NOTE: This post includes a fictional story of assault. I wrote it with the goal of celebrating everyone who’s overcome such trauma, but if you don’t want to read that today (or ever) please stop here. My prayers are with you.
“The blue one? Or the black?” She held both up for Jessica’s opinion.
“Are you sure?”
“Oh definitely,” Jessica answered. “Todd will notice you for sure.”
That was all she needed to hear. Twenty minutes later, she’s leading Jessica downstairs and waves a quick goodbye to her parents. Her father looks away from the TV just long enough to also see the black skirt.
“Hold on!” He bellows, stopping both high school juniors in their tracks.
“You’re not wearing that,” he states defiantly. “Boys your age are…”
“It’s fine dad,” she says with the know it all confidence of a 16-year-old. “These are all friends. Greg and Sam will be there,” she says reassuringly.
So will Todd, she didn’t add.
Her father considered this new information. Greg’s family are trusted friends and they’ve often gone to the lake together, and Sam works down at the hardware store on weekends and seems like an upstanding young man.
“Okay.” He relents. “But be back before midnight.”
* * *
It’s 11:45pm and the night’s been a bust. Todd got back together with Kelly, and she feels so stupid to think she ever had a chance. Cheerleaders get the jocks, and girls like me don’t. She almost made out with her lab partner Jason, but that’d be so weird.
Glancing again at her watch, she finds Jessica…who is making out with Jason. Okay then.
“Hey, we need to get going.” Her best friend separates her face from her lab partner’s.
“I’m good here. Can’t you get home another way?”
She starts to protest but Jessica makes the final point. “Besides, I probably shouldn’t drive yet.” She starts kissing Jason again.
Sam comes up behind her. “I can take you home.”
She smiles in relief and hugs him. “Thank you.”
* * *
12 minutes later and Sam’s car is two blocks from her house. She’s talked his ear off the whole way, and he laughs along and comfortingly pats her leg a few times. But this last time his hand doesn’t move. As they approach a stop sign, he pulls the car up short, out of the street lamp’s light, and squeezes her leg a little too much.
“Todd’s such an idiot.” His hand reaches up and strokes her hair. His other hand replaces it on her leg and starts pushing up her skirt.
“Sam,” she leans away from him, not really worried. He’s always seemed nice…can’t blame a guy for trying.
“Okay, sorry.” He pulls away and puts the car in park. “The way you were talking, I thought you wanted to end tonight like this in someone’s car.”
I wanted to end the night in Todd’s car, she thought, not just anyone’s. “I’m sorry too,” she said. “I didn’t mean to give…”
“It’s okay,” he says reassuringly. “Friends?” He leans in for a hug, unbuckling his seat belt in the process.
She’s feeling a little anxious and wants to get home, but smiles and accepts the hug.
Sam hugs her lightly, and after a moment she releases. But instead of also letting go, he tightens his grip. “Okay, Sam.” She tries to pat his shoulder reassuringly.
He shifts his weight onto her more. “Sam,” she asks, trying to hide the rising panic in her voice, “Please”.
Sam kisses her on the neck. Without her realizing, he reaches to the side and grabs the seat handle so her seat falls back.
He climbs on top of her, kissing her neck harder and reaching his hand under her shirt. He tries to push her skirt up with his knee, the roughness of his jeans burning against her leg. “No!” She whispers it, too overcome with shock to use her full voice.
She pushes against Sam’s chest, trying to keep him off her, but he’s too strong. He grabs her left wrist with his right, pushing her into the seat and for the first time, she wonders if Sam could really hurt her. Or even kill her?
Sam pulls her shirt down enough that half her bra is visible. While wiggling around underneath him, trying desperately to put some empty space between their bodies, she unwittingly knees him in the groin. Sam doubles back and yells in pain. She uses this moment to unlock the door and push herself upright.
Sam goes for her arms to pin her back down, but she knees him again, this time with real force. She more or less falls out of the car, and lands on the pavement hard on her wrists. She crawls onto the sidewalk, realizing her right heel is broken from the fall.
Sam starts to come after her, but when a car whizzes past them on the cross street, he pauses and looks around. Seeing the rest of the area empty, he yells “Slut!” at her, closes the door and drives away. She stands there alone, tears streaming down her face.
* * *
At 12:19am she walks in her front door. She would’ve made it back sooner, but in her disorientation she walked a block in the wrong direction before turning around. Her father is sitting at the kitchen table waiting for her.
“You’re late.” He looks her up and down, noticing the broken heel in her hand, tear in her shirt and dirt on her legs. “Were you rolling around in the dirt with some boy?”
Her tears turn into a full-blown cry, and she has to lean against a chair to stand. She tries to tell him about the drive home, but can barely speak.
Her father thinks he needs to maintain discipline. “I told you not to dress like that. It gives boys the wrong impression.”
“I didn’t mean to…”
Trying to soften his tone, he adds, “I know. Let this be a lesson for you. Boys will be boys. If you dress and act a certain way, they’ll think it’s an invitation.”
“Now go to sleep. Tomorrow your mom and I will decide how long you’re grounded for coming home late.”
