On my last night in Georgia, I tried to focus on the mundane: Clorox wipes and 409 spray, a sponge and an old toothbrush, on my hands and knees in a t-shirt and underwear, scrubbing the refrigerator and kitchen floor. Sweat rolled down my neck and I paused to breathe in the bleach fumes. Nearly everything I owned was moved out a week before, and I was sleeping on my mother’s twin-sized blow-up mattress on the living room floor. I’d just graduated with an MFA in creative writing, and tomorrow I was moving home to Kentucky. It was spring, and I was now 30 years old, and three months before, I’d had sex for the first time. I was scrubbing my apartment to get my deposit back, but I was also scrubbing to remove all traces of that night, the skin cells and smells, from the walls and the floors and from my memory.
It wasn’t working as well as I’d wanted. So, as the last light left the sky, I took a break and called the Orphan, a man nearly three hours away in another Georgia town. We’d never met.
When I think about the first man I slept with, the Barista, I think about how quickly pleasure turned to shame. I think about the morning after, the white-hot Saturday sunshine streaming through the mini-blinds in my living room, illuminating his body on my couch. I remember peeking around the corner from the hallway, watching him sleep under my quilt. I didn’t know whether to wake him or let him sleep, but I needed to do something. I was restless. I went back to my bedroom and texted my best friends that I no longer had to worry about being a thirty-year-old virgin. My birthday was in three weeks.
I tried to go back to sleep in my bed, but the previous evening came in flashes, like Novocain wearing off and sensation returning, inch by inch. When the Barista finally woke, I greeted him sheepishly. He put on his t-shirt and jeans, and then offered to drive me to my car at the bar. We can do this again, he said in the car, if you can keep this quiet. I was a regular in the coffee shop in our small Georgia town. I wanted to do it again.
A few days later, I stood in front of him at the coffee shop register, looking for an acknowledgment of intimacy, wanting to be seen instead of looked past. I wouldn’t get it. I tried to write in the corner of the coffee shop for the next few hours, knowing my thesis deadline loomed; it was the beginning of February, in my last semester of graduate school. When he got off work, the Barista left quickly and texted me from his car. He regretted sleeping with me, he said—using me, he clarified—because he still had feelings for his ex-girlfriend. Soon after, he went back to her. I’d have to see the Barista and his curly-haired girlfriend in the coffee shop over and over in the following months, and each time I’d acknowledge them and pretend I barely knew the Barista. I kept his secret. For a long time afterward, I focused on the shame of his rejection instead of what he did on the night I lost my virginity. I assumed I had done something wrong.
Albert Einstein once wrote that the distinction between the past, present, and future was nothing more than a persistent, stubborn illusion. Physicists still debate the meaning of time, but for me, because of that night with the Barista, the present is disrupted and warped by the past. Every time I think of him and what he eventually did, the same neural pathways fire, and I am in the night again, reliving it. I think that’s why I didn’t talk about it for years. I didn’t want to let it shape the trajectory of my life. But it did anyway.
Now I can see how many men I slept with in the years afterward, how little I cared for them, but also how often I let them use me like a pack of tissues to be thrown away. I can see how the only thing I wanted was to be desired, to prove the Barista wasn’t the only one interested in me. I can see how hard I have since struggled to find the right words to say what I want to the men I date and to describe what happened that night.
Sometimes I wonder whether I would have slept with the Barista if I hadn’t been so consumed with the fear of being a thirty-year-old virgin, an epithet for the undesirable. Sometimes I play a film in my head, all those nights in college that I catwalked in flip-flops to parties, the way I’d always imagined falling in love late at night among liquor bottles and black lights, or studying on the pea-green, duct-taped carpet of my old dorm room with someone who didn’t mind that I talked too much. But none of that ever happened. I always ruined any possibility with my insecurities about my body.
I wonder what would’ve happened if my favorite aunt hadn’t pointed a 9mm Smith & Wesson at me on Christmas Day, a month before I met the Barista. I still don’t have an easy answer for her actions. Would I have slept with the Barista in early February if I weren’t coping with the violence of her actions? I wonder what would’ve happened if my father hadn’t been arrested for a felony a week after I slept with the Barista, in mid-February. Would I have slept with the Air Force Mechanic in March and the Orphan in May? It feels too easy to say I learned to cope with the trauma by using my body, becoming consumed by desire, living in a new world of touches and tastes and smells. It feels too easy to reduce this sensation to a sentence, to explain the way my nerves flooded my emotions. But sex was the most effective way to shut down my brain. Maybe I would’ve slept with the Barista no matter what; I’d been working up my courage for a year beforehand, trying so hard to love my body.
