The woman’s forehead peeked out from behind her computer, her eyes occasionally meeting my glare as she typed. Her fingernails against the keyboard ticked away the minutes until she dragged her mouse across the table and turned the computer screen to her right, enough for me to be face to face with her. A blank gaze took up her face like a veil. Her eyes shot down to my arm, which I had tried to wrap up as tightly as I could in layers of bandages. Small specks of blood dotted the bottom of the bandage. I could feel the fabric clamming against the still-wet blood.
“You’re bleeding,” she stated, matter of factly.
“What are you here for?”
“I’m here to report,” I leaned in a few inches and lowered my voice, “a sexual assault.”
“I see,” She turned her computer back, blocking her face from my view, and started typing again, “Please state your full name, age, and address.”
“Caroline Bühler,” I looked around the room, “18 years old,” I tried to find her eyes with mine, “33 Avenue Estienne d’Orves.”
“Right near the law faculty.”
“That’s where I study,” I said, hesitantly.
She nodded, “When did this sexual assault happen?”
“Have you already done a rape kit?”
“I wanted to, but they’ll only allow it if I give a statement to the police first.”
“Which hospital were you admitted to?”
“That’s a long bus ride.”
My mouth was pursed. I nodded slowly.
“I’m going to need information about the alleged offender. Full name, age, address.”
“I don’t know that much about him. I know his first name is Elliott and he told me that he was 23, but I don’t know where he lives.”
The jabbing of keyboards and ruffling of papers a few desks down swivelled in my ears. He lived next to a cafe. His front door was painted green. It was a few feet away from where the tram passed. The one I considered jumping in front of.
“It’s going to be hard to question him if we don’t know anything about him.”
“I have his phone number,” I blurted. I opened my phone and recited the 10 digit combination. The woman nodded and turned her attention back to her computer.
“Alright,” she muttered as she punched the enter key, “Do you have any other information about him; height, appearance, occupation?”
I dug my nails into the hem of my shirt and twisted it sideways until it covered my knuckles, “He’s pretty tall. 6 feet, probably. He has blonde-ish hair, I think. He’s white,” I took a deep breath, my eyes scanning the room around me, “He told me he was an engineer.”
The woman nodded as I talked, her bottom teeth rose out from underneath her lip and bit the top one, “Was the arm a result of what happened?” she pointed at my right arm with her pencil.
“Uhm,” I twisted my shirt tighter until I felt a small tug in the fabric, “No, I did that myself.”
“Alright,” the word got sucked in as she inhaled, “Can you describe the event for me?”
“I met him on an app called Tinder and-”
“Yes, it’s a dating app. We met on there. We chatted for a few days,” deep breath in, “And yesterday, he asked me to get a drink,” deep breath out, “We met up at the Palais de Justice and he took me to a bar. I don’t remember the name,” my hands gripped the shirt tighter until it slightly ripped.
“Did you consume alcohol?”
“Yes. We both had two beers. I left to go to the bathroom at some point. A little while after I had come back, I felt really sick. He told me that he would take care of me,” deep breath in, “I felt dizzy and he walked me to his apartment,” deep breath out.
“Were you drunk?”
“Do you think he drugged you?”
“I think so. When we got to his apartment, I sat down on his couch and he followed me there. We heard footsteps in the hallway and he took me to his room.”
“Did you want to go to his room?”
“I didn’t know what was happening. Everything was spinning,” deep breath in, “He started undressing me-”
“-You didn’t ask him to stop?”
“No, I-,” deep breath out, “I didn’t do anything. I was really scared,” the fabric ripped further under my nails, “He started getting on top of me and he… uh… he put his fingers inside of me.”
“Two, I think.”
“Which fingers? Left hand or right hand?”
“I don’t remember,” my cheeks began to burn, “The index and middle finger. His right hand,” deep breath in, deep breath out, deep breath in, “It hurt. He was kissing me and pushing me down. I couldn’t move.”
“Did you clearly say no?”
“-So where’s the rape?”
“It happens later I guess. He got off of me and asked me to do stuff to him.”
“What kind of stuff? You need to be specific,” the woman was frowning.
“Fellatio,” I blurted out, “I told him I wasn’t comfortable with it and he slapped me. He slapped me three more times until I gave in and did it. Right afterwards, I started crying and he slapped me again,” deep breath in, “and again,” deep breath out, “and again. He stopped and asked me why I was crying. I told him I had been sexually abused in the past. But then he slapped me again.”
