I was 14 years old when he grabbed me on the bus.
I froze for a second on the way to my seat. His hand was under my skirt — my brand new, double tiered, mustard yellow skirt. Outside the bus windows, the scenery alternated between cornfields and subdivisions, but I couldn’t see it. I could only feel his hand and the red-hot shame lighting up my face.
He laughed. Other boys laughed.
I did not.
Later in the cafeteria, it happened again. The girls at my table either saw it happen or figured it out, and they encouraged me to tell. Maybe they alerted the vice principal on my behalf, or maybe I somehow walked over to him on my own, but suddenly there I was, in the middle of a roiling cafeteria, a middle-aged man with a tie and thick glasses towering over me.
“He’s … he’s bothering me.” I used his name, of course. Actually, his nickname.
“What did he do? You’ll have to tell me exactly what happened.” The vice principal folded his arms.
“He … he’s just bothering me. He won’t leave me alone.” I could not bring myself to admit what had happened. I didn’t want anyone to know. It was bad enough that the boys on the bus and my friends in the cafeteria saw. I didn’t want to be linked to him in any way, ever.
“I can’t help you if he didn’t actually do anything,” the vice principal said. I slunk back to my seat, face burning again. This man had the power.
I did not.
I had forgotten about this incident until last fall when the “Access Hollywood” tape and the #metoo movement brought the memory surging back to mind. I relived it in excruciating detail. It’s probably more accurate to say I had buried the image for the past 25 years. I never told anyone.
It was too embarrassing, and I just wanted it to be over.
I never wore that skirt again.
When I logged onto Facebook yesterday, I was not expecting to come face to face with my middle school harasser. But there he was — older, sharper, in a suit and tie.
The photo came with a group announcement from my high school class that this member had, suddenly, passed away.
I don’t know what kind of person he became. I didn’t see him after middle school. We were in different classes, different circles. Truth be told, I didn’t remember whether he had graduated with me or not.
I didn’t learn anything more about him by studying that unexpected photo or reading his obituary. He had his own brand of junior high hell to live through, I suppose, like everyone else. Whether or not that passes for forgiveness doesn’t really matter.
What does matter to me is that this time, the memory of that day on the bus gives me a glimpse into the silent, sullen, overwhelming swirl of feelings my own teens are living through. They’re 13 and 15 — about the same age I was when this happened.
Now it’s their turn not to talk.
When I remember how, at 14, I physically could not squeak out this story even if I wanted to, their dinnertime mumbling doesn’t seem so insolent. They’re quiet because they’re overwhelmed with the daily turmoil of shedding their childhoods.
There are stories we can’t tell until we’re ready, no matter how loved we are.
But when they want to talk, I’ll be listening.
Elizabeth Trach is a writer and editor living in Newburyport. She is the author of “Both Sides of My Skin,” a collection of short stories about pregnancy and parenting, published by Annorlunda Books. When not busy writing and traveling, she also sings in a band, grows almost all her own food, and occasionally even cooks it. You can read more of her work at TheBlogwright.com.