Changing Power Dynamics

By David Olimpio

In junior high, Halloween (like everything else, really) became less about games and candy and more about conflict and sex. The only costume the boys ever wore was all black so we could hide in the night and engage in shaving cream battles with one another. And the girls’ costumes all came straight from the high fashion of MTV videos.

My upper-middle-class suburban Houston neighborhood was as safe and demilitarized as any other, but on Halloween it became a war zone. I don’t recall there being an objective when it came to the epic shaving cream battles we had. I don’t recall how we determined who was against whom. We pretty much just banded together with our normal group of friends and roamed the mean suburban streets. We never set out looking for a shaving cream fight. But we figured it was good to have a few cans on us in case one happened to break out. So we carried a modest arsenal of Barbasol. Either the red-striped can, which was Original, or the green-striped can, which was Soothing Aloe.

Middle school is that strange time between elementary school and high school when you are no longer a “little elementary school kid,” but you’re also a pretty sorry specimen of a teenager. We were still interested in candy, but we were also becoming just as interested in sex. We were old enough to no longer have to be accompanied by our parents on Halloween, but the entire premise of Halloween still hinged on the assumption that we would be going out to trick-or-treat. And so, to some degree, we had to maintain that position to our parents. And of course this meant candy had to be procured at some point. We couldn’t come home empty handed. 

It was a complicated time.

The Halloween night Emily Eames, who had already grown a compelling pair of breasts, and who had mastered the art of music video high fashion, got gang molested by a group of middle school boys—a group of boys, by the way, who were my age and Emily’s age, a group of boys with whom we had all gone through the various stages of early childhood, a group of boys I knew by first name, who made up my world, as it were, and with whom, at various points in my short life, I had run on playgrounds and on soccer fields, and while not best friends, had certainly at one point or another been my friends—that Halloween night, I don’t remember what candy I brought home, but I do remember wanting to talk about what happened with somebody. But like doing sex with my babysitter, I just never did.

I have since confirmed with one of my friends that it did indeed happen, and while we differ on some of the details, the gist of it is the same.

Here’s the way I remember it: We had all found each other that night in this one neighborhood intersection, an intersection of non busy streets where we rode bikes and played street football and soccer in the afternoons, and in the mornings, waited for our school bus. Dozens of us. We were boys and girls in that intersection, the same boys and girls we had always been, the only boys and girls any of us had ever known. We were each other’s whole world, and we were all in that intersection, milling around, hoping for some kind of dramatic tension. There were rumblings of a shaving cream fight. Cans had been drawn, but nobody had made the first move. It was like everything had converged in this one spot. This was where the action was. This was the place to be.

When Sam Littleton put a large dollop of shaving cream in his hand and stuck that hand down Emily Eames’s shirt, all attention turned to them and most of the rest of us went quiet. Sam said, “You like that, don’t you?” to Emily and Emily didn’t speak. Another boy came over and he did the same thing to Emily’s other small, barely developed breast. And she just stood there and pretended she didn’t mind what was happening. Maybe she wanted to seem brave. It was not cool to show fear. It was not cool to appear scared.

But then a few other boys came over and things began to escalate. More hands were reaching out, trying to find their way under her shirt, and the shirt got more and more stretched and both it and she threatened to tear. It was unclear what exactly the rest of us were watching or what we should be doing about it. We just stood there sort of stunned. 

Then Emily, who had been stone-faced until then, started crying, and her friend Kelly Barnes stepped in and yelled at Sam and the other boys and told them to stop it. And Kelly was small but she was also goth and intimidating as hell and I remember always being scared of her, especially after that night. Kelly screamed at Sam. She screamed at all of them. And finally, the boys stopped, but they also laughed. Uncomfortable, but not apologetic. And all the rest of us—boys and girls who, in our own ways, were just as guilty for only standing there at a distance on the corner watching this thing unfold—we walked away.

And maybe not right away, but eventually, we went back to our homes and our moms and our dads and sisters and brothers, and we told whoever might listen about all the trick-or-treating we had allegedly done and we dumped our candy on the floor as proof, and we took a shower that night to wash off the shaving cream or sticky candy or dirt, and we acted like nothing of circumstance had happened.

But something had definitely happened.

I thought about that scene a lot later that night and probably over the next couple of days. And one of the things I remember thinking was that I wished I knew what Emily’s breasts felt like. I even remember feeling a certain bit of regret that I hadn’t felt them for myself, like maybe my unwillingness or reluctance to join in was some kind of failure on my part. It’s strange and difficult to admit now, but I did feel a certain degree of envy toward Sam that he’d felt Emily’s breasts and I hadn’t. But I also knew that the way the whole thing had happened wasn’t the way it was supposed to unfold. That what I would have liked and what Emily had wanted were two different things. I probably wouldn’t have articulated it this way then, but here’s some of what I think I felt that night: We weren’t six-year-olds hanging out on the playground or in my game room anymore. Whatever we did or didn’t do with regard to sex, it no longer felt like a game without consequences. These games we played now had different fields and different boundaries. There was an inherent power dynamic.

I never got that image of Sam’s hand down Emily’s shirt out of my mind. Or the way Emily had seemed so trapped and scared, but at the same time, didn’t seem to want to show it. Or the way Kelly screamed at all of them and how her eyes were big and angry.

Or the way the boys just laughed.

Excerpted from "The Big Bad Wolf" from This Is Not a Confession (Awst Press, 2016)