“So this isn’t your first rape encounter?”
“No. For the whole night, he performed different sexual acts on me although I always begged him to stop. He bit me and slapped me. At some point, he started strangling me. I started to pass out each time, and then he’d let go. I tried to say something at one point but he hit me harder.”
“You never tried to leave?”
“I was petrified. I didn’t know what to do. I passed out every once in a while, but he would wake me up and do the same things all over again. In the morning, he made me take a shower with him. That’s when I saw what he had done to my body and I started crying. He slapped me again.”
“When did you leave the apartment?”
“After the shower. I asked if I could leave and he didn’t say anything. I put my clothes on and left.”
“What happened afterwards?”
“I went home and,” deep breath in, “tried to commit suicide,” I pushed my right arm up slightly to indicate which one I was talking about, “but I changed my mind and I called an ambulance. They brought me to the hospital, who then told me to come here.”
The officer took a deep breath. The rest of the conversation became a blur to me. She told me that they’d try to find him and get him to come in for questioning. Afterwards, I was led back into the hallway and was asked to wait for a police officer to escort me back to the hospital.
Seven hours later, the officer arrived and walked me to his car. The drive to the hospital was silent. Morbid. He dropped me off at the entrance of the ER and drove off. There were three people waiting inside. One of them was on the phone, choking on his tears as he grabbed his knee in pain. The other two were an elderly couple, peacefully holding each other’s hands. I walked to the front desk and explained my situation to the receptionist. She called a guard, who walked me to the gynecology department and rang the doorbell. The woman who answered was tall and wore pastel pink scrubs.
“Can I help you?”
“I was here earlier today,” I looked at the guard standing behind me and took a step towards the woman, “I asked to do a rape kit.”
“Yes, they told me that you’d come back,” she opened the door fully, revealing another long hallway with colorful paintings of animals and nature on the wall, “Take a seat in the waiting room. We’ll call the medical examiner and she’ll come get you.”
The waiting room was cubic and smelled like detergent. The chairs were soft and comfortable. I sat in the one closest to the door, which was cracked open, revealing a faint sound of a woman grunting and nurses running across the hallway. She was giving birth. It felt excruciating being in the same place as that woman. She would go home with a baby; a newborn life full of love and hope. I would go home with stitches and a bad aftertaste of blood. Another woman in the same pink scrubs softly knocked on the door before entering.
“Hi, Caroline,” she had a smile so comforting it could rock me to sleep, “I’m a nurse here. Before we do the rape kit, I just need to ask you a few questions.”
I nodded. She asked me the same questions as the police officer, but the look in her eyes made me feel like she was on my side. That she believed in my story. In me.
“No one has the right to do this to you. Even if you weren’t able to speak,” she said, as she placed her hand on my shoulder and rubbed it in a circular motion. My fingers slowly let go of the strong grip I had kept over my shirt, revealing the small tear.
“Do you want to call someone before the medical examiner arrives?”
I shook my head no.
“Your parents maybe?”
“What about a friend?”
My sobs became louder, “No.”
She nodded, “We’ll call you in about ten minutes,” she squeezed my shoulder one last time and left.
I sat, alone, in the waiting room, looking at the painting across from me. It was a stork with a white sheet tied up under its beak. It was perched up on a cliff, overlooking the ocean. The image blurred as tears filled up in my eyes. One by one, they dropped from my lashes, onto my cheeks, and rolled down to my lips. I picked up my bag, which was slumped on a chair next to me, and fished for a tissue. When I couldn’t find any, I slowly stood and walked into the restroom across from me.
I sat on the toilet for a while. Crying and sniffling, blowing my nose and going through the same process again. My body ached. The blood on my arm had dried up and frequently got caught with the fabric – pain shooting up my arm as it did. I stood up from the toilet and inspected my body in the mirror: bruises, bite marks, red gashes across my skin. It looked real from the outside, but within, I felt like a hospital corridor: wiped clean with detergent. Identity-less. Another statistic.
I glanced down at the sink, wondering how hard I could smash my skull against it. This was my last chance. I clasped my hands on each side of the sink and stared at the bottom of the drain, ready to jerk my head downwards, when I heard a soft knock on the door followed by what I recognised to be the nurse’s voice informing me that the medical examiner had arrived. Broken out of my daze, I pulled up my jeans and opened the door.
