A Common Narrative
Ryan would often play the piano for me, something he’d done since he was a child. He’d play whenever I asked, often after we had sex or whenever there was a lull in conversation (though there weren’t many). I drank in every note, begging him to play when I wanted to close my eyes and think of nothing but his hands. I’d known musical people, but his playing was incredible. He was a shameless person, someone willing to share every part of himself. I wanted to catch that confidence, and when I was with him I had it.
I met Ryan my sophomore year of high school; we went on a date and spent an hour making out in the backseat of his first car behind an elementary school. We were virgins that night and stayed that way. I made the choice in his lap and he respected it. Despite the chemistry and an overall pleasant date, our relationship became strictly platonic. I was already in love with someone else.
Ryan valued my time more than my body, so a friendship developed that we were both proud of. Ryan added only positive things to my life: good communication, occasional flirtation, and a reliability that I didn’t have in many other places. He was an umbrella in the hailstorm of my high school experience. I was a mess in every sense of the word: unhappy with my family, many of my friendships, and with my lack of agency. Ryan emanated respect and I basked in it. We saw each other regularly, always ready to hug in the hallway, always there to listen when something was awry. Ryan was there.
We both dated around in high school. I bounced awkwardly between three boys who couldn’t handle me, only one of whom put forth a conscious effort. Still, Ryan was there. He dated a few girls, my least favorite being the last of his high school sphere; they’d linked up his junior year of high school and the relationship had leeched into his first year of college.
It was during my senior year that Ryan and I finally collided, two young people unprepared to cope with losing our first serious relationships. He’d left his girlfriend after she cheated on him with three people in a month. He hadn’t heeded my warning, but I didn’t remind him. I was a senior in high school who’d left my first serious boyfriend. Ryan lived two and a half hours from home, attending school in Savannah, a little over a 160-mile trek from our hometown of Warner Robins. He was a college freshman coming home to spend rare weekends at his parents’ house; even then, Ryan was there.
When I ran up to Ryan in the hallway between classes he always met me with open arms. I could take a running leap and he’d be there to catch me, to pull me close and hold me for just a few moments.
The first time he came to see me, we ate at Subway before we parked behind the abandoned Kroger on Watson Boulevard. It had closed a year or two before so they could expand, make one of those newfangled Krogers with a Starbucks and a fancy cheese bar. We’d just wanted somewhere to talk and I’d been there before; the spot was excellent for teenagers with no beds available. There were lights but limited cameras, no store operating directly in front of us. I remember kissing him again, and I remember feeling like I could be myself. I was seventeen and I was still in love with someone else, but Ryan was there and we didn’t want to fall in love. We wanted to heal. I lay in his backseat and looked up at him, listened to him ask if I was sure, asking for more consent than I’d ever given—it was a resounding yes. I think that’s the closest thing I’ve ever had to lovemaking.
It was February, just past a solid semester of his time in undergrad and he’d already gotten two tattoos on his back—one was an amalgamation of religious symbols overlaid to represent coexistence, the other was artwork off an album cover, something heavy metal. The sight of it reminded me of that first date two years before, listening to ugly music in the backseat of his car while he showed me how healthy sexuality should feel. There was a smoothness to his shoulders that invited my hands; he was as sleek and solid as those blackwork lines.
Sex with Ryan was what I’d wanted sex to be with my previous boyfriend. We quickly graduated from car sex to sex in a proper bed. I felt like I was in control, not in the basest sense of the term, but in the sense that I only had sex when I wanted it now. Ryan wasn’t coarse, he made me feel like he wanted me around even when I wasn’t naked. He came home every weekend for months just to see me. We got better and had sex in every room of his parents’ house. I remember his sore knees on the kitchen floor, watching episodes of Too Cute (a TLC show dedicated to baby animals—it was there, curled up on the couch with Ryan, that I developed a love for the hideously adorable Bambino cat, a crossbreed of the Munchkin and Sphynx cats complete with the short legs and hairlessness that the respective breeds are known for), and I remember snuggling between him and his old golden retriever, Champ. He was still my best friend, someone to watch kittens with and sleep next to, except I’d wake up and be reminded by the body against my back that I could have a healthy sexual relationship.
Ryan has big ears—he’s never been one to sport a shaggy hairstyle, always shaving his head and letting his ears show. I teased him for them, but I never minded them in the slightest. His build was one of my favorite things about him; he was sturdy but never staunch, a manly man in most senses of the word. I’ve hardly been to bed with a man shaped like him since.
