Natalie Eilbert

I hadn’t noticed I was bleeding. The December air was so bitter, it had turned my skin into tissuey ash. My whole body shook as I felt myself return, like an old processor calibrating its homepage. There, a Hess station. There, Broadway. There, a Kennedy Fried Chicken with half its signage snubbed out, so it read K-e-e-y F-i-d C — c-e-n in pale red light. There, the black asphalt like a dunked oreo cookie licked clean of creme and abandoned. My throat felt shredded from my screaming and still, I was alone. As a girl, I tied one side of an old hose around a tree and the other side around my waist to explore a fallout shelter in my woods. After I clumsily repelled down into the darkness, the host snapped. I sat in the open-faced concrete tomb for hours yelling for help. Tonight’s desolation was similar. The man who had sexually assaulted me had long since run off.

It had been about 2 in the morning on a Saturday, one of the final nights of Hanukkah. My mind had been a black lake of drinks, laughter, and friendship. Earlier that night, I had prepared a Hanukkah feast for my friends. I made two kinds of latkes and a gigantic pot of matzo ball soup. We drank good red wine. Lots of it. We had cabbed to a bar in Bushwick to continue our cheer. Then I was walking away from them as they took a cab back to Manhattan. Alone with my thoughts, that black lake, as the rest of me took long strides. I felt myself tipping to the side for no reason I could think of, and then I was against a wall. That’s when I realized there were hands on me, reaching from under my jacket to my crotch and ass. Was it my quiet giving in that disturbed him, or the sudden rush of anger that caused him to stop and run away? What made him stop and what made me run after him and what made him look back at me with a smile as he ran?

Earlier that night, my friends and I played a very sophisticated interpretation of the game “Infinity.” It is my favorite parlor activity. The game dictates that one person have a word or concept in their head. Around the room, each person presents what they think that person is very specifically thinking about. I could be thinking, for example, of the sensation of sudden defamiliarization inspired by watching a squirrel crawling up a tree, that the squirrel’s insistence that it should climb up that tree rendered me an alien creature observing nature on a planet I had no business on. Wasn’t the point of my existence to extinguish nature as an obstacle as I grew bigger and bigger? I would be thinking of this sensation and then someone to my right would say, “You’re thinking of a potato cooked perfectly in the oven, but then there’s no sour cream and the only butter available is very old butter so it creates this weird stale buttery taste over the perfectly fluffy baked potato.” The person to their right would say “You’re thinking of riding a bike in the rain and how this is a very powerful feeling.” Someone else would say I was simply thinking of a red ball. After the entire circle would tell me what I was thinking about, I would approximate who was closest to my thinking. Obviously in this example, the person who said “red ball” would win. The beauty is that that might not be the same for you. All your existential dread could be summed up by the baked potato without adequate fixings. This arbitrary selection meant they would now be tasked with thinking and we would have to say what we thought they were thinking. It goes on forever and there is not ever a final winner. It’s a great game.

At the bar in Bushwick, we danced. Lea DeLaria from Orange Is the New Black was also there, and I kept telling my friends I was going to ask her if she wanted to dance, but every time I splintered from the group and walked toward her, the separation made the air a cowardly fur and I knew it was a bad idea. By this point, the wine had given the room a pleasant Van Gogh design, the lights ribboning and blurring as bodies swirled in botanical rhythm. Then the night snapped shut. My friends stepped into a cab to head back to Manhattan and I told them I would walk home. This dynamic all seemed very automatic. They were concerned but I assured them I’d be fine. I had on my big blue Marmot jacket and the whole evening as a balm. It had been a perfect night. It was a perfect night and my judgement was completely impaired.

I walked in what I felt to be the correct direction toward home. It was not the correct direction but that did not occur to me. I had become plant life, wading in the terrific breeze of being alive. I would have kept walking for a long time but the freedom to be a body was cut off by another body’s freedom. In a moment, there was pressure on my backside, up my big blue Marmot jacket, on my ass and crotch. I remember when I realized that sensation was another person’s hands groping with focused intention. I thought about what hands were — two small sea creatures with five tentacles each, private underwater gropings done to objects to learn more about those objects, whether they could be weapon or tool or food or nothing at all of use. It sounds silly or inconceivable to say this is what went on in my head, but like the “Infinity” game, my idea was enacted by guesswork necessitated in the dark. He pushed his body onto mine, convinced it belonged there. I want to say in this moment I fought, but the alcohol made me a fish pushed on one end by a predator and on the other end by water. I, a fish, with no sense of either predator nor the water that keeps me alive. Then I understood what was happening. I pushed my back against his body and swung my elbows. My elbow made contact with some hard part of him — his head or his shoulder — but between the booze and the soft pads of my down jacket, I can’t imagine this could have hurt. He did release me, however, and ran the other way, ironically toward the direction I should have been walking the whole time. I chased him for three blocks, screaming at the top of my lungs, “How dare you touch another human being!” This, I remember well. Because I was afraid. Because I wanted someone somewhere to hear me. I was on a different planet. Light and sound could not penetrate with the same resonance as on Earth. I looked at the residential windows. No lights clicked on.

