BY ALAINA LEARY
It happened on a Saturday.
My assailant took one of my favorite childhood holidays from me. Valentine's Day: foil cards exchanged in class, reading Sweethearts before popping them in my mouth, getting an annual box of chocolates and a cheap locket from my mom.
It should have been my first Valentine's Day with my brand-new girlfriend, the first that I'd ever spend as one half of a couple. But my girlfriend was babysitting, and I had plans with some friends to spend the night in, eating brownie batter and watching movies.
My assailant was a friend; someone close to me, someone I trusted. For the last month that I'd been seeing my girlfriend, though, she'd turned into someone completely new. She was depressed and angry--so angry that it terrified me. I'd ask her how her day was and be greeted by a barrage of insults flying in all directions, mixed with her insistence that she was going to kill herself one of these days.
One day, she asked me to make a bet with her. If she won the bet, I would kiss her on Valentine's Day. I didn't want to make the bet, so she started cutting herself at the lunch table. In the middle of the cafeteria, she was bleeding underneath the table while our friends, completely unaware, ate pizza and fries. I stood up and made her go to the bathroom with me, where she told me that she was cutting herself because I didn't want to be with her. "I take your bet," I said. She was my friend; I loved her as any close friend does. I didn't want to wake up one morning and come to school, only to find out she was dead.
I lost the bet. I barely even remember what the bet was: it was something stupid, based on her jealousy of my new relationship. I had no faith in my relationship, and believed it would last less than three months before dissolving. I was a young, self-conscious teenager and I didn't believe my girlfriend, who had done nothing but care for me, would show me a public display of affection. When she did, I lost the bet.
When Valentine's Day came around, my assailant and another friend came over for a girls' night in. I was wracked with anxiety because I knew what was coming. I was expected to "make good" on my bet, but I didn't want to. I loved my girlfriend and had no desire to cheat on her, and as much as I cared for my friend, I didn't want to be with her romantically. I wasn't romantically or sexually attracted to her.
The night peeled away, layer by layer, but as I sat in the dark watching movies and devouring snacks, I felt nervous: not the good kind of nervous, like a first date. This was a new kind of nervous. My friend went to hold my hand and I pulled away, then relented. I was trying not to give her mixed signals, but she was giving me no choice.
As the night was drawing to a close, she teased me about the kiss. We were in my bedroom and our other friend was in the bathroom. I closed my eyes. She joked about the bet and I nodded, silently. In a flash, she was out in my kitchen, sitting on the floor. I saw blood, as bright red as Valentine's Day. She was scratching at her arms and wrists so hard that they were bleeding. Our friend was sitting beside her, trying to offer supportive words to no avail. When I sat down and tried to talk to her, she shoved me. Her voice was thick with disgust toward me as she told me about how I didn't care, how horrible I was. When I reached for her hands to stop her, she dug her nails into me. She bound my wrists so hard I thought they might snap, and she cut me with her fingernails until I bled.
I don't know how I got her to move from my kitchen back to my bedroom, but I think it was partially with the promise that I'd hold up my end of the bargain. I don't remember much of the actual kiss; I blocked out as much of it as possible. When I search for the memory, it's almost as if it's not completely there, and only a sliver remains. My mind doesn't want me to return to that place, where my lips met someone else's without my consent.
When I told my girlfriend about the incident, and the two incidents of sexual assault to come after--both using physical force and emotional manipulation--I called it "cheating." I was shocked that she stayed with me, but I resolved that we would not celebrate Valentine's Day the next year. As couples around us adorned each other's lockers with large paper hearts and gave each other bouquets of twelve roses, we sat in silence and pretended the holiday was a cop-out created by greeting card companies.
Our relationship didn't dissolve in three months time, nor a year's. We're still together, but it took me until we were four years into our relationship, and already in college, to acknowledge that what happened to me was sexual assault. To explain exactly what happened that Saturday and to accept that it wasn't my fault.
Through the years, as our bond grew stronger and people stopped seeing us as high school sweethearts and started seeing us as adults, we were often asked why we didn't celebrate Valentine's Day. "Oh, it's cheesy," I would say. "We don't need to celebrate our love on a day that means nothing to us. We have our anniversary, the day of our first kiss, and other meaningful dates that we celebrate."
Even after I came to terms with the assault, I still let it rule my opinion on Valentine's Day: it was a day for me to celebrate with friends and family, and that was it. I received packages and candy from family, and hosted singles' parties for my friends, but I didn't go on dates. I didn't swoon at the thought of getting chocolate and flowers.
For the first time, this year, my girlfriend and I are planning to celebrate Valentine's Day. It started innocuously enough: as a social experiment that I plan to write about for an online magazine. "What It's Like to Celebrate a Holiday as a Couple That You've Always Ignored," or something like that. She and I scoffed for years at other couples exchanging presents and humble-bragging about it on social media. This year, we're doing it. We're going all out--presents, chocolate, flowers, and a romantic date. I'm going to document what it's like participating in a tradition that most other couples already adore.
This year, I'm taking back Valentine's Day. It's my holiday. It belongs to me, the small child who believed in wishes and giving candy hearts to the people I had crushes on. Just like my body and my consent, Valentine's Day is my holiday. It's not a date to remember what happened to me. It's a date to make new memories, better memories, memories that I can look back on. My girlfriend knows how much it means, and she's right there with me, letting the magic of the day not erase the past, but build a future for us, together.
Alaina Leary is a Boston-area native and a graduate student in Emerson College's Publishing and Writing Program. She works part-time as an editor and social media manager and hopes to carve out a career as an in-house editor for a feminist-positive publication. Her work has been published in Cosmopolitan, Seventeen, Marie Claire, BUST, Her Campus, AfterEllen and more. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @alainaskeys.