Less Than Butterflies, No. 7
I was in Indianapolis for a conference the same weekend that Mike Pence was attending for the 49ers v. Colts game he left after witnessing the players kneeling during the National Anthem. Of all the things I associate with that weekend, Pence being in town—and subsequently delaying my flight home due to his abrupt departure—stands out the most to me. The second thing that stands out to me about that weekend most is being in a gay bar (I believe it was called Metro) where nearly everyone from the conference had gathered on our last night in town for last drinks before we all parted back to our separate cities—Houston, Coppenhagen, Chicago, Denver, Athens, and so many more.
As I stood at the bar after drinks with new friends—Tamara from D.C. and Micah from St. Petersburg, and hand touched my shoulder. I flinched. It was a natural reaction, as I’m not a person who likes to be touched—odd, given my sex-positive lifestyle, but true nonetheless. Even being in bed with another man I want to sleep with always leaves me with an initial full-body tension and sensitivity to even the slightest touch. So, when I whipped around to see whose hand was on my shoulder, I was confused to see a face I didn’t recognize staring drunkenly at me.
“Can I buy you a drink?”
The man was older than me, maybe in his mid-thirties, and not bad to look at. Still, I held my vodka-cranberry up to his eye-level and said, “Thank you, but I’m okay,” before turning back to Tamara and Micah.
We chatted a bit more, laughing and drinking as we celebrated a mildly successful conference and several nights of good times drinking and eating and dancing. Still, the feeling of eyes piercing the backside of my body never evaded me. I could feel them like a hand under a lightbulb over my neck, the small of my back, my ass. Then, when the hand returned to my body—this time on my waist—I froze. I took in a heavy breath and I could feel my pupils dilate and my eyelids race apart. And for what felt like the longest time, I couldn’t let the breath out of my lungs, nor could I draw in another. Not as the stranger’s hand ran down my backside and over my slacks. Not as he put the other hand back on the shoulder he’d initially targeted. Not as his fingers crawled like a spider’s legs up just over my waistline and down inside my pants.
I was frozen and I was afraid.
It wasn’t until someone snapped, “Hey!” at the stranger that I was able to finally exhale. Maybe it was Micah from St. Petersburg, or Tamara from D.C. or one of the other new friends I’d made that week in Indianapolis. I couldn’t tell. Everything sounded the same, like being underwater and not knowing how to come up for air, vision blurred and eardrum pounds drowning out sound. But the call had been enough to scare the man away. His hand left my body, but still my muscles could not loosen from their tension and the hairs on the back of my neck refused to lie down.
And of all the pieces I remember about Indianapolis—my phone crashing, buying a plush souvenir for my friend, Ezra, the party at an old church called the Sanctuary—the two things I remember most about that entire week are Mike Pence and that moment in the bar called Metro.
Because that’s how you remember sexual assault—in pieces. You’re so struck, so frozen, that the details—the sights, the sounds, the smells—they all turn to grey and bleed together like melted wax until they fall over you, hot and thick, and begin to solidify around you, trapping you in a chrysalis you enter into as a butterfly but leave as a caterpillar.
And if it had been the first time it had happened, maybe I would have been able to fight his hand away. If it had been the first time, maybe I would have run, or screamed at him, or thrown my drink in his face.
But it wasn’t the first time some stranger had touched me without asking, my body nothing more than something with which they could entertain themselves.
It wasn’t the first time, and it certainly wasn’t the worst of it. This singular occurrence may have seemed like nothing to some people, may have been some begotten result of decades of blurred lines and gay bar culture or a misinterpretation of me not being clear enough. But for me, it was a reminder of a much darker moment in my life—one in which no one had been there to shout, “Hey!”. One in which the hand hadn’t pulled back. One in which I’d not frozen, but woken from one nightmare into another.
Dylan and I had been participating in some very spur-of-the-moment Tuesday afternoon sex about a week back. And while we were neither a couple nor dating, sex with Dylan was always an intimate experience. He was gentle and giving, the type that whispered to you and took his time. He even did this thing that I would have laughed at had I seen any other two people doing it in which he traced the tip of his nose around mine, then down around my lips before he would kiss me. He was a hand-holder almost every step of the way, except, of course, where hands were required. He had an ass that begged for faces to fall into it and shoulders so strong you couldn’t help but believe he was so gentle. He was Adonis, a man’s man, a remarkable beauty that was downright intimidating, yet somehow inviting.
But as he pushed my legs apart and glided in between them, the tension it had taken me so long to get rid of around him returned. My shoulders tensed. My back arched like a frightened cat. My fingernails clawed into the back of his hands. And my ass shut down for business.
A flash flew past my eyes. Dylan was gone, and replacing him was nothing but darkness and a blurred light coming from my peripheral.
