*Image: “Untitled” by Michael St.Germain, 4” x 6” Ink on Photo
by Lauren Spinabelli
“How much strength does it take to hurt a little girl? How much strength does it take for the girl to get over it? Which one of them do you think is stronger?”
I watched Charlie fall asleep by the fire at summer camp. It was July. He tucked a piece of cardboard under his head, curled up under his red raincoat and fell asleep in the dirt. I watched the way he twitched in the flicker of the embers, I watched the way he opened and closed his fist, watched the nightmare rip itself out of his body and tear his eyes wide open. He awoke screaming over and over and over again: what the fuck.
He told me that he’s haunted, that his own brain isn’t safe from the thoughts of his ex-girlfriend’s rapist. How he seeped into Charlie’s dream, splatter-painted fear and disgust and confusion there. But mostly anger. This man was her soccer coach. She was twelve years old.
We sat on milk crates, Charlie and I. I stared at the fire and dragged the toe of my Birkenstock through the dirt as he cried on my shoulder. Cried for this girl he loved so fiercely, so aggressively, until she told him to leave her alone. We shivered through our tears; we wrapped ourselves in his red raincoat. Why did he scare her, this girl he loved so much? Loved so much he borrowed her nightmares, he let her darkness bleed into his own. He scared her with his voice, with his clenched fists, with his knife.
His voice calling day after day, telling her story into the static, the static that replied, there’s really not a lot we can do. His fists clenched around the steering wheel, driving to the coach’s house. Waiting. Watching the shadows in the windows.
And the knife. The knife is complicated for me, because I knew it well. I carried it in my back pocket. Two summers ago, he let me steal it. A flirtation, like stealing a baseball cap off of your crush’s head. The pink flirtation flushed blood-red the night we twisted ourselves together on the bottom bunk. I wore a tiny black tank top with little white daisies printed on it. I don’t know why I pulled the knife out of my pocket. It was fun for a little, playing with it as we kissed. Pretending to threaten one another as he bit my ear, my neck, my bottom lip. Then I decided to go back to the party. And when I tried to leave, he said playfully, I think you like to pretend you don’t want it.
But two years later, by the fire, we didn’t talk about the night on the bunk bed. But we did talk about the knife, the one he gripped the night he broke into the soccer coach’s house. As he walked down the hall, past the portraits of smiling girls in ponytails and cleats. They had crooked teeth and sunburned foreheads. Charlie gritted his teeth when he told me: the soccer coach wasn’t home.
We cried until four a.m., rocking back in forth in each other’s arms, cocooned in the red raincoat. He told me that his therapist asks him every week if he is a threat to himself or anyone around him. Every week he lied to her. We sat on the milk crates until the tears dried off our cheeks, and the fire was gray ash.
We snuck plums from the camp kitchen. We ate them in silence. We hugged good night and went to bed without brushing our teeth.
But the night Brenna told me she’d been raped, I didn’t feel angry. I didn’t reach for a knife. I thought about the morning after it had happened, when I’d teased her for the marks on her neck. I sat on her lap at a tailgate party, cradling a pumpkin beer against my belly. I noticed the dabs of color on her skin—purple, blue, black, yellow. Plums planted in a neat ring around her throat. They looked like something I knew—the hickeys I’d lodged under boys’ collars, the sickly yellow smudges a guy named Alex left on my December-pale chest, the love bites, and my ex-boyfriend’s mother scowling at me. Getting drunk and lacing them all through Sean’s stubble. They didn’t look any different under Brenna’s thin blue scarf. They looked as innocent as riding the school bus in the sixth grade, when we’d learned that if we sucked the skin of our fists they bloomed blood under the surface.
It was months before I found out. She called him October, because that’s when it happened. I laughed when she told me. We were lying on my dusty wood apartment floor; it was almost Valentine’s Day. It cropped up during a lazy questions game. Who was your first kiss? Who did you go to prom with? Who did you lose your virginity to? She told me, and I felt my muscles tense. I was at a loss. My mouth—which had fired these questions, had giggled with girlish delight at the answers—suddenly couldn’t form a single syllable. Couldn’t fathom a worthy response to the secret she had just spilled onto the dusty floor. And she had spilled it so casually, so quietly. We shared a piece of silence—just a second— then laughter ballooned from my throat before I could stop it. It swelled with my discomfort, my helplessness. We both laughed a sick, nervous laugh. I wanted to peel our giggles out of the air and swallow them back down.
