The morning after I was raped, I stared at the ceiling.
I let my eyes follow the cracks from the center to the edges and back again to the center. I was always on the top bunk in college. It’s what I would’ve wanted when I was little so I volunteered as an adult. Even though some mornings I’d find new bruises on my body from when I’d tried to climb up the ladder drunk the night before.
That morning as I lie there, I feel the bruises before I see them. I feel the long line of flaked skin down my shin where I’d almost made it to the top and slid all the way back down, scraping my leg on a rung as I sank.
“You’ve sunk to a new low,” I think to myself from my perch. I’m hidden from my roommates as they slowly wake up and head to their hangover-curing Sunday breakfasts. It’s still breakfast at noon in college. I am still in bed at 1:00 pm.
I think of my parents. I think of a guy I dated that they didn’t like. During the Thanksgiving that I was still in a relationship with him, I remember seeing my mom in the kitchen with my aunt. She was animated. Her head was bent forward toward my aunt and her eyebrows were raised as she talked.
I could hear a few words.
“I can’t believe how he talked to us,” my mom said of the first time she’d met this guy, “I can’t believe how she’s letting him talk to her.”
My aunt looked over at me in the other room. Our eyes met. Hers lowered.
I think of another guy. We were in high school. We were out in a field next to a road. Each of us had told our parents we were at the others’ house. One minute we were sitting on the grass. The next minute he’d pushed me down — playfully I thought. He climbed over me and then went dead weight on top of me. I tried to wiggle out from underneath him, but was much smaller. His full chest dwarfed mine and I started to hyperventilate. My hands started smacking him in the side. He started to laugh.
Back to the morning after, in the bunk bed, I stop thinking. I can only focus on the alternating waves of nausea and my throbbing head. My face burns. New tears travel the same salty trails as the ones from ten minutes ago.
I think of my parents again. I just want my mom. I want my mom.
“I’m a pattern now. This is a pattern.”
I can never tell them.
I can’t tell anyone who knows me well.
What if, because I’ve been around questionable guys before, they never trust anyone I actually love?
What if I tell them and they think I was just drunk and am embarrassed?
When speaking of my behavior as a little girl, my mom always described it the same way to other people.
“We called her Mellie,” she said about me, “Short for Melodramatic. Everything was always a production.” I have no actual memory of her calling me this. But I’ve heard her say this to so many people that it must be true.
I only remember parts of “scenes” from the night I was raped. Most of Act 1. Some of Act 2. I’m Mellie. This is the climax. Tears lose their impact if you’ve seen the show before.
I get up. I throw up. I go back to bed.
My husband was my friend in college first. “We were friends first,” Moving forward, I’d tell people in a jokingly cute affect. “And then it just happened.”
It just happened. He’s the only one I tell what just happened. At the time, I’m not sure why.
I stopped being able to sleep more than a few hours without someone next to me. We’d begin the night clinging to each other before eventually sprawling out to different sides. I’d wake up from nightmares, roll back over, he’d start rubbing my back, and I’d fall back asleep when my heartbeat slowed enough to match his.
That was years ago. It still happens like that a lot of nights.
He’s so happy. His spirit is so… intact. I laugh around him. I learn it’s ok to cry around him. I learn that when I’m around him, it’s ok to wail, “why, why, why, why” like a chant while hugging myself.
He comes to walk in the woods with me. Anywhere we are, if I stop abruptly and look up at the sky, he waits. He doesn’t ask questions. We’re friends first.
He learns that I don’t like being hugged from behind. He learns, very slowly, that I don’t like my shoulders being touched. He loves my shoulders.
Except for these things, I learn to forget.
I graduate college.
A few years ago, before our wedding, my grandfather’s long battle with cancer was coming to a close. He starts losing feeling and mobility in parts of his body. The doctors aren’t sure exactly what it is causing it at first. The best guess is a form of Guillain-Barre syndrome that isn’t getting better.
Eventually, he can only slightly move his arms and feet. He is intubated. I don’t know what this means until I go and visit him with my dad. It means he has a mask over his mouth and a tube down his throat that forces oxygen into his lungs. He’s literally gagged and figuratively stuck in place on a bed.
