Mary Akers ~ Saying the Name

I spent sec­onds shar­ing the stage with him in my minor role, hours in the dark­ened wings watch­ing him per­form in the light. He came from Switzerland. He spoke at least three lan­guages. He was a world­ly col­lege senior. I remem­ber his curly hair, his long body, his lop­ing stride, but not his name.

This lapse con­fus­es me. I swim back through the years, search­ing for clues in the faces attend­ing the cast par­ty. Our final night. No longer would we per­form as one body, bond­ed by the stage.

The par­ty con­ve­nes a mile from my off-cam­pus dorm. It’s a for­mer men­tal hos­pi­tal: mas­sive, iso­lat­ed, rumored to be haunt­ed. The bus that takes me there runs until…midnight? One?

There is alco­hol. As the child of an alco­holic, I find drunk­en­ness excru­ci­at­ing so aim for gen­tly tip­sy. Last-bus time nears, but I don’t want to leave. I will miss the­se peo­ple, my peo­ple. I say as much to anoth­er cast mem­ber, Chris, a senior with a car. He offers to dri­ve me wherever I want. I like him. I trust him.

I stay at the par­ty, and the Swiss fel­low takes notice of me for what feels like the first time. His smile is con­ta­gious. He maneu­vers a cup into my emp­ty hand. Whatever con­coc­tion it is, it’s strong. I sip del­i­cate­ly so as not to appear ungrate­ful.

Pausing the mem­o­ry, I google pop­u­lar Swiss names. Luca, Christoph, Nico, Julian. The J in Julian fires some­thing alarm­ing and fierce, my shoul­ders shim­my in respon­se. I decide to call him Nico.

Nico sug­gests we move outside—into cool­er air, qui­eter space. With a firm touch, he leads me to the back cor­ner of the yard. We stand beneath a large maple tree. I hear the last bus of the night stop, sigh, and rum­ble on. We talk, we kiss. It is nice, but only that.

In the past year, my body’s respon­se has led me to some awk­ward and fool­ish choic­es so I am glad to be relieved of my star-struck pas­sion. I move back through the bod­ies to locate my ride. Chris with­draws his offer. When I tell him I heard the last bus, he sug­gests, with a teeth-bar­ing sneer, that Nico see me home.

A mile doesn’t scare me. I’m a hik­er. I ran dis­tance in high school. But a mile after mid­night on a des­o­late stretch of road in high heels and par­ty clothes? I’m brave, not stu­pid.

Nico brings a fresh cup. I decline, say­ing I need to leave, that I have lost my ride and now must walk. He says I should stay, that he will walk me home. But it’s a mile, I tell him. No prob­lem, he says, real­ly. He insists.

After the par­ty has most­ly emp­tied, Nico says his place is near­by, could we stop and get some­thing before he walks me home? I can’t remem­ber what he need­ed. A jack­et? Change of clothes? Comfortable shoes?

I remem­ber not want­i­ng to appear ungrate­ful. He should be allowed what­ev­er he need­ed to walk all the way to my dorm and back. It would be ungra­cious to sus­pect him of any­thing less than chival­ry. Besides, we were cast mates. We had kissed.

So we walked. Outside his apart­ment, he solic­i­tous­ly insist­ed that it wasn’t safe to wait on the street. I should come up—for safety’s sake. He’d only be a min­ute.

The chang­ing script dis­com­fit­ed me, but each request was only a small, rea­son­able shift in the plan—a plan that he made sure to reit­er­ate he was in ser­vice of granting—my desire to be walked home safe­ly. When paired with a smile, the mes­sage was clear: I wasn’t plan­ning to be unrea­son­able, was I?

I knew, above all, I did not want to be unrea­son­able.

Once inside his apart­ment, he stared at the clock. It’s three a.m., he said, tech­ni­cal­ly morn­ing already. Could I walk you home after day­light instead? He smiled. I could even have his bed, he said, he would sleep on the couch.

