Image Credit: Ali Lassiter
In 1999, I had a sexual experience that was terrifying, disempowering, and not entirely transparent enough to categorically call assault or rape. It lives in the grey.
I was twenty years old.
I was living Waterbury, Connecticut. My hometown. It was the summer between my sophomore and junior years of college. I didn’t like being home, so I picked up a job at a downtown restaurant, working as many double shifts as I could. And when I wasn’t working, I often went to the restaurant just to hang out.
There was a guy who came to the restaurant that I started going out with occasionally outside of work. He was tall, Italian, good-looking, with a soft voice and a great smile. Our meet-ups were casual. Once, we went to lunch, and another time, a barbecue. I liked talking to him. Our social circles overlapped, and I was hoping he would become my boyfriend. All I wanted was a boyfriend. All I wanted was approval.
It was a Friday night. After dinner service, the restaurant flipped over to a bar, and on a typical Friday, as was this, it was standing room only.
When my shift finished, I was tired and hot and needed air. I went out outside to smoke a cigarette. It was a warm summer evening and there was a large group of people outside.
I noticed him in the crowd, eyeing me. I looked away. Cool girl. By then, we were no longer spending much time together; I’d figured that was the end of our story. We hadn’t even kissed.
I watched his tall frame slice through the crowd. I took a casual drag from my cigarette as he approached me. He leaned in, and a wave of heat came over me. I could feel his breath on my ear.
“I’m going to rape you,” he whispered. Just like that.
I’m going to rape you.
Then he walked away, his words hanging in the air. I told myself that maybe it was just his idea of some sick joke but when I looked down at my body, I saw I was shaking. My heart was pounding in my chest. My heart was a flapping, helpless bird.
When he offered me a ride home later that night, I should have been scared.
I guess I didn’t think he meant it. I didn’t know what he meant. In my naïveté, I thought he was kidding, that he had to have been kidding. So I got into his car.
I feel so much shame writing that.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that he wasn’t driving me home. I tried to assess the situation. I even tried to hold his hand, to assuage my gnawing fear. But he pushed it away. So I lit a cigarette and rolled the window down, staring out into nothing.
I’d found myself in situations like this before: wanting to get to know a guy and not really trusting my instincts, or knowing what my instincts were and not knowing how to protect myself anyway.
Who teaches us girls this—this whole not-trusting-ourselves thing? Our mothers? Who? Does it matter?
As we drove, the air rushed against the skin on my face, through my hair— it felt good, though I was too full of confusion and fear to appreciate it. Instead, I focused my attention on the passing city lights, glowing orange and warm against the starless sky. I sucked in my gut as a way to hold myself.
We drove out of the downtown area and up toward Town Plot, pulling into a parking lot off of Highland Avenue. I knew the area well. It was part residential and part commercial, and one of the city’s main hospitals was there. The trees stood tall and barren during the winter, and lush and green in the summer. When he parked the car, I turned to look at him, hopeful, still, that maybe we would just make-out. That maybe we’d talk, that I’d learn something new about him. That perhaps the fear I was feeling was a mistake. I have a hard time separating violence and fear, from intimacy—I think I learned that from my father.
When I was nine-years old, my father held a gun to my mother and me.
Earlier that day, when my parents picked me up from school, my mother’s face was bloodied, bruised, and contorted. I remember walking across the grass toward the truck, confused, scared, and uncertain. She watched me the entire time. When I made it to the door, she opened it, and I climbed in, but she said nothing. Instead, she held my hand. My eyes were focused on my father’s knuckles which were bloody and cracked. I was terrified, and I had no idea what was going to come next. All I knew is that I would never be young again.
Once at the house, whatever it was that started between them continued. Outside, the darkness thickened, and the sounds of my parents yelling shook the house. At one point, my father disappeared down the hallway, and when he returned, he was holding a gun. I remember the silver barrel seemed larger than him.
That day, I was sure we were all going to die. But we didn’t.
I called the cops on my father, and they came to take him away. My mother and I went and stayed with my grandfather, though the next day, my father came to get us. And we went home with him. We never spoke about the gun night again.
For the next twenty-five years of my life, I have wanted to dive into my father’s arms just as strongly as I’ve wanted to run away from him, and most of my romantic relationships have felt this way. It was through my father that I learned the pain of believing that you had to go through a certain kind of violence to get to love. Suppose the outward expression of his fear, and his rage was the only way to relieve the tension he felt between self-rejection and unconditional acceptance.
I wonder who it was that taught him that.
The parking lot was empty. He told me to get out of the car and meet him around the back. He opened the trunk and ordered me in. I felt his control and power over me swoop down in an instant. My first instinct was to be good. I did not want to get in trouble.
