editor’s note—cw: rape, suicide, self-harm
I climb up five flights of stairs to Sameer’s apartment, an empty space enclosed by straight-shot views of the Prudential tower in downtown Boston. I sip red wine from a meticulously rinsed whiskey glass then lead Sameer up a narrow flight of stairs to his lofted bedroom. He has tucked the corners of his bedspread deep beneath his mattress. I strip down and climb on top of him and come hard and soft, my cheeks flushed.
Our arrangement started with a URL. My friend Sarah opened my barely-used Tinder app and swiped while we watched Voldemort commit murder via Netflix. She matched me with Sameer, who, like most Tinder guys, asked me about the writing I mentioned in my profile. “I’d love to read something you’ve written,” he typed. Before I could stop her, Sarah sent Sameer a link to my most recent publication in a women’s magazine, “This Is What It’s Like To Have Sex After Being Raped: One Woman’s Story.”
I started the article with a faint outline of a shallow-breathing panic attack. To put it neatly, I froze, deer in the headlights. In the article I put a lot of things neatly. I wrote that I was raped by a stranger, but not the feel of his prickly beard against my thigh, the darkness of the alleyway so thick I could barely breathe. I wrote about the years it took to rehabilitate my sex life—but only about the panic attacks that didn’t escalate, or the ones soothed by my partners’ unexpected kindnesses. I wrote the cleanest, neatest copy I could, something that would fit between an article about Christmas-themed workouts, eleven things you didn’t know about condoms, and the difference between Mercury in retrograde and Mercury in retroshade.
I wrote to the edge of what I knew they would be willing to publish.
“Sarah!” I chastise, but the link has been sent, and I laugh at the dark humor. Sameer would get what he asked for: a part of me.
But Sameer responds better than I expected—that is, he actually responds, which is also more than I expected. “You’re very brave,” he writes. “You’re helping more people than you probably know.”
I’d written small, well-lacquered sentences for that piece. I chose to write about a select few experiences in the perky women’s publication because I wanted the thesis, the main idea—it can get better, it happens to all rape victims, you are not alone—to reach more people. But glossed over like the shiny pages of the magazine that prints these stories, those experiences lose their depth, their meaning, their truth.
The fifth time Sameer and I sleep together, I glance at the Eye of Horus tattoo on his bicep, which at first seemed kind of dumb until I remembered that it’s supposed to be a symbol of protection, and then I liked it. Distracted by the Eye, I forget to breathe for a moment.
One moment of suspended breath.
One moment of breathlessness is reminder enough, a reminder of my own breathlessness during the rape, a reminder of my rapist’s heavy breathing.
I stop moving on top of Sameer. He freezes. “Are you going to throw up?” he asks and twists to pick up the trashcan next to his bed.
I am not going to throw up. I am going to implode. I wrote in my article of my early attempts to have sex post-rape, I was trying to avoid the panic, to fight my body. Tonight, though, it is already too late; the fight has begun. Already my fists are clenched, my fingernails pressed tight into my skin, pools of bruise-blood gathering beneath the surface.
“No, no, don’t worry,” I lie to Sameer, because the panic attack that is starting makes me afraid of what a man can do to me. In my mind I see an alleyway, pitch dark, and the silhouette of a man I don’t recognize. In reality, I am in a dimly-lit bedroom and intimately familiar with the unshadowed face of the man before me. I tell Sameer, “don’t worry,” over and over again until, minutes later, I leave. “Don’t worry,”—a central message of my article, don’t worry, we are all in this together, don’t worry. Or are we? Not everybody experiences panic related to sex; most people have not been raped. Can stories bridge this gap, dissolve this isolation?
I remember that my clothes are on the other side of his apartment. The bathroom is closer; I slam the door behind me as I flip the only light switch my fingers can find in the dark. The shower light turns on. Fluorescence pours from behind its glass door across the cold white tiles. I remember the times I have run into bathrooms before, trying to calm down, trying to sanitize something messy inside me so that I can explain it to the men I choose to sleep with. I widen my eyes at the sight of myself in the bathroom mirror as if doing so will help me sense danger that isn’t there. My eyes are shot through with red.
