The Word You Don't See

I know you couldn’t know this, but that next morning I woke up in my twin bed stomach-sick in a way I have never been, before or since. I woke up without thoughts in a viscous world, my mind full of sludge, my veins full too. I had a word nobody wants near them stuck right to me, though I wouldn’t know it for a long, long time. That’s the way sludge works: it protects me from feeling the harm that's been done. You woke up with that word too, but you still don’t know it. That’s the way privilege works: it protects you from seeing the harm you inflict.

That morning, my friends trickled into my dorm room. They raised their eyebrows, ready to mirror my reaction to whatever it was that had happened the night before.

They asked, “How do you feel?” I said, “I feel weird,” and I did.

As my friends and I walked to brunch that morning, I watched slow scenes from the previous night: kissing in a stairwell, opening a bathroom door. “Are you sure?” I hear you say, and I answer, “Yes,” as if I am. Me, pulling a slinky black chiffon shirt over my head in one inside-out swoop. My hands are pale and blotchy, my fingers braced on a shower stall wall. 

And then I’m clutching a woolen cardigan on a lonely walk home, biting air and wet hair. Our friends’ whooping hollers echo down to me from the window of a dorm room, marking your triumphant entrance. Finally, you all must have thought, that was a long time coming.

They thought so; you thought so. And what did I think? I didn’t. I walked slow that night, slow that next morning. Slow and sick.

I said, “I don’t want it to be weird,” (the way I felt) as we walked to brunch. My friends told me not to worry, that you and I were friends, so I slow-nodded. I stuck the word “regret” to the scenes in my head and to the slow sickness they brought on, hoping both could pass as such. The whole week was slow and sick, but I told myself that slow weeks are OK sometimes because we’re in college and we do dumb things, and sometimes we knock ourselves down hard enough that recovery seeps past Sunday.

Four days later I had a dance performance. That’s a place where slow-moving is not acceptable, nor would I want it to be. I am on a high at performances, always. But that night, the first night of the show, I found myself on the dressing room floor with sludge heavy in my veins. It congealed in my wrists and in the crooks of my elbows. My arms pinned me to the floor. While all the other dancers drilled and stretched, hair-sprayed and eye-lined, I stared at the ceiling, unmoving.

My own body scared me. This feeling was too foreign to pass for regret. On the dressing room floor, I heard echoes of that other word. I didn’t want it near me, so I pushed it away and searched for an immediate fix.

I texted my best friend, I can’t stop thinking about it, meaning my pale hands on the wall of the shower stall. She replied, Just text him. You’re friends. You can talk to him about this, and it all felt so very (un)reasonable. So I did text you, Can we talk later? and that unstuck me from the floor.

Later did not come when I wanted it to (immediately). It came three slow days later. After an arms-length kind of Friday night, after Saturday night, after I texted, please I really need to talk to you, please today, please come outside, on a Sunday morning. Three in a row. I would have sent 200 if that’s what it would have taken. You walked to the picnic table where I sat, your stride long, your blond hair bed-head messy. My hands shook.

“I need to talk to you about the other night,” I started. “I’m just freaking out because I’m kind of in a bad place right now, and I feel like I made that decision from a really irrational part of me. You didn’t do anything wrong. I just need to know I have you as a friend.”

See, I had invented one (faulty) dichotomy to reason away what had happened: if we were truly friends, then there was just a mistake and this flat, uncomfortable energy between us. If we were not, then you must have taken advantage of me, and a space would open for that word to sneak in. 

At the picnic table, you said nice things like, “You are one of my best friends,” “I really care about you,” “I’m sorry you feel like this,” and “If I had known, I never would have done anything.” You reminded me that you have sisters.

When we finished talking, you hugged me tight. I saw a strand of my hair caught in your beard when you pulled away.

I clung to that moment white-knuckled and threw it at every surfacing doubt. I reminded myself of the way we used to dance together all night long, a charged three inches between us, and the way you could anticipate my every step. 

I told myself that what had happened in the shower stall was a long time coming. When an image of my hands on white tile flashed up—as it did from time to time—I cut in fast with the scene in which I pulled off the black chiffon shirt. I played “Are you sure?” “Yes,” and “You are one of my best friends” like rotating soundtracks, asking myself, how on earth could he have known that I would end up so sick?

It worked for a long time. The sludge thinned away.

And then one night, three months later, I got way too high. My brain moved at breakneck speed: whirling thoughts and nothing I could do to stop them. All those scenes played again and again while I paced my room, remembering the slow sick of that sludge and the way I could not get up from the floor, thinking, why are the shower stall hands coming back again? Why can’t I let it go if we were good friends with real chemistry? Why can’t I let it go if that night was a long time coming? Isn’t that why I said “yes”?

No, came my own insistent answer, along with a memory I had dismissed as unimportant. Two weeks before we got naked in a shower stall, after a different night out, you sat across from me at your coffee table.