I ran into a gas station, colder than I’ve felt in a long time. I told the gas station clerk that I had just been assaulted. He had been talking to his friend. Both of their eyes turned to me, sizing me up, as if calculating how assaultable I was. I said I needed help, but I didn’t know what that help meant. He said nothing, which I assumed meant I could wait for a cab in his store, and he carried on a conversation with his friend, suspicious of what they had just both witnessed. I wanted to lay my head against the rows of Cheetos. Chester Cheetah always had a rapey vibe to him though, his cool sangfroid in sudden contradiction of his fast hunger for other people’s Cheetos. He had the toothy grin of a sex offender. I left the station.

Without knowing what else to do, I ordered an Uber. He would be here in nine minutes, and it seemed an impossible length of time. I thought of all the people ordering Ubers across the city who had not been sexually assaulted minutes earlier. All of the ordinary things I was still made to do despite someone’s hand grabbing my vagina. My finger was bleeding and I didn’t know why. My blood did not know what had happened to me, I didn’t think. The blood’s sense of violation has a whole other set of laws.

My Uber driver called me and asked where I was. I told him where I was. He told me I was not where I placed the pin. I apologized and asked if he could please come my way. He said I must be at the pin in a minute or he would leave. I told him I had just been sexually assaulted, could he tell me where I had initially placed the pin (I didn’t think I had placed a pin anywhere), and that I needed help. He hung up. I got a ping from Uber that said the ride had been canceled. I was charged for the cancelation. I do not remember the cancelation fee because I was aghast. I was aware, even as I uttered the words that, since English was not his first language — it was as possible he simply didn’t understand these words “sexual” and “assault” together. That same thought could be applied to the men in the gas station. I forgave them this, despite the men who speak English perfectly well and don’t understand these two words together to such a degree that they build laws around them to specifically avoid having to understand them.

Without knowing what else to do, I ordered another Uber. Thirteen minutes away. I trudged back to the gas station and waited again there, the orange glow of Chester Cheetah to my left ridiculing my state of mind. The men didn’t acknowledge me. They were smoking cigars. I thought there should be music on in the station but there wasn’t. Whatever had happened to my finger had stopped. I couldn’t figure out how to place the pin to my new location, so I watched the little black car zigzagging in his coordinates incomprehensibly slow toward me. Each time the car stopped, I stared, unsure it would ever move forward again. A block away from my coordinates, I left the station again toward the pin. I stood where I had put the pin. I wanted to be on top of the pin, exactly where I said. The car pulled up and I got in silently. He said my name to me and I said my name to him. We drove until we stopped. We were picking up another party. I had not known about Uber Pool until that recent trip back to New York and I suppose my app had automatically adjusted to the Pool setting. It seemed to help the environment, which I liked. Two drunk people, a man and a woman, got into the car, one in the passenger’s seat and one in the back. They were talking loudly back and forth. I was a quiet mass next to them. In their telling of the evening, my presence would not factor. I calmed myself imagining this: How nice to know I was never there.

The assault had taken all of twenty seconds. In hot yoga class, a male instructor would have us hold postures and, to encourage us, would say “You can do anything for thirty seconds.” I always thought that was a funny thing to say. All these yoga bodies seemed to have a unique dispensation to harmful elements. It was much more plausible that I would not survive being stabbed in the head for thirty seconds. That was all I thought of as I held asanas: I could not endure thirty seconds of being stabbed in the head, but yes, I could sustain myself in dancer pose. In twenty seconds, a stranger had put his hands all around my crotch and ass, pushed me against a surface and held me there, guided by the shape of my body. Then it was over. It never happened. It took me two hours to get home after the encounter. Oddly, when I told people about this, their shock was that it took me two hours to get home when I was only a fifteen-minute drive away. They were much more taken aback by the logistics of getting a cab than my being sexually violated by a stranger in the middle of the street.

When Brock Turner raped the unconscious woman who would become a heroine among rape survivors, Brock Turner’s father complained that his son shouldn’t get jail time for “twenty minutes of action.” I remember wondering, not for the first time, why the duration of the incident should factor into a jail sentence. You can do anything for thirty seconds. It takes a nanosecond to pull a trigger and kill a man. What then?

Certain men would simply make it clear the difference between murder and rape. My assault had taken twenty seconds. It took 360 times longer to get home. When I did, the full range of emotions took over and I wept loudly on the floor for many hours. It was like I was coming into the realization that a limb had been forcibly removed from my body. Where was my limb and who had it? Twenty seconds. Twenty minutes. Hold for thirty seconds.

