How Was It To Be Raped?
One Saturday morning when I was eleven years-old, a stranger dragged me into an underground parking garage and raped me.
This happened over thirty years ago in Los Angeles. I was riding my bicycle to the park for basketball practice. It had been raining that morning but this was a ride I made often and the park wasn’t far from my house, maybe only a mile, a mile-and-a-half. I pedaled along the damp sidewalk through a swath of silver fog that clothed the condominiums and salt box colonials in my neighborhood. I rode down to the boulevard, past a row of restaurants and a supermarket and turned down Hazeltine Avenue to travel the final eight blocks to the park. It was when I passed beneath a freeway overpass, two blocks from the park, that a man approached me.
“Hey there, champ,” is the first thing he said.
I didn’t know the man and couldn’t imagine anything good would come of talking with him, so I kept going and hoped he’d leave me alone. But the man didn’t leave me alone. He trotted alongside me for a block or so, peppering me with questions — What’s your hurry? Where ya headed? — till we reached the intersection of Hazeltine and Riverside Drive. There were shops and office buildings in that part of town. A large brick department store across the street to my right. In front of me there was a plaza with a Trader Joe’s and a cleaners and a Chinese restaurant. Some apartment complexes were further on, and the park a block away.
The light at the intersection was red and I stopped my bike at the curb with the man standing near me. I hadn’t had a good look at him until then. He wore a light raincoat and blue jeans. His face was fair skinned and he had a red mustache and neatly combed hair.
“What’s your name?” he said.
“Derby,” I told him.
“Well, it’s nice to meet-cha, Derby.” The man’s mouth unfolded into a big friendly smile and he held out his hand. I shook it without saying anything. His grip was weak, his hands small and wet. He introduced himself. Chris, I think he said. Though he might’ve said Stan or Allen. I can’t recall. Whatever he said, it was made up.
“Where ya headed, Derby?” he wanted to know.
I told him I was going to the park.
“I’m going to the park, too,” he said.
I could tell he was lying. I could tell it from his eyes and his voice and the way that he rocked forward on the tips of his polished work boots.
“Do you live nearby?” he asked.
“My dad does,” I said, which was true. My father lived a few blocks from where we were standing. But I didn’t see much of him back then. My parents had split up and my father had started over.
“Well, where’s your dad now?” The man pulled his hood over his head and put his hand in front of his mouth to blow hot air into his fist.
“I don’t know,” I said. The rain had picked up and water collected at the seam of my sleeves, moistening my forearms, weighing my wrists.
“That right?” he said. “It’s awfully wet out here. How about your mom?”
I shrugged. My mom was working on her master’s and had left early that morning to drive out to Azusa for a class. But I didn’t want to explain all that to this fellow. I wanted to cross the street and go play basketball and be done with him.
“You don’t know much, do you?”
“I guess not,” I said.
“You know you shouldn’t talk to strangers?” the man said.
“I know that,” I said.
Water lapped on the sidewalk from the gutter, the storm drain plugged by branches and debris. A large shorebird flew over us searching for shelter, the lone bit of activity. There wasn’t a car or person in sight. No joggers, no dog-walkers, no mothers pushing buggies, nobody waiting for the bus. Nobody to call to, nobody to ask for help.
“We might be the last two people on earth, you and me.” He smiled at me in a mean, spiteful way.
“Don’t you have to be at work?” I asked him.
“Sure I do.” He made a small effort to suppress a laugh. “Sure I do.”
When the traffic signal changed, the man — eyes aflame, mouth coiled in a mischievous frown — thumped my chest with the back his hand. “Let’s go,” he shouted and then hopped over the thick stream of water and tore off into the crosswalk to the other side of the street. I didn’t follow him. I didn’t want anything to do with him. The moment he reached the opposite sidewalk the man looked around, puzzled at first by my absence and then, upon locating me, smiled in fascination by the fix he was in. He put his hands on his hips and coolly nodded his head up and down.
He might’ve gone out of his mind right then, frustrated that whatever plan he’d cooked up didn’t materialize the way he imagined. Of course, I don’t know what he knew or thought he knew, or for that matter anything about him. Except for his red hair and mustache, his features were unremarkable. Caucasian, early 30s, decently dressed. It was just as easy to imagine him a paramedic barking orders to nurses as he rattled a stretcher into the ER as it was to imagine him sitting with a clipboard in the passenger seat at the DMV grading three-point turns. Then again, it also seemed possible he was crisp-crackers crazy — a paint-huffing miscreant who bunked in his near-dead aunt’s basement and got by on her disability checks.
