In her desire to love and be loved, Kerry Neville often felt like she had to say yes when she meant no. Until the day she discovered the true meaning of consent.
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Natalie and I played boyfriend and girlfriend: She was “Michael” and I was “Rebecca.” We would walk around the block holding hands and when we reached the towering chestnut tree on the corner, she would get down on bended knee and ask me to marry her while slipping an invisible ring on my finger. Sometimes she pushed me up against the rough trunk and kissed me hard on the mouth.
“Thank you,” I’d say. “Yes!” Because that’s what I thought girlfriends said to boyfriends. Express gratitude for the kiss, gratitude for being chosen.
Natalie/Michael nodded and said, “You’re mine,” her voice deliberate and gruff.
We were 8 years old.
Natalie always played the dominant boy and I, the submissive girl. We tried to switch it up, but I didn’t know how to demand, to take, to assume she was mine. But Natalie? When I slept over at her house, we giggled through dinner, trading glances over baked ziti, knowing that when it was lights out, we would be boyfriend-girlfriend (or girlfriend-girlfriend) in a proper twin bed, with our nightgowns hiked to our hips, and Natalie climbing on top of me, her body grinding into mine. “Don’t move,” she’d say. I remained still while she rubbed against me, lighting me on fire. Our orgasms, while welcome, were confusing and unacknowledged. After, she rolled away and fell asleep in the duplicate twin bed across her bedroom.
Sometimes, Natalie/Michael would pretend to rape me—though we didn’t call it that, we called it, “pretend no.” I would pretend to resist. It was all pretend because it wasn’t me or Natalie, but Rebecca and Michael, and she wasn’t really raping me—we didn’t even know what rape was, and besides the fact that she was holding me down, she wasn’t really a boy and nothing was pushed inside of me.
Our friendship ended several years later, long after we’d stopped playing boyfriend-girlfriend. Natalie and I were in the school bathroom, leaning against the sink, dawdling, when she asked if I could keep a secret. She knew I could. Boyfriend-girlfriend pretend forgotten.
“My father comes into my bedroom in the middle of the night,” she said. “He does things to me.” She was running her fingers through her long curly hair.
I didn’t even really understand what it was that she was telling me—so I failed to keep her secret. And when she found out, she told all of our friends I was a liar, and that I used to climb on top of her at night—and, worst of all, that I was a lezzie.
When I was 10, I found my father’s 1960s-era Playboy stash in the attic. The attic was my archaeological site where I sifted through boxes of books and old baby clothes, through my father’s army trunk, and then finally slipped on my mother’s sparkly pink dress, her old white nurse’s cap, and her silver-fox jacket. I paged through the magazines, studying the women, their voluptuous breasts and round asses, their smiles of promise, their bodies on display. I’d already started reading my mother’s stash of Victoria Holt historical romances (lords with throbbing manhoods and governesses with heaving bosoms), so I had some sense of the murky mechanics of sex and desire. But what struck me was the way the Playboy centerfolds invited desire because the women knew they were desirable.
I couldn’t imagine anyone ever thrilling at the site of my flat chest and stick-skinny legs. But in that dark corner of the attic (where else would the magazines be?), wrapped inside the soft silver pelt like a foxy fox? A warm throbbing between my legs as I imagined myself as Miss November unfurled across the still smooth bed, her breasts and face illuminated by lovely light, her dusky nipples waiting at attention for some warm hand or mouth, one leg stretched long, the other bent, concealing that dark place between her legs. Her dewy lips were parted, as if she purred in anticipation. There was no doubt in my mind that she was wanted—no doubt that she wanted.
For many years, I did not understand mutual desire. As I crept back down the attic stairs, the fox fur returned to its hanger, the magazines secreted back under my father’s old college textbooks, all I knew was that I wanted to be wanted, wanted to feel the pull of someone’s desire, the same desire I felt looking at those beautiful naked women. But the only way that I knew how to get this, to be this, to feel this, was to say “yes”—yes to most everything.
I got my first boyfriend my freshman year of high school—he dumped me not to my face, but with a note, which he’d slid between the slats of my locker sometime between second and third period. I unfolded the paper, expecting a goofy drawing or an invitation to meet at the diner after school for gravy fries.
Instead, scrawled on a page of lined paper from a notebook, I read: “Dear Kerry—I love you, but as a friend. You don’t know how to be a girlfriend.” The ragged, torn edge suggesting his decision had been hasty.
Don’t know how. Those words resonated in my mind. I didn’t know how to touch, to stroke, to suck, to fuck.
I locked myself inside a bathroom stall, my plaid uniform kilt held tight against my thighs. I removed the gold-plated pin from the skirt, snapped it open, and began to scratch into the thin skin of my left forearm, scraping the pin’s fat dull point into my arm, unable to draw more than a hairline of blood, a tiny fissure splitting skin. The depth of the cut was too shallow, couldn’t match the depth of shame that I felt after reading that note. I blamed my inept kisses, self-conscious gropings spurred on only by a few Budweisers, my foolish attempts to be a “girlfriend” when all I could be was a paralyzed girl. I wasn’t angry at him, just at myself for my inability to kiss well, desire well, put out well, love well.
I pinned my skirt back together, blotted the blood away with toilet tissue, fished a Band-Aid from the bottom of my backpack to cover up the word I had scratched into my arm: DIE. I rejoined my friends at lunch and passed around his note, told them I didn’t care, had never cared. “He was a terrible kisser,” I told them. “His tongue just flopped around my mouth like a dying fish.”
