It’d been almost a year since it happened and I was still on high alert with a guard that never quite went down. It was my first day at a new job and though I’d already done a thorough sweep of the office when I’d arrived, my hypervigilance kept me constantly scanning for any changes. Halfway through the day, a guy on the other side of the room stood up — a minor moment that registered as a major energetic shift because I knew intuitively he was headed my way. With my systems all fired up, I clocked the important details: taller than me, definitely over 25 but probably under 30, floppy brown hair, green eyes, a wide boyish grin and very cute, which was of course rendered moot by the most important detail about him — his maleness. Yes, he was very much male, which was reason enough to avoid him, adorable face aside.
I kept track of him as he slowly meandered my way, taking note of how he paused in front of the bulletin board and pretended to read it. I was breathless by the time he reached his final destination: my desk. He’d never once looked at me the entire way over but upon his arrival, he turned his head my way and his eyes suddenly lit up, as though he hadn’t noticed me before, as though I’d materlialized right in front of him and he was seeing me for the first time. He was even cuter up close.
“Oh, hey,” he said, “I’m Ben.”
“I’m Michelle,” I replied. Then I smiled — like, actually smiled, in a way that was genuine and warm. What was I doing?
“It’s nice to meet you,” Ben said in response, as he held his hand out to me. The seemingly simple exchange of a handshake had taken on a lot of meaning to me recently. I didn’t like being touched, especially by strangers, but I found myself reaching out in response, accepting what he had offered me.
“Yeah,” I said, my voice suddenly bigger, “you too.”
As our hands touched, something really strange happened: I felt okay. Instead of tense or afraid, I felt…fine. No, more than fine, something else, something I couldn’t quite identify. Safe? Comfortable? Our hands parted before I could pinpoint the feeling. A new one washed over me: longing, as though I wanted more.
As he began the journey back to his desk, he turned around and added: “I like your hair.”
In response, my hand instinctively shot upwards, grabbing strands of my newly red hair.
“Thanks,” I said, tangling and twirling the locks between my fingers. Feelings rained from the sky and soaked through me before I had the chance to reject them. One after another, they came down. I felt coy, and feminine, and sensitive and giddy even. It hit me in a rush: I felt good. And then, just as quickly, I felt awful. Because I knew how to handle the vulnerability of rage, fear and sadness (lock it somewhere deep inside me and throw away the key!) but I did not know how to handle the vulnerability of joy, the sort of soul-crushing happiness and fear that comes from being open.
I sat at my desk as I absorbed what had just happened, which, on the surface, was nothing really, just a man shaking my hand. The issue was that it had kind of, sort of set off a five-alarm fire in my heart. Such feelings were very inconvenient but even as I shook my head and told myself I had no time for that kind of nonsense, I knew all my protests were useless. In under two minutes, Ben had shot to the all-star list in my hall of crushes and with that single exchange, I’d gone from a hardened 23 year old woman in the midst of dealing with her rape trial who sought to avoid feelings at all costs, to a giddy girl deep in the throes of puppy love.
Ben and I found a way to talk to each other every day and I finally found a reason to care what I looked like. Suddenly, I was thinking about what I’d wear to work, not just throwing on the first grey or black sack that swallowed me whole. For the first time in a long time, I was doing more than just brushing my hair — I was fixing it, styling it, curling it even (okay, just the one time). I was making an investment in me, even if it wasn’t for me exactly. I also had something to look forward to: what would Ben say that day? What look would he give me? How soon could I call my best friend to tell her, in excruciating detail, every nuance of said look and interaction?
Ben quickly became my closest friend at work, but the connection between us went beyond the break room. We often talked about our lives outside those walls, having long rambling discussions that took place over the course of hours and jumped from one topic to another without either of us skipping a beat. Though, in our otherwise free-for-all conversations, we did each have at least one topic that was apparently off-limits even if it was never stated explicitly: for him, his girlfriend; for me, my rape. Though I never heard it directly from him, I’d found out pretty early on that Ben was seeing someone. It didn’t bother me. If anything, it made him more appealing and not in a homewrecker way. I loved the fact that he was taken; it meant I could swoon over him all I wanted and never have to deal with the scary possibility of what it would be like to have more.
As for my own secret, it was safe. No one would be telling Ben because only a handful of people even knew and they definitely weren’t the people I worked with. I liked having a part of my life that I could designate as off-limits, untouched by what had happened to me. Sure, it wasn’t totally true — it affected me no matter what my location was — but it was nice to pretend. My rape had poisoned so many things, but I wasn’t going to let it poison what I had with Ben. Crushing on Ben was equivalent to pressing a restart button on my love life. I got to play the whole game over, starting from level 1. I went back to basics, to a time when daydreaming about someone was enough.
At work, I had two main modes of being: closed-off and geared up for war or sillysofthappy, deep in the throes of puppy love. Some of our co-workers had taken to calling me Joan — in reference to the fact that my red hair, curves, and “don’t fuck with me” attitude was reminiscent of Mad Men’s Joan Holloway — but Ben didn’t. Because with him, I wasn’t that person. With Ben, I was a mix between myself and a fluffy marshmallow of a girl and even if I only got to be that for a few moments each day, I cherished every one.
Even though I’d never been someone who hung posters of celebrities on my wall, I suddenly understand why people did: they were safe crushes, a way to practice the sweeping, rushing, all-consuming emotions of love without the possibility of actually getting hurt. It was like a simulator of what was to come — yes, a poor substitute for the real thing but it served a purpose.