It seemed hard for him to even move his head from side to side. Because of this, his eyes roll back and forth to follow anyone in the room. He makes noise and wiggles his hands and feet when he needs something.
Because he can’t speak, we get a sheet with the alphabet. We move a pencil to each letter and he blinks hard and flutters his head forward when we hit the right letter.
P-I-L-L-O-W U-N-D-E-R K-N-E-E-S
We find that I’m good at guessing some of the words after he gives the first one. My dad says, “Nice, Brooke!” after it happens the third time. My dad is good at this too. It’s a perverse, sad joy to find that I’m able to communicate with my grandpa so well now. We weren’t that close when I was younger but the bond we’re forming in this way is more intense than a lot of the relationships I’ve ever had… even now.
W-I-S-H I C-O-U-L-D B-E … “At the wedding,” I say as I see tears starting to run down his cheeks.
“It’s ok,” I say, “You’ll be there. I’ll feel it. You’ll see it. We’ll set up a phone camera so you can see it.”
The nurses come in when his bedding needs changed. We have to leave the room and I realize, for the first time, that he’s naked under a gown and the blanket above him.
As we walk out of the room, I’m still in his head from trying to guess words:
We’re out here, heading to get coffee.
He’s in there, exposed and unable to move or speak to any of the strangers around them as they roll his body back and forth, changing his sheets yet again. If they don’t place him back in a comfortable position, he can’t even ask them to use the alphabet clipboard to say what’s wrong.
Some glass structure within me, long dormant and undisturbed, begins to splinter.
He’s shorter than anyone I’ve ever danced with before. But that’s ok, I think. It has certainly been easier to kiss him this way.
I’m tipsy. I know it. But I can tell that I’m still where I want to be on the spectrum because I find a clock quickly when I scan the wall. I gauge how long I’ve been here. I want to go home soon. I’m getting tired.
“One more drink!”
This is where it gets confusing.
Suddenly, I’m in the hallway of my nightmares. It’s white and blueish and blurred. I can vaguely make out figures on either side as I move down the center. My right arm is extended in front of me. I’m being slowly pulled by my hand down the hallway. I don’t think I’ve been here before.
It goes dark. I’m not in the hallway. I feel hands on my shoulders. I hear a zipper. I feel myself falling forward before the hands pull me back upright. An arm circles around my sloshing stomach. My weight is pitched forward and it feels so unsteady. I try to move my arms — to grab at that arm around me — but I can’t.
All of my attention shifts to my chest. Which is still rising and falling without me telling it to. Breathe In. Breathe Out. I’m still moving.
I’m flipping in and out of consciousness.
I’m facing him now. Both of his arms are underneath my arms and he’s squeezing me tight. He’s walking us backward. I’m mostly being dragged, but every once in awhile my heel gets caught on carpet and carries some of my weight.
(fade to black)
He’s lying beneath me on a bed. I’m lying on top of him. My limbs are haphazardly arranged as if I’ve just fallen down…. He rolls me off of him and onto my side. Like I’m in a hospital and my bedding needs changed.
(fade to black)
His face is by my face.
“What’s my name?” he asks.
I knew it, I think. “I know it,” I try to mouth. But my lips aren’t moving like I’m telling them to. And dry, rattling air is all that comes out of my mouth.
“What’s your name?”
This time, I’m trying to scream. Still, the air.
He laughs again.
(fade to black)
I see my leg extended in the air diagonally to the left. What’s happening?
(fade to black)
The morning after the night I was raped, I wake up in my gym shorts from junior high and a t-shirt from homecoming.
When I do get up — and finally not just to throw up — I start frantically looking for anything I might have had the night before. I find my dress and phone on the ground by my desk. My shoes by the closet. My bra next to the bed.
I can’t find my underwear.
I spend the next two hours, broken up with breaks for water, looking for my underwear. I rip up my bed. I make the bed. I rip it up again. I take everything out of my drawers. Everything out of my closet. I look — please dear God don’t let it actually be there — from the path outside of my room to the front door of my building.
I move every piece of furniture in the room, including our entire bunkbed structure, and look underneath it. My head almost explodes from pain as I do this. I think I float out of my body when this is happening.
I check the bathroom. I put on a jacket and tennis shoes and walk the path I would’ve followed outside.
