“…I sometimes ask myself if it was us, these two people…so young, so educated, so uninvolved, so ready to judge one another with kind impartiality; so ready to say goodbye to one another for ever, as the sun set, at the corner of the street.”
–Natalia Ginzburg, “He and I”
He flies planes and I fear them. Or, when I Google him, I find him as an instructor at a flight school, with an included picture that looks younger than I remember him. And I find myself straining, wondering, did he mention being a flight instructor? Was he a flight instructor before college? Can you be a flight instructor when you’re that young, is that allowed? I don’t know. I can’t ask. Maybe this is his current job or maybe it’s a woefully outdated website. When I fly, I need Xanax and airplane bottles of Jack Daniels to get through it. It is a delicate balancing act, getting drunk enough to be on a plane without being so drunk as to be removed from the plane and left adrift in some airport, wasted and alone. When he flies, it is probably also a delicate balance, to be in control up in the air like that.
For a while, he had this tall bike he rode around campus, and I never learned how to ride a bike. Once, it must have been sophomore year (though first I write sophomore or junior year before remembering he was abroad for all of junior year and I didn’t have to look at him), he walked me home from a party, walking his tall bike beside him. Is there a word for these bikes? They are like bikes on stilts. I don’t know anything about bikes. I guess he is better at transportation than I am.
He had a girlfriend named Milly or Millie but not Miley and she sang and I sang. He liked to use that fact against me, the way I reminded him of Milly or Millie, because that was his justification. He did what he did because I reminded him of his girlfriend, he knew she sang, and he knew I sang. But also, I don’t remember telling him I sang, and we had just met. Did he intuit it? Did he see music in my mouth?
He lived in German Haus for a year and I’m a Jew, uncomfortable in Germany or when thinking about people who find themselves drawn to German culture. I found out he lived in German Haus when I was hooking up with a guy who lived there as well and the guy was telling me about his housemates and then I snuck out at sunrise to avoid seeing his housemates because yes in fact I did know one of them, quite well, or not well at all, and goodbye.
He speaks Japanese and I don’t. I speak some Spanish and I don’t think he does. He’s been to Japan and I haven’t, he was there for that blissful year. Maybe he speaks German.
He’s good at social situations, at making friends and demonstrating to people that he is somehow a nice person. I’m good at coming across as slightly hysterical, at drinking too much and crying in public, at stuttering or talking too fast.
He likes to read the New York Times app on his phone when he eats breakfast in the morning or that’s a lie, that’s me, I do that. I don’t know what he does when he eats breakfast. Maybe we finger-scroll through the same articles on Sunday mornings, we read Modern Love together, and we laugh at the advice columns simultaneously, a few blocks away from each other or on different sides of the globe. I don’t remember what food he likes. I don’t know if I ever knew.
He played Frisbee in college and I played Frisbee in high school but not in college. Or, once I heard he was at Frisbee practice, so I stopped thinking maybe today I’ll go to Frisbee practice which was on my list of things to do to feel better about my life. I did other things instead. Maybe he never played Frisbee. Maybe I would have had the absolute best time on the Frisbee team. I went to the gym instead, and I hoped to not see him there.
He’s easier to push down when he’s drunk and so am I, that is a thing we have in common. Both of us know what it feels like to push the other one down when the other one is drunk and to feel a body cave in under our hands, but he found out first. I think most people are probably easier to push down when they’re drunk but I also think if you’re a good person, you don’t go around finding things like that out. You just assume.
He was an international student at our undergraduate institution and so was I, but the fundamental difference was he decided to attend International Student Orientation and I did not, which meant he came to campus first and he knew his way around first and he was ready to play tour guide for any new girl who was figuring her way around, maybe she sang, maybe she had red hair, maybe she needed a head start, maybe her body was weaker when drunk, maybe he decided to find out, maybe third person is easier, maybe I’m just trying it out this time and next time I’ll say I. I needed a head start. I had red hair.
He never said he loved me, but once I said I loved him. I didn’t mean it. I just thought it might make things easier, if it was love instead of that other thing. If it was love it would just be a strange meet-cute story we told our grandkids. A misunderstanding. If it was love there is not that other word. Or there is. I can’t go back and replace one word with the other, one reality with the other. I’ve tried.
