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learning curve

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When I was five years old, a tree fell on my house. It almost crushed me – would have, had my brother not asked me to help him load groceries from the car just five minutes before. So I went to the library and read about storms, and the internal decay of trees. I learned to recognize when one was dead and a danger to the surrounding buildings. I studied architecture and learned what the strongest points in a house were, so that I knew where to go when the wind got that bad again.

When I was a kid, my parents got into a car accident. No one was hurt, but the car was totaled. So I read about the internal combustion engine. I learned what could have happened if the leaking oil and gasoline had met an open flame. I read about crumple zones, about how the structures of cars have changed over time not to be an immovable object, but to let themselves be crushed and cradle the bodies within like a protective hand. I wanted to become an automotive engineer, so that I could build cars that would keep people safe.

When I was seven, another kid whom I called my friend took me to the bathrooms of our daycare center, pushed me against the wall and put their tongue in my mouth. They put me on my knees and I learned what someone tasted like between their legs. I learned that it didn't matter if I said 'Yes' or 'No'. I learned that I liked making them smile. I found out that adults do this kind of thing for each other, all the time. It's what you do when you're in love, books told me. It's what you do when you're not in love. Love is chemicals – so are orgasms. I studied the human brain and learned what synapse did what, as much as I was able to understand it at the time.

I learned what shame felt like, when my mother found us in a bathroom at a group sleepover for the scouts. I was ten. I felt a hollow, deep ache, and sobbed into my hands as I confessed. I learned that confession doesn't make it easier. I learned to keep everything bottled up.

When I was eleven, I found people online. Other people, who had been in storms and car crashes. Who had been touched like that and told what to do. Some of them liked it, some of them didn't. Some of them wrote about it happening in ways I could only dare to imagine. I learned more about how other people touch each other.

When I was fifteen, my best friend that I thought I was in love with told me that she wanted me to have sex with her. I panicked, because all I knew was shame. All I knew was that I shouldn't want her the way she wanted me. It wasn't legal, for people our age. It was meant to be kept online, I thought. It was meant to be done in secret, not in the public bathrooms by the park. I let her touch me during a sleepover with another friend of ours sound asleep on the other side of the room. Later, that same friend told me he'd touched himself, listening to us, and came quick and quiet into his hand, and snuck into the bathroom to clean himself up when alcohol took us under. I learned which drinks would knock me out cold, which would make me brave, which ones tasted like shame and poison and which ones tasted like forgiveness.

When I was sixteen, my cousin pushed me close and tight in his bed and kissed me. That night I read stories, incest that wasn't technically incest and relationships that definitely were, cousins and step-siblings and mothers with their teenage sons, daddies with their daughters. I had dreams that my brother and I were in a relationship and it was okay because he promised I couldn't get pregnant, boys can't get other boys pregnant, he would say. Sometimes I would dream it was my father fucking me. It felt right, in those dreams.

I found people online who dreamed about and wrote the same things. I learned that sometimes lovers didn't have to be human. I learned that there were some people who didn't fall in love, not the way the books and movies claim they do. I felt hollow again; I would never have that. I didn't feel romantic and I didn't want roses and champagne and candlelight. I wanted brutal fucks in bathroom stalls and people coming on my face who didn't even know my name. Tentacles and knots and savage teeth that snarled at me, that terrified me.

I went online, and learned there were people like me. That it was okay to explore these things. It was safe, in the vast anonymous expanse of the internet. There were things I could read, things I could write, that didn't have to have consequences because they're just words on a page, pixels and binary code and it's all safe, it's all perfectly safe, because at any point I can close the tab and go to sleep and it's not like werewolves are real.

When I was eighteen I gave a boy my age a blowjob and it escalated to sex. I bled for three days after it, because the ribbed condom we used tore me up. I was scared and had no one to turn to except my words and my friends that I didn't know the real names of, and their stories. I read about happy endings where the people were in love, no matter the cost.

Later that year, I met my first official boyfriend. He told me he would wait until I was ready, and when I said I might never be ready, he told me he would wait. It made him irresistible to me, and that night he took me home and I fucked him on his shitty futon-bed in the attic above the room where his parents slept. Afterwards, he kissed me and told me he loved me, and I felt hollow again because I didn't feel the same.

When I was twenty, and met two people who had vaginas but were not women, I told myself that I could be enough for both of them and that everything would be alright if I fucked them. I kept one and discarded the other and I hated myself for it, but the one who kept me fed me by hand and pet my hair when I was falling asleep and told me they loved me. When my next boyfriend forced me to end that relationship, they were patient and understanding but I was all alone with an abusive son of a bitch who didn't care what I wanted and needed and made me feel like dying every single day.

I told myself I was in love with him, because love is passionate and unreasonable and isn't that what the movies and books always tell you love is? It's chemical, dependence like nicotine and caffeine and harder drugs. I told myself I loved him when he hit me, and when I went online I read stories about other people getting hit and liking it. I read about people getting hit and thought to myself that I was lucky, because at least nothing was getting broken. I wondered if I would love him more when he inevitably made me bleed.

When I got into a car crash, I thanked every maker and manufacturer check in existence that I emerged unscathed from something that should have killed me.

It took a thousand miles and a lot of time before I was free of that boy. Years, further, before I met my spouse now. The person who had also been online, and grew up on stories, and knew what it felt like. The person who gives me access and freedom and encouragement to read about people being tortured and beaten and raped, people who scream and cry the whole time, people who like it and beg for more.

Maybe it's not love in the traditional sense, but fuck tradition – tradition told me it was wrong to like being on my knees, tradition told me to feel ashamed and hollow and that nothing would ever be enough. Tradition tells me loving this person isn't normal, isn't okay, but there are people online telling stories much like ours and so many people can't be wrong, they can't be wrong.

There are voices in my head and they are always talking, and it's never silent, but with them, I'm not alone. They all like stories, too.

There are people who don't understand. They have never had a tree fall on their house, never been in a car crash, never been kissed by lips who moments before touched bruised knuckles after they connected with the cheek of the person they claim to love. There are people who don't read about becoming architects and engineers and who don't find solace in reading about people who abuse and hurt each other and are together despite everything.

There are people who don't understand what it's like to need somewhere safe. There are people who, by the grace of God or whoever the fuck lays claim to this world and this universe, have never been touched when they were seven years old by fingers and tongues and feet to the ribs. There are people who don't understand why we write the things we write. They must be so hollow.

I don't have to be ashamed because I was raised on stories of incest and abuse and car crashes. I know what a tree looks like when it's dangerous, now. I know how cars are made the way they are. I know that sometimes people think about having sex with their relatives and want to bare themselves to the wide-open anonymous world of the internet and know that it is safe, here. Words and pixels and tabs can't hurt you - you are safe, here. He can't hurt you, here. She can't make you feel like that, here.

Do you see where I'm going with this?

Do you fucking see?