Other peoples’ opinions of me have always mattered more than I am able to admit without some degree of embarrassment. This intense fear of being disliked is incompatible with the aloof, curated version of myself that I try so hard, and fail, to maintain. It should be obvious, by now, that I’m anything but indifferent; I’ve been trying to shake this crippling obsession with being “likable” my entire life. I remember the point at which I became decidedly unlikable. Up to then, my efforts had mostly paid off. Back when people still thought I was a ‘nice’ girl.
Truthfully, I wasn’t very nice at all, and my quiet, good girl routine would have fallen apart without anyone’s help eventually anyway. I was in love, and not the kind that is patient or kind or free from envy or any of that other good stuff. It must have been at one point, but this is all ancient history, and that’s not the part I remember. Having had the years and the therapy to really reflect, I remember a lot of events differently than I perceived them 15 year ago. Including that shift from nice girl, to the girl who broke the heart of the nice guy.
I understand why he’s the sympathetic character in this story; it’s how I viewed him for well over a decade. I don’t blame anyone for thinking I was a two-timing dirtbag. I thought I was a two-timing dirtbag. How could I cheat on this sensitive, sweet guy who wrote heartfelt letters and was friends with girls because he was emotional and sentimental like us, not like those other assholes. He was good, and pure, and I was 15 years old, and so easily convinced that my trauma did not belong to me. But I carried it for years regardless.
My high school sweetheart wasn’t there that night at the party, when, asleep on top of a pool table, I awoke to a man in his mid-twenties kissing me, his hand down my pants. His tongue was in my mouth by the time I was awake enough to realize what was happening. It was already happening. I kissed him back and told myself and everyone else that I had wanted to, because telling my boyfriend I cheated was easier than admitting I hadn’t. Honestly, I wasn’t entirely sure I hadn’t wanted to. I certainly couldn’t deny that I liked the attention. Most boys generally didn’t like me like me back then, and it had felt strange and exciting to be wanted by this cool, hot, older guy. As it turns out, my low self-esteem had only deceived me into seeing him that way, but it was my subjective reality at the time.
When I told my boyfriend, what happened—that I had kissed him—I could see then that I had changed to him. I didn’t know yet that I would never be able to redeem myself in his eyes, that I would lose friendships, that we would continue to date for the better part of a decade, in spite of the shaky foundation of resentment our relationship now stood on.
He told his friends, our friends, and then everyone else by way of melancholic lyrics in his AIM profile and away messages. There was no getting around the reality that I was the bad guy, and when I got called a “slut” for the first time, it felt like too accurate of a jab to refute. When our friends told him that I was bad news and suggested he break up with me, I lashed out, but secretly wondered why he didn’t. I hated him for not somehow knowing the full story, and hated everyone else for feeling entitled to an opinion on what had happened, when I wasn’t even sure. But, as the story goes, I hated myself the most.
The boyfriend and I were never the same. We were supposed to be perfect, and up to that point, we had been. We barely had a conversation about what had transpired that night at the party, but we dealt with the fallout for years, for so long that by the time it was all over, there was nothing left to mourn. I was dry-eyed the night he left for good, knowing then that I would never see him again. Despite all of the not-worth-mentioning drama surrounding his final departure, it all felt very anti-climatic. Following that was the flood of relief, the feeling of liberation I struggled to reconcile with the knowledge that I had been free to leave at any time. And yet, I did feel free, for the first time in years. From the arguing, the expectations, the baggage we had lugged around, but mostly, from the restraints that tied my entire identity up in his perception of me.
In the months and years that followed, when recalling various arguments and incidents in which I had always viewed myself as the at-fault party, I began to see things a bit more objectively, and in doing so, began to see myself a bit more favorably. To be clear, much of the guilt and regret I felt surrounding my behavior was warranted, but my newfound clarity allowed for a more nuanced perspective. While that clarity brought me a sense of peace, it served, too, to fill me with blinding rage towards him for the way he was so easily able to alter my image, towards his girl friends who found it inconceivable that a “nice guy” in public could be not-so-nice in private, and towards myself for not being the advocate my younger self had needed. I understand now why I described what happened on top of that pool table as cheating, instead of calling it for what it was: sexual assault. The thing I find most difficult to understand is how he was easily able to inform ‘public’ conception of me while he escaped our relationship unscathed, in that sense, with his “nice guy” reputation still intact.
Time and distance have quelled my rage, with nearly eight years and 1,200 miles between myself and any of the lingering, small town judgments of me. I still fight with the excessive weight I allow other people’s impressions of me to have, still struggle to find a balance between being unabashedly myself and being palatable to others. I do find myself increasingly less concerned with the latter, as it becomes harder to ignore the impossibility of being universally accepted. It has become easier not to internalize that lack of acceptance, knowing now how susceptible people are to forming opinions based on half-truths, including the ones I tell about myself.
These days, I try to be transparent. I try to be honest with others, and perhaps just as importantly, I try to be honest with myself. I try to have my own back, to be the ally I needed way back when, and, with any luck, to encourage girls like my 15 year old self to view their own experiences holistically and unequivocally. To believe themselves when they sense that something is not right, and to have faith that I believe them, too.
Brooke Pridemore Fassnacht is an essayist from Fremont, Ohio, who now resides in Denver with her husband, David, and their two dogs, Rocko and Hank. She has a BA in Sociology from Bowling Green State University, and is employed as a family navigator at the local children’s hospital. You can follow her on Twitter @elmoincognito.