Michelle Koufopoulos | Longreads | December 2016 | 13 minutes (3,257 words)
It was my birthday. I don’t mark the date with any kind of mental memorial anymore, or throw overly earnest celebrations like I did the year after, when I was still raw and grieving and thought that maybe, if I had all my closest friends clustered in my living room, decked out in silky dresses and party hats, I could erase what had happened the year before.
It’s been ten years. I’ve learned to compartmentalize. I focus on trivial things on my birthdays instead—Did I pick a bar too far afield? How many people will show up? And yet. I still obsess. I turn that night over and over in my mind, needing to examine it from every single angle, every single perspective. Tell it in a thousand different ways, and then again. I’m still trying to control the narrative. I’m still trying to understand.
I was the kind of girl who wrote about everything, liked to catalogue crucial moments in a manner more poetic than the actual event. I kept hardbound journals hidden under my mattress, maintained an OpenDiary from eighth grade until the year after I graduated college, when the site finally shut down and I downloaded thousands of entries into a .txt file that lives on the desktop of my computer. I told myself, if it sounded artful, then the suffering was worth it. Even then, I don’t think I really believed that, but I wanted to.
* * *
Jake is late picking me up. It’s already 11:30 when he pulls into my driveway; we should have been at the club an hour ago. When I slide into the passenger seat, I remind him of the fact.
“Where were you?” I ask. “My birthday is almost over.” He doesn’t say much of anything, and I reach out for his hand in the dark. We drive in silence for a while, my hand holding his, his window rolled down, that particular humidity so native to Connecticut summers permeating both of our skins. An unidentifiable techno song throbs on the radio, the beat pulsating and obnoxious. My toes are beginning to sting in my high heels so I take them off and sit with my feet curled underneath me. I feel anxious. Something about this moment feels very off, a warning tickling starting in the pit of my stomach. It’s the last summer before college, and I am so tired of feeling either isolated or condemned, the naïve little girl or the deliberate seductress. I am desperate for just one evening of simple abandon.
My furiously straightened hair (a futile gesture, as always) begins to curl against my shoulders, as sure a sign as any that we are approaching the water. Jake turns down one of the side streets connecting to the beach, used most often by those who either are not in possession of a seasonal parking sticker, or those who need access to the beaches at a time when the lots have already closed. He shuts off the engine, and finally looks at me.
“What are we doing?” I ask. “I didn’t know we were coming here…I mean look at me, I’m dressed for a club. I thought we were going to Alchemy.”
“We’re waiting for Tim. He should be here any minute.”
Sure enough, I can see headlights flashing behind us, maneuvering into place against the sidewalk.
I step out onto the grass. “Happy Birthday, Shell,” Tim says, smiling broadly. He hugs me tightly with one arm; the other clutching what appears to be a Victoria’s Secret bag. I look at it somewhat suspiciously, and say nothing.
Tim glances over at Jake then lets his eyes wander back to me. “Why don’t we head down?” he asks.
“Head down where? To the water?” I laugh, an edge of what I hope sounds like annoyance creeping into my voice.
Jake sighs. “It’s too late to go clubbing now. We thought you wouldn’t mind the beach instead.”
“Right,” Tim nods in agreement, moving the Victoria’s Secret bag from one hand to the other.
“What is that?” I finally ask him, that disquieting nervousness weaving its way through my chest and into my throat. I needn’t have asked, though. We both know exactly what it will be.
“It’s your birthday present,” he smirks. “Jake and I went to pick it out together. Luckily he knew your size.”
* * *
Tim was my first real kiss. He was twenty to my sixteen, smelled perpetually of cigarettes and Axe body spray, favored black jeans and trench coats and mild delinquency. I met him the fall of my sophomore year of high school, at the Harvest Dance. He shouldn’t have been there, of course, but he was my friend Nora’s date—a friendly thing, he assured me; he used to play on the same sports teams as her older brother. He didn’t take his eyes off me the entire night. “Jailbait,” he whispered, as he pulled me against him on the dance floor, and giddy, I took it for flattery.
I was shy, bookish, deeply anorexic. The kind of girl who made obsessive study schedules outlining every minute of my day, impossible to stick to, but I tried. I had a life plan from the age of nine, was ambitious in the way that comes from having a self-made, Ivy League educated mother, first in her family to go to college, part of the first class of women to graduate from Yale. She bought me books where the princesses always saved themselves.
I was also a kind of girl whose father was, at the moment, living in the basement of her house, sleeping on a lumpy pull out couch, compulsively making notes, gathering files, and refusing to speak to anyone since my mother had served him with divorce papers eighteen months earlier.
By the time I meet Tim I have spent the better part of a year subsisting on Apple Cinnamon Nutrigrain bars and cans of Snapple Lemon iced tea. It’s an old story—I couldn’t control lots of things in my life, but I could control my weight. I am pulling straight A’s on 700 calories a day. I am 5’2, 100 pounds, then 95, then 90. I am cold all the time. I grow my brown hair almost to my waist, dye it black. Dress in Hot Topic fishnets, black miniskirts, motorcycle boots. Pseudo-gothy rebellion. I start to get noticed in ways I never have before. I let myself be picked up, put on laps, handled like a doll that might break. I hate that I seem fragile. But I embrace it, too. I realize, at least to a certain subset of older guys like Tim, I am desirable. And that is a heady, dangerous thing.
