Tonight I lie here, mostly awake, sometimes half-asleep, praying the phone doesn’t ring.
It’s the early ’90s. In my second year of college, I’m volunteering with the local women’s shelter. Tonight I’m covering the sexual assault help line. I usually cover domestic violence and have received a few calls on that line, but never on this one. I’ve been trained extensively and supposedly know what to do, but I never sleep on these nights. I just wait.
I don’t kid myself. I know that just because the phone doesn’t ring, it doesn’t mean there isn’t someone in trouble—it just means they aren’t calling for help, at least not on the phone. I lie here awake, staring at my digital clock, which now reads 12:15 a.m., two hours since I crawled into bed. The burning smell of kerosene still stings my nostrils from the space heater I shut off before feigning sleep.
I wonder how many girls or women are out there who at this moment should call, need to call, but can’t because they’re ashamed or feel unworthy of help. Then I doubt and demean myself with each thought: How can I help them? What can I say or do that will make a difference? I know the words I’m supposed to say by heart, I know the forms to fill out, the procedures to follow. How can I help them when I couldn’t help myself?
So I lie here and tremble, trying to convince myself it’s only the cold. But that’s not it. Yes, it is winter in Iowa and my piss-poorly insulated bedroom is directly above our garage. But it’s the fear and doubt contracting every muscle that’s making me shake, not the cold.
3:34 a.m. The phone rings, and it wakes me from the place where my mind has crept, that day almost ten years ago when I was sixteen, the place it goes on these nights, on many nights, even when I’m not on call. I answer on the first ring because I know it’s not a wrong number, even though I hope it is. I know the longer I lie here, the more time I have to remember my own call.
* * *
At the doctor’s office, the one where my mom worked and I would work a few years later while in college, I sat in the worn, orange polyester chair opposite the doctor’s composite-wood desk. The desk and I were surrounded by paneled walls and bookcases filled with medical textbooks and various anatomy models. I stared at the family photo on his desk: his slightly obese, mousy brown-haired housewife and his two dark-haired kids, all of them smiling. The boy looked exactly like his dark-haired, bespectacled father who sat across from me. All four looked so happy.
“Please call them—they can help you,” he said as he slid a piece of paper across his desk. He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “They’re trained for just this kind of thing. You don’t have to press charges, but you need to have evidence in case you decide to take action against him at some point.”
Evidence? The good doctor obviously didn’t get it. There aren’t any bruises, at least none that can be seen. He didn’t have to drag me to his room; I went willingly. There may be fingerprints, but they’re in all the places I let him touch me. My clothes aren’t torn; they came off mostly by my own hand. There is no evidence.
I stared at the piece of paper, not touching it. The corner was oil-stained, probably from the sandwich he had eaten at lunch; there was the sharp odor of onions coming from a garbage can I couldn’t see.
I didn’t want to call. I didn’t want to have to explain, again, what happened. I just wanted to go home and pretend everything was okay. Something I told myself I could do until I had to see him at school the next day.
The doctor reached across the desk, slid the paper back to his side and dialed the number (the one I would know by heart some day). He told the person who answered that there was a girl in trouble who needed their help.
Trouble. That’s exactly what it was. I had done something bad and now I would be punished.
“They’ll have someone waiting for you at the hospital. Good luck,” he said, as he guided me out his office door and down the hall toward the waiting room.
My mom, with her curly, dyed-red hair and big round glasses, was perched on the edge of her chair behind the glass pane of the reception office. I had called her from my friend’s house where I’d gone after leaving the boy’s house. She had told me to come to the office right away.
“Do you want me to go with you? I will. They can handle all this by themselves,” she said with a sweep of her arm over various insurance forms and patient charts.
“No. I’ll just go by myself.”
I stood there, not quite able to make my feet move. She pounced on the pause.
I stood there, not quite able to make my feet move.
“No, you won’t,” she said. “I’m coming with you,” the tone of her voice insisted an argument would not be had. She was never a large woman, only about 5’4’’ and 120 pounds, but she looked massive to me at that moment, ready to take charge even though she was plunging into an unfamiliar world. She used to work at the hospital we were going to, so the location was familiar. But I was her only daughter and the only person she’d known in this “situation.”
As we got ready to go to the hospital, I watched her striding toward me from behind her glass-enclosed office, her big purse and white sweater secured over her arm like a shield and sword, I felt safe for the first time that afternoon.
