WARNING: This piece contains a detailed account of date rape, victim-blaming, and trauma.
*Names have been changed for privacy.
What I remember most about Shane is his murky eyes. They were narrow, deep-set, and when combined with his sharp, high cheekbones, he sort of looked like a snake. A decade later, his features still haunt me. The image of him is branded into my brain, forever a part of the tepid nostalgia of my youth.
When I was sixteen, while wearing my favorite pair of jeans, my friend’s cousin’s boyfriend decided he’d have his way with me. He was introduced as Shane, and while that was a name I used to like, it’s never sounded the same since. Shane was lanky, and dressed himself in clothes that drowned his slender frame. He looked like guys that had made passes at me before, but I took his status as my acquaintance’s partner as a guarantee that he would not be stupid enough to try anything with me. The others vouched for him, and I took them at their word. There was no reason not to; none of them were aware of the kind of person he was.
Shane offered us weed, which all of us (my friend, his cousin, another relative of theirs, a female friend of ours, and myself) happily accepted. After a few hours of hits and puffs, the group parted ways. My friend’s cousin and their other relative stayed at their house, and the remaining four of us decided to keep the night going. Shane had a prescription for Xanax, and (as we would later find out) only offered it to my female friend and me. I’d never taken pills before, but in my angst and recklessness, I was willing to try anything.
Not realizing how long it takes for pills to kick in, I said I wasn’t feeling anything and insisted on taking another. Shane stared at me, asked if I was sure, reached into the bottle, and handed me a second little blue bar. By the time our group made it to my house, my body was beginning to feel crushed underneath its own weight, but my mind was convinced that I could accomplish anything. Despite protests from the others, I stepped out of the car and stumbled toward my door with a braided gait, each foot landing lazily. I “walked” into my home, attempted conversation with my mother, and haphazardly stomped my way back to the car. I swung the door open and fell into the seat next to Shane.
The next hour or so that after that is black for me, though I’ve been told that in that time, we stopped to get beer, and were dropped off at the Red Hill Motel, a seedy, dirty, spot on the outskirts of downtown Conway. Apparently, the motel clerk saw Shane, my female friend, and I come in and didn’t question why this young man was there with two even younger girls or why one of them was so intoxicated that she had to be propped up by the other. I can’t say that I’m surprised- that’s how things tend to go in that part of town.
I woke up to a fog of smoke billowing around my face. I found that I was lying in a cheap motel room on an even cheaper mattress, surrounded by walls stained by age and nicotine. To my right, my female friend lay sleeping. To my left, Shane was leaned up against the headboard of the bed, smoke from a freshly lit joint curling out of his mouth. My head was only slightly clearer than it had been earlier in the night, but the heaviness in my limbs remained, unaffected by the little bit of sleep that I had managed to obtain. His dry thin lips met mine and, in my haze, all I could think of was his girlfriend — my friend’s cousin.
“What about Naomi*?”
Shane shushed me, sat me up, and coaxed me off the bed. He helped lift me to my feet, placed a gentle hand on the small of my back and lead me toward an open patch of floor at the foot of the bed. He laid me down onto the musty carpet and while he hovered over my body. As he unbuttoned and pulled down my beloved denim, I asked again about his girlfriend.
“What about Naomi?”
He hissed at me, annoyed that I had brought her up once again. The gentility with which he had guided me off the bed was rapidly fading. He ran his hand between my legs, testing the reaction of my body. Once satisfied, he placed himself inside of me. He gave one thrust, a second, then a third, but his force grew weaker with each push. He stopped, pulled himself out, and looked off to the side, visibly frustrated. He chastised me for bringing up his girlfriend, Naomi, and after a few moments of grumbling, he stood to his feet, pulled his baggy pants up to his bony hips and shuffled into the bathroom. I heard droplets of rushing water crash onto the tub’s cheap surface and knew that he was done with me.
