tldr; I'm really okay now, I promise. Xo.
I hope y'all are having a wonderful new year so far! Last night, I couldn't even stay up until midnight.
A couple of months ago, I started working on this piece for XO Jane. I read that site fairly regularly, and thought it would be a decent way to get exposure for a pithy amount of cash. My pitch was accepted and I was emailed a contract but I found that when I started writing the essay, I couldn't finish it. It wasn't a fun memory to recall, and I spent most of the day moping around, hating myself from 8 years ago. Since I couldn't think of a good ending and writing this left me an emotional sack of human, I didn't wind up submitting it or signing the contract. I hope to write for them eventually, but this wasn't the right time.
So I'm posting it here. It's important to me to share this story because literally (not hyperbole, every single one of my female friends, and some of my male friends) has been sexually assaulted or raped. I've been raped twice, and I don't think I'll be writing about either of those occasions for the public, at least not for a long time. Sexual assault in the workplace is different because it's a whole different set of politics. Most of my friends who have been assaulted never did anything about it. They never reported it or told anyone until way later after the fact. Same with me; I wanted to report it, but my mom blamed me for this particular incident and I didn't want to handle the legal proceeding alone because I was scared and 19 years old. Now when I think about it, I'm angry, but no longer at myself. I know that I didn't deserve what happened to me, because no one does. Rape and sexual assault are never the fault of the victim. I don't care if that's something you have to write on your mirror in lipstick so you see it every morning; it's something that everyone needs to know.
Happy new year to everyone. I hope it's the year that y'all have been hoping for and dreaming of.
The summer after my freshman year in college, I returned to my parents’ house on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and worked at Curves. It was, from the beginning, not exactly optimal; as a lazy and lifelong goth, I painstakingly avoided both gyms and the Christian cheeriness that Curves seemed to innately promote. But, needing money, I put clear spacers into my lip piercings and agreed to $7/hour.
“Why, you sound just like a young Lauren Bacall,” drawled Lenny, the franchise owner. His wife, Winnie, beamed at me. She was wearing a lilac sweatshirt with a graphic of kittens and flowers on the front, and as she pulled me in for an undesired hug, her grandmotherly mop of grey hair rubbed against my chin.
Lenny and Winnie struck me as weird, but weird in that folksy, rural way that was almost to be pitied. I knew it was mean to feel so snarky about a couple of cute little old people who had rescued me from a summer of my mom calling me lazy, but I couldn’t help it.
Curves also struck me as weird. I wasn’t familiar with the concept; instead of a ‘regular’ gym, the equipment was set up in a circle. Every thirty seconds, an alert would sound, instructing those working out to move to the next piece of equipment. It was billed as a relatively quick, pain-free workout for women. Men weren’t allowed to attend Curves; one of the founding ideas was to give women a safe place, away from the hypersexualized environment of normal gyms. Lenny and Winnie both said that this value was quite important to them, and that they really cared about the fitness and well-being of their customers. Despite how hokey they seemed, I respected this.
One of the walls of the gym inside had a giant pastel mural, featuring a Jesus-less cross surrounded by cute cartoon animals and happy women laughing. The company-mandated music was the worst thing: each CD featured Top 40 song covers, remixed and set to a rhythmic and unfailingly peppy beat. They (naturally) bleeped out the swears, but the primary reason for using these CDs was that every thirty seconds, an alert would sound and the women would move on to the next step in their workout.
I considered myself pretty lucky because despite the awful music, I really didn’t have to do very much at work. I worked from six in the morning until noon, and usually I’d stay up most of the night before and then come home and sleep after my shift. The town where my parents live isn’t very populated, and there were days where no one came in at all. I liked being alone; aside from changing the music and checking customers in, I spent my days writing bad poetry in my Livejournal and cleaning the gym equipment. Lenny or Winnie would stop by every day or every other day, usually just for a few minutes. We’d catch up; I’d usually hear a few stories about grandchildren. They had a trailer in Ocean City and frequently went down for the weekends, so sometimes I’d hear about how Winnie got sunburnt or Lenny forgot to take out the trash and a raccoon had gotten into it and made a mess.
A few weeks into June, I went out and got loaded on Stoli Blueberry, passing out at a date’s. This wasn’t atypical, but I usually managed to make it home for an hour or two before work every morning. Instead, I’d woken up in a panic with a monster of a hangover, fifteen minutes after six. I drove to Curves still clad in black skinny jeans and a black corset top. Lenny and Winnie didn’t usually come in until close to noon, but I was anxious anyway. There was a change of clothes in my car, but I couldn’t get my eyeliner off with the foaming hand soap and water in the bathroom, and I didn’t have the spacers for my piercings.
It was, at least, one of those mornings with no customers. Lenny came in around ten. I was instantly nervous about being fired and miserably hungover. Lenny ambled over to talk and I scratched my face in an attempt to hide my lip ring.
Instead of chastising me, he struck up a conversation about film. I was heavy into old movies at the time, even the bad ones; I usually watched TCM early in the mornings before work.
“Have you ever seen The Dreamers?” He leaned on the other side of the counter from where I sat, appearing to take intense interest in my reaction. I shook my head.
“Nope.” I smiled, attempting to hide my vodka breath.
“I think you’d like it,” he opined, stretching and giving an exaggerated yawn. “Do you want to get some lunch after work? I bet you’re hungry.”
“No,” I said, too quickly. “I’m okay. Thanks, though. That’s nice of you.”
He nodded, and looked kind of disappointed. For a moment, I almost felt bad. I figured that he was probably lonely; Winnie was at some Christian youth thing with their grandkids. After that, he’d usually extend the offer a couple of times per week, but I always said no. The five or ten minutes of small talk was bad enough; I couldn’t handle a whole lunch.