The nurse accompanied me to the room adjacent to where I had been waiting. It was small. There was a desk drilled into the wall and an examination bed in the center of the room. The nurse asked me to sit down in a chair and then left the room. A few seconds later, a woman with a long white lab coat walked into the room, followed by another nurse with blue scrubs.
“Hi, Caroline,” she smiled at me as she sat down at the desk, “I’m Dr Launier, the medical examiner who will be performing the rape kit. Before we begin, do you have any questions?”
My mind was burning with hundreds of aching questions, yet all I could mutter was, “Isn’t a medical examiner supposed to work on dead people?”
Dr Launier chuckled, “We do that, yes. But we also take care of victims of sexual violence.” She pulled out a long sheet with a diagram representing a woman’s body on it. “Let’s start with you telling me your story, and then we’ll proceed to the rape kit.”
I repeated what I had told the police officer and the pink scrubs nurse. My voice sounded robotic; as if I had memorised all of the words and were simply spewing them out once more. When I had finished talking, she nodded and pointed to the examination bed, “I’ll need you to take off your clothes completely and sit on the bed. Let me know when you’re ready.”
I nodded and walked over to the bed. The nurse pulled a curtain that was secured to the ceiling around the bed while I took my clothes off. I sat down on the bed, uncomfortable with my naked body, and informed the doctor that I was done. She pushed the curtain aside; she and the nurse walked closer to the bed.
“First, I’m going to take DNA from your mouth and fingers,” she waved her hand back at the nurse who handed her a tube with a cotton swab in it. When she was done, she gave it back to the nurse, who carefully wrapped it in a plastic bag. She repeated the same procedure three more times.
“Now, I’m going to need you to lie down.”
I did as I was told. My arms grasped at my ribs, covering my breasts as best as I could, as my nails dug into my skin. My legs were pressed together, shaking through the cold hospital air. Dr Launier gently grabbed my ankles and placed them on two metallic holders, spreading my legs apart. I tried to push my knees together, but she calmed me down and pushed them back. “Just pretend this is a gynecology exam,” she muttered. She took my wrists into her hands and placed them alongside my body. I felt exposed. A dead body about to be opened up by a coroner.
The doctor gave a nod to the nurse who handed her a tray filled with the same tubes containing cotton swabs.
“Tell me if it hurts and I’ll stop right away,” she said as she grabbed a speculum and inserted it inside of me. My right leg shot up and nearly kicked her in the face. I whimpered; the nurse placed both hands on my shoulders and pressed me back down, soothing me with her honeysweet tone.
“I’m sorry about that. I’m going to try again, but slower.”
When she did, I didn’t move. My eyes were glued to the ceiling. Deep breath in, deep breath out. She grabbed the first cotton swab. Deep breath in. Then another. Deep breath out. Two more deep breaths later, she removed the speculum.
“We’re almost done,” she said as she placed the cap on the last tube, “I just need to check your body for any physical trauma.” She stood up and took my ankles between her fingers and pressed my legs shut, “Does that feel more comfortable for you?” I nodded through my tears. She took a pen and the sheet with the woman’s diagram, marking off different areas on the paper as she inspected my body. When she was done, she handed the sheet back to the nurse and told me I could put my clothes back on.
“We’re going to do some blood tests,” she said as she sat back down at the desk, “To make sure you don’t have any diseases or an unwanted pregnancy.”
I nodded, slipped on my ripped shirt, and sat down on the chair across from hers. The nurse walked out of the room and came back a few minutes later with a tray containing needles, collection vials, and a rubber band.
“Leftie or rightie?” she asked.
The nurse tightened the rubber band around my right arm, painfully. She balled my hand into a first. I watched as she unpacked the needle and assembled it with the tube holder. She wiped my arm clean and tapped at my skin in search for a vein.
“Your veins are very thin, I’ll try my best to find one,” she muttered as she poked the needle into my skin. From the look on her face, the vein was harder to find than she had expected, and she fished around with the needle. I whimpered and begged her to stop. She removed the needle.
“I’m sorry sweetie,” she looked at me apologetically, “We really need to test your blood. I’ll try again in a minute.”
She tried a few more times to no avail. The needle poked under my skin, moving around in search for a vein that wouldn’t show. Finally, the nurse decided to try with a smaller needle.
Thirty minutes later and no needle could find a vein. The nurse was tired and frustrated. I was wailing in pain.
“I’ll go get you something to eat,” she said.
