Trigger warning: this story depicts rape.
I read somewhere that every cell in the human body is replaced every seven years – which isn’t entirely accurate. Some cells take upwards of ten to fifteen years to replace themselves. Some cells, like the ones in the eye, never replace themselves. But, it’s still a nice thought. It’s comforting to imagine that every seven years, the human body erases like an Etch-a-Sketch, leaving behind a clean slate that hasn’t been touched.
I was raped seven years ago. I went to a New Year’s Eve party with two of my girlfriends after they expressed that I had spent a “morbid” amount of time holed up in my room post-breakup. They said I couldn’t hide away forever. They said I was being dramatic, because everyone goes through a bad breakup in college. They said my ex-boyfriend wasn’t hiding – he was out partying and spamming the world with social media updates. They said I wasn’t coping; I was deflecting. They sat in my room, listing off the reasons I should attend the party that night, and, by the end of it, I was so exhausted from their speech that I agreed to go just to shut them up.
Except, I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to find an outfit or spend time getting ready. I didn’t want to go to a party full of complete strangers and pretend to have a good time. I didn’t want to pose for their pictures or make forced conversations with whomever was near me while they danced and romped with boys to ring in the New Year. I wanted to stay home, under my blanket, un-showered, and binge eat Oreos until I felt sick. I was hiding, and I liked it that way. The breakup had left me feeling vulnerable and exposed, like a body butterflied on a surgical table. I imagined there was a gallery of people, including my friends, watching behind the glass as the pieces of me were pulled out and examined in an attempt to find whatever had been broken.
The night went as I had expected. My friends drank heavily and toasted “new beginnings” while sloshing cheap champagne on the floor. I found a corner and made it my home for the night, avoiding small talk by pretending to be deaf from the loud music. My ex-boyfriend showed up briefly, which sent me into the bathroom where I stayed while people banged on the door trying to come inside. When I got the text saying, “all clear,” I stumbled out and held my stomach as though I had been throwing up to alleviate the angry mob that had formed outside. I helped them call a cab and watched as they tumbled over their high heels and climbed into the backseat, cheering and laughing the whole way.
I had walked to the party since it was only a few blocks away from my apartment, so I zipped up my jacket and carefully clutched my keys between my fingers as a makeshift weapon. It was a relatively quiet area, but with all the parties being held, I didn’t want to take any chances. I had made it almost a full block when a boy approached me, tripping out of a driveway holding a half-empty bottle in one hand and a beer in the other. He was younger, maybe my age, with shaggy blonde hair that fell over his eyes and a big, toothy smile.
First, he asked me if I needed a ride home, which I politely declined without missing a step. He kept following me, however, asking if I wanted to be “escorted” back to my place. Though I tried to shake him off, he refused to back down. At some point, he dropped the bottle and the beer because I felt his hands creep around my shoulders. He asked where I went to school as I shrugged him off of me, but I didn’t answer. I kept my head down with my knuckles turning white around my keys. We rounded another block, and he kept talking and asking questions that I wouldn’t answer. Finally, in a moment of frustration mixed with an edge of panic, I stopped and faced him and told him to leave me alone.
Judging by the look of shock on his face, he wasn’t the type of boy who had been turned down a lot in his life. He stood there, dumbfounded, as I turned and kept walking. I thought I had finally gotten rid of him when I rounded the corner just a few yards away from my apartment complex. I didn’t look behind me, but I didn’t hear him talking, which I took as a good sign. I relaxed my shoulders and loosened the grip on my keys.
He came up behind me swiftly, placed a hand over my mouth, and told me not to scream. I tried to grab my keys, but he took his other hand and grabbed my arm, twisting it around my back painfully. I felt paralyzed by the overwhelming urge to scream while simultaneously trying to wager my best chances for survival. I wanted to fight, but I also wanted to live. In that moment, when I was rendered powerless, I didn’t care what happened to me as long as I came out on the other-side.
