This Tangle of Thorns

There was a boy.

There was always a boy. I saw things in people they couldn’t necessarily see themselves, and that included boys. This one was no different in that regard. I saw his need to be seen, despite his popularity. Despite the fact that no one at school was ambivalent about him. Everyone loved him. (Let’s call him J.)

I’d been ambivalent at first. More than that: for all of sophomore year and most of junior year, I’d found him irritating. He was so incredibly confident, for one. His clothes were sloppy. His hair was always slightly too long and messy. He was so nondescript that his deep belief in his value and importance as a human being seemed outrageous to me, somehow.

To be fair, it was a painful period of time for me. I was angry, scared, and deeply lonely. I lived in fear of answering the phone, because it was my father’s preferred method for tormenting me. He’d call when he knew I was alone, and would verbally rake me over the coals for the fact that my mother and I no longer lived with him, for the way I was allowed to be home alone (which had been fine, under his roof, for years before we’d left), for anything at all, even things he’d made up entirely.

I had friends. I was friendly with everyone. But it felt as though there was an extra dimension I was somehow subject to. Bad things happened to me, to my family, on a regular basis. Things that didn’t happen to other people, or in other families. Weird shit. Weird, tragic shit. I felt marked.

In the spring of my junior year I was writing a story for the school newspaper and someone suggested I talk to J for some quotes. J, that big, doofy, messy boy with the overzealous confidence. I don’t remember what else was going on in my life that day, but talking to him was the last thing I wanted to do. I’d just dyed my hair purple and was certain he would feel compelled to make some stupid joke about it.

And he did. And I stared at him silently until he turned red and started answering my questions. I wrote faster and faster as I listened. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. He was intelligent. He was a feminist. He knew what he was talking about. I looked up at him, and it seemed to me that I was transparent to him, that he could see everything I was and everything I’d ever thought. He nodded and smiled, and my face went hot. I left the interview in a daze, but I thought maybe he had, too. We’d surprised each other.

The following spring, I was short a class because of one I’d tested out of back in junior high. My counselor said I should add an elective course. And I thought of J.

***

He was surprised, and happy, I thought, to see me that first day of class. It was one of those easy electives — there were grades assigned, rather than a pass/fail option, but it required more work to flunk out than to ace it. What I’m saying is that there was lots of time to talk. And talk. And talk. It was so easy. We had so much in common, I couldn’t believe I’d spent all that time sneering at him in my head. We both loved the Doors, Cream, all that old shit. We talked philosophy, as one does, though he seemed annoyed when I pointed out his physical resemblance to Nietzsche. We both loved muscle cars — more old shit we had in common. We’d been to some of the same places in Europe. We loved the same places in Rome and London.

We talked all the time, and so much that I began to worry I was spending too much time with him in class. We were starting to get weird looks. But he didn’t seem worried. At some point we realized we each had the second class of the day in the next building over, so we started walking together, still talking. Always talking. It was the best part of my day. I felt seen. I felt appreciated. And it was so amazing that I couldn’t bring myself to think of what was happening in practical terms. Namely, that I was 17 and he was not only 42 years old, but my teacher. And married. With two kids, one of whom was a year older than me.

I told myself it was fine, that nothing weird was going on. I had started opening up to him about how much life sucked, and he was so encouraging, so kind, in an easy, uncomplicated way. J wasn’t a creep. He wasn’t sensitive or dramatic or any of the things you hear about in stories like this. He was kind of a pillar of the community, straightforward, from a working-class family. He didn’t have a stake in my life except as another adult who’d noticed I was an old soul, and was kinder than was strictly necessary. I’d run into those adults my entire life, and usually at school. This was no different.

Except that none of the others made me feel like my skin was on fire just by looking at me. Nor had they, at any point, begin to casually let their eyes travel over me with a gentleness and an ease that was intoxicating. I’d been raised in part by a man who, when he wasn’t pointedly ignoring me, was making sure I understood that I was never going to live up to his expectations. Now this other man, this grown man who was so smart, this incredibly sexy grown man who was at least twice as big as my father, was enchanted by me. And when I told him about why I was afraid to pick up the phone, he glowered. He told me I mattered. He listed the reasons why. The next day, he asked me quietly for my father’s business address.