The next day, I decided it would make the most sense to report this incident to the police. I wagered that the man who did this was not simply testing out his boundaries for the first time. It would happen again and again. But the cops would shame me, this I knew. Friends from whom I sought advice warned me. How strange, to know with certainty that shame was part of the experience of reporting a crime. On the way to the local precinct, I said to my partner, “Do you think they will arrest me?” and he laughed, but I wasn’t joking. I wasn’t joking at all.

When we walked into the precinct, a policewoman was writing in a ledger on a wooden pulpit, as if she were preparing for a lecture. I froze. What was I supposed to say? My eyes were sunken and the world too bright. I was hungover. I had not considered that I would have a hangover. I thought the body’s violation would at least give me a special physical shield against hangovers. Something about endorphins or adrenaline. I turned to my partner. What was I supposed to say? “Tell them,” he smiled patiently, “‘I’d like to report a crime’.” Really? The words were chunks of talc coming out of my mouth.

“What?” she looked up.

“I’d like to report a crime?” Tears shuttered my vision. She sighed with irritation.

“What is the nature of your crime?” This was a strange question. Do crimes have their own set of natural law? Was there an ecosystem that I was, momentarily, forced into? It seemed to make more sense to ask someone who had just endured a hurricane, “What was the nature of the storm?” It did not make sense to me that I should account for this nature and define its dimensions. In answer, I started to cry. My friend once said, “White girls cry about everything,” and I held in my brain a steady montage of all the public places I had heretofore cried. The policewoman took me into the back of the precinct for the full scoop. Moments earlier, we were two pedestrians who could have been on our way to brunch. Maybe we should have been on our way to brunch. But instead here we were, sitting on ripped chairs. I fingered the yellow foam that my weight was pushing further out of the seam. Was the rip a result of many buckling bodies weeping over the nature of their crimes? Or did it happen all at once, a crime in and of itself?

Rapid-fire, she asked me a series of questions. The first question she asked was whether he was black or brown. I didn’t know how to answer. She pointed at her own face. Was he brown like me? Why hadn’t she asked if he was white? I wanted to ask her this, but answering a question with a question is obnoxious, especially because I am a white woman who wanted to ask a brown woman of authority why the perp couldn’t be white. Prior to this incident, I had been assaulted only by white men, but I had never reported those cases. I was too young and I didn’t know that what they did to me was rape. I thought rape involved a screaming woman and a grunting strange man who tore her clothes off and threatened to kill her if she continued screaming. For a long time, I grieved what I believed to be a physical misunderstanding between friends. In this instance, the man was brown and I didn’t want to say so. Why was I here? I said he was brown, probably Latino. My heart collapsed. She said back to me, “So brown like me?” I didn’t know what to do beyond nod.

The question she asked me that would be asked again and again was why I didn’t call the police after the incident took place. It was hard for me to say concisely that I didn’t trust authorities to know how to handle sexual assault (and yet here I was), that I didn’t trust authorities to know how to handle a brown male body (and yet here I was). It was hard, too, to say concisely that I wasn’t aware that this incident could warrant an investigation. After all, he didn’t rape me. There isn’t much in the way of language that names sexual assault with the same severe gravity as a word like rape. In fact, when I had recounted the night, the policewoman had replied back, “So, attempted rape. I’m writing down attempted rape.” Was what happened to me an attempt? It seemed pretty clearly done to me with utmost success.

The policewoman led me to another officer. This officer would be driving me to the precinct nearest to where the incident took place. They were waiting for a car to become available. I had watched a smiling man in handcuffs joking with his escorting officer and they seemed to be friends. I imagined that a condition of their friendship was that one of them had to be handcuffed. They went into a police car and drove away. Another car was now available. She opened the police car in a kind gesture and I stepped in.

She didn’t talk much. She had read the report and was sensitive to the idea that a strange man had attempted to rape me last night. In the car, I thought about intention. The car looked like the inside of the torn chair on which I had just been sitting. This backseat had housed a lot of fear, I could feel it. Or I believed I could feel it. I had only ever been in the backseat of a cop car once before, an incident I’m sure would have led to a sentence had I not been a little white girl with a dime bag.

Intention is such a faraway word to me when it comes to human behavior. Did the man last night have designs on me blocks earlier and did he follow me with the mindset, “I’m going to touch her in a way she won’t be able to stop”? Was he sitting on some porch steps when I passed and did the idea flash in his head to do what he did, just a spontaneous silly idea? Maybe he didn’t see how his actions could be construed as anything but playful? What if he saw me as a woman walking around in his neighborhood whom he had every right to grope and conquer? The backseat was extremely uncomfortable. As if the officer read my mind, she said, “Sorry about the seats — they’re not meant to be comfortable.” I smiled but became aware that I should show no signs of humor in the scenario. I worried constantly that they might not believe me if I acted anything other than as a traumatized victim. She started talking again: “You know, they might ask you very hard questions. They might ask you for your underwear. They might need samples. You should be aware that they might keep articles of your clothes as evidence.” We passed brunch goers and they looked at my hollowed gray face in the backseat of the cop car. I flashed a mean look. To them, I was under arrest for a pre-brunch transgression.

