The Story

by Rebecca James
The Story by Rebecca James

2013 Nonfiction Contest Winner, judged by Ira Sukrungruang


I am woozy. We’re walking around his frat house, and I’m so drunk my skin feels hot. He’s wearing a sweatshirt, a blue zip-up, and I’m wearing a sailor girl dress of my roommate’s, thin pinstripes. It’s a Friday night, a lifting of school-induced stress, and we have nothing better to do. We came to visit my roommate’s friend. I’ve never had Mad Dog before, and every room tastes like orange. I talk with all of them: an archipelago of sweaty faces I swirl between. We walk to a room, drink beer, talk about someone’s soccer trophies. And then the next room, with the Boondock Saints poster, and they are all impressed that I know the prayer by heart, even the Latin sign of the cross: in Nomeni Patri Et Fili Spiritus Sancti. Lite beer fizzes in my mouth tasting like the pop-pop of perfect poetry, the slippery words.


When you talk about it, and you will rarely talk about it, you will say “taken advantage of.” Rape is such a hard word to fit in the mouth, it bumps molars and gums beneath your tongue, like peanut butter with no milk. It’s a word that sounds best boxed in a television set: episodes of Law and Order while your mother waits for the timer to buzz on the Weis veggie pizza, or the local news segments your roommate watches as she flatirons her hair. It sounds best with police lights spinning in the background. It’s not a word you’d ever use with yourself. It is a story word, a bad, sinful sound.


He tells me his major is marketing. He tucks my hair behind my ear, and he is so gentle that all I can do is hold my breath for fear of shattering something. It is dark in his room, and his eyes shine, like all the stars have gone out. The air conditioning unit beneath his window kicks on and sounds like a crowd rearing up.

I’ve never had Mad Dog before. The Latin sign of the cross repeats in my head—in Nomeni Patri Et Fili Spiritus Sancti—and I kiss him, and he says my name like a breathy benediction. He kisses me. My fingertips turn tingly with want. With my eyes closed, I am spinning in an alcohol kaleidoscope. His bedroom turns belly-up, the door is open, it is closed; in the name of the father, I think: Sunday words, Easter shoes, and ruffled socks. World without end, amen. He smiles.


Rape does not have a lot of synonyms, so you will have to get creative. Dig up the joint thesaurus and rhyming dictionary your mother keeps with the salt-stained cookbooks in the pantry. Assaulted, tricked, hoodwinked, bamboozled. That last one has you thinking speakeasies and zoot suits, but it’s easier to swallow, going down like a gel cap. Rape is a halting word, and you must never halt. You must never halt, you must never. If you stop to catch your breath, if you think about it too hard, the words will congeal, and nothing will be right-side-up anymore. What is rape, you ask. Rape is rape, simple as that. It has to be simple as that.


I am woozy.


We’re sitting on a couch in his bedroom, and I’ve spilt a can of beer all down myself, and my dress smells like musk and barley. He offers me a brown bath towel still damp. Or he doesn’t.

We’re walking around his frat house, and I’m so drunk my body is shivering. He offers me a sweatshirt, a blue zip-up, and I’ve spilt a beer all down myself, and he tells me his major is finance. I tell him my major is writing, and that my name is Becka, and when he shakes my hand in the hallway, he does it nice and strong, like my daddy says is the mark of a good man.


Or he doesn’t. What I need you to understand is that there are many versions of this story, there are many ways I remember it. They are overlapping, and they are foggy, and they are all true.


He has big hands, but small hips. Curly hair. He pulls off my sailor dress clean over my head, and I realize there are no posters in his room, and I have nothing to say. The mattress wheezes when we relax into it, and I think of lungs. My inhaler, stashed in my desk drawer across town, between short stories and novels: my collected Chekhov. His mouth makes word shapes on my neck, and I think, I’ll write about this. Somewhere there is a story, iron and small, and I will find it.


There will be days you feel like you were raped and days you don’t. There will be nights you will be afraid to walk back from the library alone. Buy running shoes, knot them tight. When you go home for winter break and your brother steps on the blue rhinoceros dog toy at two in the morning, do not cry. Squeeze it until the squeak breaks and then throw it away. When you see him— him—in the computer lab and he waves at you, do not panic. Do not wave back. When you wake up crying, do not belittle yourself. Lock the door. Look for weapons: a screwdriver from the recently hung drapes, a beer bottle, your two good hands. Put your head under the covers and fall back asleep thinking rape, rape, rape, until it’s just sounds, until it could mean anything.


