Eva Tenuto | Longreads | January 2017 | 22 minutes (5,426 words)
I entered the sandwich shop and saw him at the counter, my old high school freshman homeroom teacher, placing his lunch order. I hadn’t seen him since I’d graduated 17 years earlier.
He and I were the only customers. If I got in line, it was clear, there’d be no avoiding him. I’d heard through the small-town-grapevine that he’d been forced to retire early just a year after I graduated, after one brave young woman turned him in for touching her inappropriately. I remember thinking he got what he deserved. But it never occurred to me that I was traumatized by what happened with him until seeing him in person that day made me seize up in a full body rage.
“Well, hello Ms. Tenuto,” he said when he spotted me. That was how he always addressed me, even as a high school freshman. It was only in that moment that I realized the subtlety of the language that had taken my childhood away, that made his power and authority seem to disappear, that created the illusion we were equal, as if we were both adults. “You don’t remember who I am, do you?” he asked. How could he have the nerve to think I might have possibly forgotten? Like nothing had happened between us that would stand to be memorable. But nothing did happen. That’s what I had been telling myself all these years.
“Oh, I remember you,” I said, looking him straight in the eyes. My body started to feel charged, as if my insides were effervescent. I knew this was an important moment and if I didn’t claim it, it would quickly pass me by.
* * *
He was in his 50s. I had just turned 14.
It was my first day of high school. I’d made my way to homeroom, and there he was standing in the doorway of the classroom in a fitted sharkskin suit. He looked me up and down as I entered, a slow and steady gaze. His stare sent a hit of adrenaline rushing through me.
“Name?” he asked as he moved his attention to the clipboard in his hand.
“Eva,” I said, my cheeks flushing. He took his time finding me on the roster.
“Ms. Tenuto. How are you?”
“I’m fine,” I replied.
“I already knew you were fine. Tell me something new.”
His voice was disturbing and raspy. But that’s not what I focused on. I was busy asking myself, “Did he just say I was fine?” I was in shock, filled with disbelief. He thought I was fine? It scared me, but in a way that felt exciting.
“Go on in and find your seat,” he said.
I could feel his eyes hot on my back as I looked for the desk with my name on it. His relentless stare burned through me. I slithered into my seat and looked up. His eyes were still locked on me, a determined gaze—a predator eyeing his prey. It was as if he had a nose for the scent of desperation and a keen ability to follow its trail. Immediately he picked up on my vulnerability, my insecurity and my need for validation, much of which stemmed from years of drawing a different kind of attention for the way I looked.
* * *
“We bet your pussy is fat too,” blurted Mark Reynolds, the 7th grade class clown, with a shit-eating grin on his little boy face. “It’s probably fat like a big red juicy steak.”
I was in art class, sitting at a table with Mark and two other boys I was partnered with for an upcoming group project. I had just turned 12 and was starting 7th grade in a new school. My family and I had just moved one town over, and while it wasn’t far in distance, I was still the new kid and I was fat. Not a good combination.
Immediately he picked up on my vulnerability, my insecurity and my need for validation, much of which stemmed from years of drawing a different kind of attention for the way I looked.
Until that day, art class had been the only place in school I felt safe. I was scared all the time—scared mostly in the halls between periods when there was no adult supervision. I felt as if at every turned corner I’d be met with explosive verbal attacks. The words flung at me felt violent and invasive. I traveled the halls feeling wounded and, more than anything, wanting to disappear. If I could blend in, camouflage myself to melt into the walls as I tried to navigate the masses in the hallway between math and social studies, then maybe I could be safe.
But it was impossible. Not only was fat, I was also heads taller than most of them. I’d just grown so quickly that all my joints hurt. As a result of this massive growth spurt, sometimes my knees would give out and buckle and I’d unexpectedly fall to the ground. That didn’t help. Kids my age averaged 4’9″ in height and weighed about 90 pounds. I was 5’6″ and weighed more than double that. When I was forced to travel among them from one class to the next, I felt like a huge, disgusting monster swimming in a sea of children, my head and shoulders bobbing above the herd below.