At the next precinct, I was brought to a very cold, empty room. This is not to say it was an interrogation room, not by any means. It was simply a large empty room with many vending machines of soda bottles with faded labels, photos of American flags, spirited aphorisms, portraits of uniformed men and women, heroic golden appliqués, and only a men’s bathroom. At this point, I had to pee in a tremendous way, but I was told to stay put. Friends were texting me to make sure I was okay. Earlier that morning, I had posted the following status to Facebook:

The status received 275 reactions, mostly angry and sobbing emoticons. There were 148 comments ranging from “So sorry this happened to you” to “You are incredibly strong. Be proud of your strength.” My favorite was simply, “UUGH.” There was something specifically perverse about having posted this, about enjoying the amounts of comments and likes as I sat with tightening legs in a frigid empty precinct room awaiting the unknown.

Recently, I saw a meme on a family member’s timeline. The meme shows a woman at the edge of a bed, her bare back to us, her arms at rest by her sides in horror, and what looks like a large hotel window. The bright sunlight from the window makes her look like an alien whose cartoonish shadow limbs are illumined by a neighboring spacecraft. The text bordering her reads like a big man yelling with his mouth full of greasy meat. It says, “Just because you regretted it / doesn’t mean it was rape.” Men’s Right Activist groups decry that men need to keep women honest, so they might stay safe from public accusations. When I think of all the men chiming in on this thread that they are sick of the lies of women, I wonder about this momentary lapse in grief where I am seen and thought of by 300 people both friend and stranger on the Internet. My younger brother commented, “so sorry sister :*( here if you need anything.” My older brother suggested hanging the man by the balls, a comment that aligned itself too much with lynching imagery and that I deleted. I liked everyone’s comments. I updated people in the comments and then in a separate status. It felt nice, to be believed and supported.

In the comments I wrote, “Overwhelmed by the love and support. Thank you all very much. I will say that while I appreciate all the self-defense/mace talk and know it’s coming from a good place, from this end it has the ring of being borderline victim blaming. And while I totally get the mindset, please don’t offer this as an answer. It is neither an answer nor solution to my situation.” I wanted to soften the blow, so I added, “So much heart for all of you.” This internal comment received 11 likes. Emboldened, in another status, I updated everyone:

That one got 102 more likes. And it was true — I had received notification from my university that student evaluations were in and that they were perfectly positive. People wanted to show their support. I include this aspect of the day because it was not only the part that had the most healing properties but also because it was the part I feel the most conflicted about. Here I am, another woman oversharing on the Internet, using the Internet as a storehouse for her mounting grievances, indulging in the dopamine glow of her phone. But why should I receive support for something that only took twenty seconds from beginning to end? Did all these people really believe me brave, or did I go out of my way to paint myself the portrait of brave survivor? What would be wrong with that? Wasn’t I a brave survivor? I wasn’t sure.

Three police officers entered the room — two men and a woman. I was told to remain seated. The two men continued to stand and the policewoman sat at a chair across from me, a table dividing us. I didn’t know which way to look. The policemen started asking me questions. I felt it was important to maintain eye contact when one of the officers asked me if the man had grabbed my vagina. He motioned to his own crotch when he said “vagina.” He asked if there had been any penetration. He asked if I was wearing the same clothes as I was the night before. No. I was wearing the same underwear. I wondered if they would need my underwear, and if they did, if that meant I could finally pee. I held his gaze and told him the same story as I had told everyone else. The two men left the room. After learning what neighborhood I lived in, the policewoman across the table asked me whether Habitat in Greenpoint was still there — she and her husband loved that place.

Only one of the officers returned. He told the other officer something and they agreed to go together. I wasn’t sure if it was a conversation I should be hearing, so I looked in various directions. The soft focus portrait of a cop being awarded something, fake medals decorating the velour backing of the picture frame. They asked me to stand up. We were able to go now. I didn’t know where we were going. Did I pass a test? Had there been a hidden polygraph somewhere in the room? I was becoming uncertain about every detail and started to lose clarity of the memory. Was I actually pushed against a wall? Was I actually only grazed by this man? Maybe he was just trying to walk by me. Recently I read an article stating that this was a common phenomenon following traumatic events: revisionist memories, informed by an authority’s suggestions. I already knew this a priori from The Central Park Five, The New Jim Crow, and countless other articles, films, and books, but I understood this in a new somber way. You really could make someone remember something they did that never happened, that they had never committed, but I didn’t think you could make someone erase their own violence. I followed them to a car. We were going to Brooklyn SVU.