It’s been explained to me that in all probability the man (like me) was also raped when he was a child. As the theory goes, a measure of helplessness accompanies assault and survivors frequently become consumed (or even aroused) by control. Which is why you’ll hear that rape survivors “are at great risk” of becoming perpetrators themselves. We’re also at great risk of suicide and divorce and an abnormal sex life. And probably a hundred other things, like using the wrong fork and forgetting to put the toilet lid back down.
I can’t speak to any correlation between being raped and being a rapist. It’s nothing I’ve studied and, even if I had, I’m skeptical there’s a reliable algorithm for predicting human behavior. What I have come to learn is that even if you’ve never had aggressive impulses or corrupt thoughts about children, being marked “at great risk” of anything is not a gratifying way to ascend into adulthood. It’s as if you’ve been stung by a Japanese hornet — even though you feel fine, you go to sleep wondering if tonight might be the night the venom activates and you’ll wake up afflicted. A sick, savage animal.
Whatever the man’s history, it certainly didn’t impede his pursuit of me. Before long he was back standing by my side, one hand on my bicycle, the other palming my shoulder. He muttered about the rain and how we’re going to wait for the next light and how we’re going to cross together. I was in trouble and knew it. This was my last clear chance for escape. And looking back, I wish I’d stayed on that corner and waited for someone to notice me. Or else tried to flag a car. There was safety there, out in the open. That’s not how it happened though. I didn’t have my wits about me. I couldn’t think that far ahead.
I decided to pretend to be agreeable and then try to ride away from the man at my earliest opportunity. When the signal turned green, I began pedaling across the street with the man next to me — slowly at first so as not to stir up any suspicion, then a little faster as I approached the curb, and upon reaching the sidewalk as rapidly as possible. I picked up speed as I passed the shopping plaza and when I heard quickening footsteps and the man’s voice behind me say, “Hey, slow down,” I thought I was free of him. But in front of a four-story apartment complex, a half block from the park, my bike slowed, then stopped. Hands clamped beneath my armpits and raised me from my bicycle the way a parent lifts a toddler.
“I want to show you something,” he said. Whiskers poked at my neck. Traces of aftershave creeped up my nostrils, smells of oak and lavender.
I let out a small nervous laugh as he boosted me off my bike. A last hope that this was all a bit of fun, a misunderstanding. Except there wasn’t any fun to be had. There wasn’t any misunderstanding.
The underground garage was a dark fusty space of cement where tenants kept their cars dry and oversized belongings stowed. It was wide and windowless with grease stains and tire treads and two rows of automobiles. The man carried me between two cars and put me down behind a large concrete pillar. He took hold of the sides of my sweatshirt and looked me in the eye.
“Something’s gonna happen now.” His voice was soft, a whisper almost, and missing the swagger he possessed when he’d casually placed an arm around me in the rain and asked me my name.
“What’s going to happen?” I said.
“I need for you to turn around.”
“Why?” I said.
“Because — ” He looked at me then, not the way a crazy man or a truculent criminal might, but like he wanted to become someone else, someone untroubled. It was as if for the first time since we met he didn’t know exactly what came next. “Because I need you to, that’s why.”
“I don’t want to,” I said.
The man rubbed his hand over his face and let out a deep breath and for an instant I thought that perhaps it was too much for him and he might let me go. I had it all wrong though. He didn’t have any intention of letting me go or allowing anything to happen other than exactly what he wanted to happen. He simply needed a moment to collect himself, to push past any self-doubt. A moment muster up the nerve to rape a child.
The man dropped to one knee, clutched my bicep and yanked me to the ground. He pressed my chest deep into the concrete and rolled my sweatpants and underwear down below my knees.
“There we are now,” he said. “There we are.” His fingers poked around my face until his thumb and index finger found my eyelids. “Close ’em now. You understand? Keep ’em shut.”
I told him I understood. And I tried to keep my eyes closed but when his hand came off my face I couldn’t help myself from turning and looking at him. I was scared.
