Tainted Love

Trigger Warning: This story details accounts of a sexually explicit relationship between a minor and an authority figure.

boat dock

It was loving and consensual. It was statutory rape and wrong. We were a story of conflicting truths that never should have been.

After the first time my best friend had sex, we walked together through her neighborhood in the balmy night air so her parents wouldn’t hear us talking, dissolving together into a pile of laughter as she told me about how loving and awkward she and her boyfriend had been.

After the first time I had sex, I drove myself home- having to pull over only once when my sobbing became debilitating- had dinner with my parents, then sat on the floor of the shower letting the warm water mix with my tears until it ran cold, holding my knees to my chest in a futile attempt to shield myself from the crushing loneliness I felt.

But the truth is that stolen glances are erotic and secrets are breathlessly exciting even in the midst of lonely heartbreak.

Standing in the cramped summer camp boat house as I gathered up canoe paddles and life jackets I felt him before I heard the door close behind me. He stepped close, holding my hips tight as his familiar lips found my neck and I smiled when he whispered how badly he wanted me. I could feel him hard against me and I pushed all of myself back into him desperately. My knees started to buckle but he had undone my jeans and I was held up by his fingers inside of me. I made an involuntary sound that came out something like a whimper as I said his name, preceded by “Mr,” of course, because kids in the south are nothing if not polite to authority figures- and I knew it turned him on. I was overwhelmed with the urge to kiss him and vomit all at once. And then, with one last squeeze of my hips and a playful nip of my ear, he was back out the door. I leaned against the wall holding my stomach and trying to remember how to breathe.

Years later, after we had ended, after I had gotten married, after he had moved away, I was helping get canoes ready for the kids at camp. I stepped into the boat house and suddenly, as I gathered up canoe paddles and life jackets, I couldn’t breathe. I gasped for air. My heart raced. My hands clenched. My knees started to buckle. I stood frozen in panic for what I was sure was coming, for his hands on my hips. Desperate to remember what was real and what wasn’t I leaned against the wall holding my stomach and tried to remember how to breathe.

Desperation for breath became desperation to feel him one more time. Standing there in the boathouse, I ached for him. All the memories of what we had been, how we had started- falling in love even though society said it was both wrong and illegal- came rushing back. I ached for him in the way my once-broken-arm aches before a thunderstorm, steady and unrelenting. The missing gave way to the familiar overwhelming loneliness as the reality of living our secret washed back over me in waves until I thought I would drown in the sudden onset sadness. Without warning, the sadness gave way to anger. For making me keep our secret, for not loving me like I deserved to be loved, for not fucking knowing better.

We used to joke, laughing together forehead to forehead as I sat in his lap after giving him a hand job in his office, that he was going to hell. But it turns out, I was already there.

Complex trauma is different than other trauma, according to my therapist, because its hurt is handed down by someone you trust as opposed to impersonal disaster at the hands of God like a hurricane. She explained this to me right before diagnosing me with post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, triggered in part by the birth of my daughter, and a result of the secret relationship I was never supposed to have 10 years before.

Incidents like the one in the boat house happened rarely and I didn’t address them until after my daughter was born. A mutual friend told me that he had applied for a job where I worked and she said I had to tell someone about how we started so he wouldn’t get hired. When I protested she asked how I would feel if in 14 years he told me that my daughter was growing up to be pretty just like her mama. Something in that reframing, envisioning him interacting with my teenage daughter like he interacted with me, triggered my re-processing of our relationship.

After a particularly harrowing evening alone in a hotel room on a work trip when I found myself reading through our old emails and consequently googling both “symptoms of a panic attack” and “legal definition of statutory rape”, I found a therapist.

Soon after, I was lying on my office floor stretching- an old physical therapy trick I use often- when I turned my head to the side and my view of the worn, graying, commercial grade carpet pulled me back into a memory. I was transported in time, back to the floor of his office after hours. Lying flat on my back, his weight pressing me down onto the hard floor, my v-neck t-shirt pulled up and my shorts unzipped, the scratchy carpet rough on my exposed lower back. One hand caressed me while the other held both my hands above my head.

