If I were a different person, maybe he would be in jail right now, instead of in my grocery store when I’m trying to buy cheese.
I was raped a decade ago. When I was in college I would flee the common area once I spotted him. At my first job, he walked in, asked me about nail polish and said we should be friends again. At a Denny’s on Halloween, I excused myself, went to the bathroom, and vomited after seeing him enter with his friends.
There are a million reasons why people don’t report sexual assault. Mine is: he’s everywhere.
By the time I was nineteen, I was already very familiar with the concept of fear. Most are. But with an untreated anxiety disorder and a history of sexual abuse by a former partner, fear and I were far better acquainted than I would have liked. I’d never dealt with it particularly well, especially not considering the many ways it had been used against me during that relationship. But I’d learned to ignore the knot in my throat – to swallow the nausea and remember to breathe. I counted slowly with deep inhales, and though it wasn’t a cure, it helped.
But how do you overcome that sort of fear when you’re faced with reliving your experiences? When the source of terror walks casually through a door and grins at you, almost as if nothing had ever happened? That’s the thing though. That calm collection that fills whichever room you’re in can also get into your head.
Looking back now, older and more educated, I have the resources I need to cope with what happened to me and pivot the need for accountability away from myself. But a younger and newly independent me couldn’t understand why he thought it was okay to look in my direction and show no remorse. He thought it was more than okay. He thought we could be friends. It was so much different in my head than his.
Fighting against his perception only fueled the endless pump of doubt that I had to somehow keep in check. How was I supposed to feel about my trauma when there was this nagging fear that maybe I was just overreacting? That feeling bled through all of my decisions, and like many people, I ended up sinking into it, trying not to be seen.
On those occasions when I would run into him, he would corner me and make small talk while I chewed on the inside of my cheeks and tried not to say anything. He said we should be friends. I gave nothing in return save for a polite smile – the kind that can barely be regarded as one.
“Don’t you think?” he pushed, as was his M.O.
I received a text from him three days later and blocked the number. I wanted it to be as easy as that. But every time I stepped out my door, I ran the risk of bumping into him. He went to my school. He lived four minutes from my house.
He showed up at my work, my social events, and even once came to my home unannounced, only leaving because my brother refused to let him in.
Even to this day, I’ll happen upon social media posts from himself and his family. They’re usually along the lines of shaming women and the victims of assault.
It’s no new story, only the ignorantly accepted norm of a white family from the south. I feel lucky because he hasn’t contacted me in years. Our last encounter was one I can’t even remember, as a friend informed me that he tried to get my attention on a drunken night out after we passed him on the street. It was my birthday. I’m sure he knew that. I’m sure he felt comfortable in approaching me with the cushion of that fact behind him.
But there is no comfort in knowing what I know. I’ve gained a sense of peace through my openness. When it came time to decide whether I would participate in the #MeToo movement, it wasn’t a question of whether I would admit I had been abused. It was about whether I felt safe enough to admit who the abuser was. And I didn’t. I don’t. I’m not sure I ever will.
Not with him lurking around the corner.
Maybe I’ll find my words once I’m far enough away to know he won’t come knocking at my door. Maybe I won’t. But he does know. And I’ll never forget.