If you see me walking down the street with my daughters, there’s a good chance I’ll be singing and making goofy faces at them while they bellow, “STOP IT, MOM!” I’m always embarrassing them -- dancing in the grocery store, laughing and shouting in the street. They think I’m way too loud. But I haven’t always been like this. There have been times in my life when no could hear me at all.
I’m 19, at a party down the street from my apartment. The room swirls with pot smoke and a Pauly Shore movie is blaring. Someone hands me a drink. I don’t know what it is, but I don’t feel good. I don’t know anyone here.
I glance back at the door, wondering if I can slip out, unnoticed. But somewhere between looking back and trying to stand up, time goes out of kilter -- it’s moving too fast, and I’m moving too slow. I hear a door slam and realize I’m alone with the guy who invited me in. I don't understand why everyone’s suddenly gone. It was crowded a minute ago. How long have I been here?
He seemed harmless enough, all blond curls and hazy, bloodshot eyes. He had an English accent. I’ve always been a sucker for an accent. He leans in and seals his mouth over mine, breathing sick-sweet smoke into my mouth. I try to turn my head away but he holds it in a viselike grip. I’m choking. I can’t breathe. Can’t move.
He shoves me to the floor and pins me down. I’m trying to say no but my voice is trapped somewhere inside me. Screams echo in my skull. He yanks my shirt up and sinks his teeth into my breast. When he tugs my jeans down and pushes into me, I finally find my voice.
“No! Stop! Please, please stop. No, no, no -- NO!”
“What’s that?” he says. “You don’t want me to stop, do you? Isn’t this nice? You like it. I know you do.” He whispers into my ear as I scream, his English accent lilting and smooth as he thrusts into me over and over.
I can shout all I want. It won’t make any difference. I can’t fight him off. He grinds his sandpapery chin into my neck and I stop screaming. It doesn’t matter. He rolls over and curls up next to me.
“Why are you crying?” he asks, suddenly full of tenderness. “What’s the matter? You liked that, didn’t you? You didn’t want me to stop. Oh, darling, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
I pull my clothes on and stagger to my feet. As I walk out the door, he calls after me. “I’ll see you soon, love. I know where you live.”
I stumble home and stare into the bathroom mirror. My neck is covered in an angry red rash and there is a jagged purple bite mark welting up on my breast. I didn't want that, did I? I told him to stop, didn’t I? But it didn’t matter. I wasn’t loud enough. And if he didn’t hear me say no, isn’t it the same as if I’d said yes? My fault. Stupid, stupid, stupid. I’m so stupid.
I sink into a hot bath and try to wash myself clean. No one ever has to know what happened. He won’t come back. Just forget about it.
The next afternoon I hear a knock on the window of my ground-floor apartment. My heart stops and I glance at the phone, thinking what I could possibly say to a 911 operator. If I call the cops, he’ll probably say he’s my boyfriend. How can I prove he isn’t? No one would believe me.
Anyway, I know he can just climb in my window. It’s easy. I do it all the time when I forget my keys. I pride myself on how deftly I shimmy along the pipe above the basement stairwell and push the window open, hoisting myself up and squeezing through like a cat.
He comes around to the front of the building and I buzz him in. If I give him what he wants, maybe he’ll go away.
After he finishes, I lie there, numb. If I was ever going to tell anyone about last night, it’s too late now. I’m a bad, dirty girl, and this is what I get. Why else would he have picked me? He knew I was an easy target, someone who would never tell.
And for a long time, I don’t.
That fall, I’m hunched over a desk in the back of a stuffy classroom, waiting for my first class of the semester to start. The professor enters, young and pleasantly rumpled in a tweed blazer with elbow patches. His hair falls over one eye. But as soon as he starts speaking, my stomach lurches. My palms sweat and white spots dance in front of my eyes. I trip over my desk and race down the hall to the bathroom, making it just in time to throw up. My cute new professor has an English accent.
The Rape Assistance and Awareness Program meets in a big old house on the outskirts of downtown. It would make a good haunted house in a movie. No sign hangs outside. It’s a secret. A safe house.
