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Quit Pretending You Can Stop the Inevitable

In my mid-twenties I moved back to North Carolina and built a new circle of friends: an artist, a pharmacist, a forester at my favorite local park, several musicians, local businesspeople, and you. One night I gave you a ride to the forester’s cabin for a cookout that naturally evolved into playing music on the back porch, where I tentatively sang harmony to Ryan Adams’s “Sweet Carolina.” That fall we saw local bands play, played trivia, ate brunch, threw birthday cookouts, and became what felt like real friends.

The night before New Year’s Eve I went to the bar where we often hung out. A singer-songwriter I liked was playing short sets, and between sets everyone seemed to talk and laugh extra loud as though making up for the semi-quiet attention they bestowed on the live music. At closing time, when you and some other friends were walking to someone’s house to watch a movie, I thought of a friend’s recent DUI and decided to make the safe choice and stay in Durham for the night. When we all got to your house, I curled up on the couch and dozed off.

Sometime later, you woke me up. I groggily looked around to see that everyone else was asleep. You said that I could sleep in your roommate’s bed since he was out of town, and I might as well get a good night’s sleep. When I got in the bed you did too. I thought you were cute and didn’t mind your attention so, initially, I didn’t object. When you tried to kiss me I pulled away, wondering how to extricate myself without being rude. My mind couldn’t quite shift into a mode of self-protection and away from the default of being accommodating.

Having witnessed the trauma of someone else’s acquaintance rape and resultant trial, I was sure to be clear when I said, “No. No, no, no.” I didn’t scream because even in that moment of panic I already burned with shame. Embarrassed, I already saw how stupid it looked: a woman alone and drunk with a bunch of guys she didn’t know that well.

To be clear, you raped me.

I know that, though my cheeks still flush a little bit at the sight of the stark truth. I would have wondered whether what you did reached society’s standard of “real” unambiguous rape—even though I said “no” clearly and repeatedly—if you hadn’t given me the gift of clarity. You said, “Quit pretending you can stop the inevitable.” You wounded my body, my psyche, and my connection to the place where I’d chosen to make my life, and the ways that I responded to your violence are all part of my healing.

When I left your house the next morning, one of the others came running after me. After months of friendly and flirty banter, he peppered me with questions, trying to chat as we walked back to our cars. I didn’t know how to process what had happened, but I remember I did not want to talk about it and I could not talk about anything else. I didn’t cry when I drove home but turned off the radio because I needed silence as my mind struggled to right a world that suddenly felt off-kilter. At my apartment, I immediately showered and then climbed damp into bed, where I stayed for a day and a half. I didn’t answer the phone when family and friends called to ring in the new year. I didn’t want to speak out loud about anything at all until I could give a name to what you did and what it meant. I didn’t want to admit what had happened because to do so would require action of some sort and my energy was sapped. Instead, I swaddled myself in my comforter and hid from what had happened in solitude and silence.

I missed several calls from my sister and eventually called her back so that she wouldn’t worry. I hadn’t thought ahead about how to answer her questions or act normal so instead I told her what had happened and that I needed her to keep it to herself until I could figure out what to do. That’s when the crying started. I got off the phone and sobbed into my couch until my sister called back and begged me to call the Orange County Rape Crisis Center. I told her that I had showered, that it would be pointless, that I didn’t want to, but heard the fear in her voice when she said she didn’t want me to be alone.

I called the number she gave me. I answered each question from the voice on the other end of the line.

“Yes, I am in a safe place.”

“No, I do not want to press charges.”

“No, I do not want to file an official report.”

I did not know what I was hoping for from the crisis line, but I knew that I didn’t feel I could bear the trauma and scrutiny I’d seen result from other rape trials. I also resisted the suggestion to go to the hospital, but when the volunteer mentioned medication that could be given after the fact to protect against both pregnancy and disease, I started to see the hospital as a better option than denial.

A young woman from the center met me at the hospital, and I apologized for wasting her evening. I hated feeling like an imposition, so I promised her that I’d be fine doing this alone, but she told me, “I’m just going to sit here anyway, in case you change your mind.” I don’t remember her face, but I remember feeling less ridiculous sitting beside her, a kind stranger quietly knitting. She came to the exam room with me and sat near me as I retold my story, and when they asked me to put on the hospital gown for an exam she said she’d be in the lobby if I needed her. I got my prescriptions, thanked the girl, and went back to bed. The medication that my body needed in order to recover made me queasy for weeks, providing a constant physical reminder of the damage you did.

The remaining days of winter break are hazy, but I remember you calling me several times. I remember my hand shaking when your number appeared on the screen, and I remember a mutual friend telling me you felt bad about something and wanted to talk to me. I didn’t tell any of our friends that you raped me. Instead I acted cagey, got fewer calls and invitations, and eventually I completely stopped responding to any of them. Like a wounded animal finding a safe place to rest and heal, I ran away from the life I had been building in Durham and confined my personal life entirely to the city limits of Chapel Hill or the occasional outing to Raleigh. “The Triangle,” a metroplex of three cities was suddenly missing its third point.

