Warning for description of sexual abuse and its effects.
Once upon a time, there lived a little girl who loved fairy tales. As a gift, her mother bought her two beautiful collections of fairy tales, one by Hans Christian Anderson, the other by the Brothers Grimm. The girl spent hours reading the stories. And although the stories were different, and the books were different, she began to recognize many of the same patterns and themes throughout.
As the girl grew older, she began to wonder if many of the adults around her weren’t participating in the same tales as those in her books. She began to read other books that weren’t for children, and to watch movies and television. It seemed that everywhere she looked, the same patterns and themes emerged that she had recognized in her fairy tales. Indeed, if she closed her eyes a little bit, and looked at the world this way, she could see the world transformed into thieves and kings, enchanted bears and lost princesses, castles and spells and evil and good. And by and by, she began to wonder if it could be that she was actually destined to be a princess herself.
The collective wisdom of the world seemed to say that the the pursuit of all pursuits is true love, and that true love can heal all ills, break all spells, and transform the worst creatures into the best. In this world, the maiden must wait for her prince to find her so that she can have true love. He might appear as a charming man, or he might appear as a hideous beast. The maiden must remain open-minded, for it is her virtue and kindness that win the prince over and break any spells that have been cast upon him. She must not give up, and she must remain happy and youthful and demure. For only this way will the prince recognize her for who she truly is: a princess with whom he can live happily. Ever. After.
Choosing what to wear for my first date with Kyle was difficult. We had met for coffee the week before, but I had specifically asked that the coffee not be a date. I wanted to start taking some of the heaviness off these first internet meetings after I’d realized that to meet another person for the very first time and already be on a date with them is sort of insane. So we had met for coffee late morning, and he had been dashing and cute, though a bit erratic and distracted. After the coffee he walked me to my car and then said, “You want to kiss me, don’t you.” And I really did, so I ignored the arrogance of the statement and nodded, and we kissed while the winter wind whipped around our faces. I could feel him get an erection while we kissed, and that erection was what I had been thinking about all week long. I’d been on a long, dry run of mediocre dates and I was feeling lonely and, well, horny.
For our official first date, we decided to meet at a Vietnamese restaurant near his house, and I couldn’t decide what to wear. I knew I wanted to have sex with him that night, but I also knew that I shouldn’t if I wanted to preserve my sanity and keep my wits. What I wanted was for him to WANT to have sex with me too, and I wanted that delicious tension that hangs in the air between two people who know they are going to bed with each other at some point, but don’t know when. I chose black cropped leggings and a blue wraparound dress with red embroidered flowers on it. Sexy, comfortable, easy to take off… I was clearly planning on having sex that night. I drove to the restaurant and arrived before Kyle. I stood and read a menu for about 10 minutes, and then he rushed in, looking disheveled with greasy hair and clutching a large water bottle. “I’m sorry I’m late!” he said, and then proceeded to tell me all about the kidney stones he was passing.
The Princess dressed in a simple, enticing gown. Would her prince think she was lovely? How could he not? She wore roses on her bosom, and scented her skin with oil from lilac petals. She swept down the walkway and into her carriage, which took her to the cafe where her prince awaited. Only he wasn’t there when she arrived. Perhaps he was caught up in choosing which flowers to bring her, or maybe he was feeling unsure of whether she would like him. How silly he was being! The Princess waited, graciously, until he arrived. He did look anxious and worried. She took it on as her job to reassure him that she found him charming. He made excuses about his appearance, saying he was not feeling well. She found his insecurities endearing.
I was running low on money, which is an awkward place to be on a date. As we stepped up to order I purposefully asked, “Should we go Dutch?” and Kyle agreed, but then he gave his order just after me. I felt suddenly anxious as the woman rang everything up together. I knew the best fix this was to just say, “We’re paying separately,” but now it seemed petty not to pay for it all. Kyle stood and smiled at me. I sighed and handed the cashier my card. Kyle watched her charge me for the entirety and then he mumbled, “Oh, what? Uh, are you paying for everything?”
“Oh, how about I get drinks?”
“Sure.” I forced a smile. (Passive aggressive much?)