She would tell me, years later in an email when I ask her about that day, “I wish I had been better with you, and I will always regret that.” But on that day when I was sixteen I didn’t know how much better she could possibly be.
* * *
“They have someone waiting down at Mercy,” the woman on the other end of the sexual assault line says to me. “I don’t know if she’ll talk to you or not. Call me when you get back.”
I put on the clothes I laid out especially for this (jeans and a sweater), as if they were a fancy dress and corsage for senior prom, and creep out my door, trying not to wake my brother in the next room. I tiptoe into my parents’ room and gently nudge my mom into a semi-state of consciousness.
“I got a call,” I say.
“Be careful,” she mutters, “and wake me when you get home.”
I put on my coat and gloves, and head out the front door, locking it behind me. The cold January night, or maybe rising panic, pulls the breath from my lungs. I get into my car and turn the key in the ignition, praying it won’t start. It does, so I sit there waiting for the car to warm up. (“Never drive a car with a cold engine,” my dad’s frequent admonishment resounds in my ears.) But the car is just fine—I’m the one stalling.
As I wait for the frost to melt from the windshield, I think about where I’m going and the girl waiting for me at the hospital.
I pull out of the driveway and inch up the street, convinced it’s because I’m a cautious driver. But what I want to do is race over every icy patch on the road and never make it to the hospital.
What am I going to say to her? I mean I know what I’m supposed to say to her, what I’ve been trained to say: “It will be all right. It wasn’t your fault. You aren’t to blame.” That doesn’t mean anything, and I know it.
I know she feels like shit already. I know she thinks it will never be all right. I know she thinks it was completely her fault and that she’s the only one to blame. What can I possibly say to her that will help? What can I tell her to make her believe that what matters most is that she survived, at least initially?
What did the woman say to me?
* * *
The rape crisis counselor was waiting for us when we arrived at the hospital. As she walked toward us, I could see she was a little younger than my mom and had short brownish hair, not unlike the color and style of my own. She wore jeans and a short-sleeved, yellow polo with the collar turned up.
When she reached us, she grasped my hands and looked into my eyes. We stood there for a moment, staring at each other.
“Are you okay?” she asked me in a near-whisper.
She didn’t ask the question like you’d ask a person you hadn’t seen in a while and could care less if you ever saw again (“Hi! How are you?”). She asked as if this obligatory question was more for my mom’s benefit than mine, like she already knew the answer but had to start somewhere.
Instead of saying “Yeah, I’m fine,” the standard reply, instead of telling her what I thought she wanted to hear because we were strangers and what do you say to someone when this has happened, I said “No” and started to cry.
I glanced up at her and saw that her brows were furrowed and her eyes squeezed shut. She stayed like that for a second or two, like she was preparing herself, and then she opened her eyes. She was crying too and pulled me into her arms, wrapping them around my bony teenage frame while my mine hung limp at my sides. And then, almost imperceptibly, she started rocking from side to side. Her gesture didn’t just comfort me—it gave me a sense that this embrace, this coming together of two strangers, was as much for her as it was for me.
A nurse approached us, a blur of white through my watery eyes. “It’s time. Come with me,” she said as she directed us into an exam room. She followed us in and shut the door.
“Have a seat on the table.”
She grabbed a clipboard and pen from the desk near the door. And then she began to ask the questions:
Do you know him?
Did you have these clothes on?
Did he hit you or physically abuse you in any way?
Was there full penetration?
Was he wearing a condom?
Did he ejaculate?
Are you using any kind of birth control?
Did you urinate immediately after?
Did you wash, shower, bathe or douche?
And with each answer I gave, she checked off the appropriate box on her form, never looking at me, apparently not even curious or concerned if I was the one giving the answers. I wanted to punch her in the face.
“Now you need to completely undress, put this gown on and lie down on the table. We’ll do the exam as soon as the doctor gets here.” I did as I was told.
A few minutes later there was a soft knock at the door and the doctor walked in. He glanced in my direction and gave a slight smile, the corners of his mouth flicking up. He reached into a drawer and grabbed paper bags, labels and a sealed package of sliver instruments.
“OK, miss, please lie back on the table and put your feet in the stirrups,” he said. “We’ll be done soon.”
