When I noticed photographs in Damon’s apartment with a woman’s head cut out of them and an X drawn atop her body, I regretted not saying “no” earlier that night. I wanted him to like me and didn’t want to seem prudish and uncool. I didn’t want to limit my romantic options or life experiences. Now, I wondered if my efforts to seem easygoing would end up getting me killed.
It was 1999, the height of the swing dance craze. Every night, I went to a different Boston dance venue: Ryles jazz club, Johnny D’s, or St. Mary’s Church to be twirled and escorted to the dance floor on a bent arm. I loved time traveling to an era where gentlemen and ladies dressed up for an evening out and formally asked each other to dance. I grew up watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Roger musicals, and now I was living inside of one.
My dance partners were mostly polite, nerdy software engineers. If any leader was too handsy, I didn’t dance with him again. It’s not like I didn’t have any swing flings, but the wholesome environment tricked me into a false sense of safety. I went to most dances alone.
One weekend, I traveled to New York. The plan was to forget about my lackluster love life and disappointing job prospects by taking lessons with top notch dancers, shopping at thrift stores for 1940s dresses, and grooving to Louis Armstrong tunes until my feet vibrated.
Damon was a stylish guy with intense brown eyes, thick biceps and an incredible sense of rhythm. “Oooh, baby you are hot!” he said whenever I wiggled my hips or shimmied my shoulders. My ego soared.
At 1 a.m., I told Damon I was leaving. He offered to flag me down a taxi. Before I knew what was happening, he forced himself into my cab and rerouted it to Brooklyn to drop him off first. I didn’t want to sound like a shrew so I scooted over as he shut the cab door. This was not the first red flag of the evening—Damon had not let anyone else dance with me. He paraded me around to his friends with his arm around me, like I was his property.
In the cab, Damon flashed me a sparkling smile, inviting me over to his place. He said I looked I needed to talk and he was a good listener. I just wanted to go back to my friend Adam’s place and soak my sore toes, but I thought, you don’t find love by soaking your feet.
A digging feeling in my stomach told me this wasn’t a good idea. But I didn’t want to die alone, so I followed him into his basement apartment anyway. Maybe this was my chance to rescue the night and start a new romance.
After two minutes of talking, Damon put the moves on me. We kissed a lot. I wasn’t that attracted to him, but he was a good kisser. It felt good to be held by a handsome man who admired me. Damon’s hands traveled up my legs, and I kept pushing them away. Then I noticed the pictures on his bookshelf. A headless female body, with an X for a head, held a toddler with huge brown eyes. I asked who the baby was. “That’s my son, Riley. He lives with his mother, the bitch.”
I panicked. No one knew where I was. This was before the age of cell phones. I should’ve left, but I had a hunch — you know, thanks to the framed photo of a decapitated woman — that this guy had serious anger management issues. I didn’t want to set him off. Maybe if I eased my way into leaving, he wouldn’t hurt me.
He could tell I was freaked out so he rubbed my shoulders then moved back into kissing and groping. “Damon, stop. This is going too fast,” I pleaded.
He ignored me and unsnapped my stockings from my garter belt.
I considered just going with it. Maybe if I endured 20 minutes of bad sex, I could leave. It would be less awkward than triggering a conflict. But then I glanced at the mutilated photos of his ex. Damon seemed to have a sadistic side. I realized that acquiescing meant I’d have to get naked with him; the most vulnerable position a woman can be in, especially with a stranger.
“No! Stop,” I yelled. His zipper screeched. He was opening his pants. My heart pounded in my ears. I tried in vain to push him off me. “I don’t want you to do that!”
“Aw, hell!” Damon said, peeling himself off of me. He punched the wall. “What did you think we were going to do when you came to my place? Stop crying.”
I felt naïve and wondered if I was at fault for sending mixed signals. I was alone with him in his apartment in the middle of the night. Was I a fool to think he’d actually invited me over to talk or that he’d take things slowly? He’d been hyper aggressive all night.
I’m not the only woman who trusted the wrong man or felt too insecure or confused to say “no.” I often flit from feeling confident to second-guessing myself, worrying too much about everyone else’s feelings. All too often, women don’t assert themselves because they’re afraid of confrontation or being branded as withholding.
At this point, I realized that being passive had gotten me into this situation, and I needed to be assertive. I was afraid I’d get mugged if I ran outside — I wasn’t very familiar with Brooklyn — so I demanded he call me a cab. He tried to coax me into staying. I insisted on the cab.
I hid in the bathroom for 10 minutes then stood near the front door, buttoning my wool coat to the top, sticking my face in the collar like a turtle retreating into its shell. I wasn’t sure if it was safer inside or outside. I tried not to stare at the disturbing pictures. I could’ve said something to break the tension but I didn’t want to encourage him or reveal how I afraid I was.
The whole time, Damon sat on the couch reading the paper, emphatically turning each page with a whack. “You remind me of my ex. She’s a bitch just like you,” he said.
I didn’t care. Damon was a manipulative jerk, and I was done placating him.
The cab finally arrived and I bolted down the stairs. As I slammed the car door, I was grateful that I didn’t end up like Damon’s ex: headless.
Waiting for the taxi was agonizing. But it was only 15 minutes. I’d rather be insulted than give a man I didn’t trust physical satisfaction with my body. It’s unfortunate that it took a potentially violent man to make me stand up for myself. If I hadn’t seen those pictures, would I have been able to say “no”? Or would Damon’s name go on my short list of men I didn’t want to sleep with but did because he was being persistent and I didn’t want to be a killjoy?
The next night, I ran into Damon. He called me a tease and a bitch. It was uncomfortable, but I went to a different dance club to avoid him. I never saw him again and eventually married a loving, trustworthy swing dancer who, unlike Damon, didn’t decapitate women in pictures or draw targets on their heads.
If only it hadn’t taken a potentially very unsafe situation to make me realize that sometimes it’s OK to be uncool. No one put up a billboard to broadcast that I’m a prude. No one cared what I did or didn’t do. Fifteen years later, the only person I had to live with was myself, not the pushy guy that wanted to get into my pants. I’m glad that I respected myself instead of giving in to a sleaze who would’ve made me feel awful even if I gave him what he wanted.
So even though it may not have seemed like it at the time, it ended up being less painful to say “no” and walk away than to give in. I can’t say that about the three other men I didn’t want to sleep with on my short list. When I remember them, I wince.
Marilyn Friedman is the founder of Writing Pad, a creative writing school in LA and online. She is currently working on a memoir about her experiences as a swing dancer.