no shame in a smile
It was my first time riding the El train. I was fourteen and on my way home from orientation day at my new high school. I felt excited, liberated, and incredibly grown up, especially since my mother had been so nervous for me to ride the train alone. I had made a new friend already, and after we had picked up our schedules, locker locks, and student-discount CTA cards, we got on the train together. We laughed and chatted until he stepped off the train just a few stops before mine.
I looked around. There was only one other person on the train, and our eyes met. I smiled, newly confident and friendly. He spoke to me. I don’t remember what we talked about. I just remember thinking that it was silly that we were holding a conversation so far away from one another. “This is silly,” I said, rising from my seat. “Is it all right if I sit next to you so we’re not shouting across the train?”
I settled in the seat next to him and continued our conversation. Up close, I saw that he was probably twice my age with gorgeous brown eyes. I told him I thought his eyes were nice. I had no ulterior motive. I had no motive besides a desire to reach out, make friends, and get to know the world and the people in it. He smiled and I watched his eyes move across my body and through my T-shirt and jean shorts. I started to get the nagging feeling that I had done something very stupid. “Why do you have so many bruises?” he asked, reaching out his hand to stroke my legs. My heart fell and I felt paralyzed.
“Um. Dance class.” I thought he might see how uncomfortable I was. That I did not want him to be touching me. He kept talking and moving his hands on my body. My stop was next. He told me he had a secret. I tilted my face to look at him and in that instant he put his mouth on my ear and licked inside of it. I heard my stop being called. I got up, mumbled a goodbye, and hurried off the train. I walked home, scrubbed my ear with soap and water until it was red, curled into a ball, and cried.
Eventually I told my boyfriend, who consoled me but chastised me for being so naïve. Knowing that that’s what I would hear from anyone I told, I kept it to myself for years. I felt incredibly embarrassed and dirty. I could only think of how stupid and naïve I was to talk to a man on the train, to sit next to him, and to compliment his eyes, which I will never forget.
Writing this now I still feel ashamed about this all, and I feel ashamed about my shame. Because why should a girl child, or a grown woman for that matter, have to curb her friendliness? Why should she have to keep from smiling at another person? Why should she have to hide her curiosity, her appreciation, her body? Why in our society do these things all add up to “asking for it”?
In writing this I am making a pledge to myself to give up my shame. I was young and I had no reason to expect that anyone in the world might hurt me or touch me in a way that I didn’t want. I feel so angry that learning to smile, talk, and engage less with people is a lesson so many girls have been taught. That day, that man took from me some amount of my warmth, openness, optimism, curiosity, and love for others. And it was wrong.