It was rape.
It’s so hard to say. It’s hard because, at times, I thought it wasn’t. It’s hard because, at times, I thought it was. It’s hard because when I started to say it, half the people I know stopped speaking to me. It’s hard because I slept with him for a year and half afterwards. It’s hard because I cared about him, and continue to care about him. It’s hard because his grip on life is so tenuous, as is mine, and I spent a long time both feeding into our mutual suicidality and hoping he didn’t kill himself. It’s hard because I don’t want to hurt him. It’s hard because when I woke up, naked and sore, having no idea what had happened the night before, and went home to discover that I was bleeding, I still wasn’t sure he had intended to hurt me. It’s hard because I took the drugs, took more; that was my choice. It’s hard because I can’t stop thinking about how when I woke up, naked, stuck to a leather couch in his friend’s apartment, he’d had the presence of mind to put his clothes back on after whatever happened and fall asleep in pajamas. It’s hard because I think of all the people who saw us together, flirting in bars in the months that followed, getting wasted and laughing together, and realize none of them could have possibly seen what happened. It’s hard because, for a long time, I didn’t let myself see what had happened. It’s hard because when I finally came out and publicly named it as assault, a friend messaged me to say, “You seemed really into him, though,” and went on to say how incongruent it seemed that I was saying this now.
It was rape.
My adjustment to the Midwest was not an easy one. I moved here from New York City after a traumatic divorce. Cleveland, before I moved here, had seemed like a place that could hardly exist for me, despite the fact that my best friend since childhood lived in a nearby town. I couldn’t fathom the Great Lakes, in a lousy lived-in-NYC-most-of-my-life way. The thought of leaving my queer, sex-positive community in New York for some ghostly industrial city in the middle of the country wasn’t something I ever thought would happen, until it did. I found myself living on the East Side, attending a Masters in Fine Arts program at a group of public universities. Within the first year, I hated the consortium program I was in, hated half my professors, hated a good portion of my classmates who considered me “too political” in my decidedly trans, anarchist writing style.
I was in a poetry class a year and a half into my master’s program. A close friend and I had taken it because there was nothing else open and we needed the credits. The class was a ridiculous one about what the professor called “literary capers,” taught by an old white man with a ‘70s ponytail who thought his old white man friend’s book of poems where he posed as a Hiroshima survivor was an appropriate thing to teach in 2019. It was not a surprise, given this environment, and also utterly a surprise, when a fellow student took out a piece of paper during her workshop time and delivered a manifesto to the class about how alienated she felt as a cis-het-white woman, how other minorities were given more consideration than her. It was decidedly racist and transphobic. She singled out demographics. She made a long speech about not understanding pronouns like “they,” which I use. After she finished, after the professor nodded and moved along with the lesson without comment, I stood up, made a scene, yelling about how she had called out fellow students by identity, making her as uncomfortable as she’d made me. My friend and I left the class mid-way through. We drove back to Cleveland from the Kent State campus, where the class had been, marveling at what had happened, unable to really believe it. My friend dropped me off at a bar near my house where several other people we knew from the local lit scene were hanging out.
One of these people was a guy named Todd. I had met Todd several times before then, because, despite the fact that he’d graduated years before, he still went to all the parties, readings, and dinners that the program held. I did not like Todd when I first met him, and that he was close friends with someone who had been accused of raping his girlfriend didn’t sit well with me either. Todd seemed to like me, though—was always starting conversations with me about the concerts we’d both been at, about sadboy music, about writing. I was trying to keep it together that day after the incident in class, get drunk and be fun to hang out with, while I explained what had happened to the group of guys who I was now hanging out with. Before long, everyone but me and Todd was gone from the bar. I was drinking hard, whiskey on the rocks, my usual. At one point, when we were very drunk, Todd leaned over to me and said, “I’ve been wanting to ask you – you matched with me on Tinder a few months ago.”
I laughed. “Yeah, I swipe right on everyone I know when I see them on there. It’s just polite.”
We kept talking. We talked about Leonard Cohen’s death album, and a particular song which seemed, at first listen, like an overly simple group of lyrics, until he got to the lines, “If the sea were sand alone/ and the flowers made of stone,”—throwaway bullshit, we agreed, until it came to the kicker, —“And no one that you hurt could ever heal.” A terrifying world.
