One morning, years ago, the major landmark in my town caught fire. A relic of the town’s glory days in the nineteenth century, it dominated our modest skyline, and I’d been used to passing it every day on my walk to work. I had not heard the news yet that day, and I glanced toward the monument as usual. The top part of the edifice was now a charred stump; it may even have been surrounded by wisps of smoke. But oddly, I registered nothing unusual. My brain projected normality—what it “knew” to be real—onto what I was seeing, overlaying it like a private movie. When I heard the news later—only then did I believe my eyes.
All of this is to say that I didn’t recognize I had been sexually harassed for seven years, despite having been a self-professed feminist since I’d learned what the word meant, despite having learned feminist theory at the feet of leading scholars in college, despite having been supportive of friends who had gone through sexual harassment and assault. And even after I allowed myself to understand what had happened, despite knowing of the importance of breaking the silence, and despite having been grateful to others for breaking their silence, I kept silent.
Back around 2009, I was looking for answers for some minor but annoying medical symptoms. My usual doctors seemed out of ideas, so I made an appointment with a local alternative practitioner. As I sat in his office, I noted that he didn’t have on a white coat, nor did his office seem especially clinical, but as “doctor’s appointment” was a category of the landscape of my world, as fixed as that monument in my small town, I only hesitated slightly when he asked me to remove my shirt as part of the exam. There was some plausible reason, which I now can’t remember—visual inspection of a rash, perhaps?
After the exam, he suggested that I do a patch test for some vitamin deficiency on a two-inch square of my “lateral breast tissue.” Then he added, “If you can find enough.” Then he chuckled: “Heh heh.” Trying to remember what “lateral” meant from way back in freshman biology, I must have looked confused. He repeated himself: “Lateral breast tissue. If you can find enough,” gesturing to my on-the-smaller-side (but well-formed, I had always thought with some pride!) breasts. And then he chuckled again, as if to drive home what he was saying: “Heh heh.”
If he had had spinach between his teeth that day, I wouldn’t have said anything. If he had farted during the exam, I wouldn’t have said anything. Because another fixture of my world was the personal code of conduct of a Nice Girl: always be polite and never point out when someone does something embarrassing to himself. So I ignored his comment, and then I convinced myself it had never happened, that it couldn’t possibly have been what it sounded like, a creepy evaluation of my breasts’ sexual appeal or lack thereof in the context of what had been billed as a medical examination.
I didn’t get up and walk out in outrage. I didn’t even stop seeing him (well, I did after a while, when I got sick of buying all the vitamins he prescribed). I didn’t alert the community; I didn’t expose him. And once I finally allowed myself to admit to myself what had happened, I didn’t tell anyone then either, not my close friends, not my husband, no one. I merely quietly unfriended him on Facebook.
Why? Because I was ashamed—at my silence, at my acquiescence, at my gullibility for going to someone who wasn’t a medical doctor, at my agreeing to take my shirt off, at the overall triviality of the event in the larger scheme of things (after all, he didn’t touch me; I was a grown woman; it wasn’t ongoing; it wasn’t some terrible work situation that I had to endure to keep my job—was it really sexual harassment?), even ashamed of, well, my breast size, which would have become part of the discussion if I had ever told the story. Embarrassed, too, for him, for saying what he had said. Worried about his reputation, about his livelihood. Because these are the unquestioned edifices in our society: a man’s honor, a man’s work, a man’s understanding of what happened (he’d surely deny that his intent had been anything other than innocent). I didn’t want to believe these monuments were on fire even as they burned right in front of my own eyes.
I finally told one person. This summer. And then in October, I wrote “me, too” when the #metoo hashtag went viral. Still, my doubts persist. Will I be criticized for doing everything I criticized myself for above? Will others hold me as responsible as I held myself? Above all, I think about the women throughout my life who’ve told me about being sexually harassed or assaulted: fellow undergraduates when I was an undergraduate; fellow grad students when I was a grad student; work colleagues; friends from every era of my life. I did not seem—I desperately hope—unsympathetic, but “this happens to others and not to me” was part of the landscape of my world, solid as any building, so I’m sure my empathy arrived, if it did, as if from a long distance. Today I’d look them in the eye and say, “I’m so, so sorry this happened to you, and thank you so much for having the strength to talk about it.” I’d listen, listen, listen some more, as long as necessary, forever. One of my favorite quotes, ever since I saw it on a greeting card in college, is a haiku by Mizuta Masahide: “Barn’s burnt down—now I can see the moon.” As what separates us becomes a wisp of smoke—has always been a wisp of smoke—what I see are these women’s faces.
LYNNE NUGENT’s personal essays have appeared in Brevity, Mutha Magazine, the Tin House blog, River Teeth’s “Beautiful Things” column, and elsewhere. Her previous essay for Full Grown People, “The Get-Out-of-Jail-Free-Card,” was named a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2016. Find her at lynnenugent.wordpress.com.
“Can you believe I drive a friggin’ Volvo?” I text one of my oldest friends. We trade shorthand code, the sort developed with those who have seen you through many decades and phases—the well-scrubbed-coed-ordering-amaretto-sours-without-irony phase, the hairy-armpits-and-knockoff-Birkenstocks-with-wool-socks phase, the slaggy-handkerchief-halter-top-and-bumps-in-the-bathroom-with-the-drummer-or-was-it-the-bassist-from-Metallica phase, the can-you-believe-I’m-still-bartending phase, the can-you-believe-I’m-in-rehab-and/or- jail phase, and now this, the can-you-believe-I’m-driving-a-Volvo-and-Googling-perimenopause phase.
“You in a Volvo station wagon is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard of,” my friend fires back.
Now in my forties and out of the feigning street cred game, I seem by most external measures happy and stable—rooted even. I have something akin to that common domestic dream which Zorba the Greek lamented in the 1964 film: “wife, children, house, everything, the full catastrophe.” I have a devoted husband, an accountant who is also the town fire chief, a bric-a-brac of teaching and editing gigs that passes for a career, three mature lilac bushes, and 2.2 dogs. (I refuse to call them my “fur children.”) Keith and I joke that our three-year-old boxer, George, whose name is loosely derivative of Seinfeld’s George Costanza, counts as 1.2 dogs, the extra two tenths owing to his extra alpha-dog-bro-ness. This exterior sketch of my life on paper isn’t false, just thin. Anthropologists and other social scientists favor a “thick description” of human behavior, one that renders a fuller picture and which explains not only the behavior itself, but also its larger context. A thick description of my life, for example, might include a study of regional linguistics and attitudes, a family tree of mental illness, a personal history of addiction and trauma, and even what it feels like to be a sexual assault survivor during the presidency of Donald J. Trump, Groper-in-Chief. What I suppose I mean by the thick description is that the human condition is a motherfucker.
Beyond our Fisher Price town with its steepled square and mix of Colonial and Victorian storefronts winds the small river that hugs our country road. Between this river and road, farms nestle—some ramshackle, some picturesque—in the furry, coniferous hills of central Vermont. If you scrub past the rosy patina of Norman Rockwell Americana, you find ordinary America too, or perhaps ’Murrica, as some of my local students like to declare proudly: blue tarps and Gadsen flags, guns, black tar heroin, snowmobiles, high rates of domestic and sexual violence, and other assorted clichés of rural poverty and dis-ease.
Down this road a few miles sits the 1830s farmhouse that Keith and I bought last summer, flanked on one side by hay fields and on the other by the not-so-mighty, but lovely, First Branch of the White River. Because we lived in Arizona when I was a child, and swimming pools were ubiquitous, Mom plunked me in a toddler swim class at two, and I’ve been a water lover ever since. Given a chance to swim, especially in the wildness of an ocean, lake, or river, I will stay submerged for hours—until my skin is pruned. Here, in the town that we now call home of just over a thousand souls, I watch and listen to the river daily from our back deck. If the weather is warm and the river high enough, I head down to the water for a dip or to sit on a giant granite boulder, deposited as glacial moraine during the last ice age, and marvel at my luck. Calling this place, any place, home does a number on my psyche, yet here, I’m making peace with the full catastrophe. Something I can’t yet name washes over me here, or perhaps that something is finally washing away.
Nearly fifteen years ago, and six thousand miles from my apartment in San Francisco where I lived in my twenties, I sat nervously in a cold, stone office in the bowels of the stazione policia, on Via Zara in Florence, Italy. I was twenty-five and on my first trip abroad. The night before, I shared dinner with friends on the Piazza Della Repubblica, fifteen minutes by foot from the police station. The night before, I wore an outfit I bought special for the trip: tight red pedal pushers and a tight red blouse, heeled sandals, and a purple head scarf. We chatted gaily with our waiter, who joined us for Fernet Branca and Prosecco after his shift. He spoke little English, and I little Italian, but in broken Spanish and flirty eye contact, we managed well enough. My friends and I and the waiter walked over the Ponte Vecchio, but at some point while browsing the trinket shops and smoking cigarettes with our arms draped through the stone portholes over the Arno, he and I drifted from the group. At another point, I figured they’d gone back to our hotel, and he offered a “corto trayecto” on his moped. Still drunk and sun-baked from the day, intoxicated by the wafting lilac and street disinfectant, and dizzy from the ridges of terracotta rooflines undulating by, the ride exhilarated me in those first moments. But after twisting down more dusty lanes and bumping over cobblestones and emerging onto a faster, wider boulevard, my giddiness evaporated. I began to feel sick and to spin, adrift from my friends and our hotel and the center of town. He slowed the moped to a stop, hopped it onto a sidewalk in front of an apartment building, and with his strange, sweaty hand, the nice-seeming waiter led me up a flight of steps and into his small apartment.
