(forgive my formatting, it’s not letting me correct it at this time)
I’ve lived in a lot of houses in my life. As a child, I had young parents who were still finishing school, so we went where the work was. These weren’t huge cross-country moves. We went from Colorado Springs to a forgotten suburb of Denver, then Aurora, and finally, after my parents divorced, my mother moved us to Greeley, Colorado. From kindergarten to twelfth grade, I changed schools roughly every one and a half years.
That’s rough on a kid. It’s tough on the memory. I only have the scantest of knowledge of what all my houses looked like. My memories are tied to particular events, rather than places. I remember my sister’s room with two entrances and hardwood flooring, in which I decided to find out how much pressure it takes to cut open a water bed (not much for an adult, but it was a mighty feat for a little girl.) I remember the bedroom where I fell asleep under my parent’s headboard while playing hide and seek, prompting my mom to panic and search for me for hours. (She finally called my dad. He came home, took a minute to think about where I might be, and found me right away.) I can recall when my parents bought their first house and gave me the beautiful princess room I’d always dreamed of, with a canopy bed and unicorn wallpaper. That’s the same house where my sister locked herself into the bathroom, then cried for hours because no one realized she was gone.
But there was one part of a house itself that I remember vividly and loved more than anything. It was a telephone nook in our upstairs hallway when I was around four. I’m guessing that house must have been built in the 60’s or 70’s, because the arched cutaway wasn’t large enough to contain a wooden wall telephone, complete with hand-cranked magneto generator. It was more comfortably sized, so as to accommodate a rotary desk phone.
For some reason, I simply adored this telephone nook. It was my favorite architectural innovation of all time. (Bearing in mind that I was four and knew little of architecture.) I found the entire concept to be so remarkably clever and elegant and sleek. I’d almost say I was nostalgic about it, but of course I was only four. Yet for some reason my mind connected it with the glamorous and suffering and tragic people that I was already conjuring in my head, even at such a tender age. My only requirement for houses from that point on was that they should have telephone nooks.
One afternoon, on a particularly productive day- I had successfully brokered peace between the Unicorns and the Earth Ponies- I was cheerfully heading to the kitchen to ask for a snack when the phone rang. Seeing as I was feeling quite mature (thanks to my political success) I gleefully pounced on it before my brother or sister could pick up the line in the kitchen.
“Hello,” I said, though I’m sure it sounded more like, “hewwo” at the time. (That was one of my favorite heartstealing things with Ash-“hewwo” and “I wuv you.” There’s something so sweet and pure about the fact that they can love so fearlessly and affectionately before they can even speak.)
It was silent on the other end, so I said hello again and got ready to hang up. But then a grown man’s voice cheerfully replied.
“Hi. Do you want to talk to my mom or my dad? I’ll go get them.”
“No, no, it’s okay,” he said. “I’d like to just talk to you for a moment.”
This was a perplexing development that literally blew my mind. I had never considered that the phone would be for *me.* And what were the rules about this, anyway? I knew not to go with strangers at the park, but no one had ever told me anything about talking to strangers on the phone. Maybe this was one of my dad’s friends and he needed my help planning a SuperSecretSurprise party.
“Okay,” I said. Heading him off at the pass, I offered my idea on a party theme. “My dad really likes guitars and rock and roll music.”
He chuckled. I bristled. This was very important information if we were going to throw a proper party.
“No,” he said, with a smile in his tone. “What’s your name, honey?”
I thought it was strange that he didn’t know my name when calling to plan a surprise party, but hey. Maybe he had a memory problem. That happened to old people, as far as I understood.
“I’m Missy and I’m four years old, almost five,” I boasted, hoping to impress him with my advanced years.
“How are you today?” I could hear him smiling through the phone. He’s very friendly, I thought cordially.
“I’m good,” I answered, and babbled on about my newest little pony and preschool. He humored me for a moment, but abruptly cleared his voice and interrupted my chatter.
“That’s good,” he said. “I have an important question for you, Missy.”
“Okay.” We were finally getting down to the party.
“Missy.” He paused dramatically. “Missy, are you wearing any panties right now?”
I can’t contain how I felt at that moment to one emotion. My stomach churned and sank to my knees. I was horrified. Offended. Humiliated. Full of rage. This was not an acceptable thing to say to a grown-up lady, let alone a little girl. I stood silently in shock for a moment, until my senses reengaged and I heard that now terrifying voice still talking on the other end of the line.
“What do they look like? What color are your panties, Missy?” His voice was starting to sound strange and gaspy.
I’d recovered by now. With as much ferocity and imperiousness as I could muster, I screamed, “No! Don’t call back;” and slammed the phone back on the hook.
I was shaking. I was confused. I didn’t know exactly why a grown man would want to know about a little girl’s panties. I did know, however, that it meant he wanted to hurt me. Tears of rage and terror poured down my cheeks as I stared helplessly at that stupid telephone in that stupid nook that had suddenly just turned my life entirely upside down. The sanctity of my own home had been violated, and for the first time. I realized that if I wasn’t safe at home, I wasn’t safe anywhere.
I told my parents about what happened. They were upset, but it was 1989 and there wasn’t any way to trace the call. They told me that there are bad people in the world and sometimes we just can’t stop them.
I heard that sort of thing a lot from them, especially my dad. Bad people are unstoppable. Boys will be boys. We will never achieve peace, so we should just mind ourselves and not bother trying to achieve it. God will judge people in heaven.
Ever since then, my stomach sinks to my knees every time I see a telephone nook.
I took it to heart- that we can’t keep bad things from happening, so we should just make the best of it. So I never bothered telling them he kept calling. That he would make gross noises or just breathe and hang up. No one could do anything about it. Sometimes you just have to suffer abuse graciously.
I suffered graciously six months later when the neighbor boy told me he’d learned how to have sex from his dad’s porno and asked me to recreate it (unsuccessfully, btw). And again a year after that when the boys on the playground used to pin me behind the school bus so my crush could kiss and grope me. I was gracious a year after that, when Jimmy from my 3rd grade class slipped me a drawing of a topless French maid that 3rd graders shouldn’t be making or passing. (I tried reporting him for that, while carefully maintaining my composure. He didn’t get in trouble. No one even told his parents. They told me, again, that boys will be boys.) And again a year later when the babysitter’s cousin tried to touch my private parts and I just stayed away from him instead of telling on him. He went on to abuse my baby sister instead, and ever sense then I’ve had this completely irrational, intense conviction that if I just let men abuse me, I can save other wome.
“We can’t stop bad things from happening,” has been the refrain of my entire life. “We can’t stop bad things from happening, but we can suffer things graciously and make things better for other people.”
Everything I’ve related here occurred before I was even ten years old. Puberty and adolescence saw a thousand more transgessions, as did my twenties. Yet the longer I go on, the less I believe the things my parents taught me. The world is not inherently bad. Bad people can be stopped. Boys are equal, rational human beings who should be held accountable for their actions. We should work towards peace and the betterment of humanity no matter how difficult a task it may seem.
And maybe I should still choose a house with a phone nook, because I refuse to let sexual abusers to intimidate or control me anymore.