You will grow a thick, lifelong bedrock of fear and humiliation, a hardened, crusted sedimentary record of your experiences. It starts when you are four, at the community pool, on the slide, and the neighbor, a grown man, stands at the bottom with his arms open wide to catch you. Your parents beckon you from the pool and tell you to never ever do that again. You don’t understand but you feel a hot, hot shame on your sunburned face.
When you are in kindergarten, a policeman comes to your class and warns you about strangers. You and your classmates line up and, one by one, have your descriptions written down lest you do not heed the warnings. The nurse notes a raised, dark mole on your right shoulder. You didn’t know it was there. You later look at it in the mirror and decide you hate it. When you are in the second grade, a child you don’t know is abducted from a nearby neighborhood. Your mother discusses the matter with the other moms at the bus stop, and they all cluck, tsk, and sigh. You picture sinister, thieving men pushing their way up from hell and through manholes, aching, ravenous, ready to pluck children off the streets. You cease riding your bicycle for a week.
You develop before the other girls in your class. Keith and Danny needle you at every recess; request a showing of your tits. That summer, a pretty girl, one grade higher, gathers a group of girls at the community pool to torment you about the hair in your armpits. Your mother does not permit you to wear a bra or shave, says you are too young. You start wearing shirts two sizes too big over your bathing suit.
When you are twelve, you are riding your bicycle to the community pool and a car slows beside you. It’s a dinged-up Volkswagen Rabbit, its driver shaggy and filthy, and you think again of those men coming out of manholes. You make the mistake of looking into his eyes, into the tar pool of his molten core. His tongue practically lolls out of his head as if he is a stinking, overheated jackal. He speeds away. You continue to the pool, your pedaling reaching a fevered momentum. You are hyper vigilant, scanning front, back, left, right. When you arrive, your mother is already there, relaxing on a lounger. You, sweaty but cold, gasping, stay by her side, and you will for the rest of the afternoon. At the end of the day, your mother is irritable as she tries to maneuver your bicycle into the trunk of her car. This time, you stay off your bicycle for the rest of the summer.
When you are thirteen, your parents corner you in your bedroom to tell you that you are getting fat. You do something about it. When your period stops, your parents reverse course and try to get you to gain weight. One day, in the middle of school, your mother picks you up and takes you to the gynecologist. It has never occurred to you that anyone, or anything, could possibly go between your legs and inside your body. The gynecologist is an old man with glasses, face wrinkled like a pale raisin, his breath stale. You see a foreign metal device on a tray next to the bed and the old man tells you to put your feet in the stirrups. You feel cold air on your naked bottom. The man inserts the device, and it feels like he is slowly opening an umbrella, all spokes and cold metal, in your body. It hurts. A lot. Your mother later drops you off at school and you sit in class, shaken and white. You turn and glance at the kid behind you but don’t know why exactly. He asks what your problem is. You shrug, turn back around. You decide to forget, to stuff the day’s events into that crowded wasteland in your memory where such things belong. The mist of a depression starts to settle itself on your skin like a sticky insecticide.
In the tenth grade, you’re riding your bicycle with your friend Stacy. You pass a car parked on the side of the road with a man working underneath it. The man is on his back, his face obscured by the floor of the car, his fly open and his penis hanging out like a dead, flaccid eel washed ashore. Down the road, at a stoplight, Stacy, her face ashen, asks if you saw what she saw. You sputter out a yes. This is the last time you and Stacy will talk about it, but you will always wonder if that man did it deliberately. You will never know. Sometimes a mystery must stay a mystery.
The summer before you graduate high school and leave home for the University of Florida, a story about a serial killer in that college town makes national headlines. That night, you are filled with dread while you lie awake in your dark bedroom. You sleep with the lights on that night. And the next. And the next. Until your father asks you not to. Months later, you see the Silence of the Lambs in the theater and your dread returns. This time, you go to bed with a book light on, but the battery conks out and leaves you alone in the dark. Before you move into the University of Florida dorms, you have that horrid mole removed by a dermatologist who later calls to tell you that it is not cancerous. For a fleeting moment, you wonder how they will identify your dead body now but remember with relief that there are always dental records. That fall, you ride your bicycle to class and pass a wall onto which the victims’ names had been spray-painted. Every day that semester, as you glide by, you say those names aloud, into the wind, like an elegy.
Before you graduate, you attend a reading by a southern author who describes Florida as a “penis hanging off the belly of America,” and this amuses you. Degree in hand, you pack your shit, drive north, and wave goodbye to America’s penis. You find an apartment, a job, a cat you name Pumpkin. You love that cat with every atom, every proton, neutron, and electron of your being.
One day, two years later, you find a note written on a ragged scrap of paper and stuck under your car’s windshield wipers. It says, in a shaky pen, “We are from different worlds but we are the same.” You accuse a man who has been pursuing you for a date of leaving that note on your car. He denies it, and for reasons you don’t understand, you believe him. You will never find out who left it there, but one day you will have your suspicions.
Not long after you find the note, you go hiking with some friends, and you all go off the main path. You find the horn of an old Victrola in the middle of the forest, just sitting there alone. The horn is strangely bright and brassy in that wet forest. You and your friends marvel at this random discovery and circle it like you are in an X-Files episode and have just discovered a flying saucer.