When he shakes my hand in the hallway, he squeezes too hard. My daddy wouldn’t like him. He has curly hair like a wild medusa-head hazy in the hallway, and I’m shivering. He tells me his major is accounting, and I tell him my major is writing, and he asks what I want to do with that, and I tell him I don’t know, and I tell him I don’t want to have sex, and he tells me we won’t.

He has big hands, and we are rolling, him on top, me on top. My hair is plastic wrap on my neck. My skin feels tight. I say I don’t want to. Alright, he says, pushing himself up onto his elbows.

But my heart is a stammer in the silence, and my blood is jumping in my veins, and I can hear someone puking in the bathroom next door, the dirty work flushing through the pipes, and when did I take my dress off, my roommate’s dress, and where did she get to anyway. Why am I alone? Why am I alone?


Every time you tell the story it is different, even if the words haven’t changed. You say it differently to your best friend, with her sailor mouth, her vulgar and raunchy throat. Differently to your sister, the virgin, with her snow-globe eyes and her innocence. You say it differently to your ex-boyfriend, the night you let him kiss you in his car over Christmas break, let him slide your panties down in the passenger seat, like maybe he can finger fuck this whole confusion out of you. You bite his shoulder as hard as you can. As hard as you can without him telling you to stop. Two fingers curl inside, and you bend your body into a comma, wondering why you can never be inside yourself the same way they can.


I say I don’t want to. He has big hands, and we are rolling. I think I try to sit up, but he presses my stomach down, and with his lips to my belly button, I agree.

I pull him back down on top of me, and his bangs fall into my eyes, his tiny medusas. He says we don’t need a condom, and I say I don’t want to, but one of us guides him inside. I take fistfuls of comforter, there’s a small tornado, twisting tighter, and I say I don’t want to, but then I say harder, and he listens, even though I don’t think he will. In and in and in, and I’m having trouble breathing. He pulls out, and I open my mouth for him instead. I picture him, gluey and salt-tasting, swimming around my molars, and I want to vomit. I remember thinking: I don’t want to remember this. I will not talk about this. I will not write about it. Something has happened.

There are long seconds. White walls. My roommate’s dress is a million feet away on the floor. My roommate. My roommate. I am woozy.


Some days, it feels like a lie to say I was raped. Some days, it doesn’t. Say you have the choice between being the girl who slept with a stranger, or the girl who was sexually abused. You don’t know which pushes you further away from yourself. You don’t know which you want to be true.


Make an appointment at your university’s health center to get tested. You will pee in a cup. You will wait for results. In the meantime, add WebMD to your Firefox favorites. Memorize symptoms. Google image female STDs and scroll through pages of weeping lesions, inflamed labia. Look until you stop blushing. Until it becomes scientific. Hypothesize. Spread your knees on the toilet and maneuver your CoverGirl compact. Remind yourself that many cases don’t show symptoms. Remind yourself of the fatality percentages. When the health center calls, the test will come back negative for Chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes, syphilis, three different kinds of hepatitis. A clean bill of health. But wait. The nurse on the phone will tell you to make an appointment six months in the future to test for HIV. You will stare at the blue veins trident-forked in your wrist and think about anatomy your senior year of high school, about phospholipid bilayers and antibodies. The letters “HIV” are razorblades, so you draw a tiny circle instead in the calendar corner, the same way your roommate tracks her period, sneaky. Program the phone number for your university’s health center into your speed dial, and wait. And wait. And wait.


He walks me back to my room after. I am shivering, and he kisses my forehead like he is taking my temperature. His hands are small now, and some house up the street is playing music. Techno, pricky vibraphone, the music thumps in my eardrums, and there is a small heartbeat between my legs, a hot question mark.

Did I want to?

Did I?

I let him kiss me on my forehead, a goodnight signed, sealed, and delivered. He kisses me with lips the color of grenadine, the color of love made. I stare nitwitted at the sky, an October sky with an orange moon, and I think of his body pressed against mine, like clouds trying to keep the secret of stars.


