Are You Sure That's How It Happened

Every once in awhile, I get the impulse to look again. A whole body itch, from my fingers to my knees. Rifle papers, digging through stacked, moldy boxes. Handwritten 20 years ago, the play I wrote about him, the poems. But it’s not my words I’m looking for, it’s his; printed out emails with subject lines like “DELETE DELETE,” and cut-and-paste IMs. Rissabelle, my AOL handle, became his pet name for me. 

 

I don’t have that evidence anymore. I gave my copies to my Mom, who gave them to the police.

 

*

 

The thing about writing about my relationship with my high school teacher is that the subject is evergreen, always timely. That’s depressing.

 

May began with Brigitte Trogneux, the new French PM’s wife, who met Emmanuel when he was her 15-year-old drama student. “They developed a closer relationship when they worked together to re-write a play;” and “the teenager’s parents were shocked when they discovered he had started an affair with his married school teacher.”

 

After my theater teacher was fired, I would wake up crying because I was sure that he hated me. I saw it like a movie reel in my mind. Police at his door. His wife crying. How did he explain it? I was sure he said I was lying. What else would he say? I thought no one would believe me without evidence. I think that’s why I handed over a year’s worth of emails.

 

It was a messy, impossible thing to walk around with. I forgot how to be in the world, in my body, present tense. I pulled myself through the house in the morning, ate like a mindless, glazed over zombie, slapped my shoes on, drove to school distracted, moved through my day on autopilot. A foot. A foot. A foot. 

 

My truth was something much messier than the story they gave me. I had wanted him, had said yes to everything we did together. There was too much happening at once, like sensory overload, but it felt good. Only he knew what it had been like when it was just my body and his body, tangled together like one thing. The tension of doing the wrong thing, together. 

 

*

 

Last week, the New York Times was ran a series of letters from a teacher at Andover to his 16-year-old student, to supplement their reporting on exclusive boarding schools’ sexual abuse scandals. “He would give her a grade, critique her work and then, in a different colored pen, write something more familiar, asking her to play tennis, or saying he would help her break curfew. He was handsome and he was her teacher, and she was flattered. . . She thought she was in love with him. But she was also frightened.”

 

 Art by Emily Falkowski

Art by Emily Falkowski

Everyone told me that I’d grow up and see what happened was clearly wrong. That he was a predator, and I was a victim. That victims try to assert their own culpability as a means of having control. I had my own version of this story, and I protected it fiercely, for twelve years. I had been the one with all the power. I had been the jailbait.

 

*

From the day I turned 9 years old, I grew tiny budding chest nodes. My best friend’s dad called them Hershey Kisses, and mocked his daughter for being flat. Both wrong, our fault. A year later, blood between my legs. Stealing tampons and pads from under the sinks of the mothers of my friends. Eleven; shred of pubic hair. The early ones, dark and sparse like weeds sprouting up in a neatly paved lot. The first yells, always out of old trucks. Disgust in my stomach, like undigested oatmeal. Thirteen means learning to like this. Learning to crave it. The fourteen year-old bikini body; incitement. That it made me vulnerable.And that this too, was my fault.

 

I can’t remember the first time I was called jailbait, but I can remember the first time I realized that jailbait meant a man — a grown man — could actually be arrested. 

 

Then it was my fault that his life was ruined. The fault in my vanilla lipgloss. The fault in my neck, my soft underbelly.

 

People told me, an accusation like mine? It could ruin a man. 

 

*

This month, Claire Dederer wrote about watching Annie Hall as a transgressive act. In sharing the Dederer piece, essayist Kristi Coulter, admitted she can’t stop loving the art merely because the artist is a misogynist.

 

“Maybe it's a selfish insistence that my access to art is more important than taking the moral high ground. “Maybe it's resistance to what can feel like groupthink. Maybe it's just pragmatism--if I start eliminating great artists by how they've treated women, how many will I be left with?”

 

Maybe it’s not about groupthink, moral high grounds, or proving a point. Maybe it’s about who you believe, and what you do about it. 

 

*

 

I typed his name into Facebook. For the first time in many years, I saw his face. Graying stubble around his mouth. The same dazzling white toothy grin. I catapulted backwards in time.

 

Down my spine and across my mid-back, there was that guilty feeling that I wrecked his life like a ship. But did I?

*

 

It took so much to step into my story. To say what happened to me, and to agree it was not OK. The world makes sure that we carry the weight of his ruined Olympic swimming career; his popular indie music career; the police at his door.

 

Dederer’s essay lists a bunch of known abusers that are also famous artists, and asks whether we are “supposed” to stop loving their art. Of course, you can love what you love. And most of these artists were known, famous, successful when their abusive behavior came to light. So no, I don’t think you have to police your heart when it comes to loving Annie Hall. But maybe think twice before buying a new copy? A friend of mine wants to write about Oleanna, and she crowd-sourced a copy for fifty cents. If you must get your hands on the works of known abusers, do it in whatever way gives them the least money, fame, or attention. Your attention matters because consequences matter. Not so much for the hims of this world, but for the mes. 

 

*

 

Dear sixteen year-old me: don’t pick up that weight. You aren’t responsible. You didn’t wreck anything. You are not a home wrecker or a life wrecker. He, 43 at the time, is the one who was reckless. He is the one who should have known better.

 

You had no brakes, too fast for your own good maybe, but, also, you were like lamb’s wings. Honeycomb. Like the softest petals on the inside of the flower, the ones that haven’t opened all the way yet. 

 

Don’t get yourself lost in the stars of his mouth.

 

And, by the way, dear 16 year-old me, with the baggy jeans and the Lilith Fair t-shirt? He’s teaching at Stanford now, grinning ear to ear in every picture, wide as the sky, happy as a clam, sure as a lark. 

 

You didn’t ruin his life.

 

It’s as if you never happened at all.


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Marissa's featured column Backbone is a 6-month series on Corporeal Clamor. More of her work can be found in The Rumpus, The Manifest Station, Nailed Magazine, Under the Gum Tree, and The Establishment, among others. Her essay, "No, Lolita," was named one of Entropy Magazine's Best Online Articles & Essays of 2016. Her poetry has been anthologized in Only Light Can Do That (PEN/ The Rattling Wall 2016) and Things I Have to Tell You (Candlewick, 1998). Marissa is currently writing a collection of lyric essays and revising an experimental memoir. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her partner and their toddler.