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.