Reread the archives, always.
Image Credit: July 6, 2015 street art in Berlin at the Teufelsberg
I ended it when I was sixteen and standing in the doorway to our kitchen, watching my mother boil spaghetti noodles, her glasses fogging up. The phone rang, and I picked it up.
“It’s me,” he said.
I was quiet, not wanting to let on who it was.
“Is that it, Erin?” His voice was thick with tears.
“It’s over? Two years together, and now it’s done?”
I hung up the phone before he could say more and returned to watching the boiling water.
“Who was that?” my mother asked. Our eyes connected for a millisecond.
“Just a telemarketer.”
Mom looked down at the large bubbling pot, her eyebrows knitted together. She knew more than ever, but she would never know all of it.
He was high the first time we met, in February of 1995, though I didn’t know it because I didn’t know anything then. We were passing each other in a hallway at our high school, and he stopped me. His eyes were bloodshot slits, so I didn’t notice their cerulean shade right away. He was a sophomore, and I was a freshman. He wore a sage green Phish shirt, medium wash Gap jeans, and brown-leather Timberlands. His hair was sandy brown spiral curls cut close. P, I’ll call him here, was one of the hottest, most popular guys in our school, and I could only think of how small and ugly I was next to him.
We talked for a moment. About nothing. With his broad shoulders already strapped with layers of coiled muscle, he could easily be mistaken for young man of twenty-five. Then there was me, barely five-foot-one in my baggy tomboy jeans, a band sweatshirt with my name monogrammed onto the front right corner, Adidas striped sneakers, pimples, bucked and flared front teeth, and my hair pulled back into a sloppy knot. I knew him from the Friday night football games where his athleticism shone under the lights as the entire town watched and cheered, but he didn’t know me. I was the youngest daughter of the only Baptist pastor in our little town, and our family was known only for all that we didn’t know and wouldn’t do. I don’t know what drew him to me.
Our first kiss was my first kiss, and a month later, we were having sex. He laughed at my inexperience. I was fourteen; he was sixteen. He showed me everything. We used to drive up to the quarries in the middle of those sticky Vermont summer days where the trees hung thick, arched over gravel roads and swallowing me whole. We spent our afternoons leaping off the sheer slate cliffs into the black water and crawling back up the jagged rocks to do it again. He smoked weed and sometimes I took a hit or two that left me hacking and teary, and even if there were friends with nearby, even if we needed to get back before my parents got home, I would mount him. In the wide open. I would wrap my legs around his pelvis and rub my hands all over his smooth, tawny chest, and grind against him, making him hard. He would put one large hand on my waist and sink his fingers into my ass and engulf one of my small breasts with the other. I would pull him to his car, lay back on the back seat, and tell him to fuck me, tell him to do it right there. “I love you so fucking much,” he would say as he thrust into me, and I would say, “I love you.” And I thought we were in love. For all that happened, all we did and suffered, I held onto the fantasy of our love, because if it was love, if it was meant to be, then I had something on which to hang my pain, and I wasn’t just another abused girl. I wasn’t a victim. Except, of course, that’s exactly what I was.
The first time he hurt me, we were at my house—my parents were at work—and we had fought. I don’t remember what the fight was about. (I don’t remember what any of the fights were about. It does not matter; it never did.) I had left the house to get away from him, and I sat outside on the curb. He sat next to me, squeezed my thigh, and said through clenched teeth, “You are pissing me off, Erin.” He left small finger-shaped bruises.
During the next two years, I was often surprised by what my body could endure without bruising. More than once, he held me against the wall with one hand on my throat, my feet off the ground, and didn’t leave a mark. He often kicked me in the stomach, knocking the wind out of me. He would taunt me, saying, “That’s it, cough it up, Erin,” and after, he would press my face down to suck his dick. And though my ribs were usually sore, I still appeared unharmed. One time, he threw me into the bathtub because I was getting dressed too slow. I don’t remember that even hurting in the moment or after, when I had to put the soap bottles and razor back in their places. He usually wanted to have sex afterwards. He would tell me to take off my clothes, and I would do it. More than once, he pressed my legs up over my head to fuck me and said, “This is how I fucked her, Erin,” and then he told me, again, how he had fucked the “hottest” girl in our school at a party. They were in a coat closet atop a pile of shoes, and he pressed her legs up over her head. “This is how I did it,” he would say as he did it to me.
