There’s Really No Need to Talk About This
by Rachel A.G. Gilman
The first time a boy asked Rachel out, she was four years old. She was sitting on the alphabet-themed rug in their nursery school classroom (between the letters “F” and “G”) trying to stay still so her Velcro sneaker straps wouldn’t stick to the carpeting. She couldn’t yet tie her shoes. That’s when the boy sat beside her and whispered “I like you” into her ear. Rachel turned and looked at him.
He had green eyes, moles scattered about his neck, and a New York Rangers T-shirt on his pale, thin body. Rachel liked all of these things, even his big ears, so she nodded and said, “I like you too.”
The boy smiled, putting his arm around Rachel’s shoulders. It made her body light up inside the same way she imagined Ariel’s did in The Little Mermaid when she first saw Eric, as if he had discovered an untouched switch.
Rachel and Pre-School Prince’s relationship progressed quickly. Their teacher cast them as a pilgrim couple in the Thanksgiving pageant and then as a couple of cowboys in the spring circus. His mother helped him pick out a locket to give Rachel for Christmas and hers cut a photo of Pre-School Prince into the shape of a heart to fit inside. Their parents also took them on supervised dates: picking apples and pumpkins, attending piano lessons, and visiting the Regal 19 cinemas to see Spy Kids and The Emperor’s New Groove. Mostly, though, Rachel and Pre-School Prince spent time at one another’s houses, which they preferred because they didn’t have to be constantly watched.
Whenever the weather was warm, they went to Rachel’s and swam in the big, blue inflatable pool in her backyard, drinking grape Kool-Aid Bursts and driving her Barbie Jeep up and down the cul-de-sac. Rachel wore her Little Mermaid sunglasses and chewed Tootsie Rolls, pretending it was the bubble gum she wasn’t allowed. She’d throw her arms up and laugh when Pre-School Prince laid his foot on the gas pedal going down the hill to distract herself from how it also made her feel scared.
Whenever they couldn’t be outside, they went to Pre-School Prince’s and played “grown-ups.” It was a bit like playing house, but without the pretend stove or the plastic food or, come to think of it, the playhouse. Instead, his parents let them have control of the upstairs: two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a hallway.
The game went as such. In the “morning,” Pre-School Prince and Rachel woke up next to one another in his parents’ bed. He said all adults did this. Since Rachel’s parents didn’t live together, she took his word for it. Pre-School Prince then went to “work” (stood in the hallway mumbling to himself) as Rachel kept busy in the “house” (sat on the bedroom floor and rearranged his Thomas the Tank Engine cars). They then got back in bed at the end of the day, said “I love you,” and pretended to sleep, before doing everything all over again until it was time for Rachel to go home.
One day, Pre-School Prince changed the routine. He walked into his bedroom during Rachel’s housework time, shut the door, and turned the lock. The clicking noise was foreign to Rachel; the bedroom doors at her house did not have locks.
Rachel ignored him at first, continuing to rearrange Thomas and his friends on the magnetic tracks. Pre-School Prince leaned down to get her attention by kissing her cheek. She giggled. He motioned for her to stand up, which she did, and he pushed his body into hers to kiss her mouth. They had kissed on the mouth plenty of times, even with their tongues, but rarely in private and never for this long. Rachel wondered if Pre-School Prince’s little sister or his cat or his mother would call for them. Everything remained quiet.
Pre-School Prince broke the kiss first and shoved Rachel into his bed. “Let’s take our clothes off,” he said, smiling the way he did when he ate too much candy.
‘What?’ Rachel said. She sat down and laughed, or tried to. She thought it sounded silly.
Pre-School Prince frowned. “Come on,” he said. “I’ll go first.”
He slipped off his t-shirt and basketball shorts, revealing a small pair of white briefs. His penis (what Rachel still called his “private parts”) faced her. It was the second one she had seen, the first being his baby brother’s when she’d watched his mother change a diaper in the movie theatre bathroom. Rachel had thought then and still believed that penises were strange. They sort of looked like someone had twisted the feet of a balloon animal dog then given up.
“Your turn,” Pre-School Prince said.
“I don’t want to.”
He growled. “Don’t you love me?”
They had told each other they loved one another before, writing it in chicken scratch inside Valentine cards and muttering it before saying goodbye at school. This felt different. The word usually excited Rachel’s brain in warm oranges and reds. Now it appeared blueish black.
“What about just this?” Rachel eventually asked, pulling at the waistband of her GAP Kids denim skort.