My big body seemed to draw attention everywhere I went, a huge shell over a little girl who was too scared to let anyone know she had discovered a dark family secret.
* * *
Right before I moved to this town and entered this new school, a piece of disturbing information had taken up permanent residence in my mind. I’d answered the phone at the same time my mother had—on another extension—and innocently listened in on the call that changed my life.
At 12, the best solution I had for keeping the information from leaking was to stuff it down with food. Every night in our new house, I lay in bed looking up at the quiet dark sky. The woods surrounding our yard presented a silhouette of trees I imagined to be my own personal troop of frontline defenders, protecting me from the rest of the world. Each tree was a strong, wise man looking out for me. I longed for protection. Sleep never found me, so I looked up at the guardian trees and asked for help, and waited.
My two younger sisters would both be sleeping already. They played outside with neighboring kids, ate dinner, did homework, got tucked in and went to sleep. But that never happen for me. I’d lie awake thinking about what only I knew. I was tortured by my being the only one who had this information, the only one who knew that no matter how many Norman Rockwells my mother hung on our new living room walls, no matter how many country geese decorated our new kitchen, there was something missing. I was the only one who knew that what was missing was so big, it could ruin us. The future of our family sat heavy on my shoulders and the pressure was too great. It was too much.
I was the only one who knew why our Mom sobbed every May, when her baby boy’s birthday passed. I was the only child who knew our mother was capable of giving away one of her children.
I listened in on the call out of innocent curiosity, but I received more than I bargained for. My mother’s friend told her that a mutual friend of theirs had recently found a child she’d given up for adoption many years prior.
“I can’t believe you’re telling me this right now,” my mother replied. “I just started looking for my son again.”
The last three words echoed in my mind as I tried to process and make sense of these words. “My son again, my son again, my son again.” What was she talking about? Up until that moment, we were a family with a mom, a dad and three girls. I was the oldest. Now, my place in the family line was taken from me. I was no longer the oldest and we were no longer all girls. Finding out my mom had a life so far beyond the perimeter of the reality I believed to be absolute shook me to my core.
My mom ended up finding out I knew, but rather than comforting me like the protective mama I craved, she clung to me like the intimate partner she desired. I could help her find her missing child. The missing child my sisters would know nothing about for years. The child whom only I knew was missing from the dinner table. I was the only one who knew why our Mom sobbed every May, when her baby boy’s birthday passed. I was the only child who knew our mother was capable of giving away one of her children.
Now, at 12, I’d lie in my bed, night after night, hoping that this time I could go to sleep. That I wouldn’t have to engage in the ritual I had come to rely on to soothe myself. But as I’d try to fall asleep, I’d become riddled with an anxiety too intense to bear. Sometimes I’d shake. I’d cry uncontrollably. And I’d wait. I’d wait for my mom and dad to go to bed. I’d listen for the telltale signs. The shuffling around. The silencing of the Eleven O’clock News or The Tonight Show. The footsteps up the stairs, past my room, down the hall. The closing of their door. The water in their bathroom turning on and off as they brushed their teeth. The toilet flushing. And then I’d wait a little longer, until I could rely on the silence.
I’d creep across my bedroom floor like a spy, open my door a crack and slide through, closing it as quietly as possible. I’d take each step down the stairs slowly, trying not to let a single step creak. By the time I landed at the bottom, my adrenaline would be rushing. Before l even reached the kitchen, the anticipation of relief would be the first taste in my mouth. Then the ritual would begin.
When the cold milk and sugar from the first bowl of cereal hit, I could finally dissociate from my obsessive thinking and focus on the physical sensations. A couple bowls of cereal got me off to a good start. Then I’d scour the cabinets. My strategy was to take a bit of everything, skim off the top so there was never too much of any one thing missing and no one would be the wiser. A handful of crackers while I looked for what was next. Pretzels. But pretzels are better dipped in something. Pretzels dipped in peanut butter. Pretzels dipped in cream cheese. Ooh, better yet, Girl Scout cookies! Just a few. But once I started on a sleeve of Thin Mints I couldn’t stop and by then, I didn’t care if they noticed. Besides, everyone liked them, not just me. I could blame someone else. I finished the whole thing.
