I Am Not A ‘Rape Victim’ — I Contain Multitudes
By Linnie Greene
Content warning: sexual abuse
I am in the fetal position, curled up like a shrimp against the draft coming in through the window at my back. In my dorm room the year before and in my queen size bed at home, at my parents’ house, I would sprawl out like a starfish, fingers reaching for every corner of the mattress.
(This is the hardest thing I will ever write; this is the most important thing I will ever write.)
All of us are sheepish and groggy. We go to the cafe downtown where everyone will see us together — purposely, I think — and we laugh nervously over coffee I will later vomit in my childhood bedroom. I make jokes about threesomes, wondering if everyone there can sense what transpired several hours ago, read it in the limbs of our hungover bodies. My best friend, purple half-moons underneath her eyes, drives me home, where nothing has changed, and the dog still snuffles against my hand like I’m a good girl. “Good boy,” I say, and mean it. Then, he follows me upstairs, and we collapse in the closet together, stuffed between the old dresses and wool sweaters.
The consequences sunk in the way a blanket falls onto a bed, the motion suspended, folds settling in wrinkles over the flat surface. I crouched in the barely-used tub and sunk deep enough so that even the empty house couldn’t detect my presence, head submerged where water would have filled the basin.
A few minutes later, in the middle of what I’d later know as a panic attack, head between my legs, heart in a race to outrun itself, a huge mirror upstairs unhinged from the wall and fell with a crash. I called my two best friends from high school, all of us staying in our hometown in this summer between college semesters, and we stood together in the driveway until we were brave or stupid enough to go inside and hunt for an intruder. There was no one there. The mirror had acted of its own accord, and when I looked into it, I saw my tearful Alice Cooper makeup, waxy lines of black eyeliner. The only thing in that house was me and the thing that happened, the thing I couldn’t name.
The night in question comes back in snippets, postcards my brain stores without my permission. The three of us on the floor, reading Allen Ginsberg’s Howl aloud. I still can’t hear that poem — a college stain, an ode to our more stupid selves — without wanting to rip the pages into confetti. Shots of whiskey, drinks mixed with improbable ingredients in a ceramic cup I admired. The friend pulling me into the bathroom, asking, “Do you know what’s about to happen?” And then I can’t remember what I said, only that she told me I agreed enthusiastically, and I believed her. I still do. We were young. We were all drunk. We were so fucking stupid. I pretended to feel pleasure while it happened.
The word “rape” should be reserved for certainty, for physical restraint and bruises that bloom like flowers on a small wrist. That isn’t what happened to me. What happened was that, afterward, I alternated between sleeping all day and not sleeping at all. I lived on food I snuck from the pantry when I knew my parents weren’t downstairs and hours of VH1 and E! on the decades-old television in my room, its rounded corners a relic of my childhood. I puked a lot. I lost weight. I did nothing. My parents noticed something was wrong, but they were distracted. My grandfather was dying of Alzheimer’s, the too-large house needed a roof, and I was a sullen guest, reenacting my difficult teenage years.
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I used that word when I told them, trying to explain why I couldn’t go see Papa, why I wasn’t dressed and ready at the appointed hour. I could barely move. “I was raped,” I said quietly. I had to repeat it too many times, and my mother screamed that she would call the police. I begged her not to, and she and my stepfather left for the nursing home crying, and I was alone again, me and that mirror.
I met my dad at a coffee shop and he asked me, “Are you sure? Sometimes, people drink too much and they make choices . . . ” He trailed off. I stopped listening. I wasn’t sure of anything.
I still don’t know what to call the night I barely remember; I have plenty of words for the one that I do. In the years after that first summer, when I moved from dorm room to off-campus apartment to further-off-campus-apartment, I hung onto my college boyfriend like a buoy, adrift and drowning in the aftermath. We eventually broke up, after things were on and off one too many times, a schizoid light switch. He slept on my futon “as a friend” while I cried and said I wanted to die, then he cut me off completely when I showed up at a party where he was debuting his new beau. I had sobbed to him that night in the parking lot while some of our friends watched, eventually coming outside to pry me away from him, embarrassed on my behalf. There wasn’t enough air in any room for the two of us. I was a holy terror, always drunk, always calling for help he couldn’t give me.
