As always, I can’t help but flinch and stifle a shudder as the guy barreling out of the classroom runs into me just as I’m about to open the door. Despite the two years, three months, one week and two days that have passed, I still can’t help the involuntary shivers that wrack my body when even the simplest touch triggers memories of the fear and pain I suffered under the hands of another lowlife. I have striven to block the memories from resurfacing in my mind – and met with some success – but the subconscious is not so easily tamed.
I walk in and sit at my customary seat in the back corner, but just as I take out my textbook, a chill of dread settles in my stomach an instant before I feel a hand on my shoulder.
“Hey Amber, did–” And this time, I can’t stop the memory quickly enough.
My legs are on fire, trembling and exhausted from trying so many times to push him away, kick him away, run. One hand is on my face, but it’s strangely gentle. I don’t trust gentle.
“Shhhhh,” he whispers, trying to soothe me.
The “gentle” façade isn’t working, douchebag.
“Hey sweetheart, it’s ok. You’re fine… I’m not gonna hurt you if you just do what I say,” he says in a sing-song voice that makes my heartbeat race even wilder with terror. What the fuck is he saying? Can’t he see that he has hurt me? That he’s hurting me now?
Like hell, mother-fucker.
The bellow is still ringing in my ears when I finally win. I catch a few of the memory’s fingers in the door as it slams closed, but they melt away into nothingness even as the rest of the memory’s screams fade to silence. Finally, my head is peacefully quiet.
“Amber?” I quickly open my eyes. It’s Jake, sitting in the seat next to me as usual, but he’s perched on the edge of the chair, shoulders stiff, spine rigid, and a guarded but worried light in his chocolate eyes.
I realize I’m as tense as a compressed spring, my muscles clenched and beginning to tremble. I consciously relax and take a deep breath, trying to still my shaking hands as I paint an embarrassed, apologetic smile on my face before speaking. It’s skill I’ve perfected.
“Oh, hey Jake! You startled me.” The lie won’t entirely satisfy him, but it’s all I’ve got.
“Oh, sorry.” Yeah, he’s not convinced. Even so, he smiles back.
“What were you saying earlier?” I can actually taste the smile’s sickening sweetness on my lips, like store-bought cake frosting. It’s a side effect of the flashbacks: memories so palpably real that I ‘wake up’ with senses so traumatized, they pick up sensations that don’t exist.
“I wanted to ask if you saw the online assignment our Prof posted that’s due next week.”
“Come on, Jake,” I say. My heartbeat is finally returning to normal. “If she just posted it, it’s not due for a while and you’re expecting me to have read it already?” He smiles at that, and the expression seems genuine. Good, maybe he won’t question me about what happened.
“Yeah, well I thought I’d ask anyway,” he says in answer to my question, then turns away, since there’s no more time for talking as our professor walks in. She’s the strictest teacher I’ve ever had when it comes to talking in class – even worse than high school.
“I’m sure you’ve all seen my latest post on the class site,” she says without preamble. I glance sidelong at Jake and roll my eyes at his grin.
“For those of you who have not,” she continues, passing out a stack of paper, “here is a hard copy.” My eyes narrow as I read down the assignment sheet. It says MEMORY AND THE POWER OF RECOLLECTION at the top of the page. Uh oh.
“What I want you to do,” the teacher continues to ramble, “is pick any negative memory you have and write me an analysis of it and the circumstances that created it. This is meant to be an assignment that both exercises the report-writing skills we’ve learned as well as provides you with a chance to conduct mock-therapy. Use what you’ve been reading in your textbook and the skills we’ve acquired in class to write a comprehensive report on this memory.”
She rattles off a few more requirements, but I don’t hear her. I’m stuck on the words recall a negative memory. What the hell. Is this a joke? She’s wrong: for me, this won’t just be less-than-exciting, it will be traumatizing. No matter what memory I decide to use, this whole exercise is a death-trap. Any kind of pain I recall will probably make me remember that pain…
“Oh, and this will be a group assignment,” the teacher calls out over the muttering her explanation causes. I welcome the words as they interrupt my dangerous line of thinking, despite their unwelcome content. “You can’t very well practice therapy by yourself with no one to talk to, now can you? Excuse me, quiet please!”
A cold pit forms in my stomach. So now, not only do I have to call up some negative memory from my painful past – all the while, trying to avoid triggering the debilitating flashbacks of remembering that painful memory – but I have to share and discuss the experience in detail with someone else? The ice in my stomach turns to nausea at the thought of having to risk reliving the day my secrets became secrets – and all because of some stupid assignment. Maybe deciding to take this class wasn’t a good idea after all. I had thought I was ready to dance around the triggers, at least, daring them to control me, but now, faced with an assignment that does just that, I am frozen with dread and fear.