I hes­i­tat­ed. I wouldn’t need to be walked home after day­light. His smile fad­ed. Look, he said, I was wel­come to leave, but it was late and he was tired. He point­ed to the bed and moved him­self to the couch.

His bed was a mat­tress on the floor. I exam­ined it, uneasy, but told myself I would only need to pass a few more hours to reach the safe­ty of morn­ing.

Even before I drift­ed off, Nico climbed onto the mat­tress and urged me closer to the wall. Sorry, he said, but the couch wasn’t com­fort­able. Not to wor­ry, we could keep a pil­low between us.

At each crit­i­cal junc­ture, his changes to the plan were small, they were rea­son­able. I had—albeit begrudgingly—agreed to each one. Did that make me com­plic­it? Stupid? Had trust led me here? There had only ever been the shad­ow of a threat. That, and the impli­ca­tion that by accept­ing his changes I was a will­ing par­tic­i­pant, even if I did not at any point feel like a will­ing par­tic­i­pant.

After he shoul­dered me again­st the wall, the rest went very quick­ly. There was no con­dom. He fell asleep. I stared at the wall, alert to every breath, every move­ment. I con­sid­ered climb­ing over and walk­ing home…or run­ning. What worse could hap­pen?

It’s fair to ask: Why didn’t I fight? Why didn’t I yell? I’m still not sure, but I do believe that there comes a point past which fight­ing ceas­es to feel like an option. Or wait­ing out the few addi­tion­al moments of dis­com­fort feels safer than say­ing no. I do remem­ber dis­be­lief: that there was no way my onstage friend would do this…even as he did. Ultimately, a self-coach­ing voice stepped up to reas­sure me, this will all be over soon.

In the morn­ing, I walked home bare­foot, fan­cy shoes hang­ing light­ly on two fin­gers as a spread­ing swamp of humil­i­a­tion sucked at my heels. I told myself it was almost the end of the semes­ter. The play was over. I had a sum­mer job to look for­ward to and a place to stay lined up. He would soon return to Switzerland.

Two weeks post-par­ty, my peri­od was late. It felt, sud­den­ly, hor­ri­bly, as if some part of him was still there. My body as war zone.

That is when the anger came. I may have been invad­ed, but by god, I would not be col­o­nized. Yet where, in a col­lege dorm, does one deal with such things? And how? I skipped class in the mid­dle of the day, entered the hall show­ers and ran water to mask the sounds of dis­tress. I lay down on the dirty tiles and did aggres­sive sit-ups in the spray­ing water until my body burned from breast to hip. Each exha­la­tion a hiss: get out. My peri­od began the next day.

I regret many deci­sions from that night, but worst of all? Before leav­ing, I thanked him for let­ting me stay. Too good a girl to call a night in his bed any­thing oth­er than hos­pi­tal­i­ty. With dis­tance and dis­pas­sion, though, I under­stand a more com­plex truth. I want­ed agen­cy in what­ev­er deci­sions had been made. I need­ed to believe I hadn’t been forced. If I thanked him, didn’t that mean I had cho­sen to stay?

I was not drugged or dragged or threatened…unless you accept a near-tox­ic cock­tail of naiveté and trust as a drug.

In thir­ty years’ time, the pain has dis­si­pat­ed. Only ques­tions remain. Is it bet­ter to name the dark­ness inside us? Or refuse it? Which gives it more pow­er?

~

Mary Akers is the author of two books of short fic­tion from Press 53 and co-author of a non-fic­tion book that has sold in sev­en coun­tries. Her work has appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, Guernica, The Fiddlehead, Mississippi Review Online, Brevity, and oth­er jour­nals. Akers has been a Bread Loaf work-study schol­ar, a VCCA fel­low, and is the proud and enthu­si­as­tic edi­tor-in-chief of the online jour­nal r.kv.r.y. Her cre­ative work is rep­re­sent­ed by Zoe Sandler at ICM.