All posts by Phill Branch

Heteronormativity makes us prey: At 15 I believed acting out my crushes was worse than being exploited by strangers

*Content Note: This essay contains descriptions of childhood sexual predation*

By Phill Branch

I’d been raised on fear.

Don’t go down this block, they might steal your Pumas.

Daddy’s drunk tonight.

Just Say No.

They kidnapping Black boys your age.

Don’t run, or they’ll think you’re stealing.

And on, and on.

I was 15. It was a boxy sedan. He was old, or at least it felt that way to me at the time. I don’t remember exactly what he looked like, but I remember thinking he was older than my parents. In some ways, that made him feel safe(r). He was somebody’s grandfather, probably. He had on a ring.

As I stood waiting at the bus stop, he slowly pulled up in front of me. I was headed to my summer job with the Urban League. We were doing a workshop in downtown Newark that day at Essex County College. I’d stood on that bus stop many times before, but never alone and never that early.

There wasn’t another person in sight. The stores weren’t open yet and while there had to be other people nearby getting ready to start the day, in that moment, it was just me and this stranger and his car.

He hopped out, walked around to the newspaper stand a few feet away, looked me over and nodded. All of this is being done as if it were not raining. He took his time, despite getting wet. He grabbed a paper and headed back to his car that was idling in front of me.


My heart was racing. I could tell he was circling me and sizing me up. I had a lump in my throat. I knew I could take off and run if he tried anything and began preparing myself for that possibility. This was Jersey. Folks barely speak when they pass by. This man had stopped, nodded at me and smiled. Danger.

My legs started to shake a bit and then he puts the car in drive. I exhaled. Then, the passenger window slowly opened.

“Where you going?” he said, warmly.

“Downtown,” I said, pretending not to be afraid.

“You gonna be soaked.”

The door unlocks.

“Get in.”

I stood there for about 20 seconds, mind racing, and then politely declined. He smiled at me in a way that I would later become familiar with. It was the smile of a person who is enjoying your fear and getting off on the controlling you.

At 17 I’d see that smile again as I sat nervously in the park one dark, summer evening. A man, at least my dad’s age sat next to me, smiled and told me he could tell I didn’t belong and then just sat there, grinning, until he decided to move on. At 21 I’d see that smile as a wiry man locked me into his apartment and whispered, “Nobody knows you’re here. I can do anything to you.” Years later, it was a man whose smile would light up the room, when I first saw him seething in anger and it alerted me that it was time to walk on eggshells.

But at 15 I didn’t know to look underneath. A smile was a smile. I was a little scared, but it was raining and maybe he was just being nice. He was clearly on his way to work or something—and that smile. He couldn’t be so bad, I told myself as he sat there waiting for me to change my mind after I’d already told him no.

“I’m not going to hurt you.”

This is the part where a kid like me who knows the rules of being raised on fear backs up and takes off down the street. I didn’t run, though. I stood there. I stood there because there was another fear that had taken residence in my teenage mind.

Catch the ball and stop acting like faggot.

Get out your mama face and come sit here and watch this game.

You know they broke Marlon’s jaw, cause he a sissy.

All them punks catching AIDS and dying.

If I catch you playing rope again, I’ma beat your ass.

I grew up in Newark in the 70s with my mother and father in a one-bedroom apartment on Chancellor Avenue. My memories about that time match the sepia tones of the old photographs my mother has hung on to in worn out containers.

I lived blocks away from Weequahic Park. The park was massive. It wasn’t quite the famed Central Park in neighboring New York City, but for a kid surrounded by brick and aluminum siding, it was a never-ending forest. It’s one of the few places I can remember being alone with my father.

I cracked my head pretty badly in Weequahic Park once when I was about four years old. This was the pre public safety era. I was hanging on a steel death trap with metal bolts hanging over cement and gravel, better known as the “jungle gym.” I fell hard, touched my head, detected blood and then walked to my father who was yakking it up with some of his boys on a park bench. I was calm, but the bleeding sent my father into a panic, which then sent me into a panic. He scooped me up and whisked me away to Beth Israel hospital. It’s one of few moments from my childhood that I could feel, in a tangible way, that my father was my protector.

It was some time shortly thereafter that I got the “look.”

My father was an ex-army, football playing, beer drinking, weed smoking, card playing brother tailor made for the seventies. He was one of those guys all of the other guys wanted to be around. I have no idea how I am his son.

