What most surprised me when I encountered Frank, the man who had raped me twenty-eight years earlier, was that I wondered if he still found me attractive. I’d never considered the possibility that I might run into him. If I had, I would have anticipated anger, rage, uncontrollable fury, some overpowering emotion, even so many years later. Instead, I felt only a curious apathy. He could have been any middle-aged man, and like a teenager preening for her first date, I worried about my outfit.
It was a few years ago, on the final morning of my college reunion in upstate New York. I was relaxing with friends in the lobby of the mid-seventies modern dorm where our reunion class had been housed for the weekend—the same dorm I was assigned to my freshman year. The rooms had the same scratched furniture, the same pitted linoleum, and the same faded orange curtains. The identical rancid-beer smell permeated the halls. It was a foul stink, but on reunion Sunday, the old stench couldn’t spoil my mood. I was the second place women’s finisher for my class in a Reunion Fun Run—my only race award ever—and my name was posted prominently on a signboard near the lobby information desk.
“Don’t harsh my mellow,” a phrase that was popular for a brief time, pops up when I try to pinpoint my state of mind before rape reentered my consciousness.
Maybe it’s because when Frank arrived a freshman-year friend was telling me about the surfers that frequent her coffee shop on a California beach. He must have slipped in as silently as a Pacific tide, because when I glanced up, he was standing in front of me, chatting with Jane, a woman I lived with for three of my four years at college. While I studied their profiles, she unexpectedly interrupted their discussion, took his arm so that they both faced me, and said, “You remember Frank, don’t you?”
In that hyper-prolonged moment of recognition, I thought: As if I could forget, as if he were just another reunion guest, as if he were someone I wanted to see again. Didn’t Jane remember, I wondered? It was hard to imagine that something so significant had slipped my friend’s mind, but maybe it was only significant to me, after all. Perhaps she had been living her present without thinking too much about the past, at least not mine.
Or maybe, like me, Jane had forgotten his full name.
Had there been a bubble of cartoon dialogue over my head at the reunion, the words inside could have been: just curious…was I a good fuck? In the real world, I nodded and smiled hello, while I tried to work out how the handsome boy had turned into an ordinary-looking man.
It was odd that Frank looked unremarkable when, to me, he would always be a rapist. Where on his forehead was the capital letter R etched in crimson? I couldn’t remember why he had seemed attractive when we were both at school. He had kept in shape since graduation, but that was it. He was just moderate height, with nice eyes, and a decent smile. There was nothing dynamic about his presence. Nothing at all. Everything about him was so average that if I’d met him on the street for the first time, the meeting would have left no impression on me.
Yet like a girl with a crush, I gazed at Frank and wondered if he thought I looked good; wondered if he noticed my husband, who was sitting next to me; wondered if he’d heard about my reunion run medal. The insecure part of me wondered if he remembered me at all, or if I was just one of a long line of women in his life. Forgettable.
I was eighteen when I met Frank in the late fall of sophomore year. I was living in a sorority, partly because university housing was limited, and mostly because I rushed with freshman-year dorm friends, just for fun, and was then surprised when we were all chosen. My summer boyfriend and I had broken up a few weeks earlier and life had grown exceedingly dull.
One Saturday we must have been particularly bored, because my friend Linda, a former high-school prom queen, and I decided, perhaps with a few other friends, to expand the sorority’s social network. Party planning would normally have involved endless committees, lists, and meetings, but that day we simply scoured a yearbook for promising group photos and then took the steep walk from our house through the main quad down to one of the fraternity houses in the lower reaches of campus. When we explained our mission to the fraternity brother who answered the door, he summoned the social director, Frank.
My normal speech disintegrated into a childish stammer when I met Frank in the fraternity living room. I inspected the scarred leather seating, so different from the chintz-covered chairs in our house, and tried not to stare at his welcoming smile and inscrutable arms. Later I learned that Linda was infatuated with another boy that day, and she was unaffected by Frank’s aura. Secretly I was glad that I didn’t have to compete with her for his attention. By the time we left, a party had been arranged for a future Saturday night. It was that easy.
I don’t recall that party, or others that must have followed. I do remember trips to a distant pub, where Frank worked as a bartender, where Springsteen always played on the jukebox, and where I began to drink for free. I made casual visits when I was in the neighborhood, although the pub was well beyond my normal social radius. It was usually jam-packed when I arrived, as popular with students who, at eighteen, were legally entitled to drink, as with the fake-ID-crowd that wormed its way in.
