Finalist, Remember in November 2013
Warning: This content deals with an account of sexual assault and may be triggering to some people.
“If he didn’t ejaculate, it doesn’t count as sex, right?” I asked Sally, who had been in the room across the hall when it happened.
She was my best friend. Her mother was a nurse, very practical; her father was our gym and sex education teacher. I was thinking and talking like her mother—clinical, to the point. I sat on the cream-colored area rug in the middle of my bedroom floor, talked into the pink Conair telephone.
I am not yet fifteen. I have never been naked with a boy before, so when the six of us play strip poker in the dark, I feel a kind of bravery, a certain independent naughtiness. It is a rite of passage, nothing sexual about it. We keep our underwear on when the boys finally cheat us out of our shirts. The three of us grab a comforter and cover ourselves, even though it is dark. The boys have long been in their underwear. Two of them go to the bathroom, come back to the open door. Mark asks to talk to me in the hall; I can’t find my clothes, so I walk out with the comforter wrapped around me, but the other girl—not Sally—yanks it hard and the door shuts behind me.
“What?” I ask.
“Let’s go in my room,” he says, “I want to talk to you.”
As he tells me everything I’ve wanted to hear for the past two years of my obsessive crush, I stop worrying about my nakedness. It is dark; I am athletic, an outdoor child, a farm girl who spends whole summers in bathing suits and cut-offs and bare feet, even while riding my horse. This isn’t much different. And though I have obsessed over this tall boy, danced to White Snake with him, wrote him notes and even wore his watch two years before, sexuality is not yet a part of me. It is all hypothetical—‘should’s and ‘should not’s, an eventual means to the fairytale ever-after.
He kisses me. I kiss back, until I remember he has an older girlfriend.
“What about Samantha?”
“She knows,” he says. “She does it too. When I get my license this summer, I’m going to ask you out.”
It is March, a couple of weeks before my birthday. He kisses me again, but the spell is broken. I don’t want to be the reason anyone cheats on his girlfriend. I pull back. He pulls harder. He has my wrist—I hadn’t noticed—and pulls me onto the bed. He holds my wrist in his football-throwing hand and, with his free hand, pulls down my underwear, which gets stuck for a minute between my clamped-together legs. I don’t fathom what will happen, or that it could happen. It just never occurs to me. I’ve never even heard of date rape (and won’t for many years). But my lower body seems to have an inkling. My powerful horseback-riding, ballet-dancing, hurdle-jumping legs won’t part for him. He stops kissing me, stops talking. Somehow he gets his own underwear off while holding me down. I assume I can talk him out of this, whatever this is. A girl has to say ‘yes’ to lose her virginity, right? That’s what I was taught. Don’t say ‘yes.’ I know I won’t—he has a girlfriend. I am secure in this knowledge.
He doesn’t touch me with his hands because they are wrapped around my wrists. My heart beats, a little louder, but not too fast. Only my legs aren’t fooled. After a few minutes of prying with his long thigh, unsuccessfully, he lets out his breath and asks, “What’s wrong?”
My thoughts begin to speed up a bit; I am picking up on his disconnect. I am not me, to him, right now, not the girl he has claimed to care about for so long. I am a conquest only. What can I say? What will work?
“Of what? I told you, she doesn’t care. She’s at college. You really think she’s not doing the same thing?”
Silence. I don’t know what I’m scared of. Should I be scared?
“Of getting pregnant?”
Go with that, I think. He understands that.
“Don’t worry. I put a condom on when I went to the bathroom.”
Now I’m scared. He planned this. Still, I know I can talk my way out of it. I just have to figure out what to say. Not ‘yes.’
Sally is in the room across the hall with her obsession. I hear the third couple leave. These boys are best friends, our tandem crushes. If we get caught, we will all get kicked off the track team. I came along tonight because Sally had been drinking, which was unusual, and I was worried about her. I am there to protect her from herself, from a decision she might regret. We are good girls, just tired of waiting, tired of being strung along by these boys, our future husbands, we think.
I think of Sally, drunk, and have to work out how to get off this bed without making a lot of noise. I don’t want to wake the sleeping mother downstairs and get us all in trouble. No one will believe I wasn’t drinking. And I will be grounded just for being here.
I looked at the pink phone reflected in the mirror on my wall as Sally told me what had happened. Unaccustomed to the booze, James had passed out before they could do anything. Sally had decided to lose her virginity to him one way or another, which explained the drinking. We had always planned that we’d lose it to those boys, but it was supposed to be when we were eighteen, after years of going together, a way to solidify our futures before we went off to college. She had grown tired of the game, tired of waiting for him to profess his love. As she recounted her disappointment the night before, I twirled the pink cord and vaguely wondered if I was staining the off-white carpet. I stared into the mirror. White carpet. Pink phone. Hardwood floor. Red blood. I told Sally about the blood. This complicated things.
“If he didn’t ejaculate, it wasn’t sex,” Sally said.
I hung up. The rest of Saturday I sat on my floor, staring into my mirror, seeing only the cream carpet and the pink phone. I might have been expecting him to call. I refused to wear a pad, just kept changing my underwear so I wouldn’t stain the rug. I rinsed them out with cold water.
Sally and I went to the matinee Sunday. I left a note for my parents, who had left us home alone that weekend for the first time. I got home before 4 p.m. My parents grounded me for leaving the house without permission. Sunday night I called Mark. I was sick of staring at that pink phone. I didn’t sit on the floor. His mother answered, and when I asked for him, she exclaimed, “Samantha?!”
“No,” I said, “Trisha. Remember me?”
She did. Mark’s voice was warm, cajoling, normal. He blew me off at school Monday. At track practice, Sally and I talked about it one last time. My virginity was at stake here. Hopping over a log on the way back to the locker room, we both decided, once and for all, no ejaculation meant no sex. “Besides,” she said, “you never said ‘yes’.”
