It was the last day of August, Sunday the thirty-first, the new school year would begin tomorrow morning. I felt as free as if I were falling. I knew not a single person at Colorado College. I was happily anonymous, liberated from my humiliating past. I felt unbound and defiant. I was determined to prove to my parents—and to myself—that I could take care of myself, once and for all. I could keep myself safe. I didn’t need them. They’d finally see that all their worry about me was needless. Dusk swallowed the stately brick and stone buildings, curled lines of ivy gripped the stone like a giant’s long black fingers, spreading.
I’d flown to campus from the borderline of California and Oregon only a few days earlier, from a walk along a wild footpath through mountains I’d taken alone in an attempt to shake myself from my mother’s grip.
I’d first learned about the path at seventeen, when I’d found Travels in Alaska—a brittle and browning, 1979 trade paperback edition of John Muir’s classic—among flat basketballs and insecticide in my family’s garage. When I’d opened it, the spine cracked in two. I felt a swell of compassion for my parents to think that they had bought this wild old book. They had once fostered desire for something distant, something large—a seed they’d buried, abandoned.
In the weeks after I’d first uncovered the book in the garage, I read it over and over, imagining John Muir writing letters and essays describing the grace of his found-home, so beautiful that even wealthy tourists began to venture out to see. He was an escapee, a pioneer of conservation in a time when industrial production was new and booming. I wanted to know Muir, meet him, catch his joy. Go where he’d gone. Be as free and euphoric as he was when he was discovering for himself Alaska, glissading, traversing boundless snow, alone. I wanted his life route, his sure footprints to follow instead of those my mother had decided on for me.
And then I’d learned that I could do just that. His wandering path is marked. A two-foot-wide, 211-mile-long continuous footpath from Happy Isles Trailhead in Yosemite Valley, south through the High Sierra of California, to the summit of Mount Whitney—14,505 feet tall, the highest peak in the lower forty-eight. And this great trail is just a small section of a much longer trail that extends from Mexico to Canada. This long footpath is called the Pacific Crest Trail.
I decided I had to walk it.
That summer, I’d lied to my parents, knowing they would never let me go alone—told them that instead of camp I was going to California with some kind of Outward Bound alumni group I’d put together through e-mail—and, by myself, I’d hiked the 211-mile John Muir Trail through the High Sierra Mountains.
They did find out, they were both worried and my father especially felt terribly betrayed, and the summer I was eighteen, again with their credit card, I returned to California and again hiked the
John Muir Trail. This time, I didn’t stop at the John Muir Trail’s northern end but instead kept walking north until my trail converged with a longer wilderness footpath—the Pacific Crest Trail. I kept walking and walking. The summer before college started, I hiked just shy of one thousand miles.
These summers had been my great rebellion. I’d spent the months before college happy, glowing with my new independence. It was so fucking fun, I was so wildly free. I had wanted to take a gap year and keep going, walk the trail all the way to Canada. I told my mother I was going to, she said no. She said I would be older than everyone at college then, and it would be harder to date. I would be a year behind and too old.
So I walked one thousand miles and then came to school. I flew straight from Medford, Oregon, to Colorado College. The freedom of the woods lingered in me here; I felt lighter. I hoped to be changed by it, allow this seeding independence to root in my childhood Eden’s soil and grow until at last it was undeniable.
New freshmen wandered along the quad’s walkways. I watched clumps cross from dining hall to orientation video dance party to campus-safety lecture without certainty or friends or direction. Their dark bodies were tentative, posture bad. I straightened. I wandered, too, but alone. I knew nobody; no one knew who I was. I was the only student from Newton South High School to go here. More than anything, the mountains, the good English literature program—anything—I had chosen Colorado College, a tiny school two thousand miles from my home in Massachusetts, for the anonymity it would provide me.