A guy who I didn’t like and didn’t trust came into the bar, a sketchy gay guy who’s always offering me drugs I’ve never heard of, which I always refuse, because I hadn’t done anything but drink and smoke weed since my serious addiction days in my teens and early twenties. Todd bought some pills off of him, and I took two without checking to see what they were. We got in Todd’s car, and I opened my mouth and told him to put another on my tongue. There is this thing that happens when my humanity gets challenged, like I felt it had in class earlier that day. I self-destruct. It’s a long, continuous loop of trauma reactions that I honed over my entire abusive childhood, where instead of dealing with the things I had no way of escaping or processing, I did whatever it took to hurt myself with little regard to how it might also hurt others. I could feel myself doing it then, but there wasn’t much I could do to stop it. I was too drunk, too upset, too frustrated and furious. Todd and I went to his friend’s house, and I remember filing down the clay of a sculpture in the attic. The next thing I remember is waking up naked, stuck to the leather couch in the living room, sore and unsure what had happened the night before.
“Did we fuck?” I said, when I realized Todd was sleeping on the floor next to the couch. He was in pajamas. I’d passed out naked, maybe during or maybe after whatever had happened, and he had been awake and conscious enough to put his clothes back on.
“Just fumbled around,” he said. “I was too drunk.”
“Did you use a condom?”
“I don’t think it got that far.”
“I’ve got to go,” I said.
I got up, feeling shame and guilt and a lot of other feelings I couldn’t wait to stuff down with more whiskey. I pulled on my clothes and walked out of the house, down the street, to a bagel shop where I got coffee and a lox bagel, got on the bus, went back home. When I went into the bathroom to shower and change my clothes, I saw that I was bleeding. I noted it as an abstraction, showered, and went into my university, where I had meetings with professors and department heads about the incident that had happened in class the day before. The fall out had been a slew of emails, at that point, where one professor and the department head of the Cleveland university called out the incident for how poorly the professor had handled it, helping navigate my friend and I to solutions that didn’t involve us going back to a broken workshop environment. I was barely able to hold myself together, blamed my dragging inflection and general lack of composure on having come down with a cold because of stress. I went home, called off work, and slept all the time for several days, only waking up to answer more emails.
My friends are all friends with Todd. One friend referred to him as “the nicest of the creeps.” He was around a lot, if not friends with everyone, then certainly tolerated by everyone. It was agreed that Todd often played the role of devil on one’s shoulder, and nights my friends hung out with him often ended up at strip clubs and dive bars, doing cocaine in cars outside them. I wasn’t worried about it then, often ended up in these cars myself (though I don’t go to strip clubs and prefer downers), wondering what I was doing there. Todd, though he has the same degree I do, an MFA from the same set of public universities in Ohio, only sometimes acquiesces to the fact that he’s a writer. He’s published about two short stories, and his unpublished thesis lingers on the edge of public domain in the university library. He’s a good writer, and invested in famous writers in a way I’m not really, a way that I reserve for sadboy singers and rock musicians. Todd’s invested in those same singers, though, and in film, and in the arts in general in an intelligent and obsessive way. He’s also probably the only person I know in the area who’s as depressed and suicidal as me.
At the point after which I woke up naked on his friend’s couch, I still didn’t like him. I told my friends about the incident with a massive amount of shame. I wasn’t unconvinced he was a neo-Nazi, partly because he always defaulted to Bowie’s creepiest, swastika-laden, Thin White Duke songs at karaoke, partly because he was continually making jokes about the Holocaust.
Still, my friends’ endorsement of him as not really a bad guy meant I spent a lot of time with him. We hung out at the same bar, and would run into each other a lot. One night, I ran into Todd and a girl he was dating at the bar. She was cute, younger, probably too good for him. I flirted with them both. When he left for the bathroom, I kissed her. She stroked the side of my face saying I was such a soft boy, so gentle. When she went to the bathroom, I pushed Todd up against the wall and kissed him aggressively. They both came back to my place because they were too drunk to drive. I was drunk, too.
The three of us were on my futon, and I was making out with Todd when she said she was too drunk, too jealous, and wanted to go to sleep. Todd and I both went to sleep, too, him on the futon and me in my bed, but I woke up and woke him up and we left to go to Taco Bell. I looked over at him in the passenger seat of my car and said, “I want to die.”