“Just in case I need to go talk to him,” he said. He was dead serious. I tried to laugh but it didn’t feel right. He stared down into my eyes. “I won’t do anything unless you say it’s okay,” he said. “I promise.”

Women who were raised by fathers like mine will understand what happened to me when J said these things. The rest of you can perhaps imagine what it would be like for your favorite celebrity to show up at your door, proclaiming their love and promising you’ll never want for anything again, and also, by the way, they’ve figured out a way to achieve world peace. Oh, and things like paying taxes, washing dishes, and putting gas in the car are no longer necessary. And, like, maybe everything delicious is calorie-free now. You get the idea. I was loved. I was unstoppable. I was so, so hot for him.

But in this heady whirlwind of an environment, my need for him to remain flawless and non-pervy was non-negotiable. He had to be A Good Guy, because then I was safe. So I told myself I was imagining the way he looked at me. Sometimes I’d let myself believe, for a moment, that it was real, but the resulting nausea felt like the world growing dim again. This was all on my end, in my head. He was a nice man and I was…me. However fundamentally untrue my premise, it felt like the best of all possible worlds. I’d gotten used to feeling good, to feeling like I mattered.

So when I walked into class one day and he wouldn’t make eye contact, the ground fell away from under me. I tried over and over again to break through the wall he was holding around himself. He answered in as few words as possible and talked to all the other kids in class. Just not me. And while it felt like I’d been skinned alive, it was, at least, familiar territory for me. So it didn’t take me too long to go into destruction mode. I sat perfectly still in my seat, very obviously not working, and I stared at him until I saw him glance in my direction, out of the corner of his eye. Then I looked him up and down, slowly, intensely, over and over again. He looked startled— I saw him glance around the room as though looking for an escape— and then got up and went to the back of the room, to an area out of my line of sight.

A week later he was back and all was well again. But soon he tried again to cut me off. And again. And again. Each time was like dying for me. I didn’t know what I was going to do when the semester came to a close and I graduated. I was terrified. But he wrote me a beautiful message in my yearbook. And he showed up at my 18th birthday party, with his wife, who rightly hated my guts but somehow, by the time they left, had warmed up to me.

The next year my mom and I moved again, this time to the city where J lived. I was dating a boy I’d met in college theater, and he and I were walking around the neighborhood when J drove past, wife and kid in tow. I called out to him; he pulled over and we all had a lovely, bubbly chat. By the time they drove away, we had plans: he’d said that they would take us to a nearby Vietnamese place for lunch.

I thought, or tried to think, that we could make things normal somehow. I was just some dumb half-orphan kid and he had this great family and they were so nice: that was the line I fed myself. We went to lunch, and then to their house, and he showed us all the sculptures and paintings he’d done, and even took us into his bedroom to show us the ones on display in there, and that’s when I saw the daggers in his wife’s eyes. We left soon after that. “Call anytime!” he shouted as we drove away.

One of those nightmarish phone calls from my father came a few weeks later, and it was so bad that I don’t remember what it was about now; I only remember that I was frantic, that it was the middle of summer and hot as hell, that I was so out of my mind with panic that I closed and locked all the windows and doors and sat in the exact center of the apartment to rock back and forth. When I could speak, I called J. He was delighted to hear from me. I started telling him what had happened. And then I heard his wife scream. He dropped the phone and I could hear him yelling. Then his kid came on the line, his scratchy little voice saying, “My mom cut herself on a can of tuna. We have to take her to the hospital. My dad said to tell you. Bye.”

I was crushed. And totally alone again. That year I got an early Christmas card from them, in her writing, with a PS: “Sorry for getting J off the phone. I cut my finger and needed stitches!” I hated her so much. Why couldn’t she understand? Why was she lording it over me? Absurdly, we continued exchanging Christmas cards. Time moved on, even if I couldn’t. I needed him, I needed that world we’d built. I was incomplete without it. It was deeply embarrassing and totally ridiculous, but there was a gap in my being, in his 6’4″, 250-pound shape.

