My two friends and I laughed in the blinding sunshine, lazily tossing a beach ball back and forth at the opposite end. A kid from our school swam over - Ernest - with his cousin. Ernest was in our class, but a couple years older than me as I was always young for my grade. His cousin looked even older, a few hairs sprouting off his chin. The beginnings of a goatee. The cousin smiled and paid me extra attention, his one earring flashing in the sunlight.
I think I may have giggled when introduced. Boys were almost on my radar. But not quite. After barely answering his questions, I turned back to my girlfriends and we kept chatting about school and what teacher we might get. I asked Ernest if he was going to be in my class again in the coming year. And then…
“Hey, wanna go out some time?” I realized the cousin was still talking to me. Go out? Seriously? Was he asking me on a date? My two friends twittered behind their hands. We all exchanged silly nervous looks.
“No thank you,” I answered politely as I had been taught. A part of me felt warm and funny at the thought; the other part was confused as to why he would ask me. I wasn’t even old enough to date, and not sure if I wanted one anyway. What would I do if I had to sit somewhere and talk with a boy the whole time?
I turned back to my friends. “Hey, I’m still talking to you.” I remember letting go of the edge of the pool so I could shift positions. And then the world tilted in the most violently frightening manner.
My head was being held under water. I was choking and trying to scream and terrified. Perhaps it was only for a second or two, but it felt like eternity. Time both sped up and slowed down.
Then it jumped.
Like a broken scene in an old cinematic movie, one moment I was submerged in water trying to fight off whatever was holding me under, and the next I was outside the pool and a lifeguard was screaming at me.
Why was he screaming at me?
I shook my head, coughing and gasping. I saw Ernest running towards me. His hand was red. Dripping. His cousin trailing behind with a bloody nose.
My friends were patting my back. Where were all the grownups?
“Apologize.” Ernest threw his cousin to the ground in front of me. I heard a muttered “sorry” and then the cousin jumped up, and stomped off. Ernest chased angrily after him.
Apparently, the cousin, who turned out to be an 18 year old man, decided “that girl” was being “disrespectful” when I, a child, said “no thank you” to a date. His excuse was that he thought I was older, and decided I needed to be “punished” for saying “no” to his advances.
Let me translate this behavior for you. The cousin wanted me. I thwarted his desire. So he tried to scare me, by drowning me. Logical? Right?
I want to tell you that this is deviant behavior. That this random memory is me being in the wrong place, at the wrong time. But it’s not.
Over the years, when I’ve said “no thank you”, I’ve had people tell me that they THOUGHT I meant:
So they kept on pursuing me, despite my clear communication. Yet when I’ve asked HOW they came to these impressions, nothing that I DID ever actually led to these interpretations. My response is “no thank you” but society has conditioned men to hear something else.
Is it hope?
Or something sinister?
Desire is a funny thing. There is a beautiful positive aspect to being desired - especially when valued and respected. Sadly though, desire today is a learned behavior, taught in a very base manner:
You see something. You want it. You try to obtain it.
And society tells us to push, and NOT take “no” for an answer.
Somehow that message - keep pushing until you get what you want - began to apply to human relationships.
Think I’m exaggerating?
A reminder that I was the one whose head was held under water that day. But the lifeguard, and later my friend’s mom, BOTH screamed at me:
“What did YOU DO to MAKE HIM attack you?”
What did I do?
I got up that morning, happy to hang out with friends. I picked out the favorite of my two swimsuits because it was new and NOT a hand-me-down. I went to the pool, and talked with my friends. I smiled when introduced to someone new. And then I said the words “no thank you” and was nearly drowned because …
“No thank you” was not an option I was allowed to take, even though I thought I had a choice. Someone desired me. And neither my innate rights, nor my own desires for myself, mattered in the face of what someone else wanted. And I was blamed for the bad behavior as a result.
This memory popped into my head recently. Not so much because of the drowning portion (although to this day, as much as I love water, drowning is one of the few things I fear). But rather because we live in a world, where I am losing the right to make choices that are best for me.
Other people’s desires matter more. I’m losing control of the ability to do what’s best for me. And soon, I wonder, if I find myself in danger, will I be able to save myself?
There are days when I still feel like I am that 11 year old drowning:
Yes there are days when I think I am drowning under the desires of those who wish to control women. When I wake in the nightmare of a scary world where I am punished for thinking I have the right to say “no thank you” to what others want from me.
But here’s why I am able to still somehow get in the water so to speak. Remember Ernest and his red hand?
Stained with blood because it was him, not the lifeguard and not the parents, who pulled the cousin off me (and punched him in the nose). It was Ernest who, despite having done nothing wrong, a month later apologized to me for his cousin’s bad behavior when we saw each other again in school.
It was Ernest, the “bad boy” as a teacher once referred to him in my presence, who carried my books, opened doors, and gave me his “Jesus on a cross” earring after I had been sick because he thought it might help. (I was in the deep south at the time, in a rather fundamentalist religious area.) It was Ernest who stood up for me and treated me with respect.
Over the years, I’ve been so grateful that there are men, like Ernest, out there fighting for me to not drown. It’s because of men like him, that I still bravely get in the water.
Have something to say? Feel free to comment below. Want to support Tink's writings? Click the Cashapp link here to become a patron of her work!
Tink, world traveler, positivity muse, and adult entertainer, has also freelance written for a number of companies as their ghostwriter. Now talking directly to YOU on this platform, she is also writing two books at her community's request.