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Friday, May 25, 2012

The Razored Truth: My Journey from Rape into Survival

 by Janna Vought

            I was raped.  Yes, rape, that dirty four letter word that makes people cringe with discomfort.  Yes, rape, the one crime that perpetuates itself throughout the generations, victimizing women over and over again.  Yes, rape, the ultimate act of savage domination.  Rape.  I joined the ranks of hundreds of thousands of women around the world who are swallowed into the bowels of the beast the moment another forces their way into their sacred heart, uninvited—unwanted. 
            Every two minutes a woman in the United States is raped.  My two minutes came when I was fifteen, vulnerable and naive to the reality women face: the constant presence of the threat of victimization.  One hundred and twenty seconds reshaped my destiny.  One thirtieth of an hour destroys. Two minutes—an eternity.  In those brief moments, the time it takes to brush your teeth, call a friend, savor a slice of cake, read three pages in a Stephen King book, watch the sun set over the Rocky Mountains, swim a lazy circle in a tranquil pool, my world collapsed.  Two minutes—a drop of rain in midnight pools glistening on the sidewalk after the storm—nothing.
          A number holds no meaning.  The occurrence of even one sexual assault is one too many.  Statistics do nothing more than sterilize the personal element of crime, the stories of the people suffered, a face to place with a position on a chart, a news report, or a regurgitation of fact.  Two minutes begat my journey into Hell.  
            I knew about rape.  As a teenager in the late eighties, I believed sexual assault only happened to older women who lived alone or naive little girls.  There was no sex offender registry, no understanding of preventative concepts like never allowing your drink out of your sight at parties or holding your keys out as a weapon against a possible attack.  I watched films in health class depicting a stranger lurking in the shadows, waiting as a frail and defenseless adolescent walks down the street, her nose buried in a library book, travelling from some unknown location where people loved and cherished her.  He stepped out from the bushes, or car, or whatever other camouflage prop he chose to use, offering her candy, a toy, or her picture in a magazine.  I knew the stories: don't talk to strangers, never get in a vehicle with someone you don't know, yell "fire!" if someone tries to grab you on the street, never let yourself be taken to a second location.  It was a mantra repeated endlessly to classrooms filled with adolescent girls—fear the stranger, he desires vile deeds—but I felt immune to the advances of sexual pariahs that roamed the streets.  Rapes happened in dark alleys, abandoned cars, or in bedrooms on quiet streets that hid families' secret shame, not to me.
            Never once, ever, did any health teacher or gym instructor, or even our mothers mention the danger hiding among us, the bright-eyed young misses who dreamed of finding their prince charming in the halls of their high school, unaware of the danger looming—acquaintance rape.  I, too, held onto those fantasies of love found in the lunchroom across the pizza buffet, or at the Sadie Hawkins dance, when I, the beautiful and daring girl approached the mysterious dark-eyed boy standing across the dimly lit gymnasium festooned with balloons and cascades of crepe paper and asked him to dance.  I was no different than the rest.  I engaged in the rebellious, yet typical behaviors for a young woman my age:  I thwarted the attempts of my overtly strict parents who sought to keep me chained to my innocence, I drank at parties, I skipped a class now and again to drive to a neighboring school to watch the varsity football team practice, played volleyball in the park, or stayed out past my curfew.  I bolted through my adolescence without pause, embracing each new experience with vigor.  How was I to know that a friend would exploit such innocence?  
            There is nothing unique or special about my assault.  I was not grabbed off the street, taken to a hidden location and molested.  An intruder did not break into my parents' house and rape me.  My attacker was someone I saw in the halls of my school every day.  I talked to him, laughed at his boyish pranks, cheered for him at soccer games.  I made the mistake of assuming that no harm comes from those we know—trust. 
            I learned my harsh reality at a party on Valentine's Day.  I made all the mistakes of the "classic" rape victim: I allowed myself to become separated from my group, I drank alcohol that inhibited my thinking skills and ability to react to danger in a timely fashion, I wore clothing that revealed the right amount of my blossoming form.  Phil was there.  Phil was a junior at my school, a popular soccer player whose dark shock of hair and olive eyes made him most popular among the female population.  My heart skipped as he flashed me a smile embedded in a mass of metal, braces covering his perfect teeth.  My infatuation with him permeated the marijuana-stained air.  He detected my scent: drunk, isolated, yearning for his company.  He wove his way through the sea of gyrating figures rubbing against each other to the pounding music searing through the small stereo, straight to me:  "Hi, Janna, what's up?"