I put some of this in a piece for a writing workshop in my undergraduate program. During the workshop, as I listened in silence, one of the other students said, “Why do we need all of this detail? It seems gratuitous.” Yes, I thought with abrupt clarity, it is gratuitous. It is too much. Another student said, “How does all this even contribute to the narrative?” Yes, I had been wondering the same for nearly a decade. Yet another student added, “Maybe it would be better if she just implied it and let the reader’s imagination fill in the rest.” Yes, wouldn’t it be better if we could live in the shadow of implication rather than the memory.
June 2020: I watch Filthy Rich, the Netflix documentary about Jeffrey Epstein. Michelle Licata, one of his victims, says, “Before Epstein, I was something else. I was like this flower, a flower that was opening up. And afterwards, it was like somebody just picked up that flower and plucked it from its roots and stomped on it and smashed it.”
Epstein’s first prison sentence included a daily, twelve-hour work release, private suite, and custom meals, and after that sentence, he returned to coercing, abusing, and trafficking girls for nearly another decade. I can’t eat for an entire day when I hear this.
In 1997, two years after P and I met and started dating, another fight marked the beginning of the end. We had been in an empty stairwell talking and making out before school. We had started fighting over something (over nothing), and I knew what was coming. I could see it in the set of his jaw, the tension in his shoulders, and as though my body had already decided on its own, I ran.
I ran up the stairs with him close behind me, I pulled wide open the double doors that led to one of the school’s main hallways, barely escaping his grasp, and I ran between rows of wide-eyed students at their lockers until his grip closed on my long hair. He dragged me down a hallway by my hair, my legs kicking, fingers clawing at his arms and legs, until the physics teacher came out of his classroom, his face an expression of abject horror, saying, “Whoa, whoa, stop!” This worked, somehow, like P was a horse who could be reined in.
The vice principal and counselor brought us into a private room where I was quiet, and P cried, blubbering and begging to be let off. The vice principal, the white-haired and paunch-bellied father of one of my classmates, said, “Well, we could suspend you both for fighting.” I looked at P—his six-four frame still shaking with emotion while my hundred-pound body was rigid and raw—and sat in horrified awe, speechless. He was threatening to treat us like two boys fighting in school, like what he saw in us were two equally vulnerable bodies.
They had to call my parents who came and took me home. My mom sat on the couch next to me and cried, and my dad paced. He asked if P had hit me with his fists or his open hand; it took me over a decade to forgive him for that question.
It was my dad, though, who took me to the county courthouse to file a restraining order. I have never asked her, but I think my mother couldn’t bring herself to go with us. She sent my dad, my distant father, to do what she couldn’t, like it was shoveling the driveway or going to the store after dark. I had to fill out a form, write a statement about what P had done. I did this in a dark, wood-paneled room, and when I was done, the clerk took it to the judge. She came back in twenty minutes, telling us it had been granted without equivocation. The judge had seen another report that same day about the same boy—information I tried to process. Who else would be filing a restraining order on him? Why in the same day?
When we left the room, there she was: Laura, another girl in my class, a cheerleader with three of her cheerleader friends—a group, a clique, a mob—all looking serious and avoiding my eyes, like they were expecting me to come out of that door and had already decided I wasn’t worth acknowledging.
I asked around, talked to the few friends I had left, who had taken my side in the whole mess. So many had not. A few people—only a few—asked me, “Is it true? Did he do those things to you?” I said yes. I was frank, factual, and then I asked, “Do you know about Laura? Did you hear?” They had heard. She had said he had raped her, they told me, and the memories of he and I together—in his room, in my room, in his car, in a hallway corner after school—fractured and split into what I knew or at least thought I had known to be real and true, ugly though it was.
The next day, I found myself by Laura’s locker after school, my left palm pressed against the locker next to hers because I needed the certainty of a solid thing. The halls were empty, and she was packing her bag.
“I need to ask,” I began, not needing to say more. She stopped what she was doing and looked at me. “I need to know…”
“He raped me.”
“He and I have been together for two years, Laura.” I was suddenly out of breath. I sat on the floor, leaned up against the metal lockers.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. But he did. He raped me.”
“How many—how many ti—” The edges of my vision went dark, and her face blurred.
“One time. Only one time.”
“Where?” I said though I don’t know why. They had been friends, just friends, I thought. She helped him with his homework.
“His house. His room.”
The air was entirely gone then, and I slipped lower. “When?”
“About six weeks ago. I didn’t know you were going to be at the courthouse that day. I swear, I didn’t know.”
She was nearly fading away. Her skin blue-veined, her lips stretched across her teeth, the deep-pink watery wells at the corners of her eyes exposed, and I didn’t know if I was seeing her face or mine. Never had I seen a girl look so desperate, so open.
