Sensitive material. Mention of rape/sexual/assault.
By Leila Bruch
I was desperate, so I called his cell phone three times in under an hour. I knew he was free. He was probably watching the phone blow up and crowing to all his roommates that the crazy bitch from a few weeks ago was looking for more.
Next, I sent a text: “You need to call me because we have a problem.” I’ve watched enough TV to know how to use a possible pregnancy to get a recalcitrant man on the line.
Lo and behold, my phone began to ring.
Once his name, “Do Not Answer,” appeared, my stomach turned on me. My brain followed suit, and pleaded for me to let the phone ring. My rage steeled the weaker parts of myself as I answered and spat, “You are one sick fucker.”
On the other end of the phone, my rapist was silent.
“When was the last time you got tested?” I snarled.
I didn’t feel remotely bad about the false pretense. I knew I wasn’t pregnant because the morning after he assaulted me, I ran across Saturday traffic dribbling both ways on a six-lane highway to buy Plan B.
This occurred back when Plan B was only available behind the Pharmacy counter, so I marched to the back of the CVS and muttered my request to the sneering white-coated pharmacist, who passed me a clipboard. I bent my head low and copied my driver’s license number, name, and other probing details on the first open line. All the while, I could feel the pharmacist’s eyes on my unwashed hair.
I pushed the clipboard back when I finished. After she examined the information I provided against my ID, the pharmacist picked up the slim rectangular box by two clawed fingers and dropped it into a bag. I swiped my card for the fifty dollar fee, and when it cleared, I clutched the bag and ran back across the street. I already knew what to do with the two tiny pills; it wasn’t my first time taking Plan B. It was, however, my first time taking Plan B without being certain I’d had inadequately-protected sex.
That’s one of the problems with sexual assault – sometimes, you don’t know what has been done to you.
Three days before the pills and several weeks before the call, I was in a group of undergraduate women beginning a semester away from campus with a tour of the library at one of the universities in Washington, D.C. As we stood around the library’s entrance, we talked awkwardly about our course load, the things we missed about campus, and the internships we’d just started.
Across the hallway stood an attractive Hispanic man with a wide smile. I noticed him, and he noticed me. It didn’t take long for his fixation to become the topic of spirited conversation. “He’s cute,” someone squealed. “Oh, my gosh, he’s coming over here!”
The man sauntered over and offered his hand as he introduced himself as Arnaldo.* He asked for my number and I wrote it on scrap of notebook paper.
Later that night, Arnaldo and I spent an hour on the phone, talking about our families and his career aspirations after law school. When Arnaldo asked if he could take me out the next day, I agreed.
The next evening, plans shifted from a date to kebabs and cards. Arnaldo came to my apartment with three of his friends. I invited the two women in my group who weren’t returning to campus that weekend to join us, and we all wandered across Jefferson Davis Highway to the Kebab Palace.
During dinner, I noticed that Arnaldo’s personality was different than it had seemed on the phone. The night before, he’d talked about family and school, and now he was waxing poetic about his love of partying. I didn’t have much interest in the D.C. party scene, so I zoned out in favor of considering the various items on my weekend to-do list.
Before long, the whole group trooped back to my apartment. Soon, they were all crowded around my dining room table. One of Arnaldo’s friends dealt cards while another explained the game and the third opened a twenty-four pack of cheap, canned beer.
Meanwhile, I escaped to my room, where I scoured my email for a message I’d been expecting from my internship coordinator.
The sound of Arnaldo closing my door startled me. He walked across the room, turned me around, and shoved me against my desk. He kissed me, and I pushed him away.
“Hey, don’t do that,” I said. “I don’t want to kiss you – I barely know you.” I laughed, trying to take the sting off my rejection.
Arnaldo pouted and loitered in my room for a few minutes while I puttered around with my laptop. “Are these your friends?” he asked, pointing up at a series of photo collages taped to the white wall above my bed.
“And that’s your family?”
As I walked to my door, he grabbed my waist and kissed me again. This time, I wasn’t laughing. “I’m serious, Arnaldo. I don’t want you to kiss me. Not tonight.”
Arnaldo trailed me with a hangdog look that stuck around too long.
These should have been my first clues, but I was naïve about Arnaldo’s intentions. I let him stay.
The next day, when I told an ex-boyfriend about what eventually happened, he got hung up at the same crossroads. There was a long silence, which he broke by saying my name. That’s when I knew I was in for a ration of shit; he only used my name when he was disappointed. “Why did you let those guys into your apartment?” he asked. “You hardly even knew them. What did you expect?”
In a few weeks, my ex’s retraction and apology came via Facebook message. “I just finished taking sexual assault training. I realize you didn’t do anything wrong. What he did was wrong. It was not your fault.”
