First Place for College Prose
"To the boy who gropes me in seventh grade"
You only do it because you know. I have Styrofoam for lungs, packing peanuts—sound waves thud off the sides and fade away. Sometimes after class, I put my head in my arms, rest my forehead against the cool of the desk. When Ms. F— calls on me and asks me a question about the American Revolution, I stammer and she has to ask me to speak up. You snicker.
You do it because you see me bend over my notes. Because I turn red around boys and correct their grammar. Because my friend A— flirts with you, clumsily. Because I have a nice ass.
Because when I am about to graduate university, I will pass by a group of college boys, strangers, in the alleyway, on my way to class from my apartment in Pittsburgh. They will stand out, even before they notice me: a flock of consolation. “Why did she cheat on me?” “I dunno.” “Forget her.” “Koreans, man.” I will squeeze past, my hands buried in my pockets. “Should I go after her instead?” Loud, unafraid. They will laugh, a hungry dissonance.
You do it because I am in seventh grade, and unused to being a woman. You don’t even do anything bad. You only touch me, pinch my backside, your thick fingers eager. At first, I believe you brushed against me by accident. I shift in my chair, inching away, but your hand follows, a wild dog stalking prey.
That night, I analyze every second. The way your hand rested on the seat of my chair. The way you retreated when Ms. F— passed by. Shouldn’t I want to be touched? To be the center of someone’s attention? I expect flames and passion, a stirring, but there is only unease.
The next day, you surprise me by touching me again. I edge away so that half of me is hanging off the seat. Ms. F—’s voice fades into the background and all I remember of that class is the way you stared straight ahead, your other hand near the crotch of your sagging jeans.
You do it because in high school, my first boyfriend will be sweet and kind and entirely unlike you. When he touches me on the arm, there will be electricity, something closer to the fire I expect. Five months in, we will lie in my childhood bed in Queens, and he will slip his hand under my shirt. Immediately I will think of you, and go tense and silent, numb. He won’t notice. I won’t tell him.
You do it because I will go on dates where the thought of going back to my place sends a warning chill throughout my body. I will be fine with kisses—but wandering hands will stir up a cloud of panic. In college, with a boy in summer Berkeley, far from home, we will kiss in the dusty stairwell of an art museum. Instead of looking at the paintings, he will look at me, snake his arm around my waist and squeeze. I will want to rip him from my body. But there is no guarantee he would let me.
We won’t have chemistry, but at the museum exit he will eye me expectantly, like I owe him something for his time. And then we will be at his apartment, a dimly lit, endlessly messy college student apartment, and he will pull off my shorts, then his, his eyes dark and hungry, almost wild. I will push him away, say stop, stop please. Miraculously, he will let go, allow me to dress and stumble out of the building, shaking and muttering apologies and wondering what the hell is wrong with me, until I am almost a block away.
You continue to do it, relentless. When we exchange pleasantries at the beginning of class, I am lulled into believing that you are human, that you will stop. But we sit, and in the span of 10 minutes your hand finds its way to my seat, your leg inching closer and closer every time. Soon your knee is rubbing against mine, black denim bleeding into blue.
You know I won’t say anything. You know there’s no consequence. You know that despite everything that happens, in high school, you’re going to have a Chinese girlfriend. S— is from Elmhurst, a friend of a friend. In Queens, we all know each other. In hushed whispers we will wonder if she knows what you did in middle school, if we should tell her. But it will feel so long ago, and you will be popular—a football player with enough charisma and drugs to last you years with your friends. You know I wouldn’t dare.
You know that one day, I will interact, all the time, with men eager to bond with me—Uber drivers and strangers on the street who will greet me with “ni hao,” then launch into stories about their Chinese girlfriends and ex-girlfriends. They will pull out their phones and show me pictures of young, polished Asian women, their skin paler than mine, their eyes bigger. And I will smile, polite and docile, and laugh, because I don’t know what else to do, because I don’t know what they want from me.
You do it because for me, it is shameful, and for you it is something to boast about. You do it because you know I am afraid to tell anyone—my friends, my parents, my teachers. Because who would believe me? Who has the power to make you go away without trouble? Because you, right now, you are quiet and easily hidden, and to disturb the status quo is to make trouble, to stand up in front of everyone I know and expose my shame.
You do it because you know, years later, I will still think about you and remember you, though surely you will have long forgotten about me. In crowds that are mostly men, I will pretend to be washed and clean, smart and confident. Alone, I will wonder if I am where I am merely because the men wanted a woman around. If Asian was a safe choice for them.
But then again, maybe you don’t know. You don’t know. You do it because you’re bored, tired of class. You think you’re doing me a favor, as the first boy who will ever touch me like that. You have nothing to lose. You do it because you’re in seventh grade, horny, seated next to a nice, quiet girl, and really, why not?