The whole ordeal was now becoming an inconvenience. We went that morning to the precinct, then to another, and were now in a vehicle going further from our neighborhood. There was an enjoyable buddy cop dynamic happening between the two officers in the front. The policewoman was playing with the radio. She was relaxed in the way that my childhood friend Sandra was relaxed when I was thirteen and in a different backseat, being driven away from the house in which I had been forced to stay the night before. (It would take years to define this as a crime in which I was kidnapped as a thirteen year old and abused throughout the night.) Sandra had taken Rob’s entire silverware drawer in the car with us, a kind of friendly revenge against the man who had broken me. It was a funny gesture, taking his entire silverware drawer. As we drove, Sandra would fling fork after spoon after fork out the moving window. I sat in the backseat wanting to hold my crotch, wondering if it was supposed to feel like my vagina had its own heart. My labia pulsed a million tiny paper cuts. How did Sandra know how to find me in the morning? Was she part of the plan? Years would go by before I remembered that Rob was also in the car with us and thought Sandra dumping out his silverware was such a hilarious and crazy thing — didn’t I think it was such a hilarious and crazy thing? It wasn’t clear what he had done to me, but I knew I wasn’t supposed to cry about it in front of anyone.

Looking out the cop car window, my eyes welled up in a similar fashion. I saw my own face, a vague reflection against the blurring brownstones, my eyes black and sad on the glass like an awful photo collage. When I discovered how to superimpose 35mm film, I made terrible art just like this, a face transposed over a black and white forest. I have never been in a car driven more slowly than by the car driven by the policeman bringing me to Brooklyn SVU. I heard the trademarked two-note blip of Law & Order. It kept coming to me every time I told someone I was on my way to SVU, like I was going to a place with Christopher Meloni and a green screen. It made me feel embarrassed about my incident. Special victims unit? Really? Was that how they referenced my case to each other? Did my report garner more attention for “attempted rape”? Is that what I wanted? Should I clarify this in case there was any doubt?

It had been four hours. We walked up the steps to the main SVU floor. This was the floor on which the special victims were asked to wait, presumably for their private Elliot Stabler. All around us, signs said we were not legally allowed to leave without an officer’s permission. It was not the first time that day I felt terrified, but I didn’t know what permission meant. I didn’t know what would happen if I decided to stand up and leave. I twisted my legs, cramping with bladder pain. It felt gauche to ask about restrooms. I expected an answer back like, “What do you think this is, a hotel?” I was mortified by this fictional retort — how quickly it would put me in my place — so I continued to sit very still, pretending organs were a rumor of the human body that had nothing to do with me.

In his office, Detective Jerry gave me a speech about the importance of honesty in sharing these incidents. He said many times in the spiel that he had not looked at previous reports by previous officers, that he would not look at them ever. This was my last chance to speak the most truthfully about what actually happened. “Sometimes, people get quite scared,” Jerry said, rubbing his chin. “They say things that aren’t quite true, because they feel pressure to make their story better.” My mind flashed to hands up my big blue Marmot jacket. They seemed more now to belong to a raccoon and not to a human at all. Maybe his hands hadn’t even touched me. I was living in the shadow of the ghost of what happened. The hands that had grabbed my vagina with such force were fading to apparitional lights. How dare I say the light touched me. How dare I say it hurt. It was turning into a fairy tale with dubious moral consequence. My assault was a wilting rose in a belljar, or maybe I would remain eternally asleep until someone believed me awake.

Jerry asked if I had a curfew with my boyfriend or husband, and if I needed to tell a different story to avoid punishment. It was one of the first questions he asked in that office. I couldn’t bring myself to ask this out loud, but I did think to myself, Shouldn’t that be something you’re concerned about? In many ways, he had all the trappings of a detective: dank stale cigarettes, pit stains, coffee-dripped button-ups, scattered facial hair, a sad smile. It looked like a rough job. I felt sorry for him. I repeated my story, with something that took the form of careful respect. Evinced in his stare, I saw a series of other possible narratives buzzing. I thought that, after telling my story, the flickers of doubt would fade, but they didn’t. The muscles in his face held the same skeptical cramp as when I first sat down.

What was I doing here? Jerry held my gaze too long when I said I had been drunk and couldn’t remember exactly where the assault took place. I was worried, as all women in this situation worry, that this aspect of the events, intoxication and its annihilation of facts, would no longer serve me, if at any point and to any of these cops it had. Jerry was a professional detective, and did not affect a look of judgment, but I could feel him reconciling the facts against his opinion of the facts, a machine effervescent as it hums and churns to operate. He started to plug information into a computer. What was his race? What was his height? Was he light-skinned? Body frame? Did he have notable features, like a scar or tattoo on his face? What was he wearing? I saw the rough etches of so many grim men on telephone posts — they flashed through my mind in an instant — a leering visage that denoted untold violence and promised more, like a method of time; the viewer of such an image was locked in a manifold condition of dread. It explains a lot, mostly about racial internalizations and white fear, but also serves as a reminder to all women at any hour of the day that they must be careful. They must be very, very careful.

