By Laurence Dumortier.
In September I arrive in Italy for my Junior Year Abroad thinking I know a thing or two about life. I have had two “big” relationships, each lasting about two years. I’ve had sex a lot, mostly with my boyfriends, but also a few weird one-night stands. I’ve also been hurt, and this makes me feel tough. I’ve been alone since the summer and liking it. I don’t need anyone. I just want to learn Italian, eat with abandon, drink it all in.
In truth I know nothing about a million things—including love and sex—I just don’t know that I don’t know them.
When I first meet Arthur he seems shy but friendly, and with a winning smile.
Everything feels new and exciting, though, so there isn’t a lot of excitement left over for boys. I’m more intrigued by my flat-mate Carolyn. She seems even more knowing than I think I am. She grew up in New York; she is knowledgeable about art; she studies film and semiotics and in an argument she can make her point with deadly accuracy; she is on the tail end of a painful breakup and looking for distraction; she is devastatingly funny and beautiful. I don’t know it yet but she will become, and remain to this day, one of my closest friends and co-conspirators.
There is a lot of drinking in Italy, but it feels joyous and grown-up. We make dinner in our tiny Italian kitchens and though we are inexpert, it all somehow ends up tasting delicious. It’s hard to go wrong with tomatoes and zucchini and whatever is in season, all ripened to bursting, glorious with flavor, picked up from the little fruit-and-vegetable man down the block.
Our little group of Junior-Yearers is intimate and funny. It feels safe somehow to flirt, to laugh, to begin new adventures. There are a few outliers in the group, doing their own thing, but there is no hostility, we are chill.
On Halloween we dress up. This is over twenty years ago in Italy, in a town with few Americans or Brits, so Halloween is just our little group. We party. I end up on the balcony of one of the flats with Arthur. We are kissing and it is surprisingly, electrifyingly, good. Back in his bedroom we take off our clothes. I notice his body which is beautiful and strong in a way I never knew I would care about. His beauty, and his interest in my body, the way he looks at me, makes me feel beautiful too. I have never felt that way before, I’ve always thought of myself as okay, cute-ish, verging on ugly at times. It is a strange thing to feel beautiful. In his bed, his face, which had earlier struck me as pleasant, looks beautiful too. It’s like love at first sight, except we’ve been exchanging pleasantries for months.
In the next weeks we spend whole days curled up in bed together, laughing, fucking, sleeping, listening to music. I feel like I’m on the drugs. The feel of his skin under my fingertips is like that weird velvety buzz of being on X.
In our group there is a friendly, mid-western frat boy. Pete is hail-fellow-well-met. He makes jokes at his own expense. He is a bit of an oaf, a bit of a buffoon, but he freely acknowledges it. He speaks Italian the worst of any of us, and even months into our stay when most of us have acquired some fluency, he is still halting in his communications, stumbling over everyday phrases. But he plays up the dumb-American thing for laughs and he seems harmless. He doesn’t appear interested in Italian art, in the food, or the language, he complains loudly about the inconveniences of Italian life. I don’t know why he’s here but he seems innocuous. He’s boisterous when he drinks, he’s always in a cheery mood. He flirts with me a little but I shut it down and he seems to get it. He is unruffled, easy-come easy-go.
Arthur is black. I am white. I am ignorant about race. I haven’t yet had to think about it. Arthur has. I know that I am in love with him. He is in love with me. I think that’s all that matters.
Arthur is brilliant and funny. He is double-majoring in architecture and history. He is a musician. He gives me a tape with a recording of one of his band’s shows at a club in Providence. I listen to it over and over again on my walkman. I had expected it to be, I don’t know, whatever, the kind of band a 20 year-old kid in college has. Not this. This is expert, gorgeous, surprising, intoxicating, liquidy and enrapturing. I listen to his music the same way I listen to Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis: reverently, in awe, alert to each new discovery.
I like to lie in bed with him, just listening to music. It isn’t just background noise, it’s more like watching a movie or reading a book, it’s the whole experience, except we can lie together and touch. Arthur sometimes points things out that he loves and often it’s something I’ve never noticed before. I like this kind of learning near him.
Arthur likes John Coltrane and Guns ‘n Roses. He likes the Allman Brothers and James Brown. He likes Public Enemy and Ryuichi Sakamoto and Ravi Shankar and Funkadelic and Joni Mitchell. So do I. This makes me think we are aligned about race and racism. We are inclusive, you know?
I know nothing, but I don’t even know it yet.
When I was younger I was molested by an adult in my family. This went on for several years and then stopped abruptly. I have told no one about this. I have not known how to speak about it.