You can get used to anything, though. I went to school. I worked at a variety of shitty retail and restaurant jobs. I met the love of my life in 1996 and got engaged in 1997, four years after graduation. My father had made it clear he wouldn’t be walking me down the aisle and I felt reckless. Fuck it; I called J to tell him I’d be getting married. I’d just been soundly rejected, yet again, by the man who was supposed to love me more than any other. Nothing worse could come of this call, but it was possible something better could.

He was surprised, and happy, I thought, to hear from me. I told him my news, feeling suddenly shy about it, my stomach doing flip-flops. He congratulated me in his boisterous way, and it felt pretty good.

“So what does this guy do?” he asked.

I told him my fiance worked in a warehouse and was in film school. I thought he’d like that, because we used to talk all the time about creativity and art and how important both were.

“Film, huh? You know, you need someone who’s going to make money,” he said. He went on a tirade then, telling me that stability was the most important thing, scoffing about his brother-in-law, who was always trying to get famous from “his little poems” and made very little money. (I found it positively fascinating that all of this was coming from a teacher.)

I got off the phone as quickly as I could. He’d sounded feverish by the end of the conversation, signing off gruffly. I was stunned. He was jealous.

***

One of the shitty things about gaslighting and other forms of abuse is that you get really good at doubting yourself, and at hiding the truth from yourself. That was, of course, partly how everything had happened with J. At age 25 I found myself thinking about all of it, wondering what had really happened. Was it possible I’d misinterpreted things? The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me like it had all happened in another lifetime, in a vacuum, underwater, in a language I no longer spoke. I couldn’t make sense of it.

So I went to find out. I felt strongly that his reaction to seeing me would tell me everything I needed to know. One Friday, I drove into the school at a quarter to three and went and stood in the hallway next to his room. He was doing that end-of-the-day, end-of-the-week chatter with the kids. Content. Comfortable. Then he glanced out of the open door and his smile faded. I waved. He got up, saying, “I’ll be right back.”

“Hi,” he said.

“Hi.”

“What are you doing here?”

“I came to see you,” I said.

“Oh.” He stuck out his hand, offering it to me to shake. Once I’d graduated, we’d always hugged. I stared at his hand, and then at him, and then smirked and shook it.

He looked, uneasily, down the side of the hall that led to the main office.

“You know my daughter works here now, right?”

Why would I know that? I wondered.

“No,” I said. I hated her, too. She had him in her life.

“Yeah. She’s been working here for awhile.”

“That’s great,” I said.

The whole conversation lasted maybe five minutes, and it was all strange and painfully awkward. Finally he said he had to get back, and he stepped toward me with his arms out. Some instinct kicked in then, one I couldn’t explain, then or now, and I stepped back, slamming into the lockers behind me, hands flat against the metal. We stared at each other.

“Okay, well, it was good seeing you,” he said, in a very loud voice. “Keep writing! Take care!” All the kids turned to see who he was talking to. I waved and went down the hall. He came out a couple of minutes later, furtively looking to his right and then to his left, where I was, a few classrooms down. He looked at me for a moment and then went back inside.

Not long after that, I sent him a poem I’d written about that afternoon. About all of it, really. Everything. I stuck a post-it on it that said, May you never do to another young girl what you did to me. I mailed it to him at school with no return address.

Years went by. One day my husband and I stopped in at our local Trader Joe’s. I was hugely pregnant then, and I remember the air conditioning in the store felt great. We walked in, and there he was. J. Big and doofy as ever. He saw me, he saw my husband, and then he saw my belly. His face went blank. He walked out of the store.

I’m older now than he was then. I’m not angry with him anymore, but I am still baffled. Had he hit a rough patch at home? Was it nothing more than a mid-life crisis? I think he started out with the best of intentions; I really do. But an angry, needy, horny 17-year-old who’s too smart for her own good is a dangerous thing. My guess is that he quickly found himself out of his depth and then didn’t know how to make it stop. I’m not making excuses for him. The thing is, he never once laid a hand on me.

This situation fucked me up deeply, for a good number of years. But I honestly don’t think he meant to harm me. And I decided to stop harming myself by being angry.

This thing happened once. There was a boy.

There was always a boy.

###

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