I fucked a million men after. I went through them like the packets of cheap ramen I was eating by the case. No one could hurt me; I was an operator. I found more girls like my old best friend, and we used each other for drugs, small sequined dresses that made our legs look like stilts, and nights on the town that ended at dawn, spent to the point of exhaustion.
Boys flitted to me en masse, like moths to a flame, and I burned them all for fuel. I was never alone. I could have another bed anytime I couldn’t lie sleepless in my own.
It took a few years to happen again, but it did, after I’d graduated and moved into a house full of kind, garden-tending musicians and artists. I outdrank all but one of the young dudes at a house party, deeper in town, and when we lay down together to make out on the old mattress on the floor, a much-used crash pad, he shoved himself on top of me and reached for the foil-wrapped condom in his pants pocket.
“No,” I said as we reached third base, and I realized what he thought would happen. I was wasted again, exhausted, uninterested in bland sex with this pasty clinger-on who lingered on the periphery of my cooler friends.
He rephrased the question several times and continued anyway, and I resigned myself, noiseless, while he finished. I fell asleep and woke a few hours later to find him dozing in a chair across the room. “Why are you up there,” I asked, and he sneered at me, disgusted, and walked outside for a cigarette. I heard him drive off, and I left through the back door a few minutes later, walking the miles back home before anyone else woke up. We had never even undressed the night before, managing with the unzipping of flies and his weight like an immovable stone.
We tell stories to make sense of the world. A few summers ago, I was always coming home banged up and bruised in the way I’d imagined I should have looked, outwardly, after that first time — I had been climbing onto tin roofs, falling down drunk, forgetting how I’d earned these marks of a life lived in the first place. I counted them at home in bed like constellations, tracing the scars from knee to toe, forehead to forearm. They were emblems of the inner life I couldn’t expel, the defects I imagined swimming around inside me like a dirty aquarium.
I don’t tell my story because its legs are shaky like mine, because I’m afraid of hearing that whatever consequences unspooled like dark ribbon were exactly what I deserved. I’m afraid of someone telling me I wanted it; I’m afraid that I’d convince myself to believe them. I don’t tell my story because if I did, I’d have to decide just how bad it was, a meteorite that changed my life’s course or a nuisance, something women live through like menstrual stains or catcalls.
When you’ve drunk away your wits, it’s hard to pick them up the next day, scattered on the floor. I’ve run out of metaphors or used them until they all blurred together like a film running off the reels. The girl who laid down to rest on the railroad tracks. The girl who walked into the woods, wide-eyed and wearing a red cape. The girl who called trouble to her window like a Shakespearian maid, only to stumble backwards when it climbed onto the balcony with a dagger in its hand.
There’s a Margaret Atwood poem that goes, “A word after a word / after a word is power.” The word — “rape” — is insufficient. A lack of vocabulary only makes the truth harder to construct. The word makes me a victim, and it makes the moon-eyed girl and the boy in the cottage saboteurs intent on stripping away my agency like so much peeling paint. It makes the second man a monster (and he might be). I think of them only as careless. And what does it make me? A survivor? A statistic? A killjoy? Normal? There are concise phrases for all manner of things — the piles of books in my apartment (tsundoku, in Japanese), the sensation of unrequited love (la douleur exquise, in French). And yet I falter when it comes to those moments in question, memories that bypass my cognition and go straight for my gut, a sucker-punch. As I write, I taste bile.
That is to say nothing of the stories others would impose, the “Are you sures?” and “Everyone makes mistakes.” I’ve been gaslit; I gaslight myself. There are a slew of expressions, none of them right. I deal in words every day, and yet I grapple. None are sufficient. We contain multitudes, and I am more than a word — I am an entire story, written, rewritten, constantly revised.