BY JOANNA C. VALENTE
Last night, I saw the man who raped me. He was sitting at a bar in Manhattan, looking down at his phone--the artificial light illuminating his face in a way where it was undeniably him. The sickly white light made him look like a ghost. In many ways, I wished he was. He did not see me. I was already leaving as I saw him, zipping up my coat and getting my umbrella ready. It was raining outside. It always seems to be raining whenever he's around.
I rode the train home, packed full with other people. Feeling strangely empty. Feeling everything my body could feel. Wondering what everyone else is holding inside their bodies, what stories they haven't told, what secrets make them ashamed, what their abusers look like. Because we all have or had an abuser at one point. I wish we could all collectively burn them together. And be free. Already, I was feeling guilty for not "feeling more" or for having that hollowed out, ambivalent feeling--even though I knew I wasn't actually indifferent. I was mostly in shock.
Even though I had thought about what it would be like running into him, considering I only live 20 minutes away from him, I never expected to run into him in a Manhattan bar. Yes, I had steadied myself for this kind of encounter, and yes, I was used to him existing in the periphery of my circle of friends, but it also doesn't make the actual shock of the moment that much easier to digest. Yes, it also made sense--we both happen to work and live in the same boroughs, and enjoy getting post-work drinks with friends. Sometimes, it's hard to imagine he's human. Sometimes, I forget that he, too, has a life. And here he was living it.
My first thoughts when I saw him were, understandably, frustration: I do not want to be brave anymore. I don't want to live in a world where this happens so casually. This is not to say I won't continue fighting. Or will "give up." But I also realize that this is not OK. It's not OK for anyone to silence themselves or be silenced or not believed--or simply not thought of. Or for anyone to feel like they need to look over their shoulder for their abusers. I thought of Kesha, and how the music world hasn't really rallied itself around her enough--she has not been protected, even though all survivors deserve to be. I thought of all my friends who've experienced rape, especially those that have never told me. I thought of Anne Sexton's "The Truth the Dead Know."
I thought of how I don't know what any of this means, what to do, how to live better, how it's impossible to forget, what forgiveness means, what forgiving a rapist means. I believe I have forgiven him for what he's done (though, of course, this doesn't mean I condone it or ever want to speak to him). But, I am not letting him have power over me anymore--and I am hoping he has changed and become a better, more self-aware person. Mostly, I am still letting myself forgive myself. Because sometimes, I still need to remind myself I have done nothing wrong.
I am letting myself actually feel anger, and not be afraid of it, and feel angry that we collectively live in a place where rapists go free, where running into them is very real and very scary. In many ways, nothing actually happened when I saw him. That doesn't mean I felt less alone or afraid or just simply sad in the moment, all those memories washing up at my feet like dirty sea water. As much as I may wish I knew how to change the world, change how I feel, change everything, wishing is also not enough.
Joanna C. Valente is a human who lives in Brooklyn, New York. She is the author of Sirs & Madams (Aldrich Press, 2014), The Gods Are Dead (Deadly Chaps Press, 2015), Marys of the Sea (forthcoming 2016, ELJ Publications) & Xenos (forthcoming 2017, Agape Editions). She received her MFA in writing at Sarah Lawrence College. She is also the founder of Yes, Poetry, as well as the chief editor for Luna Luna Magazine, where she curates personal essays, interviews, and writes about sexual assault, abortion, and Tarot. Some of her writing has appeared in Prelude, The Atlas Review, The Feminist Wire, The Huffington Post, Columbia Journal, and elsewhere. She has lead workshops at Brooklyn Poets.