The drive to Worcestershire, birthplace of the sauce, would be a few hours from London—birthplace of me, new to womanhood and still figuring out the power of my sexuality. Having accepted an invitation to a lavish birthday party, thrown by my parents’ friends for themselves and their two coming-of-age children, I’d been dismayed by the eye-watering cost of the train fare. Eighty pounds! The equivalent of my monthly student food budget. I was glad to get a ride. Normally I wouldn’t gamely hop into a stranger’s car, but Tim was a school friend of the son, Nick. And although I couldn’t claim that Nick was a close friend, I trusted the friend-of-a-friend connection.
I’d arranged to meet Tim outside a pub in west London. “I’ll be easy to spot,” I’d explained on the phone. “I’m six feet tall.” Tim’s laugh was posh. Hrh-hrh-hrh. A kind of braying. I’d rolled my eyes at yet another man so obviously intimidated by a tall woman.
In person, Tim was very much a product of his English upper class upbringing: Excellent small talk, nothing of emotional substance. Boringly handsome. A lick of brown wavy hair hung at his temples, brown eyes, brown loafers. Thin lips that curled into a smirk as he exhaled a cigarette. A preppy white boy with a late-nineties haircut and bad habits. I didn’t look at him and think, Phwoar! But if I wanted a smooch later, he’d do.
We arrived at the birthday family’s sprawling country estate. I air kissed the mum and dad hello, and hugged Nick and his sister, Savannah. “Come on,” she said, “There’s a bunch of us girls getting changed in my room.”
I followed Savannah upstairs to her bedroom where half a dozen of her friends were getting ready. We were like a flock of actresses about to go on stage, zipping each other into cocktail dresses, blotting our lips on sips of champagne, and asking about last-minute jewelry choices. I squeezed into a long dress in a shimmery wine-colored fabric. The dress was tight and had a thigh-high slit, but the neckline covered my cleavage. I fastened a purple costume jewelry necklace that had belonged to my great-grandmother. And, reluctantly—because in the folly of my youth I thought to look good meant to suffer—I put on a pair of black high heels.
Maybe that was the night I finally figured out how to move gracefully in four-inch heels—or just the flowing champagne that inured me to walking on my toes—but I danced until the sun came up. When the crowd thinned, people headed to bed. Nick showed me to a bedroom. I was pleased I wouldn’t be roughing it, but his wink surprised me—until I saw that Tim had been ushered in too. Tim and I had had a brief kiss on the dance floor, but it wasn’t passionate. No sparks flew. The sun was rising and I wanted to sleep. I excused myself to the en suite bathroom to change into pajamas. I hadn’t known any boys my age not to take no for an answer, so I climbed into bed, naïvely thinking I was safe. Tim was wearing a white t-shirt and boxers. He leant over to pick up where we left off, so I politely pecked him and said, “I want to sleep.”
I hadn’t been asleep for long when I woke up to feel something clumsily sliding around in my mouth. I looked up, bleary eyed, and saw Tim sitting on top of me. I tried to sit up but couldn’t move. He was straddling my ribcage, gripping me with his thighs, pushing up my pajama top. I drew back my head into the pillow and looked down at the thing in my mouth. It was round and silky, bumping against my lips and catching on my teeth. It was his dick.
I wondered if this was a bad joke. Like the time a middle-aged family friend stuck his tongue down my throat when I was belted into the front seat of my mum’s car. There was no warning, save for “Come to Uncle Nim-Nim!” I was almost more surprised that he was able to squeeze his massive frame through the car window. But there he was, pinning me to my car seat with his thick, nicotine-stained tongue. It was my mum, in the driver’s seat, who smacked him off me. He withdrew, sheepish. Hadn’t recognized me now that I was all grown up.
“She’s only sixteen!” my mother growled.
“I thought it was Jessica Lange… It was just a joke.”
Hardly a contrite apology. It was just a joke, and he got a smack—for being a naughty oversized fanboy sticking his tongue down a teenager’s throat.
It was just a joke, but I was confused. I didn’t look anything like Jessica Lange. But even if I did, why would you kiss someone like that? Ugh, grown-ups made weird jokes… The kind that left a bad taste in your mouth.
His dick is in my mouth. An alarm bell rang in my head. This is not a joke.
“What are you doing?” I demanded, my head cocked to one side. I was suddenly awake, and fierce. My ferocity cut through the nice girl to reveal someone non-compliant. Tim slid off me, a look of surprise on his face.I should have kicked him out, but self-preservation kicked in, so I left. It was quiet in the hallway. Of the half a dozen doors, only one was ajar, leading to a bathroom with a worn, green carpet. I took refuge there in that small space with the lockable door, and lay on the damp and musty-smelling floor. Serves you right, you stupid, stupid girl! I whimpered while reasoning to myself that this was part of growing up: fending off men may be a rite of womanly passage, but now I knew learning to be safe would be lifelong. Sometimes staying safe meant you had to be fiery as a chili. Sometimes you had to be sweet as pie.
Like when the 6’5” guy who wouldn’t leave my dorm room picked me up from behind. He carried me easily, as though I were a waif of a girl instead of a woman almost as tall as he. Fighting back would have been futile, so turning on the charm was my best defense. I played the nice girl, being careful not to flirt. He didn’t touch me, but I knew he could, and he knew that I knew he could, and maybe that power was good enough for him.
After the party, the hum of London traffic was more reassuring than the yawning silence of the Worcester countryside. I was safe, but didn’t want to be alone. I called my friend, Kas, who lived a short walk away. He had long established himself as one of the good guys, so I headed over to his place.
Half an hour later, we cracked open a couple of cans of lager. I took a swig and grimaced. I didn’t really like beer, but I needed fortification.
“So, anyway, a funny thing happened to me last night,” I began. “I woke up to find a guy sitting on top of me… with his dick in my mouth!”
My laugh sounded fake at the dreadful punchline. Kas choked mid-swig. He always has a slight frown, but his eyes have a quizzical look. As he absorbed what I’d said, his lips pursed and his eyes turned to anger. His nostrils flared as he firmly, but gently, found the words.
“What the hell? You have to go to the police. That’s statutory rape!”
He walked me to the police station where I gave a statement, describing Tim in detail, from his car license plate down to his circumcised penis—a damning bit of proof if it came to it, I thought, as most British men are uncircumcised.
As it turned out, Kas was only wrong about the statutory part of the crime. At the time, I didn’t think of Tim as a rapist—just a young man who’d done something repulsive because boys will be boys… Tim just needed to learn the clear line of consent. And I just needed to learn that, as a woman, I would never be safe.
Two months later, my phone rang. It was the detective assigned to the case. They’d run the car’s plates and tracked down Tim. I could have a couple of weeks to decide if I wanted to press charges. A few days later, my phone rang again. This time it was Nick, begging me not to press charges against his friend. I’d already decided not to, but said I was undecided. I wanted to make Tim squirm. I could hear the triumph in my voice. He’s scared. He’s called his friend to plead with me. I enjoyed being maddeningly vague. I wanted to make Tim think twice about ever doing anything like that again.
I felt a thrill of vindication knowing Tim had been squealing in discomfort, not knowing if I would pull the trigger. Suddenly, I was the 6’5” guy, picking up my rapist from behind and effortlessly carrying him to where I wanted him. I didn’t touch him, but he knew I could, and I knew that he knew I could. For a fleeting moment, it was I who had the power, and it felt good.