My friend gave my pages back to me. He said, “If you’re saying this is rape, you need to make the scene clearer. You need to make us hate this guy and feel shit for this chick.”
I attempted to explain. “What is not rape about it? He put all his weight on her. He took off her clothes. She did not have a real opportunity to protest.”
“She went out to his house. She talks about how he’s hot and how she’s into him. He’s nice to her for awhile.”
Yes. And she wanted to be wanted. She needed men to want her. That’s how she felt good about herself. She wasn’t looking for sex. Maybe at some point, but not on that night. Sex was not her agenda. I know these things.
My friend pressed. He said, “That’s not how it reads. You wrote a sex scene. All I read here is sex.”
He stripped her, and held her down, and said, let me feel you, and then started fucking her. She didn’t have time to protest. It was one thing and then he was fucking and consent should not be passive.
My friend shook his head. He didn’t buy it. Didn’t buy her. Didn’t buy her motives. He did not believe her. He wanted more booze, maybe. More rape.
“We’re going to need more rape.”
My friend was just a friend though. Just a guy who liked to write science-fiction and read the Ender’s Game series. He wasn’t my target audience. These were my pre-MFA years, too. I was rudderless. A vessel with no direction. My friend should not be expected to understand rape in the context I presented it, and the scene I’d written wasn’t the greatest in the history of literature. Maybe he was right. My character went to her rapist’s house, and she made out with the rapist, and she went into his bedroom, and she made out with the rapist some more and just because she got uncomfortable with how he handled her didn’t make him a rapist. Sexual regret is not sexual assault. My character did not have the right to feel violated. What I put her through wasn’t fucked up enough, so I revised the scene.
I turned new pages over to a female writer friend. I asked her not to judge the work overall, but I needed to know how she defined the scene: rape or sex? “Definitely rape,” she said. However, she felt the protagonist did not have any agency. She wasn’t making conscious choices. She needed to commit to being at this guy’s house, and she needed to have made a clear choice to be with him that night. My girl didn’t have agency. Without agency, and this is a shitty thing to say, the reader can’t feel sympathy for her. The reader feels about her and not for her. She was too drunk, for starters.
But it’s her thing to be insecure and boozy and inappropriate and seeking male attention for the wrong reasons because of a lack of strong male guidance, right? The whole novel is a chance for her to develop agency. The plot is that she develops agency and owns her emotional turmoil.
“No, but the plot can’t be her emotional struggle,” said a woman on the phone a bunch of years later because I’d signed up for a thing where I got a 30 minute chat with a New York agent about my query letter. “As soon as I saw the word emotional in your query, I thought you probably had a weak plot. What happens to this guy throughout the rest of the novel? Does she ever confront him?”
“She doesn’t. We don’t hear much about him after the first few chapters. We just deal with her aftermath, and how her friendships change, and her relationship with her best friend who’s a guy, and some issues with her family and inside herself,” I said.
“The guy should come back in the second half. Maybe she should report it to the police. Maybe she should be more proactive about being a voice. Or maybe she doesn’t report it to police. Maybe she sees him out at a coffee shop or something and she has a big confrontation. I’m not saying she has to take him to court or anything, but something bigger needs to happen.”
The rape scene was not big enough of a thing to happen. I moved it to chapter three so I could open on a party scene: a drunk chick getting drunker but with more inner struggle about it. We will meet our girl before she gets raped so people will like her better. Party girls are a challenge to accept though, right? She puts off this “come fuck me” vibe, and men have no choice but to fuck her thereby meeting her and everyone’s expectations. She does not make it easy for any of us to feel sympathy. She’s just easy.
Girls: we need some likable, reliable narrators.
Without the party, without the self-destruction and risky behavior, she probably would not have hooked up with this guy. If she’d had any sort of self-awareness about her, if she’d taken a few minutes to pay attention to the self-esteem building workshops she had to endure in junior high, then the story would just be a story about good choices and good choices are super-boring. Men don’t like women who are boring. Though they do like easy.
I took the rape story to workshops, and workshops offered suggestions. She’s too drunk now. She’s not drunk enough. Girls drinking too much is a turn-off. Girls drinking is hot. Or, maybe she can get drunk but then we need to experience her sober too. Maybe she needs to be sober first. Maybe we see her sober, then drunk, then making choices and showing agency, but also she’s weak, but also she needs to understand those choices she made.
I nodded, and I worked because I was committed to the rape story. I wanted the rape story to be good, and my writing peers wanted the rape story to be good. The rape story had to work hard to rise to the occasion of solid literature.
I sweat and bled for the rape story so it could come to its beautiful climax. I revised the circumstances of the rape story to match the broader rape narrative. The rape story had to be obvious. No thin, gray line. The rape story had to be rock solid. I could not allow space for misinterpretation. I could not allow for anyone to come back and say, “That is not what happened to you. I will tell you what happened to you and it was not rape.” The writing had to be immovable. Relatively strange men take advantage of unsuspecting women because rape is not about sex rather it’s about power. The rape story must be crafted in such ways that it is palatable.