One summer when I was twelve, I read a magazine article that used the phrase ”child abuse,” two words I had never seen fit one after the other like that. I knew them separately, but together they seemed to imply something more—this was before I knew the phrase ”the sum of its parts.” I shuffled out onto our unstained porch, walking on my toes so I wouldn’t get splinters. My dad was watering our fig tree when I showed him the magazine and asked him what child abuse was.
“It’s, ah… it’s when parents… touch their kids where they shouldn’t touch them.”
“Oh. Uh, cool.”
“No, it isn’t.”
It wasn’t cool, and it wasn’t funny, but sometimes I don’t know what to do with my mouth, so I twist it around the wrong things. Into the wrong shapes. Like nervous laughter when my best friend told me she lost her virginity to October. Lost it, but didn’t give it.
October is thirty-one days, but for Brenna it’s just one night. To her it’s October 24th. To her it’s my apartment, my party, a slew of drunk, sweaty college kids. The heat hit her as soon as she stepped in from the autumn night. My living room hung thick with sweat, a sticky mass of people in various stages of inebriation and undress. Fifths of vodka and rum were passed between pairs, everyone’s boozy hot breath forming a cloud of stench. He was someone’s friend from another school. I remember thinking he was kind of scruffy-cute. He pushed her up against my refrigerator, just tongue and teeth and lips. I don’t know where I was, probably hunkered down in my bedroom, avoiding the humidity and the noise and those who generated it.
From the fridge to my side porch, from my side porch to my backyard and up against my garage. I don’t know when the bruises blossomed; I don’t have an accurate timeline. I’m piecing it together like I strung together child and abuse, like I learned the term hickey from sucking on my own fist instead of a boy’s neck. Something is always missing. Somehow they ended up on a dorm room floor—she said no but he didn’t listen.
“I hate looking at these boots,” she told me once in an elevator. They were worn, black lace-ups. Gray from sidewalk salt. She was wearing them that night in October.
“I actually managed to keep one of them on, though.”
I asked her what she meant, even though I already knew.
And I saw it, I saw her black tights and her faded boots, how the empty socket of half the pair of tights dangled from the other leg, how one was bare and one was not.
And she was proud of this, this tiny victory, this one boot, this one nylon-wrapped leg.
“He was so annoyed that I wouldn’t let him take off my other boot.”
I watched the elevator lights tick off each floor we descended, and thought, is this the only victory we have? One salt-gray boot and half a pair of nylon tights?
It was late summer and I was drunk at a party with my friends. We spent the day at the amusement park. We took swigs of white rum in the parking lot, and lifted our t-shirts and flashed the camera as it snapped photos of us on the roller coasters. The park closed and we relocated our drinking to this scummy under-furnished apartment. I walked into the kitchen to find one of my friends gasping in pain, his back turned to me. I shuffled closer, hand clutching a plastic cup that comes with the kids’ meals at the Olive Garden. It had creepy little cartoon vegetables smiling under my chipped nails. His oven was a comical shade of Pepto-Bismol pink. I watched him press the tine of a fork into the skin of his hand, leaving a cinnamon-hot burn mark. He reheated the fork by holding it inside the electric heat of the oven.
“What are you doing?”
He showed me—he branded himself with some strange symbol, he told me it’s some sort of ancient sign for nature or water or the circle of life.
“That looks like a fucking swastika,” I said.
“I know— I’m just trying to fix it a little bit, I fucked it up.”
He pushed the hot metal into his skin. I looked at his face, twisted in pain, his teeth gritted. I stared, fascinated, at the pale pink of his flesh, the future scar.
“Can I try?”
I plucked a fork from his kitchen drawer; I held it next to his inside the oven, like we were cooking marshmallows over a fire.
“What symbol are you going to make?”
I didn’t answer. I pressed the searing hot fork against the skin of my arm. I could smell my skin burning, I watched as the little blonde hairs on my arm blackened and withered. I pressed harder, determined to feel the same pain he felt. To harbor pain that isn’t really mine.
This is how I find my empathy. I cobble together my painful experiences and try to pair them with the pain of those around me, like a memory-match game. Or a puzzle. But the pieces are cheap imitations, and they never quite fit together.
Brenna started to let herself like someone, to crack open that part of herself again, something she had silently sealed off. His name was Mark. She smiled when she talked about him, showing the tiny gap between her two front teeth. But October wouldn’t go quietly. Her body was gripped with panic when Mark leaned in to kiss her; her heart turned into a jackhammer, her heart, a quivering hornet’s nest. Her brain connects the touch of his lips to October, runs a direct electric current to her most terrifying memory. Romance isn’t on the menu, it melts into something grotesque right before her eyes. His smile is jack-o-lantern sinister; his kindness, a crooked mask. If love makes you see through rose-colored glasses, what does rape make you see?
