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The summer I was sexually assaulted began, strangely, as the lightest time in my life.
It was 2002, and I’d escaped from the cloying judgement of my tiny hometown, abusive parents and the boyfriend who had unceremoniously dumped me after three years together. It sounds like a contradiction, but as much as I missed having him near me, I also felt tangibly free. I let a bunch of guys take me out on dates. I went swimming at night, alone. I ate once a day, the free meal we got on shift at my restaurant job. I was poor and a little melancholy, but I was learning not to be lonely.
That was the summer I took a position at a local day camp, spending hot afternoons playing boat tag on the shimmering lake and making gimp bracelets with a group of fifth grade girls who thought I was the fucking coolest. (I will admit, I also thought those girls were the fucking coolest.) I learned to flip a canoe and turn it back over. I finally mastered the double-spiral keychain, a goal from my own camp experience in the early 90s. I sang every dumb campfire song at the top of my lungs.
Anyone who has ever worked at a camp can tell you, innuendos, make-out sessions and skinny-dipping play a prominent role in the social lives of the counselors. We partied together on the weekends, which was something I’d never really done before -- my ex was not a drinker or a drug-taker, and generally disapproved when I did those things. The one problem, though, was that by the end of the summer, a combination of heartbreak and poverty relieved me of 30 extra pounds I’d been carrying since high school. I didn’t know how much I could drink anymore, and wasn’t eating nearly enough. But I knew these people, or thought I did. I thought I was safe.
The night I was assaulted, I trusted the wrong guy. The evening had all the makings of an epic story your kids wouldn’t hear until they’re well into their 20s: keg stands, skinny dipping in the neighbor’s pool, counselors pairing off and finding time alone. I had been enjoying the attentions of a very well-built swimmer, someone much larger and stronger than me. He was younger. We were buds. I didn’t mind when he kissed me, and I didn’t say no when he offered to take me home -- there was no possible way I could drive that night. He was sober, as usual -- he didn’t like how drinking would affect his race times.
I don’t remember getting into his car. I certainly don’t remember getting into the back seat, though that’s where I eventually woke up. But mostly I don’t remember him assaulting me while I was passed out. I found out about my sexual assault because another (female) co-worker took photos through the car window while it was happening.
Since I didn’t know what had happened, a week passed before the woman who took the photos showed the wrong person. Luckily, someone finally told me that there were photos of the guy and me “hooking up.” I had no idea what they actually showed.
When I confronted the photo-taker, she demanded I pay her $100 for the photo, $300 if I wanted the negatives, too. I told her, “You have until the end of the day before I make a big deal out of this.” When she didn’t give it up, I marched up to the camp director and demanded he step in. I still hadn’t actually seen the picture, mind you. I only knew it was embarrassing and I needed to get it out of circulation. The director got the photograph back from the “artist” very quickly, and she was fired on the spot. When I did eventually see it, I threw up. The photo is of me, clearly unconscious in the back seat, legs splayed at unlikely angles. My “bud” was penetrating me.
Needless to say, I could not have been more upset. I had just met these people, and they’d embarrassed and hurt me. They’d laughed at what happened, said I asked for it, shunned me when the girl who took the photos was fired. I couldn’t fathom what I’d done to deserve the unbelievable cruelty I experienced at the hands of my peers. And I believed them. I’d been stupid, I’d put myself out there, I’d been flirtatious and drunk. When my boss told me to press charges, I thanked him for helping me. But I didn’t call the police.
That fall, back at the university my rapist and I both attended, he’d park next to me if he saw my car around campus. He’d call me if he saw me walking. He tried to make friends with my friends. I was a mess, constantly wondering where he’d turn up. Finally, in desperation, I slashed his tires and left him a note: “Contact me again, and I will tell the police what you did to me.” He stopped. He knew.
My assault was 10 years ago, and even now, my heart pounds and my face reddens when I think of it. I’m hitting backspace every other character, because my clammy fingers keep slipping off the keys. I feel sick to my stomach. I feel betrayed.
At the end of the day, I’m alive. He didn’t hurt me physically in any lasting way, and if we’re being honest, I am pretty glad I can’t remember anything. But I don’t trust strangers, and I cross the street if I am alone and see a man larger than me. I’m alive, but changed. I’ll never be that carefree camp counselor getting her first taste of freedom ever again.
Image from Phil and Pam via Flickr