The shared experience of being tampered with as a child
Jack* did not have much of a childhood to write home about. That obviously did not hinder his meteoric rise, because as a young professional, he was already on top of his game. He was quite successful, with a six digit salary, vacations pre-planned for a year in advance, and stocks and bonds neatly sorted out.
While he could hold onto investments with alacrity, what he couldn’t hold on to, for dear life, were relationships. Friends, men or women, would come and go from his life, with surprising frequency. To him, even his biological family, the little he had, felt like it was on borrowed time.
I think the lack of long-term connectivity with human beings wasn’t particularly bothersome to Jack. I gathered this over the course of six months when we crossed paths several times. Notwithstanding our differences as obvious as night and day, including our respective skin colours, we shared a common interest – salsa dance. It was over salsa that we first met. We were both enrolled in a weekly dance class that we attended after our respective work routines – his as a junior partner in a Houston-based law firm, and mine as an emergency room doctor.
Although we were slow in learning the basic footwork, I was slightly better at it. So I started teaching him, a classic case of the blind leading the blind. After the dance lesson, Jack and I would hang out at Mi Luna, a salsa bar where we would practice what we had learned. Since salsa cannot be danced solo, finding a partner at that place was a prerequisite to showing off one’s moves. Jack was much better at finding partners, men or women, and he would be equally comfortable with both.
Being tall, white, long-haired, perpetually stubbled, single and Texan might have had something to do with it. He would always be in his Aggies T-shirt, bared muscular biceps. Both arms had unusual tattoos, oriental script of some kind I think, that added a bit of mystery to his otherwise overwhelmingly Caucasian appearance. When I mentioned that to him, he was amused, but no matter how many times I asked, he would never let on what that script meant.
One evening after a particularly exhausting work day, Jack and I had tired ourselves out further with the salsa. After a round of hot tapas and cold margaritas, the childhoods of the people gathered there came up for discussion. I don’t recall the context and why childhoods were being discussed in the first place.
“So tell us what it was like for you Jack, while you were growing up?” asked someone.
Jack cringed momentarily. Had I not been attuned to reading his body language by then, I might have missed that.
“It was great, couldn’t have asked for a more loving family.”
That was all. Saying so, Jack got up and headed back to the dance floor.
Later that evening, once we were the only ones left from our group, Jack opened up.
The inherent sarcasm wasn’t lost on me.
“That wasn’t the case for me though,” he continued.
Although it wasn’t the first time or the last that someone had laid out his or her life story to an itinerant observer, I couldn’t exactly say why Jack chose to relate details of his childhood to me that night. Equally unclear to me was why I chose to narrate his story several years later.
Jack’s father had been in the army, and while deployed in the Middle East during the early stages of the first Gulf War, he had not returned. There was speculation that he had been tortured and assassinated. Jack’s mother had been pregnant with Jack when his father went missing. The lady was never the same again, nor did she regain confidence in love, even after Jack was born.
Thus, Jack grew up without his father – and mother too, one could argue. His mother had barely managed to keep Jack alive, primarily because she had to remind herself daily of Jack’s existence. Money was particularly hard to come by, although she worked odd jobs, several at a time, to make ends meet. The most consistent job that she maintained was as a masseur. The heftier tips she made from not-so-legitimate massages involving happy endings, although few and far apart, kept her afloat. Because of the long and odd hours, she would take Jack to the massage parlour, and at times forgot that he was there.
And that’s how Jack’s life lessons were fast-tracked by men who frequented the massage place. It wasn’t long before the young boy was propositioned by one of those men.
“I realised quite early in the process that by giving great massages, I could make some good money for myself,” Jack recounted.
“It made me entrepreneurial!” he quipped further.
“Yeah I enjoyed the attention too, but honestly speaking, it made me feel important and grown up since I was satisfying someone. I was obviously unable to be of much use to my mom.”
Jack had been 12-years-old then. He was oblivious to what he had actually been through – that what he thought he was doing volitionally was actually child abuse, with him being the victim. Later, as an adolescent, he continued to please others, mostly men. There was a phase in his life when he was making so much money from those activities that he seriously considered a career as a porn actor; in fact, he even auditioned for it. And he might have followed through, had it not been for a pastor at the church he sporadically visited for confession.
The pastor got through to him after a few sessions. That was a turning point for Jack and he ended up going from free community college education to a competitive law school, entirely based on grit, a brilliant mind and a photographic memory, that bagged him a full scholarship. Through law school he continued to mostly see women and even attempted to go steady with a few. But commitment was too much of a monster in his head, and he would back off at the last minute.
Over several months of getting to know him relatively well, I had started considering Jack a good friend, thinking he would be around for quite some time. Life, however, had other plans. One fine day, he checked out; he stopped responding to texts and phone calls. He took me off his WhatsApp. We weren’t Facebook friends to begin with, so he didn’t have to unfriend me there. While I knew I was on borrowed time with him, given his inability to maintain long-term friendships, being at the receiving end was still painful. True friends, you see, are hard to come by the older you get, and when you do, you hope for lifelong ones.
During one of our earlier conversations, I remember articulating my concerns to him; given what he had been through as a boy, I had encouraged him to see a therapist. Jack had laughed it off. The reason I had brought it up was because of my own experience of child abuse. I had lacked the courage to share my own history; that when I was around the same age as he was, I too had been repeatedly molested. That shared experience of being tampered with as a child when you have little understanding of what’s being done to you, provided a common ground for Jack and me. Maybe that’s why I felt such a deep kinship with him.
Although it’s been several years now, I still miss him. Jack neither harboured regrets nor residual ill feelings and that’s what I admired most about him. He was able to transcend his past.
Perhaps someday I too shall be able to look past it all and just move on.
* Names of individuals have been changed to protect their identities.
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