Now, finally at college, I felt quiet, giddy and lonely. Suddenly here, and already completely lost. I saw myself taking long walks over the campus paths each evening, alone. I’d always been such a damn loner. I’d never met anyone I fit with. I wanted a boyfriend to hold hands with. Tonight was my second night away at college. I thought about my mother pushed against my father. That couldn’t possibly happen to me, I thought, no.
My new room was still tidy, T-shirts and sweaters folded, summer dresses hung in a line in the closet—my mother’s good work. There was almost nothing left for me to do. Tomorrow morning classes would begin. I was sitting on the navy plastic-covered mattress of my bed, opening my cardboard box of books when a shrill alarm startled me. It stopped me on the bed, ereh-ereh-ereh, my heart revving. It was the fire alarm. I’ve never been good in emergencies; Stand, I thought, and I stood. I thought, Walk. Outside the air was hot and very still. A line of fire trucks turned their red and silver lights, changing the color of a field of freshman faces. It smelled of cut grass and of stone.
Kids dashed in and out of the sprinklers outside. The fire trucks’ spinning red and silver lights brightening the mud, the sprinkler-sprays dizzying me. I saw a girl was looking at me. She was pretty. Her skin was very pale, moonlit, a serene lunar blue. Closer, she was sprayed with freckles, galaxies, and I saw worlds in her. She walked toward me. I was paralyzed. I actually shut my eyes.
“Hey there,” she said to me, “you’re in Slocum?”
Slocum was the dormitory. I opened my eyes. “Yes, am.”
She told me her name was Katherine. A man’s voice echoed through a bullhorn speaker. I couldn’t understand what he was saying.
I told her I was Debby. I said, “I can’t hear what he’s telling us, can you?”
I don’t remember if she said she could. I remember she asked me if my roommates were cool, and I said I had a single, and she said she had a single, too, and declared us “singles sisters,” and I think we actually hugged.
In a blissed hour—I’d broken in, found my first friend—freckled-porcelain Katherine slipped into my room followed by a skinny boy with black hair and wooden drumsticks in the back pocket of his jeans who also happened to be my neighbor, followed by a thicker redheaded boy I’d never seen before. Katherine didn’t really know them, none of us knew anyone yet really, but she did know a boy who’d said he met the redhead, and that he was cool. The redhead’s posture was very confident. He was handsome in a smug-boy way: popped collar, khaki shorts. So Ivy League. His hair was red and wiry, his lips plump and melon pink. His name was Junior. The other boy was Zach. All four of us were freshmen, all new here.
Someone had the DVD of The Breakfast Club. I don’t remember how we decided on my room for watching it. It all happened very quickly. There’s a lot I don’t remember, just the details that struck me.
I saw myself in the tall mirror stuck on the back of my dormroom’s blond wood door. The room’s color switched erratically: pale blue, pale yellow. My pink shorts were too high waisted to be cool. The Breakfast Club kids talked and laughed—they were distorted on the mirror’s edge, shrunken and flipped—applied dark lipstick using only cleavage to hold it steady, smoked weed and bonded, became the greatest friends, lovers.
Junior rolled a joint. I took a hit, then another. I tried not to inhale too deeply; I didn’t want to lose myself completely. My room still smelled like bleach. We all four were sitting on my bed without removing our shoes, muddy from the fire drill, it was my second night at motherfucking college, and I felt euphoric. It was the second time in my life I had ever smoked weed. In the mirror my shorts were tiny; they looked good. My lipstick was dark as blood. Junior told me something that I couldn’t hear.
I wondered what he’d said but felt stupid asking him to repeat it, so I didn’t. Katherine and my neighbor passed the joint; they were staying sober. A burgundy lipstick stain glared on the lumpy joint.
Junior placed his palm softly on my inner thigh. I noticed his hands were thick and very pale.
I thought: What am I doing here? In suburban Colorado, wearing lipstick. Smoking weed.
And I thought: What am I doing here? What am I doing here? What am I? I wanted to feel like a pretty girl, even out in Colorado with no one who knew me. To be beautiful. To live beautifully. I drew on maroon Make Me Blush lipstick.
