Sweet Sixteen by Magda Benigna

I had just turned 16. I was living in a small town in eastern France, not urban nor industrial, no longer rural or agricultural, a small town which had been bombed and partly destroyed during WWII and hastily rebuilt in the early 1950s, without charm or personality. A very functional town so close to Germany that it could have been German, except that it wasn’t at all cost. The left bank of the Rhine was definitely French, there was no question about it for the inhabitants of this small town.

Small French towns like mine had no high school; they were not important enough. For that, we had to travel by bus every day to the nearest city, or attend one of the quickly disappearing boarding schools. I was enrolled in the Lycée in Colmar, the nearest town for me, and I had to take a bus every morning at 7.10 a.m. together with my schoolmates from the village. Colmar doesn’t need to be introduced. It is well known in France and even further afield for its medieval streets and alleyways, its refined food and delicate Alsace wine. Beyond that, it is very proud to be the home of one of the great masterpieces in the History of Art: Matthias Grunewald’s 15th century Retable d’Issenheim. I learned to appreciate this amazing polyptych only years later. At 16, I found it dreary like many other representations of the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ or the suffering of the martyrs. I was more inclined towards the colors and lightness of modern and contemporary art masterpieces such as Matisse’s, also present in the same museum in Colmar. To live one’s teenage years in the company of Master Grunewald is not particularly uplifting.

My school took the name of another famous Alsatian: Gustave Bartholdi, architect and sculptor, better known for being the father of the Statue of Liberty, celebrated gift from France to the USA in commemoration of its independence from Great Britain in 1776. With him, I could dream of being somewhere else. By going to a Lycée bearing his name, the doors to America were mentally opened to me. In my girl’s dreams, I could take off to the New World, to another land embodied by a massive statue carrying a torch to enlighten the World. I was enlightened too. During the particularly dull classes of physics or biology, I could let my mind wander to faraway lands and break the imaginary walls. I would picture myself as a great traveler or adventurer, discovering places still unknown to me. From time to time, I was called back to reality by our teacher who was struggling to teach the biology of the human body to giggling teenagers.

Like many girls my age, I spent most of my time with my friends. They were the center of my emotional life; my parents, always busy with their own occupation, had become the background frame of my life, even if a reassuring frame. My life was simple with its daily routine: I took the bus in the morning, I attended the classes at school, I wasted time with my friends at cafés, I took the evening bus back home and did my homework. I shared all my concerns with my close friends, and I knew every one of my friends’ problems without reserve, including every single sexual experience they ever had. We were discovering sex and contraception and relationships in a navel-gazing vision of the World. For us, our own little world and problems were at the center of the universe.

When I couldn’t take the bus (generally on Saturday because of irregular service), I would hitch-hike into town. It was an easy and safe mode of transport, particularly in this semi-rural community where most people knew each other. But in my innocence as an adolescent, I couldn’t see that I was a fresh and attractive girl, full of life and enthusiasm, with the newly formed body of a woman. All the warnings about men using women as sexual prey were theoretical to me. I was so preoccupied by my own body and its imperfections that I couldn’t conceive that grown-up men would take me in their car for any other motive than that of taking me to my destination.

I had my first lesson while hitch-hiking on a plain Saturday afternoon to go to Colmar. The father of one of my school friends stopped at the end of the village to give me a ride. I knew him quite well mainly because he had the only clothes shop in the village selling Levi’s jeans, a highly praised item in my generation, so in addition to hanging around with his son, I would be an occasional customer as well. While hitch-hiking, I was always a little nervous that the wrong person would stop and I would find myself in a difficult situation, but in his car, I felt safe and secure. Along the way, we were having a friendly chat;  I remember very clearly his smiley face hidden behind a large beard which he insisted on keeping even though it had become out of fashion. I also remember, and will never forget it, that at some point in the conversation he put his hand on my thigh and asked me if I minded. It was the first time this kind of situation happened to me. In a flash, I understood the perversity of it, a mature man, about 30 years older than I was, trying to take advantage of me and my immaturity. The dark side of human nature was revealed to me in that instant. The evil side that Master Grunewald depicted so powerfully. For me, this man was a father, and as a father he couldn’t have had a sexual intent, at least not for someone my age. He was crossing a forbidden barrier. I suddenly understood that I was no longer a child or a young girl who grown-up people would try to protect, but with the recent change in my body, I had become a sexual prey. I was now a woman who would have to defend herself and make her own choices in that matter for the rest of her life. I was calm enough to take his hand and put it straight back on the gear stick. I asked him to drop me off at the next village where we had arrived and I got out of his car without saying anything apart from a brief and aloof goodbye. I never mentioned this episode to anyone, certainly not to my parents who would have had such an angry reaction that I preferred to let the matter drop. I had learned my lesson, a very important one, and I felt that was enough.