I had ordered myself a sipping vinegar with dinner, and Kyle held up his water bottle as a gesture of what he would be drinking and said, “Doctor’s orders!” As we ascended the stairs to find a table, he told me more about his kidney stones. He’d had them before, and this time he wasn’t following his doctor’s advice to avoid alcohol and to drink lots of water, so he was in pain. I felt annoyed with him. He knew he had a date coming up, why hadn’t he taken better care of himself so he could be present for the date? Or rescheduled for when he felt better? I sensed a Peter Pan on my hands.
The prince allowed the Princess to order her dinner first. He then ordered his and, as a sign of respect for her independence, he allowed her to pay for both of them. She took the gems from her purse with confidence, not wanting him to know that these were her last gems. She knew princes preferred rich princesses, so she worked hard to appear as such. As they ascended the staircase to their table, he told her the details of the illness he was facing. She listened with compassion and concern, and only a slight bit of alarm at his inability to take proper care of himself. Perhaps he needed a gentle, firm princess to care for him.
I tried to study Kyle objectively while we chatted. He was even more erratic and distracted than the week before at coffee. He was cute, I’d give him that, but looks don’t go far with me if our personalities don’t click. I had about a half second to wonder what to talk about before he started a monologue that would last the rest of the meal. It all started out well, with a simple love story that became his first marriage. Then they had a child and, surprise surprise, didn’t get along so well after that. The story took a sharp turn into a land of affairs, polyamory, and accidental pregnancies.
A server set our food down. Deep-fried crab twisted into unrecognizable, sandy shapes. Murky pho with swerving piles of toppings. Steaming heap of stir-fry. Kyle ate mindlessly, talking and chewing, not watching what went into his mouth. The story delved deeper into questions of paternity, battling exes, something about a man being sent to prison for child molestation. I tried to keep up.
The real kicker came when Kyle told me that his latest partner had tricked him into getting her pregnant. “Oh really,” I said, unable to keep silent at this one. “How did she trick you?”
“She made me come in her!” he answered. I began to feel a little ill.
“I’m sorry, what?” I asked. “You mean you didn’t have a choice but to come inside of her?”
“She begged me to,” he said. “We were having sex without birth control and she begged me to come inside of her.”
“But you had a choice not to use birth control,” I pointed out.
Kyle didn’t want to hear my logic. He shook his head and rolled his eyes, as if I was too dense to understand. “There are times of the month when a woman can’t get pregnant,” he said. “I thought she was tracking that.”
The world of his victimhood was securely built. I wouldn’t be allowed to poke at it. I wish I could say this was the first time I’d had this conversation with a man, but unfortunately I cannot. So many men seem to feel they were manipulated or tricked into having children. When a relationship doesn’t work out, they were suddenly used by the woman to get pregnant. Oh, us crafty, wicked women. We love to sneak around and plot how we will steal sperm from our unsuspecting victims.
The servants tended to the meal while the prince regaled the Princess with exciting tales of his fascinating life. She smiled and listened politely, trying not to let her expressions betray the shock she felt at some of the details. The prince seemed a bit wounded by the many terrible things that had happened to him. In fact, a particular villain had so vexed him, he had grown slightly bitter and unable to forgive. The Princess tried to persuade him, gently, to turn the wrong around, but he would have none of it. She made a mental note to broach the subject again at a less sensitive time.
Kyle’s movements and speech had begun to border on manic. I decided that I would end the date when the meal was done. No blue dress with embroidered red flowers on the floor tonight. I was very attracted to Kyle, physically, but the more he spoke the less attractive he became. Then he told me a story that would effectively prevent me from leaving him for the rest of the night.
The story was about his own father, whom Kyle didn’t meet until he was a teenager, or so he thought. It was a fascinating story that went on and on, building in suspense, as Kyle tried throughout the years to forge a relationship with the man who had abandoned him, only to discover, as an adult, that the man wasn’t his father after all. Like a sick version of Dorothy and her red shoes, his real father had been there all along, living in his house, raising his two children: Kyle and his mother.
I had a bite of pho midway to my mouth and I froze, mouth open. Kyle was smiling and chatting onto the next story, which was about some celebrity he knew. “Wait,” I said. “I’m sorry, did I hear you correctly? Did you just say that your father is also your grandfather?” He smiled and nodded cheerfully.