When it was over I sat quietly in a haze. Now, with the remnants of relief already wearing off, I could surely focus on the shame and guilt. Instead of thinking about the secrets I knew, I could obsessively think about the new one I was creating. I was a closeted binge eater. I was now the biggest family secret. At 12, I was incapable of making any of these connections. I was a mystery, even to myself. “I did it again,” I’d berate myself. “Why did I do it again if I always feel so bad after?” The consequences of this behavior were so extreme and yet, when night fell, I couldn’t resist the call of the ritual that guaranteed temporary relief.
In school, the one place I’d found solace was in art class. I could be by myself and dive into my work, be taken away to another reality with pastels and watercolors, and for the first time, be noticed for something I was good at rather than for how I looked.
But that peace was ripped away the day when I was forced to partner with those boys. Now the art room, my one safe place, was contaminated too. Why did the teacher have to put us in groups? Why place me with anyone at all? I loved being alone. I treasured not having to worry that a verbal grenade was about to be thrown my way.
“Your pussy is fat like a big red juicy steak.” The statement echoed in my mind as if it had been delivered inside a dark tunnel. My face burned red and I blinked my eyes hard, fighting back the tears. Did the boys know something I didn’t? Was it possible for my private parts to be fat too? I was only 12. I didn’t know.
What I did know is that I didn’t want anyone to find out what they’d said, so it never occurred to me to tell the teacher. I wished I could erase it from my mind. Turn back the hand on the big school clock on the wall and change…something… so it never would have been said at all. But it had. One boy said it and two other boys heard it, and so did I. It could never be unsaid or unheard.
Every day was peppered with these incidents. It was how my days began and ended. Each morning I was greeted on the bus by two boys, both named Bob, who sat in the back and welcomed me onboard by screaming, “SLOTH” at me in front of everyone as I tried to find a seat. “What’s up, SLOTH! Good morning, SLOTH!” I’d slither into the first seat I could find and hope it would swallow me whole, envelop me and erase me so I would be invisible and safe. My heart clenched like a fist trying to keep it all in.
Things came to a head one day in Spanish class. We were going around the room and, one-by-one, describing, in Spanish, the person sitting behind us. We were seated in alphabetical order. There were no students with a last name starting with ‘S,’ so I sat behind Mark Reynolds, the boy who’d told me my pussy was fat like a steak. Believe it or not, I was relieved it was him. Over the course of the year there had been moments when he expressed compassion and sympathy for me when no one was looking. I had confided in him about what I’d found out at home, and he was kind of nice to me about it. Once he told me, “If you lost weight, you’d probably get a boyfriend in no time.” He said I was a good person and deserved it. So I thought he would say, “Eva es simpatico.” or “Eva es alto.” I was taller than everyone so I assumed that would be an obvious thing to say.
What I didn’t know when I binged in the night was that I was stuffing down an insurmountable amount of inherited shame.
The exercise took us around the room. As we approached the tail end of the alphabet, I sat anxiously waiting to find out how he would describe me in front of our peers.
“Christine es bonita.”
“Jason es atletico.”
The person in front of Mark said, “Mark es grascioso.” He was the class clown and everyone did think he was funny. He turned around and looked at me. I tried to smile at him, hoping to God he wouldn’t sacrifice me for a laugh. He shot me one of his shit-eating grins and without hesitation blurted, “Eva es grande!”
The class exploded in laughter. The teacher tried to corral them to settle down, but it continued. Eva is huge. Eva is huge. I could feel the tears rise to the surface and knew that this time there would be no stopping them. I was about to cry in front of the entire class as they laughed at me and there was nothing I could do about it. The tears started flowing and once they did, there was no end in sight. The teacher asked me if I wanted to excuse myself and take a minute in the bathroom to get myself together. I refused. At first because I didn’t want to walk past them all as they laughed at me. It felt too exposing. But then I noticed that the class had come to a hush. Every single one of them was visibly uncomfortable bearing witness to the pain they had caused me. I felt a surge of power for the first time. “No,” I said. “I don’t want to go.” And I sat there and cried.
