Maybe it was a hard thing to understand, how it’s everywhere—both in how frequently it happens and how pervasive it remains in one’s mind and body and soul and being.
I made eye contact with the stray llama that was set away from the pack before I succumbed to my sudden and violent nausea, doubling over and dry heaving in the field. Holding the brown, splintering fence outlining the pasture for support, I fought my way back up, noticing that the llama had recoiled in shock and horror at my outburst. Sorry friend, I thought. I didn’t mean to upset your day — I didn’t see this coming either.
And I hadn’t. There were a lot of things my body did back then that caught me off guard. Aside from my regular regimen of collapsing into a sobbing heap on the kitchen floor and spending every night staring at the ceiling from my bed waiting in vain for sleep to come, reruns of 30 Rock droning on in the background, I didn’t know what my days would hold.
I had been out for my standard run, my daily attempt to get outside my body, to out-jog my self-loathing, to leave my past and my present behind, to lose the weight I’d gained from months of gorging myself on every kind of trashy, artificial junk food I could find, to force sleep on my pained and insomnia-racked body, to feel something, to feel nothing, to, well . . . I didn’t really know why I was running 10 miles a day.
My obsessive yoga practice I could better understand. The cocoon-esque studio with the velvety red curtains and heated wooden floor was a comfort to my cold-loathing body trapped in a New Jersey autumn. I would listen to the dulcet tones of the yoga instructor — Nina, if I was lucky — and try to fit myself into the human pretzel molds she was demonstrating. On the good days, the ones with Nina, she would tell me about the rocks she’d found on her walk over the weekend, and what her students with autism had taught her about emotions, and how she knew we were all just what the world needed.
Her braided hair wrapped around her head, and wearing her signature animal print spandex pants, she would tell me I was doing a good job, her deep blue eyes affirming parts of my being I thought I’d lost forever. As we downward-dogged and planked and vinyasa-ed, the room would get hotter and hotter until, for one or two blissful seconds, I’d forget my misery — and even the utter terror of being trapped in my body. Some days Nina would focus on opening up our hips — where our emotions are stored, she told us — and silent tears would streak down my face for the full 90 minutes of class. Months passed and I couldn’t tell if anything was getting any better at all, but Nina’s kindness was unwavering and I decided there was something to that.
I understood my runs, however, just well enough to recognize that they were propelled by hatred and rage. Around two in the afternoon, my legs usually aching from all the yoga and jogging, I would pull on my tattered Brooks sneakers and zip up my pink Nike jacket. I had terrible pain in my achilles and shins, but I would push through it, my self-loathing a malevolent but potent cheerleader as I sprinted down the twisty suburban driveway. The first segment of my route was a gentle decline, a red farm stretching out on my left. My body wouldn’t start screaming in real agony until mile three or four, well after I reached the four corners where the llamas dwelled. Most days, as I veered to the left and began the climb up the long sloping hill past the herd of long-necked farm animals, I’d whiz by them without paying them much heed.
But that day was different. Lightning struck, rendering me completely useless and terrified, every cell in my body abruptly and unexpectedly reeling from a conversation I’d had with a friend a few days prior.
We’d sat in Central Park, camped out on a metal bench where, out of respect for my friend’s fresh grief over his father’s death, I pretended to be less freezing than I really was. My teeth chattering a little, I listened to him as his words wended about in that pointless, unfocused way words tend to in the wake of senseless loss. I was happy to take them in, to give my body some reason for existing, even if it was just by offering up generic human closeness on a bench for 40 minutes on a Wednesday afternoon.
And then he started talking about a gathering he’d had a few weeks earlier with his hometown friends.
Wanting to spice up their fantasy football draft party, he told me, a friend of his had hired a stripper to join the fete and draw the names. It was all good fun, he told me. Nothing had happened; she was just, he said, really, really hot. Like, you wouldn’t believe how hot she was, Kelley, he said with twinkling, mischievous eyes. I smiled blandly, not terribly invested in his anecdote. She was so hot, he kept going, apparently sensing that I was only half-listening but feeling the point pertinent to me, that he’d started a text thread with his friends about her physique.
He dug out his phone, apparently convinced I could only comprehend the magnitude of her beauty if I saw the humorous quips he’d shared about her with his posse. And indeed, they had bantered heavily about this woman and her seemingly otherworldly “tits.” My eyes traced the smudged screen of his iPhone, watching as the various men translated their heaving erections into bursts of sophomoric humor.
And some texts were funny. Until they began discussing how she was so hot that they wanted to gang-rape her.
The blood drained out of my face, my body getting cold in the way where it doesn’t so much matter because you’re not really sure you’re an actual person with a real body anyway. My friend didn’t notice this, apparently, as he kept giggling while pointing out the parts of the conversation he found hilarious.