Forcing myself to listen to every whispered comment around me in an effort to focus on what’s been happening outside my head, I consciously slow and regulate my breathing, trying to calm my stomach. Ok, the professor is talking again, giving us the instructions for the quiz. Ok, write your name and class time at the top, read the questions carefully, choose the best answer…
The familiar list of instructions is easy to concentrate on, and as I read through the six questions on the quiz, I’m able to forget the agony I may soon relive. For now.
- - -
It took me 20 minutes, staring blankly into the mirror, to convince myself to go to school today. Pain is so much scarier to face when it is faced knowingly. There is time to imagine how
it will hurt, how long it may or may not last, and just how intense the agony will be.
That’s all I can think about as I wait for Jake, sitting on one of the rough picnic benchs outside the cafeteria. I’m glad he’s my partner since I don’t know anyone else in the class, but I still feel like I’m waiting for my doom, even though we decided he would go today and I would tell my story tomorrow. What if his story only takes a couple of seconds to recount, and I have to tell mine sooner than planned? Or what if something about his story triggers one of my flashbacks and I have to endure the memories despite it not being my turn today?
I agonize over what might happen, sitting there on the picnic bench as the wind worries my hair and nips at the corners of my notes like a mischievous puppy. I worry about what questions he’ll choose to ask me in my interview; what follow-up questions he’ll come up with that aren’t in the script the teacher gave us; whether I’ll be able to keep my composure at all, much less if he phrases the questions differently and I’m unable to follow the strict script burned into my mind. Deviation means distraction, and I worry that the distraction will make my mind slip from the tracks I’ve so carefully constructed, causing my train of thought to wander into the chaos that dominates the dark territory beyond.
I sigh and rest my aching head in my hands, careful to keep my elbows squarely on the table, holding the papers down from the wind’s playful paws. God, even after all this time, I’m still too unstable.
My thoughts are interrupted when he clears his throat noisily behind me, and I look over my shoulder to see him step around the corner of the building. There’s a relieved smile on his face when he sees me look at him. Huh. I wonder what he’s so relieved about. It’s not like he had to come looking for me; he knew where we were going to meet.
“Hey,” he says.
“Hey,” I say, offering a small smile back.
He sits down with an exaggerated sigh and squints up at the sky. “Nice day, huh?”
I snort, grabbing at the strands of hair that keep tickling my nose and getting stuck in my eyelashes. “Sure, except for this damn wind.”
He looks at me and laughs shortly. I can only see narrow slits of those chocolate eyes, but those slivers glimmer almost amber in this angle of sunlight.
“So, you’ve got questions for me, right?”
I realize I’m staring and look down quickly, glancing through my notes. “Right. Um, so what is the memory you want to talk about?”
“Original start,” he remarks, dry humor coloring his voice. I shoot him my no-nonsense glare. “Ok, ok,” he says, raising his hands as if to ward off a blow. “A negative memory, huh?”
I sigh inaudibly, starting to get annoyed at his continued avoidance of the subject. Then I realize I’d be doing the same thing and force myself to sit still and look patient.
“Well, I’ve been to jail.” There is a brief span of silence.
“What.” It’s not so much a question as it is a sarcastic, one-eye-brow-raised statement of my disbelief.
“Yep. But I was only there for a couple of weeks, and i’s not the memory I’m going to talk about.”
“Really. Then please, do continue.”
He looks at me, and this time I can tell he’s serious. “The negative – or, rather, haunting memory I have – is about what I did before I was in jail.” His voice is low and full of emotion now, and even in that short sentence, I could tell he’s been dreading this interview just as much as I’m dreading mine.
“Okaaay?” I say slowly, making the word a drawn-out, half sarcastic question. Despite how nervous his seriousness is starting to make me, I try to maintain my sardonic façade. It’s a shield as much as a mask.
He just looks at me, and the grief in his brown eyes is startlingly intense. “I’ve done the unspeakable,” he says. “I did something terrible; something that brought someone else a lot of pain.” His shoulders are shivering in barely controlled emotion now, and his hands are clenched savagely into fists, his mouth compressed into a thin line.
He’s quiet for what seems like a very long time, but then he says in a voice barely more than a whisper, “I’ve never told this to anyone before.”
“Then why are you telling me?” I say before I can stop myself. My former façade is slipping, and I know some of my panic is seeping into my eyes because whatever he was going to say is stopped, trembling on his lips. He studies me more closely, the intensity of his emotions relaxing a little with the distraction I’ve posed.
