We're both 15, my friend and I. We're slightly drunk, slightly high, leaning against each other's backs on a dimly lit park bench. I've recently introduced her to my boyfriend and I'm now patiently waiting for her opinion.
"He's no Brad Pitt, but he's alright," she finally says, and I know she's being generous.
My boyfriend is a scrawny man with a crooked nose and a ponytail. My boyfriend is 29 years old.
I meet him online the day I brave it and upload my very first picture—taken from slightly higher up so I appear slimmer than I really am—to a new internet forum. Soon I get a message; he says I look like Robert Plant's sexy bastard daughter and I get hormone-y butterflies in my stomach. A week later, after hours and hours spent on MSN Messenger, we meet in real life. He's shorter than I thought and his hair smells like cellar damp, but he compliments my hair. And my eyes. And my ass. We neck for a bit and we're a couple.
A song he writes has my name in it and, although he rhymes it to Banana, I feel like fucking Yoko.
He shares poorly rolled, saliva-soaked joints and cans of cheap beer with me. He's in a band, small town famous-ish. A song he writes has my name in it and, although he rhymes it to Banana, I feel like fucking Yoko.
I contemplate losing my virginity to him, but something feels off so I keep finding excuses not to. There's this feeling I get everytime we kiss, the one that somehow permeates through all the raging teen angst and the need to punish my parents. It feels like it's wrong, but not the good wrong, not like smoking a whole pack behind the school—it surpasses the cool aspect of bad and dabbles in menacing.
"I don't really like 'em older than 19, but don't worry, we've got plenty of time," he teases one day, when I shrug away from his touch—and I know I want out.
I mention him to my older friend, telling her I want to break it off and asking her to help, as I don't think I can. She tries to hide the shock but fails. I make plans to meet him and send her in my place. She tells him not to call me anymore and threatens to tell my parents. He tells her not to worry, that his feelings towards me are "purely paternal."
Read more: My Dad, the Famous Conspiracy Theorist
When she meets me afterwards, she gives me a big, lingering hug. He texts me later, calling me a classless bitch for treating him that way.
I text back: "Thanks, dad."
The only other time I see him is a few years later when I run into him on the street. He avoids my gaze, holding hands with a girl who looks my age, at best.
Coming from a place where grown men pick little girls from school and bring them up on their own accord to make them into trophy wives later, where bridenapping is still a thing and hymenoplasty is as common as a cavity filling, my story isn't that shocking. It's not applauded, but it happens in Georgia—a mere occupational hazard of being a teenage girl. And since my parents' generation still values virginity as the primary asset for turning girls into marriage material, I'm halfway out of the woods. At least he didn't get to fuck me, right?
Ten years on, I still haven't fully stopped feeling accountable for what happened. Looking back I still don't know why I chose to be with him, but the choice was definitely mine. He hasn't forced me to do anything; all he did was tell me I was pretty when I didn't feel like it and express his disdain towards "prude cunts," encouraging me to prove him I wasn't one. It was my choice to make out with him and text him the color of my underwear from school and tell him if I'd masturbated that day. I could have said no. I could have broken it off. It was my rebellion. It was my responsibility.
There are a few places in town—gloomy half-parks smelling of piss—where he kissed me and touched me and asked me to run away with him. Driving past those places I still shudder, mostly without consciously remembering why. On those occasions when I do remember, the memory of him sliding his cold, clammy hand down my shirt sends me into a pit of anxiety. When it happens, I tell myself that what's important is that he didn't get to have sex with me and get what he wanted the most: my so-called innocence. I keep telling myself I won.
One day, my boyfriend mentions a football player who is sentenced to six years in jail for having sex with a teenager. I have no idea who he is and I Google "English footballer teenager sex" to find his name. As I read the story, decade-long feelings start crashing down on me—among all the stories of famous men committing sex crimes, this one hits way too close to home. The story's too much like mine: the texting, the age difference, the fame (a pathetic imitation, in my case) being one of the main factors in the stomach-turning equation. I break my promise of not crying at work. I smoke a cigarette while sober.
Read more: Doing Meth with My Stepmom
It's not similarity that hurts, it's the difference. Unlike the Sunderland footballer Adam Johnson, my abuser has never been punished. He's never been scorned by his colleagues; nobody's had to endure a removal of a tattoo because of what he did to me; he hasn't been all over the news, or even on trial. He continues to be an average Joe, helping an occasional old lady across the street, convincing an occasional teenager to have sex with him.
And my story isn't special. He's neither the first nor last grown man to get away with "dating" children. He's just one of the many unexposed small-time pedophiles living among us, keeping up their covers unless one of them happens to be unusually sloppy or particularly famous. He and his ken keeps quietly abusing young girls day in and day out, as society keeps telling the bravest of us that we should have said no louder, that we looked older, that we'd sort-of enjoyed it—as if that somehow cancels everything out.
There is no changing what happened. There is no unmolesting me.
I'm not quite certain who the primary recipient is of this excruciating anger bubbling inside of me; maybe it's myself for not doing anything about it in good time, or my friends for not making me, or his friends who knew all along and know still, or him personally for being scum. Or maybe, as much as it pains me to admit it, it's partially Adam Johnson's victim—the girl courageous enough to ask for justice I will never live to get.
His presence is like a big fat zit I know I shouldn't touch, but can barely keep my hands off of. We have tens of mutual friends on Facebook. My heart races as I click his profile and I feel slightly relieved to see that his posts are mainly drunk, pathetic status updates. He looks exactly the same, except that his bald patch has at least doubled in size.
Read More: Confessions of a Cheating Disabled Athlete
There is no changing what happened. There is no unmolesting me, but I'm finally starting to see things the way they always have been. For the past ten years, through all the guilt and enervating shame, I felt like he had something on me—something worth keeping quiet for. I felt like there was an invisible, unspoken pact of silence between us (he wasn't gonna tell if I wasn't)—his one last sickly hold on me.
Johnson's case isn't just a way for me to revisit our icky thing together—seeing someone else in my place has helped me look at things in a new, unbiased light. I may never get my justice, but at least now I know, that there really is no other side to the argument. There is no sharing the blame; no deep, dark secret between two parties. Instead, there is a crime and there is a victim; a predator and a prey. And I'm no longer any of those.