I felt a familiar ache in my hip bones as if they were still bruised from his thrusting, an erection pressing hard against my pubic bone through his jeans. My stomach turned over on itself and I sat up quickly, pulling the trashcan under my desk close in case I needed it. My hands, now clammy, clenched and unclenched. I put my head between my knees and took several deep breaths.

My therapist explained that every time I relived a memory, I experienced it the way I should have experienced it the first time. To be a physically small teenage girl, all knees and elbows, pinned against the floor alone in an isolated place by a man nearly ten years older and stronger than her, someone in a position of authority who she trusted, in the midst of that much sexual energy should have been a dangerous experience. That’s why in the remembering I felt fear and panic.

But the reality is, that’s not what I experienced when it happened. My adolescent brain couldn’t process the inherent danger of the situation and make that fit with how loved and wanted I felt. The truth is that I willingly went to his office after hours, willingly kissed him back, willingly lied to my parents about where I was, willingly let him push me down onto the office hallway floor, willingly groaned with pleasure as his lips traced my collarbones, and willingly promised I would never tell.

Slowly I began re-reading my journals and reviewing our relationship with my therapist, trying to reconcile what I remembered it as and what it was. The remembering felt like he had just used me for sex, but the truth is never that straightforward. After I turned 18 and graduated we stayed in a relationship and dated for two years. We went on family vacations, talked about our days as we brushed our teeth, took the dog for long walks, went on a road trip, and looked at engagement rings. Of course it wasn’t just about sex, we were genuinely and deeply in love.

Somewhere in a box I still have a stack of letters addressed to Annie Girl and signed by him. Pages of my journals are filled with his handwriting, confessing his love for me and begging me not to “give my forever away” but to instead to save it for him because he loves me “like a lover, like a sister, like a partner in crime.”

It’s genetically built into teenage DNA to feel alone and misunderstood. Teens are stuck somewhere between childhood and adulthood, no longer innocent enough to be children, but much too naïve to be grown. They all want love, but they don’t know what love is. In the midst of teenage boyfriends and relationships and developing self-awareness, he loved me, understood me, and saw me. I trusted him to tell me who I was and what I wanted.

“I spend a lot of my day rationalizing you. I tell myself that you’re much more mature than everyone your age, and most people my age. You’re smarter and more worldly, too. And I figure, too, that I’m awful immature when it comes to dating and sex. And I figure we can grow up together on that front. And then, honestly, there are days when I can’t quite look at myself because I feel so guilty; but yet, I don’t ever want you to go. Because every moment of guilt is followed by a moment of peace in knowing that I’m loved by such a wonderful girl.”

But in the midst of all the sweetness and the understanding, was- of course- sex. Which is why the above sentiment was followed immediately by:

“We should both join Second Life and have our characters fuck each other a lot. We could watch. It would be kinda dirty and funny.”

Sex had always been the root of everything we were. Saved in my inbox is an email from him received when I was in college, titled, “Sexy Is As Sexy Does.” A collection of photos, beginning with the first I ever sent- when I was barely 16- up to the most recent, one sent from my apartment bathroom. “I think you’re learning what sexy is over time…” he begins, critiquing each photo and noting that I look sheepish in the first one before concluding, “You’re only getting better…”

The truth is that I was too young to know the damage that would come from a relationship built on our broken foundation, but I loved and cared for him deeply and that was real. The truth is that he didn’t love me like I deserved to be loved, but he loved me in the best way that he knew how and that was real too. The truth is that statutory rape laws exist to protect young people who don’t know what they don’t know yet, a naivety he took advantage of, and some days when I reflect on that I’m angry and some I’m sad but every once in awhile I just miss him. The truth is that our relationship brought me just as much joy as heartbreak, but the joy doesn’t negate the validity of my trauma. The truth is that we were a love story, but we never should have been.