The first person I told about the girls I wanted to kiss was my middle school counselor. I’d been seeing her without my mother’s permission. I knew better than to ask my mother. But I spent most nights curled up in the bottom of my closet, thinking I’d die if I couldn’t stop crying about the way I felt my body was betraying me, how it had been for a long time.
It was this fear that led me to the eighth-grade counselor’s office on a Friday. I stood in her doorway, three minutes after the final bell, and told her I needed to talk. Without looking up from what she was writing, she pointed me to the permission slips pinned to her door. I looked at the slips, then back at her.
“I can’t tell my mama I’m talking to you.” She looked up then. Her jaw was set in a severe line, her light-blonde hair sat unmoving on her shoulders. My classmates always had jokes about her “man-jaw” and her “state fair hair.” She’d always seemed hard to me, but “hard” didn’t mean she couldn’t help. She softened when she removed her glasses and considered me.
“I can’t see you until you get the permission slip signed, sweetie. I could get in a lot of trouble.” I looked at my feet, still standing in her doorway.
“I’m already in trouble.” She sighed, replaced her glasses, and went back to writing. I turned to leave.
“Come back on Monday. After school. You’ll have about 30 minutes.”
The following Monday, I sat on the floor of her office and wrote down all my secrets, in green crayon, on a big piece of white paper. She turned in her seat while I wrote, arranging folders behind her desk that hadn’t looked like they needed arranging 20 seconds ago. When I was done, I laid the paper on her desk.
She read the list silently while I used the leftover paper to doodle circles. She asked what I wanted to talk about first. I suggested we start with No. 1 and work our way down. After our first session, I rolled up the paper and kept it in my locker. My secrets weren’t safe in my home.
My family talked about everything, and had little to no interest in holding back in front of children, as long as we didn’t try to add to the conversation. On multiple occasions, I’d heard members of my family express concern about children who’d been molested, that they may have been “turned out” by their abusers. “Turned out,” meaning the abuser changed your sexuality, changed what you wanted. Broke you. I still remember sitting in my grandmother’s kitchen while she held court for a few of her friends, their nods of agreement and emphatic waves of the hand. Chile, I know that’s the truth. She’d flit back and forth between the stove, the oven, and the counter where she mixed everything by hand. The conversation secondary to her meal preparation, but primary to me. Her lip curled in disgust at the thought of such a thing.
“These people need help! They get scared of men, see? What kind of normal woman wants to feel on and kiss on another woman? Gotta be something that happened there.” Shudders waved through the room. I faked one, even though I wasn’t supposed to be listening. If the rest of the room recoiled, and you didn’t, you just branded yourself The Weird One, the opposition. Even I knew that. I made it my job to know.
For me, the message was clear: The fact that I liked girls meant something had happened to me. I was broken. So broken, in fact, that I didn’t even hate the man who kissed me. I’d known him most of my life before it happened. I remembered him as good. Or at least good to me. I told my counselor I thought I liked girls because he kissed me. He wasn’t supposed to, and I knew it. She asked me if I liked girls before that happened. I lied and told her I couldn’t remember.
For weeks, I sat on the floor of her office and we circled around the same topics. I confessed to my counselor with faith in her ability to fix me. Her opinion — her forgiveness — was all I needed to know that even if I wasn’t OK, I could be OK. I could get this right.
Nights were still bad for me. It was getting easier to fall asleep without crying myself there, but my dreams were more like shards of glass than complete images. New Year’s Eve. Him walking into the room. Hi, Ashley. His smile. Him slipping a dollar bill into my 7-year-old hand. My family one room over. My smile. Him asking for a kiss. The back of my head hitting the cold patio door. His face crushed into mine, eyes screwed shut. His hands under my nightgown. His tongue. My body suddenly numb. Not telling my mother. Not telling anyone.
This was what made me want to touch girls the same way I wanted to touch boys? When I woke up from those dreams, I didn’t want to touch anybody.
