When the shout came from behind, it was deafening: “GET HER!”
It was an order, and it was not to be questioned. Spurred on by the taller boy’s screamed encouragement, the shorter came pelting after me. I turned and ran onto the playground.
My kindergarten class got an hour of recess every day which, when it comes to kindergarteners, is pretty inspired. Tire them out so they can’t misbehave in the classroom. Make a mess of the playground instead of the teacher’s desk. Throw soft, spongy dodge balls at each other instead of wooden blocks or dollhouse furniture.
I hated recess. I hated the sweat and the running around and how there was always a line for the swings. I’d race the others to the swing set (just because I hated to run didn’t mean I was slow) and, if someone got there before me, would find a quiet patch in the shade and build fairy houses in the dirt instead.
That day, Preston Sherer and Ben Jones sent me running for a different reason. Preston was the leader; he was tall, popular, and charismatic. The other boys thought he was cool because he made loud, rude farting noises in class and brought in the best toys from home. Ben was shorter, slighter, and needed a belt to cinch his hand-me-down shorts around his waist. He was quieter than Preston, but unquestionably his minion. Both boys had bowl haircuts. After all, this was the 90’s.
Both boys were also fast. Preston was faster, but he wasn’t running. Instead, he watched Ben’s progress and sauntered lazily some yards behind, still shouting. Ben tore after me as I ran like a hunted animal across the woodchips, through the swings, around the tires, up the stairs, and onto the bridge of the jungle gym. I thought I was safe there because if he came up one side, I’d go down the other.
He watched me up there for a minute, catching his breath. I smiled and waved, my courage restored from my vantage point. Then Preston caught up and manned the second set of stairs. I was trapped.
I made a snap decision. Quick as a lynx I bounded down from the bridge and leapt to the ground only inches in front of Ben’s surprised face. The chase was on again. I ran around a soccer field, over a small creek, through a wooded area that was technically off-limits, and across the basketball court before he caught me.
In the dirt yard just in front of the silver double doors that spit us screaming and squealing outside each day, Ben made a grab for my red skirt. I refused to wear pants in those days—only skirts and dresses—and this was my undoing. He caught the hem and brought me tumbling down into the dust. He fell across my extended legs. We were both panting. I’d scraped a knee and could feel the tears behind my eyes welling up, about to spill over.
Preston came ambling up behind us completely at ease. He looked down at our pile of tangled, dusty, bloodied limbs and laughed. At his approach Ben sat up. I struggled away from him but ended up on my back, pinned down by Ben’s knees on my skirt and his hands on my wrists. I looked up, terrified. They’d caught their prey. What would they do with it?
Preston looked at us there in the dirt. Maybe our pose recalled some illicit movie scene he’d watched with his older brother Trevor (another sandbox bully), or maybe he just wanted, childishly, to test forbidden waters for the thrill. Whatever the reason, he gave Ben a simple instruction.
My fate was sealed. My eyes widened. I struggled, but it was no use. For a moment Ben looked uncertain. Kiss me? Here on my back in the dust in broad daylight? Maybe it seemed an odd climax to the chase. But he was six years old, so he did what he was told.
His lips came toward me and I struggled harder, like a washed-up fish flopping on land. I turned my head a fraction of a second too late—his lips found mine. They were hard, puckered, and chapped. He smelled like goldfish and tasted like dust.
In half a second it was over. Ben got up, blushing, and wiped the playground dirt off his too-big shorts. I scampered to my feet, too upset to cry, and fled for the safety of trees. There I crouched, back to a fence, waving a stick in case they should come after me again.
They didn’t. They left me alone, a scared animal in hiding.
The kiss part didn’t seem as threatening to me then as it does now. Sure, it was gross—every six-year-old girl knows about cooties. And anything is unpleasant when it’s done against your will. But Ben was nice enough, and I liked his blonde hair and watery blue eyes. Preston was a pig, but Ben was all right.
But at age six I didn’t understand their motivation. Why had the chase ended in a coerced kiss? Why had Preston chosen that as his ultimate punishment? Even at that age, the two boys felt a surge of confidence from overpowering me. I had no choice, and it thrilled them. They didn’t know why it thrilled them any more than I did—maybe it was imitation, or maybe it was instinct.
Maybe these two little boys were mimicking scenes from their own lives—Dad dominating Mom, older brothers pressuring girlfriends, images from TV, movies, or video games. It’s no secret that women are hyper sexualized in mass media, and that youth culture absorbs the concept almost without realizing it.
Whatever motivated those two boys on that playground on that particularly hot and dusty day, they couldn’t have known the consequences of their actions. They couldn’t have known that, years later, I’d still be that animal with her back against the wall, walking home with my finger on the trigger of my pepper spray, carrying a torch for them all this time.