(Originally published on ChicagoNow, October 12, 2016)
The year was 1986. I was 18 years old, a senior in high school, on spring break with 10 of my friends.
It happened sometime between 5 and 9 pm.
Our Fort Lauderdale hotel was cheap, filled with other spring breakers just like us, room after room of young, hormonal bodies. We’d pooled our hard-earned money for a travel agent to book this place, situated between the ocean and the strip. The place was disgusting and we were in heaven.
To our group’s additional delight, there was a slightly older, very cute male cohort staying in 3 rooms directly across the hall. Whenever they were around, which wasn’t much, they were flattering and flirty.
On the evening it happened, the girls and I were killing time, moving in and out of our three rooms between makeup applications, TV shows and easy conversations. We spoke of the last couple of months remaining before high school graduation. About the colleges we’d gotten into. About our boyfriends back home. About the way things were absolutely, already changing.
At some point, the boys across the hall came back from wherever they’d been. They were raucous, engaged, and interested in everything we were up to.
Soon, timidity eased and interactions gave way, just as it is in the wild, I suppose — except this was in a carpeted hallway, windowless and dank.
Laughter was truly the gateway to it all. It’s what really led to what happened. I can see that clearly now. If you get us girls laughing…especially nervously… you’ve really got us.
Crude jokes, self-deprecation, teasing one another…those boys did it all well, and we girls signaled our interest in the only acceptable ways we knew — by laughing and giggling.
As the guys’ teasing and ribbing escalated, so did our attention. Soon, we were a blissful group of 20, spilling in and out of that narrow hallway.
I’ve never remembered what prompted several of the guys to break rank and head into one of the rooms, or why I joined them, or if any of my friends followed me. I just remember laughing hard and watching them tumble and act like idiots, not wanting to miss what they’d say or do next. And with all the doors propped open, it never felt like I’d left my group.
It was intoxicating.
Stepping over the threshold into their room, I could still see the crowd gathered in the hall.
No great shakes. I never thought twice about turning my back to the door.
But then, I wasn’t laughing.
I was on my back.
Looking up at a ceiling.
Looking up at four boys looking down at me, though not into my eyes.
“You,” one said, pointing to another.
“No, you,” said the other.
Where are my friends? What’s happening?
“Quiet,” one said.
“Stop,” I pleaded, yanking my hands.
But we were just laughing, I thought, still yanking from the wrists now. Why aren’t we still laughing?
“Just go!” one said, lifting my shirt.
“You chickenshit,” another laughed, like I wasn’t there.
“Please!” I said, squirming.
“Shut the door!” one yelled.
“It already is,” another chuckled.
“PLEASE!” I yelled.
And then, I looked into his eyes.
And he looked back.
“Please, don’t,” I said. I’m certain I was crying.
“Just GO!” one guy grunted, groping me as he pulled my ankles apart.
“Just don’t,” I said slowly, holding my breath, not breaking my stare.
“Come ON!” another voice urged.
“I want to go back to my friends,” I said directly to him.
“Man!” one guy yelled in frustration, “You seriously just gotta — “
“Just STOP!” the one said, standing up.
He elbowed the guy kneeling near my face, and pulled me up by my shoulders.
Then he put his hand on my back and opened the door to the hallway.
He pushed me out of the room and closed the door behind me.
The hallway was empty.
I’ve never spoken of this incident to anyone.
Not to my friends on that trip.
Not to my boyfriend.
Not to my parents.
I was ashamed.
I was embarrassed.
I thought I’d gotten myself into that situation because I’d separated myself from my pack.
I thought I’d invited their advances because of something I’d said or done or signaled or…if only I could just remember what I’d been saying before it all happened. But I couldn’t remember.
And I’ve never remembered what he looked like.
But I’ve never forgotten what it feels like to be heard.
To use my voice. To say exactly what I need.
To stare someone down. To not take no for an answer.
I found my voice that day, though I hadn’t realized it then.
And here’s to that boy across the hall, and to all who teach boys to act as he did.