I am nine years old, maybe—ten at the most—so Sis is six or seven. It’s the 1970s, so we are free to rove around unsupervised, but all our destinations fall within a four-block radius of home anyway: the playground at the local elementary school; the tiny neighborhood grocery across the street from it; the park, one street over; the even tinier grocery on its edge. On this particular day, we’ve been to the school playground, or the little store, or both. (Our most devious behavior, to date, is to take our weekly dollar allowance to the store, buy four 25-cent candy bars, scarf three on the way home, and feign innocence and appetite at dinner.) But it’s started to rain, sprinkling a little, and so we’re walking home. We’re half a block away when a car pulls to the curb beside us, window rolled down, and the driver beckons to us, asking something I can’t quite catch.
I’m a polite kid, so I step closer to the car, Sis on my heels. I’m prepared to help this person, provide directions. This is when we see that the man behind the wheel is nude from the waist down. He has on a brown sweater, blue button-down shirt, even a burgundy tie if memory serves, but his bare thighs are on the vinyl car seat, his bare blunt Thing exposed in his naked lap. Sis and I freeze. The man is still talking.
“What’s the name of that school up there?” he asks, pointing up the block, toward the playground where we’ve just been. We’re mute, standing there gaping in the drizzle. We’re not close enough to the car to grab, unless he gets out. He doesn’t get out. He asks us a couple more questions, but we stay silent. It can’t even be a full minute before he loses patience and peels out, and we break and sprint the other direction, pounding home to tell our mother what’s happened. I try to remember the license plate: there was a D or an O, I think, maybe a zero? I know that Mama calls the police and relates our manic tale, but I don’t recall anyone coming to take a statement or otherwise follow up, ever after. Nothing happens, and we continue walking to the park and the store and the school because what else can you do? Mama can’t follow us every waking minute.
I tell my friends, and the story gets funnier with each retelling. I recognize the general menace of a Dangerous Stranger, but the other implicit threat of this guy driving around with his dick in his hand is so beyond my comprehension that it reads to me as a bizarre, hilarious oversight—as if pants were something he just forgot. The Man With No Pants. “The Man With No Pants!” my classmates and I shriek at each other, laughing and laughing. What a nut! What a weirdo! Nearly 40 years later, this is in fact how I ask Sis about it: Do you remember The Man With No Pants? She does, of course.
I’m in sixth grade. The transition to middle school hasn’t been smooth, but there are positives. For one, I meet Holly, in Mr. Zukowski’s homeroom. (Our friendship will persist through decades and across continents, prom dates, graduate degrees, weddings, babies. Last month, I went with her whole family to Disneyland. Her oldest, Kai, is the same age we were when we met.) For another, I have identified a preteen crush object in the same homeroom, a boy I’ll call Daniel. He is shorter than I am, with big brown eyes and a shaggy brown bowl cut, cute in a Davy Jones sort of way. I am dying for him to Notice me. I’m eleven years old. So is he.
On chilly fall mornings, the cool kids perch on the radiator covers along the windowsill before the bell. Daniel and his buddies are bragging and shoving each other around there on the day I sidle onto the edge of the group, all nonchalance. I’m not a part of the conversation; I don’t know what the boys are talking about, but then Daniel leans over and mutters conspiratorially in my ear:
“I’m going to cut off your tit and lick it.”
It is the worst thing—the weirdest, the most violent and overtly sexual, the most incomprehensible thing—that anyone’s ever said to me. I say nothing; I slide off the windowsill and go back to my desk, appalled in a way I have no words for. Holly must see my expression; she asks what’s wrong and I can’t explain, can’t repeat this terrifying, filthy, casual remark. “He’s crazy. He’s, like, an insane psychopath,” is all I can come up with. Holly’s got my back, though. She bestows the nickname “Psycho” on Daniel, and we refer to him this way for years, in notes and yearbook entries. (Neither of us spells it correctly, for a number of those years.) I begin keeping a regular journal at about this same time, and even there I don’t transcribe what this kid said to me. I never tell Holly, or anyone. I never wrote it down until this moment.
To complicate matters, Daniel remains cute, and I am conflicted. We don’t ever have a conversation, but on Field Day in the spring I sneak a photo of him with my mother’s precious Instamatic and tuck it into the frame of my mirror at home. When he transfers out of the district, later, I pine a little, in absolute secrecy.
I just looked for him on Facebook, curious. His real name is fairly common, and none of the bearded, middle-aged Daniels I found looked familiar. None of them appear to be serial killers either, so that’s something.
I’m still in middle school, maybe 12 or 13. I’m walking down the hall when a boy walking the other direction, a boy I don’t know, abruptly shoves his hand between my legs, claws at the zipper of my jeans. It happens in a few seconds; I stumble and jerk away, and he’s already gone in the tumult of passing period, kids whooping and guffawing and slamming locker doors. I am mortified and upset, but it doesn’t occur to me to tell anyone—a teacher, my mother, whomever. What difference would it make? Could I even point out the boy? More than anything, I am humiliated, hoping nobody saw. I say nothing; I’m a little tenser in the hallways afterwards, but eventually I forget all about it. Until last week.
(Incidentally, it’s middle school: the other, more “benign” bra-snappings and butt-slappings my girlfriends and I endure are a blur, innumerable. I don’t remember telling anyone. I don’t remember anyone telling.)
I’m 18, at a screening of Rocky Horror with my friends, some of whom are in the shadow cast. It’s a good night, crowded; we run down to the front of the theatre to do the Time Warp, everybody bumbling and laughing in the dark. At the line “Put your hands on your hips,” we all throw our arms up, to shimmy and jazz-hands them into place. The guy behind me, though, a stranger, sings “Put your hands on your tits! Or somebody else’s!” and grabs both my breasts, a quick honk. And I laugh, I keep dancing—because it’s clever and naughty, because it’s Rocky, because it’s all about breaking down boundaries. I have, to wit, been given a Terrible Thrill. “I just got felt up,” I hiss to Gwyn when we scramble back to our seats, still laughing. I found it funny. I still do; I have always looked back at this moment with bemused fondness. But now I feel strange about that, a little guilty. Is it okay, if it made me laugh? What am I complicit in?