The man removed his coat. He unbuckled his belt and let his pants fall below his waist. His hips were narrow and bony. The bottom button of his shirt was unsnapped and I could see his smooth stomach and a belly-button shaped like an almond. When he peeled off his boxers a small pale penis sat nestled amid a tuft of orange hair.
“Am I going to get to go?” I said.
The man’s eyebrows narrowed. “What did I say?” He drove my face down into the concrete. “What did I say?” His shin came down on my spine. “Answer me.”
“Not to turn around,” I said.
“That’s right,” he said. “Remember that.” The weight of his knee released from my back and after some time I heard his breathing quicken. His hand fastened on my hip and his penis nudged between my cheeks. “Stay still now,” he said. “Stay still.”
“Am I going to get to go?” I asked him again.
“In a minute,” he said, and let out an anxious cough. “In a goddamn minute.”
It was far longer than a minute though. And far more trouble than the man must’ve imagined. I squirmed around, inched forward on the cement, and tightened my glutes when he attempted penetration. Again and again he told me to stay still, to “loosen up.” And I complied for a moment or two, but it wasn’t much use. I couldn’t control the impulse to resist and every time I did, he lost his erection, muttered a string of profanities and had to start all over.
The sequence continued until — without warning — the man leaned his full weight onto my back, locked his arm around my neck and wrapped a hand over my face.
“Easy now,” I heard him say. “Easy.”
The crook of the man’s elbow compressed my larynx against the back of my throat. His mustache flattened against my temple and I could feel the grinding of his teeth against my cheek. I tried to scramble free. I drew my chin down into my neck and twisted my neck to the side. Pressure on my throat slackened to allow in a needle of air. But the man altered his position and applied a more efficient grip. His forearm dug deep against the side of my neck. I tried to inhale but there was no oxygen to be summoned, all channels sealed up. I let out a stifled croak. I kicked the concrete wildly. Then it all started to go.
Black spots appeared, danced about, and burst silently like tiny harmless firecrackers. A faint jingle chimed in my ear. My mind went soaring and spilled out a collection of memories. A time my foot caught on the leg of a television stand and brought the TV crashing to the hardwood floor. A little league game I misjudged a flyball and cost my team a run. A turquoise pinch pot I’d made in an art class. No regrets or triumphs or magical Christmas mornings. Only plain ordinary experiences of an eleven year-old. A small life.
I don’t go to church and even as a young boy I was stubborn about angels and spirits and anything you might call divine. The trouble is the moment you decide that the only bona-fide constants in life are impermanence and chance, it isn’t long till a singular twinkling instant presents itself, one that has such remarkable features it can’t be squared with good fortune or a mysterious cabal. However skeptical you may be, you’re left feeling as though a high black-letter law exists in the universe, a law which rewards benevolence and virtue, and that you’ve been tapped — specially tapped — for something exquisite: more.
Which is how I felt when the curb feelers and slow rotating wheels of a dark brown sedan drifted into focus. Pressure on my windpipe relaxed. I wheezed through my nose and began a fit of coughs. My eyes watered and ears rang I was unable to catch my breath.
“Not a sound now,” the man said. “Not a thing.”
A car door opened releasing the sound of classical music and, each at a time, the cuffs of light blue slacks and two leather loafers came into view. The loafers shuffled not in my direction but toward the garage entrance, slowly, deliberately until I heard metal scrape on concrete and the snap of a kickstand, then the ticking my bicycle made when the pedals turned. He was moving the bike from the driveway.
I laid there feverish and sick, eye burning, throat swelling, my left temple smooth against the cement, silently pleading for the driver to glance in my direction, for the detection of my muffled coughing, for a reaction — for anything that might lead him over to where I was.
“Not a peep.” The man tightened his grip over my mouth.
When the loafers returned to the car there was a pause, a shapeless instinct that something might be the matter. Why was a bike left in the middle of a driveway on a rainy day? Where’d the kid who was riding it go? What was that noise? But it was too cold and too rainy to give any of this much thought. In the swivel of a loafer — scrape, shuffle, zip — and closing of a car door came a shattering indifference. There’d be no confrontation. There’d be no rescue.
