Two summers ago, when I was in China teaching English, I went out one unremarkable Friday night to meet a friend at this bar we always went to. I was considerably early, so I sat down and ordered a vodka tonic. I came to five hours later with a raging migraine, pushed against a stale scratchy quilt in the pitch dark and feeling nothing but the huffing and straining of a stranger on top of me. The digital clock on the nightstand read 5:26. A drip of slick sweat fell off of him into my open eye, blurring the red numbers.
The first thing I thought of was this bear attack video we watched in middle school, what you should do when you’re about to be eaten. It was a dumb impulse but it was all I had to work with so I slowed my breathing and played dead. Curiously, it worked. He got up to use the bathroom and I stumbled out into the morning light to hail a cab, dizzy and half-clothed, trying to explain where I lived in my awful Chinese. Later, slumped in the back of the cab in my dirty t-shirt watching the tangerine rose of the sunrise spread over the city, I felt so fragile and so lucky.
And furious. What had given this asshole the right to touch me? To drug me and then touch me? It seemed like the most insulting thing, that he didn’t even try. Didn’t ask me, didn’t even force me, just put something in my cocktail like NBD. Obviously rape isn’t a sex thing, it’s a power thing, but still. He had to knock me out to make it easier like having to tranquilize a tiger before reaching out to pet it. Like he knew my body wasn’t an object he should be touching but reached for it anyway.
And I was exhausted, more tired than I’d ever been. Sapped of energy, spread thin like translucent wax paper. Tired like I’d never smile again, like I’d never be able to move again, just crumpled there, pasted limply to the sticky backseat. Tired and sick, dry heaving with a blinding headache, a metallic tightness in my chest and stomach, an insistent squeeze compressing my temples and my heart.
And incredibly annoyed. Annoyed that my top priority upon returning home was now to get tested. Annoyed that I had been clean and now there was a chance I wasn’t because this guy decided to stick his penis where it didn’t belong, that I had to repeatedly recount what happened to nurses with clipboards, that I had to drop a bunch of money I didn’t have on finding out whether he had given me something else besides humiliation. Terrified that the HIV test might come back positive. Thanks, guy. Thanks a lot.
But above all else, I felt unbelievably lucky. Lucky that I was still alive, that I had a body left to feel pain with. So many women can’t say as much. Women who are more careful than me, more deserving of peaceful lives don’t always get to walk away like I did. Back at my apartment, I pulled my hair back in the mirror and examined my reflection. I am still myself. It wasa line I pulled from Suicide Blonde because I didn’t have the words. I got in the shower and methodically scrubbed off the layer of tainted skin.
I knew exactly what was going to happen next, and I was ready for it. What were you wearing? How much did you have to drink? All the inevitable questions of rape culture, the things we ask the victims because our first instinct is to examine their actions instead of the rapists’. We want to make sure she wasn’t “asking for it” before we give her our empathy. How short was her skirt? Were her tits hanging out? What gave him the right? I’ll give you one guess as to which statement doesn’t belong.
And even though I wanted to not exist, collapse into the floor and decay, I knew I had to be strong because no one was going to be strong for me. I wasn’t about to get on Skype and broadcast what happened, open up the wound and rehash the details. I knew what my parents would say, what the police would say. There wasn’t anything to do except sit there and breathe, sit there and pump blood through my body, cradle every limb and feel thankful for the fact that some part of me, at least, was not damaged, the rest would heal itself.
After all, what could anyone say? At best, I’m here for you, at worst, I told you so. The words would pass through but they wouldn’t resonate. No one who hasn’t been there can understand the horrible nothingness of it, the extent to which there’s nothing to do besides just live through it because you don’t have a choice, reduce it to its bare bones and digest it like everything else. Chew it and wash it down like every other thing that happens because going to pieces over it won’t make it clearer, won’t make it easier, won’t make it anything.