Photo By: Nikola Peskova
Showing My Hand
by Larissa Pham
The facts are these: many months ago, I spent the night at a man’s apartment. The circumstances were semi-platonic, tinged with an aura of romance; that is, this person had offered me the moon and I had refused, and he said, well, let me give you everything, and will you take what you can? I said, flattered by this grand gesture, I will take what I am okay with.
I was very lonely.
We talked about art.
He made me feel important.
I was used to men who made grand declarations of their affection for me. Because I saw these men as harmless, I placed myself in situations with them that might be construed as romantic. I was deliberate about my boundaries, but sometimes allowed myself to be cuddled, like a toy or stuffed animal. This was seen as strange but not unexpected, a particular and endearing flaw. My friends acknowledged that I was a very tender person, someone who craved physical contact and liked being touched.
It wasn’t so much that I was ever lonely, just that I was always around and I was always so warm. When I went home with boys and girls it was the normal kind of thing I did, and no one ever asked what happened after the door was shut. That never mattered. I didn’t think myself fast or loose, but maybe it seemed that way. It was right enough sometimes that I never bothered explaining why I wanted someone next to me, just to hold. I’m not sure I would have the language for it anyway.
In this man’s apartment, I put on a t-shirt and did not put on a pair of gym shorts. Because he said he cared about me, I felt safe. I crawled into bed and his dog whined at me. “Shh, Lemon,” he said. He got into bed next to me and we talked. I liked being next to another person. I liked the warmth.
Now my memory becomes clouded regarding the sequence of events, not because of drugs or alcohol but because it is not something I revisit. I feel guilty for how I got there, how I was already in that place, in that bed, in my underwear.
I know that I allowed this man to kiss my neck. I know that I liked it, the way I like being touched. I know I did not kiss him back. He pulled my panties down with his right hand. It was his right hand because I was on the left. I did not say anything, but I did freeze up. “Shh, it’s okay,” he said, and stroked my hair, as though trying to make me melt.
I did not say anything.
Then he put himself inside me. I felt it suddenly and I let him do it for perhaps fifteen seconds and then I said, “No, stop” and he pulled out. He went down on me and I started crying even though it felt good. Then he put himself inside me again and I said, “I can’t,” and he said, “Shh, it’s okay,” but it wasn’t. I was crying and breathing fast. I said, “No, no, no.” He attempted to comfort me. Eventually I fell asleep.
In the morning, he drove me home.
I felt sick. I felt dead. I went to class.
I was sexually assaulted my freshman year of college. It was a very clear-cut situation. The ex-girlfriend of a boy I had (unbeknownst to me) just stopped hooking up with was very drunk at a party and when she learned I was bisexual, she said, “That’s so hot!” and then pushed me up against a wall and kissed me and put her hand down my pants. I was eighteen. I was wearing a man’s white v-neck shirt and blue denim cutoffs, and black thigh high socks. She kept going after I squirmed. “Stop,” I said, and I pushed her off.
Years later, a friend of hers would recognize me at another party. “She’s not normally like that,” they apologized. It surprised me that her friend remembered, because it was an event that some part of me had diligently worked to forget. “I don’t care,” I said.
I never reported it.
If she had been a man, I don’t think I would have reported it, either.
I have not reported this latest thing, this rape that I am only just beginning to talk about.
What would I say?
When I told a friend about this man, many months later, he said, “Larissa, you were raped.” Because I looked at him blankly at first, he said it twice.
“I don’t want to think about it,” I said, and covered my face.
I felt sick. I felt complicit. I had not intended to tell a rape story, but then I began telling it, and in telling it, realized it had been rape.
The thing about the man who raped me is — I was burning to be touched, but I did not want to be touched by him. I also did not not care about him.
I knew him well. We had text message conversations that spanned hundreds of lines. We sometimes talked on the phone for several hours. I was very fond of him. His love for me, or whatever one might call it, seemed like a kind of a punctuation mark, the uncomfortable tail of an otherwise competent and friendly beast. It made me feel uneasy and good. I wanted to be loved.
Still. I didn’t owe him anything. I don’t deserve what happened. I must continue to tell myself this.
I’ve never considered myself particularly lovable, so when love is offered I’m hesitant to spurn it. I’m used to getting the crumbs of a full thing, the rest out of reach. It makes assault like this difficult, when I consider the role I’ve played in an interaction that hurt me. How I want to blame myself for it. How I can’t help but think I may have invited it in, how I don’t deserve it, how no one deserves this.
If you had asked me at the time, or ever, if I wanted to have sex with him, I would have said no. Nothing about his body appealed to me. There was nothing about him that made me want to fuck him.
Here is a caveat that only makes sense to me. I write it down as proof of how warped my boundaries were formed. If I had hated him I would be a better victim. If I hadn’t known him so well I would be a better victim. I brought this upon myself, I think. I deserve this.
The possibilities of what I could have done or what else could have happened unfurl before me like a reflection in one of those dressing room mirrors; two opposite each other and a long hallway of you stretching into the infinite distance. I’m standing there in the house of my memory, scrutinizing my face.
Was it my fault?
Did I put myself in that position, and am I responsible?
Is it rape if I know the person who did it?
Is it rape if I didn’t say no, but I didn’t say yes, and I cried after?
I want to tell you I cried, so that you know that I didn’t want it. I want to tell you I suffered, so that the story I told you is plausible. The narrative of rape is only enabled by a woman’s pain.
I must have suffered. I must be experiencing some kind of trauma. I must be damaged somehow. I am a rape survivor. I am not, however, a particularly convenient victim. I spent the rest of the night there. I let him drive me home.
Mostly, I just feel complicit in breaking the parts of me that are broken.
But this model of myself started a long time ago. This myth, this story, this coping, whatever. It starts long before I ever met the man with his dog and spent the night in his bed.
I got pretty late in life and all at once. Suddenly everyone wanted me just because of how I looked! What a thought. People were nice to me and interested in what I had to say. I was giddy with power.