On December 23rd of last year, I was raped.
I need to say that plainly, no matter how uncomfortable that makes you feel.
On December 23rd of last year, I was raped.
I need to say that plainly, no matter how uncomfortable that makes you feel.
My once friend passes her eyes along the bruised length of my neck, the discoloration left by his teeth extending under my jaw. Sarah Jane’s judgment brings a cold light to the typically unreadable expression she wears. At this point, my co-worker is finding any reason to be unhappy with me (she reminds me uncannily of my father, with her simmering rage over the most mundane things), but I’ve finally given her ammunition.
SJ will be fired in a few weeks, but I don’t yet know that. (I won’t, up until the hour she’s escorted from the office.) I have less to worry about than I realize, but the panic weighs on my stomach like a boulder. Limitless is the word I’d use to describe my embarrassment, but I didn’t ask for a man to bite me in so many visible places. I wish I could say that, explain how while I had consented to sex, I had not consented to wearing imprints of his teeth around my neck and across my shoulders for the days to come.
“I bet you were sick yesterday,” she says. Her words, more like a hiss than human speech, react to the cold November air: clouds form in front of her painted orange lips and drift off into nothingness. (And while the air so quickly forgets the shape of her words, I will remember for weeks, perhaps maybe months.) “Good thing you’re back.”
“I was just run down,” I say, meek as a mouse.
“It makes me uncomfortable to stand so close to you,” she says, apropos of nothing. She’s looking down on me – literally, as she’s got almost a foot on my own small stature – her fire engine red hair hanging past her face like two long drapes. There’s something that approaches malice in her eyes. Maybe I’m just reading into it; perhaps she’s not a bully, and I in fact deserve her quiet rage.
“It’s like I’m some giant,” she mumbles, turning heel before slithering back towards our office.
Such a private man, this distraction that’s wound tight as a garrote around my heart. He will tell stories to his friends in front of me, where I am not a character despite the memory belonging to us both. He will not take a picture with me, or create an association between us that is anything more than convenience for himself. But he will leave his mark in all the public places that I occupy alone. (I feel acute embarrassment, a humiliation that is severe but not as disastrously consuming as what will come later.) And still I throw myself at him, desperate for someone to love, accepting he may never care for me because I’m closer to thirty than I want to be but still incredibly and sadly so fucking unfamiliar with the concept of self-respect.
My whole life, survival has meant keeping others happy. If I bury my own wants and needs, I will not be kicked or abandoned. When I tell him I took the day off work because I couldn’t figure out how to cover up the marks he left behind, he just laughs – and I find myself where I often have in the past, afraid of my own anger, more terrified he’ll leave if I express my unhappiness than I am over his callous disregard.
I told you to stop. I told you not there. I told you and you continued anyway. But I swallow air instead.
“You’re making me feel like I’m forcing myself on you,” he says, pulling the waistband of my leggings down around my hips. After tugging my clothes in the other direction, having already turned away from him in bed, I finally grab his hand and push his clammy fingers away from my body. This doesn’t deter him – but in my experience, that’s never been enough.
“Women who say ‘no hookups’ are almost always willing to fuck on the first date,” my friend with benefits told me. Despite this and his many other absurd observations, he was the fuck boy that ultimately broke my heart – and hardened what remained, to the point someone would later describe me to his friends as “hilarious, but covered in blood splattered armor.”
When I met him, I was ready to love and desperate to be loved. Over time, he made me realize the truth about dating: women do not win this game.
Later in the same year, a guy I was dating who didn’t allow me to leave his home for work before having unprotected sex with me more than once, echoed the same belief. “They put in the app that they don’t want a hookup, but they’re always down to come back home with me,” he had said, during a conversation comparing me to the lesser members of my sex. His criteria for a woman worthy of a relationship was vague and did not factor in his own shortcomings. Lucky me, I thought.
With both men, I was an idea, shaped to fit the category that best suited their own lives. And with both, at various points, I wondered if they realized I was a person, a woman who struggled every day for her autonomy and independence and happiness, rather than a gaping hole where they could stuff their emotions and their dicks.