I wanted to scream at the teacher, “Why are you asking me if I want to leave? I didn’t do anything wrong. Why don’t they have to leave?!?” She had no idea what to do with a crying student refusing to step out of her classroom. The longer I sat there, the more uncomfortable they all became. I could feel the power dynamic start to shift. I would not budge. I sat in tearful protest. This was the moment I stopped trying to hide.
* * *
What I didn’t know when I binged in the night was that I was stuffing down an insurmountable amount of inherited shame. At 16 my poor mother lost her virginity to date rape. Date rape, which impregnated her. In 1965, she was without options. Abortion was illegal, and being a young unwed mother of an “illegitimate” child was out of the question. Without discussion, as her belly started to swell and she couldn’t hide the shame she was carrying, her parents shipped her off to a Catholic home for unwed pregnant girls and women.
After she had her baby, she was retrieved by her mother and alcoholic father, and again without discussion, they took her to a bar for drinks, leaving her newborn behind to be adopted. Twenty years later, shortly after finding out about a minute portion of the unspoken tragedy my mother endured, my belly swelled too, with the family secrets I practically swallowed whole. Without discussion I was shipped off to fat camp.
The memory is visceral. I can feel the roughness of his hand, the excitement of having a man by my side, the desire to be seen while being desired — so all who had laughed at me in the years prior could see: I am wanted now, and not by a boy, but by a man.
That fall, when I entered high school in my brand new body, 40 pounds thinner than I was in 7th and 8th grade, I still felt like the same shy, scared fat little girl on the inside. I was still afraid the halls would be filled with explosive taunts like they had been in middle school. But this was high school. I was in a new building and a new body. And no one had to know who I was before.
This made me the perfect target for the homeroom teacher who found me to be “fine.” Not a sloth, not a monster, not grande, not a big fat pussy steak.
His attention was thrilling and terrifying, and I ate it up. As the year went on, he primed me for more. I’d be sitting in Study Hall when he would appear at the door. “Excuse me,” he’d say to the aide, “I need to see Ms. Tenuto. Can she please be excused?”
“Of course,” they’d reply. “Go ahead.”
I’d gather all my books and papers and head for the door. More often than not he’d take my hand and walk me down the hall. Sometimes he’d walk me to the cafeteria and say, “I thought you might like to have the period off to be with your friends — go ahead and hang out. You have my permission.” Other times he would take me for walks around the school. This is something couples did. A football player and a cheerleader, two punks, a nerd couple even; but a teacher and a student?
Like many women who go through this, I question myself even today. But the memory is visceral. I can feel the roughness of his hand, the excitement of having a man by my side, the desire to be seen while being desired — so all who had laughed at me in the years prior could see: I am wanted now, and not by a boy, but by a man. And at the same time, there was the fear of being caught. It all came together, creating a much more exhilarating experience than boring study hall. And just as he had intended, I’d be thinking about him on and off for the rest of the day.
He was slow and steady, “courting” me for some time. We just held hands. And hugged. And he said things. “Looking good, Ms. Tenuto,” he’d remark as his eyes traveled the length of my 14-year-old frame, top to bottom. No one had ever treated me this way. I’d purposely take the long way to the bathroom so I could go past his class, hoping he’d see me and step out. If he did, he’d surely flirt with me. I’d flirt back. I’d ask for it. “It” being his attention. And he’d happily give it to me.
When I turned 16, I was in his room during one of his periods off. Just me, him and my best friend Jen. Jen and I were sitting on the floor and he was standing above us. “I’m going for my driver’s test soon,” I told him. He had this little red Mustang. I’d see him driving around town in it — it was so easy to spot. He’d speed by with a wink and smile. “I need lessons,” I told him. He stood above me. I smiled up at him. He peered down at me with a dirty look in his eyes.
“Ms. Tenuto, I will ride you ‘til you sweat,” he declared in his coarse voice, “and if you don’t sweat, I will ride you some more.”
I barely even knew what he meant, but I knew that he had just crossed a line, and all of a sudden the fun flirting got scary. Jen and I looked at each other, started laughing nervously, and silently agreed upon an escape plan. We scrambled to our feet, bolting out of his classroom and down the hall.