We got here as soon as we could, my husband and I like to say—both in a literal and metaphorical sense—about our arrival in Vermont, about how we are late bloomers, about how long it’s taken to arrive at some place we might call home. We came to Vermont nine years ago, fleeing Houston, Texas, in a little hatchback packed with everything we owned. We drove past the Texas refineries and Louisiana swamps, then into the lush hills of Mississippi and Alabama, and on through the Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah Valley. When we reached the Maryland panhandle, I knew the Mason-Dixon Line was close, and once over that arbitrary boundary, my body flooded with relief, as if I had been safely extracted from behind enemy lines.
I say that we fled because at the time we felt that we had to get out of Texas if we wanted to make it. A few months before I met Keith, I got drunk and crashed my jeep into three other cars at a major city intersection. Miraculously, and despite epic vehicle wreckage, no one was killed, and only one person was hurt. After my initial arrest for drunk driving, I was charged with a felony that carried a five- to ten-year prison sentence, and the ensuing, protracted legal ordeal loomed over everything, including our budding romance. Dating tips don’t cover how to handle the “I’m under felony indictment” conversation on the first date, but Keith stayed, even as life became a two-year blur of court hearings, AA meetings, endless chauffeuring and bus rides, sporadic paychecks from temp agencies that would overlook my circumstances, pre-trial supervision, and finally, a five-day felony trial. I was more fortunate than most who get devoured by the Harris County Criminal Court system, convicted ultimately of a misdemeanor and sentenced to just 121 days in the fearsome Harris County Jail. With good time, I served sixty.
My lawyer’s early admonishment about the Texas criminal justice system proved prophetic: “You might beat the rap, but you won’t beat the ride.” While on the ride, Keith and I talked about “going home” once everything was over. Despite early years out West, I had spent much of my youth in New Hampshire, and on visits to New England Keith became enamored of the beauty, history, and landscape. He grew up in Texas, but as someone who is naturally taciturn, who loves flannel, snow, and early mornings, I suspect he was a New Englander in a past life. While in jail, and with a firm end date and real second chance in hand, we finally began to make plans in earnest. Even though it was considered contraband, I kept a photograph stuck to my bunk with the adhesive strips from a stamp book, so that I could remember what waited for me on the outside. It was a picture of Keith and me, from the trip we made to Vermont for my thirtieth birthday, standing outside in an October snow flurry. Vermont had become our new starting line.
Why did I go with the waiter? This was the tortuous refrain that ran through my mind the morning after, as I sat in the police station. I didn’t speak Italian, but I found a sympathetic translator from the American Consulate who escorted me to the station to help me file a report. Why did I go? I thought, as she mouthed the Italian words for the images that stabbed into my mind as if from a knife. The words sounded cheerful when this nice lady spoke them in Italian, the words for oral sex, for finger penetration, for erect penis, for without consent, for kick-start scooter, for champagne headache, for swarthy waiter, for slim build, for a Calabrian driver’s license, for his email address scrawled on a napkin, for No, for a partial apology in Spanish, for a cigarette afterward, for a walk over the only bridge in Florence to survive World War II, for permission to call my father, for the correct change in liras.
A movie about my twenties would begin happily. A young, quirky Ally Sheedy would star, Sofia Coppola would direct, and most of my boyfriends would be played by John Cusack. These early adult years weren’t without bumbling and angst, but for the most part, I had my act together. I lived in San Francisco, my dream city, where I was on track to complete a master’s program in creative writing. I had my own studio apartment on Russian Hill, a tight group of friends, and steady, lucrative work as a cocktail waitress, which helped me save up for my first European adventure. The itinerary dazzled me—Paris, Amsterdam, Switzerland, Italy, Provence, and finally, Spain—but I never made it past Florence. So, despite the auspicious beginning of my fantasy movie, the film would end unhappily, would tumble perilously thereafter across the screen, in a non-linear montage of depression, substance abuse, and suicide attempts, or what one shrink euphemistically called “gestures.” Not even the best film editor could suture these storylines. The jump cut was too rough.
This twist in my story has only recently, all these years later, begun to rise to a place from which I might access and write about it. It’s the story of, and here’s the problem…my rape? Or, my sexual assault? The first term I associate, technically, with penile-vaginal penetration, and the latter with euphemism. None of what happened feels technical or easily categorized, and neither does it seem deserving of euphemism, a language akin to evasion. See how the words still confound me, how the taxonomy remains fraught? I suspect that when the writer becomes a statistic, the language has to be dealt with as much as the event. Is rape what you want to call it? my father said to me in those early days. Of course, he didn’t mean harm. We don’t learn how to talk about such things in our culture, least of all men, least of all middle-aged fathers whose daughters call from payphones halfway around the world to say, Daddy, I’ve been raped. While I understand his quibbling now as an effort to make the thing somehow lesser or more manageable, or perhaps as an effort to attach language to the nightmare that we all could then live with, those words damaged me.
I felt misunderstood and silenced, as if I couldn’t be trusted to name my own experience. Though legal language varies, RAINN—the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network—defines rape as “Penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” Even though, technically, my experience does fit the definition, the truth is that I remain ambivalent about whether to call what happened to me rape.
Not long after the incident, the translator stopped returning my emails. Over time, I got mail from the Italian court that I couldn’t read. One letter came. Then maybe another. This timeline, too, is fuzzy, mired as these months were in heavy drinking and a growing dalliance with cocaine. When I returned from Italy, I holed up in my boyfriend Mike’s nondescript apartment in the Outer Richmond, which in those years was still a working class neighborhood on the northwestern corner of the peninsula. His apartment was closer to my university and far away from my friends who lived downtown. Its location conscribed a small, anonymous circle of the city in which I could limit my travel and social activity. I felt safe only in the darkness of his apartment and zipped into the anesthesia provided by the drinking. But the safety was an illusion, and the alcohol and drugs provided only temporary relief—if anything, they slickened the slippery in-roads of my mind. Previously closed-off territory opened up, as if in a nightmarish version of Chutes and Ladders, wherein I replayed every slutty thing I’d ever done and every unpleasant encounter.
Long buried before, I suddenly remembered another assault, dredged from the depths of my consciousness like a car hauled from a riverbed, mud-caked and slick with algae. I was seventeen that time, and in my first week of college at Rutgers University in central New Jersey. Late in that first week, a junior from my dorm, a fast-talking, animated guy from Jersey City, took an interest. Now, of course, I know I should have been wary of a guy whose opening line to my roommate and me was, “Youse freshmen?”, but then I was charmed. His accent and swagger were so different from the Boston Irish guys I grew up with, and he was not just some immature high school boy, but a college student—a man. Within minutes he was showing me his Don Mattingly swing impression and inviting my roommate and me to his dorm room for movies later that night. We went, of course, and while my roommate made out with his roommate (another beefy guy from Jersey City) beneath the Under-the-Sea phantasmagoria created by a spinning lava lamp, he made a move on me. We kissed for a minute, but a hunger in his movements frightened me, and before long I demurred, asking him to “slow down.” But he was somewhere else, his eyes glazed and fixed on the wall behind me. In fact, he sped up after I said that, as if further aroused, and then rolled on top of me.
“C’mon, baby,” he grunted, grinding his erection into my thigh. I tried to push him off of me, but he wouldn’t give.
“Please stop,” I said shakily, looking over at my friend who seemed oblivious and tangled up with the roommate. I assumed happily so, but I have wondered since if she had been in trouble too. How could I know what I was seeing, having never been taught what to look for? He pulled my shirt up and took my breasts in his mouth, suckled hard and with his teeth, then cupped my crotch over my jeans, rubbing his thumb hard back and forth against the zipper, which is where I imagine that he imagined my clitoris was. Finally, I managed to wiggle free by shimmying up the bed and wriggling out from between his legs. I hopped off the bed, pulled my shirt down, grabbed my bag and shoes, and clutched them to my chest to hide my breasts, which were still loose from the bra that was now pulled around my shoulders like a sash. I hurried to the door with the man panting after me.
“Don’t leave,” he begged. “I promise I’ll be good. You’re just so sexy, baby.” But once I was in the threshold of the door, he turned off the charm like a switch, and snarled after me down the hallway, “Bitch.” It’s probably important to point out that Rutgers, a state school where most students’ hometowns were no more than two hours away, was desolate on the weekends—an additional factor that made my roommate and me, two rubes from out of state, easy prey. As I rounded the corner to the freshman wing of the dorm I heard him holler the charming words that my roommate and I later turned into a kind of revenge refrain: “You can’t just leave me hanging! You gotta jerk me off or sumtin.”
