I had decided not to post #metoo on my wall. Anyone who loves me knows that I’m a rape victim. In fact, people who don’t love me know—social workers, teachers, principals, foster parents, judges, neighbors, college professors, journal editors, open mic night audiences, ex boyfriends, ex friends, old roommates, old students, one co-worker, my ex-husband, some strangers who shared a taxi with me one night.
Instead I wrote this story. But this story isn’t about my rape because I had basically already written seven different versions of it, and writing about rape that many times is exhausting. One of them got published in a mid-tier journal and then nominated for a Pushcart. I didn’t want to write about my rape then, still don’t. Instead, I wanted to remove the power that rape, in general, had over me, make it the kind of trauma that I could forget, the way I had mostly forgotten my car accident. I felt that constantly labeling myself a victim of rape was buying into the idea that I was damaged goods, that a man could break me without my permission by merely forcing sex on me. I believed that if I stopped believing that rape was important, then it would stop being important. Then I might be free to think about other things, to create art about other things, to be anything else, anything other than a rape victim. So I didn’t post #metoo on my wall. Instead I wrote this story.
This story is about a girl who dances at a bar, and she is feeling very young and beautiful. I write something like, “The lights on the dance floor make it seem as if all the dancers are leaping ethereally around her, like wispy angels. Her hair is a wet mane that clings to her face in coils, reminding the narrator of snakes.” The narrator describes what she is wearing after this: “a silver halter top that fits her like water in the shower, revealing every dip and curve in her collarbone, breasts, and rib cage.” She is skinny and pale, the kind of skinny and pale associated with cocaine or heroin use. I also write that the girl has taken off her bra in the women’s bathroom.
This story has a lot of internal dialogue, so while she dances, she thinks that maybe she has crossed over to “an afterlife full of faceless, painless figures, each one made of a peaceful kind of energy that undulates through her.” She thinks that maybe someone killed her in the parking lot before she walked into this bar, and now she is in purgatory or heaven or hell.
In the story, the reader is supposed to believe that this girl is very high, even though I have never been high on anything but weed. I’m not sure why I do this. When I smoke weed, I don’t think about heaven. In fact, I am usually so overcome by my own awkwardness and insecurity that I just leave whatever social situation I am in and go home or hide in a bathroom or crawl in someone’s bed and close my eyes and wait for the hateful thoughts to disappear.
I think maybe I write her high because I wanted it to seem like she is negligently making herself vulnerable by taking drugs. I tried to complicate things too by implying that she is innocent, considering the celestial places drug use takes her. When I write her, I compare her to “a lioness, a hurricane, and a rose: dangerous, painful, beautiful, pure.” I write her the way men like to write women.
And then, while this girl is dancing—wet, braless, young, vulnerable, dangerous, enigmatic, possibly high, etc.—a man pushes himself against her from behind. She doesn’t know this man, but she can feel his penis pressing into her lower back.
I had just recently finished my bachelors, studying for six years off and on. In my last three years, I declared a major in creative writing and read the parade of striking, bleak, and enigmatic novels that made up the typical syllabus. So, when I wrote this story, I believed that any writing that claimed to be art had to hide things from its readers. I also believed that interesting women in books were mysterious or cruel or both. Now that I am writing again, I think that maybe I have always had something like a reading disability that I chose to ignore (and still choose to ignore), so maybe I didn’t really understand anything I read in college, or maybe all those books weren’t actually hiding anything from me after all. I think I didn’t understand them because they weren’t written for me.
When it happened to me, I couldn’t tell how long the penis was, with it tucked inside his pants, but it seemed fairly thick in circumference, maybe the circumference of the middle section of a baseball bat, though maybe I’m just letting my mind paint it that way. What I really remember is the heat coming off it. I visualized his penis as this pulsating purple thing—angry, anxious, ready for a hole.
In the story, the girl can smell his sweat, and she can feel his heat. She hasn’t seen his face, but it is clear that she wants to be that hole. What is important, for the story, is that she isn’t afraid. She folds into him. She is enjoying herself—the song, his erection, his smell. The narrator predicts that the protagonist will later be ashamed of how unashamed she is.
When it happened to me, of course I wasn’t high, and of course that dance floor was not some ethereal plane of refuge, but the rest of it is mostly true. I wasn’t afraid of that guy. Instead, I was excited by the thought that I would probably be fucking him later. It helped that he was a stranger. Before I met my ex-husband, and sometimes after I met him, I slept primarily with strangers. It wasn’t a rule I followed or anything like that; it just kept happening.