My weighted limbs struggled to redress me, and they fought even harder to drag my body across the carpet. I sloppily climbed back onto the bed and saw my female friend was still asleep, unaware of the scene that occurred just below her feet. From the other side of the door, I heard the squeak of shower knobs. The droplets slowed, then stopped, and after a bit of rustling, Shane walked out of the bathroom, got into the bed, and turned his back toward me. Nauseated, but grateful to finally be left alone, I fell asleep quickly.
The morning after, my female friend and I found ourselves on the side of Highway 501, walking with Shane back to his house. Our friend planned to pick us up from there, but until that friend arrived, we spent an awkward hour or two sitting in Shane’s living room watching reruns of MTV Cribs and Pimp My Ride. The three of us spoke only when necessary. We met his father, who did not seem to question why his nineteen-year-old son was with two young looking girls so early in the morning.
In the days following, I confided to my friends about what happened. I apologized to Naomi, feeling shame for my promiscuity, and lamenting over the notion that I had “accidentally” let her boyfriend have sex with me. Naomi* promptly broke up with Shane and told me that she had a feeling that he was going to attempt to pursue me that night. We didn’t see much of the shifty eyed boy after that, save for one afternoon a couple of years later when we saw him walking around his neighborhood with a girl who looked to be as young as I was the night l met him.
I pushed the incident further into my mind. The topic would come up on occasion, but it always ended as quickly as it began. I got a job in downtown Conway and had to pass the Red Hill twice a day, six days a week until I finally decided to quit. Some days, I could not help but to look at the motel as I drove by. Other days, I made it a point not to. I had friends that lived in the same neighborhood as Shane, though I could never remember what street his house sat on. Maybe I just didn’t want to.
Five years later, at twenty-one, something clicked. A book I’d been reading caused me to mull over the angst of my past, and the yellow-tinged walls of the Red Hill Motel pushed their way into my musings. For the first time, I was looking at the situation through adult eyes, from a perspective I failed to grasp throughout my adolescence. The reality of my experience came crashing in and I felt, at once, both enlightened and heartbroken. I relayed my revelation to the friend who had been there that night- the friend who had dropped us off at the motel and picked us up at Shane’s the next day- only for him to take on a bewildered expression and ask what I thought had taken place.
His reaction made me think back to all of the times I’d talked to people about that what happened with Shane, all those moments in which other people had tried to get me to realize the memory for what it was, every occasion that I refused to look at it as anything other than a consequence of my lack of virtue. In the same breath, he told me that Shane had died in a car crash a few years prior to my epiphany. Given that I’d only begun to sort through all my years of denial just a handful of hours before our conversation, I was unsure of how to process this new chapter. I told everyone that would listen of my discovery, but any sense of peace remained elusive. The truth had made itself known to me, though closure- true closure- seemed like a distant dream. How was I to confront that which was but a specter?
All that I spoke with said the same things about Shane’s death: “Good riddance”, “At least he won’t hurt anyone else”, “Karma’s a bitch!”. Their stance was clear, but I was not sure where to find my footing. Glee nor despair seemed to fit, but apathy didn’t seem right either. After an exhaustive couple of days, I picked up a bottle of cheap wine and decided to scour the internet for the final tale of The Snake-Faced Boy. I typed in his name and what I knew of the incident’s details, and came across a short article about a head on collision on a deserted country road in the dark early hours of the day.
According to the news piece, the other driver swerved into the wrong lane, hit Shane, and died on impact. Shane was rushed to the hospital and died from his injuries a few hours later. The page listed Shane’s full name, and I used that to hunt down his obituary. The search yielded instantaneous results.
Shane’s picture sat solemnly at the top of the page and it was the first time I had seen him — really seen him — since the day I left his house. His eyes carried the same vacant gaze I recalled from my adolescence. His face, unsmiling, stared back at me from the other side of the screen, like it knew who I was, as if it remembered the taste of my stiffened lips and the feel of my skin underneath fingertips unwelcome, a face that still looked annoyed with me for asking “What about Naomi?”.