After that, I didn’t walk by on purpose anymore. Instead I now went the long way to avoid him. But that wasn’t part of his four-year-plan. He continued to hunt me down and offer me special treatment not given to other students.
One day during my senior year we somehow ended up in the main office at the same time. He started to engage with me. I don’t remember what he was talking about but all the while he was nudging me in the direction of the printer across from the principal’s office. Once he started making the copies he needed, he had me somewhat cornered. I saw something change in his eyes and he lunged for me with his lips puckered, aimed right at mine. I quickly turned my head and his wet lips landed solidly on my cheek. That was not where he had aimed them.
I couldn’t believe he’d just tried to kiss me, on the lips, right outside the principal’s office. Would he have made out with me there if I’d let him? How would this have panned out if I hadn’t turned in time? I couldn’t imagine. I just knew I had to get out of there, and so I fled. I couldn’t look at him after that. He knew his period of grooming me had come to an end and he wasn’t going to get what he wanted. So my privileges came to a screeching halt. For the rest of my senior year, he was no longer kind to me.
* * *
At fat camp I didn’t learn anything about addiction. I didn’t learn how to nourish and love my body, or manage my emotions. I only learned how to lose weight. Upon my return home, I quickly replaced the high I got from binging with the one that accompanies starvation. Soon after that I met my one true love, alcohol. Alcohol was so much more effective than food, and by the time I graduated, I was already drinking like an alcoholic.
From the time I moved out in 1991 to the time I returned home in 2005, I lived in over a dozen apartments in New York City, had two stints back in upstate New York, and spent one crazy year in San Francisco. I was running from everything, numbing out with alcohol, drugs and destructive relationships. There’s no way a woman can drink alcoholically for over a decade without collecting dozens of terrifying experiences with men. My shame mounted with each unwanted touch, each tragic experience I willingly engaged in. In 2005, I finally stopped. I couldn’t run any longer. I moved back home and reluctantly entered recovery.
The early days were brutal. I went from being the wild party girl in the city to a grown-up version of my unbearably shy 11-year-old self, relocated back to my hometown, where the streets were littered with triggering memories. I was afraid to make eye contact with anyone who talked to me, afraid to leave my apartment for fear that people would make fun of me, afraid to get too close to anyone for fear they would touch me, whether I wanted them to or not.
In my first year back home, I worked as a substitute teacher and was often placed in the middle school where I had sustained those two life-altering years of bullying. Bullying, a word so overused, it fails to convey the depth of abuse children endure at the hands of other children. All grown up, I had to walk the halls again, serve as an aide in the cafeteria, and stand in that Spanish class once more. I got to look at the scene through my adult eyes and show up for the child who suffered in those spaces.
* * *
But that didn’t prepare me for bumping into him two years later at the sandwich shop. Nothing could have.
There he was, so many years later standing in front of me again. His suggestion it was possible I might not remember him and the way he treated me filled me with rage.
“Oh, I remember you,” I said as I stared him in the eyes.
“What have you been up to?” he asked. I don’t know what I answered. All I know is that my brain was flipping through a visual Rolodex of images and memories. The first day of high school, entering homeroom, being cornered in the doorway that morning and countless others over the next four years, the walks around the school, the dirty comments, the grooming with perks to manipulate me into thinking I owed him, the validation I craved and the time he tried to kiss me on the lips right outside of the principal’s office.
I’d heard the girl who finally came forward had some written evidence. Had he gotten away with it for so many years that he’d come to think he was invincible? Or was this his addiction — did he need to take progressively bigger risks to get the same rush?
I decided I couldn’t let this opportunity slip by without saying something. But, I wasn’t prepared for this. I didn’t know what I was going to say or how I was going to say it. To buy time, I returned the question to him. “What are you up to?”
“Playing a lot of golf,” he replied. “Really enjoying my retirement.”
“Oh, really?” I asked. “When did you retire?”
“Well, it’s been more than fifteen years already. I had worked long enough and decided to retire early.”