Mike worked long hours as an options trader, but I remember that one night he came home early with takeout. I couldn’t tell you whether this happened six weeks or six months after the rape, nor whether it was meant as a gesture of kindness or normalcy, or even as a gesture at all, but his early return with dinner was unusual. Without much comment, I took a plate heaped with fried rice and egg rolls and my tumbler of White Russian and plunked down on the floor in front of the television in the living room. I had gained maybe fifteen pounds since the assault, and while I was nowhere near fat, neither was I the lithe ingénue he began dating years before. We were on the outs anyway, so what he said to me then—while not untrue—didn’t penetrate my new armor.
I was fortified by then, had taken up residence in my own sad kingdom. Standing in the doorway, his arms crossed, and with a mix of tenderness and perhaps disgust, he said, “Where is my bright, beautiful girl? I don’t recognize you anymore.”
I smiled wryly, raised my cocktail as in a toasting gesture, and said, “That, my love, is exactly the point.”
I spent less and less time at my own apartment, which now seemed a place belonging to another person and time, a “before” shot from the “before and after” portrait of my own life. Through a bartender friend, I had lucked into the cute, cheap, centrally-located rental. No one I knew paid seven hundred dollars for a studio in the heart of the city, let alone one with a private garden patio that teemed with bougainvillea, lavender, rosemary, eucalyptus, and the Purple Chinese Houses that looked like ornate, amethyst bib necklaces. The elderly, housebound woman who lived upstairs had cultivated the garden for decades, but since she could no longer enjoy it, the garden became my private Eden—an idyll rich with a bracing cologne of eucalyptus and herbs. But that was before. After, I preferred exile.
No one seemed to want to talk about the assault anyway, or no one knew what to say, but perhaps that characterization isn’t fair—or even accurate. Memorably, someone did say something—just the right thing, in fact. In a hand-written note on delicate ivory stationary, Jenna, a motorcycle-riding, beer-drinking girlfriend originally from Down East Maine, wrote: “You are the purest little rosebud, just beginning to flower. Please don’t let this stop your petals from opening to the sun. Remember, in the end it is harsh pruning and bull shit that makes the rosebush grow strong.” Perhaps I convinced myself that it was easier for everyone else, when I actually meant that it was easier for me, to forget the whole thing. After all, it happened a continent away, in another language even. The more that time passed the fuzzier and more distant the details became. Occasionally I would pull out the Italian paperwork from a file box. Four documents summarize my sexual assault: a report made by my friends; an initial filing made by me at a mobile police unit; a complete report made to the Florence police; and a notification I received from the court many months later, and which as far as I can make out, gave me twenty days to declare a domicile in Italy. I can read Spanish, and the languages are close, but still the documents are hard to decipher. I thought over the years about getting someone to translate them for me, but again it seemed easier to let it lie, to let the words, and therefore the event, remain a kind of secret or mystery that I kept even from myself. In a sense, then, I answered my father’s rhetorical question about what to call it by default, be deciding not to call it anything, to put the whole thing in an unlabeled box, and bury it on some godforsaken alien continent inside me.
Why did I go? I hate that I still ask myself this. I know this what-if game leads only to self-blame and shame, but I play anyway, because this is what sexual assault victims do. Perhaps I shouldn’t have worn red, shouldn’t have flirted, and shouldn’t have asked where we could get some pot. But actually, it was my girlfriend’s boyfriend who asked, and the waiter who said he had some in his apartment. He said his apartment was just around the corner, and we could ride over there on his moped. He seemed so nice, so harmless. I should never have gone, should have said “no” more forcefully, should have kicked his teeth in—something. But what magical thing would I have done? I play this game, as all victims do, because our culture trains us to blame ourselves. Instead of teaching boys and men not to rape, we teach girls and women the dubious art of avoiding rape, and yet when, inevitably, women are raped, they are abandoned, or worse, they are re-victimized by a legal system that reinforces its own bogus mythology. Every case becomes her word against his, despite empirical research that puts false reports as low as with any other violent crime. After mustering the courage to report these crimes in the first place, victims fight again to convince police, prosecutors, judges and juries, when ultimately, ninety-seven percent of rapists receive no punishment at all (this, according to RAINN). The message is clear: victims must bear their own burdens. We must learn how to survive our own rapes.
Though many of the direct memories of my assault remain sealed in drums and buried like radioactive waste or time capsules under hard-pack, I am still not safe from them. Trauma interacts with memory in complex ways, so memories of certain events—flashes—appear to me as non-linear images and sensory details. I am not unique in this. In an article for Time Magazine on December 9, 2014 on the neurobiology of sexual assault, Drs. James Hopper and David Lisak explain why rape and trauma survivors have fragmented and incomplete memories of their traumas:
Inevitably, at some point during a traumatic experience, fear kicks in. When it does, it is no longer the prefrontal cortex running the show, but the brain’s fear circuitry—especially the amygdala. Once the fear circuitry takes over, it—not the prefrontal cortex— controls where attention goes. It could be the sound of incoming mortars or the cold facial expression of a predatory rapist or the grip of his hand on one’s neck. Or, the fear circuitry can direct attention away from the horrible sensations of sexual assault by focusing attention on otherwise meaningless details. Either way, what gets attention tends to be fragmentary sensations, not the many different elements of the unfolding assault. And what gets attention is what is most likely to get encoded into memory.
Not only are my memories fragmented, but because of the nature of trauma, and despite my best efforts to neutralize them, the memories intrude in on my thoughts without warning. One moment I’m sitting by my river at home, and the next I’m back in Florence, holding my friend Bernadette’s hand, then tap-dancing on cobblestone, eating pasta, on the back of a moped. Suddenly, the man’s fingers are inside me. His tongue inside me. I am crying. His penis is in my mouth; is that right? I am crying in his kitchen, asking for a ride to the hotel. Then I’m back with my friends, outside the hotel, in relative safety under some streetlights. Bernadette and I are having a cigarette, and I am racing to tell her before the man gets back on his moped. As I tell her the story, the man is apologizing, inexplicably, to Bernadette’s boyfriend. Where’s my apology? I want to scream. I am still waiting.
Perhaps because I am just now unearthing my sexual assault, it doesn’t occur to me until all these years later, when my husband points it out, that this game, as I’ve always thought of the obsessive event replay, is a textbook hallmark of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. One morning not long after moving into the house, we’re out on our deck, drinking coffee and admiring the view of surrounding mountains, meadows, and the river. The lilacs, which light up with pleasure from the same brain circuitry that alights with fear—the amygdala—are still in bloom, and the river is running high. Listening to the rush of the water, I tell Keith about the compulsion I have to replay the night over and over.
“You know what that is, right?” he asks. I shake my head, even as I guess that I do. “It’s PTSD,” he says.
I do it with the car accident too, another trauma. I’d always assumed because in both instances I was drunk, that the replay was more about getting the narrative straight, trying to fill in certain holes. Is the inability to fill in the holes trauma, alcohol, memory, or all of the above? I run the replays automatically, absently, while drifting off to sleep or walking the dogs or washing the dishes. Each starts as a kind of mental video game, with Player 1 (me) flashing on the screen, and then we’re off. Either we’re running the crash scenario in Houston, or we’re running the moped scenario in Florence, each a sort of gauntlet where I imagine I can get points if I can lock certain features in place. Perhaps I can grab a new street name, a new weapon, or a new clue. Invariably, of course, the features of the game blur. So too with the features of memory, which escape me, bringing me once again upon the giant sinkholes that open up and swallow time, matter, memory, me.
“Lex,” Keith says, waving his hand in front of my face the way we do to inquire if the other person is paying attention. And with that I come to, having been belched from the beast of my past, returning to our morning in progress.
“I don’t know what’s worse,” I say. “The sudden jerks into the past, or the fact that I can never seem to stay in the present.” I try then to settle into my chair, my body, my breath.
“Be where your hands are,” my yoga teacher says. I study my hands, my oversized mug, and the lilacs in the yard, so purple they are almost blue. With their heart-shaped leaves and from the way they cluster into crown-like bunches, they remind me of the swim bonnets worn by the elderly women at my fitness center. But the fragrance is so unique, that it reminds me of nothing but itself.
Oh, and that night in Italy.
High on adrenaline and instinct and a lifelong good sense of direction, the morning after my assault, I led the officers back to the man’s apartment, which was not just around the corner as the man had suggested, but rather, some four-plus back-switching miles from the piazza. Since I had the napkin with his name and email address, the officers matched it with one of the occupants listed in their records. “Ben Fatto!” one of the officers shouted and pumped his fist from the front seat of the little police car.
“It means good job,” the translator said.
“I know,” I said. While still parked in front of the apartment, the officer craned around to face me in the back seat. He began talking intently, passionately, and looking back and forth between the translator and me.
“He says he’s very sorry this happened to you, and this is good evidence, but these things are hard to prosecute,” she said. I nodded and thanked him. He turned forward as if to drive off, but twirled back again, this time addressing mainly the translator. I made out the last word, commune: common. I looked at the translator, and she shook her head.