Stupidly or not, I continued to hitch-hike, the desire for freedom was much stronger than all the fears I could have. By now I felt strong enough to face other situations of this kind, I could defend myself as I just did. It was a lesson all women had to learn at some point of their life, and usually they learned it very young. Enlightened by Bartholdi’s iconic torch, I was back on my own road to liberty, still very limited in its restricted environment but nevertheless the beginning of my own free path. My previous lesson could not have prepared me for what happened that other Saturday, a beautiful sunny autumn afternoon, warm enough for a girl to forget that winter would soon be there and be as long and harsh as it could be in this eastern region.

That day, I was hitch-hiking back home from Colmar after having spent most of the afternoon roaming around town with my usual friends. It was 5 p.m., I was on the outskirts of town, my thumb up towards the cars passing by. I didn’t have to wait long until a washed red Renault four of the type still running in the 1980s, stopped by to offer me a lift. A dark-haired man probably in his thirties was driving. I told him where I wanted to go; he hardly looked at me, at least he didn’t take a frank look into my eyes when he told me where he was going. I jumped in but felt uncomfortable from the onset. He had a strange expression on his face I couldn’t decipher. On his legs, he had placed a woolen checkered blanket which covered him from his knees up to his waist. He was holding the steering wheel with one hand and had the other one on the gear change which in a Renault four was next to the steering wheel and the dashboard. Once he was in maximum fourth gear, he put his right hand under the blanket and continued driving with just his left hand. I felt something wasn’t right but I didn’t know what. It was a sentiment. I was trying not to look at him and his strange face but was instead focusing on the road ahead of us, while sneering sideways towards him from time to time. While driving, he was looking at the road, then looking at me, looking at road then looking at me, looking at the road then looking at me…..on and on for a while. I noticed his hand under the blanket was moving but I didn’t dare look at him. I was trying to understand why he would put a blanket on his knees; with my vivid imagination I thought he may have a gun hidden under it and could hit at any time. To reassure myself, I was trying to convince myself that maybe he was slightly disabled and needed a blanket for protection, but even that didn’t stand because of the strange atmosphere and odd vibes I could feel. The movement of his hand became more regular, he was definitely sliding his hand up and down his upper thigh in a very regular rhythm while continuously looking alternatively at my face and at the road. The intensity was such that it felt like it lasted for a very long time. Then everything suddenly became clear: he was masturbating under his blanket while looking at me for stimulation. I froze. I just wanted to get out and away from this sick man; a still young man who had the audacity or was so deranged as to masturbate in his car while driving a teenage girl.

I gathered my strength to ask him calmly to stop the car and let me out. He just asked why I didn’t want to go to my destination anymore. I didn’t reply, I just repeated that I wanted to stop there.  I didn’t care about walking the remaining 10 kilometers to my home, I just wanted to get out and breathe again. He did as I asked and left. I was so shaken by what I’d experienced that I was unable to talk about it for many years, not even to my closest friends. It wasn’t the sexual act that shocked me, so much as the madness of the human mind. The sight of a troubled man displayed so openly in front of my young eyes. The torch of the Statue of Liberty was trying to enlighten me again in a most obscure way, not showing me the path to a greater land, but putting light to the dark and shady corners of humanity. The evil side of humanity Master Grunewald had captured so skillfully.

Thirty years later, I still go back to Colmar to see the Master, and I don’t find him tedious anymore.

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2 thoughts on “Sweet Sixteen by Magda Benigna

  1. ericamilesx

    What an exquisite coming-of-age story, told from the point of view of a French girl growing up in a small town–a town distinguished for its being the original home of two notable artists (I won’t spoil it for you by telling you who they were). The memoir suddenly digresses into unchartered territory and keeps the reader’s riveted attention. The conclusion is a winner, as is the story on the whole. I especially loved the writer’s use of metaphor. It was a pleasure to read “Sweet Sixteen” and savor a sample of Alsace cheese and the inner thoughts of a teenage girl who might have grown up anywhere–even here. Except the details were distinctly French, of course! (Also, the story takes place in the ’80s.)

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