A will emerges slowly in some people, and comes like a tidal wave in others. Mine arrived absolute and stubborn in the quiet room in the back right corner of our house in Decatur, Georgia, that place where we made our home for four years after only one in Vinings. It was a small brick house, and in it, we had the last good season of our family. My room had white walls and pink-stenciled hearts, there painted at my eye level when we first moved in to remind me of my mother’s love. As the years passed, the hearts remained and I grew, until my eyes had to travel downward to see them.
The happiness we had in Decatur effervesced through months and time as we grew. Our parents still had moments of delight in each other, and my sister and I and they spent evenings looping through the neighborhood, skipping and walking and lingering and commenting on our neighbors’ yards as we passed. In my room and that house, I believed we would always live in the enveloping comfort of familial love. I lost my first tooth there. I skinned my knees. My sister and I fought and made up and fought again. Four or five Christmases passed with her perfect exclaiming, so surprised by the gifts of Santa Claus. We had a carport and a fenced back yard. We had a dog, outside, doted on by our neighbor, an older man who had lost most of his friends after having jaw surgery that left him disfigured. He was kind to us, and our family was kind to him. The year after we moved away he died of an aneurysm, and I always wondered at that—wondered if we had been all he had left.
And so it was in that place that I found my will, my first sense of self, and it was also where I saw once, my father in frustration pick up my mother and move her bodily to the other side of the room, only once, but such that I knew then that no matter what I wanted, that someone stronger could always make me do otherwise. A body lesson I would hate even until now. I still want to make it otherwise. I value my strength, as though my ability to carry heavy boxes and move furniture could protect me from the real threat of not getting my way. Of being picked up and moved. Of being overpowered. Of being raped. Again.
That I was raped. Rape. The word rape. To write down the word rape. That I can say it at all: I was raped. That for years I said, it was rapey. Rapey, like almost raped. Like maybe rape. That he was bigger than me, that I loved him, that he was my boyfriend. That we met when I was 16 at Annual Conference, the yearly gathering of pastors and lay leaders to worship God, do the business of church, and debate proposed amendments to the Book of Discipline. That he was funny. That he played guitar. That he grew up and got married and had three children. Or was it two? I forget. I stopped keeping up. That he told me once, before he was married, that I was the best he ever had. That the best meant the many times we had made out and the only time—he raped me.
It was after the Georgia-Central Florida football game. Georgia won. It was close. I spent the night at his house. His mother told him she would stab me if I seduced him—a half-threat, if half can be a joke—because to all of them, I was the seductress, the succubus, the tempter. I was to sleep in the guest bedroom. He was to sleep in his room. He snuck down the hall and joined me. We made out for hours. We pawed at each other. We wanted each other. He asked me over and over and over. He tried to sneak it in. And finally, I said, okay, okay, stick it in for a little bit. Consent. A first consent. So he did.
But we had no condoms, and I became scared. I said I wanted to stop. I told him to stop, no more, but he held me down. I pushed against him and told him to get off of me, but he leaned down and told me to relax and enjoy it. I pushed against him again. I dug my heels into his hips and I used all my strength to buck him off of me, thrusting my hand between my legs so he could not re-enter. He came on my hand.
Of being raped. Of being overpowered. He left me and went down the hall and we woke up a few hours later to go to church. He said he felt like we had sinned. He said I had been too tempting, like it was a compliment, like it was my fault he couldn’t help himself. We went to church. We worshipped Jesus. At school I prayed in P.E. every day that I was not pregnant, that some errant semen hadn’t made its way inside me. My period came like a gift. My mother told me we were stupid not to use a condom when she found out I had had sex.
I couldn’t call it rape then. I didn’t want to think about it like that. He was my boyfriend. It was my first time. I had told him to stick it in. But my body knew. My contempt, my never trusting, my wariness, my inability to let go, to be cared for, to let them take care of me. In my twenties I learned that consent is always happening, that a yes once does not negate a no later. It took years of listening to other women talk about their sexual assaults, their rapes, for me to acknowledge what had happened. It took learning about dialogue and writing, and how you can show what a character knows by what he or she says. Relax, he said. Enjoy it, he said. He knew I wanted to stop, and he didn’t stop.
When I said to myself—finally—he raped me, a knot of muscle and bone and blood unfurled like a fist released behind my ribcage. I unfriended him on facebook. I breathed. I let all the armor fall away. Rape. Overpowered. A lesson of the body to the mind of the child, now hidden, afraid, remembering that first will and creating new caveats of love.
- Caveat one: That I will be safe. That my wants and desire will be acknowledged, believed, and not violated.
- Caveat two: That I will be respected. That my anecdotes and interests will be treated as evidence of my competence and intellect, rather than a collection of cute asides and adorable quirks.
- Caveat three: That I will be joyful. That my verve for life will not be punished, that joy will not be construed as evidence of inanity, that life can be celebrated.
- Caveat four: That I will be human. That my body, with its skin and hair and blood will be loved, that its changes and effluvia will be incidental and not construed as catastrophic.
- Caveat five: That I will be desired. That I will be wanted, not for fulfilling some woman-shaped want in someone else, but for being this woman, in this body, with this mind and these hands in this life.
And how rare that these have been fulfilled, if ever, in my romantic adventuring? I am lucky now. It has not always been thus. And I could not arrive here, safe, not until I gave up that mad orientation to couple—striving for some ideal that distracted me from the reality of the people I was loving, and in its worst incarnations, erasing the moments in between them. What I wish I could tell myself when I was younger: the constant turn to the who-might-be is as empty as any temporary fantasy, as distracting as a movie that fills up the hours until boredom overtakes the afternoon, again. There is a freedom, terrifying and then wonderful, in standing alone in this world and knowing that you can take care of you. That you can thrive, and fill your days and hours with exactly what you desire. No good lover or partner will ever heal the wounds of the worst. You must heal yourself. It will be okay.
Laura Jean Moore is the 2014 winner of the Cobalt Review’s Zora Neale Hurston Fiction Prize. Her poetry, essays, and stories have been featured or are forthcoming in FLUX WEEKLY, VICE, [PANK], the EEEL, the Brooklyn Rail, ENTROPY, Corium, and Change Seven, where she is a monthly columnist. She holds an MFA from Columbia University and a BA from Reed College. She is suspicious of most things.
Read All Columns by Laura Jean Moore
- On Greatness
- Whiteness, A Study
- New York
- American Dreams
- Body Talk
- Habits, Simple and Austere
- On Love