BY BARBARA ORTON
When I was eleven, my body swelled up with desire. It was dizzying and intense. It felt as if it would kill me: nothing could contain it, there was no way to let it out.
I stood naked in front of the bathroom mirror. I couldn’t look away. My breast buds were sad little stubs above my rounded belly. My glasses left a raw red mark on the bridge of my nose. My nose and forehead were shiny, my hair scraped back into a ponytail. I had never been a pretty child.
At school, I wore pinafores and A-line skirts, knee socks, flowered blouses. The other kids wore jeans, T-shirts, corduroys, tennis shoes. I wore buckled shoes that chafed my heels and pinched the bones of my feet. My mother dressed me the way she had dressed at her girls’ school in England. I’m sure she would have given me jeans if I wanted. It never occurred to me to ask.
When I walked, I kept my head down, looking at the ground. My arms dangled limp at my sides. Years later, in high school, my sister taught me to swing them when I walked. Right arm, left leg. Left arm, right leg. I practiced until it felt natural.
I got my first crush on Randy, a beautiful thirteen-year-old who sang baritone in the school choir. I gazed at him fixedly, knowing he would never want me, knowing no one like him would, ever. My second crush came a few months later. This was a friend—Brian, a tall, awkward, good-natured boy who played Truth or Dare with me during lunch break. I always chose truth, asked him worse and worse questions, giddy with the intimacy of knowing his secrets. Brian had a crush on my friend Angie, not on me. But he didn’t humiliate me, and I’m still grateful for that.
At night I’d lie awake, wearily constructing fantasies that would allow me to touch one of the boys I wanted. I imagined the country was taken over by Nazis, and Brian and I were on the run. I’d escaped a concentration camp, starved into a slimmer body. We huddled together for warmth, under our only blanket in the dark, and slowly we began to touch each other. This was the only way I could imagine someone wanting me.
I masturbated every night, grinding against my stuffed animals until I came. I hid them in the closet, stained with dirt from my body. My room smelled of cunt. I became fiercely protective of my closed, unlockable door. I was afraid my room would give me away, that someone would walk in and suddenly, instantly, know what I was.
When I came, I didn’t fantasize about the boys I wanted. I fantasized about spankings, slavery, humiliation. I fantasized about rape, though I had only a vague idea of what it was. I knew it involved genitals touching, men and women, but I didn’t know that penises got hard.
I couldn’t really imagine sex as consensual. It seemed terrifying and disgusting: the shame of nakedness, of being touched in private places. But I was full of longing. Not for that exactly, not for sex, but for something. I didn’t know.
I look now at pictures of myself at that age, and I realize that I wasn’t ugly. I was plump, awkward, vulnerable. I had green eyes and a self-conscious smile, thick brown eyebrows and a big nose I would grow into later. I wasn’t a pretty child. But I wasn’t disgusting to look at. Nothing I felt or thought showed in my face.
Once a man came up to me at the roller rink. He was soft-spoken, pleasant-looking. He talked to me for a long time, quietly, seriously, as if I were a real person. He said I was pretty. He said he was twenty-one. He asked me how old I was, and seemed startled when I said I was eleven. Maybe he thought I was twelve, or thirteen.
The man didn’t frighten me. He didn’t have sex with me, either. I probably wouldn’t have let him, not then. I might have let him kiss me, probably. I wanted to be kissed. I didn’t want him, really. But I wanted his kindness. I would have given something for it, maybe a lot.
When I remember this, I see it with a kind of double vision. I remember his gentleness, how it drew me to him. I still feel grateful for that. And I feel sure he was a predator: hanging out at the skating rink, spotting a lonely young girl, talking to her like a grown woman, making her feel special. I know how lucky I was that he let me go home, wistful and flattered and unharmed.
I wonder what he saw in me. I still can’t imagine how I could have been the locus of someone’s desire. Probably it was my youth that drew him, and my shyness. A lot of men see those as desirable things. Most men, though, choose girls who’ve had their first period—who know, at least in theory, what intercourse is.
I lost my virginity at sixteen, with a twenty-one-year-old man. I’d had sex with Angie at thirteen. We called it practicing. Then oral sex, at fifteen, with a few boys my own age. But this was the first time I touched someone I really wanted.
I’d had a crush on David since I was twelve years old. He was a Marine, had killed someone when he was stationed overseas. I found this frightening and somehow glamorous. Otherwise, I had surprisingly few illusions about him. He wasn’t as smart as me, and I knew he told lies. But he was astonishingly beautiful. When I looked at his face—his cheekbones, his narrow dark eyes— it sucked the breath out of me.
On our first date, David taught me how to kiss, slowly, softening his lips. He sucked my fingers. No one had done that before. When he dropped me off at midnight, I tiptoed in, yawning greedily, newly conscious of my breath. I knew I could have sex with him if I wanted. And I did, on our second date, unprotected, in the front seat of his parked car.
The sex was OK. It didn’t hurt. I was glad I did it. I still am, even though afterward I was scared of pregnancy and AIDS. David slept with my best friend as well. He tried to keep it from both of us, which was pretty funny—how did he think that would work?
I’m glad I did it, and yet I think: What was a grown man doing with a sixteen-year-old girl? I was bright, I know, and I made him laugh. My makeup was hilarious—blue eyeshadow, black eyeliner, clotted mascara. But it signaled femininity, and he may have liked that. Besides, I was willing—more than willing, eager. I chased him down.