July 2020: I watch the Netflix documentary, Athlete A, about the women who spoke out against Larry Nassar, finally ending his decades-long sexual abuse of hundreds of young gymnasts. Rachel Denhollander, Athlete A, says, “I didn’t know a lot when I was 15, but one thing I did know is that abuse victims are not treated well. They are mocked, they are questioned, they are blamed, they are shamed.” And then she says, “This is it. Now is the time. If it’s ever going to come out, it’s going to come out now.”
It was the sheer number of stories, the volume of women willing to come forward. A tsunami of women. It only takes one man.
I remember this: On Valentine’s Day, 1991, Mr. Coburn, the fifth-grade math teacher, lined all the girls up at the front of the class. He was like a life-sized Lego man, blonde hair slicked to a crisp and body hard-edged.
He said to us, “Now, which of you girls would like me to give you a kiss?”
We stood frozen in horrified silence. He seemed serious.
The boys looked from Mr. Coburn to us, us to Mr. Coburn. He paced before us with swinging steps.
“Every year, I give one girl a kiss on Valentine’s Day. So, who’s going to be the lucky girl this year?”
His eyes slid up and down the line of us.
Amy, who stood in the line next to me, shifted her weight. We were both of the smallest girls, smallest in the whole grade, dark-haired, but she had butter-smooth, bronze skin and lived in a funny-smelling apartment with her mother and younger sister on Caernarvan Street.
He stopped in front of her.
Her sister—only eight—had been raped earlier that year. Everyone knew in the way that small, New England towns know everything and talk about nothing. Amy didn’t talk about it either.
“Who’ll it be?” Mr. Coburn said. He looked down at her and placed his hands on his square hips.
Finally, Amy took one step forward and looked at him.
“Amy,” he said with a booming voice and a wide, toothy smile. “Would you like me to give you a kiss?”
She gave the slightest nod.
He smiled. His teeth shined. He stepped toward her, close.
Would he, our teacher, really kiss her, this tiny girl?
“Close your eyes,” he said.
She closed them and drew herself in.
Where would he kiss her? Her cheek or forehead? Her mouth?
He reached into his pants pocket.
“Put out your hand.”
She held it out, palm up.
He placed something in it.
“Okay, open your eyes.”
She opened them to see a Hershey’s Kiss in her cupped hand.
Mr. Coburn and the boys laughed.
The girls exhaled simultaneously.
Amy, the lucky one, didn’t move but held the kiss in her palm. She studied it like a sign she couldn’t discern.
In 1996, P’s aunt and uncle lived on the edge of town in a tiny mobile home park down a pitted dirt road. For a time, P’s mother had kicked him out of his house, and he lived there in the extra bedroom, a stack of his clothes on a cardboard box in one corner and a blow-up mattress against a wall. His aunt—Vickie was her name, and he called her Vick—was a petite, painfully thin woman, topped with an overwhelming mop of long, thick, dark hair, her forehead fringed with bangs she curled and sprayed into a fluffed and hazy bubble.
I told her how P hit me, beat me, hurt me, believing then that my admission would be shocking, would shift something, sympathy toward me, perhaps? That she might talk to him, tell him to stop, or that his uncle might give him a talk and even a few other things, a man-to-man don’t-ever-hit-a-woman-or-I’ll-beat-your-ass kind of talk. But when I told her, quietly, tentatively, “he hits me,” she said, “Erin, if you’re going to be with him, you gotta know you’re gonna get hit. Every man in that family has hit their woman. God, P’s dad? He beat the ever-living shit out of P’s mother when they were married.”
I asked her if she got beat, too.
She laughed a coarse, mucus-filled chortle. “Oh yes.” Like with P and me, her husband was more than twice Vickie’s size. “I just hit him right back.”
“I’ve done that. He just hits me harder.”
“Yeah, well, you’re tough. He’ll learn.”
How was I tough? What would he learn? And when and how would he learn it? I didn’t ask, and she didn’t say any more.
They had a little girl—only nine years old then—and now, when I think back, I wonder if Vickie, a handful of grays in her heavy blanket of hair, had given her daughter the same advice. “You’re tough. He’ll learn.”
Nearly a decade later, 2005, I returned to Vermont in my mid-twenties, a wife and a new mother, for a wedding. At the reception held in a white tent in a green field, a girl from my class—a popular, smart, talented girl I had played on the soccer team with and long admired—confided in me after three drinks that she had gone to a concert with P and some mutual friends just a year before. “After,” she said, “we hooked up, and it wasn’t good.” She laughed, awkward, her eyes on the beer-sloshed bodies rocking around the dance floor, and I knew then that he hadn’t learned and that he would never stop.
