I Know What You Look Like
I had strong reactions when I learned that my classmate Roger Young had died. I didn’t cry when I saw his obituary online. I didn’t feel the least bit sad. I gave it a weak try, for form’s sake, but I couldn’t muster any sorrow. I felt a momentary twinge of guilt and said something banal out loud, along the lines of, “That’s really too bad.” Maybe, at age 55, he had finally gotten what he deserved, I thought, with a tiny bit of satisfaction. And then I was horrified, ashamed of myself, that I could have even momentary thoughts like that.
Reading Roger’s obituary whipped up feelings about him, still raw, that I had suppressed decades ago and never dealt with – rage, fear, humiliation. They began to fester as I read the glowing account of a life “bravely lived for many years to the fullest of his abilities.” That irritated me. Maybe I should have stopped reading right there, but I continued. When I read, “he was known to have a good sense of humor and make people laugh, I yelled, “Which people?” and slammed my fist on the desk. I closed the page.
Roger never once made me laugh. He almost made me forget how to laugh or even want to laugh and I had been too ashamed to tell anyone, not even my mother, about what he did to me for fear of being branded cheap or a tramp, never able to redeem myself. Now he was gone, and I wanted to shout my story to the world.
There would be no more shame. But it has taken me almost ten years to tell my story.
“Whatever you do, don’t lose your reputation,” my mother said to me over and over, as if I already teetered on the brink of eternal damnation. I assumed from her tone and facial expression that even a minor slip-up could make me fall out of favor with God and everyone. “It’s the worst thing that can happen to a girl, and once you lose your reputation, you’ll never get it back because people will talk.”
At ten years old, I had no clear idea what a reputation was. If I had one, I wondered how I had come by it. I would have asked, but Mom’s no-nonsense demeanor told me she would not be entertaining questions or discussion. It had something to do with the way my body was going to change – breasts, hips – that much I could figure out.
“You have to be careful around boys now,” Mom warned, “and not play so rough with them. You have to watch what you say and how you act. Don’t ever give a boy reason to talk nasty about you or to you.”
Maybe reputation also had something to do with respect. I wasn’t sure.
Roger Young sat in front of me in Miss Scout’s fifth grade class. When he turned around to me on one of the first days of our school year and sneered, “I know what you look like,” I thought, well of course you do, you’re looking right at me. But then he shoved a small, crude pencil drawing scratched on a little slip of paper across my desk. I stared at a couple of random lines and some squiggles. It was nothing I recognized, and I thought Roger was crazy. I also hoped I didn’t look like that mess.
“That’s what you look like and I’ve seen you,” he said. He leaned over my desk, his freckled face so close to mine I could feel his breath and smell the milk that had soured on it. He whispered, “In the girls’ room.”
My face felt hot. How had he gotten inside of the girls’ room when I was in there? I would have seen him, and screamed, if he had made it in far enough to peek under the stall door. Other girls would have chased him out, or a teacher would have seen him and nabbed him. Wouldn’t they? Maybe he had, somehow, put a secret Dick Tracy camera in the girls’ room. Roger pushed the little drawing closer to me. “That’s what you look like. I saw it when you pulled down your pants to go to the bathroom.” He chuckled as I leaned down toward the sketch for a closer look. In an ugly, dark moment the lines and squiggles gained form from their randomness, and what had looked like nonsense to me at first was clearly a vagina – according to Roger, my vagina. My eyes got stuck wide open staring at it. I didn’t blink. That repulsive little drawing, my desk, and the whole classroom dissolved to granular dots and faded to white. I felt as if I were about to faint. Now that I knew what Roger had drawn, I was terrified that anyone who might see it would know what it was, too. This must be my reputation, I thought, and it looked like I was losing it before I knew I had it.
My mother’s voice echoed, and her doomsday declaration zoomed around in my light head. “If a boy talks dirty or suggestively to a girl, it’s because she did something to let him know he can get away with it.” I couldn’t imagine anything nastier that anyone could possibly say to me than Roger’s illustrated announcement that he knew what nobody should have known. I must have given him the wrong impression in a big way.