Because I don’t know how he’ll respond to the truth (so, you turned out to be pretty fucking weird and offensive, but I’m here and I’m tired), particularly after listening to his drunken rants about eating disorders and how his sister never loved him (how did I get here again?), I lie and tell him I don’t like to have sex when both parties are inebriated.
“I’m not drunk,” he protests. (They always do that, don’t they? That, or it’s some variation of “I don’t have a problem.” Grown, financially independent men who choose alcohol over therapy – gotta love ‘em.)
Am I just a walking sheath? Dump yourself into me, is that what my expression reads? Your baggage, your cum. I can’t imagine anything better than the burden of a broken man who is not aware that their brokenness is not special, unique, that I too suffer and desire and need and that I am not a sieve, I do not catch the shit and the debris so they can leave with the best parts of themselves.
“You ladies say no when you really mean yes,” another man told me, back when I was dating around, aimless and half-heartedly seeking a distraction from Mr. Fuck Boy. The context of his proclamation was troubling, to say the least: he had just rolled off of me after using me like a pump and dump and was sweating profusely onto my sheets. I did not want to have sex, but our night concluded with him finishing on my stomach despite my protests.
Of course, I had experience allowing my mind to slip away from my body, so it wasn’t all that bad, him fucking me even as I said no. For three and a half years, the span of my last serious relationship, I thought it was normal for men to harass you until you gave in, that it was up to you to say no even after you already did, to stop something with words that already failed you. So when this man violated me, I channeled apathy because the alternative was to blame myself.
In the past, I’ve given myself over to the wheedling of men. But I’m exhausted in a new way, unable to bear the thought of yet another disappointment, another trip home feeling disgusted because it was safer to say yes.
Maybe it’s because I’m tipsy, but I think to myself that I’d rather die than let another man take off my clothes when I just wanted to sleep. If trying to connect with another person culminates in exchanging my bodily autonomy for safety, I can’t do this anymore anyway. If the choice is between being alone and playing some kind of rapist Russian roulette with men, then let one of them just fucking kill me already so I can be done with this game.
You could’ve just said no. You could’ve been firmer with me. You’re responsible for your own safety. Why didn’t you just leave? It’s your fault. Slut.
“I’m going to leave,” I say. I don’t wait for a response before I abandon his bed, because after a decade, I can act on what I know. Whether casual lover or girlfriend or something in between, men choose – no, control – when you are a person and when you are a thing.
“Don’t you remember? I said I don’t like documentaries.”
Before I can say, well, I do, and I’m sorry I asked if you had any interest in seeing that new Netflix one on the ivory game, he interrupts my thoughts.
“Remember?” He repeats. “They all have too much bias.”
Diplomatic is not the right word choice here; diplomacy occurs among equals, not in arrangements where one party is expected, even if not explicitly, to submit to the other. No, I am learning how to be demure. While I think, yes, a film on elephant poaching is biased towards conservation and the prevention of this mammal’s extinction, bias is not inherently a bad thing, I say instead, “okay.” As much as I want to say, Men think that their self-assessed ability to identify bias makes them enlightened geniuses, I turn my attention to my cuticles and add, “We don’t have to watch it.”
It’s alright to not be enough of myself when I’m with him. I decided that when I decided I was too lonely to spend the final third of the year by myself. There are things I can save for when I’m alone, like my opinions and self-respect.
“I lead with it,” I said to Brian, my latest therapist. He was older than me, but I still thought of him as young: he only had a few inches on me, sometimes wore a bow tie, and met his wife on JDate. “When we get together the first time, I tell them I’m in recovery from Bulimia Nervosa. I’ll mention that I go to therapy or that I’m on medication for clinical depression.”
I had come to know Brian well enough to discover some of his tells. Whenever I said something that he found troubling, he’d purse his lips, creating what I came to call the “puffy duck face.” Usually I distracted myself from the difficulty of discussing my eating disorder frankly by focusing on his expression. This time, however, I wasn’t exactly thrilled to see him respond this way to my outlook on dating.