He walks me back to my room after, and I cry to myself the whole while.


When the red pen day arrives, put on a short skirt and rain boots, though it isn’t raining. Spend the afternoon in the library and stare at pages of poetry, though you will only be able to think of syringes and centrifuges, duck lips and cold hands. This was never supposed to happen to you. You, the Catholic school Mary Jane, the hometown librarian’s daughter. What were the chances that some ashtray of a man would pick you? You’d never had Mad Dog before. And were there others? Mathematics will acrobat around your brain, trying to reason the probability of disease. You haven’t prayed in years, but you will pray now, in the name of the father. When you leave the library, throw your planner and CoverGirl compact in the recycling bin next to the book return and walk back to your room in the dark, feeling a crick in your right knee you’re much too young for. You will pass a couple entwined on a wrought-iron bench. You watch as he yanks her shirt, and creamy white muffin top spills out: the best secret a girl can keep. Walk past them, thinking of bodies and the ways in which we taint them. Wonder if you’re healthy. Wonder if you’re sick. Delete the health center from your phone and walk back to your room taking light steps, like apologies.


Here’s the silver lining: the moment you say the word “rape,” all responsibility wisps away. Nobody will blame you. In fact, you can blame it on whatever you like. Blame it on the alcohol. Blame it on porn and the way women dance in music videos; blame society. Blame your roommate’s pinstripe dress, the creeping hemline; blame the worldly insistence that this equates consent. Blame it on the boys in seventh grade who never called you back. Blame it on the ones who did; blame the nice guys, for letting your guard down. Blame your high school religion teacher with her black-and-white ultrasound abortion videos and her bible verses; your body was a temple built on a fault line. Blame the nuns for putting you in detention on the hottest days of spring. Blame the plaid skirts, the stereotypes. Blame Disney. Blame it on never seeing your parents kiss. Blame it on the hole your daddy made in the plaster the day he threw the trashcan at your bedroom door; it’s only love if it leaves a mark. Blame your mother’s silence. Blame the only boy you ever dated, the one who never thanked you for the poems, who made you wait thirty minutes after sex before saying, “I love you.” Blame it on the alcohol; blame it on the syntax and the story and the speaker. Blame anything, and stay awake at night drafting endings, grabbing for some desperate metaphor that will let you sleep.


My memories have less and less to do with what I remember. The story is taking over. Every time I say it, it means less. Like ripping a band-aid in reverse, cover it up, antiseptic. If you say a word enough times, it loses its meaning. If you tell a story enough times, maybe it will just become a story.

It’s been weeks, and I still can’t masturbate. It’s after two. I’m sick of looking at the clock, so I leave my sheets twisted on my bed and grab a towel. I think a shower might help, might wash something away. The water slurps down my skin. The steam is in my eyes, my lungs, hibernating my heartbeat. My hand slides between my legs, subconscious, and I close my eyes. Thumb my clit. The sound of the water on the tile, the air conditioning unit in the window, my dip-and-lift breathing. The first waves of tightness sizzle into my thighs, and I ride them with my voice, a fragment moan. And then I freeze.

I wrap myself in a towel and meet my eyes in the mirror. I have mascara rivers to my collarbones. I don’t even remember putting mascara on today. I remember getting dressed and walking back from night class, alone; I remember tunnel vision, the impossibility of breathing in public. I put the stopper in the sink and run the tap until the basin fills with water.

I balance my fingers on the water’s surface, touching so lightly that I might not be touching at all. I wrack my brain, but I don’t think there’s a word for this, the line where air becomes water. I push my fingers down and let my hand be encased, and the water spills over the edge of the sink. I wonder if this is what it was like for him to be inside me. To penetrate something, separating it from itself to fit yourself in.

I am in the mirror, and I’m thinking: this is a person who was raped. These are the parts of a person who was raped. The word is a tumor in my mouth, tarmac and oil-slick, a bulbous bitch. And this is how I know it’s true.


I can see it. I remember it. I do. I almost do. His hair is curly, and I can’t find my roommate. It’s not my favorite story. All I really remember is shivering.

Rebecca James was born and raised in the sweetest of towns, Hershey, Penn-sylvania. She attended Susquehanna University and graduated in the spring of 2013 with a degree in creative writing. She is currently pursuing an MFA in fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.