There was a rip on the red vinyl of the booth at the restaurant. It appeared to swell like a scar as the foam viscera pushed its way out, in spite of an impotent piece of duct tape that barely covered one edge.
Hatti arrived. Her crooked smile had not changed a bit since we were last together, nearly two years ago. We hugged and exchanged hellos. Her hair was long enough to form two braids that hung in front of each shoulder. She sat across from me with a contented plop and reached into a giant, amorphous bag to pull out her sketchbook.
“Hi love, one sec—” Hatti said. “I just have to capture this.”
Looking past me, she began sketching the old lady behind me who wore a Snow White t-shirt tucked into biker shorts. The woman got up to leave and tossed a handful of change onto the table like birdseed. We both snickered.
Hatti moved to Chicago from our hometown in Ohio five years earlier to go to art school, and she decided to stay there after she graduated. We nearly lost track of each other, connecting only when she returned home for a visit.
So it was a pleasant surprise to find a letter from her in my parents’ mailbox about six months ago. It was written in one enormous, punctuation-free swirl—as if the words were going down a drain in the center of the page. I hadn’t seen or spoken to Hatti in over a year at that point, but I wasted no time in replying to the address on the return label.
I wrote in the mirthful tone she introduced. I used crayon and the kind of elementary-school paper with lines that look like a highway, two solids and one dotted in between. She responded with a note written entirely in cut-and-paste letters, some with tiny dog-eared corners where the glue didn’t quite stick. I wrote back sideways and in different colored inks, quoting poetry and reporting eavesdropped-on conversations. She sent an envelope filled entirely with New Yorker cartoons.
A sudden correspondence exploded between us. It was the sort of rough and raw letter writing that existed long before email. It continued like this for months, pausing only a few weeks prior to being there with her at the diner, in person.
“How in the heck are ya, babe?” Hatti said, reaching across for my hands. Her fingers were peachy and warm, adorned in sterling silver and moonstone rings. “It’s so good to see your face.”
“You, too.” I said tenderly. I noticed that her eyes, as always, were free of make-up. Those heavy, thick lashes were like wet wings and needed no assistance from mascara. “But I’m starving. Let’s order some food then get to catching up.”
She gently pulled her hand from mine to push her sketchbook aside so she could study the menu. She made a decision post-haste and closed it with the congenial thud of having finished a lengthy novel.
The young waitress noticed. In a husky Appalachian accent, she said, “Ya’ll need another minute?” She was armed with a pot of coffee and two mugs. She placed the mugs in front of us and poured, then set down the pot to reach into her apron to pull out a pad and pen, all with the fluidity of well-spoken phrase. Her gingham nametag read “Beth.”
“I brought some photos,” Hatti said, grinning and reaching into her massive bag that filled the seat next to her. She rustled around before pulling out a thick envelope. She began to distribute the photos onto the table in rows like tiles.
We chose this place to meet out of habit. It’s where we always used to meet—the go-to breakfast chain in town, quiet and unpretentious. It did not occur to me until I had physically placed my body in that seat that the last time I sat in a booth at this very diner chain was just over six months earlier, across from the man who’d just raped me.
Hatti and I met right after I graduated from high school; she still had two years to go. We worked at a camera lab, developing photos of important moments in the lives of ordinary strangers. Any photos that had the potential to come back and haunt the subject were of exceptional interest to us. Drunken bachelor parties, for example, or drug-inspired, poorly lit artistic nudes, or sloppy kissing shots taken with the self-timer. This was how we spent our teenage days working together—Hatti would come to work right after school—cultivating our friendship as amused peeping (and gossiping) toms.
Hatti never held back on reporting her own life to anyone, often with photographic accompaniment. Day after day, and month after month during the few years we worked together, she shared files of new art projects, sketchbooks of thoughts and inspirations. Even after so many years of her company, I often felt like I knew her primarily as the character she painted for me on any given day.
She handed me a photo of a red door. It was in such clear focus that you could see flakes of paint peeling around the knob, like sloughing skin. “That’s my apartment,” she said.
Hatti gained momentum as she described the scenes and characters in her photos. In a spark of excitement, she hopped to her knees so she could lean forward across the table, using her pencil to point at a certain face in the group or a specific part of a scene. The moment felt more like a presentation than a casual conversation.
Animated as she was, I was a distracted student, half-listening, half-waiting for my turn to pounce with my own all-consuming story. I also carried a large canvas bag to the diner, filled with items for show-and-tell. Specifically, a hefty, spiral-bound journal, brimming with my Field Notes From Hell from the previous half-year: belittling quotes from the detective, phone numbers for various therapists, accounts of recurring nightmares involving a white truck. And why did I carry this with me? Protection? As a reminder that I had the power to monopolize the conversation at any moment, if needed? It was all bundled neatly into the pages, like dynamite waiting for the press of a thumb.
The story buzzed inside of me like a continuous and discordant sound. It was exceptionally distracting, a pressure building with no clear remedy for relief aside from the telling. However, when told, the relief was short-lived and the saga drug me along like an animal on a leash that had outgrown its owner.
