BY JOANNA C. VALENTE
My rapist and I live in Brooklyn. We live only about twenty minutes apart, as fate or Murphy’s Law or God or Satan would have it. We share some mutual friends and literary and music inclinations, as many artists do. We have never seen each other while living in the same borough. We have never spoken since that time when everything & my body changed.
One night, I decide to google him. Not because I wanted to talk to him again, not because I hated him, not because I even really cared, but mostly because, I was curious. I had questions: Has he learned anything since? Does he have a girlfriend? Do we have friends in common? In my head, in my belly, in my brain, I knew this was wrong. I knew I would regret it in the morning in the same way all humans regret drinking too much gin, smoking for a year too long, kissing the wrong person, eating too much, not eating enough.
What I discovered was disappointing, but not altogether surprising: we had a few mutual friends in common, two of which are in the literary scene, and we live about twenty minutes apart. Which, in New York City time, twenty minutes means you are next-door neighbors. The thought of being neighbors with the man who assaulted me, and outright denied my allegation when I confronted him, was at best ironic, and at worst, frightening.
Part of me felt impelled to reach out to these women, and say “Hey, that guy you’re hanging around with? Not such a great idea.” I felt I needed to warn them—to warn all women; I felt responsible, suddenly, for the women who date him, as if it would be my fault if he were to abuse them too. Of course, I soon realized his actions are not a reflection of me—in some strange way, I also felt guilty for wanting to “rat him out”; do I want to ruin his life? Would it be justified? He has gone his separate way, and I’ve gone mine. It isn’t that I felt he didn’t deserve public wrath; my inaction has more to do with my own comfort than his.
The largest part of me, however, desires to remain silent. Why ruin a good thing (my life) by calling him out? Perhaps this appears weak, but I rather not open an entire can of worms, when it isn’t like justice could ever have been served to me to begin with, considering how rape cases go in this country. Perhaps my inaction is part of a sense of control: I can choose to keep quiet, or not.
Either way, it’s frightening to find my rapist, doing well, working a high profile job, and living mere doorsteps away from me. All of a sudden, all of the memories came back to me—the guilt, the depression, the vulnerability, the rage. Except this time, I can turn it on and off easier than I used to. I can decide to believe in ghosts, or not.
Sleeping is easier now, although I continue to hope in some sick, twisted way that he wakes up one night in a sweat—a cold one.
The few friends I have told about his whereabouts always ask the same question first: “Are you afraid you’re going to see him? What would you do if you did?” These questions are not only valid, but also intelligent. Not having a plan for a potential encounter would be irresponsible, right?
Women live in a society where we must go beyond protecting ourselves, we must plan for attack—otherwise, we “asked for it.” I am all too aware of the double standard; while I vocalize my disdain, I am living in the midst of it. Let me be straight, right now: I honestly do not believe he would ever specifically seek me out, to repeat the attack. Of course, I do believe he does not understand the devastation he caused, and may have caused other women, before me and after me.
He is the worst kind of rapist, because he is the kind that goes unnoticed—he appears sensitive, intelligent, artistic, heteronormative. He is exactly what America likes: white, straight, and wealthy. I probably wasn’t the first either—his type of woman and domination was too specific. Maybe there wasn’t anything I could do about it at the time, having no bruises; I believe one day, there will be a world where I can. I’m fighting for that now, that gigantic city somewhere in outer space.
I contemplate this potential moment often, in the yellow light of the Brooklyn Library, outside of nature in New York City’s concrete jungle, laboring under some allusion that what I feel will actually matter—what would I do? Probably nothing. I like the idea of looking at him for a moment too long—uncomfortably tense and full of sharp knives coming out of my eyes and ears—then, a swift walk away. Talking to him would mean two things: we would use empty pleasantries out of fear, like bringing flowers to a dinner that you don’t want to attend, or I would become uncontrollably angry, thus vulnerable.
Who would I be without him? Sometimes I can’t help but wonder how his presence in my life has been similar to that of a mother—a dark, bloody foil to a mother: destroying my sense of identity and birthing a new me out of the wreckage, similar to Milton’s Sin eternally giving birth to Death, dogs constantly biting her insides.
Who killed me? & when did I become me?
My inaction, naturally, has unwanted consequences: the impulse to control, the fear of vulnerability, distrust. Since I have never truly received closure, so much becomes internalized. Losing control at the young age of twenty-one means, in some ways, I overcompensate; I manicure my life like a sculpture.
My body, for instance, has become the perfect clay. If it becomes too soft, I can easily start changing my diet, squeezing myself down to the perfect emptiness. It isn’t that skinny feels better, it’s the emptiness, the feelings of desire being the only thing in my belly. It’s that feeling of walking around, wavering between being a woman unnoticed and noticeable. As a woman, our bodies are usually not our own—always being entered & left, and molding it is the one way we are encouraged to own it. So I do.
When I meet strangers, I waver between allowing my body to be open like a book, sharing details like oxygen—other times, I smile, laugh, and nod, uniquely aware of my position as a woman, as a tainted woman who tries to pass off as vanilla. It’s no wonder that I desire to control how I appear intellectually & sexually as a woman, through adding or reducing whatever womanly curves I have, or whatever subversive thoughts or politics I possess.
In some ways, restricting my diet, if I choose, is another way to choose a new self. When I was raped, I felt like my very identity was taken from me—I was no longer a good girl, a happy girl, a desired girl. It is not vanity so much as a need to find another self, an Other that isn’t unwanted; taking a selfie is a way to immortalize the body, a way to create an identity, a way to create multiple persona to fall back on.
It isn’t that I hate my body, or bodies in general. I love the human body so much that I write it about it constantly—my goal is to find one within myself that I love. To find the one that was taken from me. When I interact with others, I view them as extensions of myself, as experiences to soak in, to understand love better, to understand myself better—how the beautiful intrinsically demands the ugly, similar to the idea in Judeo-Christian ideology that Satan is merely God’s foil, a force to challenge, not to create sublime evil.
When something happens to a girl, the world is silent.