I awoke to a dream of perfume, its vaguely floral scent filling my senses. My body felt deliciously languid and spent, as if I had just finished great sex and was basking in the afterglow. Everything was calm, peaceful. There was no visual component to the dream, just the warm glow of release and that cloying smell of perfume. I was utterly content.
And suddenly I was terrified, sick to my stomach, frantically checking my nightclothes for stains.
Thank God, I didn’t come.
I recognized this dream. It haunted me for years when I was younger, always making me feel dirty and ashamed of myself. But I had thought it gone – it had been almost 30 years since I had dreamed it.
I thought a lot that day about why I had dreamed that dream after so long, why it had come back for a visit after so long,
I decided that it was time.
March, 1977. I was 15 years old, barreling towards 16 in only a few weeks. Star Wars was opening in about a month and a half and I was very excited about it. It was the first movie I have ever really, really, REALLY wanted to see on a big screen, not in the crappy old State Theater in Oroville. Sixteen was exciting – it meant that in the fall I could take Drivers Ed and Driver’s Training to get my license, and I was pretty jazzed about that too.
My parents being divorced, every month my father, Max, had visitation rights. Sometimes he came up to see me, and stayed at the Western Motor Lodge in Oroville, which had rooms that often smelled vaguely of smoke, and a pool that no one ever swam in. But sometimes I would catch a Greyhound bus to San Francisco to see him, and I would stay at his apartment, which often had lots of dirty dishes and occasionally silverfish. But in San Francisco there were bookstores and game stores and lots of interesting things which were absolutely NOT Oroville.
Including, in a month and a half, Star Wars.
The original schedule had him coming up to visit in Oroville in May. But I had begged and pleaded with my mother to change the schedule so I could go down to San Francisco in May during the week to catch the opening. My mother loathed talking to my father, but I was going to be 16 and had asked for it as a birthday gift, and so she reluctantly got on the phone and made the arrangements, which involved me going to San Francisco in March, April, and May to help defray the cost of my father having to take off work on Wednesday the 22nd to go to the opening with me.
Max was an alcoholic. He hid this from me most of the time, and it wouldn’t really dawn on me for several years yet. I knew he drank of course, had even seen him drunk on more than one occasion. But he could usually hold off for the few days that I was visiting, though I noticed that sometimes when it was nearing time for me to go his hands would tremble.
I thought it was because he was sad to see me go.
Anyway, there I was in the big city, jazzed up about my birthday and Star Wars and learning to drive a car. As per usual I arrived at the SF Greyhound terminal at around 9:30 pm and started my visit, which would end when I got back on the bus Sunday afternoon.
On Saturday evening there was a party hosted by some of my father’s friends. My father thought I was old enough to go to this sort of thing now, and I agreed (my mother hosted periodic cocktail parties, so I was familiar with them). It was over in Marin, so we caught a ride with one of father’s friends.
This turned out to be very different from my mother’s cocktail parties. There was marijuana for one thing, which I had never tried and which I was too frightened to try then (much to my embarrassment). And people drank a LOT more than at my mother’s parties, where people would nurse drinks and maybe, MAYBE get tipsy. Several people, including my father, got totally shitfaced, stagger-around, slurred-speech drunk.
I didn’t have much to do – there was no one even close to my age there – so mostly I sat around listening to conversations and stories, answering the inevitable questions of what I was studying in school, and wishing I had a book.
Then my father, during a break in the conversation, announced that I was turning 16 in a couple of weeks and would be a real live adult instead of a child anymore. This was, of course nice for me to hear. Some of the women (40+ women for the most part) came over to give me a hug.
And then one of them kissed me. On the cheek.
And then one of them straddled my thighs (I was sitting on a couch), threw her arms around my neck, and kissed me on the mouth. She tasted like alcohol and lipstick. I was shocked! I had no idea how I was supposed to react or what I was supposed to do.
And that was, and would forever be, my first kiss. Booze, lipstick, and utter bewilderment.
Suddenly there were also women sitting on either side of me stroking my arms and legs and kissing me on the neck. The woman on my thighs stuck her tongue in my mouth, and I got more secondhand alcohol taste. Others came and stood behind me or in front of me and started stroking my arms and hair. Everyone was laughing including my father.
