Tonja Renée Stidhum
April 19, 2018 4:53 pm
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April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Trigger Warning: This essay discusses childhood sexual assault.

His name was Mr. Green , a longtime friend of Grandma’s and her frequent spades partner. I was a student of my grandmother’s — the spades guru herself — so when five-year-old me wasn’t avoiding double dutch and playing kickball instead, I spent my childhood with legs dangling at the wobbly spades table, sitting with a group of senior citizens in a sea of uproarious laughter.

Throughout my years of slapping down cards across the table from my elders, Mr. Green developed an “uncle” identity. And then my daddy died.

I was 12 years old when Grandma arranged for Mr. Green to take me to school every morning.

***

There was a corner store across the street from my school building. Inside was a preteen’s trash-diet-dream: Doritos and Flamin’ Hots with steaming industrial liquid cheese and ground beef, thick hot and sour pickles, Little Hug quarter waters, Frooties, Chews, and Now and Laters. What our parents called “allowance,” we called “spending money,” and squeezing a couple bucks in your sweaty prepubescent hand was akin to holding Willy Wonka’s golden ticket. Being a kid with an unlimited supply of singles was certainly a luxury for the students of Chicago’s Woodlawn area — a coveted social status.

I wanted to go to the corner store every day after school, yet I knew the limits of Grandma’s Social Security check. I knew that anything beyond the fully stocked fridge and heated house was frivolous as fuck. Yes, I occasionally received a couple bucks from her here and there — but ya girl was greedy, especially for acceptance. As I got older, I developed tact (meaning I routinely hesitated to ask Grandma for extra singles, knowing her struggles).

But her friends and spades partners? They spoiled me rotten. Secretly, they often slipped me some cash from their “old folk wad of bills.” I was aware of Grandma’s financial restrictions, but I’d also developed the ability to use my “youngest grandbaby” status to my advantage.

Cut to that fateful day.

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I don’t remember what day of the week it was, but I remember how the sun shined on my plump cheeks, how the leaves smelled as they bristled in the wind. I don’t remember the make or model of Mr. Green’s station wagon, but I remember that the roof was off-white and the floor was brown. I remember the roaring reverberation of the car as it inched to a stop in front of my school.

I swallowed a lump of hopeful air and spit, then I let it out.

A rumbling chuckle escaped from his throat and he looked back at me with a grin, the smoke from his Black & Mild cigars enveloping the backseat of the car with an ominous odor. To that he replied, Yeah, but you gotta give me a kiss.”

I froze as he puckered his discolored lips in anticipation. My eyes nervously moved towards the window next to me and I peered at the crowds of kids awaiting the school bell.

Suddenly, I was awash with a shame that almost suffocated me.

I vaguely remember making up an a excuse about being late and dashed out of the car.

***

The next morning, burdened with the implications of the previous day, I bundled up the resolve to ask again. This time, I asked before we made it to the school front. He reiterated the “deal.” Immediately, I asked if he could pull over about a block away from the school — I didn’t want my friends to see. He all-too-quickly obliged. Of course he did.

The sound of the gear shift cranking to “P” jolted me out of my terrified trance. I looked up to see him staring at me, his watery eyes drowning my innocence and promptly washing it away. After exhaling away my young pride, I moved toward his puckered lips and kissed him. He smelled of bitter black tar — a smell that seemingly seeps through my pores even to this day. He let out a guttural sound and next thing I knew, I spotted a few dollar bills laced between his two longest fingers, pointed toward me. I took it.

My mornings went something like that almost every single day for the entire school year.

I only escaped when, at the start of my eighth grade year, my family and I moved to another street, one that was close enough for me to walk to school.

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Looking back, I repressed that experience into the deep abyss of my memories at an almost expert level. Every now and then in junior high, I’d wonder about it: Was I a “prostitute” because he gave me money? Was it my fault? Why did I let it happen? What would Grandma think if I told her?

That barrage of self-questions would only wane when I thought about one thing: Well, at least he didn’t rape me. It’s not as bad as rape. It’s not that bad.

The shame of that experience silently followed me well throughout high school and college. A non-fiction writing course led by my favorite college professor ended that silence. For the first time, through a clenched throat, I shared what Mr. Green did to me in an essay that I read to 30 strangers during a writing workshop — a feat that was much easier than telling Grandma. She died without knowing ,  a fact that has me feeling a torturous combination of ache and relief.

***

I didn’t kiss anyone until I was an adult. Little did I know that my “late bloomer” identity was serious, trauma-based arrested development.

I started the journey of working through that trauma with a therapist and several sessions of EMDR therapy.

That “not as bad” experience resurfaced last year after an arbitrary mix-up with an Uber driver who couldn’t speak English. With a learned calm that masked my bubbling panic attack, I tried to explain that I was the wrong rider, that I’d gotten in the wrong car, but he couldn’t understand me. I feared this innocent driver was actually trying to kidnap me, to hurt me. That “not as bad” experience has me living in constant fear and anxiety.

That “not as bad” experience haunts every single molecule in my body. I’m not done with the work.

***

When we discuss abuse, assault, and harassment, the conversation should not be about “rape” vs. “not rape.” Opposites are usually defined by what they’re not — but my experience is not the “opposite” of rape. It is assault. It is a relative of rape.

Sexual violence is continuous; it exists on a spectrum. A productive conversation about “extreme” aspects of rape culture cannot occur if we don’t account for the “less extreme” actions informing that culture.

Accepting victimhood for what happened to me in Mr. Green’s station wagon 21 years go was one of the most arduous wars I’ve ever had to fight. And there are subsequent battles that remain to be fought, but I cannot and will not attribute victimhood to weakness. I cannot and will not attribute the inability to verbalize “no” as my failure to claim my “agency.” After several agonizing, painful, and beautiful hours of therapy, I was able to admit that my body — that I  — had been violated. If that’s not exercising my “agency,” then what is?

I don’t know a lot of things. But I do know, for sure, that what happened to me was that bad. Very, very bad.

If you are a sexual assault survivor and need help, you can call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to speak to a trained counselor. You can also chat online with a counselor here. Both services are available 24/7.

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