Pay Attention to the Light Source

Editor’s note: The following essay contains mentions and descriptions of self-harm.

I parked my bony fifteen-year-old butt in an old wicker kitchen chair that threatened to break in its entirety from wear. Half of it was torn up by the hours I spent sitting on it. I leaned in close to the old HP. I’d gotten the turning on and turning off of that computer, on its ninth life and last legs, down to a science. You had to jiggle the power button on the tower just so, sometimes multiple times when it would get stuck or not turn on at all. I burned incense on top of the old wood-paneled TV and spent hour upon hour alone in that room, searching for answers on the internet. I looked for new music, like most teenagers, and Googled “how do you know you’re a lesbian?” like some others.

My boyfriend, who was the last boy standing after a boyfriend-to-girlfriend-to-boyfriend five-car-pile-up situation my young teenage bisexual self had (in part) caused, turned me onto Xanga.com. There raged a wild world where people just said what they wanted on the internet, half-essay, half-diary entries anyone could read. My first blog was the sad attempt one might expect from a queer-but-not-completely-out 15-year-old. I wrote my little pieces and shared my childish art. I sent those blog entries out there with the same spirit that possesses the people who broadcast radio signals into space. Is there life? Does it want to communicate with me? I held out hope and kept an eye on the stars, sure there was someone out there who would return the call.

Usually, my boyfriend didn’t validate me with a comment. He judged whether the posts were worthy and said nothing if they didn’t meet his edgelord standards. Later, when I gave in and read some Palahniuk, I figured out this guy cribbed the insults he spouted in my direction from books, so he was, you know, a complete original.

One day, my space signal got a response from the void. A total stranger, an adult, made contact.

With fresh dopamine surging through my bloodstream, I checked out his blog. M was in his 30s. He lived across the country, worked a real, adult job he wrote about in that disarming and affable style of aww-shucks dads. His last name was a really common one, and I never found out what he looked like. I knew he dabbled in art and worked in a museum. Somehow, maybe through my boyfriend’s blog, he had found mine. What must I have looked like to him, sitting there with no one to read my thoughts?

At the time, I was in various states of making and breaking promises to my friend that I would quit cutting. That meant I also had to quit holding a lighter beneath the blunt edge of a small kitchen knife until it got hot enough to melt flesh and pressing it into my stomach with a hiss.

I couldn’t stand the social infractions I made, the disapproval I received from my classmates. My foam-cushioned headphones got worn to death on my walks past the water, during the hours I spent lying in bed sketching — looking at Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, trying to make a lamp or anything else I was looking at look real in pencil, on paper. In between drawings, if a thought was too hard to push down, I’d take out the exact-o knife I’d stolen from the art classroom and open a new line on my queer, punishable body.

I’d hold my breath and rend flesh. I reopened each of my wounds daily, often midday in a beige bathroom stall. I bled through undershirts in a criss-cross pattern. My skin always oozed blood and kept me hyper-aware of my social indiscretions, like crushing on straight friends who didn’t deserve what I thought of as my predatory gaze. I carried my sin from classroom to running practice and home and back again like a medieval penitent.

I don’t remember how M and I started messaging, but I think we exchanged AIM screen names, and then, there I was, sending drawings of mine to this 30-something-year-old man. In exchange, he gave me honest, quality advice:
Artists cultivate a practice.
Keep going.
I can see where you’ve worked on your shading. That’s really good. Pay attention to the light source.
No one gets to the mastery level without years of work. I think you have something there.
You’ll be amazed at how far you’ve come in a few years if you stick with it.

Years. There was a promise in his words, not that I’d make more friends or that I’d receive praise, but that something internal, owned only by me — my drawing — could and would improve simply with the combination of effort and time. For someone who traced a razor blade over my veins and thought about ending my life daily, the idea that this very thing could be mine if I just kept it up was revelatory. The conversation and the validation amounted to a small but significant reason to keep clinging on. If I needed encouragement, all I had to do was take a photo of my work with the free-with-purchase digital camera and upload it to an AIM message.