“C’mon, tell me,” I said.
“There’s no precise equivalent in English,” she sighed. “It doesn’t mean quite the same thing, but he says these things happen. They are common.”
When I packed for my flight just hours later, I flattened the words on the police report in the bottom of my suitcase like a freighted souvenir, underneath the red pants and blouse and stacked heels I wore the night before. I realized then that my panties were gone, probably still in the man’s apartment. Once on the plane and headed back to California, my seatmate asked if I was going home, and I nodded, then faltered. “Well, yes, I live there,” I said, thinking home was not a word I understood anymore, not a place on any map.
The night we closed on our house, Keith and I stood in the back yard at dusk with our hands clasped. We have two dogs, a ten-year-old rescue pit bull mix named Jazzy, and George, the boxer tween we got a year after our first boxer died. As a puppy, George, white- and fawn-colored with a comical black and brown eye patch of fur, was predictably mischievous, but it was Jazzy who—upon visiting the house for the first time that evening—had gotten so excited that she arched over in the entry way and took a massive dump. We were still giggling about it as we stood in our new yard, watching George zoom around the acre in obsessive circles, doing his “racetracks.” The river was high and the lilacs in bloom, and the music from the water and the perfume from the flowers washed over us. “This is ours,” Keith said, squeezing my hand a little harder.
“Yep,” I said, squeezing back.
The common purple lilac, or syringa vulgaris, like those in the loamy northwest corner of our own yard, is a flowering woody plant in the olive family. Olives thrive in temperate Mediterranean climates so unlike the harsh, snowy winters and humid summers of Vermont that it surprises me to learn this. I know it’s greedy and provincial, but I’ve always associated lilacs with New England, which somehow made them mine. After all, the common purple lilac is the New Hampshire state flower, which I was forced to memorize in school, along with the state bird (purple finch), state fruit (pumpkin), state gem (smoky quartz), and state insect (the ladybug). But I do remember lilacs in Italy, whose fragrance stood out to me amid the other Florentine scents—amber, tobacco, lavender, cypress—as a kind of olfactory beacon of home. The family name, syringa, comes from the Greek word syrinx, or hollow tube, which refers to the plant’s shoots and their large piths, while the species name, vulgaris, means common or usual. However ubiquitous lilacs may be, nothing about their loveliness seems common to me.
Later that night, while washing dishes and looking out the kitchen window that overlooks a side yard where the previous owners had a sizeable fenced-in garden, I tell Keith about everything I want to plant. I’m excited, and the list grows absurd: star fruit, melons, Christmas trees, cucumbers, potatoes, peonies, roses, bleeding hearts, corn, lilies, bananas, chips and salsa trees, puppy seeds, and book awards. Keith laughs. I’ve never been a gardener, never planted anything other than pain, but here in my fortieth year, I want to plant something finally that can thrive.
We’ve been in the house six months now, and while unpacking the last of the boxes, I find a package marked “FRAGILE” in Keith’s neat handwriting. I can’t think of anything fragile we own—no valuables or heirlooms—but as I peel back the layers of plastic shopping bag used as wrapping, I see a box, about the size of a shoe box, which I recognize immediately as the urn containing the ashes of our first dog, Jimmy. A ninety-pound boxer, with a heart and personality to match his size, Jimmy came with us from Texas and lived here in Vermont until he was thirteen. Losing him was eased by the wonderful staff of our local vet office, who treated the loss as their own. We opted to have him cremated, and when we went to pick up the ashes, they were stored in a pine box with a handwritten card taped to the lid. The card, which had a raised, lumpy paper heart affixed to it, read, “Plant this in loving memory.” The veterinary technician, who emerged from the back to tell us how sorry she was, explained that the heart adornment contained wildflower seeds and that we could plant it. At the time we lived in an apartment and decided to hang onto the card until we found a place of our own. I show Keith the card and read the instructions out loud: “Remove adornment from card, plant in your garden and wildflowers will blossom year after year.” I ask him if he remembers the garden I was talking about our first night in the house. I hold up the card and touch the little heart adornment and say, “We can start with this.”
ALEXIS PAIGE is the author of Not a Place on Any Map, a collection of flash lyric essays about trauma, and winner of the 2016 Vine Leaves Press Vignette Collection Award. Her essay, “The Right to Remain,” was a Notable in the 2016 Best American Essays, and she’s received three Pushcart Prize nominations. Paige’s work appears in The Rumpus,Hippocampus, The Manifest Station, Fourth Genre, The Pinch, and on Brevity, where she is an Assistant Editor. Winner of the 2013 New Millennium Nonfiction Prize, Paige holds an MFA in nonfiction from the University of Southern Maine. She lives in Vermont and can be found online at alexispaigewrites.com.
I’m from Iowa, but I lived in New York because I was in graduate school. I didn’t love my day job, but I loved and respected my boss. The company rented space in an office building near Penn Station, ten or fifteen floors accessible only by elevator.
After work one summer evening, I got on the elevator at the third floor, even though it was quite full. A group of nearly a dozen men from another business offered jovially to step aside for a lady. The oldest man closely resembled KFC’s Colonel. The majority were middle-aged men who looked ahead from under their shiny, tanned foreheads. With them rode a small handful of young men, maybe college or even high school student interns. Maybe it was Bring Your Kid to Work Day. Watch and learn, sons.
All of the men were white. All wore work-casual attire.
There was a feeling of levity in the air of this tightly closed space. Maybe it was Friday. I seem to remember something about golf.
When I stepped onto the elevator, they laughed, miming exaggerated gallantry and pretending to be my escorts to the ground level, rather than a crowd of strange men in a small space. I laughed along, even as the man standing behind me took the joke to some planet where it felt fun and funny for him to put his hands on my shoulders. He gave me a very real, very unwanted massage as a joke in the series of Jokes About Men as Protective Escorts and Not Predators. The punch line here was something like Relax— you’re safe here.
I kept laughing as I wriggled free, but I did not turn around.
The doors opened on the second floor, and jocularity spilled forth onto one of my coworkers, who waited for the elevator with his bike. My wide eyes registered his surprise. He seemed confused: What great fun was happening, and how did it involve me? He didn’t join us.
The doors closed again, and I began to realize what had happened, that I wanted to tell the man behind me that it’s wrong to give a woman a backrub when she hasn’t asked for one. But before I could speak, the men had flooded past me, off the elevator and out onto the sidewalk.
I stood a stupefied moment, then walked swiftly toward the door to catch them. But they were already gone—across the street or dispersed in all directions. They looked like everyone else on the sidewalks.
I walked downtown without a destination, and my horror grew: everyone in the elevator saw what happened, and no one stopped it. I couldn’t report the guy if I didn’t know who he was. Anyway, it was my fault. It couldn’t have been wrong if I’d laughed with him. Maybe I had asked for a backrub.
In the days that followed, I told a coworker who told my boss—a man. After reviewing the security tape, my boss took me to breakfast and asked me, in all seriousness, whether I’d feel better if the man who gave me a backrub in an elevator lost his job.
I talked it over with a friend who was my superior in the workplace. She couldn’t believe I would even consider taking this guy’s job. This stuff is dumb, she conceded, but it happens, and I should put it behind me. He probably had a wife and kids. Don’t ruin his life.
I let him go unpunished.
A few months later, my partner and I traveled to the Midwest for the wedding of one of his old friends. It was fall, and I wore a fabulous midnight blue dress with a ruffle and puffy sleeves. I wore some equally fabulous hose—pearly and translucent with thin, black, vertical stripes.
After some dancing, we headed to the bar for a refill. My partner chatted with the pastor who’d married the couple. While I awaited my drink, I overheard the pastor congratulating my date on my “naughty-girl stockings.”
I wished that my partner had told him off, but instead he moved me away from the bar before I could douse this man of God with his own drink. I was deeply embarrassed. I wanted to speak up to the pastor or his wife, but my date stopped me, and his face was pained with that decision. This man was a minister, and I was the bride’s distant friend’s plus-one. What would people think? There was no need to make a scene.
When I later found the pastor on Facebook, I drafted and deleted message after message. I wanted to tell him, “I know what you said about me. I know what you say when you are not speaking to a congregation. I know how you really are.”
I wanted to tell the newly married couple about him, but my partner and close friends advised against it. I would cheapen the newlyweds’ vows, sully their wedding memories, and help myself not at all. I stayed quiet.
Before the elevator and the wedding reception, I went to a clinic on the Upper West Side. I’d been in the neighborhood numerous times for work or to visit the American Folk Art Museum, and it had never occurred to me, not once, that I might be in danger there. Drivers, pedestrians, tourists, businesspeople, hot dog vendors, and wealthy New Yorkers everywhere—too many witnesses.
Buzzed in through the clinic’s locked door, I followed the nurse to the exam room with artless walls and rude fluorescent light. She pointed to a table covered with a white paper sheet and said that I could either remove all of my clothing from the waist down, or remove just my shoes and underwear and pull up my skirt. Either way, I was to cover my legs with a paper blanket and sit down. The doctor would be with me shortly.
I tucked my underwear into my purse and sat on the table with my skirt puffed at my elbows.