When is there an opening to speak of such a thing? How to bring this thing—so bizarre, so ugly—into an ordinary room? And then what to do with it once it’s there? No. It is so far outside of normal life it is unspeakable. Better to keep this ugly thing hidden, to never speak of it, to hope it will eventually fade away.
One night, though, Arthur and I have been arguing over something, some perceived slight, some small jealousy, I can’t remember now. Because I love him more than any boy I’ve ever known, the stakes feel unbearably high. To be hurt or judged by him feels intolerable, some kind of agony, it’s awful. At the same time, this fight feels like an opening, a ripple in surface of ordinary life. If I don’t jump in, it will close up again and I may never be able to tell anyone anything.
I tell him about having been sexually abused, some of the gory details. He is shocked, pained, but also tender. He doesn’t seem to feel any revulsion towards me. I had stiffened myself in preparation for his disgust and discomfort. There is none. He doesn’t have the right words, he explains, but he hears me. He loves me. He is sorry this happened to me. This is everything to me.
I am self-conscious being so in love. As though this is irritating to the rest of the world. Like the universe is thinking, who are you to be so happy? What makes you think you deserve this?
Still, Arthur and I have our moments of volatility, of squabbling. One evening in the spring when Arthur and I have argued, Carolyn and I go to the Mexican bar a short walk away from our flat. She has her own complicated romantic situation and we are getting tipsy and cackling like witches about, ugh, BOYS.
Carolyn is the first person I’ve known to be so open, so fearless, so unashamed about sex. I have a lot to learn about being unashamed. I put on a good show in bed, seeming fearless, but in reality I’m orchestrating the whole thing, remaining always in control. Arthur is the first boy I’ve felt this kind of lust for, wanting his body, wanting it against and in mine. But still, I don’t know how to really let go, I don’t even know how to begin to let go.
Carolyn and I are a few margaritas in when Pete shows up. He is as jolly and self-deprecating as ever. He joins us in having another round. Ha! I can have a good time even when Arthur and I are in a fight. Look at me, laughing and swaying to the norteñas. Look at my friends, Carolyn and Pete, putting their arms around me. We are hugging and laughing and dancing and drinking.
On the street the chill air wakes me up a little. I am really drunk, and dizzy and nauseous. But still in good spirits. I throw up in the gutter and wipe my mouth on my coat sleeve and look up at the purple sky. I’m in Italy. I’m in love. I’m surrounded by friends. Suddenly, I’m elated and want to go to Arthur’s place and make up but it is late and I’m too wobbly to make it there alone and he may not be amused by my intoxication.
Carolyn and Pete help me into my bed. I tell them both how much I love them, how kind they are to me. Carolyn knows I love her, I tell her this on the regular, but Pete is hearing this for the first time. Still, in this moment it is true, I love them both. They back out of the room sweetly, amused by my profession of love, and let me sleep while the room spins around me wildly.
When I wake up it is still pitch dark. There is a weight on me. It takes a moment for me to understand. Pete’s tongue is in my mouth and his hand is in my pants. His fingers are scratching to find their way inside me. His teeth bump against mine. I feel heavy with sleep and drink but struggle against him. He is insistent. His tongue pushes harder. His fingers strain inside me. Ineptly I keep moving away, trying to avoid his touch and eventually he comes up for air.
I don’t remember the words I use to stop him, but I remember that I say them lightheartedly, as though this were some harmless misunderstanding, signals getting switched and all that. I use this tone because I partly believe it—after all how could anyone deliberately do something like this if they didn’t think it was welcome? (I should know the answer to that, of course. I should have learned it when I was growing up and being groped and fingered.) But I use that light tone also because I want to give Pete an easy way out. I don’t want to humiliate him, offend him, accuse him, anger him. I just want him to leave and this feels like the safest way to accomplish that.
The next day Pete calls to tell me he wants to apologize. I am wary but again I don’t want to anger him. Refusing his apology seems like a bad idea. I make sure Carolyn is around when he comes over. She is silently furious at him. He fumbles through an apology, which I accept.
Later that night I talk to Arthur about it. I’m nervous. I’ve already told him about being abused, and now this, whatever this is. I wonder if I’ll seem like someone who is somehow inviting it. Or making it up, for drama or something, I don’t know. But it would be weird to keep it from him, that would make the whole thing feel sneaky.
He seems not to know how to feel. Frankly, I don’t either. He thinks Pete is a piece of shit. He is disgusted by him. I want something more from him but don’t know how to say it.
A part of me wants Arthur to beat the living hell out of Pete, to crush him, to annihilate him, and thus to avenge me, and this hurt, and all past hurts. I want him to champion me, to protect me unconditionally, to make me safe forever and ever.