I liked to watch Frank work. The way his arms extended when he reached up to pull a glass from the rack where they hung upside down on the ceiling. The hint of tightness in the shoulder muscles under his shirt as he cranked the levers that churned out cheap beer and sodas. The deft movement of his hands when he poured and shook and stirred mixed drinks. The musical rhythm of his fingers on the old-fashioned cash register that clinged with every keystroke. His smiling banter with patrons. The perfect head of foam when he filled a glass with Genesee Cream Ale, right to the top, without a single drop spilling over, not one.
It must have been beer that emboldened me when I sidled to a barstool on a February evening in my tightest jeans and a snug sweater, my skin dry and taut with a vague feeling of anticipation. I don’t know how I attracted his attention. Maybe I just looked appropriately young and stupid.
“Do you want to hang out after closing?” he asked, and promised to walk me home. “It’ll be safer,” he said.
We talked and joked on the way to the sorority, where he might have kissed me goodnight at the door. Yes, I think he did.
Everything blurs now, even another night when I found myself in a fraternity bedroom with Frank’s arms holding me down. There had been a party, drinking, though I said no to a joint. There was urgent kissing—lips, face, neck, mine, his—as we fell on a bed. More kissing, petting, rubbing, tension, and it seemed like love, but I was tangled and confused, and then pants were yanked down, a sweater wrested off, a shirt bunched up and torn, underwear and bra ripped. I felt the beginnings of pain and heard myself scream, “NO, I’m not READY,” but it was another person’s voice and what I meant to say was I’ve never done this before please stop, please stop, except those words wouldn’t come out, or if they did, it was too late. Time must have passed, but I don’t know how much. There was violent sobbing, and I felt wet tears on my naked chest. The ugly blubbering and sputtering continued, as though it were coming from someone else, while I pulled up my jeans, gathered my remaining clothes, draped my sweater around me, and began to leave the room. Frank didn’t try to stop me. He even asked me to stay the night, as though it were customary to cuddle after rape. “I’ll see you on Thursday, ” he finally said gently—referring to a date we’d made earlier—while I limped out, half-holding, half-wearing my ruined clothes, and began the uphill trudge home.
The New York February pierced my bones as I walked. A blue neon glow from campus emergency phones interspersed the midnight darkness, but I did not call anyone. Blood seeped in droplets from my vagina and trickled down my legs, yet there was no feeling of wetness, only a searing sensation of winter frost that pricked my skin, stabbing and poking my thighs with each step.
Maybe he really likes me, I chanted silently in my room that night, swaddled and sobbing in the baby-blue and brown quilt that normally lay on top of my bunk bed, my biggest Teddy bear nestled in my arms, the one my parents gave me as a moving-away- from-home present. The next day, my sorority sisters got up, went to classes, ate dinner, studied, went out, and did it again the following day, and the day after that, while I shivered under a blanket in my pajamas and couldn’t eat. I tried to explain what happened. Truly I did. They acted horrified, but I soon sensed that they thought I was exaggerating. “He’s good-looking,” someone said, “Why would you say no?” How I longed for evidence of assault—bruises, scratches, gashes, anything—but there were no visible scars. Even close friends like Jane and Linda ran out of things to say to the hysterical person I became after the quiet shock wore off. It enraged me that no one understood. No one cared that I hadn’t comprehended, until it was far too late, that I could have fought harder. That I hadn’t been strong enough to defend myself against a boy I liked so much, but didn’t know at all.
The monotonous refrain of self-doubt in my head went something like this: maybe I asked for it, maybe this is the way it was supposed to be, and maybe I just need to get over it. For me, sex and love had been conjoined—I couldn’t conceive of one without the other. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that I wanted Frank to care for me. He likes me, I continued to assure myself, as though the optimistic phrase could erase the violence. How strange to think now that his caring would have made a difference, yet in my bewildered state, it was all that mattered. Irrational as it was, I might even have reasoned that if there was affection, aggression could be tolerated.
I never spoke to my parents about Frank. My mother was married, pregnant with me, and living on a new continent by age twenty-one, and she is, even today, too private to discuss sex. We didn’t have “the talk” before I left for college, or any other time that I recall. It would have been impossible to reveal something intimate to my father, a doctor who nurtures his patients, but was always remote with his family. They would have worried, maybe insisted that I leave school, but nothing would have changed except that my immigrant parents would have been disappointed that their first born didn’t complete her university education. “What a shame,” they would have sighed, after I was out of earshot, “how could a smart girl let a boy ruin her life like that?”