Jake also began with a kiss, New Year’s Eve. He had just broken up with Diana, who was even younger than I was, and the whole situation made me uncomfortable. I didn’t want the drama—the romantic entanglements amongst our friend group were incestuous enough, and now, to me, profoundly disturbing—all of us in high school, all of them, not. Passing us around like we were disposable, and we were.
He was magnetic, an actor and dancer, he knew how to command your attention. He was also a college drop-out with a savior complex. He envisioned himself as the proverbial knight in shining armor—once he told me he never wanted to be Lancelot, always Galahad. He didn’t want the romantic baggage, the love triangle. He just wanted to swoop in and swoop out.
I lost my virginity to him the summer before my senior year of high school. I didn’t want to be an eighteen-year-old virgin; I thought virginity was something you were supposed to dispose of as soon as possible. I thought I would feel older after. More mature. I didn’t.
He always had another girl. Diana lost her virginity to him too, either the day before or the day after I did. It was never clear. When I found out, I asked, “How can you do that?”
“Carefully,” he said. “Carefully.”
* * *
A month or two on, when my grief and rage were still wild things that threatened to spill out of me at any moment, when I dreamed of tornados at night and went blindly through my days as a brand-new college freshman, a beloved high school teacher told me that one morning I would wake up and my heart wouldn’t feel like it was beating outside of my body. That the nightmares would stop. That I would feel normal, whatever normal in the aftermath meant.
She was right, mostly. There are days, even weeks at a time, when I don’t think about it so much. But then there are the moments when the pure terror, the animal instinct kicks in, and it’s all I can do not to shut down and cower. The cab driver who asks for my name, my cell phone number, if I’m seeing anyone. If that’s my car parked in the driveway. The oddball lifer in my apartment complex who follows me into the laundry room, stands too close, tells me to borrow his laundry card when I’ve left mine upstairs. “Thank you, but it’s no problem. I don’t want to take anything from you.” “Take it” he insists. I do. My brain is humming: defuse, defuse, defuse. I think of escape. I smile. When I tell my boyfriend, he is furious. You were too nice, he says. You should have just walked away. How hard is it to walk away?
I try to explain but it’s a language impossible to translate. I am tiny, polite. I look too young for my age—at twenty-nine, sometimes I’m still mistaken for a teenager. In high school, the older guys we ran with called me “the sweetheart.” It was always a kind of protection until, of course, it wasn’t.
It’s not just strangers, strange men. Sometimes there are moments during sex when I feel like I can’t breathe. Some things I used to like, I don’t anymore; others I like more than I did before, and question why. Sometimes I clench up so much sex is impossible, and I see doctor after doctor, spending hundreds of dollars I don’t have, hoping someone will tell me how I can fix this. Tell my boyfriend it’s not his fault it hurts, not his fault he can’t make me come. Feel frustrated, impatient, ashamed, furious. Not normal. I see therapists—talk therapists, sex therapists. More time, more money. I am constantly hyper-vigilant. I seethe.
* * *
There was lingerie in the Victoria’s Secret bag, something cheap and lacy. They told me to put it on. I did. I don’t think it occurred to me that I had a choice. Maybe I didn’t. I could have demanded to be taken home. I could have slapped them or scoffed at them or ran like I was being chased in some B-list horror movie, but instead of a serial killer with a knife, I was running from the two guys most deeply part of my sexual and romantic history. But to do any of that, I would have had to be a different teenage girl. Braver, more sure of herself and her worth. And because adrenaline was short-circuiting my body, because I couldn’t believe it was actually happening, because I thought, I must matter this little, I did nothing. I’ve always felt complicit because of this. Like I did it to myself.
What happened next is a blur—your brain tries to protect you, my therapist tells me. Remembering feels like trying to watch a silent movie where all the scenes are fragmented and you’re squinting through fog. It also feels dangerously close to reliving.
Weak orange light from the pavilion behind us pools on the sand, otherwise everything is dark. I can hear the waves crashing a dozen feet in front of us. Splinters from the picnic table we’re on dig into my back. Tim’s hands are on me first, roaming across my stomach and breasts and then pushing inside of me, his mouth on my neck as tears are stream down my cheeks and I turn my face away from his lips. Jake sits silently and then his hands are on me and inside me too and it feels like this goes on and on, and then I’m floating above my body, waiting for it to be over.
And then it is.
Tim tosses his shirt over me so my shaking will be less pronounced, glancing over at Jake with a look I can’t read.
“She’s good, right?” he asks. “It’s not like I got anything out of this. She didn’t even fucking kiss me.”
“Yeah, she’s ok,” Jake answers. “She’s doing her quiet thing, that’s all. She’s probably writing a poem in her head or something.”
Writing a poem in my head.
Writing a poem in my head.