When he fails to offer this up, that same part of me feels wounded and sad and scared. I think: He can’t defend me because he blames me somehow for this messy situation—blames me because he and I were fighting, because I drank too much, because I was laughing with Pete. Or he can’t protect me because he is weak, as weak and afraid as I am. Or he doesn’t want to have to protect me. He doesn’t want this kind of drama in his life.
Arteries (n. plural):
The year in Italy is over. I have managed to avoid Pete for the last few months of the program. We are all back on our home campuses for senior year. Mine is an hour’s drive away from Arthur and Carolyn’s so we see each other most weekends.
If I thought it would be a letdown knowing Arthur in New England, instead of Italy, I am wrong. I find his whole life in Providence intriguing and full of mystery and glamour. He lives in a row house with a bunch of other boys. They are a mix of musicians and hippies. Most of them went to prep school, like Arthur. Their male camaraderie is foreign and alluring to me. I attend a women’s college. It’s hard for me to think of guys as friends but I find this new, strange concept appealing.
Also, I had no idea Arthur was such a rock god at his school. Music was something we listened to together in bed. Or sometimes he would play a song for me on his guitar that he had written. In Italy he played for an audience of one. In Providence he plays most weekends in front of throngs of college kids. Veritable throngs! The band has honest to goodness roadies who help them bring their shit to the clubs and break it down afterwards. They have groupies for fuck’s sake.
Prospects: (n. pl.)
With graduation on the horizon the future looms terrifyingly. All spring of senior year I feel the world about to come apart. I think about the Holocaust a lot. I think about slavery in America. The world is full of horrible people. Ghastly evils have been committed. I don’t know how to have any faith in this world, how to launch myself into the future in the face of past horrors and their future possibility. I smoke pot, I take drugs when they are offered to me. Sometimes the evil floats away and I see all the kindness and love of my friends, of Arthur. I know there are acts of great beauty and compassion in the world. Other times the sense of evil blooms grotesquely and I endure a bad trip, thinking maybe madness is just being raw to the awfulness of the world. Madness is not misunderstanding, or not-knowing, reality, it’s actually being ever-knowing about how hellish things are, being ever-naked to that agonizing knowledge.
Arthur is going to move to New York to keep making music. He secures a low-pressure day-job and goes about putting his new band together in advance of his move. The certainty of his path makes my own feel terrifyingly indistinct. I alternate between frantic worrying over what I should do—I can’t just move to New York with no plan, how pathetic and clingy! I must figure things out immediately!—and a stupor of indecision. My friends feel similarly paralyzed. We are in a sludge of indeterminacy together. We decide: we will move to San Francisco and figure it out as we go along.
There, now I have a plan. Of course, that plan puts three thousand miles between me and Arthur, but that is the price for determinedly not appearing pathetic and clingy. I am willing to pay it. Arthur asks whether I wouldn’t reconsider. Surely, there are interesting things in New York for me. I am bright and sure: San Francisco, it is! Or rather, I put on a show of bright certainty.
Right before graduation Arthur and his sister and a few friends and I go see a band in Boston. I have no idea what will happen to us after graduation. I’m scared but I’m hopeful. I love him but don’t know what kinds of risks I should take. Moving with him without a plan seems too risky. I could just fall into his dreams, his plans. His life is interesting enough to swallow my own small and inchoate ambitions and desires. Still, I love him, I love him, I love him. I feel this with every note, with every thrum of the bass, with every beat.
After the music we go to the bar next door, to drink and dance some more. We are all elated. The relentless anxiety I’ve been feeling the last few months seems suspended. Arthur and I dance together. I can’t believe how beautiful he is and how attracted to him I am. I understand a little better now that I have a lot more to learn about sex than I’d once thought, but the constancy and realness of my lust for him make me feel I have not been permanently damaged by my experiences. We move close to one another on the dance floor.
I feel someone flick my skirt up, and hear the jeering of several guys. I don’t understand what this can have to do with me. It must be nothing, a misplaced gesture. I ignore it. Then someone is dancing too close to me, knocking into me, one of the jeering guys. Maybe it’s deliberate, but it could just be drunk clumsiness. I move away from them. I feel annoyed but not scared. I am with Arthur. We are surrounded by other people. It is all okay, I think.