My mind raced. I tried to think of what I could have said or done to bring this shame plowing into my life. Nothing came to my panicked mind, but I was afraid I was done for and I knew I had to hide it. Mom might literally kill me or die from embarrassment if she found out.
I ripped the drawing into confetti and stuffed the tiny pieces in my desk.
It was the early 1960s. Most ten-year-old kids didn’t know anything about sex. I’m sure my mother intended to have The Talk with me but figured she either had a year or two to muster her nerve to pull it together or justified not broaching the subject under the guise of protecting my innocence and prolonging my childhood. It wouldn’t be until next school year, sixth grade, that the men teachers would take all the boys outside to play football while the women teachers ushered us girls to the auditorium and guarded the doors against any boys who might try to sneak in for the top-secret, Kotex-sponsored “For Girls Only” assembly. We had heard things about it from the older girls, how they had to watch and practice how to hitch a sanitary napkin – whatever that was – on what sounded like a rope and pulley contraption to hold it in place during “special monthly times” we all could look forward to soon. Sounded more confusing and embarrassing than special to me.
My body hadn’t started to develop much yet but now, thanks to Roger Young, I knew a girl’s body was something to be ashamed of and embarrassed about. It didn’t help that at home Mom ignored my modesty and kept a hawk’s eye on me to monitor my body for any new curves that called for graduating from little girl undershirts to a training bra – no cups, just enough elastic to hold some things in place and keep others from poking through. “I’m your mother. I changed your diapers. Don’t worry about it,” she said. But I did worry. It felt like she could see right through my clothes.
“If a boy tries to touch your body,” Mom said, “tell me or Dad right away.”
Roger never touched me. He didn’t have to. My reaction to his first volley of torment gave him all the encouragement he needed to seize control of my emotions.
I was afraid of him even before we were assigned to the same class. I had watched him on the playground throughout elementary school. He was a bully, an aggressive kid who played tough. I saw him knock other kids down, for fun, and send them, bleeding and scraped up, sometimes with clothes ripped, to the nurse’s office. He threw softballs and hurled dodge balls at kids’ heads to stun them. He called out his version of classmates’ names – a letter or two changed to make the name into a curse word or embarrassing bodily function – and shouted lies about them until they cried. During recess, I stayed as far away from him as I could after I noticed him pulling up girls’ dresses and chasing them when they tried to run away, not giving up when they tried to keep their dresses down. Maybe he had sneaked a look up mine, I didn’t know. If he had, all he saw was my thick, white cotton Carter’s underwear, which I didn’t want anyone to see, rather than my skin. My best strategy was to try and make myself invisible, not interesting enough for him to notice.
But now we were in the same class and, thanks to Miss Scout and her random seating arrangement, I was stuck sitting behind Roger in the far row of seats, next to our classroom’s windows, for the whole school year. I became an easy target, far enough from her desk that she didn’t notice what Roger was up to. I felt sick every time he turned around to face me with his gap-tooth smirk and a brush cut that made his red hair stand up straight, like a fright wig. He stepped up his onslaught.
I’ve walked by your house at night,” he said one day. “I know where your bedroom is because I’ve seen you in there getting undressed. I’ve seen you in your bathroom, too.”
I glanced around, hoping no one else in class had heard him.
Roger’s family lived around the corner from mine so it would have been easy for him to come around our house. If, by some fluke, he had actually peeked into my bedroom, he would have had to climb across a chain-link fence into our backyard, sneak past our barking dog, creep along the side of the house, only a few feet away from our neighbors, and scale the side of our house up to the second floor. He could have seen into the bathroom only if he stood in the middle of the backyard. Someone, either Dad our next-door neighbor, Bill, would have seen him and chased him off with a warning to stay away. Dad would have kicked Roger in the ass, but Bill had a gun and, much to the irritation of our town police, he didn’t hesitate to use it,
But in my panic, none of this occurred to me.