The first time I had a panic attack, I was alone with Greg in his basement. He was a friend from high school—someone to stumble back to when I was home and bored on break, counting down the days until I could return to campus. It was Thanksgiving break, and we snuck onto his back patio and took turns taking hits from a gravity bong he made out of an orange juice carton. The November air stung my nose and my bare feet; our mouths were miniature cloud factories, churning out tiny puffs of hot air that glowed under his patio lights. It was calm and quiet and beautiful until we retreated to the warmth of his basement, and I collapsed on his couch. I was staring at my phone when the letters started to float and drift across the screen like unmanned lifeboats. Everything seemed too loud and too bright, but contorted like I was seeing the reflection of his basement through fun house mirrors. My body started to tingle, and I strongly suspected I was on the edge of my own death, that I would die in this basement with this dude who smoked too much pot in his parents’ basement. And what would death be like? What strange blackness would envelop me, like the dark static of a television, like that scene in The Ring? Or when you close your eyes and you watch the galaxy swirls of purple and yellow and blue dissolve into and between one another? I slid off the couch and onto the floor with its ugly carpet—like a painter tried to pepper every muted brown, green, and pink onto a single canvas. My mouth was a desert, my body convulsed and shook and I kept telling Greg over and over that I was dying; I was going to die right here on his basement floor while Hey Arnold glared down at me from his throne inside the square television set.
I thought we smoked something laced with something, that maybe Greg did it on purpose—had I watched him pack the bowl? Had I paid any attention at all? What was he going to do to me? I accused him, my voice shaking. He pulled up the symptoms for a panic attack on his phone, tried to prove that that was all that was happening to me—that I wasn’t tripping or rolling, I was just panicking. I didn’t believe him. I wanted to escape, but my trembling fingers could barely grip my cracked iPhone, much less the steering wheel of my silver Ford Explorer, which was parked out front.
I crawled back up onto his couch and curled into the fetal position, that singular thought still pulsating through my brain: I’m going to die. I’m going to die. I’m going to die. It took me three hours to shake it off completely, three hours to calm the black waves crashing over me, the dark thoughts rolling through me. Three hours while Greg held my shivering body in his pale, skinny arms and murmured, it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay.
And this is what happens when Mark tries to kiss her—when she wants to kiss him back. But there are no drugs, no juice-carton bongs—just the same electrocuting panic.
There have been rare moments in my life—so rare I can count them on one hand—where I’ve felt genuine fear and mistrust while alone with a guy. It’s never a guy I’ve just met, always someone I’ve known for years, always someone who has never given me a single reason to mistrust him. And isn’t that the scariest part of all? That these guys, these boys—these Charlies and Marks and Gregs and Octobers—whether you’ve known them for a single night or your whole life, they have the power and potential to hurt you.
I’ve worked at camp for five years. The weekends have a certain rhythm, a routine. Every weekend, each age group has an outdoor campout. The campers change into their pajamas, roll up their sleeping bags, and trek out to some far corner of the camp. There, we cook their dinner over a fire—pizza mountain pies. Two slices of white bread, tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, pepperoni, all smashed inside a pie-iron and cooked over the glittering embers. Dessert is obviously s’mores. We play games, we tell stories, we sing songs—we generally just try to wear them out so that they won’t be restless as they climb into their sleeping bags. They giggle and whisper and fall asleep under the stars.
The counselors stay up, poking at the dying fire, gossiping and griping about whatever there is to gossip and gripe about that week. Everyone wears Birkenstocks and flannels, everyone smells like sweat and campfire. Everyone is usually starving, because we eat last and the campers use up all the shredded mozzarella. One of us sneaks off to his car to drive out to Sheetz or to J & T’s, the local ice cream place, and returns with arms full of fried food or peanut-butter milkshakes, and it feels like Christmas.