Part of me still didn’t – still doesn’t – buy it. I had invited the rapist in with all his friends. I could have kicked him out at the first sign that he didn’t take “No,” as my real answer. The truth was that I hadn’t.
When I returned to the dining room, one of the girls from upstairs, Allison, had taken herself out of the poker game and was hovering around the living room, looking bored.
“Do you like to cook?” I asked Allison.
“Yes,” she gushed, her eyes widening.
We decided to make crepes. And while we cooked, Allison and I broke out a bottle of red wine.
Over the course of the next few hours, Allison and I got thoroughly drunk – far drunker than I have ever been after half a bottle of wine. Our crepes started light and airy, but soon, they turned into blackened circles of char while we laughed about our unusual ineptitude in the kitchen. By the time we got through our bowl of crepe batter, I toppled over backwards on the hard kitchen tile.
With my backside hurting like hell and my sense of equilibrium less than stellar, Allison and I decided to go somewhere where it was softer underfoot. No one noticed us walk back to my room, where we sat on my bed and swapped indie songs while looking at old Facebook photos through an ever-increasing haze of intoxication.
Sometime later, Allison’s roommate Caitlin slammed open the door, plopped herself on the corner of my bed, and stared at us expectantly.
I liked Allison, but I couldn’t say the same for Caitlin, who made a practice of snubbing the rest of the women in our group. I tried not to let that bother me, but tonight I was especially rankled that the promise of strange men and free booze made Caitlin more than happy to trot her slim hips down to my apartment.
“What’s up?” I asked her.
“Do you really want Arnaldo?” she asked. “Like, really? Because I think we might have a little thing going…”
“He’s not my boyfriend. If you think there’s something there…”
“I really think he likes me.”
“Okay.” I asked it like a question, something between “And?” and “Do you want a cookie?”
With that, Caitlin hopped up and flew out of the room. Allison and I widened our eyes at each other. “Did you mean that?” she asked.
“Hell, yes. I’m not interested. I’d much rather be back here.”
The rest of the night is fuzzy. I know that Allison and I got another visit from Caitlin later. She was angry about her unsuccessful attempts to attract Arnaldo’s interest. “I’m going to my room,” she announced, and flounced off into the hallway.
Allison and I made it back into the dining room and noticed the numbers there had shrunken considerably. Two men remained – Arnaldo and an unattractive, hairy bigfoot of a man who didn’t talk much.
The next thing I remember is Arnaldo pulling me violently back to my room. He sat on my bed and trapped my legs between his knees while he encircled both my wrists with his hands like vises. He kissed me again. “I want to see Allison,” I moaned repeatedly. He told me to shut up, and said Allison was fine with his friend. I started to cry. I told him I wanted to turn on some music from my computer. As soon as he let me go, I ran to the living room, where Bigfoot sat on the couch pawing at Allison, who looked miserable.
Everything went black again.
The next thing I remember is watching Arnaldo pull a condom over his penis. I didn’t know where my clothes were. I was crying, “Nonononono,” but he didn’t stop. The perspective shifted from first- to third-person, as if I was watching him rape me rather than being raped. Then everything went black again. My brain was merciful; since I don’t remember the rest, I can almost pretend it never happened.
The next day, I woke up beside Arnaldo and didn’t remember anything. I lay there stunned for a moment before moving to get up. As I tentatively slid a naked leg from under the covers, Arnaldo bolted upright, and started peppering me with nonsensical comments.
“You’re so negative,” he said. “You would have a better life if you weren’t so down on everything all the time.”
My whole body had several epicenters of pain: between my eyes, a headache pounded to beat the five nearest high schools’ bands; the junction between my thighs was raw and sore, and my tailbone radiated a bone-deep ache. I was still trying to process why I hurt so badly, so for the time being, I shoved my leg back under the covers and took to heart the onslaught of nastiness he offered up.
When his barrage ended, he grumbled, “I’m hungry.”
I dressed myself beneath the sheets before making Arnaldo breakfast: leftover kebabs with an egg on top. He ate them wordlessly and fast as he snuck covert glances at me through his downturned eyes. By the time he slid out of my apartment, my memories were returning.
As I chased that first pill with a large glass of lukewarm water, I heard a knock on my door. I saw Allison through the hole, so I twisted the lock and let her in.
“Got your message,” she said.
“Yeah, so, uh…what happened to you last night?” I asked warily.
She wandered in and fell into a cross-legged sitting position on the beige carpet of the living room. She told me she’d escaped by saying she needed to use the bathroom and running to her room. “I was terrified he was behind me the whole time. I felt so bad leaving you there, but I didn’t know what else to do.”
“Well…thank God you left.”
“What about you?”
I shook my head in silence. “I don’t remember most of it. It all gets spotty after I came out looking for you.”