He yammered on as I sat in mind-numbing disbelief. The world was spinning a little, my body entering a dreamlike state. The colors of the park, the leaves on the ground, the black of his felt jacket, my purple shoes, all overwhelmed me.
I tried to focus on my friend’s words. But I couldn’t follow them anymore — they overpowered me, just as the words I’d forced into my shitty netbook from the airport in Singapore six months earlier had. The airport bench there — gray and padded and pristine — was a world apart from the raggedy metal one I was sitting on with my friend in New York. But I felt the same way now as I had then — disconnected, floaty, untethered, unhinged, lost.
Just six months earlier, from that pristine gray airport seat, I’d gchatted this friend the words I’d struggled over and sent out to only a handful of people. I didn’t know what to do or where to go or why any of it — anything — mattered, but back then I was committed to meeting some ideal of perfection, and I’d heard that the best thing to do after a rape is to establish a support network.
“I was raped a few days ago and I don’t know, I had this flight to Indonesia already booked and I didn’t know what else to do so I think I’m just going to go to Bali . . . no, I’m not coming home, no. I’m fine, really, I just wanted to keep you posted. I’m so sorry I ruined your day, please don’t worry about me. Things really are fine, you wouldn’t believe how gorgeous the sunset was yesterday in Manila — or how clean the bathrooms in this airport are, holy shit! There’s even a screen where you can rate them on a smiley-face scale!”
Maybe I should have been more upfront with my friend. Maybe it was my fault for not communicating my desolation, for expecting a shred of sensitivity, a reprieve. Maybe he didn’t get how my world had been eviscerated, how someone raped in May wouldn’t want her trusted friend to joke about gang-raping a stripper in November — ever. That I didn’t have the bandwidth to understand how he could think I’d want to hear that, that I could laugh at it, that there were people who perceived that kind of horror as humor who existed anywhere in the world I was fighting so hard to inhabit.
Maybe he didn’t understand that rape is a real thing that happens to real people — I wasn’t sure if I really understood that yet, even though I thought about it every day on my runs and every day in my yoga classes, and every second in between, my mind a never-ending tickertape: “I was raped I was raped I was raped I was raped I was raped I was raped I was raped I was raped I was raped I was raped I was raped I was raped. . .”
Maybe it was a hard thing to understand, how it’s everywhere — both in how frequently it happens and how pervasive it is in one’s mind and body and soul and being afterwards, how it’s everywhere and it smothers you, but you also can’t really see it. It’s the thing that cleaves your world in two, into the before and the jagged, dreaded after, but still the thing you can’t quite wrap your brain around.
I let the clouds of fuzziness consume and confuse me as I sat next to my friend and concentrated on my shoes. If I looked hard enough at them as I continued to nod at my friend, I convinced myself I could walk. I don’t remember the rest of our conversation, or accompanying him back to his office, or the subway ride to the Port Authority, or the bus ride back to New Jersey. I don’t remember what episode of 30 Rock flickered across my face as my brain beat out the Ambien for the hundredth night in a row.
I thought my not thinking about this conversation, my not remembering what happened afterward, would mean I was OK, that I was fine, over it, out the other side.
Maybe when I encountered the llamas a few days after that talk with my friend, the sky was the same hue of gray it had been in Central Park, or maybe the trees smelled the same, or maybe some random neuron fired in my newly traumatized brain for no real reason whatsoever. No matter the why, suddenly the words “gang-raped” uttered by a dear friend exploded in my body, which would have happily expelled the contents of my stomach into the dead grass if there had been any contents in my stomach that day to expel.
I wished in the moment I had something to throw up, that I could forcibly expel everything inside of me, that there were less of me, that there were none of me. That I were the actual size of the hated speck of garbage I believed myself to be — too small to be raped, too inconsequential to have friends who could betray my trust, my existence.
How could I keep going? Why try?
The llama had gone back to senselessly chewing on its hay. I watched for a second, unsure if my body would forsake me with more spasms. I hadn’t yet learned how to handle the lightning strikes, how to stay connected to my physicality. I hadn’t yet realized all the ways I was eating and running and mistreating my body so I could pretend I didn’t have one. I didn’t know, yet, that even fellow grieving people can hurt you, that not everyone grappling with darkness can be on the same team, that the most devastating betrayals always come from those you love.
In the time I spent waiting to see if my body was done failing me, the llama went back to looking nonplussed. I apologized for my disturbance again anyway, despite his seeming calmness. I’m sorry, I whispered, before I turned my attention back to the road and the hill and my run. I’m sorry I ruined your day, I said before fleeing, echoing the words I’d typed in Singapore.
Then I was running again, picking up steam, forcing my broken, aching body faster and faster up the hill, wondering if Nina had found any pretty rocks lately, wondering when I’d be able to stop running.
Kelley Calkins: Cofounder + News Director of The Establishment, lover of sea turtles.
This originally appeared on The Establishment. Republished here with permission.