“Because,” he says finally, his voice again under control but just as intense as before, “you are the closest thing I have to a friend.”
I am? Since when? What the hell makes you think we’re friends?
“And,” he continues, “because I can tell you’re not as hard as you want to seem. You’ve been hurt, but even though I don’t know what happened to you, I think you’ll understand this.”
I snort and sit back, managing to slam down the walls of my façade again. I had been leaning toward him as he spoke, drawn to the intensity of our exchange, but no more. He’d slipped past my defenses as I trembled, weak before the threat his words posed on my fragile control, but he won’t again. No man will.
“What a load of bullshit,” I say. “You don’t ‘get’ me, ok? Hurry up and tell me what your memory is so we can both be done with this stupid assignment.” I look down, trying to look busy with the pen and blank pages in my hand. Trying to actually get myself back under control.
I glance up when he takes too long to reply and realize he’s staring at me with perception way too strong to bluff out of again.
“WHAT?” I almost shout at him, my control finally slipping almost beyond my grasp. A couple of girls sitting two tables down glance in my direction, but I don’t care. I’m barely able to control my mouth as words I know I will regret leap unbidden to my lips.
“I– You– you can’t–” I stammer, my chest heaving with the chaos of emotion storming inside me. But the air dies in my lungs at his next, nearly inaudible words.
“I raped someone.”
- - -
I don’t realize I’m running until I almost crash headlong into a group of students walking slowly across the path from one building to the next on their way to class. Their startled stares rake me from head to toe as I stop running, my chest heaving, my eyes blurry with tears.
I walk as quickly as I can to the nearest bathroom with my head down and my hands balled into fists at my sides, rushing through the door and slamming the stall closed behind me. I sink to the floor and curl up in the corner, my forehead resting against my knees.
Then the trembling starts, and I know it will be a while before it fades away, along with the remnants of the flashback’s dreamy tendrils that still flutter around the edges of my vision.
Why? I want to scream the question at the tiled walls and plaster ceiling, but I know the noise will only attract people, and the people will call the police or the paramedics or both, and
then the nightmare will only get worse.
But it’s all I can ask, all I can think. Why did it have to be Jake? Why did his memory have to be that? He was wrong. I cannot understand him, nor his pain. What right does a rapist have to feel pain? What right does a rapist have to walk free in this world, talking to female classmates about his horrible, repulsive, sickening past? In fact, despite my unusual past compared to that of other girls, what right did he have to talk to any girl about that?
I close my eyes and let the tears fall, feeling them tickle down my cheek and chin, tapping delicately against the skin of my thighs. I thought life would be better, even easier attending school again. I was wrong. Nothing is easier and nothing is better. Monsters roam the halls and sidewalks here, masquerading in male form, hunting me because I carry the scent of one who served one of their own and fled – hurt and trembling and insane, but alive. I am easy prey, weak prey, foolish prey…
And prey flees.
- - -
I’m still not sure if doing this was the right decision, but here I am. Worrying about it won’t change the outcome, but still, I can’t help it. Was it worth the plane ticket and hours of work it took to find an email address he still checks?
An uneasy mix of hope and uncertainty makes my palms start to sweat as I get out of my car and sit down on one of the benches that line the park’s perimeter. My eyes wander over the shiny new play set and swings swarming with children recently freed from their classroom bondage, watching them scream and laugh, fall and cry, chase and wrestle, little eyes squinted in the bright, warm sunshine. Their mothers stand at the edge of the playground, busy on their phones, taking pictures or talking to one another. One mother breaks off her conversation to yell, “Brady, don’t push!” at a curly-haired toddler trying to steal a swing from another little boy. It’s funny how much keener a mother’s peripheral vision can seem compared to ordinary people.
In my own peripheral vision I notice a man walking towards me on the path around the park, and my heartbeat quickens when I recognize Jake. He sits down beside me on the bench, and my confused mix of emotions upon seeing him again for the first time in five years makes it hard to control my features and voice, but I do. I’ve had years of practice, now.
“Hi,” I say, looking at him with a quick smile.
“Hi,” he says. We sit in silence for a few long minutes, watching the children scream and play around the playset, but finally, Jake can’t stand the quiet anymore. “So…” he says hesitantly, “I’ve always wondered: what happened that day you ran?”
A grim smile plays at the corners of my mouth, and I let it stay there. “I quit that school and applied to a state university across the country.”
He stared at me in surprise. “You dropped everything and left?”
“Yup.” I let the wind fill the silence for a while before adding, “And yes, you were the reason.” I glance sidelong at him as I say the words, and catch the fleeting glimpse of pain and regret in his pretty brown eyes.
