I was always braver at night—the middle of the night, like two or three o’clock, but fraught with the anxiety that the alarm would buzz at five, the bus would come at 6:28, and school would begin at 7:40. Things felt better in the winter when the landscape was black and still and the bus lumbering down the road was filled with sleeping kids that wouldn’t see my face. Not that it was a bad face, but it wasn’t a really good face either. It was a face filled with shame.
But in the winter, I didn’t have to think about what my face was doing—if it was blushing or tearing or twitching. I could concentrate instead on my shaking, sweating hands, the headaches, and the stomachaches—oh, the stomachaches. The stomachaches were so bad that my friends accused me of being pregnant. Anyway, at night, I was braver.
At night I sat in the lamplight looking at my face, struggling to reconcile the features. I could only ever see one feature at a time. I couldn’t get a grip on the whole picture. I couldn’t see the relationships of things.
Those nights caught in the mirror started shortly after high school began. By the middle of my freshman year I was sick, and worse, truant.
“Did you ever talk to anyone about the molestation?” my friend Marcy asks me.
“I never thought of it like that,” I say. “It wasn’t really a big deal.” I shrug as she takes a drag on her cigarette.
“How’s Bill doing?” I change the subject because I’m a real adult now and I don’t have to get caught in the cobwebs of conversations I don’t want to have.
She ignores me. “I think it’s a big deal. That kind of thing shapes a person.”
“Well, it’s not a big deal, so just drop it, okay?” I snap.
Sunday night was my worst night. The dread began early Sunday morning. Dad would wake us up on Sundays with Janis Joplin if Mom was in a good mood or Queen if she wasn’t. He called it “holy music.” It was supposed to be a funny and transformative experience—waking up with rock ‘n’ roll. I had trouble choking down the egg and sausage biscuits Mom made for breakfast because the music gave me motion sickness as if I were on a boat.
And as the hours of Sunday passed, the dread grew louder in my head. Dad turned on the TV at one o’clock to watch the Bengals play. The crowd and the whistles caused the blood vessels in my brain to swell. By five o’clock on Sundays, I had a migraine. Mom told me it was psychosomatic. She thought this would reassure me into not having them anymore. She usually got on her psychological soapbox as I retched into the toilet. Then she gave me two Tylenol even though we both knew they wouldn’t work.
“Drink all your water,” she said, shutting the door of my dark room behind her.
I heard Sis scrabbling in the hall like a little mouse.
“Why’s she always sick on Sundays?” she asked.
“Shhh! She hates school, sweetheart,” Mom said.
“I hate school and I don’t get sick,” Sis said. I pictured her standing there brushing the blonde hair of her favorite Barbie.
“Yes, but you’ve got a different set of problems than your sister,” Mom said.
Then there was silence.
A different set of problems indeed. Sis had problems with fine motor skills and reflexes. She’d fallen a little behind in her development, so twice a week she went to an empty classroom with the same teacher who helped kids with speech impediments and they practiced things like coloring in the lines, tossing and catching a rubber ball, and grasping a yardstick as quickly as possible when the teacher dropped it between Sis’s fingers.
Mom didn’t know what my “set of problems” was exactly. I told her that the boys were teasing me.
“They just like you,” she said. “It’s not their fault, honey. It’s just hormones.”
At night, during my quiet time in the mirror, I slipped back and forth on a scale with rage at one end and shame at the other.
Then the alarm would go off.
Health was my seventh period, so I spent the whole day in absolute agony. Sometimes, I was relieved when it would finally happen just because it meant it would be over soon.
I would sit down at my desk, then Josh Richards—blond-haired, blue-eyed Josh—would gather his group of four boys whose names I hadn’t bothered learning and stroll over to me.
“Ooooooh, yeeeeaaah,” they moaned, all of them rubbing their crotches against any part of me they could reach—mostly my shoulder, arms, and back because I was sitting down.
I could feel their erections through their jeans. I looked up at the health teacher. He just watched. My classmates laughed, including the girls, but I was frozen. The same part of me that got lost in the mirror at night would get lost in the classroom, like a candle being snuffed out. I was conscious of my surroundings, then I wasn’t. It was that simple.
I’m a real adult now and have had some troubles like anorexia, so I go to therapy weekly.
“My friend thinks I should tell you about what she says was molestation,” I tell the therapist.
He looks surprised for a moment. “The floor’s all yours.”
So, I tell him. And then I laugh because of what happened next—the reason I write mostly fiction—because the truth is so unbelievable, but this is the truth. Josh Richards played baseball when we were in high school. One Saturday, he got hit by a pitch in the chest. He gently tossed the bat to the side, jogged to first base, collapsed and died.
He actually died. Fourteen years old. An ambulance came and he was pronounced DOA.
“All my classmates were crying on Monday,” I tell the therapist, “and I just sat there and laughed. I just laughed and laughed and laughed. My classmates went to the viewing and said he looked nothing like he did when he was alive, and I laughed even harder.” Now I’m laughing again, here in the therapist’s office.
The therapist smiles wryly. “Do you feel guilty about it? About laughing, I mean?”
I think about it for maybe a full second. “Nope.”
“Good,” he says, nodding his head as he writes something down in his notes. “And did the harassment stop?”
I know it’s not helpful for him to say this, but we’ve known each other for over a decade, so sometimes he treats me more like his friend than his patient.
Even now, at age 32, I get lost in the mirror, especially in the morning as I get ready for work. But in the dawn light, my reflection has lost the funhouse feeling it had at night when I was a teenager. I’m a little surer about my features—I can attach adjectives to them. In this way, I have adapted. Society has always objectified me. Now, I don’t need society to do it for me—I’m capable of doing it to myself. Is this power? Or, am I a bird, dead on a beach with a stomach full of plastic?
I’m not delusional, so I don’t believe that my hatred caused Josh Richards to die in that freak accident, but I can’t help but wonder if we have the power to wield energy like a weapon. All those nights trapped in the mirror were nights spent conjuring something.
Would I have still almost died of an eating disorder if Josh Richards and his gang had never touched me—had never humiliated me?
I’m a real adult now, so to be on the safe side, I abandoned my Christian roots to become Wiccan. Witches have been wielding energy for centuries. I keep this knowledge like a crystal in my pocket. Hopefully there won’t be a next time, but if there is, I won’t waste any time. If there is, I’ll find my strength in the night, in the mirror, in my own inky black eyes.
Megan D. Henson received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Kentucky. She is the author of two poetry collections by Dos Madres Press: What Pain Does (2018) and Little Girl Gray: Sestinas (2020). She teaches at Northern Kentucky University and lives in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is a combination of Gryffindor and Slytherin, which makes her a Ravenclaw.