***
When I was 12, men started to ask me for my number at the mall. A man who must have been in his 40s told me he could see up my skirt while I rode my bike. When I was 14, a man tried to chase me down in a park when I was running. I barely got away. I can still feel the heat and the rawness in my throat, the burning in my side from what it took to outrun him. At 15, I took a difficult math class. The teacher would stand behind me while I was at the chalkboard. His old hand with its liver spots and puffy joints would swat my pigtail, or, if he felt emboldened, stay there and play with it for a while. Flop, flop, flop my hair moved in his hands.

It was not surprising to me that M’s response to a photo of me I’d posted — against all my mother’s recommendations about posting photos of myself online — got the private comment from him:

*drool*

People used to use asterisks in messages to indicate what they were *doing* in real life. It’s a practice that I don’t think was ever not cringe-worthy. He was indicating that he was drooling over me, a 15-year-old child, but also, after all the requests for my number and unsolicited comments about my body and the non-consensual touch I’d endured, as off-balance as comments like that made me, he also didn’t seem as bad. I was, in fact, getting something I needed.

To this day, I have a creative practice, one I’ve actively cultivated for years, one I’ve ground labor and hours into. One that I established based on M’s advice.

He pushed me to be better at my art and to keep working at writing. He also pushed against the boundaries of what was ethical, what was safe, what was appropriate, testing, prodding, acknowledging with a:

Haha sorry sorry I’m being an old creep!

***
I stayed with my grandmother with some frequency. I walked all over the place by myself, and when the short story contest came up at my school, I walked until a flirtatious look I shared with a stranger, probably in his 20s, sparked the idea for a story. I sent it to my boyfriend via email.

He said something like, Holy fuck you wrote this?

When I asked him about it over the phone, he was flabbergasted, annoyed that I’d written something he had to consider good, that after his near-constant plugging away at writing and centering of himself as a writer, I had sprung up like a weed and stood beside him, demanding my own place in the sun.

***
My cross country teacher’s balls slipped out of his running shorts. We were sitting in a circle where he took attendance and gave us directions for the day’s six to eight mile run while we stretched. His long, chicken legs were folded in front of him, his clipboard balanced on his knees, his running shorts too short to contain his testicles. I find it hard to believe that he didn’t know.

He was also an English teacher, not mine though. Gossip flew about him looking down girls’ shirts while instructing. One of his favorite students, it was rumored, was on our team.

Later, I overheard him whisper to her at a cross-country meet. The English teacher, with his glasses and his performative tweed, told her to try to beat me. I kept my eye on her the whole time. We ran a course through the same park the man had tried to chase me down in two years before. I was neck-and-neck with her for the last mile, along the exact same path I’d once run for my life. I slammed my feet into the ground, pulled in air, and pushed like I knew how. I passed her — right in front of the teacher.

“You’re a monster!” he screamed at me, his wiry fist balled in the air.

I exalted in being called a monster, covered in scars, with a story sitting hot in my chest.

I submitted the story I’d written. He was one of the judges. He cornered me in the hall. “The goods are odd, but the odds are good.” I looked blank, concerned by his phrasing. “About your story.” He told me, absorbed in his own cleverness.

It took not winning the prize to shut down my Xanga. The girl who won had written a piece about her trip to Europe, which is a thing you can do if you’ve been to Europe.

I also had nothing to offer the judge. I had no status at the school. There would be no consequences if I didn’t win, whereas the winner always won these kinds of things. There was not much to see if you looked down my shirt.

He had things to offer me, though — mannerisms, a way of wearing blazers, a way of readjusting glasses. I watched, an alien not quite ready to take over his form, preparing to mimic him when the time was right. I was a monster, a body to run, to get points, to bleed, to chase — and a hollow pulling in what pieces of his soul I liked and wanted for myself. I tested them out, one by one, repeating to myself “The odds are good, but the goods are certainly odd.”