I met the Air Force Mechanic on a free online dating site, where he admitted he liked Joan Didion and staying up late to talk. After a couple of weeks, we texted almost daily. He said he’d joined the Air Force after he blew out his knee on a baseball scholarship, just before the U.S. invaded Iraq again after 9/11. Sometimes he took naked pictures of himself and asked if I wanted to see them. In his pictures, he was tall, solid, carved like an ornate Greek column, clean-shaven, and hung like a battering ram. He told me he was running out of ways to show me he liked me. I was surprised anyone so attractive liked me.
We’d started talking a few months before I met the Barista, but I didn’t meet the Air Force Mechanic until a month after I slept with the Barista. When I finally gave him my address, he drove over an hour to my apartment. I answered the door, backing away to the kitchen, where I could sip vodka and orange juice from a martini glass. The drink was the only thing I could think to put between us, to create space for my anxiety. I was nervous because I knew what I was doing was risky; I only knew the Air Force Mechanic from texts. And since the night with the Barista, I no longer trusted myself to communicate what I wanted—or didn’t—to men. In the kitchen, the Air Force Mechanic asked if he could take a sip of my drink. I handed him the glass. I was sweating at my hairline, my makeup smearing, praying he wouldn’t notice. He took a sip.
The rest of the night comes in flashes. The Air Force Mechanic put down my drink, kissed me, let me grab his hand and give him a tour of my apartment. I remember laying back on the bed, on top of a flowered blue quilt my grandmother had made for me when I was a little girl. He pulled the strings of my wrap dress and said he liked big girls. I winced in my head, wishing he’d said bigger instead of big, as if those three extra letters gave me dignity. But then he touched me again, and I stopped thinking.
The Orphan messaged me on the same dating site that spring, after I’d slept with the Barista and the Air Force Mechanic. On the first night, the Orphan said, I think this is going well, don’t you? I didn’t have much experience to compare it to, having only been on a few dates in my life. For most of my twenties, I’d allowed myself to hide behind huge crushes on men who’d never like me. When the Orphan asked me for my number, I gave it to him. Over texts and phone calls in the next week, he told me that both of his parents were dead and his brother was the only family he had left. We were both lonely. When he sent me pictures, I could see that he was more hesitant than the Air Force Mechanic, shorter, hairier, hung like a soft knock at the door. But I felt like I had more control because I had slightly more experience. He seemed so bumbling, so harmless. Soon after, he told me how great I was and joked about visiting me, getting a hotel room with me, marrying me, having babies with me. I have always suspected there’s truth hidden under every joke, so I thought he meant it. His feelings terrified me. I told him he was going 90 miles an hour while I was still poking along in the slow lane with an old beat-up car. I’d never even had a boyfriend. I cut off contact.
But I couldn’t stop thinking about him afterward. No one had ever liked me that much, and I had pushed him away. I’d always assumed something was wrong with the men who liked me. But sometimes at night, just before I drifted to sleep, I’d fantasize about him: What if he was good enough? What if he was kinder and smarter than I gave him credit for? What if he wanted me for more than one night? What if he really liked me, even my imperfect body?
That’s why on my penultimate night in Georgia, on a break from cleaning my kitchen, I laid on the carpet with my feet on the walls and asked the Orphan if he wanted to visit me.
For years, I’d thought the only way I’d ever have sex was if I were thin. My mother always told me that men weren’t attracted to fat women. My father complained when she gained weight, she said, though he liked her bigger breasts. Every time he cheated on her, she put on her Lycra shorts and exercised to Jane Fonda tapes or in YMCA aerobics classes. Sometimes I look at pictures of her and see how small her waist is, how flat her chest is, how frail she looks. He must’ve been cheating again. She’s still beautiful, but no amount of blush can hide her misery. Later, after my parents divorced, my mother gained weight. She hasn’t been on a date in the years since the divorce, often saying she’d have to lose weight first. But my father continued to date. He broke up with one forty-something woman when she took off her bra in front of him; he complained that her boobs looked like two unrolled tube socks. I’d begun to think of women as nothing but a collection of body parts to be examined and criticized and discarded. I wonder how my life would’ve been different if I hadn’t assumed all men thought like my father. If I hadn’t been as judgmental of women’s bodies as my father. If I’d believed it when anyone called me pretty.
The beginning with the Barista seems so clear: How we shamelessly flirted the first time we talked about something other than coffee. He was the new guy, hanging around the coffee shop even when he was off. He’d studied music and supernatural ministry at a different university, but he was starting over as a transfer student. In retrospect, I should’ve been scared off, but I was a recovering evangelical Christian. I was drawn to his charisma. So we exchanged phone numbers under the bright lights of the coffee shop. That night, or maybe the next one, he told me via text what he had never said aloud: He’d recently broken up with his girlfriend and was looking for sex. He named acts. I was simultaneously shocked by the baldness of his words and intrigued by them. I had so much pent-up desire and a new recklessness about me as my family was falling apart. But I wasn’t sure if it would be enough to bare myself to a man. The next day, I agreed to meet him for a drink, but we texted back and forth about whose place we’d go to afterward. We both had roommates, but mine was gone for the weekend. Still, I didn’t want him to see the piles of dirty clothes and dishes in my room, how messy I was. I kept pushing back the time we’d meet so I could clean.
