Calling It Rape

Two decades after the nightmare with a bronzed boatman on the Salmon River, I still hadn't forgiven myself for not fighting back. But there was no time like the present.

Blaine answered the phone cheerfully. He's a cheerful kind of guy now, I guess. "Hello," he said.

"You probably don't remember me," I told him. "I'm the woman you raped."
There was a pause at the other end. "Whoa," Blaine said. "That's heavy."
I hadn't talked to Blaine in 22 years -- hadn't known where he lived, hadn't realized that it might be possible to track him down, short of hiring a detective. I'd clearly snagged the right number. I recognized the California drawl. It stunned me, how familiar he sounded.

I told him my name and hoped he wouldn't hang up.
"Where are you calling from?" he asked. There was fear in his voice; he probably thought I was standing in a nearby phone booth hugging an Uzi. "I think I do remember you," he told me, and I imagined him struggling to form a picture of my face, my body. "Where do you live?" he asked.

"I'm not going to tell you that," I said. I had actually found him. I was talking to him, and he was listening to me. I had never been so focused in my life. "I'm going to tell you what happened," I said. He stayed quiet then, and I began.

My desire to find the man who raped me had been an ember that burned only occasionally. Occasionally, I joked to friends that I'd like to hunt Blaine down and shoot him like a dog, or at least rearrange his genitalia. More quietly, I lived with what Blaine gave me.

His face sometimes appeared in my mind -- but it was mostly the weight of him that I remembered: the dead, stone weight of his chest, the way I didn't fight him, his shoulders pinning me, his body carving the imprint of mine in the soft, cool earth. Some deeds, some words enter our bodies, rearranging whole paragraphs that came before. When it was over he rolled off me, dead drunk, asleep as soon as he disengaged. I was 16, and had been a virgin. He was 24.

I sometimes thought of Blaine on Valentine's Day, when women's magazines oozed with stories about the nauseatingly glorious ways that various celebs had been deflowered. I thought about him when I watched movies about young romance, the comely teen-agers spending long weeks holding hands, kissing, climbing the rapture ladder rung by rung, until finally, exquisitely, they made tender, swooning love.

Before the rape, my favorite movie was the Olivia Hussey-laden Romeo and Juliet. After the rape, my favorite movie was Last Tango in Paris, in which a young woman takes a lover who uses a stick of butter to sodomize her, and she shoots him in the stomach when he asks to know her name.

This year I turned 39, and some movies still made me feel sorry for myself. But things began to occur to me, too. As in, Yeah, I only think of the guy once in a while, but maybe I really should find Blaine. The thing that had held me back, I knew, was the trouble I had defining what happened as more his fault than mine. I waded a strange grassland of guilt and blame, the blades so intertwined they seemed indistinguishable, an unbroken blanket of green.

And so it was that I sat down last month on a round-backed wooden chair in the business section of the San Francisco Public Library in front of a computer with a CD-ROM that could provide the phone number of everyone in the nation, if you just typed in a person's last name. Next to me, an old man in a Giants cap researched annual reports. Behind me, blazered young financial types perused the Asian Wall Street Journal.

I couldn't start the search right away. I looked up the number of an old friend from Washington instead. It took all of five seconds. No more excuses. But what, really, was the point? Despite all my resolve, when I thought of rape, the word still vanished in a jungle of self-recrimination, the vines thick as pythons. Real rape was guns, knives, threats, fists: a violent encounter of brute force and ignominy.

The wood chair seemed to float beneath me. At the computer's prompting, I requested phone numbers from the western half of the country. Blaine, who'd been a guide on the Salmon River in Idaho, was the western type. "Connecting," the computer announced.

And as I watched the screen, the room seemed to glow; it was light fed by adrenals, by hormones firing, synapses glad for drama -- I could almost hear a soundtrack. I was perched on that cusp that precedes grave pronouncements -- that cartoonish, midair screech to a halt that divides life into "before" and "after": the instant before a lover confesses to an affair; the moment before hearing the answer to "Do you still want me?"; the stillness in a room before the phone rings with tragic news. There are times when the world is a precipice, and hard facts toss us over, and forever after it can seem as if ignorance was firmer ground. The key to peace of mind, I told myself as the computer chewed and swallowed, is trusting that you can pick up the pieces.

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