My father did many things as a young man, but what he was to me then, more than anything else, was a Hall of Fame football player. You couldn’t have told me that my father wasn’t a superstar. I had the yearbook pictures and high school trophies to prove it. I wanted to be just like him. I’m not exactly sure if I knew what that meant. Then, in an instant, things changed as a football struck me in the face.

I whined and held my jaw after feeling the sting of the ball. “Stop being a punk,” he ordered as he picked the ball back up and threw it to me again.

I didn’t catch it.

I’m not exactly sure how long this game of catch went on, but it felt like an eternity. As the ball was being thrown in my direction, I learned a new vocabulary—sissy, punk and faggot. The self-confident, happy kid was quickly replaced by an inadequate son. With each toss of the football, I felt myself get a little bit smaller. I did catch the ball a couple times, but I didn’t feel good about it. There was no sense of accomplishment. I caught the ball because I wanted the game to end. I thought if I could catch it a few times, he’d leave me alone, but it just kept coming.

“Stop flinching,” he said as the ball came towards me harder. He scared me. When my emotions reached the tipping point, I did the only thing I knew to do: cry.

When I’d cried before, he comforted me, like when I hurt myself on the “jungle gym.” This time he just stared at me like I didn’t belong to him. The way he looked at me created a divide between us that took almost thirty years to overcome. I had only ever seen love reflected back at me in the eyes of the people I cherished most. My five year old brain didn’t have the ability to process his glare.

He made me stop crying before we went back inside the apartment. I know now that he made me stop because my mother wouldn’t have been pleased. Over the years I’d continue to learn to wipe the tears before my mom, or anyone else, could see them.

I thought my father hated me, but now I believe he was just doing what he thought fathers did to toughen up their sons. In an unintended way, he succeeded. I learned early on what life could be like for boys like me, and acted accordingly. But it also made me vulnerable. Burying everything left me open to strangers who could dig it up with leering looks. I knew they could harm me, but at least they would not reject me because I was “that way.”

This kind of fear made so many boys like me easy prey for men who knew we could not and would not say anything. I was more afraid of being found out than of being harmed, and these secret feelings had been welling up inside of me with nowhere to go. I’d gotten the looks before, and the smiles, but no one had ever approached like this man at the bus stop. Men like him were hiding, just like I was. We could keep company and I could learn from them all the things I needed to know.

At 15, I thought it might be easier and better to be used by grown strangers than to play out my crush on the guy who sat near me in math class.

I got in his car.

Despite:

Don’t go down this block, they might steal your Pumas.

Daddy’s drunk tonight.

Just Say No.

They kidnapping black boys your age.

Don’t run, or they’ll think you’re stealing.

And on, and on.

I still got in.

Epilogue

We drove. There was awkward conversation. He adjusted himself through his slacks. He pulled up on a side street near the college. He parked. We sat. He adjusted himself some more. My heart raced. I wanted to get out, but my legs were cement. Despite my loneliness and confusion, it didn’t take long for me to realize that I had made a terrible mistake.

He touched my knee, lingering a little bit longer than he should have, and moved up my thigh. I held my breath. He unlocked the door and said, “Be careful out here.” Again, with that smile. His words sent chills through me. It was a warning: you may not be so lucky next time. He released my thigh and was more stone faced than he had been our entire time together. I swung open the door, eyes locked on his, afraid to look away. I hopped out and waited outside the car. I didn’t want him to see which way I was going, but he didn’t budge. He watched me walk and then run towards the campus.

I went on about my day as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. It didn’t occur to me to report anything. Who would I tell? What would happen to me? Besides, I thought, “It was all my fault.”

Suggested Readings:

*This essay is part of our monthlong collaboration with FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture,  Rape Can & Must End*

Suggested Readings:

Derrick Weston Brown, Tafisha Edwards,  Teri Cross Davis, “Rape Can & Must End: Poems“, RaceBaitR, 2018

Kalima Y. Young, “Musings on a world without rape: A listicle“, RaceBaitR, 2018

Richael Faithful, “Rape culture tells us it is normal. My body knows this is a lie“, RaceBaitR, 2018


The father of  two toddlers and husband of one adult, Phill loves writing and telling stories, when he’s not completely exhausted. He started in L.A. with his own storytelling show and has since gone on to perform in shows for Story District, Perfect Liars Club, Bentzen Ball and is a Moth StorySlam Champion.  

A graduate of the American Film Institute, Phill Branch recently directed Searching for Shaniqua; his documentary about the impact names have on our lives. The film won the HBO Best Documentary award at the 2016 Martha’s Vineyard African-American Film Festival.

Give him a shout @phillbranch. IG/Twitter

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