Our summer Christmas was cut short and the rhythm changed one night when a tiny camper with a squeaky voice and straw-colored hair crawled out of her sleeping bag, whimpering. It was almost three in the morning. She’d had an accident. She was from my cabin, so it was up to me to run her back to the camp village to change. I needed a third—camp rules required that counselors and campers are never alone together, that there is always a third person present. One of the head counselors offered to be my third, and to drive us; head counselors were the only ones allowed to drive camp vehicles. We piled into the golf cart, I sat next to him holding up a flashlight to cut through the darkness as we putted along the gravel path through the woods, past the pool, crossing the huge hill between the creek and the dining hall, and finally swerving into the seven- to nine-year-old village. My camper was eight, I was nineteen, the head counselor twenty-three. The village comprised six wooden cabins and a bathhouse, all ringed around a fire pit. That night the village was quiet; there wasn’t a single person on that side of camp except me, the tiny bed wetter, and the head counselor. We took the bed-wetter into the cabin to grab a change of clothes, we handed her a plastic bag for her soiled pajamas. She skittered off to the bathhouse to change, half-asleep and embarrassed. Then I was alone in the cabin with my head counselor.
He was sort of cute in an awkward way. He had this twitch he gets when he’s anxious, he was taller than me but not by much. His nose was always sunburned. I was wearing a pair of ratty sweatpants from my high school theatre troupe, standing by my bed under the Christmas lights I’d strung from the rafters. He was across the room, standing in front of the closed cabin door. He started making fun of one of my cabin decorations—a quote I water-colored onto a piece of printer paper: “I believe in camp. I believe in shorts, T-shirts, and sandals. I believe in singing at the table…” He read it in a mocking voice, trailed off and began to step toward me. I was suddenly acutely and—in hindsight—irrationally terrified. I became aware that our voices were the only human noise for miles, the only sound in the village aside from the cicadas, the crickets, and the frogs. I thought about how I might escape if he tried something. I grew aware of our difference in size, aware of my stupid 5’2’’ height I was once so proud of, because it meant I was ‘cute.’ He wasn’t giving me a single reason to be afraid of him, but I was. I felt trapped in this wooden room, scattered with the summer belongings of seven-year-old girls.
He reached me; he was standing in front of me, in front of my bed. He was smiling—and even though I knew it was a tired, three-in-the-morning, the-things-I-do-for-these-campers smile—I read it as sinister, a villain about to reveal his evil plot. I held my breath as he spoke to me, making sleepy jokes and trying to fill the silence. I didn’t breathe until the tiny camper knocked quietly on the cabin door, my seven-year-old bed-wetting savior.
I’ve had moments like this, brief flashes of irrational terror—maybe not even terror, but awareness of vulnerability. Awareness of the differences between my size and a man’s, between my bony arms and his veiny ones. And I think what it boils down to isn’t size or strength, but intent. I’m not a mind reader, I can’t know what a guy is thinking when I’m alone with him—if he’s calculating the timing of his next joke or of something violent. If he’s reaching for his cell phone or a knife.
And this is coming from me, a girl who has never been the victim of domestic or sexual violence, never had a firsthand experience, a substantive basis for my fears. I once lied to my parents about where I was going, drove into the city to my friend’s place. We were alone in his apartment. When he handed me a drink, I sipped it timidly. I thought about how no one in the world knew where I was except for him. I wondered what my parents would do if I didn’t come home that night, if they called my cell phone and all they got was my voicemail. I wondered how long it would take them to find me.
But Brenna refuses to be a victim. She won’t let October reduce her to an endless parade of fear and panic and triggers. I don’t want to paint her as weak, or powerless. She’s none of those things, not even a little. She’s so stubborn it infuriates me sometimes. She’s got this singing voice that will hit you like a thunderclap. She believes that everyone deserves an amazing birthday. She’s younger than me, but sometimes she nags like a mom. And she inspires something inside of those who surround her. In our small cluster of female friends, she ignites a sense of loyalty and sisterhood; she protects us and we protect her.
It’s almost the end of spring semester, and Brenna hasn’t been able to drink since October. She tries tonight, pulling a bottle of champagne to her lips, a birthday present that had lurked in the back of her dorm fridge, untouched, for months. The party is at my house again, the same slew of half-naked, sweaty college kids. The crowd overflows out onto my two side porches, hands jamming keys into the sides of beer cans, cracking them open and gulping them down as beer splatters onto the concrete porch floor. Recycling bins glisten with dead soldiers; our kitchen floor is coated in a thin layer of sticky. Our couches have been through some shit since October, the suede sags with stains. I stumble from our porch to the kitchen to the living room, determined to get to my bedroom, to avoid the mess, the spills, the tight knots of people chanting, “Make out!” I wiggle my way between bodies, everyone smells, everyone is sweating, despite the open windows, the side doors constantly swinging open and shut. I haven’t seen her in probably an hour, but she seemed fine when I did—her lips bubbling with champagne giggles.
