I met Tom when I was nineteen and he was forty. It was my first go-round at Oral Communications and Research, basically a speech class that the community-college-turned-state-school required all students to take. He was a little taller than I, bearded, and tattooed.
I was going through a rather embarrassing phase at that point in my life. Too much time spent reading people’s gender discourse posts on various blogs had convinced me that I was “gender-fluid,” a term I’d hate to be associated with a mere four years later. I was a little obsessed with myself, and very unsure of who I was.
I’d certainly taken a tumble. Before I arrived at the college where I met Tom, I’d been your average lesbian co-ed at a liberal arts school on the other side of the state. I spent a lot of time reading analyses of vintage films, and a lot more time getting high with a boy named Jake, whose roommate was a drug dealer.
Somehow, in all of this, I wound up addicted to prescription benzodiazapenes. There was a sexual assault involved, and I felt I couldn’t cope without drugs. I actually had a prescription for them, and when my little orange pharmacy bottle was empty, the D.T.’s set in. I shook, I vomited, I cried, I stayed up for days.
Finally, I dropped out.
Fast-forward through a few months of residential treatment, and find me at the college in my hometown, living with my parents once again.
Back to Speech class. I decided to take Professor Hollins’ class because she was highly regarded as the nicest and easiest professor who taught the course. The first speech we students were to give was the “About Me” speech. Just telling the class a little about ourselves. I stood there, in my men’s jeans and chest binder and mentioned that I’m a published author.
Prof. Hollins had the students write each other positive notes about our speeches. I got some nice feedback, and an anonymous note reading, “Also published. Let’s talk!” In a lull in the action, I asked the class who’d written it, and after class, Tom approached me.
I’ll be the first to admit: I love attention. If someone wants to tell me my makeup looks good or that I’ve taken a nice photograph, I’m all about it. But there’s plenty of attention that’s not so positive, and I’ll settle for that if it comes right down to it.
Maybe if I’d been a little older or a little more cautious, I’d have known that Tom was bad news. But I was nineteen, still pretty much a kid. I also didn’t have many friends. My clique from high school was scattered all over the southeast at various colleges and universities, and gradually we lost touch.
I saw Tom as a potential new friend, maybe the key to getting published somewhere other than magazines that were designated for high school students. I didn’t see him as a love interest. I was a lesbian, or maybe a man, but certainly not interested in him “that way.”
Like I said, I love attention, so I sought friends. I joined the college’s Gay-Straight Alliance, mainly a social club for LGBT+ students and a handful of allies. Within a few meetings, I’d attained an officer position and was tasked with designing fliers and organizing our booth for the annual club fair.
In the GSA, I also met Christin. She noticed me first and wasn’t sure if I was gay. I had little interest in dating after my harrowing events at my previous college; I was scared of physical intimacy and more interested in partying.
Christin had a reddish-brown undercut, black, dorky glasses, and always wore button-down shirts or t-shirts with video game logos on them. She was short and a little thick; I’d later learn that she’d lost about 110 pounds over the course of two years with the help of an app called My Fitness Pal.
At some point, we became Facebook friends, and she messaged me asking me if I wanted to hang out. I don’t remember what we did, but she made it very clear that she was interested in me. She paid attention to me, she called me beautiful, and she kissed me with her soft lips.
I had actually made one other attempt at having a girlfriend about a year before. I met Alyssa on a dating site, and we lasted about a month before our graceless falling out. After detoxing from benzos with no medical assistance, I was adamantly against drug use of any kind. Alyssa was a pretty heavy pot smoker, and I was still getting high on Ambien despite my best efforts at staying away from drugs. I was also embarking on a serious drinking career.
One night, I invited Alyssa over to my parents’ house for dinner. My younger brother and his girlfriend at the time were there. My brother’s girlfriend was a nice Christian girl, they’d met at the church where my brother had converted from Judaism to Christianity a few months before (much to the dismay of my devoutly Jewish father). Alyssa lived on, let’s just say, the wrong side of the tracks. Between both of my parents, there are four college degrees. My father works in the legal field, and my mother is an avid Shakespeare reader. Alyssa marveled at my parents’ home the first time she came over, as if she’d never seen such a nice house. Perhaps I take my parents’ wealth and education for granted, after all, it’s just how I was raised. I’d never really known hardship. The closest thing to a financial struggle I’d ever encountered was during the Great Recession of the mid-2000’s when my mother started buying the generic brand of cereal and paper towels at the supermarket.
