“If someone puts their hands on you make sure they never put their hands on anybody else again.”
~ Malcom X
I was sitting in a suburban shopping centre cafe with my husband Ben a few days ago. As I sipped my tea a man came into view who looked familiar. He was older than when I’d last seen him. Thirty years older. But I was sure it was him. He was wearing a suit, his hair was grey and thinning and he’d gotten fat. But it was him. Let’s call him James (which is not his name).
In that moment I became so angry that I wanted to race over and punch him. Which is not like me. At all.
I didn’t do anything though. I watched him walk away.
Later that night I googled him and then found him on Facebook. He’s successful in his field. Married now. With two daughters. One in her final year of school and one at University. That made up my mind. I sent him a friend request and he accepted straight away. Then he sent me a message. I still looked hot, he said. Did I want to meet up for a coffee?
We ended up video messaging. At first we chatted about our College days, which is where we’d met. He asked if I was single. I told him I wasn’t. He told me he wasn’t either but that didn’t mean we couldn’t have some fun.
I asked him if he remembered the time we’d gone to a College football match on the first day of a long weekend of sport, races and balls. I’d just started going out with him, and this was our first proper date. I was in my first year of College and he was in his last – a big man on Campus whom everyone knew.
He drove me to a sports field on a sunny afternoon. We’d just parked and were getting out of the car when a friend of mine walked past wearing a huge scarf around her neck even though it was hot. James laughed and grabbed the scarf off her. Underneath was a series of small purple bruises. Perhaps you know them as hickeys. Or as love bites. She was embarrassed and tried to get the scarf back from him, but James kept holding it away from her while he kept up a barrage of teasing and increasingly lewd sexual comments. A crowd gathered around us.
Finally, I tugged the scarf away and gave it back to her and she fled, in tears. ‘Why were you so mean to her?’ I asked James. ‘What has she ever done to you?’ The crowd was still watching.
‘She’s a slut,’ he said. ‘She deserved it.’
While I was processing that comment he asked if I’d ever had a hickey.
‘No’, I said.
Before I could do anything he slammed me down over the car bonnet, pinned me with his leg and hands, and attacked my neck with his mouth. It hurt. A lot. My adrenalin went into overdrive. I yelled at him to stop and fought to get him off me. But I was slight and he was huge. My hands were pinned, my legs were pinned. No matter how much I bucked or writhed it was like a butterfly flapping against a bull. The more I struggled the more he bit and sucked on my neck while the crowd of mostly young men cheered. No matter what I did I wasn’t strong enough to make him stop. I was powerless. When James finally stood up he was victorious. He dragged me to the car’s side mirror and showed me. I had a violent purple and red bruise on my neck the size of a small orange. It throbbed and my whole body ached. I was dishevelled and humiliated. The crowd dispersed and then we were alone.
‘Wear it proudly,’ he said. And then he took my hand and started walking to the game with me in tow. I was in shock. Tears ran down my face but I picked up my handbag and stumbled along beside him.
As we neared the entrance gate we stopped and he wiped my face with his handkerchief. ‘Why are you crying?’ James said. ‘It was just a bit of fun. It’s a hickey. No big deal.’ He bought us both an entrance ticket and then left me with some of his friends while he fetched us drinks.
I was shaking, and I didn’t know what to do. So I stayed. Later a girlfriend found me and gave me a lift back to the dorms. I had bruises on my hips and my arms, one on my thighs and that huge shameful one on my neck. When James came around a few days later I told him I had zero interest in being in his company again. When I asked him why he’d done it he told me I was an uptight bitch, and that I couldn’t take a joke. He couldn’t work out why I was so upset. I was overreacting, he said. Crazy. A nut job. As he walked away he called back over his shoulder that I was a slut.
I struggled to reconcile that I had ever found him attractive.
I bruise easily, and that hickey took months to fade. I did what I could to cover it up with scarves or makeup, but I was called names by other students and even some of my male lecturers drew attention to my neck, making jokes about it. And about me.
I’d never felt so belittled, humiliated or ashamed. Worse, on that sunny afternoon, I’d felt what it was to be truly powerless for the first time in my life. I’d had no capacity to affect an outcome, no voice, no ability to have a choice. When James had held me down I’d felt unsafe, I’d been hurt, he wouldn’t listen and I couldn’t make it stop. He could have done anything to me, and it was all beyond my control.
So I told James that, thirty years later.
‘Is that why you dumped me?’ he said. ‘Over a joke? It’s not like I raped you!’ He had raised his voice, angry. ‘And you reconnecting with me now – is this your pathetic Hashtag MeToo moment?’
‘I’m still angry,’ I said. ‘I hadn’t thought about this for thirty years, but yes, I’m still angry, because what you did wasn’t right. It was assault.’
‘Get over yourself!’ James said. ‘Geez, I thought you connected because you wanted to hook up.’
‘No. I reconnected because you have a daughter who is the same age as I was when you did that to me. How would you feel if someone did that to her? How would you feel if she was pinned and helpless, struggling against a bigger man, being humiliated while other people stood around and watched?’
‘I’d bloody kill them!’ he said. And then he looked at me, and a strange expression came over his face. ‘I’d kill any bastard who tried to hurt my girls.’
‘I was the same age as your daughter,’ I said. ‘I asked you to stop. You didn’t. It wasn’t right then. It isn’t right now.’
After which we sat in silence, looking at each other via our screens.
‘Sorry, Nic,’ he said eventually, his voice quieter. ‘It was the era. It was just a bit of fun. I might have gone a bit too far. I didn’t mean anything by it.’
There was nothing else to say.
We ended the chat. I unfriended him.
It was an incident I’d long forgotten. A conversation I never expected to have. An apology thirty years in the making. But I’m glad I got to reconnect with James again and finally have him see things from a different perspective. My perspective. It felt good to finally be heard.
Much love, Nicole xx