Just weeks before the presidential election, after the release of the recording in which Donald Trump bragged about sexually assaulting women as he headed to the set of Days of Our Lives, my mother called me. While most people talked about the words that came out of a presidential candidate’s mouth, my mother didn’t mention Trump. Instead she said, “It’s Nicole! The woman in the video. It’s Nicole Walker from Days.”
My mother works from home, and as a kid I watched Days of Our Lives with her any weekday I wasn’t at school. The shows were so packed with golden-hued flashbacks, it was easy to catch up on what I missed. In our basement apartment, I witnessed glamorous women in mansions plot to destroy men who wronged them while my mother read the newspaper next to me on the couch we’d dragged in from the adjacent garbage room. For my mother, the soap opera was a background soundtrack to the country’s various crises. Only every now and then would she peek up from the paper to watch. While the villainous Stefano used hypnosis to try to seduce noble Marlena, or while the abusive Curtis blackmailed social-climber Kate, my mother would scream, “He’s a jerk!” I could never tell if she was hollering at the man on screen or a politician in the paper.
Then Nicole showed up in Days’s fictional town of Salem, sleekly blond, clear-skinned, and hiding a mysterious past. I was 11, frizzy-haired, freckled, and trying only to conceal how mysterious the future seemed to me, how weird I found the specter of adulthood, or at least boobs. When the handsome Eric Brady fell for Nicole, I paid fierce attention to her wiles—the way she swayed her hips, the way she looked at Eric, what she did with her hands during soft-focus make-out sessions.
But Nicole wasn’t just beautiful. She was tough. She would fight if she was treated unfairly or if she faced obstacles to love. At one point in the show, believing she’s successfully killed her older wealthy husband, Nicole begins to fall for her step-grandson. Later, she tries to sabotage the facial surgery of his love interest so that she, opera singer Chloe Lane, is permanently scarred and no longer competition in Nicole’s romantic quest. My mother and I laughed together as Nicole plotted her surgical revenge. Even the most abominable actions on Days could lose their power when my mother pointed out how ridiculous they were. “It’s an absurd storyline,” she’d say. With those words, she’d dismiss the rising music, the threat of loss, shame, heartbreak. Then she’d scream at the paper, “You total jerk.”
By the time I started commuting to high school on the subway, I found myself less interested in following the drama of Days than the drama of my own life, slight as it might have been.
One afternoon, while I was sitting on a packed subway with my eyes closed, flashing back to an interaction with a crush during French class, I felt a pressure against my thigh. A tall man sat next to me, a few bulky plastic grocery bags covering and spilling over his lap. I wasn’t sure if I was being touched by the man or his bags. If this were a scene on Days, dramatic music would swell. The man’s eyes would shift, his sketchiness as loud as a red-plumed hat. But instead the man just gazed ahead as the subway clanked in its rhythmic way. The train was crowded during rush hour and people touched each other accidentally all the time. I didn’t want to seem like a hysterical child. I didn’t want to make even a tiny scene. I slipped out of my seat and stood with the rest of the commuters.
At the next stop the man with the grocery bags stood and leaned close. “You have nice hips,” he said, his breath all over my face, and then he sped away.
I spent the rest of the ride reading and rereading headlines of a newspaper someone had left on the subway floor, trying not to think about how gross I felt, how angry I felt at the man for not only groping me, but for getting the last word. I kept focusing on the headlines at my feet: Somewhere else, people were being killed for reasons that didn’t make sense. Somewhere else, people were starving, disease-ridden. Somewhere else, other girls didn’t go to school at all.
We reached my stop.
What happened next happened fast. As I exited the train, a guy on the platform smiled, grabbed my crotch in passing, then boarded the subway. The doors shut, the train left, and I stood unmoving on the platform.
Something about how both these offenses happened to me one after the other, without a single word from me, made me hazy. One alone would be an occurrence—but two felt like a freakish, melodramatic pattern. Days had taught me about freakish, melodramatic patterns in love, hate, and betrayal, but my assailants weren’t men I knew. They had no narrative significance to me.
I wasn’t sure if I wanted to tell my mom about what happened. But when I got home and sat on the couch with her in front of the muted TV, it just spilled out: Not just one guy had grabbed me, but two. “Two!” I said and laughed with as little wobble and as much irony as I could muster. I thought my mother might blame me, tell me I should have been more alert on the train. Or maybe she’d just laugh like she did at the craziest plot lines on Days and say, “Two? That is absurd.”
She didn’t blame me and she didn’t laugh. Instead she started to tell me about the time when she was a teenager walking down the street with her sister, both of them eating ice cream. An old man grabbed her sister’s butt, then walked away. My mother, fresh off a reading of The Feminine Mystique, shouted after him. The man turned, said, “Now, girls,” his condescension only enraging her more. My mother, who had finished her ice cream, grabbed her sister’s cone and shoved it in the man’s face. Then she ran.
When she got home, adrenalized and giddy, she told her boyfriend about what happened. He shrugged, not impressed. He said the man was probably at home getting off on the memory of what she’d done.
And then my mother took my hand and her voice got angry, the way it did when she was talking about a politician. She told me the boyfriend had wanted to diminish her, to make her feel foolish for trying to get the last word, to make her feel like even in enacting revenge, she could never be the heroine, but only the sexual object.
“That boyfriend sounds like a jerk,” I said and felt older, adult in the way I’d been watching for when I watched Days. What happened on the subway seemed different now, too, not like two absurd moments, but rather like points on an absurd storyline, stretching back to before me, tying me to my mother.
The next day, I got back on the subway to go to school. Sometimes I thought of those men, what I’d say if I saw them again, but I never did.
When I saw the clip of Nicole Walker and Donald Trump, it didn’t feel like I was watching a soap opera or an escape. It felt like a flashback. Of course, it wasn’t really Nicole Walker in the clip. It was the actress Arianne Zucker, trying to be nice, to do her job. Yet I couldn’t help seeing the soap character I’d admired in my childhood, couldn’t help imagining a lost episode of Days of Our Lives where Nicole bugs Trump and hears what he said about grabbing women. I imagined her plotting a revenge that involved babies switched at birth, evil twins, plastic surgery gone awry.
But why was it easier for me to envision a female character exacting vengeance than a woman who existed in reality? I needed to do better. I closed my eyes, remembering how silent I felt when I got grabbed in the subway, and how powerful I felt when I told my mother her boyfriend had been a total jerk. When I again imagined the clip of Arianne Zucker and Donald Trump, my mind made a dramatic switch worthy of a soap opera. Instead of Nicole Walker, and instead of the actress playing her, it was my mother I envisioned now, holding an ice cream cone like a sword, ready to change the storyline however she could.