He replied, “I want to die, too.”
I started my car and he added, “Maybe not like this, in a car crash.”
On the way back, in the parking lot outside my apartment, when he was sitting in the passenger seat of my car, he took his dick out and told me to suck it, which I did. We ended up in the back seat, amid a pile of garbage and drawings from students for whom I’d done a class visit about being a writer. Todd fucked me with his hands, on top of me, slapping and choking me. After, we sat there for a minute, the shitty tacos congealing in a bag in the front seat, and Todd said, “We’re a lot alike.”
“No,” I said. “I try to be a good person.”
“Oh, so do I,” he said. “And here we are.”
One day Todd told one of my friends, “If Alex and I dated, we would both be dead in a month.” I didn’t think this was an unfair assessment. There were times it felt like we were playing chicken to see which one of us would fall completely into the void first.
I play this game a lot, with a lot of different people. I seek out the most depressed and broken people I can find, we express this mutually to one another, and the game is on. If the goal of chicken is to take it as far as you can without dying, it’s easy to say I am very good at it, because I never look away from the edge. During the game, there’s your usual amount of sad drinking, drugging, fucking, all the things most people do to mildly play along. Inevitably, my refusal to back off and self-preserve scares everyone. I always end up winning, and I always end up alone, because it turns out that most people do not like that void as much as they think they do. They do not really want to fall into it.
But I have always found it the safest, darkest, and most comfortable place, a closet you lock yourself in in a thunderstorm. If this sounds like cliche, it’s because refusal to address trauma sticks you in a loop that is entirely predictable. A lot of people know when to veer away from it. I do not. I never have. I am trying so hard to learn.
It’s also incredibly hard to judge people who you play this game with, the longer you play it, especially those who may not even have the self-awareness to understand that it’s the game you’re playing. After everything that happened here, I care about Todd a lot, now, though I haven’t always. I hope he has the good sense to veer away, to quit playing this game entirely.
It was rape.
The first time I tried to write this essay, I wrote about how fucking Todd, who I knew was bad for me, was better than a lot of things that have happened in my life. It doesn’t surprise me, now, that when piecing together my feelings about our friendship, I referred back to an incident that happened when I was in my early twenties. I had been fucking a guy who was married, who first had sex with me when I was unconscious from booze and pills on the floor of his living room. The next time we had sex, he choked me into unconsciousness without my consent and had anal sex with me. I kept sleeping with him for about a year.
I put that anecdote in the original version of this essay to say, this isn’t that bad. This isn’t that. But I realize now that I felt compelled to tell that story because it’s part of my trauma pattern. Someone treats me poorly, and I fawn over them, convincing myself I love them sometimes, letting them keep on treating me poorly until they get sick of the whole thing. Until I begin to express that maybe things aren’t right. Until I begin to talk, bewildered, about what has been happening.
It was rape.
I’m comfortable saying this now. It took me a year and half of getting closer and closer to the person who did it to even begin to look at that phrase clearly, to try it on, to say it to myself.
One drunken night, when we were fucking around in my bed, Todd said, “We should try this sometime after we drink one glass of wine.” It seemed sweet and absurd, and both of us probably knew it would never, ever happen. I believe, but cannot remember exactly, that was the night that Todd really gently kissed my stomach after we fucked.
It was rape.
There’s a detail I can’t get out of my head no matter how hard I try not to think about it. That first night we had sex, I woke up naked under a blanket. Todd had pajamas on. I had passed out sometime during the whole incident, and he had been awake and aware enough to get up and get dressed.
One day, a good day when I was sober, I texted Todd something along the lines of how suicide was an inevitability for me, how I would definitely do it with an overdose that looked accidental, and how I hoped that when it happened he’d do me a favor and tell people he thought it was an accident. That things had been better, that my writing was gaining traction and success, and that my death was just me being a drugged-out fool. I told him I wanted him to reassure people of that so they wouldn’t feel bad, like they had wasted their efforts on the many times they’d tried to help.
“Alex, are you okay?” he texted back hours later.
I told him I was. That I was having a great day, in fact. But the good days just made things like this clearer.
