.”
“Yeah,” he said. “That’s a real douche move.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Have you talked to him about it?”
“No.” I stared Nick straight in the eye. “And there’s no point. He’s shown me the kind of person he is.”
He nodded and sipped his broth. “It would just be sad for your friendship to end this way.”
“He’s the one who ended it,” I said.
“I get that.” He said. “But how long were you friends?”
“It’s just sad,” he said.
“I agree,” I said. My tone pointed. Final.
He nodded and didn’t push me on it. I knew he understood it was my choice to make.
Nick was no angel. He was sexist, too, and he could be emotionally abusive as fuck. But he understood consent.
I never saw him again after that. But he came through for me that day. And he respected the boundaries I drew.
It was a new experience for me. One that began, ever so gradually, to calm my brain. One that made possible the other changes yet to come.