Start with an incident most people see as unfortunate but you perceive as life changing; the skewed perspective will enhance your experience. The incident should happen while on your Outer Banks vacation, the highlight of your year. It could be any incident—perhaps a random massage therapist from an upscale spa presses his penis onto your hand during your massage as if to silently say, “How ‘bout some of this?” and then, after you’ve tried, inconspicuously, to move your hand away, “Come on honey, I need the extra money … you sure?”
Deny to yourself and your god that this has happened. Forget it like you forget what you had for breakfast. You can do it. Get dressed. Meet up with your young niece who also had a massage. Smile with her at the checkout counter. Pay. And by all means, leave a tip.
Finish your vacation as if nothing happened. Make dinner. Play charades. Sip coffee at sunrise with your partner. Stroll the beach with your sisters, one at a time, to catch up. Do not discuss the massage. This is your extended family’s vacation. It started to honor your sister who died many years ago. You spread her ashes and bone here following a magnificent storm. You were all together when her son, now grown with kids of his own, had said, “We should do this every year.” Wonder, as you stand at the water’s edge, if she remains in the sand underneath your feet.
Go home to Pittsburgh. Bury the memory of the massage. Immerse yourself in home repairs after lightning strikes it and blows out a window, frame and all. Replace the stove and discover a gas leak. Have your gas turned off. Stand by as the gasman blunders the repairs, so you end up needing all new gas lines at a cost well over what the insurance – that you have paid for since 1992 – will cover. Call and complain to his boss and then her boss until you do not recognize your own voice. Slam the phone at the injustice of it. Do not see this anger as connected to anything; instead, remain diligent about forgetting.
At work, disappoint your bosses. Drop the ball on a research project, or lose a ten thousand dollar grant. Or both. Do only what’s quick and easy on your enlarging to-do pile as you wrestle back recollection. Be grateful no harm comes to your patients.
Take aspirin for headaches and shoulder pain. Argue (more than usual) with your teenage son. Discover Southern Comfort for sleep, but turn away from your partner as she probes for what’s wrong.
Fall apart, finally, when you fail to keep the memory at bay. It could be during a yoga class where the spa-like aroma and music takes you back to another room, dim and voiceless. Where Child’s Pose reminds you of the day you lay face down, naked under a thin white sheet. The day a man pressed his penis right onto your hand. Yes, you. Twice.
Remember you did nothing when it happened. Recognize that some call this sexual assault. Realize you were sexually assaulted and did nothing.
Try to fit this square fact into your round image of yourself. Feel blown apart inside. Lose track of the pieces. Ask yourself time and again, why didn’t I do anything? Cry. Call your sisters. Fill the hole with Oreo Blizzards.
Wonder if it actually happened, but wake in the mornings with the penis-memory smack dab in front of you, before you even open your eyes. Flinch when your hairdresser reaches to wash your hair and fight tears when your dermatologist asks you to turn around.
Tell your friends. Accept with guilty reassurance the stories they tell in return: one groped on a bus, another’s doctor masturbated, a third shoved for her purse and instead of pushing back thought, “What if I hurt him?” And be ever grateful for the friend who promised you’d heal. She should know; she’d been raped in college. “First there’ll be a day you don’t cry, then a day, no, a few hours that you don’t think about it.”
Wish you’d already known these things about these people you love. Wonder why women stay silent.
Start a journal. Begin to trace the smithereens as they fall slowly and silently back into place. Take a leave of absence from work. Paint a tree with a trunk that resembles a woman’s body on a white bedroom wall. Let roots drip onto the baseboard and branches reach out of the window. Ignore the looks you get from your partner and son as they walk by the room – you, who have never painted a thing in your life. Let leaves span from one end of the room to the other. Use the colors you see in Frick Park where you now walk everyday: bright yellow, burnt orange, blood red. See it as your own.
Go to therapy. Welcome the word “recovery.” It affirms that something is wrong while suggesting that the relentless and intrusive thoughts will not be permanent. Puzzle over the diagnosis of PTSD: this is not war, this is not rape. Find the “t” can be small: minor incident, major reaction.
Decide to press charges. You have no choice. You’ve inherited the fight-injustice gene. Feel sure your sister, the one who died, would have done it; remember as a teenager she picketed Midas Muffler for advertising a deal they didn’t honor? She stood out there with her homemade sign until they made things right.
Prepare for court. Tell the DA that another therapist from his spa is willing to testify. She will be your anti-character witness. She will say he’s a good-for-nothing; she will say he’s made inappropriate comments in their break-room: he likes to get women wet during his sessions.
