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A year ago, in Chicago, I was roofied at a bar and woke up somewhere new with some men I didn't know. It was scary and disorienting, so I went to the hospital to get a rape kit done.
I was astounded at how unprepared I was for the ordeal — I was in the hospital for at least 7 hours — and the general lack of guidance during most of the process.
I looked online in the days afterward, and found nothing detailing how intense a rape kit can be. I hope that my account of what happens behind those beige hospital doors may be both a source of comfort for other women who have been there, and shed some light on why pressing charges for rape can be such a personally harrowing ordeal.
The lobby of the hospital emergency room is hexagonal and dim. I wait in line to see the intake clerk, walled in with safety glass for privacy. I'm here for a rape kit.
I stagger to the waiting room. I feel high on whippets, as though my head is a hollow cavity stuffed with cotton. I sit in a sticky brown pleather chair and wait.
They call me into a room that will be my white cell for the next 7 hours. I don't think to look at the light through the windows before I follow the pointing finger down the hallway.
A small, soft nurse with short black hair and muted blue scrubs slowly fills out forms while I huddle on the bed in my dirty clothes. Her name is Nancy. I smell like a bar.
I stare into the flecks on the drop-ceiling while she haltingly reads the instructions on the kit aloud. Maybe she tells me it's her first time doing one of these. Maybe I just think it.
"Once I open this, we can't take it back," she says blankly. I hesitate.
I've been turning it over in my mind all day. How could I have blacked out so completely? What if I accuse someone and I was just drunk? But I knew I had my period, I wouldn't have just...
I look at her, pleading for something I can't name.
"I may have just been drunk. I don't... I'm just—not sure what happened."
She looks at me, wooden. "Should I open it?"
I feel outside of myself. I think of what my friend said to me earlier: If it were happening to your sister, what would you tell her to do? This thought helps me to look her in the eye.
"Yes. I want it."
She rips the sticker.
For three hours, she slowly reads directions, painstakingly fills in forms. I stare at the shades of white in the room. The tampon shoved up against my cervix from the night before feels alternately like precious cargo and toxic waste.
I stare blankly, sitting on the scratchy white sheets in my sweatshirt, leggings from the night before, no underwear. Time throbs interminably on as Nancy’s pen scratches hesitantly against the paper. The hours pass this way.
She asks me the occasional question about my physical state — Was I beaten? Was I drugged? Was there penetration? Where? Oral sex? — and I stutter out answers. Other than this, we don't speak.
Are the colors swimming before my eyes white-blindness or the aftereffects of a drug? Nancy takes my blood. I strip over a white paper blanket to catch any hairs or debris. Nancy scrapes my naked body with a tongue depressor. Swabs each bruise.
I lie back down on the white bed in a white paper gown.
A doctor comes in. He has kind eyes and hands. He inches out the tampon crumpled inside me with forceps and a speculum.
Sharply, he says to Nancy, "Where is the Rape Victim's Advocate? They should have been called hours ago."
He advises against prophylactic antivirals for HIV infection, saying, “I don't recommend them. The side effects are nasty and the pills aren't very effective.” I don't take them and I wonder, as he leaves, if I will regret this for the rest of my life.
Nancy shuffles papers. Asks me if I consent to this blood work, that test, these drugs. I am numb to the questions, nod my head, sign my initials, swallow the pills for chlamydia and gonorrhea in a white paper cup.
Someone comes in and tells us that there is no GHB in my system. "There are so many other drugs people use to rape, it’s impossible to do a test for all of them," she tells me. "This doesn't mean anything.” I feel nothing.
Kim, the Rape Victim's Advocate, breaks the gray-and-white monotony with her maroon shirt and jean jacket. She holds my hand and sends Nancy to get me food. She returns with a turkey, lettuce and mayonnaise sandwich on white bread and a tiny can of ginger ale.
She hands me a bendy straw and, as I take it, I feel her pity for me. Contained in the straw is all the tenderness she can give me, and once again I want to cry. The bendy straw and the food and Kim holding my hand help start to lift the heavy emptiness that spreads through me. I feel human for the first time since I woke up.
Eventually, two policemen enter the room.
One is older, gaunt, with shoulder-length, curly gray hair. Skin moles like my Hispanic family. Gentle voice, watery, caring eyes. The other is younger, puffy. Brisk manner, harsh, clipped Chicago accent. Every inch a Windy City Cop.
Kim shoots them a hate-filled glance before leaving the room amidst reassurances that she'll be just down the hall. She's not allowed to be here while they're questioning me. It would compromise her confidentiality agreement with me.
When she leaves, their attention focuses on me. "Tell us what happened."
