I was afraid, not necessarily of him in particular, but of men in general — of what men do when women disappoint them.
When I was in high school, I broke up with a boy who later slit his wrists. After he cut himself, he decided to walk to my house, more than five country miles away, so I could watch him die, so I could suffer too.
I know all this because a woman in the supermarket where I worked at the time told me about it while I bagged her groceries. I didn’t know this woman, but she knew me. The boy had told her my name when he stopped at her house for help, his wrists too bloody and his head too woozy to continue the walk. She saw the name tag on my uniform and told me everything she saw, everything she remembered, every gory detail.
He was the first boy who took me to dinner, who put his arm around me at football games. The first boy I had sex with, the first boy I went to prom with, the first boy I lied to my parents to be with. The first boy whose name I paired up with my own, dreaming about somedays and somehows.
The first boy who made me feel afraid to say no.
This week, I read news stories about the school shooter in Santa Fe High School in Texas, whose name I will not write here, about how he allegedly perpetrated his attack after a girl in his class rejected his advances. Ten students died, 13 others were injured, hundreds more were no doubt traumatized. And the family of one teenage girl, whose name I also will not write here, is left to carry the burden of blame that does not belong to them.
After the boy in my town cut himself, after the woman in the grocery store indicted me in the checkout line, I also shouldered guilt, shame and fear that didn’t belong to me. From that moment on, I assumed any boy who wanted to be with me was someone I had to want to be with too. If I didn’t, if I had the gall to say no, then there’d be trouble. Then someone would suffer.
I didn’t end a relationship again until after college, when I packed my bags and hid them in the bedroom closet, waiting for my live-in fiance to go to his job on the other side of town. After he left, I left too, taking my things and leaving behind a note. To this day, it’s one of the most cowardly, cruel things I’ve ever done to someone. It was also an act of self-preservation. I was afraid, not necessarily of him in particular, but of men in general — of what men do when women disappoint them.
Toxic masculinity was not a word I knew back then. Nor was incel, or “involuntary celibates” — the word a community of dangerous misogynists use to describe themselves online. Incels advocate violence against women who spurn their advances. They’ve been connected to multiple attacks, including a college campus shooting in Isla Vista, California, and a deadly van crash in Toronto, Canada.
I certainly know these words now, as a misogynist sits in the White House, having bragged about sexually assaulting women. As a man on Twitter calls me “an arrogant cunt” for disagreeing with him. As a driver makes obscene gestures out his car window simply because I had the nerve to pass him on the freeway.
I have a daughter now too. She’s 11 years old, in junior high school with friends who are mostly boys. Like many other parents, I worry about a shooting happening in her school. I worry about a boy bringing a gun to class, about who he will point it at, and whether my daughter will run or hide if that ever happens. Every morning, I kiss her goodbye and make a secret plea with the universe to let me see her again in the afternoon.
I also worry about toxic masculinity, about what a boy might do if she rejects him. I wonder if I should tell her about that boy back in high school, about what happened when I broke up with him. I struggle with finding the right balance — how to teach her to stick up for herself and set healthy boundaries in a world where she must also learn to live defensively. How do I teach her to be assertive but not too assertive, how to say no when she wants to say no but not to say it too loudly or too forcefully? How do I prepare her for a world where people, even other women, will condemn her for the simple act of breaking up with someone she doesn’t want to be with? How do I tell her all the things I couldn’t tell myself — that it isn’t her fault, that she is not to blame, that breakups are hard but life goes on?
Or perhaps a better question is, why do I have to?
I’m glad that boy from high school stopped for help. I’m glad he survived. I’m also glad he didn’t have access to a gun. And I’m sorry there are girls and women everywhere being asked to carry blame and anguish they don’t deserve.
Wendy Fontaine is a writer and writing instructor in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in many newspapers, magazines and literary journals including Full Grown People, Hippocampus, Huffington Post, Readers Digest, River Teeth and more. Follow her on Twitter @wendymfontaine and online at www.wendyfontaine.com.