I said nothing. I was the one who had learned. I threw back the rest of my drink as though she and the beer and what he had done to her were nothing. Nothing at all.
In the summer of 2018, my daughter, Evy, who was eight then, had been playing outside in our quiet, suburban neighborhood when she had broken a rule, the most important one: never go into anyone else’s house by yourself. As a mother, I find it more difficult to manage my fear, to compartmentalize it, where it concerns my daughter. And I nearly choked on the terror when I saw her in our neighbor’s backyard, playing with a group of kids, some of whom are older boys, and chasing them into the house—inside—disappearing from my view.
I rushed to the fence and leaned over to call her back outside to me, to our yard. She came, obedient but stomping with every step. I sat her down on our deck for a talk. She was like a cartoon in her frustration with me—furrowed brow, lower lip thrust out, a big harrumph as she crossed her arms. She tried to turn her body away. I knew that fear was the only thing that would begin to counter her attraction to boys and young men, who mostly spoil and play with her because she is charming and dainty and full of energy. I had to give her my fear.
“Evy, look at me.”
“Evy, this is very, very important. Look at me while I tell you this, or I’m going to swat you on the rear end.” I hadn’t threatened that in at least a year, and I’ve only followed through a few times in her entire life. I would have done it then, for that, if she refused look at me, if I couldn’t have been certain she was listening.
The threat worked, and she turned to me, her face still sullen.
“Listen to me: You can NOT go into other people’s houses all by yourself, not without you telling me.”
My intensity distracted her from her rebelliousness.
“It’s not safe.”
She put her hands in her lap, and she looked at me with those big hazel eyes trimmed with long, curled lashes. My heart raced. She was listening.
I had to decide how much to tell her.
January 6th, 2021: I’m watching the siege on the Capitol on the news with my fifteen-year-old son, my oldest child. We are both breathless and still.
Trump and Confederate and “Don’t Tread on Me” flags paint the air above the roaring, writhing mass of bodies. “The Capitol has been breached,” the news anchor says as we watch a MAGA column stumble through Statuary Hall like confused, angry tourists. A woman, covered in blood, is rushed out on a stretcher. “Oh my god,” my son says. “Did you see that?” I nod my head. She will not survive the day.
From the V of the Capitol steps, smoke swells bright and ghastly. The dome towers above, splendid and steadfast even as she’s debased below. I want to look away, but I can’t.
The room was cold. I stared at the drop ceiling, my legs up in stirrups and a paper sheet over my thighs, my mother and a gynecologist whose face I don’t remember at my feet. It was 1995, only a few months after P and I had begun and only a few weeks after he had left the fingerprint bruises on my thigh. My mother had read my journal (it would take me more than twenty years to journal again) and had discovered P and I were having sex.
I was in love, I told my parents when they confronted me with it. My mother said, “Oh Erin, you don’t even know what love is.” She was right, of course, and I was filled with shame. My father could only shake his head.
My mother took me to the doctor for an exam the next day, and there I lay, my mother and the doctor inspecting my vagina. The doctor guided in the speculum. The sharp edges pinched.
The doctor’s featureless face appeared above my knees. “Try to relax, okay?” she said.
“Take a big exhale,” she said.
I did, and the speculum pinched a little deeper. I wanted to close my legs, to be left alone, to not be anywhere near what was happening then.
“The hymen is broken,” the doctor said.
I could see the poof of my mother’s teased, sprayed hair and the curve of one hunched shoulder by my leg. Only now, looking back, can I imagine her view: her daughter’s young thighs and the ivory and pink crescents held open with the incongruous metal crank pressed and partly consumed by my young sex, the insides of which must have shone like ripe grapefruit under the doctor’s light. This is how I forgive her, my mother, my good and loving and only mother. I see it through her eyes, and I don’t look away.
“We’ll do a variety of tests and rule out any STDs.” The doctor’s mute face appeared again. “Did you use protection?”
“A condom,” I said. I hadn’t said a word all day, and my throat felt it.
“Boys like this,” the doctor said to my mother, “will tell the girl they’re going to use a condom and then they slip it off before they enter. She would never know the difference.” (Later that evening, my mother repeated this to my father with me standing there in the kitchen, audience to my ignorance and shame. “She would never know the difference,” she reported to him.)
“He had it on,” I said to the doctor, pushing through the misuse of my throat and forcing the speculum out a bit when I spoke.
“We see it all the time,” the doctor said, again addressing my mother as though I hadn’t spoken.