Pre-School Prince nodded, and Rachel slid the garment over her hips, exposing her Disney Princess panties. Still, he looked unhappy. Rachel stood there for a moment and let him stare at her before her body curled into a ball, falling over horizontally on top of his bed. She stared at the faces on the train table, wondering if they were watching. She kept hoping someone might come knock on the door. She was too nervous to yell, not sure what would happen if no one heard her downstairs.
“Take them off,” Pre-School Prince said, pointing at the panties. “Come on, do it.”
Rachel bit her lip, swallowing, but still didn’t move.
Pre-School Prince reached over to his nightstand and picked up a black, ballpoint pen, the kind Rachel’s mother kept on her desk and didn’t allow her to play with when making crafts. He removed the cap and shoved it in Rachel’s face.
“If you don’t do this,” he said, “I’m going to come to your house and pop a hole in the side of your pool!”
Rachel didn’t yet understand that a five-year-old lacked the power to cause this level of destruction, though given the dark look fixed in Pre-School Prince’s eyes, she probably would have been terrified, regardless. Nervously, she pulled her panties down.
Pre-School Prince grabbed Rachel’s narrow shoulders and pushed her back onto his blue, checked comforter. He placed his mouth on hers and his hands on either side of her arms so her only option was to remain still. His balloon animal appendage limply butted against the inside of her thigh and the not yet nameable parts between her legs. It was uncomfortable, warm, weird. She remained paralyzed underneath his chest and mouth and legs. As he moved a breath down to take her neck in his mouth like a Dum Dum lollipop, Rachel opened her eyes slightly. She made eye contact with Princess Belle on her panties. Rachel sensed shame in the character’s smiling, cheery face. It tightened everything in her body by a knot until finally someone called up from downstairs.
“Coming mom,” Pre-School Prince shouted back. He pulled away, a big dumb smile on his face. “We should probably get dressed.”
Rachel couldn’t look at him. She couldn’t look at anyone as she pulled her skort back up and walked downstairs, listening to the laughter from the adults at the tail ends of jokes. She kept her eyes on her sandals as she fixed the Velcro straps, staring at the little lights that sparkled with each step she took out the door and into the driveway, forgetting to wave goodbye.
“Did you have a good time?” Rachel’s mother asked as she helped her into the booster seat in the back of the BMW.
The gentle touches of her mother’s fingers against her body drew Rachel’s attention to an ache to her legs. As her mother shut the door and buckled herself into the driver’s seat, a stifled sensation broke in Rachel’s throat, sending tears out from her eyes. Once they started, she couldn’t make them stop.
“What’s wrong?” Rachel’s mother asked. Rachel often cried after playdates ended, but this was different. Turning around in her seat, she asked, “Did something happen?” When Rachel kept crying but did not reply, she added, more softly, “Can you tell me?”
Rachel doesn’t have the words for what happened, just like she doesn’t know she is going to skip the last few days of nursery school but will attend the moving up ceremony, trying to be grateful her surname seats her on the opposite end of the stage from Pre-School Prince so at least she can keep her head down toward her Clifford the Big Red Dog nametag pinned to her floral dress, pretending she is acting normally; same goes for how after they throw their tiny, red graduation caps into the air, instead of wanting to stay and take pictures with teachers and friends, Rachel will not want to talk to anyone. She will just want to go home.
Rachel has no idea the next time she will see Pre-School Prince will not be until middle school; where he will have sort of grown into his ears but remain skinny so he falls into the crowd of second-tier popular guys, and she will be taller than him but weigh twice as much so her only friend will be the other plus-sized girl in advanced math. She cannot foresee her and that girl standing on the side-lines as the more popular ones walk around with their Vera Bradley tote bags on one arm and Nike-clad guys on the other, basking in how everyone has started discovering physical attraction: asking each other out and putting names of supposed significant others in their AOL bios, kissing at football games and in the darkest corners of school dances. Rachel doesn’t know that when her friend whines about how badly she wants a boyfriend, Rachel will reply she had one years ago, pointing to Pre-School Prince in the crowd as he engages in a sword fight with another guy using their lacrosse sticks. She’ll mention they used to kiss but not how she has tried to forget it by destroying their photos and burying the locket in the trash. And when she adds that they sort of almost had sex, Rachel will not be prepared for the “what the fuck” of disgust her friend emits in response, followed by, “What do you mean almost? Weren’t you, like, five?” or how by the end of the week when word gets out about Rachel’s former “relationship” and people query Pre-School Prince, he will vehemently deny everything, saying, “Not with her. Can you imagine? She’s fat and . . . and weird.”
