When Post-Traumatic Stress Begins

I wish I could tell you that was the end of it. I held an umbrella and felt strong, and suddenly I was better. There. All better now. A band-aid. A blessing. And I was all set to go.

But that isn’t how trauma works. I am 12, and I don’t yet know that just when you think you’re building up speed, just when you think you made it, the shadow of post-traumatic stress will snake over the grass and catch you by the heel. It will drag you down. And you will stay down.

All this time you thought you were here. Now you realize you weren’t.

Maybe you were the lucky one. You walked away from the car crash or the shooting or the rape. You thought your father was trying to kill you—but he didn’t. You thought you should be grateful. You’re still here. But all this time, it turns out you were still there. The memory that is not a memory. The memory that has no ending.

This is trauma. There is no such thing as linear time here. The passage of time, a life reshaped into narrative—these are perceptions. Just like space, time, too, can be bent. Warped. The gravitational pull of trauma folds time in on itself. This is eternity: looped time.

*             *             *

In a new house in a new neighborhood, I wake up and discover that I am terrified of everything. I am terrified of being alone. I am terrified of people. Neighbors bring cookies. Mrs. Cinkovich and her daughter Michelle. Michelle is my age. She wears a black sweater that droops off one shoulder. I am terrified of Michelle for no reason other than that she seems normal and healthy and confident and pretty, and she will certainly see that I am none of those things.

My father drives me to orientation at my new junior high. My hands are shaking. My heart races. He is angry at me for being afraid. He is angry at me for being angry, for even screaming at him sometimes now.

His attack broke something inside me. I have become wild and feral with terror. I am an animal chained and caged.

I step out of his car, and I feel abandoned. From where I stand on the hot asphalt, the faces of the new seventh-graders seem to swivel towards me. Their eyes bore into me. Sizing me up. Being seen feels like another kind of violence now. And I know I can’t do this.

I just can’t.

I look behind me, at my father’s car waiting to turn out of the parking lot. I break into a sprint. I am fast. Back in elementary school, a few months earlier, I had raced the fastest boy in school and won.

The Beetle is now first in line, his orange turn signal blinking. If I don’t make it in time, I will run down the road and catch him at a stop sign. If that doesn’t work, I will run all the way home. Maybe I will keep on running.

I have always had nightmares. But now they are about running. I can never run anymore. The ground turns to molasses, taffy, peanut butter. It oozes up to my ankles and then my calves. I can’t move. I can’t scream.

I have no idea what the entire seventh-grade class behind me thinks. A 12-year-old chasing a car. I don’t give a fuck.

Just as he starts to turn, I fling open the door and throw myself inside. “I forgot something,” I say, buckling in. “Paperwork I need.” I have started lying to my parents now. I never lied to them before.

My father blinks at me and then turns, and we head home.

The devil you know.

*             *             *

I stop talking. I avoid eye contact. I want to be a ghost.

But this has the opposite effect. My silence singles me out. From Home Ec to Language Arts, the refrain follows me: What’s wrong with her? Why don’t you talk? Can’t you talk? I don’t think she knows how to talk.

We have lockers now. I hate lockers. I feel so unprotected, so visible, standing on the breezeway, twirling the lock. I jump whenever someone slams a locker. People snicker. Boys surround me. I try to leave, and they tell me I’m not allowed to. So I stand there, surrounded, and concentrate on a crack in the cement breezeway, an ant that is slowly wending its way out of their circle, unseen, past their sneakers, and I wish it well. It is my friend. I am happy for it.

Leaving, when I cannot.

I don’t dare look up. I say nothing. I wait for it to be over. But the boys are still there. Laughing.

I like your hair. It’s so long. One of them touches it. I try not to flinch. Not to move. God, look at her hands. Your hands are so tiny. Not like mine. I have such big hands. See? I could choke you. Oh my god, I think she’s going to cry. Are you going to cry?

I don’t know when this happened. When boys went from being my friends on the playground, Ryan and Keagan playing foursquare and tag with me at recess last year, Harris laughing with us. To this.

I don’t know anything about porn. I don’t know that slowly, gradually, one by one, the boys around me are being indoctrinated by their fathers and friends and cousins. By an industry in which the emotions and thoughts of women are nonexistent. Female desire is absent. Silenced. They are being invited into a culture that confuses violence with sex, that conflates passivity with permission, that teaches boys that if you want it, then she must, too.

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