You sigh. There is no way to answer her question, no way to articulate the complexities, some of which you yourself do not fully understand. Like so many of the “why” questions that children ask, you resort to the default response.
“Because. Because I love you and I want you to be safe.” You search her eyes for signs that she understands. She pinches her brows in confusion and, likely, frustration with your non-answer.
“Can you repeat back to me what I just said?” you ask.
She rolls her eyes and sighs, scooting further away from you on her bed. Your chest feels heavy and you want to pull her closer, want to protect her, want to stop her inevitable retreat into adulthood.
“Stay with friends, don’t trust anyone, the world is scary. I get it, Mom. I just don’t understand why. Why does this happen?”
Now it is your turn to sigh. No one told you when you decided to become a parent, when you opened up your thighs and body and heart so you could create a tiny wrinkled newborn that tore her way out of you, that you would need to have this conversation.
“It’s not all boys, okay? I’m not telling you that everything is bad or that you can’t find love. I just want you to be careful. And don’t be alone with a boy for a while. And tell me if anything happens, right? I love you and it won’t be your fault,” you pause, searching for words and trying to catch your breath, an image of grimy white tile and the sound of a faucet dripping flashing through your mind.
“I mean, if anything does happen, it’s okay, no matter what you did or didn’t do, no matter what, it’s still not your fault. Just tell me and we will get through it together, okay?”
She nods, though her eyes are glazed over and you worry that you have just irreparably damaged some part of her that felt safe and knew that the world was good. Now you have confirmed her childhood nightmares, told her that there are monsters everywhere, except you cannot always tell because they look just like regular people. There are no tell-tale signs, no devil horns or third eyes or scaly skin to mark their monstrosity. Could there be some among the boys in her class, boys you’ve known since they were gap-toothed and chubby, boys who came to her birthday parties and licked frosting off their fingers, boys who shrieked with delight chasing each other during recess?
You just can’t tell, can you? You can never tell until you’re alone, until it’s too late, until you have relaxed or trusted or reveled in life just a little too much.
You lean over to hug her, kissing the top of her head, squeezing her for a long moment even after she begins to squirm, hesitant to let go. After you finally release her, you decide to change the topic and try to lighten the thickness of the air that has filled the room. You smile at her.
“How is school? What did you learn today?” you try.
She shrugs and examines her nails.
“Come on, you must have learned something.”
“Not really. School is so boring,” she replies, eyeballing her phone on the nightstand. She has switched modes, transitioned back into carelessness and distraction. You decide to let her escape, that she’s earned it.
“I love you. Good night, sweetheart,” you say, rising.
“Luvootoo, ganight” the words come out as an obligation, rushed and smashed together.
You reach the doorway and watch her snatch up her phone, her index finger already scrolling before you’ve even left the room. You turn around to leave when you hear her clear her throat and pause, and you look back at her. Her eyes never leave her phone but she starts speaking.
“Sometimes, men look at me, you know? Like not just boys in my class. I don’t mind that as much, some of them are cute. But old guys, creepy guys, like when I’m walking to school or with my friends. Like a few weeks ago, when we were walking to Eva’s house after school, this old guy was driving this convertible, and he just slowed down and stared at us. And it wasn’t like friendly, like he knew us. It was this really intense staring, like looking up and down at our bodies. And he was licking his lips. It was so creepy,” she shudders in her retelling, even as her eyes remain fixated on the screen before her.
You feel pangs in your chest and wonder if you are having a heart attack or a panic attack, but try to keep your face open, understanding, loving. Your reaction doesn’t matter since she doesn’t look up. Her fingers keep moving as she speaks, oscillating between furious typing and scrolling. At first, you are annoyed. You want to see her face and gauge her level of hurt. But you realize that her phone is an anchor. It is keeping her grounded, tethering her to a world that can still be silly and superficial. Giving her something to do with her restless fingers.
“What happened after that?” you whisper. Inside, your mind is racing, anger acidic in your veins as you catalog the number of older men in the neighborhood who drive convertibles and wonder how to dispose of a body most efficiently.
“We just sorta laughed at him and kept walking. But later, we talked about how creepy it was.” She shrugs.
Her fingers still for a moment, though she doesn’t look up. “Was that, like, the right thing to do? Laughing like that? I mean, we didn’t know what to do, but later I was thinking he might not have liked being laughed at. He seemed kinda pissed and drove off all fast.”
You thought this conversation would be a shock. You had been reading the signs of it, sure she knew nothing of monsters. But she has already met some and you were too late. When would have been early enough? Your mind flashes back to her at six years-old, eight years-old, ten. To pigtails and scraped knees and stuffed animals. Was that when you should have told her?