I can’t imagine being attracted to a teenager. They’re so innocent and awful. So full of longing, so predatory and scared. So hungry for attention and baffled about what they need. Not even at their full height, some of them. Still growing like weeds. Straggly like weeds. Beautiful and desperate and uncertain. So bright and lively, and yet so profoundly stupid. It seems like being attracted to a beautiful animal, a wild fox, maybe.
By the time I straddled David’s bare cock, I’d grown to my full height. I wore a full-size bra. I had menstrual cramps each month, hair between my legs and under my arms. But I was barely a person. Really. I was still figuring that out.
Like every woman I know, I’ve been harassed—by strangers, and by men I thought of as friends. I’ve been approached by predators, guilt-tripped into sex I didn’t want. I’ve broken a bone in my foot running away from a scary cab driver. I’ve had a boyfriend hold a knife to my throat. Some of this is typical, some of it isn’t. I don’t think about it most of the time.
I wasn’t raped until I was twenty-one. I’m grateful for that. Even then, it wasn’t a rape, not really. It wasn’t consensual, either. There aren’t enough words.
Maybe I don’t mean grateful. It’s hard to say what I mean.
I slept with a man because I was lost, separated from my friends. It was late at night, in Paris, in a bad neighborhood. I was terrified. The man—boy, really—was nineteen. His name was Jamil. His French was bad, though not as bad as mine. He bought me coffee and listened to my garbled story. He offered me a place to stay. I was hoping I wouldn’t have to sleep with him, but I knew I might.
We walked together. I don’t know how we talked, my French was so bad. I kept telling him, "Vous êtes gentil." He said, "Non, je ne suis pas gentil." I thought he was being modest. Later I realized he was telling me something.
An older man joined us, a friend of Jamil’s, and walked with us for a while. He talked to Jamil, and he looked at me. Jamil introduced him as Monsieur Mustafa. Apparently he owned, or rented, the place where I was going to stay. I wasn’t scared of Jamil, but I was scared of M. Mustafa, and horribly afraid I might have to sleep with him as well. I drew a big, slow breath when he walked away.
It didn’t look like an apartment: it looked like some kind of empty factory. There were sewing machines bolted to tables. A toilet with a jug of water next to it.
Jamil folded a blanket on the floor, with another blanket over it. I lay down with my clothes on, pulled the top blanket over me. He went into the other room, and I thought, "Thank God, thank God." And then, a little later, he came back.
He didn’t kiss me, or ask. He climbed on top of me, grinning. I helped him out, took my jeans off. I may have put my arms around him. I don’t remember.
I was scared he would throw me out into that dark street, full of men, no women except prostitutes leaning in doorways. I was scared I’d be beaten, robbed, have my passport stolen. I was scared he’d hurt me if I said no.
I was scared, and I was grateful. My passport wouldn’t be stolen. I wouldn’t be lost forever. I had a safe place to stay. Maybe that’s not the best word. Safe.
If it happened now, maybe I’d talk to the women standing in the doorways. I could ask them if they knew any safe place to go. But I was scared of them. I’d never seen prostitutes before.
I thought later, maybe I was like those women. I don’t mean that they were victims. I mean, we were giving something, taking something. Trying to get what we needed to live.
I wondered for a long time what Jamil was thinking. Did he think I wanted it? What I think now is that he didn’t care much. It was an exchange: sex for safety. He probably thought it was fair.
He was gentle enough. He didn’t hurt my body. I think I felt a vague, muted physical pleasure, when I felt anything at all. I don’t remember that part very well.
It’s hard to explain how awful it was. It wasn’t the sex itself, but the terror that swirled around it, the sense of having no choice. I did have choices, of course, but they were fiercely constrained. I still don’t know what I would do if it happened again.
I got him to use a condom. I may have had some in my bag. I kept saying, "Condón!" over and over, though I wasn’t sure that was really a word.
The second time he fucked me, Jamil came inside me. I don’t know if the condom broke, or if he pulled it off. It was dark, and there was a lot I didn’t know.
I had an abortion two weeks later. That’s a different story.
When he ran out of condoms, he tried to fuck me again. I cried out in my terrible French: "Non! Non! Bébé!" It’s almost funny to remember. He tried to turn me over on my stomach. I panicked even more. "Non! Non! AIDS!"
In the end, he gave up. He didn’t anally rape me. You could say I’m grateful for that.
In the morning, I was afraid he wouldn’t let me go. I kept saying over and over, "Mes amis—Notre Dame—onze heure!" He kept insisting I meet him that evening. I promised I would, lying desperately, over and over. He drew me a little map.
I met my friends—Notre Dame, eleven o’clock. I told them what happened. They were uncomfortable, horrified. I think I wanted them to be. I said, "I don’t know if you can call it rape—I was a good sport." I remembered that line from a story I’d read. It was a girl talking about her father, how he fucked her when she was twelve.
I spent the rest of the time in Paris locked in our hotel room. I remember washing my clothes in the sink. Did I read, or write in my notebook? Did I look out the window? I don’t know. I must have done something.
I felt hollowed out, empty. I felt as if I’d never be the same. I also felt, somehow, as if this was inevitable: as if I’d been practicing for it for a long time.
Barbara Orton has been published in The Yale Review, Ploughshares, Pleiades, and Verse, and has work in anthologies including The New Young American Poets, Under the Rock Umbrella, Villanelles, and Obsession: Sestinas in the Twenty-First Century, and in an untitled Web chapbook published by The Literary Review (link broken). She has also published book reviews in Pleiades and The Lesbian Review of Books, and a guest entry in Voltage, a poetry blog.