I experimented in my life post-rape, looking to fix the damage you caused with group therapy, alternative therapy, art therapy, hypnotherapy, traditional talk therapy, supportive and nurturing friends, extra time with my family. I set aggressive exercise goals and biked hundreds of miles through North Carolina’s beautiful hills to make my body feel stronger and purposeful. I told myself that the only way out of the trauma was through it—so I felt every wave of anger and grief with all my might. After teaching and biking each day, I painted my feelings until I covered my office walls with the abstract art that was my progress. My therapist called it PTSD, but I just remember how unsteady I felt in my own body, in my own house, in my own life. An old friend moved back to town and was exactly the supportive sidekick every woman should have—a man so kind and full of his own sorrows that my love and empathy for him prevented my heart from slamming angrily shut against all men.

After about six months my body felt strong and my psyche was on the mend, so I wanted Durham to stop feeling like a scary black hole in the middle of my life. I asked my big safe friend to go with me to face my fears and reclaim my ability to live without restrictions. Healing begins where the wound was made, as Alice Walker said. We walked through the heavy wooden bar door as though entering a dangerous alternate reality. I scanned the room nervously to see if you were there. I feigned confidence and smiled as I fidgeted. My preoccupation with the mirror over the bar, where I could watch who was coming and going, made conversation feel stilted, so my friend watched a soccer game on the TV. We paid for our drinks and decided to have one more from a safer distance on the patio of the bar next door. I ordered a cider and as our waiter headed inside, there you were, sitting at a crowded table near the window. My forehead and armpits dampened at the sight of you, my stomach clenched queasily, and my heart raced, but I sat in that cool wire patio chair holding terrified eye contact with my friend, who understood my meaning. If I could be there and fake it for long enough to have a drink then maybe Durham wouldn’t feel off-limits. When I went to the bathroom after we finished our drinks, the owner told me that I was no longer welcome at his bar. I wonder whether he wanted me out because you told him I had done something to you or because he knew what you’d done and saw my presence as dangerous to your reputation, and his, and the bar. That night I probably smiled haughtily, but his words were effective in demolishing my delicately constructed sense that I could move freely in the world.

Over a year after the rape, a friend’s dinner party evolved into a dance party. I sang along with the music, performing heartfelt karaoke for the people who had been there throughout my healing. As we laughed and sang and danced in my friend’s living room, my entire body felt joyful. I thought that meant I was restored, but healing is a process that is commonly mistaken for a goal. Soon after that, I met the man who would become my husband. To be in the kind of relationship I wanted to have, I had to be vulnerable with him, and that had become challenging. Finding peace, and then rediscovering it, getting to know it over and over again, this was the next stage of healing. With the passing weeks and months, I developed the courage to be calmly unarmored with this person who wanted to know me. We moved away, and though I talked to some of my new friends about what I had been through, it was information that I shared only after they knew at least a hundred other things about me. I never allowed even a hint that rape was a defining event in my life.

Women throughout time have found different ways to heal from experiences like the one I had with you. In a group therapy setting, I saw how our relationships with trauma varied depending on the lens we used to look at the experience and the frame we used to hold it in our minds. For me, it felt safer not to bring charges, because even if the character and reputation I had carefully shaped in my early adulthood weren’t attacked, I would have had to expose my personal pain to the public at a time when I was consumed with guilt and humiliation. I was ashamed enough of my contributing recklessness—getting drunk, not yelling when you ignored my rejection, being too shocked to fight you off, trusting that friends wouldn’t assault me. I knew that reporting the assault would mean I was no longer in control of the aftermath. My framework for healing from this experience was shaped by my decision not to report you. Because I chose not to tell authorities about my rape, I felt like I waived my power to have a long-term impact on your life in a public way. My lack of consent had been ignored that night, but my healing included taking charge of what came next. From that furtively controlling posture, I decided that no possible punitive outcome would improve my ability to recover. But the fact that I didn’t report this to law enforcement doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Just as wounds mend, treatment for those wounds changes over time, as well. After years of secrecy—controlling the one element I could, the information about what happened, I no longer need secrecy; I can now tell my story without it defining me.

Since the moment you raped me, I focused on my actions and resilience rather than thinking about your violent and selfish choices. In my effort to save face and protect myself all those years ago, I hid the truth from the people we both knew. I never said it to you or the authorities—I only told my friends, my family, my doctors. I made it about me—my strength, my ability to move on, my burden to carry. But focusing on my ability to recover also let you off the hook. I’ve let go of so much of the pain you caused, but I still find bits and pieces clinging to me like burs that I didn’t notice I’ve been carrying along. I was busy trying to live my best life despite you, and the secrecy and privacy I chose didn’t allow enough light in to see the remnants of your damage.

After five years, my husband and I moved back to North Carolina and transitioned to the new, old place we’d always considered home. In the years that we were away, Durham boomed. In our first six weeks back, we repeatedly made the short drive from Chapel Hill to the Bull City’s new restaurants, exciting music, and innovative art. I found myself talking about the rape a bit more often with close friends and said things like, “I’m taking Durham back.” We were at a rock show when I first saw some of those old friends I knew with you. I turned my body away from them and kept my eyes on the powerful female vocalist dominating the stage. I tried to pay attention to my breath and remember my own power. In the rising heat of the crowd, I wondered if you were also behind me, and as my panic grew louder than the music, I felt my hair weighed down by the sweat that drenched my neck and back. I pushed my way out of the crowded venue, breathed in Durham’s soft late-summer air, and I admitted that I have unfinished business with you. This is not just my secret and the healing is not just about me anymore. If you thought that I would keep the truth of that night quiet forever, it’s your turn to quit pretending you can stop the inevitable.


*Artwork by the author