“Okay, let’s examine some examples of pop culture’s influence on graphic and digital art.” Our teacher begins scrolling through some magazine ads. “What jumps out at you?”
A murmur rises up across our class. Laughs and gasps quickly change to full-out whistles, hoots, and cheers.
“Okay, keep it professional. Obviously, you’ve noticed these images are intentionally trying to be provocative. Why?”
“Because sex sells!” A guy shouts from the back of the room where the shelves of masks watch with total disdain.
“Okay. Sex sells. Why?” Mr. Anton prompts. When no one replies, he advances his slide show. “That’s what we’re going to investigate today. Each table will spend the next twenty minutes researching provocative advertising. I’ve got piles of magazines for you to examine. Go through them and tear out the ads that speak to you. We’re looking for the psychology here, so if you have tablets or phones, feel free to google all you want, but find me more than what’s on Wikipedia.”
Ooh. That’s fun. Usually, we can’t even take out our phones during school.
There are four of us at my table. Me plus Ken, Craig, and Peter. Ken hasn’t talked to me since freshman year. His brother is the same age as Derek, so when football got canceled, his family took it personally and naturally blamed me instead of Vic. I don’t know Craig at all. This is the only class I’ve ever had with him. Peter’s okay. I’ve known him almost since kindergarten. He lives down the street from us, but we’re not tight or anything.
Mr. Anton drops a stack of publications on our table, and the boys lunge for them. Past issues of Seventeen, Vogue, Cosmo, a Bloomingdale’s catalog that’s several years old, Sports Illustrated, Car and Driver. I grab the catalog and start flipping through it while the boys huddle around the Sports Illustrated and Car and Driver issues and ignore me.
That’s okay. I’m used to it.
While I turn pages, bits and pieces of the conversations taking place around me drift into my ears.
“…totally do her. She’s so hot.”
“What car? I only see the girl in the bikini.”
It happens slowly, the dread pooling in my belly. Conversation fades to the background. The words become white noise, leaving behind the grunts, sounds of appreciation, and hums of sexual interest that start to morph and blend into memories that lap at the dams and levees I keep erecting.
Ashley, you’re so hot. You have the best tits in the entire freshman class. I love to touch them. You like it, don’t you? You like it when I touch you.
Oh God. I can smell the sour beer on his breath and the locker room soap on his skin. I scan the room, telling myself I’m wrong, that he’s not here and that I’m safe, but it’s no good.
“Whoa!” Craig shouts, tearing a page from his magazine. “Look at this one!”
The sound feels like sandpaper against my eardrums, and I clap my hands to my ears, shaking myself out of the past, blinking rapidly, stunned to discover my chest actually hurts from the memory of Vic’s hands on me. Ken, Peter, and Craig have a pile of sheets torn from their magazines…images of girls in bikinis, miniskirts, close-ups of pouty lips or curvy butts, each with captions suggesting all manner of innuendo and insult. The tightness in my chest that’s become so familiar spikes abruptly, making me gasp. I rub at it, but I can’t reach it because it’s too deep. It’s changed me into something that’s more pain than person. I force my attention back to my catalog and stop suddenly at a holiday ad that says, “Hey! Why not spike your best friend’s eggnog?”
I stare hard at the image. The girl on the left blurs, but the guy on the right snaps into sharp relief, his eyes shifting to meet mine, lips curling into the same lazy smile that Vic wore when he…when he…oh God. The lump that lives in my throat pulses in time with my heart rate and all the bad stuff…the memories, the pain, the betrayal, the shame—it all swirls together like sewage, swelling and rising and overflowing every one of the walls I put up. It sweeps away everything that used to be me until it’s all that’s left. The classroom spins at the edges. My limbs are numb, dead. I can’t move. I can’t breathe. I’m drowning.
No, damn it. No!
I gasp and watch the guys shoot me the you-are-so-weird eyeball. Whatever. They can stare all they want because right now I’m in control.
I am in control. I am in control.
I’m not going to let paging through magazines and catalogs flip me out. They’re a bunch of stupid, harmless photos. They shouldn’t be able to hurt me.
But they do. In fact, they don’t simply hurt me. They freaking torture me, hammering home a point made over and over again since the first day Vic assaulted me, the same point Derek made in his court testimony.
It’s just a game. It’s just an advertisement. It’s just a joke. It’s just guy talk. It’s just boys being boys.
Oh my God, the excuses never stop.