My heart is pounding, my breath is coming out in short bursts and my hands are trembling. This is what happens when I think of him. So the story goes for most of the members in my group. The old lady called Lucy is no exception. She seems to be staring at me but her eyes are glassy, her pupils dilated; I know her mind is elsewhere, like mine was a few seconds ago.
“So, what would you like to share with us today?” the group leader asks, looking at me. I know it’s my turn. I know I can postpone this no longer. And yet my memories of ‘that thing I don’t talk about’ seem to have a mind of their own, hesitating - they’re used to being tucked in a place I dare not disturb. The truth is, I wish I didn’t have anything to share. But I do.
This is my first time here; I’ve never shared ‘that thing I don’t talk about’ before - not with my parents, not with my siblings, not with my friends or spouse. But I must. Because today my son turns one, and I need to feel worthy of how he looks at me when I hold him in my arms.
I look around - mainly curious stares and thoughtful glances come my way. But there are a few glares too. A few of them don’t want me here; they don’t trust me. Only one small, encouraging smile keeps me in my seat - Lucy. I wonder at her kindness.
I think I’m fidgeting. Trepidation threatens to overwhelm me; the fear always finds a way to crawl through my veins. The shame, too. The rage, less often.
“It’s ok if you’d rather not share anything with us today,” the group leader tells me. I think they might have been waiting for me to start for some time. “What would you like to do?” she asks.
“I’m sorry, I… I know I’m not what…”
The group leader lets me go on for a bit, making excuses, procrastinating until a soft elbow nudge makes me pause and look to my right - it’s Lucy (and her small, encouraging smile). “It’s ok. The first time is always tough,” she tells me.
Closing my eyes, I take a deep, shuddering breath and turn towards the group again but I don’t see their faces anymore. I’m now looking at a pool, about to relive the scene that usually plays out in my mind unbidden - today I call it forth by choice.
“I used to be on the swimming team, when I was still a high school student. We practiced every day for an hour after classes. One day, our coach announced that a group of professional swimmers would visit our school to talk about their careers. All of us were thrilled we’d get to meet successful athletes that were able to live off our favourite sport.
“On the day of the event, we gathered around the pool and took our seats along its sides. There were balloons, snacks… It was a celebration of our hard work. I was particularly excited because I had won the latest school swimming competition and that meant I’d get to have a private mentoring session with one of the visiting champions.
“My anticipation to meet the athlete assigned to me grew as the celebration progressed. When we were finally introduced, me and my mentor decided to go to a more quiet room.
“Once we were there and after talking briefly about his career he asked me to take my T-shirt off and turn around - he said something about how looking at the shape of my back would help him better assess my fitness level and training needs. I did think it was odd momentarily, but that great champion asking me to do this was… You have to understand that I was looking up to him and he seemed so helpful and I was actually proud of my body - it was proof of my hard work and dedication to our sport, it was...
“A few seconds after turning, I felt hot air on my left shoulder. I glimpsed behind me and saw him right there, next to me, so close, too close. I froze. I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t move, I couldn’t hear anything but a loud buzz. But I could smell - his cologne, and I could see - his eyes fixed on my body and his hands stroking himself in a familiar manner.
“I remember thinking: This can’t be happening. It can’t be happening to me. I’m not even a girl!
"By that time, I was already quite tall and fit - still clearly a teenager but strong. I was strong. But… in that moment, you know, it didn’t matter how big I was because...
"My brain was shouting at me: Kick him! Punch him! Move! but I was rooted to the spot. I felt paralysed. I was paralysed.
“I stayed right there for quite a while. I was still there when he finished and after he left. He was the one who left the room first. Not me.
“I’m not sure how I ended up back to my seat next to the pool. My thoughts were in a haze. I was wondering if I imagined the whole thing or how my classmates would react if I ever told them what happened.
“Hey! You know, that cool champion you admire, the one you’re now asking for advice and shaking his hand, the one that gave a speech and smiled at the girls - that man was leering at me when no one was looking and he… harassed me! Me! A big, strong guy! And I didn’t make a single move to deter him! I just stood there!
“I couldn’t even think it let alone say it. I was certain that no one would believe me and even if they did they’d probably think that maybe it was my fault or that I was a goddamn coward for how I...
“In the days that followed, I had other thoughts too: Did I do anything to provoke this? Why did I stay? Why did I not react at all?
"Over the years the thoughts evolved, became more insidious: I’m a coward. I don’t deserve my wife. How will I look my son in the eye and teach him about courage when I’m such a...”
I feel someone squeezing my hand and I look up, awaken from my reverie - it’s Lucy, again. It seems that I’ve stopped talking and something is tickling my cheek - might be a tear. They let me take my time. There are no glares anymore. The brave women around me are shaking their heads - what I described is not unfamiliar to them.
“So that’s what happened to me. I know it doesn’t probably compare to what many of you have gone through - maybe you were overpowered, hurt… But I was strong, I’m strong. But I just stood there. I just…”
“Yes, you’re strong. We get it,” Lucy says, “It takes a strong man to openly talk about being sexually harassed.”
Lucy goes next. She keeps holding my hand as she recounts her own traumatic experience. She had felt paralysed too.
As I'm leaving, I hear someone calling my name - "Mr Strong", Lucy calls out to me "It wasn’t your fault.”
My wife is lying on top of me; I caress her back as she breathes me in, nuzzling my chest. Something has changed since I told her. “We need to go down, my love,” she says but gives me another kiss; “We cannot leave ‘granny Lucy’ with our one-year-old forever. She must be exhausted by now.”
There is one more meeting I need to have - this one will be the start of something bigger and more difficult but I can feel nothing but relief and hope. I’m at my old school, where the principal and my old coach await Mr Strong.