Every time I remember that night, and try to pinpoint exactly where things went wrong, all I end up determining is that I don’t know where it really began. Did it start when my date said, “I don’t care” in response to me saying, “I’m fucked up about boys,” and lock-gripped my wrists as he pulled me on top of him with enough force to leave marks? I found them later—little, lingering grey-blue cuffs—temporary marks betraying a new secret kind of imprisonment.
Eight years later, I still can’t entirely detail what happened. Where hands were and where they weren’t, and how long the struggle went on for, and how close it got to actual rape. Did it begin when he shoved his hand up my dress and tried to pull down everything, while still keeping a tight grip on my other arm? All at once, he pulled me close, yanked my underwear down, and jerked my face toward his own. He was much stronger than I imagined a tall, lanky, soft-spoken Southerner would be.
I know I fought back and adrenaline quickly turned me from too-tipsy to stone-cold sober. I know it felt like a many-armed trap: Just when I became free of one, another would pop up. I know I wasn’t, in the end, raped—he didn’t manage to penetrate me, though it seems clear that was his intent. I know I ran in first-date-why-did-wear-these high heels down three flights of steep, old Victorian San Francisco apartment steps and kept running for blocks until I finally caught a cab.
I remember flashes of calling my roommates on the way home and trying to explain what happened, in tears. Oddly, I remember the cab driver’s kind eyes in the rear view mirror, and how he looked back at me after I hung up and said, “Please, don’t cry. If you cry, they win.” I remember my roommates waiting for me at the door of our apartment. I remember him calling ten times, and texting 20, to ask why “I freaked out,” and my roommate finally answering and telling him to fuck off.
Did it begin when we met? At my local pub, in the wake of a breakup? Did it begin with his slight Southern drawl asking if I wanted a drink, or over the polite, flirtatious conversation that followed? Did it begin when I gave him my number? Or when I said yes to a date?
Or did it really start when he, an aspiring chef, upped the ante of our first date by taking me to the nicest, most expensive restaurant in town, where his friend was the sous chef? Was it when I accepted seven courses of free food, complete with seven different paired wines? Or when I got back into his car to go home afterward? Or when I accepted his casually delivered invitation to meet his roommates, one of whom he said worked for the San Francisco Ballet (a company I’d desperately been trying to intern for)?
Maybe it really started when I walked into his apartment and found all the rooms dark and empty. When I made excuses to go to the bathroom to drink cold water from the sink and splash it on my face—stupidly, stupidly drunk from the wine, trying to fight the instinctive panic that was already starting to brew and bring my wits back. Maybe it was after he handed me another drink when I came out and followed me through every room of the house when I asked for a tour—until we ran out of rooms, out of space, and there was nowhere for me to try to go but past him. But there was no way past him—there were only a million arms.
I can still feel how painfully sharp his lean muscles were, pressing into my curves, and how much I hated to look at that black wrap dress and those stupid heels after that night. I remember replaying how we met in my head over and over, looking for red flags or signs of aggression. I remember tracing the first seed of an uneasy feeling to when, at dinner, our waitress asked if we were celebrating an anniversary, which made me wonder why anyone would bring me to such a fancy place with so many pieces of silverware for a first date.
I remember not sleeping at all for a week. I remember not letting anyone touch me for a month. I remember how holding the feelings inside in silence eventually led to a full-blown eating disorder. After I got help with that, I finally began to face the assault. Eat again. Make out with boys again.
Still, even years later, that night returns with disturbing clarity at unexpected moments. Months ago, I was kissing a handsome, kind man on his couch for the first time and when he reached up to my wrists, my body reacted instantaneously, as if out of muscle memory—a surge of adrenaline, fear, flight. There it was again, back to haunt me.
This is the first time I’ve ever written down the words, because, well, I wasn’t raped. I’m lucky. I escaped. I ran, I got help, I ate again, I made out with more boys. Who am I to be scarred? To be scared? I don’t think I’ll ever know when or how my not being raped led to me believe I have to fight for my right to my own body or even exist in space at all. I’m starting to be OK with not knowing. The frustrating part is knowing that I might not ever know when it’s done with me. That it might always linger. The memory of the time I didn’t get raped.