Date rape was not in the late-seventies vocabulary and it never occurred to me to file an official report. We had heard rumbles and hushed whispers, second- and thirdhand, of a string of suicides on campus around that time. Yet I don’t remember newspaperaccounts. We knew that such incidents, had they been confirmed, would have hurt the pristine reputation of our academic institution. If suicide could be wiped away like rainwater from a windshield, then rape surely wasn’t worth mentioning.
Not talking didn’t help me forget. I simply blamed myself more and more, and ignored the possibility that I could be pregnant.
Here’s another part I can’t make sense of: I kept my date with Frank a few days later. Using convoluted logic, I decided that a normal date would regularize our relationship. The conventional formula: girl meets boy, they like each other, they go out, they make love, or maybe the other way around. In that fit of twisted reasoning I dressed nicely and was ready to go when he picked me up for the short stroll to a student union, where Linda tended bar.
We must have been silent as we walked, because I don’t know what we would have said.
I wanted a gin and tonic, but Frank, the alcohol expert, insisted, “Tanqueray is better than generic.”
“OK,” I told Linda, “what he says.” I was still too weak to argue, even about a beverage.
It was Thursday night and the place buzzed with students starting the weekend early. I watched Linda mix my drink as she took other orders and clanged the bar gong when she got tips. Her confident efficiency was enviable. She never made a mistake and she never stopped smiling. If she was surprised to see us, she didn’t say. I gulped the strong drink, while Frank ignored me and chatted with acquaintances. The premium gin tasted vile, as if it had been swallowed and spit up and put back in my glass with tonic and lime. I never drank gin again. But that night it was laced with courage, because I finally resolved that I wouldn’t see him again. I plunked the empty glass on the bar, waved goodbye to Linda, and slipped through the crowd before he could notice I was gone.
A few afternoons later, on Valentine’s Day, Frank surprised me at the sorority with a card—I wish I still had it, because, really, what could it have said?—and a trinket, a stuffed animal, or a box of chocolates, something useless and silly. He pulled those treasures from an ample shopping bag as we sat in the living room, where my sorority sisters milled about watching General Hospital. The bag clearly held other cards and gifts, and in my newly strong and bitter voice, I considered whether he had presents for all the girls he raped, if, in fact, there were others.
Frank sounded apologetic when he said, “I didn’t know,” but I stared blankly at him, or more likely away from him. “I didn’t know you were a virgin,” he mumbled quietly, as though he had only then noticed a blemish on his bedding. In the background, girls chattered and the soap opera droned on.
There was no appropriate response for me to make, so I stayed mute, and tried to picture how much my blood had stained his sheets. I hoped they were ruined by a huge spot that could never be laundered out.
“Well, I’d better go,” Frank said as he stood up to leave. When he leaned down to kiss my cheek, I sat frozen in place, terrified that I would go berserk and punch his face. I wish now I had. The union of knuckle and bone. I would have liked to see him bleed.
Through friends, I kept up with him. News was impossible to avoid, as though it were splashed on the front page of some tabloid: “Campus Stud Nails Entire Incoming Class.” First, I heard he was dating a freshman. Then, more than one freshman. Later, I heard he’d met a young girl, a townie, and that they planned to marry. I also heard that he did get married before we graduated, but I never heard to whom. Why his activities were reported to me, I’ll never understand, though I will admit I was curious to know.
The loss of my virginity granted me a peculiar freedom, and I rarely waited to have sex when I met new boys. I knew that people were calling me a tramp, but didn’t care. The boys were good-looking, they wanted me, and it was easier being easy. I could have anyone, and Frank could go to hell, I thought, because I didn’t understand that I wasn’t punishing him at all, while I was falling apart.
Once, when I got sick, too sick to leave my own bed, I begged a boy to bring me chicken soup, but he said he was busy, and, by the way, he didn’t care to see me again. I screamed and raged that day, as much as it is possible to scream and rage when you are dying of the flu.
By the time I arrived in Orlando for spring break, the wild anger had been replaced by sad weariness, and I spent most of the vacation playing cards, nursing a sunburn, and wishing for my freshman-year boyfriend, Mike. When I ran into Mike on the beach one day, I brought him to my motel room and let him fuck me for the only time. Like an overanxious suitor, he swore he had always loved me and that he would love me forever, but he left quickly, and I wept into wrinkled sheets. It was fitting that he, a boy I met in an elevator on the first day of college, would show me how far I had fallen.
As I reclined on the rust-orange sofa on reunion Sunday and looked at Frank with adult eyes twenty-eight years later, I wondered if my husband, Rich, who was beside me, remembered that I’d told him of a rape. I know I’d never told him the details. I’d never told him I felt guilty for years, nor had I told him that I doubted myself all that time, that I wondered if I’d asked for it. I never told him that his wife had been a rotten slut her sophomore year. It seems there was a lot I never told him.
