Rites of Passage

Rites of Passage - student project

The year I was 13 I found out that everything was about sex. It was 1972.

That summer, I was shamed, thrilled, terrified, humiliated, seduced, repulsed and forever changed by a skinny, greasy-haired 20-something pothead my second cousin dragged up from Tampa, Florida to work on my granddad’s tobacco farm.

 I was a dorky geek, dreaming that one day, a boy would say things to me like they said to girls in my favorite songs. I would lie on my back with my head hanging over the end of my bed, hair hanging to the floor, my arms extended straight up holding the album cover with the picture of the hunky lead singer of the band “Climax” who would be petulantly whining out the words; “Precious and few are the moments we two can share- are-are-are-are!!!….”. I fantasized about watching him play in front of swooning hoards of girls, but he would be looking only at me and I would be gazing back at him, knowingly, sharing the secret of our love.

 There was no one at all, certainly no boy interested in me. I had already been told I was weird and awkward by my mother and my beautiful older cousin told me I was ugly. I took care of the rest. I made myself stand out, unintentionally, in all the wrong ways. It seems I couldn’t hold myself back from challenging the priest that came into our class once a week to teach catechism and apparently, I was alone in not wanting to be confirmed into the Catholic faith. I took the priest at his word when he told me that this was a “rite of passage” and my time to choose my faith as a young adult. This didn’t go over well. I went through with it reluctantly, believing I didn’t have a choice. I did of course; I just wasn’t strong enough to make it.

 By the time I was 13 I had already been working on the family farm for two summers. I didn’t mind the work. Most of the kids I knew lived on farms and were working too. Every year, my dad and my granddad had to hire men to work in the tobacco fields during the harvest. My American cousins occasionally came up to stay with the Canadian faction of the family during this time and in 1972, my second cousin came for a summer job and brought with him a long haired, lanky slime-ball named Ned. I don’t think I ever heard a last name. He was probably younger than I thought he looked and despite his general lack of hygiene, there was something intense about him like an animal that just busted out of it's cage.

 I could hardly breathe when he was anywhere around me. I didn’t know what pheromones were then, but the air was thick. Were they coming from him, from me or from us both? I was incredibly naïve and had no context to put any of this in. I felt threatened in his presence but excited at the same time - and deeply ashamed that I felt either way.

 I tried to avoid him but he made it hard. He seemed to be able to find me whenever I was alone. He would come up behind me and touch my hair or the back of my neck and whisper compliments to me. Things no one had ever said to me. He started to ask me about boyfriends. I tried desperately to sound cool, like I knew something, anything!
I think I must have been red-faced with mortification the entire month of August. He knew how innocent I was and it just made him more determined.

 When all this attention started it was pretty exciting, but things were heating up and I was scared. There was no one to talk to. My parents were teasing me about having a crush on Ned. They didn’t know and neither did I then, that Ned was grooming me and that he was closing in.

 There was one muggy night late in the harvest season when I was alone in the house. My dad worked late during this time constantly monitoring the temperature inside the kilns where the tobacco leaves were curing and my mom had gone to pick up my brothers.

 How it happened that Ned got to use my granddad’s truck and drive from that farm to ours up the long gravel driveway on that particular night, I don’t know. But he did. I could see from the front porch- it was him and he was alone. My heart was pounding. I ran around the house frantically closing doors and windows- I sealed myself in. I stood pressed against the wall among the scattered work boots and raincoats beside the back door when he knocked.

 “I know you’re there and I know you’re alone”, he said. “Your dad told me it was okay to stop by and grab a case of beer. Tell him I’ll pay him back next week. Just let me come in for a minute.”

 That didn’t sound like anything my dad would say and a long way to go for beer. “My dad doesn’t have any beer” was all I could say. Maybe I shouted. My blood was pounding so loud in my ears, because I heard him laughing. “You don’t need to be afraid of me, just open the door and we can talk awhile”. And then he tried to force the door open.

 That’s when I freaked. I started screaming at him to leave me alone. I heard a car coming up the driveway. Ned was laughing all out now and taunting me; “ Don’t kid yourself, you know you want it, it’s what you were made for, you won’t regret it”. I heard him walking away and then I heard my dad’s voice, greeting him as if it was totally normal for this guy to be here. Ned said something briefly and then drove off.  Dad came in like nothing was unusual; “So, I see you had your boyfriend over, why have you got all the windows closed up, it’s stifling in here!”, was all he said.

 There was a rift that happened that night and nothing was quite the same ever again. It felt to me that my parents must think I’m too young or too ugly to have to worry about. Or, that this was normal? I just knew then that they weren’t capable of protecting me anymore, from anything. I felt such shame because I had been attracted to this creep. He said; “I know you want it”, so, I must have let that show. It was my fault. I had brought this on myself.

 I can pinpoint my world changing the summer I was 13 and that shame has stayed with me ever since. I had been put in my place as a woman.

Heather Holbrook
Illustrator and graphic designer