I turned when I heard the door open. A short man wearing navy blue scrubs entered the room, followed by a nurse. The doctor had dishwater hair, blue eyes. He shook my hand—I noticed his bandaged thumb—and we exchanged smiles. He confirmed my name and that I’d come to the clinic for IUD insertion.
The doctor asked how I was doing, and I told him I was a little nervous.
I expected to hear, There’s nothing to be afraid of. Instead, he said, “Who are you having sex with?”
He asked how long I’d been with my boyfriend, and I made up a figure. “About four months?”
His voice was hard. “Are you sure?”
“About which part?”
“Well, you know why I’m asking, don’t you.”
I didn’t. “Because this is a long-term solution?”
“Well, yeah. And four months isn’t very long.” His face suggested that he shouldn’t need to explain this.
He asked, “Do you know what happens if you get an STD with one of these things?” Before I could answer, he said, “You’re screwed.”
I looked down at my hands clasped in my lap, thumbs twiddling, then gripped the sides of the table. I was half naked and covered with a big paper towel. I rubbed my feet together. The paper crinkled.
He went on: “I mean, you catch gonorrhea or chlamydia and you’re infertile. You’re completely screwed. So I’ll ask you again: Are you sure?”
“I’m sure,” and my voice was annoyingly timid. I cleared my throat, “I’ve known him a long time, like, from before we were dating … and even before that, I wouldn’t, I’ve never been … in a non-monogamous, I just, I’m not worried about that.”
The doctor turned away from me as I spoke. I was still stammering when he cut me off, “Okay, if you have any reason—any reason—to believe your monogamy has been compromised, that you’ve been exposed to an STD, you come in here immediately. Do you understand me?”
I was taller than him from where I sat on the table, but I felt as if I were looking up at him.
“I’m going to do this for you anyway,” he conceded. “I’m going to do it because you’re affluent.”
“You’re affluent, and you look smart. You don’t look like some sixteen-year-old on the street who just wants an IUD because she’s bored of taking the Pill.” He mocked this hypothetical girl and meant to compliment me for being unlike her, for having insurance.
He sat down on a wheeled stool and gestured for me to put my feet up, but he was still talking to me. I spread my legs from the knees down, not wanting to expose myself while he seemed, for some reason, angry. I sat propped up on my hands, with my knees stuck together but my feet apart, heels in stirrups.
He put on latex gloves. The nurse handed him a blue kit full of scissors and other shiny, sharp tools. He pointed to a small black lamp next to him, positioned it to shine light between my legs, and said, “We had a woman used to work in here, black as this lamp, five-foot-nine, thin, just beautiful. I mean this woman was put on this earth to make babies because it would make us all a more beautiful race—heh-heh—but you know what? Her reproductive organs are worthless. Like sacks of pus inside her body. You know why?”
I answered the question to prove I had read the brochure: “Because she had an IUD and it got infected?”
“Yep. Sacks of pus, just worthless.” He shook his head to reiterate the tragedy of the beautiful, infertile woman, then noticed that I was still upright. His face conveyed annoyance.
“All right now, lay back.” He tapped my knees and instructed me to let them fall to the sides and relax.
“Scoot forward. Yeah—to the edge of the table. Now we’re doing the Mirena, right? Not the copper kind?”
I said yes. I could only see the top of his head.
“Good,” he said, “The other kind sucks.” He laughed like we shared the joke. “But you know who loves it? Hispanics, the Mexican-American women. They come in here asking for it by name.” He said women who speak Spanish prefer the copper IUDs, which, I’d read, were perfectly effective and lasted ten years to Mirena’s five, because they were a “knock-off brand.” He trailed off into a chuckle and I felt compelled to do the same, seeking safety in the muscle memory of a doctor’s orders routine, even though this did not feel familiar.
I turned my head to the right to see the nurse, herself Latina, arranging tools on the counter, facing the wall. I failed to stand up to the doctor seated between my knees.
“Okay, you’re going to feel a cold mist. That’s an antiseptic,” he warned, and his voice was suddenly gentle. “And then a bit of a pinch and pressure. That’s a local anesthetic. It’ll make the rest a lot more comfortable.”
While he warned me, I worked to believe that I’d been misreading him. Really, he must mean well. He was a doctor.
The antiseptic spray was cold.
He asked me where I was from, and when I said Iowa he threw his head back in laughter. “Oh! So you’re out here chasing your dreams, are you? Did you follow your dreams to New York City?”
There was a sudden pressure from inside of me, and a pinprick. “That’s the anesthetic,” he said.
Rather than defending my home state, I added that I lived abroad last year. I wanted to impress him with Dubai. (A dull push from inside my abdomen. Odd pressures, something moving inside me.)
When prompted, I coughed, and he slipped something into me, fast.
“But Dubai sucks, doesn’t it?”
I heard myself say that I would not like to live there again, a true statement that, in this light and this air, sounded like betrayal. I said I was glad to come home, that it felt better to live where food grows naturally. He approved of my explanation: “You’re funny.” I hadn’t made a joke.
He said Dubai seemed like a worse version of Las Vegas to him. “I’ve known a lot of people who have moved to Vegas, and you know what they always do?”
He waited, forcing me to ask him, “No, what?”
“They come crawling back.”
He shoved his stool backwards from the table, smiling triumphant. “Would you believe that’s it?” He removed his gloves. I sat up immediately.
The doctor boasted, “Now what was that, like three minutes?”
“I had an attending physician in med school who took twenty minutes to put in an IUD, and it hurt, you know?”
“Yeah, but that didn’t hurt, right?”
“Right. You wanna know the secret? You numb ’em up. It’s that local anesthetic. You numb up the cervix and you can—” He saw horror spread across my face. “I can do whatever I want.”
He went on to tell me warning signs to look out for after the procedure. “But right now?” he said. “It’s beautiful.” He laughed like he’d won a game.
He shook my hand again, and I said slowly and clearly, “Thank you.” I looked in his eyes. I meant it.
Some days later, I printed paperwork from the state of New York to report this doctor. But I didn’t send it. Instead, I felt tremendous guilt and shame, internalized all fault for the things he’d said to me, thought briefly about killing myself, and found a therapist.
He can do whatever he wants.
I am a smart woman with a good life. I have a good job and kind friends, a supportive partner and a safe home. I am in good health. I enjoy privileges I did nothing to earn.
Nonetheless, my life would be better if I had not been assaulted in my workplace, abused while seeking medical care, or reduced to a sexual object by a man who teaches morality.
My neighborhood in Brooklyn was full of people of many races and social classes. There were small children in strollers. High schoolers stood self-consciously in circles. Drunken men hung around outside the liquor store. There were many languages in the air. Cops walked the beat. From my bed I heard loud parties and midnight basketball games. I even heard a gunshot once. I was surrounded by things I’d been taught to distrust and fear. Nothing bad ever happened to me there.
The only men who have abused me are men I was taught to trust without question. They are men who know no consequences, men whose inner goodness is implied by their career choices, their age, their affluence, their skin color.
Time and again, these are the men who have caused me to think that perhaps I was not good or smart or worth my own life. Although I was allowed to speak up about their missteps, and people may have even listened to me if I’d done so, social pressure made me think better of making a fuss.
If the businessman’s employer or the church or the New York State Office of Professional Medical Conduct had issued some reprimand for these men, traditional wisdom told me, I would undo their lives of otherwise perfect service: These men do not deserve a second chance; they deserve a never-ending first chance.
My silence came from the supposition that these men were as good as it gets. If these men were not our businessmen, our doctors, our pastors, we might just have to do without commerce, without care, without God.
I now understand my decision to over-pretend at normalcy, to thank the doctor, to keep quiet: It seems this doctor has been elected president. So has the pastor. So has the businessman.
Years ago, Donald Trump said into a microphone that he cannot resist kissing women he thinks are beautiful, and that he can do this without the women’s permission because he is famous. He can “grab them by the pussy.” He can do anything he wants.
When asked about these statements in a debate, Trump shrugged off all criticism. “Don’t tell me about words,” he said.
Americans hold dear a sweet trope about childhood: When you grow up, you can be anything you want. You can be a farmer or an actor or a teacher. You can be a doctor. You can be a pastor. You can be a businessman. You can be the president. It’s hopeful.
Trump heard this promise and thought he understood, but he needs someone to tell him about words. When he was promised you can be anything you want, it seems young Donald heard you can do anything you want.
This essay used to be confident and indignant. It used to declare, if you want to be the president, you must do service for the people you wish to govern and treat them with respect. It is best not to do things that amount to sexual assault and brag about these activities. If you do that—let me tell you about these words—you cannot be the president.
I was wrong. This man is the president. Each day we awake to the new horrors his reign has brought, and we punch as if blindfolded. More crises will come, but I do not know just what these will be.
I do know that to speak of men’s abuses of power is more important today than it was before the election.
I know that my silence about such abuses means harm to those whose identities render them mute to the ears of those in power. Even when I am not the direct beneficiary of my own actions, I am responsible for the world around me. We share everything.