My mother breathed a loud ugh, and the doctor pushed the speculum back up inside me and down against my bottom. “Her uterus is tilted.” Her voice was muffled. “Takes a bit of adjustment to get to the cervical opening. I’ll get a swab of it now.”
My stomach cramped, like the one violent period I had had by that age.
“That’s it,” the doctor said.
The metal slipped out, and I pressed my knees together.
“You can sit up,” she said.
I did, quickly, and I was grateful.
“How long until the results come back?” my mother said.
“Two weeks. I’d recommend a pregnancy test at home around that same time.”
My mother closed her eyes and sank into herself. She aged decades in one breath. “Okay.” She pressed her lips into a ragged line.
I looked down. My hands were small—fingernails short, bare, unadorned—and crumpled the scratchy medical paper in my lap. I thought of his bedroom, the rough surface of his bedspread and how it hurt a bit more than I thought it would, how I bled, and how he had seemed much kinder than that cold room.
September 27th, 2018: Christine Blasey Ford testifies on Capitol Hill. “I can’t do anything else but watch,” I say to my mom on the phone. “I’m going through the motions, but that’s it.” I stir the boiling noodles.
“I feel the same,” she says. “I think I’ve told you this, but I had something like that happen to me.”
“No, you’ve never told me anything like that,” I say, and I’m barely breathing.
“So, this was during my senior year, after my parents’ divorce. I don’t remember all of it. Just like Dr. Ford, I remember being at a party at a friend’s house, but I don’t remember whose house or how I got there or even anyone that was there. But there was guy—he was this big guy. I don’t remember his name or even how I knew him, and I remember we were drinking beers. I only had one, which is what was strange—”
I exhale. Louder than I mean to.
“Should I stop?” she says.
“I’m okay. Keep going.” The spoon quivers in my hand. I put it down, and I press the heels of my hands into my eye sockets until they ache.
“Okay, well, I only had one beer. I’m certain of it. And then things get foggy after that. I wake up, and I’m in a back bedroom, on a bed, with all my clothes off, which I would not have done. I was still totally innocent, a virgin, at that age. That guy is on top of me, and he’s pushing on me, trying to get himself in between my legs.”
I squeeze my legs and shut my eyes tight. My labial skin crawls. I say something meaningless like, “Oh my god,” and my bones are as brittle and thin as crepe paper.
“I started saying no, please stop, no, and trying to wriggle away from him, but he kept going.”
I lean over and press my forward to the kitchen counter. “Did he—was that your first—?” My mother’s purity on the night of their marriage had long hung over my teenage failures, and now, I discover it hadn’t been real. Or had it? What is it when it’s against your will? And why is it something we ever, in any circumstances, call a loss?
“I’m not sure,” she says. “I think I’ve blocked it out. I don’t remember anything after that, how I got home, nothing. As you know, your dad was the only man I’ve ever been with, and it’s like I didn’t count this thing that happened. I haven’t thought about it in years. Until Dr. Ford’s testimony. And I was listening to her, and it brought it all back.”
“It’s so similar, Mom.” I leave the boiling noodles and red simmering sauce and step out onto our deck where the wind is blowing through the cavern of our back yard so hard it hurts as it whips my hair into my cheeks. This feeling on my face revives another memory I had long forgotten of Amy and me cruising up to Burlington our senior year, top down to let the sun in through the trees and winding roads and blasting the radio, enveloped in the feeling of freedom and hope, until I saw, just over the collar of her jacket, the bruise on her neck and knew with a tragic immediacy her boyfriend had done that to her. The wind on the deck sounds like mad voices on the wind like bullets hurtling past my ears, and I feel worn and aged and helpless and young because the world is entirely new to me in its impossible horror. I wipe tears from my chin and neck. Yes, this is gratuitous. This is all too much.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” my mom says.
I say, “I don’t know what’s more stunning—that these things happened to us or that they happen to almost all women.”
“And we don’t know because we don’t talk about it.”
Our mother-daughter-ness recedes.
“We’re talking about it now,” I say.
“Yes,” she says. “We are.”
Erin Campbell holds an MFA from Sierra Nevada University as well as an MA in creative writing from the University of North Texas. She earned her BA in creative writing from the University of Colorado, Denver. Her has been shortlisted in The Master’s Review Flash Fiction Contest, won the Pearl Magazine Short Story Prize, and been published in the Copper Nickel. She lives in a suburb of Denver with her husband, three kids, and two dogs where she teaches literature and writing to high school kids, and she spent most of the pandemic trying to get kids to do stuff.
Image Credit: Jamie Herrera Photography