Just after one a.m., we met at a dive bar downtown. I remember the way the Barista stood in front of my high-backed chair at the bar and slid his hands in between my thighs as if no one could see. I was wearing new jeans, a size smaller, but I could feel the heat of his palms though the fabric. He wanted me. I wanted to be wanted. My poetry professor greeted me in that packed bar, and I introduced the Barista, wondering what she saw when she looked at us. I was flushed, blush creeping down my cheeks, guzzling cheap well vodka and orange juice.
The Barista and I left before the bar closed, and we walked to his car, both of us a little buzzed under the blanket of cool night air. He stopped me on the sidewalk and said he had to see something. Then he kissed me. I’d been avoiding his mouth all night because I was insecure. I’d only kissed a few people.
After this, it’s all flashes again, one broken narrative. Somehow the Barista drove me home. Inside my apartment, he pushed me up against the living room wall and kissed me again, his hands sliding inside my velvet top. He poured straight vodka that he’d brought from his car. He asked me if I wanted to go to the bedroom now or later. I said later. He took off my velvet top, then my bra. I looked at my soft white stomach, but he looked at my breasts as if they were the only thing he saw. He sucked on my nipples, biting them. Then he asked me what I’d always wished someone would do for me. I told him I hadn’t done anything. Not even a blowjob. Nothing. He said it was hard to believe. We sat on my couch watching TV until I was ready. I trusted him. I thought he was going to be patient.
On my last night in Georgia, the Orphan drove straight from work, three hours in the Georgia night, to sit in my living room on my mother’s twin-sized blow-up mattress with me. We talked for an hour before we kissed. I could tell he was nervous, even stopping to take a phone call from his brother. Dude, he said, I’m trying to make out.
That night comes in flashes, too. Eventually, he slid his fingers into me, faster and faster, his face taking on a maniacal look, as he said, “Just give into it. Give into it.” He put so much pressure on me. Then, as I was going down on him, he said, “She really likes it. She really wants to put it in her mouth”—as if he were narrating his own porn video. I didn’t know how to respond. The minute I became naked with him, I felt like I gave up control. When I got on top of him, he said he worried about the condom slipping. I said, I don’t want babies. He became angry, telling me that I’d made myself abundantly clear. I stopped and headed to the bathroom to be alone. I had struggled so hard to say what I wanted after the Barista, and it still didn’t matter. Even the Orphan didn’t care what I wanted. I didn’t feel like I’d ever be in control of my body.
I came back to my living room to find the Orphan unrolling a sleeping bag he’d brought. I turned out the dim lamp and laid down on the air mattress. In the darkness, I wondered how I’d gotten myself into this situation, sharing my living room floor with this stranger. He’d driven three hours to see me, so I didn’t feel like I could make him leave. I listened to our breathing, my chest rising as his fell, and I prayed that he would leave quickly in the morning.
I remember what it felt like to hardly ever be touched. One late night in my early twenties, in a Best Western in my hometown, among two of my good friends and three men I barely knew, all of us drinking cheap Bud Light, one of the men ran his finger up the side of my body. I shivered, my whole body reacting to the lightest touch. I got off the bed, moving to the other one. My body felt like it might explode, but I barely knew the man. I could never be intimate with a stranger.
But years later, I became the one moving the Orphan’s hands down to my underwear the first time we met. I can see now how I’d let go of everything after the Barista, including my desire to protect my body. It had already been violated.
The Barista and I finally went to my bedroom and he crawled into bed with me. My jeans came off and then my underwear, then his t-shirt and jeans and boxers. He asked if I had any toys. I asked him to wear a condom. By the light of my desk lamp across the room—dim enough that I felt less exposed, bright enough that I could see the outlines of our bodies—he slid his fingers into me, then my dildo, then his dick, getting on top of me. I remember being so wet and happy, so surprised it was actually happening. How easy it was to just let go.
I was drunk, so the next part is fuzzy. At some point I started feeling an incredible pressure, uncomfortable, like something wasn’t right, something was very wrong, a tiny rip in my universe, large matter squeezed into a small space. I looked at him. I didn’t know what was happening, but something was in the wrong place. He was doing it without warning, without asking. I didn’t have the right words, but I said, “You have to stop doing that.” I said you have to stop doing that.