“I just don’t want a random hook-up with you. I’m not interested in doing that,” I said. 

You sighed, “I just don’t want a relationship right now.”

I rolled my eyes and reminded you, “I never said I did, either.”

So I did know what I wanted. And I had said it, so you knew too. There I was, pacing in a panic around my room, wondering why I had said “Yes,” wondering why the conversation had ended there. What kind of friend would not check in after that night? What, I wondered, high and wired, would cause me to act against my own instincts? And how could I let that happen, because aren’t I strong? Aren’t I? So what had overpowered me? Was it you?

And then a new scene for an answer. New as in forgotten, forcibly forgotten:

We stepped into the shower stall. I felt cold and reckless, disconnected and unsafe. The dorm’s bathroom lights were fluorescent and harsh. I stopped kissing you. Before we went any further, I pushed my hand against your chest, trying to find you, trying to de-escalate. No reaction. I pushed again.

“Wait,” I said softly. “Wait.”

You pulled back, eyebrows arched. I mumbled something wordless, confused, unsure how to reach you. A drop of water rolled down my left temple. You brushed it away with your thumb. 

“Mont,” you said,  “we’re already here.” And then we were. 

And my hands reached the wall.

That was the moment when my instincts reared up and were trampled. That moment had been drowned in sludge. When it resurfaced three months later, I watched my will concede to yours. It sent my mind reeling, panicking, thinking, I did not say “Stop,” but I did say “Wait,” and maybe that should be enough. (Of course it should be.) And the way my body shut down—I know that is not the way I have sex, and if it was not sex then what was it? And if you should have known “Wait” meant “Stop” but you kept going, then that is how we get to the word “rape.”

So there I was pacing around the room, the word a siren in my head. I thought, if I hear “rape,” does that make you my rapist? And then I had to wonder, would this be like that stereotype story where my grades drop, and I can’t be in the same room as you, and I start having flashbacks during sex, and this comes to define all of college for me? But then of course this is the flashback panic attack, and how could that have fucking happened when I said “Yes” and it’s us? It had been a long time coming, what with the way we used to dance.

My blood pumped so fast I couldn’t feel my limbs. I wondered where my body had gone. I texted my roommate, Can you come home?, meaning, I have lost my body.

When she came in, all soft voice and soothing, she curled up with me under my lavender comforter, and I found my body again. I told her about the way I could not stop seeing the stall and I didn’t know why. I told her I did a thing I did not want to do and I didn’t know why. I did not tell her that I had said “Wait,” and I didn’t utter the word that the resurfaced memory brought with it. I hoped she would help reason it away. 

She did. She reminded me that you had said, “You are one of my best friends,” and how it had stopped the panic. She reminded me that I always punish myself too harshly for my regrets. That was true. I clung to it. I added it to my old loop: “You’re always too hard on yourself,” “You are one of my best friends,” and “Are you sure?” “Yes,” again and again. I pushed the word away, and it receded, taking my panic with it.

It receded except when I heard it. When I heard that word, I saw the shower stall. The wall of it, white tiles, and my hands braced there. Of course, it didn’t happen often, since it isn’t said all that much in polite conversation. It’s a word we like to keep abstract. But six months later, I sat at my study-abroad program orientation watching a Powerpoint about how to stay safe in a foreign city. They didn’t want to send us home stuck with that word. My program coordinator was standing there saying it over and over again. In a foreign city, in a random room with 35 students I didn’t know, I kept seeing the shower stall. I’d shove away the image, of course, but then she’d say the word again, and it would pop up.

So, finally, six months later and half a world away from you, I thought logically and measuredly (with some lingering panic), shit, maybe I am stuck with it. Over the course of that semester, I started to talk about it, how it got there and what it meant. I came to another conclusion: if that word is stuck to me, it is stuck to you, too.

It’s hard to see, I know, especially considering that it had been “a long time coming,” and that you asked and got a “Yes,” and that we considered ourselves friends. It’s confusing because “Wait” is not exactly “No,” because the word “rape” is woven so seamlessly into our cultural fabric that it usually disappears—until we look. This is not about a criminal charge, and this is not a public skewering. This is a work of unstitching.

I want you to know I’m sorry for bringing this word into focus for you. I spent a long time feeling guilty for seeing my shower stall hands when I heard it, thinking you didn’t mean for that, not at all. There are a lot of people who would argue that I’m excusing you by saying “I’m sorry.” In some way it is excusing, because I do believe that you didn’t mean for that, not at all.

You didn’t mean to hurt me, but you made no attempt to resist a culture which constantly tells you that you are entitled to anything you want, and which constructs me as such: a thing. That is objectification, and that culture is a rape culture. Within rape culture, not only are feminine bodies objectified and men made to feel entitled—it’s also all made to seem normal. 

This system is not immediately transparent, especially to those whom it privileges. Rape culture only manifests overtly when one person forcibly wields their power over another person in the form of sexual violence. Even then, we prefer to think of rapists as lone psychopaths, not normal people whose actions are the result of deeply rooted cultural narratives.

