In my day we just put up with it. In my day, there was no fight. No speaking out. We received what ever was foisted on our bodies, our spirits our genders as a part of a larger multigenerational pact with mothers and grandmothers. Men were allowed to act out, blame liquor or what we were wearing and we accepted it… took it in, judged other women with survivor’s guilt for their transgressions. In my day we put up with it.
The worst thing about the rape that happened when she was 16 was that she accepted it as just the next thing. She already knew. Her metaphorical feet were bound into a symbolic generational mutilation so that there was no thought of flight. That left: fight, and there was no muscle for fight in her thin body weighed down with breasts that created the danger in the first place. She had a reservoir of received ridicule already in her core and had been told to shut up in so many different ways that when the man pushed her, she immediately went dead. Ruth left her body immediately and became a kind of zombie to the assault. She intuitively had a superpower to get the hell out of that shell of her skin and find a safe place in the corner with the spiders. She knew without being taught at the blackboard, to shut up and disconnect. She understood that her skin and her body itself was the problem. The solution was to become invisible.
Maybe the man; who was old enough to know better; who wore his necktie as his uniform in the club of men who decided things… maybe after he treated her body like it was only there for his urge… maybe he felt a twinge of oh no in his drunk memory of the night. Did he wake in his sunny morning of hangover and regret, while the wife cooked him eggs? Maybe he gave it a slim shred of recognition, albeit, wrapped up in his rationalizations. Perhaps he thought in fast flashes so he wouldn’t have to really reconnect with his own deep dread. Either way, he remembered only until he thought himself off any hook and out of any responsibility for that night. Ruth’s skin began to burn.
Ruth does not think of this man much. She will not call him her rapist until she has crossed parts of her own middle age. She thinks of the people who did not keep her safe. The father who was gone. The mother who was broken. In her mind the man who hurt her becomes only body parts and disgust she feels about them. Her skin, her breasts the places he touched her are disgusting. She starves herself and also sometimes stuffs herself to stop the fire on her skin. When the thoughts and images erupt, she makes a fist and shoves those picture-postcards from her amygdala down hard like crumpled half poems into the garbage. She puts a toothbrush down her throat to create a brilliant sedation. After he raped her he pulled up his pants and left the room, but then he came back and told her to drive him home. Ruth doesn’t remember this like it happened. She remembers the movie of it happening; the car on autopilot and the commands of his directions down Westport roads. She cannot tell you where she drove that night. All she can see is a two lanes of black with a mournful double yellow line and no other cars.
Somehow she kept driving that night and drove to all the way to Yale where Jules was sleeping in his dorm room. Ruth parked the car and waited for dawn, listening to morning doves. They sounded like hollow oboes and she wanted to get a gun and blow their stupid heads off. When it was light enough she crept to Jules’ first floor window. He peeked out and then went around to let her in. He could tell from her face not to ask her anything. She linked her arm into his and trailed after him to his breakfast room. In Ruth’s movie they never spoke to each other that day; if they did she cannot remember. He knew somehow to let her attach to his life wordless and passive. She would move through his classes and sit beside him if they were large enough or wait in the dark wooden hallway on a bench if they were small discussions till he was finished. He came out and saw her glazed eyes and touched her shoulder so that she would stand and follow him.
It was like that day he came home for Thanksgiving in his first semester. He got off the train and she was waiting at the station. Someone had given her LSD at the end of a drunken night and she somehow knew he would be on a train that day. She waited at the station to meet every train. Once he figured out that she had hours of wide awake tripping to complete, he took her on the next train into New York. They spent that crazy day shopping at Trash and Vaudeville and all over the lower east-side. He shopped and she quietly followed and touched everything stunned and petrified but somehow managed by his willingness to take care of her. When her body was exhausted but her mind was still terrorized by too many thoughts he brought her all the way up to Lincoln Center to sit by the fountain while she arrived back into herself. The granite and the sound of hiss that the fountain made was like a song between them. Her skin felt cold so he wrapped her in cashmere that he had bought and held her until it was time for a Bertrand Blier Film across the street.
Jules was gay. He was figuring it out that year at Yale when Ruth was raped. He was her gay friend but no-one talked like that. Ruth didn’t understand gay yet. Neither of them really had the words. It wasn’t explicit in the french films that they went to see at midnight during high school. Sometime before he finally dropped out of Yale, to set all the pretty art boys on the lower east side askew with his beauty, he said to Ruth: I like boys. Me too, she answered, and this was the way she remembered the conversation. She fills in the scene in her memory telling herself that he was drawing while he told her and that she probably had lit a cigarette.
After she was raped, Jules went to New York more and more. He began making his art and became a beautiful sought after boy at dance clubs and the baths. Ruth dressed in dark layers and threw up in bathrooms after eating. Bulimia was one of many brilliant solutions she innovated. She made plans but could not complete anything. Her heart felt dead but her skin burned all the time with heat and unexplained shame. She tried to cool down the fire and the disgust, that was endlessly growing like a tumor inside her pelvis, with drugs, liquor and leaving. She spent a whole year basically on the train, first into New York, then packing up and moving to Boston then back to Connecticut. She never settled anywhere and made a million plans that all failed before she paid the deposit on them because she couldn’t execute anything.