I become aware that the rest of my body is tensing, trying to help my legs. He is squarely on top of me now, all six-feet-one-inch and one hundred and sixty pounds of him. My five-foot-four, hundred and five pounds of girly muscle can’t budge him. My arms are bent up in front of my chest, wedged between us. He stops trying to coerce me. I am stiff as an oak plank but no matter how strong my thighs are I realize, perversely and suddenly, that we as women have no way to close off the part we are supposed to keep closed off. I feel something slippery trying to tunnel between my thighs. I never open my legs, but somehow he shoves himself in—he does not miss; I would find out later he had done this before—and his purported eight-and-a-half inches rips right through the thin veil of innocence I am sworn to protect. The pain and surprise give me enough strength to lift my shoulders and head, momentarily pushing him back. I scream—a raspy, guttural cry. I don’t decide to scream, but I do. Until the moment he tore into me I hadn’t believed he’d actually do it. I am confused.
That primeval, pure scream shocks him out of his reverie. He doesn’t want to get caught either. His form relaxes, but not his right hand. Still on top of me, he kisses my throat, my collarbone. He says in an intimate voice I’ve never heard before—the voice I had imagined he’d use when he professed his love someday—that he didn’t mean to hurt me. Even now, decades later, this tenderness is jarring; his breathy act of contrition, his kiss in the dip above my collarbone—these are the last bits to surface when I dig up these old bones and rattle them until the words come.
Because of that moment, I could have forgiven him. It is a moment I am still surprised to remember, surfacing days after a dream or a first draft. Soft kiss, soft words in the dip above my left collarbone. That kiss and almost-apology stay buried; when they finally surface they knock the wind out of me. It was confusing, sure, to receive such tenderness in the very moment I understood the violence. But that memory also saddens me. A moment of human-heart truth smack in the middle of the worst kind of human-heart treachery. And that’s why I bury it still—that memory allows me to see the boy I cared for so much, not the man who betrayed me so brutally. I wonder, sometimes, if he even knew what he did. How could someone capable of such gentleness commit such violence?
I think I tried to forgive him, later, after I remembered. But I saw him everyday for the next few years, and I eventually learned he was telling my band-boy buddies I was a bad lay, criticizing my lack of make-up and hair spray. During those years, my memory went blank. He pulled me down on the bed, but I got up and left. When Sally and I jumped over that log, the vault closed with my footfall. But these further degradations eventually scratched the vault open and allowed me to realize that one warm moment was all he had for me, allowed me to call the rest what it was—rape. The idea didn’t surface, wouldn’t articulate until he graduated and left my life. I looked in that same mirror on my wall, took a shower, fell down in the shower, cried, pressed my face to the mirror again and mouthed the word rape.
Counselors said it made sense. My mind protected me until I was safe, until he was gone. But he is never really gone. I still sometimes dream about him. My mother is in the dreams, pointing her finger, telling me I must go with him, I must marry him, the man I let take my virginity.
I know now what he did was wrong.
Was it stupid to play strip poker with teenage boys? Yes. Did I know there was a fifteen-year-old rapist in the room? No. Did I know fifteen-year-old rapists even existed? No. Did I know date rape was a thing, a real thing? No.
All I knew was don’t say ‘yes.’ I can’t help but wonder though, would it have happened at all if someone had taught him it was wrong? He had a man’s body, but he was still a boy. I was taught not to say yes, but that wasn’t enough. What was he taught? How about don’t do it if she doesn’t say ‘yes.’ That would have been a start.
I’m not scared anymore. Something else altogether is happening, something I will not know again for many years—the violent death of a love that never really existed, staggering betrayal, an irreparable tear in the trust between two people. Pure, unadulterated violation. There is nothing to fight now; it is done. I can’t name the feeling but instinctively know he doesn’t deserve my words anyway, so I say nothing and look at the wall. He climbs off the end of the bed, finally letting go of my wrist when he is nearly upright. He lets out a long, tired sigh as he stands looking out the window. The moonlight illuminates his beautiful body. I acknowledge his beauty silently, off-handedly, and know I feel no attraction to him any longer.
Then I see it. It is hard and long and shining because of the condom that doesn’t quite reach the base. Some modicum of understanding has been fluttering underneath my consciousness, until I see that penis. As I stare, something slams shut. Suddenly I feel ashamed of the nakedness, ashamed I kissed him when he had a girlfriend. The rage and veracity of that moment after I screamed is gone. Time resets. I have just let him lead me into this room, and my integrity demands I go. I get up, look around. He hands me my old cotton underwear without even looking away from the window. I leave him there, frustrated in the moonlight.
I knock on the door across the hall, call for Sally, walk in without waiting for an answer. She and James are sleeping under the comforter on the floor. She is clothed, he in his boxers. I don’t care if he sees my near nakedness while we both find our clothes and head downstairs. James is our ride home. Mark follows us, walks us to the door. His winning smile again plastered across his face, he bends, kisses me goodbye and says I should call him. Sublime chaos. I carry my pantyhose to the car and go home. In the morning, I wake, sit and bleed on the cream-colored carpet in the middle of my hardwood floor, stare into the mirror, and call Sally.
Trisha Winn is an MFA in writing candidate at Goddard College; she is also a graduate student at Central Michigan University. Her academic interests include Native American literature, ecocriticism, ecofeminism, disability studies and literature of the American West and Midwest. She writes creative nonfiction, shorts (flash memoir), vignettes and the occasional prose poem. Her work has been published by Peninsula College Press, TOSKA Magazine, The Pitkin Review, Elohi Gadugi, and others; her “tiny truths” have been featured in Creative Nonfiction’s online monthly newsletter.