Jerry told me he would leave the room while I looked at the mugshots of hundreds of sex offenders who fit the vague description of a vague night. He kept sighing at my details, like I was the author of a poorly constructed writing exercise. I once had a writing professor, a famous poet, who would term a piece “inchoate” whenever it didn’t satisfy his notions of craft. I always thought it was such a beautiful word.

Jerry said I should take his seat behind the desk and scroll through the images. Literally hundreds. He reminded me again that I was not making his job very easy since it lacked proper geography. But I had known exactly what street I was on, the distance to the gas station was only a few blocks away. I gave Jerry a five-block radius and thought it would suffice. Wasn’t this his job? The uselessness of this meeting read first on his face and then on mine. I stood up and moved to his seat behind the desk. For his part, he stood awkwardly to the side of the desk — the only optional entryway for me — with his back against the wall to give me as much space as possible, but negotiating that pivot, so that my back was to his front, was exhausting. Hands had reached up my body in that very position. He remained what he considered a respectful distance away as I did this, but by the time I reached his chair — warm from his body — a hot tear dropped from my face onto the desk. We both looked at it.

“Yeah, these people aren’t pretty,” he said, noting my reddening face. It was a shitty remark, as if I should care about such things as beauty. He left the room for me to click the forward arrow button on each face. The rapid mugshots reminded me of Orange Is the New Black and this parallel was also the reason I had quit watching that show. The glorification of the white body in prison who didn’t belong there, the fetishization and perpetuation of the brown criminals who did. I called it industrial complex porn. White people love this show. Regina Spektor muppet-trilled in my head the cage is full the day is new and everyone’s waiting everyone’s waiting and you’ve got time and you’ve got time, a cruel semiconscious response, as I clicked the greasy mouse. Jerry was right. These people were not pretty.

I had wanted to ask Jerry about what made all these men sex offenders. Isn’t that obvious? No. I would later learn that getting your name, photograph, and address on a sex offender registry (in jurisdiction with Megan’s Law, which requires this information be public) is not cut and dry — this is unsurprising, since we live in America, a country where you can go to jail for twenty years for possession of a dime bag if you’re black or brown. According to Jacob’s Law, the 1994 law that forced every state, including Washington, D. C., to create a registry for sex offenders, crimes that can also land you on a sex offender registry are as follows: public urination, consensual teenage sex, transportation of a minor for illegal sexual activities, misleading Internet domain names, and this wallop: “18 U.S.C. §2424 (Failure to File Factual Statement about an Alien Individual).” SORNA (Sexual Offender Registration and Notification Act) enforced more draconian requirements for how and when one must register (regarding duration, paperwork, penalties). The knowledge of your offense, if it even constitutes legitimate sexual offense, follows you from state to state, a sentient body of water sloshing behind your place of residence, always watching, always warning others. I learned, too, that registering as a sex offender was sometimes part of a plea bargain for circumstances in which one would otherwise be thrown in jail for lewd and lascivious behavior with a minor (even if it’s consensual) (even if one person is freshly eighteen years old and the other is fourteen) (even if the couple ends up reconciling and are now happily married).

I stared at faces who did not know they would be staring back at me. Men with bright teary eyes, oblong heads, scars, missing eyes, cheek tattoos, swollen-shut eyes, eyebrow piercings, trim beards, inconceivably dented heads, wet eyes, gray jowls, angry eyes. They all looked like they’d been through the ringer. I found it hard not to sympathize with their circumstances, though I knew I wasn’t supposed to feel inclined in this way. The violence that had to reach them to get them in this position, whether that violence was voluntary or conditioned, was not lost on me. I recognized too that I was doing the ultimate white girl gesture: over-emoting my private feelings without wanting to learn about or offset their circumstances. There was one who had vague features to last night’s man, but I didn’t know what would happen if I told Jerry this. The man in the photo who shared key traits with my offender looked like a beaten-up kid.

When Jerry came back into the room, he reeked of cigarettes. “Any luck?” he stated gruffly. There is a whole terrible history of white women pointing out brown assailants, and so when he asked if anybody looked like the culprit, I said no, nobody fit the description. The kid in that shot was absolutely not the man who did me harm, and I didn’t want anything more bad to happen to him if I merely suggested they shared a look. Jerry sighed. He reminded me that I was not helping him in any capacity. He folded his hands in front of him, tired. He suggested that on that following Tuesday evening, he pick me up so that we might drive to the area where the crime took place. Maybe the location would jog my memory. Maybe there’d be nearby security cameras that would have captured the events of the night. This made the most sense to me. We agreed on a time and I gave him my address. Jerry handed me his card as if he were a failed salesman and said we could leave. Leaving now meant we were not subject to being arrested. We had permission. I zipped up my jacket, a crude feeling, like I had just serviced an entire swath of cops.