At home after school, I checked the closure of the blinds in my bedroom. It looked pretty solid. My parents had installed industrial strength aluminum Venetian blinds in every window of our house. After dark, I closed them as tightly as they’d go and sneaked outside to inspect my windows. I didn’t want to see one sliver of light escaping between the slats or between the blinds and the window frames. Just to be safe, I undressed in the dark and got into my pajamas before turning my light on.
I inspected the bathroom window to satisfy myself that the thick curtains covering the blinds closed completely and showed almost no trace of a lighted window behind them. Baths in the dark seemed like the best thing to do.
We were only a few weeks into the school year. We hadn’t received our first report card yet. I hoped I wouldn’t be at Roger’s mercy for the rest of the school year, until school let out in the middle of June. That seemed an eternity away.
I walked into the classroom one morning and, from across the room, saw a folded-up note on my desk. If there was one thing Miss Scout did not tolerate, it was passing notes. I rushed to scoop it up and peek at it while she was still standing at the door to greet my classmates. Another vagina drawing, this one finessed in much more detail, with a more accurate V-shape and a few curlicues of public hair. I crumpled the paper and buried it in my desk, underneath all my books. If Miss Scout should see it, she would grab it and show it to the whole class, as she did with every note she intercepted.
I couldn’t let her reveal that I had done something so indecent – that I was still unaware of – that Roger could be so crude with me.
I wanted to cry. I sat through the entire school day holding my knees together with vise-grip pressure, my dress pulled down over them. The school dress code of the day dictated that girls must wear dresses or skirts, no slacks allowed, and culottes were marginal. By the three o’clock dismissal bell my hips ached and I could hardly walk. But I needed to run home because my bladder felt on the verge of exploding. I had decided not to use the girls’ room any more.
My only respite from Roger came on the days I had gym class. Although I hated gym, I began to appreciate the forty minutes, twice a week, that it got me away from him. I also got to wear a pair of shorts under my skirt. We girls wore skirts and blouses on gym days so that when we got to class we could take off our skirts and immediately be ready for whatever physical education torture Mr. Tritt had ready to inflict on us. Not knowing what Roger might do next, and not trusting he would stop at crude drawings of my vagina, it made sense to me to wear shorts under my dresses every day. It minimized the mortification of exposure should Roger decide to take his exploits further. All I needed to tell Mom was that I had seen a couple of older boys try to look up some girls’ dresses – and dodge her questions about which boys so she could tell the principal – and she had a pair of shorts ready for me every morning.
Roger didn’t have to warn me not to tell anyone of his deeds. My shame kept me mute. I couldn’t stop wondering if he had bragged to the boys in our class and showed them his drawings before dropping them on me. I grew afraid of every boy in our class, suspicious about what they said, their facial expressions. Every smile, frown, raised eyebrow sent me into worry over what they were thinking about me. Even if I still had a shred of a reputation, I felt powerless to hold on to it.
I craved time, more than gym class offered me, free of Roger. I counted the days until the next school vacation that would give me a break and, once away from school for a few days, calculated how many safe hours I would have until I had to face him again. I stayed in the house with my family all ninety-six hours of Thanksgiving weekend. I wanted the weeklong Christmas break to last forever. By New Year’s Eve, I was praying for a snowstorm that would give me a few more days off.
I had always liked school, but now I dreaded my mother’s morning wake-up call, hearing her steps in the hallway get closer to my bedroom. If only the night could become eternal, or I could disappear or become invisible during my sleep so she couldn’t find me. When I couldn’t face another tormenting school day, I faked a stomachache and pretended I was constantly on the verge of throwing up. But I was torn. Although I didn’t want to go to school, I was wary about missing a day, afraid of what Roger might do or say about me in my absence.
I had no strategy to deal with him. In my naivete I had thought if he could see how much he was hurting me, if I could show him, he would feel some remorse and stop. I didn’t realize my silence was egging him on and gratifying him. He had an easy target and could enjoy playing me whenever he wanted.
I made sure to button my blouses and cardigan sweaters all the way to the top button when I dressed for school each morning. I checked the hem of my dresses and skirts to make sure they covered my knees, even though I was wearing a pair of shorts underneath. If I thought I had grown a fraction of an inch, I refused to wear sundresses like most of the other girls did when the weather turned warm.