We avoid challenging those cultural narratives by placing rape culture’s covert manifestations within a supposed gray area, rendering it unclear whether an encounter qualifies as sex or rape. When people ask questions like, “Well, was she flirting?” they are asking whether or not one person had implicitly promised sex to another person—and in turn, whether or not one person was entitled to sex with someone else. These discussions imply, then, that there is some context in which one person can be entitled to another (there is not). The gray area discredits an individual’s narrative (“I’m not interested”) by privileging a narrative constructed through rape culture (“It was a long time coming”). So the perpetrator’s behavior is perceived as normal, and that makes rape seem like sex that someone had “promised.”

I was attempting to reject that narrative when I told you, “I just don’t want a random hook-up.” By responding, “I just don’t want a relationship right now,” you assumed that if I don’t want sex, I must want a relationship. Worse, though, you implied that I was withholding sex in the hopes of gaining a relationship. There I was, explaining clearly how I felt, and instead of engaging with me, you replaced me with a sexist caricature of “woman”: someone who must want to be caught. Because to be caught is to have been wanted, to be the chosen thing. As long as that narrative persisted, the only question for you was: when?

In an attempt to dismantle the notion that one person can be entitled to another’s body—and to remind the world that women have sexual agency—people have begun to encourage clear, verbal consent. Theoretically, this kind of dialogue would eradicate the gray area by promoting genuine respect and communication. In this way, verbal consent could directly combat objectification and entitlement. But rape culture appropriates verbal consent, reducing it to a one-item checklist (“Are you sure?” “Yes”). This checklist serves as a cop-out protection for perpetrators. It absolves you of the responsibility to actually engage with someone. It masks a real lack of understanding by purporting to grant permission to a body. 

So the consent checklist, which seems to create clarity around rape, actually masks all the potential coercion and objectification that cannot coexist with true consent, but can coexist with a checklist. It simply changes the question from “When?” to “When can I get her to say, ‘Yes?’”

The checklist coexists with objectification because the checklist fixes consent as a static object, as a thing to acquire, in the same way objectification fixes me. But consent is not a fixed thing (neither am I). You cannot “get” consent as some all-inclusive contract that will “get” you another thing, which is sex, which is me (as a thing, fixed). Consent is not fixed because despite the unfortunate fact of our syntax, sex is not actually a thing you have, it is a thing you do—together. True consent is confirmed, reaffirmed, and acted such that what “Yes” actually applies to is understood. If you believe that me saying “Yes” before our clothes have even come off entitles you to sex, then true consent is already no longer possible. Both consent itself and my body have become things owed, things to be gotten and given. 

So there you were in a dormitory bathroom, thinking it was appropriate to reward yourself with a metaphorical “check” (meaning checkmate, meaning caught) at any point a “Yes” is received, and to proceed without questioning the long history of “No” that had come before it. It prompted you to disregard the context that I had established in favor of the narrative, “It was a long time coming.” You thought the consent you “got” entitled you to sex, so when I told you, “Wait,” you said, “We are already here,” meaning You already signed your body away. Your checklist question blinded you to “Wait” (meaning, stop, meaning, I am not on the same page as you). It excused you from the responsibility to pay attention. It locked me in passivity. (I was a thing you caught.) Of course, you caught me rightfully, according to rape culture. You played by all its rules.

And there I was in a dormitory bathroom, all my instincts rearing up to remind me I do not want this. I could not find the language to say “No” because “No” would contradict a “Yes” that I had already said. On some level, I had internalized the message that the cultural narrative was more important, more valid than my own—that I should want to be caught. The path of least resistance for me was to comply willingly and to like it. I wished I could. I felt guilty for taking back a prize and scared at the realization that I was one. These scripts we learn have their own inertia, and I could not extricate myself quickly enough to stop it. In that moment, I hoped “Wait” would derail us.

When it did not, I tried to convince myself that it did not matter. The fact that the word was so hard for me to see (and harder to accept), the fact that you don’t see it at all, does not mean that the word isn’t there. On the contrary, our denial is symptomatic of the way rape culture simultaneously encourages and erases rape, leading me to believe that we were just friends who had bad sex.

It took me a long time to understand: The standards to which we hold our friends should not be gendered. The standards to which we hold other humans should not be gendered. 

I don’t think you woke up that next morning stomach-sick in a way you never have been, before or since. Unlike me, you did not compromise yourself that night. Despite the fact that you said, “You’re one of my best friends;” since that day at the picnic table, you have not once addressed what happened or treated me with any of the care and respect that title deserves.

So what we called a friendship was not. It was the dancing and the chemistry, but even more so it was the insinuated promise that one day my “No” would become a “Yes.” What we called friendship was predicated entirely on sex. But what we called sex was not. That relationship was predicated on rape. And while neither of us really understood it, that’s exactly what happened. 

Details have been changed to protect the anonymity of those mentioned.