          "I'm just looking for my friends.  Have you seen them?"
          "Nope.  Do you want me to help you find them?"
          "Sure," I said, a shy smile stealing across my face.  I tried to maintain my composure, but my stomach swelled with surging anxiety.  All the alcohol I had consumed clouded my mind, mixed with the intoxicating smoke wafting about the room.  My head paddled through the fog trying to grasp the situation unfolding around me.
            Phil pressed his hand against the small of my back, guiding me toward a group of boys crouched around a keg, trying to run the tap.  Next to them, a table held rows of cups filled with beer.  Phil grabbed two off of the table and handed me one.  I tilted my head back and opened my throat and let the tepid liquid flow.  I handed him the empty cup and wiped my mouth with the back of my hand.  "Impressive," he said, grinning at me with his metallic smile.  He set the cups down and grabbed my hand, leading me away.
            My eyes blurred the images before me.  Vague shadows faded in and out of my gaze, each figure unrecognizable to me.  I felt a dense pressure in the back of my head.  Between the alcohol I shared with my friends in the car, and all of the cups of beer at the party, I lost track of my consumption.  I tried to form my mouth around words, but my lips suffered from paralysis.  All I could muster was a string of incoherent mumbles.  I felt Phil beside me, but my eyes could not focus on his face, his olive eyes.  I noticed the pressure of his hand on my back increasing, pressing me forward with urgency.  "Where are we going?" I asked, stumbling over feet shuffling around the floor to the latest song raging through the speakers.  No answer, or at least, none that I recognized.  His other hand gripped my shoulder, steering me towards a door at the back of the room.  As we reached the threshold, I made out the silhouette of my friend Deann on the couch, smoking a joint with a group of people. "It's Deann!" I slurred.  I tried to wave, but Phil grabbed my hand, pushing it down to my side.  He reached in front of me and opened the door.  I peered into the darkness, unable to see anything.  The hand at my back pushed me in—swallowed up in the pitch.
            The only sound in the room was the click of the lock on the doorknob and my labored breathing.  I tried to gather my thoughts, assess the situation, but I had no time.  The dark bore two hands that shoved me down onto a bed.  The combination of the alcohol and second hand marijuana smoke rendered me defenseless, my synapses firing a split second too late.  As if in a dream, I hovered outside of my body, watching the horror unfold.  He shoved my pants down around my calves, pulling at the hose I wore underneath.  He fell on top of my motionless frame, a suffocating pressure on my chest.  I tried to scream, but my voice fled the scene, escaping into the night for self preservation.  He covered my mouth with his, flicking his tongue in and out as a viper samples the air for its prey.  He tasted like beer and cigarettes.  I gagged from the wretched combination.  With a heave and thrust, pain exploded from within, a fire burning so hot and deep it robbed me of my breath.  No sound escaped me, the only noise coming from the black was a low guttural moan—the devil inside me.
            When he finished, he pushed himself off the bed, releasing my constricted lungs.  I took a deep breath; I searched for virgin air.  He switched on the overhead light in the room and exposed my devastation.  "Get up," he said, a smug smile on his face, his eyes cold and dead.  I rose off the bed and pulled on my clothes, humiliated as he stood and watched me.  As I buttoned up my shirt, the one selected with such care earlier in the night, he swung open the door and beckoned to one of his friends standing outside the door.  He walked in, glancing at me and then the rumpled bed, a small red stain among the floral print revealed Phil's conquest, "All right!  You popped her!" his friend Scotty whooped, slapping Phil on the back.  Phil looked at me with indifference, rubbish now worn and used, and walked out the door.  Nothing special or unique, just an average rape.
            Rape fleshes itself with the souls entombed within.  It feeds off their vulnerability, guilt, fear—disgrace.  It pulsates with energy spent hiding truths and concealing names.  My rape was a fully functioning entity.  It had a belly engorged with my life, a hearty meal that it ingested that night.  Its arms reached forth from the darkness to encircle me in a stifled embrace.  Its head burst with my memories.  It followed me.  It taunted me.  It tucked me into bed every night.  I gave it life, supplied it breath with each tortured exhalation.  I kept it beside me at all times.  I never left home without it.  It was the only thing that understood my pain—my sole companion.