Memory gets warped in trauma, like a film strip exposed to heat, fogged and unclear after processing. I’m unclear here, but I can still see some of the original image through the fog. I know the Barista had anal sex with me without asking. I know he did it at least once without asking. I think he did it again, even after I asked him to stop, but I don’t know that for sure. You have to stop doing that, I said, every time he did it—whether once or twice or more than that. And I know this: The next day, my anus felt like one big blister, unable to be touched. I winced when I sat down. I cried when I tried to poop. I know that.
The evening after I slept with the Barista, my friend Matt drove us through the darkening Georgia woods in his car to a roller derby in Athens, Georgia. I felt pain every time I shifted in the passenger seat, pain when I sat down or rose from the bleachers once we got to the gymnasium. Matt made ass jokes and I laughed, because I framed it to him simply as a painful physical experience. I’d heard that first times were painful. And my best friends were all relatively inexperienced at the time, two of them evangelicals who waited until marriage. I was too afraid to narrate my concerns, too afraid they’d think I’d made a mistake in sleeping with a man I barely knew.
Later that evening, I told the story to Matt’s friend, and she expressed concern: that the Barista hadn’t worn a condom after I asked him to, that he had anal sex with me without asking, that he hadn’t even used lubrication. But even then I didn’t frame it as something he had done wrong. After the roller derby ended, we drove around for a while in the rain, listening to Arcade Fire. I sat in the backseat thinking about what I’d done wrong. Although I’d told the Barista to stop, I blamed myself for not setting clearer boundaries in the beginning and then not telling him to leave. It was less painful to blame my inexperience than to admit that I’d been taken advantage of. But even then I sensed it wasn’t an adequate explanation of that night.
Three years after the night with the Barista, I read Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town on a plane trip home to Kentucky. As I read the stories of the women who’d been sexually assaulted, I realized my own narrative was uncannily similar. The author, Jon Krakauer, writes about how some rape victims paradoxically “start engaging in dangerous, indiscriminate sex.” He cites an expert who says this is a form of reenactment, in which the victim chooses but also describes feeling a loss of control.
And though I had chosen to sleep with six men after the Barista that year, I recognized how much agency I’d lost. In some ways, it was a relief to understand that my actions fit a pattern after trauma, and that I was reacting in a predictable—and acceptable—way. And yet, I was still ashamed to talk about it.
But when I did tell friends about my first time—even when I’ve told them without trying to frame the experience as good or bad, never using the word “assault” or “rape”—they have been horrified. I consented to sex, to everything the Barista said in his texts—all the vaginal sex, all the oral sex. That happened, too, but I don’t remember the order. But I didn’t consent to what he did, that place he put his fingers and his penis, without lubrication, without warning. I did not consent to anal sex. I wasn’t even asked.
At times I have looked for a legal definition, in the hope that by naming what had happened to me, I would free myself from reliving and narrating the event. According to Georgia state law, rape strictly involves penetration of “the female sex organ by the male sex organ,” and “sexual assault” involves someone “who has supervisory or disciplinary authority over another individual.” Neither definition covers the wide range of places that can be violated, nor the objects of violation. What I am left with is “aggravated sodomy” and “aggravated sexual battery.” Georgia law states that “aggravated sodomy” involves “any sexual act involving the sexual organs of one person and the mouth or anus of another” committed “against the will of the other person.” But that is only if the Barista’s “sexual organs” are involved, and not just his fingers. The term “aggravated sexual battery” involves any sort of “penetration” without consent. I’ve found these words are not enough to heal. Each time I try to assign a legal definition, I have to relive the night with the Barista, to try to understand whether he used his finger or his penis, and I have to use these words with others, specific, evocative phrases to name an event I don’t want to relive.
I also hesitate to use the term “assault,” or even “rape,” because here is the truth: I haven’t wanted to be defined as a sexual assault or rape victim. I’ve told myself it’s “not that bad”—using the words of Roxane Gay in her introduction to Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture. I haven’t wanted to hold my experiences up to others’, worrying—as Gay does—about what counts and what doesn’t. I have worried that my experiences don’t count. I have worried that when the night with the Barista is dissected, I will be the one at fault in public opinion. But I trust Gay when she writes that she began “realizing that all the encounters people have with sexual violence are, indeed, that bad.” And I know my experience is probably common, worthy of naming as assault or even rape—or at least narrating.
A few years ago, my therapist encouraged me to practice saying it’s not my fault, a phrase which caught in my throat. But as time passes and I date men who are nothing like the Barista, I realize that no matter how inexperienced I was, I didn’t deserve what he did.
I am starting to think no amount of naming or narrating will fully scrub the memories away. Linguist Wallace Chafe once speculated that, as time passes, specific memories may decay, but maybe the most enduring part of our memory is emotion. I hope that one day, every specific memory, every flash of the Barista, will be gone, and I will only be left with emotion. I hope one day that emotion will transcend shame. Perhaps the ultimate way to overcome a traumatic event is simply to persist.