What most surprised me when I encountered Frank, the man who’d raped me twenty-eight years earlier, was that I wondered if he still found me attractive. I’d never considered the possibility that I might run into him. If I had, I would have anticipated uncontrollable fury, even so many years later. Instead, I felt a curious apathy. He could have been any middle-aged man, and like a teenager preening for her first date, I worried about my outfit.
The chance meeting occurred on the final morning of a college reunion in upstate New York. I was relaxing in the lobby of the mid-seventies-modern dorm where our reunion class had been housed for the weekend—the same dorm I lived in my freshman year. The rooms had the same scratched furniture, pitted linoleum, and faded orange curtains. The identical rancid-beer smell permeated the halls. It was a foul stink, but on reunion Sunday, the stench couldn’t spoil my mood. I was the second place women’s finisher for my class in a Reunion Fun Run—my only race award ever—and my name was posted on a signboard near the information desk.
“Don’t harsh my mellow,” a phrase that was popular for a brief time pops up when I attempt to pinpoint my state of mind before rape reentered my consciousness.
Maybe it’s because when Frank arrived a freshman-year friend was telling me about the surfers that frequent her California beach coffee shop. He must have slid in as silently as a Pacific tide, because when I glanced up, he was standing in front of me, chatting with Jane, a woman I lived with for three of my four years at college. While I studied their profiles, she unexpectedly interrupted their discussion, took his arm so that they both faced me, and said, “You remember Frank, don’t you?”
In that hyper-prolonged moment of recognition, I thought: as if I could forget, as if he were just another reunion guest, as if he were someone I wanted to see again. Didn’t Jane remember? It was hard to imagine something that significant slipping my friend’s mind, but of course the rape was most significant to me.
Even so, I’d forgotten his full name.
Had there been a bubble of cartoon dialogue over my head, the words inside could have been: just curious…was I a good fuck? In the real world, I nodded hello, and tried to work out how the handsome boy had turned into an ordinary-looking man.
It was odd that Frank looked unremarkable when, to me, he would always be a rapist. Where on his forehead was the capital letter R etched in crimson? I couldn’t recollect why he’d seemed attractive when we were both at school. He’d kept in shape since graduation, but that was it. He was of moderate height, had nice eyes, and a decent smile. There was nothing dynamic about his presence. If I’d met him on the street for the first time, he’d have left no impression.
Yet like a girl with a crush, I gazed at Frank and wondered if he thought I looked good; if he noticed my husband, who was sitting next to me; or if he’d heard about my reunion run medal. The insecure part of me wondered if he remembered me at all, or if I was simply one of a long line of women in his life. Forgettable.
I was eighteen when I met Frank in the late fall of our sophomore year. I was living in a sorority, partly because university housing was limited, but primarily because I rushed with freshman-year dorm friends and by chance, we were all chosen. My summer boyfriend and I had broken up a few weeks earlier and life had grown dull.
One Saturday we must have been particularly bored, because my friend Linda, a former high-school prom queen, and I decided (perhaps with others) to expand the sorority’s social network. Party planning would normally have involved endless committees, lists, and meetings, but that day we simply scoured a yearbook for promising group photos before walking from our house through the main quad down to a fraternity house in the lower reaches of campus. When we explained our mission to the fraternity brother who answered the door, he summoned the social director, Frank.
My normal speech disintegrated into a childish stammer when I met Frank in the fraternity living room. I pretended to inspect the scarred leather seating, so unlike the chintz-covered chairs in our house, to avoid staring at his welcoming smile and inscrutable arms. Later I learned that Linda became infatuated with someone else that afternoon, and she was unaffected by Frank’s aura. Secretly I was glad that I didn’t have to compete with her for his attention. By the time we left, a party had been arranged for a future Saturday night. It was that easy.
That party, and others that must have followed were unremarkable, but I do remember trips to a distant pub, where Frank tended bar, Springsteen always played on the jukebox, and I began to drink for free. I stopped by when I was in the neighborhood, although the pub was well beyond my normal social radius. It was usually jam-packed when I arrived, as popular with students who, at eighteen, were legally entitled to drink, as with the fake-ID-crowd that wormed its way in.