I know my own family, people who would never identify as racists or sexists, voted for Trump nevertheless. I try to hold up the fact of Trump’s election and get a good look at it. I know it’s gravely important that we work to understand. For unknown reasons, this is most difficult in the mornings.
I’ve made the strange decision to throw myself at gardening. I planted bulbs in my rented front yard despite the fear that many would be dug up by squirrels or eaten by rabbits before they could bloom in the spring. I set paperwhites in the windows all around my house, inspired by their ability to bloom without soil, to bloom especially when I needed them most, as snow flew outside and the whole world seemed dead. In the darkest days of winter, I bought a houseplant that is a carnivore. This plant nurtures itself by eating its pests. I found its hunger beautiful, and I hung it in my kitchen.
Despite bruised hope and disillusionment, the end of this essay remains:
My great-great-grandmother sent a song down through the generations. In a mock-operatic voice, the women of my family have used this song to goad our brothers and husbands: “Let the women do the work, do the work, and the men lie around, around, around.”
LAURA FULLER is an Iowan and a pie enthusiast. She lives in Wisconsin, where she teaches English and writes essays. Her work has appeared in Misadventures and various other publications and has been featured in performance at Lincoln Center. She holds an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing from The New School in New York.
New York, 2007. My hand pulls at the plastic ring attaching me to the subway rail. My wrist grows sore with each tug as the train lurches, burping noisily, without rhythm or apology. It couldn’t be more disinterested in us, this mass of bodies, compacted and caught, willingly. My palm and fingers slide along the grimy ring, the plastic soiled by countless hands, each leaving their oily imprint. I curse myself for forgetting my gloves, necessary not for warmth but for cleanliness and peace of mind. I’m from Bangladesh, and I loathe the cold. But as much as I dread winter, I welcome the layered protection of the season’s attire.
The man standing behind me pushes his crotch against my lower back. I’m grateful for my thick coat. Among all the clubs, predators have the most inclusive membership. They come in all forms: businessmen, lawyers, students, electricians, construction workers, old, young, white, black, brown, and everything in between. This one burrows his hard nub into me. The pressure makes me recede far as possible, which is scant given our cramped quarters. He knows this. He revels in this, sucking it like juice spilt from a ripe bite. I turn to glare at him. He feigns nonchalance.
The doors open. A mouthful of us spit onto the platform. We scurry, spread, each person in a different stage of gritty swift. It’s rare to find a born-and-raised New Yorker. Most of us have come here with a fervent purpose, arriving on the wings of a wish. We plunge into the flow, weave our narrative with each other’s, and move as one pulsing organism.
I emerge from underground. The crisp evening envelops me in a gulp. I don’t need to check my bearings. My pace matches the quickest foot. A few loiter, drag their feet, second-guess their direction. Not us, the urgent ones.
I make it home, now in my fifth sublet, and on the good nights (and tonight counts as a good night, as the man on the subway decided not to follow me and is now of the past), I exhale with relief. Another day closed, and thankfully, safely. I hang my coat.
The months fly like pages thumbed by an uncaring examiner. Then, one mundane Monday, I stumble into an old colleague. An actor like myself. A friend.
“What a great surprise!” he says. “We have so much to catch up on. Dinner? Friday?”
“Sure,” I reply.
We met a few years ago in the summer between my sophomore and junior year, while working at Williamstown, a renowned theater festival. He was a bit older than me, in graduate school at Brown. We became quick, close friends the way everyone does in a community of artists.
In the performance arts, we cultivate closeness through specific practices. For weeks or months, we do exercises crafted to foster trust and loyalty. We divulge achingly personal stories. We spend long hours rehearsing, suspended from reality, in the studio, onstage, and on the road. Therefore, by the time we perform, the audience believes we are family, siblings, lovers, or best friends. It’s our job to communicate intimacy. Once two artists have worked together, we’re allied for life. We’re part of a larger, loving tribe, generations deep. It is understood that we don’t dishonor this.
Now, years later, he and I have run into each other in the city, the way most of us do and will. We caught sight of one another in the waiting room of a studio, the way most of us do and will. We hug with the easy affection all actors who have worked together do and will.
Dinner is wonderful. He’s wearing a button-down shirt and jeans. I’m wearing a short sundress and ballet flats. We share stories and laugh. My apartment is around the corner. I invite him up for tea. We talk and feel the attraction. He kisses me. I kiss him back. It’s all delightfully harmless.
It’s getting late. I walk him to the front door, adjacent to my bedroom.
“Good night. Thanks for a great time.”
He wants more.
He kisses me again, harder. He pushes me against the wall, my five-foot-four, one-hundred-five pounds feeling pitiful to his five-foot-eleven, one-hundred-eighty pounds.
“You have to leave now.” I keep my voice light but persuasive. He tries to push me onto the bed, forcefully, not remotely playfully. I hold my ground.
“No. You have to go.”
“No,” he says, grinning, his teeth glowing in the darkness. “I’m not going anywhere.”
The air has thickened like blood clotting. Dread curls around the edges of the room, like the scent of rain before the sky slits open. He comes towards me. I back away. I breathe slowly through my nose to calm my lungs and pace my heart. My mind sifts through every case study and self-defense lesson I’ve memorized over the years. I bolster myself with tactics, ready to use them: Place one hand on each side of his head, poke hard into his eyes with my thumbs. Knee him in the groin. Bite, kick, scream. Urinate. The shock and disgust might unsettle him, letting me run.
He grabs me again. I steel my body against his. I try to take his hands off me, twisting my arms and torso the way I was taught to do with assaulters. My teeth and hands tingle, eager to bite, to claw, to obey my orders.
The vile truth, as bitter as bile: He is much too strong.
I fight with all my might, flaying like a fish caught on a hook. He keeps his hold on me, and the tussle flings us onto the bed. My left cheek is pressed against his shoulder and turned towards the wall.
My room is pink. I painted it this way, pink with a daisy-yellow trim. Growing up, I always wanted a pink room. There’s a Benjamin Moore a block down from my acting agent’s office. The day I signed with him, I gave myself a pink room. I’ve been trying to create something soft for myself within the black and gray bruise that is New York.
Life is surprising. Just as crayons fail to taste like their names, paint on a wall will be much brighter than paint in a can. I envisioned a light, blush pink but ended up with pink as vivid as flesh, sliced open.
Now, I’m inside a mouth.
Lining the flesh-pink walls are stacks of books, arranged in a way I think is pretty. My bedframe is lovely too, black wrought-iron in a delicate pattern of leaves and flowers, much like the tattoo on my ribcage, tucked into the small spot between my breasts. I chose that area for its sweet privacy, believing no one would see it unless invited. I found the bedframe on Craigslist. It didn’t come with a bedspring so I balance it on plywood boards.
I haven’t stopped fighting. I am still trying to wiggle out from beneath him. He’s pinned my wrists above my head, first with both his hands and then, only one hand to hold my wrists down. With the other hand he’s undone his jeans and hiked up my dress. Now, he knees apart my legs, and enters. As he jams in, I order myself to imagine what I’m feeling is an inanimate instrument, like those in a gynecologist’s office which, at twenty-three, I’ve been to only thrice. Now, he grunts, and grunts, his upper lip, forehead, palms, and torso growing clammy with sweat, saturating the room with his scent, musky, male, yet acutely his own. Cracking like lightning, the wooden boards beneath my mattress break from our combined weight and exertion. The mattress tilts down like a split bone. It juts into the air at an awkward angle, shaking with each thrust. The broken boards scratch my flesh-pink walls.
“You’re just too beautiful,” he hisses between groans. Astonishing, the power of the human word. Through a meager handful of sound and suggestion, I feel guilt for being myself and fury for having it used against me. I wish to be anyone but myself, to be anything but attractive, to disappear and remain hidden, indefinitely. I wish these things and hate him for it.
I’ve looked left, right, down, so now, I look into him. His sounds, scent, and desire have filled the room full of him, yet he’s completely left. His pupils have dilated so deeply, his entire eyes look black, dulled of light, dead of any humanity. I’m still repeating, “You have to go, you have to go, you have to go,” though I don’t know whom I’m referring to anymore, him or myself. I’d be grateful for either one of us to vanish. I switch to saying loudly, “No, no, no!” spitting the words like seeds that won’t take.
Here we are. This. Is. Happening.
The horrifying certainty hits me like raw steak slamming a chopping board. Maybe because he too believes this is a secured success, his hold on my wrists slackens. His moment of sloth is all I need. I slip my wrists out from his hand, press the heels of my palms on his shoulders and push with all my might.
“No,” I yell. The sudden volume and physical force are enough to shock him backwards. He comes at the same time he falls. If this weren’t rape, if I weren’t terrified, if my voice weren’t hoarse from being ignored, I’d be embarrassed for him.
I scoot back until I’m against the headboard, hugging my legs to my chest. My throat is chapped. I taste blood. I must’ve bitten my tongue. It’ll hurt tomorrow. He puts on his clothes, swiftly, silently. I say it once more:
He does. After his sentence—“You’re just too beautiful”—he hasn’t said a word.