I digress. On the night Alyssa came for dinner, she was stoned out of her mind. She rambled languidly about Dungeons and Dragons, a truly awful tabletop game that she’d insisted I play with her and her dorky friends with whom I did not fit in. I took her home as quickly as possible and broke up with her on the drive. By the time I returned to my parents’ home, she’d already deleted me from Facebook and changed her relationship status. Oh well.
Not far into the semester, Christin and I solidified our relationship as girlfriends, and I was happy. However, things soon turned sour. As a recovering anorexic, it was incredibly triggering to see her weigh all of her food and log her caloric intake in My Fitness Pal. She talked about weight often, both mine and hers. My recovery was shaky at best, and I felt it was very important for me to weigh less than my partner. She told me I wouldn’t be attractive if I dipped below a certain weight, and belittled my food rituals and eating habits. It soon became quite apparent to me that she had an eating disorder as well, even if she wouldn’t admit it.
Somewhere in all of this, Tom and I exchanged phone numbers. We rarely called each other, but we began to text every day. I vented to him about my relationship problems with Christin, and he always had something insightful to say. He was extremely in touch with his emotions–unlike Christin. Trying to talk to her about emotions was about as effective as banging my head against a wall. I was in therapy (still am), and I believed it to be the answer to everything. I urged Christin to try it out for herself, but she staunchly insisted that not talking about her emotions and problems made her feel better. Eventually, she revealed that she had been diagnosed as bipolar, and was treating her condition with diet and exercise. From what I could tell, it wasn’t especially effective.
Over the summer, I couldn’t take anymore of her emotional retardation. I had feelings out the wazoo, feelings that I needed to talk about with a compassionate listener. I had found that in Tom, and Christin knew it. She was incredibly jealous of the texty friendship we’d formed, no matter how many times I assured her it was just a friendship. We broke up, and I cried for days. I skipped class, I cut my wrists, I drank a lot.
I also started talking to Tom in a new capacity. Somehow, the topic of tattoos and piercings came up. Tom was covered in ink; he had full sleeves and a back piece. I had one small tattoo on my leg (I’ve since been inked all over), and I was quite proud of the fact that I’d had upwards of twenty piercings, including my nipples when I turned eighteen.
It’s not hard to guess what happened next. Pictures were exchanged, the conversation turned steamy. I was hot for this man all of a sudden. He told me incredible sexual stories, some true some fabricated. I sent him videos of me touching myself, photos of my labial piercings, of my nipple piercings, anything he wanted. He sent photos back; he had a curved barbell running through the head of his penis, which he claimed was to stimulate women’s g-spots, not that I would have ever known.
During this time, my parents took my brother and me on a vacation to California. I was excited to go, but as it happens, California is an awful place. The best part of the trip was a 30 minute train ride down the coast. I saw the ocean on one side and mountains on the other. Aside from that, we saw a couple of baseball games, which was torture because I don’t care for sports. My mom and I also went to the Getty Museum, which was the other best part of the trip.
Still, despite the beauty and culture I was surrounded by, I was glued to my phone. Tom was blowing it up with music recommendations, dick pics, poetry, and compliments.
I was eleven years old when I first started noticing girls and wondering what the fuck was wrong with me. I didn’t know females could be homosexual. I thought I was dirty and overly sexual for the way I looked at my friends.
I fought my lesbianism tooth and nail until I just couldn’t maintain the facade anymore. Men were my armor. Tom was my biggest shield. I even had Christin insisting that I was bisexual, and criticizing me for lying to myself.
In the depths of my psyche, I knew I was faking my attraction to Tom. I was desperate to please him because I wanted acceptance and attention.
Finally, I shed the chest binder, stopped introducing myself to people as Collin, and donned a skirt. I was Katherine again, just a regular woman, albeit a lesbian.
When I was about six years old, I was molested by someone close to my family. I don’t talk about it hardly ever. I still protect my abuser, and I am protecting myself from others’ disbelief. My mom still says things like, “I believe you, I just don’t see how it could have happened.”