I liked to watch Frank work. The way his arms extended when he reached up to pull a glass from a ceiling-rack. The hint of tightness in the shoulder muscles under his shirt as he cranked levers that churned out cheap beer and sodas. The deft movement of his hands when he poured and shook and stirred mixed drinks. The rhythm of his fingers on the old-fashioned cash register that clinged with each keystroke. His friendly banter with patrons. The perfect head of foam when he filled a glass with Genesee Cream Ale, without a single drop spilling, not one.
It must have been beer that emboldened me when I sidled onto a barstool on a February night in my tightest jeans and a snug sweater, my skin dry and taut with a vague feeling of anticipation. I’m unsure how I attracted his attention. Perhaps I just looked suitably young and stupid.
“Do you want to hang out after closing?” he asked, and promised to walk me home. “It’ll be safer,” he said.
We talked and joked on the way to the sorority, where he might have kissed me goodnight at the door. Yes, I think he did.
Everything blurs now, even another night when I found myself in a fraternity bedroom with Frank’s arms holding me down. There had been a party, drinking, though I said no to a joint. There was urgent kissing—lips, face, neck, mine, his—as we fell on a bed. More kissing, petting, rubbing, tension, and it seemed like love, but I was tangled and confused, and suddenly pants were yanked down, a sweater wrested off, a shirt bunched up and torn, underwear and bra ripped. I felt the beginnings of pain and heard myself scream, “NO, I’m not READY,” but it was another person’s voice and what I meant to say was I’ve never done this before please stop, please stop, except those words wouldn’t come out, or if they did, it was too late. Time passed, but I don’t know how much. There was violent sobbing and tears licked my naked chest. The blubbering and sputtering continued, as though it were coming from someone else, while I pulled up my jeans, gathered my remaining clothes, draped my sweater around me, and began to leave the room. Frank asked me to stay the night, as though it was customary to cuddle after rape. “I’ll see you on Thursday, ” he finally said—referring to a date we’d made earlier—as I limped out, half-holding, half-wearing my ruined clothes, and began the uphill trudge home.
The New York February pierced my bones. A blue neon glow from campus emergency phones interspersed the midnight darkness, but I didn’t call anyone. Blood seeped in droplets from my vagina and trickled down my legs, yet I felt no wetness, only the sensation of frost pricking my skin, stabbing my thighs with each step.
Maybe he really likes me, I sobbed in my room, swaddled in the baby-blue and brown quilt that normally lay on top of my bunk bed, a Teddy bear nestled in my arms, the one my parents gave me as a moving-away-from-home present. In the coming days, my sorority sisters got up, attended classes, ate dinner, studied, and went out, while I shivered under a blanket in my pajamas and couldn’t eat. I explained what happened. They acted horrified, but I sensed that they thought I was exaggerating. “He’s good-looking,” someone said, “Why would you say no?” How I longed for evidence of assault—bruises, scratches, gashes, anything—but there were no visible scars. Even close friends like Jane and Linda ran out of things to say to the hysterical person I became after the quiet shock wore off. It enraged me that no one understood that I hadn’t comprehended, until afterward, that I could have fought harder. That I’d lacked the strength to defend myself against a boy I liked, but didn’t know at all.
The refrain of self-doubt in my head went like this: maybe I asked for it, maybe this is the way it’s supposed to be, and maybe I need to get over it. For me, sex and love had been conjoined. I wanted Frank to care for me. How strange to think now that his liking me was important, as if affection erased the violence.
I never spoke to my parents about Frank. My mother was married, pregnant with me, and living on a new continent by age twenty-one, and she is, even today, too private to discuss sex. We didn’t have “the talk” before I left for college, or any other time that I recall. I wouldn’t reveal something intimate to my father, whose single-minded focus on education allowed no room for blunders. They’d have worried, perhaps ordered me to transfer, but nothing would have changed except that my immigrant parents would have been disappointed in their first-born. “What a shame,” they’d have sighed, “how could a smart girl let a boy ruin her life?”