Janna Vought is an MFA graduate student at Lindenwood University in Saint Charles, Missouri.  She attends school online from her home in Colorado Springs, Colorado where she lives with her husband, two daughters, and two dogs.  Her nonfiction has appeared in Imperfect Parent Magazine.  She also has poetry featured in The Rusty Nail and The Eagle Literary Journal, and fiction published in Ideagems Tough Lit V and Tough Lit VI.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Photo Finish

by Sheila Morris
In 1965 when I was a freshman in college my parents bought their first home ever in Rosenberg, Texas, after almost twenty years of marriage.   My dad was the assistant superintendent of the local school district and my mother taught second grade in one of the elementary schools in the district.   Since I wasn’t living with them, I’m not sure how the decision was made to hire someone to help with cleaning the bigger new house, but when I was home for spring break, my mom introduced me to Viola, who was hired for that purpose.   When I returned to stay the summer with my folks, Viola was gone.
I never knew what happened to Viola but was so self- absorbed I didn’t really care.   Early in the summer Mom informed me we would have a new woman who was coming to work for us and encouraged me to keep the stereo at a lower volume on the lady’s first visit.   I was in a Diana Ross and the Supremes phase and preferred the speakers to vibrate as I sang along but I obligingly lowered the level for our potential new household addition.
I needn’t have bothered.   Willie Meta Flora stepped into our house and lives and rocked all of us for more than forty-five years.   She became my mother’s truest friend and supported her through the deaths of her mother, brother and two husbands.   She nursed my grandmother and my dad and uncle during their respective battles with mental illness, colon cancer and cerebral palsy.   She watched over and protected and loved and cared for my family as she did her own, which included five daughters and two sons and an absentee husband.   In many ways, we became her second family and she chose to keep us.
Willie and my mom shared a compulsion for honesty and directness that somehow worked to keep them close through the good times and the hard times in both of their lives.  They were stubborn strong women and butted heads occasionally, but most of all, they laughed together.   Willie’s sense of humor and quick wit kept Mom on her toes and at the top of her game in their talks.   They also shared a deep love for the same man, my dad.   In her own way, Willie loved my dad as much as Mom did, and my father loved her and loved being with her right back.    His death broke both their hearts.
Although Willie kept her own apartment, she and Mom basically lived together in the years following the death of Mom’s second husband.   Mom planned her days around the time near dusk when Willie would be there to spend the night with her.  Willie became her lifeline to maintaining her independence, and the two of them grew older and crankier as time passed.   Willie and I talked on the phone frequently, and she began to tell me she was worried about Mom’s safety and getting lost when she drove around town in her old brown Buick LeSabre.    I dismissed her fears and ignored the signs of dementia until Mom’s 80th birthday when it became apparent she had major problems in everyday living.
Not long afterwards, I was forced to make a decision about my mother’s long term care needs and opted to move her to a Memory Care Unit in a facility in Houston which was a thousand miles from my home in South Carolina.   Why not move her closer to me?   A good question with a complicated answer that included my trying to keep her available to Willie and her family who could drive Willie to see Mom.  If my mother could choose between visiting with me or seeing Willie, there was no contest.   I would always come in second.
Mom will be 85 next month and struggles with the ongoing physical and mental battles associated with Alzheimer’s in her ultimate race towards death.   This past fall I moved her again to a different residence that is still in Texas but much closer to my second home which is also now in Texas.   Alas, she’s two hours farther from Willie, and Willie has only been able to visit her once since her move.
Willie will be 81 next month.   She and Mom have the same birthday month, and now they have the same disease.   We don’t talk on the phone now because she can’t form words I can understand.   When I visited her yesterday, she didn’t recognize me and was uncomfortable with getting up out of her bed, just as Mom is sometimes when I go to see her.   Willie’s five daughters and three of her granddaughters are coping with the same problems I’ve faced with Mom–trying to keep her comfortable in a safe environment.   They have the additional complications of differences of opinion about Willie’s care and what the environment should be.   I decided being an only child has a few advantages.
          When I consider the strength of these two women and their determination to rise above their inauspicious beginnings in an era when women weren’t valued for their strong wills, I feel a sense of admiration and respect and gratitude for the examples they’ve been for me and for Willie’s daughters, too.   We are the children of our mothers and we reflect their strengths and weaknesses in black and white.   Theirs was a mysterious bond that we may never fully understand, but the similarity of their physical and mental conditions in these last days is surreal and takes irony to a new dimension.   Leora, one of Willie’s daughters, told me recently she thought Mom and Willie just might end their race toward death in a tie.   I think it will be a photo finish.

A sad but apropos postscript: Wille M. Flora died April 14, 2012.  Selma L. Meadows died Wednesday April 25, 2012.
Sheila Morris was born and raised in rural Grimes County, Texas and describes herself as an essayist with humorist tendencies.   She is the author of two memoirs, Deep in the Heart – A Memoir of Love and Longing and Not Quite the Same. She and her partner Teresa live with their four dogs in South Carolina and Texas.