“It’s weird, I know,” he said. “But it’s really not all that uncommon.”
I didn’t know how to take the news in the middle of a crowded restaurant, so I smiled and tried to act as nonchalant as he appeared. I scrutinized his features a little more closely, looking for signs that all was not okay genetically. But poor thing, really. He had been raised by his mother and his grandfather, who were also his sister and his father. I wanted to leave, but I also wanted to shake him awake. This was a horrific story, but Kyle was continuing to list the celebrities he knew, and various ways they had complimented him.
As the evening wore on, the Princess became increasingly worried that the prince was unwell. He seemed unable to stop talking, and she wondered if maybe he were under some sort of a spell. Just as she was making up her mind to end the evening early so he could go home and get to bed, he delivered some shocking news: his father and his grandfather were the same man. Stunned, the Princess was caught with her mouth open. She quickly regained her composure and attempted to sophisticate herself.
“Okay,” she thought. “So his father is also his grandfather. This is not so uncommon in royal families.” She realized that his bloodline must be very pure indeed. Still, the news was a little unsettling to her. She couldn’t help but think of how odd that must have been for his mother, what she went through to preserve the bloodline… The Princess shuddered a little and then turned back to the prince. He had moved on to stories of the royal court, and so the Princess tried to move on as well. If she was going to be royalty, she must get used to these sorts of things.
I felt certain that if I ended the date then, Kyle would think I was ending it because he was the product of incest. I wasn’t sure how I felt about him with this new information. As he chatted away I just kept staring at him and thinking, his dad is his grandfather, over and over. Maybe it was pity, maybe empathy, but something made me accompany him to the Italian restaurant down the street, where we sat closely together in the corner of the bar and shared dessert and cappuccinos. As we sat close, the spark and humor of our coffee date and original correspondence returned. The strange taste of his monologue began to fade and I found myself wanting to kiss him again.
After dessert we stepped out onto the sidewalk and kissed. Desire rose up in me and I suggested we continue the date. As I drove to his apartment, the events of the evening began to settle into a narrative I could understand. He was nervous so he overshared; I had let my expectations build up and been disappointed; now we were returning to level ground again. I know I could have ended the date there. I could have gone home and had a bath like a normal person. But I had an offer of a relief from loneliness for an evening and I didn’t want to let it go.
I arrived about eight minutes after Kyle, and he had used those eight minutes to get good and stoned. And to drench his hair in some grainy, sticky hair gel. First, we made out on the couch. His wet hair flopped in my face like a wild city-animal as he lay atop me. At one point he fell asleep, snoring into my neck. I wanted to leave, but I wanted affection. The easier option was to stay. We moved into the bedroom, and I still thought I might go ahead and have sex with him. We undressed next to the bed. He kept the lights off. The sounds of the nearby highway added a loneliness to the room. Kyle made a big show out of going down on me. Too big a show. Exasperated, I pulled him up for lovemaking, but he wasn’t able to get an erection. “This happens when I don’t know somebody,” he explained. I said I understood, because I did. Although in this case I was getting to know him a little too well.
I was aware that the thin veil of consonance remaining between us was slowly fading, leaving an eerie echo chamber. The space between us didn’t feel bad or good, it just felt…unoccupied. Like neither of us was there. Kyle moved his lips down my body and then said, “Do you want me to give your clit a good tongue-lashing?” My stomach surged, not in a good way. It was the completely wrong thing to say to me in that moment, in the dark room where I couldn’t see his face. I began to feel frozen in place. He went down on me again and I thought of his mother with his grandfather. I couldn’t stop my mind from going there. I managed to prod him away from my body, and he got up and lit a cigarette.
Kyle slumped on the bed and began to tell stories of past lovers. Smoke from his cigarette choked the air. I went still. My body has been freezing since I was a little girl. I don’t fight or flight, I play dead. While this is happening, my mind goes into a strange, far away focus where I feel like I’m not really where my body is, like I’m watching everything happen to me. I’m very familiar with this state by now. Some part of myself knew what was happening and began urging me to leave. “Get out!” it said. “Just get up and walk out!” But I couldn’t. I remained curled in a ball on the edge of the bed, listening to Kyle’s stories and smelling his putrid cigarettes.
