He loathed me. It was confusing and frightening. I was awkward and plump and found making friends exhausting while he was the golden boy, effortless on the athletic field and surrounded by the pretty girls who didn’t have acne. In fifth grade, he wanted my seat on the school bus, so he threw me out of it. I tried not to cry. My arms had finger bruises. My parents told me to fight my own battles. He was two years older and a head taller.
When I was twelve, he threw a lacrosse ball at me. It hit me in the ear and tore out my earring. Blood dripped and I heard him laughing. I didn’t bother telling my parents. It wasn’t just about me fighting my own battles. It was about community pecking order. Even the neighborhood dogs followed the same rules. For my parents to approach his family on my behalf would jeopardize their standing, not to mention that it would do nothing to alleviate my humiliation.
I don’t know why he liked hurting me. The bus stop was a gauntlet of taunts and insults. I was that kid that preferred to read books at recess rather than be picked last for kickball. I was put into a class with older kids to assess whether I was being challenged. He’d stare at me when I answered a question correctly. It made me nervous. I tried to stay away from him but it was a small place.
By high school, I’d skipped a grade and was only a year behind. His animosity simmered. The worst was New Year’s Eve. I was fourteen and no longer overweight. He was the size of a grown man. I’d gone to the ice rink. When he showed up, it was clear he was drunk. I decided to leave.
He must’ve followed me into the locker room. When the lights went out, he shoved me to the floor. It knocked the breath out of me and my knee slammed into the concrete. He was slurring, saying horrible things about what he wanted to do to me. The smell was overpowering. I still had my skates on. I tried to kick him with the blades. His pants were undone so I turned on my stomach to hide my face from his efforts to force himself on me. He pounded my head into the floor.
I must’ve been screaming. Someone turned on the lights and dragged him off me. I locked myself in the ladies’ room until he’d stopped shouting incoherently, first right outside and then in the distance.
I felt sick, dirty and stupid. It was the following evening before I emerged from my bedroom and faced my bruised cheek and black eye in the bathroom mirror. My knee throbbed. My father asked about my face. I shrugged.
Later that night, the boy who’d pulled him off me called, voice taut with anguish. I assured him I was fine, nothing had happened. I couldn’t burden him with the truth, not when his best friend had attacked me. I didn’t tell my parents; I thought they’d falter in fear of the golden boy’s power. But mostly, I felt I’d done something to deserve the assault. It haunted me. The long-term impact of feeling unsafe takes no prisoners.
My college years and early twenties were a study in feeling unworthy, inadequate and unloved. The choices I made in love and in friendship were poor at best. I had no concept of what it meant to be treated kindly, to feel respected or accepted. I thought when I married, that I was safe at last, but I was wrong. Decades of trying to be good enough, smart enough, say the right thing and make the right impression wore deep grooves into my soul. I gave birth to three boys and prayed that I would be able to make them good, kind men who looked out for each other and kept their friends and loved ones safe.
As for my attacker, the thief of peace, he lingered in the dark, reminding me of my frailty and gouging out pieces of my dignity along with my new demons. I navigated the rocks of an abusive marriage and struggled to keep my children’s lives peaceful and I came to understand that compassion and kindness couldn’t be created in a bully and that it was folly to think that such a person was capable of introspection.
It took me a long time to realize that I hadn’t done anything to my attacker, hadn’t been too smart or too outspoken or too ugly. He was simply a bully who preyed on the physically weaker. And, there was no safe place, no telling a trusted adult.
When I became an intimate acquaintance of the cycle of abuse, I feared for this man’s wife and their children as much as I feared for mine. A man as cruel as he would have to undo his psyche to overcome the propensity for violence towards women. Maybe at some point he turned away from the ugliness in himself. But if you don’t see that ugly, there’s no reason to stop.
But I saw a reason to stop living a life cowering in the shadows, longing for the person I knew I could be. It was because of my sons, who are now the age of my attacker. They are unfailingly kind and they look out for others. They don’t stand for injustice or inequality and they loathe a bully. They know when to fight their battles and when to ask for help. More importantly, they know that their mom has their back and that we are all safe.
Ms. Abbott has written several novels, Asana of Malevolence and Running Through the Wormhole. Her writing has also appeared in Mamalode, Manifest Station, Sammiches and Psych Meds, the Good Mother Project and Screamin Mamas, where she blogs as Kate Straight from the Heart. She is the mother of three teenaged boys and teaches yoga in Virginia.