He’s matured in the last five years too, though, and his next words are well controlled and free of any emotion other than curiosity: “Why? Why am I the reason? I remember what I told you that day, but I’ve gone over what I said over and over again, and I can’t figure out what would have made you run – especially so far away.”
Hell, he may have gotten better at his self-control, but he’s as oblivious as ever. Five years and he doesn’t have an inkling of what may have happened to make me react that way?
“No?” I say, trying unsuccessfully to keep all the sarcasm out of my voice. “You can’t imagine why a 20-year-old freshman in college would run from the confession of 24-year-old college student rapist?”
He doesn’t flinch as my words, but his words are even more tightly controlled when they come.
“Amber, I hardly knew – know! – anything about you. How could I possibly guess what made you–”
“Jake, any girl would have reacted the way I did,” I say, cutting him off. “Maybe they wouldn’t have run in quite the same amount of panic as I did, but you had just confessed to rape. What girl wouldn’t have been intimidated by that?”
“Ok, then why did you react differently than other girls?” Jake asks.
I sigh and look at him with a gentler expression than before. “I was raped, Jake. When I was 18, the summer after I graduated high school.”
His shock is expected, if not as extreme as I expected. “I– I see,” he says, subdued.
I want to say, ‘I’m sure you do,’ but I was the one who initiated this meeting, and I want to part ways without any antagonism left between us.
“I took that psych class in an attempt to continue school, more than two years after it happened,” I say instead. “I was too traumatized to start college right away that fall, and more drama ensued with my rapist over the second year when he was caught, investigated and tried. I wasn’t a part of the trial because my rape had happened too long before he was caught, but he was a serial rapist, so he was condemned to life in prison with no chance of parole. So when I finally started college, it was at the urging of my parents and best friend; an effort to help me get past the past.”
“And then I came along,” Jake says when the silence after my explanation gets too long.
“And then you came along,” I agree. “I was so fragile, even then, after more than two years had passed.” An involuntary shiver slithers up my spine as I remember the state of my mind at that time. “And then you go and blurt out something like that.” I shake my head, a rueful smile playing at my lips again.
“But you’re able to talk about it and smile about it now.” He’s studying me, but his searching doesn’t affect me. Once, it might have unsettled me, but now I can meet his gaze without fear.
“I can talk about it, and I can smile at the irony, yes. But that’s not what I asked you to come to hear.”
A smile touches his lips, now. “What, you mean you didn’t think you owed me an explanation?”
“Careful now, sir,” I reply, letting the smile return to my lips, too. “Don’t get ahead of
yourself. I didn’t ask to meet you because I think I owe you anything. I asked to talk to you
because I owe myself something, and it’s far overdue.”
His expression goes blank with control again, and I can only guess he’s bracing himself for what I’m going to say next, but I go on anyway. My words aren’t meant to cause pain.
“I forgive you,” I say quietly as I hold his gaze. The emotions that flash in his eyes are wild and potent, and I can tell by his stiff posture that he’s struggling with himself, fighting for control. What he thinks of my statement, though, I can’t tell, so I go on.
“I’ve come to realize over these past few years that the only way I can truly let go of all the pain my rapist put me though is to come to some sort of decision about you – the rapist I know personally.”
Tears fill his eyes, now, and I can read the dominant emotions that waver behind the film of tears: grief, gratitude, wonder.
“I need closure,” I say, feeling the weight of my words as they spring to my lips, “and the best way I can do that is to let go of all the lingering emotions the past had burdened me with, and for me, you have become a representation of my past. I don’t care is that sounds cheesy or weird; pain has a certain profoundness to it, and I’ve lived with this pain for long enough.” He nods, and seems to be getting a grip on his emotions again. The new tears don’t fall.
“So I forgive you,” I say again. “I forgive you for causing the uproar in the control I had when we met in that class, but more importantly, I forgive you of your crime, too. I’ve come to realize over time that it took a shitload of courage to tell me what you did that day, and that such a confession also mean that you regretted what you did very much. You wouldn’t have confessed it if you didn’t. So…” I search for the right words for a few seconds. “Thank you for meeting me today. That’s all I have to say.” I stick out my hand, suddenly embarrassed by the emotions I displayed and the amount of my past I had revealed.
He takes it slowly, still staring at me with those unfathomable chocolate eyes, and with a gentle shake, we part ways, the children’s laughter ringing in my ears as I walk back to my car. He stays where he is, staring after me; I can feel his eyes on my back.
I never saw nor heard from him again, but I didn’t need to. Not anymore.