With Both Hands Over Her Heart
She mentions a scene that I know all too well. There is something about watching strangers hug, especially when you can feel their sincerity, that makes me want to place my hand over my heart. The lonelier I feel, the more I pick up on the nuances; the alignment of their hearts, the distance between their hips, and the ability to hold each other comfortably without feeling the need to pull away. It usually takes some form of heartbreak to allow ourselves to open up this way; and even when we do, it tends to be brief. Eventually, we get back into character.
Michelle has enough energy to light up a small town like one of Nikola Tesla’s old experiments. She holds nothing back when we sit down for the interview, and she speaks so rapidly that I often wonder how she manages to breathe underneath the palaver. At a distance, one might assume her to be valley-girl neurotic. But all it takes is a few minutes with her, and your plunged into a raw style of conversation that exposes surprising depth. We begin the conversation talking about her father.
“My dad didn’t spend time building me up as this strong woman, because he was hiding me from society. He didn’t want people to see my body, to date me, never mind the idea of sex. I was barred from going out, barred from having boyfriends, but expected to be married right after college.”
I don’t blame her dad for knowing what men are capable of doing to his daughter. We all know. Michelle grew into a resilient and successful woman who has the courage to walk into any board meeting and speak her mind. Yet there is a cogent anomaly in her character. She laughs when describing her assertive boundaries with lovers in the past; yet when describing unsolicited sexual capers, blunders, and assaults, she says, “A part of me doesn’t know how to react when a man is being overly sexual with me.” Some instances she brushes off as trivial; others she describes as being more concerned with not causing a scene in public rather than telling men to put their dicks back in their pants.
Her father had a temper that would erupt in unpredictable patterns. Most of her childhood was spent walking on eggshells, trying to stay demure enough to escape notice. Michelle’s father would spank her as a child, because she was laughing too loud in the other room while watching TV. He was always yelling, always enraged, and he would hold court in the kitchen -- lambasting the children to the point of tears while explaining the tenets of tough love. Michelle tells the stories of her childhood with a heavy coat of laughter on top, and I laugh along because we both have the same vacant spot in our hearts. My father comes from the same fear-based school of life, and I was always left wondering if everyone was this aggravated about being alive. So Michelle is left with an important lasting impression: Men are prone to fits of rage, and you need to guard yourself against the fury. This axiom has left Michelle, one of the boldest and most outspoken women I know, silent and self-doubting in situations that call for direct measure.
When Michelle’s chiropractor bit her -- yes, bit her -- she didn’t know how to react. She didn’t jump up in a panic and storm out of his office. She had been his patient for three months, and over that time they had developed a sprightly relationship which she says was partly to blame for the situation. Michelle is spirited in all aspects. She never shies away from racy conversation or taboo punch lines. She thinks this might have sent the wrong message to a professional doctor, a married man twenty years her elder; so that one day when she was lying face down on the chiropractic table, waiting for her adjustment, the doctor walked in, saw her ass in a pair of tight yoga pants, bit her on the right butt cheek, laughed, and said “Sorry, sorry. That was inappropriate, but I couldn’t help myself.”
“Oh, that’s nothing,” she tells me with silly ease. “ I have plenty more dick stories.” We both laugh, and I suggest that would be a great title for a book.
Michelle worked for a chic clothing retailer, as a floor sales associate in affluent Palo Alto, when she first returned home from college. One evening, towards closing time, a man came in and asked for help assembling an entire wardrobe. Michelle was running back and forth from dressing room to display floor, hustling to gather pieces of attire for the man to try, as is customary in her position. When she asked the customer if everything was fitting to his liking, he asked her to comment on the shirt he was wearing. He opened the door to model the shirt; and when he did, Michelle was shocked to see that he was fully exposed from the waist down. “Oh, it looks like I forgot to put on underwear. Maybe you can help me with that?” he quipped, with a sleazy smile distorting his face. Instead of screaming at the top of her lungs, Michelle continued to do her job, fetched him some underwear and more clothes, then rang him up at the register when he was satisfied with the selection half an hour later. The next day he returned the entire wardrobe; and for the next week, he came in looking for Michelle every day, just missing her shift each time.
While traveling in Barcelona, a man brushed up to her with his dick exposed as she was getting off the subway.
In college, a neighbor would whistle from inside his bedroom as girls were walking by. When they looked, he would raise the blinds to his neck and masturbate vigorously.
“In college I was raped by a football player from a different school, but I blamed myself for years. I decided I must have done something wrong. I was too wasted”
I ask Michelle to tell the story.
It was a big party weekend, St. Patrick’s Day, and her neighbor invited friends over from out of town. A group of guys came to stay with the neighbor, and they all played football for a well-known college in California. “This one guy, John, he just hated me right away. I don’t know why, but it was obvious he hated my voice, hated the sight of me. He was mean to me all night, talked shit about me; but whatever, I thought it was no big deal. We were all partying, and I just tried to avoid the guy for the rest of the night. No big deal. So the party was over. It was late. I was drunk, and I said bye to everyone and went home to my apartment to go to sleep. I woke up later to that guy, John, fucking me, to his dick inside of me. And it took me a few pumps to realize what was going on, because I had been dead asleep. But when I did realize what was happening, I freaked out. And I was yelling at him like, ‘What the fuck are you doing!?’”
“What does he say when you start fighting?”