***
I got dumped and switched schools in the same summer, met friends through a job in a weird restaurant at the edge of the country on the Niagara River, had a boy low-key stalk me after just one bathroom make-out. He brought me an Animal Collective CD while at work. He got curious looks from an assistant manager who was kind of protective of me, who had been occupied burning spider webs with a blow torch — as you do on slow days.

I started writing again. I didn’t share it much with anyone, but I kept at it. For two years, I wrote things by myself, for no one, kept in stacks of notebooks I’d take into coffee shops, that I brought to every class with me, that I delved into when not at work or partying. When asked to write an essay about the one thing we would take with us if we had to leave home with nothing, I wrote about my notebook of short stories; the work was precious even if it wasn’t shared.

When I went to college, I started a new Xanga account. I sought out M. He was surprised I reached out. Even at the time, I was also struck I hadn’t forgotten about him.

He’d claimed a little piece of my inner voice, somehow, and I invited him back in to take over more. With a little luck and some strategy, I got more than a few subscribers — and then another self-assigned mentor, we’ll call him Z, drifted onto the scene.

He presented a cigarette-smoking, borderline alcoholic masculinity steeped in equal parts irreverence and literature — and I was intoxicated just from the fumes. He thought my essay about how I was too late to the party for my ideal job — getting paid to paint depictions of hell in Medieval European churches — was top notch. He was in his late 20s, an almost ten-year gap to my 18 years. Soon, we followed the same pattern as with M. We moved the conversation to DMs, to Facebook chat. He encouraged my writing. I, his.

I studied his selfies (were they called selfies, yet?) with a fascination that extended to the camera lens I turned on myself. I took photos and put them up with my blog, to many a compliment — and attention from Z. Still, when I took the photos and posted them, wearing a blazer, boxers under my jeans, out and obvious — even the most prominent and important lesbian on our floor noticed my swagger and happily mentioned it — I was left hanging, waiting forever for the response that I wanted but would never come.

What did I get instead? They picked out the parts they wanted, the feminine, the softness, called me an “angel.” The portion of my exterior that was visible to others consisted of the parts intertwined with being harassed on the street, almost assaulted at a party, talked down to in close social circles. For a little while, only Z accepted, readily, openly, my queerness as well as my work. When boys talked over me in writing class or “didn’t get” my work or told me not to use “words they didn’t know the definitions of,” I fed on Z’s approval.

It didn’t satisfy. I had a hunger that begged to consume maleness, masculinity, their power and their place. I wanted the same thing at 18 that I wanted when I was 15. I wanted to chew them up and take what I wanted of their male bodies and their male literature and their masculine writing, put it on myself like a hermit crab and leave them to rot at the bottom of the ocean. Maybe those no-nut November cis men are right and their essence can be stolen. I would have taken it if I could, bloodthirsty as I was for the kind of presence that would finally, at last, position me as an authority on myself. I wanted to claim the right to self-approval that they held. I did not know at the time that I could in fact give this to myself. That it couldn’t be stolen through some kind of alchemical exchange via conversation or closeness because men were too oblivious to participate in this kind of magic. But that I didn’t need that either.

***
I shut down the second Xanga when a friend who I very much admired, who I was inseparable from that first semester, who also saw me and my raging bisexuality and my queerness and who welcomed my gender fluidity whenever it emerged — told me that it was dumb to have a blog.

It would take me a while to develop the stubbornness that would shield me from things like this.

I kept in touch with Z via Facebook — it was all I’d actually needed from the blog in the first place.

***
When I entered my second semester of writing courses, the teacher fixed his eyes right on me. He picked up my first story for the class and read it out loud, stalking around the room, enunciating my words like he could taste them.

His favor during that semester snapped from warm to cold like a late frost. I found out years later that he’d turned his attention to a woman in the class he’d asked out who rejected him thoroughly. (She was already having an affair with the vampirism professor.) He’d abandoned me, not made eye contact during class, as though I’d rejected him, too.