Inside, I’m perched on the edge of an overstuffed sofa that threatens to swallow me up. A clear-eyed young woman with a smattering of freckles across her round pink cheeks sits across from me, listening silently and taking notes. Now and then she nods and raises her eyebrows encouragingly. I’m telling her about the night of the party -- but I don’t say anything about what happened the next day.
I’m sure she’ll stop me any minute and accuse me of lying, but if she doesn’t believe me, she doesn’t let on. She offers me a spot in an upcoming group counseling session that meets once a week through the spring.
At meetings, we take turns telling our stories. Each week one of us reads from the “feelings notebook” we’re encouraged to keep as the rest of us listen silently. Our stories are different, but we all have one thing in common: None of us quite believe we were really raped. Not the woman whose husband sodomized her while he held a gun to her head and their daughter watched, sobbing. Not the woman whose high school teacher offered her a ride home and pulled his car over to the side of the road, unzipped his pants and shoved her head in his lap. And not the woman who warned us her story was “complicated,” then failed to show up when it was her week -- or ever again.
In the spring, our group goes on an Outward Bound weekend -- the big finale to our months of therapy. We snowshoe through the wilderness to a mountaintop, where we’re going to rappel down a cliff face. The first few of us bounce down, laughing. No problem. One of us panics and refuses to go down at all. I am determined not to chicken out, but I’m shaking with fear.
I strap myself into my harness and my partner double checks my ropes, but I can’t bring myself to step over the edge. I’m terrified. When I start to cry, the instructor tells me it’s OK, I don’t have to do it if I don’t want to. As she reaches to unhook me from my line, I take a deep breath, step back and plunge over the cliff. Cheers echo from above and below, but I’m miserable and scared as I inch my way down.
Halfway down, it hits me: I’m safe. The ropes are holding me. But before the realization can sink in, my feet hit the ground.
I brush off congratulations and hugs, wanting only to be alone. I sink down into a snow bank away far away from everyone and cry until my throat is raw. Rappelling down that cliff should have been fun. Why was I so scared?
Someone comes to check on me and I snap at her. “Go away and leave me alone!” My voice bounces sharply across the snow. I don’t recognize it. I don’t know who I am. I hate myself.
After the Outward Bound session, I try not to think about that night at the party. I tuck it away in a corner of my mind: Do Not Disturb. I dealt with it. I’m over it.
Over the years, I tell a handful of people the story of that night. Each time I tell it, it gets easier. I pick and choose which parts to tell, packaging it up neatly with a beginning, middle and end. The End is that I’m over it.
I always leave out the part about letting him come back the next day. It confuses the narrative.
Sometimes I dream I’m at the party again. That Pauly Shore movie is blasting in the background as hands grab me in the dark. Snarling teeth and glittering eyes swarm all around. Sick-sweet smoke is in my throat and I can’t breathe. I wake up gasping for breath, heart pounding.
I start to write. I’ve always been a reader, not a writer. And yet -- something is welling up in me. Something wants to be heard, but I don’t know how to give it a voice. I hate my own writing, can’t stand to see my words on the page. Stupid, stupid, stupid. I’m so stupid.
I go see my friend who is studying Reiki, the Japanese art of healing. I lie on her kitchen table and she moves her hands over me, touches the crown of my head, my shoulders, the soles of my feet. Her hands come to rest at the base of my throat.
“You have a big voice inside you. It wants to be let out.”
And so I keep writing. I get louder. I get braver. It isn’t easy. When I’m scared, I lay my hand on my throat and remember her words. There is a big voice inside me.
Almost 20 years later, I still struggle to tell the real story of what happened to me that night and the next day. I question my right to speak up. After all these years, am I sure I’m telling the truth? And what’s the ending? Every story needs a good ending, but I can’t find one.
I tell it anyway. I tell it for my daughters, who are embarrassed when I sing too loud. I tell it because I want them to be loud, too. I never want their voices to be trapped inside them.
Tell your stories, my sweet girls. Tell your stories.