When I tried to tell Rich that we had to leave the reunion, he was too involved in other conversations to hear my whispered plea. That’s how it goes sometimes with us: we miss the signals. So I stayed and squirmed and tried not to stare at Frank.
If I tug and pull at random strands of college memory, I seize on the rope tied to an image of my snow-drenched coat hanging over the balcony of an introductory psychology class, where it rained on my classmates below. Then there is the slim thread that leads to a much smaller German literature course, where I foolishly tried to read the books in German, the language I spoke fluently as a child, but hadn’t learned to read above the first grade level. A thick cord of embarrassment points to an uncoordinated moment when I ran over my ski instructor on the bunny slope on the first day of a new gym session. A wavy wire reminds me of tipsy Wednesdays after wine tasting, a popular pass/fail course, when Jane, Linda, and I were seniors. (The skiing accident did not happen on a Wednesday, I swear.) Where is Frank among all those recollections? Shouldn’t there be some fat twisted fiber permanently entwined with the ultimate depravity?
Somehow, there isn’t. I got through the remainder of sophomore and junior year, studied in Germany the first half of senior year, and returned in the spring to finish up with my class. Frank must have been somewhere in the crowd of graduates, but I didn’t see him as we marched through the quad carrying bottles of champagne, or in the football stadium when we tossed our graduation caps into the air like beach balls. Soon, I reunited with Rich, my summer boyfriend before I met Frank. I joined Rich in Manhattan and started a professional career. We got married, moved to the New York suburbs, tried to have a child and failed, too many times, but I finally did give birth, to a daughter, just one. The normal hurts and successes took over, and at some point, I stopped thinking about Frank. When I ran into him, it was as disorienting as the time in North Carolina—I must have been ten or eleven—when I was body surfing and a rogue wave tossed and turned and tumbled me until I crashed, stomach-first, scraping and burning my skin on thick cable that was meant to protect the swimming area from a rocky sea wall. Sometimes I’m still afraid in rough surf.
Frank and I exchanged how-are-yous and nice-to-see-yous before I left the reunion. We talked about his work and my new job as a stay-at-home mom. I tried to maintain a neutral expression as I searched his eyes, looking for some recognition, a sign that he remembered, or evidence of the part of me that must have stayed with him that night. He shuffled his feet as we spoke, a little nervous perhaps, but didn’t shift his gaze from my face. It was almost as though he were trying to puzzle out how he knew me.
If our meeting had appeared on an episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, it would have been a violent scene. You can picture it, can’t you?
I rage at Frank: “Don’t you remember me? Didn’t I mean anything to you? How could you fuck me like that? Yes, I use the word now.” (Of course these lines are edited for network television.)
He protests: “I didn’t know. I thought you wanted to. It seemed like you liked it. Didn’t you like it?”
I pound furiously at his chest, tear at his hair, kick and scratch and scream, all the things I should have done twenty-eight years before. Police intervene, but for me, there is relief in mania. “I’m the victim!” I shout, as they rip me away from him. Then I whimper: “Doesn’t anyone understand?” while the camera studies my bloodied fingers and furious tear-streaked face.
In a stark interrogation room at the police station, the kind with a one-way glass window where the investigators can see in, but the subject can’t see out, I sit on a flimsy folding chair across a steel table from a kindly detective. She offers me tissues, maybe a warm cup of coffee, and my story tumbles out, haltingly at first, then in a verbal rampage. The way I imagined my first time would be, with a boy I loved who cared enough about me to make it special. The awkward fumbling, caresses, soft laughter, concern. How unfair it was that it didn’t happen that way. No one should be hurt like that.
She sympathizes, shaking her head sadly, and in a compassionate voice, utters an inane platitude: “Life isn’t pretty.” I nod my head knowingly, because at that moment, her words sound profound.
In reality, Frank and I chatted politely like acquaintances at a cocktail party. The conversation was short. It was inadequate. There was no other way for two adults to behave.
“Wasn’t he the one who…?” Jane asked, when we spoke a few days later.
It was out of concern, I’m sure, but I was surprised she brought him up. The need for soothing words and chummy conversations had long slipped by. Frank, I had learned, was now simply a middle-aged man. “Yes,” I replied, “He was the one who raped me.” There was little more to say.
Rich eventually signaled that he wanted to leave the reunion, or maybe he understood that we had to go. We held hands as we toted our baggage to the car.