You’d think I’d have tried to struggle — bitten the man’s hand or screamed or done something to garner attention. I didn’t try to do any of those things though. As strange as it sounds, and even as terrified and sickened and defeated as I was, more than anything I felt astonished — hopelessly astonished — that somehow, through a strange accidental sequence of events, I was lying in a parking garage, captive to a man with a finely trimmed red mustache and neatly combed hair. All I could do, well, the best I could do, was remain motionless, taking light quiet breaths till I heard the car park and a door shut and the retreating sounds of footsteps from the garage. Till the old-timer ambled up to his apartment, to a cup of hot chocolate. To a warm crackling fire. To a distant place far, far away from me.
I used to spend a lot of time examining my decision to remain silent. I thought about how I might’ve escaped and what would’ve happened if the man had been caught. In my rich wistful imaginings, there was a karate kick to the man’s groin and thumb to his eye that sent him — doubled over in misery — reeling off into the rain where he was leveled by a 5-axle Peterbilt. There was another one where the police came and the man was arrested. I testified at the man’s trial, and from the witness stand looked directly in his eyes, pointed and boldly declared, “The man who did it is sitting right there.” Other days my reflection was more pragmatic. A scrawny little kid, stuck in a headlock, gasping for air, with no judo training, what was there to do? I could hardly release a muffled peep, let alone the necessary clatter to be heard. The man could’ve snapped my neck if he wanted.
One of trauma’s clever tricks though is a relentlessly unforgiving mind and I think I’ll always wonder if by registering some resistance I could’ve dodged many of the sensations that followed. Embarrassment over my fright, shame from my submissiveness. I wonder if I’d tried to do something — even if it failed — whether I might’ve come away from all this a little less unsteady, a little less vulnerable. And whether it would’ve been easier to shake free from the wretched loneliness that took hold of me in my thirties when I laid awake at night sullen, wet with perspiration, and mixed up by a voice in my head that told me I was a weakling and damaged, an accomplice to his own rape. Someone who didn’t deserve to lead the life he wanted to live.
Any inhibitions the man possessed before the car entered the garage vanished with the old-timer’s shuffling feet. Fierce, determined, the man poked at me till his body stiffened and he puffed out three short blasts of air. A ribbon of ejaculate coated my buttocks and dribbled down along the inside of my thigh. The man moved quickly after that. He rose to his feet and zipped up his jeans and buckled his belt. He fastened the buttons on his windbreaker and adjusted his hood. I marveled at how capably he performed these tasks.
“What a time this was.” The man shook his head and let out a small chuckle.
“Do you — ” I looked at his eyes, then at his boots. I cupped a hand over my face and started again, “Do you remember how you said you’d let me go?”
“Count to one hundred and then you can go.” He knelt next to me and put his lips close to my ear. “I’m going to be right outside listening to you and if you don’t count to a hundred”–he pinched the skin on my neck — “I’ll know.”
Then the man stood up and walked quickly out of the garage and into the rain. I knew the man wasn’t waiting for me outside. He was headed toward the boulevard to a stashed car or onto the first bus that’d carry him an alibi’s distance, off to whatever else the day would bring him.
I also knew that there wasn’t anything left for me in the garage. Everything that was going to happen there had happened. All that remained was what would come next — the park, the police, the hospital, seeing my parents. But I wasn’t ready to shoulder any of that. Not yet anyway.
I remained on the ground, pants near my calves, sweatshirt knotted against my sternum. I looked around the garage and began to count to one hundred. There were crusty pipes hanging from the ceiling and flaking stucco at the edge of the wall. My shoe laid on its side, laces still tied, near the car next to me. I saw the empty space where the Buick had stopped and the thick pillar that obstructed the old-timer’s view. I listened to the beat of raindrops pelting the parked cars along the street. I heard the squeal of a door open from the back of the garage and a woman say, “I don’t know where I put it. Harry? Harry? Oh, for heaven’s sakes, Harry…” Then the sound of a door squeaking shut.
I don’t know if there’s a measure of self-reflection or an intrinsic confidence that’s useful for absorbing what it means to be raped. Whatever the case, it was clear I didn’t possess it. When I counted up to around eighteen, my lip began to quiver and tears leaked out of my eyes. By the time I reached twenty-five my breathing erupted into an orchestral splutter of turmoil — high-pitched gasps and guttural wheezing completed by the sound of a brass tap bell that you’d press to summon the concierge. Cluck, cluck, cluck, ding. Cluck, cluck, cluck, ding.