My first long-term boyfriend wanted me—but he also liked to humiliate me. I said “yes,” to most anything. I’d get down on my hands and knees, facing the wall so he didn’t have to look at me, so that it was easier to hurt me and say, “You are a slut,” “You are crazy,” “Nobody will ever love you except me.” “Yes,” I’d say, over and over, playing passive possum to earn his love. He demanded and I consented, I craved love so much.
I try not to give into the flood of shame that threatens when I recall the years I spent facing the scuffed-up plasterboard wall, eyes closed, transformed into an automaton. I was a feminist by day—an A student in Women’s Studies, marching on Washington for abortion rights—but by night, I was a supplicant, subservient to my lover. What did I really know about consent at that age, in 1991? There were times I never said “yes,” but I’d never said “no,” either—it wasn’t our shared language. I didn’t know that his hands around my neck, the back of my head smacking the floor wasn’t excusable because he was drunk, or because I had provoked his anger.
Once, he led me to the communal shower room and we had sex against the grimy tile walls, my panties on the damp ground, my skirt hitched to my hips. I was trying to prove to him what I would do to keep him, as other guys sauntered by, though I was too drunk to care. Another time, he tied me up, blindfolding me, and even though I was queasy, I agreed—until I felt a strange, cold sensation enter me. It was a beer bottle. I didn’t protest, just checked out—acquiescence, not consent.
When I was married, my husband and I drank. A lot. But everyone we knew did. We were in graduate school, where there were parties with endless handles of cheap vodka and jugs of sweet wine that paired well with slurring pseudo-intellectual conversations about Lacan and Baudrillard that went into the wee hours. One night, at a party at our house, I retreated to our bedroom, passing out on top of the heap of coats. The door opened. I pretended to be asleep as one guest pawed at the bed for his jacket. I pretended to be asleep as he leaned over me, his breath heavy against my neck. I pretended to be asleep as his hand, warm but cold, ran up my thigh, under my skirt, over my ass, and then inside my panties. I pretended to be asleep because I was hoping it was just a nightmare. And then his hand slid out and he closed the door. I said nothing, just waited for the party to end, for my husband to come to bed. Then, maybe I would speak.
When I did, my husband questioned me. “Why wouldn’t you have said anything sooner? Yelled? Stopped him?”
“He’s our friend,” I said. “His wife was here. I didn’t want to make a scene.”
“You were really drunk,” he said. “Maybe you imagined it. But I’ll call him if that’s what you want.” He picked up the phone and waited. For what, my consent? Wasn’t my husband supposed to be enraged? Shouldn’t he already be on the phone calling him a motherfucking asshole? His face betrayed his doubt and his doubt filled me. Maybe my silence was consent?
Even though I could still feel the man’s fingers on my thighs, between my legs, inside me, and his breath against my neck, intimate like a whisper. Yes, he did it, but—“No,” I told my husband. “Hang up the phone.”
After my divorce, I became celibate for almost two years—no vows, no shaving my head, no mendicancy. Just a stepping back from the entanglement of bodies, needs, and wants to understand what my “yes” might look like when it was not really “no,” or “maybe,” or “why not?”
In one of my parents’ photo albums, there is a photo of me just before my 6th-birthday party. The folding table in the driveway is strewn with streamers and party favors. On each paper plate, a pointed, tasseled hat and a noisemaker that uncurls like a long, happy tongue. I am wearing a blue flowered bikini and roller skates. My early-summer-tanned arms are wide open and one foot is lifted from the ground, my body in stop-motion. Me, the photo says, this is me moving into my boundless life, rolling into the world, my body full of purpose and joy.
When I finally took the leap back into relational, consensual sex?
A fling, dictionary definition 1: “a short, spontaneous sexual relationship.”
A fling, dictionary definition 2: “a reckless movement of the body.”
A fling, my Yes: “a wild connection that breaks things apart and puts them back together in disruptive creation.”
Everything all at once and fraught with equal significance.
Los Angeles. May. A bar downtown. I’d been pretending to be cool but was mostly just feeling alone. As I was getting up to leave, the most beautiful man I’d ever seen started talking to me. He was tall, so I had to look up into his deep brown eyes. I think I wobbled.
“I like your boots,” he said.
I laughed. Was he hitting on me? No one had hit on me in the 20 years I’d been with my ex—I didn’t know how to read the signs. Maybe he just really liked my boots? They were great: soft brown calfskin, stacked heels. We chatted, prickles of electricity. I was a writer from Pennsylvania; he was an actor and musician from L.A. It was difficult talking with him because I was distracted by his wide-open smile—in my sixth-grade diary, I pasted photographs of Rob Lowe I’d cut out from Teen Beat and surrounded them with purple glitter-glued hearts—I imagined those glitter-glue hearts throbbing around his face. He asked my name—my shaky-hand wrote it along with my blog address on a slip of paper before I left. That was that, I thought. Tuck it away.
Except. He emailed that night. He’d read my blog and connected. The end of love, the sadness, the resurfacing. We met for coffee, talked breathlessly. Time constraints. When he kissed me? A movie kiss. The rest of the story is mine and his.
My first real, grown-up “Yes.” Yes to a heady fling that left its metallic taste of adrenaline in the mouth—like swallowing blood, sharp and clear. Yes to affection, transparency, and vulnerability. Yes to more and again, and this way and that way. Yes when I straddled him, lush and ready with my desire, which met, in equal force, his desire. I leaned into him, kissing him, feeling like Miss November, whispering, “Yes, now?”
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