Practice breathing. Practice standing up. Practice cross-examination with your friend who’s a lawyer. Fly to the Outer Banks from Pittsburgh with your partner. Meet your sisters and anti-character witness there. See massage-man unexpectedly in the parking lot and lose your footing. See him again inside the courthouse. This time, make steady eye contact as you walk right by him. Feel pride in that. Feel like you won right then and there. Don’t be disappointed when the case is not heard. Plan to fly down again next month.
Fly down again next month. Wait in line with bruised wives and drunk drivers. Hope it’s not a bad sign that most lawyers introduce themselves to the court by name, but his lawyer says, Mornin’ Judge. Sit for seven hours before you hear, not your name, but his. You are a mere witness for the state.
Stand up. Walk to the DA’s side. Face the opposing table where the defendant sits with his Mornin’ Judge lawyer. Notice the top few buttons of the defendant’s pale yellow shirt are undone. His shaggy blonde hair nearly covers his eyes. Look at him slouch in his chair as if he doesn’t care what impression he makes.
Wonder why his lawyer didn’t coach him better.
Take the stand. Swear on a Bible. Breathe. Send roots down, right there in the witness stand. Explain what a massage entails. The room, the table, …his penis, your hand. Say, Yes, naked under the sheet. Say Yes, you left a tip. Say Denial is a human coping strategy and watch the judge nod in agreement. Feel confident when you step down. Then listen as his lawyer objects every time your witness tries to tell what she knows. Hold your stomach as the DA fails to convince the judge her testimony goes to intention; so what never gets said is: he tries to get women wet in his sessions. Counter the sick feeling with warmth when your sister takes the stand and says honorable things about you. She was the first person you told. She thinks you’re brave.
In the end, look up hopefully as the judge explains that in the state of North Carolina you need three things to prove Assault on a Woman: one, you’re a woman (check); two, you’ve been assaulted (check); and three, the defendant is at least eighteen years old (slam dunk?).
Stifle the gasp as the judge tells you that the DA didn’t prove the defendant was at least eighteen years old. Sit quietly as the judge goes on to say he’d recently seen a high school basketball game where some of the players had facial hair, so what, after all, does that tell you? Do not stand up and tell the judge in a voice you don’t recognize, He’s thirty! Do not say, But Your Honor just had the arrest warrant – with his birth date – in your hands, because you realize by then it’s too late.
Ask the DA what you should do now and notice that he cannot make eye contact with you. Follow his directions when he says simply, It’s over. You can leave now. Then, whatever you do, avert your eyes from the congratulatory slaps on the back given to the defendant by his lawyer and his boss.
Fall into bed at the beachfront Nags Head Hotel after too much wine and ill-fitting reassurances from your sisters. You didn’t expect to win, but you weren’t prepared to lose like this. Ruminate about good ol’ boys. Turns out Mornin’Judge coached his client just fine: dress like you’re seventeen and we’ll get you out of this.
Appreciate now why women stay silent.
Keep the covers over your head when your partner leaves at four a.m. for an early flight back to Pittsburgh. Resist removing the covers when your perky sister runs in from her adjoining room, opens your drapes to the startling sunrise and yells, “Look at all the birds!” Open your eyes slowly, but open them. Drink the coffee she offers. Watch as thousands of ducks fly north over the ocean. Take pictures. Continue to watch the migration over breakfast at the hotel’s ocean view restaurant. Eventually, turn back towards your sisters, your biscuit and eggs. Wonder out loud why ducks would fly north in December. Call the Audubon Society to learn they are cormorants and cormorants fly north over water, then south over land as they migrate. They fly in circles. It looks like they’re going backwards – they are going backwards. But rest in the knowledge that they’re headed in the right direction.
On the way out of town, stop by the beach where you had spread your sister’s ashes. She extravagantly loved the color blue. Find a whole conch shell of deep blue, larger than the palm of your hand. Run your fingers over the smooth bumps where the once-delicate spines had been. Notice there is not another intact shell in sight – only the smashed and scattered remains of shells crushed in the surf. Suspect your living sisters of placing the conch there for you to find. But realize when you see tears in their eyes that they did not. Hug and cry and laugh with them.
Bring the conch home. Place it on your mantle with a photo of the migrating cormorants. Return to work, but decrease your hours so you can learn to write. Write about small “t” trauma. Turn back towards your partner. You can do it. She’ll go back with you every summer for your big family Outer Banks vacation. While you’re there, spend a quiet moment at the water’s edge. Dig your feet into the warm sand and remember the time you stood, whole, amongst the broken. Then ride the waves. Make dinner. And play charades with your family.