Something dinged in the background, and that sound was followed by something like a cartoon bird, chirping, “Cuckoo. Cuckoo.”
“Uh-uh,” I cooed as my legs tightened around him.
He stopped, never too persistent.
I could hear him, his breath slowing; and I could almost feel his eyes looking into mine, though mine had gone off into the distance, searching to see where that now-imaginary light was coming from. And when they shifted back up to face him, Dylan was gone. There instead was the pale, sweating face of a memory I’d tried to forget. It was something I hadn’t revisited in a while, something I’d found a way to live without, at least recently.
There, where Dylan should have been—where I knew he was—stared down the face of a man long gone from my life, but one that for so long had stood in the darkest corners of any place I’d ever been.
I was nineteen-years-old, and at the time I was not yet out of the closet.
I knew who I was—what I was—but a long history of homophobia and bigotry that ran rampant in my family would keep me in the closet for another two years.
I was spending time with an old friend, someone I’d known from school, and we had been drinking alcohol he’d bought at the corner store near where we’d grown up that hadn’t carded us since we were seniors in high school. As far as I knew, Joseph wasn’t gay. Still, in all the time we’d known one another, there had been a certain attraction between the two of us that had been nearly undeniable. Joseph was the first boy I’d ever kissed, but that was the extent of how far I was willing to let things go. After all, I may have been gay, but I was neither out nor comfortable enough with my body nor my sexuality to participate in anything more than that.
Joseph had obtained a good job out of high school. Without a degree, he went into oil and gas, and was living alone not far from the house I’d lived in my senior year. I don’t remember a great deal about the way his apartment looked, other than the fact that it was mostly bare with nothing on the wall near the kitchen but an old, wooden cuckoo clock that had gone off a few times since I’d been there without pattern. And I was there because I missed my friend whom I rarely got to see due to the demands of his new job. But at a certain point, I had to stop drinking. I was only nineteen, after all, and I couldn’t get into the car shitfaced to drive the forty minutes back to my own house in the middle of the night. I knew better than that.
Still, as Joseph regaled me with tales of the women he’d most recently slept with—conquests, in his way of telling it—he tried again-and-again to get me to drink more.
And this, my friends, is where the story begins to break into pieces.
I remember yawning, though I’m not sure why that particular yawn sticks out so much in my mind. Maybe it’s the dialogue that it sparked, with Joseph saying something to the effect of, “You can spend the night here, if you’re too tired to drive home.”
I considered it for a moment. The drive was very long; and despite the fact that I didn’t feel drunk, I was feeling very tired.
And then Joseph stood on his knees from the floor where he sat across from me, crawled toward me, and kissed me on the mouth.
It was a nice feeling, about that I cannot lie; yet my body still tensed when he did it.
“I’ll get us one more drink; then when we’re done, we can go to bed. I’m pretty tired, too.”
I think I may have nodded.
I can’t recall how long he was gone, as the clock on the wall clearly wasn’t working, but Joseph seemed to be gone just a moment too long. I stood to my feet, and tiredly trailed into the kitchen to find him. There, I found him standing over two fresh glasses of gas station pinot grigio, texting someone on his phone. He must have heard me, as he looked up and said, “Sorry,” flashing his phone to my face. “I got distracted.”
I think I chuckled and turned to walk back to the living room.
I don’t remember finishing the wine.
I remember seeing the bottom of the glass as I finished the last of it.
I remember because my mouth was so fucking dry.
I remember standing up to find the restroom, because I felt like I was going to vomit, and then tripping over my own feet.
I remember nearly falling asleep as I sat down to pee.
If I’m not mistaken, Joseph might have said, “I’ll be in the bed.”
I do remember fishing around on the wall for the lightswitch, but inevitably leaving the light on as I walked through the door.
The sound that brought me back to consciousness was unmistakable.
I don’t think the pain set in immediately, but when it did, it was like nothing I’d ever felt before. It was like someone was tearing me apart from front to back. And the feeling kept changing. With each thrust came a new wave of it. In or out, I couldn’t tell the difference.
Out of the peripheral of my eyesight, I could see a light glancing through a partially-closed door. But my eyes turned the moment something wet dripped down on my forehead. I wanted to reach my hand to see what it was, but my arms didn’t move when my brain told them to do so. My eyes, however, did. And as I stared up over me, I found Joseph, pale and sweating, veins bulging in his shoulders and forehead.
I became nauseated again, but when my mind told my body to fight him off of me—I was bigger than he, after all—I couldn’t move. I wanted to shove him. I wanted to punch him. I wanted to scream. But all I could do was lie there, waiting until it was over.
Waiting until Joseph finally passed out on top of me.
Waiting for tears which never came.
I was nineteen-years-old; and I was being raped.
“I fell back asleep; then I woke up again the next time I heard that clock; and then I left.”
Dylan looked down at the bed on which we sat.
