Your whole life, you hear about the milestones that are supposed to change something inside you. For me, they came and went largely unnoticed. Birthdays, first kisses, the loss of my virginity, the first truly random sexual experience I ever had—all left me unmarked and wondering at how it was that I never felt any different. The summer after my senior year of high school, I walked home after sleeping with a man six years my senior and, after years of falling for people too easily, congratulated myself for not feeling anything. I thought that sex could not hurt me and that—to me—was a triumph of self-defense over feeling, one I held on to in the years that followed.
The experience that did what I thought the others would came years later. I remember virtually none of it. I remember a man (one I had chosen to leave the party with) on top of me trying to fuck me without a condom and I remember saying no to that, rolling over and reaching for one from the drawer, handing it over. I don’t remember anything else.
Not knowing what happened is hard. Not knowing what I said and did, not knowing if I said yes. I know only that I had sex that I did not want to have before it or after it, and I am unable to navigate back to that movement and know what I wanted, then. I was drunk and probably horny and certainly sloppy and I definitely didn’t say no.
It is hard when the range of possibilities these unremembered details could sum to is so vast—at one end, negligence, someone overlooking how drunk I was, not making the choice I would have wanted them to. At the other end something darker and harder to accept.
Living at college necessitates a sort of expansion of the benefit of the doubt you give to people because the boundaries between living, working, communal space, and individual space are harder to make out. There are events that cause ripples in this sense of trust—a laptop theft, a string of missing coats—but for the most part, it’s easy to feel secure here, taping your door or walking to the bathroom in only a towel or leaving a stack of belongings when you leave the library for a coffee break. There’s the sense, maybe a false one, that we owe something more to each other than we would to utter strangers, that we are not strangers from one another. This sense of trust gets rattled when you start think that maybe someone you knew from around, someone you assumed was good—the way you assume everyone is good, maybe not lovable, maybe not kind, but not bad—maybe did something terrible to you on purpose. Or maybe through negligence chose not to see they were doing something they shouldn’t. Or maybe saw nothing at all, and it is impossible to know for sure which it is, but in any case, you feel like someone has scooped something out of you, something that spoiled as soon as it met the air and got replaced by this doubt about the people around you sealed up in your chest. You can’t unknow that doubt because it’s in there and you’re sealed up and you have to carry it with you now. But probably it was just you. Probably it was in your head. The problem is that you have to live inside your head. There is no getting out of your head. You are your head.
Or at least, I am. And my head is full of the terrible fear of making a false accusation. I don’t mean formally, by reporting anything to the Committee on Discipline or even meeting with a SHARE Peer. It’s the idea of falsely accusing somebody even in my memory and in doing so becoming the kind of person I’ve always feared becoming. I remember balling my fists under my desk in sixth grade, so full of anger at Mayella when we read To Kill a Mockingbird, hating her for her selfishness. I didn’t understand how anyone could do that to another person. I do not want to do that to another person. I think a lot about the scary possibility that there is no one to blame at all and that it is impossible to know for sure. I was watching an episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit one night, and Ice-T quipped, “That’s the problem with sex crimes. The only people who know what happened in that room are the two people who were there, and they don’t agree.” But I don’t know what happened in that room. All I know is that when I see him I feel sick.
I have never used the word “rape” and don’t think I ever will. It feels like some affront to traumas bigger than mine, ones that are clearer and more precisely marked. I do not think I was raped, but I don’t know what I was, and that not knowing finds its way under and into everything, like sand from a beach vacation that you find between the pages of a book or inside your bag or shoes months later, rough and impossible to discard.
A couple months after it happened I sat in my therapist’s office and we talked about how things are going; in passing I brought up this incident, not sure if I wanted to skim over it or draw attention to it. There was an immediate tightening of his countenance; it is instances like these where I remember that, despite the fact that his Skype bio is “livin la vida loca,” he is in fact a well regarded and highly trained mental health professional, and not my friend. He listened to me gravely and told me “if my face seems strange, it is because you have a kind of infectious nervous laughter and I do not want to laugh at this,” and it was only then I realized I was giggling shrilly in a voice that did not seem wholly my own. I probably would have felt better if he laughed a little. He said a lot of words and a lot of phrases that did not fit the way I have thought or will think about it quite right. He said we need to “treat it as a trauma,” he talked about it feeding the anxiety that lives in and around my brain and I nodded but this movement towards the clinical, towards recognition from someone I am paying to take me seriously, just made me feel like a fraud. The kindness made me feel smaller than I have ever felt. I went home and, for the first time, I cried.
This doesn’t have a moral. This doesn’t have anything. It would be a lie for me to say anything with any sense of resolution because the truth is I am still here feeling spent and retracing my steps, afraid to think about things too much because I am petrified with the fear that I will remake history in trying to resolve it. I am petrified with the fear that I will cast someone as guilty in a terrible way that they are not. That’s a big part of what closure means—it means you settle on some approximation and maybe it’s not a hundred percent right but it’s a story you can understand. You know how to think about it and how to think back to it. You stand on the ground of your past and that past needs to feel certain so you edit and amend and when you step back you have a picture that makes sense because otherwise you can’t keep going. But you can’t do that when that approximation is something like this: No matter how I choose to remember this I owe someone an apology. I owe him an apology or I owe an apology to myself for not trusting what I felt.
I left the condom wrapper on the shelf next to my bed for four days because I did not want to look at it. I did not want to know it was there. I know that that is gross and strange. I knew it at the time, too, so one day I took a tissue, grabbed it quickly like I was disposing of a bug I wanted to kill without seeing, and buried it deep in the trash.