I tried to explain it to someone once. It’s like surviving your own murder, sort of. Ever wonder who would show up at your funeral? Or, more to the point: Who would actually be sad? Rape taught me: fewer than I’d thought.
It is November 11, 2010. Eleven-eleven! It is a Thursday, it is Veteran’s Day, it is the birthday of one of my closest friends, it is the day after a record release party at a bar that is hidden underneath another bar, it is a day I am most certainly skipping class.
By 2 o’clock in the afternoon I will be in the hospital, nurses and social workers reciting health risks and injecting me with things and swabbing and scraping the “evidence” off my body. Later, I will be billed for this: over a thousand for the kit, a few hundred for the ambulance, two hundred or so for the doctor who finally appeared after I sat, waiting, glassy-eyed with ringing ears, for some hours. But for all the hours that pass, the handprints are still around my neck, a broken circle of red and gray.
My boyfriend will find me there, and I will hear for the first time from a boy the three-word phrase most girls imagine hearing on a romantic evening out, arms entwined, leaned in to each other against the backdrop of a city skyline or a beach. But we are in a private waiting room at a hospital with harsh fluorescent lighting, hard plastic folding chairs and an audience of two social workers and a cop, when in between gasps of dry sobbing (no tears yet, too much going on for tears, tears will come later) come the words: I love you.
It is true, what the song says -- it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah. In a few years' time, we will part ways. It is a slower process for him than for me, but he, too, will be drained of everything he was before the afternoon of November 11, will become someone else entirely, and the life we built together will dry up and crumble under the pressure of what I am told is called “survival.”
My roommate arrives and he tells me a phrase many friends parrot over the course of the next few weeks: You don’t have to talk about anything. At first, this is fine, I don’t necessarily want to talk about “anything,” especially since I have to talk about “anything” ad nauseam with detectives and the district attorney. But it is only a short time before I learn that “you don’t have to talk about it” means “I don’t want to hear about it.” One of my oldest friends is so committed to not hearing about it that three years pass before we speak again at all. Every time, “you don’t have to talk about it,” rather than “I want to hear about it.” How many doors we can close with the nuances of language. Personal tragedies create their own bystander effect.
I leave the hospital with pamphlets and numbers and paperwork that I abandon in the back of a squad car. I have nothing else, no wallet or even keys, having been escorted out of my apartment so quickly by the police when they finally came -- or, rather, when I finally opened the door, too afraid to open it at first, afraid he might still be there, might be hiding, might have the gun out, and then when I did finally open the door, I ran for it, throwing it open and dropping to my knees in front of an exasperated female officer, clinging to her feet, wanting only to be wrapped in the maternal safety she represented while someone other than me said help me, help me, please God, help me, please, please, underneath shouts of what did he look like? and which way did he go? and what do you mean this isn’t what you were wearing? before they realized it wasn’t just a robbery. Call SVU, we need SVU on the scene, get a bus.
Outside of the hospital, it is dark outside, nighttime -- the actual hour, I have no idea, one’s concept of time evaporates in the back of a police car -- when the detectives take us from the hospital and steer us through Harlem. While driving up Amsterdam back to my apartment we behold a completely ludicrous sight passing us in the opposite lane: an enormous flatbed truck, headed downtown towing the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. Someone might have commented on it (as it was grotesquely hilarious given the circumstances), but I was fighting nausea from antibiotics and antiretrovirals and, in such disbelief that I was even alive, confused by the fact that Christmas would still be happening, that the rest of the world was preparing for the holiday season when it would be three years before I gave much thought to any date other than November 11. I say nothing, but I watch it pass, try to turn around and follow it through the rear window, but am stopped by so many aches: my left arm, from the injections; my neck and jaw, from someone else’s hands.
The police have had to block off the street so camera crews do not get shots of me, although I am acutely aware of what is implied about me from the very fact that my story has made the news: I am white, young, presenting as upper-middle-class, and I was raped by a black man in a less-than-upscale neighborhood. White privilege, I suppose, is what you might call it, this attention from the press in a social landscape in which most sexual assaults commonly go unnoticed, unreported and unprosecuted. Even I am annoyed by the cliché of it. As I was escorted out of the building, I saw my downstairs neighbors -- they’re Dominican, a full household of parents and grandparents and small children — all gathered at the bottom of the stairwell to see what the fuss of sirens and cops was about. I passed the mother and had one of those tiny communications that can only come through millisecond-too-long eye contact. Her expression was not hateful, but not sympathetic, perhaps not even directed at me personally. I suspect it was more of an observation that I was the living definition of gentrification and now a worst-case scenario that rich white people could watch on the news with satisfied, validated horror.
As we slow to a stop on 147th, now uselessly decorated in yellow tape from Broadway to Amsterdam, the investigation reveals more pieces of my life that have been strewn about for public display -- literally. The detectives believe they have found the dress I had been wearing earlier that day dumped in the trash on a corner. I am asked to identify it. Navy blue, brass buttons, pockets. It is indeed the dress, the one I had immediately fallen in love with at first glance and purchased only the day before. Remember when I said the tears would come -- later? Later is now.