The truth is that I can’t remember a single time in my life when I had slept with a man without first being drunk, not even my first time. In fact, the first and last time I slept with my ex-husband I was drunk. Most of my experiences with men are blurs to me, if I’m honest, but a few stand out. I include some of them in my character’s internal dialogue, while she grinds on the faceless stranger.
I include the guy who walked with me to a graveyard, just a few blocks away from the party where we met. I liked the way we talked to each other on the way there. I don’t remember what we were talking about, but I felt romantic and silly. After wandering and flirting in front of the gravestones, I walked him to my apartment while the sun rose pink and green around us, and I rode him on my deflated air mattress that sat on the floor of my living room. The problem was that while I was riding him, I could feel myself getting sober, and sick, and insecure. Right in the middle of it, I panicked, and I wanted to stop but it was already happening, so I pretended to cum so that maybe he would cum too and we could be done with it. I write all this in there, but I’m pretty sure I only included that last part about feeling panicked because I had just read that story about the cat guy in The New Yorker. They were true details, but I probably wouldn’t have included it if I hadn’t read that story first.
That guy called me a few days later to tell me that he was leaving for the Air Force, and he wanted to see me again, so I let him come over, and of course he started kissing me as soon as he saw me, and I tried, I really tried, but I hadn’t had anything to drink yet, so I stopped him before things got far enough that I couldn’t stop him. He didn’t call me again, but that’s probably because he was joining the Air Force.
I also write about a guy I met at a costume party. I was one of the only other girls dressed like a pirate, and I remember that he thanked me for dressing up right before we had sex in his bathroom. I was glad that he thanked me because it had been a hassle getting a pirate costume together. I had to buy an eye patch and a bandanna at Walmart even though I was too broke for gas. Maybe I did it because I knew it would get me laid.
To get to the pirate party, I had to bum a ride with this other guy I knew named Larry. He’s also in this story, but I use a different name. The pirate guy asked me if Larry was going to get mad at him for fucking me in the bathroom, and I got really embarrassed by that question. Larry was not my boyfriend, I had never once slept with him, not even close. I guess I had friend-zoned him, but at the time I didn’t really know what I was doing. He was just a safe person to be around. We talked about normal stuff, mostly school and our other friends. When he drove me around, he never asked for gas money. He took me to the grocery store, and once he took me shopping for clothes and sat in the store all bored and pissy while I tried on clearance tops. I honestly had no idea what I was doing to him until he stopped driving me around. I honestly thought he was my friend. When he stopped driving me around, I wished that maybe I had done something for him. I really needed a ride in those days, and since he hadn’t really been my friend to begin with, it wasn’t like giving him a hand-job would have ruined our relationship.
I’m thinking about deleting the stuff about Larry. Now that I’m writing again, I should probably think more deeply about how my writing affects other people. Larry isn’t the enemy, but he looks like a dick in this story. What if he reads it and decides to contact me about it? How do I explain to him that I don’t think he’s the enemy?
I write about one more guy, the one I could have loved, a physics major with a supremely genuine smile. He was too smart for me, read books about string theory for fun, and I wanted to impress him so much. I wanted him to know that I had brilliance in me; I just needed someone else to believe it too. Drinking made it easier to talk to him. He was a heavy drinker too, so it worked for a while until I ruined it. I started calling him late at night. It got to where we would go to different parties and then call each other afterwards if we didn’t meet anyone new. I think I believed that what we were doing was passionate, but it was just sloppy.
Then I gave him chlamydia. He might have been the one to pass it to me, though it’s hard for me to believe, even now, after everything I have, after everything I am, that he could be the diseased one and not me.
The part about the chlamydia isn’t in the story, though, because I wrote it when I was much younger, and I was still very insecure about catching chlamydia, gonorrhea, and HPV. I honestly still haven’t told many people about my STDs, except my sister and recently my daughter. My ex-husband still doesn’t know about them, which is pretty shitty of me, if I think about it. Now that I’m writing again, I should probably add the stuff about the chlamydia, give the story some realism, maybe even make it to where she still has chlamydia when she is dancing with this guy. I can’t decide how readers will respond to this kind of detail.