And you don’t know, don’t know if laughing is right or wrong. What if he is one of those men who feels emasculated by laughter? Your mind races as you think of incel culture, of the monster in California who murdered six people and injured fourteen others because he felt entitled to and rejected by all women. Your mind plays a montage of news stories, of men who shoot, who stab, who hit, who kill. What is the right way, the safest way, to reject a monster, someone who stares at preteen girls on the street?
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” you finally murmur. “He shouldn’t have been looking at you girls in the first place. I’m sorry that happened,” you add, stalling while you think what the best advice is, what to say, how to frame this. You remember what your mom told you, that if a man grabs you, you must scratch his face, get his DNA underneath your fingernails. After she told you, you had nightmares where you were a corpse lying naked on a cold metal table while a man in a green gown and face mask scraped skin from underneath your nails. You imagined, even in your dream, that your mother would have been proud of you.
“If this kind of thing happens again, you can always call for help too. If you feel scared or like he might do something,” you say, but now you are thinking of Kitty Genovese, who screamed for help to no avail as she was stabbed dozens of times in the streets of New York.
“And if anyone touches you or tries to grab you, you run and then call the police,” you go on, even as you think of about Chanel Miller, who was assaulted behind a dumpster at Stanford, whose attacker was caught during the act, and who endured years of trauma reliving every moment of the experience during her trial. Chanel, who had zoomed in pictures of her genitals displayed on a screen for the jury to see just so she could receive the barest modicum of justice. And you think of a student you had, a vibrant and wickedly smart young woman, who started disappearing from your class and was eventually institutionalized during her rape trial.
“You did the right thing. You made it,” you finally say, echoing your therapist’s words to you, words you repeat to yourself but have never internalized.
She seems to sense your sadness and briefly looks up at you and nods. You are still lingering in the doorway and you realize the tips of your fingers are turning white from gripping the door frame so hard. You try to relax, to loosen your grip, to smooth your expression, to look encouraging. She watches you for a moment before returning her gaze to her phone.
You are just about to ask her if she has more questions, to try to keep the dialogue going, when she says, “You know, it’s okay, Mom. You don’t have to worry so much about me. I can take care of myself.”
You realize that you’ve worried her, that you’ve done this all wrong and you are panicking. Softly, you respond, “I love you. You can always talk to me.” She nods again and you shut the door, your heart both heavy and racing at the same time.
You go downstairs and sit on the couch, listening for a moment to ensure that she isn’t coming down. Your chest feels tight and you curl in on yourself, reverting to the fetal position, pulling your knees to your chest as you try to force yourself to take slow, deep breaths and focus on the present: I made it, I’m okay, I survived, I’m here, this is what’s real, focus on what I see and smell and feel. The tears don’t come—they rarely do anymore—but your body aches, your muscles clenching, your teeth gnashing together.
No matter how much you try to focus on the linen pillow beneath your head or the gentle hum of the refrigerator, the memories still swarm you. There are flashes of casual grabs and jokes at work and men telling you, “Come on, you know you want to.”
But these are only so awful because of the night, the one you keep locked away, the one that you try every minute of every day not to dwell on or remember. But it always comes back, doesn’t it? A word, a touch, a glance, and you are right back there, on that grimy bathroom floor on the second floor of a fraternity, with the side of your face being pushed into the cold white tile. And you couldn’t scratch his face, you couldn’t scratch anything no matter how hard you tried because your hands were pinned and you never even saw his face, you couldn’t identify him in a lineup. He had been a flash in the mirror and a weight on top of you. You hadn’t called anyone afterward because you were afraid that your mother would be ashamed of you. So you had just lied there, focusing on the drip drip drip of the bathroom faucet.
And you had promised yourself that you would do better, that if you had a daughter, she would be safer, that you could help her navigate it all. But there is no map, no guidebook, no right way to tell your child what she might endure. There is only the cold tile floor and the incessant dripping of a faucet.
Sarah J. Wilhoit (she/her) earned her Ph.D. in English from the University of Arizona. She currently works as a Visiting Assistant Professor in the midwest where she teaches undergraduate courses in English and Women’s and Gender Studies. She also develops interdisciplinary classes on topics such as mass incarceration and peace studies. Her research focuses on the intersections of gender, madness, and feminist speculative fiction. When she is not busy trying to dismantle the patriarchy, you can find her walking in the woods with her partner and dog or cuddled up with a book and a cat. If you are interested in dismantling the patriarchy too, Sarah recommends donating to the Center for Reproductive Rights.