As time went by, there were more of these shadowy figures, and they would come closer the longer we were living there.
Typically, a story like this is told with more verve than wit. There’s superfluous use of cliches that cloud the soul-baring underneath. For our purposes, I prefer to cut straight to the quick: When I was 15, a 40-year-old man I met online took my virginity and shattered my innocence.
I gave myself a pep talk to write about this after I saw the allegedly 17-year-old Courtney Stodden, the "teen bride" trot out of a CVS in my neighborhood one day. She's married to some 51-year-old who was in like, "Lost" or "Bagger Vance" for like 7 seconds. They're getting a reality show. A teenager married to a grown man? Is this supposed to be palatable all of the sudden? As I watched her sashay away, I recognized the look of shame that someone gave to me.
I was built on that fluffy love, that boom-box-held-proudly-in-the-sky type love. I wrote letters to Michael J. Fox at 5, hoping for a response and never getting one. Already the tortured writer, I took it as a form of rejection. I grew up impressing adults with my witty repartee and 30-year-old opinions trapped in a toddler’s body. I was wise beyond my years, voraciously absorbing text of any kind: phone books, smut fiction, literary giants, TV Guide.
By the time I hit puberty in 1994, I was anxious and angry. Kurt Cobain was dead. As a GATE student testing in the highest percentiles, I was one of few black kids who cared about him. At softball practice, everyone made jokes about my swelling thighs and my boobs growing overnight. I was too nerdy, too butch and too big. My first crush, Tony Lopez, rejected me, after I tirelessly curated the ultimate mixtape and dropped it in the mail with a letter detailing what each song meant. No boy was ever going to like me.
I needed an outlet. Enter the world wide web. In 1995, my parents bought a computer to replace our older PCs. Remember the first time you heard about “the Internet”? I do. Because within months it ruined what was left of my childhood.
His name was Jack. We “met” in a chat room about “Saved By The Bell.” Why he latched on to me, I don't know. Maybe it was because I seemed older, although now I know he was lurking for young girls. I told him I was 18. I was 14.
I couldn't tell you now what sparked our interest in one another, but I do know what it quieted for me; my immense loneliness. I felt safer in front of the computer with Jack than outside in the real world pretending I cared about drinking, smoking weed or improving my bass clarinet.
He told me he was 28 and an engineer. Pedophiles pick up late shifts at the AM/PM and try to give candy to little girls from their creepy vans, right? Pedophiles aren't civil engineers who live in New Mexico, own their own homes and a motorcycle. Jack "sounded" sexy, and safe.
He spoke my language, the language of a teenage girl who wished she was 28. He knew I was misunderstood and miserable about it. He was the perfect boyfriend: He spent hours on end with me and was online when he say he'd be. He was reliable. He said I was pretty without ever seeing my face. He told me over AOL chat that he was in love with me and I fell for him because no one had ever "loved" me before.
After 9 months, he asked if he could see me. I jumped at the chance. I knew sex would probably happen. I was excited. I was going to lose my virginity to someone who was mature, responsible and who loved me -- just like in a John Hughes’ movie.
So why couldn't I tell my parents? Or my friends? Why was everything a secret? Those feelings, which I now recognize as instinct, were dead on.
On a date I’ll never forget, July 14, 1995, I took a bus to a fancier part of town but not the fanciest motel. When Jack opened the door, I was tremendously let down. He was short, heavy and balding -- and definitely not 28. What had I done? I got scared, but he was nice to me, coaxing me out of my fear. He offered me water and within moments we were making out. Within an hour I was no longer a virgin. I didn't have that feeling that you get when you've "made love." I felt dread. I felt awful.
Jack took the bus home with me. A part of me hoped that would be the end of it even though another part felt as though this whole thing was what I deserved. When he told me to come back, I did. Really, I was afraid of what would happened if I didn't. What would he do to my family? I had to keep my eye on him. I had to remember who this person was if I ever ended up having to tell. At the same time, I rebelled against that fear instinct because I was positive my “love” for this man was normal.
Jack promised me things; trips, marriage, kids. Things he knew I wanted. He said he'd make enough money so that I could write and just make babies. It sounded good until it sounded gross. I didn’t feel in love anymore.I felt exposed, raw.
His obsession with me grew, and when he'd come to town every couple of months, I'd hide him. My grades were awful. I became an expert in bypassing my report card from the mailbox to the trash can. I'd come home, immediately draw a bath as hot as possible and furiously scrub myself. I felt dirty and I thought everyone knew.
If I refused to see him when he came to town, Jack would drive to my house and park across the street from my front window. He wouldn't go away unless I agreed to see him. He didn't take no for answer. I begged him to leave me alone, but he just crawled into my head deeper, like a virus.
The shame was with me day in, day out, like the time Jack made me hold his hand in public and I caught the looks of adults who were disgusted. I imagined one day it would be my parents, my grandparents or a family member looking at me that way.