The champagne comment my mother had made earlier in the day seemed even more bizarre now. No one drinks champagne, I thought again, deciding she was tragically insane.
Somebody was drumming his pencil on his shoe-sole rubber, and the shy girl in the movie kissed the boy—this was freedom—and then the movie ended suddenly and the room was darker, and then blindingly light.
The thin boy got up and walked into the quiet hall with Katherine. I followed them out and hugged the girl and then the boy—he was flushed—and walked back in. I was happy Junior had stayed, I liked him. I wanted him to want to kiss me. My thick door clicked.
I sat down on the shiny linoleum floor, unsure what space was best to go to. Junior was still on my bed. My new bed was dirty from our shoes, patterned with dry crumbs of mud. Junior crushed one to dust in a pinch. We sat in silence and I felt a throbbing knocking softly in my collarbone—I’d broken it as a kid—I was a little turned on, we were together, alone. When the boy who remained turned to me, I’d smiled at his red hair; I happily kissed him. He had seemed easygoing, poised. He placed his hand lightly down on my inner thigh. I froze. I was suddenly afraid. I said, “Thanks for coming over. I’ll see you soon, all right? Okay?”
He pressed his hand down on my leg—clutched so it hurt—and I twisted out from under it and stood—I was standing on my bed, felt like jumping!—and he rose up on his knees and I said, “ ’Bye! I’m going to go to bed.” I was excited. I was scared.
But he did not leave. He didn’t seem to hear me at all, or care.
He tried to put his hands in my shorts; I told him, “Slow down.” He didn’t. I compromised; I didn’t want him to touch me below my shorts, told him instead he could titty-fuck me; everywhere above my pink short shorts, he could kiss me. I tried to give him one thing so he might leave without taking everything—so that the boy won’t be angry; become threatening. He took what I’d offered, then found my waistband again. I felt guilty that I’d led him on, but I asked him to get up and go. He didn’t look handsome to me now.
He jerked my shorts down, below my hips, without unbuttoning them. The fabric cut into my hip. I heard the plastic button hit my room’s linoleum floor. The clip-sound was chilling. I said, “Stop it.” His deafness maddened me. I remember bracing myself. Stiffening and feeling still as dead soft wood. I only whispered, “Stop,” though I’d tried to scream. The entire time, he’d only ever looked at my body, never at my face, his empty eyes hungry, never seeing me at all. I wasn’t the presence of a person, but a body. I could have said anything, he wouldn’t have heard me. He’d never responded, not by stopping, not with his words.
I’d trusted him, thought he’d stop if I said, “Wait.” Thought he’d go, leave, after The End. After the movie’s boy and girl kissed, flicked to black. Instead, he’d touched me. The slice of sky in my cracked window had glowed black, dense as a bomb.
Afterward, I asked him if he wanted to stay. To sleep over. I desperately wanted to feel I’d wanted this, that what happened was not what happened. I begged him to stay.
He told me I was “fucking crazy”—I was crazy to ask for that. Those were the only words he’d spoken to me since Katherine had left. He knew what he’d done. My plea scared him. But he was lucky. My irrational request would later fog the clear act and save him from expulsion and conviction and shame.
I was the one who felt shame.
In six weeks, I’d gone from virgin to rape victim. When I met Junior, I was not a virgin, but I’d only had sex with one man, only once, in a trailside town before leaving the California mountains to begin school.
Just a few weeks before flying to Colorado, I’d made the decision that I was going to lose my virginity, and I had. I wanted to lose it before college, didn’t want to be that weird girl who’d never had sex. I just wanted to get it out of the way.
I had had four rum and Cokes. The man’s name was Tyler. He had a shaved head, a black bumblebee beside the number 66 tattooed on his muscular neck. I didn’t know then that it was a gang tattoo. He and I met in a dive bar, me stumbling, playing pool against myself. We talked, he leaned in, and we were both staying at the exact same Motel 6, both traveling through, not from this SoCal town. He was about 850 miles into his PCT journey, walking away from his past in the gangs of Florida, hoping to figure out what work could be more fulfilling for him. I sensed a desire for something better in him. Amazing, I’d drunk-thought; we had so much in common.
