An Apology Thirty Years In The Making

“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.

Sigh.

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

Places that remind you of who you used to be…

The first time I went to Yum Cha was a revelation. It was a crowded barn of a restaurant in Sydney, and my small table were the only Caucasians in a sea of dark hair. They didn’t even have a menu in English. My friend Geoff, who speaks fluent Cantonese, took us there, and did all of the ordering for us. The place was bustling, and small children played happily amidst the tables, dodging the streaming trolleys of food as they creaked around the room.

Of course the food was fantastic.  But it was more than that.  In that chaotic asian soup of sounds, flavours and faces I felt as comfortable as if I’d been born to it. I sat back in the madhouse din, all smiles. My soul felt nurtured, satisfied, home.

Years later, my sister and I often ventured to Sunnybank in Brisbane for an evening meal in one of the small family-run restaurants in that predominantly Asian suburb. The place we favoured had the worst translation of a menu I’ve ever seen, laminated tables, a clacketty old electric fan that pushed heat-wave summer air around in slow circles, and cheap plastic decorations. It had the ambience of a hospital waiting room. The food was home-style but tasty and the owners got to know us so well that after a while they just brought us a soup, a main, some sort of dessert – whatever was going, without us having to order. We loved the place.  It felt like family.

When my husband was working overseas and I was struggling with a farm in drought, miserable with fatigue and acute loneliness, I would allow myself a fortnightly treat of yum cha on my own. Sitting by myself at a small table, with the routine of trolley, crowds, noise and family chatter around me, I always left feeling calm, comforted and reassured. A standard cafe never had the same effect, no matter how kind the staff or how delicious the food.

Why? Why Yum Cha?

It didn’t make much sense to me until I explored China, and then Thailand. These foreign places felt as familiar to me as breathing. The food, the crowds, the smell of the air. The first time I saw a line of bald-headed buddhist monks in their saffron robes, I was brought inexplicably to tears.

I was welcomed into temples, strangers encouraged me to pray and leave offerings at their family or workplace altars, monks sought me out for conversation. I knew some of the chants and meditations, although they were not in my native tongue, and I had not been taught them. I felt as if I had come home.

I’m sure Yum Cha stirs past life memories in me. They must have been good lives, for I find much comfort there.

How about you?  Have you ever felt a crazy kind of connection to an unfamiliar place?  Or known the place on first visit without having ever been there before?  It’s more common that people realise.

Even if you don’t believe in past lives, you can still find places that take you back to a different time in this life, and to interests, dreams and skills you might have forgotten.

Wishing for you a day of reconnection and positive memories. And maybe some Yum Cha. ♥ Nicole xx