I don’t call anyone for help. I sit in the dark for fifteen minutes, listing my options and weighing the costs of each. To negotiate any legal retribution for rape is a brutal ordeal. I’m here on my OPT visa, my agents will sponsor my next visa, and if I accrue enough professional credits, I can obtain a green card. I devote every minute and penny to the next meal, audition, job, and rent check.
I’m working so hard to live here. I’m concerned that if I press charges against him, the legal process will be even more grueling than if I were a citizen. The fine print of my immigrant status claims I’m not to be treated any differently than an American woman but often the fine print fails to inform reality. Similarly, the minutiae behind immigration include nothing to suggest pressing charges against a rapist would compromise my status here, or when I file for a green card. But all it takes for is for my case to land in the hands of that one immigration officer who finds pleasure in turning the innocuous into injury.
I cannot harm my chances at staying here. I love America beyond words. I haven’t a place in Bangladesh. But here, I’m allowed to pursue the life I want, to be a voice for those without one. The irony is acutely painful. I won’t press charges. I have to be quiet now to be a voice for others later. The hardest fact to reconcile is that my silence allows him the wicked freedom to do this to other women. This thought of hypothetical others brands me with guilt.
Get him off you.
I take a shower. Scrolling down and along the walls like the stock exchange are statistics and stories I’ve learned and lived as a girl and student. What a twisted joke. I feel the inertia of tears build and with them, my heartbeat, sounding like the decisive march of soldiers, resolute and incoming. So immense grows my panic that it drowns the sound of water and sucks in my breath. I begin to choke.
I breathe. This is anger and self-pity, two faces of fear. Fear, another luxury I cannot afford.
My story. He is but one page. One character. It doesn’t occur to me for a second to feel small, dirty, or somehow damaged. This wasn’t sex; this was assault. He is neither a man nor all men combined; he is one predator. He is a scab and Momma taught me not to pick scabs. Especially if they are human.
Under my makeshift waterfall, I speak these words. They bloom then distill into one sentence: Only I author my life.
I step out of the water.
Now the wrecked bed. I return the wooden slats to their precarious balance, angling them on the thin lip of metal, making sure they don’t succumb to gravity. I lift the mattress. I smile, not from the strength of my arms but from the lack of trembling in my hands.
The next day I have an audition for Gossip Girl. Gossip Girl is presently the most coveted job for women my age. More often than not, I’m asked to read for the exotic vixen. I don the requisite tight black dress and five-inch heels and negotiate my mouth around the vapid script. No one in their right mind will believe me in these roles.
“Be less intelligent,” says the casting director.
I’m certain there are brilliant actresses who can achieve such feats. But I’m a mediocre pretender. Some things I cannot act.
I take the subway to my hostessing job, clock in a few hours. I mute my brain, play pretty, let everyone believe what they need to believe. Afterwards, I babysit for a family I met a few weeks ago. The Mama is a Broadway star and Daddy a tennis icon. He is as steadfast in person as he is on court. She sears through life, blazing with the audacious confidence of an enduring flame. The family resembles idyllic American characters I have read about, never believing they might actually exist. The first time I enter their apartment, a wondrous warmth spreads through me like ink spilling into water. So this is what it feels like. Home.
I balance the baby on my hip and look into her eyes, blue as the skies in sonnets. We are safe in one another. All she wants is for me to be present. I fill with a love so authentic it arrests my breath.
Mama and Daddy return home, I to my pink room. Another day arrives, followed by another. The days form into months, months into years. I don’t hear from him but I will run into him. I will run into him over the years because we are both actors, and our world is tiny, and because life has a harsh, wise way of doing what she does. She will give us things as provocation to die quicker, or, grow. I will read about him in the Times. I will see him at auditions. One time, I will sit across from him on the subway.
“How are you?” I’ll ask, looking him in the eye. In response, he’ll move through every shade of pale and burn. He will sputter and shake. I will refuse to break eye contact. I will smile. I will wonder, Have you become more than your past self?
Is that possible? For all our sake, I have to believe it is.
Over time, I will meet an uncanny number of men like him. With each person, I grow better at sensing the volatility beneath the sheen. I feel it like incoming rain: he holds the dormant capability to inflict pain. Tally the encounters and I run out of fingers and toes.
The idiom Everything happens for a reason, has never sat well with me. One cannot blurt Everything happens for a reason to a person who’s just lost a loved one, been raped, or been diagnosed with cancer.
I assign my experiences their reasons.
I choose to believe the reason for this one evening wasn’t to lose my faith in men, life, or my instincts. The purpose behind this night was it proved my resilience. My beauty and youth will fade. People and money will come and go. But my ferocious passion to live is mine evermore.
Startling. Realizing this lights something within me. For the first time in my life, I like myself.
My father visits the city for a conference. Time has softened him like butter left on a table. He says the city terrifies him. The pace, scale, crowds, remarks. A terrain dotted with magic unlike anywhere else, but otherwise cacophonic, putrid, and obstinately gray.
“Don’t you get scared?” he asks.
Life is masterful at being fearsome. But listen and receive, the landscape will provide every wisdom. Like the days, each train arrives only to make way for the next. I stand on the platform with my fellow travelers. The doors open. I step into the maw.
REEMA ZAMAN is from Bangladesh and was raised in Hawaii and Thailand. She holds a BA in Women’s Studies, a BS in Theater, and a minor in Religion from Skidmore College. She worked as an actress and model in New York for a decade. Now, she writes memoir and personal essays, residing in Oregon. She is represented by Lisa DiMona of Writers House and Reema’s first memoir, I Am Yours, is presently being circulated to different publishers. She also writes for Dear Reema, where she responds to letters sent in by readers. Her work has been published in The Huffington Post, Shape, and Nailed. Reema is the creator of You Are the Voice, a talk on resilience, self-ownership, and empowerment that she performs in colleges and other venues nationwide. This piece, The Pink Room, is an excerpt from her memoir I Am Yours. For more, www.reemazaman.com.
Earlier this week, the following piece by Karrie Higgins ran on the Huffington Post’s blog platform; it was titled “Donald Trump confessed to sexual assault on tape and so did my brother, and here is what I know: a tape doesn’t change a goddamned thing.” A few hours after it went live, Huffington Post took the multi-media essay down, then later deleted Karrie’s account. She has not gotten an explanation for either action.
I saw this going down on social media. I thought her work was, as usual, masterful, and I wrote to ask if she’d like a new home for it at FGP. Full Grown People isn’t a magazine about politics. But, I believe that it is a home for work that tackles power and vulnerability, voice and dismissal—subjects that are inherently political. So, just a friendly reminder: the comment space isn’t a place to debate candidates, but if your voice has something to do with Karrie’s work, speak up! —Jennifer Niesslein, ed.
CW: sexual abuse, sexual assault, audio depicting a pedophile grooming and threatening his victim, Donald Trump audio, sexual abuse and rape apologists
If you are a victim of sexual assault in crisis, please call RAINN at 800.656.HOPE (4673).
By Karrie Higgins
When Access Hollywood leaked a recording of Donald Trump bragging about “grabbing women by the pussy,” I felt the same empty relief I get after a good puke. Finally, a misogynist with a history of violence and rape accusations would be unmasked for the predator he is. And yet, I knew deep down: a tape doesn’t change a goddamned thing.
transcript: “Honey, I did NOT … come, oh that’s crazy. Oh, my God, oh my God, I’m just sick. I can’t believe this shit. Oh my God. This is just, this is just bizarre. I just can’t believe this. I did not touch you sexually. I, if, if, you took that way, way wrong, my God. My dear, you, I’m trying to get as honest as I can with you, I mean, that’s way wrong. It’s just, tickling you or wrastling you or grabbing you. If that, if that’s what you thought I was doing, then that was just, that’s not right, I mean, I, that was not my intention whatsoever, my God.”
He didn’t know the call was being recorded. He didn’t know anyone else would ever hear him.
“I need you to tell the truth,” the girl said, over and over, until he broke down and confessed.
Confessed on tape:
transcript: “Well what we did was wrong. Well, when we were wrastling and doing all that, it was wrong. It was inappropriate. Obviously it was very inappropriate. And I did not mean to hurt your feelings or screw your head up, for crying out loud.”
Imagine that played to a jury. The charge: sexual abuse in the second degree of a child under twelve, a Class B Felony in the state of Iowa, punishable by up to 25 years in prison.
Nobody could ever call me a liar again, I thought.
Now I know better.
The humiliation of a man accused is always more important than the trauma of a woman assaulted.
transcript: I don’t want your mom to hate me. [crying] This is my life. This is all I have.
I watch as Trump’s victims come forward, say they feel vindicated.
He grabbed me. He’s a big dude, 6 foot 3, and at the time I was waif-like. He was like, ‘I’m tired, let’s lay down.’ So in this bedroom — I hate talking about this — he went for it with the kissing, he had his hands all over me, really pressing down on me, definitely had a hard on. I had worn pants strategically. I knew better than wearing a skirt around him anymore. It was a barrier of protection …
Harth said she feels “vindicated” by the tape. “I would love to get some kind of apology from anybody in that camp.”
Watching him relive his sexual aggressions on the video, she said in an interview on Saturday, “made me feel a lot better.”