He and I both shy away from one specific moment in our history, for different reasons. Though he has his own false version of it that he whips out at parties, or he used to. We’re both gone from that old scene now, graduated and floating out in the world. I saw him, once, a few months ago. He was following a girl with a ponytail, carrying a tote-bag, in an I’m-her-boyfriend way, and I let him go, because we don’t have much in common, and I didn’t really have anything to say to him, only I hope she knows what he is, or I hope she has no idea, or I hope I never see him again, or I hope someday I too will wonder what he looks like and sounds like, but for now it’s hard to see him as invisible, because when I shut my eyes I see all of it, and I know he sees none of me.
In the fantasy of a rape narrative, the girl is young and she is virginal. I was only one of those things, eighteen, porno-style barely legal, but with a sexual history. Not the perfect victim. In the fantasy, the man comes out of nowhere (and yes, in this fantasy, he is a man while she is a girl, she is the lamb to his wolf) and he attacks without warning, bludgeoning her or drugging her drink. I had plenty of time to get away; I just didn’t realize that’s what I should have been doing. He isolated me at a party, and told me he would walk me home, that we needed to leave so that we didn’t get in trouble for drinking, it was my third day of college and I didn’t know anything, and then we walked back to our dorm together, alone, talking about things so trivial that I have completely forgotten them. Do they matter? They seem like they should.
In the fantasy movie version of it all, increasingly ominous music plays while he asks me significant-seeming but basic questions about myself, as if to assess me for victimhood, and then hours later I sobbingly repeat them back to a police officer (I don’t know, officer, but he asked me what my parents did for work, and why would he even want to know that?). Instead, they are insignificant to me, and I imagine that they were also insignificant to him. There was never any police officer. Maybe I should assume that he planned the attack the whole time, he saw me and painted a target onto me, but I don’t. Rape is systemic and is committed by people who mean to rape, I believe that. But it is also opportunistic, and I have no way of knowing whether he noted the opportunity when we first met, when he offered to help me and my parents unpack my dorm room, when he and I watched stupid YouTube videos in my room with other people from our hall, when we ate together in the dining hall, when he saw me at that party, on the walk back through the dorm, as we climbed the stairs to the second floor where we both lived, or standing in our hallway. I don’t know when I went from friend or potential romantic interest into prey. I don’t know if he was thinking cruelly, attempting to hurt me, or he just wanted to get laid and was not interested in taking my feelings on the matter into account. In the fantasy, none of this matters, he is a one-dimensional monster. But I know him a little more than that. I’ve talked to him, I’ve lived fifty feet away from him for a year, I’ve cried in front of him, I’ve confronted him, I’ve run from him, I’ve watched him from afar. And I’m curious.
So which thing is more horrifying? To be purposefully cruel, to be a predator, to look for women to make into prey, or to stumble through their lives, unaware that any damage has been done? I often wonder about this, and I wonder about which role he was playing. Predator or buffoon. Evil or oblivious. He claims that afterwards, he didn’t understand quite what had happened until he went to an event the very next day, an orientation event, at which a woman spoke about her experience being raped on campus. And then, based on whatever she said, he understood the situation, suddenly and entirely. Or maybe that was a useful narrative for him, to come back to our dorm and tell me that he now knew that he had raped me, and he was very sorry, and he would stay out of my hair from now on because he knew that he had done damage and he wanted to not do more. It was useful for him to try to be rid of me in this way, to claim ignorance and then to act as though a stepping aside was for my benefit, when he knew that I knew essentially no one on campus, and didn’t know how or if or when to tell our new hallmates what had happened between us. It was also useful for me, briefly, to get to conceptualize him as repentant instead of as a villain. It is hard to fathom living two doors down from a bad person who has raped you. It is easier to imagine forgiveness, and to imagine that he really had meant me no harm and would continue to mean me no harm, that we could live together and he would be sorrowful and benign.
