Editor’s Note: What follows is an excerpt from The Future Tense of Joy: A Memoir by Jessica Teich, a Rhodes Scholar. The selected excerpt tells a disturbing but revealing story of a young woman’s experience of sexual assault—and why she had trouble telling anyone.
Sensitive readers should be warned that Teich’s language and imagery is intense. We hope you’ll find it serves the purpose of telling a powerful story—how the crimes of sexual abuse often stay hidden, how the wounds of assault last longer than one would like, and how the beginnings of healing can be found in the hope of providing something better for our next generation. Find The Future Tense of Joy wherever books are sold.
When I was growing up, the center of my world was a ramshackle house at the edge of the water: the Orlando School of Ballet. Vinnie Orlando, who ran it, was a slight man with an imposing nose—he could be funny and insinuating, and he smelled of coffee and cigarettes and sweat. He made beautiful dances to music by Brahms and Satie, and the happiest moments of my day were the moments when he invited me to sit on the parquet floor of the dance studio and watch him work, running his fingers through his long, tangled hair, moving slowly, sinuously, in his jazz shoes.
In some ways, I was not unlike the other girls—we were all lanky, with long swingy ponytails. Some had curvier feet or higher extensions. I was known for my jumps. But I knew I was not as talented as the most serious dancers, even as I was more serious about dance than most. For me, it was a kind of escape: here I could be watchful, mimetic, as I could not at home, where no one was watching me.
Vinnie and his wife, Betty, were like characters in a fairy tale: the skinny man with the unruly features and his fat wife. They lived in dilapidated grandeur in a rundown Victorian, with piles of costumes and dozens of cats. I had never seen my parents kiss spontaneously or cuddle, and Vinnie and Betty never seemed to touch. But there was lots of contact between Vinnie and his dancers—the “boys” and the “girls,” as they were called—and, as a child, I had trouble telling the difference between what was sexual and what was dancing.
Night after night, I would see the boys—grown men, really—grabbing their partners and thrusting them into the air, or cradling them in lavish plunges. Everywhere I looked there were pliant limbs and charged glances, torsos entwined.
I was confused and tantalized.
But over the next few months, as I sat on the floor, long after the other little girls left, and watched Vinnie making dances, I began to realize: The “boys” and the “girls.” There was more going on than I thought. Jamie was sleeping with Steve, and Lorna with Chris, and they all lived upstairs in the ramshackle house with Vinnie and Betty.
The world of the little girls—giggling, pulling on their tights, helping to tuck flowers into each other’s hair or darn each other’s toe shoes—was a world I didn’t fit into. I seemed serious, bookish, compared to them.
And the older girls, living with the boys in the rooms of the tumbledown house, I wasn’t one of them, either. They sat on the steps between classes, long legs dangling over the banister, blowing smoke rings and talking about men.
Joe was one of the men they talked about most. He was a dancer, but more athletic, less refined. He was tall and handsome, with a bulbous nose and a voice that seemed high, almost goofy, for a man so muscular. He was always saying lewd things to the other girls.
The summer I was sixteen, Joe began to notice me, tease me, making fun of my name, since his dog’s name was Jenny and his favorite song was Donovan’s “Jennifer Juniper.” “Jennifer Jessica,” he would croon, and he invited me to watch him work in the studio, Jenny the dog looking on nervously from the wings. Maybe, he said, he would make a dance for me sometime. Maybe he would make a dance for us.
Of course, all the girls wanted that, not just to dance with him, but to feel the smell and stickiness of someone else’s body very close. That’s what we all wanted most, to be partnered by a boy in a pas de deux.
There was a sweetness to it.
Or so it seemed, until the day Joe came up suddenly behind me, lifting me into the air, sliding me down his torso. I didn’t know what it meant, but I said nothing.
I felt at home in the gaps, in the silences.
Joe never did choreograph a dance for me. He kept saying he wanted to, coming in close behind me as I stretched in the studio. Soon he was touching me more, teasing me more, wanting me to stay late after class, but not to watch Vinnie work. He wanted to go up to his attic bedroom and talk.
The room was filthy and dark, dance tights and shoes and records strewn everywhere; floorboards sending off splinters; nails poking through walls. There was hardly any furniture: a broken-down dresser; a bed; and next to the bed, a little ashtray made from volcanic rock, bulging and misshapen. I soon discovered that was where Joe kept his joints and his roach clips.
I had never smoked pot before; I had smoked only one cigarette with Wendy Masten in the bushes behind her house, begging God even as I did not to strike me down with cancer. I was a “good” girl. But Joe wanted to get high, and when I coughed as the acrid smoke snaked its way inside my body, he laughed and pulled me closer. That was the first time we kissed.
I didn’t want to kiss Joe, even though he had beautiful lips, shaped like small balloons. I wanted to get away from him, back downstairs to the dressing rooms or the barre. But soon he was kissing my neck, my head bending down to make room for his kisses; he was pulling me onto the bed, on top of the sheets.
Day after day, I followed him up to his attic room, no longer watching rehearsals, no longer studying the older girls as they stretched or flirted with boys. I didn’t fit in with the little girls, but neither did I belong with the big ones, who could do a full extension while reaching down for their coffee in a Styrofoam cup from the deli across the street.
I belonged with Joe.
I grew used to the rancid smell of the attic bedroom. Jenny the dog grew used to me.
I didn’t want him to touch me. I didn’t want to touch him.
Really, I just wanted to go home.
But I could not give it up: Here was a man whom everyone noticed, who noticed me. A man who wanted me. And I wanted that.
“Why won’t you kiss me?” Joe would ask, as the weeks became months, his frustration like a clenched fist.