Z was still there, always on the other end of a Facebook message when I wanted to send him a story.

***
Toward the end of my college years, contact with Z faded, then stopped entirely. Was it the hours upon hours I put into my practice, the all-nighters where I produced some things actually worth engaging with? Was it the time I invested in friendships and the relentless business that comes when you finally kind of get on the right track?

Was it that I was older, more self-assured? Was my appeal as a lonely child available for rescue fading? Was my sex appeal to older men, that I unwittingly held as a child in a pedophilic culture, also losing its luster? I think so.

I went on to teach in the arts and to work in the nonprofit sector, to write tons of grants, proposals, copy. Time and again the words came. A bit of surprise always lurked under the tone when people said, you’re a really good writer.

I introduced myself to new people who squirmed with nerves until they heard my pronouns or found out who I was dating. I cut all my hair off, cut it shorter, shaved one side, then two, got into a long-term relationship with a fellow queer, dressed in drag, got work into an LGBTQ art exhibition and got told by an old queen that I wasn’t queer. The video artwork was, looking back, not-so-secretly a trans narrative on loop. I wrote my first novel in notebooks on the subway each day to and from work, then I started self-publishing under a pen name, preparing to leave California, trying to cultivate other sources of money with no idea of what I was doing because no one had ever explained the publishing industry to me and I didn’t know where to look.

***
On my very last day of work in San Francisco, I forgot to close my tab at my goodbye “party.” I walked halfway to the BART station and doubled back. Can’t leave my card in San Francisco!

No stranger to grabbing a coffee or a cider alone while working on some writing project or other, I hopped onto an empty seat at the bar and ordered one last drink before closing out. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw glasses, a familiar smirk. I looked, glanced down at my drink, looked back up.

“Z?”

“Nicole?”

He was smaller than I thought he would be. Frankly, myself, I looked like I’d had a really long day — which was true. I’d even been crying. I wanted to be glorious when we finally, inevitably crossed paths, but here I was, exhausted from my years working in the arts in a rapidly gentrifying city, leaning over a bar in a too-hot blazer, my hair lank. We talked about writing that was keeping us afloat, about San Francisco and that I was leaving. We wished each other luck, I let him get back to his friend, and I walked out into the sunlight. The world was shiny with the dreaminess that comes from intense coincidence.

The voice, the critic and male cheerleader inside my head, had revealed its true form and stood stark naked in front of me, its dick flaccid and face sallow. When I saw the man whose image had lived inside of me, there in real life, in late afternoon Californian daylight, my hunger dissipated. There was nothing there for me anymore, and nothing in the fantasy of borrowing his person and putting it on to make myself into a writer. I had to find my own way to be.

Once in a while, while working on a novel or a story, I’ll Google him. The “fun” thing about having been groomed is getting to be the age of everyone who ever groomed you. Like, when I reached the age Z was when he started talking to me, I wasn’t talking to anyone that young except my younger sister. Unless it was in a professional context (them or me), it just wouldn’t have happened. It makes the dynamics of the relationship seem stranger and stranger the farther away I get from it. I don’t believe that I was that exceptional. I was just young and trying hard, but most of all, I was young.

What do I find when I look him up? He looks like someone gradually receding, a flash-in-the-pan of an earlier internet, someone who should have written a book a decade or more ago, someone who has gotten into YouTubing. People think he’s a narcissist, and they might be right. You do have to be a little narcissistic to create things, or else you wouldn’t do it, if you didn’t think you were worth it. Is it narcissistic to accept that I’ve eclipsed? After all, I’m still writing, have maintained my dedication to the craft. Him? His writing practice looks like it’s dwindled into, just, Tweeting, and like that’s been going on for years.

What’s harder to ask is whether I would be who I am today without the encouragement of a couple creepy older men on the internet. Did they prevent me from finding better writing community or — in the face of lousy professors and discouraging friends — were they the best teachers I was going to get during that time? And if I had to choose again between having that encouragement, or having nothing, what would I choose?


