“Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.” – Margaret Atwood
“I wish women didn’t have to rip our pasts open and show you everything and let you ogle our pain for you to believe us about predation and trauma” – Lindy West
And suddenly I couldn’t breathe.
I’m friends with my rapist on Facebook. I’m also friends with his parents. His sister. His sister’s dog. We share friends and friends of friends. He looks at my Instagram stories and is tagged deep in the party photos of years past.
Stop me if you’ve heard this story before. Because I know you’ve heard this story before, just not from me. Maybe it’s your story, too.
I used to blame myself for staying with him for so long. When he finally moved out he used to call me from the last payphone in the neighborhood in the parking lot of 7-11 and tell me that he was thinking about killing himself. He didn’t, of course. Instead, a few years later, he got sober.
I got a therapist. I moved away.
Every week for a full year I sunk into a cream-colored couch surrounded by play therapy toys and listened to a well-intentioned woman urge me to tell someone. Anyone. As if that would set me free. I thought about my feminist mothers and my degree from that radical New England women’s college and all the friends he and I still shared in this city that seems much bigger than it really is.
I got a new therapist and didn’t say a word. I held my anger for him in the back of my mouth, chewing on it like old gum until my jaw grew tired and heavy.
A few months after he got sober he asked to meet with me. Just like the influx of weddings and babies that rush in during your late twenties, my friends and I refer to this as the “sixth step call.” Wherein an ex will emerge from the depths to apologize for years of torment followed by rehab and revelations.
Outside of my office, between sips of coffee, he asked me to describe what exactly he should be apologizing for. “I’m sorry,” he explained, “I loved you so much when we were together but I can’t remember what I’ve done to you that is so wrong. I just know I fucked up.”
Again, I ripped myself open. I spit that gum into my palm, holding out the glistening ball for him to see: “These are the things I’ve carried for you,” I explained. I told him about the nights he hid my phone so I couldn’t call the police. How he’d follow me around with a kitchen knife (from the set he bought me for Christmas from Macy’s). How he kept me from shouting out with his hands around my neck or a pillow over my face. I told him about the night before my friend’s wedding. How sometimes alcohol enables us to say “I love you” for the first time. Or sing that karaoke song we’re afraid of. Or rape our girlfriends while on vacation. I reminded him of how the next morning he laughed it off and bought me breakfast and posed for photos and slow danced as if nothing was wrong.
I told him and I told him and I told him. This was not what my therapist had in mind.
When I was done speaking, he said he was sorry, but that he wouldn’t “walk on his knees repenting.” I finished my coffee, went back to work, and led a conference call during which I didn’t cry. And I haven’t cried. I’ve surrounded myself with kinder men, better friends, and boxes of feelings I take out and look at only when the time is right.
The joke is he told me himself. About the other girls who were all wrong and just didn’t understand. He told me I could fix him.
Stop me if you’ve heard this story before. Because I know you’ve heard this story before.
I ran into his mother at the grocery store about a year ago right next to the green peppers. When he and I were still together I’d occasionally sit next to her on the bus at rush hour, the two of us commuting home. “He reminds me so much of my father,” she’d say, “you’re so good for him but sometimes I’m scared for you.”