When I was thirteen, a man pulled a knife on me and tried to rape me. I resisted and got away. I was brave, and exceptionally lucky. I had to go to court to testify. The man who tried to rape me was there with his mother. He was just seventeen. Everyone in the courtroom referred to him as ‘the boy’. The boy did not understand what he had done. The boy would be sent to a hospital. The boy’s mother wept through the entire proceeding. Her face, her tears, are what I remember most.
From that day on, when I told the story, I also referred to him as ‘the boy’. After a while I added the phrase ‘sort of’ – the boy ‘sort of’ tried to rape me. I don’t know why. Maybe because I got away? I didn’t even get hurt. He touched me, but he didn’t hurt me. Maybe rape and assault seemed like words that belonged to other women who had suffered much worse trauma. Or, maybe I just didn’t want to make the person I was telling feel uncomfortable.
I’m okay. I’m okay. I’m okay.
When I was twenty one, a male friend brought me and his ex-girlfriend to a motel in another state. We were attending an event in the town the next day. He rented one room, with twin beds. I got into one bed. My friend (age twenty seven) and his ex (age thirty) got into the other. They then had sex. It seemed to me to go on for a long time and to be, well, indiscreet. Loud. The room filled with the smell of it. I stayed in my bed, three or four feet away from them. My body felt frozen, unable to move. I wanted to leave, but had no car, little money, no friends in the area. I wasn’t exactly sure where I was. I had trusted my friend to make the arrangements.
For twenty six years, I told no one this had happened. I don’t know why. Maybe it was too humiliating. Maybe it was because, at the time, I didn’t understand why the incident had frightened me. After all, neither of them had touched me. In no sense was this an assault. Abuse? To be honest, I’m still not sure. It was abusive in the sense that I was given no choice, had no control. But abuse seems like a word that belongs to other people who have suffered much worse trauma than I did.
Maybe I didn’t want people to think badly of my friend. It took him twenty six years, but he did eventually apologise. He seemed to feel terrible about it. I mostly felt embarrassed. “I know you’re sorry,” I said, quickly. “Don’t worry.”
I’m okay. I’m okay. I’m okay.
Then my friend put up a photo of him and me on my Facebook page. It was taken the day after the motel room incident. In the picture, my arms are stiff and straight at my sides. I am trying to be small, trying not to touch or be touched. Trying to be apart. I took one look at this photo, which I had never seen before, and my heart sped up. My breathing became shallow. My teeth started chattering, I started to shake. I thought I would be sick.
I was not okay.
I don’t want to be a victim. I don’t want to feel scared. I don’t want to be ceaselessly angry with the people who have frightened me. But I do want to own my own experiences, so that a photo a quarter of a century old does not have the power to cause me a panic attack. I think this means I have to use words. I’m a writer, I should know the power of language. I should know that ‘boy’, ‘sort of’ and silence only isolate me with my hurt. They don’t help me to connect with others who have similar stories. So many have similar stories.
My friend is quite angry about my reaction to the photo. I said I accepted his apology, so why am I so upset? I have no words with which to answer him. He thinks I should just get over it. He thinks I should just be okay.
I’m working on it.