Mom made me stay home from school today, but I’m not even sick. She tells me we are going to watch history repeat itself. The TV has been on all morning but nothing I like to watch is on. She makes me sit with her.
I ask why we’re watching this lady speak.
“That’s Dr. Christine Blasey Ford,” she tells me. “Listen.” Her voice sounds like the one she has when she’s trying not to cry.
I don’t know who that is, but she seems important.
“I am here today not because I want to be. I am terrified. I am here because I believe it is my civic duty to tell you what happened to me while Brett Kavanaugh and I were in high school.”
Dr. Ford’s voice sounds like mom’s. Like she’s trying not to cry.
I don’t tell her why we are staying home at first. She asks me if I have to teach today. I tell her we are both playing hooky.
“She’s too young to understand it,” Lee said before he left for work this morning.
“She’s old enough to start,” I told him.
Sitting next to her, listening to Dr. Ford speak, I wonder if Lee is right.
“He began running his hands over my body and grinding his hips into me. I yelled, hoping someone downstairs might hear me, and tried to get away from him, but his weight was heavy. Brett groped me and tried to take off my clothes. He had a hard time because he was so drunk, and because I was wearing a one-piece bathing suit under my clothes.”
I feel hot hand close around my neck, my pants being pulled down, books being knocked off my desk. I close my eyes and count to seven. Counting to three never gave me enough time. Finley looks at me, concerned, but does not ask if I’m okay.
After Dr. Ford finishes her testimony, I mute the television.
“That woman seems sad,” Finley tells me.
“Do you understand why she’s sad?”
She thinks for a moment. I like that she doesn’t rush to answer; that she’s comfortable taking time to let her thoughts form.
“People didn’t listen to her.”
Leave it to a fourth grader to distill information down to its basic form. “You’re right.” I don’t have a plan for how to talk to her about all of this. “Many years ago, she was sexually assaulted by a man. A man who might soon have a lot of power. Too much power.”
She asks what sexual assault is.
I follow her lead and take a moment. It should be something objective, something she can absorb without personal attachment. Part of me had planned to share my own story. I’ll save it for another day.
“What do you do when you want to hug someone?”
“I can’t hug them without asking.”
“It’s like that.” It’s hard to know how much information is too much. “But in this case, the man touched her many places she didn’t want him to.”
Her cheeks flush a bit. “People aren’t supposed to act that way.”
“No. People are always supposed to ask for permission and respect the answer.”
She nods at me fervently.
Brett Kavanaugh begins his own testimony.
“This has destroyed my family and my good name, a good name built up through decades of very hard work and public service at the highest levels of the American government.”
Kavanaugh’s face is red, his voice righteous. I wonder if my rapist would have made a similar argument. I don’t wonder long.
“Mom, you’re squeezing my hand too hard.”
I let go. I hadn’t realized my grip had tightened at all.
“Do we have to watch all of his speech?” she asks part way through. “I don’t like him.”
Good. A gut instinct.
I don’t much care to watch him either, with his false tears and exaggerated anger. But I tell her we should watch it all. I want to sit in discomfort; for her to feel this discomfort in a safe setting. For her to begin to grasp what’s at stake.
Mom drives us both to school today.
“If you want, we can talk about the hearing more after school,” she says.
I don’t really want to. We talked about it a lot yesterday. She told me that this wasn’t the first time something like this had happened. That it was important that we try to prevent it from happening again.
At lunch, a group of teachers stand together at the end of our table and talk about Dr. Ford.
“So many people are reliving their trauma with Dr. Ford and no one cares,” Ms. Casey says. She looks at the other teachers and then down at her shoes.
“People care, that’s why everyone’s so upset,” Mr. Thomas says.
The girl teachers don’t say anything else and Mr. Thomas looks confused.
All day I wonder about Finley. I doubt the fourth-grade teachers are allowed to bring up such topics in class, even though they should start teaching consent from an early age.
I’m probably not supposed to either, but I stayed up late putting together a lesson on “American Complicity and Sexual Assault,” granted this could probably be an entire college course. I’ll hear from parents tomorrow, I’m sure, but high school juniors probably need to hear this lesson more than most.
In my first period, one of the students asks if my parents and teachers talked about the Anita Hill hearings.
“No,” I tell her with uncomfortable confidence. “That wasn’t how things were done back then. That’s one of the reasons why Hill’s testimony was such a big deal.”
Between classes I try to remember what teachers and parents said about Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas. I would’ve been younger than Finley is now and my mom hated confrontation. In the six minutes between class bells, I grow certain that she said the fewest words possible.
At lunch, I text my mom. Do you remember the Anita Hill hearings?
She’s quick to reply. Do we have to talk about this? So unsavory.
The same word she used all those years ago. The same word I imagine all of the old, white, male senators want to use.
Every day during recess I play on the monkey bars. They’re my favorite. It’s as close as I get to flying. Some other kids think swings feel more like flying but it’s not the same. Some days I pretend I’m a monkey swinging through the jungle, other days I like to be Simone Biles flying in front of the whole world.
Today there are some boys climbing across. I wait by the side until they have all crossed once and then jump up to the first rung.
“I don’t think you’re allowed here,” Ian says. He’s never nice to me.
“There isn’t a sign.” I swing to the next bar.
“If there was, I bet blondie couldn’t read it,” a different boy speaks up.
I swing again. Blondie is a dumb nickname. My hair is almost brown.
“Are you too stupid to listen to us, blondie?” Ian asks.
“I heard you. My name is Finley and I’m allowed on the monkey bars just as much as you.” I reach for the next bar.