It was a brutal forty-five minutes, which felt like an eternity. I knew how long I was there because his watch kept flashing in my face as he fumbled with his belt and jeans. Once he had pulled me into the parking garage of the complex and found the stairwell, he started talking about how much he wanted me. He repeated over and over, “This is going to be so good.” I stood there, too scared to scream or run, while he undid his pants and pulled them down, clutching himself proudly. In that moment, I thought about the women who fight back. I pictured them in my head, in my situation, running for the stairs or attacking him head-on, punching and kicking and biting until he gave up. I thought about the women who walk away beaten and bruised, with pieces of skin under their nails because they dug in so hard. I wasn’t one of those women.
I was submissive by nature. I hated confrontation. I agonized over the thought of arguing with someone, even in a classroom setting. If a teacher told me I was wrong, I didn’t defend my opinion in front of the class with my shield raised – I quietly accepted defeat. In conflicts with previous boyfriends, I would shrivel down like a kicked dog and apologize – even I was right, even if I didn’t mean it. I looked at the boy in front of me, lit up by the fluorescent lights, and I knew he could easily overpower me. He already had. I knew he could probably knock me out with one punch. I knew I wasn’t quick enough to outrun him. With all of those factors at the forefront of my mind, I stood there sobbing and anticipating while he prepared himself. I didn’t fight back.
He had been drinking heavily, so he was having a hard time “getting it up.” He demanded that I undress while he watched me, stroking his limp, lifeless member. He asked me to perform oral sex, which didn’t seem to help. He told me to press myself against the wall, and he came up behind me, fumbling and breathing heavily into my ear. Then, he asked me to say, “No.” I tried to bite my tongue, but he wrapped his fingers in my hair and pulled back, yelling at me to refuse him, so I did.
He seemed to like it when I told him “no,” and I repeated the word in a flat monotone while he thrusted into me, moaning and telling me how good it felt. He pulled out and ejaculated onto my underwear victoriously. I kept myself pressed against the cold, stone wall while he got himself dressed. I didn’t want to look at him. Then, he said, “I’m so sorry.” I felt a disgusting pit form in my belly when he apologized. It twisted and pulled until I thought I was going to puke. I heard the door to the stairwell close, and I quickly put on my clothes – balling up the soiled underwear and putting in my pocket – before racing out of the garage. He was already gone.
I ran back to my apartment in a full sprint after a sudden rush of adrenaline kicked in. Once inside, I sat down on the bed and tried to weigh out my options. I didn’t know who to call – everyone was either drunk or asleep by that time. I stared at the floor, counting the threads on my carpet, before finally deciding to drive myself to the police station. The scene kept replaying in my head, and I took mental notes each time, trying to make a detailed report. I wanted to be prepared for any questions that might be thrown my way.
The aftermath was arguably worse than the rape itself. There are two crime scenes in a rape case – the area where it happened and the body of the victim. A few officers were dispatched to the complex, and I was rushed to the emergency room to have a rape kit made. If I had felt butterflied and exposed before, it was nothing compared to the feeling of having every square inch of my body inspected and documented right in front of me. They took my clothes and gave me sweat pants, clean underwear, a sports bra, and a long-sleeved t-shirt. They took pictures of everything, any small cut or bruise that would indicate the severity of the assault. They swabbed my mouth and my vagina in an attempt to find any DNA that might have been left behind. I was put under a microscope, literally.
My description, though thorough, wasn’t enough to identify the boy who had raped me. Months went by, and I was assured that the police were doing everything in their power to track him down. It didn’t feel like enough. It didn’t feel like they were looking hard enough or taking my case seriously. It was never solved. There wasn’t enough DNA left behind to matter, and the samples they found at the scene were tainted. The leftover semen on my panties was helpful, but it didn’t generate anything in the system. My detailed story didn’t paint enough of a picture, and, with the holiday, so many people had traveled to town and left – presumably, my rapist was one of them.
I told my friends, who were shocked and wracked with guilt for leaving me to walk alone. I told my parents, and they tried to convince me to come back home for a while. I couldn’t give him the satisfaction of knowing he had completely uprooted my life, so I stayed. Months turned into years, and the case went cold. My friends stopped tip-toeing around me. My parents stopped calling me every day to “check-in.” Everyone’s life went back to normal, except mine.