She came back with a pack of crackers and some jam. I scarfed them down immediately. I hadn’t eaten a single thing in 54 hours. I didn’t realise how long it had been until I took the first bite from the cracker. When I was done eating, it was time to try again.
After a few more tries, the needle caught a vein. I let out a long breath as I watched the blood course through the plastic tube, into the collection vile. A few minutes later, the needle was gone, replaced with a band-aid and another set of crackers and jam.
“Take your time with those,” the nurse said, “We’ll be calling for a police officer to escort you back home.”
A wave of relief took over my body. I believed that this was the end of it; I could go home, sleep, and forget this ever happened.
The police officer came an hour later and escorted me back home. By 5 A.M, I was in my bed with the lights turned on, rubbing my mutilated arm in the comfort of my sheets.
A week later, I called my brother and told him what had happened. A few days after that, I told my parents. Both conversations were awful. Living far away from Nice, there was little any of them could do. I told them that I was fine, that it barely affected my life, but my mind was consumed by the memories of what happened. The days blended together. Walking through the streets was a terrifying hurdle race of avoiding looking at men who reminded me of him. I spent most of my days inside, avoiding the world; I no longer went to class and only left my apartment every three days for a grocery trip. Daily tasks became impossible. I would wake up at 9 A.M and only got out of bed by 1 P.M. Everything took three times as long: cooking, showering, getting dressed – I needed to sit down every 10 minutes out of exhaustion before continuing the most basic task. But my body was slowly recovering; scars and bruises began to fade. The only recollection my skin seemed to keep of this ordeal was the scar on my arm: a large, red gash with bits of skin still unable to be pulled together.
After three weeks, my phone rang. The caller ID was unknown. I picked up.
“Hi, am I speaking to Miss Caroline Bühler?”
“I am Detective Latour. I’ve received your case file and would like to meet with you in person. Could you come in tomorrow at 3 P.M?”
“My office is located at the gendarmerie nationale, do you know how to find it?”
“Perfect, see you then,” she said before hanging up.
The following day, I mounted all of my courage to get out of bed before noon and go meet Detective Latour. The gendarmerie nationale looked like a prison; large walls boarded up the buildings, which were long and gray. I presented myself at the reception. A few minutes later, a guard handed me a visitor’s pass and took me inside to the office of Detective Latour. My knuckles tapped uncertainly at the closed door. Detective Latour answered it.
“Come in, take a seat,” she gestured to the chair across from her desk. She was a petite woman with a black bob haircut. Her office had two desks. A man was sitting at the other desk, typing behind his computer. She sat down and placed a police file in front of me. I reached behind to close the door and she stopped me. “Leave it open, please. Sit down.”
I sat down, my heels propped up against the legs of the chair, my hands clasping my knees.
“This is the statement you gave to the police officer three weeks ago. Do you still agree with this statement?”
I quickly leafed through the file, “Yes, I do.”
“You’re a quick reader,” her tone seemed bored, “You claim that you were raped by a man named Elliott who you have no further information on.”
“I gave his number to the police offic-”
“-Yes we got his information,” she placed a second file on the desk, “We found him. He came in for questioning a week ago. He certainly had a different story than yours.”
I let out a nervous laugh, “Well of course he would.”
“Mrs Bühler, I’d like to go through certain details of your statement.”
I nodded. My hands gripped my knees tighter.
“You claim to have met this man on the night of the alleged assault, yet you went home with him. Were you not aware of the dangers that entail going home with a stranger?”
“I didn’t want to go home with him! I was dizzy and wasn’t feeling well, he brought me there and-”
“You’re telling me that it was impossible for you to ask a stranger for any help?”
“-You mention having spent the night at his apartment, was the first ‘rape’ not enough for you?”
“He was preventing me from leaving-”
“-you told the officer that you ‘did stuff’ to him, I’m assuming that he wasn’t always holding you down. You never thought to simply fight back or leave?”
“I was terrified! He was tall and strong,” deep breath in, “I was afraid that he’d kill me.”
The woman let out a loud, harsh laugh. Her hands slammed down on her desk as she stood up, “Do you know how many women would have fought back? Just yesterday, I had to process the case of a woman who jumped out of a window on the fourth floor to escape her rapist and you tell me that you couldn’t leave when you were on top of him?”
“Please don’t compare me to someone else, I was petrified-”
“-out of a window on the fourth floor, you bitch!” the man yelled as he slammed a case file onto the floor. His voice made me shudder with fear. “She risked her life to get away from her rapist and you – what – you just stayed? There are women who leave these encounters who have to get reconstruction surgery!”