I hoped some interest other than me would sidetrack Roger over the week we had off at Easter. But the arrival of spring spurred him to think he needed to educate me about the facts of life.
He began to illustrate and bombard me with graphic details about how babies are made. I really wished I could disappear. I knew boys’ and girls’ bodies were different, I had a brother, but I had no idea that the particular body parts Roger sketched were meant to come together in the ugly way he was drawing and describing. I would rather that making babies remained a mystery, the way my mother introduced it when I asked her years before – a spiritual blessing that God took charge of. He knew, she told me, when a husband and wife were ready to have a baby and that’s when he gave one to them. Mom was big on always telling the truth and I couldn’t quite believe she was fibbing to me about babies. But if I were to confront her about it, I’d have to tell her what Roger had told me – I could never get away with lying to her – and I didn’t want to do that.
My shock and confusion, combined with Roger inundating me with the basic facts about conception, were enough to frighten me into thinking I might get pregnant and not even know it. In the 1950s and 1960s everyone knew that girls could get pregnant from swimming in public pools or sitting on public toilet seats. I remained firm in my determination not to use the girls’ room at school. The pool I didn’t have to worry about because we didn’t belong to the local swimming club.
I examined by body in the mirror every day, looking for signs my normally pooched out belly might be swelling with a growing baby inside me. The rest of me was still rather flat.
I survived Roger Young and the fifth grade, definitely not pregnant, and still not one hundred percent sure how that could have happened. On the last day of school Miss Scout liberated me from Roger’s torment when she dismissed us for summer vacation. I mostly put him out of my mind but, whenever thoughts of him crept in, I said a prayer begging God to please assign Roger and me to different sixth grade classrooms. Relief over being away from him during the summer morphed to anxiety mid-August, just at the time I noticed summer days getting shorter, a sure sign school was about to open again. Our town’s little newspaper would publish its annual edition of classroom assignments for the coming year, possibly its most popular issue. The Thursday morning it came out, kids, me included, raced uptown to Mrs. Still’s newsstand to buy a copy before she ran out. Mom and Dad’s copy would come in the afternoon mail but I couldn’t wait that long to learn my fate.
I fumbled and tore through the pages to find the sixth-grade listings. My hands trembled until I found my name. Section 6-1 in Miss Sale’s class. I read through the 6-1 class list three or four times to make sure I didn’t see Roger Young’s name, either at the end or out of alphabetical order. I stopped shaking when I saw he would be in Mrs. Vaughn’s class. My prayers were answered.
It turned out that parting ways after the fifth grade was enough to make Roger lose interest in me. I still made sure to stay as far away from him as I could for the remaining years we had in school. That was not easy in our graduating class of about 125 kids.
You think you’ll never forget the most minute details of dramatic events when you’re in adolescence. You believe they’ll remain seared on your memory forever. Then years and adulthood separate you from them and the details become fuzzy.
Roger Young was in a devastating automobile accident the summer after we graduated from high school. Four guys, after a night of drinking, were racing on country roads between Clayton and the Maryland line late one night. I don’t remember who was driving but it wasn’t Roger, he was in the backseat. What I can recall is that the driver took a curve much too fast and rolled the car several times. It ended up in a cornfield, its occupants unconscious.
The other guys came to, crawled out of the car, and saw Roger lying, lifeless, in the dirt. When he didn’t respond to their yelling or their touch in trying to rouse him, they thought he was dead. These were the days well before cell phones. These kids were miles from town in the middle of the night. They knew they’d probably be shot if they knocked on the door of a farmhouse. So, they limped back out to the road and waited for a car to come along that they could flag down, someone who could go for help and get an ambulance. That got the state police involved, the last thing they wanted since they might be looking at jail time for manslaughter if Roger really was dead. He wasn’t, but the police arrested the driver for felony reckless driving and all four of the guys, including Roger, for underage drinking.