Date rape wasn’t in the late-seventies vocabulary and it never occurred to me to file an official report. We’d heard whispers of a string of campus suicides around that time, but the newspaper didn’t report any deaths. Such accounts would have hurt the university’s reputation. If suicide could be wiped away like rainwater from a windshield, I reasoned, then rape surely wasn’t worth mentioning.
Not talking didn’t help me forget. I simply continued to blame myself and ignored the possibility that I could be pregnant.
I suspect I hoped that a normal evening would regularize our relationship, so I kept my Thursday date with Frank. The conventional formula: girl meets boy, they like each other, they go out, then they make love. In that fit of twisted reasoning I dressed nicely and met him for the short stroll to a student union where Linda tended bar.
We must have been silent as we walked, because I don’t know what we would have said.
I wanted a gin-and-tonic, but Frank, the alcohol expert, insisted, “Tanqueray is better than generic.”
“What he says,” I told Linda, too weak to argue about a beverage.
The place buzzed with students starting the weekend early. I watched Linda mix my drink as she took other orders and clanged the bar gong when she got tips. Her confidence was enviable. She never made a mistake and she never stopped smiling. If she was surprised to see us, she didn’t say. I gulped the strong drink, while Frank ignored me and chatted with acquaintances. The premium gin tasted vile, as if it had been swallowed and spit up and put back in my glass with tonic and lime. I never drank gin again, but that night it was laced with courage. I finally resolved not to see him again. Plunking my glass on the bar, I waved goodbye to Linda, and slipped through the crowd unnoticed.
A few afternoons later, on Valentine’s Day, Frank dropped by the house with a card—I wish I’d kept it so that I could reread his words—and a stuffed animal or a box of chocolates, something useless and silly. He pulled those treasures from an ample shopping bag while my sorority sisters watched General Hospital nearby. The bag clearly held other cards and gifts. Did he have presents for all the girls he raped, if, in fact, there were others?
Frank sounded apologetic when he mumbled, “I didn’t know,” but I avoided eye contact. “I didn’t know you were a virgin,” he continued, as though he’d only then noticed a blemish on his bedding. In the background, girls chattered and the soap opera droned on.
There was no appropriate response, so I stayed mute, and pictured how much my blood had stained his sheets. Only a huge and permanent spot would console me.
“I’d better go,” Frank said as he stood to leave. When he leaned down to kiss me, I froze, terrified that I would go berserk and punch his face. I wish now I had. The union of knuckle and bone. I would have liked to see him bleed.
News of Frank was impossible to avoid, as though it were splashed on the front page of every tabloid. First I heard that he was dating a freshman, then more than one. Later I heard that he’d met a young girl, a townie, and that they planned to marry. I also heard that he got married before we graduated, but I never heard to whom. Why his activities were reported to me, I don’t know, although I’ll admit I was curious.
The loss of my virginity granted unexpected freedom. I suspected that people were calling me a tramp, but I didn’t care. It was easier being easy. I could have anyone and Frank could go to hell, I thought, because I didn’t understand that I wasn’t punishing him, while I was falling apart.
Once I was too sick to leave my own bed and begged a boy to bring me chicken soup. He said he was busy, and, by the way, he didn’t care to see me again. I screamed and raged that day, as much as it’s possible to scream and rage when you’re dying of the flu.
By the time I arrived in Florida for spring break, weariness had replaced anger and I spent the vacation playing cards, nursing sunburn, and yearning for my freshman-year boyfriend, Mike. When I ran into Mike on the beach, I brought him to my motel room and let him fuck me for the first time. Like an overanxious suitor, he swore that he’d love me forever, but he left quickly, and I wept into wrinkled sheets. It was fitting that a boy I met in an elevator on the first day of college showed me how far I’d fallen.