When told, it went like this:
Around the time of Hatti’s first letter, I was in the process of planning a move cross-country—finishing my last week at work, and tying up loose ends—when I was T-boned by a truck that ran a stop sign. Luckily, I walked away from the accident with only a whiplash diagnosis, something I refused to let slow me down. I chose a chiropractor’s name at random from a list from my primary doctor. I planned to get my neck fixed and be on my merry way, without so much as a change in the date of the moving truck.
I agreed to meet the chiropractor for a “bon voyage” drink. I knew it wasn’t wise to meet him alone at a bar (especially when I saw that he was accompanied by two of his body-building friends), or to agree to let him buy me a gin-and-tonic and to then leave that drink unattended. But I did all of that anyways.
There was a band and low lights and the crowd of people was so dense that we moved to the music as one giant organism. I remember thinking, how beautiful— we are like a school of fish. Next thing, we were outside and I was on his lap, but I don’t know how we got there. Someone was telling us to get a room. Suddenly, as if the movie film of the evening were cut short, it all went black.
I opened my eyes the next morning to find that I was trapped beneath this vaguely familiar—now naked—man with a slathering of soaked chest hair and a beastly form too heavy to budge from underneath. He was grunting and pounding but it would take many moments to realize the pounding was happening to me. It was as if my head was detached, viewing independently from the pillow and with no access to the feeling of any of my extremities. I was naked from the waist down and my sweater clung to me with sweat.
Ruffled turquoise curtains adorned the two windows in the room and ladies’ high-heeled shoes were lined by color in the closet. I remember thinking this is all so absurd. It was light outside. I turned to look at the digital clock on the bedside table, careful to steady my vision enough to make out the red numbers: 8:30 AM. Ten hours had past since I had last looked at the time, since I’d had any recall in the slightest. The feeling of my blinking eyelids felt exaggerated, like a cartoon reptile, blink blink blink.
When he saw that I’d woken, he quickly finished and I continued to lie limp as a cloth doll. He stood up, wiped off and dressed unceremoniously. He behaved if we’d just completed a brief affair, a generic fuck.
“What happened?” My voice was shrunken.
“Man, you wanted it bad, baby,” he said. “I could barely keep up.”
I said, “But. I don’t remember.” And then I said that again.
He was my doctor—my inclination was to be embarrassed. I was desperate to make everything OK, ordinary. To normalize, as my therapist later called it. So I held his hand, sat close to him on the edge of the bed, pretended he was my boyfriend. Something in you knew to keep the peace until you got out of there, my therapist later said. But the detective didn’t like that one bit. He said that girls who were raped don’t hold hands afterwards with the man who raped them.
My underwear had gone missing, but my tights and skirt were balled up on the floor so I pulled those on, self-conscious under his hot gaze. I floated behind him in a brume of confusion to the same country diner as this one with Hatti.
He was hollow and remorseless as a dead tree. I wasn’t able to see the menu through the thick mental fog of the drugs he’d given me, so I asked the waitress directly if they made omelets. I remember the look she gave me, the look that says, “There are other less ‘family-oriented’ breakfast places for the likes of you….” I can only imagine the stoned expression of my button-eyes. My thoughts were no more tethered than a stack of papers below a ceiling fan.
I remember how he sipped his coffee without taking his eyes off me. I remember how the moment the waitress left, he launched into dialogue about the previous night with such speed and aggression that I needed a teleprompter. The words ran-out-of-condoms and one-night-stand and you-loved-it and seven times rushed by in a flock. I didn’t realize until later that he was keeping me with him for as long as possible, filling me with food and drink, because the drugs in my pee would be less traceable with each passing minute.
To be clear, I have had many drunken and regrettable nights. Many times when I had to force myself to sit across from the man with whom I hastily shared a bed the night before, squeezing out idle chitchat while aggravating the sunken feeling in my stomach with bad coffee and greasy eggs. The feeling of sadness always outdid shame and embarrassment. The feeling of a child grabbing for the sleeve of the wrong parent at the grocery store again.
The morning with the chiropractor was not one of those mornings.
Once an adequate amount of time had passed, the chiropractor drove me back to the now-empty parking lot of the club, where my car was still parked. My mom’s silver sedan—my car had been totaled in the accident—sat in the sun like a thing beneath an interrogation bulb.
He was gone before I pulled my car door shut. Something about the click—like the snap of a hypnotist’s fingers—brought me back to the feeling of my extremities, beginning with an intense burning in my private parts. I peeked into my underwear to find they were crusty with dried blood. I lay my head onto my folded arms on the steering wheel and let loose the feral sort of sobbing that is reserved for The Big Things.
The consideration of what happened during those ten, unaccounted-for hours made my tongue slick with bile, but I couldn’t help myself. Did he bring his bodybuilder friends to help him carry me out of the club? Did anyone at the club think it was strange to see a ragdoll of a young woman being shoved into a car by three hulking men? And what about the expansive stretch of black-gap time between the club and waking up in a stranger’s bed while being fucked?
In a break between sobs, I made my way a few blocks to a friend’s house. Within minutes, I was laying in the back of her Toyota on the way to the hospital, another friend in the front seat as if she appeared there by magic. They took me to one hospital, then another, where I got a rape kit and was treated for a tear in my labia.