Little in my history steered me towards any understanding of this. I’d known of perverts — strange men who lure children into their car with candy or weirdos who jump out of the shadows and open their trench coats, but I’d never heard the words pedophile or molestation. Nor did I know what sodomy was. What I did know was that every hour of the day terrible things happen to children — terrible frightful things that people don’t like to talk about. And amid the tedium of my adolescence and the wet pallid landscape of my middle-class neighborhood, a terrible frightful thing had happened to me.
There seemed no good way to explain what had happened to anyone, so once I reached the park, all I told my basketball coach was that I’d been mugged. I sat inside the office with a towel around me, cold, shivering, listening to basketballs bounce and shoes squeak and whistles blow. The activity of morning practice. It came a little quieter, a little slower that it usually did.
The coach prodded me for information, whether the man harmed me, whether he’d shown me his private parts — What exactly happened, Derby? — but it was no use. My mind was in a distant place, thoughts scrambled, still trying to catch up. Through the office window I watched as arriving parents were intercepted and briefed. (“There’s been an incident.” “We don’t know exactly. . .” “A man approached him.” “He may have been molested.”) A small pack of parents formed uncertain whether they should stay or leave. There were concerned looks, attentive nods, and head-shaking grimaces. Either by instinct or curiosity, several looked towards the window, then quickly averted their eyes when they met mine to avoid collapsing into embarrassment.
In the years that followed, this was a response that repeated itself. Few of us — men especially — possess the vocabulary, let alone the mettle, to talk about rape. Which is not to say I blame any of these parents for their silence. Saturday morning, foggy-headed, mind on basketball and coffee, you’d need more than a special gift to roll up the sleeves on your tracksuit, grab a chair and provide a measure of warm reassurance to a kid who’s just been assaulted. Besides, what is it exactly that you are you supposed to say? Something weighty and reflective? Something casual? “Hey there sport, how’s the jumper? Been practicing your free throws, working on your dribbling? Anyhoo, I heard you got snapped up off the street this morning. Well, how was it to be raped?”
Twenty years after my assault, when I was living up in San Francisco and just starting out as a lawyer, our office manager was robbed and badly beaten one evening. Upon his return to work, eyes blackened, butterfly bandage across his nose, I had every intention of wrapping an arm around him and telling him he was supported, loved even. And if it seemed appropriate, sharing my own experience as credible evidence that, in time, things get better. People do recover. But that’s not how it happened. I nattered on a bit and offered up a few banal phrases (including the dreaded “if there’s anything I can do…”) until he lightly waved his hand at me and with a thin chilly smile said, “I’m trying to put it behind me.”
The police officer who showed up at the park didn’t grade much higher on the empathy scale than I did with my office manager. He took his time removing his dark raincoat and eight-point duty cap and then rummaged around in his patrol bag with a series of sighs and huffs before he eventually sat down next to me.
“So, how you doing today?” he wanted to know.
“I’m good,” I said. “I mean, I’m pretty wet and everything, but I’m OK.”
“It’s coming down,” he said. “No denying that. Now, let me guess, strong kid like you — you’re probably a big Lakers fan.”
“I thought so. The Lakers are a fun team to root for,” he said. “I’m from Boston, so I’m a Celtics fan. I hope that’s OK.”
“I don’t mind.”
“Alrighty, good. That’s real good. Well, what we’ve got here is an incident report.” He spun around a piece of paper on the table and pointed to a few places with his ballpoint pen as if he was explaining a warranty for a new vacuum. “And what this’ll do is help us with the particulars.”
I didn’t know what he meant by particulars but told him that was fine.
“So. The first thing for us to do is write down what happened.” He clicked the head of his pen a few times. “But I’m going to need your help with that, Darrell. That sound alright?”
I nodded and didn’t mention that he called me by my wrong name.
“Now I understand you had a little visitor earlier today. Can you tell me what the man looked like?”
I recalled the man’s red hair and light skin. His approximate height and weight and the distinct part on the left side of his head. I described his blue jeans and flannel shirt and the digital wristwatch that had jabbed the skin on my chin. I left out that he wore boxers and the color of his pubic hair and the odd shape of his belly button.