My novel’s genesis was the trauma after the trauma because I’d read once Amy Hempel liked to explore traumas after traumas, and I wanted to be like Amy Hempel. The novel as a whole struggled too much in the aftermath, so I pulled the rape story out and made it stand alone. I suggested to the rape story that is needed to hold all the pressing weight because how the rape story dealt with itself post-event fell flat. The rape story climaxed in 2013 when it was published at fwriction: review. In the comments, a reader wrote “trigger, warning for rape survivors” and I thought, thank god.
During the summer of 1999, the summer I turned 21, I liked my friend’s roommate, but he didn’t seem interested in me and instead, the roommate’s friend, Peter, started coming around. Please place a heaping amount of emphasis on this: I liked Peter. He was a volunteer firefighter, barrel-chested, and nice on the eyes.
This one night, we all went downtown to get shitty. Peter and my friends and some of Peter’s friends. Maloney’s was loud because that’s what Maloney’s was, and you can’t really have conversations in that place. Peter brought me a brown shot. I held it up like what the hell is in it? And he leaned all of his weight into me, in that way guys lean into girls with all their weight, and he yelled, “It’s called liquid cocaine.” I still must have seemed skeptical. “Whiskey,” he clarified. “Lots of whiskey.”
I hate whiskey. When I was 16, I drank a bottle of whiskey sort of on accident, sort of because I didn’t know better, and probably should have gone to the hospital but instead I slept on the floor the bathroom of my friend’s house until I was better enough to stand up without falling. I drank the whiskey Peter gave me. Thick, brown liquid crawled down my throat and brought that night in high school back. He brought me another. I didn’t resist.
He must really like me, I thought, to buy me all these shots.
The liquid cocaine shots did not have the same effect on a small girl that it did on a small man and soon I was foggy again, spiraling. Peter remained upright. I got drunk, fast, and my friends took me home because they were good friends, and I was not good for myself.
A week later, or maybe it was a few days, I was at a friend’s place helping her pack up her apartment. She was moving out of town to start a job. We’d planned to watch a movie and hang out. But before I’d left I’d gotten a call that a bunch of people were having a campfire, and Peter would be there, and Peter wanted to see me.
After probably 45 minutes, I convinced my friend who was moving out of town to drive us over to the campfire instead of pack, but it took a long time for us to find it. We drove around in the woods for an hour. We didn’t have cell phones. Other people, rich people, had cell phones. We didn’t have GPS. In the late 90s, we had the Blair Witch and cigarettes.
When we finally arrived to the fire, Peter was getting ready to go because it’d taken us like three hours to get there. He asked if I would walk with him. I said yes. He kissed me. It was the first time he’d kissed me at all. I didn’t feel much. I thought, ok, this guy is kissing me, and he’s attractive, but I didn’t get the obsessive spark, and I didn’t feel giddy, and I didn’t feel like I wanted to kiss him back much longer but I did because I needed the attention.
He asked for my number, and I gave it to him.
When he called, we went back and forth on what we should do. Should he come to my place or should I go to his? These were the kind of dates I had. This was the kind of risky behavior I indulged in. We decided I’d go to his.
He lived on the edge of town. I had to drive in the very dark for a long time on a frontage road, then turn off on a dirt road. Please place more heaping emphasis on this: I continued to make the choice to drive down a dirt road to where Peter lived.
It was a large house, five bedrooms or maybe six, but no one else was home. He had roommates at different times for different reasons. He offered me a beer. During the entire time I was there, I might have had two but not more than three because I had to drive. We sat in his living room and he turned on the TV. We watched The Simpsons. I’m ok with The Simpsons, meaning I appreciate their place in pop culture and often find nostalgia-fueled solace in some of the catch phrases, but I wouldn’t say I’m a laugh-out-loud fan. South Park, yes. The Simpsons, sometimes. Peter died. He like actually died he laughed so hard. I tried to laugh too, but I couldn’t. He noticed.
“You don’t like The Simpsons?” he asked.
He made a big gesture when he said it. He stood up and moved closer to me and put his arms around me. We started to make out. Ok, I thought, because this is what I do. I drink, and I make out and sometimes it goes a little farther and sometimes not.
He pulled back. “I’ve never given a girl an orgasm,” he said.
I didn’t know what to say. I don’t remember what I said. My silence was encouraging, I guess, because he unbuttoned my jeans and riffled through my underwear and then inserted his fingers inside me. Less like passion and more like he was attempting to stuff something up a small crevice. Lots of digging and jamming and faster and faster and jamming, and it hurt. You can’t make anyone orgasm because you’re technique sucks. I didn’t say this. I just let him do it because I didn’t know what else to do. It hurt. With his other hand, he groped me. He licked my neck. It hurt. I said I had to go to the bathroom.