Then in a blur, with everything moving too fast, a guy is holding up my skirt with one hand and grabbing into my underwear with the other, fumbling to touch me and get inside me. I whip around and there’s laughing from his crew. He retreats towards them. I’m in a blind fury of outrage and humiliation. In my hand I grip the bottle of beer I’ve been nursing while dancing. I cross the dance floor and lob it in the direction of the guys. I’m not even sure which was the one who touched me, they seem identically pink-faced and baseball-hatted and loutish. They stand up. Now they’re angry! I don’t know if the bottle even connects with any of them but it falls to the floor and smashes dramatically. A blonde waitress grabs my wrist, tells me I have to leave, they won’t allow this kind of trashy behavior. I try to explain what happened. She tells me she doesn’t care. I’m the one who threw a bottle, I’m the one at fault. This makes me even more furious. And confused. Shouldn’t she, another woman, understand how appalling these leering, groping guys are? Shouldn’t she have my back? I tell her, fine, I’m leaving. I go to the bathroom and lock myself in. I’m so angry I’m shaking. I take the full trash bin and empty it onto the floor. All the used paper toweling and icky crap that accumulates in bar bathrooms scatters everywhere. She will have to clean it and it will serve her right. It occurs to me only later that it might be a janitor or someone unrelated to the situation who will clean it up and I feel bad.
I march through the bar and back onto the street where Arthur and the others are waiting. His sister seems mystified. Arthur looks awkward. Now I’m furious at him. Why does he look awkward? Why isn’t he outraged? Why isn’t he in there pummeling those ugly frat guys into submission? What good are those beautiful muscles, what good his love for me, if he just stands by when this fucking shit happens. First with Pete, and now these awful dudes. I’m perplexed and sad and pissed all at the same time. Does he think this is on me? Some shame I’ve brought on myself—and by extension on him? I’m so pissed I could scream, but his sister is there and other friends too and I just feel meek and silent instead. In the car driving back to my dorm it’s just me and Arthur. His parents are arriving at his school early the next morning so he can’t stay the night. I long to feel close to him, but truthfully I don’t. I feel too uneasy and ashamed. The whole evening feels as though it’s punished us both.
I lay awake in my bed puzzling over how to reconcile these two things: I could once tell Arthur about having been abused and feel okay, embraced even, understood, cherished, safe. But with the Pete-thing, and now this, I feel the opposite: misunderstood, ashamed, unsafe, at sea. I don’t come up with any answers. I love him, I love him, I love him, but I don’t understand.
In the fall of ’95, a year after we’ve graduated, I visit Arthur in L.A. for a few weeks. A music opportunity has brought him out there. We are continuing our relationship, though struggling with the complications of distance. His career is a little slower getting going than he would like but he is undiscouraged, staying the course. He has a bachelor pad in Hollywood and plays in two bands. He’s writing his own songs and recording all the tracks on a digital recorder. He has a regular gig at a club on Pico, and another in South Central. The crowd on Pico is mostly white. The crowd in the bar on Central Avenue is all black. Arthur is treated like family there and when I visit I am treated deferentially: Arthur’s girlfriend, I am introduced around. The owner, an older woman, looks at Arthur like a golden child, like he could be a cherished grandson. This is my first time being the only white person in the room and I am acutely aware of everything I do. I want this to go well. I want to not embarrass Arthur with some faux-pas, some unintentional rudeness.
September turns into October and the media, covering the O.J. Simpson trial full-time, goes into complete-frenzy-mode over the imminent verdict. There is much speculating over whether there will be rioting if O.J. is convicted. This is hysteria but I don’t know it yet. The city is only a few years off from the big riots of ’92 and tense.
The O.J. trial is a source of contention between Arthur and me. It seems obvious to me that O.J. killed his wife. He had stalked her; he was violently jealous; he had battered her in the past.
For Arthur, the glaring thing is the racism and corruption of the police; their ability to plant evidence; their desire to put black men behind bars. I am willing to acknowledge that, I think, but in this case, I insist, in this case an innocent woman has been murdered by a violent man.
In retrospect this encapsulates the differences between us. Our different wounds and vulnerabilities. My naivete about race; what I took for his callousness or obliviousness about sexual violence. But at the time I don’t see this clearly. I just feel at a loss. How can he not get this issue? How can he not see it? He is probably thinking the same thing: How can she not get this? How does she not see how terrifying it is to be a black man in the hands of the police? How does she not understand that black men are always already guilty?
Arthur is supposed to play on Central Avenue on the evening that the verdict will come in. I gingerly wonder if that’s a good idea. What if the newspeople are right and there are riots? He brushes the thought off. We talk more about the case and the various predicted outcomes. We disagree once again. “Why do you care so much about O.J.? In fact why do black people even care about him?,” I ask. “I mean, it’s not even like he’s really black.”