I did everything a diligent rape victim is supposed to do in the aftermath of a rape. I was a star pupil. I spoke repeatedly with a detective, trying to maintain a scrap of dignity in spite of his condescending remarks. (You held his hand, he said.) I contacted advocates for those who were sexually assaulted. I attended support groups. I called the chiropractic board to begin an investigation. There was no time to grieve, to sift through the tangled-mess of shoved-aside despondency. There was only time for survival.
There was no criminal trial against the chiropractor since the rape kit was botched. (My pee was lost in a disorganized lab that was also sifting through post-911 anthrax threats.) But there was the chiropractic board who called for a hearing to have him lose his license and to put a code of ethics firmly in place. (Apparently the code of ethics for Chiropractors in Ohio at that time was flimsy at best.) I was encouraged to stay in town until the hearing happened, so I moved in with my parents for weeks that turned to months. Each day that passed while my life was on hold, while I was actively not moving across country like I had spent so many months planning to do, felt like a mini-incursion. The actual rape lasted one night. The assault continued for months.
There were a dozen or so letters between Hatti and me during that time, but I did not mention a word of what was happening. I felt like a prisoner who chose to describe a perfect iris outside the gates of my cell, dwelling on the details of its color and form, and choosing to leave out the grit and gruel of my actual day. Our correspondence was a sort of periscope to rise above the cataclysm. Hatti had been pitching me a continuous stream of life preservers without even knowing it.
Hatti continued to arrange her photos in chronological order around our place settings. Just as my coffee was getting cold and leaving a bitter taste on my tongue, the waitress arrived with a scalding-hot refill. I noticed a homemade tattoo on her forearm in the shape of a tiny infinity as she poured another cup of coffee.
Initially, in my anticipation of meeting with Hatti, I had been so excited for someone new to tell. For months, I had no resistance to the impulse. I would blurt it out two, sometimes three times in the same evening. Rape. Raped. I was raped. It was a force in me that came forth, messy and undiscerning.
To fill the minutes, I’d picked up a part-time gig at a gift shop that sold bird feeders and dinosaur fossils. Earlier that week, I caved to the impulse to tell everyone at my work at the same time, and with two hours left on the clock before closing time. Instantly, the usual charming banter had been replaced with gruesomely awkward silence. I found myself in the grip of the same acute grief that came after a mindless food-binge. Yet I continued to feel helpless to the urge.
But as I sat there with Hatti, I realized how long it had been since I’d sat across the table from someone without feeling as though I had “rape survivor” tattooed to my forehead. A half-year since I’d had an exchange that did not include the unspoken third party of my personal misfortune, and the certain demise of any subsequent conversation.
So much is spoken these days about the notion of speaking up, speaking truth-to-power, speaking out. But, until then, with Hatti as my witness, it hadn’t occurred to me that perhaps it was time to stop speaking—at least in that particular, feeble way. A thought was percolating: perhaps power also came in the form of discernment, choosing when, how and if to speak.
“So what’s going on with you?” Hatti asked with genuine curiosity. “I’ve been talking non-stop! I guess I just had a lot to show you,” she said. “Now it’s your turn.”
The space between Hatti and I was so void of any weight in that instant that it felt both terrifyingly empty and also full of potential.
“Not much, I’m good—.” I said, more abruptly then intended. “Be right back, I need to pee real quick.”
I excused myself from the table and followed the lines of the wallpaper to the restroom. I was concerned that opening my mouth to speak would lead to a geyser from the pressure of the words against my teeth. I was afraid that once I started talking, I wouldn’t be unable to stop the momentum of habitual telling. I rinsed my mouth out with some cold water in the sink.
Ultimately, the chiropractor would lose his license—not because of any proven rape charge, but because of breaking the (newly developed) code of ethics and having sex with a patient. There would be no criminal charges for lack of evidence, but he would do jail time for beating his girlfriend within an inch of death. (See, if you are listening, detective—I was keeping myself alive by holding his hand.) Later, he would do more jail time for tax fraud and evasion.
When I returned, the food had arrived and Hatti was nibbling pleasurably, looking up from the fork with her rich brown eyes and two unruly eyebrows that she never dared to shape in any way. She gave me an affectionate glance. She didn’t know she saved me. She didn’t know she was feeding me a different narrative through her letters, like meds through an IV drip. And for that day, I decided not to say so.
I slid back into the booth, brushing my fingertips over the eternal wound of the seat beside me. Then, I dug into my breakfast, which was unreasonably delicious.
I said, “There’s not really much going on with me. Maybe I’ll think of something.” Then I reached for the photo of Hatti’s red door from the top of the pile, like a face-up card from the top of the deck. “Tell me more about your place,” I said, taking a bite and chewing slowly while I smiled with closed lips. “I want to hear more.”
Heather Grimes writes essays to make sense of (and glean a morsel of wisdom from) the tough stuff—bulimia, rape, parenthood, the broken foster care system. Her articles have appeared in Mindful magazine, Mindful.org, Elephant Journal and in an anthology on disordered eating, titled Light as a Feather.