Trigger warning: sexual assault and suicidal ideation
It was the summer before my senior year of high school and an unusually cool night for the month of June. My best friend graduated a few weeks before, and he invited me to my first “drinking party” to celebrate this milestone.
I was always on the periphery but never quite part of the in-crowd, so this party felt like a milestone for me too.
I didn’t know you very well except that you were the cool older brother of one of my friends. When I was a freshman, you were a senior, and I had such a crush on you. You were athletic and everyone’s friend—one of those people who has something in common with everyone you meet. Every time I was over at your house, you made me feel seen. After our freshman year, your sister and I drifted into different friend groups as high school girls usually do, so I forgot my crush and I forgot you.
Until that night.
I don’t remember a lot of the details of that night. My therapist says that’s something that happens in response to trauma; it’s the psyche’s attempt to protect itself. I do, however, vividly remember the details of the few moments that irrevocably changed my life and my view on trust and intimacy.
For years, I believed it was my fault. If I hadn’t had a crush on you, if I hadn’t been drinking, if I hadn’t (ineptly) flirted, if I hadn’t trusted you, if I had only known, if I hadn’t been born, if I’d never existed, if I could just die…
It wasn’t my fault, and my God, does that feel good to proclaim.
You took something from me that night, and I don’t know if you even knew that what you were doing was wrong. You saw easy prey, and you went for it.
“Boys will be boys,” after all.
I saw you at church a few weeks later, and you walked up to me, smiled as you leaned in for a side hug, and said, “It’s so great to see you,” with a wink that made my stomach turn.
Even now, I can’t stand it when a man winks at me.
Maybe it didn’t happen the way I thought it happened. Maybe your whispered, “Don’t worry, this is okay,” as you slid in behind me and my frozen terror equated consent. Maybe my whispered, breathless, “Please don’t, please don’t,” wasn’t an adamant enough exclamation of non-consent.
It did happen. It happened, and it wasn’t my fault.
This is the mantra I repeat when I find my body and my brain reliving this moment.
For years after our encounter, I couldn’t even bring myself to be alone in a room with a man. I left our town, I moved away for college, and I never looked back. And still, despite being hundreds of miles away, you still managed to infiltrate my thoughts, my most intimate moments.
I tried so hard to let people in, to let people see me, but I could never let them see that part of me. I feared that they would confirm these thoughts that I hoped to be untrue but that I was sure were real—I was broken, I was to blame, I was alone, I was unlovable.
No one could ever want me now. And wanting to be wanted would only put me in that same position all over again.
For years, I refused to make myself vulnerable. I longed to be seen and known, but I couldn’t breach the darkest depths of my shame to let anyone know me the way you had known me.
But you didn’t really know me, did you? Is violating someone the same as knowing them?
Even now, more than a decade later, I find the ghost of you lingering at unexpected turns. I have loved and I have opened myself to being known, and still I feel the panic rise when a man towers over me, when a man whispers in my ear, when a man lingers for too long behind me. When a man I trust, even one I love, makes one move that mirrors you, I recoil, I withdraw into the safe depths of myself, I dissociate.
And I’m left to explain to an innocent, unsuspecting lover that he did nothing wrong. That he is paying penance for the sins of another. For the sins of my younger self.
I wonder if I’ll ever view intimacy as a positive connection between myself and someone else.
I wonder, still, after all these years, if you think of what you did to me, what you stole from me. Do you feel the same shame that I feel? Do you hesitate to initiate intimacy, wondering if it’s welcome or if you’re forcing yourself on her? Do you live an unscathed life, writing our encounter off as “she was asking for it” or a youthful dalliance?
Do you think of me at all?
I hope you do. And I hope you don’t.
Most of all, I hope I’m the only person you ever did this to, because how could I live with myself if my silence victimized another innocent life?