I hear someone stomp over before I feel the air on my legs and my pants around my ankles. Everyone is pointing and laughing. I let go of the metal bar and land on the woodchips below. My legs feel like Jell-O.
“Your underwear has the wrong day of the week on it!” The other boy yells. He looks back at his friends. “I told you she couldn’t read!”
I pull up my pants and glare at Ian.
It’s Friday. My underwear says Friday. None of them care.
In the middle of my second to last class, Finley’s school calls me to come pick her up.
Her teacher meets me at the door and sits me down at her desk. I don’t much care for being on the opposite side of it. Finely sits next to me but doesn’t look at me or her teacher. Even out of my periphery, I can see her scowl.
Before I can ask Finley if she’s okay, her teacher leans forward and clasps her hands together on her desk. “Hitting will not be tolerated,” her teacher says. She can’t be much older than I am. We share the same lines around the eyes and mouth.
“And removing someone’s, a child’s, pants is tolerable?” I shouldn’t scoff. If I were her, I’d be judging the parent for being indignant, for not listening, thinking something about how of course their child acts the way they do.
“Oh please,” she says. Her voice is almost cheery as her hand bats the air. “He has a crush. Violence is a different matter.”
My blood gets hot. “Women like you are not helpful to other women.”
I take Finley’s hand and leave before I make her life harder. Even after thirty-five years, I still don’t know how to fight these moments. Later, when I’m in the shower or brushing my teeth, I’m sure I’ll find the right words.
Finley climbs into the passenger’s seat. It’s not until the doors close that I reach over the center console and hug my daughter.
Dinner is quiet. I don’t want to talk about much of anything. Lee asks Finley about her math homework but she doesn’t want to discuss school.
After Finley goes to sleep, Lee sits next to me on our bed. His hand is warm on my shoulder. I tell him about what happened at Finley’s school. I watch him absorb the words. For a second, I feel like this moment isn’t that significant; she wasn’t physically hurt. In the next second, I know that moments like these grow into more sinister actions.
“I’m sorry I thought she wasn’t ready to talk about what happened to Dr. Ford.”
“I’m sorry she has to be ready to understand it all.”
He kisses my cheek.
I’m supposed to be sleeping but I clean my closet instead.
I fold shirts that are clean but bunched up. The ones I don’t like I put in a pile in the corner. Pants next. Dirty clothes go in my hamper. Not the ones I wore today. I put them in the trash.
Someone knocks at the door.
“You should be in bed,”
“I can’t sleep.”
“I understand that.”
“How?” He’s not a girl.
“I have to imagine you’re angry.”
I nod. It feels silly to say it out loud. I’m not hurt.
“Not long before I met Mom, when we were in college, she had a bad experience with some boys too.”
Dad looks at his hands. Whenever he tells me stories he looks in my eyes.
“She doesn’t seem angry.”
“She was for a long time. I think sometimes she still is.”
“Yes, like yesterday.”
I get up to look at my books on my bookshelf.
“It gets better.”
I think he might leave but he doesn’t move. Dad still wants to talk.
“Sometimes it helps to talk through it.”
I pick out a book.
“We’re here when you’re ready.” He leaves.
I grab a flashlight, turn off the bright light, and turn the pages under the covers of my bed.
“Was she reading?”
“No, but she is now.” He lays beside me but doesn’t touch me. “I mentioned to her that you also had a bad experience.”
I look at him. We don’t talk about this. Not in over ten years. “That’s not your story to tell.” My voice is low. I can’t look at him directly.
Out of the corner of my eye, he nods. “I know.” His voice wavers and I can hear the tears well in his eyes. “But I could tell she felt alone. Like she couldn’t talk to anyone.”
The bed is hot like a furnace. I stand up and look at him. I want to yell, to tell him he had no right, but when I look at him, I’ve never seen him look so sad.
“She had the same look in her eyes that you did when you told me about your attack. Like she was looking for a way to unwind what happened.”
“No ten-year-old should have that look.”
I climb back into bed and we hold each other until Lee falls asleep.
The light under Finley’s door is dim but creeps out into the hallway, just beyond the threshold. I hope that her flashlight has fallen onto the bed and that she’s fast asleep, dreaming of something nice.
I won’t bother her tonight.
My book is on top of me when I wake up but it’s not on the right page. I don’t remember the last page I read, though. The flashlight is on the floor. Must have kicked it in the middle of the night.
I go to the bathroom but hear mom crying when I get to the hallway. I can’t hear what she’s talking about though. I want to wait and listen but I have to pee too badly. I can’t hear anything in the bathroom. I hurry, wipe, and get back to the hallway.
In between cries are fuzzy words. “Why didn’t you tell me,” and “I should’ve told you when it happened,” are all I hear but I still don’t know who mom is crying to.
Finley is leaning against the door when I come out.
I smile at her. “I’m okay, love.”
“Who were you talking to?”
“Your grandma.” Finley doesn’t ask me why my mother makes me cry. She’s only the third person that knows I was attacked in college. “I was telling her the story your dad told you last night — that something bad happened to me when I was in college.”
Her eyes are curious and fixed on me.
“Not even your grandma knew until today.”
“Why didn’t you tell her?”
“She doesn’t like talking about the bad things in life.”
One day I’ll tell Finley that her grandma was also assaulted by someone in power. That it was the beginning of the end of my parent’s marriage. That she never told me until today because she couldn’t seem weak.
Today, the only thing Finley needs to hear is that it wasn’t her fault.