TW: Sexual Assault/Rape
Letter to New York
It’s seven in the evening California time, Rob. I wonder if you’ve already gone to bed in New York. I’m imagining your white hair on the pillow case as I write, your lids fluttering closed over light blue eyes. I just got back from yoga. The flow kind. Not the quiet, still kind. You know how I can’t stand to be alone too long in my own head. I feel healthier having gone, but mostly I’m sitting here feeling embarrassed after rereading the email I sent you this morning. Embarrassed about how incoherently angry I was in writing it. I never edit when I go off half-cocked. When my feelings get the better of me.
A lot of the things I guess I needed to say. Like how I always felt bullied by you when we argued. The way I always felt expendable when you couldn’t allow yourself to be loved. And the way you never believe me about anything. But I do think in these days of our starting over, you do try real hard to allow me to be heard.
The truth is, though, my brains been a scramble since that movie we saw last weekend. We hadn’t known the woman in the movie would be so brutally assaulted. I’d never had that kind of reaction either, where I had to leave a theater because I thought I’d come out of my skin if I stayed. In the bright light of the outdoors after rushing from the building, I wanted to shatter every single high city window we passed. I wanted glass at my feet. I didn’t want everything around me to look like nothing happened to me anymore. When for a lot of years a lot of bad things did happen to me. I just don’t pick to spend my days dwelling on it.
And when I got home last night after dropping you at the airport, I was gathering my things off the passenger seat of my car when I looked up noticing this homeless man staring back at me from under a street lamp. He was so close that I froze, but I didn’t get that sick feeling I usually get in the pit of my stomach when I’m frightened by men, and I didn’t give my plastered fake smile that says please don’t talk to me. Like hurting me was something we were about to discuss or negotiate. I just stared at his grizzly face waiting for I don’t know what. He half smiled, moving on past. When he was gone, I felt my body vibrating in mini convulsions all the way down to my feet. I didn’t know what was happening to me. I think it was just elation over not being raped that night.
It’s like I’m releasing a lifetime of poison all at once by different triggers lately. If you’re wondering, Rob. It’s a highly advancing time for me. I know I don’t talk about these things. Why would I want to? But these things are with me, walking, holding my hand like playground mates in a world only known to me. Something in the shadows in the years that have passed are calling my name. I don’t want to go back into my old life alone, but no one can go with me. And I face myself because no one ever gave me the choice not to. I sometimes think that if the men I’ve known ever knew what they were doing to me when I was a kid, they would’ve changed their minds and not done it, because I don’t know what kind of person would have knowingly committed me to this life.
You know I don’t like to remember the darkness of my childhood, Rob, or the way my family covered things up. I don’t like to think about the empty, sandy dunes where I used to hide as a child. And, I don’t want to think too much about the one incident that comes back to me in fragmented dreams. My eight-year-old body hitting a thin wall in the dark. The cheap brown paneling split with the pressure of my slamming shoulder. My feet for moments dangling above the ground. The room’s windows covered with blankets. My not meaning to walk into that. It was breathing that was difficult when I did. I didn’t feel like I had a body anymore after the dangling, it was like I was just a piece of thick rubber. A doll. I don’t have anything more to say about that, but for years after my hand traced that paneled wall, feeling how it would sink at the slightest pressure.
But I don’t mind thinking about you, Rob, and the profound impact you’ve had on my life in our two years together. By the time we met I’d been off medication for more than a decade. I’d been happily sleepwalking through my life with my past in hibernation. I wasn’t triggered by anything. And this isn’t to say that you were so damaging for me, Rob. I don’t know where I’d be if it hadn’t been you who’d come into my life and started that tattered old ball rolling again. I understand that anyone who would’ve tried to love me would have pushed the buttons of the beast waiting to wake in me. And even though a huge part of me knows how to hate you now, an even bigger part of me will never know how to not love you with a power that could shake the heavens loose at the hinges.
This is why I started a new essay for you today. I wanted to tell you how I’d never known you to cringe at what you saw inside of me. How I’ve never seen you cower in front of the animal you couldn’t have missed behind my eyes. The animal that only half sleeps and wakes up screaming. The animal who bolts all the locks on the door of an already secured building. The animal who keeps two thousand dollars in an old coat pocket in case she needs to flee a situation suddenly.
So in my essay I wrote us standing in the dunes back home, holding two huge shovels. We’re having a burial in my mind. You and me, Rob. You’re telling me that I have to bury all the things that I can’t bring to the surface that are destroying me. You’re forcing me to dig a very deep hole with exact grave dimensions. And all this came to my mind because I wouldn’t beat the trees with the red plastic bat you bought for me. You explained it was some kind of therapy. You thought I could let go of what I’d been carrying if I’d only try beating the shit out of anything. I wouldn’t. I just looked at you and your red bat like you were a fucking amateur in the matters of my world. And as you march around my big hole in the ground. You yell at me, refusing to help me dig, even though you have the extra shovel. “And, why did he cover the fucking windows?”
I scream back, “I don’t want to talk about it, Rob! I can’t think about the God damn windows!”
My arms feel like noodles from the strain of continuously lifting the shovel. But you persist and won’t let me out of the big hole I’m digging. “Why did he bash your body against the cheap brown paneling? Causing that crack your fingers traced for years? What the hell happened?”
When I won’t answer, you demand again in your cruelest, scariest voice, moving to stand over my hole in the ground. You’re this horrible devil. “Just, tell me! God Damn-it already!”
I cry then, and I hate that I cry because I feel powerless and stupid, which makes me hate that I ever met you. But finally, I yell back, “He was raping me, Rob! You get it? Right? He was raping me! He struck me to the wall to disorient me! He covered those windows so I wouldn’t know his face while he moved on top of me. He was a coward, Rob! Are you fucking happy now? Are you?”
I choke from the dirt in my lungs. I wipe my filthy tear stained face with the back of my hand. Then you pull me out of the hole, and I scream in your face with a rage that makes the veins in my neck protrude like they might burst open, “If I’m ever a successful writer, Rob, I’m going to tell the whole world what you fucking did to me!”
But you only grab me and hold me tight, like I’m that rubber doll because you never care what I think about you. You just love me so much that you want me to be free.
Melissa Lewis-Ackerman is a bi-coastal English Professor with an MFA in fiction from Queens University of Charlotte.