I think it was important to me, when I wrote this story, to not be the enemy, but I’ve been reading it and rewriting it, and it’s hard to ignore some details. Of course this girl isn’t me. She’s a character. She likes to get high. I don’t.
Honestly, when I read the story now, it mostly sounds really stupid and prosaic, and I’m not sure adding an STD will fix that. I should probably pull out some of the internal dialogue about those guys I slept with. Some of it is great stuff, but I think that it can be a little daunting to read, especially since I rarely use any names.
When I workshopped this story, some of my classmates were really confused about what even happened to the girl. They kept getting those other guys mixed up with the guy who was pressing his dick into her back, which really pissed me off because I knew most of those assholes only skimmed my story the night before, penciling arbitrary annotations randomly just in case the professor collected them. I had read all of their stories, and from what I could gather, most of them were interested in writing genre fiction anyway, which is fine but, I mean, how can a rom-com writer criticize someone who is trying to write literary fiction? If I’m honest, I only really cared about the opinions of a few of the students.
Funny thing, now I kind of agree with them, but if I do delete some of those guys, I’m going to have to really rework the story, and I’m not sure if I want to do that right now. I’m writing again and have a lot of other of ideas for pieces. Lately, I’ve been working on a collection of prose poetry about my daughter. I want to call it Something Beautiful. That title was her idea. While I was in rehab, she came to visit me.
She said, “You should make something beautiful.”
“Don’t be weird,” she said, “I’m serious. Write something beautiful today.”
And anyway, there’s a problem with taking all those guys out because after the girl thinks about her past with men, she leans back a little and rests the back of her head on this man’s shoulder, and she thinks about looking at his face. She plays a game with herself. What kind of face will he have? Will he have String Theory Guy’s lips? Will he have Pirate Guy’s eyes? She turns him into every man she has slept with, even some men she hasn’t slept with. So if I get rid of those other guys, it’s going to really mess with this scene, and I’d say this scene is pretty close to the denouement, if this story has one.
Then, just as she is about to open her eyes to look up at his face, he puts his left hand up her shirt and squeezes her right breast, pulling her close to him in a kind of violent hug. For me, this is when I started to feel afraid. I know it sounds ridiculous. I was okay with his penis against my back, this man whose face I didn’t know, but his hand on my breast is what scares me. I know. Ridiculous.
It hurt. The way he yanked on me and held me to him, as if at any moment he could throw me on the ground, pin me down. I could feel his strength, all of it, in his arms, fingers, chest, and legs. I was afraid because I didn’t want it to happen. I know this may seem like mind-reading to some people, like how was he supposed to know I didn’t want him to do that? I don’t know. All I can say is that I didn’t expect him to do it, and I didn’t want him to do it. All I can say is that I was afraid, even though I guess I wasn’t supposed to be.
In the story, she pulls his hand away from her breast, gently, though her fear is bubbling in her mouth and roaring in her ears, and she walks to the bar, moving her ass in a deliberate sex kittenish manner, even though her legs feel hollow and brittle. She orders another drink. She doesn’t want him to know she is afraid of him. She doesn’t want to ruin the night. While she waits for her drink, she looks for someone in the crowd around her, someone she can talk to so that she doesn’t have to go back to the dance floor. All the faces look the same to her.
That’s how I end the story, but I’m not sure I like it. At the time I wrote it, I guess it worked for me and it was enough. Now that I’m writing again, I think I’m going to add something about her father, and I’ll make it about my stepfather. The thing is that even though I needed this story to do certain things and be a certain way, I can’t write it now without him in it. I think it’s impossible.
I’ll add something about the shorts. I add them to all my stories. I thought I was done with it, but I’m not. I still have to write about them.
They were these really bright pink shorts. Mom had taken me to the dollar store in town to look for decorations for my party, and I found them hanging up in the party aisle, left by a customer who had changed their mind. They were labeled “biker shorts,” and they were made of shiny, pink spandex. My mom did not want to get them for me, but I changed her mind.
I wore them everywhere, not realizing how cheap and trashy they made me look, or maybe realizing it but finding myself appreciating the fact that I could look so cheap and trashy. Pink spandex shorts on a child doesn’t turn heads, but I wasn’t a child.