He pulled down my pants, and forced himself into me. It hurt.
I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do—was I supposed to resist? Or pretend that I liked it? I had no idea what would keep me safe in that moment.
I tried reaching up for him, to touch him, to take control, but he only pushed me back down, and forced me to stay there, quiet and still with his dark, hollow eyes staring down at me. He thrust harder, but I wasn’t wet enough, and then I lifted my hips, trying to be a part of what was happening to my body. But he got agitated, and I started crying, and he told me to shut up. Then, he grabbed a gallon of water that he had stored in the back, and poured it over himself, trying to make it easier to enter me. It didn’t help. That’s when I gave up.
With the lower half of my body open to him, I felt helpless. I suppose I thought the easiest thing to do, the safest thing to do, was to be passive.
He fucked me silently, while I stared up at the interior of the roof, my body limp as he pushed. I bit my lip, the taste of iron. I closed my eyes, waiting for it to end.
Why did the word “no” stay in my throat?
Who teaches men to take what they want? Who teaches girls to stay silent?
I’d been in this situation before, just waiting for it—for the discomfort, for the having to please, for having to conform, to end. Thinking, maybe if I don’t react, maybe if I stand or sit still, quiet, pretty, they won’t know what they are doing, or saying, is wrong. Then the moment will pass and I can get on with my life.
Except, I never really would move on, until I learned stop letting things happen to me. To unlearn that version of the story.
Finally, the word “No” entered my mouth. But instead of taking form and sound, it pressed against my palate. It felt so forceful that I was afraid of it. So I bit down harder on my tongue.
Afterwards, he told me to dress and get back into the car, and so I did. I felt ashamed, dirty.
Did I want this?
Did I ask for this?
I didn’t like it.
Was I supposed to?
He drove us back to the bar, and I walked in, trying to hide what happened. Once among all the bodies, I ordered a drink and stood up against a wall. I didn’t want anyone to see me. Something had happened, but I didn’t know what. I did not feel like a person.
There was very little that was consensual about that night, except for the fact that I accepted a ride. That was about all I agreed to, wasn’t it?
I’m not sure.
I am not sure.
He is standing beside me, leaning in as he had earlier in the night.
I can feel the heat of his breath on my neck. I keep my eyes fixed straight ahead. I am afraid to look at him. I know he can sense this.
“If you tell anyone, I’ll kill you,” he says.
I turn my face to look at his, then. His eyes are empty, frightening. I nod.
The following evening, I was supposed to work, but I couldn’t stomach the thought of it. I felt sick over the possibility of running into him, or of anyone knowing, of anyone seeing how dirty, how easily manipulated, how vulnerable, how powerless I was.
I called in and asked for management. I told the manager I wasn’t feeling well, and that I couldn’t come into work. “I don’t care if you’re on your rag,” he told me. “Come in or get fired.”
From down the hallway, I heard my mother’s voice calling me for supper. I hung up phone.
I stayed in my room.
I lost my job.
I wonder what it was that made me prey? Was it my clothes? I was wearing black pants, and a white button down shirt. Was it my short hair?
Usually when I tell people this story, they don’t think it was rape. They ask me if I was drunk. (I wasn’t.)
But when I get to the part of the story where he threatened me, something shifts. My culpability seems less apparent. I can see it in their eyes. Still, they won’t say what he did was wrong. Usually, they look away.
A part of me agrees with them. A part of me thinks it was myfault. I had warning. By getting in that car, by failing to speak up, by failing to fight him off, I’d also committed an extraordinary violence against myself.
For a long time, I saw this event as something that happened outside of myself, to someone else. Not me. It was in this way that I didn’t have to name it, claim, it make it my own. I could only do that if I felt worthy, if I felt like a person.
I’ve thought long and hard about that night.
About how trusting I was, and how trusting I continued to be with a lot of men, in a lot of situations that were ultimately suspect. Situations where, for instance, men have started touching me, and I haven’t reacted because reacting gives me a sense of agency I’m uncomfortable with, and, also, not reacting might keep me safe. You never know. I may have not had the words to protect myself that night, but then again, sometimes even words are not enough.
Who teaches men to take and girls to give?
Jocelyn M. Ulevicus has a background in Social Work, Psychology, and Public Health. Her work focuses on exploring the terrain of family violence and re-humanizing oneself after trauma, and has been published in magazines such as Mindful Matter and Life in Ten Minutes. Ms. Ulevicus currently resides in Amsterdam and is finalizing her first book, a memoir, titled The Birth of A Tree.