Justin was our closest mutual friend. I’d met him through Ryan not too long after our date. He was sweet, just as attractive as Ryan, and someone I’d seen around quite a bit. We’d never gone out, though he and Ryan were on my long list of high school sexters—a pastime I learned with great proficiency at fourteen. I recall them on a trip one holiday a year or so earlier, both sexting me, the photo of someone’s dick posed over a toilet that was already full of urine. We had our fun where we found it.
Through the years, Justin constantly vied for my attention. Ryan got it first, leaving Justin a close second who never missed that fact. His jealousy was divisive. The three of us were together often enough for him to draw my sympathy and in turn more attention than he deserved. He had a girlfriend for the first few months of my time with Ryan and therefore didn’t balk at our relationship, but when things ended with her he was bitter. Justin reasoned that I should be willing to sleep with him too, that I should help him through his breakup the same way I was helping Ryan.
Bustle defines sexual coercion as an instance “when tactics like pressure, trickery, or emotional force are used to get someone to agree to sex.” Justin’s coercion followed a logical approach; he appealed to my sensitivity to his jealousy. I knew that he felt he was often passed over for Ryan, who’d taken a few of Josh’s almost-girlfriends over the course of high school. Knowing me well enough to understand I’d sleep with him before I’d hurt his feelings was his main advantage, and he used it to persuade me despite my initial hesitance. I had yet to realize that my body was not a tool used to fix broken men, so I complied. Coercion isn’t a concept taught in public schools, especially not schools in Georgia. I was too sheltered to understand that being used isn’t acceptable, even in the case of helping a friend (regardless of how misguided a friend can be). Southern women grow up being taught that self-sacrifice is normal. We’ve always been subservient to men, the preparers of food, the ones to raise the children, the warm body ready at their disposal.
I remember sitting on his couch, seeing his senior portrait above the fireplace. His mother goes to church with my Nana—she always built the decorations for Vacation Bible School—and the foam boards and neon paint in their living room reminded me of Central Baptist Church. I slid onto his lap and hated the way his mouth felt against mine, how his stubble against my chin felt gritty (Ryan’s must have been made of something different). He had hidden his condoms in black garbage bags, an over-eager selection from which I had to choose (eerily, it reminded me of choosing stickers after shots as a child). I remember him crying in bed because I was not a suitable substitute for his ex. I also remember his apologies, not for the coercion, but for his inability to perform. Afterward, we left to pick up Ryan and have frozen yogurt, and it was Ryan who now fulfilled the role of the jealous outsider while I squirmed in the front seat of Justin’s bright blue PT Cruiser.
This was the first time that Ryan put his hands on my body in a careless way. We were riding home from Menchie’s when he wrapped his arms around the seat and grabbed my chest, saying, “You owe me more sex.” I learned something profound about myself that day; I was tired of being a pawn. I didn’t want to be a part of another unhealthy relationship, regardless of its nature. I decided not to see Ryan again, instead saving him some of those five-hour round trips.
In hindsight I realize that I never should have compromised for Justin. I didn’t want him, I wanted Ryan, and I hurt us all in the process. Choosing another man over Ryan, even reluctantly, was too close to the cheating he’d experienced with his last girlfriend. I never wanted to hurt him. I still don’t. I often wonder what we could have been if I had been a stronger person then. I don’t blame my younger self for her inability to tell Justin no, and I don’t blame Ryan for letting it happen. I do blame Justin some days, maybe most.
After Ryan and I had sex, we’d often lie in his bed, drifting in and out of sleep. I would curl into him, feel him close against my back. Sometimes Champ would join us, curling with his soft back against my stomach. I remember feeling at ease while I rested between them, contemplating a future that may or may not involve a home of my own, a golden retriever, a husband, maybe even children. I still want a golden retriever; I think I’ll name him after Champ.
There was a moment in time where things began to make more sense. I forgave the hands for their blunder and several months later we discussed dating. I recall the text messages, Ryan deciding that he wanted to try and have a legitimate relationship, make up for the times that we weren’t ready before. I had hope for a stability like none I’d encountered before, and I ran with it. The only hurdle to jump was a date; Ryan had a date with a girl he’d met online and he didn’t want to cancel. Our potential was contingent upon his date with her going poorly. I’m not sure if calling him gentlemanly fits, but he wasn’t willing to stand her up or cancel, and I understood.
That was the last I heard of him for the better part of two years; they’d hit it off immediately. I’m not sure if it was shame or apathy that kept him from reaching out, but Justin had to fill me in on the relationship. I didn’t have closure; it’s evasive. Ryan wasn’t there anymore. His new girlfriend wouldn’t let him speak to me; I shouldn’t have blamed her, though I did. I’d have felt just as uncomfortable in her situation.