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Nicole Hall

Nicole Hall is Autostraddle's A+ and Fundraising Director, and has been fundraising and working in the arts and nonprofit sector for over a decade. They write nonfiction as well as aggressively gay and sometimes spooky fiction. They live in Pittsburgh with their partner, Sadie. They are also a gardener, project queer, witchy/wizardly human and BFF to a lovely senior rescue dog. You can find them on Twitter and Instagram as @nknhall.

Nicole has written 71 articles for us.

29 Comments

  1. Thanks so much for this, Nicole. I had a lot of similar experiences and I really appreciated your perspective on this, especially how you emphasised the tension between knowing those people gave you something you needed and knowing they also took something important from you. I’m really glad you shared and I hope it’s helpful for you, too.

      • Yes, definitely. I think the reason this feels important to me is related to what @msanon said below.

        You wonder, if you could go back and choose again, if you’d rather have this support than no support, and I think it’s important for me to acknowledge that I actually couldn’t have made a different choice. That I have to remember that in order for me to be compassionate to myself about those choices. I made the best choices I could given the skills I had, and I would’ve loved to have had the skills to make better choices but I honestly think I couldn’t’ve then. All of my circumstances and personality and history conspired together to lead to that choice and another choice would’ve required different circumstances and personality and history.

        Recognising that I also got something I needed from those interactions is for me a way to not blame myself, without ceding any credit to the shitty people who put me in that dynamic. And reiterating that it came at a cost I couldn’t understand or consent to is for me a way to not let those shitty people off the hook.

        • Thank you for writing all this out. It’s especially important to acknowledge that a younger person and a younger self does not have the coping skills, experience, confidence, understanding of long-term consequences — things that might have led to a different decision making process. That’s why it’s on the adult in the situation to be a better person…and if they don’t, then no, we absolutely do not have to let them off the hook.

  2. Nicole, this was a fascinating read and resonated with me in ways I didn’t expect. I grew up in fan communities online and had in retrospect very troubling relationships with people 5 or 10 years older when I was a teen. I share that experience of hitting those age milestones and it always gives me a quiet “what the fuck” moment. I’m 25 now – in one year I’ll be the age of the guy who pursued me when I was 16. I can’t imagine. Thank you for giving me a lot to think about in the rest of my day. I’m glad you outwrote those dudes.

    • Yes! I imagined that so many people here who might be people who’ve spent a lot of time online, might have had similar experiences. It’s so real that every time I’ve hit one of those key ages, that I’ve just reflected on the other person’s actions on a whole new level. Hope you’re hanging in there <3

  3. Nicole, thank-you for giving voice to such an intimate, powerful personal essay. It put me on an emotional roller coaster, parts of it gave me knots in my stomach other parts tears. All in all, it is an amazing piece of writing and sharing.

  4. Nicole – you ARE a good writer. And it’s not a surprise. ;)

    Thank you for sharing this. I did not have these experiences myself, but as the parent of an eleven-year-old, how to protect her from these things to the extent I can and help her know how to identify them/options for getting help and dealing with them is definitely on my mind.

  5. don’t know if this will make any sense outside of my head, but for whatever a random internet stranger’s opinion might be worth… your question about who you would be/whether you would rechoose the same or go without, it seems like a frame that imposes a similarly imbalanced structure to that which eventuated the experiences you had. i guess i mean sth like… yes i can see how this choice reflects the reality of life, but isn’t that the problem? because it seems that you found a way to make yourself more whole despite the resources you had (old guys not behaving ethically vs nothing) as opposed to through them.

    i think i really mean that there’s no credit for poison fruit (specifically, their support was tainted. and you seemed to know it even then?) there is all the credit to you for the continued effort to make make yourself more of what you wanted to be. keep that credit for yourself, and, if you want, let unethical old guys stay with forgone parts of the internet we don’t need anymore. maybe we don’t really have to accept or even participate in choices that disenfranchise us from agency and valuing and honoring ourselves.

    i think you are your own source of light.

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