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I keep looking for signs.
On a unseasonably cold Friday night I’m thinking of friendships past, and I google you, finding you tucked away in a minimum-security prison in Northeast Ohio. It took a little more sleuthing to find your ex-wife. I admit that it’s a little voyeuristic to peek into the life of the broken woman you left behind. It’s hard, too, to scroll through your respective Facebook pages and see a seemingly idyllic marriage destroyed. The traces of the man I knew — the man who adored his wife and their cat and their life in a sleepy Midwestern town — are still there, sharing the minutiae of his day. There’s no sign of you on her Instagram, save for a post offering your old derby skates for sale and a snapshot of a letter you sent her last spring. It was “simultaneously like reopening stitches and a gift from the universe,” she wrote.
Twenty years. Twenty years I knew you. Or so I thought.
You were an unrepentant alcoholic when we met, a good friend of the man I’d eventually marry, the best friend of another I have always held in high esteem. Did you see the signs? I asked.
It would be several years before you embraced sobriety, trading in one addiction for other, harmless ones. We shrugged off your commitment to watching NASCAR, your anal-retentive need to control every softball practice, and your newfound love of dandyism as you just being your regular eccentric self. This version of you was still better than the old one. The drunken man who had once cornered me in a bowling alley bathroom demanding to see my tits, the beer-slogged asshole who once tried to trick me into a threesome, was long gone.
Sober You seemed careful. Mindful. In control. Sober You had turned his life around, gotten his shit together and found love. Everyone was rooting for Sober You.
Then Sober You did something I’d never, ever thought you’d do, something so cruel, so heinous, that I am still gobsmacked a year later. And sifting through the detritus for signs.
Perhaps the bowling alley incident was one. Perhaps I shouldn’t have shrugged it off. As long as I make sure to never be alone in the same room with him I’ll be fine. Nothing else ever happened. Not to me. Something, however, did happen to a 14 year-old girl over a five-week span during the summer of 2016. A girl, according to news reports, you’d met through her mother, who worked at a local gas station. A mother comfortable enough to introduce you to her daughter. A mother, who, according to statistics, could be a survivor herself.
A mother, like mine, who may never forgive herself for not seeing the signs.
There was never a point where you stopped to consider the human cost of it all, how your actions would leave an indelible mark on that 14 year-old girl, her family, your family, your friends. You didn’t give a fuck. I’ll never forgive you for that. I’ll always wonder if there are other 14 year-old girls with other stories, other 14 year-olds clumsily balancing the shame on top of everything else that comes with being in the beginning stages of adolescence. Eventually, though, the pain makes itself known. Somehow. Someway.
When things like this happen our first inclination is to self-flagellate. We think of the jokes we overlooked, the behavior we’d written off. Rape culture is insidious like that. We never think about the signs until after something happens. After someone exposes themselves. After a substance is slipped into a drink. Then we react. We lecture. We preach. We (torpidly) protect. We do all of these things to regain control. A friend commits a monstrous act; we question our judgment. How did I let this person in? How could I not have known? We quietly beat ourselves up while brushing our teeth or walking our kids to school. Despite our best efforts to be more vigilant, there’s no way of ever really knowing. Bad people know how to put on good faces.
So what can we do? We do our part to be less complicit in rape culture. As @kiaspeaks says, we hold up a mirror to ourselves and examine our behavior. We do our best to deprogram ourselves, to trust our feelings, to be more careful with others. We believe victims. We support them by allowing them the space to heal. We heal ourselves.
Your ex-wife, who has attained a level of grace I will never, has encouraged friends to write to you so that you won’t be lonely. The letters have been unanswered. I suspect shame has a lot to do with that. Because, at some point, the question will be asked, and you’ll have to answer it.
I wonder what that answer will be.