I even — seriously, I actually do this — go back into the building I think I was in the night before and try to find the hallway I remember, still looking for my underwear.
I go back to my room and collapse on my bed. When I wake up a few hours later, I keep looking.
I never find it.
For a while, when I’d accidentally remember this, a sense of shame so strong would overcome me that I’d instantly feel like I was about to cry. This has happened at family dinners, at the mall, on Christmas morning, while cooking dinner…
The only time I’ve ever self-harmed happened after this. I grabbed a women’s razor and sliced my palm. I closed my eyes and saw fire.
Now when I remember my underwear, I think of the show Dexter and his slides of blood. It makes me so angry that I’ve thrown pillows against a wall.
Is it better?
I am an extrovert. But, after I started to splinter, “family get-togethers” became my own personal hell.
This is the weirdest thing:
Seeing all my family at once used to be my greatest joy. I used to be so excited for Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day that I wouldn’t be able to sleep the night before.
I have so much to tell you! This is what’s going on in school! I can’t wait to hear about the new baby! I’m going on a big trip! You have a new job! Tell me that funny story!
After I was raped, my secret started to erase me.
When only one person on the planet fully knows your truth, it feels like everyone else is getting a cracked, porcelain version of you. I’m not fully together. Or, it feels like I’m actually existing on a different timeline but have to temporarily snap back into an alternate one where I’m a different self.
The ‘self’ I was on the way to being before everything changed.
The longer time goes by, the harder it has become to snap back into the alternate reality. To ignore the truth.
When no one knows you, you’re actually invisible. You’re playing a part all of the time.
I wanted to write here that it felt like I was losing my humanity to be around family that knew me, but I deleted it. I thought, that’s too much. That can’t be right.
But it is. The part of me that includes my whole story is most human. And it hurt most to give people I loved — people I anticipated seeing — something less.
Being around my family was hard. But I had a character to draw from. An existence and history with them that didn’t include THAT.
Being around my husband’s family was hardest. I didn’t have a past already in place to act as a backdrop. It felt like sometimes I had to invent myself because I didn’t know how to cope. I wanted to be better. I wanted them to know the “old me.”
The full story of how my husband and I fell in love = Off limits.
The real reason I couldn’t make it to every party = Fear of a panic attack.
Across the board, it was so much easier to keep everyone at arm’s length.
“Better to be kind of a bitch than an unstable slut,” I’ve told myself.
“Better they think I’m slightly awkward and sometimes antisocial than tell them why I really just want to be alone.”
“Better they not have a reason to pity me. Better this, where they still see me as someone who is strong and accomplished, but distant, versus someone who is a hot mess.”
Is it better? I don’t know anymore.
My mom had cancer for a few years while I was in high school. And for all of college. And still now.
When I was little, she made The Chore Basket. It was a small wicker basket with 30-something tiny slips of paper folded up inside of it. Each slip had a chore and each morning, we’d pick one.
It was my brother and I’s biggest source of anxiety. You wanted to draw wiping down the bathroom surfaces. It was quick and dirty. You didn’t want to draw sweeping.
Now, what I remember learning from my mom most vividly, I’m ashamed to admit, is how to sweep. She taught me other things too — fun things — how to cross stitch, how to make pizza dough.
“Did you sweep under the table?”
“Did you actually move the chairs to a different place and get underneath them?”
“The corners. You have to put the edge of the broom into the corner and sweep there too.”
“No you didn’t. Does this look clean to you?”
When I would go home to see my parents in college, the first thing I would look at is the floor in their house. It was an immediate indicator to me of how my mom was feeling.
Shiny floors? It’s going to be a good weekend.
If they weren’t, some otherworldly force would come over me. I’d be compelled to sweep the floor at the earliest chance, usually the next morning.
Instead of sitting down with my mom and talking to her, I chose sweeping.
In my own home, I became critical of all brooms and mops. This one is soft. The bristles aren’t hitting the floor hard enough. This one feels like I’m just pushing dirt around to different spots on the floor. Since my husband and I started living together 4 years ago, I have bought 4 different mops in my quest for one that actually feels like I’m cleaning. I bought the one that sprays with refillable pads. I bought one with hard rope coils. I bought a microfiber pad one. I landed on the most basic mop I could find.
