I don’t often talk about these incidents because they seem small and unworthy. Because I know too may women to whom worse has happened.
So I keep these stories close to my chest, too close possibly. I was married for 5 years and had known my husband for 10 when I finally told him about the boy I met on my first day of senior year. He was new so I helped him find his way to his home room. I remember feeling so jaunty that day. I remember the outfit I picked out to wear and how pleased I was that this was my last ever first day at high school. And I remember feeling like I was doing this good deed, helping out this nervous kid.
He followed me around for the rest of the year. He wrote me ridiculous notes about how he’d witnessed a drug deal and now gang members were going to kill him and he gave me his soccer medal because I was his only friend and he wanted me to have it. He was intense and frightening. I gave back the note and the soccer medal, I told him to leave me alone. He was still aroud, still on the periphery. Always. Later, my guidance counselor, a man I had previously respected, called me into his office to tell me not to be scared of this kid. I don’t remember exactly how I responded but I remember that I saw a red haze that I didn’t know how to put into words as he spoke to me. I think I might have said, ‘But I am scared.’ It feels like such a weak response.
The summer after my first year away at college he would show up at my house. He gave my mother another note for me, another convoluted story. Something about how he’d fallen off a cliff and had amnesia but someone had told him he’d treated me poorly and he wanted to apologise.
It sounds comical in the retelling, I know that, my friends even made a joke song about him to the tune of The Cat Came Back. But it never felt comical in the moment, certainly not the day he sat on the side of the road across the street of my house for hours. I spent most of that day on the wide step at the curve of our staircase because it felt like the best place in the house to go unseen. It didn’t feel even a little comical at that moment, and it didn’t feel comical over a decade letter when he sent me a message on MySpace. Without realising what I was doing I took myself to the wide step at the curve of my staircase in London, half a world away. As if I still needed to hide from him. None of it is comical, not really, but that’s how I tell the story, because comedy is easier, apparently.
I didn’t have a name for the other not-horrible-not-as-bad-as-what-happened-to-other-people incident until a few years ago. I think I called it That Thing That Happened for a long time. Then I read this about Not Rape and that’s the context I use to describe it now. That time I didn’t get raped by my ‘friend’ from work at a party. That near miss when he thought that because I was passed out it meant he had free reign. The way I didn’t know what was going on at first, the feeling of dread as I slowly figured it out. I still don’t know exactly how I managed to push myself into a wall and pull my jeans back up and I still hate the way I consider myself lucky that in the end he just tried to jack himself off between my thighs and then fell asleep next to me for the rest of the night. There was nothing lucky about any of it. I hate the way I tried to play it off as no big deal at first and I hate the memory of how the realisation hit me on the drive home, sitting in the passenger seat of a friend’s car as my brain slowly put the pieces of the whole thing together.
A few weeks later in the work break room, a girl would ask me if there was any way ‘you could make things cool between you and you-know-who?’ It was making other people uncomfortable, I guess. She was shocked when I flat-out said no. Just no. A word that still, apparently, wasn’t enough.
Two days after I didn’t get raped I cornered him by the vending machines and told him never to come near me again. I still look back with wonder at 20-year-old Carolyn, at how she found her voice where 18-year-old Carolyn only had a haze. It still took 20-year-old Carolyn 3 more days before she slept again. And 37-year-old Carolyn would still rather not talk about other things that were said in the immediate aftermath. I just don’t want to, they still cut too close.
But I will talk about how just under a year later I found out he did rape another coworker. The police didn’t take her seriously and many of our ‘friends’ didn’t take her seriously. She once said he was hot, after all. If I regret anything in my life it’s not the vodka I drank that night but that I didn’t tell more people about what he didn’t do to me. That I didn’t just say fuck the consequences and warn more women, put his picture on telephone poles, write his name on all the bathroom walls. Maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference but I still wish I’d done it because I regret so deeply what I didn’t say and the role it played in what happened to her.
So I’m saying all this now, 17 years down the road, even though they both still feel too small to count. Because I know they are not too small to count and I know I am not too small to count even though I am sometimes still scared and sometimes it all still hurts.