And then he raped me all over again.
* * *
At the hospital, I walk through the emergency-room doors. There is a nurse sitting at the triage desk; she appears to be the only one here tonight. I can’t see her face—her head is drooping and all I can see is the top of her white, double-pointed cap reminding me of the ears of an albino cat. I clear my throat and she slowly lifts her head, her lazy eyelids look like raised roller shades.
“Hi. I’m from the women’s shelter. I’m here to see the girl who was brought in a little while ago.”
“They just started the exam. It shouldn’t be much longer, and then you can go in and talk to her,” she says as she lowers her head to stare at the paperwork on the desk.
“Does she have anyone in there with her now, a friend or a relative?”
“No. She came in alone—she’s by herself.”
“Can you please let her know I’m here and ask her if she’d like me to be with her?”
She slowly raises her head again and glares at me. I want to punch this nurse, too. I open my mouth to repeat what I said, just in case she didn’t hear me. Then she pushes away from the desk, the wheels of her chair squeaking as they roll across the pristine white floor. She stands and plods off in the direction of the exam room.
As I wait for her to come back, two police officers walk down the hall toward me. I stare at the ground as they pass. They pause a few feet from me and I hear a bit of their conversation.
“She came in here ’bout half an hour ago saying someone raped her. I think it was her boyfriend or some guy she’s dating. She didn’t seem too upset, though. She wasn’t crying or anything.”
“Yeah, kinda makes you wonder. You know, you push a guy too far, get him all worked up, and you’re just asking for trouble. God, I hope we’re not here all night.”
“Yeah, me too.”
* * *
“Lady, I understand you’re with the sexual assault place and all that, but we really need to question her alone. We tend to get more truthful answers when there aren’t a bunch of people standing around listening to the alleged victim’s responses,” the officer said to the woman.
“Officer, you get the answers you want from these ‘alleged victims’ because there is no one in the room with them. You either question her while I’m here or you don’t question her at all,” the counselor retorted, her arms bound tight across her chest.
After what just happened at the hands of the doctor, I couldn’t imagine anything worse was possible. While I laid there with my legs spread open, he pulled out strands of my pubic hair and used a huge plastic syringe to collect the boy’s cum. He bagged and marked my clothes as evidence and drew blood to test for STDs and pregnancy.
But worse was possible.
But worse was possible.
While I sat there wearing nothing but a crinkled paper hospital gown and a starched sheet tossed across my battered bottom half, these officers made me regurgitate every detail of the afternoon. They asked me the same questions the nurse had, only they weren’t as sympathetic. Instead of the nurse’s indifference, they flung the questions at me with an accusatory tone and a fixed idea of who did what. They didn’t see me as someone’s daughter or girlfriend, but as a girl who led a guy on, a girl who asked for trouble.
“I’m sorry young lady, but you’re going to have to try and stop crying. I’m having a hard time understanding you,” one of the cops said a few minutes into questioning. I’m going to have to stop crying. When? When is that supposed to happen? After I can’t see his familiar face looming over me anymore, his eyes and mind shut tight to what he was doing to me? After I can longer hear him telling me how sorry he was, but he couldn’t stand me talking about his best friend anymore? After I can no longer see his smug smile as he asked me through the open window of my car if he can call me later, while I frantically try to get the key in the ignition? Just when am I supposed to stop crying?
* * *
I’m sitting in the lobby of the emergency room watching some stupid late-night talk show when the nurse comes out of the exam room and walks over to me.
“She doesn’t want anyone in there with her, now or later,” she says, her hands fixed defiantly on her wide, white hips. “She doesn’t want to talk to you or anyone else. She just wants to be left alone.”
I look at her face, void of any care or sympathy, the product of years of seeing broken, bloody bodies represented only by a name on a chart or a tag on a toe. An angry blush rises to my face as I ball my fists.
“Please give her this information…it has the crisis line number in it,” I say, as I shove a pamphlet toward her. “Tell her if she needs to talk, anytime, to give me a call.”
She swipes the pamphlet from my hands, turns and stomps away. I walk out the door and drive home. Once there, I slip into my parents’ room.
“I’m back,” I whisper to my mom.
“Mmm, good, honey. Everything go OK?” she asks, her voice syrupy with sleep, my dad snuffling beside her.
“Yeah, just fine. ’Night.”