About three years after the rape, one of my friends mustered the courage to ask the question that no one else could – why didn’t I fight back? I didn’t know how to answer. I tried to describe the feeling of powerlessness, of fear, of not wanting to die, but she didn’t seem to understand. She, like me, had heard all the stories about the women who take down their rapists, and she didn’t understand why I had just stood there like a willing participant. The counselor I had seen after the attack told me that while it’s true many women to “fight,” a lot of women react the same way I did – in submission. They’re scared of what might happen. They’re passive and agreeable during the rape to, hopefully, make it end quicker. They don’t fight because they know they’ll lose. It was comforting to hear, but I couldn’t make anyone else understand that feeling. No one wanted to say it to my face, but I knew they all saw my submission as permission.
Rape is a power-play, and rapists are profiled based on their “style.” In my case, the boy who raped me got off on the idea of taking me by force. He wanted me to say, “no,” because when I did and he didn’t listen, he felt like he had won. The act of raping a woman is meant to demean her, to strip her of her authority over her body. My rapist was characterized as a “power-assertive rapist.” He wanted to exercise his perceived dominance over me. Maybe he hated his mother. Maybe he wanted to compensate for his own inadequacies. He wanted to conquer me, but I was probably just a physical manifestation of something else he was battling internally. I knew all of this by heart. I wrote out detailed notes almost daily afterwards, reminding myself that I was the victim. I researched my rapist’s profile, trying to get as much information about him as possible because we were suddenly connected.
None of it made me feel any better. I abstained from sex for four years after the rape. I didn’t want anyone to touch me, and I didn’t want to feel aroused – it made me queasy. I went on dates, and I even liked some of the boys I went out with, but I couldn’t let them touch me. Anything beyond a kiss would send me back to that moment in the stairwell. My rapist had taken so much from me, and he was still taking from me years later. I couldn’t shake him. I didn’t even celebrate New Year’s afterwards. It was as though he became a part of me, like an unsightly mole or an extra toe – something I kept hidden and desperately wanted removed, but something that had also grown into me.
It’s been seven years since he raped me, but the rape didn’t stop until I let it. Until the moment I stopped letting it consume me, I was still the girl in the stairwell politely indulging the requests of the boy who ravaged me – I couldn’t leave. It was like being stuck in neutral. I shrank. In the years after the rape, I kept getting smaller and smaller, trimming away pieces of myself until I was just the girl who had been raped. My personality revolved around the memory. By the time I finally let it go and left the stairwell I had created in my mind, I didn’t know who I was. I had been stripped of my identity, and I couldn’t figure out how to get the “old me” back – the “me” who hadn’t been raped.
There was a shift. Instead of grappling with the memory of the rape and the tangible scars it left on me, I was battling with the idea that I had to get back the girl I was before it happened. I wanted to be her again. I didn’t realize until very recently that I was trying to dig up a grave. The girl I was before the rape was gone, buried underneath years of grief and tragedy and heartache. She was snuffed out, and I was trying to summon the dead. So, I decided to mourn her instead of resurrecting her.
New Year’s, a holiday that had brought me so much misery, would be the day I put up her headstone. I spent the last six years hiding in the shadows after Christmas, scared to even look outside. This year, instead of clanking glasses with my friends or watching the ball drop on TV, I’m going to step into the shower, wash off the body he touched, and let it run down the drain. This year, I’m going to put her to rest and cultivate the girl I became after the rape – the girl I’ve been too scared to get to know.
I know it isn’t literal. My cells haven’t rejuvenated. I know I’m not going to shed my skin like a snake, leaving behind a body covered in fingerprints and memories. I know the shower won’t be magical, suddenly transforming me into a girl who hasn’t been raped. I know I’ll be the same, just a little cleaner. But, it feelsdifferent. I’ve waited all year for this moment. I spent the last month buying a new shower head with five settings. I picked out a special body wash for the occasion. I put candles around the bathtub. I even bought a new towel set. I’ve been mentally preparing myself for the moment the water will hit me, turned to the hottest setting I can stand to ensure every piece he touched will melt. It will be ritualistic, maybe even a little cathartic. This year I won’t hide in my room with the door locked, reliving those moments. This year I’ll celebrate.