I’m so aware of dirt on the floor. I feel it sticking to my bare feet and I bend my leg to look at the bottoms, convinced they are brown with dirt.
When I scratch my arm, I picture little flakes of my dead skin floating down to the floor, layer after layer. I throw all of my weight into the mop, picturing myself scraping off this epidermis and leaving it bare.
“When you come home,” my dad says, “It’s so nice when you clean. But you don’t need to do it. We’re doing okay here. We’ll get to it. It makes your mom anxious. It’d help more if you just sat down and watched TV with her.”
I cut back after that. Mostly. But lately I’ve been focusing on dirty dishes.
Cue the part where you ask if I’ve talked to someone before.
Yes, I have. Thank you. Cool. Bye.
For a long time, only one person on the planet fully knew my truth.
One day, while walking home from work in the bitter cold, I’m emboldened.
I get home and I see that my brother, our roommate, is cooking something in the kitchen.
Still wearing my coat and holding my bag, I tell them that I have to tell him something before I don’t believe I can anymore.
I set down my things.
My brother Bennett is a big, hairy man. He smiles a lot. He hugs hard. If he’s your server at a restaurant, you want to tip him more because he recommended what you wouldn’t have tried, but something about him made you trust it. And he was right.
He stops what he’s doing and looks at me. He’s one of my favorite people to talk to because he always meets my eyes. We both inherited pretty intense eye contact.
“Yeah,” he says, “Ok. Of course.”
Then, I realize I don’t have a plan for how to get it out.
“It might take me a minute,” I say and my heart starts to pound, “It’s hard to say and I haven’t shared it with anyone like this before.”
“It’s ok, Brooke.”
I stand there and the seconds passed. I open my mouth. I close it. Open. Close. I put both of my hands on the edge of the counter and squeeze. I start to say a word and I just feel the air whistling past my vocal cords in an exhale. This snaps me out of it.
I give him most of the story. Less graphic. It comes out in choppy run-on sentences.
“Steve knows already and he always has but I didn’t tell anyone else till now because I was worried that they wouldn’t believe me and then I was worried about upsetting Mom and there was just so much going on that it never felt right and it felt like I’d be just trying to get attention and I didn’t want to have people talking to me about therapy and stuff and not trusting that I was doing things to deal with it on my own or that people would think I couldn’t take care of myself even though I got good grades in college and I’ve always had a job and my own insurance and good friends but I didn’t even really think of it as anything but a mistake I made for a long time and I should’ve been more careful and I was embarrassed that I wasn’t thinking clearly and I’m starting to realize that it’s not all my fault but it’s still too scary to tell anyone..” It goes on.
When I finish, I end on a loud, hard final note. It feels like I just slammed my hands down on the keys after a frantic piano piece. Why am I so loud?
“Thank you for sharing this with me and trusting me with this.
I’m so sorry that you’ve felt alone with that. It isn’t your fault AT ALL. It’s his fault. He’s evil.
What can I do to make you feel safe and okay? Is it okay if I hug you?”
I say yes. When he moves forward to hug me then, it doesn’t feel like I can’t breathe. Instead, it feels like I’m taking the biggest, deepest breath that I have taken for a very long time.
An ache at the bottom of my lungs, that I didn’t feel until now, suddenly fades away.
Many times, when I’ve walked around a corner, my brother has poked me hard in the side (where I’m most ticklish) without warning and laughs. For a second each time, I panic. And then I laugh too.
For me, I don’t want to feel like people are censoring themselves because of this when I’m around. I don’t want to live in fear of the uncomfortable. I don’t want my brother to stop a prank he’s been playing on me since we were 4 and 6 years old.
The structure shatters. I feel tears on my face and I start to laugh.
In one of the houses we lived in when I was growing up, there was a big window seat. I was small enough then that I could stand up on it and not bump my head.
My parents called it ‘My Stage’ and it was. I would stand on it and read out loud from my books. I sung from it. My brother and I conducted a church service from it in our fleece robes with one of my Mom’s Yankee candles. I even tap danced on it. The wood was worn down by the time we moved away. We had to put Old English on it when my parents were trying to sell the house.
