Dondrie Burnham

Writer. Creator. Shapeshifter.

Me too.

The first time I was about six.  I was at church and I had been sitting on my pastor’s lap.  I had always liked him and I worshipped his daughter but I didn’t want to sit on his lap.  It made me uncomfortable but I’d already learned that my discomfort came second to the whims of the adults in my life.  My father came into the room and retrieved me.  He told me that I wasn’t to sit in any man’s lap, ever again.   The elation of my rescue was overshadowed by the shame I felt.  I didn’t know exactly what I’d done wrong but I could tell that he was upset and it was somehow my fault.  Note to self, no laps.

About a year later I was talking to some boy friends at church when I heard my name.  My mother looked pissed.  When I got home, I was in big trouble.  Apparently, I had been talking to them with my hands on my hips.  I hadn’t realized.  I also didn’t know why it mattered where my hands were when I talked.  I’d later hear that I was trying to be ‘sexy’ and grown.  I thought I was just trying to be heard by my friends, my mistake.

When I was nine or 10, I was walking home from school when a man rode alongside me on his bike.  He told me I was sexy and he asked where I was going.  My hackles were up, so I told him I was going to a friend’s house.  He told me I shouldn’t be walking alone and he asked if I wanted him to protect me.  I’d already gotten to my street, but I didn’t want him to know where I lived and I didn’t want him to know I’d be alone.  I kept walking.  I walked in the middle of the street and my eyes darted at every house, hoping to see someone sitting on their porch.  He kept talking and I tried to walk faster and faster.  He asked what street my friend lived on and I said ‘It’s just up the way, I got it, thanks for protecting me.’  He kept following.  He kept talking.  I’d long crossed the established boundaries my parents had set for walking near home, but I wasn’t sure what else I could do.  I started to pray.  I knew that if I walked much further, I’d be lost.  I saw a police car at the end of a block, so I turned toward the car and waved at the officers.  The man turned and biked away.  I didn’t tell the officers, but I stood next to the car waiting until I thought it would be safe to walk home.

The following year, I started middle school.  I was bussed to a safer, whiter part of town.  On the bus the boys tried to kiss me and put their hands between my legs. It was a long ride and a lot of boys. I told the bus driver and she told me to sit in the front behind her, but she was mean to me from that day forward. She was so mean that I had to tell my mother because she started to single me out and poke fun at me.  I was shy and soft spoken and she treated me like a whiny brat. My mother came and threatened her life.  She was nice after that.  I started dating a boy at school, but I didn’t want to do more than hold hands.  When I refused to kiss him, he spread a rumor that I had toxic breath.  He drew a crude picture of me and put it on my locker.  Other kids replicated this image and would leave it in my chairs in class, on my table at lunch and I’d see it drawn in some of the bathroom walls.

We moved the following year.  More boys hands on the bus.  We lived in an apartment complex and my favorite cousin had come to stay for the summer.  My parents worked during the day, so the two of us would walk around the complex and to the convenience store.  We made friends with some of the boys in the complex.  We weren’t discriminatory but there were no girls our age.  We invited the boys over for PB&J’s and Sinbad.  The one I liked was nerdy and freckled but he had a friend who was a little older and a lot more aggressive.  He cornered me in my bedroom and kissed me.  He bit my lip and wouldn’t let go.  He held me against the wall with his full body weight.  He pushed his pelvis into me and asked if I liked it.  When I said ‘NO’ he told me I was acting like a silly little girl and he thought I was woman.  I kissed him so he would relax.  It worked.  As he tried to pull me toward the bed, I told him I had to go to the bathroom and went back to join my cousin and my friend.  I stared at the television laughing boisterously, pretending it was the only thing on my mind.  He left and he told everyone I was a terrible kisser.

By the time I got to high school I was a pro at smiling and pretending.  I’d also put on a ton of weight and learned to hang my head low and not make eye contact.  It didn’t make a difference.  There was the boy who wanted help in Mr. Mancini’s Spanish class.  He was cute, he had dimples and he asked if I could help him.  He didn’t want anyone to know he was having trouble so he asked me to meet him under the stairs.  As I unzipped my backpack he put his hand under my shirt and my bra.  He told me I should be quiet so no one would hear me.  What would people think?  He kissed me and told me I was pretty.  Then he told me not to tell anyone and he walked away.  I stayed there for several minutes because I was worried people would see me and think I was a slut.  There was the boy who called me heavyweight fatty and barked at me.  He asked if he could copy my science homework and when I said NO he got all the other boys to bark at me too.  When we were alone he told me he was sorry and that he wasn’t really like that.  He put his hand on my ass.  I started letting him copy my homework.  There was the boy who I thought was my friend.  He’d walk me to class and we’d talk on the phone.  We mostly talked about books but he was really nice.  One day he saw me share a glance with a boy I liked and he asked me what was up.  When I told him we’d been talking, he slapped me.  He told me I was his.  I had no idea.

There was that time in Junior College when I was at a party with my friends. I went to lie down with a male friend I was super comfortable with.  We’d slept (just sleeping) together before.  We were close. We cuddled.  A few minutes later a mutual female friend came in.  She lay on the opposite side and joined the cuddle.  A few minutes later I felt the bed shift and I saw her hands moving up his body.  They started kissing and I felt a hand on my leg.  I set upright.  I jumped up, grabbed my shoes and exited.  He followed me asking if I was ok.  I told him I was.  I wasn’t.  There was that time I auditioned for Oleanna and my theatre professor and mentor called me into his office to tell me I’d given the best audition, but he couldn’t cast me because realistically the audience wouldn’t think I was sexy.  That one may not count, but it made me feel just as small as the rest of them.

There was the time my best friend slipped me Ecstasy and had sex with me.  There was the time my boyfriend decided to punish me for my “smart mouth” mid-coitus by choking me and pounding into me so hard I bled.  There was the time I told that guy to stop and he said to stop crying and let him finish.  Then when he did he held me close to him and told me it was going to be alright.  There was my first full body massage, given by a man I knew, who went from massaging my thighs to inserting his fingers inside me in 5 seconds.  There was my first professional spa massage years later, a gift from a friend.  While massaging my thighs, he asked me if I liked to cooked because he could tell I liked to eat.  He said he also liked to eat and I should cook for him sometime.  I remained silent.  He massaged my scalped and then grabbed a fist full of my hair and pulled.  He looked at me and asked me if it was ok.  I didn’t know what to say.  I told him it hurt.  I tensed and waited for the hour to be over.  He walked me to the front to wait for my friend who’d apparently fallen asleep during her massage.  The front desk clerk gave me a tiny envelope and told me it was for gratuity.  He was standing right next to her.  I tipped him and sat waiting for my friend.

There was the time my boss told me I needed to dress sexier at work.  I ignored him.  He told me if I took care of him, he’d take care of me.  I didn’t. He fired me and told everyone I was a thief. There was the time a friend cornered me in a bathroom and wouldn't let me out until I showed him my breasts.  There was the time a different man offered me $100 to show them to him at the bar. There were more times.  There will be more times. If you're still finding excuses to keep your eyes open and your mouth closed, maybe it's time.

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