Your back is tight and throbbing after that hike, but you haul your garbage out to the dumpster anyway, out through your sliding door and into the cool, silent darkness. You will wonder days later whether you had locked that sliding door before you and Pumpkin settled into your cuddle and drifted off to sleep together.
You awaken to a stranger, a man, a man shrouded in the blue light of your clock radio. He yanks you up by your hair and tells you that if you scream, he will fucking kill you. You believe him. You know immediately what is about to happen. He gives you simple instructions: turn here, do this, touch that. You think of these directions as steps in a how-to manual: it is all mechanical and you will do what you must.
You remember that Victrola horn, its random appearance in your life. How, you wonder, did it wind up in the middle of the forest? You question whether it was an omen, a sign of events to come, but you can’t come up with a logical connection between a rape and a Victrola. In your mind, you try to draw complicated diagrams of the connection, make what seem like brilliant mental leaps only to find yourself hopelessly confounded. The man starts a casual conversation with you, asks you your name, your cat’s name, what kind of job you have. You lie. You sense a sad loneliness in this man, a pulsing desperation, and you almost feel sorry for him.
The man makes you get in the shower, tells you to count to one hundred. He calls out an apology, his voice trailing—you know he is leaving. You count, and you hate each number as it drops out of your mouth. You shut off the spigot, tiptoe wet, scared, and weary into your room. He is gone, your sliding door open—the one you may or may not have locked. Pumpkin is in a low, tight crouch behind the television. You call the police. And the Victrola? Sometimes a mystery must stay a mystery.
There are squad cars, a swarm of officers and two detectives. One detective looks like Morgan Freeman, and the other barks his impatience at you because you cannot tell him what surfaces, besides your body, the man may have touched. You request that this detective kindly please stop, just stop. Your sentence ends in a trailing, bloodless ellipsis. You are dying infinite deaths in front of these men, these strangers. Morgan Freeman tells him to cut the shit. They cover your walls, bathroom doorway, and sliding door with fingerprint powder, bag up your clothes, your bedding, tell you to go to the hospital to have evidence collected off your body. Your body is a crime scene. Pumpkin twines his way around Morgan Freeman’s legs. He pats Pumpkin’s head.
Over the weeks and months to follow, you meet with Morgan Freeman at the police station to go over your story again and again and again. After each session, Detective Freeman escorts you out the back door and stands on the balcony, his hands resting on the rail, his foot propped up on the bottom rung, watching you make your way down the stairs and across the lot to your car. You turn and wave before unlocking the door. You will always remember his kindness.
Several weeks after the assault, it comes to you in a synaptic jolt: you know exactly who left that note on your car. You call Detective Freeman, and he asks you if you still have it. You promise to look for it and tear through your apartment. It makes you crazy. When you give up, you tell Detective Freeman you can’t find it, but you know exactly who left it. You are sure. We may never know, he tells you, a tinge of sorrow in his voice.
You max out two credit cards hiring people to move your belongings into a third-floor apartment with a buzzer. Over the next year, you read about three more rapes in your former apartment complex. The police set up a female decoy in the neighborhood and find a man following her with his zipper undone and his junk hanging out. Always with the goddamned open zippers, you think to yourself. You are unable to identify his picture, but the DNA speaks for itself.
You attend the man’s arraignment. He comes out in shackles. You hear them rattling with his shuffling steps. He looks like he just woke up from a lifelong bender. He is unshaven, his hair long, dark, and bushy. He is entirely unfamiliar to you, which startles you. But now—you know his name. You see a middle-aged couple waving at this man and know, without needing to be told, that they are his parents. After he is arraigned, you go into the bathroom where you nearly collide with the man’s mother, who is exiting, and you apologize. You drive home and think of all the inane apologies you have made in your life and realize that it is not you who must apologize. It occurs to you that even the rapist himself knew this. You, too, from then on out, will always know this.
The rapist cuts a deal with the prosecutor and is sentenced to twenty-four years in prison. You will live your life, with or without purpose. It is yours to choose. You go back to the forest to look for that Victrola but are unable to find it. You will never find that note. You have grown tired of mysteries. You send Morgan Freeman a thank-you card. Pumpkin remains your truest love.
For a while, like clockwork, on the anniversary of the rape, you dream about the rapist. In some of those dreams, you are expecting him, sitting up in your bed and waiting. Oddly, it is not a feeling of dread that you have in these dreams, but resigned expectation. He is a part of your bedrock, whether you like it or not. The dreams, though, they eventually stop. In the last dream, the rapist is unable to get through that sliding door. He pulls, tugs, yanks, pounds his fists on the glass, but he cannot get in. His hands bleed. He crumples into a heap. As dawn approaches, he vaporizes like a vampire in a shaft of light. The rape becomes like an ancient star whose ragged light has traveled through great distances of time and space to reach you so faded that you barely recognize it. You feel no fear now, and you find this odd.
Ten years after the rape, you jog past a motorcyclist waiting at a stoplight. He looks you square in the face and makes an obscene gesture with his tongue. You envision him skidding over an oil slick and laugh. You stop, lift your middle finger at this man, and then continue jogging into the deepening dusk.