What do I remember about my transition into womanhood?
In many ways, I feel like I am still in transition. The vast majority of the time, I feel like a child – sexless, small, confused, looking to role models for guidance and support and validation. Other times, I feel as ancient as a willow tree. Deeply rooted, divorced from chaos and conflict, a refuge and hiding place for those who run their fingers through my leaves, listening for my wisdom. Perhaps womanhood is simply finding the bridge and balance between the two – being the role model and trusting my own wisdom.
There are things that I do vividly remember from that physical transition, though. Lately, I’ve heard women referring to their emerging breasts as breast buds. It sounds floral, feminine, appropriately the start of new growth. Where I’m from, it’s not so lofty. They’re called mosquito bites, and it’s something that is loudly observed by drunk aunts and a mother’s friends during summer barbecues, or by distant relatives that visit for Christmas. They embrace you in a hug you endure, push you back (“Let’s get a good look at you”) and then squawk to their balding, middle-aged spouse who leers at you uncomfortably, “Bill, look how big she’s grown! She’s gettin’ her mosquito bites!” For me it started with swollen nipples that made my t-shirts sit awkwardly on my chest. Like twin targets of vulnerability.
That summer, I was still wearing a little girl’s bikini, though I was desperately trying to mimic the womanly stances and poses I saw when I watched my cousins and even my best friend, who now seemed possessed of a mysterious knowledge and attitude. They had grown, I was trying to catch up.
It happened while I was on my last trip with my childhood best friend. I hadn’t known or planned for it to be our last trip, we’d promised to be best friends forever and as we’d been close for almost the entirety of the first decade of our lives, there was nothing to say we wouldn’t make it. It was their annual family vacation – every summer, a week with the whole clan gathered along the sandy shores and crystal clear waters of Florida. It was a familiar band of people that I knew from birthday parties, pool parties, slumber parties, holiday get-togethers, summer camp. I knew these people. In an honorary way, I was one of these people. One of the family members was a platinum blonde boy of about 13 or 14. He was a golden boy and all the little girls had hopeless crushes on him. At 11, I felt like I was sharing space with a celebrity. What started out as innocent child’s play on Monday, quickly developed into inappropriate advances by Wednesday. That afternoon, we had wandered inside one of the endless streams of gift shops that lined the backside of the beach. It smelled like sweat, sunscreen, and hot baked sand. There was a shelving display of all different kinds of shells and sand dollars and starfish. That golden boy walked up to me in my little girl swimsuit, my mosquito bites puffy from the heat and daringly held a starfish over my nipple like a mermaid. Not a little mermaid though, a big one – a fully grown queen of the sea. He was flirting in a silent language I didn’t understand, but I smiled as I felt the dark currents dragging me forward into a new story I didn’t know. My friend’s mother saw and warned him not to be nasty. He glanced at me sideways as if to say you’re not a baby, do you do what your mommy tells you, and I didn’t want to be a baby in his eyes so I nodded no. He smirked and tossed the star back into its bin.
It was Thursday night, and the ‘kids’ had made a giant nest of pillows and blankets and bowls of popcorn and candy on the floor for a late night movie. I can still remember what I was wearing: a tie-dyed blue tank top with two pandas playing on the front (my Mammaw had gotten it on sale in the children’s section of the department store where she worked) and a pair of soffe shorts that had become so popular with young girls. He waited until everyone had fallen asleep before he put his hand up my shirt. I remember lying so still and so quiet, scared, unsure of what to say or do. But I didn’t say no. I was frozen, lying on my side not daring to take my eyes away from the television screen but not seeing anything. It felt like nothing. It felt like shame. It only took a few seconds (they were just mosquito bites) before his hand began to roam downwards. Over the plane of my young stomach, past the hollow between my hips, until I felt him rest his fingers at the band of my pink cotton underwear. I let out a breath. It had stopped. Then I felt the squirming of his fingertips at the elastic, Not there. Please not there. Numbly, carefully, I put his hands back on my breasts. If he was going to touch, I’d rather it be in the places I couldn’t yet feel. We repeated this bizarre dance 2 maybe 3 times until I pretended to fall asleep, rolling myself into my best friend’s sleeping back, pressed as tightly against her as I could manage.
When I told my friend the next morning, she told another cousin – the golden boy’s 16 year old sister. While swimming in the pool that day with the 2 of them, I was told that nothing had been done to me. That not only would he never have done something like that, I was a dirty little liar who had been flirting with him the entire trip. I said that I must have been mistaken, I hadn’t really understood what was happening after all.
Thankfully, we headed home the next day.
I didn’t talk about what happened for years. When I did mention it to a friend in my late teens, I was told that the same thing and worse had happened to her – that it was normal for boys to touch and kiss and fondle and speak in ways that you didn’t want and hadn’t allowed. I stayed silent after that. I occasionally confided in others, but it was callous, cold. Yeah that happened, but if he’d known what he was doing, I might have actually enjoyed it. For a long time I’ve carried this with me, my fear of speaking about my pain and being dismissed – It wasn’t that bad, nothing happened to you, you’re not a victim, there’s nothing to be upset about and some days I still grapple with my understanding of what took place. Was it molestation? Was it merely inappropriate touching? After all, they were only mosquito bites.