But not me
I was 15. Despite my attempts to escape, and the fact that I wasn’t enjoying this at all and was in fact scared practically witless, my penis was on autopilot and I rapidly got an erection. Which the woman sitting on my thighs noticed.
Which the woman on my thighs touched.
Which the woman on my thighs started fondling.
At this point I was paralyzed. All I could think of was that I was wearing light tan pants and if I ejaculated it was sure to show. My brain couldn’t process what was happening to me – it was overloaded.
The woman on my thighs pulled my head down into her cleavage. She was not particularly well-endowed, so mostly I got a nose full of sternum. But the smell of her perfume was overwhelming. I felt like I couldn’t breathe, like all the air had been sucked out of the room and replaced by perfume. All the time people were still touching and stroking me from all sides.
The woman on my thighs said something to the effect of that if I wanted we could go back to the bedroom and have sex. Everyone there laughed. I looked at my father, desperate for some way out of this situation. I had a wild hope that he would say something like “OK, that’s enough, leave him alone.” That he would come to my rescue or at least help me understand what the hell was going on here.
He was laughing too. He told me that whatever I wanted was fine with him and that he wouldn’t tell if I didn’t.
And that was the point where I lost it.
I became hysterical. I started crying. Fifteen years old and so excited to become 16 and take my first step towards adulthood, and I started crying like a baby in front of an entire party full of adults. I managed to get free of the couch and ran to the bathroom, locking myself in. Still crying I whipped off my shoes, pants and underwear, climbed into the tub, and ran cold water on my penis, hoping it would deflate, and figuring even if it didn’t I wouldn’t mess in my pants.
By this time there were adults at the door, saying all the things that one would expect adults to say – they were sorry, it was just a joke, they didn’t mean any harm. I was humiliated and wet and still crying – those big, wracking sobs you get when your nose is clogged with snot. I couldn’t stop for the longest time. Someone outside told everyone to leave me alone, so they all went back to the party and drank some more while I sat half-naked in the bathtub in my sodden socks, which I had not taken the time to remove,
But of course I couldn’t stay there forever. I wanted to. I never wanted to come out of that bathroom. I never wanted to face those people again. I had just failed adulthood 101.
If there had actually been a razor someplace visible to put the idea in my mind, I am pretty sure I would have used it rather than deal with the adults who had seen and heard me crying.
But eventually I came out, with my shirt damp and my shoes on my bare feet, leaving my dripping wet socks in the tub. And of course everyone was very apologetic and said that they didn’t mean to hurt me and thought it was just a big joke. My father was particularly apologetic, saying he should have intervened. They were all apologetic in that way that only drunk people can be apologetic – that “I’m sorry, truly sorry that I ran over the pedestrian, officer, but you see I was drunk at the time.” way. “We’re sorry, truly sorry that we sexually assaulted you, Edmund, but you see we were drunk and thought it would be funny.”
You get the idea.
And because I was 15 and they were adults, because I felt humiliated and embarrassed, because I was ashamed, I apologized right back to them. God help me, still damp and with eyes swollen nearly shut I said that I had overreacted, that I knew they were just having fun and teasing me, and that I shouldn’t have gotten upset and locked myself in the bathroom. I apologized to the woman who sat on my thighs. I apologized to the hosts. I apologized to my father.
In May I came down and saw Star Wars.
That was 41 years ago.
The woman who kissed me, who stroked my erection, haunted me for years afterwards. I used to dream about the cloying smell, overpowering enough to make it hard for me to breathe. But the dreams were never nightmares. I always awoke feeling pleasantly spent. I had wet dreams about her. It was only after I woke up and remembered the dream that I felt dirty, abused, and ashamed that I dreamed of enjoying it.
My father and I never spoke of that evening again. On the other hand I do not recall him ever taking me to a gathering of his friends with more than five or six other people again.
I can’t say precisely how this event affected my life. There are some aspects of my personality that MIGHT have been shaped by it. But we are multifaceted beings who live complex lives, who can say for sure? I do know
- I don’t like to be touched. I REALLY don’t like to be touched by people I don’t know well, and I ABSOLUTELY LOATHE being touched by surprise.
