Where the Trouble Started

Decades after a childhood sexual assault, Saidee Sonnenberg tries to make sense of what happened.

Saidee Sonnenberg | Longreads | March 2019 | 14 minutes (3,467 words)

 

“Your lips are like Brigitte Bardot’s.” He had one sweaty, shaking hand between my legs under my field hockey skirt and the other gripped tight on my ass, holding me to him. The alcohol that burned off him was suffocating. I could smell and taste it, and even at 11 I knew well the half-mast cast of those eyes and wasn’t sure who to hate more for the place I found myself, because surely I knew better than to trust those eyes. His hands dug deeper. “You know who that is?” he asked. He moved to kiss me but held himself in the almost of it — in the conflict of it. I hated the fear revealed by the sound I made to swallow the saliva over-pooled in my mouth from anxiety and threatening to drown me.

“No,” I pouted. I had been told I looked like Jean Seberg and sometimes Marlene Dietrich, which I thought was just wrong. I didn’t want what was happening, but I did want to know if Brigitte Bardot was beautiful. I wanted to know if he thought I was beautiful. It was a thrill I wouldn’t know how to stop chasing. I wanted to be famous, to be a star, even though I seemed to possess no obvious talents. But I wanted to be the center of something, and right there in that moment, I was.

No one was home. I’d let him in because he had gone out with my mom the night before and she seemed to like him a lot, even though he was married. He was going through a hard time. I heard her tell that to a friend on the phone. He came to the door with pizza and wanted to wait for her. I called around looking for her at various places but didn’t find her. My little brother was out somewhere too. I let the man in. It was my fault he was sitting at our dining room table and I was caught up in his hands like I was.

“Get me that book,” he said nodding to the shelf where the art books were. There was a big coffee table book of the silver screen. “I bet she’s in there.” He didn’t let go of me. He pulled me tighter to him, his face traveling around the front of my body to smell me. His smile was reptilian, it implored me to understand and pity his delight — like it couldn’t be helped. I pushed away and got the book. I could have not taken it to him, but then what? I understood how to look at a book with another person and maybe that was to be the end of it. I put it on the table and he told me to look her up in the index. One hand went back up my skirt and he used the other to pull me into his lap. I found her name as he rubbed my lips and the letters — all those Bs and Ts — stung me. I turned to the page where I would find her. He was hard against me. Brigitte Bardot’s face was not quite vacant but it was staring off in the distance at something unseen. I looked out there with her as he fumbled behind me.

Those are details burned in — the simple world splitting beginning of it — but I can’t remember what else happened that night, or how it ended. It is buried deep in my middle school psyche under layers of becoming a smoker, a drug user, and promiscuous.

***

I would have left it all buried even deeper, but a well-meaning teacher I had always performed well for noticed a shift and a fog over me. We were studying Shakespeare and I was assigned Sonnet 1 for memorization and analysis. I was reluctant to do the deep dig that had been asked of me. I did not want to spend time in the poetry of a man talking about truth and beauty and the lament of time. I sensed a twisted irony about the cycle of aging and the nature of desire. It was just the day after or maybe two days after that the teacher kept me in from recess to ask what was wrong. I told her in a matter of fact way, with a flat tone, as if reporting an event I’d merely witnessed. My teacher cried. I didn’t, because hadn’t worse happened? Or at least the potential for worse had always existed. It was something I had constantly skirted around and found my way through. I felt bad for her, sorry for what she had to bear. She told me what had happened was not okay. Did I tell my mother? I wasn’t sure. Had I? Had she come in to find me? I couldn’t remember, so I shrugged my shoulders. My teacher wanted to find help for me, and I begged her to say nothing. She promised it would stay between us. She and I watched each other as we tried to perform our parts in the day. She looked gray and I was sorry for the vibrant lightness of her that was missing.

I’d let him in because he had gone out with my mom the night before and she seemed to like him a lot, even though he was married.

The next morning I had my first class with her and then history or science next — something that emptied the room — and she asked me to stay behind. We sat at her desk to the side of the room, looking out at fields where I had played since I was 6 and knew the knolls and drift of the land in the way a child does, from rolling about in the grass and making snow angels in the winter. It was where I had constructed worlds and formed and broke the alliances of grade school through middle, and contemplated my place in the larger structure of the universe when I couldn’t let rest the anxieties I wrestled with in the dark at night. I watched her face, the powder of her unblended makeup and the dots of mascara that clumped the bristles of her eyelashes together. She smelled of pleasing efforts and tangerines. She was teacher lovely, made of princess materials, and I crushed on her like you do your kindergarten teacher. Another teacher I was close to came in and leaned against a nearby wall.

