Letting the Shark Eat Me Alive.
I sometimes joke with people that if a shark ever attacked me, I would probably just give up immediately and let it eat me.
I go further to say that if I ever even saw a shark in the water next to me, I’d do the same. I wouldn’t even try to swim away. The fight would take flight and completely leave my body. I would become instantly paralyzed with fear, and that would be the end of me. Pathetic, but probably true based on some decisions I’ve made with all the figurative sharks in my life.
Growing up, my knowledge of the darkness in the world was more than I wanted it to be and definitely more than I could handle emotionally, but I remained a little girl for a lot longer than most women I know.
From about age eight until late into my teen years, I straddled this broad, shifting, and murky line between a hyper-sexualized woman-child and a girl who would only wanted to spend her afternoons building Lego sets and combing Barbie hair. Looking back, it feels bizarre. Looking at my daughters, it feels heart-numbingly tragic.
I got a lot of practice living this double life. I sought out sexual attention and stimulation at an early age, but was disgusted by the idea of it. What I really desired was a simple existence with toys and games and going to birthday parties, but I couldn’t avoid what I didn’t want.
My parents left things I shouldn’t see within my reach, and I always found them. They would have private phone conversations that I would always hear. My mother would take my little sister and me on outings with her male “friends” and we always understood and saw too much. Then we were told not to tell my dad where we were that day, making us accomplices to this thing that we hardly understood beyond how uncomfortable it made us feel.
I was constantly confused and disgusted with myself without any benefit of understanding what was happening. Why was I having these feelings that made me feel curious and sick at the same time? When I started having sex, why did it feel so good and then leave me hating myself? That part went on well into my twenties.
Therapists, one after another, have told me that I show all the signs of someone who has been sexually abused. I ignored them in adulthood. My mother dismissed them when I was little.
There was never enough room on the crazy plate to add that heaping portion of sexual abuse, so I just tucked their opinions and all my suspicions into a corner of my skull and kept moving. The problem was that I could file those burdensome things away, but that only allowed them to fester — like rotting, stinking meat. The smell got into everything.
Part of feeling so different, feeling like I never fit in, feeling confused about who I even was, made me believe that I was more aligned with the misfits than the good girls. The trouble with being a true misfit is that you’re unlike everyone else. So there was my ragtag group of misfit friends and me, and we had nothing in common but our pain.
We didn’t play sports, we didn’t have hobbies, and we definitely didn’t have a positive outlook toward the future. Until I was twenty-five, I never thought I’d live to be twenty-five. As I approach thirty-five, I realize that I’m reaching another personal death clock milestone.
The misfits’ many brands of pain manifested into a lack of self-regard and a sense of independence and self-reliance that could only translate into complete recklessness at that young age. We took risks because we didn’t love ourselves enough to consider the consequences. That’s what girls who aren’t loved enough do.
When I was seventeen, I made a new misfit friend. Tricia and I worked together at a shop in the mall that was owned by Indian gentlemen and catered to a primarily black customer base. We sold baggy jeans, posted handmade sale signs against mall rules, and got half of our merchandise as it fell off the back of a truck. It was an interesting operation. If we were misfits, this was a misfit’s clothing store.
Tricia was tall and thin, like me. She has naturally white-blonde hair, but she dyed it black. Her nose was pierced, her makeup was severe, and her clothes looked painted on. She “talked black” and the shop owners loved her. Tricia was well liked by our customers and outsold all the other salesgirls. The thing that fascinated me most about Tricia was that she was also an underage stripper. I thought that was so cool.
I only hung out with Tricia one time outside of work. She picked me up at my older sister’s house and took me to her house to change clothes. Her house made me like her even more. It was poor and messy, which made me feel connected to her. We were on the same level and held the same place in society. There was no need for me to pretend anything in front of her.
Our next stop was a club in Philadelphia. We didn’t need ID because Tricia knew the bouncers at the door. It was hot, filthy, and packed with people back to front. We were the only white girls in a crowd of hundreds of young black men and women. I was so incredibly scared and excited at the same time.
The details of how we met those two men and how we got back to the motel are unclear. We weren’t drunk or high. I’ve just forgotten. Some parts that I remember seem so insignificant, but I know they must have left an imprint for a reason. As I write these words, I’m searching for the meaning in the memory.
The room was less than $40, and I offered to chip in. Tricia’s boyfriend covered it, and that really impressed me. A man taking care of things was not something I was used to, but it always felt good when it happened. It also felt like they had control and ownership over the situation. This would prove to be a problem for me again and again in my future life and more immediately that night.
It was late, and I just wanted to go to bed. There were two beds in the room, and Tricia and her boyfriend took the bed closer to the door. Something else I don’t remember is how his friend ended up in bed with me, because we hadn’t talked all night — I hadn’t even committed his name to my short-term memory. I couldn’t have called him by name to ask him to sleep on the floor, but I didn’t ask him to sleep on the floor anyway.
I was pretending to sleep when he started to push his body against mine. My whole being went into an immediate panic. It became immediately apparent that I was in bed with a shark, and I was paralyzed!
He was pushing himself on me and I was doing nothing to stop him. I realized he had pulled down his pants, and he started to tug at my clothes. In the next moment he had managed to get my shorts down around my knees, and I knew that I was about to have sex with a total stranger. He was sweaty, his breathe smelled terrible, and I was disgusted by every cell in his body.
Tricia and her boyfriend were eight feet away, and I couldn’t even breathe hard enough to alert them. I remember that I didn’t want to ruin their good time with my drama, and I was scared that Tricia would be mad at me if I caused a scene. I started to scoot my body backward, away from him and toward the edge of the bed. He drew me back. I pushed his hand away forcefully, and he drew me back. We struggled in complete silence for a few moments more until I whispered, “I have to go to the bathroom.”
That was my call for help — not a scream, not a knee to the groin, not even a simple No. “I have to go to the bathroom,” was all I could come up with in a moment of complete and all-consuming fear. I’m sure that would never work on a real shark. What I’m even surer of is that it would have never worked if we were in that room alone. He would have raped me, and I would have let him.
I ran into the bathroom, pulling up my shorts on the way. There’s another memory gap between me entering the bathroom and then sitting outside in Tricia’s car. I don’t remember walking out, finding the keys, or getting into the car. I don’t remember breathing. I’m holding my breath right now.
I could see our motel room’s door from where I was sitting in the driver’s seat, praying that the door would open and Tricia would come running to my rescue. She would be so sorry that she put me in that situation and she would bring me home immediately. I sat for a long time, each moment feeling longer than that last. When the door finally opened, my heart leapt.
“Thank God! Thank God that I can finally get out of there and back home to my own bed. I promise you, God, that I will never do this again…”
But it wasn’t Tricia. It was the shark. What allowed me to reach over and unlock the door for him is beyond my current understanding. I guess at that time I was in the practice of allowing. I asked him what they were doing. He told me that they would be out in a while. We didn’t say another word.
In what seemed like hours later, Tricia and her boyfriend emerged from the motel room. The shark and I climbed into the back seat, and we all went home.