CONTAINS TRIGGERING CONTENT
We all want beautiful stories of survivors. We want to see people rise above cruelty with dignity. We want to see someone defeat the unethical with ethics, the unfeeling with compassion. We want to see someone whose survival is threatened, yet they respond with the generosity, the dignity, and the heroism of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or Mahatma Gandhi. We want to glimpse humanity amidst inhumanity.
What we want is a fairy tale.
And sometimes we get that. We need that. Exceptional people do exist.
But this story is not that.
* * *
I had pulled off my escape without a hitch. My brother and his friends had ensured that I had a couch to land on, food to eat, and companionship in the aftermath.
But then I made a terrible mistake. It was a choice that contained within it my entire history. Child abuse survivors have no conception of boundaries. I understood intellectually that I had a right to protect myself, but I had absolutely no knowledge of how to do that or what that even looked like. Asserting myself as a child had been dangerous. Asserting myself as an adult with Top had been pointless.
I spent two months reflecting on the relationship I had just walked away from. But instead of recognizing and naming the abuse, I did what child abuse survivors have been conditioned to do. I examined myself.
Couldn’t I have been kinder? Shouldn’t I have been nicer?
It can seem like wisdom and balance, but it’s not. Not in the immediate aftermath of abuse. But I didn’t know that then. I congratulated myself for my maturity. It was time to get my bookcases and albums and futon from Top. Time to own my contributions to why the relationship had failed and to give him those answers he had wanted two months before. Time to file for divorce but in a way that was as courteous as possible.
I wanted to be the hero in the fairy tale.
So I sent him an email.
Let’s meet, I said.
* * *
There is a before, and there is an after to rape. There is the person you were before it happened, and that you will never be again.
And there is the person after.
The 27-year-old who walked to the park and ride lot that day, who stopped to smell a bush of lilacs, who still believed her entire life lay ahead of her, no longer existed two hours later. She believed it was possible to reconcile with everyone. She believed that in order to move forward, sometimes you had to go back. Sometimes you had to forgive and tell people you forgave them. She believed what her culture and her religion had taught her: a victim’s goodness in the aftermath is contingent on how they relate to the perpetrator.
She was brave and hopeful and so very foolish.
Her desire to be the perfect survivor was precisely the thing that destroyed her.
* * *
I sat on a stairway cut through a lawn. Cherry blossoms dusted the grass. And I told him of all the mistakes I had made. I acknowledged the cruelty with which I had treated him at times, the verbal and emotional abuse. “And I am so sorry,” I said. “If I could take it back, I would. But I just wanted to tell you that. I know I didn’t treat you right.”
“I’m glad you know that,” he said. This should have been a sign. But that person I once was, she didn’t know. She was blind with all the kindness and trust that our culture encourages girls and young women to offer men. She believed that was the statement not of entitlement or blame, but of someone open to forgiveness.
I had intended to end the conversation with a plan to pick up my furniture. I had intended to part ways right there in that parking lot and walk back home, buoyed by the knowledge that I had taken the high road. I had faced my failures squarely. I had extended compassion to someone who had nearly broke me.
But Top wanted to drive me back to my brother’s apartment. He wanted to see this place I had lived for two months without him. He wanted to know where I had been living.
This also, I thought, was forgiveness. A gesture of friendship. How kind. Offering me a ride.
So I got in his car.
* * *
As soon as I unlocked the door and walked into my brother’s apartment, I realized this had been a mistake. But it was too late. He now knew where my safe house was.
And no one was home.
As soon as he stepped inside, he closed the door. I pointed out my pile of belongings by the couch, hoping he was there for the reason I had wanted to believe he was. Instead, he grabbed me.
Exactly as he had seven years earlier, he slipped a hand up my shirt. I shoved it off.
No. I said.
He reached up my shirt again. I slapped him away. Stop it.
I didn’t like his smile. It reminded me of my father’s smile when he locked me in the bathroom and kept me in there, screaming in the dark. There was a sneer in it.
He grabbed me and pressed me against a wall and started kissing me. Stop it, I said again and pushed him off.
What? No one’s here.
He tugged me along the wall and backed me into the bathroom and closed the door. I don’t want to, I said.
But it was too late. I was already down on the linoleum when he tugged my pants down to my ankles and unhooked his belt.
Don’t, I said, trying to pull my pants back up as he stood over me.
He was down on his knees before I had a chance. He shoved himself inside me with so much force it felt like he was splitting me open. That hurts, I said. I clawed my way backwards on the linoleum, but he only pushed harder. I found myself splayed against the side of the tub. Trapped.
I understood that he thought this was fair. He thought this was my punishment for trying to leave him. For thinking I could get away. He thought this was what I deserved.
To be broken again.
This time, completely.
He climbed on top of me so that I could not move.
That’s when I gave up. I understood that he wanted to hurt me. The force with which he pounded himself against me was terrifying. Inescapable. Painful. I could feel his hatred, his contempt for me.
He wanted to make me pay.
And I understood that I had no way to stop him.
So I stopped saying anything at all.
I stopped trying to shove him off.
It burned. I felt like he had a knife in my vagina. Like the blade was nicking me.
I stayed still and waited for it to end.
And in my mind, it never did.
* * *
I remember nothing else. I don’t remember getting up off that linoleum. I don’t remember pulling up my underwear. I don’t remember him buttoning his fly and leaving me there.
I know all that must have happened.
But I don’t remember any of it.
The person who could remember it is dead.