Because I don’t love you, I wanted to say. Don’t people just kiss the people they love? I was waiting for that, even though I didn’t know what that would feel like. I imagined it as different, somehow, from the sweeping, surging feeling I had when I was with Joe.
What he wanted, most of all, was to make love to me. I didn’t want that. I wasn’t ready for that. I was curious, but for someone my age, like Bobby Sullivan, who had a mustache that was just beginning, who looked down at his sneakers when he wanted to tell me something, who was part of my life at school.
Here in the attic, the floor littered with dirty dance tights and the stubs of cigarettes, I knew I wasn’t safe.
But at least I wasn’t hovering, vaporous and disembodied. I was somewhere where someone wanted me.
“I want you to f**k me,” Joe would say, his voice husky with longing.
“No,” I would say.
But my body was saying something else. My body was moving with his body, even as I was protesting, trying to get away, even as Jenny the dog circled on the rug, never settling down.
“I want to f**k you.”
“I have math homework.”
“I’m not good enough for you, is that it?” Now he was sneering. “Little missy from Lloyd Harbor, with the big, fancy houses and the tennis courts.”
“Joe, this is crazy. I shouldn’t even be here. I shouldn’t be doing this.”
“You’re almost thirty. We could get in trouble.”
“Yeah? Who’s gonna know?”
“I could tell someone.”
He reached past me, brusquely, for a joint on the lip of the ashtray.
“I could tell my parents.”
“You f**king tell them, and I’ll kill you. I swear I will.”
He inhaled the joint and his voice softened. “I just want to f**k you. I want to make you feel good.”
He moved in to nuzzle me. “Jennifer Jessica,” he started to croon.
“No.” I pushed him away.
Anger suffused his face like lava, flowing over his features, narrowing his eyes. I had seen that look before: on my father, when I fell and broke his camera in Sequoia National Park; on my older brother, when he pushed our cat off the top of the stairwell to see if she would land on her feet.
Now Jenny the dog was whining, and Joe swung at her, but she ducked away.
Wham! His knuckles landed like a caterwaul against my cheek.
“B***h. Don’t push me. Don’t ever f**king push me.”
He grabbed me and smashed me against the bed railing. “Don’t f**kin’ push me. Don’t you ever push me.”
“Joe, I’m sorry.” I started to cry.
“Who the f**k do you think you are?” He slammed me against the wall so hard the shutters shook.
Now I was really crying, and Jenny the dog was whimpering, eyes lowered, ears flat to her skull.
That’s how it began, and soon the beating was as frequent as the caressing.
As frequent and as inevitable.
Why didn’t I ask someone for help? Why did I let it happen?
Because, before I knew it, it was happening. He had hardened against me, and he would not let me go. He was on me, swallowing my mouth, my neck, my shoulders, swallowing my freedom, hanging my hair from his fingers like a flag. We never actually made love, and that was largely the problem: Joe knew he would never “have” me, and I could not tell him why. I know now that I was waiting, waiting for a reason; soon I had lost so much, the reason had to be real. I was waiting to be found out or to fall in love or to be persuaded. But the violence became the reason not to give in.
“No, I won’t sleep with you. I’m too young.”
“No, I don’t want to.”
“No” and the fists that followed became my life.
I know that the violence shapes you, claims something in you, changes its name. Puts its mouth on you. You can never go back. The chaos, the drama, grabs at your thigh, like a thistle tearing into flesh. Threads its way between your teeth and tongue, like a horse’s bit. From the moment it begins, it declares itself as something welcome. It is brutal, beckoning, but familiar, too. I was drawn to Joe, to his beauty, his goofiness, his desire for me, but there was something more. I was grateful to be recognized. To belong.
In the moments before it begins, there is a kind of anticipation, as before an earthquake. Objects shudder. A dog may stir. You tremble; you brace yourself, but there is also a kind of ecstasy. You can make this happen. You can do this, too. There is pleasure because there is clarity in the brutality. Everything else seems puny, compromised. If you can survive this, you are stronger—well, maybe not stronger, but more unafraid. Nothing will penetrate. Not grief. Not sex. Not sleep.
You have surrendered the part of yourself that is most tender. Why do you give that up? Why give that part away? Because, at least at first, the violence curls up inside you, where you have not been reached. The man who beats you may seem to be holding you. Once, on the stairs leading down to my bedroom, my mother called out to me, “Where did you get that bruise?”
“At dance,” I replied softly. I wanted to tell the truth. Maybe she could sense that there was more to the story? I wanted her to know I needed her even before I could say it, even before I knew myself.
“Be more careful next time,” she warned, never stopping to examine the welt, more compelled by the dirty dishes or the dog.
But I didn’t know about “next time.” I feared the next time, or the next, I would be dead.
It would be years before I could heal the breach inside me, between who I seemed to be and who I was. Long after I married and had children—two girls with their father’s long lashes and love of puns—I lived a life divided; divided from myself. I had everything I’d ever wanted: love and companionship and the warmth of friends—above all, two healthy, charming children—a dog (although I actually never wanted a dog) and a garden and plenty to read. But I felt trapped behind a scrim, like the smoked glass of an antique mirror, with the world on the other side, tantalizing and remote.
It would be years before I could forgive myself for never telling anyone about Joe. Before I could forgive my parents, my teachers, for not seeing how vulnerable I was. “To forgive” means “to give again” or “to give as before,” but I wanted to give as I had never given; to love lavishly, as I had longed to all my life. When my older daughter teetered on the brink of adolescence, I began to confront what had happened to me when I was her age. I knew that was the moment smart girls could be swallowed whole. Perhaps it’s true, as the Buddhists say, that our children choose us, to free us.
I gave them life. But they taught me to breathe.
Photo Credit: Evgenia Kohan