James laced a telephone cord around his mother’s neck and pulled until he asphyxiated her.
I knew James since first grade. In fourth grade, he sat behind me in Ms. L’s class. He kicked my chair throughout the school year. My head bounced back and forth like a rag doll.
One day, before lunch, James was desperate to get my attention. “Tamara! Tamara!” I ignored him as always, and then he pleaded more. “Please! Turn just this once.” I couldn’t concentrate and thought if I swerved, he’d stop kicking, so I could finish my spelling lesson.
I twisted my neck, begging him with my eyes to, please, stop. I was a shy little girl and rarely spoke, especially to boys. A pencil flopped in my right hand, close to my mouth.
“There,” James said, stabbing the pencil through the roof of my mouth. “That’s what you get for turning around.”
I screamed in pain. The whole class stared at me as the No. 2 dangled like a floating cigarette between my lips. I was embarrassed to be the center of attention.
Ms. L ran over, pale. Dragged me to the nurse. I was delirious as the nurse yanked the pencil from the pink flesh of my palate.
For the rest of the year, James chuckled. “You got what you deserved.”
In eighth grade, I made a new friend, Molly, from the wealthier elementary school. She liked boys and smoked pot.
My mom was single and often spent her weekends with her boyfriends. Soon after I met Molly, she said, “I have a great idea. Steve can come to your house.” Steve was a stoner she obsessed over. I explained I couldn’t have boys over, but she insisted everything would be fine.
Molly finally wore me down. At 10 p.m., Steve tapped on my sliding glass bedroom door. I sat on the floor in the dark, terrified my mom would somehow find out, possibly through telepathy.
“How’s your mouth?” I recognized the voice immediately. James had slipped in with Steve. I stayed still, hoping James would leave quickly. Then Molly and Steve moved to a private corner of my room, and I was left alone with James. “You’re pretty. You know?”
I never really thought of myself as pretty, just boring. Boring brown hair. Dull brown eyes. Unlike Molly and James, who both had banana-colored hair and mossy green eyes.
I turned away, embarrassed. “Can I tell you a secret?” I scrunched my shoulders indifferently. “I had a crush on you in elementary school. I had to see you tonight.”
I was confused. I thought James hated me all those years. Why else had he tortured me?
“Come closer,” James said. I didn’t move. “Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you again.” I scooted a little closer. “No, closer. Don’t be a scaredy-cat.” I tried my best to keep my distance, but I also didn’t want to make James angry by not moving.
Moonlight squinted through the plastic blinds. James shoved his cheek against mine. Sweat dripped from his temples, smearing across my cheek. The shaved part of his mullet itched. I caught the scent of Drakkar Noir hidden behind his ear.
James pressed his mouth to mine. Jabbed his tongue inside. I tried to pull away, but he grabbed me by my waist. Huffing, he said, “Imma get me some tonight.”
I closed my eyes and hopped onto my unicorn. My pet removed me when bad things happened, like when boys and men, who weren’t supposed to touch me, touched me.
We flew into the sky, flew through pink cotton candy clouds. I blacked out but was awoken by Molly nudging me, saying, “Get into bed. They’re gone.”
James continued to sneak into my room for months. I never said anything, and my mom never found out, but I spent eighth grade a hostage in my body. A hostage in my room. Hostage to Molly. Hostage to James. I didn’t know how to tell Molly to leave.
I couldn’t tell James to stop. I just became more and more silent.
At first, I wrote I HATE James in my diary. However, within a few weeks, my diary became filled with: I love James SO much. James is SO cute. I hope James marries me.
Molly wore Guess, Esprit, and The Limited, brands I wished my mom could afford. She had money because her step dad owned a liquor store. I loved spending the night at her house because I could borrow an outfit to wear to school.
One morning, I wore her Naf Naf jumpsuit. It was one of the first times I wore something sleeveless. Molly coated my lids with heavy black eyeliner and puffed up my eyelashes with thick mascara. Then she curled, teased, and sprayed my hair with Aqua Net. I felt pretty.
James had warned me, “Never tell anyone about us.” But on this day, I heard him call my name in the hallway. “Tamara!”
I turned around, excited that James finally wanted to talk to me. I bet he thought I looked pretty. Maybe, he’d even ask me to be his girlfriend.
Then James shouted, “You got short arms.” I looked down, horrified. Why hadn’t I noticed my Tyrannosaurus Rex arms before? From that moment forward, I hated my arms.
Eventually, James lost interest in me and stopped coming over. He spread rumors around our junior high that I was a slut.
I never spoke to James in high school, but I saw him slap one of his girlfriends across the face and slam another girlfriend against her locker.
Then I heard the worst thing—James strangled his mother with a telephone cord.
But then, after high school, I learned something new—James hung himself. He was 19.
Tamara is an Applied Linguist who researches language, culture, and identity in the Middle East and beyond. She studied poetry and creative nonfiction at Columbia University and has been granted numerous residencies and fellowships, including Bread Loaf, Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Sewanee, Ragdale, Cave Canem, and Vermont Studio Center. She’s widely published in places such as Salon, The Independent, Parents Magazine, Food52, and Motherwell. She was awarded the Pauline Scheer Fellowship and recently graduated from GrubStreet’s Memoir Incubator. She wrote her debut memoir, Child Bride, about her marriage at 12.