Then my mind turned to self-punishment. “You deserve this, Mercy. This is what you get for coming here, and not leaving a long time ago.” I closed my eyes and longed for sleep. Maybe I could slip into unconsciousness until the morning. What time was it? How long until the sky turned light and I could leave without making him mad? Is that what I was afraid of, making him angry? I was exhausted and confused.
Here was that little girl, the four-year old me, frozen in place. The girl who was lured into the teenage boy’s bedroom where he placed her on the bed. She had then realized that there was no game, like he had promised. There was only him doing things to her body she didn’t understand, her body that she gave over, her body that froze and betrayed her. He had trapped her there, turned her into his object, and in many ways she had never gotten up again. And here she would be, in moments like these, when I suddenly felt unsafe with a man, that frozen little girl trying to keep me safe by going quiet and still.
The Princess accompanied the prince to another cafe, where they shared cake and warm drinks. She felt certain that he would invite her back to his palace after this. They must really like each other, she concluded.
After the tea and cake, her carriage carried her to the palace, where her prince awaited. He had taken a little medicine and retouched his hair for her, and although she privately preferred his hair the way it was before, she never would have admitted this to him. A princess’s duty is to honor and support her prince at all costs. They began to share affection with each other, thus assuring the Princess that they would be married soon. The poor prince was so tired he fell asleep on top of her, and the Princess was relieved when he suggested they lie down on the bed. As they continued to share affection in the bedroom, the Princess let her mind wander as to the type of wedding they would have, and whether the king and queen would like her.
The room was dark and the prince’s body began to feel strange to the Princess. He seemed to be growing smaller in her hands. His hair brushed on her skin and it felt dirty and wet. She longed to see his face, and she peered at him through the darkness. Where her prince had been, she now saw a pale and bloated figure whose cold lips poked at her skin. “Would my Princess like me to beat her?” asked the figure. The Princess froze in terror. What had happened to her prince? With all her might she pushed the figure off of her. He stood next to the bed and she saw that he wasn’t a prince at all. She was in the chambers of the Dwarf King. He had tricked her! Oh how had she fallen for his trickery again? The Dwarf King had been trying to steal the Princess since she was a little girl. If he could get her to marry him, she would be trapped in the underworld forever.
The Princess knew she was in danger, and that her only hope was to wait until sunrise when she could make her escape. The Dwarf King wouldn’t follow her into daylight without his disguise. She curled herself into a small ball and stayed very still under the covers. She knew that if she could keep the Dwarf King talking about himself he would go on all night. All she had to do was stay perfectly still and quiet and he would naturally start boasting. The trick was not to make him angry, which would happen if he thought he wasn’t being listened to. So every once in a while the Princess made a small sound, just enough to let him know she could hear him, but not enough to turn his interest back to her.
Kyle eventually fell asleep, and snored loudly next to me. I contemplated sneaking out, but I still couldn’t make my body respond. I longed for my phone, which was in my bag in the living room, so I could know what time it was. Every so often Kyle would wake up and say, “Do you want me to give your clit a good tongue-lashing?” I pretended to be asleep, occasionally delivering a small murmur that was meant to sound like I was responding in my sleep. But I stayed awake all night, staring at the blinds, waiting for light.
Finally dawn came. I heard the birds first, little messengers of freedom that they are. Kyle seemed to be sleeping heavily, so I quietly got up and found my clothes. Daylight gave me the courage to move. I dressed in the living room, and I wanted to leave but I desperately needed to pee. I walked down the hall to the bathroom and sat on the toilet. Before I had finished, Kyle appeared in the doorway and smiled. “Should I make coffee?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “I’ve got to be at work.”
He looked disappointed. “Oh, okay. I could make us breakfast!”
“That’s okay. Thank you. I don’t like to eat in the mornings.” I was willing to say whatever it took to get out of there.
I stood and flushed. Kyle stepped into the bathroom, still smiling, naked. I forced a smile in return, and then quickly darted around him and into the hall. He didn’t seem dangerous, but I was very keen on not making him angry. I have seen too many men turn violent when angered by a woman, and too many get angry when they perceive they are being rejected. He followed me down the hall.
