I deliberately sat with my mother behind me and my doctor in front of me. We had rushed to the doctor’s office because I had found a lump in my breast. I was 19. My shirt was off. The doctor ignored my panicked look and asked, “How long have you had your nipples pierced?”
All thoughts of potential cancer subsided. I waited for my mother’s response; there was no awkward silence, no yelling, and virtually no surprise. She hesitated for a moment. “Don’t worry honey, I know you have sex! Remember beach week?” She laughed. I didn’t.
2 years prior, at beach week, my mother was far from laughing about the situation. An officer was speaking to her: “It’s her choice whether she presses charges.” This same officer had just demanded I tell my entire story on record. It was nearing midnight. My stepdad was screaming. My mother was crying. I was detached.
I knew the men who did this to me. All four of them. The first one was my boyfriend in middle school; we had played footsies under the lunch table. The second one was my friend’s first love; she was ecstatic to go drink with him on the beach that day. The third one’s sister was one of my best friends; I had just seen her a few days prior. The fourth one had the locker above me in 8th grade. Right. Above. Me.
On the first day of beach week, I drunkenly dropped my phone. On the boardwalk, the screen peeled off of the device. I thought that was the worst thing that could ever happen at the beach.
On the second day of beach week, we got word that Ally had relapsed. She had passed away from a heroin overdose the night before. Many of us would be driving back for the funeral in a few days.
On the third day of beach week, I met up with some old friends; they were all fairly cute guys. They were much closer with Ally than I had been. We all downed a shot. Sam lifted his plastic cup for a toast: “To Ally. She would want us to be having fun.” What they did to me was not fun.
The officer explained to my parents: “She will be 18 soon. It’s her decision. And, honestly, sir, she only explicitly said ‘no’ to one of them.”
My parents and I were all standing outside the police station in the small beach town that my class of high school graduates decided to invade for the week following graduation. There was still blood on the inside of my favorite swimsuit. I had decided that I would not be pressing charges.
Sam and I stumble across the sand. It’s hard enough walking in the stuff sober, thank God Sam is supporting my weight. He gently sits me down on his bed while he finds me a glass of water. I wonder why we walked right past the couch? He’s always had such a charming smile. “So…” He’s sitting down next to me. “Why don’t we finish what we started?” What we started? We dated when we were 12. For maybe a week. I’m drunk. Please don’t. The charming smile is gone. Soon after, Mike comes back from the beach. He’s so goofy; at least he should cheer me up after what just happened. Did I just see him give Sam a look? Wait, why aren’t we in the living room? Now he’s sitting down. But this guy used to make me laugh every day in class. By the time Ben comes back into the room, I know what to expect. At least I used to think he was the cutest of them. Wow, these guys have been friends forever. Maybe he’ll go easy on me; one of my friends had said that he was secretly a softy. In any other situation, I would probably say yes. By the time Connor came back, I couldn’t take it anymore. I begged him not to. I could barely speak, but I managed to say no. Many times. Maybe he didn’t hear me. I gave up.
I run out of the hotel when it’s over. I had a reputation in our town. My “body count” was higher than my age. It wasn’t a secret; I wasn’t embarrassed. I had my fun at parties, I would find a couch and a cute guy, friends would toss me condoms and laugh. Everyone knew I didn’t attach any meaning to sex. It was something I did to end a night.
I don’t take note of the hotel name or address when I leave. They had reputations in our town too. Ben’s parties were the best. He was always kind, and everyone always had the best time. Mike’s family had already been through so much. Half of his siblings are deaf, and he had this ability to make everyone smile despite their struggles at home. Sam’s mother had just lost her oldest son. He was holding onto a rope, skateboarding behind a friend’s car; he shouldn’t have died.
I sober up as I limp down the street. How long has it been since we were on the beach? The sun is still out. I knew them, they knew me, and everyone knew all of us. If I pressed charges, word would spread. Would people believe me? If they did believe me, would they resent me? What about their families?