Finally, I asked my counselor the question I’d been avoiding for weeks. What did she think about me liking girls? Did she think it meant I was damaged?
“What do you think, Ashley?”
I rolled over onto my side from the floor, tucked my palm under my head, and stared at her. This was the question that caused me to sleep in a ball in the corner of my bed, or in the bottom of my closet with the lights on. Then there were the dreams. What I felt in those moments against the patio glass was nothing like what I felt when someone I liked looked at me. Yes, some men scared me, but not all of them. Some women scared me too. I shrugged.
“I think it means I just like girls sometimes.”
She smiled at me and leaned forward in her chair. I stared at her, worried that if I averted my eyes for one second, she wouldn’t believe me. I was trying to tell her the truth.
“Ashley, I think you’re a very normal girl. Someone sexually abused you. That doesn’t mean he gets to decide who you want to kiss.”
We looked at each other until I felt safe enough to break my gaze. Maybe my family wasn’t right. My counselor didn’t think I was broken at all. She told me that my family might not understand me, but they did love me. They believed the things they said and thought they were keeping me safe. She even said I was normal. I wasn’t convinced she was right, but I wanted to believe her. So, I tried.
I began sleeping in my bed again. At 12 years old, I traded sleeping with all the lights on for a tape of lullabies played until I was calm enough to close my eyes. It was almost normal. At the end of our last talk I hugged her at the door.
“I think maybe you saved my life.”
She tilted her head. In the past few weeks, she’d cut her hair into something a little more stylish and stopped wearing the glasses. I wanted to tell her she was pretty, but noticed, right then, she looked like she was about to cry.
“Nope. You came to me. You saved yourself,” she said. Then she closed the door as she stepped back into her office.
Four months later, my counselor was arrested for having a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old boy. It was all over the news, and the school was thick with gossip. Most stories were repeated from overheard adult conversations, things we couldn’t really comprehend.
She was arrested on two felony counts of sexual misconduct. I didn’t know the victim, but our school system was so small, I knew of him. The newspaper said this had been going on for a long time. In her home, at our school, on the playground, in her office. In her office. In her office where she told me I was normal. In her office where I told her all my secrets, and she kept hers.
A substitute teacher in our health class decided she was best equipped to help students process and offered herself, a loyal servant of God, to anyone who wanted to confess to an inappropriate relationship. She converted the podium at the front of the classroom into an altar.
“There is only shame as long as you hide. Only through revelation and repentance can God offer you peace and forgiveness.”
Everyone stayed seated. I leaned over my desk, drawing circles in my notebook. The only person I’d ever let see all of me was a child molester. What did a child molester consider normal? And was it anything to be forgiven, even by God? There are some things you just don’t want to know about yourself. Knowing you weren’t worthy of forgiveness was one of those things for me. I chose shame.
During English class, one of my classmates whispered that police officers were in the hallways. Every student she’d seen was having their locker searched for evidence against her. My stomach rolled at the idea of a stranger — a cop — finding the record of my shame and reading it out loud to other strangers, other cops. I asked for a pass to the bathroom, but this was the same teacher who’d given me detention for sneezing too loudly. She denied my request.
When the bell rang, my hands were slick with sweat. I ran down the hallway, careful not to get stopped by any supervising teachers. I fumbled the combination to my locker twice before getting it open. There was my roll of paper right where I’d left it. Only after the cloud of anxiety cleared did I remember I’d been seeing her without parental consent. No one would know my secrets. No one would find about me. Still, that night I slept in the bottom of my closet, lights on. No crying this time.
I thought about my counselor and the man who kissed me when I was 7. I wondered what drew them both to me, these people who did bad things to children, these bad people. Then I thought about how I felt when she called me normal. Even though she disagreed, I still secretly felt like she’d saved me in that moment. It felt like she’d given me permission to live my life. Now, I was angry with her. Her truth had sullied my own. I couldn’t decide if she’d saved me or hurt me, and I couldn’t imagine a world where the answer could be both. I made a decision.
I decided to remember her as good. She was good to me.