His spine had snapped, and his character was exalted. He survived, paralyzed from the neck down, for good. And on the strength of that, he was transformed into some kind of local hero and regarded as courageous. Any transgressions Roger had committed through his childhood and adolescence were nullified, forgotten, the slate wiped clean.
Intellectually I could understand that he had suffered, and would always suffer, tragic fallout from the accident. But I couldn’t comprehend or buy into the universal veneration. Distance took care of that. I had lived in California for many years, far away from our Delaware hometown. I believe Roger’s elevation grew from horror, then sympathy that any promising part of his life was over before it had truly begun. The rest of us were off to college, the military, or jobs, things Roger wouldn’t get to do. I could understand and even respect friends and neighbors wanting to do something to ease his plight. He would exist as a prisoner in a broken body, rooted to a wheelchair, and that would define whatever was left of his life.
Seeing his obituary, almost ten years ago, almost buckled me under the weight of my shame and silence, while his drunken joyride had, somehow, transformed him into a person worthy of admiration. In a misguided attempt at self-preservation I had hauled too much of Roger around for too many years without fully realizing it.
I did what I was “supposed” to do as a girl. I suppressed my story. I protected my reputation. And as a woman I remained mute so I wouldn’t be seen as a troublemaker or ridiculed as a hysterical female still clinging to a childhood incident. Then Roger’s accident sealed my silence. I couldn’t, in good conscience be so inappropriate as to speak out at his life’s lowest point just to seek vindication or troll for sympathy, to point out that he was not any kind of hero.
Roger broke my life. He bullied himself into it where he didn’t belong and pulverized my dignity until it lay in rubble. Then he went on his way. Saying nothing came at a steep cost. I’m still excavating, uncovering layers of shame and anger, confusion and self-doubt that I pushed deep into my unconscious mind when I thought I had banished Roger from my life. He took the good part of me that I should have been able to get to know and nurture so that I could give my best, without fear or reservation, to someone I might love. That’s the real tragedy. My deep-seated dread that, at some point, I will become prey has damaged every relationship and destroyed the ones I hoped would last.
My mother, unwittingly, helped Roger break my life. I don’t blame her for it. I have never doubted that she wanted the best for me. But in trying to set the boundaries of what she saw as good teenage behavior that would serve me well, and warn me about boys who could be predatory, she set me up as Roger’s target. I didn’t tell her my story. She wouldn’t have forgiven herself for putting me in harm’s way, for knowing I hadn’t felt I could find safety in turning to her for help.
My high school class held a reunion a couple of months after Roger died. A few minutes before the ceremony of remembrance for classmates who had passed away since we were last together, I sneaked out of the room. I couldn’t endure in-person tributes to Roger’s courage and I certainly couldn’t deliver one of my own.
The world, Roger’s older brothers, someone, had let him know he was entitled to take possession of a girl’s soul and amuse himself with it however he pleased, probably for no other reason than commonplace sentiment considered the female body, the developing female body, somewhat disgusting and sexually inferior. Combine that entitlement with the message given to us girls that boys should take the lead, and the reality we lived with that men were, and should be, in charge of the world in general, and conventional wisdom ripped away my birthright to grow into a person who can function in an intimate relationship. Instead, I began to see myself as Roger saw me, a perpetual target. Roger coalesced with acceptable attitudes and not only siphoned away my confidence but led me into years of questioning if I had any worth or place in this world. His abuse remains part of my history, but I will no longer let it define who I am. Dredging up its damage is a difficult process but it’s the only way I can rid my life of its poison.
Roger did not get what he deserved. Nobody deserves that. I hope he’s at peace. I finally am.
Carol Bartold holds the MFA degree in Writing (Nonfiction) from Sarah Lawrence College, and BA degree With Honors in Music from University of Mary Washington. Her writing has appeared in Prairie Schooner Blog, Haunted Waters Press, and Old Farmer’s Almanac. She is Senior Reporter for My Hometown Bronxville and covers municipal government, education, and land use. She is an active choral singer and the Accounting Manager at the American Institute of Architects New York Chapter and The Center for Architecture. She lives in Westchester County, New York.