It was my rapist’s birthday the other day. Seven years ago, on that day, I endured the horror of having my autonomy stolen. Afterward, as the years dragged by, I grew to associate all birthdays with his. It took away a lot of the fun one might associate with the events. Especially the parties.
I’d been unwilling to break my silence about the experience. The people around me knew something must’ve happened. To them, there had to be some explanation why I changed from an ebullient extrovert into a person whose very essence screams, “stay away.” I didn’t say anything, though. I just remained cold and as detached as I could manage without being overly hostile. The masses of friends I had seven years ago evaporated into a few professional acquaintances. They didn’t need me, so I didn’t need them. I could manage alone.
So why am I writing this? Because I’m starting to make a change. Seven years of my life spent circling the drain wasn’t something I was ready to continue at 26 years old. Perhaps enough time had passed for me to start healing. The few books I’d read about trauma suggested that might be the case. The incident feels no less raw, though. The physical sensations haven’t dulled. Essential, daily bodily functions force the memory of his violence into every occasion. Every twitch of muscle. I have to sit there and think of him and how his atrocious legacy still dominates my body. The same body in which he planted his flag and claimed as his own. His body, rented by me.
But, as I said, I’d begun to change. Despite the hideousness of the prior seven years, I’d been able to hold down a good job. It’s basic web design stuff; nothing too glamorous. But the customers kept rolling in and the pay was good, so that small bit of positive reinforcement kept my finances afloat. More than afloat, really. Since I’d withdrawn so far away from all the fun and excitement I used to have, all I’d done was save money. Over those years, I was able to accumulate quite a bit in my savings account. Thanks to that, I was able to leave the city and rent a small cottage on a sprawling farm in rural Washington. The new scenery helped more than I’d expected.
The couple from whom I rent the cottage, Karen and Jessica, are in their 60s. You couldn’t tell by looking at them. Decades of hard work kept their bodies conditioned and strong. It wasn’t until they invited me to celebrate Karen’s 61st, which induced an involuntary shiver I was able to mask as a cough, that I had any idea they were so much older. I would’ve assumed mid-40s. They had no problem with my polite refusal of their invitation. On the day they interviewed me as a potential tenant, I told them I was private and, in an understatement that almost made me laugh, a homebody.
I spent my first month in Washington setting up the cottage. I arranged and rearranged the furniture, cleaned every surface I could reach, and even started a small garden in the back. I’m pretty proud of the garden. As we all know, Washington gets a ton of rain. That, in combination with the excellent soil quality, yielded the speedy growth of the basil, parsley, and rosemary I’d planted.
That month was the first time in seven years I didn’t feel the constant weight of my abuser on my back. Yes, I still remembered him many times each day. I still felt, with excruciating, perverse nostalgia, how much I cared for him even after he’d used me. But the terrible clarity of it all had begun to fog. Edges were blunted. I had three nights of amazing, dreamless sleep. Not once during those three nights did I feel his hot breath in my ear as he sobbed, “I’m sorry” with each devastating thrust. Things were quiet; as quiet as the dead I’d so often admired.
The next two months saw the gradual lifting of my mood. I became a frequent visitor to Karen and Jessica’s home. We would drink wine and talk. Sometimes we’d play Scrabble, which they eventually stopped suggesting because I knew all the 2-letter words and annihilated them every game. For a few brief moments, things felt, I’m cautious to say, like they did before the rape. I was laughing and talking with ease; my foul-mouthed sense of humor causing gasps of surprise and tears of laughter from the two women who’d made me feel like their daughter.
As the golden sunshine of summer transmuted into the leaden gray of winter, the relationship I’d developed with the couple, especially Karen, allowed me to do something I couldn’t believe. Late in December, a few days after Christmas, I revealed the assault to them. With a level of clinical dispassion of which I never imagined myself capable, I told them everything.
They were crying by the time I’d finished. When the last word of the story left my mouth, I felt invigorated. Proud, too. Proud of myself for having the courage to finally tell the story of why my life had changed for the worse so abruptly. Proud of the fact I’d found friends who could help me emerge from my shell and who genuinely cared about what had grown inside for those seven years. I loved them.