“You don’t remember what he did?” she asked, her voice low and urgent.
“What do you mean?”
“When you came out here, crying.” She gestured to the couch that loomed over our shoulders. “Right after you sat down, he stormed out here, picked you up, put you over his shoulder and carried you back to your room. You were kicking the whole way, still crying.”
“No. I don’t remember,” I said softly.
Suddenly, there was a loud knock at the door. I jumped.
“It’s probably Caitlin. I told her I was coming here,” Allison apologized.
I rose from the floor slowly because my tailbone ached in a terrible way. Caitlin bounded inside when I opened the door. She wanted to hear what happened after she left, but she had another story to tell now, too.
“Oh, yeah, while they were at the table playing cards, they were talking about which one of us they were each going to go for. They didn’t think I was listening, I guess.”
“Yeah, they were dividing us up, which of them would go for which of us. So, since there were only three girls, the fourth guy left right away. As soon as I realized Arnaldo was still trying to get with you, I left. They thought they were being all sly about it, but I knew exactly what they were doing. It was so stupid.”
I wanted to scream at her, punch her, and ask why she didn’t tell us this story the night before. Instead, I said I was feeling sick, and both women left.
For the next few hours, I cleaned my sheets and took a long, piping hot bath. I also called friends. With the exception of the ex who blamed me (rightfully, perhaps) for getting into the situation, everyone listened and commiserated. “That never should have happened,” they said. “Was I okay?” they asked.
In the dingy grey light of the winter afternoon, I sent an email to a very recent ex-boyfriend. He called me just an hour later, when the sky was ink black. His initial dejection turned to fury as the story unfolded. “Tell me his name,” he said, his voice rising. “Just tell me his name, and I will take care of him. Nobody gets to do that to you and get away with it.” I told him I couldn’t do it. I knew it wouldn’t help. “Well, you need to go to the police,” he said.
“No,” I told him. “There is no way I can do that.”
There was one other instance in high school when I took a concern of a less insidious vein to a higher authority. As a thank you for my disclosure, I spent the next four years dealing with the aftermath of having a distorted, perpetrator-friendly rendition of my very private assault being handled in a very public forum. Girls in my class screamed at me. The boys called me horrible names. The lesson was simple: no one can help you.
This is one of many reasons women who have been assaulted or harassed don’t go to the authorities. Other reasons include the following: those who choose to come forward often find themselves fighting against people who don’t believe them, and when the story goes public, they have to listen to people condemning them for things like dressing provocatively or drinking too much. They have to hear people’s vehemently all-knowing statements – “I’d never get into that situation,” and “That wouldn’t have happened to me, because I’m careful,” – about things they’ve never experienced, as if they could imagine themselves right into and out of your unimaginable situation.
I shouldn’t make it sound like choosing not to go to authorities was easy. It was a hard choice, and I hated myself for it. From Arnaldo’s actions – grooming me to be at ease with him with the long phone call, holding me down to keep me from escaping, and his barrage of negative comments in the morning – I was certain he had raped before, and that he would rape again. Still, I wasn’t sure there would be a way to prove he’d raped me. My memory was filled with gaping holes, and he’d used a condom at least once. Because of the fears that paralyzed me, Arnaldo was going to win this round and possibly go on to hurt someone else. It made me sick.
In the passing weeks, I had many questions about Arnaldo. I told myself that the reason I was calling was to get answers I desperately needed.
“I got tested two months ago,” he finally said, sighing.
“How many girls have you fucked since then?”
“You don’t have to believe me.”
“You should really stop being so – “
“No, you just shut the fuck up. Do you know how fucking lucky you are that I didn’t turn you in? You raped me. I told you I didn’t even want you to kiss me, and you fucking raped me. I should have gone to the police, but I didn’t. Now I have to worry about sleeping with anyone I love ever again because you took something that wasn’t yours to take. Do you know how that fucking feels? You know what else sucks? I had to spend fifty dollars I don’t have to buy Plan B, because you raped me!”
The phone was dead. How long had I been screaming at air? I knew I’d never get him on the phone again after the stunt I’d just pulled. My questions were mostly unanswered, and I’d wasted my only shot to…what? Terrorize him? See if there were human feelings inside the handsome shell?
I crumpled to the floor and raked my hands through the rough beige carpet, and I cried. This was what it felt like to be powerless.
* This is not his real name
Leila Bruch is a dog-wrangler and home-maker who took a break from her regularly-scheduled writings on love and war to pen this piece. Her hopes in doing so are two-fold: first, to trap this part of her past forever on the page, where it can no longer nip incessantly at her heels, and second, to inflict at least a painful paper cut on a pervasive and insidious rape culture.
Featured image by Tiffany Lucero