My friendship with Justin remained. He didn’t stray much, though his jealously skyrocketed; in lieu of jealousy of Ryan it was jealousy of anyone I even considered seeing. I couldn’t spark interest in anyone without Justin criticizing them at the end of any conversation. I’d say that he was in love with me, but I think he’d just set his sights on me solidly enough that he wasn’t willing to lose. Those two years without Ryan were full of Justin shaming me for my choices and me feeling as foolish as he’d wanted me to.
I remember when Ryan and I visited Central Baptist church—we didn’t attend a service but we did make good use of the walking trail on the campus. He placed his hands in all of the right places, my hip or my waistline depending on our footing. I remember him making sure I didn’t stumble over rough patches, sitting beside me on a bench that curled around a tree back in the woods.
I saw Ryan once while he was with his new girlfriend. I showed up uninvited to his house as a passenger in Justin’s car, that same bright blue PT Cruiser—his mother had sent us with a pie to take to Ryan’s family for Christmas. Justin and I talked about it, and he suggested I go inside as well. I missed Ryan and I missed the house, missed his dog and missed feeling welcome. Justin failed to notice, or at least to mention, her car in the driveway. Inside, I got a good look at Ryan, but I barely crossed the threshold. I didn’t allow myself to focus on the tall blonde girl with broad shoulders. Instead, I focused on Champ (who was as excited as ever to see me) and waited awkwardly for Justin to return—he’d left me in the doorway to go into the kitchen with Ryan and his family.
Ryan and the new girl split up in 2014. They’d lived together for over a year, solidifying their relationship in my eyes. He texted me a few times during that two years, drunkenly I’m sure, never saying much more than that he missed talking to me. I missed him too, just not enough to waste my time while he was with someone else. When it was all over he reached out, wanting to see me.
On New Year’s Eve 2014 I saw Ryan. Lunch at Subway was our past but we returned once again. There was a special: six-inch meatball subs were only two dollars that month. I ordered one and Ryan chastised me; he had a gift card loaded by his parents, I could have ordered something at regular price. I’d always been a cheap date. The line was slow; two workers in a crowded Subway meant a constant back-and-forth of shedding gloves and ringing up totals. We ate awkwardly; sometimes lost time is tangible.
Fountain Park is the closest thing we have to a scenic walking trail in Warner Robins, and somehow we’d come to the conclusion that we should take a walk, talk through the past couple of years. I think I suggested it. The sign for the park is small, sort of hidden behind some foliage off Carl Vinson Parkway; we knew it well enough not to miss the turn into the little parking lot. He parked, I worried over whether my purse would get stolen on our walk and still decided to leave it tucked under a spare hoodie in the backseat of his car. It wasn’t the same car from sophomore year, but it still felt fine. After all, we weren’t in his back seat anymore.
There is no fountain in Fountain Park, just a small, half-dry stream. It had been raining when Ryan and I went for our walk and the water levels were higher than usual. I’d always loved the smell of wet sidewalks and damp leaves, the way the trees sprayed the ground with leftover rain at every gust of wind.
We walked and did some catching up. I kissed him again for the first time in years and I tasted red onions instead of home; I tasted them and felt nothing like I’d expected. We were different. He wasn’t sleek anymore; dark hair snaked up the back of his neckline and peeked out of the top of his shirt. I had gained a good twenty pounds and now I was the one with the new tattoos. His were still there, but those shoulders didn’t invite me in the way they had before.
I went through some old boxes the other day, binders of prints from a photography class my senior year—there were shots from the week on photographing texture: leaves, fabrics, even sidewalks that I’d seen years before. There were pictures from another week too. Ryan and Champ looking at the camera, a shot of him staring off into the distance (I’d forgotten he wore glasses when he drove or read), his bed with the covers all tousled, a photo of the two of us. We were smiling.
I wanted to find myself in Ryan; instead, I opened a door that I wasn’t strong enough to close. We walked on for a while before we diverted to a more private spot in the woods. We kissed more, and I felt it coming but I knew that I didn’t want it. It was broad daylight on the outskirts of a park where handfuls of crimes had been committed and still I pressed myself against him, still I sat on his lap, still I said no. I would not go farther, would not take my clothes off in the woods a hundred yards from a playground.
No isn’t enough for some people. Ryan had become one of them. I felt his hand on the small of my back and my face met the leaves. I wish I could say that in the moment I thought of piano music—wish there were some way to have done anything other than look at the leaves. I focused on the woods, the way the sparse ground cover intermingled with those damn leaves, the way his jacket felt under me. I saw the vines and the briars and I was still. I felt his skin against mine in every spot that he touched me.