The night I wandered back to my cottage, tipsy from the bottles of local wine we’d shared, I collapsed into bed and fell asleep. He met me in my dreams. The rasping humidity of his sobbing apologies in my ear, the impossibly-heavy weight of his body on my back, and the incomprehensible indignation of having my autonomy stolen all coalesced into an interminable nightmare. When I awoke, sweating and shaking, it was still pitch dark. A glance at the bedside clock told me I’d only been sleeping for an hour. My sweat-soaked clothing clung uncomfortably to my skin, and I rolled off the bed to take a shower.
I stood up in the darkness, took a step toward the bathroom, and bumped into something. Someone. I gasped and reached out to push the person away. Strong, heavy arms wrapped around me. I shrieked and squirmed in a futile attempt to free myself. Putrid, wet breath filled my nostrils and changed my scream into throat-shredding retches. The arms gripped me tighter and my fingers dug into the assailant’s body. I couldn’t see anything, but I could tell he was naked. No clothing shielded his flesh from the assault of my fingernails, and I raked them over him, hoping the pain would make him release me.
My fingernails slid into his flesh far more easily than they should. I felt my first, then second knuckles disappear into his body. When I dragged them over his flesh, I felt the skin slough off and hang from my fingers. A smell, somehow even worse than his breath, filled the room. I choked and vomited against his chest. A thick, rasping voice choked out the words, “I’m sorry.” The pressure of his grip disappeared. The smell evaporated. He was gone.
Still in a panic, I ran across the room and flipped the switch for the main lights. The bulbs illuminated the puddle of bordeaux vomit on the floor. My fingernails, which I’d expected to be coated in foul slime, were clean. Confused and beyond terrified, I grabbed a knife from the kitchen and went through the tiny cottage. It was obvious no one was there. The door was still locked and deadbolted from the inside. No windows had been disturbed, either. But something had been in there. I went into the bathroom, placed the knife on the sink, and went to wash myself.
I showered with the curtain open, soaking the floor, so I could see everything. The knife was perched on the side of the tub and in easy reach if whatever it was came back. It didn’t. Nothing did. I towelled off and put on fresh clothes. As I cleaned my puke from the hardwood, I worried I had either consumed far, far too much wine that evening or I was going completely nuts. The knots of terror in my chest gradually untied as exhaustion took its toll on my consciousness. When I finally had the confidence to go back to bed, with every light in the cottage still blazing, I slept immediately.
The next morning, I told Karen and Jessica about my nightmare. They hugged me and made me breakfast and told me not to worry. I decided to wait to tell them about the purple stain on the hardwood until I tried another couple times to get it out. We ate our breakfast and the two of them griped about the inordinately cold temperatures which would make the next growing season a major pain for them.
After we ate, Karen and I chatted while Jessica went to organize their office. An hour later, she came back apologizing profusely. She handed me a piece of mail that had arrived a week after I’d moved into the cottage. It had been forwarded from my old address. Jessica told me it must’ve gotten mixed in with their bills and that she’d be much more careful in the future. I laughed and told her it was okay.
I tore open the envelope and read the short letter inside. My head began to spin. I asked if I could use the phone to make a quick long-distance call. “Of course,” Jessica replied. I dialed the number at the bottom of the letter. A woman answered. I asked to speak to Ryan. There was a pause, and in a voice much sadder than the cheerful “hello” I received when she picked up the phone, she answered me. Then she hung up.
I shook as I handed Karen the letter, which she read aloud to Jessica.
“Marie, I am finally doing what I should’ve done seven years ago. No, eight years ago. Before we ever met. Before I could hurt you. I don’t deserve to continue living. I’ve always wanted to say how sorry I am, but I destroyed those words for you when I did that unspeakable thing. Still, in my darkest moments, it’s something I need to say. And I know that need will go unmet as long as I’m alive, since I can’t bear the thought of making you endure the sight of me again. Once I’ve mailed this letter, I will do the only thing I can to adequately express my sorrow. If you need to know I’m serious about this, please call this number and ask for me.”
The number I called was written below the body of his message, followed by his scrawled signature. I thought of the embrace from the night before and the words that were drooled into my ear. My knees gave out and I fell to the floor, screaming as I cried. Karen and Jessica could only hold me as years of incomprehensible feelings flooded out in painful, wracking sobs. Over and over, they told me it was going to be okay. And, as is customary, peppered within their sincere assurances that things would get better were liberal declarations of, “I’m sorry.”