“What about facial hair, a mustache or beard, do you remember that?” said the officer.
“Yes,” I said. “A red mustache. It sort of went down over his lip in one part. And he also wore a belt. It had a buckle and I think it was brown.”
“That’s real helpful,” he said.
The officer asked me several more follow-up questions. But the rest of it — slope of his nose, shape of his face, size of his hands — I couldn’t say with much precision. I simply couldn’t recall, something that began to trouble me. And for a long time after that, I kept a spiral notebook and scribbled down any detail that popped into my mind. “Small teeth,” “body freckles” and “dropped off across the street by car???” (double underlined). I also wrote down details that emerged in dreams that I had of the episode.
Although the exercise provided some clarity, it also carried a measure of aggravation. Many of my notes were incompatible and as weeks passed I became confused about certain details — whether the man wore trousers or jeans, whether he parted his hair on the left or the right, did he meet me at the freeway overpass or did he come running from across the street and stop me near the intersection? It took considerable deliberation to parse out what was correct and what I had invented to fill in gaps. Then an even stranger thing happened — I began to forget large chunks of information. I couldn’t access any details. It seemed like the entire episode might fade into one small niggling moment of my childhood, like flubbing my lines at the school play or splitting my pants playing soccer. At one point I decided that the experience would likely be expunged from my memory altogether, buried somewhere deep in the past.
Only the past, I’ve come to learn, never stays buried for too long.
Thirty years on, there are days I can still smell the man’s aftershave, still feel his whiskers bristle against my neck. There are times when, for no good reason, I become anxious and a familiar swell in my belly streaks up my chest and stings my lungs. There are afternoons my young daughters catch me static, lost in memory — watching color leach from a teabag into a glass mug of hot water — and they’ll say, “Da-ddy, what are you do-ing?” And over a jingle in my ear and a low tetchy voice that instructs me to stay still, to loosen up, I’ll tousle their hair and say, “Nothing much, girls. Nothing too interesting.”
The police officer tapped his index finger on the table. “That’s a lot of information,” he said. “Now, we just need to know what transpired.”
“What do you mean?” I said.
“Well, you know, what happened, did you go somewhere with the man?”
“No,” I said. “Not really.”
“I don’t — I don’t know,” I said.
The officer glanced at the other two coaches in the room, then back over at me, eyes nibbling suspiciously as though he might’ve seen my face on a WANTED poster tacked to the station bulletin board. “Let me ask you this, Darrell. Did the man touch you at all?”
I shook my head.
“I’m sure,” I said quietly.
“It’s ok, Derby. Tell the truth,” said one of the coaches.
“I don’t remember.” I tugged my ear and pressed my lips against my teeth.
“Now, Darrell.” The officer ran his hand over the top of his five-point hat. “A lot of times boys your age — boys just like you — well, they don’t want to say when something’s, you know, gone on…”
I don’t recall the rest of what he said. I’d let my mind go to work on finding a way to fix the mood. Something to make it all go away so the police officer could go back to his patrol car and I could join the team for wind sprints and we could forget the whole thing.
“Son,” the officer said. “Are you alright?”
My fingers had started trembling, a hot high-speed vibration that emerges in times of stress. It’s a response I still encounter when I’m in court arguing a motion or taking the deposition of a difficult witness. I’ve learned to speak a little louder, to dig my hands into my pocket and grip some spare change or pinch my thigh through my pants. But to rise up, take a walk around the office under the pretense of stretching or to signal the illusion of authority was a skill I hadn’t yet developed. I was nailed to the chair, subject to the friendly interrogation of this police officer and the checklist on his incident report, which compelled me to come clean.
The police officer drove me to the emergency room. I sat in the waiting room with an ice pack on my head and was introduced to a boy around my age named Jesse. I wondered if Jesse had also been raped, and whether it was an exclusive waiting room for kids like us. Jesse didn’t act particularly distressed nor did he look like he’d been assaulted. He climbed around on the furniture and made funny faces and watched the cartoon playing on the television. But then, I hadn’t the least idea how a rape survivor was supposed to act.
