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I never knew his name, but in the summer that I was 17, he came into the gift shop where I worked, and his presence electrified the atmosphere, at least for me. It was the summer between high school and college, and like hundreds of kids, I entered the tide of summer help in the resort town of Estes Park, Colorado. I am sure my woman boss, mean spirited and money minded, didn’t notice him at all. That he was racy, suave and sexy was established within seconds and without words.
He said, “So when do you get off?”
“I get an hour at lunch.”
“Meet me,” he said, skewering me with his intense stare. In thrall, I didn’t move as his insolent gaze traveled all over my body, pausing for a moment on my breasts. Then he returned to my eyes, locking in his hold.
I felt simultaneously terrified and excited. I mentioned a sedate coffee shop down the block and said that I’d be there at noon. He nodded and left the store, but then he stopped in front of the window until he made eye contact with me again. He nodded once and grinned. It wasn’t a pleasant grin.
I felt trapped. I was a girl who kept her word, but even in my innocence then, I knew this guy was trouble. Sexy trouble, but trouble nonetheless. My mother wouldn’t approve of him—but she didn’t approve of anyone; I never brought my boyfriends home. But this guy was so far beyond the pale, so many miles past any boundary of decency, that even if I could have brought him home, my mother would have taken one look at him and called the police. He was that racy, that forbidden.
My thoughts rolled forward, tumbling over themselves, as scenario after scenario played themselves out in my mind. Some were enchanting—he would turn out to be a nice boy and we would go on a proper date—but most were terrifying: he would be the kind of guy who rode a Harley without a helmet, and who would have a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth. He would insist on taking me, helmet-less and perched on the back of his motorcycle, somewhere lonely where sex would be inevitable. The anonymous sex was titillating in fantasy, but I knew the reality would be rape.
My thrill and anxiety built all morning, and when the boss said I could go for lunch, I headed out onto the street, where I paused for a few anxious seconds, feeling pulled in the direction of the coffee shop. What was troubling me, I realized, was that I didn't feel that I had the right to change my mind. I knew that there was no chance that this would be confined to lunch. I already felt as if he had me on a leash, not an unfamiliar feeling. Because he had found me acceptable, he had commanded me to meet him, and I had no choice but to go.
During that summer of 1970, the fallout of the massive social changes of the 60’s was bombarding me, along with everyone else. Traditional manners and all points of reference were gone, and for some, sex on a first date had become as common and as expected as a handshake. The word ‘no’ was not in my vocabulary, so I tried to avoid notice, staying well beneath the radar. I was pretty, so despite my efforts, I'd occasionally be spotted. This was unwelcome attention because I had no say in how the encounters went. The attention might have initial promise, but for me, it inevitably devolved into pain.
In my world, I would be shunned if I did anything that was contrary to the standards of adolescent acceptance; standards that were constantly shifting. At every party I went to there were clouds of marijuana. Other drugs were available, too—and I guarded my drink carefully, lest someone drop LSD or angel dust into it. Everyone knew that sort of thing happened. Maybe it was an urban legend, but it was a powerful one.
Smoking marijuana at parties was not something that could be refused. When the joint came around, I had to pretend to smoke it, and then pass it on. If a person were so foolish as to refuse, he or she would be loudly and viciously attacked and then labeled, “bourgeois.” Most of us didn’t know the meaning of that word, exactly, but we knew that it all boiled down to ‘outcast.’
Parties weren’t fun because of their potential for humiliation, so I didn’t go to many. What if someone found out that I wasn’t inhaling? Eventually, I stopped going all together—the conflicts were too great. In misery, I hovered in the depths of my despair.
My social docility was beginning to grate, though. I was assertive in other areas of my life—at least as much as good girls could be then. But I was certain that I couldn’t change my social passivity. Not yet, at any rate. Feminism might have been cresting, and the new possibilities opening up for girls and women were certainly exciting, but I had no idea how they might apply to me.
With boys, and with the cliques of powerful girls in high school, I’d been too scared of rejection and the subsequent humiliation not to go along, on demand, with some mighty wild and perilous schemes. Acceptance was so important to me that even though I’d be numb with terror for the duration, I was utterly unable to say, “I’ll pass.”
The social costs of preserving what little integrity I had seemed untenable. That the risks I took might result in death or injury seemed as nothing compared to the pain of the social obloquy I knew I would endure if I didn't go along. At least death meant that the pain would be over. Even so, during some of those adventures, I’d say desperate prayers to God promising Him 50 "Hail Mary"s if He would get me out of there alive.
None of the risks had ended badly, as yet, but whether that was due to Divine Intervention or Luck was unclear. It never occurred to me to promise Him something that seems obvious now—which was that I’d “just say no” the next time, and not go on any more hair-brained schemes at the whim of the pack.
I turned in the direction of the coffee shop, with the words, “Please God,” already forming on my lips. With each step I felt the thrill of danger but also like a fly being pulled inevitably into a spider’s web.
Then an unusual thought thundered across my mind: “You don’t have to go.” I stopped in my tracks, disrupting the flow of busy tourists.
I stood there for what felt like minutes but was probably only seconds. “I don’t have to go?” I asked myself.
“I DON’T HAVE TO GO.” The thought was a delicious shiver, and there was POWER behind it.
I felt a bit guilty, but mostly I felt giddy, as I turned on my heel and walked in the opposite direction. I wasn’t keeping my word, but I couldn’t deny the relief that built with each step I took away from that coffee shop.
I don’t know where or even if I had lunch that day. I have a vague memory of sitting in the town’s lovely shaded park—but that could be pasted in from another time. What I did feel was a cautious optimism that I might have more power than I had ever realized. On the heels of that realization came the thought that I might actually have an influence on the outcome of whatever I CHOSE to become involved in.
This idea was so outrageous that I knew if I told anyone who mattered to me then, that ridicule would follow. Then it occurred to me that I DIDN’T HAVE TO TELL ANYONE. I didn’t need anyone’s approval to make my own decisions.
I grew anxious then. Shunning would follow. I looked around the empty, sun dappled park where I sat alone.
But alone wasn’t so bad. It was peaceful, really. I felt alive, even though it was news to me that I’d been feeling dead. I took a deep breath and another realization dawned: If solitude didn’t frighten me, then maybe it was better than the company I’d been keeping.
It was suddenly obvious. No matter how hard I had tried, nothing I could do would ever win their approval. Who were ‘they’ anyway, and what was so important about their approval? The worst that could happen was that I’d be alone for awhile, which was nothing compared to the terror I routinely lived in.
That terror turned out to be far more pervasive than the angst of adolescence. At some young age, in order to get on with my life, I had relegated it to my unconscious mind. It would take me years to become aware of its immensity, much less its origins.
But on that day, all of that lay in the future. I got up, stretched, and feeling the sun’s warmth, I walked back to work, pleased with myself.