He told me he’d woken up to my text around noon. That it was an awful thing to wake up to, but that he totally understood. I told him, yes, I knew, and that was why I had texted it to him and not someone else.
The last time Todd and I fucked around, I said, after cumming, with some surprise, “You know, I really like you.”
“I know you do,” he said. Our mutual friends had been gossiping about our friendship, alternately telling each of us the other is in love with the other, and saying to people who are not us how toxic and horrible the whole thing seemed.
“We started off kinda rough,” I said.
“You did,” he corrected. “I thought, ‘There is a person who’s just like me, who’s been to the same concerts as me, who listens to the same music as me, who I understand.’ You thought I was a goddamn neo-Nazi.”
“Well, it’s different now,” I said. I put my pants on. I looked out the window, where the sky had lightened.
He began talking about a friend who had killed herself. After everything falls apart, after I send Todd an early, angry version of this essay, he will say that my bringing this conversation up again is me trying to claim the pain of a situation I wasn’t there for, that I didn’t understand at all. Though it’s worth noting that this suicide also happened around our MFA program, and was poorly handled in terms of offering students support for it, that’s not exactly my point here. It seemed so crystal clear to me in that moment that we were both irreparably broken, dealing with all sorts of unresolved trauma; it hung in the grey-lit air. It was a few days later when I told Todd that I didn’t want to get fucked up and fuck him anymore, and he stopped speaking to me, began accusing me of sexually assaulting his girlfriend at the bar that night, and getting him fired from his teaching job.
“I know,” I said, to his story of loss. We sat there for a while, quietly, empty White Claw cans on my table, White Claw and vodka buzzing our heads, books scattered all around, my cat glaring at him from a corner. We had been reading each other classic short stories and drinking Scotch earlier. He wanted to go home. I insisted we get more and more fucked up as the night went on. He stuck around. He seemed to want to be there, and not. I could understand that feeling.
“It’s daybreak,” I said. “Let’s go get breakfast.”
We drove, then pulled over and walked when a cop car started driving behind us. We sat in an empty diner. I said, “I don’t know why I ever married my ex-wife.”
“Isn’t that what we all want?” he said. He really did want that, I think. Not the general drug-taking and sad fucking he and I both do. He wanted someone to love him, that he could love in return. Maybe I want that. Maybe I won’t ever let myself try it again, either. Maybe that’s something that seemed to start with my failed marriage, but started a long time before that.
“I was in love with her. What a stupid reason to marry someone.”
“It sounds like a good reason.”
“It made me not able to see who she was. She ruined my life,” I said.
“I know,” he said.
On the walk back, I nearly threw up and told him to shut up while I fought my roiling stomach outside his car. He said he was going to drive home, and I told him he absolutely could not, and had to sleep for a few hours on my couch until he sobered up. Which he did. When he woke up, I offered him coffee, even though he never drinks it.
“I’ve got to go,” he said.
And he did.
This is a story about sexual assault. It’s also a story about a lot of sex, with the same person, that wasn’t sexual assault. It’s a story about the kind of friend you make when you both very much want to die. It’s a story about when your life and someone else’s life meet at a point where they’re both so out of control it creates a perfect storm. This perfect storm ended up with most of my friends in the literary scene in Cleveland not speaking to me when I began to process how fucked-up things were between me and Todd. It ended up with me threatening him, with him getting in his car, mid-pandemic, and driving to Utah where he slept in his backseat for weeks. It ended up with a lot of things broken in ways that can’t be fixed. It’s a story about choice. It’s also a story about when your choices are made for you by traumas you can’t get ahold of, easily, or change. For both of us.
Is Todd a monster? No. He’s a deeply fucked up person who has no idea how to break out of his cycles. He’s someone who makes bad decisions, over and over, because he cannot imagine living life in a way that doesn’t revolve around them. Despite me understanding that now, he’s someone whose hurt and brokenness I don’t truly understand, and which I probably made worse, in my own way.
It was rape.
Both of these things can be true.
Names have been changed.
Alex DiFrancesco is the author of Psychopomps (’19, CCM/The Accomplices), All City (’19, Seven Stories Press), and Transmutation (June ’21, Seven Stories Press). They live in Cleveland, Ohio, and ride a pink Vespa. DiFrancesco has an MFA from the NEOMFA program.
Image Credit: Christina Ramirez