At school, I wrote a play, a twist on the Three Little Pigs, for my classmates that I cast, directed, and of course starred in.
In the summer, I went to a theater camp. There was a big show for the parents on the last day. One of the segments was improv. The parents threw out ideas and we had to construct a scene. Our scene ended up being on a beach. My fellow actors and I pantomimed laying out on the beach.
“We can see the ocean.”
“It’s really nice to be here.”
It was boring. I knew this wasn’t a scene. I yelled “SHARK!” really loud and said that I could see someone out in the water getting attacked. I “ran” out into the ocean, dragging this mythical person to shore and saying he needed CPR. Everyone else stopped talking, intrigued to see where I would take this.
I had full command of the room for about two minutes before the instructor said, “Annnnd, scene! Great job everyone!”
In English class, I volunteered to read out loud first. Always.
I was in after-school plays in high school. And the rep theatre class during normal school hours.
Watching the Academy Awards each year was my Superbowl. I loved the dresses but I loved the acceptance speeches more.
I had a plan for my speech. 5th-grade me thought about this a lot. I’d thank my parents first. Dad first and then Mom because I was convinced it was Mom who wouldn’t let watch PG-13 movies. Then Bennett. Then Grandma and Grandpa and Grandma Sue. Then my teachers. And then my friends.
I gave up on that dream long before I was raped. But it didn’t stop that part of my soul receiving some permanent damage.
I started to notice that if I was speaking to someone that didn’t know me well, I needed to talk slowly. When I didn’t, I’d get tongue-tied. I’d stutter and have to repeat myself. I’d have to start a sentence over because it got so ahead of me.
I don’t know how many times I’ve said, “UGH. Sorry I can’t talk today.” Or tomorrow. Or the next one.
I found out that I was going to have to present in front of people at work. I did it. It went fine. But every night for two weeks beforehand, I was awake for about 30 minutes longer than I would’ve been otherwise, running through the words in my head. Going slow and thinking about how to get them out.
After one of her brain surgeries, my mom dealt with apraxia and aphasia from the damage that the tumors had created.
Like me, she’d start talking too fast and then be unable to figure out the last word she needed in a sentence.
“Go slower,” we said. “Go slower,” said her speech therapist. Even now, she fights that. She doesn’t want to have to slow down.
Go slower, I tell myself when meeting new people, especially people my age. Deep breaths. It’s all an act. They can’t see that anything is wrong. You’re judging yourself more than they’re judging you.
My mom was given flashcards and repetition exercises. “La la la la la. Na na na na na. Ma ma ma ma ma.”
To help myself practice, I start singing to music at home when no one is around. I pick songs that I don’t know all the lyrics to so that I have to stop and listen before I repeat. Sometimes I just sing syllables over and over again too.
One day, I’m at my parents house. Just me and my mom are there. My mom is napping in another room. I’m singing softly to myself as I unload the dishwasher.
“At laaaasssttt,” I sing in my lower register, “My looooove -“
In my peripheral vision, I see my mom slowly shuffling into the room.
“That was pretty,” she said, “You’re a nice singer now. Have you been practicing?”
When I was little, I loved Disney princesses. I loved Barbies. I loved playing dress-up. I had three American Girl dolls.
I also loved playing with Legos. I loved playing pirates and cowboys and space quest with my brother.
My dad would go to a comic book store once a week and come back with a brown paper bag of comics. He started buying me the Supergirl series by Jeph Loeb. I read it from the beginning. I started reading the other comics he’d bring home too.
I wanted to be powerful. I wanted my everyday life to be inconsequential when stacked against my extracurriculars. I especially imagined the respect I’d see in other people’s eyes once they knew they couldn’t mess with me.
I started to read Wonder Woman and Batgirl. I started to collect their action figures. Every Christmas and birthday, I’d get a new Wonder Woman to add to the collection. My brother would get other action figures and it’d bother him that I’d take them out of the box because it ruined their value.
I didn’t want to see them sitting there, stuck inside the plastic casing with the wire twist-ties around their arms.
They’re out on my shelf holding their weapons.