I give Sameer a watered down smile as I slip my body out of the bathroom and tell him, again, “Don’t worry.” As my shaking hands pull layers of cotton and denim and polyester over my limbs and torso, tugging cloth against skin now covered with goosebumps, I tell him, “I’m fine.” I look at him one last time, tears still streaming down my cheeks and around the corners of my jaw. “I’m okay.” I move toward the door and snatch my dirty socks off his living room floor. I carry them with me, palm sweat dampening the warm knit cloth, but I do not stop to put them on.
I try to open the door of Sameer’s apartment, but it is deadbolted, and in that moment I can’t solve a problem as complex as a door with more than one lock, and I slam the deadbolt against the doorframe over and over. Sameer edges past me in the hallway with his palms held up—he is innocent—and rotates it for me. He does not speak, but later I would wonder more specifically about what he was thinking. Was he worried about me, about himself? Did he worry he had caused this? Was he worried how I would describe this?
In my article I wrote about the good men, the things they have said that have calmed me. I wrote about my ex, whom I rebuffed mid-hookup, and who, rather than pressuring me, smiled and said, “I don’t want to have sex with you when you don’t want to have sex; why would I want to do that?”
In my article I did not write about men like Sameer, who asked me just one question when he saw me sobbing outside his apartment door: “Can you go down to the lobby? I don’t want you to wake my neighbors.” That is the kind of conversation that I scrubbed out of the article—one that complicates something already complicated enough.
There is so much more than what made it into the magazine article.
I feel panic-sweat oozing out of my hands, feel the brain-like creases of the balled-up socks against palm. I carry my socks in my right hand and my shoes in my left until I am halfway down his stairs, halfway to the promise of an empty midnight street, and slip them on. When facing a panic attack, I am buried deep within myself, unreachable, untouchable. Can my story really make anybody feel less alone?
I jog through sheets of rain, down empty residential streets lined with brownstones like his, angling for the 7-Eleven I know will be open at this hour, the one I know sells cigarettes, the promise of air. In smiling daylight hours, these cashiers ID me. They do not ID the crying midnight girl, soaked with rain, a torn fake leather jacket tugged on so that the shirt beneath has bunched into a knot against her back.
I pass a man and a woman as I walk down an alleyway in the rain, the air I’ve inhaled through my cigarette rushing through me, air I could not access for that one terrifying moment in Sameer’s apartment. I wonder how a woman I pass feels about being there. I know what can happen in alleyways. I wonder how drunk she is. I wonder if she is okay. But I know I would never stop to check, never stop for her. How could I help? How could anything I say, anything I write, help anyone? I run.
I dial friends’ phone numbers one after the other, friends across time zones, anybody who will pick up. But nobody does. I text the friend I used to sleep with. I want him to answer the question that is overwhelming my mind: Am I too fucked up to live? It is a question I have ruminated on for more time than any of the hopeful memories I shared in the article I wrote.
I stop at the base of the Four Seasons driveway across from Boston Common. It is one of the most well-lit outdoor spots in all of Boston. There is a smoker’s pole. I finish my cigarette and know that I have to go home.
I order a $40 Lyft for a thirteen-minute ride back to my apartment. I slide into the back seat, put my headphones in, and press play on Spotify. The same Sam Smith song, “Pray,” that I listened to on my way to Sameer’s apartment comes on, and I feel how very, very different it sounded then compared to now.
I walk into my apartment, braced for explaining my tear-streaked face to my roommate, simultaneously desperate to talk to her, still sobbing silently. I remember that she is at her date’s apartment, that she is likely having sex. I remember the things she has told me about her sex life, the positive things, nothing wrong with it. I wrote my article for a general readership so I pretended like my problems with sex were relevant to all people: Everybody walks into a sexual interaction with their own histories—some may be more violent than others, but nobody is really spared. We all struggle with self-esteem, or body image, or trauma. But really I believe what my roommate told me about her positive sexual encounters; really I believe that only people who have been raped feel like me. Only some people feel this way, react how I react to sex, and my roommate is not one of those people. No matter how her night went, it did not include a panic attack like mine.