Rachel cannot foresee transferring to a private high school to get away from this and then bringing Pre-School Prince up again during a sleepover game of Truth or Dare with her new best friend after being asked how far she has gone with a guy, or that he will for years remain her lone experience. She hasn’t discovered that when something hurts, the easiest thing to do is to turn the pain into a joke, to point at the elephant in the room and laugh; that this will be the method she uses whenever she retells the story, coating it in a hard-shell of humour to poke fun at the sexist logic of the game of “grown-ups” and the idea that Thomas the Tank Engine’s wide eyes watching them was actually pretty perverted; that this will make it digestible in the moments when she feels like she needs to let it out, though if she brings it up in the wrong circumstances, a person’s eyes will bug out and she will be forced to drop the conversation, to say, “Forget it,” quickly diverting her eyes away, adding, “There’s really no need to talk about this,” which is a prelude to Rachel and said person probably not talking much ever again.
Rachel cannot imagine how the story will fade almost entirely once she enters university; where she will remain a bit weird and a bit fat but people will tend to care less; where sex is so plethoric that it is almost boring; or where she will be able to not talk or think about it — almost to be fine — up until one autumn night senior year, where after a day at her internship at TV Guide having spent her time covering the sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein, she will return to her apartment and write something vague online using #MeToo. She cannot picture the restaurant where another friend over dinner will mention the post and call her brave, a comment Rachel hates because she has conditioned herself to believe writing about trauma is more selfish than anything else; how this friend will tell her own story about her high school boyfriend that Rachel will say is awful. The friend will then prompt Rachel to share her story for the first time in years without jokes or animated details, only for the friend to then ask Rachel when she has finished speaking and feels like she has stuffed a box of saltine crackers into her mouth, “But . . . does that count? Like, are you sure he even knew what he was doing? You guys were just little kids.”
Rachel has no clue she will spend large chunks of her senior thesis analysing fictitious depictions of sex and relationships and trying to find one that looks anything like her own, filling her search history with child-on-child sexual abuse and saving the half-dozen articles, academic papers, and pamphlets that pop up, attempting to define what has always felt undefinable in the moments in bed with boys that actually care a little yet still make her shudder when they try to do something penetrative; hardly able to mutter “I sometimes have trouble with that” in a way that says something but not the something she needs. She cannot anticipate how the articles will claim “it is not always easy to tell the difference between natural sexual curiosity and potentially abusive behaviours” before focusing on the importance of correcting the behaviour of the “harmful” child early (“some are satisfying their curiosity by experimenting without a mature understanding of the harm they may be doing”), never addressing what to do about those that child has harmed. She can’t yet gauge how her aggression toward identifying with some of the psychological responses of victims — anxiety, withdrawn behaviour, low self-esteem — will conflate with not wishing lifelong punishment on abusive children, leaving her impossibly frustrated that there has been more written about how registering a person as a sex offender before they turn eighteen can negatively impact them for life than what happens to the people they hurt; that there is forever a stronger emphasis on the abusive child understanding what they did was wrong rather than figuring out how to talk to the victimised one who is going to spend their life having the incident referred to as “experimental” whilst being disbelieved and trying to convince themselves that bad people will indeed have consequences for doing bad things.
She has never heard of the not yet invented Facebook, let alone be able to imagine herself logging onto the website only to see a photo posted by an old friend with her arm looped around the shoulders of Pre-School Prince at a holiday party, wearing his community college hockey sweatshirt and big, fake diamond studs that exaggerate the size of his ears even more, completely oblivious to how he is the reason that Rachel has spent years crying at animated movies with plotlines where someone must give up comforts from their childhood — The Polar Express and The Velveteen Rabbit (she will not go anywhere near Toy Story 3) — or that when she walks past a toy store and sees Thomas the Tank Engine smiling at her from the window the back of her throat still tightens.
Twenty years probably sounds like forever to Rachel in that backseat, but she will learn that it passes quickly, and it will take that long for her to figure out how to explain this situation to her mother: to apologize through another round of hyperventilating sobs for not doing it sooner, during which time her mother will admit she always had a feeling but no way of coming out to ask about it; where she will try to assure Rachel everything will be okay.
For right now, though, all Rachel knows is it feels like she did something wrong.
“He. . . . He told me he would come pop a hole in the pool if I didn’t kiss him,” she finally says. There is nothing more she is capable of adding about what came to pass.
Her mother’s breathing becomes audible as her hands tighten on the wheel. “He shouldn’t have done that to you. It isn’t okay,” she says. She looks into her lap. “I don’t want you playing with him again.”
Shifting the gears of the car and pulling out onto the street, Rachel’s mother looks at her daughter through her rearview mirror again and asks about getting frozen yoghurt. Rachel nods as she realises she has been holding her breath. She lets it go, air slowly draining out of her chest like a tire’s soft leak.
Photo credit: Janko Ferlič