**Content warning: The following text describes sexual assault and can be disturbing and/or triggering for some readers. Please find resources listed at the bottom of the article.**
The sunlight seeped through the leaves and into my eyes, just bright enough to blind my sight. By the time my eyes adjusted, the reflection of light in his eyes was a mixture of a twinkle and a fire alarm, caging me in and leaving me searching for an exit.
It was not how it was in the movies—with traces of alcohol laced in my breath and my body beaten and bruised in a dark alleyway. It was tickles on the green next to the river that—before I noticed—turned into a tight grip on my waist. It was the weight of his entire body pushing me onto my back. It was me realizing exactly what was about to happen, but still clutching onto the last strand of hope that our friendship would stop him from following through the act. It was me staring into his eyes, searching for some trace of care or remorse, only to be met by his signature wolfish gleam that I once found playful and charming. It was me watching cars drive by, hoping they’d stop and pull him off of me, only to watch as they speed past us. It was me pushing his chest as hard as I could, but his strength pinning my arms down to the sides of my head as I lay bare under him. It was me squirming under his tight grip, only for my muscles to slowly give way to his strength. It was me opening my mouth to scream, only to be silenced as his lips clasped on mine. It was the combination of his moans and my trembling breath.
Then, I heard the high–pitched zip of his pants. I looked around and took in the empty green and the tranquil river. The wind continued to breeze through the grass. The cars continued to speed by. The ducks continued to paddle down the steady stream with their little family. The watch on my left wrist continued its steady tick–tocks. The sunlight continued its flicker as it seeped through the leaves. It was quiet except for the pounding of my heart and the repeated "no, no, no" echoing in my head.
I always knew that rape was traumatic, but I didn’t realize it would feel like this. I didn’t realize rape could be carried out by a friend. I didn’t realize it could happen in broad daylight at such a peaceful place. I didn’t realize the world would keep tick-tocking on as my world shook. I didn’t realize he could return to our friend circle and act as if nothing had happened, while my sense of trust and friendship was undone from the inside out. I didn’t realize I could still feel his grip on my arms and the heavy weight on my body whenever I allowed my mind to travel back to that day. I didn’t realize that I would still be able to recall every detail as I write this.
I didn’t realize that even the PTSD would be different from the movies. See, movies taught me that PTSD was impromptu flashbacks. TV shows taught me it was everyday objects turning into triggers. News and mass media taught me it was depressive episodes and panic attacks. Books taught me that PTSD was waking up, screaming in the middle of the night with my pajamas and bed sheets soaked in sweat. In truth, PTSD is so much more complex than what the media portrays it to be—on top of that, every survivor’s experience with PTSD varies.
For me, PTSD isn’t dissociating when I think about what happened; rather, PTSD is my body temperature dropping below 94℉ (34.5℃) every time my mind wanders toward the rape. PTSD is impulsively hooking up with strangers, yet being unable to stand intimacy with boyfriends. It’s volunteering information about myself or making up excuses to justify my decisions so that my friends won't question why I pumped the brakes on a developing relationship. It’s joining mental health clubs on campus, but not being able to bring myself to attend Take Back The Night. It’s friends who are also survivors talking to me about their experience, how sexual assault affected them, and their PTSD symptoms, but not being able to tell them: “I feel you. You’re not alone.” It’s deciding to not tell anyone about the assault, yet writing poems and prose about the aftermath. It’s living with a mind that has been transformed into a battleground filled with constant arguments about trust and trauma, vindications of what led to the rape, or why I still allow myself to be mistreated, and the crippling back-and-forth between standing with immense confidence and acting out of the fear of abandonment and betrayal. It’s grabbing onto the most trivial hints and drawing illogical spectrums of assumptions. It’s jumping to conclusions feet first and landing on the wrong side of consequence. It’s finding rationale in irrationality. It’s overthinking everything.
But, more often than anything else, the aftermath of my rape exists in this form: me constantly entertaining the idea of alternate universes. I imagine there is an alternate universe where I wouldn’t have developed the habit of working on the riverside greens. One where the sun wouldn’t have blinded my sight. I would have seen the treacherous twinkle in his eye. The cars would have stopped and helped. I would have been strong enough to push him off. The ducks, the wind, the river, and the tranquility that surrounded us would have heard both times his pants screeched its high-pitched zips. I imagine there is another alternate universe where my body temperature wouldn’t give away where my mind went, and my poetry and my art wouldn’t be a blatant sign that screams “I’m broken.” Sometimes, I even imagine an alternate universe in which I was never raped.
In that particular universe, I wouldn’t have the material to write this piece.
The Word On The Street editor wouldn’t have received this piece in his email.
And you wouldn’t be reading this.
The HELP Line: 215-898-HELP: A 24–hour–a–day phone number for members of the Penn community who seek help in navigating Penn's resources for health and wellness.
Counseling and Psychological Services: 215-898-7021 (active 24/7): The counseling center for the University of Pennsylvania.
Student Health Service: 215-746-3535: Student Health Service can provide medical evaluations and treatment to victims/survivors of sexual and relationship violence regardless of whether they make a report or seek additional resources. Both male and female providers can perform examinations, discuss testing and treatment of sexually transmissible infections, provide emergency contraception if necessary and arrange for referrals and follow up.
Reach–A–Peer Hotline: 215-573-2727 (every day from 9 pm to 1 am), A peer hotline to provide peer support, information, and referrals to Penn students.
Penn Violence Prevention: 3535 Market Street, Mezzanine Level (Office Hours: 9 am – 5 pm Monday-Friday), 12-5pm Wednesdays & 12-5pm Fridays located in Penn Women’s Center (3643 Locust Walk), Read the Penn Violence Prevention resource guide.
Sexual Trauma Treatment Outreach and Prevention Team: A multidisciplinary team at CAPS dedicated to supporting students who have experienced sexual trauma.
Public Safety Special Services: Trained personnel offer crisis intervention, accompaniment to legal and medical proceedings, options counseling and advocacy, and linkages to other community resources.