*May 2007, Friday, noon in the hellish humidity of downtown Oklahoma City. In my hometown from Los Angeles for a funeral the day before, I am strolling an area of restaurants and bars called Bricktown when I spot her coming my way.
Forty-something, about 5’7 and cinnamon hued, she is in a business suit, tastefully accessorized. On her lunch break, maybe. The closer she gets, the more physically attractive she becomes. Respectfully, I temper my gaze and wonder who garners this woman’s attention. As she passes, it is clear that it isn’t me: her glance is no more than benign. I am a stranger.
For me, it’s different. Suddenly, this woman’s face creates a disquieting sentiment. Specifically, a distinctive flat mold on her chin the size of a thumbprint triggers within me an unsettling feeling.
Attempting to calm myself, I enter the first restaurant I come to. I get seated, order fettuccine Alfredo and, nursing a too-fizzy coke, attempt to veil my disconcertion anyone who may be watching as I revisit in my mind a certain Oklahoma summer evening.
She was lying on one of Miss Perkins’ back steps, compliant and eyes closed. Breathlessly, I slowly inched her pink sun dress up and pulled the front of her white cotton panties down and away from her skin. I’d never seen female genitalia.
With butterflies fluttering in my stomach, I touched her vagina. I put a finger to my nose and got the faint scent of urine. I was 10 years old; she must have been five or six. I was playing doctor.
Her mother, calling out to her from a couple doors away, interrupted my examination. I sent my play-patient home for dinner a real life victim. I, too, went home transformed, suddenly awash in foreboding, inexplicable guilt.
Who knows how her mother found out. Perhaps her clothing was suspiciously askew. Maybe I told her not to tell anyone, which, of course, is precisely why a child would tell. Regardless, minutes after I arrived home and made my way into the kitchen for a snack, the girl’s mom, a no-nonsense single parent raising four kids, was knocking insistently on our wooden screen door.
Mama wasn’t home. Daddy, lying on the couch in a wife beater and boxers, the floor fan blowing over him as he nodded through a TV western, got up.
“Johnny, we have a problem,” is all I clearly heard from the kitchen. Daddy angrily summoned me into the living room and asked what I’d been doing. Too afraid to lie, I didn’t tell the truth, either. My response, uttered in quiet terror and remorse, was a word I didn’t really know the meaning of. I told him I’d been “fuckin.'”
“What?!” Without saying another word, Daddy took the belt from his trousers folded on the couch and, in front of the justice-seeking mother, proceeded to whip me. On cue I wailed, not from physical pain but embarrassment and confusion. I knew I’d done something wrong, I simply couldn’t grasp the weight of the crime.
In retrospect, I don’t think any of us–kids or parents–did. The next day, life proceeded just like the day before: once again, the scorching summer sun lazily retreated behind the city’s meager skyline, and again the neighborhood kids sauntered out into the balmy evening to play. I never touched that little girl again. However, her mother continued to welcome me into their home and I was trusted around my victim.
My parents never discussed sex with me, but the neighborhood kids did. Many of them were having it. I’d listen, rapt, pretending to understand what was being said, as boys, babies, really, bragged of conquests that may or may not have been true. Some boys carried a (so they said) used, washed out, dried up condom in an otherwise empty wallet as if it were I.D.
Once, before their parents returned home from work, the 14 year-old sister of one of my buddies organized her own after-school gang bang. Chicken, I fled before things got underway, but among my preteen classmates standing in line to have sex with her was her own brother.
My neighborhood wasn’t some isolated enclave of unspoken perversion. As a society, humans have been sexually acting out, one way or another, for eons. Among children, it can start as seemingly harmless physical exploration before morphing into a behavior of pain and shame, during which victims become predators and victims again. The damage many of us do to ourselves as adults originated when we were young, at the hands of trusted adults, childhood peers or siblings.
Indeed, in the months before I took advantage of that little girl, “Tyrone,” a neighborhood friend my age, had his way with me. On two separate occasions, he bullied me into letting him dry hump me from behind and then had me do it to him. He called it “gettin’ booty.”
Mischievous and street-tough, Tyrone wasn’t what we called a “sissy;” he was sexually active with girls our age. Our encounter was simply him unwittingly passing victimization on, repeating either what he’d seen or what someone had done to him.
Which is what I did to that little girl–who happened to be Tyrone’s baby sister. And who, I am certain, because of that defining facial birthmark, is the woman in the business suit I just passed on the street.
I know her name. Our families grew up together. Yet, today we are strangers, intimately connected by my childhood recklessness. When the pasta arrives, I begin stuffing myself, trying to pacify an eerie emotion I haven’t felt in decades: my very first experience with sexual guilt.
Before she walked past me in Bricktown that day, more than once in my adult life I had considered this woman. I pondered where she was; who she became. Knowing what I’ve come to know about life, I’ve wondered how she relates to men. Most important, I wonder how she views and treats herself, all because of me and what I did.