After He Strangled Me

The next morning I went downstairs to breakfast in the dining hall as usual, but it wasn’t usual. I sat beside my brother, poking my spoon into the cereal I’d let go soggy, and I avoided looking up from my bowl. My hands were shaking. My pulse throbbed in my throat.

I had done everything right. Everything. I had stayed close to friends all day. And once the attack began, I had been able to stop myself from dissociating. I fought back. I recruited a specific bystander to help me defend myself. And, as soon as I had the chance, I ran away.

Now, I decided to return to my routines as quickly as possible.

Except I couldn’t.

I had done everything right, and still, I was terrified.

Still, I had been traumatized.

Gradually, my brother’s classmates took their seats around the table, and I was relieved to see Nathan wasn’t there. I finally looked up, and John was sitting across from me.

This was the entire reason I’d come downstairs. The only reason I’d risked encountering Nathan.

“Thank you,” I said, leaning over my cereal bowl.

“For what?” He smiled.

“For helping me out last night. I don’t know what I would’ve done if you hadn’t…” I turned my gaze back to my cereal bowl. “Just thank you.”

“So is this how you do things?” He asked. He was grinning. “You just ask other people to solve your problems for you?”

I looked up at him in shock. “I did try,” I said, my heart beating even harder now. “I really tried, but I couldn’t.” I bit my lip. It was suddenly hard to breathe.

I tried to take a bite of my cereal, but my hands were shaking so badly that I couldn’t get the spoon into my mouth. I set it back down in the bowl.

I could feel them all watching me. John. My friend Dale. An entire table full of young men. They all fell deathly quiet. For a few moments, nobody moved, except my brother who went on scooping cereal into his mouth, determined to pretend everything was normal. He still didn’t understand PTSD. He still needed to see it as an overreaction.

Earlier that morning, two of his classmates who had witnessed the assault told him what had happened and asked if I was traumatized.

He’d only laughed.

I tucked my hands between my thighs and squeezed them tight. I waited until everyone else had finished breakfast. Then, I threw away the mush in my bowl and went upstairs.

That dining hall was beautiful. Once, I had loved the dark paneling and snow-white plaster ceiling, carved with ornate geometric patterns. French doors opened onto a terrace that overlooked Long Island Sound, a chain ringing against the flagpole in the wind. Dining chairs scraped against floorboards the hue of honey. Boys laughed. Once, it had been delightful, eating alongside my brother’s classmates, experiencing life at an elite college housed in a historic mansion.

Now, it felt like a battlefield. It terrified me to sit alongside young men who had witnessed the assault and done nothing.

I never ate in that room again.

*          *          *

The rest of that weekend dragged by, in the way time always does when you watch the clock. My flight home wasn’t until Tuesday. Eager to leave campus, I caught the train to Manhattan to meet an old friend. They were horrified when I told them about the assault. But then I had to head back to Webb.

Mostly, I stayed in my brother’s dorm room. Mostly, my brother avoided me. His roommate JC was my only support that weekend. He asked if I wanted anything and brought it back to the room for me. Granola bars. Pop-Tarts. Bottles of iced coffee. He played chess and card games with me. He kept me company. He never asked me to come with him, to leave the room if I didn’t want to. When he was there, I felt safe. I felt like myself.

The rest of the time, I felt the old familiar split down the middle, like a tree cut by lightning. There was the me I remembered being—waving my hand from a cab window where I was jammed into the backseat with Allan and Dale and JC, holding my breakfast sandwich as oil dribbled down my wrist. “Mmm! Cheese juice!” I shouted. I had played pool and beer pong with students in the basement pub on campus. I had danced over the rugs as my brother played on the grand piano.

But I was not that person now.

I knew enough this time to understand that one day I might be again.

But it would take time and effort to reclaim what Nathan had taken.

For now, I did not want to be seen. Being seen, just as it had after the first assault when I was 12, felt terrifying. Existing as a body in space shared by others felt unbearably vulnerable, an invitation to be assaulted again. Particularly in a public space dominated by men.

Each time I needed to use the toilet, it took 20 minutes to work up the courage to go to the co-ed bathroom down the hall. Once or twice, I got up the nerve to look out the dorm room window. But mostly, I kept the door closed and the curtains drawn. I don’t remember what I did in there when I was alone.

Maybe I simply waited.

*          *          *

The day I left, I waited until classes had begun and crept out into the hallway and down the stairs. I fixed myself a coffee, the way I once had every morning I was a guest on campus. And I walked out of the building and kept on walking. Down the terraces, down the gravel road that led past the soccer field, down to the sea wall.

The sky was flat and the color of pencil lead. The air smelled of freshly mown grass and the stink of rotting fish and salt. The tide was low, so I stepped over the broken terra cotta from when the mansion was first sold and the gardens had been torn apart. I balanced myself over stones that stood like islands in the water. I selected the largest, a boulder in the water, and scrambled onto it, dropping a splash of coffee into the Sound.

I sat there a long time, long after I had finished my coffee and the wind had turned cold. It was the first moment since Saturday night that I had felt anything like peace.

After that horrible breakfast, my friend Dale had confronted Nathan about the assault and made him apologize. I received the online message Sunday afternoon.

“So apparently I attacked you? I don’t remember that at all. I’m so sorry.”

When I read it, mostly I felt afraid. The same tightness in my throat from that night. I knew Dale had pushed him into this with good intentions, but it hadn’t helped.

I wrote back:

“Well now that you know this about yourself, I hope that you’ll make better choices at your next party and manage your drinking better.”

He never responded.

I unfriended him. Mostly because every time I saw his face, my fear became overwhelming.

My brother remained friends with him, and a few years later, Nathan came out as gay. Which didn’t make me feel the least bit better, though Allan shared the news with me as if it might. How? I wondered. It only widens the pool of men capable of assaulting women.

But that afternoon on the shore of Long Island Sound, I mostly felt nothing. I had become the same shadow-self I always became in the aftermath of trauma. My emotional shutdown was familiar by now, a survival strategy to get me through the weeks and months afterward. I hugged my knees to my chest and looked over the dark water and knew I would never return to Webb. I had loved this place once. In all those visits out to my brother, it had been a refuge through divorce and my first terrifying, exhilarating year on my own.

Now, I wanted nothing more than to see the last of it.

I had learned, yet again, that everything can change in an instant. One person’s thoughtless, selfish cruelty can shatter the reality you thought you lived in.

“We all saw it,” a group of my brother’s classmates had told him. “But then we thought it looked like she could handle it.”

The knowledge that this assault had been observed and that it had been noted as something concerning by those who saw it was more comforting than I could ever have imagined. Yes, they should have intervened. Yes, someone should have reported it. Yes, Nathan should have been penalized. My allies and friends at Webb were ineffectual and conflicted about how to handle the whole incident, particularly in the aftermath.

But this assault was unmistakably different from the others.

For one, it had been witnessed.

It had been witnessed by people who knew me and who could not deny the horrific violence of the assault.

And so, no matter how conflicted and confused the students were, they believed me.

For the first time in my life, in the aftermath of an assault, I was universally and unquestioningly believed.

And that changed everything.

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