“He was violent,” I protested between the tears.
“Oh, he was violent,” the woman mimicked my tone.
“Please stop,” I pleaded.
“I’ll tell you what,” Detective Latour said, “You’re clearly saying a bunch of bullshit, but you’re going to come back and have a confrontation with this ‘tall and strong man’.”
“You’re not allowed to do that!”
“We are, actually. You will both set your stories straight, and we’ll see who the big fat liar is.”
She took my arm, pushed me up, and threw me in the direction of the door. My legs were shaking, my throat was burning, and all I could say was a weak, “Fuck you.” I bolted out the door and left before I could hear her answer.
Three days later, Detective Latour called me again to set up a date for the confrontation. I agreed to come back five days later. I was terrified. Enraged.
After the first meeting with her, I had taken a bus back home to be with my parents. I cried throughout the whole trip. When I got the date for the confrontation, my mom insisted on driving me back and being there for me when I came out. For some reason, they seemed to express more rage than I did. I felt drained of emotion; as if this had all been a series of bad dreams blending in together. When the day of the confrontation rolled around, my mom and I left early in the morning. The car ride was stressful. The closer we got to Nice, the harder I dug my nails into my palms.
“It will be ok, honey,” my mom glanced at me before setting her eyes back on the road, “you’ll tell your story and send these assholes to hell.”
I nodded, unconvinced that I would be able to stand my ground in there.
She dropped me off in front of the reception, ignoring the cars honking behind us to give me a hug and kiss my cheek. “I love you,” her voice was strong and confident. I gave her a tight smile and walked up to the reception. The officer behind the screen told me to wait a few minutes. I took a few steps back and scanned my surroundings. Two blocks away, about to cross a street, was a man wearing tight jeans, a grey sweater, and a beanie. It was him. I froze for a second, my eyes fixed on his body – the way it moved, the way it had been on top of me. As he stopped at the final red light, I broke out of my daze and turned back to the reception.
“Could you let me in now, please?” I pleaded with him.
“Miss, we have to wait for an officer to escort you in.”
“You don’t understand, the other person for the confrontation is here, I can’t see him!”
The man shrugged and told me to wait. I turned back, my heart ready to pounce out of my chest, as I saw him approaching. He was only a few feet away when another officer showed up and asked me to follow him. I ran inside, looking behind me every step of the way to Detective Latour’s office.
Elliott arrived a few minutes after me. I had chosen the seat closest to the door and avoided Detective Latour’s glance at all costs. Her colleague wasn’t there.
The door opened, revealing him. He was smaller than I remembered. His body was lean and broad shouldered. He had dark blonde hair and brown eyes that burned me down when he looked at me. He walked past me, his legs scraping past my knee – sending me waves of regret for choosing to sit next to the door – and sat down on the chair next to mine. Feeling him so close to me made me feel weak. Small. I didn’t know what to think.
“Everyone’s here, let’s begin,” the detective said. Her voice sounded more bored than usual. “I will read both of your statements.”
She started with his. He stated that it was my idea to go back to his place. That I asked him to hit me. That I begged him to be violent. That he was the one who felt violated.
I managed to look at him: he was comfortable in his chair, his legs spread apart with a grin on his face. The detective read my statement; it felt surreal to hear the events of a rape with the rapist sitting a mere three inches away from me.
“Alright,” she said when she was done reading, “Do you have anything to say to each other?”
Elliott shook his head no.
“Everything he said was a lie! How could you not-”
“-Officer, do I have any reason to doubt you?” she asked him. He shook his head no. I felt as if I had been shot in the chest. Officer. He was an officer.
The rest of the confrontation was a blur. They smiled at each other. Laughed with each other. She told me I should let it go and forget about it. I left the building with him trailing a few feet behind me. I was petrified. He was an officer.
My mom was waiting outside. She stood a few feet behind the reception, looking around. I ran to her, slamming into her body with mine, and howled. My fingers grabbed at her sleeve as she stroked my hair, rocking me back and forth. I felt like a newborn crying in her arms. She was crying too. We held each other, my nails digging into her arm, wishing for this nightmare to end.
“Let’s go home,” she whispered.
Caroline Bühler is a Montréal-based writer. She moved to Canada following a traumatic first year at the University of Nice. “Tell Me If This Hurts” is a first chapter to a longer piece, aiming to depict real-life experiences of violence against women.