“Nothing. He didn’t say a word. He just looked at me with his evil eyes. So I got him off me, and I was yelling at him to get the fuck out. And I eventually got him out of my apartment. I did everything you’re not supposed to do after you’ve been raped. I took a hot shower. I ripped off all my sheets and tried to go back to sleep and forget about the whole thing. The next day my roommate asked me if I hooked up with that guy last night, and I asked why she would think that. Keep in mind that I couldn’t tell her I had been raped. I don’t know why, but I just couldn’t tell anyone. It turns out that the guy came up to the apartment after I had fallen asleep, knocked on the door, and told my roommate that he was sleeping in my room, so she let him in. That’s how he ended up in my room when I was already asleep.”
To summarize: Michelle and John did not flirt; they did not even behave cordially toward each other at the party. Michelle left the party to go sleep, alone in her room, which was in a different apartment. John saw where she went, waited long enough for Michelle to fall asleep, knocked on her door, and lied to her roommate to gain access to an unconscious woman.
I ask Michelle why it’s so difficult to speak up when these things happened to her. “Well, part of it, like when I was in college, was about not wanting my dad to find out. College was the first time I was finally on my own, the first time I was free. I knew if he found out about this stuff he would take me out of school and bring me back home or send me to a convent or something.”
“What about reporting this to the police?”
“In most cases, I just don’t trust the system to take care of it.” Michelle uses the example of the neighbor who masturbated in his window and mentions how all the girls were hesitant to go to the police because of the repercussions. “What if the police don’t have enough evidence to do anything? Or what if they let him off with just a warning? He knows where we live, and who knows what he’ll do if he feels we went after him. I was raised by such an aggressive dad, who blew up all the time, so I’m scared that if I say no to these men outright that they will snap, and turn aggressive, and then hurt me.”
Given all of her experience with the foul side of men, I would assume Michelle to be a staunch supporter of all the #metoo stories coming out right now on social media, but I am surprised. It’s not that she doesn’t support these women, but she is clear in stating that some of the stuff she sees on Facebook seems questionable. “I hate it, because I look at myself as a feminist who supports other women. I don’t want to blame the victim. But I find myself categorizing what I feel to be less valid stories with harsher ones like rape versus some guy saying a ‘that’s what she said’ joke.” I mean, come on. It’s getting to the point where you can’t say anything, especially at work. And maybe because I had such a conservative upbringing, I think that a little butt grab isn’t a big deal. I remember one time I had a coworker grab my boob at a work happy hour, and I didn’t really care enough to report it.”
What a strange predicament to be human. I can’t understand Michelle’s cynical indifference to a happy-hour grope; yet, at the same time, I can relate to the man in the fitting room exposing his dick, hoping someone will touch it. Since the time I began puberty, and before that even, I was obsessed with having girls touch my dick. At first I didn’t even know what I wanted beyond that. But there was something about having a girl touch my private parts that showed me they felt I was worthy of breaking the rules for. I don’t know how to condense it down to one explanation, but part of it was perverted, part was an addiction, part was wanting to feel validated, part was keeping score of something I was trying to “win,” and part was simple loneliness. That bizarre concoction became the basis for the game I would obsess over for most of my life, but it never occurred to me that I might go about it without aggression or some grand conspiracy, trick, or manipulation that would end with the girl finally giving in. Much of my life as a man has been spent coming up with all manners of dialogue with the end goal usually being capitulation. Capitulation: the action of ceasing to resist an opponent or an unwelcomed demand. That was how I went after females for years, for most of my life actually, as opponents needing to be overcome, or at least duped, into giving me what I wanted.
I’ve heard it said that the human experience is merely God playing hide and seek alone. That we are all part of the same thing; only we are so focused on our melodrama that we can’t pull back and comprehend our unity. It’s similar to blood cells flowing inside an artery -- do they sense that they are part of the same organism? When cancerous cells begin to metastasize, are they aware that they are attacking themselves? When we stalk each other with licentious intentions or when we go through the world thinking others must lose for us to gain, do we know we are actually fucking ourselves?
So where does Michelle find optimism, and why does she remain hopeful of finding a man she can spend the rest of her life with? Michelle tells me a story about the wonders of depression – yes, depression. Michelle and I can relate on one monumental experience in our lives: Depression is a gift, because it opens our heart to the pain of strangers. It wasn’t until Michelle was left crying for months, not about the sexual assaults, but about the great fear of not understanding our place in Life, that something began to shift in her. She was scared that she had “missed it” -- missed her opportunity to be happy, to be loved, to have a family, to feel at home in this world. When she speaks about this great hollow, about the notion of feeling broken, a ray of sunlight angles into the room, creating a corona around her hair, and I get the feeling I am hearing the most ancient story we humans have.
She recalls going to a general practitioner when first searching for help. What she found to be the most potent medicine was compassion. A couple minutes after the doctor entered the room she was in tears. It all came out in front of a stranger, and that’s when she first noticed the look of compassion from another human being. When they finished the consultation, the doctor walked her all the way to her car. The next day he sent a handwritten note of encouragement and kindness. There is hope, and all men are not pigs.
Eventually Michelle found a therapist that fit her heart, both figuratively and literally. “When I tell her stories about some difficult memory, or when I’m crying about my dad, or about not having kids, or whatever, she always listens patiently with both hands over her heart. She has this look of deep empathy, and she holds her heart in a way that let’s me know she understands me. It means so much to me, because she just takes the time to listen. So when she tells me that things will get better, that I won’t feel this empty forever, I believe her. It’s different when one of my friends says it, because I just dismiss it so easily when I hear it from them. But when I hear those words from this lady, with her hands on her heart, it’s like the hugs I never got.”
Michelle’s voice cracks, and her eyes become blurred from tears.
“My therapist tells me, ‘I hope you know that I never judge you, and that I love you.’ And I want to say ‘I love you, too,’ but I can’t, because I feel I’m still learning how to say those things to other people. We’re all sad and broken to some degree. Why can’t we find ourselves in each other because of this pain?”