I’m in a McDonald’s bathroom. I’m washing my bathing suit bottoms in the bathroom sink. I call my best friend. Tom cries on the phone, but I’m too tired. I had just bought these bathing suit bottoms. They were white, and the blood isn’t coming out. He wants me to get to a hospital to take a rape kit, but I just want to get the lasting scent of McDonald’s soap off of my hands. I scrub until the stain is gone. I still wear the suit the next day.
Tom drives a handful of friends down to visit me. My dad buys us all pizza. We drink cheap vodka, party, tan, and ignore my problems. A friend who I have been trying to hook up with comes along. I try to end the night the way I always have, but he looks at me as if I am broken. “Don’t you think it’s a little too soon?”
It’ll be awhile before anyone who knows will look at me like a strong woman again. Some never will.
A close friend told my mother. I didn’t want her to know. I specifically asked for no one to tell my mother. She drives the three hours to the beach. She calls me nonstop the entire way. I have 57 missed calls. I hide from her; I am suddenly the criminal. She has the police find me and drive me to the station. In the back seat of the police car.
I never talk to that friend again.
A week later, my remaining friends know I won’t be pressing charges. “How will you feel if they do it to someone else?” “Will they change if they know they can get away with it?” “Think of the other girls?” “You probably weren’t even the first, and now you won’t be the last.”
My loved ones don’t understand. It’s human nature to want revenge. My mother can’t look at me, so I am temporarily living with Tom’s family. Tom’s mom is heartbroken for me; she knows that every woman has the right to choose what happens to her body. Tom’s mom also couldn’t help but try to sway my mind, to convince me to press charges. “They’ll do it again to another woman if you don’t.”
I can’t stop thinking about their mothers. My mother can’t process the fact that her daughter has been raped; how will their mothers process that they are rapists? Will they also be kicked out of their houses? Will their families also be permanently broken? Their mothers aren’t at fault, why should they be punished?
It doesn’t even take a month before it starts. “You should really stop talking about what happened if you aren’t going to do anything about it.” “It couldn’t have hurt you that bad… you didn’t even press charges!” “You’re being selfish.” “How could you do this to other women?” “How can you call yourself a feminist?”
It is still as warm outside as it was when I was raped, but everyone is getting so much colder. People’s empathy just doesn’t last. No one thinks I am coping the “right way.” It makes people uncomfortable when I am lighthearted about it; it makes people uncomfortable when I am serious about it.
I begin to realize that there is no way to comfortably talk about what happened, but I have to talk about it. I try to lean into the perception that I’m not affected, but I lean too far and, instead, I fall. I begin telling jokes about what happened. The jokes aren’t funny. I begin laughing all the time. No one else is laughing. My careers in comedy and acting were short-lived. “The way you act like this is so casual makes me uncomfortable.” “Can we talk about something else now?”
Soon, I was silenced.
It’s been a year. I’m in a college English classroom. We aren’t talking about The Iliad. Donald Trump has been elected president. “We never see justice for powerful men.” “Women will be scared to come forward.” “Think about how normalized sexual assault is going to become.” I say nothing.
It’s been four years. I sit back while Tom and some of the same friends who visited me discuss prison reform. “The prison system needs a complete overhaul. Prisoners should be rehabilitated, not punished.” “The current system does nothing to change those who go into it.” “Former prisoners just leave and commit the same crimes again!” “I don’t support our justice system at all.” I say nothing.
Years later, I don’t know why I didn’t press charges. Was it to protest our justice system? To regain control? To look strong? To avoid looking weak? To protect their loved ones? This is the impact that the rape left on me. I do not wonder why they did what they did. I wonder why I did what I did.
Gabrielle Red is a high school English teacher who is attempting to teach her students to better both themselves and the world around them. She has always used writing as a way to do both: unpacking trauma and creating content that she feels will help others feel heard.