Ben was that for me. Rape had left me terrified of moving forward. How could I be romantically involved with men when I didn’t even trust them? I had to rediscover the intrinsic joys of the most basic aspects of a relationship with a man if I was ever going to truly try again. And Ben brought me so much joy. Sometimes he was all that stood between me and a sleepless night of drowning in my own tears. I figured I could think about one of two things: what was happening with my case (and was I doing it right and was it going well and did I sound stupid and what if I messed the whole thing up) or Ben. Given that option, I would choose Ben every time: that thing Ben said the other day or the way he looked at me and of course, his hair — how it’d fell over his eyes on Tuesday; how he had brushed it back; how he had laughed when it wouldn’t stay in place.
With Ben, I remembered what it was like to hope and to dream and to care. In a time filled with so much uncertainty, Ben reminded me that uncertainty isn’t always bad — it can be tantalizing, delicious even. Still, there were moments that were scary, like the day in November when I caught Ben staring at me only to have him turn away as soon as we locked eyes. I instantly felt my paranoia and panic surface. Fearing the worst, I asked in a loud, demanding voice, “What? What?”
When he looked back to answer my question, he said, “Nothing. It’s nothing, it’s just — you’re really beautiful.” Then he went back to working like he hadn’t said it at all. I pulled that moment close to me, held it in my hands, turning it over and searching for any connection within myself to its statement that I was really beautiful. Even though I didn’t believe it yet, I took it home with me and put it away for safe-keeping, revisiting it from time to time to get a hit of that warmth, that kindness. It had a way of shining in the darkness, its lights providing me the reassurance I needed to move forward. It took years before I understood what it was: a placeholder, something to help me along until the day I could once again illuminate my own path.
Months passed. I left my job, my case finished, and spring arrived in the city of endless summer. I hadn’t seen Ben in weeks and while I missed him, it wasn’t like I could just call him (and say what exactly?) so I resigned myself to the fact that I’d probably never see him again. Instead, late that March, the same divine magic that had delivered Ben into my life exactly when I needed him most gave me one more present: a karaoke party we were both invited to.
I was flipping through the song book when Ben walked up behind me. In his distinct voice came the question: “Duet?”
Turning around, I asked, “With you”
He gave me a grin. Duh, he seemed to say.
I turned the pages until I saw the one I wanted.
“I will duet with you,” I said, “only if we can sing this.”
I handed him the book and pointed to my selection. I truly believed he would not do it. Not that song, not such a sappy, sentimental sort of . . .
“Oh, game on,” he said.
A few songs later, it was our turn to take the stage. The first tentative notes floated in the air as Ben and I stood silently side by side. I wondered if everyone was as aware as I was of the energy between us. I willed myself to look at the screen, though I knew all the words. I nudged Ben to let him know, he was up first. He half-sang half-spoke his line: I can show you the world, shining, shimmering, splendid.
Then he grabbed my hand, going all in with both the song and the moment as he crooned, “Tell me, princess, now when did you last let your heart decide?”
He pulled me in front of him, singing “I can open your eyes” while enthusiastically pointing to nothing, as if he was actually taking me wonder by wonder. And in a way, he was — because Ben was holding me, Ben was touching me, and it really did feel like a whole new world.
When my solo came, I committed to the song as much as he did. As I sang about the unbelievable sights, Ben carefully pointed them out for me. We oohed and awed along, getting more and more into our performance.
“Don’t you dare close your eyes,” he said to me in a breathy whisper, taking hold of my arms and stretching them out with his, into a pose reminiscent of Jack and Rose. It was like we were the kings of the world and my spirit was so high it felt like I really was soaring, tumbling, freewheeling through an endless diamond sky — and behind me was Ben, reminding me “hold your breath, it gets better.”
I laced my fingers through his as I sang my next line: “I’m like a shooting star, I’ve come so far. I can’t go back to where I used to be.” It was true. I had come so far since I’d met Ben. I wasn’t where I used to be, and that was a good thing. I let myself take it in, every moment red letter.
And in the midst of all this, I realized I didn’t want Ben, not really. Yes, what I felt onstage with him was wonderful and magical and charged, but I didn’t want a performance — I wanted the real thing. I was ready to move beyond stolen glances and getting butterflies in my stomach when his shoulder accidentally brushed mine. I wanted more, but I wanted it with someone who could give it to me. Ben was not that guy.
But what he had given me was a wonderful gift. On some of my darkest days, Ben had given me something shining, shimmering, splendid. I’d go home staring into an uncertain future and play back something Ben had said to me and the night would not seem so dark. In the midst of trauma and its aftermath, we’d shared moments that helped me get through the day.
You’re really beautiful, Ben had said once and I’d repeated to myself many times in the darkness. I’d carried those words with me like a lucky charm. The sentence itself was something small. It was something, admittedly, vain and superficial. But it was also something that got me through the day. It didn’t have to be grand, or meaningful, or deep. Sometimes just something is good enough.
But now I wanted more. I wanted to see what came next, even if it meant venturing into the scary unknown. I wondered how it would feel to experience something bigger than puppy love. The world was filled with wonders to be seen and felt and experienced but they were only as open to me as I was to them.
As the song reached its climax, Ben held his hand out to me once more. I saw how this was both a question and an offer, a reminder that there was a whole world out there and it was reaching for me. Finally, I was reaching back.