He led me back to his room and said I could use his bathroom. I tried to go but I couldn’t go. Sometimes, I need to turn on the water or distract myself in some capacity. Stage fright. Fear of making a sound.
In his bedroom, he had his shirt off and he had me sit next to him on the bed, and I did. He resumed kissing me. He covered me with his body and piece by piece, took off my clothes.
Self-conscious, I said, “We’re naked.”
Because he was naked too. We were both naked. He started the jamming thing again. The I lost my keys, and I think they’re behind the couch but I can’t quite reach them thing.
“I want to feel you,” he said and then he paused.
Oh, ok. He paused.
“Let me put it in,” he said.
He was on top of me, and he was basically already there, and so now the formality made little sense to me. Then he just did it. One, two, and he started to just go a little faster, and I finally, finally—I finally—asked if he had a condom.
I laid underneath him, sore and cold, and instead of saying to stop, instead of saying no, I asked if he had a condom. Please note this heaping emphasis on reasonable assumption of my consent.
“No one wants a baby right now,” I said.
He pulled away. “Oh. Yeah. I think I do have one somewhere.”
He got up and went into his bathroom, and I got dressed like super-fast, like cheetah-speed fast, because I had a compulsive need to cover myself like someone had walked in on me changing. He came out of the bathroom, and I was at his bedroom door moving down the hall, so I said I was going to have a cigarette. I gathered everything I’d brought with me, and he followed me out to his front porch. He asked if he could have one. He said even though he was a volunteer firefighter, he liked to smoke. He said that made him different from the other guys. He stood behind me and put one arm around my chest and then undid my pants again and went in from behind. He did the digging thing again, like almost lifting me up, and I didn’t finish my cigarette but said I had to put it out and moved toward whatever was on the porch that functioned as an ashtray. He let me go.
When I got home, I drew a bath, because I was new to apartment living after having been in the dorms for the three years, and I had the agency to control how I bathed myself. I sat in the water. A long, soaking cliché.
In the morning, when I put on my underwear, I felt weird. Swollen. I reached out and felt that yes, I was swollen. Raw skin rubbed against my underwear all day.
I called a friend. She alternatively laughed in an uncomfortable way and then was silent while I told her about the finger drilling and the naked and the condom he had to get and that was my escape. I wondered, legitimately, if I needed to count him as a sexual partner.
“Maybe half?” I asked.
“Half might make people think of blow jobs,” she said. Then, “I don’t like that he did that to you.”
But no. Because he didn’t get off. He didn’t get to finish. I left him frustrated. So no one did anything to anyone, and I didn’t care and it was over.
I asked another friend and her boyfriend. Her boyfriend and I weren’t great pals. When he came to my apartment, sometimes he’d watch scrambled porn. Not long before I asked him to define my sexual encounter, he and I had a non-ironic argument about Garth Brooks versus Chris Gaines. Regardless of topic, he usually took the opposite position as me but I needed a male perspective.
Her boyfriend told me what I did was harsh. Cruel. Leaving him pent up like that. My friend wrinkled her nose and said she didn’t know if I had to count it. The boyfriend said I for sure had to count it. He went in, didn’t he? That’s penetration.
So then I had to relay that story to the first friend who said, the more she thought about it, the more she felt disturbed. We started to call him Penetration Peter, or PP. We laughed a lot about it. We made into a big joke. What happened to me was just dumb. Just a dumb result of a dumb decision. I did not have a right to continue to feel fucked up about it. Much worse has happened to other women.
Peter called. He left a nice message on my answering machine asking me to give him a call. I didn’t call. A few days later, he called again. I didn’t call him back. It was a crappy date, and I wanted to move on.
Some months later, another friend—a friend who did not know about Peter—and I went out to eat at Red Lobster. Red Lobster or Olive Garden or Outback was the place we all went when we wanted to have a nice dinner. Penetration Peter was our waiter.
“Oh,” he said.
“Oh,” I said. “Hi.”
He moved closer to me, leaned toward me. He asked how I was. I said fine. He took our drink orders. My friend said, “Who was that guy?”
“A guy I went out with. I never called him back, and I hope he doesn’t spit or jerk off into my food,” I said. I briefly discussed what happened at his house. The drilling. The naked. The penetration. “Do you think I have to count him—
“Dude,” she said. “That is fucked up. That is super-fucked up what he did.”
But no, because I didn’t do anything for him. He didn’t get off. It doesn’t count, really, as anything because who cares, it was just a bad date, and he was gross. Really. Just gross. Just a gross encounter and I guess what it should be is a lesson. An important lesson. I should have learned something important from that night (which I didn’t until years later), and then gone on about my day and not even said anything.
“He’s a piece of shit,” my friend said. “You should stay away from him.”
PP was back. He put my drink down. He put my friend’s drink down. She didn’t look at him. He took our food orders, then brought our food, then eventually our bill, and then he said goodbye, almost sad, and he lingered in front of me like a sad kitten, and I felt bad, like I’d done something horrible to him and he didn’t know how to tell me I’d hurt him.