“You’re mad sexy,” he said, and I was flattered he’d noticed me, thought I must be his type. We walked along the highway, back to our motel together. He never took my hand but placed his flat palm against my bottom, held it there, occasionally patting as I stepped, pushing sometimes as I slowed.
That night he undressed me fast and without care, tossed each item of my clothes on the bed, the rug, the beige-tile floor of his motel room’s bathroom as he nudged me in. We had sex on the cool linoleum. There were three other guys in the motel room, asleep. When I gasped he thought it was from pleasure and covered my mouth with his hand and told me to shut up and thrust thrust thrust my hip against the toilet’s cold base until he saw the blood and said, “Fuck. Period,” and I said, “No. It’s my first time,” and he stopped thrusting, stopped.
He said, “No. Really, why?”
I thought I should have told him before, felt bad and whispered “Sorry,” sorry. I didn’t say that I’d been putting it off, saying no for years, waiting for someone I loved so it would mean “I love you,” so I wouldn’t feel sorry after.
He asked if I wanted to keep going. I said, “Yes, until you come,” because that was the thing to do, I thought. Because I didn’t want to have to say that, my first time, the guy didn’t even like me enough to come.
I was never cool. I loved Kay Ryan poems and solitude and snow. I loved wildflowers, wilderness, running fast. Winter more than summer. The music of my nerdy father’s bygone days. I’d allowed one irrational fear—a stupid thought—to hurt me, take me, stain me forever: the thought that I’d be taunted in college if I were still a virgin. The thought that anyone would care one plum, care at all.
The ridiculous belief let me give it all up, give up, loosen my grip.
As I curled up in my bed that second night of college, I kept wondering: what if sex with Tyler allowed Junior into me? I hadn’t been too drunk to say no to Tyler; I could have stopped it. He hadn’t forced me. I just hadn’t wanted to be the girl I was: innocent, a child. And like that, that fast, after years waiting, saying, “Wait,” keeping it, it was gone to a stranger. No love. Just terribly sorry. Motel 6. My blood. I would never, ever be spotless-me again. I’d rot, was rotten, felt sick, dizzy, mad.
Maybe, if I hadn’t lost it to Tyler, I would have gotten Junior to leave. What if my compliance, then hesitation, would have instead been stiffness and great, penis-taming rage. What if sex with Tyler took from me not just my virginity but my mind, my judgment, my facility to say no and sound convincing. What if—and this seemed too true to refute—had I not had sex with Tyler, I’d not have ended up alone, stoned, with a boy I didn’t know. If the first sex hadn’t happened, the rape wouldn’t have happened, either. I would never have let Junior stay.
I wanted to be clean and safe, in control of my sexuality. I associated such security with virginity. If I hadn’t tried to be so cool, so okay with being alone with a boy and drugs and night, none of this would have ever happened.
After the boy left that night, I pulled back on the same underpants and slept in them, and in the morning found two red-black spots of blood on the white cotton, the only physical sign I’d been raped, altered physically forever. The floor was still quiet, it was early and dark, and in a stall in the dormitory’s huge girls’ bathroom I removed them, held them in my hands under the bright fluorescent lights, my face hot and my hands hot. I did not move. The sun came up. Two, three hours passed and the sky lightened and went blue. Other girls came in and out, laughing, brushing their teeth. I sat on the toilet in my stall with the underwear in my hands, staring at the marks of blood. I couldn’t erase the image in my shut eyes of these two terrible seeds that stained them.
On their second night at college, my parents met.
On my second night at college, I was raped.
Excerpted from "Girl in the Woods: A Memoir" © 2015 by Aspen Matis. Reprinted with permission from William Morrow/HarperCollins. All rights reserved.