I was a university sophomore in New York City in the fall of 1982. There was a girl in my art history class who stood out as particularly smart, attractive and friendly in the way people are who have nothing to hide and nothing to prove.
I had little to do with her besides comparing notes from time to time, but then some change occurred. She became decidedly less friendly, not just to me but to everyone. She spoke less and less, and she altered her appearance. Then she stopped showing up.
Sometime the next fall, I heard the story.
She met an older man at a gallery opening who asked her on a date. She said yes, they went out, and he raped her.
The term “date rape” was only then coming into use and was unknown to me as was, frankly, the concept. She became pregnant and spent the following months in denial, somehow living with the knowledge without being able to act on it. She didn’t tell her parents, she didn’t tell the school, she didn’t tell the police.
And apparently no one thought to ask her what was wrong. I know I didn’t.
A friend finally helped her get an abortion. She didn’t return to our university.
I mentioned this at the time to a couple of women I worked nights with at a law firm doing word processing. One was an off-Broadway actress; the other was pre-med.
One of them said she had been raped earlier that year walking home from the corner bar early one evening. It was just 50 yards to her apartment building. Someone followed her out of the bar and raped her in the narrow alley behind it face down on a pile of garbage bags. She called the police, but nothing came of it.
My other friend was raped by a cab driver taking her home one night. This was the same year. He opened her cab door as if he was gallantly letting her out, punched her in the face and got into the backseat, then shoved her out into the street when he was done. She had the wherewithal to memorize his license posted over the meter. He was arrested, but never prosecuted.
I expressed some astonishment that three women I knew had been raped within the space of a year and that nothing had been done. They assured me I had more friends who’d survived rape, sexual assault and harassment without me knowing a thing about it.
The following summer, in August 1984, I had been diagnosed with lymphoma and was in pre-op waiting to have a tumor the size of a golf ball cut out of my neck. There was a hospital strike on in New York City at the time and normal protocol got tossed out the window. I was one of three patients sitting in recliners in a crowded room not, I think, ordinarily used for the purpose, being attended to by student nurses and interns on rotation who’d crossed the picket line. There was no privacy nor any attempt to create it.
I was 5-foot-7 inches tall but down to 125 pounds and so anemic I’d fainted on the way into pre-op. The students were fussing over my arm trying to get an IV in without talking to me about it, which I found quite irritating.
One of the other patients was an old man who looked dreadful; his color was all wrong, his abdomen was asymmetrically distended, and his face was horribly gaunt. But he wore a serene expression and gazed at me without interest, and somehow that calmed me down.
The other patient was a very beautiful woman in her late twenties I guessed; tall, thin, and even sitting there in a hospital gown she looked like a model. She was arguing with a student nurse about the necessity of some test she’d apparently already done and refused to repeat. I tried not to listen, but it had something to do with her Rh factor, which meant she was there because she was pregnant.
They transferred the old man to a gurney with some difficulty and wheeled him out while the woman’s male surgeon came in. I leaned back, closed my eyes, and pretended not to be there.
She was anxious already and really didn’t want to go through that test again, whatever it was. The doctor was insistent. Some other terms they dropped indicated she was there for an abortion. If she was in a hospital for that instead of a clinic, her condition must have been serious. They spoke for a few minutes, and then the woman and I were alone.
I very casually tried to glance at her without seeming to. She was very casually drawing her fingers under her eyes, the way women do to wipe away tears when they don’t want to ruin their makeup, even though she wasn’t wearing any. I wanted to say something helpful, noble and brave — something for her to remember me by — whatever that might be coming from a 19-year-old cancer patient. Thankfully, my innate aversion to talking to strangers prevailed and I remained silent, leaving her what little privacy she had intact.
The students came back with the empty gurney and roughly transferred me onto it. They managed to wrap the IV around something, quite painfully. I tried to duplicate the look of serenity on the old man’s face, but I could see the woman looking at me. Our eyes met and she slowly nodded. I nodded too, and we both blinked back some tears.
Ted Olinger lives in Vaughn.
The Sexual Assault Center for Pierce County offers support for recent or longtime survivors 24 hours a day. 253-474-7273
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