[Editor's Note: TRIGGER WARNING — This piece contains details of childhood sexual abuse]
I freeze when I see the boys roughhousing in front of me during choir practice. In the row directly in front of me, a little boy straddles the leg of an older boy like he's riding a horse. The kid sitting next to me leans in and whispers, "It looks like they're having sex." I ignore him, but I feel my face flood with heat. I can see, vividly in my mind, the hair ribbons on her desk, the stuffed animals on her bed, her naked body.
Mr. Norton taps his baton and we stand.
I haven't played with Mckenzie since I was seven, three whole years ago, but suddenly it's as if I'm back in her room. I grip the chair in front of me and keep my mouth closed. It's our secret, she whispers. Promise you won't tell. She's so close, I can count each freckle on her face. An off-key version of "This Little Light of Mine" fills the room but it's not loud enough to drown out the sound of Mckenzie's voice in my head, andI'm afraid if I try to sing, her words will come out instead.
Why are you crying? You liked that right? she'd. I see a version of myself I don't want to recognize. It's like a tape playing in my head, and I can't make it stop —Mckenzie's showing me her privates, tells me to show her mine. I say I don't want to, but she pulls down my pants anyway. She rubs herself against me and when I try to pull away, she grabs me, pushes harder. Shhh, You have to be quiet, she tells me, wiping away my tears. Now smile big, or you'll be in trouble.
The room pauses, and I'm afraid everyone can hear Mckenzie's voice, too, but Mr. Norton taps his baton and leads back to the top: "This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine..."
The next few weeks are a blur. I can't eat, I can't sleep, and every time I have to leave my house, I pray the doors of Mckenzie's stay closed. I'm afraid of being sucked back into her bedroom, only this time, I won't be able to escape. One day, Mckenzie's dad waves us down as we're pulling out of the driveway. I want to jump out of the car, disappear, warn Mom. I just freeze. His hairy forearm is resting on the window ledge, and I push my body hard against the back of my seat and hope Mckenzie doesn't come outside. I hold my breath as he tells Mom that one of the fence boards between our yards is cracked and that he's going to replace it this weekend. She thanks him for being a good neighbor and we drive away. I wish we could keep driving and never come back.
I want to tell Mom about Mckenzie, but I'm scared she'll tell me I'm as disgusting as I feel. If I really didn't want her to do those things to me, then why couldn't I make her stop? Every time I close my eyes, I see her face, I feel her tongue down my throat, her fingers grabbing my crotch, her pelvis grinding into mine. I'm naked on her bedroom floor, I'm pressed against the shelves of her closet. I want to bash my head against the wall until the images stop, but they won't, and at night, I see Mckenzie crawling through my window, the flash of her metal retainer as she grins, crouching at the foot of my bed.
I can't take it anymore, so I tell.
I tell Mom that Mckenzie showed me how to have sex when I was five, and that it was our secret game until I was seven, but that somehow I forgot until now and that I'm sorry. She bursts into tears and clutches me against her chest.
"Did her brother ever touch you?" she asks through gritted teeth.
I shake my head no.
"How about her dad?"
I shake my head again and she calms down.
"Sex is something that happens between an adult man and an adult woman" she says. She tells me that what Mckenzie did to me was wrong but that it was not my fault, and that if I remember anything about her brother that I should tell her. If sex is only what adult men and women do, then Mckenzie and I couldn't have been having sex. So what was it? I still didn't know. All I knew is that even though Mom said it wasn't my fault, I felt like it was. Mckenzie was still my secret and sharing it with Mom only made it bigger, heavier. It permeated our entire house.
The first time I use the words "sexual abuse" is in a therapist's office thirteen years later. I feel guilty for even using the term and quickly add that the other kid was only two years older than me, and a girl, and that it wasn't rape and that I don't think "abuse" is really the right word. I half expect her to agree with me and throw me out of her office. When she doesn't, I tell her that sometimes I wish Mckenzie had been seventeen instead of seven or that her brother had molested me instead, anything to legitimize my case. I tell her that I haven't been through anything traumatic enough to warrant these recurring nightmares, panic attacks— my fear of intimate touch. "I don't understand why I can't just get over it," I say.
She asks me that if I don't think "abuse" is the right word, then what do I think the right word is?
I can't answer. There is no word for what something isn't.
What I do know is that Mckenzie was only seven when she introduced me to her sex games, and even as a nine-year-old, could she really have known what she was doing? It's hard to think of a little girl who once hugged me and let me ride in her Barbie jeep as an abuser, as the demon in my nightmares. After all, I'm the one who went willingly to her house, and I'm the one who opened the door to mine. I called her my friend and have memories of us playing, memories where there is nothing dark.
I desperately try to convince myself that what happened between me and Mckenzie was nothing but a harmless case of completely normal, developmentally appropriate sexual experimentation. I try, but I can't. Because deep inside, I know it isn't true. Although Mckenzie was too young to fully understand the implications of her actions, and though she may even have been abused herself, I've finally come to realize that her situation does not negate my experience. Acknowledging this was the first step towards healing.
I will not be dismissed as an object of another child's sexual curiosity or reduced to a symptom of someone else's abuse. Mckenzie taught me that because she was bigger, stronger, and older than me, she had a right to claim my body. She taught me that saying "no" is meaningless, and she taught me that the only way to escape unwanted touch is to disassociate. There are times when these lessons still override the message I tell myself Mckenzie and I both once knew, the one we all intuitively know but somehow forget: Our bodies deserve to be treated with respect, and no one has the right to touch our bodies without our permission. At every age, our bodies are our own.
I am learning to reclaim mine.
*Names have been changed