I didn't know how to ask for help but it came anyway when my mom read my diary. I’d written everything down. My mother quietly began finding out who Jack was and what was happening to me. My parents confronted me on my 16th birthday, arguably the best and worst day of my life. They knew everything.
My great uncle, a former police detective and prominent city official, came to my house to ask me what I wanted to do about Jack. In his hands were papers, so much paper -- all the text of our AOL chats , all of Jack's personal information, receipts from the motels, affidavits from motel employees who thought I was either Jack’s kid or girlfriend.
The police wanted him in jail. Because I was one of the first girls in California and the country that this had happened to, my uncle prodded his political friends to make a law to prevent predators from accessing kids my age. They wanted to name it after me: "Wynter's Law." I was going to be made an example of in order to help all the other girls.
Or, I could do nothing at all. The police would scare him, put a restraining order on him and nothing else would happen.
I chose the latter, something I regret to this day. After the restraining order was put in place, all communication with Jack ended. By 1997, two years after I'd met Jack, my life started to get back to normal. My parents bought a house and changed our phone number so Jack wouldn't be able to find me. What my parents didn't know was that I still had the pager he bought me. Jack knew the password, but I didn't care. I wanted him to hear my messages and know I was moving on. After awhile I felt a rush of confidence, a renewed sense of hope.
My mom and I traveled to New York for a bonding trip and I took a separate flight ahead of her to prove I could be trusted again. There was a brief layover in Denver and as I sat at the gate waiting to connect, I heard my name called over the PA system. I picked up the white courtesy phone (which was cool), the operator said I had a guest waiting at gate.
I turned the corner and gasped, it was Jack.
How did he know I was there? That damn pager. He'd tracked my voicemails and texts. In an attempt to look younger, he'd shaved his head and got an earring. He acted as if nothing had happened. I was almost 18 now, he said. I could make my own decision to leave with him if I wanted. That was the moment I saw what I already knew: Jack was a pedophile and a predator.
Jack said he missed me and he wanted to spend some time together before I went to New York. I told him none of that was going to happen and that he needed to find someone else to “love," preferably someone his own age. He cried and I felt nothing. He couldn't believe that I'd grown up so much that I didn't "want" him. I'd never wanted him. What I'd wanted was to feel whole.
A Denver airport officer saw me snatch my hand away from Jack's grasp and came over to investigate. Jack turned to the cop and said, "Lover's quarrel.” I turned and walked away. My flight was ready to leave and the gate agent was calling my name. Jack followed me whimpering.
"Don't make a scene,” I spat, “but get the fuck away from me." He begged, pleaded. I'd never seen something so pathetic. Giving my ticket to the gate agent I turned to him, "Jack, this is goodbye." The last image I have of him is scored into my memory; his pathetic, horrid, aged face crying for me.
I fled to my seat and cried all the way to JFK.
The confidence I'd had plunged into a deep depression that would revisit me throughout my life. I spent 4 months of my senior year of high school in bed, listening to Alanis, Tori Amos and Bjork on repeat. My room became a cave. I looked both ways before heading to the bathroom.
No one knew what had happened to me except my parents, and they didn't challenge me on my “episodes,” which included spontaneous bouts of sobbing and praying to a makeshift altar I created to "awash myself in the blood of Jesus." My parents contained my slipping sanity within the walls of our home. My rage bounced off the perimeter and infected everyone.
Jack walking away unscathed while I ended up with nearly 20 years of mental anguish and a weight problem is something I can't undo. I could have allowed depression to swallow me whole, or I could pick up what was left of my teen years and prepare for adulthood. I finished school, went to college and got a great job. My success has been fueled by my sheer will to succeed and beat the odds. I didn't want to be a statistic or the figurehead for some law.
Through the years, I've tried to track Jack online. I've made aborted attempts to call the cops. I've called MSNBC's "To Catch A Predator." I just wanted someone to make sure he wouldn't do this again. Also, I wanted to see if Jack felt any guilt or remorse. If he was living freely online, I'd be angry.
One day, after digging for hours, I found something, a website for a motorcycle club he belonged to. I found a picture of him holding on lustfully to a young girl who wasn't his daughter. She was a teenager with a gaze like a deer in the headlights. Jack's creepy lecherous smile was the same after so many years. It looked like a grotesque prom picture. After 15 years I finally called the Feds.
The officer, who was very appreciative, said they were going to "throw a net on him," which means they’ll keep Jack’s information flagged in case something happens. That’s the best that could be done. It’s not serving time for what he did to me, for that time I lost spinning in anguish and confusion, but it’s something.
I saw in that girl what I saw in myself, a disconnect and sorrow. She just wanted someone to call her pretty. If I knew her, I'd tell her one day it would happen when it's supposed to. The same thing my Dad told me when I was a little girl, before all this happened. Of course it only makes sense to me now.