I scrolled down to find comments from those who knew him. Most were left by his father, mourning the loss of his “sweet baby boy”. There were a few from a girl declaring her love for him, and more that described him as a polite young man, a gentleman full of respect. Fascinating, I thought, how these people knew nothing of his intrusion into my world. How their memory of him would be nothing more than a vibrant young life ended too soon, their “baby boy” who died a tragic death on a long and lonely highway. But for me, his death was the end of a string of reckless decisions, a situation of his own making, an event that threatened to knock me from my path to closure. I read over the obituary again, considered leaving a comment of my own, one that would challenge the tender recollections carried by his loved ones.
I decided, though, to let the dead be dead. In any case, my quarrels was with him, and not with those who loved him.
After I finished reading, I felt a desperate need to shower, so I chugged the rest of my wine and stepped off to the bathroom. I undressed, somewhat reluctantly, turned the knob, and gingerly set foot into the tub. The droplets that bounced off the surface beneath my feet echoed the droplets I heard coming from the other side of the motel room’s bathroom door, but I refused to take myself from beneath the water. These roaring bullets of water were not the same as the ones I remembered from that night, and I would not, could not, let Shane and the coldness of his face take any more than what had already been ruthlessly acquired. I let the hot water run the soap from my body, dried off, and went to bed, drained and numb.
I awoke the next day in a fit of tears and anger. The weight of five years had come crashing down, and I was consumed by grief and guilt. Why, I wondered, had it been so hard for me to accept what had happened? How was it that everyone saw the truth but me? Was I so obsessed with my own strength, so infatuated with independence that to be a victim was too much for me to handle? I failed to understand how my stubbornness had been so great that I could have lied to myself for years, only to crack under the pressure of the truth.
In my desperation, I tried to call the rape crisis hotline for the county I lived in. The number was disconnected. It was nearing time for me to go to work, so I did what I had apparently already been doing all these years: I pulled myself together, compartmentalized my despair, and kept things moving. Life demanded my attention, and so I set my tears aside for a rainy day.
I’ve spent the years since then slowly processing my pain through writing, art, dance, and spiritual pursuits. I won’t sugarcoat things. It has not been easy.
Finding closure for a situation that refuses to give it to you is one of the most difficult things we could ask of ourselves. There are no apologies, no remorse, no acknowledgment of the visceral pain caused by the images we carry in our heads. The dark things we experience, they like to haunt us, and there is no better place for demons than in a space where misfortune runs abound. But we have the strength, responsibility even, to remember that that memory is just that- a memory- and though powerful, it is intangible. And much like a restless spirit (should you believe in that sort of thing), its intangibility may seem hopeless to defeat, as if you have no control over the ghosts that live in your mind. These ghouls stalk the hallways of our hearts and are likely to always remain a part of who are, but we do not have to be held captive to the trauma we carry with us.
That night in the motel shaped me in ways I then had yet to realize. I was no longer afforded the luxury of naivety. My senses were opened to the feeling of being preyed upon. I learned the hard way that your mind will trick itself to spare your heart from breaking. Shane’s face will pop into my head now and then and though I am saddened still by the violation of my youth, I have learned to seek closure not through the validation of others, but through my own hand.
The shape of Shane litters every part of this piece. The crook of his nose is in every sweeping letter, the angles of his face in every long stroke, and the narrowness of his eyes lives in every line that begins to run out of room. But he does not rule my creation, he does not possess my power. He may have caged my dignity, albeit temporarily, but my voice has, and will always remain intact. I have learned to weaponize my pain, to transmute it into paragraphs and stanzas. Every time a lonely night pushes me into that darkened place, I emerge that much more sharpened, ready to strike with a couple of carefully worded lines.
The persistence of memory is unforgiving, and yearns for ownership of the body, mind, and soul. Ten years later, at the age of twenty-six, it is not this memory that controls me.
It is I that has learned how to wield it properly.
If my memories, the scenes that play carelessly through my head, are the beaten down brush that humans continue to dip into patchy swatches of drying out paint, then I am the artist that pushes on, always searching for fresh ways to recreate the optimism of the rising sun.
If you or a loved one is dealing with the sexual assault trauma, call RAINN’s national hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or visit https://www.rainn.org/ . You are not alone.