“I have a question for you,” said my dad one day, early on in this comic book journey, “Do you actually like this comic stuff? Because I’m worried you’re just saying you do because I like it. If you don’t, it’s ok.” I do like it. And I only like it more because he likes it too.
Long before I was raped, I gave away all of my Barbie dolls. I put my American Girl dolls in storage. I own and love Disney princess movies, but haven’t seen any of them besides Beauty and the Beast in a very long time.
They don’t mean as much to me as the Lego Wonder Woman I have on my bookshelf.
“You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”
My mom comes and stays with us regularly. She was with us the night of the election last year. We ordered pizza and were all sitting in the living room watching the coverage.
What an amazing coincidence, I thought. I get to be with my mom while I see the first woman president of our country get elected.
I was ignorant. I didn’t even consider the other possibility.
As votes came in the other way, I sat there speechless. Just shaking my head. For hours.
“Wow,” said my mom, “He got another state.”
When I realized what was happening, I went to bed early. Maybe some change of events was still to come and I didn’t think I had it in me to wait it out. When we were on road trips my dad would say that sleeping was “time traveling” to get to where we were going.
I wanted to time travel.
I woke up at 3:30 AM. I remembered that I didn’t know the outcome. I realized that Steve didn’t wake me up, which meant it wasn’t good. I looked at my phone and started to see the Tweets. Tweets of Joy. Tweets of Despair. Tweets of Utter Confusion.
I felt numb. How?
When I would read a new tweet or new quote from Trump about women, I’d see red. For a minute, I would expend a lot of energy thinking through the men and the ideology he represents.
But, he’s just one man. There’s just one of him.
When I saw that he won, I was devastated.
“He’s probably not going to actually follow-through with a lot of the stuff he said he’s going to do. He just wanted to get people riled up.”
“It’s not about Trump winning, it’s about why Hillary lost. She ran a terrible campaign.”
“There’s a checks and balances system. It’s not just the executive branch.”
I heard all of these things, mostly from white cis men, over and over again.
Frankly, I don’t give a fuck. That’s not the fucking point, I’d think to myself.
It wasn’t about Trump to me. It was about everyone that voted for him knowing what he had to say, hearing how he spoke about women (among many other subjects), and endorsing it anyway. I’ve never felt so alienated from my country before. I’ve never felt so scared.
I rode the transit line into work the next day. Most of the people around me probably didn’t vote for Trump, but who did? Who, when they look at me, sees a piece of ass? Who, when they look at me, wouldn’t feel like taking advantage of a woman is actually a wrong thing to do? Probably a lot of people.
Who else, around me, can say that they actually know what it feels like to be grabbed by the pussy without giving consent? Probably a lot of people.
Who else once had a voice and now has a difficult way figuring out how to use it?
Who else is sitting here, exposed, and paralyzed by their situation?
Who else can’t believe how she’s letting him talk to her? But beyond that, who else can’t believe how he is talking to her in the first place?
If I open up to you, out there, what will you see when you look at me? After I was raped, I imagined the worst. I could only see the worst.
You’d judge me. It’s my fault. I should’ve known better. I should’ve known that my value depends on my body and what I do with it… No, what others do with it.
You see me broken. You see someone unable to make decisions for themselves. Someone whose voice always has an undercurrent of weakness. I shouldn’t be heard. I’m tainted. Right? Maybe?
This is the cycle I’ve followed through my brain that day and others. Constantly searching the faces around me to decipher who among them is my invisible enemy, my invisible accuser. I’m supposed to be thinking of how I can help heal the divide. How I can reach across to build bridges. Instead, sometimes, I feel like I’m being hunted. I could never share my story with you. I could barely tell it to my own brother.
You, you there, who heard “grab em’ by the pussy.” What do you hear in this? What do you see in my face if you meet my gaze? I want your eye contact.
I’m at a panel about reproductive rights: “What made the LGBTQ movement gain a lot of momentum,” said the speaker, “Was when people started coming out. Suddenly there was a personal connection behind it. People had a neighbor who was gay. A cousin who was gay.” And later I hear, “We have to humanize our fight.”
It wasn’t as easy to deny something when there was a living, breathing face behind it.
I can’t do anything like that, I thought. I could never do that. It IS different. And in this situation, it’s too… dramatic.
Do you agree?