She heads upstairs and sobs into her pillow.
The next day her mother comes in, announces she’s grounded for two weeks and has a long talk about not being smart and presenting herself better. Twice she tried to explain, but her mom cut her off each time before she could even say Sam’s name.
This isn’t about boys, her mom explained. It’s about you carrying yourself so they don’t get the wrong idea. Now you had your fun and made out with someone. Don’t let it happen again.
* * *
She never forgot those few minutes with Sam. That feeling of powerlessness, of fearing what would happen both if she stayed or if she left. She remembered the shame of her father’s judgmental glare, and her mother’s stern warnings about how to act better. She also remembers the look in Greg’s eyes two days later when he suspected something happened, and she denied it because Sam was so much bigger than him and she didn’t want him to get hurt.
She also wondered if her father ever figured out why she never went into the hardware store again. Or why she came home right after their prom and graduation, instead of going out with her classmates to celebrate. He never asked.
Just after college, she watched the Anita Hill hearings and decided to tell her fiancée Thomas about what happened, because he deserved to know she was ‘damaged goods’. He didn’t know what to say, and walked on eggshells around her for awhile, but promised he’ll always be there for her.
She built a career in a male-dominated field, grudgingly earning the respect of her colleagues along the way. She and Thomas began a family.
When their marriage hit a rough patch, she went to a therapist on her own. She soon realized the concerns were largely due to their daughter Casey starting to date. Of course she didn’t want Casey to have the same experience she did, but even more so she worried Thomas wouldn’t believe her.
When she brought Thomas to therapy with her, Dr. Morgan did most of the talking. Thomas tried to listen and asked good questions, but it took three sessions for him to really understand how she felt. He struggled with how to support her.
But his commitment to his daughter was never in question, and he didn’t want Casey to ever feel that way. The next night they both sat Casey down and made her promise to share anything with them. They promised to always listen, and always be there for her.
A couple years later, Thomas also sat down privately with their son Andrew and made sure he understood the meaning of the word “No”. 14-year-old Andrew brushed off the idea, wondering why anyone would do that.
Barely a year later he came home from a party and strangely went straight to his room. A few hours later, he woke up his father in tears to tell him he understood now, and thanked Thomas for having that discussion. He had gotten between two people at the party, and probably kept a really nice girl from a bad situation. He also knew which guys to keep an eye on in the future.
While in college Casey called them at 7am to let them know she was fine, but thinks she was drugged at a party the night before. Fortunately Casey had lots of good friends there, and Marci and Eric got her home safe and kept her hydrated. Eric reported the fraternity to campus police, but nothing ever came of it.
* * *
When Dr. Blasey testified, she took the day off work to watch. It ended up being a waste of a vacation day, because the entire office watched on their laptops too.
She teared up twice during Dr. Blasey’s testimony. So did Thomas, who stayed home to watch with her. In Dr. Blasey, she saw a brave woman standing up for her civic duty and felt a sense of pride on behalf of women everywhere. Watching the network pundits afterwards, she wondered if things were truly getting better?
Brett Kavanaugh’s opening statement filled her with a sense of dread, and Lindsey Graham’s outburst broke her heart. From that moment, she continued to hope but figured (correctly) what was coming.
She thought back on her own experience. Really, she relived it every day for two weeks straight. Would her testimony stand up?
She knew it was March of her junior year, but didn’t know the exact date and wasn’t even positive if it was a Friday or Saturday night. She knew what area the party was in, but not sure who hosted it or the exact address. There’s no way Jessica would remember the significance of that night, because she never told her. Greg might, but she did tell him nothing happened. Plus they haven’t talked since the 10 year reunion (she skipped the 20 year). And even if he did, one other witness wouldn’t be enough to convince anyone.
Watching the President of the United States belittle Dr. Blasey, and watching the crowd laugh at memory gaps very similar to her own, was disheartening. In the face of those men behind Donald Trump, she saw her own father’s judgement, blaming her short skirt and bad choices and never really asking what happened or if she was okay.
In the faces of the women, she saw the same look of ‘you should know better’ that her mother had told her the next morning.
When Susan Collins repeated those same memory gaps as justification for voting Yes, she felt a sense of betrayal for Dr. Blasey, and herself, and for all the women who have been sexually assaulted. The men, too.
When Kavanaugh was confirmed, she decided in the end, nothing’s really changed.
* * *
That evening over dinner, she shared that thought with Thomas. He disagreed, and said things have changed…just not enough yet. Thomas reminded her they raised a daughter who understands the power of her own voice and a son who treats everyone with respect.
The two of them discussed how the intensity of the debate seemed different from any time in the past, even compared to Anita Hill’s testimony. They discussed her career, as well as Casey’s burgeoning one and even Dr. Blasey’s. They discussed how many women are in Congress, and which ones may run for President, and how many men (including Thomas) both believe women when they come forward, and are willing to follow women leaders.
She agreed – after much consternation – things are better today. She committed to remember who defended women, and who ridiculed them. She committed to do her part to keep improving things for Casey and future generations. Today was a gut punch, but it’s the end of a chapter, not the whole story.
Nevertheless, she persisted.