"I didn't drink much. I can show you my bank account, how many drinks I had. The last thing I remember is being with friends in a bar. I woke up and a man I don't know was having sex with me, unprotected. It was around 9 a.m. the next morning. When I left the apartment, a man followed me. I vaguely remembered him from the bar the night before. He wasn't the man who was having sex with me while I was sleeping. He insisted on sharing a cab and got out after a few miles. He gave me his number and a $20 bill and kissed me on the cheek. He told me we'd had sex the night before. I went home and changed my shirt and got to work two hours late and then left early and came here.”
The younger cop immediately starts to grill me:
“Why did you you take his number?
Why did you share a cab?
Why did you leave the bar with a stranger?
Why didn't you call the police this morning?
I stammer. "I don't know, I was confused—I never have before. I was scared of exactly this."
That quiets him for a moment. I hold back tears.
"You must admit, it's odd that you went to work if you actually thought you'd been raped."
The last sentence is a weight tilting reality back to my tears in the cab, an hour late already for the workshop I was running. Part of a two-person team. What was I supposed to have done? How could I behave except how I had?
The lean officer and I share a look while the puffy one is occupied with his notepad. He blinks at me and butts in, telling the younger cop to calm down, that's enough.
After he takes my statement, he holds my eyes and talks to me about God. Tells me to find solace in him even if I don't believe, because his heart is big enough for everyone. I stare at his name tag, his teeth. I don't cry.
Once the policemen have gone, Nancy fetches Kim, who reassumes her post by the bed, looking for all the world like a mother hen settling her feathers as she rearranges her three-ring binders, bags and scarves. She takes my hand and coos at me gently.
I watch Nancy slowly fill a cardboard box with my leggings, my hair and debris paper, my statements, blood samples, my tampon in a little sealed cup. She is making my rape kit.
She triple-checks that she's filled out all the forms, labeled all of the evidence. She folds and includes a copy of the police report, writing the number of the file on the front of the box. She presents it to me to sign before carrying it out of the room.
A woman bustles in from a door opposite the one everyone has entered through so far. She smiles and shoves some papers into my hand. They're labeled Victims of Violent Crime Funds Waiver.
"If it turns out that, uh, they rule that you were a victim of a violent crime, you won't be billed," she twinkles. I put the papers in my bag.
Nancy brings me purple sweatpants. Size much-too-large, the only ones they have, for me to wear home, since they've taken my leggings as evidence.
I sign the final forms, keep the ones she leaves in my hand. My purse is heavy with papers — follow-up care instructions for my mind and body, counselor recommendations, the funds waiver, community resources from the Rape Victims’ Advocate Society, a list of group therapy centers. I don't have copies of my statement, the police report, or the forms from the rape kit.
Kim smiles solemnly at me and says we can go wait for a cab in the waiting room. I am grateful to be leaving this room, grateful for the warm sweatpants against my skin and the promise of sleeping in my own bed in the tangible future. My hands shake — I realize I had been vibrating with the pressure of what I was carrying inside me, and now my bones are rattling with the relief of release.
Before Nancy opens the door, she puts her hand on my shoulder. I meet her eyes, surprised. "Good for you," she says resolutely. "That was hard, and—just, good for you for doing it."
I don’t expect this, especially after our taciturn hours spent alone together. (Writing this now, I realize she was the first person to touch me without asking. I'm grateful it was her. She shared the lowest moment of my life with me, and I'm glad that when she touched me, my body knew she was a friend.)
The beige clock ticks. It's been 7 hours since I was ushered into this room. Kim leads me out of it. There are windows in the waiting room. It's dark outside.
My legs feel like jelly and I can't believe I had the strength to stay awake through the hours of repetitive forms, questions, signatures, gloved hands. I am drained, hollow. Every second of those hours is rolled up in my muscles. I am desperate to leave.
I nod off in the lobby until finally—finally—Kim gets a cab and rides home with me. While we wait for it arrive, I stare out the windows into the dark and try to remember.
I remember standing with my back to my drink, in the last bar I remember from the night before. It's like I'm recalling a dream scene.
I turn to talk to someone and he has a blank face, featureless, wiped-clean. His hand is swinging over my glass. Why is his hand swinging from his hip? I touch his arm and ask, "What are you doing?"
His hand digs into his drink. Drops ice cubes into mine. Stirs them with his hand. I see his big knuckles mixing the ice. I hear it grinding against the sides of the glass.
"Redistributing the ice. It's just this thing I do."