We were led down the stairs and out the building, escorted back to the precinct furthest from our apartment. I still hadn’t peed. When we returned home, I turned all the lights out and stared at the wall for a long time.

That night, I was supposed to meet my best friends who were visiting from out of town. I lifted myself out of body, the dark compression of the pillow marks wrinkling my face. I thought about buttoning and zipping myself up to enter the night, the night that now felt like inhabiting a violent interior. I was to get on a train and meet them in Park Slope. I zipped up my blue Marmot and the coat felt like so many hands reaching up me. I was petrified of leaving the house, of being left to the elements. I texted my friends, who kindly agreed to meet near me. This was bratty of me, I thought. I should just get over this. The assault had occurred less than 24 hours ago and already, I was a victim of my own reduction. I could feel the judgment in the detective’s eyes, eyes that said my case was easy because it wasn’t a case at all.

I told friends that Jerry and I would be driving around in a detective car on Tuesday, and they seemed impressed with how the assault was being handled. I joked that this was going to be the pilot episode of a new police procedural and that I would enter the detective car and try, at some point, to do an about-face when it seemed all the information has been sapped of utility. I would say in that chummy Columbo voice, But one more thing, presenting a crucial tool that would reveal the whereabouts of my ne’er-do-well. We’d find our way in the damp Bushwick streets to the man stalking another unsuspecting woman and our sirens would balloon to life. Then we’d slap the handcuffs on and make a clever moralistic pun, something about the predator becoming the prey. Case closed. Natalie Eilbert, Brooklyn’s newest PI.

Later in the evening, I met other friends at a different bar. I sipped seltzer and nervously darted my gaze around the room. Two men were talking very loudly at each other. Were they fighting? My awareness of their proximity was near devastating. They were getting closer, the way that, in cartoons, two characters enter into a scuffle and the scuffle turns into a cloud of swinging limbs and aluminum tins, a tumbleweed of aggression. The fight cloud moved toward me and I moved closer to my friend, sitting with his legs wide on a bar stool. My whole body could fit in the space fanning out his legs. It was the only spot at the bar with spare room and I didn’t want it (as much as I love this friend), so I put my drink down and left. I was again outside, earlier than the last night, but wearing my blue Marmot, the same jeans and shoes. I froze but pushed myself to walk. My ears trembled, an odd sensation. Every part of me buzzed.

Tuesday evening came. I paced with Jerry’s card in hand. I wondered when he would be calling me, or if he’d just show up. Would he come in a police car? Or a stealth patrol vehicle? Perhaps I was to meet him at the SVU? Frankly, the prospect of sitting in a car with a strange man who didn’t believe me had me shackled with grief. I called the number around 5pm, my heart dry in my throat. I managed to ask about Jerry without bursting open. The receptionist put me on hold. She came back on the line to say he had just stepped out, unfortunately. I had a feeling he was standing beside her and they were sharing a smirk. Stupid girl!, I imagined her mouthing to him. She did not ask me for my number to call him back, but I gave it anyway. I had the keen impression she did not write it down. I asked her to make sure he called me right away, but as I said it, my own voice seemed farcical. When I hung up, I texted an old friend and said I would need to reschedule our hangout. I sat on the couch with my phone in my lap and let the incoming night plunge the room into darkness. A cliche, I knew.

He didn’t believe it merited an investigation, I guessed. I called the office a few more times and received the same response. He had just stepped out, he had just stepped out. Again, nobody promised a callback. I expected the call sometime that week since I hadn’t heard from Jerry, but by the second week, I relinquished those expectations. His card stayed in my wallet for a long time, the gold embossed star on the card glinting as if to say Your story was not worth my time, stupid girl.

I recycled the card on International Women’s Day, and made a joke that I hoped it would return as a better paper object. The message was loud and clear: The man who pinned me against a wall and grabbed my vagina did not commit a compelling enough crime. It would be yet one more offense that I would analyze until overuse. Even the idea of spending this many pages describing what happened suggests an ignorance beyond me, and already, I hear a coterie of men speaking in unison about how much I wanted this to damage me. Or maybe that is my own voice, the same voice that advocates for survivors and tells them what happened to them is real. My own voice, a contradiction in design.