This incident set me up for a lifetime of mental illness and sexual reactivity. I developed anorexia right around the time I met my first boyfriend (who loved my slight figure), and I started purging after I learned how to give blowjobs as a way to symbolically rid myself of the act.
When I reached college, I was pretty sure I was a lesbian, and very, very afraid of men. I thought the “gender-fluid” thing would repel them. I didn’t realize that I had no chance of passing as male, or that the kinkiest of men are actually attracted to boyish women.
At some point during all this, my hair started to grow out from the pixie cut I’d worn since I was about sixteen and had a thin enough face to keep my hair that short. I was starting to actually like my appearance, and it scared me. I had a complex relationship with my hair, one that I still don’t even understand fully. I wanted to wear my hair short so I’d fit the lesbian stereotype and maybe signal other women that I was gay. But I gained weight as I learned to feed myself again, and pretty soon I looked like a beach ball.
I wanted the long hair of my childhood again, wavy and white-blonde on the ends. But I felt I didn’t deserve it. One impulsive day, I walked into Super Cuts and said, “Shave my fucking head please.” I’ll never forget the look on my father’s face when me saw my buzzed head.
For the next year, I insisted that I loved my buzz cut, but I’d never felt more hideous. I compensated with abundant amounts of makeup, something I’ve never really cared for. Children couldn’t tell if I was male or female, people asked me if I or someone I knew had cancer, and men wanted to touch my fuzzy head. I felt like I wasn’t even a human, just some oddity. Like a circus sideshow freak.
Christin didn’t like the buzzed hair either. She was angry that I’d done it without her permission, and also didn’t like that there was no hair to pull during sex. By this point, I was well on my way to self-destruction. All I did was drink and cut class. Christin would smoke me out sometimes and then get angry at my abnormal reaction to pot. (It makes me manic, as if I’ve just done a line of coke.) Our relationship was hanging by a thread. I actually found it fun to piss her off because I knew she didn’t love me anymore.
Still, she got the last laugh. I don’t think I’ve mentioned this so far, but Tom was married. Married with kids who were about my age. I actually met his wife once, she owned a local business, a bakery I think, and was sweet and charming. I had asked Tom multiple times if his wife would be okay with what we were doing. He claimed to be in an open marriage and said, “A little fun on the phone never hurt anyone.”
Christin was very tech-savvy, so she used some kind of anonymous email server to contact Tom’s wife. She gave her all the details of his and my relationship and sent the email. Tom contacted me almost immediately, panicking. The open marriage thing was a lie, quite an obvious one looking back.
Somehow in all this, I had mistakenly decided that Tom cared about me beyond late-night booty pics. I thought he was going to be my knight in shining armor to lift me out of the darkness that plagued me and make me okay again.
What I know now was that Tom was nothing more than a dirty old man preying on a young woman with limited defenses. I fell for his act as I would continue to do with several more men after him.
The one good piece of advice Tom ever gave me was to stay away from drugs and alcohol. The other thing I gained from our so-called “relationship” was a glimpse into the world of 90’s punk rock. He introduced me to Bad Religion, Dead Kennedys, Minor Threat, and Dead Milkmen.
Bad Religion and Against Me (the latter of which my abusive boyfriend from high school introduced me to) came to Orlando while Tom and I were talking. He didn’t tell me until they day of the concert, and he had one ticket for himself. I would have loved to go; I used to love rock concerts, but the show had been sold out for months. Tom brought me back a souvenir from the show, a very low-cut Bad Religion tank top with a bird on it.
A few days ago, I went to campus to pick up a book the library had reserved for me. The library is connected to the writing center where Tom works as a tutor. As I was heading for the library, I saw him round the corner, carrying a bottle of Mountain Dew. He didn’t see me, but I knew it was him. The real kicker was that I was wearing the shirt he’d given me under my favorite red hoodie. I quickly zipped up the hoodie in case he saw me, but he didn’t. I don’t know why I was so ashamed that I had the shirt on. It just felt wrong.
I haven’t been sexual with a man in three years, not since I was raped. I don’t have Tom’s number anymore, and I blocked him on all social media. I’m currently in a wonderful relationship with my girlfriend. We’ve been together for over a year, and I love her.