They both looked at me for what seemed like a long time before the first teacher told me I was going to have to speak to someone from social services. My body drained free of itself and I lobbed between the ceiling and the distant woods. She had promised. She said it was a promise she should have never made because she didn’t understand the law, and the law was that she was obligated to report what I’d told her, that she could not withhold information if there was a possibility of child endangerment or suspicion of abuse in the home. Her words picket fenced around me. I was not that. That man had done nothing to me. That man had changed nothing, but she had changed everything. The other teacher explained what a terrible position the first was in and how sorry she was.

I would have to meet with social services and maybe the police. My mother had been notified. They walked me down to the principal’s office. Just as we rounded the corner to the main hall, I saw a woman in a suit holding a briefcase walk into the school. People like her — business people and officials — didn’t come to our school unless they were parents, and people in local civil or government roles couldn’t afford our tuition. Any need our community had for them was handled in private. Now, all the codes were breaking. The public entered the private. The social worker was a cold steel monolithic cylinder with clashing sound pulses inserted into a peaceful sanctuary. She followed me into the office and I was informed I had to tell her what had happened. She wrote careful notes and asked me pointed questions. I could only tell her the man’s first name, but not to worry because my mother had given her the rest. I sank lower into myself. I was in trouble. I was in the principal’s office and I was talking about what I intuitively understood should not be spoken about to the social services, who I was always instructed to lie to. I wasn’t lying. Which meant I was making real trouble. This was a bad scene. I was bad. I asked the social worker what was going to happen, if the man was going to be okay. She said they were serious charges and he should not be okay, but that was up to the authorities. “You mean the police,” I said. She nodded. I was in trouble.

We left the office and my mother was there, or maybe she had been in the meeting. The principal said it would be best if I went home and took a few days. My mother’s gaze was hard and fixed on me, and I couldn’t read what it meant. I wanted to stay at school, but that wouldn’t be right — wouldn’t look right — so I collected my things and left, escorted by my mother’s silence. Nothing needed to be said. My internal broadcast of recriminations was conversation enough. I could easily fill out the dialogue.

He didn’t rape you. You’re fine. No, he didn’t rape me. Even so, there was still someplace inside me he reached, some hollow and cold cavity where he got to me — some hurt that was growing by the second, fed by my perception of adult anger and disappointment. Was it not wrong what he had done? He was drunk. He didn’t know what he was doing. Did that make it okay, did that make me okay? You should excuse it. He is married and has children. He will lose everything. Is what I had before his hand was where it shouldn’t have been nothing? Did he deserve to keep what he had? Should his children be protected but not me?


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None of those questions were posed and no answers were directly given, but answers came by way of silences and the set of jaws and the teacher who retracted from the whole class and only taught for another year, and I felt responsible for that too — like I had split her loyalties in a way she couldn’t reconcile, and maybe she had other problems, but I felt responsible for how she seemed compromised by the situation.

The answers came in the dying of my hair, the shaving of my head, the multiple piercings I gave myself, the cutting of clothes, the need to juxtapose ugly over everything, the self hatred and search for oblivion. I was lost and trying my best to gather up pieces. But I was 11 and then 12, and my reasoning and metaphor-inclined mind made a giant mess of my life. The days after social services went by with no mention of the man. The phone was quiet. A weekend went by and then back to school. Years went by with a new town, a new school, new friends, and every boundary pushed well beyond where it belonged.

***

In our new town, my family befriended a local community of people in recovery from addiction. It was a thinly-veiled attempt to shift the influences in my world. I was dragged to the occasional NA or AA meeting; like all of a sudden I might embrace the steps and get sober or cured of a terminal disease; like my brand of stupid and broken could be weeded out by a random meeting. Jacked up on caffeine and sugar when I wasn’t high, I took in the stories and dynamics like a field agent. I was 14 and no one knew what to do with me, what to make of me. How low could my bottom have reached? How much could I have lost in comparison to those old timers? One thing was for sure: I learned a lot more about drugs and how to get away with shit — how to identify the markers of what low looked like and, most importantly, how to hide my lows. If anything, the meetings prolonged my ability to use.

But there was this one day I was made to go. It was the last time. No one made me ever go again.

***

The meeting was a few towns over from ours, in a neighborhood we’d lived in when I was in fifth grade — the house gone by then, bulldozed down, and its barn burned by the fire department to make room for a Comfort Inn. The meeting took place across the street at the Best Western, where we used to walk, crossing a dangerous road to get to the vending machines for a Mountain Dew and a candy bar. It was in a conference room like any other hotel conference room in a rural backwater town — veneer fancy. I was particularly distracted thinking about a boy I liked and how he had given me some poems he said were about me. I was feeling like I was at the beginning of something, like shells were starting to crack and bits of what had been holding me for the last couple of years were falling away, but it was mixed with that angst of not fast enough and I really didn’t want to be in the smoke-filled room of unsteadied hope. The members did their thing — said their prayers and greeted each other with the unified monotone murmur that was the mumbled cue for me to leave my body.

