There are moments in your life that change you, for better or worse. You have three choices. Either you remember them with vivid detail, you block them out entirely, or you remember them in bits in pieces. This was one of those highlight, lowlight sort of days.
I wonder if Carla remembers it the way I do.
I wouldn’t know. She moved away after that summer, and I never saw her again.
We were best friends, as best as friends can be in fifth grade or so. We lived on either side of The Dipper Cafe, a dive bar on Purchase Street in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Common Park, as we called it then, more formally known as Clasky Park today, was the next block over.
The park consisted of two main sections, the lower section bordered by Purchase and Pleasant Streets held the playground, basketball courts, and a public pool with a sprinkler that was turned on only two summers I can remember growing up. The upper section, well, that is where it happened. Between Pleasant and County Streets, at the Sailors and Soldiers Monument. Back then the statue did not have the fence it does now, and I cannot help but wonder if wrought iron would have made a difference that day.
It all started on the island, a little grove of “raspberry trees” in the middle of Pleasant Street. I know now that raspberries, real raspberries anyway, only grow on vines, but the fruits from these trees were just as sweet and just as delicious. Kids of all ages would climb the trees to gobble up the berries as they ripened during those peak summer weeks. Carla and I were off to grab a mouthful where we ran into them.
It was especially hot. That much I remember well. Billy, not William, not Bill, but Billy, was older. A junior high school student or maybe even a freshman in high school. Despite the summer heat, he wore a leather jacket. Bullies have an image to maintain after all. That included having a nameless sidekick at his side.
We, on the other hand, were melting under the blistering sun. I can feel the blanket of humidity over me, the perspiration over my upper lip, the tank top and shorts sticking to my body. I don’t wear shorts anymore.
“What are you girls doing?”
“None of your business, Billy.” Carla climbed higher up the tree.
“Sure, it’s my business.” That was when he pulled out the switchblade.
We tried to ignore him, to pretend we weren’t scared, but not before our eyes called out to each other. She nodded, and I stepped back, readying myself to run for help. I was not quick enough, because Billy grabbed my arm, twisting so hard that tears filled my eyes. Carla climbed down from the tree.
“What is it you want, Billy?”
“You’ll have to come with us to find out.”
Billy’s sidekick grabbed at Carla’s arm, and they led us like prisoners of war toward the monument, pushing us along to trip over our own feet. Carla tried to pull away, but the blade was quickly raised to her neck as a warning. I kept my eyes down, wondering what to do next. If either of us did anything rash, the other would get hurt.
At first glance, the monument appears to be a simple obelisk but along the sides are abutments that form open-roofed “rooms” invisible to onlookers from the street. Each space is big enough for two young girls to sit side by side with their knees bent but not fully stretched out. Forcing us into those crevices, Billy and his friend stood along the sides so we could not get out. Cigarette butts and even a condom littered the ground.
“Now, kiss me.”
Billy took the blade and grazed it up and down my leg, lifting the cuff of my shorts and moving the blade underneath. I squeezed my legs together, trying to pull away, but the movement caused the blade to cut my skin. I held my breath as I watched a small circle of red bleed through the cloth.
“No,” I said through clenched teeth.
He grew angry then, grabbing my face and squeezing my cheeks together.
Carla spit at him before he could force either of us to kiss him. There was some slapping then too.
“Billy,” the sidekick said but then withered under Billy’s glare.
Most everything is a blur after that. Flashes of anger and echoes of screaming. All of it hateful. What I do remember is Carla and I running down to the lower section of the park about an hour later. No one followed.
It didn’t matter that we were in tears. That I had a handprint bruise on my arm where he grabbed me or that I had a linear cut on my leg and blood-stained clothes as proof of a switchblade. No one believed us.
“Billy is a good boy. He would never do that.”
Heard in the whispers, “Those girls are just trying to get attention.”
With the shame put upon me, I never told my parents. Sorry, mom. This at least explains why I stopped going to the park after spending nearly every day there for years. To my sister, this is why I told you to stay away from Billy. To the rest of you, I ask why was my word not enough? I had been threatened, bullied, and injured, but this boy’s reputation, as off-color as it was, was accepted over my own.
Thank goodness things did not go further that day, that we were not raped, but in what world is it okay to tell young girls that what happens to them does not count? That it is not true? That boys are to be believed over girls, and even though you never get in trouble, that you are a “good kid”, that you are not to be trusted?
Whew! That’s the formation of one hell of a crippling limiting belief.
For people who don’t believe that there is a rape culture out there, you are naive. There are double standards all around us. If an 11-year-old girl cannot wear shorts on a hot summer day without being harassed, what does that say? What does it say when women are blamed at any age for what they wear, as if they are inviting a man to lay hands on her? Enough of the “boys will be boys” mantra.
We need to teach our girls to be proud of their bodies, not afraid of them. We need to show them that they, as women, are valued, that they are important, that they matter, and that their bodies are their own. Strong women — know them, be them, raise them. When we change the culture, maybe I can start wearing shorts again.