An Essay by Ashley Cooper
TRIGGER WARNING: The following essay contains an account of sexual assault, rape, and the aftermath which readers may find distressing.
I sling my head to the edge of the toilet. My knees hit the carpet, unable to avoid the burn of another encounter with him. I have washed my sheets so many times that I ran a negative balance on my debit card that holds my minimum wage paydays whenever I can find the work. I have washed vomit off my face so often that there is a dry patch at the corner of my mouth that stings every time I wipe a washcloth across my face. I have washed my body so many times the shower only runs cold, and my roommate leans against the bathroom door to listen. I have never been one to take too long in the bathroom. She has never been one to breathe this loud. I wonder if she heard him.
It has been two days since he raped me, and I can still smell him. My bed is soaked in his cologne, and the pores of my skin are filled with his sweat. When the smell fades away, I don’t know what to do with myself—it comes back, and the ends of my hair wind up in toilet water again.
I try to take a walk, hoping the polluted air will save my lungs from him—but it’s January, and when I go outside, and I feel the wind weave through my scarf and skate across my neck—I feel his fingers there. His hands wrap around my neck, and the snow I am standing in becomes a metaphor for whatever that glue was that kept me from fighting back, stuck to my bedroom floor. I am pushed gently by a man trying to get past as I stand in the middle of the sidewalk outside my building’s door, and I know I can’t yet handle the cold.
I read somewhere once that fifty-three percent of rapes go without being reported. I never understood it until I tried to go outside forty-eight hours later. If I can’t get more than five steps away from the door, how am I supposed to go five blocks to my college’s title nine offices or another ten to the closest police station?
I also read that ninety-seven percent of rapists are never incarcerated. I read that when I considered myself an activist—fighting for victims that fall into the statistics and fighting against rapists who get to keep their scholarships.
I am a statistic now.
One in four women are raped in their lifetime.
I have written two poems today. I have nothing but clichés on these pages, but I am learning that they are not clichés—they are echoes. I have heard you lose ownership of your own body. Not just for the minutes he is inside of you, but for the lifetime that follows. Everything is unfamiliar. I do not walk the same now. Not just because of the bruises that line the insides of my thighs and my pelvis, up to my stomach, but because I cannot seem to find control. I sit on the saddle, and I pull on the reigns, but I cannot feel myself doing so.
I keep writing about his smile. The one he carried as he finished. He smirked, asked me where to find a tissue—like this was a scene from a rom-com, a one-night stand. I tried to get up off the bed to get the tissues, and he tightened his grip on my neck. He’ll get them. I couldn’t tell if it was over yet. He grabbed the box of tissues and opened my legs. He inspected me like a gynecologist. He held my ankle with one hand and took a tissue in the other. Slowly wiping his mess off of me. He couldn’t wipe the smile off of his face. His smile said so much. For a twenty-year-old, he seemed to be a professional.
He didn’t force himself into the apartment. I let him in. I had spent the entire morning perfecting my makeup and outfit choice for our second date. I led him to my room so I could grab my coat. I thought we were going to Chinatown for lunch. He sat on my bed, and I followed suit. He took his finger and circled it around my knee. It tickled, and I laughed. I didn’t look into his eyes because, as he touched me, I felt immediately out of control.
Every part of me turned cold—so I turned away. He rested his palm on the top of my head, his fingers ran through my hair. I turned back to him, and I blushed. I loved it when guys run their fingers through my hair. His resting hand quickly turned into a fist. My hair fell out of place as he yanked my ponytail from the roots.
I stood up—shocked. As if I hadn’t seen him as one to commit sudden acts of violence. He said, “That was a mistake.”
I could no longer move.
He stood up and kicked my knees in from behind. I fell forward onto the bed. My knees hit the corner of my bed frame and began to bleed through my tights. My face fell against the wall. He locked my bedroom door, restrained me, and ripped through my tights.
That was the first time I said “no”.
I counted every time I said “no” or “stop” or “please.”
I said these words eighteen times before I saw the pool of blood that rested in my white cotton sheets.
When I saw my blood, I lost my voice.
He threw my clothes at me when he was done. He tightened his belt and told me that we’d need to reschedule lunch. I was looking a little too rough.
He had seen me undressed for over an hour, and yet the first thing I did when he let go of me was cover my breasts, that were now unrecognizable, with my arms. They were covered in shades of blue and purple and red and yellow. It hurt to touch them. He let himself out of my room and my apartment and took the elevator down to three. He was only two floors away from me.
I sat naked in my room and cried until I could no longer feel my face. And then I got dressed in the most comfortable clothes I could find, and I hugged myself. I didn’t know what else to do.
My bed was covered in blood, and my walls had streaks of my red toenail polish where my toes met the wall as a result of me kicking. I could no longer be alone in this room.
The first person I called was the only person I called for the first two days. My best friend. He met me at my door moments later and hugged me while I sobbed into his hoodie. I felt like a child.
Before I invited him in, I turned over my sheets and placed my comforter over my blood. I forced a bra onto my aching breasts and pulled my hair back into a tight ponytail.
When he walked into my room, it still looked like a crime scene. He sat on my bed as I looked into the trash noticing the tissues used to clean me. They were covered in blood and him. My friend noticed too. I didn’t say much at first. I just cried into him. I told him what happened from the beginning, and he listened. I don’t know why he cares about me so much—but I know he does.
This moment should be so ugly and horrible, but I realize something. I haven’t had many permanent people in my life, and I realize now he is one of them. He always has been. I just see it now.
He leaves me to be alone, and I try to shower the rape off of me.
I sit on the shower floor with my back to the water to clean out the cuts he left in me. It stings, but I know I need to.
I grab my phone from the edge of the tub and write my first poem about being raped. I did not know it was a poem then. I was just making a list of words about how I was feeling. I never wanted to feel that way, but I also never wanted to forget the way I felt.
Seventy-two hours after being raped, I got myself outside, and I took a walk, in silence. Well, city silence. Alarms went off, and people were shouting, but I couldn’t hear anything but the sound my sheets made when I peeled them off of the bed so that I could wash them. The blood was sticky. It had latched onto my plastic mattress. I washed that, too. Scrubbed each side with an old sponge as fast as my arms would allow, hoping it would erase the mattress from this universe entirely.
I took another walk the next day. This time, with a destination in mind. I kept repeating “no pressure” in my head as I walked the five blocks, I didn’t want to force myself to do anything. I walked into the title nine office and it immediately felt like I was torturing myself. But I couldn’t belong to the statistic of fifty-three percent of rapes going unreported. I couldn’t accept that my last memory of him was his smile and him expecting my silence.
Ashley Cooper is currently pursuing a double major in both creative writing (nonfiction) and musical theatre at Columbia College Chicago. She is currently working on her memoir, Rum and Coke which focuses on surviving abuse and growing up with alcoholism in the family. She hopes to reach young adults who have experienced similar situations through her work. You can find her on Instagram, @AshleyCooperWriting.