“It was like: ‘Thank you. Now no one can say I made this up,’” she added.
I want to be happy for them, but I know what comes next.
Men in my social media feeds:
The timing is perfect. The Clintons still got it.
It’s fishy someone held onto that tape.
Crooked Hillary is trying to rig the election.
Trump campaign decal:
May 1983, eight years old: six weeks after the first time I had sex with my brother, opening weekend of Return of the Jedi. A neighbor boy pitches a tent in the tall grass of his backyard, says, “Let’s play Star Wars.”
“I’ll be Princess Leia,” I say, “in the costume where her boobies show.”
I crawl into the tent. The boy unzips his pants, sticks the tip of his penis through the flap in his Superman Underoos, and pees on me.
Later, he tattles to his mother: “Karrie said boobies.”
And she tattles to my mother: “I will not have her polluting my son.”
I stuff my wet clothes in the laundry basket and don’t tattle back. I am a bad girl. Zero credibility.
To my students, but especially to the boys: I want to be sure you know. What we have learned about Donald Trump and how he speaks about and treats women is not ok. It’s not ok for a 60-year-old man, its not ok for a 13-year-old boy. It’s not ok for anyone.
The same high school where a math teacher and coach grabbed my pussy. Not just any teacher or coach, but the Cedar Rapids version of Jerry fucking Sandusky.
I can still smell his breath when he said, “I know things aren’t right at home.” My body pulled close to his. His hands down my pants, under my panties. I know things aren’t right at home. Not concern. A threat.
On the day he died, my Facebook feed flooded with eulogies. Best math teacher I ever had. Best coach ever!
Friends changed their profile pictures to his face.
His face. In my Facebook feed. The man who grabbed my pussy.
I vacillated between nausea and a low boiling rage: Look how he helped those students. Look what he did for everybody else.
My Kennedy High School transcript, senior year:
I never enrolled for the final trimester.
I went to my counselor’s office. I said, “I can’t take it anymore.”
He said, “You’re college material. This place is holding you back. Let me get this taken care of and get you out of here.”
And he did.
I remember my last day of school. It wasn’t anyone else’s last day of school. I ran my finger along the tile walls as I walked down the hall. I needed to feel them, needed to feel that I was there, because I was about to disappear, and nobody would even notice.
My mother forced me to attend graduation. I showed up in my cap & gown. Nobody said, “Where have you been?” Nobody asked. Nobody noticed. It went exactly how I knew it would. I was glad.
I never submitted my senior picture to the yearbook.
Poof! I was gone. Like I never even happened.
That’s what sexual abuse and assault do to you. That. Like you never even happened.
The Weekly Standard: So if you grab a woman by the genitals, that’s not sexual assault?
SESSIONS: I don’t know. It’s not clear that he—how that would occur.
I write my hometown paper. I tattle on that teacher. I say, “Do you want to help me tell this story?”
I call my favorite high school teacher, the one who wrote get thee to a nunnery in my journal when I confessed to having the hots for Hamlet, the one who saved my life without even knowing it.
When I tell him Mr. _______ grabbed me by the pussy, he gasps. An OH SHIT YOU’RE IN TROUBLE kind of gasp. Not because he doesn’t believe me, but because that teacher is a mini Jerry goddamned Sandusky.
“The faculty all thought he was a god.”
Why now? Why now? Why now? People ask.
But it wasn’t just now.
July 25, 2015:
I panic about being grilled for the details. I panic about being accused of making it all up because I waited so long.
“What if I get a detail wrong?” I ask my husband.
They are going to attack my partial deafness and auditory processing disorder, accuse me of mishearing. They are going to say my bipolar makes me hysterical. Unreliable. They are going to say my memory is bad because of the seizures. They are going to say epileptics are liars.
“It’s the same story you’ve told me since undergrad,” my husband says. He means back in the 90s, not long after the coach assaulted me. “It will be OK.”
What do you want? Money?
Cedar Rapids Public Schools called the principal’s post “political.”
They are wrong, but they are also right.
My brother’s Airborne buddy:
Well how would you like to have the job of searching the internet on multiple sites if your job is to locate underage participants? That’s a real job. I had to do that once, took me a week to find the videos of the youth involved. It was with her step father and they were live on camera. He was a soldier. Not anymore.
Your brother was the best. He was the best of the best. He ended up getting fucked over hard. Fucked over hard by a woman.
Choosing sides is always political.
My brother was a god, too, a sex god drag racing his GTO through the streets of Cedar Rapids before I was even born. Everybody loved him. Every girl wanted him:
My brother’s Airborne buddy, when I contact him for stories and photos, 7 years after my brother would have faced trial, if he hadn’t swallowed morphine, methadone, diazepam, gabapentin, and desmethyldiazepam, and died in the fetal position in front of his couch:
All I see in your profile pic is a skinny girl with tattoos. I mean, where are the boobies? You’ve got my cell number. I want to see what you got.
transcript: I want you to get your head squared on straight, but at the same time, I’ll be darned if I’m gonna be humiliated by some court of law.
They wanted me to surrender myself to the same jail where they locked up my brother for his last Christmas on Earth. They wanted me to submit to a grope for illicit recording devices. They wanted me to sit in an interrogation room, maybe even the same one my brother did. They wanted me to play the part of my own molester.
Protecting the other victim, they said, even though I asked for her voice to be redacted.
The police know the rules of the game: the victim guards the secrets, the victim guards the secrets, the victim guards the secrets.
I told them I was partially deaf, that listening once would not be enough.
I told them my epilepsy and neurological conditions make travel an undue burden, that I didn’t have the money to get to Iowa, that even if I could get there, I would be stranded at the airport with no way to get to a small-town sheriff’s office in the middle of nowhere. I can’t drive, I said.
They were violating the spirit of open records law, I said. Violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The sheriff never responded.
I am a disabled sexual abuse victim of a man he wanted to put behind bars for sexual abuse, and he did not respond.
The Fraternal Order of Police is endorsing a man who makes fun of disabilities.
I started to see conspiracies in the telephone call transcript.
I played Mad Libs. I filled in the sentences with all the best defenses.
What did the cops not want me to know?
They made my play the part of my own molester:
transcript: Karrie reading the line “This is my life” from her brother’s taped police phone call transcript in three different ways (argumentative, crying, scared).
From the settlement in Karrie Higgins v. Poweshiek County Sheriff:
Injuries and damages:
I sued the sheriff who arrested my brother.
They made me play the part of my own molester.
They made me mistrust the very same cops who should have been my heroes.
Why did the police have to become my enemy? Why couldn’t there be one goddamned hero?
The week of the Democratic National Convention, I got word from my attorney: the Poweshiek County Sheriff had produced the audio.
Validation. Corroboration. On its way to me via first class mail.
On the television, Hillary’s campaign theme:
It’s not my kind of music. I’m a Nirvana girl, a Prince girl, a Cure, Depeche Mode, Joy Division, Smiths girl.
A Bernie Sanders girl.
Hillary’s presidential campaign and my lawsuit victory collapsed into one event. Hillary’s theme music became my theme music, the only salve that made anything OK.
I listened to it on repeat. I bawled.
I wanted tosee my brother be brave. I wanted him to let the words fall out.
transcript: It just, get better because I love you and I’m so sorry. It happened to me too when I was younger, but it was not right, but I’ll tell you about that another time, I mean that has nothin’ to do with what happened with me and you whatever, but I love you- and I don’t, I don’t want to destroy our family over this.
Just locker room talk, just locker room talk, just locker room talk.
The presidential election and my abuse collapse into the same event.
I can no longer distinguish between the Trump campaign and sexual abuse. I can no longer distinguish between the past and the present.
based on or behaving according to what is morally right and fair.
barely, by a little; very recently, the immediate past
I can no longer distinguish between tattling on my hometown’s Jerry Sandusky and voting for Hillary.
I am going to talk to that reporter. I am going to name names. I am going to say what I want to say. I am going to let the words fall out.
And even though I was always voting blue no matter who, even though I backed Hillary from the moment she won the nomination, #ImWithHer more than ever. I am more excited to vote for her than ever.
one of Hillary’s campaign theme songs
“You rush in where others won’t go,” my favorite high school teacher said on the phone.
I am going to rush in, and I don’t really care if nobody else believes. If Mr. Kline is going to be censored, I am going to blow up everyone’s favorite pussy-grabbing coach.
I might only have one match, but I can make an explosion.
A tape doesn’t change a goddamned thing. A tape changes everything.
KARRIE HIGGINS is a writer, magician, performance artist, ink-maker, forger, seamstress, disability activist, and rebel theologian without a faith living in Boulder, Colorado. Her writing & Intermedia art have appeared in Black Clock, DIAGRAM, The Manifest-Station, Quarter After Eight, Western Humanities Review, Rogue Agent, Deaf Poets Society, Cincinnati Review, The Los Angeles Review, LA Times, and many more. She won the 2013 Schiff Award for Prose from the Cincinnati Review and her essays have twice been notables in Best American Essays. She is too hardcore for the Huffington Post. karriehiggins.com