“I’ve never told anyone that before,” I muttered.
He reached for my hand. He didn’t say anything, which was probably for the best. After all, what does one really say? Instead, he laid back down, and he tugged at my hand inside of his. Then he let me go as I began to lie down on an outstretched arm against the pillow for me to rest in.
I didn’t mind it when he held me, or when he kissed me nurturingly atop my head. I wasn’t crying. I wasn’t shaking the way that I used to when I thought about that night with Joseph. Instead, I just laid there, letting this man do the only thing he knew how to comfort me. And it was working. I felt safe, not pressured, not judged.
I mean, to be honest, I’ve heard other stories from other survivors. I’ve listened and hugged them. And I have kept myself from saying a word about my own experience in the hopes to not minimize what that person has gone through. And maybe that’s wrong. Maybe those others needed to hear that someone else had been through it. But this sort of pain, this sort of torment, it’s incomparable from one experience to the next. While all sexual assault is wrong, you never want to make a victim feel like they are less than they already feel they are by accidentally making their situation about you.
So, you hesitate. And you wait. And you extend to them your love as best you can.
And Dylan didn’t ask me why I’d never told anyone. He didn’t ask me why I hadn’t gone to the police. He didn’t go on about statistics or studies or court cases. He was silent. He listened, and he seemed to be understanding of what had stopped our sex so quickly. And not for a second did I take for granted what a rarity that actually was.
I wasn’t sure if it was the sex that had brought the memory rushing back. After all, I’d bottomed with him before. Maybe it was all the stories I’d been hearing over the last few months about these disgusting men in Hollywood taking advantage of young actresses and actors. Maybe it was just seated so deeply inside of me, like a volcano lying dormant for too long, that it finally erupted at the hand of the slightest irritation.
Regardless of why it came about, the memory had; and I had laid out all my crap on the table for Dylan—a man I was neither coupled with nor dating—to see.
And in the time that had passed since Joseph, I’d had men put their hands down my pants like the one did in Indianapolis, and grab me by the wrist and pull me into an unwanted embrace, and kiss me without asking, and try to bed me after buying me a drink or engaging me in meaningless conversation.
And that’s the problem with these men. They think that the people they want to sleep with—and most of the time, those people are women (whether they be trans or cis)—are objects. They think that they are born with some right to put their filthy, disgusting hands on us and fuck us for the three minutes they can keep from ejaculating while they strip us not just of our clothing, but of our dignity and our self-worth.
And while I will never endure the kind of sexual harassment on a day-to-day basis that women endure, I can sympathize.
Because I am a survivor of rape.
And the life that follows is one stained and tainted by something that can’t be simplified down to an ugly memory, because it’s so much more than that. It’s a piece of your soul that is not lost, but that is stolen from you and hidden away in the hopes that you never find it. It’s a chunk of your life’s timeline that is ripped out and scattered into pieces that you try and try to put back together, but only feel sick over as the bigger picture becomes more clear. It’s a loss of self-worth that is unprompted and unwarranted as you watch some stranger run into the foggy night with something as valuable to you as your arm or your leg, except that it’s your heart and your soul.
And though no survivor is lucky given the circumstances, I am fortunate enough that I have been able to reclaim my sexuality and use it the way that I want to when I consent to do so. That does not make me exempt from the eyes that follow me around the bars. It doesn’t exclude me from the unwarranted dick pictures I get on Grindr. It doesn’t make men any less disgusting and it certainly doesn’t change the way they speak to me for the first time or the intentions they have.
But not everyone has gotten there yet. And that’s okay. And, yes, women, cis and trans, have it harder than gay men do. They walk into it at work. Stand behind it in line at the grocery. Drink across from it at the bar. It’s on television and in the movies. It’s in the lyrics to some of the world’s most popular music. Sexual assault is prevalent and alive. And I am so very fortunate to be alive in a time where so many strong people—again, namely women—are standing up and saying that this sort of behavior is not okay. Because without them, no matter their celebrity status or who their assailant are, I may not have been strong enough to sit down and tell this story.
To you or to Dylan. I easily could have run out of his apartment and never looked back and let him think I was insane or damaged or dramatic. I mean, I am all of those things. But not for this reason.
Because my rape story does not define me. I am not comprised of the pieces of this one particular moment in my life. I am many things, and while a survivor is one of them, it is not the only one.
So, yeah. Me too.
And time’s up.
Because, while this memory, this horrible, awful thing is remembered to me in pieces, whether those pieces be cuckoo clocks or Mike Pence, the time for sexual assault—for me and so may others—really is up.
And to all the filthy, vile, loathsome, evil little men out there who have perpetuated it and taken part in it and who have victimized innumerable innocent people and then tried to turn it against those victims, you should be afraid.
Because we aren’t putting up with it anymore.