I know instantly, even as the words are coming out of my mouth, that this is wrong and hurtful and just plain dumb and racist and awful. What I mean is: why do you care about this famous guy who lives in a bubble of riches, who has the best, wiliest defense team in the country, who will probably tomorrow evening have literally gotten away with murder? How can there be kinship between this killer, rich enough to buy his acquittal, and regular black folk? It is not an evil question, but it is a stupid and racist one, though I don’t fully understand the depths of that yet. And it comes out even worse than my fumbling intention: I can tell by the way he looks at me that to Arthur it sounds like, “He’s rich and powerful, ergo he’s no longer black. Because black people are by definition poor and marginal.” Not that he believes I actually think that, but he’s disappointed I would come close to such an ugly and ill-considered sentence, let alone voice it aloud.
It’s many years later that I put things together—slowly, late and inelegantly—that I start to understand how we hurt each other.
In the summer of 2014 I’m reading through the #yesallwomen tag on Twitter, nodding my head; yes, true, uh-huh, omg yes. I pause at the observation that often a woman will turn down a guy by telling him that she has a boyfriend, because the dude will respect another man’s property even when he won’t respect the woman’s own wishes. I nod my head, yep, done that a million times without having totally realized the ugly truth of that dynamic. Girls and women learn to do things without needing to know why they tend to keep them safer.
But then I’m brought back to Pete, and to the frat guys in the bar. Those old memories hadn’t surfaced in years though they had bothered me so much at the time. It strikes me with stunning immediacy: The respect of male ownership hadn’t worked in those two situations. Even though I actually had a boyfriend. Each of those guys knew, could see, I had a boyfriend. The male code didn’t apply, though. Because.
I see transparently now what I hadn’t then. That it is precisely because I had a boyfriend, a black one, that they went after me. They wouldn’t extend any respect towards him. In fact they wanted to disrespect his “ownership,” to demonstrate how little regard they had for his sense of anything belonging to him. They would show him they could just take anything he thought was his.
That they could in the same blow punish me for choosing a black guy over one of their own was an added benefit. While insulting him, they could also hurt me, humiliate me, make me afraid, make me pay for betraying their fucked-up ideas about who white women belong to.
And they knew they could do it all with impunity. In the wake of the deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner among others, I see now what I hadn’t then: these guys expected that Arthur would not really challenge them; that he could not act angry around them, and he certainly couldn’t be violent; that he would be outnumbered by all the white people who would reflexively see him as guilty; that for him any encounter with the police was a potentially deadly one; that in any event no good could come from it.
I hadn’t understood any of that at the time—too naïve and too ignorant. And I’d absorbed so much of the shame about women’s bodies and their sexuality that Arthur’s confusion about Pete, about the guys in the bar, felt to me like blame. Now I get it was frustration and anguish. He had to swallow the humiliation, or brush it off, he could do nothing to fight it.
Whereas a white guy could protect his girlfriend, Arthur couldn’t protect me, because our broken society would jail him, or beat him, or kill him, for trying.
I wanted something from him there was no way he could give.
It breaks my heart for us both that I interpreted his silence as his not really loving me, or being annoyed by this inconvenient aspect of me. I wish I’d spoken up about my feelings after Pete groped me, after the nasty encounter in the bar in Boston. In judging his quiet inaction, in thinking it was callousness, or weakness, or a failure of love, though I didn’t speak these thoughts aloud, I contributed to his pain, and my own. Those guys probably knew that too, or dimly guessed it—all the ancient hurts, carried through years and generations, they would reawaken in us both.
I’ve thought a lot about my O.J. comment over the years, and as I become with each year older and more educated about race, and more aware of my own privilege, I see further layers of racism, of ignorance, of shallowness, of presumption in my comment. I feel terrible that I failed Arthur that day. I’m sure there were other days that I failed him too, but I just didn’t realize it, and he was too weary to point it out.
I wish I could talk about these things with him now, but Arthur died from complications of Type 1 diabetes a few years after we broke up. He was twenty-eight.
I think of Arthur often. I know he would have been a big musician if he’d lived even a few years longer. I wish he’d lived much, much longer. We’d stayed friendly after our breakup and I wish I could have known him as he grew older. I wish his family and friends, who loved him so much, could have had that time with him.
In this essay I’ve used the word failure a lot, but I want to remember this important thing: he believed me. When women come forward with stories of being hurt and victimized, much, much too often they are treated with disbelief and suspicion and contempt. He was the first person I’d ever told and he heard me, and that moment of love and compassion saved me.
About Laurence Dumortier: I’m finishing up a PhD in English with an emphasis on gender and sexuality. My short stories have been published in One Story as well as smaller magazines. I’m at work on my first novel, set in the early 1960s. My twitter handle is @ElleDeeTweets.