I am called upon to watch a surveillance video at a bodega and then give the detectives a walk-through of my apartment, to further illustrate the story I’d told at least a dozen times that day in painstaking graphic detail. I am accompanied by what seems to me like an absurd amount of police officers. One of them asks about the pills they gave me at the hospital, tells me I should eat something to settle my stomach before they kick in. I am struck by kindness of it, given that neither the nurse nor the HIV counselor recommended the same.
People seem to think Olivia Benson is real, that there's a benevolent maternal figure to escort you through criminal proceedings with a hand that is both comforting and knowledgeable. But she isn't real, although “Law & Order: SVU” would make an episode loosely based on my case one year later. My mother was horrified that I wasn’t “provided with” a female detective, as if these are decisions that can be made as though one is choosing between two different dress colors. But there is comfort to be found in strange, peripheral places: the officer who suggested food, the security guard at the courthouse who would embrace me after the lead detective on my case whispered something in her ear, the bailiff at my trial three years later who made sure I was comfortable while I sat alone in the witness-holding room, the presiding judge who would also hug and congratulate me as though I’d just walked the stage at my graduation. The assistant district attorney handling my case was wonderful and brilliant and more of a practical help to me than any of the social workers and counselors I was sent to see, one of whom dumbly informed me through a fluorescent smile that I should consider getting a dog. My friends and family, for the most part, kept a distance, the formal length of an arm, broaching the topic with polite rarity. I get it. You can’t hug someone closely and watch them at the same time.
Back in the car, a phone is handed to me and I am told my parents have been trying to reach me. My father is on the other end. I don’t remember what he says but everyone in the car looks at me when the only words I can come up with are “I’m fine” before I hang up the phone. My parents don’t know yet. They get on a plane. They find out by turning on the news in their hotel room. I will hear the sound of their devastation and only then will I consider that this event has hurt someone more than it hurt me. Maybe they had the right idea, the “you don’t have to talk about it” friends. Maybe this is what I was supposed to spare them. For the very small “talk about it” set I was just adding kindling.
When the investigating team was finished, I packed a bag. What would you take if your home was on fire? My first instinct was my teddy bear, a gray, threadbare, pathetic-looking thing. The bear I got the day I was born 21 years earlier, the bear that evacuated with me during Katrina, the bear I clung to when my grandmother died, the bear that was mere feet away from me while a stranger pinned me to my bed and I covered my face with my hands and went somewhere else in my head. Even as an adult, I almost didn’t believe that bear was discolored and worn solely from the passage of time. I could never shake the feeling that she had an awareness of the events to which she had borne witness, the Velveteen Rabbit-ness of her, like she would become a real bear if I left her outside.
She came along wherever I went, including the line I had just crossed in the human experience that I hadn’t known existed. You see it on the news all the time, the terrible things people do to each other -- murder, shootings, terrorism -- which prompt the obvious questions of who, how, why. But when the day comes that you see it up close, in person, real-time, it all clicks, somehow makes odd sense. Like seeing an exotic animal for the first time. Oh yes, I recognize it from the pictures, looks different up close, but that’s it all right. This is the thing that will make all of the colors go wrong and force you to take antipsychotics to sleep at night. It goes like this: First, the initial panic and dread; next, the profound despair when you are sure of your death and wondering how they will tell your father; and then, lastly, the unshakeable sense of haven’t I seen this somewhere before?
This is the most insidious sensation and the most haunting, as it will call every relationship you have into question. You will try to convince yourself it’s not true, that only a small evil subset of the human population would ever do something so vicious. But your mail carrier, your boss, your grandmother -- no one will look the same. Even your own reflection will force you to consider what glitch could turn your brain into harsh gray lines of static. This is what the people around me didn’t want to know, didn’t want to hear, didn’t want to see. You don’t have to talk about it. Please don’t tell me about it. To have lived through interpersonal violence is to have seen a glimpse of what the end of the world will look like and then asked to describe it, and in so doing, you must try to shield those you love from the reality of it by saying it’s not so bad, we’re all going to be OK, ushering them away from the edge, all the while looking over your shoulder to make sure you aren’t being followed.
And then, when it’s over, the funeral. Like at all funerals, there are the handful of true broken hearts -- the family, the best friend, the boyfriend. Then there are those who come to pay their respects, politely, offering flowers, maybe a dinner, before going back to their daily routines while pushing to the back of their minds the idea that maybe something has been permanently altered. But then there are those who choose to not show at all, dizzy from the mere thought of looking over the edge, who would rather never speak of it at all and hold onto the idea of you they had before November 11. Can you blame them? Who would want to know the truth when it’s so easy to ignore? Maybe they are the ones who know better, who can hold on to the hope that they will never have to see up close, in high definition, what so many people have been forced to see. I am saddened by their absence, but I hope they don’t either.
What did the girls say at sleepovers in elementary school when the clock struck that luckiest of hours? Yes: It’s 11:11. Make a wish.