The Uncomfortable Telling, Part I
“C…c…can I come in? I need to talk.” Crying the ugly cry before Oprah ever coined the term, I stood shivering in the sunlight on his doorstep. There was snow but I wore only a thin green t-shirt and jeans. I couldn’t remember where I’d left my coat and sweater.
He nodded, running his hand through his hair and squinting against the sun. It was obvious I’d woken him and I wondered what time it was. Surely I didn’t need to apologize though. We were old friends, the type that always promise each other, “If you ever need anything I’m there before you call twice.” I’d been there for him after The World’s Worst Break-Up (followed by the World’s Most Humiliating I-need-closure Phone Call). He could be there for me, now.
He opened the door and let me stumble to his couch where I burst into tears anew. Patting my back gingerly, he whispered – almost in awe – “What happened to you?”
“I.. I… don’t know.” I didn’t know. I had no words for what had just happened to me. Nothing that had happened in my previous 19 years of life was an apt comparison. There were no words. Years later, I would try out many different terms for that event, finally settling on the one that made my blood curdle the least: sexual assault. But back then, years before G. did it again, years before the court case, years before I was forced to find words, I simply said over and over again, “I hurt.”
I expected him to ask the logical questions like who hurt me and how was I hurt and where was my coat? I expected him to hug me and bring me a box of kleenex (or at least a roll of toilet paper – we were, after all, poor college students) and make me hot cocoa. But he didn’t do any of these things. It was clear my vulnerability made him uncomfortable. I told myself that it was okay, because I really didn’t want anyone to touch me and I really couldn’t answer those questions anyhow. But it wasn’t okay. Nothing was okay. And so I cried harder.
Finally he reached out. “Now, now, don’t do that. Your mascara is running.” He picked now to care if my makeup was smudged? Then I looked at the arm of the couch I was sitting on. It was covered in snot and black tears. How very Wedding Singer of me.
He obviously didn’t understand. I tried again, “G. hurt me. Really hurt me. I don’t know what to do.”
I saw his face. He got it. In the aftermath, I would learn that my friend had known all along. G himself had told him. But that bright, snowy morning, he didn’t know what to do either. After an awkward silence he finally said, “Hey, it’s going to be all right. He probably didn’t mean it that way.” The thought that G. had meant to do it was a novel one and startled me right out of crying. What was the meaning of such violence?
I felt dizzy, lightheaded, unclear. Later the prosecution would posit that I had been drugged – a theory that both comforted and sickened me. But at the time, all I could do was stare at my friend as if I were looking out of two windows conveniently placed in the front of my head. “No worries, okay?” He looked happier already. “I’ll talk to him, tell him he can’t do that again, all right?” I stared numbly. “Look, I have to go to work now but you’re welcome to stay here as long as you want. Whatever you need, okay?” Stared.
I didn’t need his couch. I needed his shoulder.
That first experience “telling” shaped the way I would (not) talk about it for years afterward. I can’t blame it on my friend. It’s true, he failed me in a most desperate hour but it is abundantly clear in hindsight that he hadn’t the strength to help me. He did what he could. I should have tried again, with someone more adult or more reliable at least. But I didn’t.
I accepted my friend’s interpretation: that I didn’t understand the meaning of it, that it wasn’t worth crying over, that I shouldn’t talk about.
The Uncomfortable Telling, Part II
Was that story hard for you to read? Even now it is hard for me to tell. And not because of the subject matter. But because of how awkward and exposed and raw I was. It makes me cringe all over again, remembering. I was reminded of this intense vulnerability the other day in the gym whenI was approached, mid kettlebell swing, by a little old man.
“Are you a lady marine?” Somehow this is the pick-up line of choice for sweet little old men at my gym because this is the third time one of them has used it on me. Either that or I really do look like a lady marine. Anyhow, our Y is right across the street from a large retirement home and so little old people are a fixture at the gym. Other than requiring the gym to be a balmy 90 degrees year round, they bring nothing but joy into my life. I love that they are there.
And I love when they talk to me. I could tell from this man’s face that he had a story he wanted to share so I smiled and replied, “No, I’m not. But I bet you were!”
“That’s why they call me Mel! Rhymes with ‘Give ‘em hell!’” He nodded proudly and then proceeded to tell me about how he had fought on Iwo Jima during World War II. How he was one of the original marines sent in and one of the few to make it off alive, a substantial feat in one of the fiercest battles of the War. 26,000 Americans – more than the sum of Allied casualties on D-Day – lost their lives on an island that only held 22,000 Japanese (all of whom were killed save 216.) The old man’s eyes filled up with tears as he told me about all of his friends who had died. How he, a colonel in a gunnery unit, had ended up leading 30 men. How the Japanese had burrowed deep into the tiny six-mile-long island in a warren of hidden caves and tunnels. How the island was supposed to be taken in 2 days but the fighting dragged on for a nearly a month.
At this point, I pulled Gym Buddy Allison over to listen. Mel showed us his still-vivid shrapnel scars. “Those japs, they fought dirty!” he said vehemently, then paused and added sadly, “But we did too.”
I told Mel how grateful I was that he had done this for our country and how proud of him I was. I told him that I couldn’t imagine what he had been through but I thought he was very brave to tell us about it.
His eyes watered again and he said, “I never knew why we had to take that god forsaken island. No, not until years later when I found out they needed it for an airfield. Bombers flying over the ocean had to stop there to refuel. We saved thousands of lives. We did, The Marines.”
“And you changed the course of the war in the Pacific theater,” I added. For those of you who don’t remember your history lesson about Iwo Jima, perhaps you remember the most famous war-time picture ever taken? This pulitzer-prize winning picture was snapped on Iwo Jima. Three of the six marines in this photo died on that island.
“We sure did!” he beamed. “But I never could talk about it. Not for 40 years. Then they brought all of us old guys back for, well, you know, that honorary thing they did on the island.” He tried to play it off but I could see it was a very big deal.
“No! What honorary thing?”
“Aw, it was just this ceremony they did. You know, to honor all of us. We got a plaque and they flew us out. It was real nice. Real nice.” He smiled. “Now I can talk about it.”
Our conversation concluded some twenty minutes after it had started (so much for that KB circuit!) with Mel telling us about his grandkids and greatgrandkids. And then, his desire to tell sated, he walked away.
Naked In the Gym
There is something about being in the gym that exposes people. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that we all wear less clothing. Even those who cover up in baggy sweats and loose T’s are still not in their everyday wear. There are no power suits or sexy heels to mask weakness. Add to that emotional vulnerability: most of us are not athletes or gym rats by nature. Even when we’re doing everything right, tummies jiggle, thighs chafe, arms shake. And of course there are bodily functions. Because of this vulnerability, it creates a strange sense of cameraderie. Nothing like a good sweat to get things whispered on the stretching mats, shouted over treadmills and confessed between weight sets. Things that we would never normally say.
It scares some away. The nakedness makes them feel unsafe, defenseless, and – worst of all – fallible. I think it’s a gift, this vulnerability.
Some stories just need to be told.