As I reclined on the rust-orange sofa on reunion Sunday and looked at Frank with adult eyes, I mused about whether my husband, Dave, who was beside me, remembered that I’d told him of a rape. I’d never told him I felt guilty for years, nor had I told him that I doubted myself all that time, that I worried I’d asked for it. I never told him that his wife had been a slut her sophomore year. It seems there was a lot I never told him.
When I tried to tell Dave that we had to leave, he was too involved in other conversations to hear my plea. That’s how it goes sometimes with us: we miss the signals. So I stayed and squirmed and tried not to gawk at Frank.
If I tug and pull at random strands of college memory, I seize on the rope tied to an image of my snow-drenched coat hanging over the balcony of an introductory psychology class, where it rained on my classmates below. Then there is the slim thread that leads to a much smaller German literature course, where I foolishly tried to read the books in German, a language I spoke fluently as a child, but hadn’t actually learned to read. A thick cord of embarrassment points to an uncoordinated moment when I ran over my ski instructor on the bunny slope in gym class. A wavy wire reminds me of tipsy Wednesdays after wine tasting, when Jane, Linda, and I were seniors. Where is Frank among my recollections? Shouldn’t there be some fat twisted fiber permanently entwined with the ultimate depravity?
There isn’t. I got through my sophomore and junior years, studied in Germany the first half of senior year, and returned in the spring to finish up with my class. Frank must have been in the crowd of graduates, but I didn’t see him as we marched through the quad carrying bottles of champagne, or in the football stadium when we tossed our graduation caps into the air like beach balls. Soon, I reunited with Dave, my summer boyfriend before I met Frank. I joined Dave in Manhattan and started my career. We got married, moved to the suburbs, tried to have a child and failed, too many times, but I finally did give birth, to a daughter, just one. The normal hurts and successes took over, and at some point, I stopped thinking about Frank. When I ran into him, it was as disorienting as the time I went body surfing—I was about ten or eleven—and a rogue wave tossed and turned and tumbled me until I crashed, stomach-first, scraping and burning my skin on a thick cable intended to protect the swimming area from a rocky sea wall. Sometimes I’m still afraid in rough surf.
Frank and I exchanged how-are-yous and nice-to-see-yous before I left the reunion. We talked about his work and my new job as a stay-at-home mom. I attempted to maintain a neutral expression as I searched his eyes, looking for a sign that he remembered, or evidence of the part of me that stayed with him that night. He shuffled his feet as we spoke, a little nervous perhaps, but didn’t shift his gaze from my face. It was almost as though he were trying to puzzle out how he knew me.
If our meeting had appeared on an episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, it would have been a violent scene.
I shriek at Frank: “Don’t you remember me? Didn’t I mean anything to you? How could you fuck me like that?” (These lines are edited for network television.)
He protests: “I didn’t know. I thought you wanted to. It seemed like you liked it. Didn’t you like it?”
I pound his chest, tear at his hair, kick, scratch, and scream, everything I should have done twenty-eight years before. Police intervene, but for me, there is relief in mania. “I’m the victim!” I shout as they rip me away from him. Then I whimper “doesn’t anyone understand?” while the camera studies my bloodied fingers and tear-streaked face.
In a stark interrogation room, the kind with a one-way glass window where the investigators can see in, but the subject can’t see out, I sit on a folding chair across a steel table from a detective. She hands me a cup of coffee and my story tumbles out. The way I imagined the first time would be, with a boy I loved who cared enough about me to make it special. The awkward fumbling, caresses, soft laughter, concern. How unfair it was that it didn’t happen that way. That no one should be hurt like that.
She utters an inane platitude, “life isn’t pretty.” I nod my head. In that moment, her statement sounds profound.
In reality, Frank and I chatted politely like acquaintances at a cocktail party. The conversation was short. It was inadequate. There was no other way for two adults to behave.
“Wasn’t he the one who…?” Jane asked when we spoke later. I was surprised she brought him up. The need for soothing words had passed. Frank, I’d learned, was merely a middle-aged man. “Yes, he was the one who raped me.” There was little more to say.
Dave eventually signaled that he wanted to leave the reunion, or maybe he understood that we had to go. We held hands as we toted our baggage to the car.