A weekend night in Berkeley, in the very early 2000s: Groups of students roamed the south side of campus, wandering in and out of parties in the frat houses lining Piedmont, Bancroft, and Channing, those giant, multistory homes with their front porches and leather couches and white, oversized Greek columns. Vodka, beer, boxed wine, gin, rum, tequila — the smell of alcohol was everywhere; sometimes, later in the night, so was the smell of vomit. Men stood on balconies drinking from red cups and heckling passersby. Women walked and laughed together in small groups, aware of being watched; we wandered in casual short dresses or wore outfits catered to theme parties: animal print for jungle, all white for a black-light party, sexy Jazzercise wear for ’80s, and so on. We were often teetering in heels.
I was wearing a skirt that night, a few months into the 2008–2009 school year, the year when a mysterious assailant informally dubbed the Finger Banger had assaulted multiple women in the area where I lived, forcibly lifting their skirts and sticking his fingers inside them. I’d read the warnings sent out to all the sororities, telling us to wear pants and not walk alone until this man was caught. But one of the parties we were going to that night had a theme, I guess, and the skirt worked better than pants. Besides, I knew I’d be traveling in a group, as instructed. And also, I didn’t want to have to live like that, not wearing what I wanted.
“Constant vigilance!” my friends and I would yell as we walked between parties, like it was keeping us safer, or at least less scared.
“Constant vigilance!” my friends and I would yell as we walked between parties. This made us laugh. I may have been the originator of the joke — a Harry Potter reference, of course, defense against the dark arts. Yelling it, I felt like I was doing something useful, keeping us safer, or at least less scared. We liked yelling it in a British accent.
The night I left my apartment, I wasn’t thinking about those warning emails or the Finger Banger. As I walked with friends from one party to the next, a man came up behind me; I never saw his face. In all, it probably took less than 10 seconds, and then he was sprinting away, down Durant. I didn’t report it; I had let my guard down, after all, and frankly, it didn’t strike me as important enough to merit any follow-up. Constant vigilance.
The previous summer, just after my junior year, I visited a good friend. Let’s call him Roger. We’d known each other for years and hooked up at least once before. The night I got to town, Roger and I sat in his room, discussing his problems with his girlfriend, as we often did. He asked about my love life, the guy I was newly dating. I said I wanted to give exclusivity a shot with this new guy; I wouldn’t be hooking up with anyone else.
“That’s great,” Roger said. “I’m really happy for you.”
Later, we went out. It was shot, shot, shot and beer pong and jungle juice, a too-loud party in some stranger’s house nearby.
Black in: Lying on Roger’s bed, him on top of me, his tongue in my mouth, then his fingers inside me, and me saying no no no but only in my head, me trying to find breath, finally finding it, “No no no,” out loud, but he didn’t stop, until finally I found a way to move my arms and pushed him, saying, “Stop it!” His body landed against the wall, hard. In my memory, it makes a sound. I remember worrying I hurt him.
He stopped, mumbling, “Sorry, sorry, I’m so sorry,” then got up and walked over to the couch. I remember thinking it would’ve been nice to just cuddle with him in the bed. Then I passed out again.
For years, I called it a mistake, a misunderstanding. I said, “My friend hooked up with me,” if I talked about it.
In the morning, we didn’t talk about it. I brushed my teeth in the bathroom. I almost threw up. I wanted to but didn’t force it. I drove to a nursing home to visit my dying grandpa. Then I met up with my almost-boyfriend and confirmed: We’d be exclusive moving forward.
For years, I called it a mistake, a misunderstanding. I said, “My friend hooked up with me,” if I talked about it, which I did to a few friends, trying to figure out if I’d cheated and if I needed to tell my then-boyfriend. (I didn’t.) I imagined how the night would have gone if I hadn’t blacked in, if I hadn’t found my words, if he’d been able to get hard.
I don’t know how Roger understood, understands, what happened between us. He called me a few months after that night, angry that I hadn’t made time to see him on a recent visit to his school. I let him yell at me; I may have even apologized. I knew I didn’t want to see him anytime soon but couldn’t pinpoint why. We didn’t speak again, and for years I felt bad about the way our friendship ended.
Much later, Roger messaged me on LinkedIn, wanting to know about a job at the company where I worked. “Long time no talk!” he wrote, before asking if he could send me his résumé. I didn’t respond.