Vocabulary by Leta Rebecca Cunningham

Picture looking up at popcorn ceiling

Let me try to say it out loud. Roll the phrase around in my mouth. Taste the words and let them melt under my tongue. Hold them between my teeth like hard candy.

I was raped.

Assaulted. Violated. Coerced. I have tried out these words, each too much like a whisper and not enough of a shout. The dictionary has failed me in my search for a word that accurately describes what happened. But the unburied truth is that I was raped. I was raped in a way that was different from what I’d seen on late-night television. Not like the violent, in-a-dark-alley rape spoken of by the police officer teaching my Girl Scout troop about pepper spray, who showed us how to place car keys between our index and middle fingers.

I was raped in my dorm room by a boy I loved unbearably, who shoved himself inside me while I stared up at the popcorn ceiling, who held me afterward while blood trickled down the inside of my thigh and stained the soft gray bed sheets my mom bought for me before I’d moved to college only six months before.

When my mother helped me move out of my dorm in May, she pointed out the rust-colored marks on a mattress pad I’d slept on all year. I shrugged. Period stains, I told her. I rolled up the pad and packed it into the back of her car next to the remainder of my belongings. I could have confessed the truth, but I didn’t know how to name what I’d gone through. Rape was a knife to your throat in the dark. Rape was not a boy you loved weighing you down on your dorm bed.

I am a writer, so I know the truth: Words are not static. They are alive; they breathe. Nothing is real until you say it out loud. If I didn’t say I was raped, I wasn’t. Right? Using the word rape meant taking the language on as part of my identity, my story, my life. I did not want that story to tell. I had enough stories. Enough problems. If I didn’t call it rape, it was just bad sex. If I didn’t call it rape, I wouldn’t have to face the part of myself that felt responsible and ashamed and afraid. If I didn’t call it rape, I was just like any other college freshman who fucked someone and regretted it.

And then there was this: Calling what happened to me rape meant taking responsibility for what happened to me. The word would force me to confront the truth I was so terrified of, that I was responsible because I stayed with a man who abused me for nine whole months when I had opportunity after opportunity to leave. Because I crawled back to his bed, to his arms, to his promises that things would be different. You slut, I admonished. You wanted it.

But words are alive, and you can’t refuse to name something for too long before it begins to choke you. So, I finally said it out loud in a parked car with my best friend. He sat silently as I kicked my feet into the dash, coughing up the no-no-no still rubbing my throat raw from those days when refusal had been useless on my tongue. I don’t want to have been raped, I sobbed. I don’t want to have been raped. But I was.

There was finality in those razor-blade words. I could no longer sit in the shadow of denial. The truth settled into me like smoke inside my lungs.

 I can feel the words living in my mouth. They taste of sweat and fear, cinnamon and arsenic. I bite down and crush them between my teeth, then spit their bones into the air. They fall, heavy as stone.

Leta rebecca cunninghamLeta Rebecca Cunningham is a Brooklyn based essayist, poet, and graduate of Pacific University’s MFA in Writing. You can find her work in Ten Spurs Journal of Literary Nonfiction, LiteraryMama.com, The Write Launch, The North Texas Review, The Santa Ana River Review, and Transcend Literary Magazine. You can find her in bed drinking coffee, reading Sylvia Plath, and cuddling her elderly, one-eyed dog.





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