“I’m sorry I’m rushing!” I said. “I really have to get to work.”
He stood by the door and hugged me before I left. “I’ll see you again?” he asked.
I could no longer differentiate between a smile and a grimace, so I did my best to move my facial muscles upward and nod. “Sure! Have a good day.”
I walked away, listening for his footsteps behind me. It was still gray dawn light and noone was around. I heard his door close and I turned. He was gone. I breathed. It felt like the first time I’d breathed in hours. The smell of his apartment was stuck in my nose. I walked quickly to my car, my body still returning to me, stumbling and stiff. I couldn’t stop gulping air. The frozen world was cracking open and relief came trickling in, but dark figures lurked everywhere, as they do in the frozen world. Predators wait in every shadow, are behind the wheel of every car, are probably in my car waiting for me. I checked my car before I got inside and locked the doors. Only then did I begin to feel safe.
The Dwarf King eventually slept, but the Princess knew better than to try and escape. Just as she would begin to think of sneaking away, the Dwarf King would open one eye and say, “Does my Princess want me to beat her?” Finally daylight arrived, and small trickles of faint sunshine made their way to the window. The Princess’s heart leapt, for she knew she was nearly free. Quickly she dressed, listening for him. She was about to slip away when she realized she needed to use the garderobe. A princess could not relieve herself in the street, so she must do her business in the castle.
She crept quietly down the hallway, and had nearly finished when the Dwarf King appeared in the doorway. The Princess forced herself to smile innocently as she said, “Good morning!” The Dwarf King reflexively looked up at the window and saw the early light of the sun. As the light hit his skin, his disguise began to reappear. He stood before the Princess, a hideous half-dwarf, half-prince creature. She stood and stepped around him. With daylight against him, the Dwarf King began to beg and plead with the Princess. “Please my lovely, let me feed you. I have crumpets and jam. I have berries and milk! Don’t go!”
“I must go,” said the Princess, walking quickly toward the castle doors. The Dwarf King followed her, naked and pleading.
“But when will the Princess come back?” he asked.
She wanted to say “never!” She wanted to raise her hand and cast him off of her forever. But she knew she couldn’t. He would be back, he would always come back for her. He would lurk in the shadows of her life until she died. This was her fate, for once the Dwarf King settled on a child, he never gave up. Her best chance was to grow old and ugly as soon as she could, but even then he might find her. So instead of answering, she forced herself to smile at the Dwarf King and then she slipped out the castle doors.
The Princess walked quickly to her waiting carriage, terrified he would come after her. Everywhere she looked she saw his guards and his spies, watching her from the shadows, cowering from the growing light. Only once she was in her carriage and racing away could she allow herself to breathe again. Somewhere, deep in her heart, she understood that she would never find a prince, that the Dwarf King would always be there. No matter whom she chose to marry, the Dwarf King would one day emerge from the shadows, revealing himself to have been there all along. Her only choice was to find a sorceress, somebody to cast a spell strong enough to keep him away. She resolved herself to look for one as soon as she had recovered. She leaned her head against the carriage wall and slept.
For days and weeks and months I wondered about that night with Kyle. Why had I stayed as long as I did? Why did I go through with the whole night? These same questions torment me when I look back at any relationship. In hindsight, I can see red flag after red flag that I routinely ignored or explained away. There are so many possible answers (I don’t believe I deserve better; I have trouble setting boundaries; I “need” to learn a lesson), and so much deep digging to get to the bottom of this. Digging down into the tunnels of the dwarves.
I haven’t been on another internet date since Kyle. There are many more stories to come, and so much has happened since that night, but for now I am afraid to go back into an intimate space with someone I don’t know well. There is too much waiting for me. Even people I know well, people I’ve been with for years, can suddenly feel like strangers if I can’t see their faces, or if they are not acting like themselves. This was the gift given to me by that teenage boy when I was a child. The horrible, permanent gift that I keep rediscovering in the arms of men, in the smell of basil, in the sound of laughter at a party. Someday, with enough help, I hope to find its roots and dig it out for good. Until then, I am wary of the Dwarf King.