I reach my bedroom, close the door behind me. The only light pulses from the string of white Christmas lights and a cranberry-scented candle. I sit on my bed, knees pressed against my chest, bottle of cider clutched in one hand. The sounds outside my room are muted; I can hear the distant laughter from jokes no one will remember in the morning. My door opens, someone just looking for a place to put her purse, her keys, her jacket. I direct her to one of the dusty corners of my bedroom. The door closes again. I sip my cider. Someone else enters, someone looking for a place to sit down, a place that doesn’t reek of noise and beer. He sits on my bed; we talk.
My bedroom door swings open again, there is urgency to the twist of the knob, the voice of one of my friends telling me Brenna’s out on the porch and she needs me.
I follow her out of my room and into the dark hall; we twist past the line of girls waiting for the bathroom, the couples making out on my couch. She takes me outside to the porch. There is a small crew of girls clustered in the corner.
Brenna is crying and shaking. Her fists are gripped around the white porch railing. She’s leaning over it with her curls spilling down towards the dark grass below. She unwinds one of her hands from the railing, points a finger towards the garage back behind my house. The last place she was spotted that night in October, before she disappeared with him. She’s shouting, I was right there. I was right fucking there. It was right there. I don’t want her to stay here, body slumped against the rusted railing. I want to bring her to the safety of my room, to the soft white Christmas lights and the quiet. I hug her. I try to guide her towards my door and back into my house. Please, no. I don’t want anyone to see me crying.
“They’re too drunk, no one will notice.”
One of the freshmen girls, Allison, volunteers to be a distraction. I get the faint impression she plans on running through the crowd topless. I’m reminded of something I read somewhere—that something that might feel degrading for one woman can feel empowering for another. Allison pulls open the door and moments later I hear a loud chorus of whoops and hollers.
I take Brenna’s hand and lead her through the door; the rest of the girls from the porch surround us protectively. We weave through the crowd; I don’t let go of her hand until we are in the soft light of my room. She sits on the edge of my bed, her legs curled under her. The rest of the girls perch around her. She’s drunk; she’s still crying. Her champagne smile has changed to chattering teeth.
Everyone is hugging her, patting her on the back, whispering reassuring words. Allison thunders into the room in a fury. She’s wearing just skinny jeans and a purple bra and socks. She has a few tattoos on her arms. She’s screaming with drunken rage: You were raped, a bad person did a terrible thing to you, and you need to face it you need to accept it you were raped.
Everyone is telling her to calm down and shut up, but something about her anger is contagious, it sparks something in me. I think about the horrible laughter that erupted from me that day on my dusty apartment floor. I think about the elevator and the tiny victory. I think about him—October—this elusive, shadowy figure. This bruise-giving, pain-emitting, panic-striking entity. I glace at Brenna, my powerful friend reduced to shaking tears. I grit my teeth. I’m not laughing this time.
I spring off of my bed and back into the heat of the party. I know who to look for. I ask who has seen him last. He’s out in my front yard—he’s my friend, he’s like a brother to me. I’m practically snarling when I ask,
“Who was that friend who visited you in October? The one who went home with Brenna?”
“Is everything okay? What’s wrong?”
“Who is he? What was his name?”
He doesn’t know; that guy wasn’t even his friend. He tells me he’ll find out, I walk away as he takes out his phone, the bluish light illuminating the concern on his face. I return to my room, to the girls gathered around her in a solemn heap. We glare at anyone who walks in uninvited. People gather up their jackets and keys, leave without looking at us.
There is a knock on the door, I open it a crack. He slides his phone towards me, the Facebook app open. His eyes are wide and puzzled.
“This is him; this is the guy. He was here in October.”
I memorize the name, the Facebook profile photo of Jimi Hendrix.
Later, I will scroll through his own photos—a black-and-white prom picture with his hands on a smiling girl’s waist, a group shot of him posing with his friends in front of a waterfall, a gentle grin with his arm slung around his grandmother’s shoulder. I’ll flip through them, jaw set, fingers trembling. Memorizing the name, the face, the guy who has caused so much pain—wondering if he thinks about it, if it holds any weight in his mind at all. Or if it’s just another drunken night, a blurry dab of color in his memory.
But now, I close the door. I sit back down on the bed, join the tight circle of girls hugging and crying and whispering, It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay. You’re safe now, you’re safe here.
We stay like this for a while, the noise of the party fading into the background like a distant memory. No one reaches for a knife. We don’t have knives. We have our salt-gray boots and our nylon tights and each other.