My desire for attention has been quashed; I’ve been beaten down by man after man, and I play it safe these days. Maybe it sounds like I am playing the victim; I do sometimes feel like I am walking the line between victim and survivor.
I finally got a handle on my drinking and drug problem. I’ve been off drugs for about five years, and haven’t had a drink in almost three months. At one point, I’d been sober for a year, and I shared my story at my AA home-group, two months after I was raped by a meth addict. I didn’t drink over the rape at first. And I continued not to drink over it. I tore up my body with a razor blade, I stopped eating and lost weight. But I didn’t drink over it–until I did.
I went to a bar called Piranha’s with is ironically located next door to the AA clubhouse. I had a few beers and went home. I was in baggy jeans and a ratty old t-shirt. I drank Heineken, my favorite beer, and as I was getting up to pay my tab, nausea swelling up in me, a man said, “Hey sweetie, want another Heineken?” I would’ve liked to give in to the urge to gag and have vomited on him if it wouldn’t have revealed what a lightweight I was (still am), so I choked out, “No,” scooted away from him and high-tailed it home where I threw up in the shower all over my feet.
I picked up a white chip the next day. I lasted a week or two, then found myself back at Piranha’s or maybe the sports bar in the plaza where I work–I don’t remember. All I knew was that alcohol was the key to not thinking about the rape.
Sometimes, if there was a good enough women-to-men ratio at a meeting, I would speak in vague terms about what had happened to me. People noticed a change in me. I looked at the ground instead of making eye contact, I shrank away from friendly hugs, I spoke in a trembling whisper. One man gently asked me, “Were you attacked?” I told him yes.
I bounced from sponsor to sponsor, the woman who’d been by my side for that first tumultuous year of sobriety dropped me because she felt like she wasn’t a good enough sponsor. I briefly worked with a man, but I didn’t feel comfortable with him. Next came a woman who dropped me when she got pregnant and told me, “Victims don’t stay sober.” It was true, but harsh and I wasn’t ready to hear it.
I think the best way to describe how I feel about everything that happened with Tom is “used.” He made me feel special, but I wouldn’t even be surprised if I wasn’t the only woman he’d treated that way
I could blame our “relationship” on a heteronormative society that subliminally tells women our worth hinges on male approval. I like that explanation a lot more than the simple idea that I was an attention whore or a nymphomaniac.
On the surface of my consciousness at least, I don’t crave male attention. My eating disorder is driven by a desire to become so small that men won’t notice me, or that they’ll think I’m a twelve-year-old child. My ideal body is angular, sexless. I have the curse of curves. I wouldn’t say I’m fat, but I have some meat on my bones. My girlfriend loves to trail her fingertips over my hips and thighs. But everywhere I go, I notice men staring at me.
Back to the Bad Religion tank top. I went to Lowe’s, the home and garden store, to buy a plant late one night. The cashier was close to my age, and he said, “That’s a really cool shirt.”
I said, “Thanks, yeah, I love the band.”
“The what?” he said.
“They’re a punk band,” I informed him. I glared at him, his gaze was squarely on my chest, and already, I was telling myself the shirt wasn’t appropriate for that late at night, as if Lowe’s was the hottest place in town to pick up chicks. “Y’know, ‘American Jesus,’ that’s, like, their big hit.”
The cashier didn’t say anything. I made the mistake of paying in cash, and he stroked my hand as he gave me my change. Fucking creeper.
Yesterday was therapy day. I’ve legitimately been in therapy for ten years. I don’t think I’ve made much progress. I spent most of the session crying so hard I thought I might vomit all over my therapist’s Oriental rug. I honestly can’t remember the last time I cried that hard.
My therapist said I’d done good work that day, but I felt ready to drink a bottle or wine or Windex. Sometimes crying is cathartic, other times it just feels horrible.
The memories of the men who have put their hands on me haven’t faded. I relive them almost every day. I have a photo of my rapist and me on my phone, and I can’t bring myself to delete it. Every time I look at it, I cry. Every time I listen to Bad Religion, as much as I love their music, I can’t help but think about Tom.
I don’t want to say these men shaped me. I don’t want to give them that much credit. But in a way, they did. I am not “less than” for my experiences. They all taught me something. In the end, even though I did not create the wound, it’s up to me to heal it.