He ripped them up, but it’s not like he had needed to do that. I hadn’t struggled at all. He’d been living with us since I was 5, married my mother when I was 8, and stayed living with us until I turned 15. I had plenty of time to get to know him, and I knew it was coming, just like I knew why my mother hated those pink shorts. But he ripped them anyway, maybe because he wanted the struggle. I think that’s what they are all after, sometimes, worthy prey. Not all of them. I know it, but plenty of them. I was prey enough, but I guess it wasn’t exciting for him, so he ripped up my shorts, and that really upset me.
 “What do you think, Babe?”
“I think I might do it.”
“Are you listening?”
“Did you hear what I said?”
“What do you think?”
“You don’t think I should, then?”
 “This story is meant to be something that exists as my individual voice speaking for me.”
 “I want to die like a white summer wish. / I want to die with all of my red and orange / spreading out around my ankles. / I want to die like the green between his teeth.”
 “If you learn one thing from my class, I hope it’s that I don’t know what I’m doing and neither does anyone else. Don’t count on me to save you. No teacher can save you. We are all just faking it. So are your doctors. They don’t know what’s wrong with you. And your lawyers don’t know how to keep you out of jail. It doesn’t get better either, guys. The more success you find, the more you’ll realize that no one knows what they are doing. But it’s kind of freeing too, isn’t it?”
 “You’re saying I have to have a best-selling novel to be a good writer? That’s like saying I have to win the lottery to be a good gambler.”
 “Are you okay? Is she okay? Is she breathing? Thank god. God, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
 “It’s like, what happened isn’t really even the issue, right? I mean, it wasn’t like she was raped-raped. I mean, that sounds bad, but you know what I’m trying to say, right?”
 “Plus the whole thing is kind of cliché, you know? Every girl thinks her rape story is going to make a difference.”
 “That’s the way I fucking write. I’m sorry I don’t write cyber porn bullshit or god-damned mystery novels, you fucking momma’s boy.”
 “I mean, don’t tell him this, but he’s really the reason I went back to college. I mean, he didn’t want to marry a waitress, you know? You’re right. I know. Maybe you’re right. I probably would have, but it would definitely have been later, and who knows what would have happened. It’s just that thank God it worked out the way it did, you know? “
 “I guess he didn’t want to be married to an alcoholic anymore.”
 “I can’t throw them away, Babe. I promise I’m going to read them.”
 “I’m really sorry. Maybe later. I’m just not feeling it. It’s just different now. Sorry. It’s not you. I’m really sorry.”
 “Yeah, hi. I’m Philomel. Two weeks sober. I’m feeling pretty good, I guess. Just scared, you know? And tired. And sorry. Really sorry. For all of it. I’m wondering when I’ll stop feeling so bad about all the shit I caused, you know? Anyway, thanks for hearing me. You guys are great. Really.”
 “I don’t want you to feel scared or ashamed about this, okay? Listen, I’ve had one too. Does that make you think differently about it? Does it make you think differently about me? I know. Have I ever kept anything from you? Haven’t I always told you the truth? Listen, I’m not ashamed, so why are you ashamed? I was about your age when it happened, and I just took some antibiotics, and it was over as quick as it came. I know. Oh honey, I’m so glad. Listen, I love you, okay? Do you still have your insurance card? I’ll set up the appointment. No, I’ll send some money. Just take care of yourself.”
 “I did love you. I know, even after all those guys. I did love you. I know. It’s too late. I know. That’s not why I’m telling you this.”
 “I’m not going to lie. This protagonist just isn’t likeable. I mean, I don’t think all characters should be likeable, but there needs to be something to hold on to. Something I can credit her for. I mean, this girl’s mother does everything she can for her, and how does she repay her? By being a steaming pile of cunt, no offense, Sandra.”
 “It’s kind of like Stranger in a Strange Land, but less sexist, I guess. My husband would really like it.”
 “Oh my God. Yeah, I mean, I should have known it was about her. Holy shit, she hates me. Why the fuck do I even say anything during these fucking things?”
 “What light is there between us? / What ray of yellow / or flicker / or glow?”
 “I made you.”
 “No, I’m just calling to say sorry about all of it, Babe. I know it doesn’t change anything, but I need you to know I’m sorry anyway, okay?”
 “Mom, look. They’re only 8 dollars.”
 “They’ll be like a birthday present.”
© A. R. Robins
[this piece was selected by Sarah Broderick. Read A. R.’s interview]