I watch his blank not-face, reach for my drink. Before I take a sip, I say something. I watch myself say it, like a movie, like a version of myself that can't be real, how can those words be coming out of my mouth and yet I am here, in the hospital after being...?
I look up at him and smile. "Be careful, I laugh, people are going to think you're roofie-ing them." I stop at the rim of my glass. I drink it.
Blink back to hospital-waiting-room reality. Did that happen? Did I dream it? Whose face belongs there?
(Later, I will watch the conversation happen on security tapes from the bar. I will watch the man lurk around me for an hour before dropping something into my drink. I will watch my face change from standoffish to eager. I will watch myself leave smilingly with him, his hand on the small of my back, leaving my friends with uneasy slants to their body language.
Standing in the office with the bar’s head of security, I won’t cry. For the next year, I won’t cry about this. I will shrug.)
When I get home around 1 a.m., my roommate is asleep. I curl up on my pallet bed in the purple sweatpants. I stare at the ceiling. White. Now what?
I'm still stuck on that question. It's been a year-and-a-half. Now what? A year of repeated ripping open, peeling off the stifling layers of Teflon I thought would protect me.
Now what? A year of unraveling, leaving cities and relationships and jobs with fraying loose ends. Now what? A year of hot electric anger flaring up inside me at nothing—traffic, parking, waiting in line, crowded bars, men offering to help me with things.
A year of clenching my teeth in my sleep, waking to sore jaw muscles and frowning sleep-lines. A year of being rude to men in bars. Of making new friends. Of certain crisp mornings quaking in the shower and some nights crying desperately into my pillow after masturbating.
A year of orgasming with someone else for the first time. Of accepting the gentle flow of love into my life against the screaming protests of all my fears. Now what?
I haven’t followed up with the detective from my case since I left Chicago last year. I guess I don’t want to dig up the past, and I see the process of “justice” as exhausting, expensive, and unsatisfying.
The thought of pressing charges leaves me cold, even with the general outcry from my loved ones to make sure the bastard gets what he deserves.
The problem is, I don't hear that voice in my own head. My head tells me to keep moving, not to dwell, to spit up the idea that I need to swallow this deed and integrate it as part of my story.
The events of that night mix with my emotions about the aftermath to form a cocktail of exasperation, powerlessness, and the desire to bury the past.
I don’t want to look my rapist in the face. I don’t want to show him how much he hurt me. I don’t want to split open my thorax and let our woefully mislabeled justice system pick out my organs, one by one, to decide if they are what I say they are. It happened. Isn't that enough?
I looked online in the days after I reported it, and found nothing explaining what a rape kit is like. I know most of the people with whom I interacted meant well, but their constant questions, serious faces, and hesitant manners left me feeling like a specimen being evaluated.
I doubted myself with every choice I made, and I wished desperately that I had a friend there with me. Kim, the Rape Victim’s Advocate, was a godsend, and I could cry right now thinking about her.
The hospital visit itself was unpleasant and strange, but it was the long stretches of silence, without knowing what would happen next, that nearly drove me insane. I was alone in my head staring at those same walls for so many hours, crying inwardly at each tick of the minute hand.
The time it took to do all that paperwork and sit through all those tests and answer all those questions over and over was a reminder of the bulwark of bureaucracy that stood between me and any form of legal justice.
The detective who followed up with me was not enthusiastic about the possibilities of apprehending my rapists, even with the video footage. His silence for the last year leads me to believe we've both let the case slip between the cracks of our attention.
I don't regret reporting the rape. It was important for me to take that first step during the aftermath in the direction of self-care. But the whole process crystallized for me how alone I was on this journey.
I want to be free from the imaginary noose I see tightening around my neck whenever I go to a bar by myself. I want to live in a world where, when I leave work early to get a rape kit, one of my clients doesn’t email my partner about how unprofessional I was to blame my hangover on such lies.
I want to live in a world where the first words out of a cop’s mouth to a pale stammering wide-eyed girl on a hospital bed aren’t variations of "How did you manage to do this to yourself?"
But that isn't the world in which I live. Now, I'm finding my own ways to let it go. Even the process of writing this has cleared some wounds for healing.
I can't change the world, but I can share my story and hope to give someone else a tiny breath of understanding. I can't rationalize why people hurt other people sometimes and I can't forget that someone decided to hurt me, but I can accept that they do and that they did.
I want to heal. I resent that I need to. I understand that this bell cannot be unrung. Nothing will ever make this not have happened. I am scared of turning to find a sheep's hide on the floor and a wolf grinning at me with all his teeth, again. I am forgiving myself for being fooled.
I am listening for the small voice inside me that somehow always finds the light.
A year and a half later, I am still taking it one night at a time.