7th grade, age 12. I was an American Tween. I lived in a beautiful town, nice friends, went to Catholic Church and CCD. I played sports, tap danced, ice skated, played the cello (very badly I might add ) and wanted my MTV. I lived on my ten-speed bike, I spent my summer days at the town pool. Latchkey kid, Oprah after school. My mom recently shared a picture of me from that time. Benetton shirt– emerald green, oversized, and blue Umbros. Bad, bad, bad hair… a giant braced face smile, my arms in a flex, Arnold style, over my head. This picture, I can name it now. This is the last time I remember being free.
12 is the age I last remember being a kid.
At age 12 the message in Church changed. Jesus no longer loved me. Jesus– through the voice of Monsignor– told me masturbation was evil. I had no idea what he was saying, only that it was wrong. On Wednesdays, we went to confession. I didn’t know what to confess. Did I swear? Most definitely a safe response and a few Hail Marys. I did not dare ask anyone what masturbation meant. Most of the time I sat in the pews and prayed for Jesus to make me a mermaid. I did my penance and resumed my dreams of an underwater world.
At age 12 I loved middle school dances. I was the kid that danced the entire time. I didn’t care about getting sweaty, I danced to the slow songs–the first time I slowed danced with a boy –it was to "Please Don’t Go Girl"… how I loved Joey McIntire… I loved MC Hammer, Bel Biv Devoe, INXS. I also loved Robert Palmer. He had a theme with his videos… women dressed in tight black dresses, made to look like moving mannequins. At age 12, I attended a dance, in my favorite outfit. Emerald green Beneton T shirt, umbros. At this dance, along with my friends looking exactly the same, we imitated the Robert Palmer video. A group of 12-year-old girls, giggling, singing. A chaperone, a man– came up to me, pulled me aside from my friends, and whispered in my ear, "You know what you are doing don’t you, you know what you are doing to me, and I think you like it.”
This man, I recognized him. I knew his daughter. We played softball together, he was at our games. He knew my father– my dad, he was on the school board– and this man– I knew him because he was on the school board too. At 12, all I knew was this, soul-crushing Shame. Shame for my actions, shame for my body, shame that I didn’t know what he was saying and it was my fault. Shame that led me to the girls' bathroom to hide and cry. This is the last memory I have of being ‘just a kid’.
As I write this, I am just past my 47th birthday. After I left my hometown, I don’t know what happened to that man, I believe he was eventually elected to be the President of the school board. I don’t know what happened to him or his daughter– a girl I remember being so kind. There is something that happens to many of us in midlife– we unravel. If you haven’t read Brene Brown’s piece, I did. And I let myself unravel.
That memory is part of my unraveling.
When I was 19 years old, I told a friend I thought something might be wrong with me.
When I was 20, I told a boyfriend something isn't right with me.
When I was 22, I ran away when someone tried to exploit me for what I thought was wrong with me.
When I was 25, I said, “Mom, I need to…”
She said, “Why can’t these people just stay in their homes, why do we have to see it!?”
When I was 37, I went to a new gym. The over-eager membership team showed me a class that had a great reputation for cardio and frankly out-of-the-box fun dance. My inner 12-year-old screamed YES!
My 39-year-old over-prepared self arrived early to claim a safe spot. A safe spot away from the mirrors, toward the back corner, but close enough I would be able to see the instructor. I stood; I looked busy on my phone. The room fills, people coming in, very excited women hug, energized for class. I was silent. A buzz on the back of my head. I turned and looked over my shoulder, and I saw them. They flew by me toward the stage. I blew the breath I was holding out. This was the first time I saw my wife. It would be another 3 years before I spoke to them.
This memory is part of my unraveling.