Ryan wore retro cut-off Levis for Decades Day one year, sported them with a tank top and flip flops. I have a photo of that too, somewhere. I wore a sequin dress. I remember it as one of my happiest years in school. He posed with his thigh exposed, foot propped up on a locker. We hadn’t slept together then.
I’ve borne witness to many arguments about the validity of trauma from rape in the instance that a victim didn’t scream or run. I’ve had essays returned with the word rape in quotation marks, questioning my trauma. Truth be told, I could have run. If I’d screamed, half a dozen moms with children playing at that park would have come to my rescue. I could have fought Ryan off, but the feel of his hand pushing me facedown in the leaves was enough to stop me. The thought of articles in my local paper, me caught with my pants down and my best friend on the cover. Who was I to ask for help? Who was I to disrupt any child who might be on an otherwise normal play date?
At some point a family passed by, exploring the woods as we had been. He shushed me though I was already silent, laid closer on top of me to keep me still, keep me from catching their attention. When they passed he wanted me to turn over. Something inside of me finally made him stop. It was as if I’d reached my point of intolerance—disassociation was only effective when I was able to fulfill a passive role in the act. He knew now how vulnerable he was to being caught and I couldn’t face him. I couldn’t help him rape me. I couldn’t give him the benefit of finishing what he had started. I didn’t want to risk him getting caught, as if the blood would be on my hands instead of his. I let myself believe that I was to blame.
We stood up, almost in sync now. Pulled ourselves together, nothing sweet about it this time. I brushed the leaves out of my hair, walked with him to the path and said, “I can’t believe that just happened,” to which he responded, “Sometimes you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do,” and I fell silent again. I got in his car, pulled his sweatshirt off of my purse, and asked him to take me home.
I remember him going all out for Spirit Week, dyeing himself blue with a group of boys and girls our high school dubbed “the naked people” for Friday night football games. Then there were the costumes his mother must have made while she sat on the living room couch. So many costumes, so many faces that he wore for so long. He left me with so many images.
I called a friend that night (a boy who deserves a book instead of a story) and I told him everything. He wanted to know why I didn’t get up, why I hadn’t done better for myself. At the time I didn’t have an answer. I told Justin a few months later, after I found out that Ryan had started sleeping with Justin’s little sister. He’d told her that we’d seen each other, had lunch and nothing else. He’d told her that we didn’t have sex—not a lie—but certainly not something she’d know to ask the right question about. After I filled in the blanks, Justin told her; I was the reason for a fight but not enough to stop her from letting him in. I don’t know if he hurt her, but I do know that Justin didn’t stop there.
Over a year had passed when I attended a wedding in July, saw a distant but mutual friend. I didn’t expect the look on her face when I mentioned Ryan’s friend group (she’d dated one of their friends for years), didn’t expect to speak Ryan’s name at a public event, didn’t expect her to already know the story.
Her best friend was dating Ryan. Somewhere along the way I’d become a part of his narrative, the comments passed at parties over beer. My story wasn’t enough to deter her, just enough to give him a reputation. She’s still dating him now, knowing that he raped me. Her argument for staying with him was that “the sex was too good to leave him,” and from what I’ve heard, she’s moved in with him. He’s got his degree now and he’s back in our hometown with Justin and that new girlfriend, right around the corner and always on the edge of my memory.
I remember Ryan in white t-shirts. He often dressed lazily, wearing those basic white t-shirts with grey sweatpants, comfortable and attractive. He never needed to put forth effort, and more importantly never cared to. He was soft, inviting.
In an article from Greatist, Sian Ferguson describes sleeping with her rapist in an effort to retroactively consent. She wanted to make it all okay, wanted to help him feel better about his behavior and to heal herself inadvertently in the process. In a sick way I understood it; I’d thought back on what Ryan had done and wondered if I could fix it, if the good memories could outweigh that overwhelming bad. As if the closeness we’d once had couldn’t be negated by his actions; I didn’t want to allow our past to be tainted by present trauma. Some nights I catch myself thinking of all of the good nights, the episodes of Too Cute, the way that Ryan used to make me feel. I want that back. I am constantly tempted to reach back out and pull him toward me again.
I catch myself wondering how this has affected him some days; I want to go back and fix it for his sake over mine, worry more for his guilt than my pain. I wonder if he’s even grown to regret it or if he’s become the type of man to argue that I was to blame and that he gave me what I deserved. As a woman, I want to place the burden of his emotions on my shoulders when I can’t even bear the weight of my own.
I remember the empty pool in his backyard when we’d let Champ out one of those spring evenings. I stood there on the concrete with him, his arms wrapped around me, feeling content. These sanguine memories bring me an eerie comfort when I remember my face in the leaves.