Jules barely lived through the eighties. The virus arrived on his doorstep and took him through right to the threshold of 1991. He mastered his own denial, drugs, disability and despair. The cocktail arrived but not in time to stop the dementia. He stayed connected with Ruth through letters and long phone calls that became sarcastic shock-fests of his reactions to the cards he had been dealt. The death dance began. Jules had lasted as her one great friend until he died because they didn’t need a lot of words and definitions to sort through the love that they shared. They wrote letters to each other and made up stories about Edith Piaf, and Jean Seberg— anyone beautiful, anyone tragic. This is the language that they spoke. He lived vicariously though Ruth’s pretty-girl dark edgy hetero-drama and Jules was just frankly the most nurturing boy Ruth had ever known, even when he played out his own destructive dangers. He loved and believed in her, even though most people in her life saw only the crazy.
Ruth, by the end of the eighties, had worn out the cuticle of the Northeast and moved south after a boy that she had a crush on. He lived in a small college town and she felt herself calm a bit with how unfamiliar it was. She liked the sultry days that made her sweat and cooled the burning skin. She liked that she could walk to work or sit in on poetry seminars unnoticed. By this time, Ruth gave up throwing up and drinking and woke up at 4am to go to work as a waitress in a diner where old white southern men sometimes only tipped her a nickel.This was Georgia so all the streets were named after trees or Confederate families. People were always saying good morning like at the Waffle House. It helped Ruth to feel this welcome but she also learned that often the greeting came with strings attached from Christians who had another soul-saving agenda to fulfill.
When Jules mother called her to say that he was really dying, Ruth booked the first airline ticket that paid for herself. She could only get away for two days and she took a cab from Laguardia right to St Vincents. She stayed with him all night. He was delirious and also under the influence of Dialudid which he always could talk his way into. She sat near his head and held his hand, but also washed her hands every time she got up for something. She didn’t even notice that she did this when she filled his water pitcher or use the bathroom but remembered it later with sadness. The hospital at night was like a low budget movie, grainy and semi saturated with shadow. He told her that she was the Gina Lola Brigida of his life and that he didn’t think that there was a God for gayboys. She told him that God was like Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, and as talked she was inadvertently starting her own tender relationship with God not the Jesus, kind but some other incarnation. Atticus Finch as a stand in for God spending the night on the steps of the jail or rocking on the porch while Jem slept in his cast, not able to stop all the pain but maybe a little. It felt right. When she stopped talking , Jules opened his eyes a little and stared at the corner of the room, I think he’s over there…he can stay if he wants, but I think he’s here for you. God uses everything she continued, thinking it and saying it for the first time to Jules in his fever. He is a master baker and he knows exactly when to take the cake out of the oven. Well, Ruth someone left the cake out in the rain, Jules spoke in almost a normal voice and with a devil residue of his own handsome smile.
Five am in the morning, is the time Ruth thinks, when if you are awake for it, something might happen. That night as a bell tolled five am in some cavernous lower Manhattan church, Jules opened his eyes and said in a voice that might have been talking about coffee: You should have called the cops when that guy raped you. The camera inside Ruth repeatedly clicked into focus at that moment. Vague shards of memory became vivid and Ruth grew up enough to take charge of the narrative that Jules had been holding for her. The man, the rape, the shock and the way that Jules had carried the memory for her, because her own brain had abdicated its duty, laid itself out like an old map and passed between them both while they could still hear the echos of the five-am bells.
He had to give it back, the story, and he had to name it for her before he died. His opened eyes caught hers and this lasted for several seconds before he slipped back into his own death work. She stayed with him the whole day until she had to leave for her plane but he never spoke or opened his eyes to hers again. She held the weight of what he had said as she watched him breathe; as the doctor came in and said he wouldn’t last much longer, as his mother took up all the air in the room with her caustic presence ( another story). Ruth felt the word in her brain. It was like solving a crossword puzzle clue — whats a four letter word for crime, for devastation, for shit sandwich? She waited, half wishing he would die so that she could be the one with him and really wishing that he would breathe like that forever so she could keep the idea of him alive — alive. Eventually she had to leave. She kissed his hot face and then worried about her own risk in spite of trying not to.
She continued to hear Jules’ voice say the word she had never considered all the way home on the plane and the next day while she was serving breakfast to all those old man in neckties. After the lunch rush she borrowed the phone book in the office and looked up therapists numbers. When she made the appointment she told the therapist: I was raped when I was 16 and I never really dealt with it. Ruth noticed that her skin had stopped burning and she felt a lightness that she had never felt even when she was bulimic or stopped eating. She could see beyond the diner window to the boundary of the old trees on the campus.A flock of goldfinches were dipping toward the grass as one flash of beautiful yellow and she heard Gregory Peck’s voice blended with Jules saying: good — Finally.