But that was pure fantasy. The facts of the situation should have precluded me from playing along with it, but the facts of the situation were overwhelming. Had I really been raped by a man who I would then either have to a) report to the police or university, knowing full well that I no longer had any physical evidence and would likely not be believed or b) continue to live on the same skinny hallway as him for the next year without pursuing any sort of action against him? How was I to make that choice at eighteen? Nevermind that women and girls everywhere have to make similar choices about fathers, brothers, teachers, next-door neighbors, uncles, boyfriends, husbands, and often they do choose to report. To me, it seemed impossible, and so I allowed myself to opt out. I allowed myself to think that it had been some sort of monumental misunderstanding, even though I knew the facts. I knew what I had said in the moment, and I knew that I had not consented. I knew that he had pushed me down onto his bed, so roughly that my ankle had scraped against a bedpost, that he had held me down and left bruises, that I had cried and that it had under no circumstances looked like a misunderstanding to him. But I let him tell me that it was. And I parroted it back to him, obediently. Until I could no longer be obedient.
But it doesn’t pay to be an unreliable narrator, to change your story or to change your mind, and by the time I had decided that it was, in fact, rape, and that he had, in fact, known that it was at the time, it was too late. I had muddled it for us. Yes, he had helped, he had spoon-fed me my confusion, but I had participated. And yes, women sometimes resist admitting we were raped, because it can seem as though it says more about us than about our assailants, because it can seem like a stain or a label or a hysteria, but it does nothing to help us. It seems as though people want us to emerge from our rapes proclaiming them as such immediately, or to never try to put that word on them at all. That is not how it works, of course. But that’s what’s expected. Instead, I am left with questions: What does it mean to live so close to your rapist for a year, to see him every day? What does it mean to become so acquainted with recognizing the shape of his body from afar? Who do you become? And more to the point, who did I become?
It might be something close to an answer to say that still I want to frame it as a romance, still I want to tell myself that there was something between us, though now it’s more of a joke than anything else. It still feels funny or interesting or healing or nicely masochistic or powerful to pretend that there was some relationship between us, some magnetism, that to him I was important, to write a story of us using a framework another woman has used to write an actual love story. Why is that? I suppose that in some ways, it lets me talk about him in a way that I haven’t before. I’ve written this story so many times before but left him out, I’ve avoided his name and his personality traits, because in some ways they are irrelevant. But his name (a legal name he doesn’t go by, but a name, and that’s a start) is Ryan, and he is a person, and I knew him. I didn’t know him well. He didn’t know me well. He knew that I sang. When, six months (to the day) after the rape, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and I happened to bump into him in the hall and he asked how I was and I told him, he cried. Once, a year later, we ran into each other at a party and he asked me for my forgiveness and I was drunk and I said I forgave him, and he was genuinely happy. He walked me home from that party, and though I kept expecting things to shift, I kept expecting to look down at my wrist and find his hand there, pulling me along back to a fate I knew so well, nothing happened. He smiled, and he left me sitting on my porch, contemplating the hollowness of his smile, a thing I hadn’t noticed at first.
Maybe he was always a predator and to him I was only prey, but to me, he is a human being. And may I humanize him for you? He has a name and goals and I often find myself regretting his actions for him, wishing that things had been different, that we had been friends or lovers or acquaintances or strangers but not rapist and raped girl. But I imagine he doesn’t regret a thing, other than perhaps my lack of silence. I imagine, actually, that he doesn’t think of me at all.
He dreams in black and white while I dream in color. He is an ocean in a world where I am an island. He takes his coffee with cream and sugar and so do I but we don’t drink coffee together. His spirit animal is a dolphin and mine is a rabbit. We are both Capricorns, or that is a lie. Sometimes I dream him above me in a bed looking down on all the bruises he’s left blooming and all I can think is, this is where I belong.
Cade Leebron is currently pursuing her MFA in nonfiction at The Ohio State University, where she serves as associate nonfiction editor at The Journal. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Brevity, Rattle, Electric Literature, The Boiler, The Manifest-Station, and elsewhere. She can be found online at www.mslifeisbestlife.com or on Twitter @cadeyladey.