- Hugs have triggered a flight reflex in me for most of my life. I’ve been working on that one for a long time, though, and it’s gotten a lot better. Don’t be afraid to hug me – just let me know it’s coming first, preferably while out of arm’s reach.
- I ultimately decided not to drink alcohol.
- Perfume is an absolute, 100%, near permanent turn-off for me. Likewise makeup. Women who wear either become instantly unattractive to me.
- I do not like crowds indoors, though I have a much higher tolerance for them outside,
- I don’t like parties where there are a lot of people I don’t know, or where much alcohol is consumed.
- I do not like to have people I don’t know sit next to me. This sometimes makes public transit a problem.
- I have never, ever wanted to have children.
Why didn’t I say something in the last 41 years? Many, many reasons.
- I really bought into the idea that the people meant no harm to me, and it took me many, many years to realize afterwards that it didn’t matter and that harm was still done
- I wanted to see Star Wars, and I wanted to keep getting to go to San Francisco. I knew that had I told my mother she would have (rightly) moved heaven and earth to assure that I never saw my father again.
- The idea of admitting that I cried in front of a bunch of adults was mortifying.
- They apologized. I apologized. That made everything all right, right?
- I loved my father. Even after I discovered years later that he was an alcoholic, I didn’t want people to think he was a shit father. A bad father, an absentee father maybe. But not a shit father. Despite the fact that I was very angry with him, I would defend him when others spoke harshly of him. Whenever something about my father being less than sterling would come up I was always ready with the answer “But at least he made all his child support payments!” Loyal, loyal Edmund.
- I bought into the idea that it was some sort of well-intentioned “rite of passage”, sort of like the cliché of the father getting the son a hooker or a trip to a brothel.
- By the time I actually realized that what happened to me was serious, I had moved away from home, my father was in Thailand, and my mother was very sick. I couldn’t see the point in burdening my mother, and I wasn’t in touch with my father.
- Other people, particularly women, have had experiences, often multiple experiences, that were infinitely more horrible and scarring than mine. I felt that bringing it up would make me seem like a fraud jumping on the bandwagon for sympathy.
- Ultimately, I thought that I was past it and that it didn’t matter anymore.
Why am I saying something now?
- I had a “discussion” with an internet troll who couldn’t seem to understand that assault is assault, and there doesn’t have to be some threshold of horribleness before people are permitted to act in their own best defense.
- I dreamed of the perfume again. First time in over 30 years. It scared the living hell out of me. I nearly threw up. I was determined not to go through weeks or months of that again, and the only thing I could think of to do was finally tell someone.
- Sometimes it is just fucking time. My mother is dead. My father is, I assume, dead. I no longer have to protect either one of them. What’s the purpose of keeping such a thing secret when it is really just a habit of not talking about it?
- Secrets get heavier the longer you carry them. I’m tired of this one hanging around my neck like a dead albatross.
- I read an article on C-PTSD, and noticed that it shared a lot of symptoms with my depression, and thought “I wonder why that is – nothing terribly traumatic has happened to me.”
The events of that party are long in my past now. Like physical scars they are a part of me now, and like physical scars they sometimes hurt when I poke at them but otherwise are largely unnoticed and unremarked. They do hurt a bit now because I am stretching myself, letting go of the secret that I kept. Its a bit painful at the moment, but ultimately I hope that I will be better for it, the scars diminished some, and gain a greater emotional freedom.
The people who participated in my molestation were probably not terrible people. That’s the real horror of evil – it’s largely banal, plain, and human. They were adults, and they should have known better, but sadly that can be said of so many, many people who have done wrong not by malice but by a simple willingness to go along and not think about it too much.
Also, they were drunk, in case there is anyone out there reading this who thinks that makes it more acceptable.
For those who have gone through their own trials, who struggle years or decades afterwards to come to grips with the terrible events of their past; for those who suffered far worse things than I – chronic abuse, rape, mutilation, incest – and carry the scars both physical and mental; for those who keep it secret, for those who speak out, for everyone who has had the beauty and joy of sex tainted by evil: I see you, I hear you, I believe you. Whether I know you or not you have a place in my heart.
Thanks for reading.