Finally here is what happens: I relied on the outpouring of sympathy and kindness from friends and strangers on Facebook and Twitter because maybe I thought it would be the only reception to my sorrow and grief. I could not keep it to myself nor could I handle the vulnerability of speaking to others individually about this. A popular criticism is that one should DO SOMETHING instead of responding in this saccharine passive manner. If authorities aren’t called, it is clearly a sign of attention. After I had a horrible incident with someone from my cohort in grad school, someone else in the cohort told me, essentially, to report it or tell nobody. I reported but did not press charges. It became a distant error, the way a light malfunctioning in a nearby house has nothing to do with your own navigations through darkness. My mother, after learning recently about the violence done to me as a thirteen year old, said in a distraught voice, “We could have pressed charges.” There is that idea over and over again, that action must be done, not only for justice, but to validate the trauma. Trauma is like a liver in the body, a delicate tissue that comes apart in your hands when you try to probe its oversaturated material. So this phrase, press charges imprints upon the survivor’s sense of trauma so that it becomes their only worthwhile possession, an organ that can filter in both directions. We are pressed against that fear for a long time, a charge.

And yet.

A woman tries to go through the motions of responsibility action. She reports the crime. She is not believed. She repeats her story. She is not believed. She is asked instead about a curfew. Whether she has a boyfriend or husband. The detective will say he’ll do more to help just to get her escorted away from SVU, off the premises and back to the precinct. In the event that something is done, there will be a table of men nearby criticizing the nature of her crime, debating her choices, calling her an opportunist, a temptress. The words “witch hunt.” The words “not that bad.” She is not believed. Instead, she is left sitting on her couch with a detective’s business card, waiting for a phone call that will never come.

Today, in my university email, I received a message from campus police about a fourth degree sexual assault that took place on campus. The email continued to say she was “inappropriately touched by an unknown male.” I was struck by this idea that sexual assault has degrees, like burns and murders. According to Wisconsin Statutes, section 940.225, fourth degree sexual assault can be defined as the following:

Having sexual contact with a person without that person’s consent. Sexual contact means any of the following: Intentional touching, by the complainant or defendant, either directly or through clothing by the use of any body part or object, of the complainant’s or defendant’s intimate parts, if that intentional touching is either for the purpose of sexually degrading or humiliating the complainant, or sexually arousing or gratifying the defendant.

For this offense, you might serve nine months in county jail and/or be slapped with a fine. What I found out next shocked me so deeply that I had to go outside for air. Third degree sexual assault is actual rape, or, as they put it, “Sexual intercourse with a person without consent of that person.” For this crime, you can serve jail time for no more than five years OR be fined not more than $10,000. Wisconsin law defines consent as “words or overt action by a person who is competent to give consent indicating a freely given agreement to have sexual intercourse or sexual contact.” If you coerce someone into intercourse with a weapon or through threat, that is a greater offense than simple rape, as if sexual intercourse without consent did not indicate its own cast of threats. Is it any wonder we turn to each other instead of the law?

Police will tell you that they take sexual assault very seriously. One can argue they put people reporting sexual assault through hell because they want to make sure that a case can be made. However, this is a problem of vocabulary that recapitulates the double standard in cases of violence. Our sense of how to take the pressure off the survivor and onto other controlled variables — police training, sexual assault education, definitions of consent, gendered internalizations of violence and sexual shame (trust me, it comes very early for girls) — is as functional as accepting the turbulence on a plane and tolerating the sickening drops and spills instead of navigating to smoother altitudes. The path of least resistance is not lessened by ignoring those who suffer that resistance.

I read an unfinished version of this essay aloud to a friend. It was a way, too, of coming out to her about the incidents that have scored my life. Memory, according to many neurologists, is left in its purest form when it isn’t remembered at all. Human error mars the recall of events. Language tumbles with the pain before it can truly encapsulate the story, and it is in this way that to speak of assault is already to blunder. When I say that it’s a problem of vocabulary, it isn’t just one thread of speaking that troubles the water. It matters what you call these incidents, and it matters that they carry the weight of that name through to those who have the fortune to never have encountered such a name.

Finally, it is the definition of consent that lays bare so many questions. Recall that it is defined by law as “words or overt action by a person who is competent to give consent indicating a freely given agreement to have sexual intercourse or sexual contact.” Neither words nor those overt actions operate outside the decrees of rape culture. One might be a thirteen year old girl (though the age doesn’t matter) driven against her will to an adult male’s home; she intuits that to say No invites unknown and potentially worse consequences. One might, in that case, concede to her circumstances as a means to survive the outcome. One might be a thirty year old woman on a drunken walk home who never had a chance to resist, whose agency couldn’t keep up with the rupture of human action.

When you write both of these scenes out in full, the impact of trauma and assault seems obvious. Throw it against the relief of misguided doubt, however, and another narrative grows, like a culture, like the game I enjoy so much called Infinity. And until we troubleshoot the language that dictates the law behind these violences, as the game Infinity promises, we will be guided by interpretation after interpretation, proximal in its grief, with no hope of it ever stopping.

Natalie Eilbert

Written by

(she/her/hers) Author of Indictus (Noemi Press; 2018) & Swan Feast (Bloof Books; 2015); editor of @theatlasreview; I scream a lot about sexual assault

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