I stare at myself in my full-length mirror, look at my puffy eyes and cheeks, the veins of my eyeballs bright red, making my green eyes appear greener. But I am not calming down. I am imagining picking up a serrated knife and criss cross stabbing the veins in my left wrist, of stabbing my stomach with the chef’s knife I use to chop up onions and apples in warmer, lighter hours of the day. I am considering suicide in a specific and urgent way, an urge that only comes after sex.
The facts of my article were right, but the tone was all wrong. After the rape but before I had sex again, I thought of myself as two people: terrified-of-guys-Katie and constantly-horny-Katie. But I didn’t write about the explosiveness of that kind of internal tension, the potential for disaster, the inevitability of disaster.
There is nothing that makes me feel more fucked up than pleasure.
I set my alarm so I will wake up in time for the breakfast I promised to have with my family, too few hours from then. I know I will not be calm at breakfast. I know I will yell at somebody, cry. I know the panic attack will find its way into my relationships, will not stay restrained within me.
Panic attacks are not contained to their triggering incident. I know this panic attack, seconds in the making, will be days in the dissolving. I know I will need to sleep eleven hours a night, multiple nights in a row, just to relax the sore muscles from the panic-induced muscle spasms, to relax my sore mind. The panic attack infiltrates the rest of my life, forcibly, unforgivingly, horribly.
I opened the article with For the most part, research on, stories about, and discussions of sexual violence didn’t touch on one of the most significant struggles I was dealing with—sex after rape. I pitched the piece as a true story, and the facts of it were accurate. But they were a narrow selection of a much broader conversation. I didn’t write about the suicidality or the deep sense of unbelonging or the shame that sometimes knocked me into bed for days after post-rape sexual interactions.
I wake up the morning after I ran from Sameer’s apartment and untangle my legs from the nightmare-induced straightjacket they have kicked into existence, and realize I still want to kill myself. I know this is not true of some friends who have been raped. I know some of them panic, but some of them freeze. I know some of them do not struggle much with sex. I know that though suicidality is more common in rape victims, it is not universal. Can one rape victim’s story really stand in for all the rest?
Somehow, persistent throughout that day and the ones that follow, there is the knowledge that no matter how limited in scope, the article was still a good idea. There is the specific kind of hopelessness that accompanies the realization that a tiny microdose of near-false hope is all that corporate America can stomach from me.
I text Sameer to prove that even though I lost control, I can gain it back with words. “Just wanted to clarify that you didn’t do anything wrong, but sometimes I have panic attacks related to sex.” I lock the phone’s screen but stare at its notification light, waiting.
“Makes sense,” he writes back. Sameer had read the article, after all. He can comprehend the basic reason this panic attack happened. But does he really understand it? Without having experienced such a loss of corporeal and mental control himself, can he ever really understand? Without men in dark alleyways hiding in the corners of his mind, of his world, can he ever really empathize? Reined in by a mainstream magazine editor’s delete button, can the stories I write change the conversation?
Sameer writes back nothing else; I think I have my answer.
And though his inadequate reaction leaves me frustrated and tearing up, those two words of his text—makes sense—do, in a way, fulfill my article’s basic goal: to help people make sense of pain like mine. But I remember the feeling of the sweaty, balled up socks in my fist, and the article feels inadequate, too.
Katie Simon’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Lily, BuzzFeed, The Washington Post, The Rumpus, Narratively, and elsewhere. She studied creative writing at New York University, University of East Anglia in England, and the Grub Street Memoir Incubator in Boston. Katie is working on a memoir about why she kept traveling despite violence, illness, and revolution. @katiewsimon