“’Night, honey. See you in the morning.”
Back in my room, I call the crisis line coordinator and tell her about my unsuccessful trip. I change into my sweats and collapse on the bed, wrenching the blankets up around my neck.
Random, angry thoughts careen through my head holding back the ones I know are waiting to take their place, like eager understudies: It still smells like goddamn kerosene in here—it’s probably in the curtains and sheets. Why do I have to be stuck in the room above the freezing garage? Why can’t I change the stupid purple-flowered wallpaper? I’m not twelve years old anymore. I’m a grown woman in college, and I’m still living with my parents. I can’t wait to get the hell out of here. Only two more semesters, and I’m gone.
And then I start to cry. I cry because I couldn’t do anything for the girl tonight and because she wouldn’t let me. I cry for the woman at the hospital who held me together and helped me walk forward into the world of “after.” I cry for all the other women who can’t find the courage to dial the phone, tell a friend, or forgive themselves. And then I close my eyes and wait for another call.
* * *
People say girls and women (and boys and men) are “survivors” of rape. But years after the “incident” happened, I had convinced myself it wasn’t that bad because I knew the person who did it to me—it wasn’t a stranger who jumped out of the bushes on a dark night. It wasn’t that bad because he didn’t really hurt me; I didn’t have any visible injuries. It wasn’t that bad because I wasn’t a virgin at the time. What was there to “survive”? People survived a lot worse.
But then I remembered what it was like to see him at school after it happened. Every day.
I remembered what it was like to hear from other girls that he’d done the same thing to them and to hear from my best friend that he’d tried the same thing with her—when we were in 6th grade, years before what he did to me.
I remembered feeling like I was the bad, dirty one and having that confirmed every day in school when people would whisper “slut” as I walked by.
I remembered having to see him at our five-year class reunion, trying to avoid him later at the ten and fifteen-years and the conscious choice I made never to attend another reunion.
I remembered what happened with my first husband. One time when we were wrestling around on the floor of my bedroom, he pinned my arms above my head. I started screaming and crying, telling him to stop, to get off me. I curled up in a ball and sobbed. I stayed that way for more than an hour. He walked out because he didn’t know what to do.
And after all that remembering, “survival” didn’t seem like such a strong word any more.
There was another day in my senior year of high school, when I was riding the bus to a choir performance. The boy was sitting directly behind me with his hand resting on the back of my seat. When the bus went over a bump, his hand would “accidentally” brush up against my shoulder. I had just heard from another person what he had done to them. I turned around in my seat, looked directly at him and said, “I know what you did. I know how many people you did it to. If I ever hear that you’ve done it to anyone else, I’ll go to the police.” His normally pale face went even paler, almost translucent. That was quickly replaced by a tomato color that started from his nose and seeped out to the edges of his hairline and under his jaw. He swallowed. His Adam’s apple bobbed.
And when I thought about that day and how victorious I felt even though I knew then that I would probably never go to the police, I knew I had survived something.
* * *
Years later in my early forties, I was sorting through books on the shelves in my home library and I thought about him again. Normally when he came to my mind it was in flashes—his fleecy blond hair and blank blue eyes; the way he sauntered down the halls at school; how the window above his bed funneled a broad blade of sunlight down the length of his half-naked body, smothering mine. And all I’d feel was rage, at what he did and what I didn’t do. But this time, something different came to my mind.
Physically, they were complete opposites: The boy was about 6’2’’ and 200 pounds, all muscle, more like a man than a high school kid. His dad was barely 5’9’’ and had a dense, mangy beard and the gut of a woman about to give birth. But what I remembered most was how he treated his son.
His son played many sports and played them well. But no matter how well the son did, he could never please his dad. I remembered his dad would regularly stand on the sidelines and bellow at him, calling him horrible things I couldn’t imagine hearing in my own home. One time the boy drifted off the football field after the night’s defeat with his head hanging almost as low as the helmet in his hand. His dad barreled toward him and struck him hard on the top of his head. The boy cowered.
He didn’t look so powerful then.
Through this memory, I saw him as I never had. Remembering him in this new way way, I accepted one, plain fact: He was as much a victim as he’d made me into, on that afternoon years ago. And as victims often do, he fixated on the smaller, silent ones, snatching power however he could—just never in his own home.
Until the day I was there.