Instead, I Smiled

The carpet contoured to my face, and I felt safe. When I closed my eyes, I flirted with sleep, and could feel the weighted liquor coursing through me, lulling me into pliable submission.

I couldn’t see the television, but registered the talking heads crowing about the latest dresses and stars studding the red carpet as the Oscars got underway. Behind me, my friends continued to carouse and sip their drinks.

Until that night, I hadn’t felt like I was part of a group, much less a welcomed addition to any social clique. With them, I started to experience something that’d been lacking for most of my life: a sense of community. Alongside these guys, I felt like I could handle being gay.

***

Grant, the host, was my first crush, and I dared to think that I loved him. He had a biting wit and sarcastic sense of humor. And unlike me, he was confident. I’d fashioned an orbit around him throughout my senior year of college; but like a distant star, I always hovered on his periphery and he never pulled me in. Still, I admired him for all the qualities I failed to see in myself.

Someone refilled his cup with cheap vodka on the coffee table nearby, and the loudest of my friends brayed about giving massages, and asked if anyone wanted one. Drunkenly, I raised my hand from the floor. I was a freshly fledged gay, and I craved being seen, and I longed to be desired—and while I wasn’t sporting a six-pack or chiseled jaw, I’d worked off enough of my baby fat to pass as cute.

Due in part to a few botched make out moments courtesy of the Myspace meat market, I’d never been remotely intimate with another gay man. The simple act of being touched seemed foreign and exotic; and I wanted nothing more. And while I wasn’t attracted to my ad hoc masseur, the mere fact that a gay man was touching me felt thrilling.

Soon enough, my shirt proved to be an impediment, and I removed it at his prompting. The spindly carpet fibers burrowed into my torso, and I continued to melt into them, and tried to enjoy the moment. A few minutes after I’d balled up my shirt, the only couple there whispered conspiratorially to one another. I hadn’t paid much attention to them, but I noticed a distinct change in the room’s atmosphere. The television boomed louder, and I wondered where Grant had gone; I hadn’t heard him speak since my back massage started. I even thought that he might’ve been jealous, and I felt some semblance of flirtatious power over him.

After a little while, the massage stopped, and my friend got a drink and started chatting with Grant in the kitchen. I continued to lay there and let random thoughts dance through my head as I closed my eyes. That’s when I felt someone’s hand caressing my side; I was incredibly ticklish and I flinched a bit, chuckling as I did. It was one of Grant’s other friends—a member of the couple—and he’d framed himself closely over me, with his other hand pressed into the carpet near my head. I began to feel claustrophobic, and started to say something when he shoved his hand down the front of my jeans, grunting as he did, his breath curling inside my ear and melding with the lowered voices of the others.

“I want to know what you got,” he’d croaked, his liquored breath burning against my cheek.

My thoughts raced as I realized my dazed attempts to stop him were actually emboldening him. He pushed and prodded, his nails scratching into me as he strained against my freed, flailing hand toward my groin. He pushed his body closer, and muttered to his boyfriend.

“He’s trying to fucking cockblock me.”

When he reached my penis, I went numb. It was momentary and jarring, and he’d done it: his violation was complete. Whether he’d satisfied his curiosity, or I’d managed to catch him off guard, I was able to push his hand off my shaft; my skin crawled as his fingers raked through my pubic hair. He got up and melted into the background with Grant and the masseur. Frozen with terror, I stayed on the floor, watching the impression from his hand slowly disappear as the carpet rebounded.

Minutes later, Grant gathered me up, and put me to bed in his back room. The next morning, everyone except Grant was gone. He wished me a good morning, and asked how I’d slept. I stared at him expectantly, but I could tell a veil of complicity was pulled tautly over his mouth. I felt a scream pounding at the back of my teeth, begging to be freed. But instead, I smiled.

******

It took me 12 years to put a name to what’d happened to me. I never told anyone about it–not my family, closest friends, or my ex-husband.

I hadn’t really expected acknowledging it to be quite so freeing; and in many ways, the catharsis I felt when I actually told my therapist was so painfully potent, that I wondered how the weight of it had contorted and morphed over the years to become so bearable.

There’s nothing normal about sexual assault, and no part of it should be normalized. In these tumultuous times, so much hate and violence is being threaded into our daily lives that it’s easy to let it transform into something else–something that can be shouldered. But it shouldn’t be. It’s toxic and debilitating, and it only serves to empower the perpetrators.

And as hard as it is sometimes to speak out, the uncompromising truth is our most damaging weapon–even in times when fearmongers try to make truth as malleable as clay, when we have a sexual predator at this country’s helm.

The truth does indeed set one free. And I intend to speak mine boldly, loudly, and fully–to break through the hypocrites’ tired reframes of alternative facts.

To thread more understanding, compassion, and empathy into our beleaguered national narrative. And remind others who are scared and vulnerable that they are not alone.

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