The summer passed uneventfully. In the beginning of August, my parents took off for a two-week vacation to Canada. They left me the phone numbers of the hotels they’d be staying in, but this was before either of them had a cell phone.
One day, Lenny called me at work. This wasn’t unusual; sometimes Winnie or he called the main line to check in. He told me that there was going to be a dinner party that evening, Winnie and the girls working the other shifts (who I’d only seen in passing) would be there, celebrating the end of summer. When he told me it was in a small town about 50 miles away, I made up an excuse about having plans, but Lenny guilted me into changing my mind. He reminded me of all the times I’d refused lunch with him, and that this was a tradition he and Winnie did for their employees every year. I told him that I would meet everyone at the restaurant, and he quickly dissuaded me of that as well.
“You’ll get lost, you didn’t even know the name of the town where we’re going,” he said, laughing on the other end of the phone. I silently cringed, anticipating a long and awkward evening.
That evening, I met Lenny at Curves. I left my car in the parking lot, and got into the passenger seat of his SUV. From the beginning, something felt off.
“So, how’s Winnie? The grandkids?” I asked, not looking at him.
“They’re fine,” he said, pulling onto the highway. “She actually changed her mind, she won’t be able to make it tonight.”
Cold panic gripped me; for the first time, I really felt something was wrong. I started chattering away, asking about more family things. I had the idiotic notion that he wouldn’t do anything creepy if he was thinking about his wife and grandchildren.
“Can I touch you?” I shook my head furiously no, and felt his hand anyway. He began kneading my thigh, and I immediately shoved his hand away.
“No, don’t do that,” I said, shifting my body so my knees were pointed towards the door. He didn’t say anything, and picked up speed; I craned my neck around in the seat and saw a big metal shovel on the floor of the backseat. A single chill ran down my spine. I felt his hand touch my neck, then slide down my shirt and pinch my nipple. Yelping, I twisted back around and smacked his hand away. He laughed as I struggled to pull my shirt higher, blinking back tears.
“Relax.” He was still laughing as he said it, but he kept his hands back on the steering wheel. As discretely as possible, I texted three friends and told them that it was very important I check in with them later, and that they were to call the police if they couldn’t reach me. One of them tried to call me immediately; Lenny glanced over and I silenced the call.
Eventually, Lenny pulled up in front of an almost-deserted restaurant on a shabby pier. There was one other car in the parking lot; my feeling of dread grew. Numbly, I decided that there were likely others inside, so I would be safe. I thought about feigning illness and calling a friend to come get me. I don’t remember what I ordered; I don’t even remember what kind of restaurant it was. In the bathroom, I desperately called and called; two local friends were both hours away, another friend lived in Pennsylvania but said he would get in the car immediately to start the three-hour drive.
Knowing that at least someone knew where I was, I got back in the SUV with Lenny. As on the ride down, I kept peppering him with questions in an attempt to distract him from molesting me further. It became some kind of game, he’d fondle me, I’d push back, then he’d retreat and try the whole thing again. Over and over; it was like being trapped with a sadistic goldfish.
“Do you like that?” he’d ask, casually, touching my thigh or chest or neck for a millisecond before I’d push him away, angrily.
“How’s your wife?” I’d shoot back, feeling waves of panic wash through me.
Lenny eyed me. “Do you want to take the scenic way home?”
“No. No, I need to go home right now. I’m feeling really sick, and I really need to go home. Take me back to my car.” Steeling my voice, I tried to sound angry instead of scared.
When Lenny pulled into the parking lot of Curves, I leapt out of his SUV while it was still moving.
“Hey!” He cried, surprised. “You’re going to hurt yourself!” With alarming speed for an old man, he jumped out of his side, leaving the SUV running, and chased after me to my car.
“I’m leaving,” I said, breathing shakily, grabbing the car door handle. “Don’t ever do this again.”
Lenny stood way too close to me, looking concerned. “Can I kiss you?” He asked, reaching out to grab me. Using both hands, I shoved him in the chest, hard. He staggered a few steps back—far enough away for me to dive into my car. I sped out of the parking lot without looking back.
That night, my friend from Pennsylvania showed up. I cried in his arms and we stole expensive tequila from my parents’ well-stocked liquor cabinet. I hated myself; I felt like the biggest fool in the world, and that I deserved everything that had happened. I felt like if I had been smart, he never would have touched me.
The next morning, a few hours after I should have been at work, there was a knock on the front door. I peeped out the blinds of my parents’ house, and saw Lenny’s SUV parked out front. He knocked again, louder this time, and I grabbed a knife from the kitchen and hid in the foyer in case he broke in. He didn’t try; it was still a very long five minutes. Later that week, I got my last paycheck. It was postmarked the date of the “dinner party.”
When I told my mother about it (on the phone, to a hotel in Canada), she didn’t say anything. I momentarily felt bad for upsetting her, until she spoke brusquely. It was, according to her, indeed my fault. I shouldn’t report it because things like this happen all the time. She was furious with me for quitting and not going back. She laughed at me when I said that I felt invaded, and told me to get a thicker skin.
We didn’t talk about it when my parents got home from vacation. I didn’t talk about it in therapy, not even to a psychiatrist I saw for years and adored. I didn’t tell boyfriends because I didn’t want them thinking I was too damaged to want sex. I didn’t tell my other friends, not even the first two I’d called that night, because explaining the whole thing made me feel foolish. After a while, I didn’t talk about it because it didn’t seem important.