I want to rage at them, say, Do you know what you did?
Instead, I sit up, forcing myself to only look at the water, the sand, the picnic table, anything but them. I ask for my clothes and Jake hands them to me silently, nothing in his demeanor betraying any sort of conflict or guilt about what has just happened. He is nauseatingly blank.
“Can I get a hug?” Tim asks, as I stand unsteadily on the cold sand. I stare at him.
“Come on,” he laughs. I wrap my arms around him mechanically, then step back.
“See, that wasn’t so hard, right? Oh–one more thing, Shell. You know you can’t tell anyone about this. I don’t want it getting back to my ex. I don’t want her getting hurt by this. It was nothing. No one needs to know.”
And then Tim turns away, striding towards his car, leaving me with Jake, never once looking behind him. It doesn’t matter what’s behind him.
Afterwards, I sat in Jake’s car, sobbing. I didn’t want to go home just yet, because I knew the moment I stepped out of his car and into my house, the full force of the violation that had just happened—the emotional along with the physical—was going to swamp me. I thought, if I could just stay in his car, as irrational as this sounds, I could delay my world spinning out of control. As I cried, Jake prattled on—that he loved me; that he was broken; that it was the lowest he had sunk in his life. And finally, what still enrages and haunts me—that he couldn’t stop Tim because I didn’t tell him to. This is what I believe—whatever instant calculations he had made in that moment—decency vs. cowardice; protecting the girl he said he loved vs. going along with the guy he grew up with—I lost every single time.
Somehow, the UTI made it worse, made it more real than it would have been otherwise, hunched over the toilet in the dingy employees bathroom of the Ann Taylor Loft I was working in that summer, peeing blood. When the doctor (not my usual pediatrician—this was one harried and brusque) asked me how long it had been since I last had sex, I didn’t know how to answer.
A week later, I waited for Jake to get off work, circling his car like a wounded animal. I was barely sleeping or eating. The only way I was able to mask what had happened from my family was because I also happened to have a MySpace stalker at the time, a middle-aged guy whom the cops were investigating for harassing a number of local teenage girls online. My jumpiness, my intense feelings of exposure—it was easy enough to chalk it up to that.
Jake looked surprised, and then annoyed, to see me. All the rage I couldn’t summon that night spilled out of me now. Did you plan this? Did you sacrifice me for your best friend? How could you do it? How?
What do you want me to say? Am I supposed to pay for this forever?
Yes, I thought. Yes.
* * *
In college, I wrote about it. I didn’t know how else to process it, how, frankly, to do anything else.
I realize now that even when I thought I wasn’t writing about it, I was—in the topics I was drawn to obsessively, the women who became mentors, the lives I looked to as roadmaps for how you go on. I wrote about it when I studied early modern women’s poetry—these furious, passionate, mostly forgotten women, and in Frida Kahlo’s paintings, and in my fascination with Paris between and after the wars. Always art and trauma, love and violence. All the different stories I thought I was telling, if I pulled them apart, they had that in common. I was always trying to understand.
Because it still haunts me, because I can’t forget. Because I am consumed with how childhood trauma becomes teenage trauma becomes adult trauma. About sexuality and what it means to be a smart girl and the ways you learn about desire and what you think you’re worth. About boys (men) who should have known better. About the ways you navigate silence, what you choose to share and when.
The year after I graduated college, I worked as a freelance reporter for my hometown paper. One of my assignments was to interview the detective who ran the child and sex crimes bureau, for a profile that would run the following week. After the interview, I shut off my digital recorder, and asked her, off the record, if there were any legal options that were still open to me. The statute of limitations was about to run out, I knew. I hadn’t reported it at the time––I knew the statistics, knew that it would come down to a he-said, she-said situation. I had been involved with them both, I was in heels and a skirt. I was, as they say, a bad victim. Tim had since become a cop in the next town over. I’d heard through the grapevine that Jake was applying to be a cop in a different town. That, to me, was unallowable.
She was outraged, and empathetic. She said she would try to haul Jake in for questioning. He doesn’t have to call me back, she said. But they usually do. After a week of phone calls, he did. He corroborated what I had told her. She was surprised, she said. That, they don’t usually do. The police department informed the department of the town he was applying to. He never became a cop.
This isn’t the whole story.
“I went back,” I told the detective, ashamed. My senior year of college, I went back to Jake. I was home for the summer, restless and depressed after a Disneyland-like year abroad. He was the ultimate distraction. I was still trying to rewrite our history. I still wanted an ending I could live with.
“Most women go back,” she told me. “Sometimes, two, three, half a dozen times before they finally get out. If it was just one summer, you were lucky.”
The month I left Jake for good, I met Mike. We’ve been together over six years. It is safe and stable, and when it’s not, we work at it. He’s not the boys of my youth, it’s not my parents’ marriage. He’s something new: a partner.
Writing a poem in my head. Writing a poem in my head.
* * *
Michelle Koufopoulos is a writer and editor based in New York. Her work has appeared in Freerange Nonfiction and Guernica and been cited on Bookforum’s Omnivore blog.
Editor: Sari Botton