A man started to share because it was his anniversary — he was a few years sober. I had my arm stretched out across the table and my head on it, watching the corner where there was a bee flying around above the smoke cloud. I rolled the burning end of my cigarette in the tin ashtray and listened to the man who I could not see, but could tell by his voice that he was in his 40s and educated and from nearby. There was something familiar in his voice, the way you know the hinges of certain doors in a house. His voice was opening a place inside me and I listened as he talked about how he hurt his wife and kids, let them down all the time with his drinking. Heads nodded in understanding. He explained he crossed a line he never knew was possible for him, and as a result lost everything. He’d gotten himself in real trouble; went to jail.

I couldn’t see him from where I was sitting, but somehow, I knew who he was, and that I was the trouble he had gotten into. I pulled myself up from the table and got still. I felt as if my insides dropped out of my body. My mouth became too dry to smoke. There was no place for anything extraneous.

He said he molested a girl when he was at the home of a woman he’d met at a bar — how he showed up at their apartment drunk and brought a pizza with him to get in. I was that girl. People nodded their stupid fucking heads. “Molested.” He got to say one word, devoid of the damage and trespass, like he had vandalized a car, and everyone was like, “Yeah man, that’s real low. Sorry you got there, dude.” Molested, like he’d just changed the shape of some malleable matter. I held the sides of my seat so I wouldn’t stand up. I held my breath, clenched my teeth and noticed how my weighted lips had closed and barred all the words I wanted to scream out — words that would strip away the anonymity of his story and give face and body to the girl he was talking about.

He said he molested a girl when he was at the home of a woman he’d met at a bar — how he showed up at their apartment drunk and brought a pizza with him to get in. I was that girl.

I tried to understand what the moment was about — the audacity of it, what purpose it served. He went on — just the girl home and she let him in because he had the pizza, and she had met him the night before or the night before that, when he’d picked up her mother. My mind released screen reels of footage of the old apartment — the brown rug, the centerpiece on the table, and the blue piping that edged my skirt. He told her he wanted to wait for her mom. I moved a little to get a look at him. He was nervous and glanced around the room. I let him make eye contact with me as he explained how it was the disease’s fault, how he wasn’t himself. I remembered Brigitte Bardot and her vacant eyes as I stared, not believing, and pretending not to care.

He didn’t recognize me but he was thrown off for a moment, maybe because I was three years older and bleach blonde, and out of context. I wasn’t nodding. His children wouldn’t talk to him, he said. His wife left him, and he went to jail. He said he was working the steps and letting god take care of what was beyond his control. His three-year chip was in his hand — in the hand that had been on me, touching me when it shouldn’t have. That he held something of hope and accomplishment and meaning in his hand was more than I could understand.

Then all those people were patting him on the back and telling him good job for doing the steps, for showing up. I left. I walked as far out into the middle of the nowhere as I could get. I was looking for the girl those things had happened to. She was buried deep, or maybe she didn’t exist, maybe I had burned through her and the only trace of her was singed holes. Maybe she was safe like that.

***

I can never know if I healed or if the dissociative states I enter around what happened provided a false delivery of recovered. I suppose it was a gift of sorts that I went to that meeting. It had really happened. It was really wrong. He gave voice to that, even if it was through his own victimhood.

Now, all these years later, with children of my own, girls the same age I was when all that was happening, the experience has a new and even heavier weight. I was so full of self-blame, so practiced in taking on the burden of responsibility that I didn’t see this event for the catalyst it was. A new anger for what this man took has been ignited. I didn’t want to be a victim. I have never found a way to claim that role, and I understand that it serves a purpose, and perhaps I can consider it if it is about a moment in time and not the whole sum of my identity.

What are we to do with what we can’t begin to understand? I have marveled at this story for over 30 years now – retold it like you do when a trauma isn’t processed, but even though I always end with the NA meeting, in the years between the two events, and for many after, when I was acting out and breaking down seemed separate, but it wasn’t. It was all one thing — him, me, both of us needing to recover, both of us coming in from opposite directions, but both of us broken. The self-destructive choices, the false starts at doing better, the searching for escape — that was not all necessarily due to poor wiring, it was not inherent to who I was, but what I became. I am the work I chose to undo the damage. And I understand I am better for this writing, I understand that I owe myself a deep apology, and I understand from the bloom of my girls and their unconscious security that something terribly wrong happened to me. It was not my fault.

I don’t know the name of the man, I don’t know that I would ever again recognize him or whether he knows my name. I have no interest in digging further than through my own being for amends. He knows what he did. I am certain he paid a price, and I don’t need to do the math to understand if his cost was higher than mine — it is life. But what he did was wrong, and it does not belong in a tucked away box like a dark and dirty secret I can’t touch. I was kidding myself to think the trauma was ever contained, but I thought it was, even though it had a pervasive and adept reach, as a shadow so thick and insidious, I thought it was my own.

* * *

Saidee Sonnenberg is a writer from Kingston, NY.

Editor: Sari Botton