I was guided to a small examination room where a brawny, square-faced nurse in scrubs and latex gloves collected my pants and underwear. I put on a johnny and took off my socks. A damp numbness consumed my feet and a faint stinging originated from the abrasions left on my cheek. The nurse cleaned me up with a wet washcloth, then took my temperature and inspected my head.
“We got a little scrape, don’t we?” She patted at my temple with an ointment and applied a Band-Aid. “Now, what’d I miss, sugar?”
“I’m cold,” I told her.
“It is cold, isn’t it? Let’s just see if we can’t fix that.” She stroked my head and tucked the blanket beneath my feet. “There, how’s that now?”
“It’s better,” I said.
“Is that better then? Good.” She was a more compassionate woman than her features implied. “Is there anything else I can do, hon?”
I told her there wasn’t.
“I’m just going to get the doctor then.” She took a step back to the door and before she left, tilted her head to the side. “Oh honey.”
The doctor examined my eyes and ears and felt around my midsection and along my spine. He explained my neck might ache when I woke up in the morning and that I should come back if it did. He also told me that a tiny fiber or piece of clothing might’ve transferred to my body during the assault. Those were important bits of proof the police could use and the only way to obtain the evidence was through a special exam. I liked the idea of catching the man and told him that would be fine.
The doctor unpackaged a cardboard box on the counter next to him. He brushed a small comb through the hair on my head and on my arms. He scraped beneath my fingernails, took a saliva sample and inserted a long cotton swab up my rectum. Each of the samples were placed into separate test tubes and sealed into a large plastic bag. The doctor asked the nurse where my clothes were and he became cross when she said they’d been removed from the exam room.
I think the doctor’s tone caused me to understand, for the first time, that there would be more to manage than my own grief. A sharp current of tension radiates from rape. It brings pity and incomprehension and troubling images of sex and violence and kids — images that latch onto us and, despite our best efforts to guard against them, compel us to do one of the things we most hate. Feeling something we don’t want to feel.
I watched an ant crawl up the wall and traverse a crack in the stucco before shifting direction and disappearing below the bed. I touched the bandage on my face and the skin where my neck was tender and bruised. I pulled the hospital blanket up to my chin and rolled over onto my side and I wondered how in the world I was going to live the rest of my life.
When I returned to the waiting room, my father was there. He took me to his car, where we sat idling a minute, vents spewing cool air while the heater caught up. I could hear my father quietly clearing his throat and metering his breathing, down deep into his belly. A thick vein appeared in his neck. He fiddled with the tuner on the radio to find something he liked.
“There aren’t any good stations anymore,” he said before settling on a piano sonata playing on the classical station.
It was thundering outside. Droplets of rain dotted the window before peeling down the glass. A family of three walked quickly through the sliding doors into the emergency room, the woman’s hand wrapped up in gauze.
“Well, what do you think about it all?” my father said in an easygoing voice I don’t think he meant to use.
“I don’t know.” I folded my arms against my chest and leaned forward. “I shouldn’t have talked to that man.”
“Hey now,” my father said. “Don’t say that.”
“I don’t know why I talked to him.” I put my hands over my ears and shook my head. The air inside the car had become warm and thick and I felt sick to my stomach.
“Look at me,” my father said.
“I tried to get away but he caught up to me,” I said. “I couldn’t figure out how to not talk to him.”
“Look at me,” my father said again. “You’ll be O.K. You’ll get through this.”
“Thank you,” I said for some reason.
My father and I drove along the boulevard by the car dealerships and the fast-food restaurants, their flags up, lights on. We turned onto Riverside Drive and passed a string of gold medallion trees, wet and lonely, quaking in the wind, their fissured bark darkened by rain. We reached the intersection with the department store and the Trader Joe’s and the gas station where the man didn’t work. A woman with an umbrella stood at the bus stop. A Sparkletts truck double-parked to make a delivery. I thought about standing on that corner in the rain, the man’s smug expression, near-vacant streets. How could a single person not see what was happening? I watched the spars of the woman’s umbrella betray her as the wind turned it inside out. I watched the Sparkletts man cower as he stacked five-gallon water bottles onto his dolly. I watched a blue heron glide through the mist, rising and declining against the graceful echo of the thunder and the booming cantatas of Johan Sebastian Bach, and I wondered — just as I have often wondered since that afternoon — what it might feel like to say out loud that I was raped.