“You have to open up over time,” Brian said. “When you unload like that, you know what the guy is thinking? He’s wondering what else is waiting for him, should you continue to spend time together. I would recommend taking it slow…”
“I don’t care,” I interrupted. “Well, I don’t know. It’s not that, exactly. I just figure that this gives anyone who may get close to me a heads up. Like, they get the choice immediately to deal with my shit, or they can decide it’s a lot and leave. I don’t want to get rejected down the line for being honest.”
“They may leave you anyway,” Brian said.
“I know.” As much as I didn’t want to admit it, most of the people I dated – casually or with more serious interest – would be happy to obtain the perks of a mutually beneficial arrangement, but also categorize me as unfit for a genuine relationship.
I was the fun girl. And I’d be kept at a distance, at least until they found someone more suitable, so that I could remain just that. Any closer, and they would have to see that I was imperfect too – just in less socially acceptable ways than them.
Because I’ve blocked my father’s number and his social media accounts, he now leaves me comments on a blog I use to host my half-finished prose and unrefined poetry. His latest offering is in keeping with his descent into schizophrenia:
Seeing one’s self as weak provokes the mind into its own (being planted by an embraced past; what one doesn’t let go of only creates one that knows its role) victim mentality… Don’t allow another’s weak guilt to imprison you.
Stand up, because you’re more intimidating than the weak $$$ that imprisons you. LET NO ONE’S NARRATIVES WRITE YOUR FUTURE!
~see your delusional daddy
I delete his response to a poem I wrote about my struggle with bulimia, about my fear of dying over a toilet or losing my teeth. (Writing can never fully explore the fears I face, or the nightmares I live with. I dream of my incisors falling out; I wonder when I’ll bite into an apple and find that my front tooth has finally become dislodged, the slow erosion of my gums eventuating in the inevitable.) I’m not sure what he means, yet the incoherence still disturbs me.
Victim mentality? I think. I am imprisoned, but not by guilt. And I am a victim. I’m tired of pretending I’m too strong to not be.
Home movies. Remember those? I sit in the basement of my step father’s house, the TV flickering to life as soon as I push the VHS into the tape player. I’ve picked the one labeled May 23rd – Amber’s Birthday. I’m turning thirteen in a few days. The choice feels appropriate.
My father stalks my mother with the video camera. This is how his home movie opens. He narrates using that voice, the one that’s more sinister and frightening than outright anger. Controlled contempt, I would later call it. A lash worse than all the times he slapped me. In the movie, he directs this verbal violence towards my mother. The image he portrays of her – fat and unkempt, her arms as wide as pillows, eating chocolate – is not enough to sate the part of him that feeds off pain.
“Look at the hippopotamus,” he says loudly enough that my mother’s head spins, “look as she grazes.” She brings her hand up towards the lens, her fingers and palm and sagging skin obscuring the view of our tiny kitchen.
Sharp cut. Now there’s me, a small child, my face red and wet. I’m wailing on the top bunk. I look like some soon to be victim, as if I were one of the dumb girls in the horror films my mother and I watched together. My father is Freddy Krueger, among the few – or perhaps the only – horror villains that emotionally tormented their prey before slaughtering them.
“Oh, why is the birthday girl crying?” He uses the same tone as before, when he deemed the woman that gave birth to me and his two other children a hippo.
When I think back to my birthday, I don’t remember why I was in tears. After all, I was only five years old.
Near every day
a war I lose
Closest to a truce –
a finish line,
if you will –
so came new enemies
Tired of fighting,
instead I prayed:
May I lose my life
before my teeth
May my grave be marked
not by porcelain
May the funerary makeup
be flawed for something
other than a scarlet lattice,
the white of my eyes replaced –
strands of undigested food,
my lips painted frosting blue
May death be easier than life
spent bent over my fingers clawing
deep and then deeper
along the inside of my throat –
trying to find the sound of a
girl worth saving and
failing, always failing