“Really?” I asked again, deciding now to let him have it. “That’s not what I heard.” I felt my power rise to the surface. He started shifting in his shoes. “Oh, well…” He tried to come up with something, but I quickly interjected before I lost my nerve.
“No,” I said. “I heard that you were asked to retire early because you still hadn’t figured out how to be appropriate around young girls.” I could tell he couldn’t believe I had uttered those words. After all, we were in an unspoken agreement to stay silent about what we both knew to be true.
“Oh, well… uh… there are two sides to every story.”
“Oh, I know,” I said. I looked him dead in the eye, reminding him that I was the other side of the story. “I know.” I stared at him with a focus and determination that matched his toward me on that first day of homeroom.
Before I could say another word he was gone. He darted out of the sandwich shop as quickly as possible. I stood there, stunned. But I was lighter. I had given voice to the little girl who all those years ago hadn’t been capable of speaking up.
The interaction haunted me for the rest of the day. It played it on repeat in my mind. Did he think that I and all the others would be young girls forever? Didn’t he realize that we would all grow up and be adult women who remembered what happened?
I’d heard the girl who finally came forward had some written evidence. Had he gotten away with it for so many years that he’d come to think he was invincible? Or was this his addiction — did he need to take progressively bigger risks to get the same rush? Why had he been asked to retire early? Why hadn’t he gone to trial? Why wasn’t he in jail? Why, instead, was he playing golf, with a pension?
And the bigger question: Why did I still feel ashamed of myself? I knew I’d be going to an AA meeting that night. I knew it was something I should talk about, but came up with every reason I shouldn’t. I told myself it was inappropriate to address in a meeting. I shouldn’t talk about anything sexual. They’ll think I’m making a bigger deal than I need to. And the most irrational thought: They’ll be mad at me.
As the shares went around the room, I wondered again if I’d have the guts to reveal what I’d been through. It came to be my turn and I decided to seize the moment again. I told the group what had happened that afternoon on my lunch break. When I got to the end of the story, they cheered. They actually gave me a huge round of applause. It was a turning point for me. I had expected to be received with judgment, but I spoke out anyway. The way I was met by those who’d heard me transformed how I saw myself.
* * *
It’s now been 26 years since I graduated high school. When I learned this past election season that the man who is now our president had been caught on tape saying, “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ‘em by the pussy,” the full body rage ravaged me all over again. I could imagine my homeroom teacher sitting in the teacher’s lounge, saying, “When they’re 14 and damaged, they’ll let you do anything.” So many women who’d been his students over the course of his 25-year teaching career have shared with me that they went through the same thing with him. And for many of them, it was worse.
I believe my teacher’s behavior was chronic, compulsive and pathological. I believe he and our president are cut from the same cloth. My teacher abused his power and made school feel unsafe. I can only imagine what this kind of leadership will bring to our country.
As in the case of many women who suffer from eating disorders at a young age, my body has changed repeatedly over my lifetime, and regardless of what my size is, I’ve never felt safe in my shell. When I’m heavier, I feel uncomfortable in my skin and fear the ridicule that accompanies a bigger body. When I’m in a frame that’s more socially acceptable, I become scared. Scared to walk down streets alone, to be alone with men in elevators and closed spaces, to encounter situations where a man’s attraction to me will dictate his behavior, whether or not his advances are welcome.
But I still hold out hope that some day I will feel safe and at home in my body. It’s what I strive for: to cultivate the courage to live my life in a healthy, comfortable body that I nourish with love and compassion, and somehow manage to also feel safe in. On one hand, considering who is now the leader of the free world — and the misogynist political climate he’s ushered in, filled with main stage bullying and the normalization of sexual assault — this feels like an outlandish dream. On the other, it doesn’t seem like too much to ask for. It’s what I hope for, not just for myself, but for all the girls and women in the world.
* * *
Eva Tenuto is the co-founder and Executive Director of the non-profit TMI Project, a non-profit organization offering empowering memoir and true storytelling workshops through which storytellers become agents of change by divulging the parts of their stories they usually leave out. Her essays have appeared in assorted anthologies.
Editor: Sari Botton